Two seemingly unrelated news stories that dominated headlines and social media in the US this spring serve to demonstrate the moral schizophrenia of American moral and political life. Reactions to these stories, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, serve to demonstrate why so many public questions in the US and other liberal societies resist coherent resolution.
The first story is of two mass murders by gunfire: on May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and injuring three; and on May 25 at an elementary school, killing 21 people, including 19 young children. The crimes were committed with legally purchased AR-15 style semiautomatic rifles. The second story is of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone declaring that Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (a confessed Catholic), shall be barred from receiving Communion because of her well known facilitation of abortion.
Both stories elicited broad comment. Proponents and opponents of gun rights renewed their perennial insistence on, respectively, the protection or elimination of the availability of the weapons used by the Buffalo and Uvalde murderers. Opponents insist that the only solution to mass shootings is to ban possession of assault rifles. Proponents insist that their rights to own guns is inalienable. Pelosi supporters (more often than not gun-rights opponents) insist that her position on abortion is a private matter, immune from the discipline of the Church. Cordileone supporters (more often than not gun-rights proponents) counter that it is precisely the role of the local ordinary to make such decisions.
Here is why both of these issues (along with a host of others) resist resolution: both sides agree on the fundamental principle that undergirds the positions of their opponents. That fundamental principle is the privatisation of good and the rejection of common good. In this sense, the problem is much deeper than mere disagreement about what should or should not be done. Rather, the intractability of most social questions in these societies is rooted in the agreement of the nature of the good and the moral imperatives that flow from this agreement. A broadly shared (and defective) agreement that the question of the good is private is precisely what prevents reasoned conversation about these and other matters. This agreement renders positions on particular issues nothing more than personal preference, impervious to rational criticism and without rational defence.
In his 1989 essay, “The Privatisation of Good”, political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre accounted for this phenomenon, native to liberal societies. In liberal societies, “[a]llegiance to any particular concept of human good [is] a matter of private individual choice”, argues MacIntyre; “and it is contrary to rationality to require of anyone else that he or she should agree with anyone else in giving his or her allegiance to a particular view”.
But the rejection of common good, argues MacIntyre, itself imposes upon the public one absolute moral imperative. It is morally obligatory for all persons to adhere to the fundamental principle that good is private, and therefore not to pass judgment on any other particular private view of the good. MacIntyre cites a few prominent liberal theorists who have proposed variations on the theme, but the theme itself is absolute. When good is privatised, it is immoral to suggest or impose policies that presume to be based on any notion of public good.
One must, instead, “adhere to principles assuring respect for rights can be asserted and defended” – MacIntyre quotes political philosopher Virginia Held. And quoting John Rawls, “each person is free to plan his life as he pleases (so long as his intentions are consistent with the principles of justice).” These principles of justice, broadly speaking, forbid public judgments about private conceptions of the good.
Having rejected the idea of common good for a notion that good is privatised, liberal societies render themselves ineffectual at resolving issues of public importance. This is the case even while practitioners of this political philosophy (inconsistently) proclaim that their understanding of (private) good should prevail in public life. Because both sides agree that the good is private, the proclamations are more like bleating than reasoned argument. This is a necessary feature of liberalism, to which advocates on both sides of both issues subscribe.
Pelosi supporters are liberal liberals. Gunrights advocates and their allies are conservative liberals. But because they are all liberals, they cannot offer coherent or consistent arguments against the other side. Once you privatise the good and reduce morality to individual rights, you have given up the game to any other moral, social, legal, or political position that also agrees with that privatisation and reduction.
Insisting that another ought to refrain from Communion or ought not to own an assault rifle is no more morally rational than saying that one ought to prefer vanilla to chocolate, porter to lager, or Irish to Scotch. When good is privatised, these are all merely preferences, immune from the (coherent) criticism of another with a different preference. The result is irrational baying in the place of reasoned debate.
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