Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

We’re still talking about the Second Inaugural

In addition to Peggy Noonan and Rod Dreher, Terry Mattingly has weighed in on the allegedly overweening character of GWB’s Second Inaugural. His post prompted an interesting and lengthy discussion in the comments section.

Here’s Rod Dreher:

It seems to me that Americans tend to confuse "all men are created equal" with "all men are pretty much the same." And so, in accord with the Whig view of history, which holds that all events have been progressing through the centuries to culminate in the fabulousness that is Us, so many of us believe that all the world needs is to have a political system just like ours, and their inner liberal democrat will emerge. (I use "liberal democrat" not in the Ted Kennedy sense, but in the sense that all of us in the West are liberal democrats). I think most Americans think that Enlightment assumptions about human nature are true. Thus they cannot imagine that any people, if given the free choice, would choose to live under tyranny. They cannot imagine that to people who have a different metaphysics than ours (say, believing Muslims) might find the way we live to be tyrannical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating moral equivalence. I’m just saying that our metaphysical naivete leads us into some dangerous blind alleys. To paraphrase someone, "You’ve got to deal with the world you have, not the world you’d like to have."


As I told Peggy earlier today, when I heard Bush’s second inaugural, I wanted to yell, "Hey Icarus, come down from up there before you get hurt!"

And more Dreher:

For traditional society it is the durability of communal norms that lends a sense of immortality to the individual, a life beyond mere physical existence. That is why prayer in the Judeo-Christian sense, the lovers’ exchange between God and the individual soul, does not come into consideration within Muslim theology. Allah is the all-powerful sovereign of the world before whom the individual dissolves; the individual’s submission to the ummah, the community of Islam, is a spiritual experience of an entirely different order.

To this the Americans can only come as destroyers, not saviors. America by its nature disrupts traditional order. It is the usurper of the Old World, the agency of creative destruction, the Spirit that Denies, to whom "everything that arises goes rightly to its ruin" (Goethe) - in short, the Great Satan. America is the existential threat to Islam.

The most interesting response to Mattingly and Dreher is made by Patrick O’Hannigan, who simply asked, "Since when is ending tyranny tantamount to banishing original sin?"

For more of O’Hannigan on the Second Inaugural and on Noonan, go

here and here. In the second piece, he has this to say about Peggy Noonan:

Fans of her writing may remember that Noonan is the columnist who three months ago told fellow conservatives not to rock the boat over Arlen Specter’s elevation to chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee (even though she’s Catholic and Specter has been hostile to pro-life nominees for positions on the federal bench). Back then, she described "Ssssshhhhhhhh" as both a "wonderful sound" and "good advice for our country" -- something to keep in mind while we breathe deeply and "build a great silence" on issues that matter.

I hate to start thinking of her as Peggy "turn down the volume" Noonan, but her newfound enthusiasm for quietude at any cost would explain her adverse reaction to GWB’s second inaugural. She wants oboes and clarinets. The guy in Air Force One whom she voted for prefers trumpets and cymbals.

As I thought about it, I actually found that Immanuel Kant is a good guide to Bush’s foreign policy pronouncements (probably not a ringing endorsement for most of NLT’s readers). But the Kant I am thinking of (and on whom I have published
here) thinks of "republicanism" as a constitution suited for a "nation of devils" (i.e., no need to overcome original sin) and offers a philosophy of history that combines "idealism" with a sense of human finitude. That Kant enjoins us to be as "wise as serpents" and "harmless as doves" (Mt 10:16), which means that we must both take into account the limitations of human nature (including, of course, our own natures) and have respect for our fellows, never merely as means, but also always as ends in themselves. Our behavior should, in other words, deserve their consent, even if it doesn’t immediately secure it. This is a language of liberalism that is idealistic, flexible, and accessible to religious believers.

For one of the relevant Kantian texts, go here.

Update: For Peter Berkowitz’s dissection of WaPo efforts to pick the Inaugural apart, go here. Berkowitz vindicates the point I made in my commentary about the difficulties liberals will have in tackling and attacking the speech and the policies that flow from it.

Discussions - 5 Comments


Peggy’s drivel against the Bush inaugural is just the latest in a long list of foolish columns she has written in recent years. One of the worst was written shortly after Paul Wellstone’s death. She praised him in the most gushing terms, although Wellstone fought like a tiger against everything we believe in. Peggy is a member of the eastern Establishment, or at any rate, aspires to such status.

The strong reaction to her latest isn’t based on hostility toward all disagreement with the President. It is due to the airheaded way in which she wrote about a grave question. The column should be been classified as fashion commentary, not serious analysis.

""republicanism" as a constitution suited for a "nation of devils" (i.e., no need to overcome original sin)"

The constitution itself overcomes original sin. That is, virtue is no longer necessary; a technology or technique replaces self-government. This is liberalism. Your citing Kant is completely appropriate and makes the point.

Of course, GWB doesn’t leave it at that (and neither does Kant). "Self-government requires self-government." Kant has a "Tugendlehre," that is, a doctrine of virture, and a philosophy of education.

This is a delicious post.

"They cannot imagine that to people who have a different metaphysics than ours (say, believing Muslims) might find the way we live to be tyrannical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating moral equivalence. I’m just saying that our metaphysical naivete leads us into some dangerous blind alleys. To paraphrase someone, "You’ve got to deal with the world you have, not the world you’d like to have.""

I agree with this, which is why metaphysics itself is a moral stance. In fact there is no moral stance without metaphysical backing. Everyone understands this in a general way, many people believe that there is no ethics without God, that an atheistic metaphysics is also agnostic to morals. What they should rather believe is that it is possibly agnotic to christian(or muslim) morals. What we are saying then is that ethics is specific to metaphysics. What is right or wrong is specific to what "is" is. The only way not to advocate moral equivalence is to then not advocate metaphysical equivalence. For example: Is killing bad? we can advocate moral equivalence on this question, that is we can hold the answer yes and the answer no to be true provided we do not also advocate metaphysical equivalence, that is we can say that it is bad to kill a child for pouting but it is good to kill a serial killer before he strikes again. Metaphysical equivalence is only possible without context. What you are saying makes sense in so far as people in the middle east that hate america do so because they take an opposite context. As long as we maintain context moral equivalence is desirable, in fact a jury in a self defense case is asked to maintain just this sort of moral equivalence until such point as it receives metaphysical context. To feel as if one has to defend oneself against the charge of moral equivalence is unecessary provided one can show metaphysical equivalence. The only way to show metaphysical equivalence is to show epistemic equivalence, that is to show that the mind is incapable of grasping a thing in its proper context, i.e. of moving beyond metaphysical equivalence. If one can show a fork where the mind can form two different realities i.e. two different contexts for the same thing(or would it be different?) then we would no longer be justified in making the same overarching moral claims, we could only say according to this epistemology given this metaphysics this is ethical, and given a different epistemology with a different metaphysics this over here is ethical. In other words there is no right or wrong unless you "show your work". What we are saying then is that America and Islam are "showing different work".

How could we suffer from metaphysical naivete without also suffering moral naivete, and how could we suffer from metaphyscial naivete without also suffering from epistemic naivete?

Epistemic naivete is the domain of Kant, and to get around the inevitable metaphysical naivete(the noumena confusion) to create his ethics he requests that we drop context, specifically a selfish context(is it possible to be objective?) and instead addopt categorical imperatives derived by asking what the results of an action would be if universally employed.

This is a very crude Kantian rendering but one could see pragmatic reasons for maintaining morality while obliterating metaphysics(context, since this is selfish) and epistemology(the ability to contextualise, also selfish). Likewise perhaps Bush is christianizing America in a way that also allows muslims to be americanized. If you can drop context when you believe it is morally justified then you can also drop the context in which America would be the great Satan or Islam would be so for America. By simply reversing order and asking what is good before asking what is or how you know it, new options become possible. In other words it is now possible to determine what is good without reference to your particular context(metaphysics) or how you know it(epistemology), rather what is good determines the context, and you don’t have to know why, because you already feel the duty of it being good.

"having to deal with what you have rather than what you would like to have." This means that you should put what we did in the metaphysical context of what we had to work with and not what we would have wanted to have. But "having to deal" here implies duty (ethics) as much as it does necessity(metaphysics). In other words going to war was a moral choice not a metaphysical necessity, but moral choices then gave us our metaphysical context which might not be the one we would have wanted. If Ethics is prior to metaphysics, it is also prior to epistemology. Thus we also acted on the duty to invade Iraq before having the epistemic certainty of weapons of mass destruction, which in fact we couldn’t have obtained prior to attacking and even not then, so it appears. It is highly possible that we convinced ourselves these weapons existed because we believed Iraq was ethical prior to our ability to know that they did. And it is highly possible that we have a president who acts Ethics-Context-Epistemology, instead of Epistemology-Context-Ethics.

Having a doctrine of virtue means nothing. Machiavelli has a doctrine of virtue. More to the point, so does Jefferson. Jefferson spoke of virtue frequently but it most often seems to have meant following the promptings of nature, on the assumption that those promptings were good (no original sin) or if they were not completely, then the cunning of history would see that it all worked out okay in the end. As Bush and Rice say, history as a direction. This is the justification for freedom (i.e., liberalism). This argument may be right. But right or wrong, you and Bush are making it.

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