Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Rorty, Rawls, and all that

My Leninist neocon traitor (have I left any adjectives out?) friend Jonah Goldberg points to a controversy sparked by Damon Linker’s piece on Richard Rorty (noted here). I won’t bore you with the details, but it seems clear to me that both Matthew Yglesias and Damon Linker are too quick to assume that religious orthodoxy, privatized in a way consistent with some version of the so-called liberal bargain, can retain its spiritual vigor. The religion that Rawls (and Linker) are willing to tolerate has had its wings clipped, especially by the demand that its public speech be made in a language--"public reason"--foreign to the religious idiom.

I recognize that there’s a vague family resemblance between public reason and natural law, but the former has to eschew "foundationalist" claims in a way that the latter doesn’t and can’t. And I don’t see why anyone can’t use whatever arguments he or she wants in the public arena. We all still face the problem of persuasion in a constitutional order that exists in a religiously pluralistic society. (I vaguely recall the late Wilson Carey McWilliams making such a claim in his contribution to this book. If I’m wrong about that, someone’s sure to set me straight.)

Discussions - 10 Comments

"vague family resemblance between public reason and natural law"???? This is a meaningless statement. Do you even know what ius naturale is? What about lex naturae? Do you know the difference? And how they are embedded in the mos maiorum? Public reason could never understand it, but only: haec ratione dei scita sunt. And it is fostered by ancestral tradition (you know, the mos, above).

And Wittgenstein would be appalled if you knew you used "family resemblance" in this way. The problem with you neocons is that you have never even studied actual philosophy, nor the classics. Have any of you worked through Woodcock's, or Gildersleeve's or Smyth's? You are like MBA graduates. Uneducated and uncultured knaves, armed with a few buzz words that you don't even really understand, but yet somehow think you're elite because you're in with some rendition of the globlist wal-mart or aipac crowd. barbari vivunt.

As a matter of fact, I'll be teaching Aquinas on natural law, etc. tomorrow. It's required reading of sophomores in our core curriculum. Of course, the class will be taught in English, and so will not be up to your exacting standards.

I'm glad to see that you've varied your invective somewhat, moving from a know-nothing to a learned pose. But you seem to have forgotten whatever you learned about Socratic irony, and don't seem to have the generosity one would associate with the Christian gentleman-scholar.

Should I assume, or not, that you've read Rawls on public reason, so that you understand the limited sense in which I meant my comment? I wouldn't argue that Rawls is required reading for the educated paleoconservative gentleman, but if you're going to criticize someone (generously or ungenerously), it would make sense to be familiar with the matters at hand.

Oh, and I'll confess to having to rely on translations from the Latin. My bad. But if you insist on writing in Latin, I'll have to start composing my responses in German.

A man of many masks. Und wenn Du willst....

It seems to me that a "private" religion can retain its vigor, but only in a rather radically voluntarist, marketized sort of way. Or, maybe, it can remain "popular" by transforming itself into a marketable commodity and releasing portions of people's lives from its grip. All of which would seem, I think, to make Linker and Yglesias quite happy.

There's a blind spot here with Rawls, as well. In his Commonweal interview, Rawls remarks that he doesn't think that hardly anyone is anything more than "conventionally" religious. He doesn't expound on what that means.


I think you're right. That's also, by the way, the burden of a number of arguments made in this volume. My own extended "scholarly" reflections on the subject can be found here and in a contribution to a previous volume of this journal, unfortunately not available on-line.

Maybe religion in some conventional sense can be contained and made polite in liberal terms, but revealed faith cannot. Religion that is tied to faith is internal and essential - most vigorous. The absolutes that are required of the faithful do not translate well to "public reason" though faithful Christians can apparently accept natural law without blenching.

Absolutes have a hard time translating into anything (or being translated, for that matter).

I think we accept the absolute that "thou shalt not kill." while allowing for exceptions and mitigating factors. The absolute translates into practical law. Even Biblically, that absolute and others, seems to require translation or interpretation. From the excusability of accidents to self-defense to "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." to just war to the executions of criminals by the state, the absolute requires complex understanding.

A caveat: my understanding of "public reason" is based solely on what I am gleaning from the Internet. I have not read Rawls and I could be misunderstanding.

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