More on the DRR

Dec 8, 2011 by Lydia Allen

In class yesterday, I talked about the Doctrine of Religious Restraint (DRR) and I mentioned some of the liberal critics’ responses to the DRR. Due to time constraints, I was unable to include a discussion on the conservative critics’ responses (and in particular the “New Traditionalist” responses) to the DRR. I feel that it might be a good topic for a blog post, though.

One of the important claims that Traditionalists often make is the concern about moral/political decline in the US. Alasdair MacIntyre (a philosopher and political theorists) characterizes this decline in four stages:

(1) Medieval thinkers propose that humans are rational and can be perfected, that virtue is the perfection of our rational nature, and that the best way to reason about morality lies in virtue ethics.

(2) This pre-modern morality becomes fragmented because philosophical thought on justice and individual rights replaces virtue ethics. There is no longer a shared idea among society about what is “good”, and so competing factions begin a war of ideas.

(3) Liberal democracy emerges and is a type of government that disallows (via its commitment to neutrality through notions like the DRR) traditional religious ways of life that many people held when society was pre-modern.

(4) New Traditionalists urge people committed to traditional religious ways to separate themselves from the liberal democracy and live in communities devoted to that way of life. They urge people to reject liberal democracy on the basis of rejecting notions like the DRR.

This account is controversial in the scholarly literature; however it raises an important question linked to what Dr. Brown asked in class yesterday: Is it appropriate for some voices in a democracy to not be represented?

I think that if one is fundamentally committed to a virtue ethic that does not allow for any tolerance of difference of moral opinion, then said person is correctly labeled intolerant and becomes a problematic voice in a liberal democracy. I would go so far as to say that such a person, if politically active and/or has a role in shaping public policy, is actually an enemy of liberal democracy. This is my assessment of politicians and their advisors who espouse virtue ethics accompanied by a call to return our country to some mythical idealistic time in which we were a “Christian Nation.”

However, as the Cohen article (that I discussed yesterday) argues, appealing to “tradition” and “wisdom” when deliberating over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research was a failed process for Bush’s Commission and ultimately the Commission fell back on a Ralws-like deliberation method. This leads me to wonder if any attempt to enforce a virtue ethics approach in a modern liberal democracy would be an extremely difficult undertaking (if not impossible).

Why, then, do traditionalists continue to espouse this approach? Current political rhetoric certainly appeals to the notion of decline and a call to return to Christian values (virtues), and yet, as MacIntyre points out (and if he is correct), this is incompatible with liberal democracy.

It seems a real dilemma. How do we allow traditionalists to have a voice while still protecting liberal democracy?  What do you think?