Philosophical “Common Ground”?

Each year during Christmas week, philosophy professors from around the country (perhaps in confused imitation of the ancient Magi) travel east for the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. This year over 700 of us met in New York City. Besides APA-organized sessions, there were others arranged by special-interest groups, including Philosophers in Jesuit Education (PJE) – instructors from the twenty-eight American institutions sponsored by the Society of Jesus.

As current PJE president, I chose this year’s theme: “Finding ‘Common Ground’: The Role and Prospects for Philosophy in Public Policy Debates.” This title, of course, recalls President Obama’s plea at the University of Notre Dame and elsewhere to seek points of agreement on divisive public issues such as abortion. Precisely what he meant by “common ground,” and how he envisioned the search, has been subject to different interpretations. Many believe he simply was calling for efforts, at the policy level, to reach compromise positions that would be acceptable to large majorities.

I suggested that we take the president as calling for something deeper, as well as something central to our discipline: viz., genuine wisdom or understanding about ultimate matters, including how we should order our lives together in society. In principle, such philosophical common ground would be available to all interested parties. Further, it would provide a framework for more detailed public-policy considerations.

In our session, I spoke about these matters following the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas; Daniel Dombrowski of Seattle University then offered reflections from the standpoint of modern liberalism, especially as articulated by John Rawls. Not surprisingly, lively discussion followed.

Modern liberal theory urges that citizens restrict debate over policy issues to “public reason.” In particular, it urges that, whatever our thinking in private, we eschew in public all appeals to “comprehensive doctrines.” According to liberal theorists, such doctrines, whether religious or philosophical, cannot produce a rational consensus. Worse, they lead to a predictable breakdown of public discourse.

This restriction applies to comprehensive doctrines as such. Insofar as points can be expressed in terms shared by all reasonable and well-intentioned participants, they may be introduced into the public forum. Notoriously, however, what counts as “shared” or “public” has been hotly disputed. Indeed, the suspicion arises that the answer to this question depends on some overarchingi.e., comprehensivedoctrine!

Thomists or “perennial” thinkers frankly propound a comprehensive doctrine, including the notion of the good and the idea that humans are distinctive among natural beings in our ability to understand and freely pursue the good. Further, human good can to some extent be discerned by practical reason, quite apart from revelation. (This last point is typically formulated in terms of “natural (moral) law,” as distinguished from the specifically “divine law” expressed in sacred texts of the Jewish and Christian traditions.) In this view, “human law”in particular, public laws and policiesshould reflect general precepts of natural law. Followers of Aquinas ask: should not such natural law precepts, together with the human goods they enshrine and safeguard, count as elements of public reason?

Certain caveats are in order. Humankind may have made progress in appreciating the fundamental goods of the social order; but it is always possible to backslide. In addition, people can take and historically have taken as natural law things that are mere cultural accretions. In both cases, philosophers (as well as philosophically informed public officials) must be prepared, in the name of reason, to oppose the social consensus.

Areas of agreement between the philosophical traditions emerge and perhaps point the way to what Christopher Wolfe has called “natural law liberalism.” That is, the resources of the Thomist tradition, as developed by thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon, might provide a sound framework for the functioning of liberal democracies without arbitrarily limiting the range of considerations to which public appeal can be made.

The recent Senate health care reform bill provides a practical case in point. Virtually all Thomists now agree, in light of reflection on the scientific data, that fertilization marks the beginning of a human life. They also agree that abortion violates the fundamental precept against taking innocent life. Moreover, they argue, even citizens who accept abortion should not seek to force those who, on rational grounds, oppose the practice to subsidize it even indirectly. The Senate “manager’s amendment” requires that taxpayers, as well as some participants in proposed health insurance “exchanges,” do precisely this. Voting for such a bill or even paying taxes or purchasing insurance under it would involve, on this view, cooperation in evil.

In our New York meeting, some participants argued that such cooperation might be acceptable, since it would be “material” and “mediate,” rather than “formal.” Others suggested that the Senate bill might be justified by the principle of “double effect.” Here further elements of the perennial tradition arise; they deserve careful consideration. I for one doubt, however, that a key criterion of double-effect reasoning can be satisfied in this case: viz., that the good intended (expansion of the number of persons covered by health insurance, etc.) is at least proportionate to the evil foreseen (state-abetted killing of innocents). And can one vote for a bill without formally embracing its several parts?

Common groundat whatever levelis difficult to achieve.

John W. (Jack) Carlson is professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. During his career, all at Jesuit-sponsored institutions, he has served as a department chair, arts and sciences dean, and academic vice president.