Citizens Without Selves

“A gross error it is to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body and not of the soul, for men’s temporal peace and not their eternal safety; as if God had ordained Kings for no other purpose than to fat up men’s souls like hogs and to see that they have their mash?”

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 

I’d like to call attention to one of liberalism’s most cherihsed yet most mind-bogglingly moronic convictions: that public discourse should be unbiased. (By the way, by liberalism I mean a long-standing political tradition hegemonic in modernity, not just Democrats. So-called contemporary “conservatives” are really just conservative liberals.)

As I wrote in a previous post, “The Importance of Being Biased”, the secularizing Enlightenment notion of an unprejudiced reason that deals in value-netural “facts”, a notion that unfortuantely informs all modern Western political discourse, rests on an extermely shaky theoretical foundation. The political implications of the Enlightenment theory is that all questions of morality and of the Good should be privatized and the political realm should be a value neutral sphere. As MacIntyre writes in After Virtue, “Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception”. This is the unarticulated philosophy behind the liberal worhsip of tolerance and diversity. To frame political life around a specific conception of the Good is, on the liberal view, to exclude those who disagree with such a conception. Tolerance demands that troublesome religious questions of the Good be banished from the public square.

The unfortuante consequence of liberalism’s commitment to a value-neutral tolerance is the enforcement of a bizarre and inhumane anthropology that forces citizens to leave the irreducible substance of thier being, thier very self, in a privatized closet never to see the light of day.

On this point, the work of Charles Taylor is essential. Taylor has convincingly argued that morality is inextricably intertwined with selfhood and hence, to have no firm convictions about the content of the Good is to have no firm identity. In his acclaimed book, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, Taylor argues that “Selfhood and the good, or in another way, selfhood and morality, turn out to be inextricably intertwined”. Against much of modern moral philosophy that seeks to suffocate morality within the confines of a very restrictive mode of inquiry, one where utilitarian calculations and formalist templates rule the day, Taylor seeks to carve out a conceptual space “for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance”. This has the effect of “enlarging our range of legitimate moral descriptions” so as to encompass “the whole range of issues involved in the attempt to live the best possible life”. For Taylor morality deals not only with what is the right thing to do but what it is good to be. This insight sheds light on why Taylor believes moral questions to be profoundly connected to personal identity.

Moral convictions provide the self with what he refers to as “moral frameworks” or “moral horizons” which provide a determinate conception of the good that helps the individual self make sense of his life. Taylor clarifies what he means by a framework when he writes: “…when we try to spell out what it is that we presuppose when we judge that a certain form of life is truly worthwhile, or place our dignity in a certain achievement or status, or define our moral obligations in a certain manner, we find ourselves articulating inter alia what I have been calling here ‘frameworks’”. Our frameworks are defined by what we take to be of ultimate importance in our life. They are not some optional extra that only the philosophically inclined possess but are foundational for all. Without a coherent framework that provides identity and stability to one’s life the self is left in a state of listless torpor.

Taylor’s conviction that morality deals not only with rule and law and calculation but also with these foundational ‘frameworks’ illuminates why he believes selfhood, identity and morality to be inextricably intertwined. He writes:

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by     the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within       which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand… What this brings to light is the essential link between identity and a kind of orientation. To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary.

Morality as understood by Taylor is a far more expansive discipline than the majority of modern moral philosophers would be willing to concede. Morality is intertwined with identity to the point where “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space”. Morality provides answers not only to the question “what should I do” but “what is it good to be”. In order to make even minimal sense of our lives, to know who we are and what are the most important commitments and factors shaping our life, human beings simply require an orientation to the good.

Applying Taylor’s critique of the reductionist understanding of morality found in most modern philosophy to political debates about the legitimacy of liberalism, it becomes clear just how bizarre is liberalism’s attempt to separate morality and religion from politics and privatize the Good. In attempting to forge a neutral, value-free politics, liberalism demands that its citizenry leave their selves behind when they enter the public square. Liberalism’s price for a value-free “tolerance” is the amputation of personal identity from the human person. Liberalism claims that public assertions of troublesome religious questions about the Good are the very origin of intolerance, violence and repression.

Its solution is far worse than its imagined problem: bio-political experimentation to create citizens without selves.

Liberalism’s citizens are forced to behave as if they were little more than dogs, mere animals without eternal longings or insatiable desires to know the Truth and bask in the glory of the Good. What we need is not a tolerant, value-netural polity but an ecclesial polity as it is only when the irreducible religious dimension of man is respected that there can be truly humane political life.


7 thoughts on “Citizens Without Selves

  1. I’ve read all of After Virtue and a good chunk of Sources of the Self. I got to meet Charles Taylor in person a few years ago as well as see him speak and interact with scholars at the conference “The New Politics of Church/​State Relations”. One of the things he said to me is that secularism can work if one is not suspicious of the Other. (Taylor has worked very hard to make pluralism work in Quebec.) This point of his was reinforced later in the conference by a study showing that Christians immigrants integrate better into French culture than Muslim immigrants because the French are simply more suspicious of the Muslims. (see Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies)

    Now, I am sympathetic with parts of what you say. There is crypto-fundamentalism going on, trying to establish a taken-for-granted morality with which one is not allowed to argue on pain of reputation destruction. Manipulating and coercing people to accept that morality in a subconscious, taken-for-granted sense is an extremely powerful way to impose ideology. As was made clear at a Veritas forum on race I attended, not having the words to describe what is going results in lack of means to object to it or even see it clearly for what it is. In contrast, God seems much more interested in laying out the standards explicitly, even if that enables hypocrisy. (This is probably why Twitter refuses to articulate its account-suspension and -banning guidelines. Facebook published such guidelines after Zuckerberg was grilled in DC on whether there was political bias in its moderation.)

    However, what I would like to see is an accounting for error and sin among those who have propounded alternatives to liberalism/​progressivism/​leftism. The guilty parties in the Bible are almost always the religious and political elite, even though the masses also had some measurable responsibility (this was perhaps a first, per Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, 141). Colin Gunton allows for such error:

    There was something wrong and oppressive about the form Christian institutions took in what Paul Johnson called the ‘idea of a total Christian society’ which ‘necessarily included the idea of a compulsory society’.[30] Parmenides did require supplementation by Heraclitus, and in Christendom rarely received it. Thus according to an influential stream of modern thought, pre-modern political institutions, and particularly those from which the modern world was seeking to escape, represented a Parmenidean subordination of the many to the one. It is in this sense that much modern social and political thought can be understood as the revolt of the many against the one. (The One, the Three, and the Many, 26)

    Sadly, I rarely see such admission of error and guilt. Usually, the narrative provided is that the True Christians™ were doing all the right things and yet were overwhelmed with heresy and wickedness. There seems to be some sort of belief that my religious heritage is pure and incapable of too much error. We see precisely that attitude among the Jews in John 8:31–47. They said they wouldn’t execute a true prophet of God—unlike their forebears. Because their only root is in Abraham. They were never slaves (let’s forget the Exodus). In contrast, the Seder now contains something like “We were slaves and now we are free!”

    Let’s take, for example, that “bizarre and inhumane anthropology that forces citizens to leave the irreducible substance of thier being, thier very self, in a privatized closet never to see the light of day”. What might this be a reaction to? Could it be that Christians tried to create a world that was too small, slotting each Christian into a predetermined slot and told to “shut up and obey”? The aphorism “a place for everyone and everyone in his place” captures this. Such an attitude would seem to be Deut 5:22–33 and 1 Sam 8 over against Jer 31:31–34 and Ezek 36:22–32.

    For whatever its failings, classical liberalism was a response to human fallibility that was not acknowledged as such. To what extent is this fallibility truly acknowledged in the alternatives to ‘liberalism’? Are we expecting leaders to be more righteous and just than the Bible (and experience) warrants, and thereby failing to train the rank and file to detect failures of righteousness and justice and respond accordingly? The Bible is so often very, very skeptical of religious leaders. What should we learn from this? Perhaps God never meant power to be concentrated toward the top of hierarchies? (And the very term ‘hierarchy’ is questioned by Mt 20:20–28.)


    1. Great comment. I would have replied days ago but for some reason it was flagged as spam by Word Press and I missed it.

      I’m well aware that I’m using Taylor’s arguments in ways he never would. It’s plain to me he too highly values his status as a social liberal and is therefore blind to the radical implications of his arguments as regards secularism. I haven’t the slightest patience for Leviansian whining about “suspicions towards the Other”. I would pit MacIntyre against Taylor (as much as I admire the work of the latter) and insist that authentic political community is founded upon a common commitement to a shared vision of the Good. True unity is founded upon a bedrock of moral and religious agreement not empty formalisms about respecting the Other.

      As regards the Gunton quote, I do think there have been times in Christian history when there was too much unity and not enough diversity, too much stability (Parmenides) and not enough flux (Heraclitus). In a contemporary context, though, the Church is not dealing with a fascist enforcement of idological homogeneity but a disintegrating individualism that has created a theological environment of complete and utter chaos (just look at the wild rhetorical extremism of Pope Francis).

      Regarding your point about liberalism and human fallibility, I take liberalism’s project of founding a political philospohy upon human fallibility as nothing less than catasrophic. Liberal political philosophy attempts to safeguard the citizenry’s pursuits of self-interest all the while regarding the growth of virtue, thought in ancient and medieval philosophy to be the very heart of political society, as a demand both paternalisitc and oppressive. I am entirely with MacIntyre when he says that the liberal sidelining of virtue from the political arena was a massive mistake.


      1. True unity is founded upon a bedrock of moral and religious agreement not empty formalisms about respecting the Other.

        Was this reasoning used to justify the brutal torture of Jesus followed by a brutal execution meant to humiliate him and his followers? Jesus was, after all, “Other” to the religious elite at the time. Given your denigration of my use of “respecting the Other”, what do you suggest be done to avoid the errors described by the OT and the NT? Or do we just presuppose that unlike the antebellum South’s slaveowners, we cannot possibly be engaged in anything nearly as sinful? (I hope your answer is “no”.)

        In a contemporary context, though, the Church is not dealing with a fascist enforcement of idological homogeneity but a disintegrating individualism that has created a theological environment of complete and utter chaos (just look at the wild rhetorical extremism of Pope Francis).

        One of Gunton’s themes is that radical individualism and oppressive homogeneity are much closer than one might think. Each breeds the other. Well, how do we avoid swinging from extreme to extreme? My only idea is to be open to what is Other, but you have denigrated that. So, what do you suggest?

        Regarding your point about liberalism and human fallibility, I take liberalism’s project of founding a political philospohy upon human fallibility as nothing less than catasrophic. Liberal political philosophy attempts to safeguard the citizenry’s pursuits of self-interest all the while regarding the growth of virtue, thought in ancient and medieval philosophy to be the very heart of political society, as a demand both paternalisitc and oppressive. I am entirely with MacIntyre when he says that the liberal sidelining of virtue from the political arena was a massive mistake.

        What “liberalism” are you talking about? The early US was not built on radical individualism; Barry Alan Shain makes this quite clear in The Myth of American Individualism. There was an incredible amount of communal spirit, something de Tocqueville reported on. It is true that what the Founding Fathers insisted on was a civil religion and we could argue that such religion was without roots and thus doomed to fail. de Tocqueville predicted a narrowing of the individual and a receding from public affairs; Charles Taylor pulls some good excerpts in the beginning of his Malaise of Modernity. But whatever error existed in the political thought of the Founding Fathers needs to be balanced with the errors in political thought on the other side of the pond which drove so many to make the dangerous voyage to a land where they could pursue their idea of ‘the good’ without the kind of domination so common in Europe.

        I agree that one cannot neglect virtue; those in the US are beginning to see that, although I don’t think many realize how much virtue has eroded among our governing elite. But who gets to decide what constitutes ‘virtue’ and how will that be imposed on people? Do Mt 20:20–28 and Jn 13:1–20 fit in somehow? How will the errors of centuries and millennia past be avoided? Without identifying those errors deeply enough, I predict that following whatever plan you have will merely recapitulate them.


      2. What I dislike about “respect the Other” language is that it does not allow for a substantive politics of the good that can achieve true peace founded upon a general agreement about the nature of the good life. Once we focus on “respecting the Other” the most we can hope for is the faux peace of suspended hostility amongst strangers who have nothing in common besides a vague commitment to a substantively empty tolerance. A stubbornly particular peace founded upon a substantive politics of the good is by necessity exclusionary. If you do not agree with the community’s moral/religous conception of the good life you either A) try to start a conversation about the errors you perceive or B) defect. All are most definitely not welcome and, as jarring as it might sound, I don’t see a problem with that.

        That being said, perhaps I was a bit harsh in criticizing your concern for the other. I am sensitive to how human community has been founded upon a bedrock of exclusion and violence (more on this later). That being said, I hold that it is woefully bad theology to characterize Jesus’s crucifixion as the victimization of an Other by an oppressive religous elite. The life, death and ressurrection of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be understood according to plainly secular categories but must be taken for what it is without qualification, a theological event. Acheived byJesus’s death and resurrection was the opening of the gates to eternal life and the definitive triumph over Israel’s enemies as well as the inauguration of the right-worship of God in the sacrifice of the mass (the church fathers consistently interpreted the blood and water flowing from Christ on the cross as the legitimation of baptism – water – and Eucharist – blood). The error described by the bible is not (at least primarily) a persecution of the Other (again, Levinas is mostly to blame for this misunderstanding) but the rejection and persecution of the prophets of God (OT) and then the crucifixion of the Son of God and savior of Israel (NT). The most immediate effect of the death and ressurrectioin of Christ is not a postmodern cliche about respecting the Other but the institution of the most holy Eucharist and the right worship of the triune God (it’s one of my intellectual pet peeves that liturgical concerns, front and center in the bible, are almost always ignored in modernity; Ratzinger’s great on this theme).

        Now, French philospoher Rene Girard has some very interesting things to say about the sociological consequences of the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. Girard is known for arguing that all human community has been built upon founding violence, a scapegoating persecution of the Other that brings about an unholy peace. According to Girard, the crucifxion of Jesus unmasks founding violence and subverts it. Additionally, the celebration of the Eucharist is an indispensable tool given to the Church to unmask scapegoat mechanisms and their founding violence.

        Read a short summary of Girard’s thought here:

        I agree with your comments about American individualism. ND political scientist, Patrick Deneen, talks about how liberalism has sustained itself for so long only because until now it has been deeply parasitic on communal forms of life, the necessity of which liberal thinkers do not take account of in their own philosophy (this is from his much-read new book, Why Liberalism Failed). In sum, liberalism is failing because liberalism has succeeded. In today’s context, if you don’t realize that all of the most powerful forces in contemporary Western life are working towards our atomization then I really don’t know what to do for you.

        Regarding your worries about “the errors in political thought on the other side of the pond” and “the errors of centuries and milennia past”, I would argue that Girard’s thesis about the effects of sacramental Christianity on scapegoat mechanisms are supported by evenhanded historical research (you’ll notice that the majority of the Christianity of the antebellum south had no strong liturgical or sacramental component). Most of the atrocities of the Catholic Middle Ages (crusades, inquisition) are historical fabrications. See Thomas Madden’s book, “The Concise History of the Crusades”. Also, both British philosopher Mary Midgley (in her book The Myths We Live By) and Chuck T. in Sources of the Self note that witch-burning in Europe is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Taylor talks about how early modern thinker Jean Bodin is much more “medieval” on the question of witch burning than Thomas Aquinas or Bonaventure. The Middle Ages should be very much a source of inspiration for those seeking to build a just political order.


      3. Hmmm, I need a different phrase than “respect the Other”, it seems. What I’m after is something like what Milbank writes in the introduction to the second edition of Theology and Social Theory:

        This opens the possibility of the most radical imaginable modern pluralism: namely that positive differences insofar as they are all instances of the Good (a condition which of course will never be perfectly fulfilled in fallen time), must for that reason analogically concur in a fashion that exceeds mere liberal agreement to disagree. (xvi)

        On this thinking, squashing another person, force-fitting him/her into an existing communal mold (shaped by some substantial notion of ‘the good’), could be to do spiritual violence to that person and the entire community. In contrast, the liberal/​progressive/​leftist view seems to be that one only does violence to the individual because one is insisting on something which does not matter to the community. (Your race is irrelevant to your competence as a computer programmer.) In contrast, Milbank’s view seems to entail that just like any scientist can overturn the current consensus, any individual can cause the following to happen:

        To move towards the good is to move in time and that movement may itself involve new understandings of what it is to move towards the good. (After Virtue, 176)

        If Milbank or MacIntyre don’t think that, I certainly do. And I think that a big part of Jesus’ execution was to prevent such movement toward ‘the good’. Society as it was, was just fine for the religious elite. They had a comfortable relationship with political power. It turned out to be an illusion, but the OT is used to those who proclaim “Peace, Peace!” when there is no peace. I certainly don’t think this exhausts what Jesus did, but I think it was part of what led to his execution. And so when we minister to the marginalized, those who currently aren’t giving much to the community, we minister to Jesus. (Mt 25:31–46) But if we minister to the marginalize and empower them to become equals alongside us, they might have some … suggestions about society. Who wants that?

        As to Girard’s mimetic/​scapegoat theory, I just happen to be playing a small part in developing and testing a series of 12 studies of Girard, applying his thought to the faith. But if you don’t like the fairly mundane, non-exhaustive explanation of Jesus’ crucifixion I described, I’m not sure why you’d be at all amenable to Girard’s equally mundane explanation. What makes me curious if not suspicious is that both of those mundane explanations would actually indict a lot of Christian practice through the ages. Insisting that Jesus’ death was actually because of the nebulous spiritual powers allows one to skirt the social/​power element. But I doubt that we’ll ever exhaust what Jesus did in this way; the corruption of humankind and nonhumankind surely runs deeper than we’ve currently understood.

        There’s quite the coincidence in you referring to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, as my pastor just brought it up to me on Tuesday. I first ran across it January of this year, but I usually wait for a second or third time before I pay too much attention. I agree with something in the very rough vicinity of the “Benedict Option”, along with subsidiarity and the option to defect (apparently called ‘optionality’?). But there are lots of pathologies of small towns which I’m not sure we know how to deal with. The city, for all its faults, seems to foster certain kinds of excellence in ways that small towns do not. Perhaps the Benedict Option could include an exchange program, where someone who is … Other to the given community can offer insights from where [s]he has been, pick up new insights from that community, and maybe see badness in the community which everyone in the community has acclimated to.

        It’s hard for me to accept that the Middle Ages were as promising for building a just political order as you say, and I say that without any strong feelings about the Inquisition, Crusades, or witch burning. All I really think I need is the fact that the Bible was not preached in the common tongue and not available in the common tongue for the educated laity to read. I think the common thread running through the Bible is that the elite cannot be trusted to rule without accountability from the masses. Furthermore, there seems to be a desire to eliminate that distinction, apparent in Jer 31:31–34 and Eph 4:11–16. The need for a clerical class to act as mediators between God and human was actually a demand by the masses—Deut 5:22–33. This was not how things were meant to be! Without the actual biblical text—and all of it, including books like Habakkuk—I suspect it is nigh impossible to hold the ruling elite to account.

        That being said, I have no doubt that the Middle Ages had a lot of things figured out where we’re dumb. The Renaissance, for example, was rather intelligent about the importance of context—an emphasis erased by the Enlightenment’s lust for universal truths. I’m being mentored by an older sociologist who is very big on the fact of ‘local knowledge’. Incidentally, this matches quite well with God’s focus on material creation being good, a theme Claude Tresmontant illustrates quite nicely in A Study of Hebrew Thought. But Scripture calls us to excel at distinguishing between what is kalos and what is kakos (Heb 5:14). Are we doing that, with respect to all time periods? I’m not so sure. It is rather instructive that the author of Hebrews does not use the natural opposite of kakos, which is agathos. Instead, he uses a word which has one less stroke, with part of one stroke bent differently: καλός vs. κακός.

        Thanks for the recommendation of Madden’s The Concise History of the Crusades; that’s a gap in my historical knowledge. I wasn’t actually channeling any particular feelings toward the Inquisition, Crusades, or witch burnings in what I said. It was more of whether Mt 20:20–28 was obeyed and whether the least-powerful are given the means to argue with the most-powerful. God seems to be doing this constantly; humans not so much.


      4. I’ve heard again and again how manipulative and barbaric it was for the Church to insist that the Latin Vulgate was the definitive translation of the Bible, not any vernacular rendering and yet consistently find myself unimpressed. The historical shifts regarding literacy cannot be regarded simplemindedly as a shift from elitist deceit and manipulation to unequivocal enlightenment. Rather, such a shift is best described as one from orality to literacy and it is hardly obvious that such a shift was without negative consequences. In the Middle Ages, the Bible may not have been read widely but it was performed, it was embodied in the sacrifice of the Mass and brought to life by the beauty of stain glass windows among other medieval architectural strokes of genius.

        In fact, recent thought has ephasized the negative consequences of modernity’s shift from orality to literacy. According to Foucault, modernity’s obsession with literacy and denigration of orality is part of its sinister project of spatialization, the mapping of all knowledge onto a timeless and manipulable grid. Walter Ong makes a similar point in his work, Orality and Literacy (a book I have not read but have been exposed to via Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of it in After Writing).


      5. I used neither ‘manipulative’ nor ‘barbaric’, so I would ask you not to invalidly strengthen my arguments to absurdity. What I said was that “the elite cannot be trusted to rule without accountability from the masses”. If you disagree with that, then what should the masses think of the many failures of the elite which are coming to light in Catholic and Protestant churches these days? And what do we make of the “until” in Ephesians 4:13? Or “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD” from Jeremiah 31? Do we just accept the distancing between God and human which took place in Deut 5:22–33 and 1 Sam 8?

        The whole Bible is a witness to the religious and political elite turning evil again and again and again and again. Paul seems to warn us of this being a possibility for us by way of 1 Cor 10. What do we do with this? Just trust the elite regardless?

        Now, I have read some of Ong’s Orality and Literacy and I’ve read remarks by Weaver in Ideas Have Consequences which line up with what you’re saying. I personally have a hard time accepting them, because I regularly encounter people who claim they didn’t say or entail X when in fact I can pull up the record of conversation and show where they actually did say or entail X. Similarly, I will get accused of saying or entailing X when in fact I didn’t; only having a textual record gives me a defense. Why is this? Because often I am the one with the least social power and thus my word does not count. The textual record sometimes does, though. So time and again, I’m saved from being squashed and slandered by the fact that I engage a lot with people online.

        If the more general criticism is that we’ve become too cognitive and don’t involve the body enough, I agree completely. An old pastor said something rather sobering in one of his sermons: the hardest part of his job is helping people connect doctrine to everyday life. But I don’t think the answer is to replace doctrine with mere ritual, as easily happens if the spoken words are in a tongue which cannot be understood. We are to love God with our minds as well as our hearts, souls, and strength. “Know what you believe and why you believe it.” was supposed to be standard for all—just read Deuteronomy 6.


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