It is an annual ritual for Alasdair MacIntyre to give a talk at the fall conference hosted by the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. This year was no different. The theme of the conference was “human dignity in a secular age.” Despite MacIntyre’s advanced age and the ongoing situation with COVID-19, MacIntyre gave his yearly talk on Friday, November 12. The talk, held in the ballroom at Notre Dame’s Morris Inn, was standing room only. For those who were not in South Bend—or who were driven from the ballroom by the crowd and the stifling heat—the talk was live-streamed and can be viewed at your leisure under circumstances more comfortable than those available at the Morris Inn.
And you should view it. The early reviews have been nothing less than glowing. At The Postliberal Order, a new and exciting Substack run by Patrick Deneen, Gladden Pappin, Chad Pecknold, and Adrian Vermeule, Deneen has an excellent summary of the talk. For Deneen, MacIntyre rejected “dignity,” the comfortable concept that liberalism usually resorts to in its justifications for any number of fundamentally liberal ideas, and instead held up the “more demanding standard of Thomistic justice.” Deneen observed that MacIntyre “laid bare the contradiction involved in defending human dignity while neglecting the political, economic, and social conditions that make possible human flourishing.”
At Ius & Iustitium, to which I contribute regularly, Rafael de Arizaga notes that MacIntyre’s talk is a turn toward jurisprudence. He argues that, if, as MacIntyre argues, we are to turn away from liberalism’s emphasis on dignity, which is often as not a content-free term that is little more than a justification for liberalism, toward what Deneen characterized as the “more demanding standard of Thomistic justice,” then we need a science of justice. Jurisprudence is that science. (Cf. Isidore, Etym. 5.3.1.)
I might disagree, however, with Arizaga’s sharp distinction between moral philosophy and jurisprudence. Aquinas tells us that habit and power is the intrinsic principle of human acts and law and grace are the extrinsic principles of good human acts (ST I-II q.49 prol.; q.90 prol.). But this is perhaps a narrow argument for specialists. Certainly Arizaga is right that, if our relations with one another—especially our social, which is to say, political, relations with one another—are to be governed not by (mostly content-free) ideas like dignity but by justice, then we certainly need to know what justice is and what it requires.
In his introduction to MacIntyre’s talk, Professor David Solomon likened MacIntyre to a junkyard dog. Perhaps, given MacIntyre’s age, it might be kinder to say that he is an old master, still capable of provoking his audience after all these years, with insights drawn from a long and serious consideration of these questions. One imagines that MacIntyre did provoke his audience, made up as it was of some of the most prominent conservative liberal voices in the country. Indeed, I had the sense while I was at the conference that this year’s Center for Ethics and Culture conference was a retrenchment of the conservative liberal voice. There were some very notable absences from the program, I thought. MacIntyre’s provocation, therefore, was welcome indeed.
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What struck me most was MacIntyre’s reliance on Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists to make his argument. Longtime readers of Semiduplex—and who isn’t a longtime reader of Semiduplex, honestly—will be familiar with De Koninck’s seminal work. Indeed, anyone who has followed the integralism argument over the past five years will have heard of De Koninck and his little book about the common good. MacIntyre asked the audience at Notre Dame how many of them had heard of De Koninck. About half. A friend, a longtime veteran of MacIntyre talks, noted that MacIntyre does such audience participation for authors like De Koninck and Albert Murray.
MacIntyre’s argument follows, for the most part, De Koninck’s first objection and response in Primacy of the Common Good. There, De Koninck, following St. Thomas, argues that rational creatures are invested with dignity on account of their end, which is to know and love God, the ultimate end of the universe. This has consequences. The most important of which is that man can lose his dignity just as he can lose the attainment of his end. A rational creature keeps his dignity only as long as he remains in the order of the whole and acts according to the order of the whole. To achieve his dignity, man must order his private good to the common good.
This is an extraordinary argument. For De Koninck, dignity is not some inviolable condition that can be invoked against the common good, against order, but it arises from the common good and from submitting to order. Indeed, at the very end of his argument, De Koninck takes the objection head on: a man may be ordered to God, one might say, but he may not be ordered to any subordinate good. His dignity is inviolable with respect to these subordinate goods, and the rational creature can choose among them. De Koninck rejects this, too, arguing that if a superior remains in the order prescribed, then the inferior must submit to the superior, too. (De Koninck draws out another very startling conclusion from this, but I won’t spoil everything.)
In his influential manual, Thomistic Philosophy, Henri Grenier, another Laval School Thomist, describes personalism as the idea that man considered as a person has a dignity such that his end in the natural order is not subordinate to the end of civil society. (Considered as an individual, man is part of civil society and related to it as a part to the whole.) Grenier describes several issues with this view, of which I will mention two. First, the end of civil society, temporal happiness, is the greatest of all natural goods. Second, subordinating the common good to the private good of an individual is individualism.
Grenier observes that there is nothing inconsistent with subordinating an individual’s good to the end of civil society—temporal felicity. De Koninck, however, takes this farther and attacks the very core of the personalist argument. The dignity that they use to dissolve the person’s subordination to the common good, De Koninck argues, comes precisely from the rational creature’s subordination to that common good (and any subordinate goods superior to his own that are themselves subordinated to the common good). One loses this dignity as soon as one attempts to assert it against order.
A word should be said, too, about the distinction between objective and subjective right that Grenier outlines elsewhere in Thomistic Philosophy, which seems to have some bearing on this argument. Right is the object of justice, but it may be taken in one of two ways: objective right and subjective right. Subjective right—that is to say, right as inviolable power of doing something—taken as right in the strict sense, as most moderns do, leads the juridical order to being ordered to liberty, not the common good. However, if objective right—that is, that which is due to another—is taken as right in the strict sense and the foundation, therefore, of subjective right, the whole juridical order is ordered to the common good. There is, therefore, a connection, it seems to me, between the disordered concept of dignity of the personalists and the modern error that defines subjective right as right in the strict sense.
MacIntyre’s emphasis on the Thomistic account of justice in opposition to the modern concept of dignity is, therefore, a call to reject subjective right as right strictu sensu and return to the concept of objective right. The idea of rights as inviolable powers is corrosive to the common good, as Grenier demonstrates. One might say that the liberal claim is to assert that dignity serves as the title for an inviolable subjective right, which may be set against the common good. Objective right, with its focus on what one is owed from another or owes to another, resists this claim.
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One can see why liberals are so fond of dignity as a concept, particularly in the personalist formulation that, as MacIntyre notes, was so popular after the Second World War. Claims of human dignity in the personalist conception dissolve man’s subordination to the common good. This is precisely what liberals want, especially in economics, but, as we have seen in recent years, scarcely less in other dimensions. De Koninck argues that this is not dignity. It is the loss of dignity. The society of frustrated tyrants this results in is, in fact, bestial.
MacIntyre’s invocation of De Koninck’s argument represents, as Patrick Deneen argued, a serious challenge to conservative liberals. To the extent that they rely on dignity to do basically what the personalists did, to set the good of the individual man above the common good of civil society, De Koninck demonstrates that their arguments in fact strip man of his dignity. It is only subordinated to the common good that man achieves his dignity. This is why it is essential to adopt instead claims about justice and duty.
One hopes that MacIntyre’s speech encourages at least some of those who were there at Notre Dame or watched it on the internet to go and read Charles de Koninck’s Primacy of the Common Good. While the integralism debates of the last five or six years are scarcely intelligible without De Koninck, the average conservative liberal may or may not have much interest in those debates. However, MacIntyre’s hearty endorsement of De Koninck may well spark such an interest.