In the latest issue of Studies in Christian Ethics, I review of Marcia Pally’s book Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality. The review can be read online at Sage Journals. It’s free at the moment, but will probably be behind a pay-wall later. Some excerpts from the review follow below.
Marcia Pally’s Commonwealth and Covenant raises a vital question that any serious engagement with modern ethical, economic and political problems has to deal with. But Pally’s framing of the question and the answer that she gives to it have serious defects. The question is how to overcome the excessive atomisation and individualism to which modern, liberal civilisation is so prone, without falling into the unjust sacrifice of individual persons to collective projects found in totalitarian reactions to liberalism. Pally frames the question in terms of ‘separability’ and ‘situatedness’— the separability of individual persons from the various larger cultural and political wholes to which they belong, and the situatedness of individuals in those greater wholes. Contemporary global society, she argues, suffers from too high a degree of separability, but a true solution to this problem cannot be found in a mere reaction towards more situatedness. Rather, what is needed is an ontology that recognises the mutual dependence of separability and situatedness: an ontology of ‘separability-amid-situatedness’ or ‘distinction-amid-relation’. In such an ontology, the distinction among unique individuals that separability implies is a necessary condition of the interpersonal relationships necessary for a truly flourishing unity of situatedness shared by them. Pally begins by giving a general description of an ontology which sees separability and situatedness as mutually dependent. She then examines certain classic thinkers who are often read as being advocates of only one of those two, including John Locke and Adam Smith (usually claimed for separability), and Edmund Burke and John Ruskin (usually claimed for situatedness), and tries to show that they were in fact advocating an ontology of mutual constitution. She then explores various ways of giving a theological grounding to such an ontology. […]
I find much to affirm in Pally’s argument. Indeed modernity does suffer from too much separability and the solution cannot consist in a mere reaction toward the other term of a simplistic binary. But the way in which Pally frames that binary prevents her from giving a precise enough account of the foundations of the modern excess of separability. It therefore prevents her from identifying a solution which could overcome that excess. One way of getting at the problem is to say that, in framing the problem in terms of separability vs. situatedness, Pally puts it too much in terms of mere ontology rather than of teleology or agathology. As Charles De Koninck argued in his writings on the common good in the 1940s, it is a typically modern error to frame questions of political ethics in terms of the ontology of persons and societies (what they are in themselves), rather than in terms of private and common goods (the ends in which persons find their perfection). If one takes the ontology of persons and societies as the basic consideration, then one is naturally led to ask: Which is more important, which should have priority in political decisions? When the question is put like that, it can naturally appear that there are only two answers: either (a) the liberal, individualist answer (which De Koninck called ‘personalism’) that the person as a substantially existing, conscious subject is more important, and society as a mere accidental unity is wholly ordered to individual persons; or (b) the totalitarian answer that some collective entity, conceived of as a kind of quasi-individual—whether that be the state or the nation or the race or the classless society of the future—is the all-important reality to which individual persons must be sacrificed. These answers will seldom be given as calls for entirely pure separability or situatedness—a mixture is practically unavoidable—but the individualistic answer will include elements of situatedness only for the sake of the separable individuals, whereas the totalitarian answer will include separability only for the sake of strengthening the collective.
But, as De Koninck showed, classical philosophers such as Aristotle, and patristic and medieval theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, did not put the basic question of political ethics in terms of the being of persons and societies, but rather in terms of the private and common goods in which persons find their perfection. The basic question for them was thus not whether persons or societies are more important, but rather whether private goods or common goods are more important. They understood goods as things that complete or perfect persons. But goods can be private, in the sense that only one person can attain to them to the exclusion of others (such as material possessions), or they can be common in the sense that many can share in them without diminishing or dividing them (such as truth or justice). And of course they held that common goods have priority—especially ‘the’ common good that is definitive of a complete society. This is not a totalitarian position, since it is individual persons who are the beneficiaries of common goods. Common goods are really good for persons. But it is not an individualist or (in the sense De Koninck used the term) personalist position either, because persons experience common goods as more important than themselves, as causes to which they can dedicate their lives. […]
Pally explains that she chose the terms ‘separability’ and ‘situatedness’, rather than ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’, or ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’, because they get more to ‘the primary conditions on which political and sociological notions are built’ (p. 3), and are ‘less burdened by philosophical or political partisanship’ (p. 4). But I would urge that using these categories as the most basic consideration in fact presupposes the ‘partisan’ philosophical position of Enlightenment liberalism in its quarrel with ancient philosophy—the true root of the modern excess of separability. The ubiquitous day-to-day practices of modern capitalism and pluralistic democracy are so closely connected to this root that it is indeed difficult at times to distinguish which is root and which is branch. But any attempt to overcome the excessive separability found in the latter without a precise analysis and firm rejection of the former is doomed to failure. […]
In the concluding section of the book, Pally looks at a number of examples of ‘covenantal communities’ in American history, and shows that the ones that proved sustainable had found a balance between separability and situatedness. Communities which suppressed individual initiative too much, or which lacked a strong common vision, tended to fall apart quickly. Significantly, the descriptions show that the strong common vision that the sustainable communities tended to have was usually a strong agreement about religion. That is, it was agreement about the end or goal of human life, and what leads to it. Or, to put it another way, it was agreement about those common goods which are greater than individual persons, and to which individuals ought to devote their lives. But Pally does not draw from these examples the conclusion one might expect: namely that the wider society in which political and economic deliberations take place ought to be founded on such agreement, and ordered to such goods. Rather, she ultimately agrees with the project of Enlightenment liberalism, that one can build a peaceful, happy society, without agreement on such ultimate matters. But no society that is liberal in that sense can truly be ordered to common goods. Hence every liberal society will inevitably drift towards further separability, with periodic reactions towards totalitarianism. Since Pally’s book does not recognise this, it cannot really contribute to a solution of the problem of excessive separability.
Header Image: Frank H. Mason, Railway Poster (detail).