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What if Aristotle Was Right, Kozinski

What if Aristotle Was Right, Kozinski

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An analysis of the political common good in light of Robert George and Michael Hannon's differing views.
An analysis of the political common good in light of Robert George and Michael Hannon's differing views.

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Published by: Thaddeus J. Kozinski on May 23, 2013
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What If Aristotle was Right?Thaddeus J. Kozinski, PH.D.
Michael Hannon and Robert George are both orthodox Catholic thinkers who subscribe, ostensibly, to the same robustly personalist anthropology and Aristotelian/Thomist socialphilosophy, one that interprets the character of the modern, autonomous individual as an evilfiction, one that recognizes the existence and priority of intrinsic, common goods, and one thatposits the indispensability of social communities for human flourishing and spiritual salvation.As George makes clear, although not quite an Aristotelian when it comes to politics, he iscertainly no Lockean; and as
Hannon’s essay shows, although assigning
intrinsic value to thepolitical order, he is no big-government communitarian. So, what could be the cause of therigorous debate between these two Catholic proponents of common goods, human flourishing,the moral law, and limited and accountable government? What is the precise bone of contention between them?
 
George claims that politics, the state, political activity, etc., is essentially instrumental, that is,not a good in itself but constituted by while enabling the flourishing of a multitude of 
intrinsically good 
communities, such as families and churches, made up of 
 persons
that discoverand possess their good only by participation in such communities. Hannon, on the other hand,claims that politics, the state, political activity, etc. is essentially an intrinsic, common good, asgood as the communities it is meant to serve; indeed, it is
the
architectonic good (subordinateonly to the ultra-architectonic, supernatural common good of the Church), since it alone isresponsible for and capable of coordinating the activity of the communities within it with aneye to the greatest common good.But, again, these thinkers ostensibly agree on the basics, i.e., that man has an objective, God-given nature; that
good 
is an objective, knowable transcendentaI; that common goods are realspiritual goods of spiritual persons taking precedence over individual, material goods; that menhave souls; that the purpose of politics is, in an ultimate if not direct sense, the care of soulsunto eternal salvation; and that the natural law governs all communities and must beauthoritatively recognized. So, it must be asked again: why the vigorous disagreement over thisone particular issue? And is it
that 
important?Before we try to answer the latter question, let us try to understand the former, namely, theroot cause of the disagreement. To do this, it might help to speculate a bit as to the experientialground and reasoning process that might have brought them to their present positions. Whatpolitical phenomena, facts, experience, ideas and considerations might have led George, on theone hand, to conclude that the political good is merely instrumental, and Hannon, that this
 
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good is truly intrinsic, on the other? I think the first and last place to look for the answer is theAmerican Regime itself, and particularly, its Founding Documents.
Regarding George’s position:
Does the Declaration of Independence and Constitution indicateexplicitly or implicitly, or perhaps just presuppose, an understanding of the political commongood as instrumental? If government is said to be established to secure the pre-political rightsof men, to allow them merely to
 pursue
, not enable them to
attain
, happiness, and to securethe general
welfare
, not the common
good 
, that is, if the Founding were even remotelyLockean, there is surely a plausible argument to be made that the Founders held theinstrumental view of the political common good, or at least the overall thrust of the FoundingDocuments can be interpreted this way. But, prescinding from the question
of George’s
intellectual genealogy for a moment, we can ask why Locke himself might have thought the wayhe did, that is, rejecting so categorically the traditional Aristotelian account of politics. I thinkthe answer to this is bound up with his experience of the nation-state, only recently on thescene in earnest in Western history when Locke was alive. His experience of the pre and post-birth of the British nation-state itself 
born in the Glorious Revolution of 1688
was anexperience that could also explain the
Founders’ view
s, as well as
George’s.
Alasdair Macintyre has made a persuasive case that the nation-state is not and cannot be thecustodian of the common good, for, agreeing with George, whatever political good it mighembody must be an instrumental one. MacIntyre:The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageableinstitution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods andservices, which isalways about to, but never actually does, give its clients value formoney, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time
invites one to lay down one’s life on it’s behalf…It is like being asked
to die for thetelephone company. . . . The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not thecommon goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-statemasquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to beeither ludicrous or disastrous or both.If this is the case, then George
’s view
is right, for he is only describing theoretically what hasbeen the case practically in America from the beginning. In 1787, America was a full-fledgednation-state, though more-or-less in latency; by now, of course, it has been actualized quitefully (it even seems to be in dotage now
if dotage denotes a nascent police state). So, boththen and now, the American Regime is constrained to the kind of goods it can embody andenable by its merely instrumentally good, nation-state essence, as it were, one which, asWilliam Cavanaugh puts it in his landmark article,is not the keeper of the common good.
 
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Now, subscribing to this understanding of the nation-state, identifying it with American politics
ab initio
and
in concreto
, and accepting the idea that the nation-state, by nature, cannot keepanything but instrumental goods does not mean one has to be a Lockean through-and-through,in, say, religion, epistemology, and anthropology. And this is why it seems perfectly reasonablefor Roert George to accept everything we have said about the American nation-state, if he doesindeed accept it, but demure from Locke and the Enlightenment and affirm the nature andpriority of common goods, politics as care of the soul, and the publicly authoritative nature of the natural law and the Roman Catholic Church.Let us agree that the nation-state, in whatever configuration it happened or happens to be(Federalist or Anti-federalist level of centralization, libertarian-market or welfare state,Republican or Democrat controlled, lower or higher taxes, Tea-Party or Occupy Wall St. ethos,Bush or Obama, Obamney), is what it is, that is, an alliance, not a common-good institution,suitable for and capable only of providing goods and services to those polis organizations thatcan (
but only with the Alliances’s instrumental help,
as George insists) embody and keepcommon goods. Thus, it is just good philosophy to recognize what is and must be the case, andto act upon it. This, to me, is where George is coming from. Whether he would prefer to liveunder a state that could indeed keep a common good, such as a medieval, French city or an
ancient, Greek polis, it doesn’t matter; for, the nation state is here, and here to stay, and we
must accept its exigencies and limitations so that we can work with it to uphold the mediatinginstitutions that alone can secure those common goods that we need to flourish and get toheaven.T
here isn’t much to add to George’
s account
to explain Hannon’s
other than that what Georgeconsiders acceptable and normative, the American-alliance-nation-state instrumentally helpingnon-sub-political communities to do their intrinsically good things, Hannon rejects asunacceptable and impossible
. It would be one thing, Hannon might say, if the “
Untied Allianceof America
understood itself to be what it should be, merely an alliance of polises, securingonly the kinds of private, sub-political goods that the individual polises themselves are unableto secure for themselves, such as protection from foreign invaders, coinage of money,interstate commerce regulation, etc.
precisely what the American Constitution presents itself as being, at least
 prima facie.
However, as Hannon seems to think,
the American Government’s
 true nature as shown in historical action is not a mere alliance, but an alliance-polis, that is,political contradiction, sometimes advertising itself as a polis, sometimes as an alliance, butalways masquerading as one or the other to attain more and more power for itself at theexpense of the good of its citizens. And this is not arbitrary, Hannon might say, for it is preciselywhat happens when genuinely political communities are not recognized as what they truly are,more than instrumentally good, and when one expects families and churches to do what onlythe architectonic political community can do, namely, the coordinating and harmonizing of intrinsic goods in light of, and thereby securing, the common good. In short, this creation of aFrankenstein politics is what happens when one charges politics with nothing more than

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