Conor Friedersdorf responds to Ross Douthat’s latest column:

Douthat concludes his column by writing that “we need intelligent leaders with a sense of their own limits, experienced people whose lives have taught them caution. We still need the best and brightest, but we need them to have somehow learned humility along the way.” Agreed. But I’d put it a bit differently. What we need are politicians, media professionals, and citizens who deal less in abstractions. Talk of the federal government creating “an ownership society” or the U.S. military bringing democracy to Iraq because yearning for self-government is universal should be treated with skepticism insofar as they’re ideological statements as opposed to pragmatic judgments grounded in observation mediated by wisdom. The same can be said of “green jobs” or “bending the cost curve.”

A meritocracy would likely have all the flaws Douthat ascribes to it, if we had one, but it seems to me that what we’re living under is actually an extremely ideology-driven government, one that isn’t applying a carefully constructed formula for success so much as pretending to do so, which is even worse.

Friedersdorf’s outlook here resembles that by David Brooks a few weeks back, though Brooks framed his in the more mildly theological language of “values” and “disenchantment.”  My take on that piece is here:  more on that below.

Friedersdorf may be right with respect to the problem, but that doesn’t undermine Douthat’s proposed remedy.  The danger of  ideologies is that it they can so quickly runs out of ideas, as those who hold them are never forced to revisit the ideology in light of practical outcomes.

Yet the “judgments grounded in observation mediated by wisdom” that Friedersdorf identifies as pragmatic require the possibility of moral progress, a requirement that ideology precludes.  The wisdom that Friedersdorf requires for pragmatic judgments is nothing other than the wisdom of humility, the recognition that our discernment of our responsibilities in the world is limited and we just might be getting it wrong.

At the same time, I’d note my reservations about allowing the concerns about ideology slide into a rejection of theory.  I don’t think Friedersdorf has done that, but there are plenty of folks who will.

Not all abstractions are unhelpful for moral deliberation, and in fact, such abstractions might be intrinsic to it.  Oliver O’Donovan puts it this way:  “At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking-stock of the world, a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world.”  O’Donovan dubs this “moral reflection,” which is in contrast with, though not in opposition to, moral deliberation.  Moral reflection is not oriented toward a decision that is before us, but rather precedes any such decision-making by discerning what is good, true, and beautiful about the world and our place in it.

This is O’Donovan’s modification of Aristotle’s classic distinction between theoretical and practical reason, forms of reason that O’Donovan argues are “each one-sided elaborations of a primary affective knowledge.”  That last bit is crucial, as O’Donovan takes the Augustinian maxim that we know only as we love as his starting point.  Proper affectivity keeps both reflective and deliberative judgments together, recognizing their uniqueness and their necessity.

Which brings me, I dare say, full circle to my reply to Brooks.  The slide from theory into ideology is one of attachment, a refusing to let go of our understanding of the world in light of our deliberation about the facts or reflection about the outcomes.  It is, fundamentally, a misguided love that closes us to the possibility that our ideas might stand in need of revision.

The Augustinian rejoinder to all this, then, is not only that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, but that they ought to be so restless.  The enshrining of ideology on his throne is but a poor substitute, and a corrosive one at that.  But pragmatism is no better, for the wisdom that we gain is not simply the accumulated knowledge of previous events and their consequences, but a genuine knowledge into the nature of things that ultimately can only come through love.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Good article, Matt. When I hear “ideology”, I tend to think more in terms of “theory”, so that distinction is a helpful one for me personally and I will probably be using that in conversations and blog posts going forward. Unfortunately I haven’t read (let alone studied) Aristotle yet, so your reference to his distinction between theoretical and practical reason (paragraph 6) went a little over my head. That said, I appreciate the way that you’ve mapped the historical development of this thought process in Aristotle, Augustine, and O’Donavan. So, let’s try landing somewhere here: in what ways can we, as Christians, bring a solidly biblical/theoretical, as opposed to biblical/ideological practice to the political and social spheres? In short, what does a really Evangelical pragmatism look like in practical terms?


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson November 13, 2011 at 11:23 pm


      Thanks for the question, and I apologize for my slow reply.

      That said, I think you’re right to think “theory” when you hear ideology. I think of ideology as something like theory+. It’s a theory that has become closed to the possibility of new counter-evidence, and as such degenerates into shouting.

      As to your question, I think it deserves a book. But I’m not gonna write one (at least not yet, anyway!) so I’ll say that I think patient, deliberative questioning in public spaces would be a good start. I tend to think that if we had more friendship across theoretical positions, we would have far less ideology and far more good conversations (without letting go of our genuinely held and very, very important theories about the world).

      Does that make any sense? It’s not a policy proposal because in one sense, I don’t think the policy is the problem. The people are, and the terms of communication are.




Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *