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.