Unreasonable Pluralism: A Response to Vallier

In a series of blog posts, Kevin Vallier develops a liberal criticism of Catholic Integralism, a political theory that emphasizes the state’s role in orienting and forming people toward the fulfillment of their true natures, both materially and spiritually. He concludes that integralism cannot accommodate the “fact of reasonable pluralism” that characterizes societies as diverse as ours. Vallier prefers a form of public reason liberalism, arguing elsewhere that it is the only system that can bring a truly moral order to society. I’m going to explain why I think Vallier’s criticism misses its mark.

According to thejosias.com,

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

I am not myself Catholic,  so I’m going to defend Vallier’s objections against religious integralism more generally. I take an integralist regime to be one that commits itself to certain values, religious tenets, and anthropological assumptions and creates the conditions so that its citizens may realize those values and achieve the highest possible state of their natures. In an explicitly religious integralist regime, the state will prepare its citizens for their spiritual vocation, and that means suppressing elements that are noticeably detrimental to the faith. One can see how this might be incompatible with contemporary liberal theory.

Vallier argues that the fully realized integralist state cannot achieve equilibrium without resorting to intolerable measures. Because of epistemic limitations and the dispersion of information, any sufficiently large grouping of individuals will come to fundamental disagreements about what matters in life. Even among individuals reasoning in good faith, these disagreements arise naturally from the use of practical reason, a “fact of reasonable pluralism.” If reasonable pluralism is an inevitable characteristic of any substantial collective, then an integralist regime will perpetually need to coercively intervene in the affairs of its citizens. Vallier argues that this corrective coercion is wrong, and that we ought not endorse a regime that reproduces itself immorally.

But this criticism needs to be sharpened, as it threatens to engulf liberalism as well. Most extant liberal societies achieved equilibrium through years of violence, slavery, war, colonialism, or oppression. So the claim needs to be that ideal forms of integralism cannot cope with reasonable pluralism while ideal forms of liberalism can (and actual liberal states have been imperfect or flawed in some way). While I am skeptical that the original (or continuing) brutality of liberal democratic states can be dismissed as contingent with the wave of a hand, I will grant this point for the sake of the argument.

But can the ideal liberal state tolerate pluralism? The liberal Reign of Terror tolerated a pluralism of dissenting citizens insofar as it separated their heads from their bodies. But in all seriousness, any liberal regime needs to suppress some activities to ensure its survival. Some will covet what does not belong to them and others will succumb to violent impulses. People may vote for and enact illiberal laws. Some may even conspire with others to overthrow the government. In a liberty-promoting environment, people will inevitably use their liberty irresponsibly. A liberal regime interested in peace and stability will need to interfere in the lives of its citizens to put an end to these transgressions.

The ideal liberal state will therefore tolerate some ways of life, but not others. But this seems also to be true of the ideal integralist state as well. An integralist state may outlaw pornography, blasphemy, and other hazards to the faith, but it could also provide communities with significant legal discretion to protect local customs and ways of life. An integralist regime could tolerate Islamic or Hindu courts, while the ideal liberal state likely could not. So assuming that there are multiple realizations of ideal liberal and integralist states, we can imagine more or less pluralist versions of each one. Liberals often argue that maximizing personal liberty is instrumentally necessary for pluralism, but this point is more often asserted than defended.

The mere fact of pluralism does not give us reason to prefer either liberalism or integralism, which is why I imagine Vallier speaks not of pluralism simpliciter, but “reasonable” pluralism. It is not that the integralist regime cannot tolerate a plurality of ways of life, but that it only tolerates an unreasonable plurality, while liberal regimes of the public reason sort tolerate a reasonable plurality. Even if a young man in control of his faculties reasons in good faith to the conclusion that it would be worthwhile to indulge in pornographic anime, the integralist regime may nevertheless tell him: no.

But in appending the modifier “reasonable” to pluralism, we have left the firm ground of descriptive theorizing for normative space. Which pluralities count as reasonable depend on our anthropological and inferential commitments. And here is precisely where the Catholic integralist would push back. If right reason demands that we act so as to fulfill our true natures, then certainly no rational agent can reasonably arrive at the conclusion that pornographic anime is a worthwhile pursuit. To actively pursue the disordering of one’s desires toward the wrong objects is the very definition of practical irrationality. So according to the Catholic understanding of reason and natural law, a Catholic integralist state need not suppress reasonable plurality at all. Like the liberal state, it will focus its efforts on suppressing activities that it takes to be unreasonable.

So the “reasonable pluralism” objection only succeeds by begging the key question against the integralist. However, Vallier advances an additional criticism as well. He grants that the liberal state will inevitably interfere in the lives of its citizens, but insists that:

integralism requires more propaganda and more coercion than liberal regimes because liberal regimes just don’t have to be as persuasive as integralist regimes to stay stable. Liberal regimes, for instance, don’t require great uniformity in matters of faith. That’s part of the reason that liberal democratic regimes are as stable as they are, because they can accommodate reasonable pluralism more effectively. And that’s the reason integralist states have often used a great deal of control over speech, press, and religion.

I am less sold on the empirical plausibility of this thesis than Vallier. America’s stability faltered in the 19th century when it almost destroyed itself in civil war. In the 20th century, it could well be that America enjoyed a period of stability as a unipolar hegemon because of its tolerance for experiments in living, but it could also be because every other competing world power was devastated by World Wars I & II, which allowed the U.S. to bargain from a position of unimaginable advantage.

We can once again escape the messiness of history by idealizing. But even once we idealize, it is not so clear why the integralist state needs to be any more or less coercive than the liberal state, assuming that we take coercion to mean something like ensuring compliance through threats of prison or harmful punishment. An integralist regime could direct and form its citizens with the hangman’s noose, but it could just as well do so through education, financial incentives, social pressure or leading by example. Similarly, a liberal regime could ensure compliance to its norms through direct threats of harm or by other means. Some liberal regimes have found coercion to be quite desirable: America currently has .66% of its population in prison. For the sake of comparison, Poland has about .20%.

But perhaps the issue is not so much whether the integralist regime will use coercive threats, but whether it will more generally apply social control to a greater extent than the ideal liberal regime. This may seem plausible at first, but we should not make the mistake many do when first reading Foucault, understanding his thesis to be a Whiggish defense of our gentler, more open age. Rather, in Foucault’s analysis, modern society has simply adopted a different (more efficient and psychological) set of controls than in ages past.

Although my own assessment is not as bleak as Foucault’s it is hard to deny that controls and pressures are a ubiquitous part of liberal society. Children are habituated to conform to liberal norms in public schools. In a free labor market, workers are under constant threat to conform their behavior to capitalist standards or risk being fired and losing their livelihood. The unlucky and unmeritorious toil in unfulfilling jobs and must perpetually worry about providing for their daily needs. Many of these pressures are opaque to us, hidden under the liberal notion of consent. A retail worker may feel like she is being crushed by the economic system and the debt she has taken on to survive, but liberal society effectively says to her: you agreed to it, so it’s on you.

Many liberal democratic regimes do value equality in addition to liberty, but equality requires intervention. Like other values that society wants to promote, equality may or may not arise naturally, and if it does not, then the government will have to use coercion or other methods of control to bring it about, a point that Nozick is all too glad to leverage against his egalitarian opponents. But libertarian forms of (classical) liberalism are no kinder. Enforcing “natural” libertarian property rights also requires a substantial network of enforcement and controls. Many have held that the poor and the immigrant can have a little of your stuff (Leviticus 23:22, Matthew 12:1). If you want to deny this, you will have to pay someone to put them in chains and haul them away when they take what they need to survive.

I therefore find it difficult to sum a ledger of social controls. The ideal integralist society will inevitably employ methods of control to achieve its ends, but so will the ideal liberal state. How much control is necessary in each regime will be a function of the goals the regime wants to accomplish and the suitability of the people to realize those goals. This could necessitate suffocating controls if the people practice a religion that bears little relation to the integrated religion. Or, the people may find the yoke easy. But the same is true of liberalism. Imposing Western liberal democracy on a people who find it unappealing may also necessitate perpetual intervention, a lesson we seem unwilling to learn in the Middle East.

I conclude by addressing a worry I am sure has arisen in the minds of my liberal readers, namely, that I am an unhinged lunatic at best advocating for some kind of repressive Chinese-style autocracy and at worst for some form of Islamic State theocracy. But this is not so. I too have no desire to live under these governments, but my concerns have less to do with procedural misfires than with the fact that both regimes use bad means to pursue bad ends. Social control can be good if it brings about some good end with minimal costs. But if it aims to bring about bad ends, fails to bring about good ends or brings about good ends with excessive costs, then it is bad. I dislike China’s censorship because they censor things I consider to be true and important, but I would support a similar campaign to crush the American pornography empire. My bigger concern with China is the genocide and concentration camp stuff.

1 thought on “Unreasonable Pluralism: A Response to Vallier

  1. Pingback: Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes? – Kevin Vallier

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