Wolterstorff on Liberal Democracy and Virtue

In The Mighty and the AlmightyWolterstorff identifies three possible forms of state governance, arguing vehemently for the first, tentatively endorsing the second, and flatly rejecting the third. They are as follows: 1) curbing injustice (codifying criminal law and maintaining a judiciary, police force, and military); 2) undertaking projects for the common good (building infrastructure is his example); 3) cultivating a “virtuous and pious citizenry” (the limiting case here is probably expunging heresy as a part of a preferential religious establishment).

Let’s grant that curbing injustice falls within the scope of the state’s authority, and that expunging heresy does not. However, it’s interesting that W. briefly sketches an argument for “common good” projects rooted in God’s desire for shalom, but then rejects the notion that the state might seek to cultivate virtue in its citizens. He gets away with this in the book by consistently running virtue together with piety, and so implying that the cultivation of virtue is a definitively religious domain. He also depends here on an argument from the independence of the church – the state is no longer the ultimate expresson of “religio-ethical unity.” But granting that, it still does not follow that the state loses all right to or interest in cultivating some forms of virtue in its citizens.

Let’s imagine that some citizens propose limiting the sale of cocaine in their county (or state or nation). Many of them are religiously motivated, but they make common cause with others who share their additional conviction that the easy availability of cocaine poses grave threats to the integrity of their political community; that is, it threatens the common good. They pass a law criminalizing the sale and consumption of cocaine. Now, the law does not directly criminalize injustice – the injustice, say, of corrupting an impressionable young person by pressuring her to use cocaine. In essence, the law mandates the cultivation of a particular set of virtues – chief among them, the virtue of not being addicted to cocaine. (It seems obvious to me that one could be addicted to cocaine without thereby wronging any other person, though perhaps not without wronging oneself.) However, the campaigning citizens might also observe that only by encouraging these virtues can the community generally discourage a set of injustices to which cocaine-addicts are prone, namely, disorderliness, theft, violence, etc. So the curbing of injustice is a kind of knock-on effect of the encouraged virtue(s).

Consider another example, that of a community that decided to restrict the sale of contraceptives (such restrictions were common in America through the 1950’s; the last such restrictive laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut [1965]). The campaigning citizens propose that a strong identification of sex with both marriage and children is basic to the flourishing of its common life, and judges that birth control generally undermines that identification. It’s hard to see how anyone is wronged by discrete acts of contraception-use (assuming that no one is coerced, etc.); rather, the common good is undermined. The restrictive law thus does not directly curb injustice; rather, it directly encourages the possession of a certain set of virtues (that of not having sex with someone outside of both marriage and without openness to children), though perhaps with an eye to preventing or diminishing particular forms of injustice, such as it becoming common for men not to marry, or even to abandon the pregnant mothers of their children.

Why doesn’t W.’s argument from shalom cover these government interventions for the sake of the common good? In neither case does the intervention for the sake of virtue constitute an establishment or encouragement of a particular religion (though it might inadvertently discourage particular forms of religious practice, such as Mormon polygamy or the consumption of peyote).

This entry was posted in Church and State, Ecclesiology, Politics, Wolterstorf and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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