Habits of Liberty: Part III

We have been studying why liberty must be more than an idea or speech. Part I considered how ideas are inflected or corrupted by incompatible habits; a bureaucrat, for example, will understand liberty differently than a small business owner. Part II addressed the powerlessness of speech against a centralized authority unless embodied in “intermediate powers.” Next we take up reason’s ability to persuade under present circumstances.

Because liberalism is agnostic regarding questions of value, it allows them to be settled at the polls and in the market. A corollary to this is that liberalism lacks resources to settle such questions by means of rational argument. As Alasdair MacIntyre tells us:

“[A] liberal order…is one in which each standpoint may make its claims but can do no more within the framework of the public order, since no overall theory of the human good is to be regarded as justified. Hence at this level debate is necessarily barren; rival appeals to accounts of the human good or of justice necessarily assume a rhetorical form such that it is as assertion and counterassertion, rather than as argument and counterargument, that rival standpoints confront one another. Nonrational persuasion displaces rational argument.” 

In other words, rationality is possible only within a framework, or tradition, which sets out an “overall theory of the human good” by reference to which arguments may be justified or discredited. Such a tradition has a basis much deeper than reason, but, Stark Young writes, “it achieves its consummation, or perfection, in becoming rational.”

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, has its definition of the human good, but differs from a tradition in its immutability, one-note implementation, and relationship to empirical evidence. It is, I’ve written before, a compact doctrine, heedless of facts and claiming a universal application; it allows only a restricted exercise of rationality to its adherents, and none to those outside of the faith.

In liberalism we have endless claims and facts, with no hope of a conclusion, and in fundamentalism we have one authoritative claim to which facts are irrelevant. In either case “nonrational persuasion displaces rational argument,” and bringing someone around to your point of view will look a lot more like a religious conversion than winning an argument. 

Non-rational persuasion should not be carelessly disparaged; this much is implicit in Young’s statement that reason is the consummation and not the basis of tradition. Cardinal Newman wrote that man’s “progress is a living growth, not a mechanism; and its instruments are mental acts, not the formulas and contrivances of language.” Newman thus recognized the importance of, as he called it, the “extra-rational.” Since his term avoids the connotations of “nonrational,” I will use it.

We all daily rely on the extra-rational. Every “appeal to authority” is technically a logical fallacy, but we make this appeal with each claim to “follow the science.” Many of us understand that beauty has a power to persuade. Most have had the experience of being better disposed to like a book or an album when recommended by a friend. The extra-rational is certainly the prop and solace of marriage. 

Richard Weaver describes his political conversion in Up From Liberalism. In the early 30s he had been an active member of the American Socialist Party, but when he studied under conservatives at Vanderbilt he had the following experience:

“[T]o my great surprise and growing confusion, I found that although I disagreed with these men on matters of social and political doctrine, I liked them all as persons. They seemed to me more humane, more generous, and considerably less dogmatic than those with whom I had been associated under the opposing banner. It began to dawn on me uneasily that perhaps the right way to judge a movement was by the persons who made it up rather than by its rationalistic perfection and by the promises that it held out. Perhaps, after all, the proof of social schemes was meant to be a posteriori rather than a priori. It would be a poor trade to give up a non-rational world in which you liked everybody for a rational world in which you liked nobody.”

The endless acrimony, irony, and one-upmanship of social media will not change hearts and minds. The best crafted argument will not convince a leftist fundamentalist of the evils of socialism. Articulate, humane, and (importantly) flesh and blood communities have the power to persuade the agnostic or the dogmatist.

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