Is “the secular” so clear?

The contributors to the weblog Secular Right: Reality & Reason have put together a sort of credo, What is the Secular Right? Here it is:

We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims. Rather, conservatism serves the ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.

So the claim, it seems, is that conservatism should be grounded in “Human Flourishing,” which is to be understood only through rational empiricism and thus without regard to supernatural claims. I’m not sure what that means. Rational empiricism, as understood today, makes a strong distinction between fact and value. “Human Flourishing” is evidently an evaluative term. So it seems rational empiricism wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

The term looks like it means something like “realization of the good for man here and now.” Maybe they’ve got a notion of rational empiricism that tells us what the good for man is. I don’t know what that would be. Does anyone know if they explain themselves further somewhere?

My own view, which my book goes into at length, is that by itself rational empiricism gives you desire and technique as (radically anti-conservative) guides to life. Satisfaction of desire doesn’t seem to constitute human flourishing. To get beyond it though you need a moral tradition that’s understood to connect to something that transcends desire and thus the empirical.

So far as I can tell, an adequate theory of such a thing is going to have to explain why life objectively has a purpose, and that’s going to involve attribution of purpose and intention to the world at large. In other words, the theory is going to be religious. And it’s going to say something definite, otherwise it will be useless. So it’s going to make specific religious and non-empirical (“supernatural”) claims.

Bottom line: if you want to be a character in a late Samuel Beckett novel you can try, but I don’t think you’re going to succeed. Otherwise this whole godless thing isn’t going to work.

7 thoughts on “Is “the secular” so clear?”

  1. Eliot’s Thoughts After Lambeth
    Eliot’s Thoughts After Lambeth make the same point:

    “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”

    And you’re right. “Human Flourishing” begs every question about who we are and where we are going.


  2. Human flourishing and the supernatural
    On a notion of human flourishing not grounded in the supernatural:

    How about the approach of the new natural law theory of Grisez, Finnis, Boyle and R. P. George: Every action is done for a reason. You can continue to ask why the action was done, until you reach a “desirability characteristic” (Anscombe), a basic reason for action. There is a finite set of such basic reasons: Life and health, knowledge, friendship, aesthetic experience, play, ‘religion’, practical reasonableness, etc.

    Now this set constitutes the basic human goods. Participating fully in these goods constitutes human flourishing.

    The theory is fully compatible with a Christian worldview, but is intelligible without references to the supernatural.

    • Yes, but …
      The theory may be intelligible as an account of how cultivated well-situated people tend to think about life but strikes me as incomplete. There’s something puzzling about saying there are objective ultimate goods and they’re just floating in the air with no relation to how the world is constituted as a whole. So it seems there must be something additional to deal with the latter point. That’s not specifically an ethical issue though so maybe it falls outside the professional responsibilities of the men you mention.

      • Re: floating in the air
        The ultimate goods need not float in thin air. We do not need to postulate moral entities of a puzzling metaphysical status. Rather, “life”, “health”, “knowledge”, etc. exist as attributes of individual human beings.

        The status of the basic human goods as both basic reasons for any purposeful action, and as building blocks of human flourishing is, according to these philosophers, a self-evident fact ‘grasped’ by our practical (not our theoretical) reason. This status cannot be proved deductively. Still, any challenge to the contrary can be rebutted.

        • Sitz im Leben
          The line of thought makes sense in an academic environment in which people avoid metaphysics, because metaphysics is puzzling and the goal is to reduce things to manageable concepts leaving as few points for attack as possible given the existing state of the debate.

          If you’re not simply functioning in that environment, for example if you’re thinking about your situation as a human being, so what? We orient our thoughts and actions by reference to an understanding of what the world is like overall. We need to do that to meet the shocks, challenges and contradictions of life.

          The argument seems to be “look, this is just reflective common sense.” Not everyone agrees on the demands and validity of common sense, though. Sometimes, especially under stress, our own grip of the issue can seem a bit shaky. So we need a way of understanding what seems to be common sense that goes beyond common sense itself. To go beyond common sense though is to venture into the realm of the puzzling. That’s life. If we can’t do without something we can’t do without it.

  3. Mr. Kalb’s critique of the
    Mr. Kalb’s critique of the human flourishing concept reminds me of an article I read some years ago by Benedict Ashley, OP. If I remember correctly, Ashley was taking Grisez, et al, to task for their “polyteleologism,” which, at the end of the day, left the human being with a plural list of goods and no way to describe or effect his end as a whole. “What is the end of man?” is the basic question. That seems to me to inculde everyone (the race as a whole) and everything that is done by anyone (the person as a whole).

    Natural knowledge of God seems to me to respond to the unity and wholenesss (both) of truth and the person. I suppose that you could then object that this is obviously not a supernatural basis for anything, but the God question is persistent and doggedly calls to mind the conditions beyond this life. It seems that no culture has ever been formed that has not devoted itself to the solution of the God question in some manner, and this solution is the centerpiece of that culture’s life.

    This culture, or civilization, at any rate, is constructed on the basis of the “Word made flesh,” the Logos. I could make the Chestertonian point that if this civilization fails, there is nothing to replace it with than other manifest failures, and we would have absolutely no guarantee of the higher humanism we have come to enjoy, since this is largely a Christian creation. Our humanism flourishes because it is constantly directed beyond itself, to God, who gives embodiment sacred meaning and calls it to obedience to him.

    Back to “polyteleologism”: I guess no culture was ever constructed on the basis of a laundry list of goods, and to the extent that a human being wishes his own integral fulfillment, he would reject a normative and metaphysical pluralism.


    • Finis to Finnis?
      Grisez et. al. are Catholics operating in a decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-metaphysical academic environment. It makes sense that they would present arguments that create as much space as possible for Catholic moral views without contradicting established presuppositions. If that’s right then their work may be useful in its place but that place is rather limited. We shouldn’t take it as a guide to what life is about. And it doesn’t lend much support to the view that Catholic and metaphysical considerations are properly irrelevant to public life, which seems to be the Secular Conservative view.

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