The ‘Our’ in Our Democracy

Published March 13, 2024

The Catholic Thing

More than forty years ago and shortly before he entered the Catholic faith, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote an essay worth revisiting today. MacIntyre is a brilliant scholar but a sometimes-tedious writer. As a result, his essay – “Social Science Methodology as the Ideology of Bureaucratic Authority” – has all the eloquence of an air-conditioning repair manual.  But as background to our current political environment, its value is very real.  I’ll explain.

For MacIntyre:

Modern liberal politics is dominated by a conception of the political process as one of bargaining between interests. Political morality consists in the observance of certain legally enforceable restrictions upon conduct; morality in general is relegated to private life. There is largely lacking any conception of political life as being the pursuit of the common good. . .[nor can there] be, for our dominant effective notion of the common good is merely that of an artifact compounded out of individual and partial interests as a result of the bargaining process.

Such a feeble sense of the common good has consequences. As MacIntyre argues, “in the modern world’s understanding, for example, the notion of a just price makes no sense; justice belongs in one realm and the price mechanism in another.” Plus, “the relationship of the good citizen to a good man is an essentially Aristotelian question. . .about the distribution of certain dispositions (virtues) in a systematic way within the entire community.”

Put simply: In today’s world dominated by technology and the social sciences, the common good and a virtuous citizenry have only a marginal connection. The “common good” is a statistical abstraction amounting to the sum of similar appetites. Aristotle and his concern for a civic life anchored in the cultivation of personal virtue have about as much relevance to political reality as a blacksmith and the needs of his craft.

This implies an equally feeble anthropology. In other words, it suggests a degraded understanding of who and what a human being is, and what – if anything – our unique dignity as creatures might be. This in turn affects our politics which becomes unmoored from any stable, Biblical grounding.

In practice, the social sciences tend to treat the human person as a data point and an object of study, not a subject with conscience, free will, and a transcendent destiny demanding reverence. Religious belief is typically assumed to be a self-imposed, irrational mystification; an effort to create higher meaning where otherwise none exists.

The irony, as MacIntyre notes, is that the social sciences themselves very easily become an exercise in “technical sophistication [that ends] in mystification.” For MacIntyre, social science can be seen as “essentially a histrionic subject: how to act the part of a natural scientist on the stage of the social sciences with the more technical parts of the discipline functioning as do greasepaint, false beards and costumes in the theater.”

The difference is that “actors in the theater always know that they are actors, and so do their audience.” The methodologists of social science and their audiences too often don’t.

This is why Christian Smith, himself a distinguished social scientist, described American sociology as, “not merely the science of society nor merely a politically liberal-leaning discipline, but a particular sacred project, a movement to venerate, protect, and advance” certain ideological goals and assumptions “with the zeal of new religious converts.”

It’s why a thoroughly secular scholar like Neil Postman reclassified social science as a branch of moral philosophy rather than genuine science, and why the historian Christopher Lasch – never a religious believer and always a man of the old working-class left – showed such skepticism toward the social sciences in his own writing on matters of society, family, mature citizenship, and culture.

The problem with social science isn’t the collection of statistical data.  On the contrary, the value of such data is often very important. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, lies in the “logical gap between all statistical statements and all causal statements,” with many social scientists interpreting their data through the lens of presuppositions shaped by “a highly particular and partial view of the social world.”

As it happens, this is good news for political leaders seeking to extend bureaucratic authority and thereby to reshape social life according to their own problematic agendas. In the process, social scientists serve as a kind of clergy in a new liturgy of authority and power that may have very little to do with the beliefs of the ordinary citizen – whom government (theoretically) serves.

So why ramble on about any of this?  Here’s why.

In an election year, concerns about “our democracy” and its future become predictably urgent. “Our democracy” is on the brink of a theocratic coup. “Our democracy” is being hijacked by racists, fascists, homophobes, and misogynists. And so on.

It’s worth noting that the word “our” in the expression “our democracy” has very different meanings for what Christopher Lasch described as a self-flattering leadership class dressed in the vestments of social science, and for ordinary citizens raising families, struggling to survive, and operating off common sense and the remains of this nation’s biblical morality.

Graham Greene once wrote that “behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities.” The good news about reversing the worst and renewing the best ideals of “our democracy,” is that it’s actually pretty simple. The bad news is that it’s hard and takes a long time.

The reason it’s hard is because it involves changing ourselves from comfortable religious “fellow travelers” and pew sitters to committed witnesses of Jesus Christ – not just in our private lives but in our public actions, including our civic engagement. Most of us don’t really want to do that. It cuts us out of the herd and invites the derision of today’s mainstream, “enlightened” bigots.

The reason it takes so long is that individuals and communities, and their habits, are much harder to rewire than structures.

But if we don’t start now, change will never happen. And the responsibility for whatever comes next will be on us.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Catholic Studies