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After Babel: The Virtues of Liberalism

by William C. Placher

William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College. He spent 1994 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. Recently he wrote Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Westminster/John Knox). This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 16-23, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Book Review:

Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents. By Jeffrey Stout. Beacon, 328 pp., $24.95.

The book is divided into three parts: the first argues that there is no universal human language for making or defending ethical judgments; the second explores the implications of that thesis for religious ethics; and the third defends a liberalism suitably chastened in the face of the arguments of the first part.

Stout begins by attacking the claim, classically stated by Kant and taken for granted in much recent philosophical ethics, that there is one way of defining what’s right and what’s wrong that any rational person ought to accept. Every ethical argument, Stout maintains, draws on the vocabulary of a particular tradition. "You can’t somehow leap out of culture and history altogether and gaze directly into the moral law. . . any more than you can gaze directly into the mind of God." That view does not, he cautions, imply radical moral relativism. We do not make ethical judgments simply concerning those who share our own values. We believe, for instance, that "knowingly and willingly torturing innocents is wrong, impermissible, unjust. It always has been . . . . That is the moral truth of the matter, whether we recognize it or not -- a truth I deem more certain than any explanation I could give of it or any argument I could make on its behalf." My arguments against torture may draw on the particular legacy of the Bible, Locke and Kant, and every argument necessarily draws on some particular legacy. If some people do not stand in a tradition that condemns torture, I may find it hard to explain to them why applying a lighted cigarette to a prisoner is wrong -- but I still don’t think it is morally acceptable for them to do so.

Stout uses a scientific analogy. Imagine trying to explain to a Stone Age tribesman or an ancient Hebrew that helium atoms have two neutrons. They simply wouldn’t understand what you were talking about, and they couldn’t understand unless they learned the language of modern physics -- unless they in a sense became modern physicists. We do not simply believe, however, that helium atoms only have two neutrons for us or in our culture. We really think our claim is true -- though, just as with claims about the evils of torture, we can explain and defend our claim only in the language of a particular tradition.

What are the implications of these conclusions for religious ethics? For far too long, Stout says, "almost all analytic philosophers saw ethics as the logical study of the language of morals." They just weren’t interested in "distinct moral languages or communities of belief." Indeed, if you appealed to the Bible or the Gita or your cultural traditions to justify a moral claim, they dismissed you as regressive and authoritarian. But if all ethical arguments grow out of traditions, if secular, Western modernity is just one tradition among others, then certain kinds of religious ethics start to look more intriguing. Stout urges everyone to pay more attention to "religious thinkers . . . more apt to be philosophically interesting precisely because they are not trying to sound like philosophers."

Stout thinks too many recent Christian theologians have spent too much time emphasizing what they have in common with their secular neighbors and how well they follow the rules of modern academic discourse. "Secular intellectuals," he says, "don’t need to be told, by theologians, that Genesis is mythical, that nobody knows much about the historical Jesus, that it’s morally imperative to side with the oppressed, or that birth control is morally permissible . . . academic theologians have increasingly given the impression of saying nothing atheists don’t already know." Theological ethicists ought to pursue their own vocation, do their own thing, speak in their own distinctive voice.

Stout cites James Gustafson as one admirable model of such a theological ethicist. "For Gustafson, to be human is to be situated in nature, history, culture, and society -- to have a particular location." Gustafson seeks dialogues with contemporary science and social thought, but he makes it clear that he speaks as a Reformed Christian, and that his viewpoint, and therefore his conclusions, will not necessarily be persuasive to all rational persons.

Yet Stout has reservations even about Gustafson (reservations that others share). As a secular philosopher, Stout finds himself consistently in agreement with the way Gustafson sees things. Such agreement is pleasing, but also troubling. Gustafson talks about God. He wants to stand in the Christian tradition. Yet, given all he shares with Stout and others, he seems unable to articulate why that talk of God and that tradition are so important to him. "Is not Gustafson’s theology distinguishable from a more humane and recognizably secular vision only at the points where he is also most elusive, where we have the most difficulty figuring out what he is saying and why he is saying it, where we have the most trouble discerning what the difference comes to and why he wants to maintain it?"

By the end of part two, Stout has sounded themes familiar from a number of widely discussed recent books and drawn some conclusions for religious ethics. In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his co-authors lamented the individualism of contemporary American society, the lack of a shared system of values. In After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair Maclntyre has decried the attempt to do ethics by philosophical abstraction and insisted that only by standing in a particular tradition can a culture acquire and maintain a shared sense of the virtues. Readers of The Christian Century will be familiar with Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s call for Christians to take as their primary task the establishment of a distinctive Christian community that speaks a language the world does not share.

Stout goes on, however, to clarify his disagreements with these critics of contemporary liberalism. Drawing in part on Richard Rorty’s recent philosophy, he concedes that the liberal tradition often erred in trying to provide itself with a universal philosophical foundation. But if one gives up the futile effort to find foundations, contend Stout and Rorty, the values of liberalism start to look pretty good.

Back in the religious wars of the 16th century, people were murdering each other in the attempt to impose a shared set of moral values. Modern liberalism arose in part when people said, in effect, "It seems we can’t agree about the nature of God or the, fully good life. Can we find enough agreement so that we can avoid killing each other and even pursue some goals we can all agree are worthwhile?" Up to a point, we have managed to succeed.

True, on some issues -- from abortion to nuclear war -- we find it impossible to agree. And even when we reach the same conclusions, we often do so from very different premises. Still, we shouldn’t forget how much we agree about: "We all agree that nuclear destruction would be bad, that Charles Manson shouldn’t be held up as a model to the young, and that torturing innocents for the fun of it would be abhorrent. Most of us agree that extending legal protection to peaceful fellow citizens who disagree with us religiously is better than starting the religious wars up again." We tend to take such agreements for granted, until we consider Lebanon, or Tehran, or Belfast, where a liberal consensus does not prevail.

Critics of contemporary liberalism like MacIntyre, Stout says, seem to suffer from "terminal wistfulness." They regret contemporary pluralism and lack of common values, but they aren’t really willing either to try to reimpose medieval society, Inquisition and all, or to pull out and join the Amish. These critics "rarely give us any clear sense of what to do about our misgivings aside from yearning pensively for conditions we are either unwilling or unable to bring about."

Let us not entertain fantasies of withdrawal from modern society, Stout urges. Let us keep talking, try to learn from each other, and recognize that no ethical tradition represents the final answer or the universal standard, but that the language of contemporary liberal values may remain, for us, the best starting point for living together peaceably enough to keep that conversation going.

No one defends such a viewpoint better than Stout. This book manifests not only his characteristic clarity but also a generosity that puts other writers in the best possible light before he begins to criticize them. (He may even sometimes be too generous -- he rightly regrets some of the "pithy little formulae" Rorty uses to shock his readers, for instance, but I think he understates their importance for Rorty’s position.) As a Christian theologian, I am in general agreement with Stout’s analysis. Still, the book leaves me in a quandary. George Orwell once remarked that one of the problems with his prep school was that it tried to teach a boy to be at once a Christian and a social success -- which is of course impossible. I worry that Stout puts Christian theologians in a similar double bind.

If we follow Hauerwas (or George Lindbeck or John Howard Yoder) and try to teach the Christian community to speak in its own distinctive language, Stout will tell us that we do not sufficiently appreciate the virtues of modern liberalism, that we long for a communitarian ideal that we would abhor if it ever actually arrived. But if we follow Gustafson (or David Tracy or Wolfhart Pannenberg) into the general intellectual conversation of our culture, Stout may ask if we have anything distinctively Christian to say.

He wants us to speak self-consciously out of the Christian tradition in serious conversation with secular intellectuals who are, he admits, not much interested in Christianity. That doesn’t sound easy. Well, fair enough. Doing theology these days isn’t easy. Stout offers no quick solutions. But no one does a better job of defining some of the problems.

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