- How Democracy Hurts
Imagine a resident of Hamtramck, Michigan, the predominantly Polish Catholic town adjacent to Detroit that has recently seen the arrival of a large number of Muslim immigrants. In 2003, a mosque petitioned the city council for an exemption to the town's noise ordinance in order to broadcast over loudspeakers the azan, the call to prayer. The resulting controversy attracted national attention as supporters and opponents of the azan exemption voiced their views.1 What could an academic provide to a resident of Hamtramck that might make the resident change her mind about whether to allow the azan? Explication of the history and values of the resident's community might shape her perspective, but it seems unlikely that a robust theory of democracy, justice, equality, or tolerance independent of that community's history and values would have an impact. The resident does not aspire to have the right normative theory, but to perceive the situation rightly, to judge it rightly, and to act rightly—that is, to exercise practical wisdom, phronesis. The useful assistance that the academic can provide, such as explication of history or values, aids in perceiving better, judging better, acting better. Indeed, we might conjecture that the more robust the resident's theoretical commitments, the more they distort her right perception, judgment, and action.2
Alternatives to robust theorizing have gained traction in recent years among political theorists.3 Eschewing conceptual analysis, phenomenological reflection, or critical theory in favor of "real politics," the task of the theorist becomes contributing to right perception, judgment, and action. In other words, instead of exploring the implications of some ideal theory for certain questions of politics, the political theorist would explicate exemplary cases of right perception, judgment, and action, and would describe the distortions found in other cases (a task that includes the critique of ideal theories). While this approach avoids dogmatic secularism, secularism as entailed by ideal theory, I worry that this turn to practical wisdom depends on a subtler, but no less problematic, form of secularism. My worry is not that religious beliefs are excluded because they are classed as ideal theory, but that the turn to practical wisdom is limited by its exclusion of certain theological practices, of theological virtue that complements secular virtue. In a democratic context, [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] confronted with pluralism, theological virtue may be just what is needed—and it hurts.
There are many varieties of ideal theory; what they share is a lack of accountability to political perception, judgment, and action. The motivation for such theories is the sense that we ought to be concerned with the truth of the matter rather than with what seems helpful. Philosophical reflection allows us to discern truths, perhaps encapsulated in principles of justice or equality or freedom, which then are to be implemented in our personal and social lives. Everyone would accept these principles if they had sufficient time and resources for philosophical reflection—that is the argument that would be made to the resident of Hamtramck. If this route to ideal theory is dismissed as overly rational, another presents itself: perhaps it is a certain ethos that is politically desirable, say, a democratic ethos that involves a fuzzy blend of freedom, equality, and justice, of generosity and receptivity, all secured through a refusal of rationalism. Advocates of such a position would try to convince the Hamtramck resident that whatever dogmatic position she holds, and her opponent holds, is inherently unstable; what the resident is left with when she realizes this, when presumptions to dogmatic truth dissolve, is the ethos the theorist advocates. But it is not clear that the Hamtramck resident is committed to the rigid consistency of her own position. She, like everyone, surely holds inconsistent beliefs and is not particularly troubled by this; moreover, her perceptions, judgments, and actions are motivated by a hodgepodge of commitments as well as affects of various provenances. Beliefs and affects matter for her; she is not willing to submerge them in an amorphous ethos, but she is also not interested in congealing them into a consistent system.
What our Hamtramck resident would find compelling, and what would alter...