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  • Interpreting from the IntersticesThe Role of Justice in a Liberal Democracy—Lessons from Michael Walzer and Emmanuel Levinas

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As anyone who is familiar with more recent theological debate can attest, the appraisal of the liberal democratic tradition has undergone a radical reevaluation in the wake of Stanley Hauerwas’s and Alasdair MacIntyre’s scathing critiques. As a result of their blistering assault, religious ethicists and philosophers now find themselves operating within a discursive milieu that is almost the photo negative of the one they previously inhabited. For what has followed After Virtue and After Christendom is a situation in which compliance with liberal democratic norms is now perceived as actively inveighing against justice rather than as an integral prerequisite to its pursuit.

There are cracks, however, beginning to emerge in the MacIntyre/Hauerwas edifice. For what is becoming disputed and increasingly so among a growing chorus of religious ethicists and philosophers is whether their critical reading of liberal democracy offers the most [End Page 155] helpful or even the most biblical way to think through its own moral dimensions as well as those undergirding its relationship with justice.

It is the emergence of these criticisms that forms the basis for this essay. For the thesis that I wish to advance below is that liberal democracy offers religious ethicists and philosophers alike a moral framework and vocabulary from which it is possible to comprehend and enact the normative precepts encapsulated within a biblical understanding of justice. Accordingly, some aspects of my argument will build upon the rhetorical trajectories that have been already charted by the ethicists and philosophers I mention above.

What distinguishes my approach, however, is that I will proceed from a more focused examination of some of the ethical and political undercurrents found within contemporary Jewish thought. More specifically, I want to probe the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and the political philosophy of Michael Walzer, for I believe the juxtapositional methodology of interpretation which informs each of their perspectives is illustrative of an interstitial hermeneutic that helps further illuminate the moral compatibility between biblical and democratic accounts of justice.

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By now, MacIntyre’s and Hauerwas’s critiques of the liberal democratic tradition have been so thoroughly documented, discussed, and dissected that a review of their perspectives cannot help but have a certain pleonastic quality.

Probably the most significant and disturbing problem that MacIntyre and Hauerwas see belying the liberal democratic tradition stems from its conception of time and space, or more precisely, its lack thereof. For what they discover upon a more careful probing of its moral and epistemological underpinnings is a pursuit of transcendence not dissimilar to Gnostic metaphysics. In the case of liberalism, however, the existential encumbrances to be excised are not corporeal and carnal in nature, but historical and social. [End Page 156]

Such conditionalities, surmise liberal theorists, are so shot through with conceptual prejudices that they comprise an interpretative straight-jacket that vitiates against the kind of objectivity necessary to engage in a nonparochial process of moral and political discernment. For it is precisely this ability “to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which one is involved, from any and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularity” which MacIntyre sees as constituting “the essence of moral agency” of modern liberalism (AV 31–32). Therefore, “liberalism is successful,” maintains Hauerwas, “exactly because . . . [it] provide[s] that philosophical account of society designed to deal with” the moral and political implications such a social and historical denuding portends, namely “a system of rules that will constitute procedures for resolving disputes as they pursue their various interests.”1

However, what liberalism defines as success MacIntyre and Hauerwas see as anything but. Instead, both judge its “system of rules” to be an insidious prescription for a particularly virulent form of moral nihilism and political bankruptcy. For by stripping moral and political discourse of their historical and social referents, liberalism, ironically and tragically, eviscerates itself of the very heuristic and discursive practices necessary to make those...

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