On the road to the common good

Wayne Parsons

This is the story of an academic coming to his senses. Wayne Parsons, here invites us to accompany him on a personal journey in which he discovers the implications of excluding Judeo-Christian reasoning from his academic work in the field of public policy. In this long essay, in parts a confession and examination of conscience, Professor Parsons sets out his fascinating long walk towards an awakening in which he sees the transformational potential of the principles and practice of the Common Good.  

On the road to the Common Good

All who are committed to the ideas promoted by Together for the Common Good (T4CG) must sincerely welcome what it is doing to show the potential of an approach to economic, social, political and other problems based on the principles of the common good. The work of T4CG, I believe, can serve to inform and enrich a conversation about what kind of country we want to become. And we really do need such a conversation as never before. If the principles which inform T4CG are not more widely understood, of course, it is unlikely that they will influence political debate or policy agendas. So anyone keen to promote the ‘common good’ and explain the core ideas must wish it all the success it deserves.  

A change of mind

And yet, having said this, I feel somewhat uncomfortable and not a little embarrassed at making the case for these principles to be better understood! The reason for this is that I have been very familiar with them since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s! I only wish I could say that I have spent my academic life trying to enable others to better understand the theory and practice of the common good and explain its relevance to public policy issues, but alas, I can’t. I have to confess, mea culpa, that I have come to realise that I was misguided in the way in which I had, until comparatively recently, largely failed to explore, appreciate and apply these principles myself.

Reading the material to be found on the T4CG website it appears that there are many roads to the common good approach, and in this piece I would like to give a brief account of part of my own journey. In this essay I cannot take you down all the lanes and by-ways taken on that journey, but I can endeavour to give an account of some the main roads which led me to realising the significance of a public philosophy grounded in the common good. It is the story of someone who always regarded it as interesting, but did not consider it important and relevant to the contemporary theory and practice of public policy.

So, what brought about a change in mind? A bang or a whimper? I suppose the latter: it was largely because I got stuck while writing a book. Nothing unusual there, of course. But I realised that it was something more than that. It felt as if the air was slowly leaking out of an inflatable [professorial] chair. I first felt this sense of deflation whilst I was busy promoting a book on policy analysis written for the Latin American market, Políticas Públicas, as a visiting professor in Mexico (Parsons, 2007). At the same time, I was also trying to get on with a new book concerned with ‘new directions’ in the theory and practice of public policy and policy analysis. In the course of writing and lecturing on this material in Mexico I began to feel less and less convinced that these ‘new directions’ I was talking and writing about offered anything new at all. I was also having serious doubts as to the validity and truth of some of the old well-trodden directions.

A dark wood

There is a great deal of interesting new research which I believe has important implications for the theory and practices of public policy: new developments in behavioural economics, the evidence based policy movement, post-positivist, critical and post-modern approaches, and the application of the sciences of complexity, and significantly, the re-discovery of the importance of virtue in various disciplines (see for example, Timpe and Boyd, 2014; Peterson and Seligman, 2004; McCloskey, 2006 and Milbank and Pabst, 2016) to name but a few of these ‘new directions’. But, like Dante at the start of the Divine Comedy, half-way through the life of the book I found myself in a dark wood. I felt like abandoning all hope! All the new directions in how to understand the policy process or how to design institutions and policy seemed only to take me in a circle. The more theory and practices had changed, the more they had stayed the same!

The world was changing at a remarkable pace in the first decade of the 21st century and I soon realised that I, and other academics like me, were actually part of the problem, for we had failed to understand how thin and shallow were the assumptions upon which we constructed our theories and models. It was not just those economists who apologised to the Queen in 2009 (see Chorfas, 2017; Parsons, 2012) who did not see it all coming; many other academics, and all those clever policy wonks and geeks, got things so badly wrong too. And we are still getting it badly wrong. It was time, I realised, to do, in all humility, some deep soul-searching and try and better understand what John Dewey had famously called ‘the public and its problems’ (Dewey, 1927). I had to swallow my own pride and confront my own folly.

A public policy cul-de-sac

Having explored a variety of new directions, I reached the conclusion that public policy as a method of problem solving in liberal democratic societies was well and truly stuck in a cul-de sac. That is to say, that was in a cul-de-sac. The famous line by Einstein, that ‘we cannot solve our problems at the same level of thinking that created them’ suggested to me that so much of the new scholarly literature in my field was doing precisely that: trying to use the same level of thinking. Little wonder that it was going round in ever diminishing circles. Being lost, and lacking a Virgil to guide me, I thought the only way out of the selva oscura was to re-trace my steps. I would have to try and figure out how I had ended up watching my long-held beliefs in the problem-solving capacities of liberal democratic policy-making going into hell in a handbasket. I felt at times as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. But as a wise old Austrian economist, Leopold Kohr (1909- 1994), had once said to me: ‘when you are standing on the edge of a cliff young man, only a fool does not step back!’ And so I began a kind of ‘back to the future’ trip in which I would try to re-imagine different lines of intellectual development that might have happened if I had taken different paths.

Back to the future

Well, I did not have a Virgil or Beatrice, but I was fortunate in finding a Vincent and an Elinor. In order to research material for the new book, I took a trip to Bloomington to attend a conference of the Workshop in Policy Analysis at Indiana University so as to get a fuller understanding of its contribution to ‘public choice theory’ (the application of economics to public policy). And it was there I realised something. Despite their commitment to the public choice approach, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom took religious ideas very seriously and understood the contribution that religion and theology have made to the design of the political, economic and social order. This engagement with religious ideas in an analytical fashion was precisely what I had never done. What impressed me was that the Ostroms (Elinor received the Nobel prize in economics in 2009) had attempted to integrate different kinds of theoretical, experimental, and empirical knowledge and information, all the better to understand the problematics of liberal democratic capitalism. It struck me that their political economy and policy analysis was so much richer because of the way it took account of the role of religion.

Mental Archaeology

As I walked around Bloomington (trying to find Hoagy Carmichael’s old family’s home) I thought long and hard about why I came to view my religious faith and knowledge as not being something that could add much value to my academic work. I had kept all that Catholic religious stuff of mine in a box labelled ‘deeply private and personal, keep out!’, and my study of public policy in another box labelled ‘academic career, do not mix with volatile Catholic materials’. On the flight back to London, I thought that I really needed to understand why I had not given any time over in my life to consider what my religious faith could bring to my understanding of public policy both in theoretical and practical terms. I realised that I had to do a bit of mental archaeology and, like a member of Time Team, dig away to expose layers of various bricks, walls and ditches of my own intellectual architecture. And this archaeology was not going to take a few months. I anticipated that it would take quite a few years. But I came to the conclusion that without taking that time out I would never know if that old stuff in the religious box could actually help me to at least see the wood for the trees.

Excavating the economic field

I decided to dig the first trench where, I suspected, I had first missed an opportunity to change direction. So my first trench was dug in the field of economics. When I was an undergraduate reading for a BSc (econ) we actually studied the history of economic thought!  So I did look at - albeit en passant - the political economy that I knew had been so influential on Catholic social teaching (CST) – the ‘Scholastics’ and people like von Ketteler and Heinrich Pesch, and Oswald Von Nell-Brunning. I cannot claim to have read, in any depth, the key encyclicals but equally I cannot plead ignorance of what they basically argued.

I suppose I should have paid a little more attention to my philosophy tutor and actually read Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments more diligently. But of course, the overwhelming bias was towards the view that economics began in 1776 with the Wealth of Nations, so ethics and all those medieval Thomist Scholastics were, well once again interesting but not really relevant for my degree. As far as I was concerned, economics began with Smith and political theory began, of course, with Machiavelli. As a student I thought the most relevant critics of contemporary capitalism were the Marxists on the one hand, and Hayek and the Austrians on the other and I was happy with Keynesian economics as a middle-way.

But in all of this, my feeling is that I would have been on the curve and not off it relative to other students and teachers at the time. What was considered relevant in economics was pretty narrow then, and is most probably even narrower today. At least then we read about the history of economic thought! And, although I was aware of Christian critiques of liberal democratic capitalism, I suppose the nearest I came to engaging with a specifically Christian perspective on economic history in my studies was R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism and his book The Acquisitive Society, but by the 1970s he was considered by my tutors as rather dated. I recall reading Cardinal Manning on political economy and the ‘social question’ (Manning, 1934); Ruskin’s Unto the Last , and looked at a fair amount of Chesterton and his ideas on ‘distributionism’ (see Ker, 2011), and found them all interesting, but none of that material would get me a good degree! So, in brief, I never felt that there was much of a connection as between my religious faith or moral philosophy and my way of understanding and explaining economic theory and policy. The nearest I came to it was reading E.F. Schumacher, but I never really followed that through in any significant way - although I did actually correspond with him regarding his book Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973). But I never picked up on his Catholic influences – I thought it was ‘Buddhist’ economics! (Although he later said that no-one would have taken him seriously if he had been more explicit about his Catholicism!)

The disconnect between political science and 'that Catholic stuff'

As far as my political science was concerned it was also the case that I did not discern any obvious connection between my faith and understanding or explaining political behaviour or how political systems worked. I was, in Harold Lasswell’s terms, just interested in politics as about who gets what, when and how. All that Catholic stuff was about how the economy and the political system ought to function, whereas I was far more concerned with how it actually worked and how it could be better designed and managed. I suppose the only point in which it did come into play was the scriptural references that liberal political thought deployed.

Indeed, Western liberalism all seemed to be based on Christianity (see for example Siedentop, 2014).  So, that was all right then! Sure, there was a tension between liberalism and Catholicism. But I took a pretty pragmatic line that, in the words of the Beatles song, ‘we can work it out’! That was what was so great about liberal democracy, after all: people can do their own thing. You show me your ‘truth’ and I’ll show you mine. You respect my ‘values’ and I’ll respect yours. Decadent and morally deficient liberal democracy just needed good old Christian salt to preserve it, and I could just be that sprinkling of Cerebos. End of problem.

No need to panic

So I felt no need to panic about the all-pervasive individualism, reductionism and relativism that framed my understanding of economic and political behaviour. And that was it. I was interested in human behaviour, as it was, not how it ought to be. I was concerned with human values, rather than human vices and virtues. Pluralist democracy, with all its muddling through and incrementalism had its failings, but I figured that it was a better guarantor of individual rights and freedoms (such as my right to live as a Christian or not to be hung drawn and quartered as a Catholic) than the kind of world envisaged by varieties of Marxists and critical theorists. The use of models of human beings as rational self-interested maximisers was admittedly a very distorted way of explaining homo-economicus, but it seemed to me to be a reasonable assumption to make in order to model that particular species and design appropriate policies to manage capitalism so as to bake a bigger cake so everyone would get a bigger slice.

My secular religion

I realised at this point in my journey through my book shelves that it was the strength of this faith in democracy as a method of solving problems and liberalism as a great engine of ‘progress’, that was much stronger than my religious faith. After all, I was registered for BSc (econ) not a BA in theology. And in many ways economics (of the Keynesian denomination) was indeed the rock on which I had built my secular religion. How did that happen? I think it was because the economics of Keynes, more than anything else, enabled me to believe that the economic problem was really quite soluble. Complicated, but with the appliance of science, and an open and tolerant pluralist democratic capitalism we could muddle through. And it meant that I could sit on a liberal fence and not have to jump either way: I chose the good old middle way. It was a kind of Goldilocks choice: not too much capitalism, not too much socialism. Experts on tap, not on top and maximum feasible participation. Just right.

Seduced by liberalism, I knew who to blame

If I had been seduced by liberalism, then I knew who was chiefly to blame: John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). In his preface to The General Theory of Employment interest and Money (1936) Keynes famously tells us that it was the result of a ‘long struggle to escape from habitual modes of thought and expression’ (Keynes,1973: xxiii).  I thought that perhaps this was also my goal: to escape from the very modes of thought and expression which had brought me into that dark wood. The General Theory is indeed a great book, and without doubt one of the most important books in the history of economics. There is much in it that I still consider definitive, but the problem was the extent to which it seemed to effectively marginalise everything else for me. It was rather like what Keynes says about the completeness of the victory of Ricardo in the 19th century, Keynes seemed to swamp other ideas and concerns.

Bloomsbury vs the Schoolmen

I knew that I had to re-visit (for the Nth time) this great labyrinth of a book to see if I had missed any turns. It was only when I reached the ‘notes’ dealing with, inter alia, mercantilism and the usury laws at the end of the book (Keynes, 1973: 351-3) that I did find a turn in the road that I might have considered more carefully.   I saw it as like a hanging thread in the fabric of the book. It is the passage where he praises the contribution of the ‘schoolmen’ and commends the Catholic Church for its critique of usury and how borrowing and lending impacts on the economy. They seemed to have got a very important thing right, but in the wrong way!

Keynes, like all of Bloomsbury, regarded Christianity as ‘the’ great enemy. Over the years I was always content to over-look this anti-Christian aspect of Keynes, but I began to feel that I had been rather over-generous. He did, after all, believe that economics was a ‘moral science’ (Parsons,1997: 2003) even if he had no time for Judeo-Christian morals per se. Perhaps, I was so forgiving because I thought that the General Theory saved me from the Scylla of Das Kapital and what I then thought was the Charybdis of Hayek and Mises.

Keynes gave me a way of thinking about economic policy and public policy in general as (in all essentials) being about technical problems and ‘management’, rather than posing the kind of problems which required knowledge of ethics or theology. This admission, on actually a very critical bit of monetary economics and policy, that a bunch of theologians had deduced such a key argument from St Thomas Aquinas puzzled me. Here was Keynes seeking to ‘rehabilitate and honour’ what he and others had long considered to be a nonsense of the Medieval Catholic Church. The laws on usury, it turns out, were the product of ‘honest intellectual effort’ by the ‘schoolmen’. He did not agree with their ‘Jesuitical’ (sic) methods, but he did agree with their conclusion, notwithstanding its theological reasoning. ‘Curious’, I thought.

Excluding Judeo-Christian reasoning from economic policy 

It was on the face of it a small enough admission, but I read it as actually a major concession to the view that one could deduce good economics and policy from ethical and theological principles. It was not all models and maths. And, furthermore, it suggested that it was possible to agree with a policy, even though one could disagree about the theoretical justification given for that policy. And that was no small admission. Well, to cut a long story very short, I pulled at that loose thread and it turned out to be an exceedingly long thread. I would not say that it led to the disintegration of the whole fabric of the book, but what it did do was suggest that it was not a nonsense to argue that sound economic analysis can be the outcome of a reasoning process which is informed by reason and religious faith.

Those couple of pages sent me off in a new direction to investigate in far more detail the work of the Scholastics. The particulars need not detain us here, but enough to say, that I emerged from that piece of mental time-travel with a sense that the ‘Angelic’ doctor was as relevant (if not more relevant) to the problematics of economic policy and public policy today as Lord Keynes. And furthermore, I returned from my travels thinking that the belief that economic problems and policy should only be considered in the context of a liberal discourse which explicitly excludes Judeo-Christian reasoning was no longer satisfactory.

The de-moralisation of political economy

In turn, of course, re-reading of the history of political economy led to a re-appraisal of the work of von Ketteler, Heinrich Pesch S. J. and Oswald Von Nell-Brunning (see Backhaus and Chaloupek, 2017).   The work of Pesch, in particular, was a great revelation (see Pesch, 2004) . And, above all, I was fascinated by the much neglected ‘civil economy’ approach which has been brilliantly explained by Bruni and Zamagni (see, for example, Bruni and Zamagni, 2007) amongst many others. The writing of Maurice Glasman (Glasman, 1996, 2015) was also a significant discovery. The volume edited by Guiesppe Gaburro on 20th century Catholic economic thought (Gaburro, 1997) and Daniel Finn’s book on the history of the relationship between Christian ethics and economics (Finn, 2013) proved invaluable guide-books as I explored these new-found lands. In the aftermath of the financial crisis I thought that some of the most perceptive work was written – albeit from different perspectives – by Christian commentators (see, for example, Booth’s edited volume, 2010).  

As I devoured this kind of literature I sadly realised that my Keynesianism had, as we say, ‘crowded out’ the work of so many economists (of both the so-called ‘free-market’ kind and those who were critical of the role of free-markets) who sought to apply their religious faith to economic theory and policy. Again, it is not the place to discuss this extensive literature, but for me it all provided a far more convincing account of the ethical dimensions of economics and economic policy than we find in the Keynesian approach. I came away from that experience with a sense of how profoundly narrow and un-balanced was the economic theory and policy that I had espoused all my academic life.

The de-moralisation of political economy by modern economics had ultimately made me see the economy in a highly mechanistic and reductionist way. I began to appreciate that by doing what Keynes and others had done (treating the Scholastics as misguided medieval God-bothering people with little to say about the real world) I had utterly discounted the fact that their approach does indeed add value to our understanding of how the real world works. But, of course, it also gives us an idea as how it ought to work! Economics, contra the orthodox view, was, I found, about ends as well as means.

Dewey's philosophy vs ancient wisdom

As I dug and scraped away through various layers of books in my study it became apparent that there was indeed a kind of source or spring which had fed and watered my secular religion from which had sprung my Keynesianism. In a word it was ‘pragmatism’ and especially the ideas of John Dewey (1859-1952) and his influence on the field of public policy and policy analysis which came to fascinate me. The Public and its Problems was a book that, along with the General Theory, I took very seriously.

Dewey’s philosophy rejected the pessimistic view that human beings were not capable of solving their problems in a rational way. Through democratic participation and learning from experience and experiment human beings could, he argued, solve their various problems. As a book it took on the kind of arguments being advanced by the likes of Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) that liberal democracy was incapable of solving the problems it faced. I agreed with Dewey’s passionate commitment to democracy as a method by which human beings could learn from the experience of policy making, rather than by the attempt to apply abstract ideas, ideologies and the ancient wisdom of Aristotle or Aquinas.

Given this belief I was, therefore, attracted to the so-called ‘policy orientation’ in the social sciences which had emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. In the ‘policy sciences’, as understood by Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) I found a plausible account of how democratic societies, despite the problematics of power relationships, could design better policies through ensuring a better use of policy-relevant knowledge. 

Overlooking the deficiencies of liberalism

Dewey and Lasswell, in short, made me think optimistically about democracy and enabled me to over-look the deficiencies of its corrosive liberalism – what Lippmann famously called the ‘acids of modernity’ (Lippmann, 1982: 51). Why?  Well, underpinning the so-called ‘policy sciences for democracy’ movement was a profound belief in a pragmatic approach to problem solving and public learning. 

This was indeed the faith that sustained me: a kind of half-baked form of pragmatism. I was convinced that human problem solving capacities involved primarily an ability to learn from practice and experimentation, rather than from the application of ‘ideologies’ or ancient moral principles. In fact, that democracy worked best when it did not have ideals or a sense of moral direction or purpose at all! I was interested in human behaviour, and the problematics of rational decision and design in conditions of uncertainty, not moral philosophy or theology. I understood the world in terms of forces and interests and how economic relationships and variables could be modelled. Human beings were understood as essentially rational actors, and problems as conditions that could be plotted and managed by the application of rational analytical technique. Little wonder that ethics and moral philosophy, much less religion or theology had much relevance for me.

The limitations of pragmatism

I slowly began to assemble the fragments I had dug up in my attempt to understand why I had ended up in my dark wood. It dawned on me the extent to which I had really been influenced by the pragmatism of Dewey and Lasswell (which was in turn enhanced by a good measure of Karl Popper).   The field of public policy and policy analysis as it was to develop in the decades after the Second World War was very much grounded in Dewey’s rejection of turning to the ideas of the past to guide us in the present.

This pragmatism championed by Dewey had great faith in the capacities of citizens in a democracy to learn from their problems solving activities. For Dewey the answer to the problems of democracy was usually just more democracy. Thus the problem for the founding fathers of the policy sciences was how could this learning from public problems be enhanced. For Lasswell and others, it turned upon remedying the deficiencies of decision makers and citizens. In short, it was a problem of designing policy making so that both citizens and policy makers could make best use of policy relevant knowledge.

The problematics of public policy were more about the issues of instrumental knowledge and bounded rationality, cognition and calculation than wisdom or prudence. It was about power and interests, strategy and management and evaluation rather than ethics. And, of course, the clarification of values rather than the virtues and vices in play.

I confess it was this form of pragmatism to which I broadly (but nevertheless critically) adhered. It was a pragmatism which saw public policy as (at best) the outcome of science, art and craft, and which was more about understanding the dynamics of power relationships, rather than the virtue of policy makers and citizens.

The deeper I dug the more did I find big lumps of that pragmatism in all the layers of my academic life. It was clear that I needed to retrace how and why I had come to accept, in broad terms, Dewey’s understanding of The Public and Its Problems. It became apparent that the difficulties I had with thinking that ethical or religious principles were in any way relevant to the problems that concerned me was down to my acceptance of a key argument in Dewey: that transcendent or universal moral principles were of no use to the public and its problems. And furthermore, that any attempt to claim that they were was just plain nonsense. I had, it turned out, built the foundations of my academic career on the sands of Dewey’s claim that we discover solutions about ‘the public and its problems’ through experimentation and that it followed therefore that the policy process had no need for any perennial truths about human nature and moral behaviour.

Feeling rather naked

I needed to understand why I had become, in all essentials, an apostle of John Dewey? This involved a lot of reading and re-reading, but there was a point when I realised that I had discounted one critic of Dewey in particular, Walter Lippmann. I was familiar with his writings and I was not very sympathetic to his brand of realism and his despair over the future of liberal democracy. So, off I went to Lippmann world. Back to the America of the inter-war period and the early days of the cold war. (Lippmann, of course, was amongst the first people to use that expression ‘cold war’). And I read, and re-read, and found myself more and more sympathetic to Lippmann’s critique of Dewey.

I always thought that Dewey had won the argument with Lippmann hands-down, but I increasingly thought that I had not fully understood Lippmann’s position. At one stage I found myself singing that song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, from Pal Joey, ‘Zip’ - the line which goes: ‘Zip! Walter Lippmann wasn't brilliant today’! In the musical it is sung as a striptease number! Not to get too psychoanalytical about it, but perhaps that suggested itself to me because I felt I was undergoing a kind of an intellectual striptease!   It was me, I mused, that wasn’t brilliant today, as a walked back from giving a lecture on cost-benefit analysis or something similar, because I was standing there feeling rather naked as I was no longer covering myself with my well-worn and by now very thread-bare Deweyian pragmatism.

More and more choice

You see, I had actually accepted Dewey’s belief that the problems of democracy could be solved with more democracy. And what followed from that was that the problems of individualism could be solved by just more individualism; the problems of human dignity by just more ‘rights’ and more choice. Simple really. The challenge, as I saw it, therefore, was to enlarge democratic processes and individual freedom and widen and deepen political participation. So, nil desperandum, for human beings could solve their economic and other problems by just being open to learning from their practices and their mistakes and failures. Liberal democratic capitalism was open to that process of learning from mistakes, and that made them more successful than other political and economic systems.

In evolutionary terms, liberal democratic capitalism would simply be more adaptable and more able to learn from its mistakes. And, contra Lippmann, I agreed with Dewey that human beings in a democratic society were indeed capable of understanding the complex problems they face and were capable of designing policies to address them. Public policy in a liberal democracy was, I thought, a process of public learning (which was in fact the title of my inaugural professorial lecture!)

The crisis facing liberalism 

But, Lippmann differed on this point that was so central to my understanding of liberal democracy: for he did not believe that human beings were able to learn in the kind of way Dewey and Lasswell supposed. However, re-reading Lippman’s (1929) book entitled A Preface to Morals (Lippmann,1982) and his later volume The Public Philosophy (Lippmann, 1955) in particular, forced me to think again. What Lippmann had argued, and what I had rejected, was that the crisis facing liberalism and capitalism was fundamentally a moral crisis.

Lippmann’s argument was that the roots of the crisis he discerned in democratic civilizations were to be found in the way in which liberalism had severed its ties to the great philosophical and theological ideas which had shaped its culture and institutions. Dewey’s liberalism had cut us (and especially me) adrift from any notion that there were indeed perennial truths about the human condition. Lippmann, I think, had well discerned what the consequences of this democratic uncoupling from Judeo-Christian and ancient wisdom would be for a civilisation built on liberal pragmatism. I had long understood the ‘poverty of historicism’ (as Karl Popper had it in his critique of Marx and Freud - Popper, 1960). I think as a result of re-reading Lippmann, I began to better understand the terrible poverty of my own pragmatism.

The poverty of pragmatism

For Dewey, democracy was the great and ultimate ethical ideal of humanity. If you wanted a universal ethics, that ethic was democracy. I think it was this faith that I shared: a faith in democracy qua the ethical ideal. However, a re-reading of Lippmann’s works convinced me as to the fragility of my faith in democracy as an ethical ideal. A democracy requires a coherent moral discourse as the basis of a shared philosophy of what a good life ought to look like - not just the simple belief that democracy is itself the good life. I came away from reading Lippmann with a different take on the utility of my faith. The more I read a humanistic account of a God-free public philosophy, the more did I appreciate the importance of the belief in transcendent truths as to what a good life was all about, and how much poorer democracy became the more ‘liberal’ and Godless it became.

Religion, I realised, should not lay claim to be the sole voice of what ethical ideals should be, but it is an important voice in the public square. As a humanist he was not someone who thought too highly of religion, per se, but he did understand the importance of what theology could bring to the renewal of a public philosophy. Indeed he considered that it must make an ‘ultimate and decisive’ (Lippmann, 1955: 158) contribution to the kind of public philosophy that was vital to the future of democratic civilization. Citizens of Lippmann’s brave new world just needed to believe in the existence of a universal and perennial ‘natural law’.

The authority of natural law

Lippmann pretty much accepted Weberian disenchantment and the inevitable process whereby rational/scientific knowledge would be the only knowledge that mattered in the public square. Lippmann believed that natural law could be verified; it had no need to resort to any divine authority or reference to religious experience. I found that wholly unconvincing. At least Dewey had no interest in the divine cake, but Lippmann wanted to have that cake - minus the God of Abraham and Moses - and use it to sustain democratic life in a secular age. Lippmann, however, did not believe that democratic society had the capacity to learn from its experience, as Dewey thought, so instead he chose to argue for a public philosophy that was not grounded in a commitment to pragmatic learning, but drew its authority from the perennial wisdom, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the ‘natural law’.

A moral crisis

Lippmann was also interesting from the point of view of helping me make more sense of my Keynesianism.  The two men knew one another, and Lippmann was a vocal and influential supporter of Keynes in America. They had much in common in terms of their belief that capitalism needed saving from itself, and Lippmann thought that Keynes was the man to save capitalism. He believed in the validity of Keynesian approaches to economic policy, but he saw the crisis of liberal democracy in more ethical terms. This becomes apparent in The Public Philosophy written a few years after the death of Keynes, in the 1950s, wherein we find no reference to Keynes whatsoever. Indeed, his interest in writing about economics declined quite noticeably in the 1940s. Undoubtedly one of the reasons for this was that he saw the problems of liberal democracy as increasingly about a moral crisis rather than simply an economic crisis. On this point I found myself increasingly in agreement with Lippmann.

Bloomsbury’s arrogance

Lippmann believed that Keynes had solved the technical questions about how to manage the crisis of capitalism, but the underlying moral crisis was entirely another matter. Lippman himself was a humanist, but he still thought theology had an important contribution to the formation of a public philosophy. Keynes, and Virginia Woolf would have choked on their champagne at the very thought that religion (and especially the Christian religion) had any part whatsoever in resolving this supposed moral crisis. Keynes and his friends were absolutely horrified when someone else they admired greatly, T.S. Eliot, became a Christian and were puzzled and amused by his Christian apologetics. Eliot, who was an old Harvard classmate of Lippmann, was, in many ways, advocating a not too dissimilar view of the moral crisis of liberal democracy, except with the addition of having deep religious faith (he had, of course, a good deal of respect for Jacques Maritain whose ideas I will discuss below). I began to feel that Bloomsbury’s arrogant dismissal of Christianity and their failure to acknowledge the moral and cultural crisis which people like Eliot (and other Christian commentators in the inter-war period) had discerned was profoundly shallow. Re-reading Eliot’s Christianity and Culture (Eliot,1940) in particular revealed the extent and depth of the fault line under the edifice of my political economy.

Knowledge vs virtue

I now felt up to the challenge of exploring the road that had led me to Lasswell and my belief in the ‘policy sciences of democracy’. I was not an uncritical follower of Lasswell, but I believed that, if a democratic society was to survive, it had to ensure that those with power and citizens themselves are open to learning and open to the information and knowledge that was necessary to solve or ameliorate public problems. Power corrupts and indeed it attracts the proud and the corruptible. From Lasswell’s point of view, in a democracy knowledge was the main defence against the dark arts of politics. A well informed and analytically based policy-making process, together with a well-educated and politically engaged citizenry was the best guarantor of human progress - rather than the kind of ethical knowledge Aristotle talked about in terms of prudence, wisdom and phronesis. Democracy required cleverness not virtue in its rulers and citizens.

The trouble with this, of course, is that, in practice, knowledge is indeed power, and that the kind of analytical knowledge relevant to policy is not fairly distributed. Citizens can constantly find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of the knowledge that is in play. So it is a reasonable argument to say that in practice, policy analysis has not enhanced so much as distorted democracy. Indeed, in my experience, policy-based evidence is more the norm than evidence-based policy! But, nevertheless, if I had shared Dewey’s belief in democracy as the ethical ideal, then I also shared in Lasswell’s conception of the purpose of a rational and analytical approach to public policy: realising human dignity.

Human dignity and public policy

I had put this great purpose as the closing paragraph at the end of my textbook, and had always kicked off any course on policy analysis with this statement: ‘Today mankind has a common, though dimly seen, task which is the discovery of ways and means of realising human dignity’. The aim of the policy sciences was to advance human dignity by helping to ‘release the full value-shaping and sharing potential of a democratic commonwealth’ (Lasswell, cited in Parsons, 1995: 616). The policy orientation was, from its inception, therefore, conceived as being primarily about advancing ‘human dignity’. 

For Lasswell, the policy sciences, as a movement, had a mission to enhance the ‘dignity of man, not the superiority of one set of men.’ He passionately believed that the emphasis in the policy orientation should be ‘upon the development of knowledge pertinent to the fuller realisation of human dignity’. He anticipated that it was likely that the policy sciences would be ‘directed towards providing knowledge needed to improve the practice of democracy’ and to ‘the realisation of human dignity in theory as well as fact’. (Lasswell, 1951: 10). Lasswell proposed that advancing human dignity, was the great task for students and practitioners of public policy.

Following Lasswell, I believed that in order to advance ‘human dignity’ we have to ensure that knowledge which was relevant to the problematics of human dignity could be utilised so as to improve the practices of democracy. But as was the case for my political economy, my policy analysis also involved a very unbalanced view of what forms of knowledge were deemed relevant to ‘the ways and means of realising human dignity’. I took that knowledge to exclude the kind of knowledge that we find in the Judeo-Christian traditions or in all those dead Greeks. It turned out that I had been operating with a very incomplete sense of the knowledge which was relevant to public policy as a means of advancing ‘human dignity’.

Rediscovering 'the peasant of the Garonne'

There is that moment in the film Back to the Future where Marty McFly’s whole existence depends on getting his parents to embrace at the school dance. Looking back, I realised that I had a critical point in the space-time continuum myself. It was the night when I did not embrace Jacques Maritain at a ‘Cath-Soc social’. You see, a fellow member of the student Catholic society, in the second year of my degree, knowing of my dualism in respect of my faith and my academic studies, suggested I read some Jacques Maritain. So I read (well, skimmed through) a few books but I thought that, as I subsequently opined, and with all the confidence and arrogance of someone who had not really read the books, ‘it’s all pie in the sky’.

I admit that I was rather uncomfortable with the early Maritain and his involvement with Action Française, and so I was suspicious of his Thomism. But as I began to fret about what I actually meant by ‘human dignity’ and what all that implied for the knowledge relevant to democracy, the sign pointing to the (so called) ‘peasant of the Garonne’ came into view. And there it was: Maritain was another hanging thread, and yet another road not taken. As I reflected on what he had written on human dignity and human rights and what he had argued about the relationship between Christianity and democracy, I realised that here was yet another thread I had to pull, and another road that had to be walked. Well, this is not the place to give an account of my exploration of Maritain, nor to critique the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, or address the arguments of his various critics, but I think I can just cut to the chase at this point and mention a few salient points which I found most relevant to my consideration of ‘new directions’.

The great secret

It was through my reading of Maritain, more than anything else, that I came to a fuller understanding of the grave deficiencies of my approach to ‘the public and its problems’. Maritain gave me a deeper and fuller appreciation of Catholic social teaching as a remarkably powerful critique of the kind of liberal pragmatism that had underpinned my approach to public policy. Reading Maritain ‘s (many) books opened the door wide to the great ‘secret’ of the Catholic Church, its social teaching. I bought a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council, 2005) and off I went with a knapsack on my back!   I soon began to appreciate as I explored the Compendium, that the ‘public and its problems’ involve the capacity of human beings to experiment and learn from failure, (and I still passionately believe that!) but that human reason cut off from the faith the and truths discussed in the book, is as stupid and dangerous as a religious faith that is disengaged from reason.

If Maritain was right, and if I had read the Compendium correctly, then it was hardly surprising that liberal democracy had actually proved so very deficient in learning from all the mistakes and errors that characterise the story of so much public policy. It seemed to me at that point on my journey that the problematics of ‘human dignity’ and the process of learning how to advance it was really only fully understood when I took on board what Maritain had said about the relationship between Catholic teaching and the future of liberal democracy.

What religious tradition can bring to policy analysis

If the problematic was, in Dewey’s sense, how democracies can learn from experience and experiments and trials and errors, the question became what my faith could contribute to understanding the capacity that human beings have for learning from mistakes. Whilst writing a section in the book on the work of the great Aaron Wildavsky (whose work in policy analysis I much admire) it struck me how I had not paid too much attention to how he, as a Jew, had brought his faith to bear on his work as a policy analyst. I turned to one of his books I had never read, entitled Moses as a Political Leader (Wildavsky, 2005). I think this book was a kind of bridge over my troubled waters, for it showed what kind of contribution someone’s religious tradition can bring to the problematics of learning in public policy. I have been blessed by many Jewish friends, and over the years I have developed a deep respect for what they have taught me about charity (tzedakah) and compassion (rachamones) (Parsons, 2018; Sacks 2005). However, it was not until I read Wildavsky on Moses that something ‘clicked’ and showed me how to connect faith and an analytical approach to policy making.

In Wildavky’s discussion of Moses he reminds us that one of the prophet’s most famous qualities, was his humility. The Bible tells that he was ‘a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth’ (Numbers, 12:3). Wildavsky shows that it is his humility that enabled Moses to learn from his many mistakes, whereas the pharaoh was far too proud to learn from his errors of judgement. It was Moses’s humility that made him a great leader. In Biblical terms humility is about self-knowledge, an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, rather than obsequiousness and self-abasement. Unlike the pharaoh, Moses was not full of himself, he was full of a divine wisdom which gave him an awareness of his own fallibilities. While the pharaoh thought he was divine, Moses had experienced God and that gave him a profound humility. He made mistakes, but was wise enough to exercise humility and learn from his mistakes.


The capacity of human beings to learn from failure is, however, dependent on an essentially religious virtue: humility. It is the virtue we find so evident in the prophet Moses, and in Aquinas, and Augustine but is absent from Aristotle’s ‘great souled’ magnanimous man. The capacity of humanity to learn from mistakes and error is vital for public policy as a learning process, but it is sadly in short supply. Dewey himself saw intellectual humility as being essential to the ‘scientific attitude’ necessary for ‘the public and its problems’, so he would argue that if public policy is not based upon a ‘scientific attitude’ it will fail to solve problems, because it would fail to learn and evolve.

But humility, of course, is more than just an intellectual disposition, or an evolutionary trait: it is quintessentially a religious virtue. Humility is about the moral character of a human being. And it follows, that in a secularised democracy, humility will not be something which is valued or understood. Indeed it will be viewed as little more than what Hume described as a ‘monkish virtue’ or symptomatic of the slave morality (see Nietzsche) or born of a lack of power and weakness (see Spinoza). It is one of the virtues which will inevitably be regarded as irrelevant in a society which is not informed and guided by the example of Moses or Jesus. The idea of humility we find in the Bible and considered by Aquinas and Augustine is not about meekness or self-abasement, it is that virtue of knowing that you don’t know it all, and being open to a sense of the profound limitations of your own reasoning.

The leaven of the Gospel

What Maritain argued was that democracy could not really flourish if it lacked the ‘leaven’ of Judeo-Christian culture. (The ‘mystery of Israel’ was very important for Maritain. See Crane, 2010). Maritain argued that democratic culture would be gravely deficient without ‘Christian energies at work in the community’ (cited, Evans and Ward, 143). He understood that democracy, in order to realise its potential to advance the common good, had to cultivate ‘civic friendship’ and brotherly love. Democracy had to be inspired by the Gospel message as secular liberalism was simply not up to the task of advancing the common good. Without the leaven of the Gospel, the prospects for democratic civilisation were pretty grim. Without that yeast of the Gospel being active in a democratic society, the great danger would be that the ‘rights talk’ that he did so much to promote, would drown and shout out the Gospel responsibility talk. Without the leaven of humility liberal democracy would, in effect, be consumed by pride and its materialistic, individualistic and relativistic impulses. For pride, as Proverbs reminds us, inevitably ‘goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall!’

The arrogance of God-free politics

Reflecting on the centrality of humility in Judeo-Christian traditions, I came to see what was so very arrogant about the God-free politics of a Dewey or a Lippmann. It was a way of thinking that itself lacked the humility to recognise that there may be truths about the public and its problems that are indeed universal and perennial and which have their roots deep in the religious experience of humanity. It lacked the humility to see that this kind of transcendent knowledge, that is so esteemed in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is also relevant to the problematics of human flourishing and human dignity. Dewey understood the importance of humility, as a scientific attitude of mind, but he gravely misunderstood that democracy detached from the Judeo-Christian tradition, that he considered utterly irrelevant to public learning, is more likely to be full of pragmatic pride and arrogance than scientific humility.

In my experience, the story of public policy is almost entirely about hubris rather than humility: not least as one politician once reminded me, because success will have many fathers, but failures are always orphans! I confess that I believed that the kind of ‘open society’ proposed by Popper which evolved through trial and error learning was our best hope for liberal democratic societies. Well, the evidence in terms of the kind of public policy messes that we have created shows that we have been governed by people who are far from adept and learning from mistakes. Covering them up, yes. Learning? In all truth, I have found little evidence of human beings in ‘open societies’ learning from their mistakes in a life-time of studying public policy. From Maritain’s perspective this has been the case not least because our open societies have become increasingly closed to the Gospel message.

The consequences of de-Christianisation

This sense of the importance of the Judeo-Christian tradition we find in Maritain (in respect of humility as of the other theological and cardinal virtues) to our understanding the crisis of democracy remains profoundly relevant. Maritain brilliantly shows that democracy and Christianity have a critical relationship which we discount at our peril. Whereas Lippmann saw the crisis of democracy as about the collapse of moral order and authority, Maritain argues that it is more essentially to do with the de-Christianisation of the democratic world. The moral crisis that Lippmann believed was destroying democratic civilisation, was for Maritain, more to do with the kind of arguments that the Ostroms had found in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: that the Hebrew covenantal tradition and Christian religion were central to realising the possibilities of democratic self-government and to the capacity of human beings to flourish and govern themselves and advance the common good.

For Maritain, living in a world in which Christianity was becoming increasingly marginalised meant that the foundations of democratic life were becoming ever more fragile and vulnerable to human pride and all the other deadly sins and vices. For Maritain, the liberal or humanist conception of human nature and ‘dignity’ which excluded the transcendent was eroding and undermining the very foundations upon which a pluralist society was built. But, of course, when we talk about pride and hubris as a defining problematic of policy making in liberal societies, we are implicitly referencing the notion of sin, and that has long been deemed to be well and truly closed off from the public square in the open society. However, as Maritain well understood, human sinfulness is at the heart of the Old and New Testament. And what does a society look like when it loses a sense of sin? Well, Maritain asks us to take a good look around us! You can talk about anything you like in the open society, but it is simply not polite or acceptable to talk about sin. Maritain would say that this is inevitable in a society that is closed to the wisdom of the Bible and in which the Christian leaven is not active.

The importance of target talk

A while ago I was giving a lecture on the topic of the use/abuse of target setting in public policy. As I was giving the lecture it dawned on me that the concept of sin was deemed to be irrelevant to ‘the public and its problems’, and yet so much of public policy is all about ‘sin’, correctly understood. Sin is actually concerned with an idea at the heart of modern public policy: for is about targets. To sin is to miss the target: the word hamartia, ἁμαρτία, refers to failing or being in error, derives from a word to describe a poor throw with a spear that misses the mark. Again, in Hebrew hata or "sin" comes from the practice of archery and refers to missing the centre of a target.

I stopped myself going on about that, but looking back I should have made the point about why it is that we are SO obsessed with setting targets, and yet we consider the notion of having a ‘target’ or moral excellence to aim at in terms of the kind of life we ought to live, and the kind of virtues we should practice as somehow not relevant to ‘the public and its problems’. It is rational to use ‘targets’ and outcomes and metrics to conduct public policy, but to use targets - the virtues - in the practice of our personal lives and public policy is somehow irrational?   We require ‘telos’ and a sense of excellence in public policy, but setting out ethical targets for human existence is deemed (as it was once put to me) as ‘plain unacceptable’ in a liberal pluralistic society.

But Maritain’s point about the importance of Christianity for sustaining democratic life seemed to me increasingly pertinent to the problems confronting liberal democratic societies. A public philosophy which is open to notions of sin, vice and virtue is open to the problematics of human self-government. The ‘rights talk’ that Maritain did so much to advance, also requires the kind of ‘target talk’ we associate with human freedom as understood as freedom from the slavery of sin, self-love and materialism! The target talk of the Bible counter-balances ‘rights talk’ by showing the importance of responsibility, obligation and duty (see for example, Sacks, 2005) .

Maritain passionately believed in human rights, but at the same time he was aware that the ‘rights talk’ found in the Bible has a context in terms of sin or ‘target’ talk, and without it, liberal democracy was indeed in a perilous position. Human freedom, understood in its full Biblical context, was freedom from both injustice, but also freedom from the slavery of sin and the fear of death, and freedom from being enslaved to mammon, and to materialism, and to the power of material possessions. The materialism of liberalism and consumerism has enslaved in this sense, as well as given freedom in terms of rights and choice. And so much public policy has to deal with the problematics of these kinds of freedoms. As a society we have to realise that there are profound limitations in the capacity of the state to ‘nudge’ people to behave virtuously. Freedom involves the capacity of human beings to govern themselves. Which is why, of course, the founding fathers of the American republic wisely understood the critical role of religion in a democracy.

Maritain saw the social teaching of the Catholic Church as part of what Elinor Ostrom might have called a ‘common pool resource’ - a great tank of wisdom that can be accessed by all concerned with the dignity of the human person, justice and the common good. Democracy in a pluralist society, he believed, needs to have a common 'democratic faith’ which could help to provide the kind of convergence and unity which can actually sustain pluralism and prevent it from fragmenting, breaking-up and flying apart.

A shared common moral sense

As I was re-discovering Maritain a tragic event occurred: the murder of Joe Cox MP. I think that the essence of what Maritain believed was well expressed by Joe Cox when she said in the House of Commons on the 3rd of June 2015 that: ‘While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’

Yes, Maritain believed that we are indeed far more united and have far more in common with one another than all the obvious things that divide us. He saw this in practice when he was involved in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Members of the commission were drawn from all parts of the world and represented different religions and philosophical traditions and ideologies. And yet, despite these differences, this diverse and large group of human beings were able to agree that there were ‘universal’ principles which can guide how humanity ought to behave in respect of rights and human dignity.

Maritain believed this was so because of the existence of a natural law which is common to all humanity. It was because we have this shared common moral sense that Maritain believed we can build on this common moral language so as to facilitate dialogue and the design of ‘practical conclusions’. Speaking at a UNESCO meeting in Mexico in 1947, he argued that, despite the pluralism of diverse philosophical and ideological positions in the commission, there was:

‘a sort of common residue, a sort of unwritten common law, at the point of practical convergence of extremely different theoretical ideologies and spiritual traditions. To understand that, it is sufficient to distinguish properly between the rational justifications, inseparable from the spiritual dynamism of a philosophical doctrine or a religious faith, and the practical conclusions which, separately justified for each, are, for all, analogically common principles of action. I am fully convinced that my way of justifying the belief in the rights of man and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity, is the only one which is solidly based on truth. That does not prevent me from agreeing on these practical tenets with those who are convinced that their way of justifying them, entirely different from mine, or even opposed to mine in its theoretical dynamism, is likewise the only one that is based on truth. Assuming they both believe in the democratic charter, a Christian and a rationalist will, nevertheless, give justifications that are incompatible with each other, to which their souls, their minds and their blood are committed, and about these justifications they will fight. And God keep me from saying that it is not important to know which of the two is right! That is essentially important. They remain, however, in agreement on the practical affirmation of that charter, and they can formulate together common principles of action.’ (The Range of Reason: 180)

Without moral convergence, liberal democracy will fall apart

Liberal democracy with its culture of individualism, materialism and relativism is essentially centrifugal. Yet for a democratic civilisation to be possible it requires convergence through a discourse which can promote agreement and a shared ethos and faith in a creed such as we find expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As he put it:

‘A society of free men implies basic tenets which are at the core of its very existence. A genuine democracy implies a fundamental agreement between minds and wills on the bases of life in common; it is aware of itself and of its principles, and it must be capable of defending and promoting its own conception of social and political life: it must bear within itself a common human creed, the creed of freedom.’ (Man and the State: 109)

But, of course, the whole ethos of what Maritain termed ‘bourgeois liberalism’ is that we must be free from the imposition of a ‘common human creed’ or a shared moral telos and free from the old virtues that showed us what the good life ought to look like. But without this ‘secular democratic faith’, pluralist democracy lacks any meaningful moral compass and ethos that is vital for realising the possibilities of democracy as a form of problem solving and learning.

Maritain takes a very practical approach to the problems created by John Dewey’s pragmatism. A sense of the common good requires an agreement on the principles of what the good society ought to look like: something which pragmatists of all sorts would reject and find wholly unacceptable in a democratic society. The notion that democracy requires a public philosophy which is informed by transcendent and universal principles cuts right across the grain of post-modern, post-truth ‘selfie’ culture, but Maritain’s point is that without ‘an idea of itself and a faith in itself’ human beings are unable to prevent the inevitable disintegration of liberal democracy. That notion was understood in 1948 in respect of human rights, but it is apparently not necessary in terms of responsibilities, duties and obligations. Maritain’s point was that democracy requires a more integral ethos that encompasses both rights talk and responsibility talk.

Justice and the Common Good

In Maritain we find hope for humanity, because if:

‘the work of peace is to be prepared in the thought of men and in the consciousness of nations, it is on the condition that minds come to be deeply convinced of principles like the following: good politics is first and foremost a politics that is just.’ (The Range of Reason: 183)

And when we acknowledge that ‘good’ politics must be about justice and not just ‘rights’ we are discussing the common good and a much richer account of the dignity of the human person, because:

‘the human person is endowed with a dignity which the very good of the community presupposes and must, for its own sake, respect, and is also endowed, whether as a civic, or as a social or working person, with certain fundamental rights and fundamental obligations; the common good comes before private interests.’ (The Range of Reason: 183)

Dignity, of course, involves the notion of human rights, but this has to be understood in the context of the common good (see The Person and the Common Good: 52-53) and what he termed an ‘integral humanism’ (see de Torre, J.M., 2001) which took account of rather than excluded the religious dimension of human nature. Maritain saw the real poverty of my kind of pragmatism: the idea that experimentation and trial and error learning would somehow evolve a moral order which could prevent the disintegration of liberal democracy without needing a consensus on the practicalities of defining realising the common good.

Shared practical principles

But Maritain had a hope that, through a practical, rather than a theoretical, dogmatic or ideological approach, human beings could design a democratic charter that could provide moral principles to guide people to find a way out from the inevitable dead-end of modern liberalism. It is possible, says Maritain:

‘that men possessing quite different even opposite metaphysical or religious outlooks, can converge, not by virtue of any identity of doctrine, but by virtue of an analogical similitude in practical principles, towards the same practical conclusions, and can share in the same practical faith, provided that they revere, perhaps for quite diverse reasons, truth, intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.’ (Man and the State :111).

Our rationalisations of why we think that a moral tenet or norm, or virtue is true are less important than the fact that I (as a Christian) believe it to be the case because of the Gospel, and that another person may come to the same conclusion for very different religious or non-religious reasons. The 1948 declaration of human rights shows that it is possible to derive a set of shared universal truths by which we might understand human dignity, notwithstanding the differences human beings may have as to why they believe in the existence of such universal truths. 

Saving democracy from liberalism

Maritain believed that a secular democratic faith could indeed be grounded in and informed by the principles that we find set out in the Compendium, with respect to the dignity of the human person and its relationship to justice, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity, because they were derived from universal truths. He was confident that, although people might come to these principles via different intellectual and religious routes, CST might have a role to play in helping to develop a new public philosophy. He believed that the social teaching of the Church could help to save democracy from the liberalism that was destroying democracy as a method of policy making, and could serve to strengthen and enrich the culture of democratic civilization.

The formation of this secular democratic faith as a public philosophy involves having a national (local and global) conversation about the challenges of advancing the dignity of human beings not as mere individuals but as persons who have a capacity for moral excellence, and as persons who see freedom not simply in terms of the freedom to be themselves and exercise their rights, but also, who understand freedom in terms of freedom to love God and their neighbour and freedom from the materialism and individualism (and its narcissistic ‘selfie’ culture) that lies at the core of so many of our private and public problems.

Hence, the common good requires the development of virtue both in citizens and in those exercising power and authority. (The Rights of Man and Natural Law, 1943, 10). Without attending to moral education and moral progress, a democracy is always vulnerable and in grave danger of being corrupted and the common good threatened, eroded and destroyed. The acids of post-modernity are as active and as corrosive as Lippmann’s old acids of modernity.

Christianity no longer dominant, should be generous

For Maritain, a political discourse framed by a conversation about the common good has the potential to foster the development of a new kind public philosophy for pluralistic societies. This conversation can help to cultivate a shared or common consensus on the moral dimensions of the political and economic order and of public problems and policies. Christianity, having had such a central role in the development of modern democratic culture, is an important voice in this conversation about the common good, but it should not dominate or exclude other voices. On the contrary, its mission is to help open up the spaces in which different philosophies and religious creeds can cooperate in the task of agreeing common moral tenets and principles and shared ‘targets’ for the good life.

What I learned from reading Maritain was, above all, that democracy was in grave peril when it was no longer informed by a shared moral language. I think that it took this journey to the principles which inform Together for the Common Good for me to realise that ethics are important, if not infinitely more important to good and better policy-making than intelligence or cleverness. An ‘evidence based public policy’ also requires an ‘ethics based public policy’. I came to believe that the more a society excludes and marginalises the Judeo-Christian traditions, the less it will be tethered to moral law and to virtue, and so the more vulnerable democracy will inevitably become.

The road to Together for the Common Good

Finding my way clear of that dark wood, how did I come to view T4CG in the light of Maritain’s approach?  T4CG, I believe, is an inspiring example of how a divergent group of people can understand how in practical terms, the common good can provide a way of facilitating a convergence and a conversation in highly pluralistic societies. My journey to T4CG has convinced me that Maritain was absolutely right in thinking that the principles we find in Catholic social teaching have enormous potential to foster the kind of dialogue and ‘civic friendship’ necessary for the repair and renewal of contemporary democracies that have been so badly damaged by liberalism and its wholly inadequate account of what it means to be a human being. CST provides us with a more ‘integral’ set of principles that has much to offer by way of a new direction in public policy.

In communion, arriving from different roads

The specific role of Catholics in a conversation of this kind is to humbly break and share the teaching of the Church around a common table with others from different Christian and Jewish traditions and, of course, with those who are not people of faith or who are from other religious or non Judeo-Christian traditions. Breaking and sharing, as Maritain understood, is not about trying to dominate the discussion around that table, but being in communion with others and recognising that we can come to share our truths about the common good (in terms of means and ends) even if we have arrived at those truths by travelling down different roads.

T4CG illustrates what Maritain envisaged for the role the social teaching of the Catholic Church in the modern world. The ‘peasant of the Garonne’ would have marvelled at the growing literature and grassroots work now circulating among those digging trenches and walking together along the many roads converging towards a new politics of the common good.

© D.W.Parsons


Professor Wayne Parsons formerly held the chair in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and has also held visiting professorial appointments at several institutions, including Vienna University (Institut für Politikwissenschaft) and the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociale, Mexico and most recently Cardiff University. He now works as an independent scholar. Amongst his publications are The Political Economy of British Regional Policy, The Power of the Financial Press : Journalism and Economic Opinion in Britain and America, Keynes and the Quest for a Moral Science, and is widely known as the author of Public Policy: An introduction to the Theory and Practice of Policy Analysis which has also been published in many foreign language editions. He has contributed to a wide range of edited volumes and academic journals. He is currently editor of a series of books for Edward Elgar publishing: ‘New Horizons in Public Policy.’ Now that he finally can see the wood for the trees, he hopes that Redesigning Public Policy: New Directions in Theory and Practice will soon be with his patient publisher.


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