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Two Concepts of Community or Moral Theory and Canadian Culture

  • Wesley Cragg (a1)


One of the striking characteristics of contemporary moral philosophy is the speed with which philosophers in the English-speaking world have jettisoned their reluctance to address concrete ethical problems and dilemmas and have plunged into the field of applied ethics. No less interesting is the impact that the work of some of the more noted of them has had outside of strictly philosophical circles. One need only to mention John Rawls or H. L. A. Hart to make the point. It is no longer difficult to prove that these same trends are deeply entrenched amongst Canadian philosophers. A further parallel is suggested by the fact that a Canadian philosopher, George Grant, has also had a substantial impact on recent Canadian thought. The appearance of a parallel, however, is illusory. For while applied ethics certainly has its practitioners in Canada today, and while it is widely recognized that both American and British philosophers have had a substantial and philosophically respectable impact on their respective societies, there seems widespread resistance to the idea that philosophical reflection has a role to play in the development of a distinctive understanding of Canadian society. And there is widespread scepticism in professional philosophical circles in Canada that the work of George Grant is of genuine philosophical interest, whatever his popular reputation.



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1 See, for example, Taylor, Charles, Radical Tories (Toronto: Anansi, 1982) or Schmidt, Larry, ed., George Grant in Progress (Toronto: Anansi, 1978).

2 CAUT Bulletin (April 1985), 13.

3 Grant, George, Lament for a Nation (Toronto and Montreal: McClelland and Stewart. 1965). That this book has had a substantial impact on Canadian political thought is implied by the number of printings the book had gone through.

4 Rawls, John, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory”, The Journal of Philosophy 77/9 (09 1980), 518, for example.

5 Rawls is but one example of a moral theorist who takes sides on these issues. He regards moral theory as essentially practical in its orientation, a view that is implied by his notion of reflective equilibrium. What is not clear from the treatment offered this notion, however, is whether the point of equilibrium is a cultural variable.

6 See note 1.

7 Rawls makes this claim in his “Tanner Lectures On Human Values” entitled “The Basic Liberties and Their Priority” delivered at the University of Michigan, April 1981, 17.

8 See Rawls, , “Tanner Lectures”, 17.

9 Gauthier, David, “The Social Contract as Ideology”, Philosophy and Public Affairs (Winter 1977), 130164.

10 Ibid., 139.

11 Ibid., 163.

12 John F. Kennedy's appeal to all Americans in his inaugural address to “ask not what your country can do for you: ask rather what you can do for your country” is presumably an example of the kind of patriotism Gauthier has in mind here. Where families are concerned, the sacrifices that parents have been known to make for their offspring without hope or expectation for any return would count as irrational on a Hobbist social contractarian account of social relationships.

13 For two recent discussions of Mill's analysis of the incompatibility of slavery from the perspective of a liberal view of liberty, see Robert Young, “Paternalism and Justification”, and John Kleinig, “The Ethics of Consent”, in Kai Nielsen and Steven C. Patten, eds., New Essays in Ethics and Public Policy (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary vol. 8).

14 I do not intend to imply here that there is no need for public evaluation of the moral acceptability of practices like patriotism or slavery. To the contrary, the position being sketched in this paper implies the need fora kind of social evaluation of practices, etc., or communities in ways that clash with a liberal definition of justice. The role and justification of the kind of evaluation required in communities committed to expanding the scope of individual liberty is indicated in note 31 and the passages to which that note attaches.

15 Rawls, , “The Tanner Lectures”, 3537.

16 I am not suggesting that Grant either does or would put the matter this way. However, in my view, this formulation succeeds in capturing his basic view of liberalism.

17 Rawls, , “The Tanner Lectures”, 28.

18 Dworkin, Ronald, “Liberalism”, Philosophy and Public Affairs (1982), 127.

19 Rawls, , “Tanner Lectures”, 26.

20 The practical force of a provision of the sort here being discussed was brought home to me by a conversation some time ago with a journalist who engaged me in conversation at a public policy conference. The topic was the pursuit of public office by those who wished to curtail access to abortion. It was the view of the journalist who claimed to be a liberal that such persons should be prevented by law from running for public office. At the time, I thought the view rather a parody of a sound liberal stance on the subject. I have since come to the view that, paradoxical as it may seem, the journalist in question had a sounder view of the nature of a liberal view of justice than I did.

21 See Rawls, . “Kantian Constructivism”, 540.

22 The role of memory in the enhancement of individual freedom is relevant here. For example, Gran t assigns to memory the burden of holding the door of freedom ajar. It would be interesting to compare Grant's treatment of memory with that found in Orwell's 1984 or A Canticle for Leihowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1976) or Maclntyre's After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), particularly his last chapter. For each of these authors, the ability to resist pressures to conform depends on knowledge or memory of things being done in other ways.

23 Northro p Frye is making this same point when he notes that ’while literature may have life, reality, experience, nature, or what you will for its content, the forms of literature cannot exist outside literature, the forms of poetry can be derived only from other poems, the forms of novels from other novels” (The Bush Garden [Toronto: Anansi, 1971 /): and “Milton cannot create the elegy form ex niliilo” (Fables of Identity [New York: Harcourt. Brace and World, 1963], 96).

24 A highly developed thought experiment illustrating this point is the science fiction novel by Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, already referred to in note 22 above. In this book, the author projects and explores the social impact for American civilization of a nuclear catastrophe in which virtually the whole of literature, scientific and nonscientific, is wiped out. The impact of the loss of the work of Plato and Aristotle from the collective memory of Western Europe during the Dark Ages provides an historical illustration of the same point.

25 Hare makes a similar point in Moral Thinking (Oxford: Oxford Universit y Press, 1981). 145, though the theory he is advancing in that book is utilitarianism. See also Rawls, , “Tanner Lectures”, 29.

26 Hare tackles thi s problem as well (Moral Thinking, 145). He argues that the state has grounds for intervening to save, e.g., high culture from extinction o n the grounds that it everyone was well educated Bach would be preferred to push pin by most people. However, his argument seems little more than a case of special pleading. Certainly he offers no empirical evidence to substantiate his case.

27 See Rawls, , “Kantian Constructivism”. 536.

28 The enormous effort required by a Board of Education to close a high school, or a government to terminate an on-going programme, provides an illustration of this phenomenon.

29 A case in point is the situation of the Haida people, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Queen Charlotte Islands, describe d recently by various of the media because of their efforts to regain control over developmen t on the islands. What is constantly emphasized in news stories is the corrosive impact on aboriginal cultures of modern life styles communicated largely through the medium of television, as well as the impact of modern vices like drugs and alcohol.

30 The demand for independence on the part of many francophones living in Quebec that climaxed in the Quebec referendum in the seventies, as well as the on-going demands of Canada's aboriginal peoples for self-government, provide good examples of this phenomenon.

31 We now have an extended argument that reinforces the view defended earlier in the discussion that to view communities and the things to which they give rise from a purely instrumental perspective must lead to an impoverishment of individual freedom i f widely adopted and incorporated in public policy. More important, rejecting a purely instrumental approach to the evaluation of communities and the things to which they give rise is a necessary step in ensuring the cultural conditions for the enhancement of individual liberty. This means that communities must evaluate the moral quality of the options available to them and establish priorities which ensure that a genuinely pluralistic culture will flourish.

32 A thorough and insightful study of the implications of a liberal theory of justice for educational policy is offered by Strike, Kenneth A. in Educational Policy and the Just Society (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982). Strike points out that a liberal theory of justice implies that liberal public schools ought not to transmit what liberals regard as private values. He then provides persuasive reasons for thinking that the transmission of private values is necessary if genuine education is to occur. The implication is that a public education system in a liberal state is an incoherent goal where education includes introducing students to, for example, the subjects normally associated with the humanities and the arts.

33 Strike argues that a system of education whose curriculum includes only subjects judged instrumentally meritorious will undermine many social groups likely to be exposed to the effects of this approach to education. It is also the case, he argues, that a purely instrumental approach to education will undermine liberalism itself. Strike's analysis thus implies that liberalism is self-defeating, though the object of the book is to show how an educational system would have to be shaped to render it compatible with liberalism, a goal that Strike seems to favour.

34 Even an assumption as weak as this one is questionable in light of Strike's analysis. He argues that, at the very least, a public system of education following liberal principles and policies would have to encourage all students in that system to participate actively in the cultural groups to which their parents belong. But this is to encourage students to adopt the vision of the good of their parents and thus involves taking sides on questions of value that do not fall within the public realm.

Two Concepts of Community or Moral Theory and Canadian Culture

  • Wesley Cragg (a1)


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