Per Caritatem

I have been reading Eric Gregory’s excellent book, Politics & the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship.  Although I do not have time to give a full review of the book, I want to summarize and highlight some of the themes that I have found intriguing and noteworthy. First, besides chapters devoted to Augustine and modern liberalism, Arendt’s Augustine, and Augustine’s relation to the Platonists and the Stoics, Gregory devotes an entire chapter to Augustine and feminist political theory (chapter 3). Augustine, of course, was not a feminist, and his views on women have been criticized on multiple occasions.  Nonetheless, Gregory shows how his variant of Augustinian liberalism and certain emphases in feminist theory are compatible and how bringing the two into conversation offers significant advances to current socio-political theory. In particular, Gregory believes that a feminist “ethic of care” provides needed correctives to deficiencies in liberal political theory, especially those social contract theories which tend reduce politics to mere (self-serving) interests.

Gregory engages several feminist theorists; however, I shall focus on his treatment of Joan C. Tronto. Rather than dismiss liberalism as yet another failed modern project, Tronto seeks to complete and correct its shortcomings. While Tronto advocates for care as a moral ideal for citizens, she does not argue for some naïve, overly sentimentalist notion of care blind to the evils and injustices of our concrete existence. As a feminist theorist, Tronto is acutely aware of the various asymmetrical power relations constituting the body politic and how dominant groups employ “race,” class, and “gender” for oppressive purposes. Her awareness of an ongoing interplay between, as Gregory would put it, love and sin is “relevant  for Augustinian civic liberals who draw upon Christian love and keep realist observations about power and sin in full view” (167). Unlike antiliberal critics, Tronto does not disparage rights-talk and the importance of political equality, nor does she promote a political theory that flattens all diversity and otherness. Rather, her ethic of care “emphasizes the values of attachment, community, and social responsibility,” while condemning the fictive main character of liberal theories, namely, man as autonomous, detached, and (purely) rational.  Like other feminists, Tronto criticizes

this fiction in terms of a hypermasculine understanding of autonomy linked to an abstract account of freedom as sheer power to initiate action. But, for Tronto, this fiction already is premised on a false choice between autonomy and dependence within the liberal imagination. The need for care does not fit into liberal models that see only autonomy or dependence. In reality, she claims “since people are sometimes autonomous, sometimes dependent, sometimes providing care for those who are dependent, humans are best described as interdependent” (Moral Boundaries, 162).[1]

In short, Tronto brings to the fore failures in the liberal imagination, yet her solution is not to give up on liberalism as a viable political theory or condemn it as somehow inherently flawed and destined to produce nihilism. Rather, she unmasks the false dichotomies and choices liberalism creates—either pure self-interest or social responsibility—and argues for a non-naïve political theory that values cooperation, solidarity, and interdependence. In other words, she argues for an ethic of care with the potential to transform liberal thought and praxis; a care that “can help change the way we see the political world” (171). Even so, like many Augustinians, Tronto recognizes that an ethic of care can be abused, misused, and employed for unjust purposes. This should come as no surprise to Augustinian liberals, who, following the lead of the North African saint, hold no utopian views regarding political regimes, democratic or otherwise. That a rhetoric of care can be used for exploitative purposes “should not mean that liberal democracies can proceed as if care is not necessary for a political practice responsive to injustice, persons in need, and the social conditions that frustrate human flourishing” (171).

Tronto’s focus on care and creating new values for democratic citizens is consonant with Gregory’s larger project of promoting “an Augustinian ethic of citizenship for the morally ambivalent conditions of liberal democracy”(13)—an ethic which takes seriously the need to cultivate virtuous citizens whose various loves respect the dignity and difference of others.

I hope to blog more on Gregory’s insightful book in the months to come, as it has given me much food for thought.

Notes

[1] Politics and the Order of Love, 167.