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Communitarians, Liberals, and Other Enemies of Community and Liberty

Scaling Back the Enlightenment

I remember a time when the terms “community” and “virtue” had almost disappeared from philosophical discourse.  Working on a doctorate in philosophy at Washington University in the mid-60’s, I took a seminar in ethics from Prof. Herbert Spiegelberg, who had written the definitive history of phenomenology.  One day, he observed that philosophers no longer even spoke of virtue.  He was not entirely right, because Catholic universities, where Thomism was strong, still explored the meaning of virtue.  But elsewhere, in Anglo-American as well as in Continental philosophy, the language of virtue had entirely disappeared.  Spiegelberg had no view on the matter—he merely mentioned it as a curiosity.  

Moral virtue had vanished because Enlightenment liberalism had come to dominate the Western intellectual classes.  The ethics of liberalism was either utilitarian or Kantian, explicitly rejecting the traditional moral conception of virtue.  I myself (I am ashamed to say) was a Kantian at the time and had no idea what Spiegelberg meant when he spoke of virtue.  It was only years later that I came to see how serious the matter was.  By rejecting virtue, the liberal tradition was not merely substituting one ethic for another but—as astonishing as this might sound—rejecting morality altogether.

Morality, as traditionally conceived, supposes,...

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