The Central Tradition—Its Value and Limits

  • Robert P. George


Alasdair MacIntyre has defined a ‘tradition’ of thought and enquiry regarding justice and political morality as

an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.1


Moral Goodness Public Morality Human Good Political Morality Religious Liberty 
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  1. 2.
    Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). Writing from the perspective of a forceful critic of this tradition, it is plain that Berlin does not mean to confer some mark of moral approval upon it by describing it as ‘central’. And, while I am considerably more sympathetic to this tradition, I do not make the claim— which would, in any event, be merely tendentious—that this tradition is today more ‘central’ to Western legal and political institutions than is the tradition of liberalism; hence, I referred to in the Introduction to Making Men Moral as the central pre-liberal tradition in the West. Nevertheless, liberalism has not simply displaced this tradition. The situation is too complicated to be summed up so neatly. Our institutions are, I think, informed by elements of both traditions, coexisting sometimes in harmony and other times in varying degrees of tension.Google Scholar
  2. 34.
    See Joel Feinberg, Harmless Wrongdoing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 341–2. For a critique of Feinberg’s reading of Aquinas on this point,Google Scholar
  3. see Robert P. George, ‘Moralistic Liberalism and Legal Moralism’ Michigan Law Review, 88 (1990), 1415–29, at 1421–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 46.
    See William A. Galston, Liberal Purposes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 283–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 49.
    See John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 88–9.Google Scholar
  6. 50.
    or a proper understanding of this doctrine, see W. W. Fortenbaugh, ‘Aristotle on Slaves and Women’, in J. Barnes, M. Schofield, and R. Sorabji (eds.), Articles on Aristotle, ii (London: Duckworth, 1975). Also seeGoogle Scholar
  7. Daniel N. Robinson’s exceptionally valuable analysis in Aristotle’s Psychology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989). It is worth noting here that Professor Robinson, whose penetrating and meticulous scholarship I greatly admire, has proposed an interpretation of Aristotle’s eudaimonism that goes far toward the sort of pluralistic perfectionism that I myself defend. Interpreted in this way, I find Aristotle’s practical philosophy considerably less objectionable. As Professor Robinson points out, however, there are certain ‘unavoidable differences in the interpretation of Aristotle’s subtle and sometimes inconsistent treatises’ (ibid., p. xi).Google Scholar

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© Robert P. George 2008

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  • Robert P. George

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