Political Theory (Loosely Interpreted): July 2007 Archives

As I was posting my latest post in my Christianity and Politics series at the conservative philosophy blog Right Reason, I thought it might be nice to put together a post here linking to all the posts in the series. I will update this post as I add posts there. Posts 7 and 8 are tentatively titled, and I may even restructure what I hope to cover in remaining posts.

1. Introduction: Christian and Politics (Guest Blogging)
2. Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities
3. Augustine on Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries
4. Augustine on Civil Government: Authority
5. Augustine on Civil Government: The City of God and Compromise
6. Christian Political Political Participation
7. Religious Motivations in Politics
8. Religion and the First Amendment

My final Augustine post is up at Right Reason, Augustine on Civil Government: The City of God and Compromise. The foundation is now laid for me to apply these general principles in a contemporary setting in my next post.
The next post in my series at Right Reason is up, entitled Augustine on Civil Government: Authority. This post moves a little more into socio-political issues. The next post will be my last on Augustine's own views, finally getting to the main question of Christians and civil government, and then I'll move on to a contemporary focus and how I'd extend the basic Augustinian view to the sitution of an evangelical Christian in the United States today (i.e. my own case).

My second post on Augustine and Civil Government is up at Right Reason. It's entitled Augustine and Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries, for lack of a better name. It looks at two more background issues, one related to divine governance and the other on the subject of what kind of collection of people counts as "a people", both of which will be relevant for his more concentrated treatment of the primary subject I'm interested in, which is how Christians should relate to civil government. 

My next post in the series on religion and politics is up at Right Reason. It's called Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities, and it provides some of the background on Augustine's general views before I launch into his direct treatment of the issues I'm going to focus on.

In two previous posts, I first presented an account of deontological ethics in which it is sometimes ok to go against moral principles in order to previous seriously grave consequences. Moral principles are not all absolutes. Many of them have thresholds, and if the consequences are bad enough the principle is no longer in effect. I then argued that this kind of deontological view allows a pro-life voter to vote for a pro-choice candidate who is not as bad (to a pro-lifer) than a more strongly pro-choice candidate (and who is better in the voter's mind on other issues).

Now I want to apply the same kind of reasoning to a situation within the Republican primary. A commenter on this post said the following:

Actually, it is NOT the federal government's purpose to protect our life, liberty, and property. The federal govt's job is much narrower than that, and is spelled out clearly in Article 1, Sec 8, for anyone who can read. If you insist on giving the feds more powers than those granted by the Constitution, you promote lawlessness and open up to the Congress and Executive a boundless field of power, no longer subject to definition.

The Bill of Rights doesn't say, "Congress shall make laws protecting our freedom of speech" (for example.) No, rather it's a negative, "Congress shall make no law..." Congress is prohibited from infringing on our rights. The Constitution should be viewed as a restrictive document, defining and restraining federal power.

The only crimes Congress has a right to punish are piracy, counterfeiting, and treason. Murder, jaywalking, rape, embezzling do not fall under federal jurisdiction, therefore may not be punished by the feds. Abortion is murder. But even if abortion were "healthcare" it would still be without federal jurisdiction, as healthcare is not listed among the enumerated powers.

To insist that the feds must prosecute abortionists is to trash the whole Constitution in letter and spirit. If we amend the Constitution to prohibit abortion (in order to restrain the out of control courts) then we are also putting the nail in the coffin of federalism, and altering the spirit of the Constitution.

Ron Paul is the most principled and consistent opponent of abortion in DC today! He is principled rather than pragmatic; ends do not justify means.

One issue is the original meaning/intent of the Constitution as opposed to all that's been added in how courts have interpreted the Constitution and how the government now functions as a result. The U.S. Constitution does give a very narrow purpose for Congress's role. But two things might be said for rejecting such a narrow view today, and neither involves the idea of a living Constitution that typifies judicial liberalism.

Does the Constitution set up the judiciary branch to interpret the law and the Constitution? The Constitution never speaks of judicial review (although the Federalist Papers do). The Supreme Court is never given any task at all in the Constitution itself, although it is said to have power extending to all cases in law and equity that arise under the Constitution. But power to do what?

A few days ago I posted about the differences between deontological and consequentialist views in ethics. Consequentialists think consequences are all that matters in terms of evaluating the moral status of an action. Deontologists think other factors can sometimes trump consequences, and thus you'll end up with situations when doing the right thing requires doing something that doesn't lead to the best consequences.

My main point in the post was to defend a moderate deontological position in one respect. Absolutists think the moral principles that are more important than consequences are always more important than the consequences. In other words, absolutists hold that deontological moral principles always apply, and consequences are irrelevant. A moderate deontologist in this respect will argue that deontological principles are not always absolute in that sense. Sometimes consequences will be so much more important that the principle doesn't truimp the consequences in that case. These deontological principles will then have a threshold. If the consequences are serious enough that they surpass the threshold, then the principle no longer holds for that action. If they are below that threshold, then they hold.

An example of how this works comes from Plato. It's usually wrong to steal, and if you borrow something it's usually immoral to refuse to return it. But what if you borrow your friend's sword, and your friend returns to you asking for the sword after you've discovered that your friend intends to use it to commit a great evil? Plato argues that it would be wrong to return the sword, even though normally you ought to do so. The moderate deontologist explains this in terms of this particular action being above the threshold for the immorality of stealing (or more precisely of refusing to return borrowed possesions).

In the rest of this post, I'd like to apply this line of thought to the first case I presented at the outset of my previous post. I want to say that in those cases a deontologist can say what I want to say without being a consequentialist. The first case was a pro-life voter who shudders at pulling the lever for someone as pro-choice as Rudy Giuliani, even if the consequence of pro-lifers taking such an attitude is that the even more pro-choice Hillary Clinton would be guaranteed to become the next president. Two things matter here. One is that Rudy Giuliani really is preferable to Hillary Clinton according to pro-life criteria, even if both are much closer to the not preferred end of the spectrum. The second is that the moral principles at stake here are not absolutes, and in certain situations above the threshold the principles no longer apply.

As a fiscal conservative with federalist tendencies, Giuliani doesn't think the federal government is the place to further such an agenda. He didn't even further it at the local level when he was mayor of New York City. He simply retained the status quo. Hillary Clinton would much more militantly pursue a pro-choice regime.

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