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Narrowly-Defined Religion

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Here's an interesting analysis by D.A. Carson of three recent cases of what he calls the intolerence of tolerance that happened after his book on the subject came out: the Chick fil-A ban issue, a case of a liberal seminary trying to discipline a very respected faculty member for including a theologically-traditional book on homosexuality in the curriculum, and the HHS contraception mandate.

I'm not sure I have anything interesting to say about the first two cases he discusses that hasn't already been said ad nauseam. But he says something very interesting about the third case he discusses, the HHS mandate.
If Carson is right in his analysis of the HSS mandate, the government is willing to allow a lot of exceptions to the HHS mandate that have nothing to do with religious opposition to contraception or drugs with unintended abortifacient effects. But they won't allow a religious exception to this mandate on either of those two grounds. And they're arguing not that there should be no freedom of religion as an exception to government mandates nor that the drugs in question do not have an abortifacient effect (as some do argue). Instead, they argue that we should take taking 'religion' narrowly to include things like public gatherings for worship but not to include things like views on ethics.

What strikes me as extremely interesting about that is that would raise some serious questions about a lot of fairly common practices of excluding religion or seeking to exclude religion from the public sphere. If religion has to do with corporate gatherings of worship but not individual beliefs, then a lone science teacher who wants to include some discussion of philosophical arguments about design in a science classroom is not engaging in religion. I would have thought that patently obvious, but courts seem not to agree. The interesting question here is whether the Obama Administration's view of religion with respect to the HHS mandate can be made consistent with that practice of excluding long-standing philosophical discussions from science classrooms on the ground that such philosophical discussions are religion. They are not, on any sane analysis. They are philosophy. But that should be so much clearer if other philosophical views such as ethical views are not religion. Metaphysics surely is not either. If it is, I'd like to see the argument why one and not the other should count as religion or why we should have different standards for what counts as religion in the two cases.

Another place religion is often excluded is in the contention among many on the left that it's immoral for voters to decide who they should vote for or which policies to prefer if their reasons are based on their religious views (or politicians to decide which policies to support based on their own or their constituents' views). The same inconsistency would apply if the government's position on HHS is correct. If someone opposes abortion for purely religious reasons (which I think is true of some but certainly not all and probably not most pro-lifers), then it's not religion according to this approach, and those who resist anyone's attempt to vote pro-life on such grounds as thoroughly immoral cannot do so consistently with claiming that Wheaton College's resistance to the HHS mandate is not religion. This isn't even two different branches of philosophy, as the above example of metaphysics and ethics is. Here we have two examples of not just ethical views but of the very same ethical view, so there's no arguing that one case is religion and the other not. We'd have to argue that different standards for what counts as religion should apply in the two different cases, and I have no idea how that argument would go.

So assuming Carson is right on how the government is pursuing these cases (and I admit to not looking into them as carefully as he has), those who want to do either of the things I've pointed to have a real problem on their hands if they also want to defend the enforcement of the HHS mandate in these cases in the way the government seems to be doing it. I'm not sure how a consistent approach to all these questions can end up agreeing with the Obama Administration on this case that these ethical beliefs are not religion while still opposing the two things I've identified as religion.

The Los Angeles Times has an editorial up about the upcoming Supreme Court case that will revisit affirmative action. It argues several things, but one claim it makes strikes me as wrong. It points out that the Supreme Court has affirmed affirmative action as constitutional in a limited way, by saying:

1. Outright quotas, which reserve special spots for one group and only that group, violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
2. Less absolute ways of giving preference to under-represented groups pass constitutional muster, provided they have the right justification and are narrowly-tailored to meet that justification.
3. The right justification is the compelling state interest of increasing diversity, not reparations for past maltreatment, overcoming the persistent lingering effects of past maltreatment, or counterbalancing for any current discrimination.

This is right as far as it goes, but I think the editorial's way of framing what Justice O'Connor's framework allows and doesn't allow as justifications is not quite right, because it doesn't take into account one of the most important recent diversity arguments, which brings together diversity with some of the other considerations. Here is how the editorial separates the justifications:

One of the most persuasive arguments for some racial preferences is that the underrepresentation of African Americans in the ranks of the highest-achieving college applicants is inseparable from this country's legacy of racial discrimination. Far from offending the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws, such policies are consistent with that amendment's paramount objective of overcoming the effects of slavery.

The problem is that, beginning with the court's 1978 decision in the Bakke case from California, affirmative action has been based on a different rationale: that including students from different backgrounds enhances everyone's educational experience. That "diversity" justification, which looms large in the administration's brief, is valid as far as it goes. But it gives insufficient weight to the persistent racial disparities in income and education that continue to put minority applicants at a disadvantage.

The most significant development in the affirmative action discussion since the 2003 Supreme Court decisions is Elizabeth Anderson's work on integration, most supremely in her 2010 book The Imperative of Integration, which I consider a game-changer both in the moral debate about affirmative action and in how the legal issue of the diversity justification can fit together with the argument of the first paragraph I quoted above.

Anderson argues for a diversity justification that doesn't sound much like diversity simply enhancing the educational experience. What she argues is that increased interaction across racial lines is in fact the best way to overcome the effects of slavery, because the most entrenched structures that continue disparate racial effects stem from forces that are shown to diminish when there is more racial interaction, particularly at more intimate social levels, and one of the best ways to foster such increased social interaction is to get better representation at formative social institutions like schools, including dormitory housing assignments. Increased integration for the sake of better serving the educational purpose of these institutions is in fact what the Supreme Court's diversity justification allows for as a motive, and it doesn't limit itself to classroom experience. But Anderson argues that it is that very increased diversity and systematically more social interaction between races that will lead to the effects the first paragraph quoted above says should be the real justification for affirmative action.

So we can no longer say that these are separate issues. It's not that there are these separate justifications for affirmative action, and one justification is deemed by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional, while the other, less-convincing, one is deemed constitutional. What Anderson has argued, rightly in my view, is that the one the Los Angeles Times editorial says is less convincing (but that the Supreme Court has endorsed) actually does meet the purposes of the first one that they find more convincing (but that the Supreme Court precludes). And it strikes me that this is the best and most convincing reason for wanting to increase diversity and promote higher levels of integration at the college and university level.

What strikes me as the most important countervailing argument is not the legal question of the 14th Amendment, as the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito seem to think. The 14th Amendment was crafted by people who had no problem with interracial marriage bans, so an original-intent justification won't work to ban affirmative action. Perhaps an original public meaning argument would, but 14th-Amendment jurisprudence has long accepted at least some cases where other considerations trump equal protection. The standard it has to meet varies for different groups, but discrimination of various sorts can be morally and legally justified in certain settings, provided the right criteria are met. The question is whether the diversity rationale or some other rationale can be strong enough to justify giving some (but not absolute) preference for having a more integrated incoming class in a university or college.

But there's another question that gets much less attention, and that's how that integration or diversity gets achieved. The 1978 Supreme Court case ruled out absolute quotas, because they reserved spots for specific under-represented groups no matter what. So even if the only applicants were grossly underqualified and would fail out in one semester, they couldn't give those spots to others. That's been recognized by the Supreme Court since 1978 to be too far. The 2003 cases established another way that the methodology can go awry. The University of Michigan's undergraduate admission program assigned specific numerical values to different under-represented groups, and there was a certain percentage increase or decrease in the numerical value assigned to those candidates for admission because of their demographic. That's not as absolute as reserving spots for certain groups and never giving them to anyone else, but it was too absolute for Justices O'Connor and Breyer, who joined the more conservative contingent on that case (whereas they joined the more liberal contingent on the law school case that established the diversity rationale as constitutional). So both those methods went too far, according to enough votes on the Supreme Court to get it established as precedent.

What I wish would get more attention is another matter of what might go too far. Assuming it's perfectly fine to want to increase the number of representatives of an under-represented group, one way to go too far in bringing them in is to bring in people who will be unable to do the college-level work expected of them at an institute of higher learning. It was easy for me to see the disvalue in students unable to do college-level work when I tutored for the Syracuse University football team. Some of the team members I tutored needed some extra help but could do fine with that help. (One in particular was a stellar student.) But a few really had either very low ability or severe under-preparation and needed to be at a community college. There's a low enough retention rate on major athletic programs that admissions offices need to do a better job at resisting some of the candidates team coaches try to bring in.

Why can't the same true of affirmative action admissions? So even if race-consciousness is an important consideration in college admissions, many of the arguments against affirmative action would still have some moral force in leading admissions offices to be more careful in who they give a leg up to on their diversity justification. It seems too quota-like if they're just trying to achieve a certain percentage (which I'm sure they are -- the numbers bear that out, as Justice Thomas' dissent to the 2003 cases substantiated). Not being absolute makes it not an absolute quota. But not being absolute doesn't make it not a non-absolute quota. If they have a goal of a certain percentage, and they try to achieve it by bring in candidates who really aren't best served by being there, then they're morally failing, even if they have some wiggle room and aren't reserving an absolute number of spots for certain groups. It seems to me that this is what is in fact going on in most university and college affirmative action programs, and I don't think it serves the groups it's aiming to help. The populations who are under-prepared are not best served by bringing them to institutions they're not prepared for. They're best served by programs that help them before they get to college, as states where affirmative action has been outlawed have been able to do in order to do a back-door kind of affirmative action to get their quota goals met without allowing admissions to be race-conscious in any overt way.

Also, there's the issue of blindness to important diversity issues while focusing only on mere racial assignment. The important concern should be getting more integration with populations who really have barriers to integration. If you look at race and ignore other factors, then the children of immigrants and middle-class under-represented populations tend to get the benefit of those policies, when the most needy non-immigrant descendants of American slaves are not getting the help they need to achieve and get accepted to higher-learning institutions. Even when affirmative action helps the individuals it's intended to help, which I've already argued is not always the case, it's not usually helping those who most need it. Specifically targeting it to help them won't help them either. It's the other programs that help them earlier that really need the most effort. This is indeed something that even Justice Thomas, one of the strongest opponents of affirmative action on the Supreme Court, would be delighted to support. A key component of his resistance to affirmative action is recognizing how little it does to help the people who most need help and how much it might in fact harm some of them. There seems to me to be something right about that, and affirmative action simply isn't the answer to that problem.

So what would I conclude about all this? I do think an integrative purpose for some race-awareness in admissions can be perfectly fine and compatible with the equal protection concern of the 14th Amendment. I also think those who engage in such admissions policies need to be really careful that they're doing it in a way that achieves that goal well, and I suspect most of them do not. I also think what colleges and universities do with them once they arrive matters significantly, and it's important that they not foster so much of a tie among under-represented students that they form less-significant social ties with over-represented groups, as happened every single year at Brown University when I was there, because of a well-meaning program that happened before the bulk of other students arrived that allowed minority and international students to form social ties that lasted them their entire four-year Brown experience in ways that, for many, led them not to form as many ties with other groups. (This can happen in non-racial ways too. The evangelical Christian groups can lead evangelical students to do that.)

There was a legitimate purpose for such things. Consolidation and solidarity can provide those with similar experiences to unite over them and realize that they are not alone in their experiences. Community within an identity group can be a very good thing. Nonetheless, integration (particularly a kind of social integration that doesn't ignore difference but allows different people to recognize and understand their differences) is the best means to overcoming racial problems, and I think those who use the diversity justification for affirmative action have a moral obligation to ensure that they actually foster integration rather than fostering segregation once the under-represented students are there. That takes walking a fine line and being concerned about two things at once, things that seem hard to seek both together. You have to balance out various considerations. This is a more complex issue than either side usually presents it as. I'd like to see the Supreme Court recognize that when they revisit it this coming term, but I suspect we'll instead continue with two sides who each see only half the picture.

I wrote a little a couple weeks ago about the early 1960s Supreme Court cases Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett (and perhaps to a lesser degree Engel v. Vitale). I said at the time that I have two further posts planned, one on substantive issues that weren't central to the cases and another on the central questions the Court dealt with. This post is the first of those two. Here are four relatively independent observations from the oral arguments I listened to that affect the main argument to some degree but aren't very closely about the central issue. I have some more thoughts on the fundamental issue to come at some point.

More or Less Sectarian to Comment?

There's an interesting argument among the various lawyers and justices during the oral arguments for these cases, about whether it's more sectarian or less sectarian to read from the Bible without comment or with comment. One argument is that reading without comment is more like studying the Bible as literature, since it doesn't involve endorsement or criticism, whereas commenting on it expresses a viewpoint. On the other hand, some argued that simply reading it seems more like endorsement, since there's no room for critiquing anything in the text or showing room for interpreting in different ways, whereas commenting on it allows for critical discussion or demonstration of different interpretations. I suspect the two views have something different in mind for what the commenting would be like, but I thought it was an interesting debate. The two lawyers defending two different Bible-reading laws were making these opposite claims. One law explicitly disallowed comment, and the other allowed for it. But the justices seemed to disagree among themselves about which claim was more correct.

Absolute or Potentially-Conflicting Rights?

Two lawyers on the same side on the general questions disagreed about whether the Constitution is vague (in the following sense, anyway). One insisted that any particular policy (1) either is or is not an establishment of religion and (2) either is or is not a violation of someone's free exercise of religion. Another countered that whether something falls into either category comes in degrees. Justice Stewart joined in on this, also pointing out that the free exercise clause and the establishment clause are sometimes at odds with each other, presumably implying that it's the job of the Supreme Court to figure out which applies more strongly in a particular case. (This, I think, is a sign of what later came to be seen as his moderate approach as a swing voter on key cases in the more ideologically-diverse Supreme Court to come. But he comes across as a hard-line conservative in this case, given where everyone else on the Court was. I'm not sure Justices Thomas and Scalia differ from Justice Stewart on these questions very much.)

The lawyer for the Unitarians who were suing the school, on the other hand, refused to call these prohibitions absolute but thought both clauses are as close to absolute as possible. He allows for some cases to be so insignificantly establishing or so insignificantly diminishing of free exercise that they're not worth enforcing. For example, he says this of "In God we trust" on coins, which he doesn't think anyone would have standing to sue about. But he also insisted that it isn't a genuine violation in such cases. It's not an infringement of a right, on his   view, unless it's enforceable in court. So that's how he gets the near-absolute. Smaller violations are defined away as not violations. Such is the magic of legal positivism.

He admitted to three examples to show that he's not strictly an absolutist on this. Military and prison chaplaincies are one example. We infringe on rights to free expression of religion to remove someone from their religious outlet without providing an alternative, so the clear establishment in chaplaincies is allowed despite being an establishment of religion. The other issue has to do with taxation, perhaps tax exceptions for religious institutions, but I didn't get a good sense of the argument there. It might have something to do with religions being infringed in their free expression if some of their money is taken for government use, and that's why it's ok for governments to establish them in some sense by exempting them from taxes. I find the latter case much less convincing as an establishment, but I'm not sure what it is if the argument is something else.

I received an email with the title, "How You Can Tell Obama is Not a Socialist". The basic argument is that President Obama didn't implement full-blown government ownership of the banks and industries relevant to the economic problems that it has been calling a crisis. A true socialist, so goes the argument, would have seized the opportunity to, you know, implement socialism or something. A few instances of the government seizing control of something that's belonging to the private sector, trying to control your media appearances, and painting the opposition media as illegitimate nevertheless don't amount to taking over industry and the media entirely. So President Obama isn't really a socialist.

There's certainly something to the argument in this email, but it's not as straightforward as that, and there are ways that I think it's fair to describe President Obama's views as socialist.

1. A committed socialist might think we should engage pragmatically in incremental steps to reach an eventual socialist goal. If President Obama has a socialist theory of justice (as I think he does) and a pragmatic and incrementalist approach to realizing it (as I also think he does), then he's picking his battles so he can do as much as he can to move in that direction without trying to accomplish too much in a way that will end up just frustrating his final goals too much. So this at most shows that he's at most a pragmatic, incrementalist socialist. But hardly anyone who is informed and honest is claiming that he's more than that, and lots of people are claiming exactly that.

2. There are also distinguishable components of socialism. President Obama might have a socialist theory of justice in terms of what counts as a just, equal world without having a socialist view of who should own property or the means of production. I'm not sure what his view is about the ideal government and ownership of the means of production. So I don't know if he's a socialist in that sense, although at most he'd be a pragmatist, incrementalist socialist about such matters. But he could be completely a capitalist about those issues and be a socialist about justice in thinking there's a moral imperative to equalize pay and benefits of employees to a point where complete equalization is an eventual goal. That's a socialist theory of justice, and the way he uses the term 'just' makes the most sense if he thinks merely unfair or unequal distribution is unjust (as opposed to saying that it's unjust to implement policies or practices that ensure such unequal distribution, which a much greater number of people would agree with). Since he does seem, to my mind, to hold such a view, I do think he's working from a socialist theory of justice.

Surely there's a sense in which Obama isn't a socialist, but there's also a sense in which he arguably might well be.

Peter Ludlow on Wikileaks

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Philosopher Peter Ludlow presents the motivation behind Wikileaks to show that ways to resist it won't work, because they assume things that aren't true about why people are doing this. It's basically absolutism about the availability of information. The principle is that if there's information, then we should all have access to it. It's not remotely about calling people toward being more accountable or trying to promote a particular political agenda (aside from the absolutism about freedom of information, anyway, which is a political agenda).

The argument reminds me an awful lot of the kind of mindset Michael Crichton was arguing against with Jurassic Park. It's absolutism about the dissemination of information, without regard to any moral principles about whether it's good to do so or even wrong to do so in particular cases. In that way, it's highly parallel to those who pursue scientific research merely because they can and regardless of any of the ethical objections to doing so.

Crusade Colonies?

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When European Crusaders retook Jerusalem and some of its surrounding cities during the First Crusade, they had intended to restore it to Byzantine hands, but the Byzantine emperor had betrayed them at the last minute, and that led to the Europeans setting up their own states in these cities. Rodney Stark calls these the Crusader kingdoms in God's Battalions, and on one use of the term "colony" it does seem appropriate to call these European colonies. But he points out that there are two different ways people use the terms "colony" or "colonial":

a. There's what academics often mean, which involves the colonizer economically taking advantage of the colonized or forcing them to convert to their religion
b. Then there's what most people mean, including some historians who regularly refer to the Crusade kingdoms (the political structures set up in Jerusalem and nearby by the crusaders when they overthrew the Muslim colonizers), which is simply one group of people setting up camp in another location, without thereby implying anything like definition a.

The Crusade kingdoms in fact couldn't fit definition b, according to Stark, because (1) the flow of money and resources went there other way (the Crusades were expensive, and all the money to operate the Crusader kingdoms came from taxes paid by Europeans to maintain the European presence in that religion and (2) they didn't force conversions or even treat non-Christians as second-class citizens the way their Muslim predecessor colonists had. If you do want to count them as colonists in the bad sense, then they're just the successor colonists to the Turkish colonists. Those who criticize the Crusades as part of European colonialism rarely apply the same reasoning to the Muslim conquerings that the European Crusades were a response to.

Stark is right so far as all that goes, I think, but he leaves out one crucial sense in which most academics will use the term "colonialism" that may well apply, and that's cultural or social colonizing. One culture is ruling over another and dominates. You might call it cultural imperialism. That certainly was true of the Crusader kingdoms. They allowed Jews, Muslims, and others to remain and practice their religions freely, for the most part anyway, but they ran things in a European feudal way, and the socio-cultural, including religious, perspective of the Europeans certainly dominated.

I think Stark misses that when arguing against the two components of colonialism that he says aren't present. But I'm also not convinced of the view of many academics that such cultural dominance and control is in principle bad. Isn't it what we do whenever we pass a law by majority consent that a minority might disapprove of (or in the case of Obamacare a majority doesn't even consent to). I don't see why that's in principle evil. Leaders should do what they thinks is best, and sometimes they may get it right when the people they're leading don't agree. That shouldn't necessarily stop them. If the different viewpoints happen to coincide with different cultural perspectives or tendencies, it still doesn't seem to me to make it wrong to enforce it. Other factors might make it wrong, e.g. if it's not good policy to begin with. But I've never been convinced that the consent of the governed or the cultural similarity or connection between governing and governed should be in-principle required for a government to be moral and just.

[Technically, "consent of the governed" is multiply ambiguous. It could be a requirement that the governed is required for every little thing, or it could mean they just have to approve of the representatives making the decisions, who are held accountable every so often. The U.S. only has the latter kind of consent of the governed, and it would be crazy to do much more, although there are ways that there could be more consent. It could mean consent of all the governed, a general consensus of the governed, a majority of the governed, etc (and any actual government usually requires a much more complex procedure for calculating it). I mean to say that I don't think any of these things is required for a just and morally good government, which I understand is a pretty radical view nowadays, but I think it's true.]

Matt Skene has a very thoughtful post on the intersection of issues related to rights and obligations and recent health care debates. I disagree with a number of Matt's assumptions. I think we do have positive obligations, and I do think they simply are there without our taking them on. I don't think rights determine obligations but the other way around. Perhaps most salient, I don't think we can distinguish between obligations and moral goodness. I think we simply have an obligation to do what's morally best (and yes, I know that that means that pretty much everyone on this planet is thoroughly immoral, but that's not exactly a new view; it's historic Christian doctrine).

But I think there's a lot worth thinking about in Matt's post. His general approach is libertarian. He starts with natural negative rights and argues for no positive rights. In other words, certain things are wrong to do to me, because I have a right for you not to do them, but I have no rights for you to do positively good things on my behalf, just for you not to do bad things to me. But such a view doesn't imply that there aren't moral reasons to do positive things on behalf of other people.

In particular, there are reasons why it might be the morally best thing to do to help those who are less fortunate to obtain good medical care. Matt doesn't think I have an obligation to alleviate the suffering of people I have no other connection with, but he does think it's morally good to do so. It's also self-interestedly good for me to develop the character traits that such acts help develop in me. He's open to, but not convinced by, the argument that it would be in our best interests to contract with one another to institute such obligations by common consent, as we do with building highways. It depends on whether we'd all be better off with it.

Matt suggests an interesting possibility, though. You can donate money to your utility company to offset the costs of low-income utility customers. Presumably this goes to heating assistance aid, which is given to recipients of food stamps once a year and paid directly to the utility company. I'm not sure how else the utility companies would know who counts as low-income. But if we did a similar thing with insurance companies, there might be enough money from those who, like progressives on this issue, think they have an obligation to pay for others' insurance and from some of those who, like Matt, think it's a morally good thing to do. Could that cover everything Medicaid and other public health insurance does? It's worth seeing how much it covers.

I tend to doubt it, since most people who think the government should tax us more to pay for benefits to low-income people are not inclined to give money when it's voluntary (consider our current president as a prime example), but maybe enough people who don't share such views will give the money voluntarily while resisting it when it's government-controlled (as, apparently, Dick Cheney does with a huge percentage of his income). But it's being done with utilities. Why not try it with health insurance and see where it goes? There might even be enough votes in Congress after the 2010 election.

Welfare Alienation

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Deuteronomy insists on relating, not just classifying. Poor and needy people belong, [sic] they are not just social statistics. They are part of "your" community and are not to be marginalized, excluded, and victimized as an underclass. Alienation is incontrovertibly one of the worst effects of poverty and dependence. Social policies that increase, and even institutionalize, that alienation (even in the name of "welfare" or "charity") are fundamentally contrary to the relational language and community-preserving intention of the biblical vision. -- Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (NIBC) pp.191-192.

One of the things I really like about Wright's commentary (unlike the work of another biblical scholar of the same last name) is that he says things chastising people on both sides of the political spectrum in the same breath and rarely picks on just one side. [I can't help but mention the one puzzling statement so far that might be an exception to this, though.] His concern to draw out the social justice implications of the text is impossible to miss. If you're not paying attention, you might respond the way Glenn Beck would and think he's claiming Deuteronomy supports socialism. He isn't offering any particular economic model, however, and one thing he says here is quite interesting if you're tuned into it.

He doesn't say the issue is whether the poor are fed and supported in some way. He doesn't here get into any issues about whether people should do so privately, through their taxes via government assistance, or simply as a function of the church. What he does say is that there are ways of doing this that come across as welfare and charity that in fact increase and even institutionalize the alienation of poverty.

There are plenty of conservative critiques of the U.S. welfare system as it stands or as it was before the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms of the late 90s (and I note that Wright is not an American, so he probably doesn't have the American system in mind). Some of them are, I would say, inapt. One of the better critiques, one that was at least partially mitigated by the Gingrich-Clinton reforms, is that the welfare system, not by design but by unintended effect, actually perpetuates the conditions that it's designed to mitigate. I've in fact seen this sort of complaint from conservatives and socialists alike. It's mostly progressives/liberals who don't go as far as socialism who try to underplay this kind of argument, but it's mostly conservatives who make this point in the public sphere. Academics (and most on the far left are either academics or revolutionaries) tend to make these arguments in the privacy of their own intellectual circles, i.e. academic journals.

It strikes me that Wright, who is spending quite a lot of effort motivating social justice concerns, something hard not to do when commenting on Deuteronomy, is also quite insistent on something that conservatives who have serious problems with the U.S. welfare system are insistent on. Those on the left who disagree with conservatives on these issues are often too willing to act as if the only resistance to the safety net of a welfare state comes from those who don't honestly care about poverty. But what I think Wright is saying here illustrates something that became pretty clear to me very early in my political awareness that so many on the less-than-socialist left don't see.

At least a notable strain within conservative resistance to what they call the welfare state is motivated specifically by concern for the dehumanizing, alienating, motivation-sapping, dependence-creating effects of a government safety net with no or not enough strings attached. Some of this is probably still inordinately obsessed with how such things indirectly affect the rest of society rather than having actual love for those who are badly off. But it's always struck me that a significant strain within opposition to certain forms of welfare and certain ways of engaging in charity is motivated not by contempt or disinterest but by love, in the same way that parents love their children by depriving them of things they want very much but that will be harmful or pedestrians refusing to give money to homeless people might be (but probably often are not completely) motivated by concern for that person and the harmful effects of simply giving them money.

I read this after writing this post, but it captures several elements of what I've been thinking about, completely outside any political ideology sorts of issues. It's difficult to evaluate a system that does actually help immediate problems and in some ways makes things better but at the cost of the crucial elements that a more ideal way to handle things would have, and the current foster care system certainly is alienating in the extreme and almost certainly does institutionalize some of the problems it's supposed to solve, perpetuating them from generation to generation.

John Mark Reynolds' response has helped me to clarify where I think he and I are disagreeing on the torture question.

JMR defends his view based on his argument that torture is worse than killing. Of course, I can easily concede that torture can be worse than killing. But I can't accept that it always is. In 8th grade, a fellow student of mine used to give me wet willies at pretty regular intervals throughout the day. I consider that torture of a very weak sort. It was evil for him to do so, and how I responded was also evil. I got so fed up that I kicked him in the family jewels (or maybe I kneed him). I also consider that to be a kind of torture. Neither is worse than killing someone. Both inflicted pain of a particularly excessive sort. Both involve using someone as a mere means to an end, in his case to take delight in someone else's pain, in my case to satisfy my desire for revenge. Both are wrong, but both are less wrong than killing.

A police officer might cause severe psychological pain by lying to someone in a way that leads to a confession. A police officer might cause physical pain, as long as it's not severe and permanent. Both are perfectly legal in law enforcement, although they are not for military interrogators, who aren't allowed to lie or even touch a suspected terrorist, which was why the Bush Administration wanted more allowed for CIA interrogators, since standard military interrogations were ineffective against al Qaeda. I count such things as mild torture, and they don't seem all that wrong to me, even if one might argue that they are wrong. They certainly aren't worse than killing the suspect.

The key issue is that torture comes in degrees. Killing does too but not in the same sense. What makes an act of killing worse is how you do it, why you do it, and so on. But killing is killing. Torture can be fairly weakly torture, or it can
be pretty awful torture. Killing can be worse because it also involves torture, but the killing itself is not worse. It's the torture that adds to the badness of the killing. Killing is all-or-nothing, and torture comes in degrees in a way that
begs for an analysis that's more complex than simple right and wrong. It's at least a spectrum from not as bad to extremely bad, and it may well be a spectrum from morally required to significantly evil.

I think Mark Olson's question is helpful, so I'll repeat here my comment on his post:

If you only consider consequentialist principles, you can't get an absolute prohibition on anything except the principle that we should seek the best consequences. So to get a moral ban on all torture, there better be some deontological principles at stake. The question is whether those deontological principles themselves are absolutist.

I happen to think the only deontological principle that is absolutist is the moral claim that we ought to give due honor to God and follow him in whatever ways are best for doing so. There are many ethical principles beyond that, and most of them apply most of the time. Some of them apply almost all the time and would require crazy hypotheticals to find exceptions (or very weak cases with moral principles about matters that involve vague concepts occurring along a spectrum, such as consent and coercion, harm, or what someone's motivation and desires are in doing an act).

But to answer your question, I think the deontological principle behind JMR's opposition to torture is his principle that it's always wrong to coerce someone, a principle I've questioned. He doesn't think it's always wrong to cause pain or to cause pain that someone remembers. He doesn't think it's always wrong to cause harm, even permanent harm, knowing full well that one is doing so. He does think it's wrong to cause harm for the sake of causing harm without some higher purpose, but he doesn't think such a higher purpose can be merely getting information that will lead to better consequences when the causing of harm is done to violate someone's ability to consent to giving up that information. So it's mainly an issue of consent to choose to speak when one wants to and to refrain from giving information when one doesn't.

As I've said along the way, I think the problem with that argument is that consent and coercion come along a spectrum, and weaker versions of coercion undermining consent can be morally correct under the right sorts of circumstances. When the consequences increase in their badness, avoiding them might require undermining consent to a stronger degree than is normally moral. That's why I think torture isn't in principle wrong. JMR has a more absolutist view about that principle. We both take it to be deontological, because neither of us thinks slightly better consequences for a serious undermining consent are enough to justify it. But he takes it to be absolutist, whereas I think there could be circumstances where undermining someone's consent via coercion to a great degree can be morally all right, as long as those consequences are extremely serious.

So I'm not sure the disagreement is really meta-ethical. It's more on the level of normative ethics, I think.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Torture and Absolutism

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I wanted to make one observation about John Mark Reynolds' recent posts on torture at Evangel. One of the things that has struck me over several years of considering this question from a Christian point of view is that arguments against torture are either (a) implausible and conflicting with actual biblical allowances and endorsements or (b) non-absolutist and allowing for some exceptions, even if the burden of proof and extremely strong cause for hesitation should always be present. (By absolutism, I mean the view that something is always wrong with no possible exceptions.)

For ease of reference, here are the posts:

One Bad Argument in Favor of Torture
Cicero not Nero!
On Pacifism and Torture
A Conservative and Pragmatic Argument Against Torture

Arguments Against Torture

Consider the image of God argument. This is the same reasoning used against killing, and yet the scriptures make it very clear that capital punishment is not just allowable but mandated by God, at least in a certain context. (I'll leave it open whether it should be used today. What matters for my point here is that God not just allowed it the way he allowed divocrce in the Mosaic law. He commanded it in the Torah, and Paul seems to affirm the use of the sword in carrying out justice in Romans 13, so there's not even a plausible argument that the new covenant removes this allowance.) So I don't think the fact that we're made in the image of God is going to rule out all torture, since it doesn't rule out all killing and it's the explicit biblical reason not to kill people.

Aristotelian virtue arguments point out how bad it is to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to torture someone. Of course this is right, but it's also bad to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to kill someone. The argument that we ought to find the right mean, that we ought to be moderate, does not imply that we won't sometimes do something that is usually on one of the extremes. Aristotle, for example, saw honesty and truth-telling as virtues between the extremes of lying and betraying confidences. But there might be some occasions when lying to save someone's life is morally necessary (as God instructed Samuel to do when he anointed David) or betraying a confidence is morally necessary (as happens in courts of law all the time in the pursuit of justice, with the only significant exceptions being attorney-client, spousal privilege, and medical/psychological practitioner/client relationships). Just because the mean is the best spot doesn't mean the actions usually on the extremes always will be. Occasionally you'll find actions that are usually on an extreme ending up as the mean. So Aristotelian golden mean arguments will never rule out an action in principle, since that's not how the view works.

The coercion argument strikes me as mistaken, also. There are certainly occasions when it's right to coerce someone. For example, we put criminals in prison. We threaten to imprison or fine people to get them to testify or to serve on a jury. We impose severe penalties to those who won't pay their taxes. We have on occasion drafted people to serve in the military and kill other people, and when that's a just and popular war most people don't think it's as problematic as in wars that are very unpopular or obviously unjust. We require people to work or show progress toward improving employment capability if they're to receive government benefits of various sorts. It strikes me that the case of torture is most analogous to other kinds of coercion to get testimony, and the major difference is in the method of coercion, not in the principle that it's wrong to coerce people to tell the truth.

I'm enjoying reading Christopher Wright's commentary on Deuteronomy. He's especially insightful on ethical matters, and he's been excellent at defending against positions that I think have needed some careful argument to address (such as the claim that the Mosaic law treats women as property). But the following quote is puzzling.

It is not surprising, then, conversely, that a whole culture that systematically denies the transcendent by excluding the reality of God from the public domain, as Western societies have been doing for generations, also turns covetous self-interest into a socioeconomic ideology, rationalized, euphemized, and idolized. Knowing full well that you cannot serve God and mammon, we have deliberately chosen mammon and declared that a person's life does consist in the abundance of things possessed. [p.86]

I'm not interested in ignoring the role that covetous self-interest plays among those whose lifestyle is all about accumulating material wealth or the fact that such self-interest might attract someone to political views that they might expect to serve that self-interest. But he's talking about a systematic denial of God that turns covetous self-interest into an ideology, so it's got to be much more thoroughgoing than just the fact that people for self-interested reasons might like views that they see as serving their self-interest. It's as if the ideology itself is caused by self-interest and would have no existence otherwise. So what ideology does he mean? Capitalism? Libertarianism? Mainstream economic conservatism? Randianism?

If any of the first three, I think he's simply mistaken. The arguments in favor of those are not selfish pursuit of mammon, at least not in the ideal case, and the view itself is not the same thing as declaring that a person's life amounts just to the abundance of things possessed. Such views are at work in our culture, but what Wright says here is confusing two separate things. It would be more on the mark if he's targeting Ayn Rand, because she explicitly did ground her view in ethical egoism, but even she wouldn't treat human nature as if it's just about material possessions, and her view isn't exactly the mainstream socioeconomic view on the right.

Recently several seemingly-independent sources came up with a series of new recommendations for cancer screenings, saying that new research shows that we should no longer be screening for certain kinds of cancer at the ages we've been doing so, that it should be fine to wait until later on and save the expense that earlier screenings cost.

These recommendations have led to an interesting debate between those who think the cost of prevention is worth it even if more money gets paid than would otherwise happen and those who think cost-cutting is more important than the number of lives saved, because the number of lives saved isn't worth the cost.

A number of voices on one side in the debate, though, has repeatedly made what seems to me to be a terrible argument. They complain that those who object to the new recommendations are simply ignoring the new data. It's as if they stomp their foot and say that the numbers support their position, so the other side should back off. As I said, this is a terrible argument. If this were an empirical debate, that would settle it, but that's not what the dispute is over, so that argument is simply irrelevant. The very interesting debate that I've seen play itself out, as I pointed out above, is between the following two groups:

A. those who think that, even though it might cost more money in the long run, it's still worth screening earlier because it saves enough lives to be worth the extra cost even if it costs more than it would to catch the cancer later and not pay the cost for a lot of people who didn't need the screenings
B. those who think that the cost of screening all these people who didn't need it isn't going to be worth it in the long run, even if it means some people who would have found their cancer and been able to treat it will die because they didn't catch it soon enough

That's a moral debate, not an empirical one. View A places more value on people's lives (which they insist is still enough, even if smaller than we thought) than the financial cost (and that cost's effect on society). View B places more value on the financial cost (and its effects on society) than the number of lives that would be saved (which they say is too low to be a huge factor). Both views can agree on all the facts and still disagree on what we should do. So it doesn't help to keep insisting that the change in recommendations comes from new data from new studies with hard numbers to back it up. The disagreement still occurs even given the new data.

I remember reading an interview with J.J. Abrams during the writers' strike, when he was supposed to be working on Star Trek XI. Abrams said he was coming up with great lines every day that he couldn't use in the film, because the union was on strike, and that would count as working.

One of Marx's underlying principles for thinking capitalism is bad is that capitalism alienates workers from the product of their labor. They work for someone else on a project that belongs to someone else and don't own anything to do with their project. One of the nice features of some jobs in a capitalist system is that you can identify with your project. Moviemaking is one of those jobs. J.J. Abrams has written, produced, and directed quite a number of successful productions, including Mission Impossible III, Lost, and Star Trek XI. Sometimes a writer doesn't own the characters or the story, but the writer gets credited and gets royalties from how many copies sell. There's a kind of ownership that's there even if some corporation owns the rights to the franchise.

But when the writer's union strikes, and members of the union have to refrain from using some of their best ideas, they get alienated from their work in a way that I think does count as an anti-Marxian effect of the strike. Maybe what that particular union was fighting for on that particular occasion was so important that it would be worth it to most of their members to sacrifice that kind of thing, but it does seem to be an unfortunate sacrifice, and I'm sure the Star Trek film would have been better in small but noticeable ways if he'd been able to use all those ideas.

Rey Reynoso wrote a post a few months ago on Christians and civil disobedience that I'd wanted to respond to in a post of my own, but I never did. I wanted to put a link up to it before it gets too far distant in time, even if I can't respond in depth.

The one thought that I will say is that I think Rey has an interesting proposal, but I don't think it gets around the Rosa Parks problem. The gospel wasn't at stake for her, so I think on Rey's account she still comes out as immorally violating the law. That's the biggest problem case for the Christian view of submission to authorities, since so many people think what she did was not just good but heroic. But I do think the biblical view is that it was wrong, despite being well-intentioned. (The second-biggest case I can think of for contemporary Americans is the American Revolution, which I also think was immoral on biblical grounds but is certainly supported by most Christians in the U.S.)

A friend of mine on Facebook left a comment in response to a status update to the effect that there's an inconsistency in much of the rhetoric from the left when it comes to our attitude toward the next generation. I think this is a problem for both sides, actually. You can often find people who will issue very harsh criticisms of those on the other side for ignoring the devastating consequences of either inaction or a particular course of action on a certain issue, while the same people will ignore the devastating consequences of inaction or a certain course of action on a different issue.

You hear a lot about how we're failing in our responsibilities to the next generation if we allow climate change to continue at the rate it's going. Yet the same people who make these urgent calls to think about the next generation are happy to spend massive amounts of money that we couldn't hope to pay for in several generations, even if (as is likely) President Obama has to settle for significant departures from his campaign promises about taxes. (See note 1 below for more on this, which I decided was too intrusive to my argument to keep here.)

I would add that they're also happy to impose regulations that will almost certainly generate hardships for lower-earning wage-earners both in making it more difficult to buy new houses and cars with something like the cap-and-trade proposal currently at work or providing health insurance for people who don't have it, at the cost of making health care much worse on the whole for many people, including lower wage-earners whose employer currently does provide health insurance but who will be forced to move to worse health insurance as a result. (See note 2 for my own situation with respect to this, which I wanted to say something about but was also becoming too intrusive to my argument.)

But on the right, you can have similar inconsistencies. Some conservatives favor significant environmental regulation, but most want it limited. Some reject it entirely. Some of those who reject it are nevertheless environmentally conscious, taking it to be a problem we should do something about. For example, Dick Cheney, who is very generous with his money with regard to charitable donations, gives quite a lot of money every year to conservation-related charities, a good portion of of which (I believe) goes toward exploring technologies that will help deal with environmental problems more effectively than regulation could ever do. But there are conservatives who are simply not interested in environmental concerns, who nevertheless put a lot of effort into criticizing the Obama Administration and the current Democratic-led Congress for not caring about the future generations with their ridiculous levels of spending and regulation that will certainly have a negative impact on the next generation.

There's an ongoing debate about exactly what role senators should have in the process of confirming judicial nominees. The Constitution gives the President the role of appointing people to certain positions, including "Judges of the Supreme Court", but this role is qualified. It is to be done "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate".

At this point there are two main views about what that advice and consent is supposed to be. Some senators have consistently maintained that ideology can play a role. If a senator disapproves of the ideology or perceived ideology of the nominee, it's perfectly fine to vote against the person's confirmation. Other senators have consistently maintained the view that senators should give significant deference to the president, voting to confirm any mainstream nominee who is qualified enough, even if the person tends significantly to the other side of the political spectrum or to a contrary judicial philosophy.

There are reasons for each view. Deference to the president makes some sense. When we vote for president, we do so while knowing what sort of judges the candidate is likely to appoint. Anyone who voted for Barack Obama while thinking he would appoint judicial conservatives to the bench is an idiot. Anyone who voted for George W. Bush while expecting him to appoint liberal justices to the Supreme Court wasn't paying attention to the kinds of justices he said he admired and would appoint. Mistakes can happen (as with Justice Souter with Bush's father), but you shouldn't expect your preferences to be fulfilled with judicial appointments if you vote for someone for president who has opposite preferences. Senators on the other side might say that elections have consequences and that presidents are owed some deference due to the political process. On the other hand, elections have consequences. Senators are elected. They represent the preferences of their constituents, and isn't the function of senators in judicial appointments part of what you should consider when you vote for someone for that office? So even on the democratic process argument, you might think it cuts both ways.

But other considerations have been offered against giving presidents a lot of deference on judicial nominations. One problem is that you still need to decide when to defer and when not to defer. How far outside the mainstream counts as sufficiently outside? Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito were both presented by Democratic senators as being outside the mainstream of conservative thought on evidence that's actually pretty similar to the evidence being used to argue that Judge Sotomayor is not outside the mainstream of judicial thought. It turns out, then, that this view isn't really a coherent, unified position. It's not about whether to give the president deference but about how much deference to give the president.

No one wants the Senate to rubber-stamp whoever the nominee is no matter what, so qualifications must matter, but it's not clear the ideological considerations are really separate from qualifications. Some would argue that an ideology that's very extreme actually disqualifies someone from being a good judge, because a good judge would interpret the law accurately and fairly, and extremist judges of certain sorts do not. But according to a judicial conservative, liberal jurisprudence then counts as a lack of qualifications. Any nominee who is ideologically liberal in terms of judicial philosophy is not a qualified nominee, and senators can vote against them on that basis and call it a matter of the nominee not being qualified.

So I'm no longer sure that the distinction between qualifications and ideology really explains much in terms of what senators should pay attention to, at least not in any way that will be agreed upon by a significant number of senators. Several other considerations also might favor looking to ideology. Some have argued that too much deference to the president leads to extremist judges on both sides, since presidents will get away with as much as they can if the Senate just defers.

One common complain on the left about conservative political views is that conservatives favor legislating morality. One thing they mean by this is the conservatives favor certain kinds of laws about certain kinds of issues that rely on a moral conception that differs from liberal moral views. For example, conservatives tend to favor laws that restrict abortion. Those who find abortion morally unproblematic complain that legislating morality is a bad idea, because legislators shouldn't declare what people should do on such issues.

I've always hated the expression, for a number of reasons, but one is that most laws legislate morality. Laws against murder enforce a moral standard that it's generally wrong to kill people. Laws against larceny enforce the moral standard that it's generally wrong to steal from other people. Laws against homosexual sodomy may pick out acts that not as many people think are wrong, but it isn't any more or less a legislation of a moral view than the uncontroversial laws that legislate morality.

It's another matter to restrict laws to outlaw harmful activity or to require consent for certain behavior that affects others. Some people mean just that when they say they oppose legislating morality. In other words, they oppose legislation against activities merely because those activities are morally wrong, and they require a further explanation of why they should be illegal: violation of consent or causing of harm. But harm and consent are moral reasons for favoring laws against such things, so it's still legislating morality. It may be that only certain moral reasons are the sort to justify laws, while others are not, but it's not entirely helpful to make this point by saying you oppose legislating morality. It's a confused way of making the point, and clarity would be served by making clearer distinctions among different aspects of morality.

To be consistent, such a view requires major revisions to our laws. We'd have to remove motorcycle helmet laws, unless it could be argued that the only purpose of such laws is to protect anyone who crashes with a motorcycle from greater liability for the greater amount of damage caused by not wearing a helmet. But that can be more easily achieved by holding those without helmets more liable for damage to themselves rather than fining them for not wearing a helmet. Helmet laws are designed to protect people from themselves, not to protect them from harming others. Even if we expand the legitimate class of laws to include such paternalistic laws, we'd still have lots of laws that might be called moralistic beyond harm to others, harm to self, and consent.

For example, laws against cannot be fully justified by the harm they cause to potential offspring or the fact that minors can't legally or morally consent. A brother and sister who want to have sex with each other can sterilize themselves to remove the possibility of harm to offspring, and they can consent if they're old enough. Why should we have laws against such sexual acts if the only issues that should affect legislation are harm and consent? One might argue that there's psychological harm from incestuous sex, but we don't outlaw everything that might cause psychological harm, and I think the argument that it causes harm might depend on the prior moral view that it's wrong to engage in incestuous sex. After all, there's a parallel argument that gay sex or even heterosexual pre-marital sex causes psychological harm. These are just a few examples. Our legal system would need some serious revision if we want to apply this approach to moral justifications for laws in any consistent way.

It occurred to me, though, that there's another reason the political left should generally resist speaking in terms of legislating morality. The left tends to favor a view of the role of judges that conservatives often call "legislating from the bench". Once you look at what's going on, you might even be willing to call it "legislating morality from the bench". Rasmussen conducted a poll during the election last fall that correlates views on the role of judges with votes for Obama and McCain. The question read: "Should the Supreme Court make decisions based on what's written in the Constitution and legal precedents or should it be guided mostly by a sense of fairness and justice?" 82% of McCain voters and only 29% of Obama voters took the first option, while 29% of McCain voters and 49% of Obama voters took the second option. For the record, President Obama himself has said that in the cases where the justices disagree strongly it should be the second option (but he strangely thinks this is only 10% of the cases that they disagree strongly, when it's a lot more than that).

Insofar as a judge's role is to interpret the law, the judge should indicate what the law means and enforce it even if the judge disagrees with the law. Justice Thomas exhibited such a role in his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision that banned laws prohibiting homosexual sodomy. Justice Thomas thought such laws were stupid. He wrote a separate opinion from Justice Scalia's dissent just so he could say that. It was a short opinion. His opposition to the majority wasn't because he thought it was a good idea on policy grounds to have laws against homosexual sodomy. It was just that he didn't think the Constitution prohibited such laws.

Insofar as a judge's role is to administer justice, on the other hand, it seems that the judge's obligation is to administer morality and enforce it in the cases where the law is not clear or is indeterminate, and what that amounts to is basically legislating from the bench, in particular legislating morality from the bench. If the standard liberal complaint is correct that it's bad to legislate morality, it becomes extremely hard for me to see how a judge should do exactly that by determining the just outcome when the laws don't settle what should be done. Even though this isn't strictly speaking legislation, it's equivalent to legislating in its effect, which is why the term "legislating from the bench" has seemed so apt to so many. It certainly does seem equivalent to legislating morality as far as I can tell, and it's a highly-regarded role for judges among those on the leftward side of the political spectrum. It gives me even less reason to be patient with those who complain about legislating morality.

Voting and Calvinist Prayer

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A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.

But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.

Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.

Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.

One thing Calvinist sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.

But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.

The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.

Legal scholar Steven Calabresi, in a generally accurate discussion of what Obama could do to change the federal courts, offers the following very strange argument:

This raises the question of whether Mr. Obama can in good faith take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" as he must do if he is to take office. Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare? Is his provision of a "tax cut" to millions of Americans who currently pay no taxes merely a foreshadowing of constitutional rights to welfare, health care, Social Security, vacation time and the redistribution of wealth? Perhaps the candidate ought to be asked to answer these questions before the election rather than after.

Aside from the issue of whether Obama meant to be saying the Constitution should be amended to change this (See this post and its comments for discussion of what Obama really meant), I find this argument extremely strange. The Constitution gives provisions for when it can be amended. If I swore an oath to uphold it, one of the things I would be upholding would be the legitimate amendment process that the Constitution specifies. A president could come along and advocate an amendment to the Constitution that changes it in extremely significant ways, but as long as due process for amending is followed it doesn't seem as if anything has been done to undermine the Constitution. What's been done is to undermine the moral principles behind why the Constitution is as if currently is, but it's not a violation of the oath to uphold the Constitution if you use the Constitution's own method of amending it to propose a change that's pretty drastic. It itself envisions that possibility.

Is Obama a Socialist?

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There's been a lot of talk in the last couple weeks over whether Barack Obama is a socialist. I think the two main events that have spurred this on are the revelation of his past association with a social democratic party called the New Party, which is openly left of the Democratic mainstream, and redistributionist talk from him both at the last presidential debate and from a particularly explicit quote from 2001 about how the pretty leftward Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution.

Here's what I think is going on here. Obama is an incrementalist. He hasn't always been. His change is actually chronicled in his first book. Alinsky-style community organizing is very close to an implementation of a socialist agenda to undermine the capitalist system. There's every indication that Obama was in the thick of Alinsky-style work, even if he never agreed with everything Alinsky followers thought. He identified with the kinds of things they were trying to do in community organizing. It was Alinsky followers who trained him and then recruited him to train others in the same techniques. But Obama's community organizing was a failure. He was disappointed at every turn, according to his book. He eventually gave up on that method of change and turned to politics, where he knew he could try to get at least something done, even if it was only a little bit of a change at a time. I'm not sure he's really moved from that attitude. The New Party is exactly what you'd expect of someone with such a view. He was willing to run as a Democrat with an additional New Party endorsement in order to indicate that he's to the left of mainstream Democrats while seeking their support anyway. It was an attempt to mainstream a left-of-Democrat candidate, and it was an effective strategy until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

But this in itself shows that Obama is at least practically not a socialist. The distinction between socialism and European-style social democrats is that socialists seek to undermine and overthrow the system, and social democrats seek to work within the system to reform it gradually. The New Party was basically a bunch of former socialists who had become social democrats. Their goals had become more pragmatic. They were going to change what they could by moving the Democratic party to the left. The only way their candidates could win is if they also had the Democratic nomination, so they opted for double-billing to get their candidates more votes. (I'm not sure how New York still does it with parties like the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. Does anyone know how those function differently from what the New Party was trying to do? What they do is obviously not the same, or it would have fallen under the same Supreme Court ruling.)

I'm convinced that Obama hasn't changed his ideals all that much. There's no way someone could say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution (alongside redistributionist language) unless there's a strong socialist steak still present, at least in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would look like. Even if that socialist streak has been toned down since, Obama said this after his conversion to being a social democrat. He does seem to be a redistributionist of sorts in the classic socialist mode, at least in his ideal government. How much he'd be willing to try to do depends, of course, on how much he expects to be able to get done. The scariest thing about an Obama victory for an economic conservative is that he'd almost certainly have at least two years of a Congress who would basically give him everything he wants, except on the few occasions when the Blue Dogs in the House might join with Republicans to prevent any particularly repugnant bills, but their influence seems to be about to diminish at least somewhat after this election. (It still amazes me that Democrats are running to replace minority Republicans in Congress by arguing for change. Giving the party in power more votes is change?)

So I don't think it's quite right to call Obama a socialist. He seems to be something closer to a European-style social democrat, at least in what he will try to do. But that just means he won't try to implement socialist ideals if he doesn't think he can. With a Congress entirely willing to grant their new Leader whatever he wants, I'm not sure that difference is as much as it might seem. Conservatives who keep calling him a socialist do seem to me to be on to something, even if I'd hesitate to apply that label straight out, and I think it's sufficient reason even for moderate Democrats to be very wary about casting a vote for him given that there won't be any divided government to reign in what he might try to do. I can understand why my friends who are themselves left of the Democratic party love him. I can understand why a lot of people are delighted to play a role in putting the first black president into office. I can even understand a mainstream Democrat who would have preferred Hillary Clinton but might still think Obama is closer to their views than McCain is. What I can't fathom is conservatives and moderates who think they're going to be getting a moderate Democrat who will vote for him just because they think McCain is too much like Bush, figuring Obama seems harmless enough because his proposals sound pretty centrist. That's what explains most independents' and moderates' support for Obama, and it strikes me as either ill-informed or irrational.

Update: Be sure to read the comments. The (first?) Nov 2 comment in particular has links to some much more detailed discussion that seems to me to confirm my general thesis that Obama holds that a socialist theory of justice would be good for the Supreme Court to endorse at some point but might be pragmatically worth getting to at most incrementally.

Ayers on White Supremacy

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Conservatives need to understand the language of the left if they're going to criticize what people on the left say. William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn have a new book coming out. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:

Race Course Against White Supremacy By: William C. Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn

White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us--the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors' own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues, and offers personal stories about their lives today as parents, teachers, and reformers.

Tommy Oliver summarizes Ayers as saying, "we are a nation of white supremacists". He then quotes an LGF post that says Ayers claims, "the dominant political system in the United States is white supremacism". Both of these claims are gross misunderstandings of what that blurb says, and it takes only the little familiarity I have with Marxian-style racial critiques to see this.

White supremacy, according to the Marx-style critique, consists of two things. First, the social structure of race relations is such that white people do in fact dominate much of the time. Second, there are structures in place that serve to perpetuate that dominance. Such a view can range from the most radical end to a much more minimal version. The radical extreme claims that white people have set up such a system deliberately and intentionally perpetuate it to serve their own interests. A much more minimal version, in my view, is very close to the truth, and that claims only that there are factors in place that, often unintentionally or at least for motivations other than race, have the effect of continuing the influence that white people disproportionally still have most of the time.

White supremacism is an ideology. It holds that white people ought to be in power because white people are better than those of other races. It claims that any structures in place that might be called white supremacy are good and worth extending to make white control even stronger. It's not hard to see, then, that white supremacy is not the same thing as white supremacism. One is a set of social structures. The other is an ideology.

What the blurb for the Ayers/Dohrn book actually says is "that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us". That simply is not a claim that white supremacism is dominant in any respect, as the LGF post says. It is not a statement about the prevalence of white supremacism among Americans, as Tommy Oliver's post asserts. It is a statement that white supremacy, the fact of white predominance and structures that continue it, has been more influential in American history than any other political structure. I think it's a highly questionable claim, and I'm sure there's a great deal in this book that I'd disagree with, but it doesn't do to pretend the claim is something much crazier than it really is. There's enough to criticize about the book that there's no need to make it out to be making an accusation that's much more serious than what the blurb actually attributes to the book.

This is the seventh and, as it turned out, last post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason. At the end I write about the next intended post in the series, but I never wrote it. When I sat down to think about what I'd say, I didn't think I had a lot to say that was very interesting. It's possible that I'll continue this now, but I don't have any strong intentions to do this.

So far in my Christianity and Politics series, I've discussed some principles I find in Augustine's socio-political thought that I generally agree with and explained why, based on those principles, I think Christians have a moral obligation to participate in political matters in a setting something like the one I find myself in in the contemporary U.S. context. Because of the moral requirement to love one's neighbor, the privileges and responsibilities assigned to a citizen of my nation require me to use those privileges and meet those political responsibilities in a way that best seeks the interests of my neighbor, i.e. everyone else in this nation. This is so even, as I believe, if my primary citizenship is in heaven.

But that just explains why a Christian would be motivated to seek the good and why Christian views about what is good will be at least part of that motivation. It doesn't provide a motivation for why secular citizens, citizens of other religions, or other Christians who have different views of what is good to go along with the particular policy proposals that I would support. It's fairly common nowadays to hear someone complaining that it's wrong to enforce religious convictions by means of law when other people who don't agree with them shouldn't have to follow them. Several questions arise. First, is it morally ok to have religious justification for one's political views? Is it morally ok for a society to allow people to use such justifications? Then there are also the legal questions about whether this sort of thing is currently legal under a particular system of law, in my case under the U.S. Constitution, which includes the First Amendment's famous Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. I'm tackling the moral issues in this post, and the legal issues will follow in a separate post.

The main argument I've heard against religious motivations amounts to fear at how such a practice could be abused. If we allow people to use religious reasons to support laws and policies, then they may use religion to support really bad laws and policies. That's true. But people can also use really bad secular arguments to support really bad laws and policies, so it doesn't prevent that sort of thing to require people to use secular arguments. So I don't find that argument very convincing. Perhaps we could require really good reasoning for any argument supporting a law or policy, but how do you require that by law, and who is going to enforce it? If we're going to do that, we'll need some experts on good arguments who are making the call, and that would take something like Plato's ideal government as presented in the Republic, which even he admitted was impossible (partly because no one who isn't an expert could ever identify who the experts are, because they aren't the experts and can't make such distinctions).

This is the sixth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason.

Having presented the Augustinian background to my approach to Christian political interaction, I want to move now to an application of Augustine's principles to contemporary American politics. I should say that I write as an evangelical, with particular views on what Christianity amounts to and what the church is. But these are views that I believe I share with Augustine, and thus those who are not evangelical may well agree with me on enough of them to arrive at similar conclusions.

I want to keep two kinds of questions separate. First, there are Christian motivations for certain views on how Christians should seek interact politically with the rest of society. Second, there are political reasons that might appeal to people who are not Christians regarding how much role religion should play in political decision-making. I want to focus on the first question in this post. For now I'm ignoring questions about what Christians (or members of any religious group) have a right to do politically, to what extent it is legitimate politically, morally, legally, constitutionally, etc. In other words, I'm leaving aside what sort of role religion should have in the public sphere as a general question that people of different faiths and people of no faith could all agree upon. I'm simply considering what a Christian should be motivated to think about these issues.

I am not ultimately going to ignore such questions, however. My next post will focus on exactly those questions. For now, I want to restrict myself to why I, as an evangelical Christian, should be motivated to play a role in the political process in a largely secularized society and what sort of role my Christian convictions should lead me to want to have. I'll begin with a very quick review of some of the general principles from Augustine that I agree with, which I've covered in more detail in previous posts in this series.

Augustine recognizes that Christians have two overriding principles that summarize all Christian teaching. One is love for God, and the other is love for neighbor. The New Testament clearly teaches that you cannot do the former without doing the latter. (It also teaches that you cannot truly do the latter without doing the former, although that isn't important for what I want to say now.) The highest calling of the Christian, indeed the Christian's most important moral obligation, is to love God, and that requires loving one's neighbor. In applying this point, Augustine insists that loving one's neighbor involves seeking what is good for those around us, including those who are not themselves Christians. To put it in terms of the Two Cities model, those who are citizens of the City of God have a moral responsibility to seek what is best for the earthly city.

This is the fifth post in my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

In my last post in this series, I looked at Augustine's views on authority and his analogy between civil government and other levels of authority. That took me through City of God 19.16, and now I'm ready to move into section 19.17, which is where he focuses on the main question I wanted to move toward. I thought the issues I've been expositing so far are important to have some grasp of to see what motivates Augustine on these issues, but this is the real payoff. In 19.17, Augustine gives us his view of how members of the earthly city and members of the heavenly city interact in society, and that leads to his discussion of the principles I'm going to want to apply to Christians interacting with a society like what we have in the U.S. today.

So far we've seen the value Augustine places on order in society. It's relatively easy to see why order and authorities in society would be important within the system of the earthly city. It's a compromise between human wills much like the kind of social contract some of the ancient philosophers envisioned (most notably the Sophists and Epicureans). Augustine has no problem talking about that as an explanation of how it is that governments or slave relations might form, at least when they do so in as ideal a manner as is possible from the mindset of the earthly kingdom. People seek rulers for an ordered society and thus give up what they might otherwise be able to do in order to protect themselves from further harm and get what they can of peace in this life. People thus compromise and unite because it would be worse for them not to.

Slavery could also be explained this way in some cases, since in some cases it was something like the bankruptcy system of the ancient world. You would sell yourself into slavery to serve someone else for a certain period of time, and your benefactor would thus assume your debt and pay it off. You transfer a debt you can't pay for a debt you can pay, but it means giving up your economic independence for a time. Even slaves taken as a result of war are exchanging service for someone for the chance to continue living rather than to die as a result of being the spoils of war. So even forcible slavery can in many cases be seen as a kind of compromise between two wills.

But what about the heavenly city? How can its incompatible mindset cooperate with the earthly city's self-interest-based social contract? Doesn't it have higher aims? According to Augustine, the heavenly city in this life also has the limitations of this life and the surroundings of evil people, and thus there is a need to participate in such systems. The people of the heavenly city really belong elsewhere, but for now they're here and thus need to participate while awaiting the restoration of the ideal state when such things are no longer necessary. So the earthly city and the heavenly city are thus intertwined in a sense, both seeking the same goal of peace in what form it can be had here.

The earthly city seeks that as its only possible goal (given that others will prevent one's absolute self-interest), and the heavenly city seeks it as the best possible thing for now (but with the expectation of something greater to come). Members of the heavenly city should seek to obey laws, honor authority in the earthly city, and observe the kinds of earthly relationships that exist in this life that will not be necessary in the next, because that's important for loving our neighbor. Members of the early city will do the same out of self-interest. Thus for both the earthly city and the city of God, this seeking of order in society through authority and law is merely a means to an end, even if the ends differ for the two groups. The intermediate goal is common to both, and it thus makes sense for the two to agree to seek the intermediate goal to the extent that it fits within the ultimate goal of both cities.

What about cases when they can't agree on intermediate goals? If laws in the earthly city involve religion, and they conflict with the heavenly city's obligation to serve God first and foremost, then the heavenly city's laws take precedence. But this also means that the heavenly city couldn't have laws in common with the earthly city that involve religion, since the heavenly city's laws would not serve the interests the earthly city has carved out for itself. If it really knew what was best for it, it would serve God and not whatever other religion it may follow (if any), but everyone serves something, and the earthly city replaces the true God with other things, whether gods or other pursuits. In the early Christian period, this meant persecution of Christians for not following the religious laws of the earthly city.

The heavenly city thus follows whatever laws do seek some sort of earthly peace, provided that they don't conflict with the obligation to follow God above all. Those in the heavenly city should follow whatever different methods of seeking peace their particular earthly government follows, which will differ in different governmental systems.

In my next post, I'll look toward how Augustine might apply this in our contemporary setting.

This is the fourth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

So far this series has been background for Augustine's views on civil authority and the relation between Christians and civil government. Before I get to the final payoff in terms of that issue, I want to present his views on various levels of authority in society from his concentrated treatment of that subject in City of God 19.14-16. It's the closest thing in that work to a political philosophy, even if it's really more of a social philosophy. I'll turn to City of God 19.17 and his views on the relation between the two cities in the next post, and then I'll look to the contemporary scene after that.

City of God 19.14 looks at the desires of the earthly kingdom. Augustine sees the earthly kingdom as naturally tending toward a self-interested ethic. In our natural state, apart from conversion to Christianity, we all want peace of body and soul, and that means not wanting distress or hardship. Animals demonstrate this by shunning death and seeking to satisfy their pleasures, but we have reason and can do it on a more rational level. He sees fallen humanity as imperfect and unable to do this perfectly without help from God. Thus the life of those in the earthly kingdom won't be the life that really is best in terms of self-interest. He thinks only the Christian life is the good life in that sense. But the aim is the best life in terms of self-interest.

While the members of earthly kingdom have self-interest as a root motivation, Augustine insists that the citizens of the city of God have a higher motivation. God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourself. The highest thing to want for oneself is to love God fully, since God is the most perfect good and most worth loving. Therefore, it counts as an equally high goal to want others to love God, from family to complete strangers. This requires being at peace with everyone, which in turn requires (negatively) seeking to do no harm to others and (positively) seeking to do good to others whenever possible, particularly in spheres when one has authority over others.

An ideal leader has in mind the best interests of those being led. Someone good at this is seeking to love the other as self, which means doing what's best for that person. That means that giving orders from an authority position, when done in the ideal way, is just helping that person along. This would be true of a political leader, a leader in a family, and those who oversee the work of others (which would include the master-slave relationship).

He provides little evaluation of the social structures of his day. There's no comment on whether slavery is the best form of handling the problems that led to its institution in the ancient world. There's no comment on whether households should be structured as they were. As we'll see, he also offers no view on what sort of government is best. These aren't the questions he's interested in. Augustine is seeking not to restructure the societal relationships of his day but to reverse how authority figures should think about their role in their relationship, so that they see themselves as serving those they lead instead of the more natural view that people manage other people in order to get the others to do whatever they want them to do.

This is the third post from the Right Reason series I did last year.

In my last post, I presented some background views of Augustine that will inform his views on the relationship between Christians and civil government. Before I move on to his specific treatment of that issue from City of God chapter 19, I want to look at two other related background issues in this post.

First, it's always worth remembering that for Augustine the ultimate governor of all things is God. In City of God 4.33, he dwells on the significance this has. If God is the governor over all creation, and God is omnipotent and has exhaustive foreknowledge (as Augustine thought), then nothing happens without at least God's permission. There's an ordering of events. This strong view of God's sovereignty required him to come up with something to say about the problem of evil, which he does spend a great deal of time on in other sections of City of God, but even without that additional work it's clear that Augustine doesn't think God sees everything that happens as morally good. It's just that it all somehow fits into a larger plan that God is in control of.

What political relevance does this have, then? God distributes worldly power irrespective of whether people are good or bad. We could tell that by just observing the world. Why would this be? One reason is that if only good people got it, then people would begin to expect such gifts from God, and that involves seeing worldly power as important. Augustine says it's not of any real importance, so it wouldn't do for God to promote it as if it is. So it gets distributed among people of various sorts to diminish the likelihood of people drawing that kind of conclusion.

Augustine thinks the Old Testament promises of land and other physical things to Israel have a hidden meaning of a spiritual reality, i.e. to be in the spiritual land is to be in God's kingdom as a citizen of a higher reality, etc. Those in the City of God, i.e. Christians, are not citizens of the earthly kingdom and do not primarily identify with it in terms of its mindset or desires (as I discussed in the last post).

After Augustine discusses the material I'm going to turn to in the next post, he looks at one issue that I wanted to have in front of us at the outset. In City of God 19.24, he looks at the expression "a people" (or at least the Latin expression translated as "a people"). He defines 'a people' as a group united by common goals, purposes, and loves. In part, he's responding to Cicero's definition that a society is a group united for the sake of serving justice. Augustine doesn't want to define it that way, because you can evaluate a people based on what its goals, purposes, and loves are. If it loves good things, it makes it a good people. If it loves bad things, it is a bad people. So you can't define a society as a group with good goals, as if other groups aren't societies. Any group with shared interests is a society. It's just that some societies are united by justice, while others are not.

Rome in its most corrupt state was still a people. True justice isn't present unless reason triumphs over what's not excellent. Ultimately for the best sort of justice, a people must love God, but it might make sense to speak of lesser forms of justice that involve something more virtuous than another people, even if neither truly loves God. So his distinction between (a) true peace that only the City of God looks forward to and (b) a semblance of peace in the earthly city corresponds to a distinction between (c) true justice that can occur only when fully and completely motivated by love for God (and won't appear fully even in the still-sinning members of the City of God here and now) and (d) a semblance of justice in the earthly city.

In City of God 4.4, Augustine defended the claim that unjust regimes are no more than criminal gangs on a large scale, and this account of what it is to be a people helps shed some light on that earlier passage. As Augustine sees it, an unjust government is nothing more than a bunch of criminals. The fact that they have much power and get to be called an empire makes no difference. The thing they have in common is that they are both groups organized around a common purpose, and in these two cases it's a bad purpose. His emphasis here is that empires can be no better than gangs. But the assumption behind this also means that gangs are like small scale societies, because they have the kind of common association that a society has. Just because the organizing principle doesn't line up with what's right doesn't mean that it's not a society. It's just a bad society.

So enough of the preliminaries. In the next post, I'll move to his main discussion of this issue in City of God 19.14-17.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 16, 2007 6:41 PM

[This post had no comments at the original Right Reason posting, so there are none to reproduce here.]

This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

I just discovered that the Right Reason blog is no longer online at all. It was a politically conservative philosophers' blog hosted at the same server that hosts this blog, and I knew that it had stopped producing new posts, but I didn't expect all the archives to disappear. I managed to recover all the content from the guest-posting I did toward the end of that blog last year, including the whole comment thread on each post. I didn't know about, but it apparently saves the content of any web page at various intervals so you can go back and check what was once there. So I'm going to be posting that series here on days when I have less time to blog new stuff. Here's the introductory post. I'll put the comments below the fold since this initial post led to quite a lengthy discussion despite its brevity.

Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Guest Posting)

I'm very happy to have been asked to contribute some guest posts to Right Reason for the next week or two. Max asked me to take on the theme Christianity and Politics, and I'd like to use this opportunity to explore Augustine's views on how Christians should relate politically to a religiously pluralist society. I think he has a lot to offer to those current debates, and his views line up nicely with my own in several ways. I don't expect just to present Augustine's views, however. I expect this to be as much about how I see myself as an evangelical and how I relate to the pluralist society we live in, including how religious views can affect both political discourse and ground my support for particular policies.

I imagine some readers of this blog know who I am, since my blog Parableman is listed in Right Reason's blogroll, but I'll say a little about myself for those who don't know me. I'm a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, working on a dissertation with Linda Alcoff on the metaphysics of race (and races). My primary philosophical background is in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of religion. In addition to my personal blog, which includes discussions of philosophy, politics, theology, and Christian apologetics, I contribute to the philosophy of religion blog Prosblogion, and I was part of the OrangePhilosophy blog when that was active.

On Thomas Aquinas' view of natural law, law is written into the fabric of the universe. On one level, everything that happens is part of divine law, since God's plan of providence includes every single event that happens across all time. Aquinas calls this eternal law. On a second level, certain things are good for us or bad for us according to our nature, according to what kind of thing we are and what would make for contributing to our welfare and the internal purpose within us as organisms and as God's creations. That's the natural law. Then human beings can issue legitimate rules that fit with what's best for us and seek the general welfare. If it meets all these criteria, then it's a human law. If it's issued by someone without care for those it includes or if it's not for the general good or reasonable, then it's a real law. Otherwise, it's just a rule. He's got high standards for when a purported human law really is a law.

One of the aspects of this that I hadn't seen until this summer, when I covered a more extensive part of his treatment of this in what's called the Treatise of Law (but is really just a section of the Summa Theologiae, and he gave it no such title) is that he also allows for custom to generate laws. When he introduces the notion of legitimate authority to make laws, he says there are two ways this can happen. One way is that someone (singular or plural) God has placed in care over a group issues a rule that really is for the common good. The other way is that people issue a regulation over themselves. In contemporary times, we hear that and think he's talking about democracy. He surely knew of the ancient democracies, since he education would have included quite a bit about the ancient world. But that turns out not to be his primary concern when he says this. He actually means custom.

We have lots of rules by custom rather than by what we ordinarily call law. I'm pretty sure there were men's and women's restrooms before there were any laws about who can go in which in public buildings. If I'm wrong, there are lots of examples that are like that. It's not illegal in the U.S. to call people ordinary insults, but it's often immoral, and it's against custom if it's a certain kind of insult or a certain kind of context (in the middle of a job interview, say). We as a society have standards not to do things that aren't illegal. They're just frowned on, and you get ostracized or socially penalized if you do them.

What I found interesting about Aquinas on this subject is that he thinks this can go the other way too. If a certain action is worth prohibiting for the common good and is made a law (a genuine law) but then becomes against the common good, what was a law becomes merely a rule. But what about when no one follows a law, and those in authority tolerate such behavior? The movie theater in the mall near us hasn't allowed backpacks in the theater since a little after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At least that's their official policy. But no one enforces it, and lots of people don't keep it. I think Aquinas would see that as custom determining what the real human law is, and I think that's a very interesting view. It also has implications for speed limit laws in a jurisdiction where the police don't stop people for going 5 over or 10 over, and everyone drives that fast because they know where the threshold for being stopped is. On Aquinas' view, it's as if the law really is where they practice it as being, not where it's written to be. (Of course, all this depends on the custom's practice being consistent with the common good. If not, then custom couldn't modify written law in this sort of way.)

A while ago (June 5, to be exact), NPR's All Things Considered had a piece on punishing kids in school by making them learn Robert Frost. It was intended partly as a way to make the kids learn more. They included several responses to the policy. One response caught my interest. It said that such a policy ends up agreeing with all the high school dropouts that education is bad. After all, it can't be a punishment unless it's bad. The problem with this punishment is that education isn't punishment.

This is a common enough view, and it has interesting implications for theories of punishment. In particular, it seems to undermine restorative, rehabilitative models of punishment. It doesn't undermine the view that we should seek to restore and rehabilitate criminals. It does undermine the view that we should call it punishment when we do so. It seems to me that the main assumption lying behind this slogan is that education isn't punishment, because education isn't retribution.

Given some of the stuff Wink is working on, I thought this was an interesting presentation of a popular intuition about punishment that runs counter to how he's trying to think about punishment.

Plato the Non-Totalitarian

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It's pretty common to hear that Plato was a totalitarian who thought that philosopher-kings ought to be given the decision-making power in government (e.g. here, for a pretty prominent mention at a top blog), so that the ordinary joes who don't know any better won't be doing what's bad for everyone, including themselves. No laws should restrict these benevolent tyrants, since laws just get in the way of allowing them to make the best decisions. Laws are too sweeping and won't apply as well in every case, and philosopher-kings would be wise enough to see when a given principle does or doesn't apply.  As I said, this is a common mistake. This isn't actually Plato's view, even though someone reading only the Republic might be excused for thinking Plato did hold to something like this (although I think you do have to ignore some clear signs even in the Republic if you want to take Plato to be advocating the model of the city he sets up there).

In Plato's careful political philosophy (e.g. in the Statesman and the Laws), he distances himself from this view. He does think an ideal government would function something like that, but he acknowledges that this is only the ideal government. If you really had an expert who not only knew all the relevant information and could predict exactly which policies would be best but also had the best interests of everyone involved and were willing to do what's right all the time, then the best form of government would be to let that person rule, and those who resisted would be revealing that they don't know what's best for them.

Many will still bristle at this, but I think they ought to do so only if they recognize that Plato was highly skeptical about whether anyone could possibly be like this. Even if there were such experts no one could ever be shown to be such an expert, because the masses who aren't experts of that sort won't be able to recognize that the expert's views are correct (because they're not themselves experts). Therefore, most people wouldn't be able to tell the expert from the corrupt imposter. Therefore, to guard against that eventuality, it's best to have the inferior form of rule, which is rule by many who are not experts. Plato outright admits this in the Statesman, quite plainly repudiating the view that so many attribute to him because of their misreading of the Republic.

As I said, many will still disagree with him about what the ideal state would be like, but they ought to do so not in terms of his faux view put forward in the Republic, which is mostly intended to be a model that serves as an analogy for what he thinks the just person will be like. They ought to take his mature presentation of political discussion in his later dialogues, which are unambiguously about politics as a own subject of its own rather than the moral philosophy and exploration of human nature that the Republic carries out.

A little while ago I had lots of things to say about the judicial nominee battle going on in the Senate and the claims by some of the Democratic senators, most prominently Senator Schumer, about the process of confirming the newest two Supreme Court justices. I didn't have the time to type up any of my thoughts, and it feels a bit late now. However, one thing I did want to say something about is the interesting reversal of roles that we see when the Senate shifts leadership and each party complains about the tactics of the other side. See Jan Crawford Greenburg's post here for some nice examples.

You might classify the views on such matters in terms of two pure positions. One is the view Senator Chuck Schumer (D, NY) has been consistent in holding (although his application of it leaves much to be desired, in my view). According to him, there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting nominees to violate the current norm among judicial nominees not to comment on potential future cases or on issues one expects might come before the court one will be seated on. In the Roberts and Alito hearings, he pressed for details on whether they believe certain rights are established in the Constitution, whether they would be willing to overturn certain precedents, whether they thought particular cases were wrongly decided, and so on. They refused in many of these cases to go beyond the standard they both believed to have been presented by now-Justice Ginsburg's nomination process a decade-and-change earlier. Their reasoning is that commenting on what may be central to forthcoming cases will threaten their perception as unbiased judges, since those whose cases will be heard will think the justices' minds are already made up and will not give them a chance. But this is not the reasoning of the other pure view on such matters.

The alternative view is not merely that there is a convention among judges not to engage in such prediction out of fairness to parties in future cases. The alternative pure view is that it is simply not the business of the Senate in confirming judicial nominees to engage in partisan politics. That is for the president to be concerned with, since it is his election that determined who would nominate judges for any vacancies. The Senate's role is merely to safefuard the president's choices against serious corruption and ethical issues and to ensure that the nominees are qualified to carry out the tasks required of them. Deference is given to the president's nominee. The primary objection to this view is that the Senate is also an elected body, and they are elected for partisan reasons to present partisan considerations for or against what the Senate might do, including for or against judicial nominees in their role of advising and consenting. It is thus within their authority to question nominees who are both qualified and not corrupt simply because they disagree with the nominee on issues of legal philosophy.

I think the latter issue is an interesting debate in constitutional interpretation. The Constitution's text merely says that the Senate will advise and consent to the president's nominees. It doesn't give a reason why. It doesn't indicate what process the Senate will engage in before giving their consent or their advice. It doesn't say if the advice and consent are different stages of a two-step process. Those things are all not in the text of the Constitution but are in the Senate's current practice of carrying out this role. I don't know anything about the legal background to this sort of thing and whether English common law explains it. I don't know anything about the debates in the constitutional committees over this language and what light that sheds on it. I don't know anything about whether the federalist papers explain what some of the founders were thinking of as they argued for this kind of wording. In short, I am woefully unqualified to have much of a view about what the Constitution really means by saying this. If I were to go by what I take from it merely by reading the words, I'd be inclined to think that the Senate ought to give advice to the president and then confirm whoever the president selects.

Unitary Executive

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Ilya Somin nicely clears up some confusions about what's commonly called the unitary executive. There are two issues: the scope of executive power and its distribution. The unitary executive view is that the president's authority over the executive (an intra-executive issue) is absolute. I would have thought this to be absolutely clear in the Constitution, but apparently some disagree. A separate issue is about the scope of executive power. How much authority does the executive has with respect to the other branches (an inter-branch issue)? In other words, unitary executive allows the president sovereign control over what happens within the executive branch, but this other view sees the executive power as expansive in a way that many find controversial. The problem is that many people keep calling the latter view by the term "unitary executive".

Somin says:

As Alito explains, one can consistently support a unitary executive with a narrow range of powers (which is roughly my position). One can also consistently support a unitary executive with very broad, almost unlimited powers (John Yoo's view, and also that of the Bush Administration). You could - also consistently - endorse a nonunitary executive with broad powers. The latter was the position of liberal Democrats during the New Deal and for many years afterwards, when they endorsed both broad executive power and the creation of numerous executive agencies outside presidential control.

Is there an example of someone who both denies the unitary executive and thinks the executive has a limited role? Given that both positions serve to limit the president, perhaps hardly anyone seeks to try both ways at doing so, but I'm curious whether someone has tried.

I've finally gotten back to continuing my series at Right Reason with Religious Motivations in Politics. Given the Augustinian framework I've already presented, Christians have a motivation to seek the good of our neighbor around us by participating politically based on what we believe to be good, which does in part come from religious motivations. The post spends most of its time responding to objections that this is immoral because it forces a moral view on those who don't have it and that a secular society (or a religiously plural society) should not allow such a thing.

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).


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