Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 4:02 PM
Obviously we’ve all been thinking a lot lately about Tocqueville’s problem of the democratic state recognizing no other institutions as roughly coequal sources of social legitimacy and power. Society needs what Neuhaus and Berger called “mediating institutions” that preserve some social space between the state and the individual. Alone against the state, the naked individual has no hope–so much so that the will of the state becomes identified with the general good and the individual ceases even to be able to think in terms where resistance could be legitimate.
There’s one passage in Tocqueville that puts this issue in stark relief. Tocqueville points out that in the old European aristocracies, the minor nobility used to serve as zones of relative resistance to the king. The princes and dukes and whatnot would collect around them, in their households and social spheres, all the people who were out of favor with the king. Tocqueville was worried because in a democracy, while there were many mediating institutions worthy of celebration (the family, the church, voluntary associations, etc.) there were no institutions of the same kind as the state that nonetheless stood apart from the state, as a duke holds a station of the same kind as a king yet stands apart from him.
Why does “of the same kind” matter? Because that’s what prevents the big authority from interfering too much with the little authority. (more…)
Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 10:48 PM
Matt Anderson has a bee in his bonnet. The apostles of the Third Way – you know the type – have lately been pushing yet another effort to recycle the idea that “conservatism” is dead among young evangelicals because they despise “culture war.” For two weeks, Matt has been posting about the prospects for what he calls “non-culture war conservatism.” Today he attempts a summary post in which he boils it down to four “moves”:
- Recover a robust doctrine of creation.
- Emphasize the moral imagination.
- Remember the church has its own political order.
- Reframe American exceptionalism around America’s responsibilities, not its virtues.
Now, I am a pretty strongly conservative fellow myself, and I yield place to no one in distaste for seeing a combination of intellectual laziness and moral cowardice dressed up and paraded around as a superior alternative to responsible political engagement. And I regard Matt as one of the most promising young evangelical writers of the young generation.
That said, I have to say that I don’t think Matt has quite cracked the nut he’s working on. Matt wants to demonstrate that conservatism has something constructive to say about our present dilemma. But take a fresh look at his list and ask: what is “conservative” about it?
I like all four of these “moves” and support all of them. What I want to know is why we should label them “conservative” and thus decrease the chances of partnering with our progressive friends to promote them. I’m a conservative, but being a good Christian and a good citizen of my country come first. I view these four “moves” as being on that more fundamental level rather than on the level of ideological dispute.
This matters for reasons I’ve discussed at more length elsewhere; for now I’ll just say that we need to avoid absolutizing political disagreement, and we do that when we redefine the basic commitments of virtious participation in the social order as “conservative.”
Knowing what I know about Matt, I expect he would say (I’m putting words in his mouth; he’s free to spit them out if he likes) that a robust doctrine of creation is conservative because it attributes an integrity to the human social order, making it something worth conserving. Yet a robust doctrine of creation also gives us an external standard against which to judge the social order as we find it – a standard toward which we should presumably wish the social order to make progress.
I expect (getting a little more speculative here) Matt would say the moral imagination is conservative because it puts us back in touch with a natural moral standard, something like C.S. Lewis’s “tao,” as against attempts to reengineer human morality. Yet those who have sought to reengineer human morality have done so through manipulation of the moral imagination at least as often – if not more so – as through philosophical ideologies and so forth. What differentiates Matt’s appeal to moral imagination from Romanticism?
I expect he’d say safeguarding the church’s distinct political order is conservative because it preserves an institution that to some extent stands outside the tides of social change (yelling Stop, perhaps). Yet this kind of move is made more often by radicals than conservatives, as Matt himself notes. Nothing is more radical, more anti-conservative, than the reactionary. As a further illustration, on top of the examples Matt himself mentions, I would point to the continuing importance of implicitly totalitarian Marxist thought categories in the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre.
Surely American exceptionalism is conservative? It is when we define it in terms of America’s virtues. It becomes much less obviously so when we define it, as I agree we should define it, in terms of America’s responsibilities.
Matt sounds like he’s trying to get the bee in his bonnet to quiet down; I hope I’ve sufficiently stirred the hornet’s nest to prompt further reflections. I don’t want him to unsay anything he has said, but I do want to hear why he thinks these good ideas are “conservative,” and whether he thinks there are principles of good citizenship that transcend ideological boundaries.
Monday, April 30, 2012, 5:50 PM
An exchange in The Corner over the weekend between Kevin Williamson and Matthew Franck encapsulates how the dynamic between economic and social conservatives often becomes dysfunctional. Here’s how it went down:
- Williamson made fun of a post at the Atlantic that was breathlessly amazed Romney would have a gay man as an adviser, even on foreign policy.
- Franck responded raising alarm that the adviser in question is an aggressive advocate of gay marriage.
- Williamson argued that people who support gay marriage should be welcome in the foreign policy apparatus, and went on to make an extended series of arguments for why the marriage debate should be low priority for conservatives.
- Franck’s rejoinder argued that the marriage debate is core to liberty and should be an extremely high priority.
These are serious posts by serious people and there’s a lot of substance in them to chew over, if you’re interested in the marriage debate vis-a-vis conservatism and how social and economic issues relate to one another. But there’s one other issue I really want to highlight.
Franck makes the point that the outcome of the marriage debate will hinge… (more…)
Tuesday, March 6, 2012, 9:45 AM
The Supreme Court declared in 2010 that public universities must permit religious student clubs to select leaders who share their faith. UNC-Greensboro is now getting around this by declaring that a Christian student club isn’t really religious.
On what grounds? It isn’t affiliated with a church.
Other schools are apparently pursuing this strategy as well. Expect to hear more about it.
This is closely related to the problem Nathaniel Peters wrote about on Friday. Peters was writing about the recent HHS decision to require almost every institution in America other than churches to become abortion providers. He made the case that if we base our objections to this on our own conscience rights, we may absolutize the privatization of moral principles, such that the public square is no longer responsible to any standard of right and wrong.
Alongside that problem, place this correlative problem: if we make claims based on the special role of religious institutions in society, we may invite unlimited oppression of all other institutions besides those that conform to the narrowest possible definition of “religious.”
This is not just relevant at UNC. In the debate over the HHS mandate, we’ve been maneuvered into defending a special right for “religious” institutions not to be forced to become abortion providers. All we’re doing is quibbling over the definition of “religious institution.” What about all the other institutions that aren’t “religious institutions” in the narrow sense, but are staffed by human beings (yes, even profit-making businesses are staffed by human beings) who are now required by federal law to become part of the abortion industry?
Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 3:20 PM
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the government wants to classify pregnancy as a disease. It’s the logical consequence of the way our culture externalizes responsibility for sex.
When I was a teenager, I was not yet a Christian but I was very pro-life. Among several formative influences, I recall with particular clarity one televised head-to-head on abortion in which a spokeswoman for a pro-abortion group, in place of offering any kind of argument, simply told her life story. “I was sixteen,” she began, “and I found myself pregnant.”
That’s odd, I thought. You just woke up pregnant one morning? Just like that? No cause? Wow. Maybe the Christians are right about virgin birth; they just don’t know that it’s still happening!
Having not yet come to faith, I did not yet know that it’s a duty to maintain a charitable disposition. I would not, today, strike such a snide attitude (or at least I pray that I wouldn’t). But I think that I wasn’t wrong to react negatively to the externalization of responsibility.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think this convenient locution “found herself pregnant” (FHP) is becoming more common. (more…)
Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 6:03 PM
The mandate to finance pharmaceutical abortion (and contraception) impacts the religious freedom of all Americans - not just Roman Catholics, not just Christians, not just religious believers, and not just those who work in institutions that are formally religious (and which are therefore impacted by the present “conscience clause” debate). We’re not pleading for special rights as members of some particular religious affiliation or institution. We’re claiming rights all human beings share, and that all Americans have a speical stake in as citizens of the nation most profoundly dedicated to religious freedom.
Even so, William F. Gavin’s comment on The Corner made me laugh out loud:
The obviously exasperated president didn’t even bother to come up with a good cover story. (One could almost hear him say, “Who will free me from these turbulent bishops?”)
My evangelical ears didn’t miss the subtle hat tip. Now that’s a form of ecumenism I can really get behind. Evangelicals and Catholics together!
Friday, February 10, 2012, 3:24 PM
Ho, hum – another day, another brilliant piece by Jordan Ballor on the relationship between a well functioning economy and a well functioning community. Yesterday Joseph Knippenberg noted this piece; today, Ballor strikes again:
Indeed, it was not very long into Dreher’s sojourn into small-town America that the limitations of the small, local, old, and particular became painfully obvious. As if on cue, less than a month into his new community, Dreher complained of the “frustratingly slow” Internet access in his house. You can perhaps imagine the gravity of the situation: “We had to cancel Netflix, because we can’t stream. My iPad apps can’t update, and have been permanently hung up for weeks (I’ve rebooted the iPad several times, to no avail). Skyping is very spotty. You can’t watch any online video, even YouTube, without transmission being interrupted.”
Dreher is savvy enough to realize how these complaints sound, and defends himself on the grounds that “given the line of work I’m in—media—I have to have reliable broadband access to do my job efficiently.” It seems when it comes to our professions, sometimes efficiency does trump simplicity after all. So much for Slow Journalism.
Dreher’s frustration in this situation illustrates in microcosm how deeply the contemporary communitarian conservative impulse relies on the technological innovations made possible by global trade…
But even as the irony of the Internet illustrates the deep dependence of communitarian conservatives on technological innovation, largely made possible by global markets, market conservatives are no less dependent on the insights of social conservatives…Market conservatism is not reducible to libertinism. But neither do Crunchy Cons corner the market on communitarian conservatism.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012, 3:08 PM
Mitt Romney continues to follow his campaign strategy based on emulating Mr. Collins by once again saying the very worst thing you can say. It’s like watching ten or twenty years of hard-won progress in teaching the people who understand economics how not to talk about poverty go right down the drain in front of your eyes.
This is not really about substance, this is about language. But language matters. A lot! People use stories to organize their lives. One of their stories is that good people care about the poor and bad people don’t. It’s a good story! (In fact, you can read about it in a good book.)
So you have to show people that you’re part of that story. Once you’ve shown them that, you can then move on and show them that there are a few chapters of the story that they haven’t read yet – the ones about what really works and what doesn’t in actually helping the poor. (more…)
Tuesday, January 24, 2012, 11:04 AM
…and if that post title doesn’t generate hits, I don’t know what will.
Yesterday, a friend who watches politics very closely proposed the following unified field theorem of the GOP nomination race: The GOP is Elizabeth Bennett. Mitt Romney is Darcy, wealthy and powerful – on paper, he’s not just highly marriagable, he’s everything the family needs in a match for one of their daughters. But he’s boring and off-putting. Could she really be happy with him? Gingrich is
Willoughby Wickham [oops]; superficially he comes across (at least to some) as exciting, intelligent and someone who really understands her and what she wants. But he’s irresponsible and dishonest. Marriage to him would certainly be a disaster. His chief role is to remind Elizabeth how boring and off-putting Darcy is by comparison.
I offered a countertheory. Gingrich as the irresponsible Wickham, yes. But to my mind, Romney is Mr. Collins. Just like Darcy, Collins is a very attractive match on paper; just like Darcy, Collins comes across as boring and off-putting at first. The difference is that Darcy’s social ineptitude masked depths that Elizabeth would later delight to discover; with Mr. Collins, what you see is what you get. Remember the BBC version, where Elizabeth’s friend who married Collins describes how she’s very well taken care of, things are very pleasant, and oh by the way, she arranges every aspect of her home life to minimize the amount of time she sees her husband? Yeah, that’s what a GOP marriage to Romney would be like.
I think this has the makings of a great parlor game! Here’s my next contribution: Mitch Daniels is the early Darcy, the Darcy of the first half of the story. He’s overwhelmed with an ardent desire to propose to Elizabeth, but dutifully restrains his passions because of a prior restraint imposed by a domineering and possibly somewhat unbalanced family member. The difference is that Daniels hasn’t manned up and proposed (yet).
The possibilities are endless. Possibly Rick Perry as Bingley, who looked good on paper (Texas economy growing explosively) but turned out to be a tongue-tied amiable dunce? But Bingley is a pushover, and no one calls Perry that. I’m still working on it!
How do we fit Ron Paul and Rick Santorum into this equasion? Who represents, say, Mr. Bennett?
Is my political nerdiness showing? At least the humor value distracts me from the depressing reality, which Bret Stephens sums up devastatingly in his column today arguing that the GOP deserves to lose. I find it difficult to resist the conclusion that he’s right.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012, 1:47 PM
Matthew Schmitz errs when he suggests, in his critique of the Wall Street Journal editors, that the Journal‘s position is dishonest. The editors have not only made the morally right case, they have been honest and consistent in doing so. Schmitz doesn’t see this because he has misunderstood the case.
Schmitz admits, in the face of Robert Miller’s refutation, that R.R. Reno was wrong to suggest that the position taken by the editors can only be justified by moral relativism. (more…)
Tuesday, December 20, 2011, 9:49 AM
Over on TGC I offer some thoughts on what the European financial crisis has to do with theology:
All this culminated in cultures that made productivity—improving the lives of others by responding to their authentic needs—central to both individual and national identity. Scriptural treatment of this topic is extensive. Everything from the image of God to the Trinity to the prophets and parables is implicated in understanding productivity. Christians believe human beings are made in the image of a Father who creates from nothing; this explains why human work creates wealth rather than just moving it around. Christians believe in a divine Son who joined in mystical union with temporal and material humanity. Material activities like economic work are not separate from, and inferior to, “spiritual” activities. And Christians believe in a Spirit who liberates us from selfishness; this explains why life works best when people orient their daily lives around serving others.
Including some practical thoughts about what pastors can do about the crisis without overstepping the bounds of their proper role as pastors (not experts in politics and policy).
Monday, December 19, 2011, 5:34 PM
I first “met” Vaclav Havel in a political philosophy class. We were assigned The Memorandum. Do yourself - and your funny bone! – a favor and commemorate the great man’s passing by reading this hilarious sendup of the bureaucratic face of tyranny. It’s the most delightful satire you’ll ever read on what organizations run strictly on power are like.
Also, ROFTers may be especially interested in his lectures A Sense of the Transcendent and The Need for Trascendence in the Postmodern World.
His classic, The Power of the Powerless, is strictly for the hardcore reader; you have to skip over a lot of that dense Euro-verbiage that uses a lot of long, fancy words to say what could be better said in fewer and clearer words. But the book’s very history is really an amazing thing. He wrote a book about how he was going to bring down the Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia, then he went out and did what he wrote. It’s like the good guys’ version of Hitler writing Mein Kampf and then going out and doing it.
Finally, since the new issue of FT features the inestimable Charles Glenn on why religious liberty requires the end of the government school monopoly, I won’t scruple to link to my own thoughts on what education reformers can learn from Havel – especially about school choice.
Friday, December 16, 2011, 4:15 PM
Although I prefer America’s stricter model of religious freedom to England’s, which might be characterized as the civil theology equivalent of the “strategic ambiguity” approach in foreign affairs, I was moved by Prime Minister David Cameron’s articulation of the English model in his speech on the occasion of the 400th anniverary of the King James Bible.
Cameron combines frankness about personal doubt and robustness in asserting the moral basis of civil justice. I don’t share his doubts, but I think those who have doubts should feel comfortable expressing them – and more to the point, it’s imperative that we not substitute inquiry into our leaders’ personal faith for inquiry into their commitment to the shared moral order that we look to them to uphold. Many leaders whose personal faith is unquestionable have failed, time and again, to show courage and perseverance in merely upholding bare justice. And many who clearly lack personal faith have been tireless and self-sacrificing moral leaders for justice and freedom.
Aside from his defense of the whole “Christian nation” thing, which means something different in England than it does here anyway, why can’t America produce leaders who talk like this?
Monday, December 5, 2011, 5:10 PM
One of the aphorisms attributed to Martin Luther in German folklore states that after a man falls off his horse on the left side, the next time he falls off it will be on the right side.
In his gracious reply to what was, I admit, a provocatively worded critique of his post on engineering in modernity, Jace Yarbrough asks me for my thoughts on this question:
Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 10:38 AM
I just came across this fascinating article by a Christian engineer, Jace Yarbrough, about “why we don’t have more engineers.” The shortage of good engineers has been the subject of intense effort for decades, yet the supply has stubbornly refused to increase. In addition to two factors that are already widely appreciated—engineering is intrinsically difficult so few can do it, and it is relatively impervious to artificial grade inflation; and engineering schools are often unnecessarily unwelcoming toward many students who could become engineers—Yarbrough offers a third. Few people want to be engineers, he suggests, because engineering means exploiting God’s creation for humanity’s selfish ends.
That many Christians have internalized this deeply unbiblical, implicitly Gnostic negative view of technological progress is not news. What is shocking about this article, however, is that this person has internalized it, and has done so in a particular way.
Monday, November 14, 2011, 12:29 PM
Remember the Atlas Shrugged movie from this spring? More than 100,000 copies are sitting on store shelves right now with a title card that reads “AYN RAND’s timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice comes to life…”
Because we all know Ayn Rand is all about self-sacrifice!
The company behind the movie is offering free replacement title cards to anyone who requests them. The replacements will read: “AYN RAND’s timeless novel of rational self-interest comes to life…”
Don’t laugh too loudly! Let he who has never goofed up in print cast the first stone. I once let a report go out the door with a typographical error in which the letter “l” was missing from “public.” Not in just one place, mind you, but in the header at the top of every single page in the document. Beware the dangers of spell check!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011, 9:35 AM
My response to Sam Gregg on “Locke, Metaphysics and the Challenge of America” is up. What I’d like to stress is that this is not ultimately an argument about John Locke. It’s an argument about the deep methodological questions involved in critiquing a society from a metaphysical standpoint:
The impulse to set up an exclusive clique of metaphysically approved thinkers and then devote our energies to “policing the border,” affirming only our favorites while consigning all others to the outer darkness, is not only unsound on the merits, it will also cut off our essentially Lockean society from the sources of cultural nourishment that it is most likely to be able to draw from…If all we do is emphasize that Locke has nothing morally or metaphysically significant to say, we will not only be stating a falsehood, we will be ensuring our own irrelevance…Indeed, we will be significantly helping our enemies…
Backfill here, here, here, here, and here.
Being myself a convert (in philosophical, not theological terms) away from voluntarism and nominalism to more metaphysically sound approaches, I am better positioned than most to appreciate the damage done to Locke’s thought by those influences. As Shakespeare wrote:
Friday, August 19, 2011, 11:01 AM
A nasty shooting war over education is emerging between Education Secretary Arne Duncan and new presidential entrant Rick Perry. Although other issues are in the foreground, the broader backdrop is Duncan’s effort to set himself up as a one-man legislature versus Perry’s ferocious resistance to national control.
But the backdrop behind the backdrop is the deep estrangement between the two moral/metaphysical cultural coalitions that coexist (barely) in this country but don’t trust one another or strongly “own” one another as fellow citizens. This is why policy nationalization inevitably produces a vicious culture war, and that is exactly what has happened here.
If you read First Thoughts, you read it here first! (Unless you also read Public Discourse, in which case you may have read it there first.)
Friday, July 29, 2011, 11:51 AM
Samuel Gregg has a really great piece on The Public Discourse this morning, deconstructing my qualified defense of Locke here on First Thoughts. (See also)
This is serious stuff and I’ll be composing a full-dress reply to run over on PD. In the meantime, let me thank Gregg for investing the time and effort to compose this analysis. How we understand Locke is critical to our understanding of where we are now, how we got here, and where we want to go next. I agreed in my original post that Locke has deficiencies, and while I’m still going to end up disagreeing with Gregg on a lot of points, he’s pushed me to reexamine some things and I anticipate that I’ll be coming down somewhere slightly different from where I was before. The focal point is going to be opening up the question of exactly what we mean by “social contract theory” and to what extent the concept of contract was central for Locke – as well as to what extent the concept of contract means something very different now than it did in the late 17th century. Stay tuned!
Tuesday, July 19, 2011, 1:54 PM
In the Corner, Glenn Stanton comments on the juvenile snickering in some quarters about Dr. Marcus Bachmann, whose professional practice includes – as one thing among much else - helping people cope with unwanted same-sex desires. There’s no particular reason you would have heard of Dr. Bachmann, but you may have heard something somewhere about his wife. (I believe she has some sort of political job or something of that nature.)
After carrying out the standard-issue demolition of the offenders (and doing a rollicking good job of it) Stanton adds:
Over the past eight years, I have debated the issue of same-sex marriage and parenting on college campuses around the nation as part of my work at Focus on the Family. I cannot recount how many times people in the audience came to the microphone to question my own sexual orientation because in their mind, it is self-evident that anyone who makes such a careful study of why homosexuality might not be best for folks must obviously be wrestling with his own issues, right? One gentleman even threw in my obvious innate sense of fashion and style as another smoking gun. Seriously. But like Marcus, I also have a hot wife and five offspring we created and are raising together. Might they merely be a cover for something I am yet to realize? I wish the really smart people would let me know.
Glenn, how are we supposed to tell you whether you’re gay when you withhold from us information that is obviously critical to the diagnosis? Namely: is your hot wife running for president? If so, for which party?
Come on, Glenn. Your reluctance to disclose every aspect of your marital life to public scrutiny only confirms how uncomfortable you must be with your sexuality. Normal people love to be publicly hypersexualized. Becoming an iconic representation of some aspect of public sexual consciousness is the American dream. What else is there?
Friday, July 15, 2011, 2:54 PM
My first thought on reading the emerging discussion on David Brooks‘ column is: Obviously Brooks is thinking through the lens of a limited anthropology, but he’s an interlocutor worth engaging. Let’s pull apart some of what it says and see where it leads.
For example: the discussion concerns Dudley Clendinen, who is foregoing treatment for ALS because he would rather die than become “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.” The comment by Brooks that has drawn a lot of attention is:
Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.
In making this comment, Brooks skips over an interesting question: can a person who is “conscious” but unable to move “do activities with others”?
Suppose your loved one were in this state. Would you leave him to rot alone in the hospital? Or organize all his family and friends to come in and talk to him, read, maybe just hold his hand and be present?
At an even more basic level, there’s prayer. As you know if you’ve spent any time with people whose physical capacities are radically diminished, prayer is a vital, life-sustaining human activity. And it is not something you do alone but something you “do with others” – three of them! No one is ever really “self-enclosed” unless he chooses to be.
So then: isn’t a society in which the default social expectation is to rally to people whose physical capacities are diminished going to be radically different from a society in which the default social expectation is that they should rid us of their troublesome selves? And is the way we deal with these issues in public policy contributing to a change in the default social expectation?
I actually think there is a real sense in which Brooks is right that when you can no longer “do things,” you are no longer alive. Life cannot be reduced to an ontological status. We just need to help people broaden their perspective on what counts as doing things.
[Addendum: This was poorly phrased. I can't do things while I'm asleep, but I'm still alive. I should have said that the ability to do things is a necessary part of an understanding of what human life is.]
How profoundly the Bible transforms our understanding of what it is to be human! And those who don’t receive the Bible can gain some measure of this wisdom at secondhand if we engage them in constructive conversation.
Friday, July 1, 2011, 5:42 PM
In today’s Journal, Peter Berkowitz comments on the recent Supreme Court decision on selling violent video games to children. He doesn’t say explicitly what side he’s on (if any) but he does come off as much more in sympathy with the dissenters; at any rate he stressees the need to protect the role of the family as the institution primarily responsible for the nurturing of good human beings and good citizens.
Not to beat a dead horse, but let me point out that Berkowitz correctly identifies Locke as the major philosophical source of the formative role of families as incubators of human and civic virtue in the American constitutional order:
John Locke, the 17-century British philosopher whose views on political liberty helped shape the U.S. Constitution, attached much less importance to art. And unlike Plato and Aristotle, he maintained that cultivating citizens’ minds and character went beyond government’s legitimate function.
But Lockean liberty, no less than Plato’s republic and Aristotle’s well-blended polity, depends on moral education. As Justice Thomas points out in his dissent, Locke wrote in his highly influential “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” that the family was the unit essentially responsible for children’s education. For Locke and for the American founders, the proper exercise of parental authority meant inculcating in young citizens the virtues that allow for the responsible exercise of liberty.
In fact, Berkowitz goes too far when he writes that for Locke “cultivating citizens’ minds and character went beyond government’s legitimate function.” That’s not true; there were plenty of things – intellectual and moral alike – Locke thought were so essential to the integrity of the civic community that he strongly supported using political action, including criminal law, to support them.
On the “minds” side, his Letter Concerning Toleration contains a laundry list of opinions that can legitimately be suppressed by law because they ipso facto make the person who holds them hostile to the civil community. Examples include support for tyranny, opposition to religious toleration, expressions of loyalty to a hostile foreign power, and atheism. Now, I think there is a strong case to be made that Locke’s main argument for religious toleration commits him to positions that are inconsistent with using criminal law against opinions even when those opinions are hostile to the civil community; but whether or not it was inconsistent of him to do so, he did think government could “cultivate citizens’ minds” in this way.
On the “character” side, Locke supported criminal sanctions on all sorts of issues that today we would classify as “moral issues.” This was, of course, integrated with his support for the family as the primary institution of character building. But the family needed strong support from the law where appropriate, and Locke was not hesitant to provide it. Not only was he in favor of criminalizing all the usual sexual crimes (adultery, etc.) but he also held that the natural law absolutely requires all governments, regardless of the particular circumstances of their societies, to forbid divorce in cases where minor children are still present in the home.
Why is this important? Because you cannot just make up a new political community from scratch. If we want to humanize the civil order again, we have to humanize the civil order we have, not some imaginary new one. And the American civil order is a Lockean order. To the extent that we can dig up its actual historical foundations, rather than trying to import new ones, the more we can do that, the better.
Obviously adjustments will need to be made. In spite of his foundational commitment to religious freedom, Locke is Protestant and his philosophical apparatus does make Protestant assumptions in some cases that will need fixing to accomodate real pluralism. Also, while Locke is not as metaphysically flat as many believe, he is not as metaphysically robust as we need; his command approach to ethics is insufficient by itself. (I would add that a virtue approach to ethics is equally insufficient by itself; both are needed.)
But while the American constitutional order must adjust its philosophical foundations to meet these realities, first there must be something present to be adjusted. If we don’t first understand what it is we are adjusting, we’ll never make progress. The real Locke has to be dug up and understood before the process of adjustment can truly proceed.
Monday, June 27, 2011, 6:06 PM
John Locke’s time is past, suggests Sam Gregg in The Public Discourse last week. Social contract theory has been the formative influence on American political thought, and our current debates can be broadly generalized as debates between the two poles of that tradition, with Locke on one end and Rawls on the other. Gregg points out the vacuity of Rawls; I would add that serious political theorists have long since recognized not only his vacuity, but his implicit political totalism (see, for example, Allan Bloom’s classic evisceration). And if this were just Rawls-bashing, I’d be having too much fun to contribute a response. But Gregg thinks we need to move beyond the social contract tradition entirely; Locke may be better than Rawls, but Gregg asserts that he doesn’t have what we need – a vision of human flourishing. Gregg would prefer to develop a new approach in which subsidiarity, not social contract, provides the formative theoretical construction.
Your humble servant begs to differ. The basic problem here is that Gregg, like most people, is talking about a cardboard cutout “Locke” that bears no relationship to the actual historical John Locke or his writings. There are, certainly, deficiencies in Locke. And I’m not sure whether “social contract” as such will continue to be the constitutive framework for political theory in the 21st century, given the state of degredation into which it has fallen. But I am quite sure that whatever framework does emerge will be one that drinks deeply from the Lockean well.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011, 1:55 PM
Attention theologians and philosophers: a critique of Augustine’s theology of time helps the school choice movement develop better political strategy.
Special bonus: find out what America can learn from beauty queens about the best approach to teaching creation and evolution!
Friday, May 13, 2011, 11:26 AM
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Krauthammer’s column today is about immigration, but it’s also about political civility. It makes me wonder if the best way to become truly civil isn’t precisely to stop being “civil” as that concept is now defined, not by becoming uncivil but by striving for a different model of civility.
As Krauthammer observes, those who talk loudest about the need for “civil” discussion of political differences tend to be the worst offenders against real civility. Unfortunately, the whole discussion about the need for civility seems to have been captured by people (in both parties) who want to use it uncivilly to delegitimize their opponents. “Stop demonizing people!” is a great way to demonize people. More broadly, the narrative “I am reasonable and civil” makes a great counterpart to the narrative “my opponents are irrational and illegitimate, motivated by a combination of religious and ideological fanaticisms as well as pure lust for money and power.”
I’ll admit that for my whole adult life, the cultured despisers of incivility have irritated me. The word civility has meant, to me, a tool for (uncivilly) demonizing those of us who have strongly held opinions that are out of alignment with the reigning orthodoxy.
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