Saturday, January 28, 2012

A theological defense of freedom

I was going to write my own essay on this topic, but I found as I was reading The Brothers Karamazov that the chapter entitled "The Grand Inquisitor" says all I need to say and more. Ivan tells the story of The Grand Inquisitor, a priest during the Inquisition who finds that Jesus Christ (or one we may take to be Jesus) has returned and is healing people. Upon this discovery, the priest has Jesus arrested, and goes to address his prisoner:
"'Is it Thou, Thou?' but receiving no answer, he adds at once, 'Don't answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou has come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost Thou know what will be tomorrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee and the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have today kissed Thy feet, tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire.

...'Didst Thou not often say then, "I will make you free"? But now Thou hast seen these "free" men,' the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile. 'Yes, we've paid dearly for it,' he goes on, looking sternly at Him, 'but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it's over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, today people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?'"
The Inquisitor goes on to explain to Jesus how during his trial in the wilderness, the three questions asked him by the devil were really the three questions which define mankind: the need for bread, the need for someone to worship, and the need for a figure of authority.
"They will find us and cry to us, 'Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven't given it!' ...And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.' They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them!

..."But only one who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom. In bread there was offered Thee an invincible banner; give bread, and man will worship thee, for nothing is more certain than bread. But if some one else gains possession of his conscience--oh! then he will cast away Thy bread and follow after him who has ensnared his conscience. In that Thou wast right. For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. That is true. But what happened? Instead of taking men's freedom fro them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all--Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men's freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide."
The Inquisitor goes on to explain to Jesus how the Church will correct his work, for they will take away their freedom, and they will gladly surrender it to them in exchange for happiness:
"Freedom, free thought and science, will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: 'Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!'
The whole story is very much worth the read.

It's worth noting that Ivan has some sympathy for the priest in this story. What if it is not sheer corruption that leads to the desire for more control, more power? What if it really is a desire to save humanity, because God cannot? Making human beings free often seems the worst punishment of all. If only we were instead taken care of!

Perhaps I'll still write my own theological defense of liberty, but Dostoevsky does what I could never do: he forces you to face the grand contradictions which make life what it is.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Layers of morals

A couple of days ago I commented on an article I read on the Huffington Post, in which Jeffrey Sachs argued that libertarians are too single-minded in their defense of liberty:
Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable -- all are to take a back seat.
The short answer to this piece is that it's just a straw man argument from start to finish. What I found astonishing is that Sachs was willing to point to thinkers like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman as examples of people who didn't hold such extreme positions, when in fact most modern day libertarians would consider themselves solidly in "their camp," i.e. the camp of Hayek and Friedman. The fact that Ayn Rand slips in there every so often does not negate the many other classical liberals who have truly shaped modern libertarianism.

But perhaps something more needs to be said philosophically. I've argued before that libertarianism has some philosophical flaws to deal with; but I view those flaws as correctable, constituting a discussion to be worked out within the libertarian camp rather than as a reason to abandon it.

The main point I want to make is that there are multiple layers of morality. The reason libertarians champion liberty over all other values is that we are speaking of the political sphere. Politicians unfortunately seem to benefit from expanding the political sphere into other areas of life. I believe this works because they appeal to our instincts, which are not very well-trained to resist their rhetoric.

What do I mean by layers of morals? Well, there are first morals which you develop within the context of your family upbringing--whatever that was like. You learn how to treat your parents and your siblings, and you learn how to become a responsible person. In this context you learn personal morals, which help to shape you into a better individual. Eventually you leave the nest and begin to learn morals from other sources, whether from your friends or from ancient texts or from elders you look up to. In any case, there is no reason to expect that everyone will share your exact moral priorities. Every time you take a particular job or make a decision about which house to buy in what neighborhood, you are making a moral decision based on the values that seem right to you, and no one else. That is the first layer of morality.

Beyond this there are morals that continue to apply to you, but are not yours personally. You act a certain way around your family, another way around your friends, and another way around your coworkers. You pick up certain conventions and certain manners that make it easier to act appropriately. This is a second layer of morals.

Beyond this there are certain morals which apply to the institutions to which you belong, such as a company or a church or an activist organization. In this case the morals you acquire may not be as close to your heart, and may even be in conflict with some of your own personal values. Commitment to these institutions will require that you continue to wrestle with these moral conflicts, just as commitment to your friends and family will also require some concessions.

Beyond this we also have civic duties, to our city or state or national government.

And beyond this, we have certain moral responsibilities to one another as human beings. Even if you don't know someone "from Adam," you do know that you are at least related in the sense of being human, and that implies a certain level of tolerance and respect is expected. (Sadly, it seems this layer of morality is the most difficult to find fully functional.)

All of these layers of morality are connected to one another and, as I have already hinted, must compete with one another in each individual mind. What ought to uncontroversial is that only through voluntary assent can people actually become more moral. For instance, it is only by my wrestling with my personal and institutional morals that the institution might actually change me as a person. If I am merely forced to do the "right thing" in the eyes of that institution, nothing happens to my personal morals; rather, I merely become resentful, angry, or perhaps resigned. The same is true at all levels.

Now the problem is that as the state grows in its influence, these layers of morality are not acknowledged, and moral questions are posed to us as if there were no layers of separation between us and the state. We are asked questions such as, "What if a young man is in an accident and has no health insurance? Should society let him die?" Because of the way our minds work, we immediately imagine ourselves in such a situation, either as the young man on the verge of death or as an onlooker trying to decide what to do. Based on our personal morality, which functions within the world of people and things we can actually see and influence, we make the conclusion that indeed, society should not let him die.

Our instincts are good and the immediately conclusion we come to is in some sense correct. Anyone in the position to help someone live should help that person live. The question is whether such an abstract question has any bearing on the relationship between the state and our individual lives. The state is not an ever-present entity always looking over every individual person. It is also not the molder of all institutions of a society. The rhetoric used by politicians and political pundits belies the fact that the powerful elite actually have exceedingly little to do with how the majority of our world came into being.

So when libertarians argue for freedom, this is emphatically not at the expense of all other virtues. However, we do insist that moral order does exist even in the absence of ruling officials.

The purpose of government is not to achieve fixed goals, which will lead to a perfect society. The purpose is rather to break down those barriers which inhibit societal progress. As a libertarian, my view is that society only makes progress when individuals have the freedom to make moral decisions of their own volition. This is a far cry from everyone "doing whatever they want." Instead, it simply means that institutions will stand or fall based on their ability to serve the needs and desires of real human beings.

I don't think I've spelled everything out quite the way I'd like, so I'll have to return to this later. In the meantime, I encourage anyone interested in a different perspective on libertarianism to to and check out some of the discussions going on there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Conservatives boo the Golden Rule

Last night in the debates, as Ron Paul was explaining what he thought was the most sensible foreign policy, he was met with boos from the audience.

What provoked such ire from conservatives in South Carolina? None other than the words of Jesus Christ:
"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12)
So much for this being a Christian nation. I think it's time for Christians around the country to start having a serious discussion about American foreign policy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The beginning of philosophy

Peter Leithart has some great thoughts on why philosophy must become theological in order to truly fulfill its purpose (the link is here). His argument hinges on the givenness of reality: our lives depend on having received, as little children, things which neither earned nor could have ever provided for ourselves, including not just our physical being but also our language, culture, and ability to reason. For all of this, the fitting response is gratitude--and not only for what we received from our parents, but even for the world itself, for the existence of anything at all. And if gratitude is the fitting response, then to whom or what are we to be grateful?

But let's consider another question: how does one arrive at this realization (namely, that gratitude is the fitting response to our own existence)? As I observe little children, one thing I notice is decidedly lacking is gratitude. It is a tad ironic that during the time when we ought to be most grateful, because we are so helpless by ourselves, we are in fact least grateful. Indeed, gratitude in little children has to be taught; it almost never comes spontaneously.

When is it that spontaneous gratitude emerges? I submit that it is precisely when one experiences loss. This experience can either be personal, as when we endure suffering ourselves, or it can be vicarious, as when we see how others live in far worse circumstances than our own. It is only when we see that what we have cannot be taken for granted that we feel the spontaneous desire to express gratitude.

I would say that the experience of loss is the beginning of philosophy. To put it more starkly, I would say death is the impetus for true philosophy. To realize that we are mortal, that our very existence cannot be taken for granted, causes us to face the most fundamental struggle in human existence: the struggle between gratitude for the life we have and despair over its loss.

Which brings me to something I would add to Leithart's post. Philosophy can either be a eucharistic enterprise, or it can be a process of despair. It can either be a response of gratitude and longing, or it can be a response of defiance, sadness, cynicism, callousness--all of which are really different sides of despair. When philosophy fails to be theological, it is because despair has won out over gratitude.

The modern world, it seems to me, is largely a world shaped by a philosophy of despair, leading to a world of non-philosophers--that is, a world of children who take what they have for granted, and never bother to face their own mortality. It's hard to be philosophical when you're just so damn successful.

But that, of course, is just part of the story. Let's not act like modern philosophy begins with atheistic "presuppositions." No, the battle is not with presuppositions of the mind but with different sides of the human heart. We are all atheists, because we all know despair. And we are all believers, because we all know gratitude--transcendent gratitude, thankfulness just to be alive. The real enemy of philosophy is not atheism, but childishness, which is to say our unwillingness to confront death and to wrestle with gratitude and despair.

No one can remain a child forever. Even we modern people must eventually be theologians.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dostoevsky on loving one's neighbors

From The Brothers Karamazov:
"I must make you one confession," Ivan began. "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbors. It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance. ... Beggars, especially genteel beggars, ought never to show themselves, but to ask for charity through the newspapers. One can love one's neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it's almost impossible."
I have never read anyone quite so perceptive about the human condition as Dostoevsky writing through fictional characters.

I think this is exactly why we humans are always giving over ever increasing power to governments and authorities: we prefer to love in the abstract rather than in person. Once our noble intentions become embedded within an institutional structure, we are loathe to give it up, even when in fact those institutions no longer do any good. Oh yes, we do have noble intentions. And out of great reverence for those noble intentions we erect the most grand and most absurd idols, only we forget to laugh at ourselves for doing so.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Christian pan(en)theism?

Athanasius makes a rather curious defense of the incarnation against the pagans who claim that being manifest in a human body is beneath God's dignity:
What, then, is there incredible in His manifesting Himself through that in which He is? By His own power He enters completely into each and all, and orders them throughout ungrudgingly; and, had He so willed, He could have revealed Himself and His Father by means of sun or moon or sky or earth or fire or water. Had He done so, no one could rightly have accused Him of acting unbecomingly, for He sustains in one whole all things at once, being present and invisibly revealed not only in the whole, but also in each particular part. This being so, and since, moreover, He has willed to reveal Himself through men, who are part of the whole, there can be nothing ridiculous in His using a human body to manifest the truth and knowledge of the Father. Does not the mind of man pervade his entire being, and yet find expression through one part only, namely the tongue? Does anybody say on that account that Mind has degraded itself? Of course not. Very well, then, no more is it degrading for the Word, Who pervades all things, to have appeared in a human body. For, as I said before, if it were unfitting for Him thus to indwell the part, it would be equally so for Him to exist within the whole.
(Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Chapter 7.)

This is a rather striking argument. Rather than appealing to God's omnipotence and the paradox of the incarnation, Athanasius argues that God is already in everything, so why not a human being? This is not the only argument he makes, of course, but it seems significant that he makes it. It's hard not to see it as a theological misstep, since it would apparently negate the uniqueness of the incarnation as an incomprehensible mystery. If God is manifest in Christ in the way that the mind of a man is manifest in his tongue, then Christ would appear to be just a part of a big whole which God fills.

Then again, it isn't hard to find biblical evidence to support the idea that God fills all things. It just happens to get very confusing when you try to talk about incarnation as a unique event.

Athanasius on the solidarity of mankind

In explaining the effect of Christ's incarnation, Athanasius elaborates a theological anthropology:
For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of the death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.
(Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Chapter 2. Emphasis added.)

One wonders, how far does this solidarity go?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Conservative contradictions on immigration

My position on immigration is simple, and in line with classical liberal tradition: anyone who wants to immigrate into the United States for the purpose of pursuing a legitimate line of work and making a living should be welcome. In a free society, the immigration process would simply involve passing through a checkpoint, verifying your id, and allowing the government to keep some documentation of your presence here. (Probably there should be some fee to be paid for these government services.) There would be no restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed to come into the country.

Current law is very different, of course. We have restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed to enter legally on any given year. Conservatives applaud this, and in debates I've heard the likes of Mitt Romney say that would-be immigrants ought to "get in line" and wait their turn.

Whatever their arguments may be (they are probably based on myths) I think it's fair to simply point out the bold contradictions between the conservative position on immigration and other supposedly "conservative" ideas. Here are two big ones.

First, restricting the number of immigrants is an inherently socialist idea, in the true, original sense of the word. "Socialism" in its classical sense means allowing the government to have control of the means of production in a society. Very few people believe in this anymore as a consistent political philosophy, yet on particular issues we sometimes allow ourselves to move in a socialist direction almost without realizing it.

Such is the case on immigration. I hope it does not seem crass to think of people as a "means of production," but in fact people are the most essential means of production. We usually think of production being driven by technology, but the study of economics shows that even with technological advancement, we simply could not achieve the kind of market efficiency we now have without the proper division of labor among people. The most important kind of capital is human capital: the various skills, ideas, and ambitions that are dispersed throughout members of the global population.

So when conservatives argue that the government should be allowed to restrict the number of people who come into our country, they are in fact saying the same thing as a socialist who argues that the government should have control over capital investment.

(On the other hand, for all conservatives' talk about "free markets," conservative opposition to real free market policies is nothing new. See e.g. their historic opposition to ending corn subsidies, their support for trade barriers, and so on.)

Second, moving away from the economics, I propose to compare immigration with no less a controversial topic as abortion.

Just imagine if the government declared that it would set an annual limit on the number of children allowed to be born in America each year. Anyone, therefore, who failed to get a license to bear children would be forbidden to have children, and any woman who got pregnant without a license would be forced to abort.

Does that sound extreme? I don't see how it's any more extreme than a Republican saying that we should put up an electric fence on the Mexican border, or that we should be "shooting these immigrants like feral hogs."

But fine, let's say that these ideas really are too extreme for the average conservative. Let's consider instead the policy of deporting all illegal immigrants. To what may we compare this policy? It is like demanding that every woman who gets pregnant without a license be forced to send her child to be adopted in another country. Is this policy any more acceptable?

Consider the following arguments and try to tell whether they apply to immigration or to abortion: "What if we can't afford them? Shouldn't we take care of people who are already here? They're a lot different from us, after all." We cannot possibly expect people to take seriously the humanity of a child in the womb, when we are unwilling to take seriously the humanity of a person seeking a new life in this country.

(Let me add here a remark regarding those who are in favor of abortion rights. I hope none of what I said will be taken as saying that proponents of abortion rights are akin to monsters who want to slaughter immigrants. I am simply offering a comparison which I think should be particularly unnerving to conservatives, given their usual alignments. That said, I am pro-life, and I do think abortion is disturbing, even when left to a woman's "choice." But I think we can all agree that forced abortion would be a monstrous policy, and I think that many conservative proposals on immigration are similarly monstrous.)

Conservatives stress that this issue is about the rule of law, and that legal immigration should be applauded while illegal immigration is denounced. But the rule of law is not simply about people following laws. "An unjust law is no law at all." No, the rule of law is about treating all people equally according to the same moral standard. There is no moral reason to deny any individual access to a new life in this great country, provided they agree to live peaceably with their neighbors.

If conservatives care about preserving the traditions that have made us great, they ought to consider that the greatest of all such traditions is that of freedom and justice for all people. This tradition, sadly, is always in danger of being opposed by the very people who say they love it the most.