Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Battle Over the Founding

There are generally two views about the American Founders and the constitution when it comes to the influence of Christianity, perhaps particularly where I'm from. One view is that the Founders were Christians generally speaking and that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both reflect Christian origins and Christian truths, and that this is good. The other view is that the Founders were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, and that the Declaration and the Constitution both mainly reflect Enlightenment liberal political thought, and that this is good. Proponents of both views use their take on the Founders as a basis for criticism of today's politics. The first camp is very concerned about the secularization of American society, the loss of Christian roots and Christian morality, and view us as on the decline. They think that part of the cure for this decline is reminding people that our founding was a Christian founding, and they hope that this will inspire people to get back on track. The second camp is very concerned about the lingering conservatism and traditionalism in our society, which they think contradict democracy, equality and liberty. They want to remind people of the fairly progressive nature of the founding, again with the hope that people will be inspired to reject regressive elements and move forward.

What if neither of these camps had the truth?

What if the founding was not mainly a Christian founding (though the Puritan settlement of the country was), and what if the Declaration's "laws of Nature and Nature's God" were not as specifically about Christianity as some of us would like to believe. That language, as students of the Enlightenment have to acknowledge, was commonplace and often an attempt to change views about traditional religion rather than to entrench those views. If Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, and he compiled the Jefferson Bible too, then we have to know that those words in the Declaration did not mean anything terribly orthodox. Jefferson was a real free-thinker, and he definitely defined for himself what "God" meant to him. He was pretty keen on convincing others, too.

What if the fact that the founding was not mainly a Christian founding was not all good? While not all of the founding fathers were Enlightenment radicals, the Enlightenment philosophy had a profound influence on the way many of them thought. A lot of them were every bit as much steeped in secular philosophy as religion, and some of them (like perhaps George Washington himself) saw religion as very beneficial for society and for liberty while holding unorthodox views at the same time. But while many liberals today like to see the founding as having this type of foundation, they would all agree that it was good, and we need to understand the founders' intentions better, as this will guide us out of the darkness and back into the light.

What if the founding was not primarily an orthodox Christian event and had more to do with Enlightenment liberalism, but that was not all good? I have found it a very difficult undertaking to even be understood by people from both camps. The idea that liberals might be closer to the truth than some conservatives about the founding ideas might be startling to some, but the idea that the founding ideas might have been fundamentally flawed in some ways is so startling to all that it simply does not compute. We tend to find a way to pronounce our origins good--so instead of taking a clear-eyed look at their reality, we re-interpret those views to fit our own, and then pronounce them good. That is probably more an artifact of human psychology than anything else.

The prospect that the founding ideas, which were mainly inspired by Enlightenment liberalism, could be the cause of some of our problems rather than the solution is not a happy one, but it is this prospect that I've been exploring for the past several years. Some communitarian thinkers, who tend to be on the left, have explored this territory too but because their solutions tend to promote more socialism or big government (though not all) they tend to not get too much traction in this country. I tend the other way, and so I am trying to formulate a different response. One of the main reasons I've been exploring the idea of honor and how it has fared in the modern world is because it was one of the pillars of social coherence and moral courage in pre-liberal times. Honor, with its aristocratic origins, could be a corrective for liberalism's extremes, perhaps.

In the Introduction to Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Sanford Kessler writes, "Only a virtuous people, [Tocqueville] believed, could lead worthy lives and defend their liberty in times of crisis. He also thought that democracy can corrupt people in normal times and as a matter of course. Democrats tend toward individualism, a phenomenon that causes people to turn inward and to neglect their public responsibilities. They also become overly materialistic, slavishly devoted to public opinion, and envious of any superiority, no matter how natural or worthy. These tendencies weaken human attachments, unbend the springs of virtue, and ultimately debase political life." (2000, Hackett, xxi)

I think I'm going to spend the summer reading Tocqueville.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Happened?

So what happened? How did we get to the point where we are afraid to pass public judgment, and therefore induce shame, in situations like these:

  • The parents who don't get married but make a child and then abandon that child to be raised by his grandparents--and then do it again with a different partner. 
  • The child in the 25+ age range who still lives with his parents and isn't going to school or looking for a job.
  • The husband (or wife) who is verbally and/or physically abusive to his or her spouse in front of others.
  • Parents who are obviously neglectful or abusive to their children.
  • Parents who allow their children to run rampant in and outside of their homes, and who would rather defend their children's right to do so that take command of their families.
  • Men or women who abandon their families and break their word because they've met someone else and just want to feel good.
  • Teenagers who mistreat their parents but still expect them to house and feed them.
There are several reasons people have for not wanting to "say something" about situations like these. They are:

1. (Usually unspoken, but very powerful) If I do say something, some of that negativity may come my way, and I may be the next target of the person I'm criticizing.

2. He who is without sin, cast the first stone. In other words, for those who are Christians, there's a certain type of Christian who thinks that "judge not, lest ye be judged" means that we literally cannot pass judgment.

3. It's not my business. These things have to do with people's private lives, and they don't affect me directly, so I shouldn't interfere.

It may be surprising to hear coming from me, but the first reason for not saying something is probably the most legitimate--it may seem a bit cowardly, but nonetheless a rational person has to pause and decide whether he wants to risk the ire of someone who is not of the best character. Many times there is a way around this dilemma, such as calling Child Protective Services, or the police.

The second reason is hopefully a misreading of the "judge not" injunction. Surely Christ did not want Christians to have no active moral standards and do nothing to uphold the security and well being of their communities. Perhaps "judge not" means that a Christian cannot decide someone is going to Hell, but he can decide to not condone immoral or anti-social behavior in his family or community. As it is, many people seem to be hiding behind "judge not" because it's convenient and sounds pious.

The third reason has to do with a misreading of the liberal ideology of individualism, as Dan Demetriou pointed out in his post from last week. In this misreading, we go from the emphasis on the individual and on the individual's rights enshrined in liberal ideology, to the idea that religious matters must be purely in the private realm (for the sake of peace), to the more radical position that moral matters must also be purely in the private realm, to the idea that we have a right to privacy so deep that even though our behavior does in fact affect the larger community, the community has no right to say anything about it. In all the instances in bullet points above, and more, there is a definite negative impact beyond the individuals and families involved, an impact that erodes trust and order in society.

At this point, we have a liberalism that is dysfunctional, because liberalism was instituted to keep people safe and free, but we see that in its present form it has spawned behaviors that make people less safe and many individuals less free, because they are victimized by those who don't play by the rules.

Unfortunately, liberalism in practice is what the majority says it is. So even if the train of thought outlined above may not make logical sense (i.e., the steps along the way don't necessarily follow logically from previous developments), the latter stages make social sense to more and more people, and the impact is being felt by all.

Political equality and equality of opportunity are transforming more and more into a type of lazy, relativistic egalitarianism that backs up the "it's private, it's none of my business" position. This lazy egalitarianism says people make a lot of different choices and lead lifestyles of their choosing, and since we cannot judge among them (all choices are equal), we have to allow any and all behavior without saying a thing. If we want to be treated equally we have to treat everyone else equally. Of course it doesn't work out that way. As a matter of fact, the relativistic position just allows some who are more aggressive and don't care about the community to have their way.

All of this assumes that "saying something" has quite a bit of power. I happen to think it does have power when people are willing to say something. Human beings are, as Mark Griffith pointed out by referencing Aristotle, "political" (i.e., social) creatures. What other people think about us matters, which is why so many try so hard to come up with reasons why there should be no judgments made.

What happened?

Our tendency to dislike being taken into account by others, combined with the liberal democratic environment, has led us to choose every opportunity to change the culture so that we can avoid being taken into account by others. Meanwhile everybody sees themselves as rational and self-controlled, able to govern themselves without the need for others, a position which denies our social nature and is quite obviously not true.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Privacy and Shame

The opposite of honor is shame. Shame comes from two sources--either it comes from an internal feeling of shame instigated by a very strong conscience or it comes from an external source, "shaming." Often, the two go together, and the latter reinforces the former. Imagine a society where the first source of shame is severely weakened or non-existent and the second source is almost obliterated.

The story of the three women in Ohio abducted and held up to ten years, highlights the issue. But we have other stories close at hand--the Sandy Hook shooter, the Boston bombers, the Aurora theater shooter, the Columbine shooters. What they all have in common is the fact that someone, probably many people, had an idea that something was terribly wrong with the perpetrators long before they were either discovered in their crime or carried out their plans. Yet, in each case, the perpetrators were not stopped. No one went from banging on the door to knocking the door down, from asking a few questions to demanding responses that made sense, from wondering what was going on to making the call.  Sometimes neighbors or citizens raised a concern, only to have the system again uphold the right of privacy above the right to live in a safe community.

These high profile cases highlight a much more widespread problem in our society. We err on the side of individual rights, of privacy, even in cases where common sense tells us that something is very wrong, cases where the safety of other people hang in the balance. We suspend judgment, partly out of cowardice, but partly out of deeply ingrained beliefs: "guilty until proven innocent," and the now almost sacred distinction between public and private concerns, which translates into "it's not my business." In our society, the greater crime is in looking, not in looking the other way.

Shame probably seems like too weak of a word to use in these extreme cases, but I use it because it does capture the more general problem. Shame has been greatly weakened in our society. Many of the manifestations of this are less catastrophic than the stories mentioned above. Shameless society is evident in everyday life in children running amok at home and in public, allowed to abuse and embarrass their parents, adult children dumping their own kids off on their parents and walking away from their responsibilities. The common denominator is that in each case, there is no shame and absolutely no shaming.

When internal shame was weak, external shaming used to pick up the slack. In tight knit communities, where everyone knew everyone else's business, people would sometimes get embarrassed, and regrettably people who didn't fit in would get treated harshly. On the other hand, to the benefit of the community, people who were strange were labeled strange, and people who did bad things were ostracized. People talked, reputations were damaged, those with weak wills were sometimes kept on track, and those who did not get back in line were known by all and shunned. It is now literally shocking to even talk about the possibility that this social reinforcement mechanism was not all bad, that it served a purpose--the purpose of enforcing community standards and safeguarding the community from those who are particularly weak-willed or sociopathic. Now the incredibly weak willed and the sociopathic are are excused. We  clean up after their messes, as in grandparents practically becoming parents for or literally adopting their grandchildren, and we ignore the unacceptable sign of obvious sociopathology, as in attending our friend's sixth wedding.

Because of liberal society's enshrining of individualism and individual rights to the exclusion of other values, we now see that people are capable of ignoring obviously dangerous people, obviously strange situations, right in front of their eyes.

Of course, the reason we adopted such an elevated status for individual rights and privacy in the first place is to avoid conflict. For instance, we long ago decided that religious beliefs and practices would be private concerns, because the alternative created catastrophic religious wars that got in the way of economic and political progress.  And while these are laudible reasons, we now see that even good ideas or reasonable compromises can be taken too far. If we are responsible people who care about more than just our own private concerns, then we have to admit there is a point where what goes on in "private" is not private because it affects us all, that there is a place for talking, for pointing out, for questioning, for shaming, and for knocking down the door. Protecting individuals and protecting society as a whole usually can be seen as going hand in hand, but not if taken to the extreme. Community is weakened to the point where we think of it as something we form on Facebook--micro-communities of those who share one common interest. Have we lost more than we gained? Is there a need for balance? Do you have the courage to call something what it is and act accordingly?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why Honor Today?

I'm a professor of political science (political philosophy is my specialization) at Kansas State University. For the past ten years, my research has circled around the topic of honor, especially the impact of classical liberal thought on honor as a motivation for doing the right thing. Blogging is something I've wanted to do for quite awhile, because I think it is so important to get ideas out there beyond the walls of universities, and I think this topic is more than relevant to a lot of the problems we face today. But I wanted to make sure that I had enough to say. I think I do now. I've written three scholarly books trying to explore this ground, one specifically on Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, one on Hobbes and honor, and the latest on Locke and Rousseau and honor. I wrote these books to get a firm idea in my mind of how the political philosophy that influenced our own founding and Western liberalism generally had influenced our views on honor. I want to write about what I've found out so far, and also how honor fares in different areas in today's society, including why so many people find it problematic, old fashioned, dangerous, etc. That will involve dealing with topics as diverse as marriage and family, education, economic activity, friendship, etc. My intention is to write once a week, either choosing a different topic or extending an old one, and I'd really like to hear readers' reactions to what I post.