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April 16, 2004


Russell Arben Fox

Great post Hugo. Two (admittedly, rather long and somewhat self-promotional) points:

First, I think "liberalism" can refer to both a philosophical system or an ideological orientation. That is, one can embrace a substantive liberalism, and enshrine the principle of the "self-revising individual," for whom all attachments are voluntary and subject to critique and consent; or, one can prefer to interpret the world and act in it "liberally," paying respect to the choices of individuals insofar as is possible within a wider moral framework. In other words, liberalism can be reconciled with communitarian philosophies (like evangelical Christianity) to the extent it is used in a ideological or "adjectival" role. So, rather than being a full-bore "liberal," you'd be a "liberal evangelical" (though of course, given the way the word is used to today, that might cause more confusion than it's worth!). This isn't an original point with me; Michael Walzer, a communitarian political philosopher, has strongly defended the appropriateness of acting "liberally" within the sphere of one's commitments in this way. (I wrote about Walzer's definition here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_03_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#91291708 .)

Second, thanks very much for making the point that obligations cannot (and should not) always be understood as optional. We inherit (and, from the Christian point of view, are called to) various responsibilities by viture of belonging; to think that all such duties are first and foremost subject to the self-interested assessment of the "eye" puts morality on the wrong path from the beginning. I think acknowledging this issue--the possibility that some attachments may be constitutive and authoritative, not subject to individual preference--is the greatest stumbling block facing the left today; it is just too easy for progressives in today's individualistic climate to look at religious communitarians and label them "authoritarians." It's something I've debated around and around with other liberals, and rarely is much progress made--the distance between classical philosophical liberals and those who acknowledge a wider order than the self, in economics and politics and morals, is huge. (One of my many old posts on this topic is here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#106452049985483597 .)


I really shouldn't dabble in political philosophy when I can just send everyone over to you! Readers, go to Russell' blog, now!

Great comments, especially this:

I think acknowledging this issue--the possibility that some attachments may be constitutive and authoritative, not subject to individual preference--is the greatest stumbling block facing the left today; it is just too easy for progressives in today's individualistic climate to look at religious communitarians and label them "authoritarians."


Jonathan Dresner

Agreed. I've been trying to make the point that we are already subject to limitations, requirements, forced contributions to causes we don't personally support.

From my quote file: "Business succeeds rather better than the state in imposing its restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices." -- Walter Hamilton

Lawrence Krubner

I'm thinking I'd like to reply to this, but I also feel like I don't know enough about where you're coming from to make my reply as intelligent as I'd like it to be. Have you written before on the issue of non-voluntary communities, and could you please point me to those posts? I'd like to read up on your thinking on this matter. If you've never written on this subject before, could you point to work that's influenced your thinking on this matter? Your quote from Saint Paul is interesting, but I'd like to hear the whole argument, hopefully in your words. More broadly, have you written before on the possible conflict between Christianity and liberalism's focus on the individual? Could you point me those posts, or to posts elsewhere that have influenced your thinking?

Lawrence Krubner

Related to this issue, Robert McAfee Brown argued that Christianity is not inherently right-wing in his terrific 1961 book "The Spirit Of Protestantism". I posted some quotes and some thoughts about that book back in February:



First off, Stephen Carter's wonderful "Liberalism's Religion Problem" in First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0203/articles/carter.html

But see also the discussion around the supreme court case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, where the court allowed the Amish an extraordinary degree of latitude in choosing how to educate their children. Most liberals hate this case -- I see it as an absolutely crucial one.

Lawrence Krubner

Can you perhaps point me to an editorial regarding Wisconsin v. Yoder that you agree with? Or, perhaps, one you completely disagree with? If I google the case, I imagine I'll get lots of hits, none of which will necessarily give me a sense of how you think about the case.


My mother commented on this post in an email, and it is so good, I am reproducing it:

A far older source than any you quote is Aristotle who said that the man
who would choose to live outside the state [community] was either a beast or
a god but not a human being. He said, in this context that a severed finger
was not a 'finger' but just a hunk of flesh. He said that the
state[community] was prior to the family because it defines the family and
the family is prior to the individual. In other words, we could not be human
individuals without the family and the community - they create both the
possibility of being human and of being a genuine individual - rather than a
beast or a god. And the sort of individual we are depends a lot on the sort
of state we live in.
Hobbes, always more honest and thorough than Locke, holds a social
contract theory and a theory of inalienable human rights, but he also holds
that we need a community to survive and without it,
""...the life of man, poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short."
The problem with Bentham and Mill is that while they did say all those
things about liberty, they were both such thoroughly nice people that they
could not imagine a world where the 'internal moral santions' - the guilty
conscience that makes us feel badly when we hurt others - wouldn't be
obvious. They both believed strongly with Hume that there is a natural human
sympathy that makes us care about others.
While of course there is a strong connection between classical
liberalism and capitalism - they arise together - the excessess [sp] of
individualism that we see are much more the result of capitalism than of
Locke et.al. The rampant individual is the best consumer! That ugly
bumpersticker of a few years back - "He who dies with the most toys wins!' -
That is NOT the voice of Locke or Bentham or Mill.
Tons of love from your Mother - a liberal


If your question were phrased "Can Christianity be used to promote liberal values and causes", Hugo, the answer would have to be yes. But it can and has also been used to promote illiberal values and causes.

Fortunately, the Bible is not the inspired word of God and Christians rarely read it.

Ralph Luker

Hugo, If you don't mind my saying so, as my students would put it, your mother is "the bomb."

Lawrence Krubner

The letter from your mother is nice, but she seems to be talking about forms of community that spring up rather automatically. When people talk about wanting more community, or when they say America is lacking community, what are they are talking about?

You reply to my worries by mentioning two forms of non-voluntary community: family and state. Has the law been used to outlaw the family or outlaw the state? I hope you'll excuse me putting the question in extreme form, but I'm trying to make a point. I don't think people are talking about the family or the state when they talk about America needing more community.

As to the connection between individualism and consumerism, surely we can admit there is big difference between the two? Some Christian right-wingers have moved to places like Idaho in an attempt to escape much of the American "community" and they would be horrofied by a line of reasoning like this: "the state[community] was prior to the family because it defines the family and the family is prior to the individual." They hope to get their families free of the clutches of the American state, and they reject a defintion of family that suggests it proceeds from the state. Yet they should not be confused with an ideology that says "The rampant individual is the best consumer!... "He who dies with the most toys wins!'" While embracing the individualism of self-reliance, many of them are quite wary of consumerism.

Lawrence Krubner

I've been wanting to write a reply to this post for a very long time, but I've as yet been unable to write anything as comprehensive as I'd like. Realistically, I may never have time to write a comprehensive reply, and so I'll have to allow this entry to act as my reply:


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