Monday, March 31, 2008

An Argument for Allowing Religion to Influence the Secular State

Trying to form a Christian political philosophy in a day and age where secular, liberal democracy is the dominant form of government has a central problem, how the sacred and the profane ought to interact, or even if they ought to interact at all. This central problem has two sides for the Christian. What ought to be the political response of the Christian to living in a liberal, secular democracy? What ought be the response of a secular, liberal democracy response to religion? The first of these two questions is mostly interesting only to Christians as, presumably, neither secularists nor adherents of other faiths are all that intrigued by the question. The other side of the question, however, is one that has been grappled with for most of the modern era and is presently being grappled with throughout the entire world with a range of approaches. Some regimes have outright persecuted all religions. Others have warmly embraced at least some religions. Still others have simply attempted to ignore religion or to excise religion from public discourse with regards to politics. This latter approach, which various groups have argued ought to be the case in the US, I think is somewhat misguided. While there are certainly forms of religious dialog (dialectics and dogmatics) that are troubling with regards to making public policy in a secular society, there is a third way of expressing religion (the demonstration of religious truths through analytic reason) that ought to be warmly welcomed.

One of the most useful categorizations of religious dialog I have come across is the traditional Islamic tripartite division of religions instruction followed by Abu Nasr al-Farabi: political science (siyāsah), dogmatic theology (fiqh, which is more frequently translated as `jurisprudence', but in context, I think `dogmatic theology' fits better), and dialectic (kalām). The first of these, political science, consists of arguments based on that which is evident, self-evident, or the conclusions of other arguments based on the same. The second, dogmatic theology, consists of starting with the pronouncements of prophets or other inerrant teachers as indisputable premises to discover what implications can be derived from them. The last of these, dialectic, consists of convincing infidels, heathens, and heretics of the truth of the indisputable premises of the prophets by any means necessary. (See Najjar's translation of Farabi's Enumeration of the Sciences in Lerner and Mahdi's Medieval Political Philosophy.)

I would think that it would be relatively uncontroversial to suggest that both dogmatic theology and dialectic cannot be an acceptable basis for the rule of law in a liberal, secular democracy as they both begin with the revealed knowledge of religion. The difference between dialectic and dogmatics is not the foundation of the discussion, but the methods used to build on that foundation. Dogmatics uses logic and reason to fully develop revealed truths, most commonly so that the practitioners of a religion can understand what their faith has to say about a particular situation that is not explicitly covered within their body of revealed knowledge. Dialectics, however, may or may not be built on logic and reason. It is the practice of taking anything that seems useful to make it seem like the starting point of revealed religion is a conclusion reached by knowledge outside of the faith. This can take several forms: using religious teachings from outside of the faith, such as Saint Paul's appeal to the statue built to the unknown god at the Athenian agora in the Acts of the Apostles; the attempt to make teachings outside of the faith seem absurd, such as religious anti-evolutionists who argue that the theory of evolution says we're all monkeys; or even outright dishonesty. While these methods are fine for religious instruction within a religious movement and even for dialog between religious movements, it seems to me almost self-evident that from the point of view of a secular state, that they are not a viable foundation on which to build public policy.

But this leaves what al-Farabi called political science, truths which have as their basis, principles that are evident, self-evident or demonstrations reached according to premises which are evident or self-evident. This point does not seem to me to be particularly controversial. Clearly, one cannot imagine much of a valid secular objection to forging public policy on the basis of that which is evident or self-evident. There may be objections as to which particular ideas are self-evident or of whether or not the evidence actually supports a particular premise, but the framework on which this type of knowledge sits is well accepted by secularism. Some would go so far as to argue that this framework is the very foundation of secularism. The only serious objection likely to be raised is not that this is a bad foundation for public policy but that this type of knowledge can not properly be categorized as religious knowledge at all.

This objection that demonstrative truths cannot be religious, however, is one that is imposed on religion rather than one that comes from within religion. While it is true that there have been some religious voices that have argued that there is nothing reasonable about religion (Tertullian's infamous ``I believe because it's absurd'' comes to mind), these voices are in the minority. From the early Christian apologists through the medieval era in both eastern and western Christendom, the prevailing view was that reason and faith were complimentary rather than being opposed. Even Tertullian, the third century bishop whose answer to the question `What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?' was `nothing,' extensively used logic and reason in his writings. To say that he rejected all reason as being opposed to faith is to make his actual beliefs into a straw-man. And, in fact, the oft cited phrase ``I believe because it is absurd is most likely a very bad translation of a phrase that was making the opposite point, that some things are so absurd that those saying they actually happened must have really observed them because, on the face of it, they are so absurd as to be unworthy of belief unless they were eyewitnessed. The view that reason and faith are mutually exclusive is a relatively modern construct, only becoming relatively widespread after the Reformation and Enlightenment, and one that only a minority of religious adherents believe however much some secularists might wish to pin this view on all religionists.

But might it not be the case that a softer form of that same objection might make more sense? Even if it is true that some religious teachings consist of that which is evident and self-evident, why should a secular state even bother paying attention to those conclusions about policy that it can reach on its own without recourse to religion? On the face of it, this seems to me to be a much stronger objection as I would certainly concede that the truths of religion which are capable at being arrived at entirely through analytic reason and the evidence of our senses do not need to be presented by the adherents of a particular religion in order for secularists to discover them. That said, history illustrates many situations where various religious movements led the way on issues most secularists now take for granted. From the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the civil rights movement in the US in the middle of the twentieth century, various religious movements have pushed mostly secular states to accept what are now widely considered to be indisputable truths. In these cases the secular society in question was capable of reasoning to the same conclusion on its own but left to its own devices had not. It may very well be the case that society may have eventually come to these conclusions without the involvement of religion, but it is also almost indisputably the case that these changes would not have come about in history when they did were not for the involvement of many who were convinced that they were doing God's work.

Consequently, it seems to me that, from the point of a secular, liberal democracy, there not only can be room to allow for public policy based on religious convictions but history shows us that from time to time, such policy furthers the interests of a secular society in a positive fashion. This is not to say, however, that all religious convictions are equally valid for inclusion in the public discourse over matters of political policy. Clearly those religious convictions which cannot be communicated by relying on evident and self-evident truths have little room in the sphere of public discourse within a secular regime. Hence, the role played by religious convictions in a secular, liberal democratic regime is strictly circumscribed. The task of the believer in a particular faith who would influence public policy, then, is to work towards grounding the religious beliefs of his or her tradition in premises which are acceptable to all the members of society and not only those who share those specific religious beliefs. In doing so, the believer can serve as a tremendous moral influence with regards to public policy in a modern liberal and secular democracy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How the Classical Idea of Justice Ought to Underly the Debate Over Victimless Crimes Such as Prostitution

In the wake of the Elliot Spitzer prostitution scandal, a number of people have renewed the debate of whether or not prostitution is a victimless crime. An op-ed piece in the New York Times by Melissa Farley and VictorMalarek titled The Myth of the Victimless Crime frames the debate in the usual way.

In response to the news about Governor Spitzer, pundits are wading into the age-old debates over whether prostitution is a victimless crime or whether women are badly hurt in prostitution no matter what they’re paid.
But this very framing precludes the very question of whether or not prostitution is a just act by focusing on the consequences of the act as the moral determinant rather than the act itself. On the one hand, those arguing that it is a not victimless crime are arguing that justice is harmed if, and only if, some other person is harmed and on the other hand, those who are arguing that it is a victimless crime are arguing that any mutually activity of two or more adults to which both voluntarily consent is just regardless of the act. In both cases, this framing presents a relatively modern view and at odds with most traditional understandings of justice.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, the meaning of justice was no huge controversy in western thinking. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gave voice to what was then the consensus view, justice is the process by which both the state and the individual come to be what they ought to be.

We see that all men mean by justice that kind of state of character which makes people disposed to do what is just and makes them act justly and wish for what is just; and similarly by injustice that state which makes them act unjustly and which for what is unjust. [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book V].
While what follows that observation in the Ethics is a highly nuanced discussion of various forms of justice and injustice, the most relevant observation to the present discussion is that justice was viewed as something external and objective, it is an ideal to be striven for, a goal to be achieved that is not defined by whim or whimsy but by our very existence as both individual human beings and as citizens of a political order whose harmony should be a reflection of the order of the cosmos itself.

And this view predominated within the Graeco-Roman world for millenia. It was not until the advent of the Renaissance and Enlightenment that this view began to be challenged in the remains of the western Roman empire, the most explicit attack coming from Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince in the sixteenth century. But this view was also under assault in the eastern Roman empire by the twelfth century. Angeliki Laiou and Cecile Morrisson note an innovative view of justice expressed in a commentary on Aristotle by Michael of Ephesus, he is said to find

a new role for Aristotle's corrective justice: it is to guarantee the contracts which have been concluded with the free will of the parties, a truly original approach. Thus, the Byzantine state, formerly conceived as the ``judge'' who guarantees just exchange, becomes the legal authority that safeguards the sanctity of private contracts. [Laiou, Angeliki and Morrisson, Cecile. The Byzantine Economy. Cambridge University Press. 2007. p. 163.]
The ``just exchange'' referred to by Laiou and Morrisson does not mean what we moderns probably take it to mean at first glance, honesty in transactions, but to the inherent fairness of the transaction which was held to be independent of the assent of both parties to the transaction. Up until this time, the Byzantine state was concerned that any deals that were struck between private individuals were fair. For example, a widow who had fallen on hard times might be willing to assent to selling her land at a vastly reduced price, but that that price may be far less than the land is worth, and consequently, the transaction might be inherently unjust. In such situations, citizens had the recourse of appealing to the Byzantine state to enforce justice. But from the twelfth century on, this aspect of jurisprudence became less and less prevalent as the state leaned towards seeing itself as guarantor that contracts would be enforced rather than an overseer responsible for ensuring that the citizens of the state lived just lives.

Those that argue that such crimes as prostitution are victimless, i.e. they are not really crimes at all, are following this innovation in the understanding of justice. Rather than pointing to an objective, external good, justice becomes the enforcement of the state of performance on a contract which was voluntarily entered into. If one adult is able and willing to consent to trade sex for remuneration, and some other adult is willing to pay for that sex, so the reasoning goes, the state has no business in getting involved to tell the parties involved that their transaction is unjust. And, truly, if this is what justice is in its entirety, the guarantee that contracts will be performed on, then there is no room for morality within the state's enforcement of justice. What is legal and what is just are both reduced to what is agreed upon between consenting adults.

But this view ends with no way to condemn the actions of Armin Meiwes who ran a classified ad to find a volunteer willing to let himself be eaten. In 2001 Bernd-Jurgen Brandes answered the ad and arranged to meet with Meiwes. At this meeting Meiwes removed Brandes' penis and cooked it before he and Brandes ate it together. Meiwes then killed Brandes, butchered him and stored his remains in his freezer in order to be eaten at a later date. He captured the entire episode on videotape leaving little doubt as to the particulars. This gruesome transaction was voluntarily entered into by both parties. No coercion was involved. If justice is nothing more than performance on what is agreed upon, then we must accept that the killing and consumption of a human being in such a fashion is, in fact, just. But it seems to me that such deeds shock the conscience.

And, indeed, the problem that most systems of morality, both ancient and modern, have with such a view of justice, is that human rights become chimerical. Most people who hold to some system of justice hold that there are certain base human rights which cannot be traded away, even voluntarily. The US Declaration of Independence considered these things to be obvious to all.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
While not limiting the truths which are self evident to be life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (the last of which an earlier draft had as `private property'), the US Declaration of Independence does say that these three thing are indisputably among those truths which are self-evident, they are among the truths which, once one understands them, one agrees that they must be the case. But if truths such as these are inalienable, they cannot be traded away, even voluntarily. But if we agree that such inalienable rights do exist, then we must reject the notion that justice in its entirety consists of enforcement of the performance of contacts. Justice must also consist, at least in part, of something external and objective that guarantees that every individual within a society that enforces the inalienable rights of individuals.

If justice is, at least in part, something external and objective, then it is rather obvious how those who say that justice consists in its entirety of enforcement of performance on contracts must be wrong to some extent. But what is more subtle is the observation that such a view of justice also implies the same view that Farley andMalarek advocated in their condemnation of prostitution, that the answer to the question of whether an act is just or not lies in the consequences of that action rather than in the action itself. But this view is also at odds with most moral traditions. Specifically, with regards to prostitution, it is not the harm that is done to the women and men selling themselves as sex objects that brings so many societies to forbid prostitution. Rather, it is the idea that there is something sacred about sex that leads most societies to ban prostitution. This is not to say that there are not horrible effects that frequently result from people prostituting themselves out for money. But rather it is to say that even if there were no horrible effects, it would still offend justice. Prostitution, aside from religious arguments against it, violates the Aristotelian ideal of virtue being the golden mean between two vices, in this case chastity being the mean between prudery on the one side and profligacy on the other.

One could object at this point that the two things are equivalent. Let us stipulate for a moment that prostitution does indeed cause some harm to prostitutes. (While I certainly agree with this proposition, I would be surprised if everyone who reads would also agree. There are those who object to this idea for a number of different reasons, some more well thought out than others.) One can argue that if prostitution prevents a prostitute from achieving the fullness of a human person, then it reduces to harm and, consequently, what we are really objecting to is the harm that is done to the prostitute. But it must be observed that even if prostitution is harmful in general because it prevents prostitutes from achieving the fullness of human life, it is possible that there are specific prostitutes who are incapable for one reason or the other of achieving that fullness. In such cases, there is no actual harm but only the potential for harm. If the lives of these individuals had played out differently, it would be that prostitution had ended up harming them but as it is, there is no actual harm.

Another way to make the same point is the issue of human rights. Most societies do not see human rights as a function of consequentialism, but as something inherent to human nature. It is not the harm that comes from torture that offends us but the idea that there is something about human dignity that implies that human beings ought not to be tortured. It is no less unjust to torture someone who possesses great amounts of interior strength such as John McCain who survived being tortured in Vietnam without breaking than it is to torture someone who will crack under the tremendous physical and psychological pressure. Hence, it is not the harm that actually follows from such things as prostitution that makes them just or unjust acts, but whether or not the action itself is just or unjust.

One may object to this view that such a conception of justice is inherently religious in nature and that law in liberal democracies is, or ought to be, a secular affair and have little concern for morality as defined by the Christian tradition. But one does not need to appeal to religion to find criteria by which to determine if an act such as prostitution is moral or not. One of most strictly materialist moral systems is that of Karl Marx who presented a moral argument against industrial capitalism based on the criterion that it alienates human individuals from their identity as a species-beings. In this critique, it is the material basis of what it means to be human that defines morality. There is room in such a definition of humanity, independent of religiosity, to condemn prostitution. And in fact, virtually every militantly atheist society of modern times has condemned prostitution.

Of course, this is not to say that all secular systems of morality condemn prostitution as an injustice. It is not even to say that religious systems of morality condemn prostitution as an injustice. After all, history tells us that many religious systems included prostitution as part of the cultic rituals. My point, rather, is to suggest that the most frequent framing of the debate on on so called victimless crimes sets the dialog down the wrong path by assuming a relatively modern and innovative view of justice that is at least somewhat at odds with the way that most people understand justice, at least in the western tradition and that the question of what justice plays a tremendously important, and understated, role in the discussion of victimless crimes. And while I will gladly concede that classical view of justice which I present as an alternative is not without its own flaws, that discussion will have to wait for a different day.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Yo-Yo Ma, Philosopher King in an Ignorant City

While usually acclaimed for being a musician, it can be argued that cellist Yo-Yo Ma is also far more, a philosopher in the Platonic tradition. If we use medieval Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi's reading of the criteria by which Plato identifies true philosophers, that they know what is best and that they not only do what is best but also teach what is best to others, then we can take Ma's life in a cosmopolitan democracy as an example of the best life attainable under what al-Farami called an ignorant regime, a nation not led by a philosopher king. As such, we can use Ma as an illustration of the best that democracy has to offer and, perhaps, as a possible route to avoid the worst of what democracy has to offer.

In his essay for a segment of This I Believe on NPR titled A Musician of Many Cultures, Yo-Yo Ma proclaimed, ``I believe in the infinite variety of human expression'' before going on to explain how the variety of human expression has shaped him as a musician and has helped him as he explored the musical traditions of other nations and peoples over the course of his career. This path walked by Ma through our global village, the path of looking for the best of every possible faction and people group and finding the best traditions among them, is the path al-Farabi suggested the philosopher might travel in the best of the ignorant cities, the cosmopolitan democracy.

In the writings of al-Farabi, we find that the the true philosopher is one who ``he who is truly perfect possesses with sure insight, first, the theoretical virtues, and subsequently the practical'' and who possesses the capacity for bringing these things about in various nations and cities ``in the manner and the measure possible with reference to each'' [al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. The Attainment of Happiness. Ch. IV.]. Based on his understanding of Plato's conception of the Philosopher-King presented in The Republic, al-Farabi holds that the true philosopher is not only the one who knows but also the one who does and the one who teaches. The philosopher, in this view, is the one who can explain philosophy to a particular group of people in a manner which they can understand and in which they can participate. For musicians world wide, Ma does exactly this. Not only is he skilled in the musical arts and able to teach them to others, but he is also able to observe philosophical truths and explain them in terms in which musicians and others who might not otherwise understand philosophy can mentally grasp and carry out in their lives.

Admittedly, however, al-Farabi also argued that the true philosopher was also the supreme ruler of the state and clearly, Yo-Yo Ma is not a head of state. On the other hand, the philosopher was also the head of state in Farabian thinking only in the ideal regime; philosophers do not necessarily rule in those regimes al-Farabi referred to as the ignorant cities which were not governed by a philosopher. The most interesting of these cities to most of the modern world is the city that al-Farabi considered to be the best of the ignorant regimes, the democratic city, which alone of the ignorant regimes allowed for philosophy to flourish unimpeded due to the way that democracies allow each of their citizens, and various factions of their citizens, to individually pursue whatever it is that is being mistaken for the best good.

This defining element of the democratic city, the freedom for each citizen to pursue whatever it is that he or she will make his or her life the happiest, is an immensely attractive one to all those who live in states which lack such freedom. Consequently, people come from the world over to the democratic regime in order to pursue happiness. The end result of this is described by al-Farabi:

Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages, resulting in children of extremely varied dispositions, with extremely varied education and upbringing. Consequently, this city develops into many cities, distinct yet intertwined, with the parts of each scattered throughout the parts of the others. Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents. All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it [al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. The Political Regime. Ch. VI.].
The problem that the democratic city presents for the philosopher, then, is variety. If a philosopher is one who is capable of bringing a particular people to understand philosophy, what is a philosopher to do when faced with a people of peoples where physical characteristics, moral codes, and traditions are mixed beyond any recognition?

This presents an acute problem to those who follow Platonic thinking. The fourth century Neoplatonist Synesius plainly stated the tension between democracy and rationality in the Platonic model.

There are in sooth all kinds of opposites within us, and a certain medial force of nature runs through them which we call mind. It is that I desire to reign in the king's soul, destroying the mob rule and democracy of the passions [Synesius, De Regno. Cited and Translated in Dvornik, Francis, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy: Origins and Background Vol. II.].
Synesius, following the platonic model of using the state as a mechanism to explore the soul, argues that reason, being one, rules as a monarch and the passions, being multiple, rules as a democracy. Reason, it would seem, provides for unity; democracy, for disunity. While Synesius was clearly speaking of the function of the mind rather than the function of the state, he was basing his analysis of the mind on what he thought was an obvious fact of politics, that monarchy is more rationally ordered than democracy.

And truly, the collection of abundant and varied factions, a cities built of cities so to speak, that make up modern democracies do have a problem with factionalism, with each political party and religious group pulling in a different direction. At times and places, a large enough collection of factions will pull in the same direction and move the entire regime in that direction regardless of whether or not that direction is reasonable just as sometimes the passions will pull an individual in a direction that is not reasonable. And in these situations, sometimes even the rational part of the mind cannot restrain the body from following the combined weight of the passions. Thinking of this very situation, al-Farabi wrote:

As for the truly virtuous man--namely the man who, if he were to rule them, would determine and direct their actions toward happiness--they do not make him a rule. If by chance he comes to rule them, he will soon find himself either deposed or killed or in an unstable and challenged position. [al-Farabi,Ibid.]
A democracy, then, is a potentially hazardous regime for a philosopher who would attempt to guide the citizens to happiness. The role of the philosopher in a democratic city, then, is not to rule but to teach as many as he can the meaning of philosophy, lest he perish.

But it isn't so obvious that this cacophony of various factions is a bad thing. James Madison argued that this vast multitude of different interests is a good thing. In Madisonian thinking, the pull of a multitude of factions, each going in its own direction is part of what prevents tyrannical rule of a majority faction.

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority--that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. [Madison, James. Federalist 51]
And in today's democracies, that is usually the latter path that is taken in the hope that in the plurality of interests, no one interest will be able to dominate the others. The problem, though, is that history shows us that the Madisonian mechanism for preventing the tyranny of the majority is somewhat flawed. The number of dictators throughout history that have risen to power through democratic mechanisms suggests that a multitude of interests alone is insufficient to prevent the political equivalent of the mob rule of the passions in the soul.

The US has a somewhat unique solution to this problem in a constitution that is strongly built on Republican values. But even in the US, from time to time, an outspoken majority or strong minority, has been able to move the nation in rather irrational ways such as the move to Prohibition which, rather than reducing alcohol consumption which was its intended goal, served to both reduce respect for the law among the average citizen and bring organized crime in the US to an unprecedented level of power and prestige. (During Prohibition, per capita alcohol consumption in the US was essentially flat. Once Prohibition ended alcohol consumption dipped slightly.) While it is certainly true that organized crime was present and active in the US prior to Prohibition, it was Prohibition that provided the necessary money for various crime syndicates to become entrenched and respected. Hence, we have an irrational policy being put into place entirely on the grounds of passion rather than reason.

But what of a philosopher that can unite the bits and pieces that are good and wholesome from each tradition and faction within a democracy? A pool of conflicting interests, after all, wasn't Madison's only suggestion for preventing tyranny of a simple majority. He also suggested that a people could be united in a single purpose. While he opined that such a unity of heart and mind was only available in a monarchy, the general will of the people embodied in a single individual, perhaps it is possible to forge one out of the many without resort to a single philosopher king. Perhaps instead, many philosopher kings could arise and attempt to bring the various traditions and outlooks from the multitude of factions into a new synthesis. It seems to me that this, in part, is the very path being taken by Yo-Yo Ma. Traveling about the world from culture to culture to learn all that he can about each to take the best parts from each to put together into a new synthesis that can move a mixed and intermingled cosmopolitan society towards a more full understanding of the truth, Ma is taking the one path open to the philosopher who lives in a democratic regime. Ma's belief in the value of the ``infinite variety of human expression'' and the attempt to accept multiple traditions without rejecting any is one that is certainly essential to teaching virtue in a nation state headed by a what al-Farabi would label as an ignorant regime.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why I am not a Republican

Through recorded history, quite a few countries have considered themselves to be republics, nations governed by a regime formed from republican principles. But it is clear that simply claiming the title of republic by itself is not what makes a nation a republic rather than some other form of nation. One need look no further than to North Korea whose official name is the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea to realize that not all regimes that claim to be republican are, in fact, republican. The qualification I think makes the most sense is say that republican states are those states which have governance based on republican ideals such as being an expression of the general will of the people (which means, in part, respect for both individual and minority rights) and having a separation of powers between the executive function and the legislative function. The political party most opposed to these two principles in modern American politics is the ironically named Republican party, also known as the Grand Ole Party or GOP, which in its current incarnation at least, is based extreme democratic principles will threaten to reduce the US to a despotic rule of the mob rather from its intended role as a republic.

Perhaps the best place to start in defining a republic is with a brief passage James Madison wrote in Federalist 39 concerning what it means to be a republic. He wrote that a republic was a nation with, ``a government which derives all of its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.'' I find this definition to be interesting for both what it says and what it does not say. Madison did not opine that a republic is a government which is formed from ``the greater body'', i.e. from the majority faction, but from ``the great body'' of the people. By considering the basis of republicanism to consist of the will of the people as a unity, Madison is excluding pure democracy from the definition of republicanism.

Madison does this because he has observed that democracy in its purest form, save for those few situations where an entire people has a total unity of mind and purpose with regards to governance, is mob rule. One need only consider the trial of Socrates in democratic Athens or the democratic regime set up after the French revolution to see the abuses to which extreme democracy is prone. In this sort of regime, if fifty percent of a people agree on a particular policy, there are effectively no limitations on its implementation. Such a majority, or even a large pluarality, can dominate the minority in any way it pleases. This very point is addressed by Immanuel Kant in To Perpetual Peace, A Philosophical Sketch.

Among the three forms of government, democracy, in the proper sense of the term, is necessarily a despotism, because it sets up an executive power in which all citizens make decisions about and, if need be, against one (who therefore does not agree); consequently, all, who are not quite all, decide, so that the general will contradicts both itself and freedom.
A pure democracy, Kant argues, is only free for those in the majority which have effectively replaced the general will, the will of the people as a whole, with the will of the largest faction of the people. In such a state of affairs, the will of the minority, where it differs from the minority, is always frustrated. Such a state is not a republic by a tyranny of the majority.

But notice that Kant also hints at something else, that part of what is non-republican about pure democracy is that this form of regime entails that the same institution (the majority voice) claims responsibility for both making laws (the legislative function) and enforcing laws (the executive function). Kant's complain is not entirely about the fact that the will of the majority is being conflated with the will of the people as a whole, but also that there is no division of powers. Hence, we have in Kant the second principle of republicanism.

Republicanism is that political principle whereby executive power (the government) is separated from legislative power. In a despotism the ruler independently executes laws that it has itself made; here rulers have taken hold of the public will and treated it as their own private will.
Consequently, we see that pure democracy is the very definition of despotism, the enforcement of the will of one human being upon one or more human beings. This order (the imposition of the will of one or more men over the will of other men) in government is precisely what lead Blessed Augustine to conclude that government was akin to slavery. The subordination of the will of one man to the will of another man is the very definition of slavery.

In one of his lectures on the philosophy of world history, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel makes the same observation. If the will of the minority is left out of the picture, there is no true freedom.

If freedom is defined as a state to which all individuals must give their assent, it is easily seen that no law can be upheld unless everyone agrees to it. This in turn gives rise to the principle that the minority must yield to the majority, so that the majority in fact makes the decisions. But as J.J. Rousseau has already observed, this can no longer be described as freedom, for the will of the minority is no longer respected.
A state that is run by a simple majority rule, then, is not a republic, but is a form of despotism, and lacks true freedom.

All of the above is why I find it deeply disturbing that the modern GOP is pushing for extreme democracy in the US at the expense of republicanism. Whether it be by attempting to remove republican mechanisms such the filibuster when the Republican party was in the majority in both houses of the US Congress or attempting to derail legislative independence by killing any bills the president of their own party threatens to veto while they are in minority, the Republicans in the US Congress are trying to both reduce US politics to the mathematics of fifty percent plus one calling all the shots and remove the constitutional separation of powers meant to ensure that the US remains a republic. But it is not the Republicans in congress alone that share this tendency. With the use of signing statements to modify the intent of laws passed by the legislature and declaring a fifty one percent victory in 2004 to be an mandate to put his policies into place, George W. Bush has made it clear that he wants the US to be reduced to a pure democracy.

In Federalist 51, Madison warned against this very state of affairs. He observes that in a republic, the people as a whole need to guard against not only oppression by a ruling class, but also against oppression by a majority block and offers two mechanisms by which the tyranny of the majority can be kept in check.

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority--that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.
Madison himself would be amazed and astounded at the ability of the GOP to dominate the politics of the United States by a simple majority. By doing so, the Republican party has shown that Madison's proposed solution of preventing the republic from devolving into a despotic form of democracy is weak in some aspects able to be surmounted through the partisan politics of division.

What these things amount to is a full assault on what it means to be American. The values fought for with so much bravery and loss of life and property by our founding fathers are being crapped on by a political party arrogant enough to think that its private interest is the interest of the nation as a whole. The results of this approach are plain. Public corruption in government is at an almost unprecedented level. Billions, if not trillions, of dollars are being squandered due to neglecting conventional accounting principles, no-bid contracts, and outright fraud and embezzlement. The US is involved in a prolonged and intractable war over falsified evidence and dubious judgment. Civil liberties such as the right to a writ of habeus corpus which have been held sacred in almost western nation for hundreds of years are being ignored by various government agencies.

But all of the present abuses pale in consideration to the true danger posed by the failure to properly separate powers and the adoption of a fifty percent plus one ruling strategy. Such a climate sets the stage for a charismatic and talented individual who is intent on being a despot to rise to power. History shows us a large number of dictators, strong men and despots that have risen to power through democracy such as Papa Doc and Il Duce. In a republic, such men can, indeed, do very real damage but the damage that they can do is severely limited. But in a pure democracy, one such men grab the reigns of power, the damage that they can do to their own people is unlimited, frequently leading to the problem in many fledging democracies of `one man, one vote, one time.'

What the antidote to this tendency in today's Republican party is, I do not know. One could certainly argue that simply because the cacophony of interests that the original federalists proposed has demonstrably from time time to prevent the oppression of the minority by the majority, it does not follow that such an approach will always fail. One can, in fact, argue that for much of US history, this approach has been adequate. What I do know is that this approach is presently failing. Further, I can say unequivocally is that I fully support republican ideals and for that reason, I am not a Republican.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Emotional Power of the Arguments Against God from Evil and Suffering

Over the years I've known quite a few people that do not believe in God. The reasons for their lack of belief vary quite widely. One or two were convinced by various philosophical or empirical arguments against the existence of God. More were simply not raised to believe in God and never came across any reason to believe. Others rejected God as an act of rebellion against their parents. A few had heartbreaking stories of pain and angst that informed a rather active disbelief in God. One of these had a story of which I am ashamed to say that I don't remember all of the details. In fact, I may never even have been privy to all of the details of her story. But this friend of mine, raised mostly by a single mother, was once a young girl cowering behind the sofa while one of her mother's boyfriends beat her mother senseless for hours on end while the young girl prayed fervently for the beating to stop and the police to come. The beating eventually stopped but the police never came. After that horrific event, and at a very young age, my friend decided that if God existed at all, any God that would allow such an atrocity to occur wasn't worthy of being worshiped.

The last of those reasons, alongside other personal narratives in the same vein, is probably the most powerful argument against the existence of God that I've ever personally comes across. It's an argument that's put forth in various formal forms for thousands of years, mostly likely first by Epicurus in the late fourth century or early third century BC. Usually it is called argument against the existence of God from evil or the argument against the existence of God from pain and suffering. (I'll refer to both of them as the problem of pain.) While there are many ways of laying these two arguments out in a logical fashion, a little noticed aspect is that their real power comes from an appeal to emotion. Rather than being a defect, this appeal to emotion makes the arguments all the more powerful to the average individual and, as appeals to emotion, the rebuttal of these arguments so far as one exists must also be ones that tug on the heart strings rather than strictly philosophical arguments.

When the argument is laid out formally, it is unusually easy to grasp. It starts with a definition of God as a being which is both all-loving and all-powerful. If God is all-loving, the argument goes, then God will not desire that any evil or pain and suffering to occur. And if God is all-powerful, then God will not allow his desires to be frustrated. If evil or pain and suffering exist, then, God must either be unable to act on his desires, i.e. God is not all-powerful, or God is willing to let his creation suffer, i.e. God is not all-loving. And a God that lacks either of these attributes cannot, by definition, be God. The conclusion of this argument is that God has contradictory properties and, therefore, does not exist in the same way that a square circle cannot exist.

But this argument hinges on a premise that Christians rejects, that an all-loving God will not desire that evils, usually in the form of pain and suffering, befall creation. Implicit in this assertion is the idea that evils, especially pain and suffering, cannot be a force for good. But the Christian holds that some goods cannot obtain save through evil of some sort or the other. Without the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, there can be no nativity of Christ in the cave. Without the Crucifixion, as it were, there can be no Resurrection. So for the Christian, the problem of evil only exists if evil exists that does not lead to a greater good. The problem of evil must be qualified to really the problem of senseless evil. Does evil exist which there is no proportionately greater good?

But I suspect that many who have experienced suffering first hand, this point is rather cold comfort if, indeed, it has any meaning at all. What reason could there possibly be for God to allow the barbarity of the Holocaust? Of the ethnic cleansing in Africa and eastern Europe these past two decades? Likewise, how many victims of rape cannot would say that some good thing has come from the evil that befell them? To even think of saying to those who have experience these sorts of pain that `there is a reason this happened' seems rather inhumane and caddish. Pain and suffering of this sort offends the very conscience. To experience this sort of suffering, or even to hear of it from someone who has experienced it firsthand or to read about it in the media, brings to mind significant doubts. How is it possible that a loving God would allow these things to happen? It is easy for me to see how some reach the conclusion that a God willing to allow this to happen isn't a God worthy of worship.

Yet, it is important to note the basis on which the existence of God is being rejected. We are essentially left with one or both of two reasons. I cannot understand how this could possibly be the case so it must not be the case. I am not willing to accept that such a being as would allow these things to happen is loving. The first of these is an appeal to ignorance. The latter is an appeal to emotion. But that they are fallacious arguments from the point of view of formal logic is of no consequence to me. They are powerful arguments because to accept that God could possibly allow atrocities like these to occur and still be loving seems to run contrary to everything humanity sees as wholesome and virtuous.

And this, perhaps, is the failure of philosophy, or at least the failure of analytical philosophy. No logical demonstration of what the terms `good' and `evil' really matter to a person who experienced firsthand the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp or the murder of a loved one or the untimely death of an infant. That pain and suffering speaks to the very being of those of us who are human. If there is an answer to these doubts, it does not lie in analytic logic but in something that appeals to the same compassion and love of our consciences which are shocked by the very mention of the words `Auschwitz', `rape', `ethnic cleansing', or `Darfur'. How can it matter what conclusions are reached by analysis and logical forms if it means that there is nothing but platitudes for those who have suffered the trials of Job on top of the agony of Christ?

The only answer I can think of to this dilemma is that, in truth, if God exists then it follows that everything that has happened, everything that is happening now, and everything that will happen, does so for a reason. Admittedly, I just finished arguing that such a thought was almost an insult to those who have gone through real suffering. But we are left with one final question. If you were someone who had firsthand experienced the depths of evil, would it be better to believe that it happened for no reason or to believe that, no matter how unlikely or absurd it seems, that something good will come out of the experience? I think many people feel that it is better, more comforting, to believe that this sort of suffering happens for no reason and I cannot hold this feeling against those people who do so. It is their very compassion that leads them to that sort of conclusion. I cannot say that I can blame those who come to believe that God does not exist for these reasons.

But despite what I said above about coming off as caddish and inhumane, some people how have lived through unimaginable suffering do take comfort in the thought that no matter how wicked and filled with some events are, a reason that these particular evils have obtained exists and, somehow, these evils will result in a greater good. Whether these people do so because the alternative is even more horrifying, that there is no reason for any of it, evil just happens, or for some other reason is of no consequence. Perhaps, in some cases, these people have seen firsthand a greater good arise from the ashes of an enormous tragedy. Perhaps, in other cases, these people simply have the faith that something good must come from the evil. To argue against this point, especially with those who have greatly suffered, is no less inhumane and caddish than to try to explain away the very real sufferings to those who have lived through great suffering and reject this very point. We are dealing here, after all, with feelings and emotions that lie within the core of the soul and not with a formal argument laid out on paper.

I'm fairly certain that I've offended at least some readers by this point with my dismissal of analytic log and suggestion that an appeal to emotion could carry weight. I think those readers are making a mistake similar to the cardinal problem of modernism, mistaking empirical knowledge for all types of knowledge. They are mistaking one aspect of rationality (the ability to make analytical judgments) for all of reason. Truth, at least in the Christian tradition, is a personal relationship rather than a merely being a matter of formal analysis, syllogisms, predicate logic and the like. These latter things are certainly part of rationality and they are invaluable tools for evaluating a good deal of the world. But they are not the only tools for evaluating the world nor do they comprise rationality in its totality. To accept that to be rational, in its entirety, means to be make judgments solely on predicate logic is reduce the human person to a very one dimensional caricature of what it means to be fully human.

The best explication of what I'm getting after I've seen to date occurs in Christos Yannaras' Elements of Faith. Rather directly addressing rationality, he addresses the question of faith which so many people argue is the opposite of reason. In the context of observing how much of the modern wold sees faith as something fundamentally irrational he presents the following.
In fact, when we speak in business circles about ``faith'', we still mean the trust which a merchant inspires in marketing circles. Everyone knows him; they know his conduct and ethics of his dealings, his record of fulfilling his obligations. If he ever needs to ask for money, he will find a lender immediately, perhaps without collateral for the money which he will get, because his person and his word are sufficient guarantee.

In the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, ``faith'' functions as it does in business and in the market-place. Here the object of faith is not abstract ideas which derive their validity from some infallible authority. The object of faith is specific persons you are called upon to trust in the context of an immediate experiential relationship.

More concretely; If you believe in God, you do not do so because some theoretical principles suggest this belief to you or some foundational institution guarantees his existence. You believe him because his person, the personal experience of God, gives birth to your trust. His works and his historical ``activity'', his interventions within history, make you want a relationship with him.
While Yannaras doesn't directly address having experiences which might make a person want to not have any sort of relationship with God, I think it relatively clear to see that his point works in both directions. We human beings are experiential creatures who tend to build our beliefs out of what (and who) we've gotten to know first hand. While there are certainly exceptions, some individuals do base their beliefs about God or the lack thereof almost entirely on this or that argument formed by predicate logic or some such tool, I assert that those exceptions are relatively rare. More often, if they are used at all, the tools of predicate logic serve to aid in coming to understand the beliefs that one has already come to as a result of various personal relationships with other people and with the world in general.

In conclusion, I don't think there is any good rebuttal to the problem of pain, not because it is a logically sound argument, but because the problem is not a logical one to begin with. Rather it is a problem of conscience held by specific individual persons who have arrived at the problem through direct or indirect experience. It is a problem created by compassion and conscience that affects some, but not all, people who have directly or indirectly experienced suffering. To argue against this position only serves to make one come off as a inhumane cad. Consequently, the solution to the problem, inasmuch as there is one, is for those who would convince others of the existence of God to act in a fashion that demonstrates God's goodness. Over time, demonstrating love and compassion will heal the wounds who have had their consciences seared through their experience of suffering. This is because truth, in the final analysis, is a function of person relationships rather than a brute fact or logical form. This doesn't make belief or disbelief irrational unless one mistakes the analytic function of the psyche for the all of rationality. What it does do is serve to highlight that those who struggle with the problem of pain have compassion and a conscience and in this, the problem of pain serves to highlight our own humanity.