Posts Tagged James Madison
I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”
Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:
A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.
These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.
Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.
Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.
So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?
Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…
A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.
Over at Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter explains why he’s not a libertarian, providing concise conservative responses to 10 popular libertarian claims.
This week at Values & Capitalism, I look at two of those claims, related specifically to coercion and market intervention. Finding myself arguing alongside libertarians on most economics-related issues, I thought Schlueter’s points were helpful in illuminating a key distinguisher between conservatism and libertarianism, even if the policy outcome ends up looking similar.
Here’s Schlueter’s sixth point/response:
6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality. Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character … The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.
This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism. (emphasis added)
The question for conservatives, I argue, seems to be that we think coercion may sometimes be justified and/or helpful. We certainly don’t think it should be in play to the extent progressives do—who seem to pursue centralized control as an ideal—but conservatives recognize that certain features of human nature demand it.
In the end, I argue—piggy-backing on Schlueter—that much of this comes down to realism:
This hits at the deeper level of why conservatives think coercion in economics is sometimes necessary to preserve order. It is here, I believe, that conservatives find themselves fighting between two forms of utopianism: one which actively pursues coercion with little regard for real-life liberty, and one which actively pursues so-called liberty with little regard for real-life humans (or the real extent of certain real-life consequences).
Schlueter points out this distinguisher in his #9 response, which I believe draws the clearest line between both orientations. Conservatism’s “true realism,” as Schlueter notes, is summed up aptly by James Madison, in a line from Federalist No. 57 containing plenty for both libertarians and progressives to detest:
‘The aim of every political constitution is first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.’
Read the full post here.
In a recent piece at The American, Arthur Brooks and Peter Wehner write splendidly about the connection between vision and political execution. After summarizing three basic views of human nature — what Thomas Sowell would call “visions” — Brooks and Wehner dive into the issues involved in executing each vision in the political sphere.
The three primary views, as the authors see them, are as follows:
- Humans are flawed but perfectible (a la Jean-Jacques Rouseeau and Karl Marx).
- Humans are flawed and cannot change (a la Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville).
- Humans are flawed but “under the right circumstances, human nature can work to the advantage of the whole” (a la Adam Smith and James Madison).
Brooks and Wehner side with the last option, and after exploring the political implications supporting it, they explain its overall consistency with Biblical teaching:
This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the Bible declares — yet it also tells us to be holy in all our conduct, to walk in His statutes, and not to grow weary in doing good. Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.
But how does this vision of human nature connect with the political realm? How do we take the Pauline view of human nature and translate it into a proper political framework?
Brooks and Wehner explain:
As for the matter of the state: Romans 13 makes clear that government is divinely sanctioned by God to preserve public order, restrain evil, and make justice possible. This, too, was a view shared by many of the founders. Government reflects human nature, they argued, “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
This brings the authors to the subject of self-interest. After all, it is capitalism’s reliance on self-interest that leads its opponents to ridicule it as immoral and Read the rest of this entry »
I’m in the middle of reading Kenneth Minogue’s new book, and so far it is all-around brilliant.
The basic premise is that democracy has wrongly evolved from a mere process to a supreme ideal. More and more, Minogue argues, the West is substituting individual moral responsibility for a superficial form of collective salvation. In short, decisions at the ballot box have subtly become the supreme authority on moral truth.
I’ll be reviewing the book in the near future, but at the moment I wanted to focus on a point Minogue makes in a chapter called “Democratic Ambiguities.” In the chapter, Minogue highlights various elements we need to understand before holistically evaluating democracy. One of Minogue’s many points therein centers around the social conditions necessary for successful democracy. One of those conditions, in Minogue’s view, is cultural homogeneity.
As Minogue writes:
…[T]he ideal of democracy has little purchase on plausibility unless “the whole people” is a relatively homogeneous set of people who “speak the same language” (even if it is only in a metaphorical sense, as in states such as Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium).
But what about the claim that there is no definitive “American culture”? Minogue apparently disagrees:
The United States established its cultural homogeneity as virtually a condition of admission to its shores. A pays politique can hardly exist unless individuals share similar sources of information and talk to each other in mutually comprehensible terms.
To prove his point, Minogue offers several examples where democracy has failed due to competing cultural (or “tribal”) forces. By examining situations in Lebanon, Spain, Northern Ireland, and Africa (no country in particular), Minogue concludes that some degree of cultural Read the rest of this entry »
By now, I assume that most of you have heard the news regarding Proposition 8, which was overturned this week by a California judge.
From The New York Times:
Saying that [Proposition 8] discriminates against gay men and women, a federal judge in San Francisco struck down California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage on Wednesday, handing supporters of such unions at least a temporary victory in a legal battle that seems all but certain to be settled by the Supreme Court.
As usual, the media has been buzzing, but it seems that the majority of the arguments (from both sides) have to do with the morality of gay (or straight) marriage, and whether we as a society should “accept” it.
These are necessary arguments to have, but the fundamental issue at the moment has to do with whether this decision holds up on Constitutional grounds. I would argue that it does not.
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Obviously we can’t just interpret the Equal Protection Clause all by itself (it has years of jurisprudence coloring its words and meaning), but rather than dive into a nuanced, methodical discussion of how we should interpret the clause, I will simply say that I don’t believe the clause has anything to do with homosexual marriage, or heterosexual marriage for that matter.
In this particular instance, perhaps one good way to understand what it should apply to is to detach ourselves from thinking of “marriage” as Read the rest of this entry »