In my last post I introduced Jurgen Habermas’ book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and argued that it is very relevant to us in the bloggernacle. More specifically, I argued that just as how during the Enlightenment independent people came together in a public forum so as to engage in critical debate which eventually served to erode the perceived legitimacy of their state authorities, so too us within the bloggernacle come together as independent persons in this public forum so as to engage in critical debate which can – if we are not careful – erode the perceived legitimacy of our church authorities. The bloggernacle is largely characterized by the same three traits that structured the public sphere which Habermas sees at the center of democratic politics: Open accessibility to all, equality amongst interlocutors and all topics are open to critical discussion. My point in that post was not to accuse anybody in particular of undermining the authority of our leaders so much as it was to warn us all how easy it is to seamlessly and unnoticeably slide from “a public sphere in which the [priesthood authority is] merely represented before the people [to] a sphere in which [church] authority [is] publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.” (p. xi) In this post I want to articulate the subtle steps by which this transition can happen.
Thomas Hobbes declared, “Authority, not truth, makes law.” Jurgen Habermas insists on the exact opposite, “Truth, not authority, makes law.” (p. 82) In these two men we have two rationally articulated perspectives on authority that could not be more different from each other. This alone should make us think twice about our own interpretations and evaluations of authority and its relationship to law. In this post I would like to make these choices – for this is exactly what such interpretations and evaluations are – even more difficult. To do this I will summarize Habermas’ account of the various intermediate perspectives on authority and law that were taught throughout the process of Enlightenment during which feudal authority was gradually rationalized and then delegitimized. The subtle differences in these perspectives will allow us to see how slippery the slope that leads from discussing the church and its leaders to critiquing the church and its leaders really is.
As we review each of these perspectives there are a few questions that I think are worth raising within our own minds. In what ways is this perspective like the church as it actually is? In what ways is this perspective like the church as it ought to be? What relevance does this perspective have for itself as a publicly reasoned argument? What relevance does this perspective have for your own publicly reasoned arguments within the bloggernacle?
Thomas Hobbes advocated – as you probably already guessed – the absolute sovereignty of the monarchy. Without such a governing authority, conflicts of interests and opinions would dissolve society into a contentious state of violence, fear and misery. He thought that people should be left to believe whatever they want, but that they were to keep these tentative opinions to themselves. He thought there ought to be no organizations outside of state authority which debated government.
John Locke thought that an individual’s opinions and interests both influenced and were, in turn, influenced by the opinions and interests of others. This inter-personal influence served as an unofficial mechanism for checking and balancing the individuals that constituted society. He did not, however, see this reciprocal influence as itself constituting a public opinion, let alone having much relevance or grounding law or sovereignty.
The Physiocrats argued that public debate served to purify opinion into reason and that this reason served to inform the sovereign who alone wields authority. Make no mistake, however, because even though these men thought that public debate served a positive function they still insisted that the state authorities and nobody else was in a position to wield sovereign power. Public debate could serve to inform the ruling authority, but was in no way supposed to constrain or usurp the decisions of that authority. This was absolutism with critical debate.
Jean Jacques Rousseau was almost the exact opposite in that he advocated democracy without public debate. In his view, public debate did not serve to purify opinion into reason, but instead allowed the more educated, eloquent or otherwise influential to corrupt or control the otherwise pristine opinions of others. Instead, he thought that laws ought to be grounded in the general will – by which he meant the mores, customs and especially opinions – of untutored persons.
Immanuel Kant was the one who finally combined the Physiocrats’ view of public debate with Rousseau’s view regarding democracy. He argued that public debate purified untutored opinion which in turn was to be the foundation for legitimate legislation. Thus, critical debate and public reason were the source of both enlightenment and legitimate legal order. He saw the non-universal will of the authority figures as a kind of domination that ought to be subjugated by reason – it being that which all people can simultaneously and consistently will together. Habermas takes something like this to be the epitome of the public sphere and the very heart of democratic theory.
G. W. F. Hegel rejected the idea that public opinion can ever constitute purified reason. Instead, he saw the public opinion and debate as a kind of common sense infected with “penurious rabble.” Furthermore, this rabble is marked not by unity and truth but by anarchic and antagonistic prejudices and subjective opining. For this reason he saw the public as a place in which the state (which represented the truth of the age) educated the public rather than the other way around.
Karl Marx totally rejected the idea that the public sphere was a source of liberation from authority seeing such ideas as an ill-intended farce. This false consciousness was promoted by the bourgeoisie who were merely trying to mask their own ascendancy to power by way of manipulating public debate to their own ends. Since the public sphere was not a liberation from ruling authorities but was instead a mere exchange of ruling authorities, power relations still thwarted any hopes at the purification of opinion by way of public debate.
John Stuart Mill thought that the universality that the public sphere pretended to actually served to undermine its unity. As more people entered the literate sphere of public debate there inevitably arose conflicts of interests among differing sub-groups of various size and influence. This meant that public opinion was nothing but the majority opinion by which the mediocre many wielded power over the opinions and interests of the few. Thus, the public sphere became not a means of dissolving power, but of limiting and balancing it between the state, bourgeoisie and majority opinion.
There are others that we could have considered, but this gives us enough to appreciate the wide spectrum of views that very intelligent and moralistic people can and have had regarding authority and law. It also serves to highlight some recurring themes which I think are especially relevant to our views of the church and what it means to sustain our leaders: Is public debate a means of liberation from or subjugation to human imperfection? Is it a path or an obstacle to group unity? Can there ever be both equality and unity on a large scale and if not, which one ought we compromise? Do we naturally know what’s right and wrong, or do we need to be taught right and wrong? If so, who is supposed to teach us? Does public debate dissolve or merely transfer power from one ruler to another? Are our answers to these questions the same ones that modern prophets have given? Which view would Joseph Smith have held when he dictated our modern scriptures?
I’m guessing that there will be many, many different answers to these questions to be found in the bloggernacle… and that is exactly what I’m afraid of. All these perspectives just are the various stepping stones along the path by which “a public sphere in which the [priesthood authority is] merely represented before the people [becomes] a sphere in which [church] authority [is] publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people.” Taken individually, these questions seems fairly innocent and mostly inconsequential, but they are the baby-steps by which many have walked right out of the church. To be sure, these are not the only or even the most typical reasons for why people leave the church. I do, however, think that these are the primary reasons for those who leave the church for moral reasons. Even though I am not a Habermasian by any stretch of the imagination, I do think that he is absolutely right in seeing these historically situated morals – the same morals that are leading many people out of the church – as being essentially democratic in nature