Righteous Dominion and Max Weber

June 1, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 5:32 pm   Category: Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Politics

It is nearly impossible to overestimate Max Weber’s influence upon social theory.  He was a lawyer, an economist and a historian who largely invented the discipline of sociology, was fluent in 8 languages and authored enough works to fill 43 massive volumes.  Not bad for somebody who suffered a major emotional breakdown at the age of 33 and died at the relatively young age of 56. He was, by any reasonable standard, a walking encyclopedia and (for better or worse) his books read like one too. Indeed, it is the dry style with which he marshals an (often) excessive amount of historical material that is responsible for his lack of Marx and Nietzsche’s far more polemic popularity.  My goal in the next few posts will be to distill the historical material to be found in Weber’s writings while adding a bit of my own polemic punch.

Weber felt that the measure of “seriousness” with which any social thinker should be taken is the degree to which s/he had dealt with Marx and Nietzsche. It is not surprising, then, that these two men exercise an enormous influence over his thinking.  That said, however, his politics differed markedly from these two men – especially those of Marx. Weber, was a (classical) liberal who largely accepted the social phenomena described by his predecessors while rejecting the extreme reductions to which each tended.  Economic relations are very important, but – contra Marx – they do not unilaterally determine a cultural superstructure. Struggles for domination are very significant, but to reduce Christian (or any other) morality to pure “negation” is – contra Nietzsche – demonstrably false.

That said, the influences of Marx and Nietzsche will be obvious to those with a firm understanding of them. Whereas Marx construes world history in terms of a progressive series of economic foundations which unilaterally shape their corresponding religions, politics, morals, etc., Weber sees the latter as being both “caused by” and “causes of” our material relations. (The reproduction of capitalism might constrain our culture, but it took a cultural revolution – the Protestant work ethic – to get it up and running in the first place.)  For this reason, he focuses instead on the various types of domination which have served to organize societies.

“We shall emphasize those basic types of domination which result when we search for the ultimate grounds of the validity of a domination, in other words, when we inquire into those grounds upon which there are based the claims of obedience made by the master against the ‘officials’ and of both against the ruled.”
-(All passages from Economy and Society, Vol. 2. Pg. 953-4)

It is important that we do not misunderstand Weber’s use of the word “domination”, since cultural Marxist today use the term somewhat differently.  The German word is “Herrschaft” which can be translated as “lordship”, “authority” or – a word much more familiar to LDS ears – “dominion”. By dominion, Weber does not mean any degree of or asymmetry in brute power relations.  Rather, he meant the likelihood that a person can issue a command and it will be obeyed by others. While everybody acknowledges that some forms of power are perceived as illegitimate or “unrighteous” dominion, Weber is primarily concerned with developing a typology of the various types of authority that are perceived by any given community as “legitimate” or, as us Mormons might say, “righteous dominion”.

The means by which a community justifies various claims to both obedience and disobedience are, for Weber, anything but an abstract conceptual game:

“For a domination, this kind of justification of its legitimacy is much more than a matter of theoretical or philosophical speculation; it rather constitutes the basis of very real differences in the empirical structure of domination. The reason for this fact lies in the generally observable need of any power, or even of any advantage of life, to justify itself…
”Indeed, the continued exercise of every domination (in our technical sense of the word) always has the strongest need of self-justification through appealing to the principles of its legitimation.”

The legitimacy or righteousness of dominion is essentially grounded in the answer that is given – either actually or potentially – to the question “why?” Why should we listen to you rather than somebody else? Why should we accept your answer rather than some alternative? To whom or what can we make an appeal when we disagree with our lord? Without satisfactory answers to such questions, a community can, with alarming rapidity, descend into chaos and violence.

In this sense, “why?” is not necessarily, or even typically an innocent matter of private interest or romanticized curiosity as we modern often make it out to be. “Why?” is a potentially, if not overtly subversive challenge to the established order of things, the received wisdom and those who have a vested interest in and/or wield control over such things.  “Why?” plants the seed of doubt, suggesting that maybe, just maybe we (note the plural) ought not obey our lords when they command us.

Authority figures must be able to legitimize their commands – to answer the question “why?” To do this, they will almost always point to something other than naked power relations, to some external and less arbitrary standard. A tension exists, then, between 1) an authority’s need to place some distance between himself and what is supposed to be an “independent” legitimation of his claims to obedience and 2) his need to remain close to those who control or speak for this source of “independent” legitimation.

What, exactly, is to serve as this independent legitimizer of authority is of practical relevance. An illiterate community which justifies commands and policies in terms of inherited tradition will look to those with the longest memory of that tradition – the elders – for such answers. Genealogists will wield a large amount of power if blood relations (or lines of ordination/coronation) justify rule. Dead prophets can only command us through the living scribes that read such documents “for us” and lawyers will be in high demand if legitimacy is based in property relations, constitutions or other such “contracts”. If commands and obedience are supposed to be grounded in natural law, then natural philosophers, scientists and other such experts wield a disproportionate amount of status and authority – and this in addition to whatever technological improvements they may or may not have produced. The collective will shall always find is most “official” articulation in certain charismatic poets and intellectuals.

(edit: Whichever independent standard and the group that speaks for it is appealed to will have a strong influence upon the common man’s metaphysics within that community. It is a relatively straightforward task to determine which metaphysics tend to be most compatible with or best adapted to each form of legitimacy.)

These varied ways in which obedience and disobedience is justified and legitimated have very practical consequences for the community and the culture that shapes and flows through it:

“Every highly privileged group develops the myth of its natural, especially blood, superiority. Under conditions of stable distribution of power and, consequently, of status order, that myth is accepted by the negatively privileged strata.”

To summarize then: A community is held together and structured according to various myths if legitimacy. These myths not only satisfy and silence “why?” questions, but also stratify different types of cultural production and consumption.  In modern societies, those who maintain expert control over both natural and human laws – scientists and lawyers – carry far more prestige than these same professions did during the middle ages. What matters is not that these experts actually can answer any such “why?” question to everybody’s satisfaction, but that they maintain the appearance that they can or soon will be able to do so.

The elders, genealogists and priestly scribes, who were once so closely heeded and highly prized during the middle ages, by contrast, now go largely ignored. It is for this reason that we can now justify our disobedience to the pre-modern authorities that command us today with an appeal to those modern authorities, but not the other way around. We are taught that we can legitimately disagree with religious claims for scientific reasons, but we cannot legitimately disagree with scientific claims for religious reasons. This is what is means to live in a secular society.

Questions to consider:

Who or what legitimizes the claim of a priesthood leader to our obedience?

Who speaks for such “independent” sources of legitimacy?

Who or what might legitimize our disobedience of priesthood leaders?

Which “why?” questions do each set of authorities (religious or secular) most wish to silence?


  1. I think you bring up a really interesting and important point – how authority gets transformed by technology. The reason scribes and genealogists lost their authority was due to the printing press and cheap writing tools (ubiquitous papers and pens).

    In turn, one wonders how much the expansion and ease of writing completely reshaped the notions of authority. I’d not considered that before but I think you’re one to something here. (Recognizing it wasn’t your main focus at all)

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2016 @ 8:23 am

  2. “The reason scribes and genealogists lost their authority was due to the printing press and cheap writing tools (ubiquitous papers and pens).”

    I’m not sure it quite this straight forward. The more people participate in an activity, the more space is created to stratification within the field of that activity (think Bourdieu). What the important practical differences are between an increased stratification and the transfer of legitimizing authority from one field to another is a very interesting question. From what (comparatively) little I understand of Weber, I’m not sure he has the conceptual resources to address this question.

    Next post will deal with Weber’s extremely developed taxonomy between traditional, rational and charismatic authority. While I think his taxonomy help situate the question better, I’m not sure that it really points us towards an actual answer to it.

    Also, I added a quick paragraph to the OP about a point that I simply forgot to develop: that the process by which we grant varying levels of prestige to the various groups that “officially” speak for the different independent standards will strongly influence a communities metaphysics. I’ll try to flesh this idea out a bit more next post.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  3. I don’t think it’s that straightforward, but I think the technology sets the stage where the people simply don’t need an intermediary for things that prior to the printing press they did. Texts were rare, precious and ridiculously difficult to copy. The oral had more place. It’s not surprise that authority in Catholicism developed the way it did and that the change in views of authority with science and Protestantism arise as writing becomes easier and cheaper.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

  4. I should add that I’m pretty skeptical of Weber’s categories especially the way many historians have tended to apply it to Mormon history. (Joseph was the charismatic authority whereas today authorities are bureaucratic)

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

  5. #3. I agree that technology opens up possibilities that did not exist previously, but I think we both agree that there is nothing deterministic about the relationship. If I had to guess, this relationship probably has a lot to do with how well a phenomena lends itself to stratification. For example, the natural sciences lend themselves to a very large degree of stratification in terms of expertise, etc., while I do not think that genealogy does this well at all.

    #4. I agree. Before I found Weber’s categories, I had already been pursuing come up with the rough list that I described in the OP. Of course, Weber is trying to give an evolutionary taxonomy for ALL of world history, and at that scale I think it does pretty well.

    Once people start talking about JS as charisma, I start getting pretty ambivalent. I’ll resist going into more detail for the time being, if only to save my thoughts for the next post.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

  6. To elaborate a bit, the guardians of the source of legitimacy must meet certain conditions in order to function in this particular role:

    1: They must not issue direct commands to the community, since this would make them the commanding authority rather than the independent standard which legitimizes the authority.
    2: It is for this reason (that they do not issue direct commands) that they maintain a (largely illusory) aura of neutrality.
    3: This group of guardians must be relatively small with respect to the community at large, otherwise there would be too much diversity in how the standard is interpreted, thus defeating the purpose.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2016 @ 1:01 pm

  7. While the relationship might not be deterministic in an absolute sense – after all there were catholics with the older forms of authority persisting in the age of cheap writing – it does seem to have heavily incentivized change.

    Comment by Clark — June 3, 2016 @ 7:44 am

  8. I agree.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 3, 2016 @ 10:15 am

  9. Thinking more about it, I think it is necessary that the guardians of the independent standard be a “closed society” (in the sense that Popper actually got from Weber). Thus, the way in which mass literacy would open many of these groups would be fatal to their role, just as you suggested.

    I’ll definitely have to ponder this more.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 4, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

  10. Perhaps I am being naive, but the only direct source of legitimizing authority that I am aware of for the priesthood is the Doctrine and Covenants, which Joseph Smith said came through him from Christ. There is no outside group of experts that legitimizes priesthood authority, that I’m aware of, except perhaps for some LDS “scholars”. Unless, you consider members of the church themselves to be the legitimizing group of experts, since we begin to read and study the Doctrine and Covenants essentially as soon as we can read. But since the prophets are the generally recognized legitimizing experts for Christ’s authority, the argument that priesthood authority comes from prophets through Christ seems circular, if you discount personal revelation–which then leads us back to members of the church as the legitimizing experts. So, then the Holy Ghost, or our own consciences, or priesthood leaders actions that are not in keeping with D&C Sections 107 or 121 would legitimize our disobedience to priesthood leaders. Am I missing something?

    Comment by Bill B. — June 5, 2016 @ 8:23 am

  11. I think things are far more complex than this. If we ask “why should we obey?” The answer will varying greatly: scriptures, priesthood lineages, personal revelation, etc. These sources are all informed by and interpreted according to hermeneuticists, genealogists/historians and psychologists, respectively.

    Personal revelation is a pretty sticky one. The major question has to do with how much of an obligation we take others to have to an authority figure that we accept. If a person disobeys an authority figure, by what standard to we trust the personal revelation of that person? What limits are placed on personal revelation? Who decides?

    Another approach, which I will get into a bit more in later posts, is the different between being an authority figure vs being part of an administrative staff. Often times, we expect the priesthood leadership to merely administer what higher authorities have independently commanded.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 5, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  12. I’m confused. You appear to be asking the question, “Why should we obey?”, without resorting to the standard answers of scriptural authority, tradition, or even psychological explanations. When you rule out all three, haven’t you effectively ruled out every possible reason–other than chance (like making decisions based on a coin flip), or lack of choice (like mind control or force, but mind control would be a psychological explanation)?

    As far as your comment about personal revelation, why should what we choose to believe and do have anything to do with what we expect others to choose to believe and do? How can anyone legitimately say that someone else’s personal revelation is false? We can say we don’t believe theirs, but we can’t say ours trumps theirs, meaning no limits can be inherently placed on personal revelation.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, I’m just trying to understand the question you’re really asking. Or are you really just wanting a dialogue?

    Comment by Bill B. — June 5, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

  13. Bill, I think we’d all agree with authority from prophets and personal revelation. You’re coming in a bit late after months of discussions here. The main issue is when these break down. So when your bishop is doing something inappropriate, when does authority break down?

    Now honestly I think those questions happen less than many, especially critics think. But they do happen. Think of that mission president in France back in the late 40’s who tried to bring back polygamy and married several sister missionaries. We’d all agree he was acting outside of authority. Clarifying why and how in philosophical terms gets to be a bit tricky.

    A popular one that pops up today are conflicts between what a GA says and science. Now the Church itself takes fairly neutral positions and there’s diversity in thought among the brethren on it. But it’s not hard to find statements that seem demonstrably false made in conference. Are they authoritative? From Jeff’s perspective there are dualing authorities and he thinks the brethren always win. I think the brethren get the benefit of doubt but we have to acknowledge they may not be knowledgeable on all issues. So there’s a burden of proof those questioning authority in narrow cases have to meet, but if someone say there’s no evidence for continuing human populations before 6000 BC it’s just wrong.

    With regards to personal revelation typically only the individual knows what they experience so they have to be the ones to decide how to interpret it and what level of authority to give it. In the church it’s somewhat easy since most people’s personal revelation has no authority over anyone else. However what do you do if you have personal revelation that conflicts with some authority (ranging from spouse to Bishop on up)? Again from my eyes this is non-trivial to deal with. I don’t think it’s addressed well in Church beyond the presumption the individual is wrong. (And that’s almost certainly typically the correct answer — but it’s not hard to find exceptions)

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2016 @ 8:28 am

  14. BTW Jeff. I finally broke down and got the Audible version of Taylor’s A Secular Age. It really does address quite interestingly a lot of these things you’re discussing. Especially how the switch takes place in early modernism. He argues, fairly persuasively, that prior to the rise of printing revolutionizing things there were already changes in Catholicism with more of a focus on the masses (as opposed to what went on in monasteries) and also the rise of interant preachers.

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2016 @ 9:45 am

  15. Bill,

    I was a little busy this weekend, so hopefully I’ll be able to engage your comment a little better now…

    While I’m not sure that it’s totally relevant to the basic point, I do reject an overly simplistic understanding that we only obey the prophets to the extent they square with the scriptures. The reason is because the prophets are the ones who decide what is and is not scripture and how the scriptures ought to be read. I would, however, grant that the understanding of the scriptures that the average member is encultured with does shape their perception and understanding of personal revelation and it is this personal revelation that definitely acts as an external limit to obedience.

    On a side note, I think the witnesses that must be present at any ordination most definitely function as THE primary legitimation to ordination claims, not D&C sections (although the two are not entirely mutually exclusive).

    I should also make clear that I am not pushing for or against any form of legitimation. My quasi-objectivist stance was intended 1) to show the practical logic of legitimation and 2) to show the broad plurality of sources of legitimation. One of the main points of the post (which I sadly did not make all that clear) is that different traditions will attempt to “reduce” legitimacy of one sphere to that of another. Thus, different communities will take different sources of legitimation as being “fundamental” than others do. This exerts a strong influence on the metaphysics which the community endorses.

    For example, modern society pretends to be open to “tradition” or “authority”, but they do so only to the extent that such things can be “grounded in” abstract rules. Other people, (typically post-moderns) will attempt to ground all such abstract rules in terms of a tradition. And so on. A modern reading of Mormonism thus attempts to place all rules, laws and values outside of even God Himself, thus reducing His authority to something else. I am very suspicious of this move, but I’m not really arguing for or against such a thing in this post. I, by contrast, endorse priesthood hierarchy as being foundational in terms of legitimacy. I was hoping that by approaching these differences in largely neutral terms, the differences in practice, costs and benefits would be easier to see.

    “why should what we choose to believe and do have anything to do with what we expect others to choose to believe and do? How can anyone legitimately say that someone else’s personal revelation is false?”

    I am very sympathetic to your reservations. The problem, however, is that if we can’t say they’re false, then by what right can we say they’re true? This view definitely threatens to dissolve any notion of organized religion or “absolute” truth. Joseph Smith, by contrast, felt very comfortably dismissing other people’s personal revelation as “of the devil”. By what right did he do this? It is questions like these that this post is supposed to frame, even if I don’t really attempt to answer such questions.

    PS: This blog is one of the most tolerant blogs in the Bloggernacle when it comes to heated disagreements. Feel free to be as heated, emotional and argumentative as you like, so long as you are a) thick-skinned and/or b) quick to forgiveness.


    Great summary! As for Taylor, you’ll have to tell me what you think. He’s never really caught my attention, to be honest.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 6, 2016 @ 11:42 am

  16. A very interesting case comes to mind in how a community is supposed to allow some standard to silence questions was Robert Boyle’s exclusion of Thomas Hobbes from the Royal Society. The society was framed around the Baconian practice of allowing the results of experiments to settle debates and ends arguments. Hobbes’ contention was that no amount of experimentation could ever silence all such questions. For this reason, Hobbes was excluded from the society and (200 years later) derided as a mere “philosopher” instead of a “scientist”.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 6, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

  17. I’m actually fine with that regarding Hobbes. I think it’s fine to say science is what potentially could be measured, even if it can’t escape philosophy. We should note that Boyle had no trouble with these other endeavors and did them himself. He just wanted to be clear on things. So Boyle was a big alchemist but (unlike say Newton) was careful to distinguish between alchemy and chemistry. Indeed he was the source of making such distinctions. For that I think he ought be praised.

    However Boyle also clearly is someone who thought knowledge could be arrived at via non-scientific means. Indeed he was deeply embedded in such practices.

    Regarding Taylor, I have to confess I’ve started his book a dozen times and it never caught my interest until now. T&S is doing a series on him which is why I started reading. I’ve just been so swamped I never had time to read so I did the Audible thing. It’s surprisingly listenable. (I normally hate audiobooks)

    Comment by Clark — June 6, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  18. Jeff and Clark,

    Thanks for the lengthy responses. I have enjoyed reading many of your posts over the years, although I rarely comment, because you seem to cover things so well.

    The reason I commented on this post is that I feel that who we accept as authorities is critical to the outcome of our logic process–because that process must be founded on some assumptions, which we usually get from those that we consider authorities. Because this is such a critical topic, I’ve always struggled with it. I think that struggle has been worth it, because of the insights I’ve gained. However, I have also come to believe that who a person is (the combination of their moral compass, who they accept as authorities, how much effort they put into understanding things, the feelings that motivate them, etc.) has more to do with what they come to believe than the truth does–unfortunately. The reason is that human beings have a logic process that is riddled with flaws, no matter how hard we try to find the truth. And we have a stunning level of biological programming–which very few of us choose to recognize. Having said that, however, what choice can we make but to continue to try to see the truth? And I believe that revelation is valuable, if we can determine when we are receiving it and when we are not.

    In response to Clark’s comment about what to do when our personal revelation contradicts someone else’s, I think there is no answer other than, “be tolerant”. The reason is that no human being, including Joseph Smith, is infallible. There IS no way to know for certain what is true and what is false–other than deductive logic, which rarely applies. All we have is what we believe to be revelations, our flawed logic, the flawed people we chose to accept as authorities, and our often immature feelings. Over the years, I’ve become much more liberal when it comes to deciding who I should tolerate when they disagree with me and who I would kick out of the church if I had the power to do so (although I am picky about who I associate with in my personal life). I now think that, if people are willing to be adults about their disagreements, no one should be kicked out of the church, no matter what they believe. I realize that few would agree with this. Actually, I think the three of us had a very brief discussion that basically revolved around some epistemological principles few years ago on this blog.

    In response to Jeff’s comment about whether God has limits, I have to disagree. It is generally accepted in the church that our God is one of many. Therefore, there must be a “community of the Gods”. Therefore, there must be rules that they are required to follow, or at least that they have all agreed to follow. Just my opinion.

    Thanks for the opportunity to express my own flawed logic and possibly incorrect perceptions.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

  19. Bill,

    “There IS no way to know for certain what is true and what is false–other than deductive logic”

    This is exactly where I get uncomfortable. Why is “logic” so special that it is able to pass judgment upon everything else?

    My beef with an appeal to deductive logic can be summed up in the following dilemma: Does deductive logic cut through the boundaries of stewardship (such that all revelation must be deductively consistent, regardless of stewardship) or do the boundaries of stewardship cut through deductive logic (such that deductive consistency across stewardships is not imperative)?

    This question cannot be settled empirically, scientifically or any other “objective” way. I acknowledge that most university trained members think that deductive consistency is non-negotiable, but this is exactly what I am calling into question.

    This isn’t really meant as an argument, so much as an articulation of alternatives among which we must freely choose.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 6, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

  20. Jeff,

    I’m not sure you correctly interpreted my comment about deductive logic. The key word there was “deductive”. Deductive logic almost never applies to real worlds questions about truth. Deductive logic can’t be used to answer the example you gave. Inductive logic may have some value in rationalizing what we feel about that example, but as I stated above, we have real problems correctly applying inductive logic. Inductive logic completely fails when it comes to, for example, coming up with a universal measure of the worth of a human being. This is the realm of emotions. The worth of a human being (especially one particular human being) to me will most likely be different that it is to you, mostly because you and I feel differently about it.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

  21. I most definitely meant deductive logic. Perhaps it would be better to say “the law of non-contradiction” which is just what deductive logic is.

    Thus, the question is whether we ought to dispel logical contradictions only within each limited stewardship, or dispel such contradictions without any regard for stewardship boundaries?

    If this doesn’t speak to your faith in deductive logic, then I must REALLY being misunderstanding you.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 6, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

  22. Clark,

    As far as your comments in #13, I have the following comment. I’m not a big fan of the type of authority that I think you may be talking about there–the type where someone feels that they have the right to tell you what to think and do. I may be misinterpreting what you meant to say, so feel free to correct me. When I come up against people who feel they have a right to exert that type of authority over me, I tend to just let them believe what they choose to believe–right up until the point where they become too much of an annoyance to me, at which point they find that they don’t have as much authority as they thought, usually because I ignore them or leave. So, that’s what I do when authority “breaks down”, as you put it. To give a fuller answer, I think that each person must decide for himself what to do when “authority breaks down”. I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” answer, because I think it depends on your personality and your personal goals.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

  23. Jeff,

    Ok, I understand what you mean by the law of non-contradiction , but I guess you’ll have to have to explain to me what you mean by stewardship in this context.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

  24. Bill,

    Once again, I am very sympathetic to your concerns in 22. I just worry that “telling others what to believe” is far more ubiquitous than you seem to grant.

    For example:

    Should evolutionary biologists be able to tell us what to believe about human origins? Should medical doctors be able to tell us what to believe about vaccines? What about the age of consent? Should a state be able to prescribe what schools or home schools must teach their children? Are we ever allowed to interfere with the brain-washing of others? What about ideas of racial or gender equality? Holocaust deniers? Etc.

    Tolerance can only be cultivated by a selective application of intolerance… which means that we’ve already compromised on our moral ideal of non-interference! Of course, it’s not an all or nothing issue… but that’s the point! Where do we draw the line since a line obviously must be drawn?

    I too reject other people’s ability to tell me what I should or should not believe, but how far are people like you and I willing to take this? At what point are other people allowed to step in and say “Abraham, I don’t care what you think God commanded you to do, I won’t let you take your son up that mountain!”? To pull out ALL such stops is pretty scary.

    Edit: The point at which we say you must (not) do or believe X is exactly where authority and its various sources of legitimation come in. “You can’t believe X!” “Why should we obey this command?” This is what the post is about.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 6, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

  25. Jeff,

    Good point in #24. I guess where I draw the line is: that at which I can tolerate. I agree that isn’t a universal definition of what tolerance ought to be. So, I guess the question becomes, should there be a universal definition of where the line of tolerance should be, or should it be personal preference? How about where someone begins to take away my agency? Or a funnier question: Should I tolerate a plate of roaches for supper, just as I tolerate a plate of chicken? To which authority figure should I look to decide that for me? All I can say is that when it comes to other peoples’ beliefs that I disagree with, I’m becoming more tolerant. And I think that is the right direction for now. Will there be some point at which I go too far–who knows?

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 4:08 pm

  26. Jeff,

    Relating to your comment, “I just worry that “telling others what to believe” is far more ubiquitous than you seem to grant.” You and I may have a different perspective on that. I understand that when that happens, it is because the person in “authority” has an immature spirituality, at least in one area. Therefore, I try hard not be bothered. Think of it this way: what do you do when a toddler starts ordering you around? Probably, if you’re in a good mood, you laugh. You laugh, because you realize that the toddler has a warped sense of reality. But at that age you expect that. And you may even think it’s cute, especially if he’s your toddler, and you love him. Wouldn’t we all be happier in the church, if when our Bishop makes a mistake that comes from a less than fully developed sense of reality, we laughed, because we don’t expect perfection from him, and because we love him? That’s the way I would prefer to react.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 6, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

  27. Jeff,

    I just found your post, “10 Years in the Bloggernacle”. Sorry I’m late to the party, as usual. I enjoyed it, because it explains a lot about where you’re coming from. A few years ago I suggested that you read James W. Fowler’s book “Stages of Faith”. You did that but didn’t then identify much with it. I’m curious what your reaction today would be to Chapter 20 of his book. I also, when I get a chance, intend to read Thomas Wirthlin McConkie’s book “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis”, which I assume from some of his comments is heavily influenced by James Fowler’s ideas.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 7, 2016 @ 9:19 am

  28. I can but say I find Fowler completely unpersuasive. I find a ton of problems with his taxonomy. (Which I think is pretty heavily privileging a certain secular view of religion)

    While I tend to be sympathetic to your comments on “don’t tell me what to do” it seem unavoidable in many situations. For instance I can’t move road signs. I don’t get to walk into homes or offices I don’t belong in, etc. How one determines when one’s personal authority trumps other authority seems a deep question. I think that in the US we still have a very strong libertarian perspective, even if unevenly applied. Yet I think that often ends up being harder to defend than most people assume.

    Comment by Clark — June 7, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

  29. Clark,

    Although I’m aware of the pitfalls, I generally subscribe to the greater good philosophy. So, I’m willing to make concessions if someone else is in greater need. But otherwise, I feel that someone else’s rights end when they begin trampling mine. So, pretty much, I believe a person should be able to advocate whatever they want as long as they don’t try to physically force me to go along with it–the one exception being when there is a clearly greater need. And I can’t pre-define what all those greater needs may be. However, the right to free speech is a greater need in my mind, because it is so necessary for the evolution of good ideas, etc. So, even though it may annoy me a little to hear what I consider to be false ideas, it is more necessary to be able to voice those ideas than it is for me to be able to not hear them.

    Fortunately, within the church, instances of real force don’t come up. We always have the right to walk away whenever we want.

    As far as your views on Fowler are concerned, I hear you. But Jeff, having had different experiences and being in a different place in his life right now, may find Fowler useful at this point.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 7, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

  30. My thoughts are basically those of Clark.

    I strongly disagree with the implicit hierarchy that he builds into his stages such that anybody who does not follow his idea of “healthy/mature” faith is either 1) psychologically immature or 2) psychologically deviant/ill.

    There have been a few posts circulating lately about McConkie’s book. (I like this one the most.) While I hate the hierarchy that it presupposes, I’ll always excited about taxonomies!

    I’m most definitely an “alchemist” in McConkie’s typology, but I strongly reject his idea that my stage is the “highest” or “most developed” in any sense whatsoever.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 7, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

  31. Jeff,

    Interesting review. It looks like McConkie loosley bases his groups on Folwer’s but with different names and a couple of more divisions. Well, sorry Fowler is of no help to you. Although, I’m just curious about what you said about the alchemist not being the highest level of spirituality. If you believe a hierarchical model applies at all, what would you consider to be the characteristics of the higher levels of spirituality? That might make a good post.

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion. I look forward to reading your blog over the coming years. It’s always enjoyable and informative to talk to members of the church who actually take the time to think and are courageous enough to share those thoughts. You too Clark.

    Comment by Bill B. — June 8, 2016 @ 7:05 am

  32. I am extremely reluctant to impose some such rationalized hierarchy on types of faith. My understanding is that somethings are prescribed while other are prohibited. Between those two exists a large variety of options and modes of thinking from which we can freely choose.

    Also, feel free to drop by any time!

    Comment by Jeff G — June 8, 2016 @ 9:05 am

  33. Jeff G,
    This my not be that close to the OP but it might be. Do you think that there are any consequences for understanding what people do and say based on one’s understanding of morality. Here is an example, one could hold that people are free to choose what they do and say and that you have no way of knowing what they do and say about moral matters because it is based on their choice and that choice is not predictable other than their choices. Alternatively, one could hold that what people believe about morality follows some systematic pattern.
    To rephrase my question, I’m curious whether you believe your theory and understanding of morality 1) improves your ability to predict changes in moral beliefs and actions, 2) has no effect on your ability to predict changes in moral beliefs and actions or 3) decreases you ability to predict changes in moral belief and actions.

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 12:27 pm

  34. Martin,

    “Do you think that there are any consequences for understanding what people do and say based on one’s understanding of morality.”

    Of course. It will greatly inform our understanding of how they justify their actions, to who they will look for validation, which groups they will praise as “guardians of truth” and who they will perceive as the greatest threats to truth and righteousness. It will help us predict what standards they will appeal to and ignore within an argument and what actions in others they will object to.

    For example, a person tries to justify their actions because “it is their own choice”. This is a significant moral claim! Why should anybody recognize that person’s authority in all such cases? Why cannot I appeal to “it being my own choice” in defending my moral condemnation of that first person? Why should “because I say so” be any different than “because God says so”? This also opens the door wide open for all sorts of people who claim to know whether a person is experiencing “true happiness” or not better than they themselves do. And so on.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 8, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

  35. I don’t think you answered the question about whether your theory improves or not the ability to predict trends in moral justification. Did you?

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

  36. This question is not directed at the standing of the moral claims themselves but in what forms of moral justification exist and in what percentages. Does your theory predict “peak enlightenment” for example?

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

  37. Oh. Sorry, I had a hard time sorting through the comment.

    I certainly do not feel comfortable predicting any kind of accumulative, long-term trends based upon my model. Since my model in largely Weberian (who was quite influenced by Darwin), I reject the idea that we can predict future evolutionary paths. This is in contrast to “scientific Marxism” which pretends to know the future course of history.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 8, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

  38. I’l take that as roughly choice 2 – no difference, but with the conclusion that all the marxist, Gouldnerian explanations as being “just so” stories similar to those offered up for evolutionary adaptations.
    I think that all forms of authority and morality are in the process of being de-legitimated, but that self-interest is not as socially divisive as people in power have try to scare people with. Like auto-immune diseases the response can be worse than the disease.

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

  39. You misunderstand. Evolutionary biologists are able to make all sorts of predictions of short-term evolutionary trajectories and systematic descriptions of how selective pressures operate in the present and past. My model is no different.

    To write off Marxists (especially of the critical stripe) and Gouldner as telling nothing more than “just so stories” is extraordinarily flippant and irresponsible… even more so than thinking that their stories are the whole story.

    “I think that all forms of authority and morality are in the process of being de-legitimated”

    How could this even be possible? All contracts, all promises, all property relations, all personal decisions, everything gone and legitimized? What in the world could ever produce such an extraordinary change?

    Comment by Jeff G — June 8, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

  40. Let’s make a quick list: out of wedlock births, same sex marriage, no fault divorce, negative interest rates, political correctness terminations, free pornography, South China Sea border disputes, decline in religious participation, immigration disputes on enforcement, increase in 5-4 and 4-4 supreme court votes, collapse of communism as an ideology, increases in piracy and slave trade and genocide.
    Does anyone really take anyone’s counsel but their own?

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

  41. I’m not saying there is not morality and moral agreement. I’m just saying that that is all a coincidence of individual preference. Morality increasingly doesn’t bind, it just identifies like minded people.

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

  42. “What in the world could ever produce such an extraordinary change?”
    Wealth and population increase.

    Comment by Martin James — June 8, 2016 @ 4:49 pm

  43. Bill the problem with an analysis in terms of “other people’s rights end when they start trampling mine” is that it doesn’t offer a way to adjudicate them. In practice what I find is that many people I talk with along those lines simply privilege certain rights above others. Take gun rights, the people who want more gun restrictions feel your right to own a gun conflicts with their right to safety. Likewise you can find similar conflicts in 1st amendment rights (in the US) between say religious liberty, privacy, and the like. It becomes complicated so fast that outside of areas where there are already strong norms, it ends up telling us nothing.

    I’ll confess that it’s precisely because of that problem that I find “rights talk” problematic. I don’t think it ends up offering us much help since rights are so often in tension.

    Regarding Fowler and those based upon Fowler my main concern is that the objects of faith and their reality are not engaged with. That is it matters if there really are angels or not. Even people who take Fowler not as offering a heirarchy but just noting practical developmental stages tend to ignore those issues. What you’re left with are vague ethical rules as being the only reality – often with only ethics that match up with what secularism in academia takes ethics to be. (Which then becomes interesting in itself when secular ethics starts splitting as we see at present)

    Jeff, while it’s probably unfair to writeoff evolutionary psychologists or marxists as offering just-so stories, it does very often seem like that’s what’s going on. Part of the problem of course is that neo-marxists or post-marxists don’t agree upon what parts of marxism to salvage. Second, their scheme often seems like a taxonomy that creates what it sees. That is, it’s a variation on the whole “when all you have is a hammer everything looks like nails” problem. Of course in practice many of those strongly sympathetic to marxism are also much more careful in their pronouncements. (Think say the economist John Quiggin) However at least as often marxism ends up being a quasi-religion where the analysis seems more like people doing theology within very narrow limits of heresy.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 8:27 am

  44. Martin, I think you put your finger on a big problem. Morality in practice are just the norms within a group-identity. When we start to cease to have a large group-identity this creates problems.

    What I worry about today is that there is starting to be a big divide in the country such that we’re seeing different large groups, each with very different ethics. It used to be, even after the turmoil of the late 60’s and early 70’s, that there still was a fairly largely shared ethics. That common ground is being lost in many ways.

    Now I think some things simply work better than others. Which is why so many of the experiments in the early 70’s simply failed. They don’t work and that affects communal ethics. Likewise I think the demands of the civil rights movement made people rethink ethics. Even most racists of today by and large accept the vast majority of things the civil rights movement demanded. As a nation we’ve learned ethically.

    Perhaps we’ll come out of the current ethical shakeup with a similar consensus. (Much like for better or worse there’s a great deal of consensus in Europe that simply different from the WWII generation) My sense is though that the US won’t go the way of secularism in Europe. Which may mean we end up with big divides.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 8:31 am

  45. Most of those “just-so-stories” seem at least as legitimate as any pretended “end to inquiry”….. Although some of the “pure” Marxists are simply beyond the pale.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 9, 2016 @ 9:26 am

  46. Clark, I think the group identity issue has an international component in addition to the USA component. Norms about states vs. non-states, about borders and force, about the flow of people, about religion in politics, about populism and democracy, about interdiction, rendition and drone assassination, about international finance, are all similarly subject to new group dynamics. Power is shifting and no one is sure where power is going. This substantially raises the stakes on group identity within countries also.
    Optimistically, it may just mean that there is a market for moral frameworks and the more group identities involved, the more the market will have the benefits of pure competition.
    Pessimistically a few large ones in conflict may kill us all.

    Comment by Martin James — June 9, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  47. Martin, yes. That’s definitely one possibility. We’ll see what happens. We’re in a very interesting period of change and it’s just not clear where things will end up.

    Jeff, I think the question gets back to that issue you raised with Hobbes and the Royal Academy. Do they present stories that are testable? I’m not saying untestable stories are without worth. However it seems we should be far more skeptical of them and cautious with applying them as if they were factual. (Which I think happens too much at times with evolutionary psychology)

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

  48. I don’t see why the vast majority of the hypotheses in question are testable, its just that (to take Hobbes’ side) such tests tend to be rather ambiguous in their results.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 9, 2016 @ 1:12 pm

  49. Jeff the distinction I’d make between “just so stories” and “end of inquiry” is whether inquiry is cut off. Often theologians (whether of the religious or secularist type) want to cut off inquiry and say, “this is the answer.” It’s when marxists engage in that sort of practice – attempting to shut down difficult questions – that I get most uncomfortable. When you think you have the answer yet at least subconsciously recognize the evidence is weak there’s a tendency to play the semi-authoritative card. When the evidence is in your favor you don’t have to do that as much.

    I recognize that some topics like evolution or climate change might not fit there. However I’d argue that those playing those authoritarian arguments do so because inquiry has already stopped on at least one side.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

  50. 1) I absolutely agree that some Marxist get WAY TOO dogmatic about their particular interpretation of the world.

    2) The reflexivity that is built into post-Marxist critical theory, however, does provide a somewhat coherent defense to many such criticisms. Thus, they are not merely being authoritarian and dogmatic so much as disregarding criticisms that speak past their material point. Other times, they do address such criticisms, but they do so in a way that the original critic does not recognize as valid. We cannot, then, blithely assume that the fault lies with the critical theory, since they are merely not living up to standards that they do not even pretend to accept as binding. By insisting that their responses must meet our objections, we become just as dogmatic as we are (perhaps falsely) accusing them of being.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 9, 2016 @ 1:26 pm

  51. But that gets back to the whole “when you’re a hammer everything is a nail” problem. I wouldn’t mind them limiting themselves to certain materialist evolutions ala the materialist take on Hegel if they acknowledged other effects could be swamping out the effect they are interested in. That simply doesn’t happen much though. (At least in my experience)

    That is the marxism isn’t simply one type of analysis among many about what is going on in a complex phenomena. Rather it’s the analysis of the most important features going on. Now again the neo-marxists and post-marxists do temper this somewhat. It’s not like the 60’s anymore. However that tendency to elevate the Marxist critique seems problematic to me in the Marxists I read.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

  52. I don’t see how criticisms from the vantage point of “traditional theory” are any different. As insistence that all “just so stories” be testable, sounds a lot like “nail mongering” to me.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 9, 2016 @ 2:17 pm

  53. For a difference to be a difference it must make a difference.

    For what you say to be true a difference must simultaneously make and not make a difference.

    Comment by Clark — June 9, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

  54. Whether I publicly proclaim myself in favor of Allah or Thor makes a very big difference to me.

    By the same reasoning, our public defense of free market economics vs a public criticism of private property relations does, indeed, make a huge difference.

    Where the critical theorists differ from traditional theorists is that while the latter insist a description can only be true if it makes a difference to an isolated Robinson Crusoe and his interactions with the non-social world, the former insist that the inter-subjective differences that a description makes far outweighs such individualistic considerations.

    This is where my critique of non-social truth becomes relevant. To the extent that a claim is non-social, it is morally irrelevant and, therefore, a very crass and lowly truth not worth caring about.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 9, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

  55. “By the same reasoning, our public defense of free market economics vs a public criticism of private property relations does, indeed, make a huge difference.”

    But does it make a big difference if that defense is moral vs. just a preference?

    Comment by Martin James — June 10, 2016 @ 10:07 am

  56. Jeff — that’s the difference between James’ pragmatism and Peirce’s pragmatism in a nutshell.

    I’m fine with societal views (right or wrong) making a change, much like believing in Thor might have practical effects. However I think these need to be broken out and defended themselves. Preferably with a healthy dose of empiricism — to me the problem with most social critiques in the academy or related persons is that so often the claims and data are just bad.

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2016 @ 10:36 am

  57. Martin,

    The crucial difference between the two is that of enforcement. If I state my preference, I am pretty much selling an idea that, if the people do not accept, their not accepting it is the only consequence that follows. If, however, I am trying to morally legislate an idea, then, if a person does not accept, there will be a social reaction for or against that person based on that rejection.

    I understand that in practice the line between the two gets muddled, and people will very often pretend to be doing one of these when they are actually doing the other. For example, if I state my “preference” for what morality should be and I distance myself from all others who to not agree with my preference. This is full blown morality, not matter how much they protest to the contrary.


    “I’m fine with societal views (right or wrong) making a change, much like believing in Thor might have practical effects. However I think these need to be broken out and defended themselves. Preferably with a healthy dose of empiricism”

    It seems, then, that you aren’t all that fine with such things if you except to isolate the claim itself and analyse it empirically, as if its social effects must somehow track empirical reality. The whole point is that some claims are (im)moral and no amount of empirical data can establish this claim.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 10, 2016 @ 10:45 am

  58. Well again social effects to be a social effect have to be something I can see.

    Effectively what you want to do is conflate the future and the past. That is if I ask what is going on socially, I say we have to look and see the effects. You want to make the effects not limited to what’s going on, but the effects of what my believing about effects effect. However since my believing can’t happen until I start the investigation this essentially makes effects always off in the future and open to my construction rather than seeing what the effects are.

    To draw an analogy, it’s akin as if I ask whether it’s dark out and you say, well I might believe it’s dark and turn on a light making it light so it’s not dark.

    Comment by Clark — June 10, 2016 @ 12:29 pm