Is there anything that you would be more willing to purchase when your mother is not present? What about your father? What about your children? What about an attractive young adult with whom you’re on a second date? Does this person’s presence effect how you treat a homeless person that asks you for change? Does his/her presence effect which jokes or stories you are willing to tell? Which moral values you are and are not willing to take a stand on? I think the standard answer to most of these questions is: yes, of course. It is perfectly normal and healthy to adapt one’s behavior to those who are present. In this post I wish to approach the ways in which public acclamations of “common consent” in the form of sustaining our leaders differ from other forms of “consensus” and the means (both private and public) by which they are formed and maintained.
For starters, almost every type of community holds some type of “consensus” or “common consent” in high esteem. It is in this sense that many consensus theories of truth (where “truth” is the “consensus” that is arrived at at the end of “inquiry” under “ideal” conditions) and many appeals to “common consent” within the church can often be quite bereft of content. Jürgen Habermas, however, is a clear exception to this tendency in his defense of a participatory democracy in which the consensus reached at the end of “communicative action” ought to determine collective action. While I do have serious reservations about his theory, it is certainly not empty and will thus serve as a convenient entry point to the discussion.
Habermas’ account draws some very important distinctions, while strategically eliding others. I will begin by drawing out (what I perceive to be) his shortcomings. While he is very strongly influenced by American pragmatism and ordinary language philosophy (he loves J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts), it is unclear whether he is sufficiently pragmatic in his definition of a morally binding “consensus”. As a rough sketch, he holds that communicative deliberation begins when there is a disagreement regarding collective action and ends when consensus is sufficiently met such that we can move forward by implementing the agreed upon course of collective action. The problem is that consensus, so defined, is by no means homogeneous: there are many, varied means by which disagreements can be voluntarily removed as barriers to collective action.
Habermas has little regard for most of these diverse forms of “consensus” (that I will describe shortly) because he insists that a consensus based in communicative action is totally distinct from one based in strategic, goal-directed action. True communicative action, according to Habermas, has mutual understanding as its sole end purpose, something which has zero overlap with the pursuit of one’s own particularistic goals. This point is where most of his critics disagree with him – myself included.
Communication, by my lights, is a social process wherein we marshal and dissolve moral coalitions with and against other people. Morals and truths are the norms by which we actively constrain and are constrained by others within our shared social environment and moral coalitions. There are, then, three different stances that we can take to any moral coalition: we can support it (typically by calling it “true” or “right”), we can resist it (typically by calling it “false” or “wrong”) or we can be relatively neutral towards it (typically by remaining silent or ambivalent about it).
There are two points at which my account differs from that of Habermas. First, I take the possibility of neutrality much more seriously than Habermas does. Second, while Habermas must draw a strict line between a consensus that is based in “strategy” and one that is based in “communication”, my account resists any such distinction, it being strategic through and though. I thus replace his distinction with my own between “interest-oriented” consensus and “obligation-oriented” consensus. Our attempts at picking and choosing which moral coalitions we will support, resist or remain neutral toward is thus inescapably strategic. Habermas thinks all strategic uses of power are immoral forms of manipulation and alienation, but I see no reason (a) why some strategic uses of power cannot be more righteous than others, (b) why we would ever want morality and truth to be impotent, or (c) how such a version of morality could ever effectively resist evil, as we presumably want it to.
There are, then, four different types of consensus which would allow collective action to move forward in the way that Habermas suggests and each of them involves some amount of strategy:
- The interest-oriented neutrality of “indifference”: The fact that I feel no need or urge to resist (or support) the church’s campaigns against SSM means that a consensus is preserved. This absence of overt support or resistance to the church’s actions basically amounts to “going with the flow”.
- The interest-oriented support of “endorsement”: This is when I support a collective action because I want the action to happen. This is when a cab-driver attempts to impose restrictions on Uber or Lyft solely because the latter are hurting his business. (Some OW supporters will insist that this must be *the* reason why a male – especially church leaders – within the church does not support them and will thus ignore all of the other 3 explanations.)
- The obligation-oriented neutrality of “concession”: This is when we keep silent on an issue, not because “I don’t care either way,” but because taking an overt position for or against it will attract moral censure. A great example of this would be when I receive personal revelation in support of SSM, but I keep it to myself precisely because the revelation was personal. In this, I “concede” the church’s position out of an obligation not to resist it, even while I cannot support it, again, out of obligation.
- The obligation-oriented support of “sustaining”: This is when we sustain a course of action, even though it might work against our interests. To use the example above, this is when a church member distributes Prop-8 literature within their own university-town neighborhood, knowing full well that by doing so they will be socially alienated by their secular neighbors and colleagues.
All four of the above are cases in which collective action moves forward with “common consent” due to an absence of overt objections or resistance within the group. In other words, unless one adds a great deal of content to the consensus theory of truth or to the proof-text appeals to “common consent”, such appeals simply haven’t ruled much out. For example, by ignoring the possibility of neutrality, Habermas effectively marginalizes the roles that concession and indifference both play in any consensus. His distinction between strategic and communicative action is also aimed at marginalizing endorsement (and, again, indifference) as a morally inadequate form of consensus. Since I reject his theory of communicative action, I find these all-or-nothing to be largely unhelpful.
Switching gears somewhat, not only are there various types of “common consent” which allow collective action to move forward, but there are also various means by which such a consensus is formed and maintained. I wish here to discuss four such mechanisms that I will, again, classify along two different dimensions. There are two premodern forms of consensus formation. These have typically been public in that support/resistance to a position takes place within the public view and thus exposes it to a second order of support/resistance from a third party. Modern, liberal society, by contrast, has two forms of consensus formation that tend to be private in that our support or resistance to some collective action can be hidden from the public view and thus protected from the second order evaluations mentioned above, if we so choose. Within these two types (premodern and modern) of societies there have also been centralized and decentralized mechanisms by which a consensus is formed and reinforced:
|Types of Consensus Formation||Decentralized:||Centralized:|
- The decentralized publicity of “morals”: These are the public evaluations that make up everyday life in which neighbors and family members morally condemn an offense for two purposes: (a) to warn, condemn or punish the offender and/or (b) to be known as somebody who warns, condemns or punishes offenders. These are evaluations that are themselves evaluated.
- The centralized publicity of the “acclamation”: This is when signals of support or resistance are publicly displayed within a large, centralized gathering – thus making them common knowledge. Practicality dictates that such forms of consensus formation will almost always consist in the public acceptance or rejection of a very small set of predetermined options. The sustaining of priesthood leaders and King Benjamin’s speech are the clearest examples of this.
- The decentralized privacy of “markets”: This is where production, exchange and consumption of goods in based in how much doing so serves the interests of one or two parties – regardless of what the public thinks about it. The only evaluation that is intrinsic to this is the price – an unevaluated evaluation. The private nature of these transactions places them outside the reach of public morality, thus throwing the door wide open to i) private vices and ii) conspicuous consumption.
- The centralized privacy of “elections”: The other modern means by which we decide collective action is the election, where my vote is “nobody else’s business” unless I allow it to be. In this way, my vote is, again, shielded from public scrutiny and moral evaluation, thus becoming an unevaluated evaluation.
As noted in the table above, the very privacy of private forms of consensus formation make them ideally suited to the interest-oriented forms of consensus above: endorsement and indifference. Since the public is not aware of what producers or positions I am supporting with my dollars and ballots, there is no practical way for an obligation-orientation to gain any traction on such actions. In other words, this opens the door to all the purchases and votes that I would not be willing to engage in with my parents present. Similarly, the public nature of premodern society is exactly what made obligation-oriented forms of support so sustainable.
The widespread objection from socialists and romantics to modern society should be fairly obvious, given the above taxonomy. The interest-oriented manner in which we decide collective action is totally drained of obligation-orientation in that all such “decisions” become nothing more than the negotiated allocation of “endorsement” and “indifference” among various self-interested parties of very different financial means and political influence. This is in stark opposition to the premodern societies where production was aimed at the common good rather than self-interested profit and was regulated by evaluative, moral relations rather than merely enforced by the neutral, state judicial system. (See Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation)
In today’s liberal society, by contrast, free market economists claim that markets serve the “dictates of the consumer” and thus reduce all “moral values” to “private preferences” that, as such, can be built into and quantified by the market. The obvious objections to this are 1) due to its private nature, this is a replacement for morality rather than a mere quantification of morality, and 2) when some consumers get a billion more dollars with which to vote for what does and does not get produced, the idea that producers obey “the consumer” loses all of its moral content. Yes, producers compete with each other to serve the consumer, but consumers also compete with one another for conspicuous (rather than morally evaluated) consumption. While the former might(!) be compatible with premodern morality, the latter is quite obviously not – and it’s not clear that we could ever separate the two. The scriptures repeatedly warn us against allowing any form of interested-oriented consensus to guide our collective action.
What must also be noted is that one type of consensus formation may greatly influence another. In modern society, for example, many leftists complain that the influence of the decentralized upon centralized elections is too great, and thus propose a “planned society” in which centralized elections constrain and shape the decentralized market. A similar tension exists between acclamation and morality. Within premodern society (and the contemporary church) a traditional authority figure puts forth their own decision for public acclamation. It is then expected that decentralized morality will be shaped and influenced by this centralized acclamation and not the other way around. Habermas, by contrast, wants to reverse this relation by claiming that decentralized moral discourse (rather than the private “steering media” of money and power) will produce a consensus that authority figures will then implement. Yes, Habermas’ vision would count as one version of “common consent”, but it is hardly the only version, nor is it the one advocated within the scriptures.
My taxonomy also brings to light other dangers and pitfalls of modern history. Modernity evolved as traditional authorities and evaluative moralities came to be replaced by an elected state that exercised a monopoly on the legitimate use of force to protect and enforce (but not evaluate) market transactions. This immensely powerful, centralized state was then taken up by various ideologies as the only weapon strong enough to compete with the a-morality of the decentralized market. It was in this 20th century context, then, that some countries tried to reassert a particular set of moral values through the use of the centralized state – thus producing the totalitarianisms of the political left and right. (It is absurd that this would ever lead to the “withering away” of the state.) Totalitarianism is thus a *very* modern invention that describes neither the traditional hierarchies nor the church of today. Anybody who conflates these very different types of social organization is either 1) woefully uninformed and/or 2) trying to pull the wool over your eyes for the sake of the moral coalitions that they support.
In summary, I wish to return to the opening paragraph where I noted how the watchful and evaluative gaze of those with whom we regularly interact alters what we purchase, what we say and what we support. In such cases, our spending is morally evaluated; Our speech acts are morally evaluated; Indeed, our moral evaluations and truth claims are themselves morally evaluated. It is with this in mind that the worldview of traditional religion insists that all such acts and transactions are quasi-public in their being observed by God.
This moral influence of public evaluations is exactly why we publicly sustain church leaders, and why priesthood authority is needed to structure and organize God’s kingdom into wards that meet “often”. The church is not organized according to market decisions or private elections. Nor does it advocate a bottom-up (decentralization to centralization) process of consensus formation as advocated by Habermas, the free market fundamentalists or any other person that thinks that truth and goodness just are, as a matter of definition, the consensus that forms within any marketplace of ideas, no matter how idealized its conditions are supposed to be.
“Common consent” within the church is when we sustain (or, if needs be, concede to) our church leaders through the obligation-oriented support of acclamation, and then adjust our moral evaluations, market transactions and (dare I say it?) electoral votes to that acclamation. To be sure, the church does not tell us what party to vote for any more than it tells us what store to shop at – it tells us “what” we should and should not purchase or vote for, not “who”. Common consent is and ought to be broken within the church, however, only in the case of wickedness on the part of our leaders. Personal revelation justifies concession, not resistance to our leaders. Merely disagreeing with them, no matter how well reasoned, justifies neither resistance nor concession – although the latter is certainly preferable to the former. To fully sustain them means to fully support the moral coalition they are leading, regardless of what our own human-reasoning is on the matter.