A Genealogy of Self-Interest: Machiavelli and Hobbes

This is the third post in my series where I appropriate Jerry Muller’s lecture series “Thinking About Capitalism” to bring socioeconomics and intellectual history to Jonathan Haidt’s social-psychological account of political differences. Briefly, on the right is a very rough, graphical depiction of Haidt’s tripartite political taxonomy. On the left is my taxonomy which is (with huge caveats that I won’t elaborate upon here) the vertical mirror image of Haidt’s:


Paternalism = Theocratic Chiefdom (Traditional Segmentation)
Abs. = Absolute Monarchy
Const. = Constitutional Monarchy
Individualism = Libertarianism (Classical Liberalism)
Welf. = Welfare State Liberalism
Soc. = Socialism
Fraternalism = Anarchism (“Utopian” Communism)
Mult. = Multi-Cultural Humanism
Civ. = Civic Republicanism (Aristocratic Humanism)
Nat. = Nationalism

To be sure, no 2-dimensional political spectrum could ever include every nuance or exception to every rule.  As such, these circles and boundaries are suggestive, high-level generalizations intended to function as entry points and primers rather than the definitive, last word on any such position. (more…)

Greek/Christian Condemnations of Profit/Usury

September 12, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 4:29 pm   Category: Ethics,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,Politics

(This is the second in a series of posts dedicated to the relationship between Mormonism and capitalism.)

Last post I proposed to frame the history of capitalism around the tensions between self-interested exchange and reciprocal charity – two very different and mutually incompatible ways of organizing social relations.  This tension is best illustrated by a father who will not provide for his family unless somebody can answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”  To be sure, some classical liberals have sought to actually answer this question, but I think most of us think the very act of asking the question (let alone trying to answer it) is, at best, morally problematic.

The question that capitalism forces upon us is the extent to which we want to model social relations on familial reciprocity or on contractual exchange?  Which is the rule and which is the exception, and when is it the exception?  Muller’s second lecture, “The Greek and Christian Traditions,” is aimed at describing how medieval society insisted that we organize economic relations around household relations as both the Civic Republican and Christian traditions dictated. It is against this moral background that the modern advocacy of capitalism and the radical trans-valuation of morals that it entailed should be understood.  The questions which we Mormons ought to ask ourselves are: 1) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations presuppose the traditional condemnations of profit and usury? and 2) To what extent do our scriptures and revelations support the radical trans-valuation by which these condemnations were overthrown?  (more…)

Capitalism and the United Order – Pt. 1

September 8, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 5:45 pm   Category: Ethics,Happiness,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,Politics

This will be a new series of relatively short posts that will center around Jerry Z. Muller’s lecture series “Thinking About Capitalism” (follow the link for transcripts of the first 18 lectures).   In previous posts, I have strongly recommended his “The Mind and the Market“, and I wish to reiterate that recommendation.  While there is a lot of overlap between the lecture series and the book, I will stick to the former since 1) it breaks things down into manageable, 4,000 word chunks and 2) it doesn’t require anybody to go out and buy a book.  For these and other reasons, I strongly suggest that people read the lectures that I have linked above.

First, a little overview of what to expect.  Muller is an intellectual historian who has a clear but guarded preference for free-market capitalism.  He knows that capitalism is not perfect and is fraught with several dangers and moral costs, but thinks that its benefits justify those costs.  Like most liberals (I will insist upon the European sense of this term while reserving “socialist” for left-wing despisers of the free market), he has a tendency to draw strong connections and parallels between right and left-wing critics of free market liberalism.  While we should be on guard for this, his approach does provide a lot of historical context and continuity to various left-wing criticisms of capitalism.  Now, moving on…. (more…)

The Meaning and Morals of Marriage

August 29, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 12:48 pm   Category: Ethics,Evolutionary psychology,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,Politics

Terrence Deacon’s classic work, The Symbolic Species, is a very interesting synthesis of 1) Peircean semiotics, 2) a socio-anthropological account of morals and 3) a very traditional understanding of marriage.  It is thus quite surprising to me that this confluence of symbols, morals and marriage within a text as widely cited as Deacon’s has gone almost entirely unnoticed within the LDS community.  Starkly put, if ever there was a naturalistic and historical argument to be made for the sanctity of marriage, this is it.

Since my goal is primarily to explicate rather than appropriate Deacon’s ideas, the quote-to-exposition ratio in this post will be quite high. Before getting to those quotes, however, let me first summarize Deacon’s account, if only to provide a roadmap for what is to come:

All and only humans have been able to combine 1) cooperative hunting, 2) male provision of offspring and 3) sexual exclusivity.  The means by which this unstable combination is maintained is marriage.  Marriage is a uniquely human practice that is totally different in kind from the pair-bonding found in other species.  By way of analogy, pair-bonding is to associative thought as marriage is to symbolic thought: While the former are concerned with the regularities that an individual can predict to hold between two objects (smoke and fire), the latter involve a collective assignment of meaning or prescription of status upon both A) an object with respect to many other objects and B) those many objects with respect to it.

Thus, while pair-bonding can be understood as a negotiation of child-rearing responsibilities between the male and female (and them alone), marriage involves the collective ascription by an entire community of not only these roles and responsibilities but also those toward an entire social network that crosses kinship lines.  Stated differently, in the same way that a change in the symbolic meaning of one sign also changes the symbolic meaning of and between 20 other signs, so too a change in the moral/marriage status of one person also changes the moral status of and relations between 20 other people. Deacon’s theory, to summarize, is not merely that symbolic thought closely parallels marriage relations; rather, it is the much stronger claim that the latter was the evolutionary origin and cause of the former. (more…)

The Word of Wisdom as a Boycott of the Free Market

August 23, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 8:34 am   Category: Ethics,Happiness,Life,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices

A Word of Wisdom … showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days… In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days… And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make. (D&C 89)

Market demand is not the same as moral evaluation – and the production and consumption habits of the saints should conform to the latter rather than the former.

Up until the turn of the 19th century, the Chinese held a significant trade balance against the British.  Chinese tea had become extraordinarily popular within the British Isles, but the Chinese refused to trade anything other than silver for their tea.  The British, however, eventually solved their trade deficit with China by providing them with an even more addictive combination of American tobacco and Indian opium.  By 1804 the trade deficit had reverse direction in favor of the British as opium addiction spread widely (50% of men and 25% of women) throughout China.  This trade deficit along with the social effects of widespread addiction together led to a Chinese prohibition on the substance and, eventually, to the opium wars against the British (1839).

It is in this light, I suggest, that we ought to understand the importance of the Word of Wisdom (WoW). While we currently focus on the social effects of addictive stimulants, I would like to argue that the economic effects are at least as relevant.  The British addiction to tea had given the Chinese so much economic power over them that the only way in which the British could reverse this power relation was through an even more addictive stimulant.  Understood this way, the WoW can (and perhaps should) be understood as an economic boycott, and as such being much more pro-active in its moral intent than the passive “abstaining” from consuming various substances. (more…)

Common Consent, Consensus Formation and Habermas

August 16, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 11:57 am   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Politics

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. (more…)

Grace, Faith and “Loyal Opposition”

August 2, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 8:17 am   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Politics,Scriptures,Truth

Grace without hierarchy is meaningless.

I wish to unpack this claim using (while at the same time taking very large liberties with) Alexis de Tocqueville’s contrast between the paternalism of the European Ancien Regime, on the one hand, with the individualism of the then nascent America and the idealized fraternalism of the French Revolution, on the other, as a spring-board.  (I will lump the latter two under the common label “modernity”.)  I would also point out that Protestantism did not banish hierarchy altogether, but merely flattened it to three levels: God, humanity and non-human life.  This view, however, is the historical exception rather than the rule.  Most societies have, as a matter of historical fact, organized themselves by assigning a social/moral status to persons that they either 1) inherit by birth or 2) are set apart to by those above them in the social hierarchy.  (more…)

The Rational and the Charismatic: Weber II

Last post I discussed Weber’s attempts to develop a taxonomy of communities and cultures in terms of the distinctions which each community draws between legitimate/righteous dominion and illegitimate/unrighteous dominion. The ways in which righteous dominion is set apart from unrighteous dominion are not at all limited to intellectual playthings or logical puzzles to be toyed with, since such standards strongly constrain the ways in which we understand and organize our social behavior.  Why should we obey what social services or medical professionals tell us? When is a command issued by a priesthood leader – or God Himself – to sacrifice all that I have or am an (il)legitimate command (one thinks of Abraham’s son)? By what standards do we tell others that they should or should not obey even their own commands within their own lives (a very modern idea that wasn’t at all obvious until rather recently)? (more…)

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.


Also Sprachen Die Propheten: A Faithful Nietzsche

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time… But I say unto you..”

“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment… For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name.”

Passages like those above seriously call into question the idea that “eternal laws” are ahistorical, self-existent or totally independent of God’s creative will. Indeed, scriptural support for such a claim becomes nigh impossible once we acknowledge that

  1. the council of the gods might be the source of any allegedly external laws, or
  2. the Lord, as a flawless self-legislator, is subject to the laws that He gives Himself, or
  3. calling a law “endless” or “eternal” does not necessarily entail their timeless ahistoricity.

It is within such a perspective – that rejects any timeless, self-existent laws before which each and every god must bow – that revelation becomes a process of – to borrow Joseph Schumpeter’s term – creative destruction. Nietzsche’s term for the person who embodies creative destruction is the “overman” – a man who is able to overcome the moral commands of those around and before him/her. In this post I will defend the idea that the church is itself (or ought to be) a collective overman of sorts. (more…)

Bourdieu and the Bloggernacle: Autonomy and Apostasy

April 6, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:58 pm   Category: Apologetics,Bloggernacle,Ethics,Money and getting gain,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox

“He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.”

“For, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get … praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.”

This should be the final post in the series – at least for a while. Whereas the previous post was a Bourdieuian indictment of us who read, lurk and comment within the Bloggernacle, this post is more aimed at those of us who engage in the writing and publishing of posts within our little online community. To do this, I will provide a Bourdieuian account of the relationship and struggles between two fields of cultural production: the LDS church and the Bloggernacle. (All pages refer to Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production, chapters of which can be found here and here.)


Bourdieu and the Bloggernacle: Distinction from ‘Vulgar’ Mormonism

March 31, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 6:54 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox

And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches… And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up. – 3 Ne. 6:12, 14

Distinction is based upon a massive survey which Bourdieu and his assistants administered in Paris during the 1960’s regarding the impact of people’s economic and educational backgrounds upon their tastes in kinds of food, quantity of food, table manners, dress, posture, vocabulary, accents, stores, furniture, wall décor, entertainment, singers, instruments, reading material, politics, etc. This amount of empirical research sets him apart from most other critical theorists with which he tends to be associated. That said, the specific context in which this data was gathered does place certain limitations upon the extent to which his results can be generalized to today’s American culture in which I currently find myself. Indeed, Bourdieu fully acknowledges that aesthetic tastes evolve across time and place in never-ending quest for distinction. (more…)

Bourdieu and the Bloggernacle: Preliminaries

March 22, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 12:08 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices

Pierre Bourdieu’s book, Distinction: A Social Critique of Judgement and Taste, is one of those exciting page-turners that transforms the very way that you look at the world around you. Over the next few weeks I plan on posting a small series dealing with a Bourdieuian (I think that’s the most vowels that I’ve ever typed in a row) perspective on the Bloggernacle as a form of cultural production and consumption. In this preliminary post, I only want to give a small feel for Bourdieu and his understanding of language use. To this end, I will (very briefly) describe his relationships with Marx, Foucault and Gouldner. Unfortunately, I will not attempt to draw any direct religious implications within this post. (more…)

Morality, Religion and Politics: Pt. 3

March 14, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 12:50 pm   Category: Ethics,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Politics,Theology,Universalism

In the first part of this series, I discussed Koselleck’s claim that absolute monarchism had solved the civil/religious wars by placing “reasons of state” above all moral and religious reproach, both of these being relegated to the status of “private opinion”. The second post dealt with, what Koselleck calls, the “hypocrisy of the Enlightenment” wherein moral society came to exert influence and power through a suspicious combination of public claims to universality and neutrality, on the one hand, and particularistic, political influence through secret societies, on the other.  This third post will deal with the tensions which emerged during the Enlightenment between moral reason and sovereign decision-making (both political and religious) and the ways in which “[t]he divine, heretofore impervious, plan of salvation was … transformed into the morally just and rational planning of the future by the new elite.” (pg. 10)

Central to Koselleck’s account is that the (French) Enlightenment was not solely or even primarily a movement among intellectuals – hence his focus upon the crucial role played by secret societies.  Rather, it was a heterogeneous coalition among the anti-absolutist nobility, creditor bourgeoisie, pro-British emigres, philosophes and bureaucrats who were all united around little more than their shared objection to religious and political sovereignty.  These purely negative values around which these groups and interests were temporarily aligned had various forms of practical relevance:

  • They supported the illusion of political impotence and impartiality claimed by the Republic of Letters.
  • They greatly incentivized the criticism of all against all – this being the logic around which moral society became outwardly structured.
  • They strongly dis-incentivized transparency with respect to political decision-making within (secret) societies.
  • It made sub-groups within this coalition see one another as the new enemy to truth/freedom/etc. after the overthrow of absolutist monarchism.


Repression, Confession and Human Sexuality

February 16, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:54 pm   Category: Ethics,Modesty,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Truth

The deep disagreements between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Foucault can be summarized in the question: Freud or Nietzsche? The German Critical Theorists thought that the scientific analytics of both Marx and Freud could liberate us from the dual domination of ideology and repression. Being the Nietzschean that he was, Foucault’s response to all such hopes was a pointed “tu quoque”: the Marxist and Freudian disciplines merely replace one form of domination with another of their own making. Thus, while Habermas frames his own social theory in terms of a collective (Kohlbergian) moral development over which we gradually acquire greater control through discursive enlightenment, Foucault sees social history in terms of an unguided, almost Darwinian reconfiguration of (rather than liberation from) power relations. It is for this reason that Habermas dismisses all such Nietzscheans as “young conservatives”.


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