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…)

A Quick Note on Autonomy…

July 7, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:55 pm   Category: Determinism vs. free will,Ethics,orthodox

Autonomy is condemned within the scriptures:

34 And again, verily I say unto you, that which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same.

35 That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still.

36 All kingdoms have a law given;

37 And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.

-(D&C 88)

In order to unpack what this means, we should juxtapose autonomy with heteronomy and tutelage – all three of which are (roughly) Kantian terms.

Tutelage is the pre-modern mindset in which law, legitimacy, justification, etc. come down from above.  Each person is given a law from some person above them: a noble, an ancestor, a priest, God Himself, etc.  (The word for this legitimation from above is “grace”.)  This, more than anything else, is what the Enlightenment fought against.

One of the two alternatives that the Enlightenment presented to tutelage was heteronomy.  This is basically what classical liberals and most Americans call “freedom” and is essentially a negative freedom where others are not allowed to legislate our lives for us.  Thus, the birth, ordination, coronation, etc. of each and every person is essentially irrelevant to the justification for any course of action.

The second alternative to tutelage is autonomy.  This alternative is based in the recognition that heteronomy essentially consists either in 1) optimizing our response to external conditions or 2) slavish obedience to our undisciplined passions.  In neither case can this be considered freedom in any deep or morally meaningful sense.  Indeed, such modes of living are the very definition of “alienation” – the control of our lives from somebody or something outside of ourselves.

Thus, autonomy consists in our conforming to a moral law that we ourselves dictate for ourselves – it is moral self-legislation.  Autonomy thus consists, quite literally, in our becoming laws unto ourselves.  To be clear, there are collectivist and (somewhat) individualistic versions of this ideal (think Rousseau vs Kant).  That said, whether it is participatory democracy or rational self-determination that is being advocated, the essential core remains the same.

The main point of this post is that the Gospel condemns both heteronomy and autonomy as moral ideals.  Tutelage to the Celestial King and His “celestial law” is the only condition under which we can enter His Celestial Kingdom.  Those who cry for “autonomy” or against “alienation” within the church are greatly confused on this point.

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…)

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…)

Hegel vs. Kierkegaard

March 18, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 2:46 pm   Category: Apologetics,Ethics,orthodox,Theology,Truth

While Hegel never actually framed his own ideas in terms of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis“, it is still a decent way of understanding the issue I would like to present.  In opposition to the “formalistic” reasoning of a mathematical and mechanistic worldview (a la Newton), he suggested a much more organic view wherein conflicting forms of thinking/consciousness are synthesized into a “higher” form of reasoning through history.  Art, philosophy and Christian religion each give us insight into the future culmination of this rational process.

Kierkegaard, in stark and explicit opposition to Hegel, claimed that such a synthesis of traditions amounts to a wishy-washy corruption of each in which we attempt, but fail to have it both ways.  Self-defining choices must be made. He thus contrasted the aesthetic, ethical/rational and religious lives (Kierkegaard’s view of the ethical/rational life is VERY close to the moral society which I have been discussing in recent posts), insisting that none of these consists of a synthesis of the other two.  He especially objected to any attempts at synthesizing religion and reason together – using Abraham as his go-to counter-example.

The question, then, is which of these models better expresses Mormon thought on the subject? On the one hand, we frequently find references in the scriptures to a choice which we all must make between trusting and following the religious ways of God and the secular arm of flesh.  On the other, we also find directions (which are strangely difficult to come by within the scriptures) to take the good from the rest of the world and build it into the gospel, thus creating one great whole (again, a phrase which does not seem to be all that scriptural). (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.


Morality, Religion and Politics: Pt. 2

March 7, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:09 pm   Category: Ethics,Politics,Universalism

The strange thing about the enlightenment was that the better policies and institutions worked, the more people took them for granted and criticized them for their imperfections.  (This tendency is still very much with us.) Koselleck thus argues, in Crisis and Critique, that the Enlightenment was an inevitably hypocritical process in which various societies – both secret and formal as well as public and informal – attacked absolute monarchism by willfully ignoring the concrete historical problems to which it was a solution.  Absolute monarchism had ended the civil and religious wars by placing a strong division between politics and morality/religion, and it was only within such a context of relative peace that Enlightenment criticisms were able to maintain an air of plausibility.

Thus, while Hobbes saw the authoritarian state as protecting our very lives within a civil war of all against all, 38 years later, Locke would argue that the state was a mechanism for protecting property and happiness within an otherwise peaceful environment populated by people who were both rational and tolerant.  Locke had thus fallen into the traditionally British snare of taking the peace and tolerance which he then observed in his own society as timeless, natural and thus in little need of vigilant safe-guarding when it had actually been the historical product of authoritarian state control.  The historical transition from a Hobbesian to a Lockean idea of the state thus lies at the heart of Koselleck’s argument, it being the antidote to such timeless and quintessentially British thinking. (more…)

Morality, Religion and Politics: Pt. 1

March 3, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 2:51 pm   Category: Ethics,Politics,Universalism

About a year and a half ago I wrote a small series of posts in which I discussed Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere as a basic outline for different ways in which we can understand the various manifestations of the gospel. Within this post I would like to discuss another book which approach almost the same topic and material from a very different political angle: Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crises: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. The difference between the two is the whereas Habermas traces his roots back through the Frankfurt School to Kant and Rousseau, Koselleck intellectual heritage traces back through Carl Schmitt to Hobbes. Thus, whereas the former thinks that the “public sphere” is the best thing that can happen within and lead a society, the latter is much more suspicious and cynical about the idea that inter-subjective criticism can deliver on its rather utopian promises. (more…)

Discipline and Punish; Mercy and Justice

February 9, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 11:43 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Calvinism,orthodox,Scriptures,Theology

The modern mind struggles to make sense of the atonement. At least mine does. The Book of Mormon insists that because of the atonement, mercy can potentially be extended to us sinners without compromising the demands of justice. In my experience, most attempts at clarifying what this means amount to little more than free-wheeling metaphors… not that I have done any better. In this post I would like to summarize Michel Foucault’s three different models of criminal justice described in his classic work: Discipline and Punish. It is my hope that his historical method might shed some light on the subject. (more…)

Honor, Dignity and Victimhood

January 20, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 5:19 pm   Category: Ethics,Evolutionary psychology,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Truth,Universalism

This post that consists of three parts:  First, I will give a brief review of Jonathan Haidt and his publications – this section is optional and can be skipped if you like.  Second, I will summarize “Microaggression and Moral Cultures,” an article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning concerning the nature of microaggressions and the emergence of “victimhood” culture – this is the main meat of the post.  Finally, I will use Nietzsche’s master/slave moralities to apply Campbell and Manning’s paper to the differences between victimhood culture and the gospel.


The Problem of Interpreting Revelation

January 15, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 5:38 pm   Category: Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a very long time.  Since I basically posted its main thesis over at BCC, I thought I’d finally elaborate a little.

Throughout the bloggernacle, I often come across some version of “the problem of interpretation” (PoI).  The basic jist – heavily influenced by literary theory – is that the cultural conditioning and biases of the prophets act as a kind of barrier or interference between them and God.  In other words, we can never be sure that they are interpreting God’s message correctly, thus giving us just enough wiggle room to pick and choose which of their teachings we will accept and which we will write off as “human fallibility.”  Not only does this theory reinforce a “critical distance” between us and the prophets, it does this by inserting literary theorists and other such academics inside that distance, thus, intentionally or not, turning them into the semi-official interpreters of the living prophets.  It should go without saying that this entire model runs counter to the gospel found within the scriptures. (more…)

A Social History of “Just Asking Questions”

December 14, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:14 pm   Category: Bloggernacle,Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

“The man whom we believe is necessarily, in the things concerning which we believe him, our leader and director.”

– Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments

This post is a summary of the first chapter in Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England.  While Shapin’s book is largely about the sociological origins of scientific truth, his account easily generalizes to a discussion of truth, trust and dissent within religious communities.

Shapin is a leading figure in the “strong programme” of the sociology of knowledge associated, primarily, with the University of Edinburgh.  This school largely defines itself in terms of its claim that the truth-value of a claim does not causally explain it.  Thus, claims that are true must be causally explained in a way that is “symmetrical” to false claims… which is exactly what makes many people on the other side of the science wars more than a little nervous.  Thus, Shapin says:

“There is a massive mismatch between dominant characterizations of the sources of our factual knowledge and the ways in which we actually secure that knowledge.  Both seventeenth-century and present-day ‘moderns’ widely advertise direct experience as the surest grounds for factual knowledge, just as they identify reliance upon the testimony of others as an insecure warrant for such knowledge.  Similarly, both sets of ‘moderns’ celebrate proper science as a culture which had indeed rectified knowledge by rejecting what others tell us and seeking direct individual experience.   In contrast, I argue that no practice has accomplished the rejection of testimony and authority and that no cultural practice recognizable as such could do so.” (xxv) (more…)

The Normative Structures of Science (and Religion)

October 6, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 5:16 pm   Category: Apologetics,Ethics,orthodox,Theology,Truth,Universalism

“The scientific investigator does not preserve the cleavage between the sacred and the profane, between that which requires uncritical respect and that which can be objectively analyzed.”

-Robert Merton

Institutions shape and form who we are as individuals. The more habituated we become to working and living within an institutional structure, the more we will internalize its rules and the less we will consciously make decisions with regards to our obedience to those rules.  With this in mind, it is important to our individual freedom and responsibility that we make explicit – in other words externalize – the rules of science and the ways in which they clash with those that regulate church activity.  Both of these institutions have rules that regulate behavior within them and to the extent that these rules contradict each other we who are institutionalized within both will be compelled to navigate our ways through various forms of cognitive dissonance, compartmentalization, strategic equivocation, etc. (more…)

Weberian Monotheism

September 26, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 3:06 pm   Category: Apologetics,Ethics,orthodox,Personal Revelation,Theology,Truth

“Here what we see is the perpetual conflict of different gods with each other.  This is how it was in the ancient world, before it was disenchanted with its gods and demons, only in a different sense… Depending on one’s ultimate standpoint, for each individual one is the devil and the other the god; the individual must decide which one is the god for him and which is the devil… The many gods of antiquity, disenchanted and hence assuming the form of impersonal powers, rise up out of their graves, reach out for power over our lives and begin their eternal struggle among themselves again…

“[A]s science does not, who is to answer the question: ‘What shall we do, and, how shall we arrange our lives?’ or, in the words used here tonight: ‘Which of the warring gods should we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?’ then one can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers. If there is no such man, or if his message is no longer believed in, then you will certainly not compel him to appear on this earth by having thousands of professors, as privileged hirelings of the state, attempt as petty prophets in their lecture-rooms to take over his role.”

-Max Weber, Science as a Vocation


The Non-issue of Biblical Literalism

September 22, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 11:31 am   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Scriptures,Theology

Following Clark, I’ll link to Danial McClellan’s post On the Myth of Scriptural Literalism.  In that post, the author reviews Sam Harris’ attacks against religion by undermining Harris’ use of scriptural literalism to characterize the religious believer.  Now, I am no fan of Harris, but I think the well-worn tactics by which defenders of religion resist scriptural literalism are more than somewhat displaced within a Mormon context.  After all, when Harris accuses those believers who take various scriptures “figuratively” of waffling on their faith, any person who believers in the Great Apostasy has to admit that he’s not totally off base.  I’m not saying he’s totally right, but he’s not totally wrong either.

On the one hand, literalism is strongly but not completely rooted in Christian fundamentalism.  On the other, to lay this completely on them seems motivated more by rhetorical convenience than anything else.  Religious believers and Christians in particular have always struggled with how they could (or should) believe the entire written word of God.  Indeed, the only reason why reading the scriptures “figuratively” seems so natural to us is largely due to St. Augustine’s influence (“metaphorically” was how he taught us to read many parts).  If, however, we follow the Protestants in rejecting the early church fathers (which the Catholic church strongly accepts), then we are left with a bit of a conundrum: Who has the right to tell us how to read the scriptures?

The fundamentalists would say that the only person who can authoritatively tell us how to read our scriptures is God Himself through the scriptures.  In other words, the only way to legitimately read the scriptures figuratively is by taking them literally!  Any other guide simply amounts to a corruption of the pure word – mingling in the philosophies of men.  It was with this in mind that the “book of nature” was invented as an alternative source of “scripture” that could guide us in reading the written word.  Outside of Catholicism, then, believers are left with a less than awe-inspiring choice with regards to who tells us how to read scripture: natural scientists (the Galilean option), pagan philosophers (the Augustinian option), or however one feels they should do so (the anarchist option – which is actually the scariest of them all!).

One can find no clearer attempt at placing unauthorized obstacles and mediums between binding scripture and the reader than in McClellan’s post:

First, we don’t really know precisely what the “letter of the texts” really mean. Texts don’t carry inherent meaning… This means the meaning of a text resides in and originates from our minds, not the text. The text just provides fuzzy outlines of semantic fields within which we think the intended meaning is to be found, and there are even a variety of ways that an author can actually undermine the expected meaning, violating those semantic fields. It’s a guessing game, really, and the further removed from the cultural and literary context of a text’s composition, the more it is a guessing game. So when we talk about the “letter of the texts,” we’re pretending that the letter and the meaning have a 1:1 correspondence, which they simply and objectively do not.

If one gets the impression that theorists and scholars have managed to invent a problem for which their previous figurative reading of scripture was already the solution, you are not alone.  Thank goodness we have living literary theorists to tell us what the word of God is and is not! (/sarcasm)  Slightly more seriously, I can completely understand why Protestants would concern themselves this much with how the timeless and complete word of God should be read and why they would be concerned about allowing those in power to read it for them…. but how can Biblical scholars concern themselves in this theoretical and systematic manner without making themselves into the very authorities they wish to subvert?  Put differently, their telling us about what meaning can and cannot be found within the scriptures just is to tell us how we should and should not be reading our scriptures.

Catholics and Mormons, however, do not need to stress about this since they both believe in living authorities that can tell them how and whether to read dead authorities.  (The Catholic traditions surrounding timelessness and infallibility, however, give them a bit less flexibility than the Mormons have.) Members of these traditions simply have to follow their living leaders in reading various passages literally, metaphorically, or not at all.  As soon as we start trying to interpret the living authorities “figuratively”, however, is exactly when Mormons and Catholics both abandon their own traditions for the less than reliable Protestant paths paved by philosophers, scholars and other unauthorized free-thinkers.  (I’m not sure how anybody could ever argue that communication with living prophets doesn’t have a meaning without thereby undermining their own attempts at communicating such an argument.)

I agree with Sam Harris in that the case for Biblical literalism is much stronger than well-educated believers tend (or want) to think.  That said, I strongly disagree with him when he generalizes a “religion of the book” mentality to those who follow the teachings of dead prophets in maintaining faith in the living prophets.  Harris and McClellan are both right that we shouldn’t anchor our faith in an uncompromising reading of dead prophets….. But I don’t know why any Mormon would have done this in the first place.  When it comes to the writings of dead prophets, Mormons are proud cafeterialists, it’s just that we also believe in the living prophets that work as the lunch ladies within that cafeteria.

Then again, this allegiance to a literal reading of living authorities is exactly what Sam Harris is worried about, the living/dead distinction being relatively incidental.  Harris’ argument can basically be put as follows:

  1. There is some amount of irreconciliable contradiction between the premodern epistemologies of the Abrahamic religions and modern rationality.
  2. To extent that the two cannot be reconciled, the Abrahamic mentality, rather than modern rationality or both, ought to go.

I am convinced that (1) is exactly right, while I strongly disagree with (2).  McClellan (I assume) and many people within the bloggernacle reject (1) and the only reason I can think of for this is that they do not want to abandon either tradition.  (Note that it is because of faith rather than doubt that they theorize as they do.)

Next Page »