Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part I)

February 21, 2007 | 17 comments
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The following is an essay that I wrote several years ago and never published. I have divided the essay into four posts that will run over the next couple of days. Academics regularlly present unpublished papers at workshops where they get feedback and criticism. I want to experiment with a blog-based version of the same thing in which folks offer thoughts and criticism of the essay as they read it. Enjoy!

Introduction
Recent years have seen a blossoming of serious philosophical examination of Mormon theology. Writing in the 1950s, the sociologist Thomas O’Dea disparaged Mormonism as a do-it-yourself theology that offered little intellectual rigor or theoretical insight. It is certainly true that Mormonism has yet to achieve anything like the theoretical sophistication that one sees in the philosophical elaboration of traditional Christianity, and there are reasons for believing that such a comprehensive elaboration may not even be possible within Mormonism. Yet a small but increasing number of Mormon and non-Mormon academics are coming to realize that Mormonism does offer rewards to those interested in philosophical theology.

Despite this flowering of interest in philosophical Mormon theology, there has been very little effort to use these insights in other areas of theoretical interest, such as political philosophy. This essay seeks to begin filling that gap by offering an example of how one might use the philosophical discussion of Mormon theology to frame and understand a central issue in contemporary political theory. Much of the debate in American political philosophy in the closing years of the twentieth century revolved around the competing claims of liberalism and communitarianism. This debate can be framed quite well within the context of Mormonism. For Mormons, I will argue that the choice between liberalism and communitarianism can be framed as a conflict between the ontology and the teleology of their theology.

Background
Liberalism is a term that has been so often misused that it is perhaps better not to attempt to attempt to rescue it. However, there is too much history behind the word and it is too philosophically useful to be abandoned at this late date. Philosophically (as opposed to popularly or journalistically) liberalism refers to the political philosophy that had its genesis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the work of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Liberalism sees human beings as autonomous, rights bearing individuals. In this philosophy, the chief aim of politics is to protect the liberty of each citizen to pursue their own vision of the good life and to minimize the reach of collective coercion. Thus in a liberal polity the good is subservient to the right, the political community is seen as nothing more than the aggregation of individuals, and the ultimate unit of political value is the individual. The two recent thinkers most powerfully associated with liberal philosophy in the United States have been John Rawls and Robert Nozick, and they nicely illustrate the differences in an approach that can be taken within liberalism. One of Rawls’s central projects is to articulate a vision of distributive justice based on the foundation of individualism and the philosophy of right. In contrast, Nozick’s primary project is to defend the desirability of a minimalist state based on an absolutist conception of individual rights. Despite these rather radical differences, both thinkers are firmly within the liberal tradition.

One of the most powerful justifications offered for liberalism was that given by John Stuart Mill in the mid-nineteenth century. Mill’s justification for liberalism rested on utilitarianism. Mill argued that a regime that maximized the amount of personal liberty consistent with like liberty for others would on the whole maximize the total utility to society. In an era that was becoming increasingly skeptical of metaphysical claims — Jeremy Bentham famously prefigured the age by calling natural rights “nonsense on stilts” — Mill’s formulation of liberalism became very popular. By the middle of the twentieth century the consensus in Anglo-American political philosophy was that utilitarianism could, if properly articulated, provide a full justification for liberal polity and effectively guide political decision-making. However, in the decades following World War II, the faith in utilitarianism faltered a variety of reasons. In its place many liberal thinkers, most notably John Rawls, turned to a Kantian ethics to justify liberalism on the basis of a deontological notion of individual rights. More recently, the utilitarian justification for liberalism has enjoyed a renaissance in the work of Richard Posner and others in the law and economics movement.

The postwar years also saw a more powerful challenge to liberalism, especially as liberal political thinkers turned to increasingly Kantian justifications for liberalism. This challenge came from a spectrum of communitarian thinkers such as Michael Oakshott, Hannah Arendt, and Alasdair MacIntyre. A leading philosopher in this group is Michael Sandel. According to Sandel, liberalism requires that the principle of justice – of right – function as an “Archimedean point” prior to any other political or social value. However, Sandel argues that arguments offered in favor of justice by liberals cannot support so primary a position for justice. At the limit of justice, Sandel argues, we are inevitably confronted with the question of the good. Liberalism thus rests on a philosophically unsustainable ambition: the hegemony of justice without reference to the good. Hannah Arendt offered a critique of liberalism from a somewhat different position. Arendt’s philosophy is an attempt to recapture the ancient ideal of the public or the political. With Aristotle, she argues that it is only in the political or public arena that human beings become free and fully human. Contrary to liberalism, Arendt argues that freedom is constituted by the political rather than vice versa as in contractarian philosophies.

These critics of liberalism share a common commitment to a more robust notion of the political community than one finds in liberalism. An example of this reaction to liberalism can be seen in the civic republican movement that gathered force in American legal theory during the late 1980s and 1990s. Rather than conceptualizing politics as a process of protecting rights and liberty, these theorists looked to a robust notion of the public good and the priority of the community in constituting the individual. This emphasis on the primacy character of the community led them to argue that illiberal policies – such as the suppression of pornography – were justified if they resulted from, and served to preserve, the fundamental character of a community as defined by a politically virtuous and civically involved citizenry.

This is a conflict that can be viewed through the lens of Mormon theology and philosophy. The issues of individuality, community, and their relationship at play in the debate between liberalism and its critics are also acted out within Mormonism. This opens up two possibilities. The first is that Mormons with an interest in these issues have a way of analyzing them that does not require an intellectual divorce of their religious selves from the rest of their reason. The second is that those interested in the debate can see it refracted through a new prism. While not guaranteeing useful insights, seeing familiar issues played out in an unfamiliar language and landscape always offers the possibility of new insights.

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17 Responses to Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part I)

  1. Russell Arben Fox on February 21, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    “This challenge came from a spectrum of communitarian thinkers such as Michael Oakshott, Hannah Arendt, and Douglas MacIntyre.”

    Very quick correction before coming back later with something more substantive to say: it’s Alasdair MacIntyre, not Douglas.

  2. Costanza on February 21, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Nate, your mention of O’Dea is interesting. I spent a couple of weeks in the BYU Special Collections looking at O’Dea’s papers, especially those detailing his first visit to SLC in the summer of 1950. Although he met with a wide variety of people, including a 40 year-old church employee named Gordon Hinckley, his biggest influence seems to have been Sterling McMurrin. O’Dea kept meticulous notes, almost transcripts, of these meetings. Many of McMurrin’s thoughts about Mormonism made it into O’Dea’s book verbatim without overt acknowledgment in the notes. I just thought that might be of interest to you.

  3. Nate Oman on February 21, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Costanza: Interesting…

    RAF: Thanks! Stupid mistake… (now fixed)

  4. Larry on February 21, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    “These critics of liberalism share a common commitment to a more robust notion of the political community than one finds in liberalism. An example of this reaction to liberalism can be seen in the civic republican movement that gathered force in American legal theory during the late 1980s and 1990s. Rather than conceptualizing politics as a process of protecting rights and liberty, these theorists looked to a robust notion of the public good and the priority of the community in constituting the individual. This emphasis on the primacy character of the community led them to argue that illiberal policies – such as the suppression of pornography – were justified if they resulted from, and served to preserve, the fundamental character of a community as defined by a politically virtuous and civically involved citizenry.”

    This raises an interesting conundrum, especially when the vehicle used to try to preserve the “fundamental character of a community” is the same one used by those they try to suppress – i.e. the courts. The question becomes one of how does society protect the rights of the individual without harming a “politically virtuous and civically involved citizenry”? Is there not a natural conflict between the individual and the community when that which a community tries to suppress is preserved by those the community appointed to protect the individual?

    We become the victims of our own good intentions. Is there a realistic solution to the conflict – especially in a multicultural society?

  5. MLU on February 22, 2007 at 12:21 am

    I look forward to reading the rest of this.

    For quite a while I’ve agreed in an abstract way with those who feel we need a more robust communal sense, and yet I’ve felt distrustful of their real world projects because they require giving some party authority–but all such parties hit enough false notes to make me back away.

    The big collectivist movements of the twentieth century were not just failures–they were monstrosities–and I instinctively withhold my allegiance from intellectuals talking of the common good. At the slightest false note I find myself responding with old liberal talk of liberty.

    I’m quite communal in my longings but somewhat libertarian in my policies.

    And yet. My life in the church has made it seem to me that strong authority and communal vision and combined action can be compatible with deep devotion to the principles of individual liberty. I rarely fail to follow church leadership (and then it’s because of weakness rather than disagreement) but I never feel my freedom is at stake. A communal vision that works will retain a high regard for individual choice, I think. Something other than Rawls’ totalitarian dreaming or Nozick’s anarchic cleverness. If I have to choose today, Nozick would get my Nod. Rawls’ assumptions so fundamentally miss me–I can’t imagine that if I were in the “original position” he posits I would have made the choice he thinks any of us would–that the rest of his argument doesn’t persuade.

    My personal view, influenced by my Mormon sensibility, is that the Enlightenment project of deriving moralilty from reason failed and and part of the meaning of that failure is that we will not be able to form a political community based on philosophy. I expect that liberalism will continue its fractuous course tending toward the state Isaiah described where every person decides to be a law unto himself. Philosophy is better at dissolving things by raising objections and seeing through positions than it is at binding groups together. The end of the Socratic way of knowing is, just as Socrates said, not knowing.

    I think robust communities more often form around religions rather than around philosophies. The challenge for those who want a communal politics that is good and just is, first, to win a religious struggle that is underway. We need to become one people in our hearts and minds, because we freely choose some goods, before we dare give a state the powers the communal visionaries see the state must have.

    MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism has been profoundly influential for me, with his emphasis on practices and narratives. But more influential has been Mormonism’s creation of folkways and traditions that are in essential harmony with a theology that allows me to see how strong authority can coexist with commitment to individual liberty. It’s the folkways that are doing the main work of forming and sustaining community, though those folkways were created and are continually refreshed and corrected by leaders who do ponder philosophical and theological questions.

    It’s a wonder, I think.

    I quite trust the folksy and wise leaders of the church. They say less than I sometimes wish they would, but they rarely sound those pesky false notes. Trust is the most missing thing in all our dreams of getting together.

    My experience suggests that this is too indiosyncratic to be very helpful, but digital space is cheap.

  6. Mark IV on February 22, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    No, MLU, your comment was very helpful, to me at least.

  7. Nate Oman on February 23, 2007 at 8:16 am

    MLU: I have a somewhat similar relationship with many communitarian political thinkers. I have tried some of Wendell Barry’s political writings, and I was not not particularlly impressed. Indeed, many of his concrete political suggestions strike me as down right pernicious.

    On the other hand, I love his poetry…

  8. Russell Arben Fox on February 23, 2007 at 9:06 am

    “I have tried some of Wendell Barry’s political writings, and I was not not particularlly impressed. Indeed, many of his concrete political suggestions strike me as down right pernicious.”

    Not that it matters much in regards to the general point, but while Wendell Berry is surely a communitarian in a philosophical sense, his primary political and social orientation is agrarianism, which is a very small and particular slice of the whole range of communitarian thought. People should read Berry’s essays, the same way they should be reading Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle and Wes Jackson, in order to better understand the way in which our modern manner of living and eating has taken us away from the social, physical, and spiritual benefits of being in a particular place. But you don’t have to be a Rousseauian localist like Berry to be a communitarian. You could be a Tory, for instance…

  9. mlu on February 23, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Wendell Berry–he influenced me for a number of years more than any other writer. But in recent years he’s gone politically where I won’t follow. The Southern Agragrians had some things very right–insisting that people couldn’t let profit be the only value–and other things quite wrong. . .ah that’s a big topic.

    But yes his poetry is often very fine, including much of the poetry in his essays. The love linking of the love of a man and a woman to the making of particular places worth loving–quite wise.

    I’ve also enjoyed the gradual emerging of a more and more explicitly Christian viewpoint in his writing. He’s been an important mentor to me.

  10. Nate Oman on February 23, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    mlu: I have been reading his pre-1982 poetry. It is really quite wonderful when it talks about land, place, family, nature, love, etc. It is not nearlly as compelling, IMHO, when it gets more overtly political as a number of his Vietnam-era poems are. Some of his elegies are really good. He does death well. Do you know if any of his Christianity shows up in his later poetry. There is a definite anti-clerical, anti-church strain in some of the pieces I have read.

  11. mlu on February 23, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Some of his political stuff gets strident, hitting false notes. There’s a willfulness and a stubbornness about him–very related to his virtues–that lead him to deny the obvious from time to time. I’m sure there are benefits to be gained from not using a word processor. Just as horses are in some ways better than cars. But trying to derive larger moral implications from such things seems only Andy Rooneyish sometimes. The romance of the Lost Cause has its power, still.

    Nevertheless, even some of his Vietnam era poetry is quite fine, in the mode of his three-line gem, “February 2, 1968″:

    In the dark of the moon, in the flying snow, in the dead of winter,
    war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
    I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

    The crescendo effect of that first anapestic line followed by the escalating trochaic rhythm of the second line leading up to–what? Only the simple iambic relaxation, talking of doing what was at hand that needed doing, restoring what has been damaged–a return to normalcy and sense–a small answer but maybe the right one and maybe enough. I even like the mild irony of this occurring on Groundhog’s Day. . .

    I don’t recall explicit references to Christianity from his poetry. I don’t have the books anymore. If I can find his “collected poems” over the weekend, it’ll be a pleasant task to look.

  12. Matt Evans on February 24, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    “yet I’ve felt distrustful of their real world projects because they require giving some party authority” and “the church has made it seem to me that strong authority…can be compatible with…individual liberty.”

    MLU, thanks for your comment. To what degree do you believe your comfort with strong church authority results from their not having, and openly disavowing, police power?

  13. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    Matt Evans: Quite a lot, I think.

  14. Matt Evans on February 25, 2007 at 12:27 am

    Thanks MLU. I read you in your first comment as suggesting that your comfort with the church’s strong authority undermined your opposition to the strong authority in “real world projects,” but it seems that is only possible if the authorities are comparable.

  15. MLU on February 25, 2007 at 1:31 am

    Then I should say a little more.

    I trust the Church leaders would use police powers, if that became necessary through, for example, a collapse of secular government, to enforce laws at the level of Mosaic law–dealing with outward actions–and that these would be laws I want someone to enforce, and I wouldn’t be distrustful. I would expect few false notes from them because I think I am in essential agreement with them, so I would expect my trust to continue.

    If such powers extended down to local leaders I expect I would have more trouble.

    My distrust of strong authority in the secular projects grows from hearing false notes. I’m less “at one” with them, so I expect them to cross me if they have the power to do so. I’m left thinking we can’t have a high degree of order, which in many cases requires authority, and at the same time a high degree of freedom unless we first become more unified in what we desire and what we understand is proper in pursuing that desire.

  16. Matt Evans on February 25, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Thanks, MLU. I completely agree with your last sentence. It’s the basis for my strong objection to MESJ and other groups that misunderstand, by ignorance or deception, Mormonism. We must first become unified, of one heart and one mind, before we can achieve our other objectives (all things in common, etc.).

  17. MLU on February 25, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    We must first become unified, of one heart and one mind, before we can achieve our other objectives (all things in common, etc.).

    Exactly.

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