Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part IV, concluded)

February 24, 2007 | 10 comments
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To read the previous sections of this essay, go here (Part I), here (Part II), and here (Part III).

The Value of a Problematic
It then might be asked, what is the significance of the distinction between communitarian and liberal political theories? Why does it matter? The answer to this question lies in the issue of whether or not the language and arguments that we use in political discussions are coherent and compelling. In October conference of 1999, President Hinckley offered an account of why the Church becomes involved in political issues. He stated, “We regard it as not only our right but our duty to oppose those forces which we feel undermine the moral fiber of society.” This statement invokes a powerfully communitarian image a politics. To speak of the “moral fiber of society” implies an interconnectedness of identity and activity that suggests “possibility that common purposes and ends could inspire more or less expansive self-understandings and so define a community in the constitutitive sense, a community describing the subject and not just the object of shared aspirations.”

In contrast, writing in the nineteenth century in response to laws punishing polygamy, President George Q. Cannon argued, “So long as we do not intrude upon our fellow-men or interfere with their rights and happiness, it is not their right to punish us.” He repeatedly hammers away at the claim that Mormon polygamy does not harm others or encroach on their “rights.” Although he never quotes or cites him, many of President Cannon’s arguments in favor of religious liberty for polygamy are reminiscent of those made twenty years earlier by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill, discussing “the language of downright persecution which breaks out . . . [about] the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism,” wrote, “[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny they can be prevented from living there under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations, and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways.” In a similar vein, President Cannon asks, “Who has been coerced by us? Towards whom have we been aggressors?” The entire language of moral and personal autonomy that Cannon invokes is as profoundly liberal as is the moral language of President Hinckley is profoundly communitarian.

Reconciling these two approaches or deciding which is correct is beyond the scope of this paper. It may be that communitarian and liberal arguments can be fitted into a single coherent system. It may be that one approach is decisively correct while the other approach is decisively mistaken. Nothing in this essay provides any way of adjudicating such points, either within or without of Mormonism. What this essay does provide is a problematic, a way of thinking about the issues in peculiarly Mormon terms. Clearly both elements of each theory can be found within Mormon theology. If their placement were random, then it seems that LDS doctrine would offer nothing more than a grab bag of proof texts for Mormon partisans of one side of the other of the debate. However, this is not the case. There is a pattern to the distribution of ideas, a pattern that suggests a movement from liberal origins toward a communitarian telos.

It is within this paradigm that Mormons must confront this philosophical divide. It is not clear that the paradigm itself offers an answer to the question. One might argue that origins and ontology should be privileged over goals and process. Politics, it could be argued, should be based on what is universal, and in a theology that offers the possibility of differing points along a continuum of connectedness it may be that only our origins are completely shared. Such a view need not preclude the possibility of Zion and community, but it would be conceived of in liberal terms. In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that a minimalist liberal state is desirable precisely because it allows the possibility for groups of free individuals to pursue their “private” utopias.

On the other hand, one might argue that the language of freedom and agency derived from Mormon ontology is too thin to support any meaningful sort of politics. One might argue that human beings are defined by their connections with others, and thus such connections cannot be treated as accidental or politically irrelevant. Communities must be thought of as communities and not simply as aggregations of individuals precisely because our condition in the second estate means that who we are is always constituted in part by the community in which we find ourselves embedded. We may have occupied some idealized liberal position of autonomy in the shadowy time before the council in heaven, but it is far too late in the play for us to now speak in terms of our origins.

Which of these arguments is correct and what other arguments one might make is not an issue that I take a position on in this essay. However, what these arguments do suggest is that even if it is difficult to identify uniquely Mormon answers in the liberal-communitarian debate, it is possible to identify a uniquely Mormon way of carrying on that debate.

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10 Responses to Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part IV, concluded)

  1. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 2:20 am

    Reconciling these two approaches or deciding which is correct is beyond the scope of this paper. It may be that communitarian and liberal arguments can be fitted into a single coherent system. It may be that one approach is decisively correct while the other approach is decisively mistaken. . . Clearly both elements of each theory can be found within Mormon theology. If their placement were random, then it seems that LDS doctrine would offer nothing more than a grab bag of proof texts for Mormon partisans of one side of the other of the debate. However, this is not the case. There is a pattern to the distribution of ideas, a pattern that suggests a movement from liberal origins toward a communitarian telos.

    Nate, I admire your restraint but I have little of it myself (one of the “freedoms” of having no professional reputation or standards to keep). I can’t help but cowboy on a bit: it seems to me that a key to reconciling these things (which you carefully said you are not trying to do) is the understanding of hierarchy, which is central to Mormonism, with its ordering of reality into telestial, terrestial and celestial levels.

    All complex systems are hierarchically structured, which means they have levels (with a “level” being a point at which we need to change conceptual or perceptual tools–from a microscope to see cells to a stethoscope to hear heartbeats to a map to see populations) and part of what this means is that what is true at one level is not necessarily true at other levels.

    This leads to paradox–what sounds like a contradiction but is better understood as a mixing of descriptive levels: who would find his life must lose his life–which is not a contradiction because the meaning of “life” refers to two different levels of existence.

    It’s possible that both the liberal and the communitarian arguments are true, but true at different levels. In general, I think society proceeds from government based upon fear, toward one based upon law, toward one based upon love. Central to much Mormon thought is the understanding that God drops things down a level if people prove themselves incapable of living a “higher” law.

    Also, the individual is one level. The church is another. Society in general is another.

    How should the individual relate to the community? Well, at what level is the individual living and at what level is the community functioning? Sometimes the individual should flee into the wilderness. Sometimes the individual should cry repentance. Sometimes the individual should stay and suffer and teach. Sometimes the individual should accept help and service from others. Sometimes the individual should lift his voice in song and prayer with fellows.

    How should the church relate to the larger society? Sometimes, it seems, it should argue for separation and the right to pursue its own course. Sometimes it should work with others to create a more moral place. Sometimes it should pack its bags and flee. I don’t think there’s any real “divide” in those differing responses. Sometimes we should not kill. Sometimes it’s better that an individual should perish. . .

    I think Mormonism is rich in the intellectual resources needed to develop a somewhat unique understanding of liberalism and communitarianism,as well as of other philosophies that are true but with lower limits and upper limits at which they cease being true. This ecological way of thinking seems to flow naturally from contemplating the rich complexities of life in a world where telestial, terrestial and celestial realities mingle and interact and separate. This doesn’t seem ontologically thin, to me.

    (This is how I tend to think about the “progressive” and “conservative” divide: both offer limited truths, but the adherants are generally scrutinizing with worried brows different levels and thus seeing completely different realities. Should we do what is best for this individual at this moment, or should we do what is best for the community as a whole? A forest fire is catastrophic for the individual tree but it releases nutrients back into the cycle and is necessary for the health of the forest. . .thus, the fire is catastrophic and the fire is good, without contradiction).

  2. Russell Arben Fox on February 24, 2007 at 10:18 am

    MLU,

    That’s a wonderful account of how, in real life, humans like ourselves need to work out our responsibilities and options, in response to both events and to what we really believe–namely, in the atonement of the Savior, the abiding love of our Heavenly Father, and the need for obedience and charity, none of which carry along with themselves handy political prescriptions or allegiances. That said, I believe that we can and should–and I’m not sure you’re saying anything otherwise; I’m just emphasizing a point–when attempting to prayerfully determine what “level” we or any particular problem is operating upon at any given time, distinguish between those allegiances which are deeply grounded (and thus ought to guide the parameters of our analyses), and those which are merely prudent (and thus ought to guide our sense of what can and cannot be done within those parameters). The philosopher Charles Taylor talks about this in terms of “ontology” vs. “advocacy.” There are ontological truths which you might, nonetheless, choose not to advocate in specifically political ways–and vice versa, there might be perfectly prudent causes one could advocate, but to do so would imply a betrayel or confusion regarding one’s ontological foundation. As well, there will be gray areas. Political philosophy (as opposed to simply “politics”) might then be described as the attempt to work out the relationship between the levels. Acknowledging the levels, as you have, is the first and essential step towards political engagement and judgment.

  3. MLU on February 24, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    I agree with that, if I understood it correctly.

    What I feel would be most helpful, to me at least, is what you mention at the end. A shift from a “Linnaean taxonomy” of political labels toward a more ecological view that does attempt to “work out the relationship between the levels”–keeping in mind that the “levels” are aspects of mind as much as anything.

    I’ve found the concepts of hierarchy as developed by some biologists to be a powerful way of thinking about complexity, and I’ve been struck by how much understanding of that way of thinking seems embedded in Mormonism.

    When people are thinking ecologically (hierarchically) they tend to shift their questioning away from “either/or” and toward “within what limits and to what degree?”

    I was quite enthralled by Nate’s article, but what I found most useful was his articulation of the way individuals and communities are related, when we get it right. Discussing whether the proper category is “communitarian” or “collectivist”or “socialist” seems part of conversation I don’t follow, which is probably just what it was.

  4. Matt Evans on February 25, 2007 at 1:00 am

    “We regard it as not only our right but our duty to oppose those forces which we feel undermine the moral fiber of society.” This statement invokes a powerfully communitarian image a politics. To speak of the “moral fiber of society” implies an interconnectedness of identity and activity that suggests “possibility that common purposes and ends could inspire more or less expansive self-understandings and so define a community in the constitutitive sense, a community describing the subject and not just the object of shared aspirations.”

    Nate, it seems to me that Hinckley’s quote can be marshalled with equal ease for liberalism, in the tradition of King Mosiah admonishing the people to do their business by majority rule; not to affirm their interconnectedness but because Mosiah thought it was the best way to preserve the “moral fiber of society,” so to speak.

  5. Jeremiah J. on February 25, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    “It is within this paradigm that Mormons must confront this philosophical divide. It is not clear that the paradigm itself offers an answer to the question. One might argue that origins and ontology should be privileged over goals and process. Politics, it could be argued, should be based on what is universal, and in a theology that offers the possibility of differing points along a continuum of connectedness it may be that only our origins are completely shared.”

    I’m not sure what you are getting at here. Is this paradigm the basic claim that Mormonism used to be more liberal but is now more communitarian? I assume that’s the claim you’ve defended in the earlier parts of the essay (I think that I read them a while back–I know I read *some* of you intelligences and politics stuff). But why must Mormons confront this philosophical divide (by which I assume you mean the liberal-communitarian debate) within the paradigm you defend in this essay?

    In general, this stuff is on a good question and I think you execute the whole thing well. But there are a few thoughts I have about it.

    1. What leads you to believe that the liberal-communitarian debate is representative of a very important basic alternative in political theology or political philosophy? There are certainly real, interesting dissagreements e.g. between Rawls and Sandel. But the liberal-communitarian debate remains a fairly recent debate between people who are liberals in the broad American tradition (Rawls, Nozick, despite their wide disagreements) and other, largely secular liberal democrats with no taste for ethnic politics or nationalism who happen to have some serious problems with American liberalism. The communitarian use of Hegel is particularly telling–Hegel was a liberal who believed individual rights, modern economic life, and the nuclear family, and had contempt for nationalism–but he is also a pretty good antidote to some liberal Americanisms. In other contexts, periods in history, and places in the world this would be a disagreement between liberals. Major American thinkers in the early republic had similar disagreements and yet recognized that they were in agreement in a great many things.

    2. Doctrine in matters of politics is, I think (and as I’ve argued in writing) a unique area of doctrine and theology because of the complex relationship between the church and the world. As we recognize very frequently, we do not and cannot tell the world our whole hearts about the nature and destiny of man, and the wrongs of human society. So it is hard for either Mormons or non-Mormons to come up with a ‘Mormon political philosophy’ (a theoretical statement full of political content) based on explicit doctrinal statements about politics (such statements are bound to be very reserved about theological foundations) or to go from first principles to specific political institutions and laws (because this project must cross a great distance, but also because it has a potentially, though not necessarily, very radical character).

    3. When Pres. Hinckley says “We regard it as not only our right but our duty to oppose those forces which we feel undermine the moral fiber of society”, what is striking to me is not that it is a communitarian statement, though it may be that (but liberals can and have argued that there is such a thing as a moral fiber of society which must be defended). The interesting thing to me is that it suggests that human society in general (outside the church) has a moral foundation, i.e. a foundation which is normatively good. I don’t think you can find many statements to that effect in the Doctrine and Covenants and in the New Testament. Indeed the New Testament concept of the world (cosmos) not only suggests a perverted form of social order but also one that is not well-founded, i.e. one that is destined to fail–as the great and spacious building, sitting in midair. Now I don’t expect Pres. Hinckley to say and I don’t think it’s true that American civilization is thoroughly depraved and irredeemable. But his statement concerning the moral fiber of society is also not a straightforward statement of Mormon theology on the character of human society. It seems to be an apologetic political statement intended to achieve particular important spiritual goals other than offering an explication of Mormon doctrine on the nature of human political association. In fact I think that apologetic statements are will very predictably lead us astray if we take them as evidence of some deep theolgical truth (I recognize that this is not what your essay is doing, however).

  6. Matt Evans on February 26, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    Jeremiah,

    Re: section 3. Can’t we reconcile the scriptural statements about the world order with: (1) Christ is King, (2) earthly governments will fall when Christ comes as King, (3) Christ has not chosen to come as King, (4) given that, democracy is best (Mosiah 29 and D&C), (4) God even had some role in creating US Constitution, and (5) as a general rule, “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right.” Therefore the fabric of democratic societies is presumed morally net-positive.

  7. Nate Oman on February 26, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Jeremiah: I am not offering my essay as a cosmic foundation for Mormon political theory. Rather, I begin with a particular discussion that I find interesting, no doubt for historically accidental and idiosyncratic issues of my own. (I wrote this essay when I was working my way through Rawls and Sandel.) There are no doubt more important questions, and perhaps there are even better ways for Mormons to approach the liberal-communitarian debates. Thinking through the issues, I realized that I could grab concepts from Mormon theology in support of one position or another. This is not particularlly surprising, and is also unlikely to generate anything other than a kind of shallow proof-texting. However, as I thought about it, I realized that there was a distribution to the concepts. The liberal concepts are grounded in Mormon ontology and the communitarian concepts are grounded in Mormon teleology. In other words, we aren’t faced with simply a grab bag of proof texts, but rather with a theology that seems to span both approaches. That seemed worth while enough to write the essay.

  8. Jeremiah J. on February 26, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    Matt:
    I also don’t doubt that #5 is true of King Mosiah’s people in some specific sense. But I don’t think that’s it’s true in general, especially if “what is right” is understood as some deep harmony with gospel principles. The natural man is an enemy to God, and I think it often becomes more of an enemy when it joins a mob (among other things, we should make clear what we mean by “the people”). Even people who are themselves very good often have bad political judgment (one of the most troubling insights of political ethics). Indeed if we took the Constitution as our political scripture (I don’t), we would have to recognize that it was crafted upon, among other things, the assumption that it is indeed common for the people (as well as their leaders) to desire what is not right.

    The church has made its peace with liberalism and democracy (as well as, we should not forget, some non-democratic forms of government), and I think for very good spiritual reasons. But I don’t think that the peace and the agreement about political form and procedure is the result of deep agreement over ultimate ends and values.

    Look, it’s not hard for me to admit that e.g. marriage, even in the form that it exists in America today, is better than many other possible alternative institutions. It’s not strange to me that Mormons want to preserve it, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t fully measure up to God’s standards. What’s difficult for me to see is what exactly the church is doing when it takes upon itself the role of “preserving the moral fiber” of society. I don’t object to the policy at all, or the practice of speaking out about it, but I haven’t quite figured out what we’re doing when we do that. So for me it’s not a religious question of whether or not I should pay attention to the counsel and follow it, but a theological question about how I should understand these statements. Right now my view is that they are not evidence of any kind of deep liberalism or communitarianism, or any support for any ‘political philosophy’ or any particular regime at all in Mormon doctrine. At most they are fragmentary indications of what Mormons, in our particular situation, can praise and blame in politics.

  9. Jeremiah J. on February 26, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    “The liberal concepts are grounded in Mormon ontology and the communitarian concepts are grounded in Mormon teleology. In other words, we aren’t faced with simply a grab bag of proof texts, but rather with a theology that seems to span both approaches.”

    My apologies–I’m beginning to remember and see more clearly what you argued in the earlier sections of the paper now. I knew you were not proof texting, and tried to make it clear that you were not doing that, but now that I see your argument more clearly I see that it’s not so dependent upon the liberal-communitarian debate being interesting.

    The focus on ontology and teleology (rather than the more explict political statements) is, I agree, more fruitful for Mormon political thought–especially if we are trying to establish some kind of content–rather than form–for Mormon political philosophy. And definitely worth writing a paper on.

  10. Matt Evans on February 27, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Jonathan,

    I read Mosiah making two robust claims. The first, that the social average is more stable than the variation from king to king, and second, that our average public morality is higher than our average private morality. This means that more people would be willing to cheat than would be willing to argue that society should legalize cheating.

    As for the moral fiber, what do you see so evil in today’s society? It seems to me that, given the range of possibilities, democratic societies are amazingly close to gospel ideals. No killing, no stealing, no assault, no rape, no abuse, no stealing, marriage is good, kids are valuable, treat minorities equally, churches deserve respect, etc. Several of the cultural issues the church condemns (pornography, abortion, homosexual acts) were legalized by courts, not democratic majorites. Contrasted with uniform opposition gospel ideals, I’d peg our alignment with gospel ideals at 90%.