The PSR, Due Diligence, Plutarch, and Debt (HT Graeber)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/12/2018 - 10:58pm in

§ 1  Plato in his Laws permits not any one to go and draw water from his neighbor's well, who has not first digged and sunk a pit in his own ground till he is come to a vein of clay, and has by his sounding experimented that the place will not yield a spring. For the clay or potter's earth, being of its own nature fatty, solid, and strong, retains the moisture it receives, and will not let it soak or pierce through. But it must be lawful for them to take water from another's ground, when there is no way or means for them to find any in their own; for the law ought to provide for men's necessity, but not favor their laziness. Should there not be the like ordinance also concerning money; that none should be allowed to borrow upon usury, nor to go and dive into other men's purses, — as it were into their wells and fountains, — before they have first searched at home and sounded every means for the obtaining it; having collected (as it were) and gathered together all the gutters and springs, to try if they can draw from them what may suffice to supply their most necessary occasions? But on the contrary, many there are who, to defray their idle expenses and to satisfy their extravagant and superfluous delights, make not use of their own, but have recourse to others, running themselves deeply into debt without any necessity. Now this may easily be judged, if one does but consider that usurers do not ordinarily lend to those which are in distress, but only to such as desire to obtain somewhat that is superfluous and of which they stand not in need. So that the credit given by the lender is a testimony sufficiently proving that the borrower has of his own; whereas on the contrary, since he has of his own, he ought to keep himself from borrowing...

[§2] ...Thus we ought in our affairs, as in a besieged town, never to admit or receive the hostile garrison of a usurer, nor to endure before our eyes the delivering up of our goods into perpetual servitude; but rather to cut off from our table what is neither necessary nor profitable, and in like manner from our beds, our couches, and our ordinary expenses, and so to keep ourselves free and at liberty, in hopes to restore again what we shall have retrenched, if Fortune shall hereafter smile upon us...

§ 3 ....The Goddess Artemis in the city of Ephesus gives to such debtors as can fly into her temple freedom and protection against their creditors; but the sanctuary of parsimony and moderation in expenses, into which no usurer can enter to pluck thence and carry away any debtor prisoner, is always open for the prudent, and affords them a long and large space of joyful and honorable repose. For as the prophetess which gave oracles in the temple of the Pythian Apollo, about the time of the Persian wars, answered the Athenians, that God had for their safety given them a wall of wood, upon which, forsaking their lands, their city, their houses, and all their goods, they had recourse to their ships for the preservation of their liberty; so God gives us a table of wood, vessels of earth, and garments of coarse cloth, if we desire to live and continue in freedom. Aim not at gilded coaches, steeds of price, And harness, richly wrought with quaint device; for how swiftly soever they may run, yet will usuries overtake them and outrun them....

§ 4 ... And as King Darius sent to the city of Athens his lieutenants Datis and Artaphernes with chains and cords, to bind the prisoners they should take; so these usurers, bringing into Greece boxes full of schedules, bills, and obligatory contracts, as so many irons and fetters for the shackling of poor criminals, go through the cities, sowing in them, as they pass, not good and profitable seed, — as did heretofore Triptolemus, when he went through all places teaching the people to sow corn, — but roots and grains of debts, that produce infinite labors and intolerable usuries, of which the end can never be found, and which, eating their way and spreading their sprouts round about, do in fine make cities bend under the burden, till they come to be suffocated. They say that hares at the same time suckle one young leveret, are ready to kindle and bring forth another, and conceive a third; but the usuries of these barbarous and wicked usurers bring forth before they conceive. For at the very delivery of their money, they immediately ask it back, taking it up at the same moment they lay it down; and they let out that again to interest which they take for the use of what they have before lent.

§ 5  It is a saying among the Messenians, Pylos before Pylos, and Pylos still you'll find; but it may much better be said against the usurers, Use before use, and use still more you'll find. So that they laugh at those natural philosophers who hold that nothing can be made of nothing and of that which has no existence; but with them usury is made and engendered of that which neither is nor ever was.--Plutarch, Moralia (translated by  William Watson Goodwin) "Against Running In Debt, or Taking Up Money Upon Usury." [ES: I have not checked the Greek, but hopefully this does not undermine the points I wish to make today.]

In Debt: the First 5000 Years (pp 231-2), David Graeber calls attention to the passage quoted from Plutarch. His excerpt is briefer than my version and he uses the passage to quote Plutarch's likening the role of debt to "a foreign invasion."* Here I have different (ahh) interest in the passage. Before I get to that it's only fair to note Plutarch's main argument, which is that debt is the off-spring of the desire for luxury.  Luxury is something one does not need, and so superfluous.+ And so Plutarch's main argument is a prudential plea for moderation.

This commitment helps explain, in part, what would sound strange to us: "that usurers do not ordinarily lend to those which are in distress, but only to such as desire to obtain somewhat that is superfluous and of which they stand not in need." (Hereafter, the maxim of ordinary usury; or, simply, the maxim.) I suspect Plutarch knew (even lacking Graeber's rich account) that there existed plenty of usury (to the distressed) which was 'non-ordinary' in his sense.++ Even  so the passage provides nice evidence for the thought that due diligence into the ability to repay ("the borrower has of his own"), and perhaps character, was part of the "ordinary" practice of usury among the Greek aristocrats (who could be taken or be seen to afford the superfluous) that Plutarch would have known.

Of course, Plutarch's larger argument is a proposal to regulate debts ("that none should be allowed to borrow upon usury, nor to go and dive into other men's purses, — as it were into their wells and fountains, before they have first searched at home and sounded every means for the obtaining it.") This puts a requirement on any would-be-debtor, and any would-be-creditor, to fund any expenses that would (ahh) ordinarily be funded by credit out of assets (or savings). Once such due diligence has been done, there is de facto no proper need for credit/debt. This suggests, however, a more far-reaching implication. If the due diligence shows that the would-be-borrower is short of collateral or funds, then from Plutarch's perspective there is no grounds for a debt. So, the point of the regulation alongside the Maxim is clearly to prevent the creation of credit to the distressed that become debts that cannot be repaid. The underlying (political) rationale is clear enough because a debtor is, for Plutarch, somebody un-free, that is, halfway down the path to slavery.*

So much for the political angle. Plutarch also notes that the very existence of interest makes a mockery of one of the versions of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, nothing can be made of nothing and of that which has no existence. We tend to associate the principle with Parmenides; writing much later, Plutarch treats it as a common principle among the natural philosophers. Interest violates a principle of equality built into the nature of debt (recall this one); because what is returned is more -- sometimes dis-proportionally more -- than the principal.** 

Of course, there are a whole battery of claims and arguments that interest does represent something (cost of borrowing, opportunity costs, inflation expectation, underlying rate of return in a society, etc.) So, the charging of interest can be made intelligible. And, perhaps, that's sufficient to undermine the idea that interest is somehow un-caused. I like that in the version of the PSR quoted by Plutarch, the PSR is committed to the claim that no thing can be produced by nothing in the sense of not existing. (For, of course, it cuts off a natural temptation to say, in response, that social fictions cause interest!) 

Now, Graeber (recall) has quite interesting things to say about the genealogy of philosophy. He argues that philosophy's origins are grounded in paradoxes of coinage, and that philosophy is the complicit offspring of violent eradication of forms of life. In reflecting on this (and recall this post on the PSR), I had the following free association.

As Graeber emphasizes, the Greek word for "interest" literally means "offspring." And, from the perspective of the PSR, one may say that interest is, thus, either un-caused offspring or the product of unusually fertile principal. The latter route is (recall) the Piketty-ian world of disproportionate capital growth, perhaps, characteristic of financial capitalism; the former is a miracle of the sort that founds Christianity.   







*My point today is not to criticize Graeber; even so it is worth noting explicitly that it's quite possible that Plutarch is making clear the ongoing effects of Roman control of Greece. (Graeber is very good one the role of debt in Roman political economy, so the point is a natural extension of his.)

+Plutarch seems to divide goods into necessities and luxuries. In context, it's not quite clear how Plutarch understands goods that are not strictly speaking necessary for survival, but in context not especially luxurious.

++I have noted elsewhere that Adam Smith likes to claim that very rare things/practices are common or common-sensical; Plutarch, I think, practices the reverse trope--treating quite common things as normatively non-ordinary.  

**Graeber notes that In Greek the word for "interest" literally means "offspring." 

Are You Willing to Live on a Maybe?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/12/2018 - 6:28am in

How willing are you to act when the outcome is far from guaranteed?

The Church Mission in Liberalism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 08/12/2018 - 4:39am in



The Church’s involvement in spiritual warfare within a temporal order that is fallen is also fundamental to the nature of the Church herself, and has long determined magisterial teaching about that nature. The Church has been given by Christ himself the authority to protect the supreme good of religion. But locked as she is in a spiritual conflict within a fallen world, the Church is under attack both from without and also from within—from her own sinful and often recalcitrant members. So she must be able to protect the good of her community from those attacks. She must be able to discourage wrongdoing by her members that threatens the spiritual good of the Christian community she serves. And she must also be able to prevent spiritually damaging intrusions into that community by opponents from without. So the Church, just as much as the state, must be a potestas or coercive authority. Just as the state must be able to use law to protect the political community, so the Church must be able to use law to protect the ecclesial community. The Church has been given by Christ the sovereign authority to make laws and to enforce those laws within her jurisdiction by legitimate threats of punishment that to be effective must include temporal as well as spiritual sanctions.

Subjection to the Church’s jurisdiction, the magisterium teaches and as the 1983 Code of Canon Law continues to claim, comes with baptism. So at Trent, as we have already seen, and elsewhere, the magisterium has clearly taught that baptism subjects the baptised to a coercive jurisdiction, that of the Church, with obligations to fidelity on the baptised that may be enforced—where breach of those obligations is genuinely culpable, and where enforcement really is necessary to protect the religious good of the Church’s community. Because the state itself needs to be converted, baptismal obligations can take political and public as well as private form. Officials of a state that is publicly Christian can be bound by their baptism to exercise their office so as to support the mission of the Church. In particular the officials of a publicly Christian state can be bound to assist the Church in the exercise of her jurisdiction, as canon 2198 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law still insisted.[6] Baptism obligates the rulers of a Christian state to act as body to the Church’s soul—to form a single Christian community where, in religious matters, the state helps as secular arm (brachium saeculare) to enforce the law of the Church.

This theory of the Church as potestas for the good of religion and of the need for a soul-body union of Church and state is a long-standing part of the Church’s magisterium. At its heart is teaching that baptism has a juridical character fundamental to the nature of the Church herself. It is baptism that provides the Church as potestas with her coercive jurisdiction, and then obligates officials of a publicly Christian state to support that jurisdiction when called on by the Church to do so. Baptism then is the basis for the legitimacy of a soul-body union of the Church with that of the state, where in matters of religion the state may act as agent or secular arm of the Church as potestas for the good of religion.

Vatican II was careful not to contradict this teaching. According to the official relationes that interpreted Dignitatis Humanae to the council fathers at Vatican II, the declaration does not in any way deny the Church’s status as potestas for religion, and addresses only the authority of the state when detached from any union with the Church, and so acting only as on its own authority as potestas for the civil order.[7] The 1983 Code of Canon Law also still clearly presents the Church as a potestas. The Code clearly asserts that the Church has a jurisdiction over the baptised, with the authority to enforce that jurisdiction with threats of temporal as well as spiritual punishment.[8]

Nevertheless the idea of the Church as a potestas is decreasingly taken seriously in official theology. In practice a model prevails of the Church as, in effect, a voluntary society, and with this comes a conception of canonical obligations as really no more than membership rules. All that culpable breach of them really merits is not some genuine form of punishment, but simple loss of membership. With this comes a view of Church-state separation not as a regrettable evil, as Leo XIII viewed it, but as a positive good.

Consider Joseph Ratzinger, who when writing as a cardinal, defended both the idea of the Church as a voluntary society whose authority is purely moral, and the desirability of Church-state separation. Not only is the entry of unbaptised adults into the Church treated by him an entirely voluntary matter—which was always taught—but continued fidelity in the baptised is treated by him as entirely voluntary too, which Trent formally denied. Morever, the use of civil penalties by a Christian state to enforce ecclesial law is condemned by Ratzinger—despite the fact that such use was called for by General Councils such as Lateran IV and Trent. Thomas Pink "Vatican II and Crisis in the Theology of Baptism: Part II" @The Josias.

I have quoted from a three part essay (see part I; Part III), which should be read alongside this critique of John Finnis, by Thomas Pink. These essays are part of an epic struggle over the soul of the church and, crucially for my present purposes, its historical-moral mission. In the passage, Pink rejects what one may call an accommodating stance of the Church toward liberal modernity. This accommodating stance re-invents the Catholic church along Lockean-Kantian lines as (I) a voluntary association that (II) respects Church and State separation and (III) whose source of authority is exclusively moral. While Locke himself had rejected toleration for the Catholic church, the Church's willingness to forego jurisdiction/potestas over its members means that Lockean strictures against the Church have become irrelevant. In what follows I accept Pink's characterization of this re-invention, even though I recognize that he is being polemical and not an impartial bystander.

As an aside, Pink argues that the reinvention occurs not through an explicit rejection of the (infallible) magisterial teachings of the Church, but through the omissions and changed emphasis  of what he calls the 'official theology' of the Church. This mechanism is worth some attention (in part because it may be accompanied by a curious historical re-imagination), but that's for another time.

Now, one may imagine that a general skeptical liberal (including rather skeptical about my own liberalism on many days) like myself would be instinctually on the side of the accommodating stance rejected by Pink. For, one may imagine that the Church's willingness to play by liberalism's rules would be welcome. One may be deluded into thinking that less friction is better than church state antagonism. And one may imagine that some opportunistic (let's call them Enlightenment) liberals will be tempted to say to, say, Islamic fundamentalists, look, if the historically powerful Church has learned to play by our rules, so you, too, can learn to do so!*

But liberalism requires for its moral (aesthetic and political) vitality, and its own historical mission (of human flourishing, individual emancipation, rejection of cruelty, etc.) institutions in its midst that wage spiritual war within a temporal order. And the church can only do so if, from a liberal perspective, it remains tempted to overreach politically and legally. As I argued a few weeks ago, the present crisis of liberalism is precisely a consequence of the (moral and intellectual) implosion of social intermediaries, which are both natural bulwarks of social pluralism as well as promote a rich/multidimensional (what I called) 'value space.' That is, of course, an empirical matter, but my underlying assumption is (to simplify and be, perhaps, too succinct) that the liberal morality, which in its common form is merely secularized Christianity, is feeble without access to rich and varied sources of value.  

Another reason to welcome spiritual warfare by the Church is that it represents a firm rejection of status quo bias because the status quo of the temporal order is in an important sense (as Pink argues), from the perspective of the Church, diabolical.** Now, unlike in most other worldviews, such criticism of status quo bias is always welcome to liberals because it forces us to critically look at ourselves and existing privileges (which liberals ought to resist). Of course, I realize that this spiritual warfare will bring the church into conflict with many liberal pieties (although perhaps push it away of its one-sided focus on sexual morality). But liberals need not fear this because such spiritual warfare will force us to confront the ways in which contemporary society fails the spiritual needs of mankind and prevents human flourishing.+

That is to say,  on my understanding, liberalism needs the Catholic church to believe in its own historical mission of the illiberal, rejectionist sort defended by Pink. This risks, of course, a victory of a world-view inimical towards liberalism and many commitments we hold (ahh) sacred. But the cautious embrace of such uncertainty is our courage, the willingness to have our commitments challenged, our faith.  

* In fact, it is tempting to side with the accommodating stance because some of Pink's first order conclusions -- say, about the theological necessity of Jewish conversion (see part III)-- are troubling. I treat Pink as suggesting that there are prudential reasons to avoid mission to the Jews here and now, but that these should not become part of an official theology in which the Church foregoes the aim of Jewish conversion as part of a kind of dual covenant; something that seems to have happened under in the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger. In fact, as I shall argue some other time, while I reject Pink's attitude toward conversion of the Jews, in many ways it's preferable than the special mission assigned to Jews/Israel in the modern official theology rejected by him!

**I am aware that for many the Church can have no authority at all in light of the many scandals of sexual abuse, molestation, and exploitation of the last half century. But all this shows is that the temporal order within the church also involves diabolic dominion.

+As regular readers know, I think radicalized Islamic youth and much of what passes for populism in Europe is a response to the perceived spiritual poverty and hypocrisy of our society.

Sorry Sean Hannity, the Truth About Santa Isn’t “Fake News”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 05/12/2018 - 7:29am in

A New Jersey substitute teacher let her first graders in on the "Santa secret," and Sean Hannity is in an uproar. I argue that that parents are just as much to blame.

Maoist Rebel News on Nazi Coup Plot in Germany

I’ve absolutely no respect for Chairman Mao. Far from being a liberator, the former Chinese dictator was a ruthless butcher, who killed and brutalized millions during the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Over 60 million people died in the artificial famine his regime created. He and his comrades were also vandals and barbarians, who tried to destroy China’s millennia old culture by smashing monuments and priceless art treasures, as well as the ruthless persecution of religion, including Buddhism and Taoism, as well as Christianity.

But Jason Unruhe of Maoist Rebel News says some very interesting things and makes some very acute observations of contemporary capitalism. In this piece, he discusses reports, found only in the Mail and RT, that the German authorities discovered a Nazi plot by serving members of the armed forces to overthrow the government. The plot including 14,000 soldiers, who were members of Nazi organisations. It’s a trivial number compared to the vast numbers in the German armed forces, but it’s serious because they were genuine Nazis. In the event of widespread unrest, the plotters in the military planned to leave the civilian government to its fate, and start re-opening concentration camps, in which they would incarcerate leftists and members of ethnic minorities.

Unruhe notes that this story seems to have been comprehensively buried by all of the media, with the exception of the two above, because of its explosive nature. He also states that we don’t know how many people have been arrested. This is a serious threat to democracy and justice in Germany. It means anti-Fascists have to become better organized and equipped, with German antifas now in a dangerous position. This plot means that they are Europe’s first and best line of defence against a real Nazi resurgence.

I can’t say I’m surprised at the high number of real Nazis in Germany’s military. The Baader-Meinhof Gang in the 1970s were spurred on to carry out their terror attacks from the realization that the denazification campaign after the War had only affected a comparatively small number of those serving Hitler’s vile regime. Many others had escaped, and despite their horrific crimes were living peaceful, comfortable lives. The British and Americans recruited Nazi agents and collaborators, including men responsible for vicious pogroms and massacres against Jews, for the intelligence agencies during the Cold War. It thus really wouldn’t surprise me if they let many Nazi members of the armed forces keep their jobs in the Cold War as part of Europe’s defence against Stalin. Just as they set up Gladio, a left-behind resistance network that would fight Communism if the Warsaw Pact successfully invaded and conquered the West. The feared invasion mercifully never happened, but various elements of the Gladio network were involved in far right-wing terrorism. It’s possible something similar could have been behind the persistence of real Nazism in the armed forces. Also, the neo-Nazi papers on sale in the eastern parts of the Federal Republic after the War styled themselves as the newspapers for soldiers and peasants.

Fascism is now a very real threat in Europe, with the election of Far-right wing parties to power in Poland, Hungary and other countries in eastern Europe, Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, and the Fascist Alternative fuer Deutschland on the rise in Germany. The leaders and senior members of the latter do have Nazi, or neo-Nazi connections. They’ve made speeches denouncing Germany’s Holocaust memorial as a ‘national shame’, and declared that if they got into power they’d open an underground railway to Auschwitz.

But I’m not as pessimistic as Unruhe is here. I got the distinct impression that young Germans are very anti-totalitarian, and that German anarchists, who are very ready to fight Fascism on the streets, are very well organized.

This is, of course, if there’s anything to this story at all. I think it probably is true, but it may be fake news concocted for some strange reason, and released only by those two sources. I also wonder about the figures involved. 14,000 sounds very high. I’m not sure that the National Democrats or the German Republican Party, two of the main neo-Nazi parties before the AfD a few years ago, had anywhere near that number of members. They certainly didn’t have much popular support, as they always came very low down the list in German elections, although the NDP did manage to get something like four members elected to the Reichstag or somewhere in Germany before they were banned.

But if this is true, then it’s a frightening demonstration of how serious a threat Fascism now is. It has to be fought wherever it’s found, right across Europe, before it seizes power again and begins another Holocaust.

Under God

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 30/11/2018 - 7:00pm in

Our secular government is all tangled up with God. How did we get here?

Creeping Catholicism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 29/11/2018 - 7:00pm in

In 1899, they weren’t concern-trolling about “Sharia Law.”

Democrats Finally Acknowledging Secular Voters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/11/2018 - 1:01am in


Politics, Religion

Nonreligious voters have long been a solid Democratic voting bloc, but the party has rarely acknowledged it. As the demographic has grown, that is changing.

Mill on Moral Ideals and (ahh) Chivalry

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/11/2018 - 12:08am in

From the combination of the two kinds of moral influence thus exercised by women, arose the spirit of chivalry: the peculiarity of which is, to aim at combining the highest standard of the warlike qualities with the cultivation of a totally different class of virtues—those of gentleness, generosity, and self-abnegation, towards the non-military and defenceless classes generally, and a special submission and worship directed towards women; who were distinguished from the other defenceless classes by the high rewards which they had it in their power voluntarily to bestow on those who endeavoured to earn their favour, instead of extorting their subjection. Though the practice of chivalry fell even more sadly short of its theoretic standard than practice generally falls below theory, it remains one of the most precious monuments of the moral history of our race; as a remarkable instance of a concerted and organized attempt by a most disorganized and distracted society, to raise up and carry into practice a moral ideal greatly in advance of its social condition and institutions; so much so as to have been completely frustrated in the main object, yet never entirely inefficacious, and which has left a most sensible, and for the most part a highly valuable impress on the ideas and feelings of all subsequent times.

The chivalrous ideal is the acme of the influence of women's sentiments on the moral cultivation of mankind: and if women are to remain in their subordinate situation, it were greatly to be lamented that the chivalrous standard should have passed away, for it is the only one at all capable of mitigating the demoralizing influences of that position. But the changes in the general state of the species rendered inevitable the substitution of a totally different ideal of morality for the chivalrous one. Chivalry was the attempt to infuse moral elements into a state of society in which everything depended for good or evil on individual prowess, under the softening influences of individual delicacy and generosity. In modern societies, all things, even in the military department of affairs, are decided, not by individual effort, but by the combined operations of numbers; while the main occupation of society has changed from fighting to business, from military to industrial life. The exigencies of the new life are no more exclusive of the virtues of generosity than those of the old, but it no longer entirely depends on them. The main foundations of the moral life of modern times must be justice and prudence; the respect of each for the rights of every other, and the ability of each to take care of himself. Chivalry left without legal check all forms of wrong which reigned unpunished throughout society; it only encouraged a few to do right in preference to wrong, by the direction it gave to the instruments of praise and admiration. But the real dependence of morality must always be upon its penal sanctions—its power to deter from evil. The security of society cannot rest on merely rendering honour to right, a motive so comparatively weak in all but a few, and which on very many does not operate at all. Modern society is able to repress wrong through all departments of life, by a fit exertion of the superior strength which civilization has given it, and thus to render the existence of the weaker members of society (no longer defenceless but protected by law) tolerable to them, without reliance on the chivalrous feelings of those who are in a position to tyrannize.--Subjection of Women, Chapter 4.

Mill (and perhaps Taylor) treat chivalry as a "moral ideal" encouraged by aristocratic women in the context of warring and disorderly societies and to, thereby, transform these societies into more peaceful and just political orders. Such an order would continue to be rather hierarchical -- it presupposes aristocracy, and aristocratic ladies --, but the sword would be used in the service of justice, rather than plunder.

Mill thinks the moral ideal is doomed because it is out of sync with contemporary feudal mores, which are geared toward war, patriarchy, and exploitation of the weak. Here Mill presupposes (recall here and here) both his civilizational and stadial account of the progress of history as well as the eighteenth century historicist idea (to be  found in Montesquieu and Adam Smith) that norms and morals have to fit in some sense the material and political circumstances of society.

Of course, because Mill thinks there is (a possibility of) progress, such bottom up attempts -- I almost used 'spontaneous order' -- can drive the progress of history from one stage to the next.* And, in fact, he clearly thinks it is important to have social memory of exemplars of such attempts at social moral improvement by way of the articulation and propagation of 'moral ideals.' Even failed moral projects can generate "highly valuable impress on the ideas and feelings of all subsequent times." And it is easy to see why; it helps combat status quo bias and resignation, and provides inspiration for future times. 

To be sure, Mill does not advocate chivalry in his own time. Rather, he sees it as a second-best, ameliorative ('mitigating') institution, in contexts in which women's subordination cannot be altered. It also shows that victims of oppression can be agents in social improvement even if what can be achieved is rather limited.

Of course, the moral of Mill's analysis is that spontaneous order and the operations of public opinion or some other system of recognition of honor are not sufficient to secure a moral society (recall this post and see the references in it). In modern societies, which are characterized by great concentration of centralized power, there is a possibility for the rule of law to back up and strengthen our morality; and if not morality, than at least to eradicate some clear injustices. The thought being that the law should neither promote domestic tyranny and women's subordination nor tacitly permit it. 

Thus, hidden in Mill's analysis of stadial and civilizational progress is a claim about modern state capacity. And this is characterized by great, coordinated joint action ("the combined operations of numbers"). He disguises this a bit because he talks about society and modern civilization (not state capacity). But Mill understands by civilization, not unlike Hume and Smith, the capacity to enforce the rule of law. Of course, this presupposes that modern societies are already willing to be or understand themselves as moral communities.** This idea runs through Mill's Subjection of Women. Given that Mill describes innumerable moral horrors, I think it is likely the idea that we are a moral community is intended to be a species of philosophical prophecy not an empirical description of modernity. 


*Mill's treatment of the causes of change is too large a topic for present purposes, but he announces on the first page of the book that "the great modern spiritual and social transition" can change  institutions, but also that some institutions are resilient against change.

**In fact, Mill's conception of Christianity is that, while it is implicated in many evils, it is a religion that, in purported contrast to Islam, is an engine for historical moral progress: "There have been abundance of people, in all ages of Christianity, who tried to make it something of the same kind; to convert us into a sort of Christian Mussulmans, with the Bible for a Koran, prohibiting all improvement." This needs to be set aside his comments, alas, on India.

On Neo-Liberalism, Religion, and Walter Lippmann 80 Years Later

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/11/2018 - 3:55am in



Because that which we seek [to do] is not to resuscitate a theory, but to discover the ideas that permit the momentum [élan] toward freedom and civilization to triumph over all the obstacles resulting from human nature, historical circumstances, the conditions of life on this earth. It is a long-term task that requires sustained efforts, sustained support, and the noble patience of those who sincerely and humbly seek the truth. Before it is achieved, humanity will go through, I believe, a very profound and vast religious experience: it will have to evaluate science and its relationship to philosophy and morality anew, it will have to revise the idea of the State, of property, of individual rights and the national ideal. Civilized men will have to submit the conceptions they found novel before the [first World] war to new scrutiny, determined as they will be to discover those that are and those that are not compatible with the vital needs and the permanent ideal of humanity. It is to these vital needs and to this permanent ideal, and not to the doctrines of the nineteenth century, that one should refer to, so as to undertake the reconstruction of liberalism. Let us also seek not to teach an old doctrine, but to contribute within our means to the formation of a doctrine of which none of us has more than a vague notion at the present moment. And we should think of liberalism not as a thing accomplished in the olden days and dated today, but [rather] as something not yet achieved and still very young.--Walter Lippman (1938), p. 105-6.

The term 'neo-liberalism' is associated with many features of liberal ideology of the last half century. But its associaton with a movement is due to the 1938 Walter Lippmann colloquium in Paris (hereafter the colloquium). This gathering was the brain child of Louis Rougier, himself a fascinating (and somewhat disturbing character) with very strong ties to some of my intellectual paragons, Susan Stebbing and the members of the Vienna Circle, including hosting the  International Congresses for the Unity of Science. After the collapse of the first wave of liberalism in WWI and the subsequent rise of communism, fascism, and  nazism, the Colloquium laid the groundwork for rethinking liberalism that, after allied victory in war and Pax Americana, led to spectacular rebirth of liberalism in many new institutions, international collaboration, and a period of astounding prosperity (alongside decolonialization and dismantling of European empires.) While we cannot discount possibility of a great war between China and America, our present conditions, while dire for many and grounds for grave fears, are not yet on the same scale of catastrophe as the atmosphere surrounding the colloquim. Many of its participants are exiles,and the sense that major war is imminent pervades the precedings. The previous sentence is not intended to mimize the suffering of those presently facing persecution nor to deny the looming terror consequent to the unfolding environmental disaster due to climate change.

From the 1960s onward the revival of liberalism became associated with three distinct commitments: (i) a propogation of markets in many spheres of life even at the expense of other voluntary forms of collaboration or organization; (ii) a way of life focused on the profit motive and acquisition of more material comforts or the re-distribution of income/wealth; (iii) the sexual revolution and the concommitant welcoming and newfound construction of forms of life, even identities, that previously were repressed by state and church (or both).* What's striking about the proceedings of the colloquium is that none of these trends are foreshadowed in it--with the exception, perhaps, of (i). But because the proceedings are heavily influenced by ordo-liberal thought, even the most rigorous defenders of markets at the colloqium are committed to the idea that these presuppose a robust state with its own sphere of autonomy and capable shaping the laws required for a market economy.

So, with that in place it is worth looking at the religiosity of Lippmann's conception of liberalism. By this I do not just mean that he thinks that a liberalism worth having will preserve a kind of autonomy for religious associations, churches, and religious ways of life. Rather, I mean that (a) the very idea of liberalism worth having itself involves a spiritual transformation over extended or historical time. And, in particular, that (b) the destination of liberalism is, in a certain sense not yet known. This has strong resonance with a form of Kantian religion (recently ably articulated by Sam Fleischacker in his The Good and the Good Book (Oxford, 2015)) in which the working out of the content of religious faith is itself a matter of uncertainty over the outcome combined with great deal of trust in the guiding ideals (or holy book). At the end (c) there is a promised land that is, in part, the consequence of a revolution in thought (informed by science, experiments in living, and moral discovery). 

This is a liberalism that is grounded in the vital needs of people and principles of humanity. It's pretty clear that for Lippmann these needs are not merely material, although it would be a mistake to shun those material needs. A liberalism that leaves people to suffer is inhumane (and politically unappealing). But these needs also presuppose something spiritual and intellectual. Now, here too, religiosity rears its head. Because rather than privatising those vital needs to churches and voluntary associations alone, it is clear that Lippmann thinks the to-be-discovered-values of liberalism itself need to be, if not themselves sacred objects, at least vessels toward such religiosity. Here Lippmann sounds more like the great Victorian liberal, T.H. Green (and Lippmann's contemporary Niehbur) or the youthful Rawls, than, say, Milton Friedman.**  The achievement of a liberalism worth having is, like the future of scientific development, a multi-generational project that requires self-command, delayed gratification, and a faith in the trustworthiness of the ideal of humanity.

In the last half century liberalism has been increasingly understood, by its advocates and enemies, as somehow anti-religious. This has been a disaster politically because it has driven too many religious into the arms of strongmen and false prophets of security or national glory. In so far as liberalism is hostile to inherited privilege and unquestioned authority this perception of mutual animosity is not without reason. In so far as it caters to a certain skeptical mindset one may superficially believe this to be anti-religious. But such skepticism is itself an expression of religiosity--a willingness to suspend judgment, to consider no question fully settled, a regimented self-doubt, the rejection of conformist consensus these all require faith (even if desparing faith) that illumination can come from the most unlikely sources. One can reject Lipppmann's masculine confidence in civilization, while still recognize that he glimpsed an essential truth, that the articulation of liberalism requires a form of religiosity that awaits its inventors.



*Regular readers know that my embrace of (i-ii) is very qualified and that I believe the one-sided propagation of markets and an out of control financialization of all forms of life was the internal ondoing of the second wave of liberalism. (Recall (recall here; here, and here; see also herehere, here, and here).

**I write these paragraphs in Tübingen, one of the intellectual centers of the reformation, where I am attending a workshop on the colloquium.