Friday, August 15, 2008

Addendum: Legislating Morality

The ex-Baptist in me blanched when I wrote that bit about social morality's being determined by the masses, but this article in the current New Yorker makes me feel a little better:
When the reputation of Bentley’s masterpiece was at its peak, it was not just because he had fashioned a useful tool, of course; it was because many people saw pluralism as being not only accurate but attractive. To regain that perspective today requires an even greater undoing of deeply ingrained habits of thought. Pluralism, in the tradition of Bentley, requires that one see one’s own political passions, and those of such unimpeachable actors as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and members of the Concord Coalition, as representing something other than the promptings of pure justice. That does not come naturally. One has to see that sincere talk of the public interest and the general good can be dangerous tools in the hands of people one disagrees with, if not in one’s own. (If you’re a liberal, reread President Bush’s second inaugural address, a grandiose exercise in public-interest rhetoric meant to lay the groundwork for waging the war on terror and privatizing Social Security.) One has to get over the habit of assuming that “interests,” and, worse, lobbying and corruption, are the province only of one’s political opponents, an not one’s allies. Pluralism means dialling down the moral stature that we attach to universalist arguments, and dialling up the moral stature of particularism.
So that's how a pluralist society works. The government must legislate morality, but I'm not sure it's our job to get them to legislate our particular morality; we have to change the minds of the masses, not try to force the government into forcing them to change their minds.

Am I contradicting myself?


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I don't think you're contradicting yourself, but I do see you veering away from Plato and towards a late-Enlightenment/Romantic view of government, one in which human institutions can at best keep their pants zipped up, that any kind of genuine goodness must come from the "private" realm. (Pun intended, in case you wondered.)

I think that Pauline ecclesiology runs counter to that and stands, theoretically, more akin to Plato than to Adam Smith. In other words, "individual" change and "common" change are not two discrete events but parts of a larger metanoia that not only makes sinners saints but also makes ethnai into ekklesia. (If I pluralized that Greek word wrong, you'll have to forgive me.)

The more I think about it, Michial, the more I think you should have taken over the 1101 Plato class and left me to try out one of the other experimental 1101's that I've dreamed up but never written down. :)

Michial said...

That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me, Nathan. But I've not read Boethius, so I'm afraid I couldn't teach that course. Laurie Norris maybe?

I don't see that much evidence in Paul that his precepts should be applied to a secular government--if we lived in a country that was officially declared Christian and whose Constitution was actually explicitly based upon Christian teachings (sorry Carman--it ain't), I'd be more likely to advocate an objective moral standard for the law. But the schema I set forth is the only way I can see to get morality from a pluralist society.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I love me some Laurie Norris, but I don't think a rhetorician could stomach Plato for a whole semester! :D

I agree that modern secular governments aren't the places for embodying Christian dogma, but I do think that Paul's (not to mention Matthew's) vision of ekklesia is something more robust than the pastime that Christianity has become in many liberal democracies.

The Pauline epistles and the book of Acts seem to envision ekklesia as a kind of city-within-a-city, a "place" that is hospitable to those who are not faithful to Christ without insisting that those who are faithless are "us." I might be reading St. Benedict back into the New Testament, but that's the vision I get.