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Civilitas

Elizabeth Stoke Brewing on Whether Religion Ought to Have a Place in Government

Go Lastly, when religion is entirely privatized and politics dominates the public realm totally, there is little with sufficient moral weight to check political hegemony. There is a reason totalitarians seek to swiftly snuff out religious dissenters, and there is also a reason that religions nonetheless endure. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were able to resist hegemonic — and unjust — political exercise not out of reserves of private religious virtue, but because they produced religious objections to the evils of their respective states and pressed these cases politically, in public. From this perspective it is easy to imagine why the modern nation-state might insist that religion be privatized and ejected from the public sphere; it should be equally easy to imagine why we should resist that effort.

James Madison on Populism and Right and Wrong

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There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore more needs elucidation, than the current one: that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonomous with “Ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in the popular sense, as referring to immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. In the latter sense it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil & enslave the minority of individuals; and in a federal community to make a similar sacrifice of the minority of the component States. In fact it is only reestablishing under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right; and in this light the Western settlements will infallibly view it.

Federalist #1

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To the People of the State of New York: AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

Patricia Crone on the Islamist View of a Secular State

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The extreme fundamentalists can’t see any difference between living in Egypt, for example, and living under non-Muslim rule, thanks to the all-pervasive influence of the modern state. In the old days the political domain was also worldly and corrupt, but the social domain was still shaped by Islam. Nowadays, however, it is the state that regulates marriage, divorce, inheritance, trade, finance, work, health, childcare, schooling, higher education, and so on, often with attention to what the sharia says, but freely reshaping it to fit modern, secular aims which originate in the infidel and politically dominant west. ¶ So one way or the other, Muslims are ruled by the west wherever they live, not just politically but also socially and culturally. Wherever they look, they are being invaded by so-called western values — in the form of giant billboards advertising self-indulgence, semi-pornographic films, liquor, pop music, fat tourists in indecent clothes and funny hats, and politicians lecturing people about the virtues of democracy. Religion does not actually shape the social realm any more, except rhetorically. All that religion shapes in modern Muslim societies is voluntary associations such as Sufi orders, Muslim brotherhoods, and fundamentalist cells, which fall short of being whole societies, let alone states, and which you can set up in non-Muslim countries too. So in effect, as the fundamentalists see it, all Muslims have become diaspora Muslims.

The Making of the Modern University

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What is the purpose of higher education, and how should we pursue it? Debates over these issues raged in the late nineteenth century as reformers introduced a new kind of university—one dedicated to free inquiry and the advancement of knowledge. In the first major study of moral education in American universities, Julie Reuben examines the consequences of these debates for modern intellectual life. Based on extensive research at eight universities — Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Stanford, Michigan, and California at Berkeley — Reuben examines the aims of university reformers in the context of nineteenth-century ideas about truth. She argues that these educators tried to apply new scientific standards to moral education, but that their modernization efforts ultimately failed. By exploring the complex interaction between institutional and intellectual change, Reuben enhances our understanding of the modern university, the secularization of intellectual life, and the association of scientific objectivity with value-neutrality.

Edward Feser on Egalitarianism and Tyranny

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It’s not just about sex. It’s about egalitarianism itself, which, as Plato argued in The Republic, is inherently destructive of moral, legal, and rational standards, and has tyranny as its natural sequel. The egalitarian regime insists, notionally, on tolerating every opinion and way of life, and refuses either to judge any one of them as morally or rationally superior to any other, or to favor any of them in its laws. Yet no regime can tolerate what would subvert it. And the very idea that some views and ways of life are simply objectively superior, rationally and morally, to others, is subversive of egalitarianism. Hence egalitarian societies tend in practice to be intolerant of views which maintain that there are objective standards by which some views and ways of life might be judged better or worse. That is to say, an egalitarian regime inevitably tolerates only those views which are egalitarian. Which means, of course, that it tolerates only itself. ¶ Thus, in Plato’s own day, do we have the spectacle of Athens, which was democratic, pluralist, and egalitarian — and killed Socrates, because it suspected that he was none of the above. Thus do we have the French Revolution, which murdered thousands in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Thus do we have Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, each of which slaughtered tens of millions in the name of equality. If egalitarians have, historically, been able to convince themselves of the justifiability of all that, then burning down a pizzeria is a cinch.

Miroslav Volf on Religious Exclusivism and Political Pluralism

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The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious view are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.

Miroslav Volf on Why the Religious Should Embrace Political Pluralism

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Will religious communities support a polity in which they can speak in their own religious voices in the public arena and in which the state relates to all communities impartially? Elsewhere I have developed the argument that the monotheism of the Abrahamic faiths in fact favors the pluralistic political arrangements that liberal democracy … represents. Basically, the bare-bones sketch of the argument goes like this: 1) Because there is one God, all people are related to that one God on equal terms. 2) The central command of that one God is to love neighbors — to treat others as we would like them to treat us, as expressed in the Golden Rule. 3) We cannot claim any rights for ourselves and our group that we are not willing to give to others. 4) Whether as a stance of the heart or as outward practice, religion cannot be coerced. If you accept these four propositions, you have good reasons to support pluralism as a political project.

Aristotle on the Rule of Law

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For Nature requires that the same right and the same rank should necessarily take place amongst all those who are equal by Nature; for as it would be hurtful to the body for those who are of different constitutions to observe the same regimen either of diet or clothing, so is it, with respect to the honours of the State, as hurtful that those who are equal in merit should be unequal in rank; for which reason it is as much a man’s duty to submit to command as to assume it and this also by rotation; for this is law, for order is law; and it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens; upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians and the servants of the laws, for the supreme power must be placed somewhere; but they say that it is unjust that where all are equal one person should continually enjoy it. But it seems unlikely that man should be able to adjust that which the law cannot determine; it may be replied, that the law having laid down the best rules possible, leaves the adjustment and application of particulars to the discretion of the magistrate; besides it allows anything to be altered which experience proves may be better established. Moreover, he who would place the supreme power in mind, would place it in God and the laws; but he who entrusts man with it gives it to a wild beast, for such his appetites sometimes make him; for passion influences those who are in power, even the very best of men for which reason, mind is law, without desire. [Emphasis added.]

The Economist on Heresy

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To most Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers. Most religions began as heresies. Today the concept of “heresy” still means something. Every community built around an idea, a principle or an aim (from fox-hunting enthusiasts to Freudian psychotherapists) will always face hard arguments about where the boundaries of that community lie, and how far the meaning of its founding axioms can be stretched. But one of the hallmarks of a civilised and tolerant society is that arguments within freely constituted groups, religious or otherwise, unfold peacefully. And if those disputes lead to splits and new groups, that too must be a peaceful process, free of violence or coercion.

James K. A. Smith on Good Regulation

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This is why we should care about regulation: because it is the banal way that the modern, liberal, democratic state tries to secure some baseline of justice and flourishing. Government regulations are one of the sorts of “nuts and bolts” that hold together the girders of our social architecture—and are best complemented by other sorts of “regulations,” such as social mores and cultivated virtues. But when we think “regulation,” we generally picture government oversight. ¶ Even if we grant that licensing and state management of commerce have in some ways run amok, we can still witness tragedies and injustices that result from a lack of regulatory protections. As my colleague, Brian Dijkema, noted in the wake of a 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, the tragedy was in no small part the result of weak social infrastructure. The challenge is to be able to both critique a choking regulatory Leviathan and still affirm the good of regulation as an institutional expression of care for our neighbor. For every overreaching, micromanaging tentacle of the state that wants to mediate every form of social transaction there is the unnoticed, taken-for-granted inspector or regulation that is preserving health, safeguarding fairness, or even saving lives.

Charles Taylor on Three Kinds of Secularity

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What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world — although secularity extends partially, and in different ways, beyond this world. … But it’s not clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization … The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices — most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that wheareas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. … Religion or its absence is largely a private matter. The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.

Barack Obama on Kindness as a Political Principle

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Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. And when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy — that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because Malia and Sasha are doing well, that’s not enough — I want your kids to do well also. And I’m willing to help to build good schools so that they get a great education, even if mine are already getting a great education. And I’m going to invest in infrastructure and building things like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam and the Internet because I’m investing for the next generation, not just this one. And that’s what binds us together, and that’s how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success. And that’s what drives me. And that’s what will continue to drive me.

Adam Smith on Contentment and the Source of Misery

Go The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions is not miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, equally contented.

William Voegeli on the Codependence of Helpers and Helped

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Sometimes empathizers, such as those in the “helping professions,” acquire a vested interest in the study, management, and perpetuation — as opposed to the solution and resulting disappearance — of sufferers’ problems. This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent. Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people — people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives. “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

William Voegeli on the Government Coercion Needed for Political Goals

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The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

Ryan T. Anderson on Liberty in One’s Religious Quest

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One of the hallmarks of religious liberty protections is that they protect people of all faiths, even if their beliefs seem unfounded, flawed, implausible, or downright silly. Recognition of a right to religious freedom does not, however, depend on religious skepticism, relativism, or indifferentism. Rather, it rests on the intelligible value of the religious quest — the activities of seeking to understand the truth about ultimate questions and conforming one’s life accordingly with authenticity and integrity. … [It is not] the idea that “error has rights.” Rather, it recognize[s] that people have rights — including the right to pursue religious truth and, within the limits of justice and the common good, to act on their judgments of what truth demands. All people possess these fundamental rights, even when they are, in some respects, in error.

R. Douglas Geivett on Privatizing Christianity

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She claims that what they believe is their own business. But they should not “evangelize.” They should, in other words, keep their faith to themselves, while she and her kin promote a secular agenda in the resulting vacuum. How convenient for her. ¶ Secularists seek enforcement of the privatization of Christian belief. They do this publicly and generally without censure. But Christian belief is compromised when it is privatized. So the effect of Ms. Gaylor’s missionary enterprise would be the privatization of a faith that is essentially interpersonal and the social advancement of a cult of irreligion that she would not keep to herself.

The Underground Man on Free Will

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Dostoevsky’s unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian “world machine“. As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this “Underground Man” is especially unseemly, Dostoevsky takes it that his rationalizations will resonate with the reader’s own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky’s protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that offer explanations only in terms of psychology and instinct, of nurture and nature, both geared towards self-preservation. ~ Nate

Arthur Koestler on War

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Even a cursory glance at history should convince one that individual crimes committed for selfish motives play a quite insignificant part in the human tragedy, compared to the numbers massacred in unselfish loyalty to one’s tribe, nation, dynasty, church, or political ideology, ad majorem gloriam dei. The emphasis is on unselfish. Excepting a small minority of mercenary or sadistic disposition, wars are not fought for personal gain, but out of loyalty and devotion to king, country or cause. Homicide committed for personal reasons is a statistical rarity in all cultures, including our own. Homicide for unselfish reasons, at the risk of one’s own life, is the dominant phenomenon of history.

Thomas Sowell on War

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One of the most fashionable notions of our times is that social problems like poverty and oppression breed wars. Most wars, however, are started by well-fed people with time on their hands to dream up half-baked ideologies or grandiose ambitions, and to nurse real or imagined grievances.

John F. Kennedy on Our Common Interests

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So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all
inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.