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We All Need Philosophy

I wrote this a year ago as a Facebook post. For background, I was raised Catholic, went to a Baptist-run elementary school, and now I don’t consider myself religious (or spiritual!). It’s fascinating to still be part of these communities online, though, and see how “outsiders” are perceived, often negatively.

Many of these same issues — consent, the legitimacy of political authority, who exactly counts as our “neighbor”— are still just as pertinent a year later.

And, as an extra enticement, I promise there are no blockchains involved.

Can I talk about something? Someone I admire said this about Louis C.K.’s statement: “I took it as a good *pagan* apology, for someone raised on the idea that consent is the highest good.”

This makes me furious. For one, it’s incredibly insulting. “Pagan” is a slur, whether you realize it or not. “That’s pretty good morals for a pagan, but ya know, that’s a low bar” is what it implies. It says that anyone who doesn’t fully agree with you on *whether God exists* is automatically a less moral human being. The arrogance is astounding, especially given the current revelations that being Christian doesn’t seem to prevent some people from molesting children.

Second, for Christians and non-Christians alike, consent should be the baseline. That’s why people care so much about consent. Every single nonconsensual sexual encounter is monstrous and a violation of human dignity. This “highest good” crap confuses the point that consent is *necessary* for sex to be moral with the idea that consent is *sufficient* for sex to be moral. Granted, some people do make the terrible argument that consensual sex is always good for both parties no matter what. But it’s not just a “pagan” idea. It’s the same idea that made millions of American Christians up until the 1970s (and for some, beyond) think that marital rape was ok because it had a veneer of consent.

Christianity is under-determinate. By that, I mean it doesn’t tell you how to act in every circumstance, in your everyday life. That’s how you get some Christians proclaiming Christianity means personal poverty, and others claiming it means being a good, albeit wealthy, member of the community. That’s how you get people who think that Christianity means putting away criminals for life in order to protect future victims, and others who think it means forgiving them immediately.

Because Christianity is under-determinate, Christians need philosophy. They need ethics. We all do. I’ve had people tell me that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Neither slave nor free, woman or man, one in the Lord” covers it all. But it doesn’t.

Who are “the others”? Does an illegal immigrant count as “the other”? Many Christians say no.

Does “one in the Lord” mean you have equal rights under the law? For most of history, many Christians thought not.

The idea of equality under the law is not a Christian invention. It’s a philosophical one that comes from the Enlightenment, and it’s a historical fact that many of its largest proponents were outside of the norms of Christians of their time. (Take a look at Thomas Paine, a founding father, a feminist, an abolitionist, and… an atheist (or deist, if you prefer). “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church,” he said.)

Over time, our legal institutions have moved from the idea of “Status” to the idea of “Contract.” Sir Henry Maine said in 1864, “The movement of the progressive societies has been uniform in one respect. Through all its course it has been distinguished by the gradual dissolution of family dependency and the growth of individual obligation in its place. The individual is steadily substituted for the Family, as the unit of which civil laws take account… Starting, as from one terminus of history, from a condition of society in which all the relations of Persons are summed up in the relations of Family, we seem to have steadily moved towards a phase of social order in which all these relations arise from the free agreement of individuals.”

Before I get people yelling at me about the “downfall of the family,” let me point out that we are only talking about the family as the unit of law. If the family is the atomic unit of law, then living within the family is tyranny. Then parents own their children and children have no rights. Then husbands own their wives and wives have no rights. We look back and say that this period was horrific, but we forget that nothing in Christianity specifically precludes it. In fact, the Old Testament specifically enforces it, in law, again and again.

The New Testament is better, people tell me. Yet in the New Testament, we have Romans 13, which is really astounding in its similarity to arguments for fascism:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

You know who Roy Moore was, for most of his life? A governing authority.

Compare Romans 13 to the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In Romans 13, the apostle Paul states the authority of government comes directly from God. The founding principles of our country are the exact opposite: the authority of government comes directly from the consent of the governed. There’s the word “consent” again. It’s not a coincidence that the idea of consent was the turning point of both our political and moral philosophy. Consent matters.

It is astounding to me that American Christians think Christianity alone is responsible for 1) America’s founding, 2) equality under the law, and 3) morality in total! In many cases, the Bible was either silent or against the philosophy now held by many Christians. Moreover, the people who came up with the ideas that we now hold sacrosanct were not very Christian for their time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think many Christians are good people. But their goodness does not come just from Christianity; much of it is imported from secular philosophy. The ideas of self-control, courage, sacrifice are all virtues that were recognized prior to Christianity. The recognition of the consent of the governed doesn’t come from Christianity. The idea that racial minorities and women should be equal with men under the law doesn’t come from Christianity. If you think Christians have a monopoly on morality, you are offensive and unfortunately ignorant.

Christianity does has one major contribution to philosophy that can’t be overlooked: forgiveness. But many Christians have wrongly turned this into a requirement of good Christians. Forgiveness is a gift that must be freely given, and absolutely no one has a right to be forgiven. Otherwise, it’s just a tool for people to use to cover up sexual predation and other evil.

What we need as a society is more philosophy, more ethics, and better morality. We should be able to work towards that without denigrating people simply because they are different than us. And more than that, we should not be denigrating the very same types of people who are truly responsible for developing the morality we attribute to Christians! It’s unbelievable.


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Pro-life libertarian. Blockchain enthusiast. Cal alum. Tiny-house builder. Software engineer. Mechanism Designer. Feminist. Judy Hopps understands me. She is on Twitter.

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15 thoughts on “We All Need Philosophy

  1. I agree with you that we need more philosophy, of both ethics AND logic. And a strong dose of religious history would go a long way, as that is a strong component of our legal system. My wife’s grandmother, by all accounts a real harridan, often called my wife a pagan, as she was raised outside the Catholic church. Hardcore Poles, those people.

    But, what did CK say? Or is that missing the point?

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  2. I’ve always found ‘others’ to be completely unqualified.

    Good post, BTW. I’ve always been irritated that many feel my lack of religious faith somehow makes me an amoral creature.

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  3. The big elephant in the room though is the ethics, morals, philosophy of whom?

    We are never going to live in a homogeneous world. There was never such a thing. There will always be different cultures, ethnicities, religions, political and social ideologies, etc.

    And all these different groups have very different ways of thinking about things that can often be quite disturbing and profound to us.

    The typical example I think of is when people complain that New Yorkers are come across as rude or cold. Or any big city denizen. I don’t think this is true. Part of this is because I’m a New Yorker by birth. But also New York City is a very diverse place and you have a lot of different cultures living in close proximity to each other and these cultures can often have very different ways of seeing the world, So what exists is a kind of détente and people see that as coldness when it isn’t.

    Same in almost every other city in the United States.

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    • It isn’t a big elephant, as a general grounding in the philosophy of morals and ethics would include many different ways of looking at issues, at least in a decent program. Starting with the Greeks, working through various Asian teachings, all the way up to the modern Europeans would be a good start. And yes, that would include the teachings of both the east and the west, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and anything else that may, or may not, have relevance. Being open to new and old ideas is the fundamental starting point, and one to be worked towards. It should include Lao Tzu and Zizek, Santayana and Irigaray.

      The idea is to encourage thinking.

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  4. Protestant theocracy has been part of the American story since before there was a United States. The founders might have been secular men of the Enlightenment and Deists rather than ordinary Christians. Many ordinary Americans always saw the United States as a Protestant enterprise though. This line of thought is not going to disappear soon.

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  5. Equality under the law is not a product of the Enlightenment. First off, it predates the Enlightenment by centuries. Millennia, really. But we probably shouldn’t talk about “The Enlightenment” as if it were a specific and consistent thing. The Enlightenment took on very different characteristics depending on the country, and even the thinker. The radical French rejected religion; the Americans tended to be religious. But the Enlightenment, whatever version, came out of the Christian culture. Turkey soup doesn’t stop being turkey soup when you take the bones out. The flavor permeates it. If there’s one thing that characterizes the Enlightenment across all its manifestations, it’s the Christian origin.

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    • I don’t know, . I think it’s fair, as a matter of history, to claim the Enlightenment was birthed in a predominantly Christian culture but I don’t believe it originated in the Christian part of that culture.

      Admittedly, my touchstone on this is a FB friend that’s a Traditionalist Catholic but among him and his friends ‘The “Enlightenment”‘ is scare quoted in a similar manner as ‘same-sex “marriage”‘. Generally they’re monarchists that consider the late high middle ages as the pinnacle of civilization and bemoan the dissolution of European Christendom. Not big fans of Martin Luther either. So maybe I’m conflating “Christianity” with “Catholicism” here and by extension the aristocratic structure of the Catholic hierarchy and Magisterium.

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      • Part of the confusion is that “Christianity” itself is a gumbo mix of a myriad of influences.
        From its beginnings as a heretical Jewish sect, to the state religion of the Roman Empire, its history has been the religious version of the Borg, rolling over and assimilating everything in its path, and constantly mutating as it goes.

        So it contains bits and fragments of Judaism, Classical polytheism, Hellenistic philosophy, pagan nature worship, and half a dozen other strands.

        The writers of the Gospels (who themselves never met Jesus) would be gobsmacked if they wandered into a contemporary Christian church, of any denomination.

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      • I think that’s at least a defensible claim. The Enlightenment was in part a product of the Humanist movement, a late-Renaissance effort to revive the classical idea of the perfectibility of man by way of education and civic engagement. Not all that scientific, perhaps, but very much dedicated to the idea that a person can develop skills and change one’s station in life. That’s not Enlightenment thought per se, but it’s a damn sight closer to it than more medieval notions like scholasticism or divinely ordained cultural hierarchy.

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  6. I just wish that most folks concurred with good, old John Stuart Mill when it came to liberty. Most of us, but especially hyper-religious folk and liberal, big-gulp haters who are inclined to legislate things for our perceived good would do well to reflect on his words. And to take note of the word “harm” as opposed to “offense”, as those two words so often get conflated in order to justify curtailing freedom.

    The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
    —?John Stuart Mill

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  7. Okay, let’s have a practical application.

    The NY Times published this expose of Facebook pursuing growth above all and being suspectible to security breeches, fake news, Russian interference, etc. It contained this wonderful example of trying to have it both ways:

    While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

    I’m Jewish. Sandberg is Jewish. Zuckerberg is Jewish. But it seems to me that they wanted to discredit activists via the anti-Semitic Soros bogeyman while also hiding under the shield of charges of anti-Semitism.

    There is a basic kind of ethics that states just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should do something because it is wrong, immortal, harmful, etc.

    So what kind of universal philosophy course could have prevented this “have it both ways” plan of attack. About 13-15 years go, I remember a front page story about a Nuclear Power Plant accident in Japan in the NY Times. The executives at the Plaint (read: C-level suite officers) were expected and did get in front of a press conference, confessed their negligence, and apologized for wrong doing.

    The American (or possibly Western response) to corporate wrong-doing is just to double down in denial do everything you can (even if contradictory) to discredit the credits.

    What kind of philosophical study can prevent this? What kind of philosophical study will actually cause people to think before they act in all circumstances including the worlds of commerce and say “You know, maybe more profit is not worth these unethical and/or sketchy acts” including at the highest levels. Would we find it humane or would it make us all miserable?

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    • A lot of that is due to our litigiousness. Every public statement must fit whatever narrative the lawyers have recommended. I don’t think that’s a philosophical problem. I think that a combination of legal reform and social stigma could do a lot of good.

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