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The Return of the Vampire
By David Kidd

Ordinarily, I give scant attention to vampires, but this piece by David Solway struck me as worth recommending to readers of American Liberal Arts.  Solway asks why the vampire has acquired prominence in popular culture, and he speculates that it is so because the vampire is a poignant metaphor for real pathologies in contemporary life. The vampire, who, importantly, is invited into the midst of those upon whom he preys, is a reflection (ha!) of evils invited into our midst that are readily recognizable and yet somehow unrecognized.

Whether through inertia, ignorance, or moral blindness, we are the frequent victims of our own fearful unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious. What flits through our anxieties and forebodings is staring us straight in the face, if we would only look. For despite the mists of inscrutability that surround the bearer of a sinister mission and the reluctance of many to see through its blandishments, its real nature can be readily perceived — assuming, of course, that we struggle to stay vigilant.

The presence of the vampire, on this account, indicates a prior perversion on the part of his hosts: he is able to prey upon vulnerabilities and sap strength precisely because his hosts refuse to see him for what he is.

I found Solway's piece particularly interesting in light of another article about recent college graduates.  In Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out, the NY Times reports that a significant number of college graduates, faced with un- or under-employment, are reorienting their career aspirations away from what they percieve as traditional career paths towards more interesting, artsy, and fulfilling ventures, like experimental punk rock bands. Many of these young men and women profess to be content with their diminished earnings, because at least they're doing what they want to do. And if they have occasionally to rely on government assistance to make up for their poverty, well, that's regrettable, but it's not the end of the world.

On the one hand, one can hardly blame people for trying to make the best of a bad lot. There's a laudable entrepreneurial spirit at work in the young woman who finds a way of supporting herself when the career she expected just isn't there. Nor do I blame those who turn to food stamps when they honestly can't earn enough money to feed themselves. There simply aren't enough jobs for everyone.

But woven into the article is evidence of a most pernicious vice masquerading as a virtue; a vampiric spirit, if you will. It claims to be the opposite of greed. Its victims purport to have their priorities right, because they do not let the pursuit of money interfere with other things. In fact it is the height of selfishness, because it makes no allowance for the existence of economic responsibilities (actual or potential) for other people.

One student reports that 

her classmates seemed resigned to waiting for the economic tides to turn. “Plenty of people work in bookstores and work in low-end administrative jobs, even though they have a Harvard degree,” she said. “They are thinking more in terms of creating their own kinds of life that interests them, rather than following a conventional idea of success and job security.”

Following a conventional idea of success and job security. Snort. How confining.

And what happens when these paragons of authenticity find themselves unable to help a family member in need? What happens when they find themselves sick and unable to care for themselves? What happens when, like the grasshopper in Aesop's fable, winter comes and they have failed to make provision for hard times?

The attitude of the young man set on creating a life that interests him, rather than pursuing conventional ideas of success and job security is shameful not only because he risks imposing upon the responsible to pay for his mistakes. As John Mueller argues in his wonderfully illuminating book, Redeeming Economics, love of others is a hugely important contributor to a society's economic health. Those who live only for themselves undermine that health. And to the extent that we encourage (or fail to discourage) inordinate self-love, we welcome vampires into our midst. 

Interview with Dr. Matthew Spalding of The Heritage Foundation
By Matthew Parks

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Matthew Spalding about life in the world of think tanks, the challenge to the American founding posed by Progressivism, and the way forward from our present discontents. Dr. Spalding is the Vice President for American Studies and Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.

Q:  With a Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School, you might have chosen a career in academia. What led you to the Claremont Institute and, then, The Heritage Foundation instead?

Matthew Spalding: I went back to graduate school primarily because there were certain core ideas I wanted to learn more about and certain books I really wanted to study. I went there for intellectual reasons – teaching in the academy was never my main intention. It was always a secondary possibility, but I never seriously pursued it. Having said that, working in a think tank – at least the way I have my think tank life set up, in which I write, speak, and teach students through seminars – can mean doing many of the same things. The key difference is that the work of a think tank is more focused on the public square, which is what I wanted. 

Q: How atypical is your position for someone in a Washington think tank?

Matthew Spalding:  There are several different models for think tanks. Some, like the American Enterprise Institute follow a model that largely parallels the academic world, with a “faculty” doing scholarly-type writing. Heritage is generally structured differently, being more oriented toward directly shaping policy in specific ways. We do have analysts at Heritage producing very impressive scholarly work, but there aren’t as many positions for those working on more academic topics like American intellectual life or political thought. Heritage certainly offers a career path for academics, but it is not the same natural fit as some think tanks that are designed on a more academic model.

Q:  If I were a student exploring my options, how would I begin to move in Washington think tank circles?

Matthew Spalding:  It depends on when you are coming in. If you are coming in as a recent undergraduate, your options are wide open. Smart students coming out of college can go anywhere. By age and inclination, they are well-positioned to do a variety of things – become, say, a research assistant on just about any subject.  Coming in as a Ph.D. or a more experienced academic, you have to be much more creative in demonstrating how you and your work would fit in. It is not like getting an academic job where the exact sort of job you’ve been trained to do will be advertised. Here you have to figure out where your areas of knowledge fit – what institutions are looking for the sort skills you have.

Q:  Now suppose I am already established in academia. Are there ways for me to partner with Heritage or other think tanks as a second piece to my academic career?

Matthew Spalding:  That’s exactly the way I would encourage an academic to look at it. At Heritage, in the particular center that I run, there are all sorts of opportunities. We are looking for those sorts of people – academics who can give lectures, book talks, or write papers for us. We tend to cultivate those relationships on something of a case by case basis. Do you have a new book? Do you have expertise in an important area? There are plenty of opportunities, but it demands on both sides some creativity in figuring out how to bring about a cross-pollination that is useful. You have to remember that the very idea of a think tank is to bring ideas into the public square. So if that is what you are interested in doing, you have to cultivate the skill of translating your work into something that can be persuasive to a general audience. It doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it does mean making it relevant and putting it in terms that the audience can understand and relate to.

 Q:  Let’s shift topics a bit and discuss your own academic work and other writings. You wrote your dissertation and your first book on Washington’s “Farewell Address.” How would you summarize his distinctive contribution to the American regime?

Matthew Spalding:  Washington is the quintessential example of a Founder who was very practical and very large-minded. He plays a central role in the events of the founding. He is the essential statesman, the key to the whole thing.  He understands the ideas. He’s read them - he’s talking to Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton - but he is very focused on the practical: how do I take these ideas and built the country around them? He is a great model for someone like me who wants to see ideas applied to real world circumstances.

Q:  Do you think that his intellectual powers are underrated?

Matthew Spalding: Most definitely. We miss that he has a particular form of knowledge that is underappreciated today. His great virtue was prudence, the ability to relate principles to practical politics. It’s clear in his writings and letters that he understands what Madison and the others are saying; he’s with them. But, his role, his skill, his virtue is different. There he is preeminent. I think he has a wisdom that the other Founders simply do not have, which especially becomes clear when you compare his presidency to those of his successors, which did not live up to their revolutionary writings.

Q:  In We Still Hold These Truths, you argue that the Progressive movement attempted a decisive break with the American founding. What makes the political division that came out of that movement different in kind from earlier divisions between Federalists and Jeffersonians or Whigs and Democrats?

Matthew Spalding: Part of the key is found in the progressive historians themselves. The way that the American founding is typically taught is that there are all of these fundamental disagreements – beginning with a conflict between the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is supposed to be about protecting property while the Declaration is about these high liberal ideals. The other big focus is Hamilton versus Jefferson. What is happening here is that you have progressive historians looking backwards, trying to find a root for their arguments, for modern liberalism.  When you really look at the founding, the story is very different. Yes, Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed on extremely important policy questions like the national bank or foreign policy - I don’t want to diminish those – but those disagreements should not overshadow the fact that they agreed on the fundamental principles, which are broadly laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution: natural rights, equality properly understood, constitutionalism, religious liberty, property rights.  They agreed on those things; they disagreed on how to put those ideas into practice – on policy questions.

Those disagreements are different from what we have with the Progressives. The Progressives deny the fundamental principles of the founding: there is no natural grounding for man, everything evolves and changes, everything is relative. They threw the constitutional text out the door in favor of a “living” constitution.  That is a decisive break. My point is that the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson – as important as they are – pale in comparison to the Progressives' challenge to the whole founding.

Q: What are the most important ways that progressivism has influenced how the typical citizen thinks about the role of government?

Matthew Spalding:  Although the average citizen may not put it in these terms, the key question is whether or not there are limits to government. Both Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians say there are. The progressive argument is that government is fundamentally unlimited and illimitable, that it is a living thing, and that the essence of it is what they call “administration” - a bureaucratic system that is centralized and overtakes self-government.  In this way they’ve shifted the argument.

Most people understand the problem. Americans hate bureaucracy. They don’t like the government running their healthcare.  They don’t like the government telling them what kind of lightbulbs they can buy.  They instinctively get that this is what is wrong with modern government. And this comes out of the Progressives – not the Founders, Jackson, or Lincoln.

Q: Is this then a starting point for getting people to rethink some of the programs and practices that have come with Progressive government that they make benefit from or like?

Matthew Spalding: It is not easy to turn things around, but that is the beginning of your political conversation. I think that most people still recognize the key principle of the founding – that government has limits. Government shouldn’t do everything. We should have the opportunity to pursue our happiness and the American dream; we have fundamental rights – so in a broad sense, I think that the mentality of the American people is actually quite healthy.

Q:  In the conclusion of We Still Hold These Truths, you emphasize, perhaps in a surprising way, the importance of education. You are talking explicitly about primary and secondary schools, but also the broader public square. Why do you think it is important to work from the bottom up, rather than what seems to be a common strategy on the right – looking out for the next Goldwater or Reagan who can win a decisive presidential election?

Matthew Spalding:  I would suggest that it is very important for conservatives to keep in mind the key principles of the debate.  At the end of the day – taking a longer perspective – we really need to restore the institutions which shape the American character and get those things right. If we can get those things moving in the right direction, I believe the appropriate leaders will come to the forefront.  The story of American history is not that great leaders come and direct us – although that is the liberal view. The argument of the founders and, for that matter, Ronald Reagan is that the great thing about America is our national character, formed by local institutions like the family and education – a character that produces self-governing citizens. If we could get that back, we will certainly produce the type of political leaders we need. Now that is a long-term answer. In the short-term, of course, we need to find leaders who can help us move forward. The focus in my book, however, is the long-term things that need to be done to get us back on track.

Q:  Most people who study American political thought at any level read some from Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, and Adams. Are there any underappreciated Founders that you think need to be part of our common civic education?

Matthew Spalding: Yes and no. I grant the observation that too often academics look at the Founding and only see a handful of figures. I think that there are other founders who could be emphasized – say Gouverneur Morris or John Jay – but on the other hand, when you talk about education, you’ve got to grapple with the central figures. What is most important  to understand is the overall movement of the founding, which means knowing them not as abstract writers of documents, but knowing the history of the events of the time – you see how Madison dealt with the Constitutional Convention, how Washington led his army, how Hamilton and Jefferson grappled with economics questions. That is where things become most interesting and where we learn the most. We need to get that key narrative down, and in doing that, we confront the times and learn from the main figures.

Q: Let’s come back to the issue of renewal and reform in our present day. You brought up prudence in discussing Washington. What is the prudent way forward today? We know we have to recapture a sense of constitutional limitations, but we can’t refight every battle we lost 100 years ago. How do you choose when to fight?

Matthew Spalding:  I recognize that that is the key question – the key conservative question.    Conservatism is not about ideology; it’s about prudence and relating principles to reality and experience. The immediate answer that I would give – and I’m in the process of thinking this through myself - is that we need to start by identifying the essence of the modern problem. When we know this, we can figure out what needs to be done to correct it. 

There are many aspects of modern government that we don’t necessarily like, but that we have no expectation of getting rid of in the immediate future. On the other hand, there are aspects of the modern state that we need to battle and change and ultimately destroy for the sake of restoring that amount of limited constitutionalism that is necessary to preserve liberty. We need to think very practically about what fits into which category.

I think that the key problem with the modern state – the thing that is most destructive of our liberty – is the open-ended nature of legislation that gives bureaucrats incredible powers to make rules. President Obama’s healthcare program is a classic example – a massive delegation of lawmaking authority to bureaucrats and agencies, allowing them to rule over vast portions of our economy. That strikes me as something that has to be reversed. On the other hand, take something like Social Security. As much as I think it lacks constitutional grounds, in practical terms it is nowhere near as destructive as the healthcare plan is. It might be inefficient, it might be a waste of money, but it is something that we can reform and live with. These are the types of arguments that conservatives need to have a healthy way of thinking through.  There are a lot of programs that we have had for a long time that the American people have come to accept. We’re going to have to figure out a way either to change those opinions or to change programs in ways that make them better.

The conservative position is not that we want to restore the 18th century. What we want to restore is limited constitutional government and a proper understanding of human liberty because we believe that they open up room for the exercise of virtue and human flourishing. The practical challenge is identifying what things we must change, how, and how soon – these are prudential questions; but to get to the right answers it is important, going back to the beginning of our discussion, that we get the principles right. And so we study statesmen and serious political thinkers and reflect on prudence and these types of questions to find that path forward. These aren’t abstract questions, but serious, practical, principled questions – and my guess is that we are now entering a period when real change for our country is an open possibility. And so we need very thoughtful, serious students of American history and political thought who can bring their knowledge to bear on these tough questions - and that’s exactly what I’m looking for at Heritage and hoping to help cultivate. 

Putting the "Dominionism" Hysteria to Bed
By Dr. Terry Hunter Baker Jr.

Media crazes come and go, but of late there has been some sustained effort put forth to frighten voters away from Christian candidates (of the conservative variety) on the assertion that they are infected with the spirit of something called "dominionism."  The inspiration for this effort, I suppose, comes from the great media interest (past and present) in a tiny, fringe group known as Christian Reconstructionism.  It is empirically the case that very few evangelicals have any idea what that term means or to whom it refers.  The entire thing, I think, is a tar baby sort of trap in which evangelicals are supposed to come out of their corner talking very seriously about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism and giving legitimacy to those who have tried to raise it as an issue.    

There is a simpler way to get at this issue. I’ll go ahead and concede to Michelle Goldberg and Ryan Lizza that they are correct in their assumption that it is nervous-making to have someone with different ideas and values than one’s own running for political office. This raises the spectre of having that person gain power and perhaps make policies with which one would disagree. But the simple truth is that we are all in this position all the time.  

The University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock once noted that he had some concerns about the Christian Coalition gaining political power. He quickly added that he would be equally concerned about any group with an ideological agenda (such as certain types of feminists or environmentalists) gaining power. The simple fact is that power is a feature of politics and it is unpleasant to lose and have someone else use power to impose upon you.

This is very much the situation many have been through in the past two years. A great many people feel that a nationalized health care system would have disastrous effects upon our society. Nevertheless, they have had to suffer through it because the side that wanted to enact such legislation won the election convincingly.

And here’s the thing . . . It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama’s motive was in pushing for national health care. It doesn’t matter if he had a religious conviction, a secular principle, a sentimental attachment to the idea, or a desire to be the first Democrat to ever achieve such a thing. He gained power through politics and enacted his agenda.

Now, if we are uncomfortable with the possibilities inherent in politics and power.  Well, then we could always return to constitutionalism . . .

What is Happening in Europe and is the USA Next?
By Hyrum Lewis

I believe that the turmoil in Europe today may be better understood if we use a new conceptual map of the long arc of western political history.  So please indulge me while I engage in a massively overambitious, over-generalized, and somewhat Marxist-sounding historical speculation about the rise, and eventual fall, of the western liberal state. 

Stage I: The Absolute State

Presumably, thousands of years ago, homo sapiens lived like animals in hunter-gatherer, kin-based tribes in which there were no laws or governments and stronger tribes would haphazardly plunder weaker tribes.  How the state emerged from this anarchy is something of a mystery, but it may have happened when a dominant chief and his tribe decided to institutionalize the plunder of weaker tribes via taxation—thus bringing geographic (Rather than kin-based) rule into existence and creating a permanent governing order. The prospect of stable, predictable plunder instead of the capricious plunder of anarchy was simply too attractive for the strong chief to pass up.  However, even though the state was created for plunder, it immediately took up a protective function as well: if people within or outside the chief’s governing domain were to kill or steal from his people, then there would be less for him to take—he could not tax the dead or the destitute.  The chief cum king therefore protected the lives and properties of his people from internal and external threats for his own interest’s sake and the ideology of absolute monarchy came into being. 

Thus, the first stage of political development, the absolute state, operated on two primary values: plunder and protection. This result is the same even if the state came into being via the protective Social Compact (as suggested by Hobbes): allocating power to a sovereign to achieve protection without constitutional and democratic restraints would eventually result in the sovereign plundering his people as well as protecting them.  In other words, if the state was formed to plunder it would end up protecting, if the state was formed to protect, it would end up plundering. 

Stage II: The Liberal state

The citizens of the absolute state, however, naturally preferring protection to plunder, sought means of restraining the monarch’s power and, if circumstances allowed, would eventually set up representative institutions, like parliament, to ensure that taxation would be used for protective rather than plundering purposes.  This second stage of political development, the liberal state, retained the protective function of the absolute state, but added representation making its two primary values are protection and representation.  This liberal state, which found fulfillment and ideological expression in the “natural rights” and “consent of the governed” language of the Glorious and American Revolutions, represented the apex of political development. 

Stage III: The Distributive State

But, alas, the liberal state could not last.  Representation, as a new primary political value, eventually spread to all in society and the public realized that, being thus empowered, it could help itself to the public treasury. They were aided by cultural elites (journalists, professors, entertainers, etc.), who, feeling a moral vacuum in a post-Christian era, were looking for an effortless way to feel superior and righteous.  Hence, the temptations of free resources for the masses and easy “compassion” for the cultural elites was just too strong—the protective function of government took a backseat to wealth transfer.  Just like that, plunder was back as a primary value, but this time from the bottom up: the weak and unproductive plundered the strong and productive using the institutionalized mechanisms of the state set up eons before. The values of the liberal state–representation and protection—gave way to the new values of the distributive state, representation and plunder.  

The distributive state masked its parasitism by using and perverting the language of liberalism: claiming that it defended “rights” and even calling itself “liberalism”—but in the distributive state rights were no longer the right to be protected from plunder, they became rights toengage in plunder itself.  A “right” became whatever the masses and cultural elites felt like plundering away from the productive at the moment. 

The Real “End of History”

This brings us to Europe of the present day.  The distributive state was born in the 20th century, but now, in the 21st, its internal contradictions are causing its implosion. By plundering the productive to give endless goodies to the unproductive, the distributive state kills the goose that lays the golden egg.  Citizens living in the distributive state respond to the standard human incentives: they do more of what they are rewarded for doing—leeching off of others—and do less of what they are punished for doing—producing economic goods. Hence, there are ever more claims to resources made by ever more people, but ever fewer resources with which to satisfy these claims. 

The outcome will not be pretty. The distributive state steadily slides into bankruptcy with protests, strikes, bloodshed, and chaos accompanying the process.  The mob violence we see happening in Greece, England, and Italy (and other western nations very soon to be sure) is simply the playing out of this long historical logic. In politics, as in biology, an excess of parasites will kill the host.

This leads us back to where we began: Anarchy.  As the government takes on more and more distributive functions, it loses the capacity to perform its basic and legitimate protective functions (putting police on the streets, running the courts, defending against foreign invasion, etc.).  The state thus bankrupted and not protecting its citizens gives them few reasons to retain allegiance to it and, over time, groups simply opt out of the state altogether.  Those who have most advanced the distributivist agenda (pseudo-liberals) are also those most reluctant to employ military force, which makes the state powerless to prevent the secessions that will lead to its dissolution.  This circling back to anarchy simply completes the cycle that began thousands of years ago.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong: the collapse of the Soviet model was not the “end of History,” but a foretaste of what was to come—the collapse of a distributive governing model that both western and Soviet nations shared, only to differing degrees.  Fukuyama and other political scientists have too quickly drawn sharp dividing lines between “liberal” and “socialist” nations, when there is actually a continuum between liberal and distributive states, and we have all been steadily sliding towards the latter for a century. The day of reckoning is upon us. 

Recovering Liberal Education
By Anonymous

Liberal education has suffered some serious blows over the last few decades at the hands of the Left. We can't say we weren't warned. Consider the proposals for reform of higher education contained in the 1962 "Port Huron Statement" of the Students for a Democratic Society. In that document, after the SDS makes its case against capitalism and American foreign policy, and in favor of radical leftism, the group struggles with the question of how to effect social change. They settle on transforming the Nation's universities. They implicitly deny that the universities of their day are committed to liberal education by openly accusing them of being complicit with the existing power structure. If universities are inherently political, it only makes sense to the SDS that they should practice the SDS's politics. The SDS thus justifies converting universities into organs of radical leftist social transformation. The "Port Huron Statement" argues that activist students and professors must use universities to "consciously build a base for their assault upon the loci of power." Universities must instruct their young charges in radical political ideas and aim them at radical political transformation. In our day, this project is just about complete. In one school after another, entire departments are dominated by leftists of this cast of mind. The result is leftist indoctrination, not liberal education. 

A recovery of liberal education is necessary, and it falls to we conservative academics bring it about. Though we are relatively small in number, we have one great intellectual advantage over the Left: our general aversion to historicism. Conservatives tend to take the thought of the past with utmost seriousness, with the view that, for example, Plato might simply be right. But great thinkers often disagree with each other. This permits--indeed, it requires--that we teach great thinkers as serious alternatives to each other. Individual intellectual growth comes out of an understanding of these fundamental alternatives. Conservative anti-historicism thus aims us at liberal education. 

But let us be clear about what this approach to education means: It means teaching Nietzsche, not as an afterthought, but as a genuine alternative to Augustine. It means arguing for Keynes in the classroom as strongly as one argues for von Mises. This approach might look like a form of moral or intellectual relativism, but it is not. Each author should be taught as if they are a source of timeless truth. Even those authors who teach relativism should be taught as if they are simply right. (I admit that in the case of relativism, this presents a logical problem obvious to any bright student. But such are the wages of relativism.)

The great risk of teaching all sides of an argument as if each side might be true is that some of your students might become liberals. When this happens, take a deep breath and let them go. Present all sides fairly, and don't fight your newly-hatched liberals--at least while they are your students--in an attempt to save them from their liberalism. I am confident--and you should be too--that most students will choose a more conservative outlook. And those who don't might nonetheless be more moderate in their opposition to conservatism if they come to see that there is a serious intellectual case to be made for it, that it is not a "mental tick," or a hateful prejudice, or a retrograde ideology as clearly obsolete as the horse and buggy. 

If we do not take this approach to liberal education, if we teach conservatism as if it is true and liberalism as if it is an error, we run the risk of duplicating, in mirror image, the error of the Left. It would be an understatement to say that I prefer that my students adopt conservative views. But a conservative student who has not been exposed to liberal views, or who has not heard the strongest arguments for liberalism, is not liberally educated and is not a good conservative ally. Indoctrinated students, even if they hold the correct views, do not adequately understand their opponents' views, and so cannot adequately argue against them. Furthermore, as Socrates taught us, we cannot know or grasp the truth unless we can give an adequate rational account of the truth. And that means knowing the objections to each truth claim and taking them seriously.

I will close with this optimistic thought: As a practical matter, conservatives are greatly strengthened in their battles with today's liberals by a tendency among the latter to intellectual laziness. Too often, leftists are unaware of conservative arguments, and are thus weak defenders of their own views. Those few liberals who have taken conservative views seriously (for example, Cass Sunstein and William Galston) present the strongest intellectual challenge to conservatives. But, again, such liberals are few in number. Liberals often seek to marginalize conservative views; they depend on something like a unanimity of opinion to maintain their lock on the student body. They fear our views, and this should give us confidence. It is the work of a few generations, but the liberal edifice, though it looks imposing, is in fact weak, and the liberal academy is ripe for erosion and reform. The "Port Huron Statement" tells us that "students and faculty… must make debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life."  In time, when enough universities and departments have a critical mass of conservative professors, we will succeed in getting the Left to live by those words.

An Interview with Professor Robert P. George
By Laura Inglis

 

1) What led you to become a political philosopher?

The intellectual experience that changed my life, placing me on the path to becoming a professor and a political philosopher, was reading Plato's dialogue Gorgias in a political philosophy seminar I took as an undergraduate at Swarthmore.  Socrates's questions to Gorgias and his other interlocutors in the dialogue led me to question my own beliefs and values. They made me think about existential, social, and political questions that I had not before paused to consider. My encounter with the dialogue caused me to see, for the first time, the overriding value of truth and the importance of the pursuit of truth, not merely as a means to other ends, but above all for its own sake.

 

2) What three literary works have most impacted you and why?

1. Plato's Gorgias

2. Aristotle's Nicomachian Ethics

3. St. Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on Law" in the Summa Theologiae

 

3) What led you to focus so much of your writing on natural law?

My focus on natural law reflects my desire to understand what can be known by rational inquiry, understanding, and judgment about how we as individuals should lead our lives and how we as members of communities should order our lives together. 

 

4) Does belief in natural law require any prior beliefs? More specifically, how can natural law be made accessible to people who a) don't acknowledge moral absolutes or b) don't acknowledge the basic value and dignity of all human beings?

A theory of natural law will propose (1) reasons for believing that there are indeed objective moral norms, including certain exceptionless norms ("moral absolutes"), and (2) reasons for believing that human beings, as free and rational agents--agents capable, in a sense that though limited is real, of transcending the order of causality--possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. At its foundation, our dignity is rooted in the fact that our nature as human beings is a rational nature. Human beings, unlike brute animals, are creatures who (unless prevented or impeded by violence or disease) naturally develop to fruition their inherent capacities for rational deliberation and judgment and free choice.

 

5) How do you think natural law should affect a) judges and b) legislators in their day-to-day work?

Legislators should always be guided in their deliberation, judgment, and action by principles of natural justice.  Their exercises of prudence in protecting and advancing the common good, must always be shaped by their grasp of what is due to citizens as a matter of right and wrong, a matter of justice.  As for judges and their day to day work, the role of principles of natural justice is less straightforward.  Certainly in a constitutional system such as ours, judges are not authorized to play a legislative role or to substitute their judgments of what natural law and respect for natural rights requires for the contrary judgments of those empowered by the Constitution to legislate for the sake of the common good.  The mission of judges is not to make law, but, rather, faithfully and impartially to apply the law as made by the ratifiers of the Constitution or legislators acting pursuant to the Constitution.  Judges go wrong--they act in violation of the Constitution--when they usurp authority vested by the Constitution in other officers (i.e., legislators and executive officers).  In interpreting the Constitution, fidelity to the Rule of Law, which is itself a key principle of natural law, requires that judges respect the constitutional limits of their own authority. 

 

6) What is your current research project?

 I'm working on the law and philosophy of marriage as well as on some emerging issues in bioethics.

 

7) What do you consider to be the most significant political issue facing the American people today and why?

Preserving the institution of marriage, and rebuilding a vibrant marriage culture.  Just about everything else—including the important goals of restoring limited government, rebuilding civic virtue, revitalizing our economy, and lifting large numbers of people out of poverty—depends on that.

 

8) What advice would you give to new Ph.D.'s looking for jobs in the current economic climate?

Tackle difficult and controversial issues.  Study them carefully and think about them deeply and rigorously.  Then be bold.  Take risks. Speak your mind. Challenge prevailing academic orthodoxies.  Refuse to be intimidated.  Earn the respect of those who disagree with your views and values by making arguments so compelling that your opponents are forced to question the validity of their own beliefs.  Smile and be friendly, to be sure, but don’t be overcautious. Go for it!

 

9) What advice would you give to junior faculty members on how to become excellent teachers?

Reflect on what made the inspiring teachers you've known great teachers.  Don't simply mimic them--that won't work--but learn from them.  Make sure that in forming your self-image, you view yourself as--and pride yourself on being--a teacher, not just a scholar.  Give teaching the time and attention it deserves.  Take pride in the achievements of your students.

 

10) What was the most recent book you read and what did you think of it?

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.  I loved it.  Like all of McCullough's books, it made a moment in our national history come to life.  It is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of a period (1830-1900) when an astonishing number of gifted and supremely promising young American men and women made their way (usually with financial and other difficulties and always with the great risks attendant upon crossing the Atlantic in those days) to Paris to receive the best education available anywhere in the world in subjects ranging from art and architecture to medicine and technology.  Of course, today people would come to Princeton.  (Just kidding.  Sort of.)

Democratic Womanhood--Tocquevillian Reflections
By Anonymous

In his Democracy in America, Tocqueville devotes two chapters solely to a discussion of woman in American life. While the first discusses the education of women during childhood, the second looks at women as wives. These two chapters elucidate the paradox of American womanhood.

First, Tocqueville observes that American girls are given great freedom while growing up, compared with the cloistered approach of educating European women. Rather than being completely innocent of knowledge of the world, American women learn how to protect themselves from its evils: “her morals are pure rather than her mind chaste.” According to Tocqueville, the American way of educating women has always been to “give arms to her reasoning powers,” rather than ensuring that she will never be in a position to need them. Such an approach depends on the assumption that “woman’s mind is just as capable as man’s of discovering the naked truth, and her heart as firm to face it.” The assumption of such moral and epistemological equality serves as the foundation for the American education of women.

In the second chapter, Tocqueville paints a portrait of the woman as she reaches adulthood and marriage. While childhood in America is more freeing for women than in Europe, adulthood brings “stricter obligations” than in Europe. Tocqueville attributes this to two facts of American life: its Puritan religious heritage and its commercial character. The latter of these requires some explanation. He indicates that Americans “demand much abnegation on the woman’s part and a continual sacrifice of pleasure for the sake of business.” The commercial economy of America means that a family’s fortunes are ever changing, from poverty to wealth, and the woman has to manage such changes in the domestic economy. In other words, the capitalistic commercial economy of America requires a carefully regulated domestic economy run by a frugal and savvy wife. Thus, Tocqueville observes, “the extraordinary prosperity…of this nation…is due to the superiority of their women.”

Tocqueville observes a tension for American women between the equal and liberating education of their childhood and the strict demands of running the household economy, which falls largely to women. I believe a version of this tension still persists for women today. Of course, today, women not only have “the manly habits inculcated by her education,” but are expected to use those “manly habits” by entering the work force and pursuing a successful career. On the other hand, women are still largely expected to run the domestic economy with the attention and frugality of a full-time job. They are also expected to be the primary caretakers of children—the inculcator of virtue, the planner of extravagant birthday parties on a shoestring budget, the head of the PTA, and the taxi service to endless extracurricular activities. They are expected to run the household, including their husbands, with all the precision and dedication of a benevolent dictator. The commonly held wisdom is that while both men and women can be CEOs, attorneys, and doctors, only women can be the omnipresent, omniscient, over-protective mothers.

While this tension may have been exacerbated by the various waves of feminism, Tocqueville reminds us that it has been present since the beginning. Being an American woman has never been easy business—either now or in Tocqueville’s day. It may in fact be that this tension is endemic to democracy itself. Thus, thinking more deeply about the problems of contemporary American womanhood should look further than the 1960s--back to the very beginnings of the American regime.

Witherspoon, Edwards, and Natural Law at Princeton
By Joseph DiLuzio

 

By the end of John Witherspoon’s first year as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey) in 1769, a small group of tutors, including the late president’s son – Jonathan Edwards Jr. – had resigned their positions at the college.  Their leave had been amicable in spite of their philosophical differences with the new president.  Though tolerant of the tutors’ idealism, Witherspoon had arrived in the colonies promoting Scottish realism and that brand of moral philosophy advocated by Francis Hutcheson and argued against by his predecessor at Princeton, Jonathan Edwards.  The philosophical shift superintended by Witherspoon would have a profound impact on the future of the institution: natural philosophy – science – would be introduced into the curriculum; an empirical, “common sense” approach would replace the theistic-centered methodology of the old regime; the college would increasingly come to be seen as a “nursery of statesmen” rather than a seminary.  In the ensuing years, Witherspoon himself would become active in politics as a member of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other.  Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision.  It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.”  In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).

In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which states that original sin corrupts every aspect of the unregenerate person’s being – mind, body, and soul.  (It does not, as is popularly assumed, mean that the unregenerate person is necessarily as evil as he could be.)  Even those who have been saved by grace continue to be plagued by sin as God progressively sanctifies them.  As Paul writes to the Ephesians of his own formerly unregenerate state, “[we] were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). 

None of this is to say that the study of the (natural) moral sense is inherently incompatible with the tenets of Reformed theology.  Indeed, Jonathan Edwards promoted the study of the moral sense.  He claimed that all humans share a “natural conscience” that “should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 1974: 1.134, italics mine).  What distinguished the moral philosophies of Edwards and Witherspoon was their respective confidence in natural man’s ability to reason properly.  Edwards did not share Witherspoon’s optimism, and in this, he followed in the tradition of Augustine and ultimately of Paul.  In his letter to the Romans, the apostle admits that what can be known about God is plain to all but that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness: because of their disobedience, the unregenerate have become “futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18-21).             

As a tutor at Yale, a young Jonathan Edwards had been sympathetic with Hutcheson’s philosophy, but by the time he became president of Princeton, he was convinced that humans in our fallen state could not comprehend truth and goodness apart from grace.  Unlike Locke, Edwards believed that humans possess innate qualities such as sinfulness and the capacity to reason; the sum of personal experience combines with these qualities so that each person comes to possess a unique set of mental habits.  Sin taking the form of self-interest, prejudice, self-deception, and certain passions inhibit natural man’s capacity to reason.  By contrast, the experience of grace and the regenerating work of the Spirit, according to Edwards, “sanctifies the reasoning faculty… as it removes prejudices and so lays the mind more open to the force of arguments, and also secondly, as it positively enlightens and assists it to see the force of rational arguments…” (Misc. 628, T 251). 

Edwards did not hold that natural man was always incapable of employing reason to arrive at the right ethical conclusions.  But without the benefit of grace, natural man was like a traveler lost in the woods: he might happen upon the right destination, but he lacks confidence in his course and his fate is uncertain.  Witherspoon might have taken the role of grace for granted; given its basis in revelation, he might have seen it as unsuited to lectures on moral philosophy.  Perhaps the decision was in some way political, as Mark Noll suggests in Princeton and the Republic: “Edwards’ fiercely revelational ethics was not quite respectable in an age of reason and science” (44).  Whatever the reason, Witherspoon drew a sharp distinction between reason and revelation where Edwards did not.  In so doing, he laid the groundwork for the modern academy.

Reflections on Oppression Studies
By Anonymous

Alan Kors has insightfully used the label “oppression studies” to describe much of what goes on in departments of social science and humanities. Scholars turn out paper after paper and book after book detailing the horrific and ongoing oppression of various groups and peoples throughout history. The suffering is real, to be sure, and it is important that much of this work be done, but there is a danger when the social sciences and humanities are put in the exclusive service of recognizing and combating oppression. I offer a few brief reflections on how this orientation toward the past and present can affect academic studies.

First, it inculcates in both professors and students an elitism toward virtually the entire human race, past and present. Because almost all social institutions (states, churches, businesses, etc.) have been involved in oppression to some degree, it follows that people in these organizations had poor moral judgment; at least, their moral judgment wasn’t as good as ours. This elitism can be a major impediment to learning, for it is difficult to learn from people you consider inferior to yourself. Focusing too much on the faults of others blinds us to the insights which they have.

Second, it gives academic studies the character of a righteous, dreary slog, rather than a joyful apprehension of new truths. The satisfaction gained through oppression studies is the kind of satisfaction a prosecutor gets from prosecuting a criminal. The world is a better place when the crime is brought to light and the perpetrator punished, but it is a grim satisfaction – the satisfaction of doing your duty in a fallen world. Not all studies should have this prosecutorial character.

Third, the focus on oppression creates a strong sense of “us” versus “them,” that is, “us,” the righteous defenders of justice and toleration versus “them,” people and groups who either are complicit in oppression or do not share our concern for the oppressed. It raises the stakes for conformity very high – how could you possibly want to be one of “them?” What are you, a [insert your favorite “-ist” adjective here]? This leads to a politics of absolute and intransient “rights” rather than one of negotiation and compromise. If the other side doesn’t see the light, it is because of some gross moral failure – “they” probably don’t have empathy, anyway.

Fourth, the focus on oppression leads us to jettison standards which could be used to criticize the oppressed, which practically speaking means adopting relativism about art, culture, and behavior generally. No standard which makes the West look good should be supported; all the attention given to “dead white men” is just one more way that the West has exercised its dominion over other cultures. However, the embrace of relativism leaves us without the possibility of giving any real praise to the accomplishments of the oppressed – it is not their accomplishments, but their status as the oppressed, which commands our support and esteem.

Fifth (on a related note), oppression studies often fails to recognize the many wonderful and beautiful things done by humans throughout history. The human record has many awful pages, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it has no beautiful or ennobling ones. Why are the ennobling and edifying parts of history left out? Aren’t the high points of human history just as “real” as the low points? Isn’t it just as “honest” to unearth and hold up the beautiful as it is to unearth and trumpet the awful? “Honesty,” I’m afraid, often means “exclusive focus on the worst,” rather than a well-rounded approach to a period or historical figure.

In sum, oppression studies invite us to dig in, as if for battle, and remain on constant alert for a potentially unending battle with oppression. To reiterate, my point is not that there is no oppression; of course there is. We humans have demonstrated an incredible ability to abuse and oppress one another throughout history. My concern is that, by focusing so exclusively on evil, we cut ourselves off from possibilities to learn from others, even those with acknowledged faults. A truly “honest” education will acquaint students with that which is good and true, not just that which is evil and unjust.

Freedom: Certainty vs. Doubt
By Hyrum Lewis

In making policy decisions, many politicians and planners simply employ a utilitarian calculation by weighing the costs of the actions against the benefits and deciding that if the benefits outweigh the costs, they should go forward with the decision.  But when these decisions affect rights and liberty, this simple calculation is highly inadequate because of the imbalance of certainty and uncertainty in making such decisions. 

Here’s what I mean: when governments take actions to forbid transactions, confiscate resources, regulate behavior, etc., they are objectively taking away someone’s freedom.  It is known and beyond question.  Whether it is justified to take away this freedom is another matter, but that the action infringes on someone’s will and prevents them from taking an action that they wanted to take is certain.

However, the positive consequences that policy makers hope will result from these prohibitions are always highly uncertain

For instance, if the government forbids me from hiring someone in India to do my taxes for me (on the grounds that I am weakening the American economy and strengthening the Indian one), they have, without question, taken away my liberty.  But the “good” that they hope to accomplish is debatable: is it really better for our economy to forbid outsourcing (most economists would say no)?  Furthermore, is it ethical to privilege American jobs and wealth over Indian wealth when the Indians need the wealth so much more (a dollar has a much higher marginal utility for the average Indian than for the average American)?  Again, this is a highly debatable proposition.

The same holds for redistribution of income, which, without question, takes away someone’s right to the fruits of their labor, but whether or not those transfers are beneficial (or beneficial enough to justify the infringements on freedom) is highly doubtful—the funds may get pilfered by bureaucrats, be given to frauds, used to perpetuate a drug habit, encourage indolence, etc. (note that I’m not saying that all wealth transfers do these things, I’m only saying that they may do these things, and such uncertainty in benefit is precisely the point).  Note that the usual lineup of tyrants (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.) always took away freedom from millions promising good things down the road.  The taken freedom was immediate, certain, verifiable, and beyond question; the “good things,” on the other hand, never materialized.

Since the freedom that governments take away through their actions is certain, while the intended, beneficial consequences are uncertain we should be extra cautious in allowing governments to infringe on freedom.  Not only must we be sure that the intended beneficial consequences are worth the sacrifice of liberty, but also that the probability that the good will actually come about is extremely high.  (This is yet another reason to be a libertarian ☺)

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