February 15, 2012

Dropping My Tagline

For several years, this blog has been labeled with the tagline "The Evangelical libertarian philosopher." For some time now, I've been dissatisfied with this label, both as a description of my views and as a description of what this blog is about. I've hesitated to drop it primarily because I think that blogs of non-famous people, such as myself, should have some kind of descriptive name or tagline rather than just the author's name, and I couldn't think of another short, catchy, descriptive phrase that would nicely fill that bit of screen space. (I toyed with: "Berkeley's metaphysics, Nozick's politics, Christ's religion," but I'm not totally happy with that either, and it's too long to fit nicely in the space.) I've also kept it because it is, strictly speaking, an accurate description of my views. The problem is that, while I endorse the defining principles of Evangelicalism and (political) libertarianism, I've come to disagree more and more with my fellow Evangelicals and libertarians about what the consequences of those views are. At the same time, the connotations of these terms in common use has shifted to emphasize some of the things I most disagree with. So I've now dropped it. For now, I've put up a nice Berkeley quote (from Alciphron 5.6) which bears at least some relation to just about everything that's currently on my front page. Here I want to explain why I decided on the change.

'Evangelical'

First, let's take the word 'Evangelical.' Historically, this word referred to Protestants generally, or more narrowly to Lutherans, but when it is used today (especially in the United States) it typically refers to the Neo-Evangelical movement which began after World War II and had as its primary founders Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and, outside the US, the late John Stott. The Neo-Evangelicals, like the earlier Fundamentalists (that is, the real, historical Fundamentalists, who took their lead from the book The Fundamentals), were reacting against liberal Protestantism and calling for a return to belief in the fundamental points of historical (Biblical) Christianity. But unlike the Fundamentalists, the Neo-Evangelicals were a 'broad church' or 'generous orthodoxy' movement: that is, they thought that most of the things that divide Protestant churches, like infant baptism, Calvinism, church government, and so forth, shouldn't prevent us from recognizing one another as genuine Christians and working and worshiping together. This is why Neo-Evangelicalism was primarily a movement of 'para-church' organizations, ministries that sought to include people who belonged to a wide variety of different Protestant, and in some cases even Roman Catholic, churches. They were supposed to have a SHORT list of 'fundamentals' that were the things all genuine/orthodox Christians agreed on, and not get in fights about non-fundamentals. Like many other Christian groups, they purported to follow the (variously attributed) motto: "in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity."

Now, everyone claims to follow that policy; the question is what you claim the essentials are. Well, the short statement of faith used by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a good example. When I say that I am, strictly speaking, an Evangelical, I mean that I agree with everything in this statement of faith and most of the things in most other statements of faith of prominent, well-respected Evangelical organizations. These statements of faith typically combine three main elements: a vague reference to the Trinitarian dogma of the Nicene Creed, some statement about the authority of Scripture, and a generally Protestant view of salvation. (Personally, I would go a little farther than this, to require of leaders that they affirm the full Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and Chalcedonian Definition.)

Now, this isn't at all what people think of when they think of Evangelicalism. I don't want to be associated with what most people think of when they think of Evangelicalism. So let me say, I believe in the standard account of evolution, the one accepted by mainstream biologists, and I have a rather strong dislike for the Republican party. Also, I'm a libertarian, so I don't want the government going around saying who can marry whom and things like that. Finally, while I would describe myself as pro-life, I think that the abortion issue is much more complicated than the loudest Evangelical voices make it sound, and that the approach of the loudest Evangelical voices shows a distinct lack of compassion and Christian charity. (I think a lot of my fellow Evangelicals would agree with this last sentence, but I think people who haven't spent a lot of time interacting with Evangelicals probably think the loudest voices speak for all of us.)

I will also say on this head that I have recently been greatly enjoying the blog of Evangelical Arminian theologian Roger E. Olson. I agree with most of his critiques of 'neo-fundamentalism,' as he calls it, and have thought about adopting his label 'post-conservative Evangelical.'

Finally, there is one more thing I need to say on this head, and that is that the laudable attempt to stop people from dividing over inessential issues has sometimes had the unfortunate effect of leading to people thinking that it is not important to think about these major theological issues, or be informed about the history of debate. This has led to a general ignorance of theology and its history. I'm a proponent of historical Christianity. I try, as much as possible to do my theological thinking in the context of the Ecumenical Christian tradition. Many Evangelicals are, at least in practice, opposed to tradition, so this is another place I differ from the mainstream.

For all these reasons, I sometimes describe my religious views as 'classically Protestant' rather than Evangelical.

Libertarian

When I adopted my tagline, I was both a metaphysical libertarian and a political libertarian. On the first head, I still firmly believe that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians (to non-theological philosophers: that is, ROUGHLY, between compatibilist and incompatibilist Protestants) cannot be resolved in revealed theology and that, therefore, it is appropriate for Christians to form their beliefs on this matter by philosophical reflection. I no longer think that philosophical reflection strongly favors libertarianism, as I used to. So I am pretty much completely agnostic on this point at the moment.

As far as political libertarianism, I understand this to be the view that all rights derive from property rights, the first of which is a property right in oneself, and that there is an absolute deontological constraint against violating the rights of others. (That is, no circumstance can ever render it morally permissible to violate someone's rights.) The philosophers I follow on political theory are John Locke and Robert Nozick.

Now, one reason for wanting to take this off my front page is that I just haven't written about politics in a long time, and have no intention of doing so. But there are other reasons.

First, a disclaimer: when I compare myself to other libertarians in what follows, I mean libertarians in the US political sphere. I don't work on political theory, so I don't know a lot about what libertarian philosophers have recently been saying. From some conversations I've had with political philosophers, it sounds like I might not be THAT far out of line with philosophical libertarians.

Anyway, I have important disagreements with most other libertarians about what libertarianism actually, concretely, tells us to do. For instance, I believe that libertarian principles require us to implement a carbon tax or something similar, and to have at least some government land management.

Beyond that, I am deeply troubled by the libertarians who live in a fantasy world in which the US has a free market and so all of the rich people have property rights in the goods they have de facto control over. This is just false. Many of our big corporations stay on top by co-opting the coercive force of government, and the poor are frequently swindled and otherwise abused. We're not talking about Marxist 'exploitation' here, we're talking about fraud and even outright theft. In our present state, there are a bunch of people and corporations who have their wealth unjustly, and we can't trace its origins, so the best we can do is take it and somehow use it for the general good. (In other words, I'm quite sympathetic to the 'Occupy' protests, though I wish they had some actual demands!)

Speaking of corporations, it's actually quite tricky, given libertarianism, to figure out how limitation of liability can be justified. Corporations just aren't moral persons - they are legal fictions. On libertarianism, whenever someone's rights are violated, some individual person(s) acted to violate them. Our current system radically fails to hold those people accountable in most cases. Insofar as we grant limitation of liability, (1) the government must assume the liability it indemnifies the members of the corporation against, and (2) the government has the right to demand that corporations behave in certain ways in order to have limited liability. It seems like good public policy, under (2), to require that corporations founded for the purpose of making a profit not engage in political speech or lobbying, and that corporations not founded for the purpose of making a profit not make a profit. One can think of other similar restrictions that would make sense.

Here's the last thing I want to raise about libertarianism. Many libertarians are just blind to some of the most serious problems facing our society. This is why I don't think I could vote for Ron Paul (though I'll admit to having supported him in the past - see my archive for a history of my attitudes toward him). It is a serious problem that libertarians should be seriously worried about that our view seems, prima facie, to prevent the government from dealing effectively with pressing social problems such as poverty and race and gender inequality. A libertarian who isn't worried about this is seriously morally deficient. It's one thing to say (as I would) that we need to try to deal with these problems in a way that respects property rights, and quite another to say that these things just aren't that important. The latter is either ignorant or morally reprehensible.

So yes, I'm still the Evangelical libertarian philosopher, but you'll excuse me if I stop plastering it at the top of my blog. You see, I wouldn't like to meet a person who was a follower of both Ayn Rand and Pat Robertson at the same time. It would actually be kind of frightening. And I certainly wouldn't want to be mistaken for such a person. Besides, it's a very nice Berkeley quote, isn't it?

Posted by Kenny at February 15, 2012 6:53 PM
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Blog Year 2012 in Review
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Comments

After I get bored with Appeared-to-Blogly, I'll consider switching to "Simples Arranged Blogwise" or perhaps "Simples Caught Up in a Blog Life" :-) Those are heretofore copyrighted. But Principia Blogica, Consolations of Blogosophy, and Blog in a Vat are all available.

Posted by: Chad McIntosh at February 27, 2012 11:45 PM

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