Tuesday, 10/17/17

  1. Expanding “harm”
  2. Don’t let them play you
  3. The new values of “Values Voters”


John Stuart Mill’s version of the “harm principle” has become quite embedded in our law and culture. But there are other versions of the harm principle.

Lord Stanley was an adversary of Mill on an issue I’ll just call “X,” since the specific issue is not of great importance.

Stanley held that [X] harmed him as a representative citizen in four ways:  (a) by endangering his security, (b) by creating a misery that he was taxed to support, (c) by tempting him to conduct which would threaten his moral and intellectual development, and (d) by weakening and demoralizing society, from which he had a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse.

[Mill] simply [] redefine[d] most harms – including those which Stanley mentions — as non-harms.  For in most cases (he is a bit inconsistent), Mill assumes:

  • That the harm of undermining mores essential to human flourishing is not a harm;
  • That the harm of seduction to evil is not a harm;
  • That harm to which a person consents is not a harm (he does make a large exception for voluntary slavery);
  • That the harm of giving offense is not a harm;
  • That the harm of destroying one’s abilities to fulfill his obligations to others is not a harm; and
  • That the risk of harm, distributed in such a way that we do not know who will be hurt, is not a harm.

Although all of these harms are real, Mill persistently resorts to the fiction that he is mapping out “that portion of a person’s life which affects only himself.”

I am grateful to J. Budziszewski for this distillation of an issue that has vexed me for decades. It stops short of giving a tidy resolution to all the current issues to which it might apply, but it’s helpful.

Until now, I’ve had no better defense (in terms a Rawlsian would recognize as “public reason“) for an expansive definition of “harm” than “It’s sort of like environmental protection in the cultural realm. Your pollution doesn’t stop at your boundaries.” The instinct there — culture is an environment that can become polluted so as to harm us all — was sound, but not very granular.

It’s interesting to me that in a western world generally haunted by Mill’s ghost, we’ve decided that giving offense is a harm after all — a proposition with which you may be surprised to hear that I agree.

But as Budziszewski notes in relation to the “X” at issue between Stanley and Mill, “there are many legitimate ways to argue against Stanley.  For example, one might argue that in this particular case, prohibition would cause greater harms than it prevented ….” That’s pretty much my position on offense-inflicting speech that stops short of “fighting words.”

UPDATE: The October 14 Economist has a brief item, “Psyche protection,” specifically citing Mill’s harm principle in the context of claims of harmful micro aggressions.


I intend to write less about politics, but when politics and character get intertwined, it’s not feasible to write about character without touching politics. Which brings me to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

A lot has been written about the Republican Party’s infamous “Southern strategy” … And a lot has been written about the concept of the “emerging Democratic majority” …

Each party is now associated with certain shades of skin color …

The incentive for both parties is not only to keep voters polarized along racial lines …

It’s also important to understand that our media ecosystem is only making things worse, because it is also incentivized to stoke division …

Now, obviously, we cannot just stop talking about race. There are real issues of discrimination and policing that we need to address. But please notice that today, we’re doing everything but actually addressing these issues.

After Ferguson, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, many Americans asked tough and probing questions about policing in black communities. But now our debates are about Colin Kaepernick, the national anthem, and Confederate statues. However you feel about any of these issues, please note that all of them are purely symbolic, and that none of them directly affect policing, or criminal justice, or discrimination, or racial wealth disparities.

If you have a system where the parties are wired to stoke racial division and hatred (and the media to magnify it), the worst thing you could do is address any real issues, because then people might have to talk about the tradeoffs that any particular policy might involve, and people might start to have ideas for compromises. The temperature might cool, even a little bit. If the issues are symbolic, however, all that’s left is for Team A to remind itself of how virtuous it is and how hateful everyone is on Team B. It’s the system, man.

So … what do we do about it? Our political parties are obviously not going to de-racialize. So it has to start with us.

Believe what you believe. Fight for your issues. Yes, Trump is a dangerous demagogue. Yes, some social justice warriors can be crazy, and it’s disturbing how powerful they are within the Democratic Party. But at the same time, it’s also the case that if you feel yourself getting angry at the latest outrage to pop up on your Facebook feed, you are being played. Not that the issue isn’t real, or important. But there are millions of real and important issues in the world. And the reason why this specific issue is being put in front of your eyes is because you are played by the cold unfeeling monsters that are the political powerbrokers behind Team Blue and Team Red. Team Blue and Team Red want you angry, pissed-off, and contemptuous of your fellow American, every day, so you don’t notice the political elite picking your pocket.

You can believe in your ideas and defend them and advance them without giving in to tribalism and hatred. And when we do give in, we feed into a vicious cycle that is taking us into a tailspin.

Wake up. We need you.

(Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, emphasis added)

I’m tempted to elaborate, but any elaboration  could be seen as a partisan pitch for Team Red or Team Blue. Read the whole thing yourself (Gobry himself thinks it’s his best essay on political divisions, and I can’t disagree) and tape it to your computer monitor.


I intend to write less about politics, but when politics and religion get intertwined, it’s not feasible to write about religion without touching politics. Which brings me to the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit last weekend.

This is the Family Research Council I’ve defended against SPLC charges of being a “hate group.” But I can’t defend them against the charge of being played, and quite willingly. If “this is how politics is done” excuses such stuff, then kindly never speak to me again of “Christian politics.”

From what I’ve read of the event, it further solidified the unqualified support by the Religious Right for Donald Trump and his movement.

“This is not my war,” Bannon said in his speech. “This is our war.” Cheers from the audience.

Later, he told the audience: “The most important thing is an authentic candidate. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Judge Moore — this is who you ought to vote for.”

Fascinating. Bannon advises voting not on principles, but on “authenticity,” which is an extremely slippery concept …

What connects the sybaritic billionaire and serial liar Donald J. Trump to the fire-breathing Alabama fundamentalist Roy Moore? It’s not principles, heaven knows; it’s “authenticity.” But authentically what? Themselves? But what does that mean? Christians are supposed to judge the authentic self by the standard of Christ-likeness. That’s not what’s happening here. “Authenticity,” in this context, seems to mean “hated by the people you hate.” It is entirely aesthetic, without ethical substance. So, the political good, in the eyes of these political Christians, is about solidifying a sense of identity, and using it for the sake of gaining political power.

How is this not nihilism?

Bannon and Gorka talked of the “war” they are waging on the GOP establishment. Reflecting on his and Bannon’s exile from the White House, Gorka said, with relish: “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens, as people unfettered by being part of the U.S. government.”

This is a gathering of Christians, mind you, and this is the kind of rhetoric they’re cheering. True, it’s a political event, so one shouldn’t expect it to have the politeness of a church meeting. But this is the vision that many politically active Christians on the Right have embraced, this wrathfulness … The Evangelical Christian writer and literature professor Alan Jacobs said something important about this kind of thing in his interview with Emma Green:

Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?

Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.

I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.

So do I. Look, there’s a lot to be angry at, but this is a fatal trap. I lived through wrathfulness — righteous anger over the sex abuse crisis — destroying my Catholic faith, and very nearly destroying my faith in Jesus Christ, period. Wrathfulness can destroy a society.

Back in 2009, the late Michael Spencer prophesied what he called “the coming Evangelical collapse.” Among the reasons Evangelicalism was going to collapse, said Spencer:

1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap ofbelieving in a cause more than a faith.

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

To repeat Christian Smith’s warning: “We will get what we are.” Christian Science Monitor story last week  discussed the falling-away of younger Evangelicals from the faith, much of it driven by alienation from their churches’ political activism ….

(Rod Dreher, Belshazzar Feasting Inside The Beltway) Dreher includes an extended foray into one of his favorite topics, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and one of the characters in Purgatorio being worked over for his wrath.

At the Family Research Council’s recent Values Voter Summit, the religious right effectively declared its conversion to Trumpism.

The president was received as a hero. Stephen K. Bannon and Sebastian Gorka — both fired from the White House, in part, for their extremism — set the tone and agenda. “There is a time and season for everything,” said Bannon. “And right now, it’s a season for war against a GOP establishment.”

A time to live and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to mourn and a time to embrace angry ethnonationalism and racial demagoguery …

There is no group in the United States less attached to its own ideals or more eager for its own exploitation than religious conservatives. Forget Augustine and Aquinas, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. For many years, leaders of the religious right exactly conformed Christian social teaching to the contours of Fox News evening programming. Now, according to Bannon, “economic nationalism” is the “centerpiece of value voters.” …

Who would now identify conservative Christian political engagement with the pursuit of the common good? Rather, the religious right is an interest group seeking preference and advancement from a strongman — and rewarding him with loyal acceptance of his priorities. The prophets have become clients. The priests have become acolytes.

There is more at stake here than bad politics. When Christians ally their faith with bias and exclusion, they are influencing how the public views Christianity itself. They are associating the teachings of Jesus Christ — a globalist when it came to the Great Commission — with ethnonationalist ideology. This should be a sobering prospect for any Christian. But few seem sobered. Instead, the faithful give standing ovations to the purveyors of division and prejudice.

When anyone or anything takes priority over the faith, there is a good, strong religious word for it: idolatry. And the word is unavoidable, as religious conservatives carry their golden calf into Bannon’s battles.

(Michael Gerson, The religious right carries its golden calf into Steve Bannon’s battles)

I disagree with Gerson that “few seem sobered.” The Values Voter Summit legitimately discredits the Evangelical Religious Right — and good riddance.( I rue my long-ago flirtation with it because of what it has become. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!)

But some of the most focused, sober and devastating criticism of Trumpism has come from folks in more historic Christian traditions, and I’m not just alluding to Catholics and Orthodox. David French at National Review, a PCA Presbyterian if memory serves, has been fearless and extremely perceptive.

I know this sounds like is an “I’m not that kind of Christian” apologetic, but I don’t want people to think Jesus attended this sorry Summit.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.