11 December 2017

Stocking Stuffers Part 2

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(Part 1 here)

Another book I can recommend is "Flawed Perfection: What It Means to be Human and Why It Matters for Culture, Politics, and Law." Written by friend and former colleague Jeff Brauch, "Flawed Perfection" addresses the "Who cares?" and "What is it?" of human nature. Arguing that there is a thing such as human nature falls outside the mainstream of post-modern identify politics but satisfying pomo critics isn't Brauch's concern. Rather, he takes a straightforward position with frequent reference to Scripture that human nature can be described with five factors, four of which are capabilities (reasoning, creativity, dominion, and relationality) and the fifth, a status (sharing God's moral image). Even here, however, Brauch explains that status in terms of the capability of volition plus the qualities of conscience and possession of "moral law written on the heart." Human dignity, a terms that bears much weight in "Flawed Perfection," ultimately finds its justification in human capabilities but capabilities underwritten by their origin in a transcendent God.

I have elaborated on Brauch's introductory chapters to indicate that those interested in subtle theological distinctions will not find them addressed in "Flawed Perfection." Brauch is content to take and apply Evangelical commonplaces to the topic of human nature and its entailment, human dignity. In other words, you won't find a consideration of other interpretations of human dignity as, for example, Nicholas Wolterstorff's use of analytic philosophy to ground human dignity in God's love of attachment (here) or Gilbert Meilaender's neo-Aristotelian approach (here). None of this should be taken as a criticism of Brauch's book. It is, after all, his book to write. It is only to suggest that the audience for "Flawed Perfection" is not the legal or theological academy.

Enough quibbling. Whatever the justification of human dignity, how does Brauch apply it? The the next seven chapter reveal Brauch at his best: clear and engaging writing about the relationship of human nature to topics ranging from human trafficking and biotechnology to the rule of law and criminal punishment. Brauch eschews certain risky topics such as systemic racism, consumer capitalism and the growing dominance of multi-national enterprises in subverting the very rule of law he praises, climate change, and rampant militarism. Even though Brauch picked on softer targets, I was pleased to note that in the final chapter he addresses the risk of "Christian Utopianism." Just as disregarding human nature leads to systemic human degradation, over-ambitious efforts at legal reform of (im)moral behavior often backfire and cause other sorts of harm.

Earlier I remarked that the academy was not audience for "Flawed Perfection." But who is? What individuals or groups would benefit from reading this book? Coming in at over 260 pages, I suspect its length makes it a daunting read for church study groups. It would, however, make an excellent addition to a church library where it could be a resource to those who want to begin to explore the implications of the Christian faith across a range of social ills. High-school age homeschoolers and teachers at Christian schools might also find it to be a good resource for students (especially politically conservative American students) who are beginning to see the systemic effects of sin and want more than a set of proof-texts to guide their entrance into the world of public policy.

In the end, "Flawed Perfection" is a good introduction to the topics it addresses and I recommend it to those interested in some implications of a robust notion of human nature for a number of the world's current ills.

09 December 2017

Stocking Stuffers Part 1

Taking a break from grading final exams and posting on James K.A. Smith's "Awaiting the King" to recommend two other books for your gift-giving consideration. Today it's a book that came off the presses less than a week ago.

The Davenant Institute is publishing a remarkable number of high-quality but very accessible books on theological topics. Davenant's mission includes retrieving the forgotten insights of the era of the Protestant Reformation. Today, beyond a few catch slogans most Protestant Christians know next to nothing about the riches of the insights of their theological forbears. And while the appeal of some of Davenant's books might be limited to nerds of a theological sort, "Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense" by David Haines and Andrew Fulford should appeal to anyone who want to know what natural law really is, whether Christians should take it seriously, and what good natural law might do us. Don't believe me? Consider philosopher J.P. Moreland's comments on the book.

First, the problem:
One does not need to be a rocket scientist to see that the increasing secularization of Western culture has lead to ethical, theological and behavioral chaos and relativism. Christians must speak clearly and convincingly about the messy issues of our day, but they, especially Protestants, are ill-prepared to engage the world of ideas without citing the Bible. Among other things, this implies that Christians should be laboring for a theocracy, but this is not what is needed and the state must have some sort of guidance to carry out its mission of punishing wrongdoing in Romans 13 without the scriptures. The existence, nature and knowability of natural moral law is what meets these needs.
Next, at least part of the solution: 
Fulford and Haines have provided an outstanding work that must get a wide readership if Christians are to re-engage the public square thoughtfully and appropriately. They follow a carefully developed order of presentation in this book. Before giving what may be the best recent biblical defense of natural law theory, they rightly are concerned to make very clear exactly what natural law is. Refreshingly, they ground natural law in solid metaphysical treatments of God’s relation to the natural law and in the metaphysics of the creation within which natural law makes sense. This is followed by unpacking the claim that natural moral law is knowable by human beings. Given this treasure-trove of background, the biblical defense of natural moral law is clarified.  I am excited about this book!

30 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 3.0

(You can read my comments on Chapters 1 and 2 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here and here.)

The heart of Chapter 3: "The Craters of the Gospel: Liberalism's Borrowed Capital" retells the story of how political liberalism (an earlier short post of mine here), comprised in equal parts of a commitment to democracy in the political realm (autonomy) and to the market (efficiency) everywhere else, owes its very origins to Christianity (if not to Christendom). Others have told this story but what makes Smith's version helpful is his use of the works of Oliver O'Donovan as a resource for explaining what liberalism is (or at least was) and does on a deeper level than most popular accounts. Recognizing the continuities as well as discontinuities between liberalism and the preceding (and continuing) Christian tradition in the West is important because Smith does not want to fall into either ditch: a near-wholesale reconfiguration of Christianity as liberalism (e.g., much of Mainline Protestantism or as au currant among evangelical Social Justice Warriors) or, on the other hand, a rejection of all that liberalism has meant and done tout court (in either its neo-Anabaptist or Kuyperian-antithesis forms).

Some examples of what I mean.

My heart was strangely warmed by this quote from O'Donovan's "The Desire of the Nations":
What has become clear … from half a century of research in political history, is that the roots of this new organisation of political priorities [the contemporary liberal order] run deep into the centuries that preceded it, not only through the late scholastics who are recognisably forebears of the Reformation, but through the earlier scholastics back into the Carolingian and patristic eras; and not only through theologians and their disputations but through the various concrete forms of life in the Christian community: corporations, monastic communities, canon law, penance and so on.
In other words, Brad Gregory is wrong: the deforming effects liberal order of democracy and the market was not brought into being by the Protestant Reformation. (For a pithy refutation of Gregory's "blame it on Martin Luther" thesis see Brad Littlejohn's review of Gregory's "Rebel in the Ranks" here.)

By the turn of the eighteenth century the slow-cooker influence of Christianity on Western society had lead to four principles on which liberalism, according to Smith (channeling O'Donovan) built its modern edifice:
  1. An affirmation of natural equality
  2. Structures of affinity
  3. A sense of reciprocity
  4. Openness to speech
Smith elaborates on each of these features at some length so here I'll merely state my quibble. As far as I can tell, many in the Classical world would have asserted that features 2 and 3 were present apart from Christianity. What, in my opinion, made Christian versions of affinity and reciprocity different than their Classical conceptions is number 1. Equality in the Church in Christ by the Spirit created a new and ever-expanding form of affinity that transcended the "natural" affinities of clan and class and reached even beyond the borders of the Empire.

Similarly, the notion of equality was fundamental to reciprocity. The expectation of reciprocity (which underlay the secondary virtue of commutative justice for Aristotle) was no longer limited to one's class. The biblical notion of covenant with its reciprocal divine and human obligations was crucial for bringing home to rulers their obligations to their subjects (who increasingly with the leaven of Christianity became citizens).

Speech, of course, was indeed crucial to the growth of Christianity and so I write merely to concur with Smith's (O'Donovan's) number 4.

Of course, the contemporary liberal state has forgotten its roots in the Christian tradition and is thus becoming illiberal. Apart from reminding the state (and church) whence liberalism came, what does Smith suggest be done about the prospect of increasing marginalization of Christians? His answer, such as it is, is embedded in a looong discussion of some insights of Ephraim Radner, the difference between common grace and providence, the relationship of the work of the Church and the common good, and so on to a meandering conclusion. Tightening up the final dozen pages of this chapter wouldn't have hurt.

But not to worry: there are three chapters and a conclusion to go.

28 November 2017

On the Student Loan Front

How many times have I posted something about student loans? I don't care to count but most recently here and one from 2012 on which I wish to elaborate here. Way back then I observed:
You may have wondered why student loans aren't priced according to the economic risk of the student's proposed course of study. Or maybe not. As I posted here and here, student loans are part of system subsidized by the federal government whose purpose seems less to provide meaningful education than to enable providers of so-called "education" to prosper.
For a good policy suggestion go to this piece by Nick Phillips at The American Conservative. Phillips acknowledges that there's little constitutional warrant for a system of federally-insured student loans but he's realistic enough to recognize such a widely-used middle-class entitlement ain't goin' away. So instead of arguing for a libertarian pipe dream, Phillips writes:
The policy solution: link the cost of borrowing to the riskiness of the underlying asset. The interest rate for federal loans should rise or fall depending on the default risk of the student’s degree program (that is, the default rate of graduates who attended the same institution and majored in the same subject as the borrower). By porting private market principles into the federal loan system, we can ensure that student borrowers are incentivized to pursue degrees that maximize their chances of paying off their debt.
Phillips acknowledges that there is a downside to pricing student loans according to risk: "Degree programs in the humanities and fine arts will likely skew wealthy, because low-income borrowers will not want to pay the relatively higher borrowing costs that such programs carry." In other words, risk-pricing will serve to enhance the current STEM mania. Phillips response is to compare relative evils: "the current system is unfair, so the relevant inquiry is which creates the greater injustice." Since most policy choices are between relative goods (or lesser bads), then why not give student loan risk-pricing a chance?

Our Republican-controlled federal government, however, is unlike to take up anything like Philips's useful suggestion. After all, rather than seeking the common good, they're more interested in rewarding their corporate donor base with sugar plum tax cuts. And notwithstanding the brake on the economy to which the current student loan situation contributes, most Republican voters are more excited to elect men of questionable moral character come hell or high water than to solve practical problems.

Addendum: Thanks to a sharp-eyed reader (I'm talking about you, Matthew Bruckner), I can send my readers to article making the argument for risk-based pricing of student loans in academic detail: Michael Simkovic, Risk-Based Student Loans, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 257 (2013). Download it here.

24 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 2.0

(You can read my comments on Chapter 1 of Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (AtK) here.)

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Two things struck me as I finished Chapter 2--"Revisiting the Church as Polis: Cultivating an Ecclesial Center of Gravity." First was pleasant surprise. The chapter title had given me cause for concern that Smith was going to rewarm the trope that the church is a full-on alternative polity (alternative, that is, to the modern "imperial" state) in the mode of "empire criticism." Prominent in the 2000s (perhaps in reaction to the War on Terror*), empire criticism identified states with the "principalities and powers" arrayed against the Church and due as little respect as prudence allows. This is most definitely not Smith's take. To be sure, the authority of states (and empires) is relativized in light of the ascension and session of Jesus as the Christ but they can (or at least should) continue to bear witness to God's judgment in and on the nations of the world. One the one hand, Christ's death bore the full effect of God's judgment on the Church and, indeed, in an ultimate sense on the world. But on the other, while we wait for the paruousia, interim acts of judgment must continue to take place.

Second, Smith shows his O'Donovan chops as he works through The Desire of the Nations. The following points stood out for me:
There is an important sense in which Christ's redemptive work in the body of Christ renews society in more systemic ways. The Spirit-led, sanctified, sacramental renewal [?] of practical judgment includes, as Joan Lockwood O'Donovan describes it, "the renewal of moral agency" that has a spillover effect ...
This "spillover effect" is one of the principal contentions in the book chapter on which I'm (supposed to) be working.

Apropos of much of contemporary Christian "prophetic" critique of the State:
Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose needs what we've called a canon and criterion; some outline of the substance of how things ought to be, some delineation of what "kingdom come" looks like. ... "The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion ..."
But this critique should not be an eschatologically-couched version of modern Leftist programs as Smith suggests was once the case for him:
My Kuyperian conversion [from fundamentalist world-flight theology] to "this-worldly" justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. In other words ... even believers, in the name of affirming "this world," can unwittingly end up capitulating to a social imaginary that really values only this world. We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the "goodness of creation," which, instead of being the theater of God's glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. ... My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the "progressive" party.
Smith does, however, make some off-handed, dismissive comments about natural law. I suspect he has not fully recovered from the neo-Kuyperian mis-take of what natural law is (and is not).  With respect to the place of natural law in a Christian understanding of the work of Christ, I recommend reading "Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed." Here, however, I'll let some comments from a post by author and friend Brad Littlejohn do the heavy lifting:
First, Scripture itself presupposes natural law at many points. It assumes a bedrock of sound moral reason and recognition of basic creational norms, and then confirms those and takes us further in understanding the implications of these. But to the extent that we neglect natural law and expect Scripture to do all the work for us, we will be apt to miss what it is telling us and place too much weight on the wrong places. ...
Second, true it may be that natural-law arguments are deeply contested in a culture in revolt against nature. But does that mean they have no persuasive value over and above straight-up biblical arguments? I find this highly doubtful. ...
Third, acknowledging the validity of natural-law reasoning enables us to recognize and embrace wisdom wherever we find it. We all instinctively do this, even the most hardened van Tillian. We come across something that some unbelieving philosopher or scientist or statesman has says that rings true, and we say, “Yeah, that guy knew what he was talking about!” But if we disparage natural law at every turn, we can’t consistently do this. We will have to deprive ourselves of useful allies in the search for truth, denying the shared reality that we inhabit and claiming that only the regenerate can ever see the world aright.
It seems that Smith leans toward imagining the well-established Protestant doctrine of natural law as if it were nothing more than a precursor to Enlightenment natural rights. If so, it remains to be seen if he'll smuggle natural law principles of judgment back into his discussion. For a discussion of the importance of natural law in the theology of the Reformers folks might want to read my article, God's Bridle:John Calvin's Application of Natural Law, which you can download here or here.

* Interest in empire criticism seems to have waned over the past decade. Whether because it was considered and found wanting or because Barack Obama was president remains to be seen.

21 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 1.0

This past week I posted here with a link to an interview by Michael Horton of James K.A. Smith touching on Smith's latest book, "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology." That post also contained links to some of my earlier posts about Smith's work. (Read a helpful and short review of AtK here.)

I bought a copy of AtK last week and have read partway through the second chapter. I plan to blog about it along the way so I can keep track of what strikes me as important/useful for a current project.

I am more interested in AtK than Smith's first two books in his "Cultural Liturgies" series because it promises to touch on the "political" implications of Smith's mashup of virtue ethics, neo-Kuyperian-one-Kingdom theology, and neo-Anabaptist ecclesiocentrism. (In other words, Alasdair MacIntyre meets Abraham Kuyper meets Stanley Hauerwas.) And all three channelled through Smith's reading of Augustine's City of God. Being in the law business makes AtK of special interest because law is, after all, "political."  (Putting "political" in scare quotes is appropriate to account for Smith's use of the term, although I don't plan to keep it up.)

I was pleased to see that Smith plans to draw extensively on the work of Oliver O'Donovan. (You can read a three-parter dealing with a limited critique of O'Donovan herehere, and here.). After all, O'Donovan's dense prose could do with a popularizer. And I am certainly pleased to see restoration of the Church to its rightful place in any theology. (After all, the Church is the body of Christ, not each and every individual Christian.) But the proof is in the pudding so following are a few observations on Chapter 1: "Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy."

No Stackable Silos
The commonplace distinctions world/kingdom, world/church, state/church, penultimate/ultimate, worldly/heavenly, political/eschatological are unhelpful: they do not reflect a "happy distinction of labor we imagine, mostly because the political is not content to remain penultimate." To whatever these distinctions refer in the experience of market-driven, late-modern human life, they are neither airtight jurisdictional silos nor temporal sequences. Instead, these dualities constantly interact with each other because "our biblical eschatological vision is not just a prescription for a distant eternity; it is also the norm for what good culture-making looks like now ..." And more to the contemporary point (where a biblical eschatological vision is largely absent from the rational-technical form of contemporary life), the form of democratic self-government and the market effectively--modern liberalism (here and here)--inculcate virtues that are inconsistent with a biblical eschatological vision.

Flight or Fight or ? 
If Smith is right about pernicious effects of liberalism, what is a Christian to do? Smith moves on to consider two wrong answers. First, and more surprising to me, was Smith considered rejection of neo-Kuyperian associational pluralism articulated by Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen. In Smith's words, their articulation of directional, associational, and contextual pluralism ends up as "a kind of macroliberalism" in which the virtues of modern liberalism will eventually wear down associational distinctives. On the other hand, and of no surprise, Smith also rejects David VanDrunen's jurisdictional approach in which liberalism is free to rule the city of man and Christ the city of God. As if that isn't a recipe for disaster.

Then What? 
If neither of the leading contemporary approaches identified with the Reformed tradition grasp the nettle of the deforming effects of political and economic liberalism, then what is Smith's solution? Well, that's why AtK has five more chapters plus a conclusion.

Some Recurring One-Time Complaints 
Rather than repeatedly remarking on some of my irritations with Smith's writing I'll observe them here and then not again. First are Smith's constant pop cultural asides. Why do we need a disquisition on the Kevin Costner film The Postman? Or Adam Gopnik's book The Table Comes First? And why, oh why the multi-page interaction with a David Foster Wallace novel? Maybe one self-indulgence but not three.

Second, Smith blow-by-blow account of the contested readings of Augustine by MacIntyre/Milbank/Hauerwas, on the one hand, and Jeffrey Stout on the other,  belongs in a journal article, not this book.

Enough for now. More to follow in due course.

13 November 2017

From the (White) Horse's Mouth: An Introduction to James K.A. Smith

I've posted thoughts about the work of Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith quite a few times. (Go hereherehere, and here for some examples). Now I suggest that you go here to listen to interview of Smith by Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary in Escondido. Ostensibly in connection with the third volume of Smith "Cultural Liturgies" series (has Smith written three books or the same book three times?): "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology," Horton expends much of the interview pitching Smith softballs, which surprised me given their number-of-kingdoms disagreement. (An interview by R. Scott Clark likely would have been more entertaining.)

Given that my academic bent is the law, I look forward to reading this book even Smith said relatively little about his thesis (other than he was not a fan of Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option").

Nonetheless, I'm pleased to direct my readers to this interview because it does a nice job of letting Smith explain what he's up to in his own (relatively few) words.

12 November 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Went to see the film "Victoria and Abdul" the other evening. Dame Judy Dench in effect reprises her role in the 1997 film "Mrs. Brown" but this time with a studly Indian Muslim instead of a cantankerous Scottish Presbyterian as a male companion.

I found the first half of the film delightful. Director Stephen Fears provides a deft and light-hearted touch as functionaries Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buxhse find themselves transported from the warmth of British India to cold and wet England to present a coin minted in honor of the queen's Golden Jubilee. Impressed by Abdul's exotic appearance and exceptional devotion, Victoria keeps him on as a personal secretary for over a decade. 

It was in the second half of the film that the screenplay took on a tone of political correctness. Historical sources (here and here) confirm that Abdul was deeply resented by the queen's staff and family who had him deported immediately after her death. Yet I find it difficult to imagine Queen Victoria being quite so woke in her attitude toward Abdul and expressive of solidarity with her oppressed, brown-skinned Muslim subjects. I also found the film's portrayal of Abdul's Pollyannaish goodness a bit tedious and, as it turns out, not quite consistent with the historical record.

Still, when all was said and done I enjoyed "Victoria and Abdul" and recommend it to my readers.

08 November 2017

Sioux County's Other City. Or, "Where the Small Town American Dream Lives On"

Regular readers may recall my several posts about Sioux County, Iowa. A veritable puff piece here, a slam on corporate welfare for the county's rich farmers here, a short explanation of why they're so darn rich here, and a lament about the visit of then-candidate Donald Trump to Dordt College here

For a long--a bit too long, IMO--piece about the people of Sioux County's seat of government, Orange City, read this article by Melissa MacFarquhar from The New Yorker. MacFarquhar obviously spent time in Orange City and achieved a decent grasp on what makes it (and its Sioux County rival, Sioux Center) tick. There are a few nits to pick, e.g., it's not the Dutch Reformed Church but the Reformed Church in America (the ecclesiastical home of the late Robert Schuller) and a bit of scattershot arm-chair sociology. Still, she gets what makes some pockets of small-town Dutch America the sorts of places that many people don't want to leave. (And makes many of those who do, homesick.) In short, I highly recommend it to my readers' attention.

But I would be remiss if I didn't quote from the work of Sioux County's poet laureate, Sietze Buning (a/k/a the late Stan Wiersma). (Not that the Dutch would ever give anyone the title of poet laureate.) In his "Style and Class" Wiersma penned twenty-two poems comparing Sioux Center and Orange City (with an aside or two about his now-disappeared home town of Middleburg). Even though Wiersma wrote these poems 40 years ago, and that they were set 40 years earlier, they aren't too far off today on MacFarquhar's account of things. Here's one:

Friendly or Proper?
By nine
I realized my parents greeted everybody in Middleburg
because they knew everybody there,
greeted everybody in Sioux Center
whether they knew them or not,
but in Orange City
greeted only the people they knew.

"Why dress up to shop in Orange City and not in Sioux Center?"
"Why greet everybody in Sioux Center and not in Orange City?"

"Sioux Center is friendly and Orange City is proper."

"Which one is better?"

Dad: "Orange City."
Mother: "Sioux Center."

31 October 2017

The Non-Event of the Reformation? Or, Why You Should Buy "Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources"

Since becoming associated with The Davenant Institute I have come to have a greater appreciation of the catholicity of the Reformation. While I might not go as far as to call the Reformation a "non-event" (as is argued here, or perhaps more even-handedly here), it was very much a reform of the best of the received catholic tradition (including education and even the Eucharist!). In other words, none of the "reformers" believed that the true church had vanished from the earth for the preceding ten centuries. And neither should their followers today.*

There were, of course, new insights into doctrine and practice associated with the Reformation. There were certainly new emphases among what had come before. And rejections of prevailing teaching and practices that, however, had been the subject of debate and attack for decades if not centuries. But even here we could say that any new teachings that came with the Reformation were less "new" than those associated with the Council of Nicea, which in its own day was followed by decades of controversy and opposition (which further suggests that the continuing significance of the Reformation lies not in its efforts at reform but in the now-centuries-long rejection of those efforts).

In any event, if you want to learn about the catholic, reformational, and developmental aspects of what happened in the sixteenth century, please buy Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources with Introductions and see for yourself. This book has the aim of restoring basic theological and historical literacy about the Reformation to Protestant churches. Pastors and lay readers will find it of great value and I hope it receives wide classroom use at Christian colleges and seminaries.

* As an example of the catholicity of Protestantism, one could begin by reading "A Reforming Catholic Confession" here. For a trenchant critique of Protestant hand-wringers like Stanley Hauerwas go here.)

27 October 2017

"Natural" Affection: Louis Hensler Weighs in on the Charlie Gard Case

Former colleague Louis Hensler has published an essay titled “The Legal Significance of the Natural Affection of Charlie Gard’s Parents.” You can download it here.

Hensler provides a nice summary of the important place that the concept of natural affections played in the history of the common law. Through the deft handling of a few cases Hensler explains what “natural affection” meant in the common law: in short, an immunity. Schoolmasters and employers of youngsters, even though commonly thought be acting in loco parentis, were not immune from claims of battery to their young charges. Parents, however, given the presumption of natural affection for their children, could not be sued. Children did not “belong to” their parents. Unlike Roman law, in the world of the common law unemancipated children were not property. The immunity afforded parents—and not other adults—had to do with what struck everyone then (and almost everyone now) as obviously true—parents love their children and can be trusted not to abuse their power.

Hensler does not address what must have been obvious even during the long history of the common law: sometimes parents do abuse their power. Sometimes they exceed their parental authority. And sometimes the “immunity of natural affection” can produce unjust results. I suppose it was these sorts of phenomena that lead to statutory reductions in the scope of parental immunity.

In any event, Hensler also demonstrates that “everyone” in the common-law world attributed the natural affection of parents for their children to God who had implanted such affections in human nature. And such a take on the source of parental affection was not limited to Christian theologians and moralizers of duty; secularizing thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and David Hume agreed.

What source other than God could there be? With the progress of the nineteenth century an answer came: natural selection. Unpacking the implications of Charles Darwin’s full-on naturalization of human nature, subsequent thinkers have attributed the phenomenon of natural affection to successfully selfish genes. The offspring of parents who bore natural affection for their children were more likely to survive and reproduce. Thus, the genetic component of natural affection was more widely propagated. (This argument raises the question of whether there is a genetic component to natural affection and that it is not, say, a learned behavior. Of course, natural affection is an evolutionary advantage even if it is learned.)

I’ll leave it to my readers to download Hensler’s article. Reading it will help folks probe below the headline version of the efforts of Charlie Gard. Suffice to say that the British courts gave short shrift to the notion of natural affections.

Hensler also observes the justification for natural affection can make a difference. In other words, a divinely-implanted aspect of human nature isn’t going away. On the other hand, an evolutionary foundation for natural affection can, well, evolve into something different or simply disappear when its function has been replaced by a more effective means of genetic reproductive success.

I wish the article had addressed the limits of the immunity afforded by recognition of natural affection. Surely at some point the presumption of natural affection of parents for their children can be rebutted. For example, would natural affection have immunized Charlie Gard’s parents from liability had they refused medical treatment? Notwithstanding this quibble, I highly recommend “The Legal Significance of the Natural Affection of Charlie Gard’s Parents” to my readers.

23 October 2017

Yoram Hazony Spots the Problem

Israeli public intellectual Yoram Hazony has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal here in which he articulates a "de-fusionist" account of what ails contemporary American conservatism. (For earlier posts on the delightfully provocative Hazony go here and here.) Hazony argues that American conservatism, at least since the 1950s, represents the amalgamation of two inconsistent strands of political thought, classical liberalism and tradition-based historical conservatism.

Classical liberalism, the secularized step-child of of European Christendom, posits a deracinated but universal human nature made up of a few natural rights (life, liberty, and property) that, when mixed in a human society, create liberal democracy. (Think John Locke to Thomas Jefferson to John Rawls.) Traditional conservatives (of whom there have been precious few in America) eschew abstract ideology and look to maintain a wise political order by keeping a firm eye on the successes and failures of a polity's past. (Think Edmund Burke to Alexis de Tocqueville to Roger Scruton.)

Classical liberalism (Liberals) itself gave rise to Progressivism with its socializing impulse under governmental control. Thus, both Liberals--emphasizing the individual--and Conservatives--emphasizing non-governmental social entities--found a common enemy in Progressivism. Combine that internal enemy with an external one, international Communism, and Liberals and Conservatives joined forces to create a powerful fusion that occupied a powerful place in American political life. At least until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lack of an external enemy and the refraction of Liberalism into sexual autonomy and gender identity movements de-fused the union. And this split, according to Hazony, is what has given us Donald Trump:

Mr. Trump’s rise is the direct result of a quarter-century of classical-liberal hegemony over the parties of the right [in America and the UK]. Mr. Trump was not necessarily seeking a conservative revival. But in placing a renewed nationalism at the center of his politics, he shattered classical liberalism’s grip, paving the way for a return to Conservatism.
We shall see.