Monday, November 24, 2008

Natural Law as a Protestant Christian Theory of Politics

Nature, the art whereby God hath made and governs the world, is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal [i.e. the state is a human imitation of divine designs]. –Hobbes, Leviathan

I hope in this post to illustrate the protestant Christian theory of natural law, distinguishing it among theories of natural law (the term is not used consistently in the history of thought), and indicating that the American founders had in mind specifically the protestant version of natural law theory in founding the federal United States.

In a nutshell, I will argue that the idea that natural law evident to reason provides a standard for justification of rebellion against apparently legitimate authority is a protestant Christian principle, and that it was a central idea to the founders – the idea that distinguishes among natural law theories the one that suited the founders’ purpose.

But first, a quick introduction to the concept of a state and a sovereign: many thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, have understood throughout history that there are laws that man ought to obey in his social interactions (e.g. honor your contracts), which man nonetheless due to his sinful nature (or lack of enlightenment, or innate selfishness, or whatever) does not willingly obey. These laws are understood to be for the benefit of society collectively, and therefore also for the benefit of the individual indirectly, insofar as what is good for the body (the state, Hobbes’ “artificial animal”) is also good for an individual organ of that body (the citizen). The state is not the government; the government is merely an organ that looks after the interests and prerogatives of the state.

Whereas men do not voluntarily do what is good for the state, (and thereby indirectly good for themselves or their posterity), the state needs a leader and arbiter, a sovereign (either an individual or a group, but something compact enough to make decisions on behalf of the state and act upon them). All of this is relatively uncontroversial, and as yet not specifically Christian, let alone protestant.

But here we arrive at the point of departure: if the sovereign makes and enforces laws for the state, binding upon the citizens, in order to curb their human tendency to do wrong, and if the sovereign is himself human, with those same tendencies to do wrong, then isn’t the establishment of a state (with its associated government) a bad idea, the replacement of many small uncoordinated evils with one big coordinated evil?

The classical pre-Reformation Christian answer to this is that the sovereign must be self-regulating, in the manner in which a pious Christian is self-regulating. As long as kings were ordained by popes, and subject to being deposed by popes, this tied off all loose ends for those who submitted to papal authority. The king was sovereign by divine commission (ordination), and citizens were subject to the authority of the sovereign, but the sovereign held his authority on behalf of God, was chosen for his godly qualities, and was subject to the oversight of the Vicar of Christ, like all other ordained persons. Aquinas spelled out the classical position in requiring submission of all citizens to the authority of a legitimate sovereign, while recognizing not only a right but an obligation to rebel against an illegitimate sovereign. The judgment of the legitimacy of a sovereign was not the prerogative of the people, but action against an illegitimate sovereign was.

The Reformation, with its rejection of papal authority, reinvigorated the question of the divine right of kings. Granted that the king must be self-regulating, and that God intends order among men, which in practice requires a sovereign of some sort, how are the people to judge when a sovereign is acting consistently with his (or their) divine mandate, and how are the people to judge when a sovereign has breached the divine trust placed in him? When may the people justifiably rebel against their sovereign, if as protestants they have no pope to sanction the rebellion?

The Reformation answer, consistent with protestant theories in rebelling against the papacy itself, is to hold that only such positive laws are truly laws as are consistent with the “natural law”, the latter being an analogue of the moral law that is held to be within the power of reason to grasp, just as the moral law and Word of God are within the power of conscience to grasp. This idea is present already in Aquinas (“every human law has just so much of the nature of a law as is derived from the law of nature”) and Augustine, just as the Reformation ideas of conscience are also based on Thomistic (and Augustinian) doctrine. As with conscience and the Word, so also with reason and the law, the reformers argued that the ability of every Christian to judge certain matters for themselves gives them the sanction to resist any putatively divine authority that contradicts what is made plain by God to conscience or reason. Aquinas (and Augustine) is the source of much Reformation doctrine, but Aquinas consistently denies individual judgment in these matters: the Reformation is, in many ways, nothing more than the innovative assertion of the rights of individual reason and conscience to apply Thomistic doctrine against authoritative institutions, whether the church or the state.

OK, so far so good. But didn’t the Enlightenment establish these same principles (e.g. right of just rebellion) on a secular basis? Of course not, nor could it. The problem at hand is one of establishing authority (of the people over their sovereign), but secularism can at best tear down authority (e.g. tear down the authority of the church or of the sovereign). Reason alone, as a secular “fact of life” (rather than a God-given faculty), cannot be authoritative, it cannot give prescriptive meaning to “ought”, it can only be anarchic (as in “you can do that if you want, just be aware that the likely consequences are… [whatever]”). In Kantian terms, reason as a brute fact can only authoritatively establish hypothetical imperatives, but not categorical imperatives. Reason can tell you how to get what you want, but not what you ought to want, or even that there is any meaningful sense of “ought” at all. Kant, of course, famously solved this problem, and Kant was an Enlightenment figure himself, but though I, as a Lutheran and Kantian, would be overjoyed to tell you that the American Revolution was based on Kantian principles, that just isn’t so.

So what, I hear you say; regardless of any deficiency in the moral sense of “ought”, didn’t Hobbes establish the theory of the democratic state on the basis of natural law and a social contract? Why yes, sort of, he did, if fascism by mutual consent is considered a form of democracy, but relations between the people and the sovereign aren’t covered by a Hobbesian social contract, and so the sovereign cannot be held to be in violation of it based on how he rules (the sovereign is capable of ordinary violations, e.g. theft or rape or adultery or murder, but his laws and edicts are not subject to review under natural law or the social contract). This is an important point to understand about non-theist social contract theory: as Hobbes himself says, “covenants, without the sword, are but words”. The contracts that men make with one another are meaningless unless they occur under the umbrella of a sovereign authority; therefore there can be no contract between the people and the sovereign without a higher authority holding the sword over the parties (the people and the sovereign). Hobbes’ version of natural law doesn’t produce a contract between people and sovereign that the sovereign can be held to bind the sovereign, unless God is considered the guarantor of the contract, and so doesn’t produce a right of just rebellion such as was needed (and claimed) by the founders, except on a non-Hobbesian interpretation of God (or a pope) overseeing the contract.

Here is Hobbes’ “without the sword” passage, in full:
For the Lawes of Nature (as Justice, Equity, Modesty, Mercy, and (in summe) Doing To Others, As Wee Would Be Done To,) if themselves, without the terrour of some Power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our naturall Passions, that carry us to Partiality, Pride, Revenge, and the like. And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore notwithstanding the Lawes of Nature, (which every one hath then kept, when he has the will to keep them, when he can do it safely,) if there be no Power erected, or not great enough for our security; every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art, for caution against all other men. And in all places, where men have lived by small Families, to robbe and spoyle one another, has been a Trade, and so farre from being reputed against the Law of Nature, that the greater spoyles they gained, the greater was their honour; and men observed no other Lawes therein, but the Lawes of Honour; that is, to abstain from cruelty, leaving to men their lives, and instruments of husbandry. And as small Familyes did then; so now do Cities and Kingdomes which are but greater Families (for their own security) enlarge their Dominions, upon all pretences of danger, and fear of Invasion, or assistance that may be given to Invaders, endeavour as much as they can, to subdue, or weaken their neighbours, by open force, and secret arts, for want of other Caution, justly; and are rememdbred for it in after ages with honour.

Note the critical point, made thrice, first for individuals, then for families, then for nations: in the absence of an enforcer, it is not merely a pragmatic fact that nobody obeys natural law, it is a matter of justice that natural law can be disobeyed. In the absence of a sovereign, every man may lawfully rely on his own strength, families may rob one another (subject only to rules of honor), and kingdoms may enlarge their dominions on mere pretence, yet despite violating natural law, they all do so justly. Absent an enforcer there is not only no enforcement of natural law, there is also no obligation to follow natural law, no moral dimension to natural law, no sense of “ought”. Thus, Hobbes’ social contract as a source of right and just can exist only among the subjects of a sovereign; the sovereign and people cannot contract with one another for lack of an enforcer, and so the sovereign cannot violate any such contract, and therefore the people have no basis for just rebellion.

Wait a minute, Kristo, that can’t be: isn’t the whole Enlightenment point behind natural law that such law has objective validity? Hugo Grotius famously argued that even God could not change natural law. Natural law is as it is, fully independent of the will of any sovereign; e.g. Hobbes himself was able to enumerate 16 points of natural law without consulting any sovereign. So the sovereign as enforcer is not needed to determine the natural law.

Why yes, this is so, but this gets only at the content of natural law, not at its moral gravitas, the sense of “ought”. This important distinction is scholastic; it is a consequence of accepting the role of reason in determining logical modalities, the definitions of “possible” and “necessary”. Whatever can be fully conceived of without contradiction is possible, whatever cannot be so conceived is impossible, whatever cannot be denied without contradiction is necessary, and so on. An immediate consequence of this system of modal reasoning is that reason as we know it is necessary; for we cannot conceive of conceiving things differently than we currently can conceive them. A reason different from reason as we know it is, by our reason-based definition of “possible”, impossible. Thus, e.g., Kant would famously declare that even God cannot change the fact that triangles have three sides, and God cannot change the content of the moral law. However, moral law cannot get its authority from reason; in Kant’s terms, reason is the author of moral law, but God is the lawgiver. This distinction does not begin with Kant; Hobbes himself observed it when he argued, as pointed out above, on the one hand that reason can discover 16 points of natural law independent of any sovereign, yet on the other hand that justice does not require adhering to natural law in the absence of a sovereign. The roles of author and lawgiver are distinct, and both are needed before a law morally binds, before there is any sense of “ought”. Locke also recognizes the same distinction, as he argues on the one hand that natural law is rational in its content, and on the other hand that God is the source of moral prescriptive power.

As a matter of historical accident, the issue of justifiable rebellion in the years leading up to the American Revolution is primarily a British concern, as other protestant domains had either weak monarchs, or little rebellious tendency. Only (or mostly) in Britain was there a critical combination of protestant doctrine, strong monarchy, and vigorous opposition. The seminal work on the topic is John Ponet’s Short Treatise of Political Power, a work known at least to John Adams, who credits Ponet with inspiring Locke. To read Ponet:
http://www.constitution.org/cmt/ponet/polpower.htm
For the opposing point of view, updated to post-reformation standards, one can read King James’ (yes, that King James) True Law of Free Monarchies:
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/james1-trew2.html
William Blackstone summarized the impact of Christian natural law on English common law thus: “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.” Natural law is the source of the moral force of positive law, as well as the measure of legitimacy of positive law, and the source of natural law (and its moral import) is God. Note also that Blackstone distinguishes validity from authority (the roles of author from lawgiver): laws are valid insofar as they conform to natural law, and such laws as are valid derive authority from natural law.

The Reformation brought many other political innovations, besides the natural law evident to reason as a measure of the validity of positive law (and a measure of the legitimacy of sovereigns). It also, in weakening the position of the sovereign, devolved much of the expectation of pious Christian self-regulation from the sovereign to his many servants, the magistrates and other officials who performed official duties on behalf of the state. Whereas in previous times such officials were subject to the absolute authority of the monarch, in protestant Christian polities, and especially in early America, magistrates and officials had to provide to the public the same sort of evidence of Christian self-regulation as the king was expected to provide, including swearing oaths of office that amounted to Christian creeds of a specifically minimalist nature, stripped of all elements that had no bearing on fidelity to the public trust. In modern terms, some states’ oaths were Christo-Islamic creeds, in that they only emphasized belief in a coming divine judgment, though the founders show little evidence of having Islam on their minds; other states’ creeds were explicitly Christian. The battle lines at the time of the founding were drawn somewhere around Universalism, the belief that everyone goes to heaven. At the time of the revolution and for some time afterward, some states allowed Universalists to hold office, testify in court, etc., but others did not. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set as the federal standard that a witness was not competent to testify who did "not believe that there is a God who rewards truth and avenges falsehood." The transition from Coke’s criteria to the Omychund standard was still being worked out in the colonies at the time of the revolution (and legally binding though no longer enforced remnants of colonial standards denying testimony of nonbelievers persisted well into the 20th century). But I digress.

In summary: the founders, when they spoke or wrote of natural law, had, of necessity, in mind that sort of natural law such as empowers a subject people to justly rise up in rebellion against an established and to all appearances legitimate authority. This is not classic Greek natural law, for neither Aristotle nor the Stoics constructed a moral case for rebellion from natural law; nor is it Renaissance or Enlightenment natural law, for similarly neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes would argue that a sovereign could be judged by his subjects in matters of governance (as opposed to personal conduct) on the basis of any prior natural law. It is reliant upon classical western Christian natural law (e.g. that of Aquinas), which recognized the right (and duty) of peoples to overthrow illegitimate sovereigns (those who govern contrary to natural law), but requires in addition the specifically Reformation principle that the people are authorized to apply their own reason directly to the question of whether their sovereign is legitimate or not, as indicated by the conformance or contradiction of the government of the sovereign and natural law.

46 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

A nice primer on the idea of natural law, Kristo, you conciliator, you. Protestants today are rediscovering "natural law," as the Founders believed in one, and it's the lingua franca in today's public square [if there is a lingua franca]. Certainly thumping the Bible only convinces those who already believe in it.

I was working on the same thing myself this Sunday! This may be a helpful companion piece

http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3983

Click here to link.

It details the history of how Protestantism's haste to distance itself from Aristotelianism/Thomism/ Papism/Catholicism in favor of mystical Christianity, sola scriptura, and faith may have abandoned the argument that Christianity is quite reconcilable with reason, and indeed with reality.

Perhaps the split can be reconciled. The private journey to faith may be experiential, but the public discourse about its ripples must needs be rational.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Tom!

Thanks for the link, though I have issues with the article. But that's how learning progresses, I guess, reading new perspectives and all that.

I hope we protestants are not "rediscovering" natural law, that would suggest we misplaced it for a while. [:-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I was thinking of the highly influential Karl Barth, who they tell me rejected it, and also the relative absence of natural law talk in the public square from the Protestant corner. But I look forward to finding out I'm under a false impression. The FT article holds that natural law is in there someplace, even with Luther and Calvin.

Pinky said...

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Kristo sez, "I hope in this post to illustrate the protestant Christian theory of natural law, distinguishing it among theories of natural law (the term is not used consistently in the history of thought), and indicating that the American founders had in mind specifically the protestant version of natural law theory in founding the federal United States."
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It seems (to me) that when persons set out to prove that America was Founded on Christian principles, we're bound to run into an eddy along side the current of what is the actual flow of the history of our Founding.
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What ideas provided by thinkers out of pre-revolutionary Europe and England weren't the outgrowth of free inquiry which comes down to the Founders and to us through the centuries from the ancient Greeks?
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And, Christian principles? Aren't they based of ideas out of Judaism--that one must be obedient to God with no questions allowed?
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I don't mean to set aside any influence Christianity had on our nation's Founding; but, it seems so obvious (once again, to me) that there was a distinct mix between the Eastern ideas out of Judaism and the Western thinking out of Greece.
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Western Civilization starts in Greece, does it not? And, America is the culmination of Western thought, is it not?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

But for nearly 1000 years leading up to the Founding, Western thought was Christian thought. It was the church that housed civilization. Moreover, it was unthinkable that philosophy would exclude the question of God.

And, Christian principles? Aren't they based of ideas out of Judaism--that one must be obedient to God with no questions allowed?

That's called Divine Command Theory. But reason arose pretty early in Christianity, and in fact natural law theory is an outgrowth of the idea that what is good and what is evil is not subject to God's whims, and certainly not man's.

Pinky said...

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And, Tom sez, "But for nearly 1000 years leading up to the Founding, Western thought was Christian thought. It was the church that housed civilization. Moreover, it was unthinkable that philosophy would exclude the question of God."
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That is a highly debatable statement.
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While you're at it, you oughta check
this guy out, Tom.
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I'm not attributing much to him in this case except to point out that the influence of Greek philosophy on the Founders and their immediate predecessor thinkers was far from "totally Christian".
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I am saying that there was a mix between the East and West in our Founding.
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Orthodox Christianity demands obedience to the God of the Bible.
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Lindsey Shuman said...

Pinky,

Is Tom's statement really that debatable? I think it's pretty much the truth. However, I would love to hear your side of it.

Dave2 said...

When reading this, it's not clear to me how much is supposed to be actual philosophy (e.g., here's what secular reason can and cannot do) and how much is supposed to be history (here's what prominent thinkers of the time thought could be done). I hope no actual philosophy is intended, because I see little attempt to engage with contemporary accounts of morality and political authority.

There are two groups of thinkers that are left out of this post, and I wonder how including them might change things.

First, there's the British moral rationalists, exemplified by Cudworth (and the other Cambridge Platonists) and Price. They denigrated the 'lawgiving' account of moral authority as circular (your commands have no authority unless you already have authority independent of your commands), and so they'd reject the view that oughts are ultimately grounded in divine lawgiving.

Second, there are the Scottish moral sentimentalists: Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith. They had an enormous influence on the founders, and they had a (sometimes completely) secular account of morality and natural law. To be sure, they'd agree that secular reason is incapable of arriving at oughts, but they thought the missing ingredient was not God, but a psychology of the emotions.

Dave2 said...

Pinky,

Plotinus predates 776 AD, Eastern Orthodoxy is both Christian and irrelevant to the founders, and I don't think Tom was denying the enormous influence of Greco-Roman thought on the founders.

I would point out, however, that certain exceptional thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hume did almost all of their philosophizing without appeal to the supernatural.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Dave2, the question at hand is what philosophy trickled down to the Founders, what they made of it, and what they did with it. Interesting to note that Alexander Hamilton's The Farmer Refuted absolutely spits on Thomas Hobbes, as does Locke, at least outwardly [exoterically].

"Hobbes" was a dirty word. As for Hume, he seems conspicuous by his absence in the Founding literature.

Plotinus is influential, however you'll find his God is the removed and distant one of the deists, not the God of Providence or one you would pray to. As for the classical Greeks, it's fair to say that just like the Christmas Tree or Saturnalia, Christianity grabbed whatever cool stuff was lying around and Christianized it, Aristotle in particular.

Pinky said...

Here's what Tom had written, "But for nearly 1000 years leading up to the Founding, Western thought was Christian thought. It was the church that housed civilization. Moreover, it was unthinkable that philosophy would exclude the question of God.", and it is what I said was debatable.
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Tom's statement is that since about the year circa 776 A.D., all thinking was Christian and that "civilization" was completely within the framework of the "church".
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To say something is debatable is to say that it is open to doubt or debate--able to be argued.
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My point was that his statement was too conclusive and, so, is debatable. I know that people like Pope Leo (IX?) had a great deal of control over the masses But, could we say the inquisition influenced the Founding?
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I think the Founding was much more motivated with open inquiry than with obedience to God.
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Maybe I'm wrong?
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But, here is a debate for you.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Pinky!

To your claim "It seems (to me) that when persons set out to prove that America was founded on Christian principles..." my counterclaim would be that the opposite is more nearly true: when persons set out to prove that America was founded on secular principles... etc. I may not be convincing in presenting the case, but I'm trying.

I in no way intend to deny the relevance of pre-Christian or non-Christian thinkers as influences upon Christian ones, my point is only that the founders needed a very specific form of natural law theory for their stated purpose, and as we survey the selection of natural law theories available to them at the time, the one that fits is the protestant one. That this theory imbibed all manner of other influences and integrated them into itself I have no interest in denying.

In a sense, I'm trying to sharpen Tom's point: instead of claiming that all western thought at the time was Christian thought, I'm saying that the only version of western thought that fits the founder's purposes is the one whose defining twist is protestant.

Dave,

Which accounts of morality and politcal authority do you think I should check to improve or sharpen my understanding?

I appreciate your taking note of the separateness of the question of moral imperative from the question of content of just law - most to whom I attempt to point out the distinction miss the relevance.

As for the Cambridge Platonists, their contribution is surely noted in their contemporary Hobbes, but do they have an independent contribution on just rebellion? Given their doctrine of innateness and criticism of materialism, I would love to enlist them to my cause, but I'm not aware enough of their political (as opposed to rationalist) writings.

Hume would be appropriate for me to comment on, though I would first expand my treatment of Locke as a matter of priorities. Smith begins to get into the founder's own generation; I wonder how influential he was (compared, e.g., to Locke) on this side of the pond in the years leading up to the revolution.

Pinky said...

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"I'm saying that the only version of western thought that fits the founder's purposes is the one whose defining twist is protestant."
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That's a pretty bogue claim. Off hand, I think I disagree with you. But, I'm going to have to give that some serious thought.
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bpabbott said...

Kristo commentd: "I'm saying that the only version of western thought that fits the founder's purposes is the one whose defining twist is protestant."

I'm skeptical that the thoughts of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison (giants of the founding) are entirely consistent with protestant ideology.

By the way, what qualifies as "protestant"?

Personally, I find the founders to be men how divorced themselves of blind acceptance of ideology and relied upon reason and evidence to dictate their opinions.

Pinky said...

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I keep coming back to the idea that the basic doctrine of protestant Christianity involves obedience to God.
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I do not see the Founding of America as being oriented around any idea of obedience to God.
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Our Founding Truth said...

"I'm saying that the only version of western thought that fits the founder's purposes is the one whose defining twist is protestant."

It is safe to say the Founding Fathers rejected man's reason as ultimate authority, or any rights inherit in a Republican form of govt based on Rome or Greece.

Kristo, you are correct, the framers neglected Hume, and Hutcheson, and went to the Bible, through Locke, Grotius, Hooker, Puffendorf, and Ponet etc.

Sparta, Rome and Carthage...These examples, though as unfit for the imitation, as they are repugnant to the genius of America, are notwithstanding, when compared with the fugitive and turbulent existence of other antient republics, very instructive proofs of the necessity of some institution that will blend stability with liberty...For it cannot be believed that any form of representative government, could have succeeded within the narrow limits occupied by the democracies of Greece.

James Madison Federalist #63

And Madison was liberal compared to Jay, Hamilton, Stockton, etc. further enforcing Kristo's statement. The framers have the Protestant Reformation, not the anti-revelation enlightenment to thank for the words of Rutherford, who is connected to Locke, his parents were friends with Locke's parents. No doubt Locke grew up with Lex Rex.

To also conclude any semblence of unalienable rights coming from pagan Rome or Greece and applied here by the framers is unsubstantiated.

OFT

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

"It is safe to say the Founding Fathers rejected man's reason as ultimate authority,..."

Nope: The key Founders believed man's reason trumped revelation as the ultimate standard for Truth. That's what "nature" defines as. I think Kristo's main point is that the "natural law" of Founding took place in a Protestant Christian tradition/context. That doesn't change the fact that "natural law" defines as what man discovers from reason, not revelation.

"or any rights inherit in a Republican form of govt based on Rome or Greece."

Well they certainly didn't get "republican" form of government from the Bible and however much they changed the "republicanism" from Rome, *that* still served as a closer model than biblical forms of government. But ultimately, yes, the "republicanism" of the Founding was not that of Ancient Rome but a newer Enlightenment form of republicanism.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Jon!

Not quite. My main point is that the founders needed, and used, natual law primarily to justify rebellion against apparently legitimate authority. They specifically had in mind the following theses: (1) rebellion based on mere unaggravated lack of consent is not justified against a legitimate authority; (2) violation of natural law in governing delegitimizes a sovereign; (3) the people are authorized to judge the legitimacy of their sovereign by this natural law standard, they need not look to the church or any other authority to pass the judgment.

This specific interpretation of natural law is an innovation of the Reformation, not present in Aquinas, Hobbes, etc.

Pinky said...

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I am going to rest on this claim as regards the underlying motivations of our nation's Founding Fathers.
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The basic characteristic of all devout Christians whether Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise is in the final analysis seen as obedient and loving unwavering devotion to God Almighty first and foremost. Any creation of any government by any such Christians would have been precluded by a formal dedication of that government to God and, as such, it would have been a theocracy of one type or another. It certainly, in no way, would have been a republic. There most certainly would have been no such thing as freedom of worship or of speech, the press, or assembly. I think we can dispense with all claims to the contrary.
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Instead, our Founding Fathers were characterized by a thirst for knowledge and open inquiry to learn about that which was not yet known. And it was this characteristic which dominated our fledgling society during its Founding decades and even continues to this day. Our ancestors would never have been able to move in such dynamic directions for change in they were motivated by obedient devotion to the biblical God which is and was the basis of Christianity in general and Protestantism in specific. We would still be back there wearing robes and sandals. It was the influence of Athenian philosophy that moved Western civilization to its pinnacle, the Creation of modern political philosophy as embodied in America.
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That's where I rest.

Dave2 said...

Tom,

Check out this list of the top 40 authors cited by the "Founding Generation": http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?Itemid=259&id=438&option=com_content&task=view

Hume comes in at number 5. And, regardless of any particular ranking, his "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth" is a major influence on Madison's Federalist no. 10.

Also I wouldn't discount fellow sentimentalist Francis Hutcheson, who had a big impact on Jefferson at least.

Dave2 said...

Kristo,

I'm mainly responding to this claim (though I'm not sure whether you endorse it, given what you go on to say about Kant):

"Reason alone, as a secular 'fact of life' (rather than a God-given faculty), cannot be authoritative, it cannot give prescriptive meaning to 'ought', it can only be anarchic (as in 'you can do that if you want, just be aware that the likely consequences are… [whatever]'). In Kantian terms, reason as a brute fact can only authoritatively establish hypothetical imperatives, but not categorical imperatives. Reason can tell you how to get what you want, but not what you ought to want, or even that there is any meaningful sense of 'ought' at all."

More-or-less contemporary discussions of these issues are found in the field of metaethics. Nonnaturalist intuitionists (somewhat in the vein of Cudworth and Price) include G. E. Moore, W. D. Ross, A. C. Ewing, and (today) Russ Shafer-Landau and Michael Huemer. Arguably Thomas Nagel, Jonathan Dancy, and John McDowell and David Wiggins belong somewhere close to this category. Naturalist realists include the Cornell realists (David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, Richard Boyd, and arguably Richard Miller and Peter Railton) and the Australian realists (Frank Jackson and Philip Pettit, and arguably Michael Smith), as well as the neo-Aristotelians (Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse). There are also plenty of constructivists: Kantians like Christine Korsgaard and idealizers like Roderick Firth and Richard Brandt. And even among the expressivists (who deny moral realism), there are some who find a central place for reason (R. M. Hare), and many who give an account of moral objectivity (Simon Blackburn, Allan Gibbard, Mark Timmons).

I would think any appraisal of whether secular reason can account for the moral 'ought' (including the deontological 'ought' traditionally associated with God's lawgiving) has to spend a great deal of time with this enormous literature.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Dave2's comment represents another reason why Barton irritates me. He has noted that Hume was cited entirely in the negative (to slam him). No, actually Hume was not unlike Blackstone in his influence on the American Founding. The Founders often lauded AND criticized him; he had a qualified influence on the Founding. But of course, because Blackstone wrote certain things that appeal to the Christian Nation thesis,...Blackstone = good, Hume = bad, Blackstone = profoundly influenced the Founding, Hume = not at all.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you for a substantive counterargument, dave2. Lists aside, I don't "feel" Hume in the philosophy undergirding the Founding, but I'll continue to look at it.

As for Federalist 10, it's a wonkish, not philosophical argument, about the best structure for a political system.

This, on Fed 10, may be of interest, where Madison differs from Hume. It certainly proves that Hume was known if not well-known to the Founders. The extent of the skeptic Hume's actual influence needs to be argued, however. I don't see much at this point on the key issues---had it been dominant, this blog about religion and the Founding wouldn't exist!

bpabbott said...

Jon offered: " But of course, because Blackstone wrote certain things that appeal to the Christian Nation thesis,...Blackstone = good, Hume = bad, Blackstone = profoundly influenced the Founding, Hume = not at all."

I've said it before, but it bears repetition ... This is the inherent problem with Barton. He sides with his ideology and ignores the evidence.

Our Founding Truth said...

"Reason alone, as a secular 'fact of life' (rather than a God-given faculty), cannot be authoritative, it cannot give prescriptive meaning to 'ought', it can only be anarchic (as in 'you can do that if you want, just be aware that the likely consequences are… [whatever]'). In Kantian terms, reason as a brute fact can only authoritatively establish hypothetical imperatives, but not categorical imperatives. Reason can tell you how to get what you want, but not what you ought to want, or even that there is any meaningful sense of 'ought' at all."

You're correct Dave. Because law is made by God, then the majority, the minority or a few(key founders) is irrelevant. The majority rejected reason to revelation; the majority make law.

That man's reason is supreme to revelation is illogical to say the least. How can something in the mind be superior to something written down(jpositive law), both, being the same thing, and from the same God, Jesus Christ? Man's reason is entirely objective, interpreted by a flawed machine, Kant could see this as well.

Locke, Ponet, and the Natural Law philosophers realized this.

"(1) rebellion based on mere unaggravated lack of consent is not justified against a legitimate authority; (2) violation of natural law in governing delegitimizes a sovereign; (3) the people are authorized to judge the legitimacy of their sovereign by this natural law standard, they need not look to the church or any other authority to pass the judgment."

Hey Kristo, This natural law philosophy comes right out of the Bible(specifically the O.T. I Samuel 12, and Romans 2:14-15) In fact, this is proven by the Founding Fathers understanding of it being taught it in their colleges and seminaries. Puffendorf, Grotius, Ponet, Rutherford, and Hooker note this in their writings, and the framers learned this in school, specifically Madison at Princeton.

Happy Thanksgiving!

bpabbott said...

OFT, you got the author of the quote wrong. It was Kristo, not Dave.

Kristo: " Reason alone, as a secular “fact of life” (rather than a God-given faculty), cannot be authoritative, it cannot give prescriptive meaning to “ought”, it can only be anarchic (as in “you can do that if you want, just be aware that the likely consequences are… [whatever]”)."

Kristo, I'll make an obvious observation. You comments has no foundation. There is no evidence for God, thus the "authority" you speak of only exists due to the popularity of opinion.

Claims of God have no weight of themselves. Any weight they have is the result of the support of men. Whether that support is a manifestation of man's "reason" or obedience to human authority is irrelevant. There is weight because men choose to support it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ben, I can't see how Kristo would disagree with a word of what you wrote, specifically "There is weight because men choose to support it." To revisit an earlier discussion, Jefferson writes:

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?"

Italics mine. But no truth claim for the actual existence of God is necessary, and so it's a moot point per this discussion. That the people believe it is the point. These are properly described as principles.

[Jefferson does slip up in the D of I by invoking the creator, and also here in 1774, "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."]

Our Founding Truth said...

However, moral law cannot get its authority from reason; in Kant’s terms, reason is the author of moral law, but God is the lawgiver.>

Hey Kristo, it sounds like Kant could understand this logic. I will look at his writings, will most likely see his giving God the authority(Divine Law) over man's flawed reason.

It is purely illogical that man's flawed mind could be the ultimate truth. The mind is flawed from the beginning, until the Divine Law is written down(positive law) reason cannot be a viable authority, not only to rule the internal passions of men, but the complexities of a state.

OFT

Pinky said...

.
"It is purely illogical that man's flawed mind could be the ultimate truth. The mind is flawed from the beginning, until the Divine Law is written down(positive law) reason cannot be a viable authority, not only to rule the internal passions of men, but the complexities of a state."
.
Are you kidding? That puts us back in the middle ages.
.

Our Founding Truth said...

Hey Kristo, It seems Hobbes believed the Bible supreme over reason, to say over the state isn't a stretch either. What do you think of Hobbes believing the Sovereign's commands are subject to the Bible?

"These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly: for they are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves; whereas law, properly, is the word of him that by right hath command over others. But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth ALL THINGS, then are they properly called laws..."In sum, in what matter soever there is place for addition and subtraction, there also is place for reason; and where these have no place, there reason has nothing at all to do. And hence it came to pass, when our Saviour was compassed about with the multitude, those of the house doubted he was mad,"
Leviathan. Chapter XV: Of Other Laws of Nature

Here, Hobbes believes the scripture clarifies reason, showing it's superior:

"The Scripture was written to show unto men the kingdom of God, and to prepare their minds to become His obedient subjects, leaving the world, and the philosophy thereof, to the disputation of men for the exercising of their NATURAL REASON...Whether the earth's or sun's motion make the day and night, or whether the exorbitant actions of men proceed from passion or from the Devil, so we worship him not, it is all one, as to our obedience and subjection to God Almighty; which is the thing for which the Scripture was written."

And Kristo,

Finally, Hobbes says the sovereign commands obedience EXCEPT where he violates the Bible in ALL THINGS:

"that a Commonwealth without sovereign power is but a word without substance and cannot stand: that subjects owe to sovereigns simple obedience in all things wherein their obedience is not repugnant to the laws of God, I have sufficiently proved in that which I have already written."
Chapter XXXI: Of the Kingdom of God By Nature

I'm curious to hear what you have to say on that.

OFT

Jonathan Rowe said...

It's a shame there that they don't reproduce this article online but in the July 2008 issue of Liberty (a copy of which I own just to read the article) Ronald Hamowy (my editor at Cato's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism) one of the premiere scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment, detailed the influence on Hume, Hutcheson and Smith, et al. in a very balanced way, showing how each was "in" and "out" of kilter with the American Founding (focusing mainly on the Revolution).

Jonathan Rowe said...

Here is the URL to the Liberty issue.

http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2008_07/

Dave2 said...

Tom,

I'd never suggest that Hume's religious skepticism influenced the founders. His Dialogues weren't published until 1779, and I have no reason to think his Natural History had much of an impact. Hume's influence would have been through his political and economic essays, his History of England, and (possibly) his stuff on morality and justice (which was in the highly influential tradition of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson).

Also, I'm not sure what you're looking for when you look for Humean philosophy, but it should be noted that, politically, Hume was considered rather conservative. He had strong Tory sympathies, and spent a lot of time debunking the Whigs' mythological history of the ancient constitution.

Finally, I'm not sure why you write that Federalist 10 "is a wonkish, not philosophical argument, about the best structure for a political system." That may be true, but the same can be said about Hume's "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth", the essay I cited as influential on Madison. Hume was a political essayist as much as he was a philosopher, and I'm not sure that a distinction between the two was even recognized at the time.

Dave2 said...

Our Founding Truth,

I believe you are seriously misreading Hobbes.

In the "name of laws" passage from 15.41, Hobbes is saying that the laws of nature are basically just precepts of natural reason concerning self-preservation, but that it's okay to call them "laws" because God has commanded them in Scripture.

The next passage you quote is all mixed up and it doesn't come from chapter 15. It starts with a quote from 5.1, which is giving an account of what reason is (for Hobbes, reason is mathematical ratiocination). It then has a quote from 8.25, which is explaining why ordinary superstitious people say that the mentally ill are possessed by evil spirits (lack of curiosity and an excessive concern for the "gross pleasures of the senses", Hobbes says).

The quote from 8.26 is Hobbes saying it's okay that his naturalistic account of mental illness (as pathologically excessive passion) seems to contradict Scripture (where Jesus treats the mentally ill as demon-possessed). He compares his account to heliocentrism and says that Scripture has its domain and purpose (getting us to obey God) and that natural reason has its domain and purpose (studying the natural world). This is just like the old saying (attributed to Galileo) that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, but not how the heavens go.

And the last quote from 31.1 loses its teeth later on when he argues in chapter 33 that the sovereign gets to decide which books of the Bible count as canonical, saying that you have no reason to obey any book of the Bible unless the sovereign has declared it canonical or unless you have some personal revelation from God (33.24).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Dave2, I enjoy dialoguing with you. You never fail to present a legitimate counterargument. When you present one, I look it up, as I've grown to trust that you're not wasting my time, and there is truth to be found.

Cheers, mate.

As for Federalist 10, since I was reading through the piece, I think my link drifted off page 101, which directly addressed Fed 10 and Hume's "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth." This link should be better. I wouldn't waste your time either.

I look forward to more of your comments on David Hume, and although I still cannot tie him significantly to the Founding, I'm interested in hearing more. The British admire him far more than the Englishman Locke, the Irishman Edmund Burke, and his fellow Scot Adam Smith. Much to their folly and coming regret, IMO. Hume had a view of man as a hail and well-met fellow, based on his person experience, which I think is his failing as a political philosopher. As for his limits as a philosopher-philosopher, that's best left to philosophers.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "But no truth claim for the actual existence of God is necessary, and so it's a moot point per this discussion. That the people believe it is the point. These are properly described as principles."

Very good. We have a consistent understanding. Although I don't personaly agree with the necessity of theistic belief.

Regarding you ending comment: "Jefferson does slip up in the D of I by invoking the creator, [...]"

My understanding this that the word "creator" was added by committee, and were not part of Jeffeson's original rough draft. This is a minor point, but I ecounter it often enough that I thought I'd point it out. Jefferson did not use the word "creator", but "nature's god".

I don't read a lot into that, but I do think it important to get the historical facts correct.

bpabbott said...

OFT: "It is purely illogical that man's flawed mind could be the ultimate truth. The mind is flawed from the beginning, until the Divine Law is written down(positive law) reason cannot be a viable authority, not only to rule the internal passions of men, but the complexities of a state."

I think the flaw is assuming the one can posses "the ultimate truth". Reason can direct our efforts in seeking out such, but our search is limited.

While I find the idea that Divine law could be written down a contradiction, even if it were, the most reliable method to determine its validity is through reason.

Kristo Miettinen said...

OFT, I'd love to use your Hobbes quotes to bolster my case and claim him on my side, but they fall a touch short. The closest he comes is the exception to obeying the sovereign "wherein their obedience is not repugnant to the laws of God". This establishes that individuals must not obey their sovereign against their conscience, but it does not give the founders what they needed, a doctrine for overthrowing the sovereign.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Ben,

I have no idea what you're saying here, I cannot parse this: "Kristo, I'll make an obvious observation. You comments has no foundation. There is no evidence for God, thus the 'authority' you speak of only exists due to the popularity of opinion."

But let me clarify my point, then maybe you can clarify your counterpoint. My point is that naked reason cannot establish moral force, the prescriptive element of ought. Say reason tells us that rape is against the moral law, but we believe in no higher authority that endorses this proscription. What, in this context, does it mean to say that we ought not rape?

The atheist rational man considering a rape says "I can rape if I so choose. I may face certain consequences, but that is my choice to make, my risk to take." What can naked reason say to this, other than "yes, you're taking a risk"? How does reason give moral force to "ought"? In the absence of authority, what does it mean for something to be "wrong"? And, to return to our topic, who had an answer to this question in the 18th century, an answer known to the founders?

Our Founding Truth said...

In the "name of laws" passage from 15.41, Hobbes is saying that the laws of nature are basically just precepts of natural reason concerning self-preservation, but that it's okay to call them "laws" because God has commanded them in Scripture.>

Hey Dave, thanks for the clarification on Hobbes. I only posted them in support of Kristo's quote "moral law cannot get its authority from reason." To Hobbes, reason needs the Word of God for clarification, not the other way around.
" But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth ALL THINGS, then are they properly called laws..."

Man's reason is included in all things.

and

"The Scripture was written to show unto men the kingdom of God, and to prepare their minds..to the disputation of men for the exercising of their NATURAL REASON"

As seminary teaches, "reason is general revelation, scripture is specific revelation."

And the last quote from 31.1 loses its teeth later on when he argues in chapter 33 that the sovereign gets to decide which books of the Bible count as canonical, saying that you have no reason to obey any book of the Bible unless the sovereign has declared it canonical or unless you have some personal revelation from God (33.24).>

This seems strange, what about the Torah? The Canon has nothing to do with that. The Law is already assumed, and defined. I will re-read it.

Charles said...

"What can naked reason say to this, other than 'yes, you're taking a risk'? ... And to return to our topic, [what] answer to this question [was] known to the founders?"

An obvious answer (and therefore, one presumably known to the founders) is "Nothing".

And so? What does having the "moral force" of "ought" or "wrong" buy us? Given that there is the risk of unpleasant consequences when one breaks the positive law and yet many do every day, what practical benefit attaches to adding "it's immoral" to "it's illegal"?

bpabbott said...

Kristo asked: "Say reason tells us that rape is against the moral law, but we believe in no higher authority that endorses this proscription. What, in this context, does it mean to say that we ought not rape?"

Reason tells us that rape is immoral. Thus we should not rape.

Kristo: "In the absence of authority, what does it mean for something to be "wrong"?"

It means the same thing ... it is wrong!

I do not see morality of the individual as a manifestation of obedience, but as a devotion to live life to a higher moral standard that the individual is able to reach.

To be clear, I do not imply that "a higher moral standard" must be proscribed. I do not see the need. I recognize that my capabilities in all things are limited. I know they are limited without the need of evidence of something greater.

Limits of an individuals morality is the result of several factors. The prominent factors are; (1) limits of cognitive function, (2) limits of ability, and (3) limits of dedication.

Each of these limitations may be bolstered by reliance upon others. I see that as a proper and constructive purpose for organized religion (even if I do not always agree with their conclusions).

Kristo Miettinen said...

Charles,

My point is that the founders needed a form of natural law capable of justifying an act, specifically a rebellion against legitimate authority.

I agree with you that they could have skipped this, just done the modern revolutionary thing and just revolted in the name of the people, but for whatever reason their moral compass was set differently, and they needed a version of natural law theory with the capacity of justification. Protestant natural law theory provided that.

Ben,

No. Reason tells us that rape is against moral law, but reason does not tell us what "moral" means, or why it matters. Right and wrong are not like true and false; we cannot test right and wrong against external physical reality. You say to the would-be rapist "but rape is wrong", and he'll reply "I can do it (this is testable against reality, i.e. "true"), and I choose to do it. What else is there to say about it that is real?"

I think you mean "prescribed" when you say "proscribed", but I get your point. But think about it; say you see a rapist and a saint, and you judge that the latter has done better than the former with respect to the moral standard. Does that have verifiable meaning, in the same way as truth and falsehood?

bpabbott said...

Kristo: "Reason tells us that rape is against moral law, but reason does not tell us what "moral" means, or why it matters."

No offense, but I could not disagree more ... well sort of ... I'll explain why I see reason as the only valid measure for making moral choices.

Reason tells *me* that rape is immoral. It does not tell me anything about law (which is a legal term, not a moral one).

Reason can tell me why something is immoral. One might claim that such is nothing more a self-justification of my opinion ... which I think is a fair assessment. Although I would prefer to refer to it as my perspective ;-)

While I reach my opinion of morality via reason, others reach their opinions of morality by subscribing to the opinion of a higher human authority or subscribing to what they see as a supernatural authority.

However, as there is no evidence of the latter and plenty of evidence of humans claiming to represent the divine ... *imo*, we come back to the individual accepting the moral opinion of a higher human authority.

I have always found the relation between responsibility and obedience to be a conundrum.

If I do as I'm told and fail, or do harm, *I* am to blame. Those who I obey are not accountable, ... I am.

Thus, I'm skeptical that obedience is consistent with morality. When we act we must choose. If I do not recognize one action as being superior to another, I may seek the advice of someone I trust, I may consider the matter further until I'm able to reach a reasoned opinion, or I may accept the authoritative opinion ... but it is my choice.

I've tried to lead you a long distance from the perspective of your original question. Are you still will me?

btw ... I'm curious, do you find my opinion on this as foreign as I find yours? ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Me, I don't find your opinion the least bit foreign. I'm bilingual.