Posts tagged with: philosophy

Courtesy Evangelical Outpost and the always-interesting 33 Things, here’s a video on the strangeness of the economics of incentives and punishments:



The lesson here is that people in real life, body and soul, are not simple rational economic actors who respond only to material realities.

We exist in the context of social webs and relationships. But we also have non-material faculties; consciences, free choice, creativity, speculative reason.

Homo economicus is useful as a partial model of human behavior, but it is not exhaustive, comprehensive, or reliably predictive. Why do economists try to universalize this model?

My theory is that it is in part a response to the post-Englightenment subversion of the unified field of learning. Theology was displaced, albeit briefly, as the queen of the sciences. Philosophy could not hold on, and was torn down by the clamoring crowd of other disciplines. Now each discipline seeks to place itself upon the throne, thus we get tyrannizing and universalizing claims from every academic discipline. Everyone tries to explain everything in the terms of their own discipline, and these explanations are therefore by necessity reductive.

For a bit more, see “Requiem for Homo Economicus,” from the Journal of Markets & Morality 10, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 321-38, in which Edward O’Boyle argues, “Burying homo economicus and substituting homo socioeconomicus brings the basic unit of economic analysis out of the individualism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the personalism of the twentieth century.”

To these models, we ought also add homo religiosus, all the while recognizing the each are models and therefore limited, partial, and provisional relative to the comprehensive picture of humanity in imago Dei.

I am a great fan of “back to basics.” This is because the general population does not know what the educated person of my youth knew. Let’s take college education. The undergraduate university I attended had a heavy core curriculum. In philosophy alone there were five required courses in sequence. I would minoring with 21 credits. In theology there were four, again in sequence. In history there were three—two in sequence and one of the student’s choice. In political science there were two in sequence, same each with math and science. There were five in English, again in sequence. Today it is very rare to find such a core. Nowadays, a typical student is usually required to take an English writing course and then maybe one or two courses in each major area, not in sequence, but of his own choosing. The result is that the student’s knowledge is a hodge-podge, rather than a sequential building from a foundation. So the foundations are missing or shoddy.

I was a critic on panel at a scholarly conference in Texas once. I was assigned a person’s paper to critique, and the jist of my argument was that the whole argument was founded on Nominalism. Since the other person had a doctorate as well as I, I assumed that we would have a fruitful discussion over the very foundation of the professor’s paper and research, where she would have to defend the nominalist basis of the paper. But, instead of addressing my critique, she discussed another person’s paper, which was not her job. After the panel ended, I asked another person on the panel who had been a former student of mine, why this happened. He threw up his hands and said, “Philosophically illiterate?”

This is exactly my point. This person’s knowledge base was very flawed such that she did not know a very basic concept that all students (even those with only a B. A.) in my generation who had attended at least Catholic universities would be familiar with.

So what I am going to do now is discuss in the following series the fundamentals of man’s nature and how it plays out in everyday life.

The big point to remember here is that both society and the market are sui generis: that is to say, self-generating. They come from themselves. No one created society except the people who live in it. And they did it by there multitudinous interactions. They did it by the interactions of a free people, exercising their freedom. Adam Smith correctly called this the system of natural liberty. It is natural because God gave all human beings a free will, just like his. God created the universe absolutely freely, and gave his creatures a free will. He also gave us reason, similar to His, but his reason is so far above ours, it is not that similar. Hence, our free will is more like God’s than our reason. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 13, 2006

Three timewasters that will help you gauge where your affinities lie on the political spectrum. The varied results will show you just how much the formation of the questions affects how you are categorized. The links follow along with my score for each (post your scores in the comments section if you feel so inclined).

Politopia from the Institute for Humane Studies. I came out as a “Northwesterner” (just south of Drew Carey), the area with “a large degree of economic and personal freedom.”

Political Compass (HT: Blogora). My ratings: Economic Left/Right: 5.50; Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -1.08, which puts me one line below and six lines to the right of the mid-lines, in the Right/Libertarian quadrant. This is to the Right of where I came out on the Politopia map, and probably more accurate.

And finally, “Are You a Socialist or Capitalist?” from Blogthings (HT: Of Making Many Books):


Jordan, You Are 80% Capitalist, 20% Socialist


In general, you support a free economy and business interests.
You tend to think people should fend for themselves, even when times get tough.
However, do think the government should help those who are truly in need.

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).

BRYN MAWR, July 11, 2006 – One school of libertarian political thought is that of the so-called anarcho-capitalists. Here’s a good summary: “Anarcho-capitalists reject the state as an unjustified monopolist and systematic aggressor against sovereign individuals, and would replace it with cooperatives, neighborhood associations, private businesses and similar non-monopolistic organizations.”

I think this view is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Perhaps you think that this conclusion is rather uncontroversial and obvious. Even so, Christians who are broadly in favor of limited government and classical liberalism need to be careful to recognize the various types of positions and views that this larger umbrella category often covers. It’s worth looking at some of the reasons that anarchism and Christianity cannot be reconciled.

The most basic perhaps is that the government is a divinely mandated institution. The exact nature and scope of its mandate is a point of some important debate, but the divine institution of government cannot be denied on the basis of the Bible. One important feature of this mandate is the responsibility to adminster temporal justice.

As Paul writes in Romans 12, Christians are forbidden from taking personal vengeance for wrongs committed against us. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’” (Romans 12:17-19 NIV)

Paul goes on to describe the means that God has instituted for the administration of retributive justice. Thus he writes in the next chapter that the civil ruler “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV)

Again, this gets at the role of the State, but it also assumes the validity and necessity of the existence of civil government. In this latter regard, Paul also writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2 NIV) This section is a good summary of what the Bible says on these topics, and is consistent with the traditional interpretation of many other parts of the Scriptures, including the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12 NIV) This commandment is understood to refer not only to our actual parents but to all temporal authorities that God has instituted.

One specific feature of anarcho-capitalist theory is that all taxation by government is necessarily invalid and by definition theft. This is because any state action, but particularly one like taxation, violates the basic principle of non-agression because it is inherently coercive. As we have seen, Paul clearly legitimizes a role for the State’s use of coercive force, i.e. “the sword”. But he also specifically addresses the question of taxation (as Jesus had also done previously with regard to the Roman tax). Thus Paul writes, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:6-7 NIV) Here we can see that Paul implicitly regards governing as a valid and sacred calling or vocation, as it is participation in a divinely instituted ordinance and is a “full time” job.

With this basic framework in mind, we can understand how anarchism has always been viewed by the Christian tradition as a fundamentally problematic and heretical doctrine. One might say that it dishonors God because it denies the validity of a divinely mandated institution. In this context, the magisterial Protestant reformers were consistently suspicious of what they perceived in some Anabaptist and other so-called “radical” groups. In this way, the Belgic Confession, penned by Guido De Bres and a confessional symbol of Reformed Christianity, included in its original form in the context of the discussion of civil authorities the following denouncement: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Having established the basic validity of the existence of the State for Christianity and the incompatibility of anarchism with the biblical faith, we will examine in more detail tomorrow the scope and nature of government authority. We already see an initial element in our discussion above, that is, the administration of civil justice.

BRYN MAWR, July 10, 2006 – Things are progressing smoothly for me here at the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar. Our daily schedule includes four major lectures from seminar faculty, each with built in small group discussion time as well as Q&As with the presenting faculty.

One of our first activities was to try and self-identify in terms of our view of the role of government (if any). I identified with the endorsement of a limited government, whose main role is to provide for the defense of the nation and the administration of domestic justice. In addition, however, I do not dismiss out of hand any role for the State beyond these two activities. Indeed, in agreement with the political conclusions of the Chicago School and Hayek, I do find there to be a legitimate role for the State with regard to certain kinds of public good.

I would articulate this as being in broad accord with a sort of sphere sovereignty envisioned by Abraham Kuyper and those who followed him, specifically with respect to the divine authority invested in various social institutions. This perspective is not unique to Kuyper, however, and I think finds expression and support from a wider and more diverse range of sources. These include writers like Lord Acton (see yesterday’s post for a representative quote), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the reformer Wolfgang Musculus.

The government is a social institution with its own specific and unique mandate, and therefore has an important albeit limited role. My current sense is that the government is responsible for having some concern for the public welfare in cases of extreme and urgent need. The proper relation between the government and the other spheres of life, however, is characterized best I think in terms of the government as the institution of last and temporary resort. The principle of subsidiarity is helpful in articulating just how these relations might work.

A final reflection: it is important to understand the role of a Christian political philosophy and how it relates more broadly to a Christian world-and-life view. Take Lord Acton, as an example. He writes,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

Broadly speaking, we might say then that for Acton the purpose of government is to promote and protect liberty, as man’s highest political end. But this end is itself penultimate, and is to be used in service of other, presumably even higher, human ends (e.g. those of civil society and private life). This points to the necessary relationsip between liberty as a political end and what we might call virtue as a higher human end. That is, freedom is not simply an ultimate end in itself, but must be used in the pursuit of virtue, which finds its authoritative and greatest manifestation in the Christian religion.

This quote from Acton also sets the stage for a topic for tomorrow, Christian theology and anarchy. But my thought for today is that classical liberalism is not itself a complete and adequate world-and-life view (for Christians especially, but really for anyone else either), but rather can in certain forms be consistent as an applied political philosophy with Christianity, and which does not even begin to make claims about the highest human ends.

BRYN MAWR, July 9, 2006 – I arrived safely at Bryn Mawr College yesterday for the beginning of the Institute for Humane Studies Advanced Studies in Freedom Conference. Someone will have to explain to me the economic efficiency of flying from Detroit to Philadelphia by way of Atlanta. The accomodations are excellent, and the campus is quite beautiful.

The program began last night, and continued today with two morning lectures. The schedule is well suited to a good amount of discussion and dialogue, both with the faculty and the seminar participants. In the hopes of creating a truly open environment for dialogue and learning, the entire seminar proceedings are off the record. Therefore, these updates will represent my own reflections and questions on the issues raised in the course of the seminar.

In the spirit of advancing the study and appreciation of liberty, let me pass along this quote from Lord Acton (who has had rather good representation here so far, if I may say):

By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

More in the coming days about my perspective on the role of the State, as well as difficulties in finding fundamental agreement between certain forms of classical liberal thought and Christianity.

I’m leaving tomorrow to attend the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and hosted at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The conference runs from July 8-14, and will “take a deeper look at topics such as spontaneous order, social development, and public choice, considering them in both a historical context and in light of issues today.”

Seminar faculty include Randy Barnett of Boston University (Law), Stephen Davies of Manchester Metropolitan University (History), Sandy Ikeda of SUNY-Purchase (Economics), David Schmidtz of the University of Arizona (Philosophy), and Jeremy Shearmur of the Australian National University (Philosophy).

I’ve been doing some prepatory reading over the last few weeks, as much as I could from the suggested readings for the seminar. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences from the conference with the PowerBlog audience. Look for postings on a regular basis next week. I hope to have daily summaries for you.

I ran across some of these tidbits over recent months that I thought worth passing along, and it’s a fitting time to do so at noon, typically the lunch hour. The first two are taken from an article by Martin J. Heinecken, “Kierkegaard as Christian,” Journal of Religion 37, no. 1 (Jan. 1957): 20–30. Heinecken was a professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

He writes of Kierkegaard’s critical project against the state church of Denmark:

To be sure, he insisted that the true Christian must sooner or later in a hostile world suffer for the sake of the Lord. This is precisely what he found wrong with the Christianity of his day when everyone was a Christian as a matter of course, viz., that it required no suffering. Something was topsy-turvy when it required more inconvenience not to be a Christian than to be one (28).

A bit earlier Heinecken passed on a colorful anecdote that describes the nature of Christian suffering:

This suffering of the Christian is therefore by no means to be equated with the chance misfortunes of life that fall upon the just and the unjust. I shall not soon forget the Australian divine who gorged himself on good, old, solid, Australian beef, garnished with a few thick slices of mutton, plus all the assorted vegetables in season, and then finished this off with some concoction, euphemistically called “trifle,” which, as nearly as I could figure out, consisted of a considerable base of rich pastry topped with thick, syrupy fruit of various kinds—apples, peaches, pears, dates, nuts, etc.—and then was smothered in a thick covering of pure cream, not whipped into a froth like our insipid “Dairy Maid” concoctions, but the solid stuff, straight from the cow with all the air and water taken out and nothing left but the cream. This concoction is served on top of the meal in a sort of soup tureen and is eaten, not with a dainty little dessert spoon, but is literally “shoveled in” with the aid of two utensils, the soup spoon on the left hand and the fork serving as a sort of hay loader on the right. So this German-Australian divine, after a long communion service, after which he heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Nun is die ganze Herde wieder einmal gefüttert und getränkt” (“Now the whole herd has been once again fed and watered”), sat down and devoured the above-described little meal—just a token really of what a real man would do, for, after all, a parson is only half a man. There he sits now after the meal, all bloated with gas, and more and more he is convulsed in the most excruciating agony, more acute even than that of childbirth; he says, “Dies is mein Kreuz, dass der Herr mir aufgelegt had, das ich willig tragen muss” (“This is the cross the Lord has laid upon me which I must bear patiently”). This most certainly is not the suffering Kierkegaard had in mind (27).

And in connection with that striking portrait, here’s Kierkegaard’s description of his philosophical project, as appears through the person of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

When a man has filled his mouth so full of food that for this reason he cannot eat and it must end with his dying of hunger, does communicating food to him consist in stuffing his mouth even more or, instead, in taking away a little so that he can eat? Similarly, when a man is very knowledgeable but his knowledge is meaningless or virtually meaningless to him, does sensible communication consist in giving him more to know, even if he loudly proclaims that this is what he needs, or does it consist, instead, in taking something away from him? When a communicator takes a portion of the copious knowledge that the very knowledgeable man knows and communicates it to him in a form that makes it strange to him, the communicated is, as it were, taking away his knowledge, at least until the knower manages to assimilate the knowledge by overcoming the resistance of the form.

I’ll pass along my provisional conclusion regarding the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Heinecken notes the observation of an anonymous German divine on Kierkegaard: “He is all right when you need a laxative, but not when you need good solid, nourishing food” (24).

But taking Kierkegaard’s own image of having a mouth full of food a bit further, his anti-Hegelian program could also be characterized as a sort of emetic philosophy: perfect for the expulsion of dangerous elements, and necessary perhaps in particular contexts as preparation for healthy intake. But it should not be confused with either milk or solid food itself (see 1 Cor. 3:2).

As is so often the case with reactive intellectual movements, Kierkegaard’s philosophy in his Philosophical Fragments is not immune to overcompensation. So while we might appreciate Kierkegaard’s motive and the extent of his success in undermining the Hegelian philosophical program, we should also exercise a measure of caution with respect to the agreeability of his philosophy with Christian theology.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, March 16, 2006

Henry Stob, the longtime professor of philosophical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, authored a compendium of articles on various aspects of theological ethics in his 1978 book titled, Ethical Reflections: Essays on Moral Themes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). The book is now out of print, but I ran across an excellent section that excellently captures the intent of the work of the Acton Institute.

In Chapter 2, “Theological Foundations for Christian Ethics,” he writes:

Because man does in fact have a horizontal dimension, and because he is in fact tied in with nature, the presence of “conditioning” factors cannot be denied. There is that in man which is amenable to “causal explanation.” Accordingly, the effect upon him, and upon his conduct, of chemical processes, biological instincts, psychological drives and complexes, economic determinants, and social pressures may never be ignored. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that the natural sciences, or those social sciences which proceed by way of the quantitative analysis of empirical givens, are able really to interpret man and his behavior. The methods employed within these sciences, fashioned as they are for use on the horizontal plane, are simply not fitted to plumb the depths of man.

It is most narrowly the economic aspects of human relationships that the Acton Institute is concerned with, but more broadly other “horizontal” institutions are relevant, including disciplines such as political science and history.

One impressive piece of evidence that suggests that Dr. Stob is right in his analysis of the limits of social sciences is the current flowering of interest in economic theories of “social capital,” for example. These are attempts to get at some of the deeper aspects of human reality. Stob concludes that this is properly the realm of ethics, and this is underscored by Francis Fukuyama’s definition of social capital: “Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them.”

Stob writes that since the horizontal dimensions do not exhaust the causal explanations for human behavior,

Attention must be given, therefore, to another set of answers to the question about man and his behavior. These answers, proclaimed by Christian ethics, arise out of theology and metaphysics, and reflect an apprehension of man’s vertical dimension. Integral to them is the recognition that, though man is undoubtedly tied in with nature, he is even more certainly tied in with God. This being tied to God, it is recognized, is precisely what accounts for man’s humanity. It is this which raises man above mere animality and constitutes him a moral person. It is this, moreover, which enables him to break through the causal nexus and transcend merely natural determinants. Being tied in with God, having a dimension of depth, oriented to some object of ultimate concern, he can rise above the influences playing upon him from the side and exercise a genuine freedom—the freedom to set himself ideals and to aspire after them.

It is in the intersection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human existence, specifically as ethics relates to economics, that the Acton Institute works. It is the deeper and more comprehensive view of the human person, particularly as revealed in Holy Scripture, that allows us to evaluate and appropriate elements of study of the “horizontal” planes of human relationships.