Can Nationalism Promote Trust?

I’m fond of the claim that liberal institutions can and do create social and political trust, but sometimes I wonder whether nationalism can too. Well, it turns out there’s now some evidence in favor of the latter claim, from a recent paper from Christian Bjørnskov, Martin Rode, and Miguel Ángel Borrella Mas. The process of nation-building surrounding secession in Catalonia probably increased social trust.

Here’s the abstract:

Consequences of social trust are comparatively well studied, while its societal determinants are often subject to debate. This paper studies both in the context of Catalan attempts to secede from Spain: First, we test if Catalonia enjoys higher levels of social capital that it is prevented from capitalizing on. Second, the paper examines whether secessionist movements create animosity and political divisions within society that undermine trust. Employing the eight available waves of the European Social Survey for Spain, we show that social trust levels are not higher in Catalonia than in the rest of the country. However, we find indications of a significant regional increase after secession became a real option in 2014. We argue that this finding is a likely result of the mental process of nation building, indicating that the formation of social trust may best be thought of as a stable punctuated equilibrium.

The authors argue that “Catalan social trust has not declined as a result of the secessionist conflict, as argued by the unionist side of the discussion, but has rather increased significantly after 2014,” a difference equivalent to the difference between trust in the Netherlands and Sweden. The authors, of course, don’t argue for nationalism or deliberate nation-building, but we do have at least a bit of evidence that when states and societies deliberately try to build new identities, or perhaps to rediscover old ones, that can increase social trust. This may also buttress the possibility that large-scale immigration will be trust-decreasing insofar as it undermines shared identity. I’m not happy about either of these results, as they make trouble for my thesis, but I’m obligated to report it.

When are Religious Exemptions Morally Required?

I’m writing this post as a reference for future discussions about religious exemptions.

Conditions Sufficient to Morally Require a Religious Exemption

I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:

(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).

(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.

(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.

(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.

Reasons for the Four Conditions

The case for (1) is simple: if, say, a majority supports the law, then that’s usually a good reason to have the law. If they don’t support it, then abolish the law. No exemption is necessary.

The case for (2) is also simple: all persons have dignity and worth, and part of respecting that worth is respecting their liberty to live their own lives in their own way, to integrate their lives and identities with core principles, projects, and values. Laws that require people to violate their integrity or conscience or that greatly restrict the liberties to live out their own lives in their own way are, for that reason, unjust and undesirable, and so should not be imposed on everyone. Also note that this point is not restricted to religious citizens, but covers secular citizens too.

The case for (3) is also pretty straightforward. If the exemption is infeasible, say because too many people want the exemption, or the people who want the exemption can’t be detected, then that’s a good reason not to have the exemption. In those cases, either abolish the law or restrict the exemption.

The argument for (4) is complicated. On the one hand, we shouldn’t grant exemptions that cause severe harm, like exemptions from laws banning child sacrifice (a go-to example of exemption opponents). But all exemptions have the potential for harm, just as all rights do, so the mere fact that an exemption harms a third party is not sufficient to deny the exemption. Instead, the exemption should be crafted to economize on third party harm, at least to a large extent. So exemptions can impose harms on third-parties, but should not cross a certain threshold of harm, at least once we subtract the harm that comes from denying the exemption (since total harm is what’s at issue). But it’s going to be hard to specify that threshold in any precise way.

A second problem arises when we try to decide what counts as a harm. Obviously physical harms should be counted, and many psychological harms as well. But sometimes people cite a third kind of harm – dignitary harm – that isn’t the same as a physical or psychological harm. The harmful act is harmful simply because it is an affront to the dignity of a person, regardless of whether the person feels hurt or degraded. However, some people (like me) deny that there are dignitary harms over and above physical harms, psychological harms, or simple rights violations. So that’s going to complicate matters.

Some Illustrations

The Draft: To illustrate how to apply the conditions, let’s begin by considering the classic case of exemption from the draft. In at least some wars, most people support the war. Second, participating in the war places a modest or substantial burden on the liberties and interests of some persons. Third, it is feasible to exempt a small number of people. Objectors are easy to detect and there are few enough people wanting exemptions that the exemptions can be granted without large costs. Finally, while having fewer soldiers may result in some harms, the numbers are small enough that draft exemptions don’t impose third-party harms, and may even reduce harm if the exempted become medics. If they heal rather than kill.

Note that secular citizens can secure draft exemptions, so I’m not limiting these standards to religious citizens. Religious citizens on my view possess no religious privilege in this domain of the law.

Sacred Drug Use: We can also assess the famous case of Employment Division v. Smith. A majority of people presumably supported restrictions on drug use, including peyote, but being forbidden from ingesting peyote placed a substantial burden on the integrity of two men employed by the State of Oregon, and when they were fired, they were denied unemployment benefits, a further harm added to losing their job. The exemption is feasible. Few people have an incentive to lie about whether their faith requires peyote use nor can they usually successfully deceive the courts. And there is no real third party harm from occasional peyote use. So again, the exemption is morally required.

Vaccine Exemptions: A case where exemptions plausibly should be denied are cases of vaccine exemptions, since too many exemptions impose a grave physical harm on children, such that the exemption does not economize on third-party harms. If the number of people who wanted the exemptions were very small, the exemption should be granted, but now that vaccine denialism is being mainstreamed (sigh), denying exemptions is appropriate in many cases. That said, there are better and worse ways to craft exemptions. I think the denials should simply lead to forbidding families with unvaccinated children from using public services. No one needs to go to jail, no doctors need to be sent to private homes, etc.

Serving Same-Sex Weddings: Here’s a harder case – Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, wanted an exemption from providing same-sex couples with certain kinds of wedding cake or product. A sizeable majority of citizens in Colorado want restrictions on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These restrictions arguably place a substantial burden on the integrity of Phillips. An exemption for Phillips is feasible as well. It isn’t hard to detect such citizens because very few people request exemptions, and few will ask for them insincerely, given how unpopular they are. Further, the exemptions can occur with very little cost. So conditions (1)-(3) are satisfied. But what about (4)?

Clearly those turned away aren’t physically harmed, nor are they even financially harmed, since the vast majority of cake shops provide cakes to same-sex weddings. And I seriously doubt there is any psychological harm in being turned away by a single cake-shop among dozens, even if being turned away is offensive. No, the question is whether there is a dignitary harm in this case because someone is denied a service solely because of their sexual orientation and desire to be married. As I said earlier, I don’t think there are dignitary harms. One reason is that I think it is basically a misleading way of characterizing an offense, and I agree with J.S. Mill that friends of free societies must insist that people distinguish between harm and offense. The law must regulate harm, but must not regulate offense.

But even if there are dignity harms, I doubt one denial of service can harm a person’s dignity. The refusal has to part of a broader social norm that degrades persons over time. But that’s not present here. So Phillips merits an exemption by my criteria and the way in which I’ve specified them.

My purpose here is not to prove that Phillips merits an exemption, but to examine how to apply the standards I’ve set out. Since my standards take no position on whether there are dignitary harms, however, most people should be able to get on board with the four conditions I outline.

The Strange Death of the New Atheism

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has posted a fascinating set of reflections on the rise and fall of the New Atheism. Most readers of the blog will know that many New Atheists seem to have gotten caught up with right-wing or centrist politics, often with the men’s rights movement, opposition to political correctness, and so on. But Alexander argues that most of the atheist bloggers and authors were caught up with movements on the left, specifically what we might call the new social justice movement. He provides a lot of interesting evidence from search terms, bloggers changing direction, “atheism+”, and so on and so forth. I have to admit it’s plausible. And, indeed, it fits the pattern of many disagreements in American life getting sucked into our red tribe/blue tribe dispute, or what I call our cold, civil war.

A few observations to add to Alexander’s post.

First, if Alexander is right, and I think he is, by and large, it provides some support for the common Christian retort that atheism can’t really furnish a comprehensive doctrine or philosophy of life or “faith” because it really is a negative claim. Despite New Atheist retorts, it looks like they felt sufficiently incomplete that they began to take up new political causes, and now find meaning in pursuing those causes. We can now ask whether the new social justice movement furnishes a stable, enduring philosophy of life.

Perhaps it can do this. Though I have my doubts. The goals and successes are too fleeting, I think. You have to move on to fight a new bigotry pretty quickly, and you’ll eventually either run out of good targets and start picking bad targets. The nice thing about the great world religions is that they, by and large, identify the prime enemy as yourself and your bad character, and suggest teachings and practices to make yourself better. That strikes me as more enduring than any social or political ideology. That said, the new social justice movement has a similar kind of self-examination and penance practice, which is rooting out bigotry in the soul. The movement focuses on a narrower range of vices, but it does share this meaning-granting activity with the great world religions.

Second, the new social justice movement is way more effective at undermining Christianity than the New Atheism. The New Atheists tried to establish new taboos on Christian belief by establishing new taboos on epistemic irrationality. But we don’t really have taboos on irrationality. And most people don’t care about being irrational, so it only got so far. But the interesting thing about the new social justice movement is that they don’t have to invent a new taboo, they just spread an existing taboo onto theologically orthodox Christians. Lump orthodox Christians into the class of bigots, and bam!, you’ve got a much more effective weapon. Many people care a lot about not seeming bigoted and prejudiced. I don’t think this was by design. I think most New Atheists are well-meaning and their turn to social justice is sincere. But they have become more effective at achieving one of their ends than they once were.

Third, and this is a small point, but Alexander claims that the religiously unaffiliated are atheists, but that’s not true. Maybe they’re functionally atheist, but I’m not even sure this is true.



House of the Dragon Greenlighted – Some Hopes and Fears

We finally have some good news about the Game of Thrones spin-off shows. We’re getting House of the Dragon, which will cover the first half of the wonderful, but dark and gruesome history of House Targaryen’s rise and fall in Westeros (including the especially gruesome but awesome tale of the Princess and the Queen). Here are some of my hopes and fears.

Hopes: (1) D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (Dan and Dave) are not involved in writing any of the ordered episodes, which is great, since they’re not very good at writing when they lack detailed, quality source material. So the writing might be good. (2) There are tons of really good stories that can plausibly be told in single episode formats, with colorful characters.

Fears: (1) The show will still cover one hundred and fifth years of history, which means it could feel rushed despite having a lot of bite-sized stories. We may not have time to get attached to the characters. (2) To tell the stories right, HBO will have to give the show a ludicrously large CGI budget, which I worry will bog down the show in other respects. The reason is that many of the early stories involve lots of full-grown dragons. To tell the story of the Princess and the Queen, for instance, they’re going to have to have many scenes of dragons fighting each other. Game of Thrones sometimes got too bogged down in CGI and other special effects, at the cost of more important parts of the show. I don’t want that to happen again. Finally, (3), the Princess and the Queen is extremely gruesome, with children dying horrid deaths, and that must be handled with great care to make good television. My guess is that they will age up many of the characters.

Despite my fears, I’m hopeful, especially since Dan and Dave aren’t involved.

Kanye and the Politics of Jesus

One of the fascinating phenomena surrounding Kanye West’s recent conversion to Christianity is the kind of advice he is receiving from Christians that don’t know him. I worry about offering advice on such intimate matters when you don’t know the person in question, but there are some kinds of advice I’m pretty confident are problematic. I want to discuss one such case here.

Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian anti-poverty advocate and social theologian, has encouraged West to avoid mixing his newfound faith with American right-wing politics, which I agree occurs far too often. The problem is that Claiborne recommends his own politics as an alternative; he wants Kanye to adopt a “philosophy of resistance.”

My own view is that the great idol in American social life is political ideology, left-wing or right-wing. We in effect have two golden calves tempting Christians away from living Christian lives and into something else – the blue-team calf and the red-team calf. Both calves are false, and both are dangerous idols because one can worship either one without realizing it. What’s worse, they reinforce one another. Looking away from the blue calf leads to a temptation to worship the red calf and vice versa.

I don’t think Christians should advise new Christians to adopt their politics right away, since the prime aim of a new Christian is to grow in the faith, independent of worldly ideologies and influences. So I disagree with Claiborne.

In fact, I’d go even further and argue that Christians at any stage of spiritual maturation should avoid mixing their faith with their political ideology. For one thing, Jesus’ life and teachings do not fit into any ideological category, so looking at the faith with an ideological lens will always distort the truth. And second, I don’t think Jesus Himself has an ideological commitments. In His human nature, He probably didn’t have one, and in His divine nature, He doesn’t need one. Instead, Jesus speaks what we might call political languages, appeals to important political values like virtue, aid, and peace that are different ways of characterizing and communicating about complex moral and political truth. And I think that’s by design: to help Christians avoid making politics their God.

So Claiborne is right to caution West not to worship the red calf, but worshipping the blue calf is not the way to go. I don’t think Claiborne means to give that advice, but his argument is formulated in a way that lends itself to blue calf worship.

“For Jesus,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved.”

No ideologies to be imposed, left or right.