The Mortara Argument Against Integralism

In this post, I offer the simplest compelling argument against Catholic Integralism that I know of. It is based on the Mortara Case, where Pope Pius IX, as sovereign of the papal states, removed Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy, from his Jewish family. Pius IX did so because he discovered that the boy had been illicitly baptized by the family’s Catholic servant. The child, by law, was owed a Catholic education, and Pius IX saw to that himself, raising Mortara as his own. Some integralists say Pius IX acted permissibly; everyone else disagrees. So here’s the argument.

The Mortara Argument (Against Integralism)

  1. If integralism is true, Pope Pius IX was morally permitted to remove Edgardo Mortara from his parents.
  2. But Pius IX was not morally permitted to remove Edgardo Mortara from his parents.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

Defense of premise 1

Pius IX was, by integralist standards (and perhaps by others), the legitimate sovereign of the papal states, and as such, had a duty to prepare his subjects for eternal beatitude. The moral law forbids forced baptism, but once it occurs, the baptized are under the jurisdiction of the Church and are owed the gifts of the Church, which includes a Catholic education. Being Jewish, the Mortara family was likely to deprive their child of this great good, so Pius IX was morally and legally bound to intervene.

Further evidence for premise 1 is that I don’t know any integralists who argue that Pius IX acted wrongly. And you would think that if there were at least some way to show that integralism does not have this implication, that we’d have seen the argument by now. I have read a ton of integralist publications and I just haven’t seen it. So it seems to me integralists accept premise 1, and that’s further reason to think 1 is true.

Defense of Premise 2

Everyone but integralists accept it, including all non-integralist Catholics I know of. I assume this includes at least the last five popes, and probably all living cardinals, and maybe all living bishops in the Catholic Church. That is, the wise within the Catholic Church agree with premise 2, as does seemingly everyone else outside the Catholic Church.

Beyond testimonial evidence, and mere moral intuitions, what’s the reason that removing Mortara was wrong? Well, the goods of family life together are very great, and the Mortara family was gravely damaged and its members gravely psychologically harmed. On top of that, it seems unjust to take children from their parents because parents have a natural right to raise their children in accord with their faith, within some reasonable limits. Further, Pius IX’s reasoning does not satisfy the Golden Rule. It would not be acceptable for a Jewish state to treat a Catholic family as Pius IX treated the Mortaras. He did not treat the Mortaras as he would be treated.

But even if you can’t expressly state the explanation of the wrongness of the act, the deep set nature of the intuition that Pius IX acted wrongly is itself evidence that the act was wrong. We all have a faculty of moral intuition that either perceives the moral truth or is a summary of our reasoning in that direction, and the deliverance of that faculty is clear.

Reject Integralism Before Rejecting Premise 2

I think the intuition grounding premise 2 is so deep set that we are rationally entitled to reject the weakest premise in any argument that Pius IX’s acts were morally permissible. That is, just about any rational person should take the modus tollens and simply reject the weakest premises in the best arguments for integralism. It seems like any reasonable person would be rationally entitled, if not rationally required, to do so.

The only exception is if you think integralism is Catholic dogma, in which case you have to accept that Pius IX acted permissibly or abandon your entire faith. But if I were Catholic and found myself believing integralism is Catholic dogma, I would do everything I rationally could to avoid it. Anyone should be extremely hesitant to accept that Pius IX acted permissibly.

So, there’s the argument. It is valid, and the case for the two premises is very strong. This won’t move integralists, I realize. But I do think they have a burden of explaining why we should reject moral commonsense, even the commonsense of Catholic Christians.

The Common Good Doesn’t Help Us Decide

Integralists and their fellow travelers continue to drive much online discussion in legal and political theory. They propose what many have proposed in the past, that social institutions be structured so as to promote the common good. They have a very specific conception of the common good, but most of the negative online responses to their proposal haven’t focused on their having the wrong conception of the common good, but on basing institutional structures on the common good of any variety.

There are two sources of skepticism. The most common objection is that there is no common good or we can’t know it, and so attempts to base institutions around the common good are really just masks for the will to power.

Another objection is pragmatic: power corrupts, and we shouldn’t empower political institutions in particular to promote the common good.

My preferred objection, advanced in Must Politics Be War?, is that, while we can know the common good, and in some cases think that political institutions could promote it, free, equal, and reasonable people disagree about what the common good is, and so imposing one view of the common good on others is likely to undermine the basis for social trust and respect for diverse persons in large-scale societies where people have come to trust each other.

But let’s suppose all these objections fail. Assume that there is a common good, we know what it is, we can overcome pragmatic objections, and that we should promote the true good even if some reasonable people are mistaken about it. Shouldn’t we then base society on the common good?

Perhaps. But a problem looms. The common good is supposed to be distinct from the aggregate good. It isn’t just the sum of the good of each person. This is how defenders of the common good avoid consequentialism and the perverse trade-offs that consequentialism allows. But that means there is some principle internal to the concept of the common good that forbids certain kinds of treatment of individual persons that would or could maximize the aggregate good.

In my view, those principles are grounded in the dignity of the person and the norms implicit in the kinds of relationships we want to have with other persons, in particular the moral relationships of love, friendship, and trust. These are what Jerry Gaus has called principle-grounded values. To be a good friend, and so to achieve the good of friendship, friends must be honest with one another. Honesty becomes a kind of deontic reason: if we value friendship, then we are prohibited from deceiving our friends, at least in the normal course of our friendship. So we can only get the teleological value if we follow the deontic principle.

I think the common good is itself a principle-grounded value. The common good is a kind of close social relation, and it is partly constituted by principles prohibiting treating others in certain ways even if doing so would result in more good. That means to fully specify the common good, we may have to articulate a series of rights claims. But we can’t appeal to the common good to ground those rights, since that would put the cart before the horse.

So I think the common good is not a master normative concept. It certainly has some of its own content, but we cannot fully specify the common good without reference to deontic constraints.

In Must Politics Be War? I argued that a principle of public justification captures the series of deontic reasons that we must be responsive to in order to maintain relations of social trust. But if we adopt a principle of public justification, then we must respect traditional liberal rights, because only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. I may be wrong about the details – I probably am! – but we must do that careful work before we can appeal to the common good. And so the common good doesn’t really help us to decide between liberal and non-liberal arrangements.

Against (Most) Religious Exemptions for Worshippers

I’m on record supporting a wide range of religious exemptions for all kinds of people. And I only sometimes oppose them. But I am now concerned, quite concerned, that demands for religious exemptions from lockdown policies risk imposing harms on others. When religious worshippers gather together in large numbers, they can easily spread the virus, and risk infecting hundreds and thousands of others.

In other posts, and some articles, I’ve outlined what I take to be the principles that license religious exemptions. 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.

All of these principles are fairly straightforward (but if you want more clarification, see the post linked above). The key in this case is principle (4). On my view, religious exemptions can be restricted if they impose third-party harms or significant risks of third-party harms. The trouble for religious exemptions for large church gatherings is that, under current conditions, such gatherings impose risks of third-party harms because they create sites for transmission of COVID. By refusing to engage in social distancing, these worshippers put others at risk. Now, people of faith have extremely strong reason to worship, but they don’t necessarily have strong reason to worship in physical proximity to one another during a pandemic since they can worship in other ways, and the leaders of many religious organizations have created other ways for them to do so (such as drive-thru services and online services, both of which I have benefited from) and strictly directed them not to attend services in person.

So it is not clear to me that people of faith have sufficiently strong reasons to reject these restrictions because their faith does not require that they meet. So, strictly speaking, the restrictions are a substantial burden, but the risk of infecting people, at least in certain areas, is a much greater burden.

But here’s the trouble: we don’t know exactly how much risk we’re imposing on others by gathering to worship, but we have a much better sense of the concrete losses to churches and parishioners for not being able to worship. Churches, like any other institution, can lose money, but the bigger issue is that there’s an enormous loss in being isolated from fellow believers. So the challenge for covid policymakers is to try and figure out whether restrictions should be applied broadly or targeted by region.

I can see a case to be made that in certain sparsely populated parts of the country that the restrictions on church gathering be more modest, whereas in large cities, the rationale for restrictions is stronger. I’m not in a position to make those calls, of course, but I think the principles I’ve laid out are the right ones. In general, we default in favor of religious liberty, but when exemptions pose third-party harms and when the legal restrictions don’t strictly violate the conscience of adherents of the faith, restrictions on church gatherings can be justified rather straightforwardly.

Are Public Schools the Cause of Secularization?

Lyman Stone has just published a massive new article on secularization in the United States and much of Western Europe that’s worth a read. But I’ll summarize some of his key points since you may not want to read the whole sixty page piece. First, some choice quotes about where we stand.

I. Religiosity in the United States Over Time

Stone begins:

By any measure, religiosity in America is declining. As this report will show, since peaking in 1960s, the share of American adults attending any religious service in a typical week has fallen from 50% to 35%, while the share claimed as members by any religious body has fallen from over 75% to about 62%. Finally, the share of Americans who self-identify or report being affiliated with any religion has fallen from over 95% to around 75%.

However, 1960 really was a peak in American history:

At the dawn of the American republic in the 1780s, probably just a third of Americans were a member in any religious body, and just a fifth could be found at church on a given Sunday. [In some ways, the US is more religious today] than it was two centuries ago — and indeed at any point between 1750 and 1930.

So we are less religious than we once were, but we’re far from a historical low. And we haven’t always been a stand-out, internationally. Between 1800 and 1950, the US was not especially religious relative to other countries, but it didn’t secularize as fast, which has made it exceptionally religious today.

Interestingly, our church attendance rates between 1930 and 1990 were really stable; the US fell from 62% to 59%. So in that sense, we didn’t grow much more secular over that period. A lot of our religiosity patterns are long-standing. I was also surprised to find this is true in other countries as well. In 1930, only 14% of Swedes went to church regularly, a figure that fell to just 11% by 1990.

We people of faith are down, but not out.

II. The Causes of Secularization

Stone doesn’t just present interesting data on religiosity. He also discusses the literature on the determinants of religiosity:

Research on determinants of religiosity has found two contrasting results. First, explicitly sectarian governance, such as having a state religion, tends to reduce religiosity, because it reduces the competitiveness and diversity of the religious marketplace. Second, expansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized control of education significantly drive secularization and can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world. The decline in religiosity in American in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past.

Religiosity is determined early in life; Stone says that kids “raised without religion tend to become nonreligious adults, and vice versa.” And, fascinatingly, “[c]hildhood religiosity was heavily affected by government spending on education and, to a lesser degree, government spending on old-age pensions.” [I don’t know why the latter would decrease religiosity, but my guess is that less government spending on pensions means more religious grandparents living with their grandkids.] Similarly, “societies that spent more public money on education were less religious.”

It also seems to be true that having a religion monopolist reduces religiosity, which I think isn’t terribly surprising. Monopolies can be sluggish, and state monopolies most sluggish still.

Relatedly, here’s what didn’t matter.

Across many countries and a long time span, they found that higher educational attainment did not predict lower religiosity: More and less educated people were similarly religious. Nor did they find that industrialized, urban life reduces religiosity: A more urban and industrialized population was associated with greater religiosity. Theories that religion has declined because urbanization is hostile to religiosity–or because modern, educated people are inherently skeptical of religion–get no support in the actual historical record.

Worship styles don’t seem related to religiosity either. It’s unclear whether religious competition increases religiosity. In the US, more religious diversity means more religious volunteering, and more religiously diverse states have higher average rages of church attendance but the association is not that strong. On the other hand, sometimes religious competition leads to political changes, such as the Reformation generating the large secular states that played a role in secularization.

Also of interest is that attempts to discriminate in favor of certain branches of Christianity probably didn’t help, and arguably hurt. For instance, the tools that some religious people used against others (Protestants against Catholics) like Blaine Amendments are being used by secular legal elites against all religious schools.

III. Religion as a Club Good

Stone argues that religious affiliation occurs when a religious group offers club goods – services to members that can only be provided to members by the group as a whole. You can exclude people from a club good, so it’s not a public good, but the club has to work together to produce the relevant good. Historically, religious groups have provided all kinds of critical social services on the condition that members follow their rules, goods that are limited to members but can only be provided by a large group whose individual contributions may not matter much on their own.

An extensive social democratic state can compete with religious service provision, often successfully because the government can force people to purchase its services, and provide it to others without requiring anything of them. As a result, the social democratic state can generate a crowding out effect. As the elderly rely on state pensions, they rely less on their churches, and so play less of a role, contribute less time, don’t set examples of piety and devotion, etc. And as the government takes over more and more of education, children are less and less exposed to religious education and religious people.

Another connection is that marriage increases religiosity, but since education is delaying marriage, the effect is delayed.

Stone follows many others in arguing that churches that water down their requirements tend to perform worse than those that are more demanding. Churches grow, he argues, “when their members are deeply committed to them” but if there’s nothing to deeply commit to, there’s not much point.

IV. Increasing American Religiosity

If you think that, generally speaking, religiosity is good for persons as I do, these are lamentable trends. But if Stone is right, there are policy solutions to some of the problems. The main thing to do is to weaken the government’s role in education, expand voucher programs, support home schooling, and (Stone argues) make it easier to build churches and schools closer together.

Religious progressives, people of faith who favor an extensive welfare state, should be concerned. If the social democratic state functions as a kind of huge, unfair competitor to your religious group (because the state can provide services with force, whereas churches typically cannot, and on a massive scale), you may have to choose between your faith and your politics. Religious integralists should also not be especially pleased, since they favor religious monopoly.

Why are Trump Supporters Demonstrating Against the Economic Lockdowns?

We are starting to see more polarization of opinion about the lockdowns, with Republicans returning to their original skepticism about the dangers of the virus. If a Democrat were President, this would be unsurprising. But Trump is in office, and people tend to approve and trust government more when their favored presidential candidate is in power. So what’s going on? Here are some hypotheses. I’m not satisfied with most of them.

1. Trump supporters trust the government and public health officials less than non-Trump supporters, and so are less likely to believe in official recommendations. Problem: there’s lots of skepticism about public health in minority communities, especially in the black community (and with good reason in some cases). But we don’t see protests there.

2. Trump supporters are disproportionately bearing the economic costs of the lockdowns, given that they tend to hold jobs that do not require college degrees. Problem: this is also a feature of many minority communities, and minority communities are getting harder hit by fatalities than rural whites.

3. Trump supporters sense Trump’s displeasure with the lockdowns, and hypothesize that he’s being misled by experts. This is where all the #fireFauci stuff is coming from. In general, Trump is sending mixed messages, at best, and people in his tribe are responding accordingly. Problem: I’d expect more ambivalence in their views if this were true.

4. Trump supporters are deeply anti-elitist in general, moreso than people on the left, and since elites are supporting lockdowns, Trump supporters are opposing them. Problem: there are anti-elitist leftists. Heard of Berniebros?

5. Trump supporters are seeing others members of the red tribe protesting, but the protests are being driven by political groups looking to expose weaknesses in Democratic state governors and create a groundswell of support for GOP candidates. Trump supporters then infer that their group is generally skeptical of the lockdowns and concerned with the economic costs and act accordingly. Problem: But why are people so eager to agree with the protestors in the first place? The resentment seems genuine, not like astroturf.

Hypotheses I’m more satisfied with:

6. Conservative and libertarian intellectual and policy elites chafe more at the greatly expanded power of government and the restrictiveness of the lockdowns, and have been challenging a lot of the flawed models and data shaping elite opinion. This is trickling down to grassroots people on the right through right-wing media.


7. Distrust of Mass Media: Trump supporters disproportionately distrust mass media, which is to say they don’t really trust it at all. But non-Trump supporting anti-elitists, vaccine-skeptics, etc. tend to trust what the mass media tells them. Since mass media is largely conveying a pro-lockdown message, Trump supporters are inclined to disbelieve them or even believe the opposite.

Anything I’m missing?

Will the Virus Make Us More or Less Religious?

Some are starting to speculate about whether the virus will affect American religiosity, which as we know, is abnormally high for a developed democratic country. Religious affiliation and practice in the US has been slowly declining for a few decades now. So we might think that pattern will intensify. In this post, I want to see if this is likely to be true.

Before I begin, let’s understand religiosity as adherence to some kind of religious belief, combined with a modest degree of religious observance corresponding to those beliefs. There are lots of ways to make these ideas more precise, but they won’t matter much for the purposes of this post.

The main way to predict the effects of the virus on religiosity is to ask how the virus affects the relative costs and benefits of religious belief and practice. I’ll assume that most churches have or will have services online, and that most of their adherents will be able to attend if they wish.

Factors Favoring Increased Religiosity:

  1. Increased Uncertainty and Poverty: according to a common secularization thesis, people become less religious as they become more secure in their possession of worldly goods. To the extent that the virus deprives people of security and prosperity, they are most likely to form religious beliefs and engage in religious practices that they feel provide them with a balm for their suffering.
  2. Decreased Costs of Attendance: it is much easier to “attend” church from home than to get up, get dressed, and drive to services.
  3. Decreased Opportunity Costs of Religious Practice: people are working less, if they’re working at all, and so they have more time to devote themselves to religious practices like worship, prayer, and study.

Factors Favoring Decreased Religiosity:

  1. Fewer Social Benefits: one of the advantages of religious observance is the ability to form close social bonds with members of one’s faith, and that is easier to sustain with personal contact in church and in church activities, like worship and charity work.
  2. Less Social Punishment: a lot of religious observance is driven by the fear that others will disapprove of us if we are not sufficiently observant. But without social contact, it is harder to monitor whether people are observant or not, and this leads to slacking off. I admit I’m more distracted when I worship from home than when I worship in church, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
  3. Less Religious Instruction: a lot of religious belief and practice comes from religious instruction, like Bible studies, that are much more easily carried out in person than over the internet, so the dissemination of religious knowledge and inspiration might be decreased.

These factors apply to existing religious belief and practice. But we should also not discount innovations in religiosity, both in the delivery of religious services (like drive-in worship) and in the nature of religion itself (a sufficiently bad global pandemic could lead to the creation of new religions or new variants on old religions).

My suspicion is that, on balance, a prolonged viral infection will favor a modest increase in religiosity among those who feel most negatively affected by the virus, and that religious observance will be partly facilitated by innovation in service delivery.

Is Social Distancing Big Brother?

Many conservatives and libertarians are complaining that our practice social distancing is objectionable because it is a form of government control. I’ve not been too sympathetic to this line of criticism because I think the vast majority of social distancing is voluntary, with little by way of threats of government coercion. I engage in social distancing because I think it protects me and my family, that it is my duty to my fellow citizens, and, frankly, because I’m afraid of being reprimanded by other people for violations. I’m not so worried about the police, going to jail, or being fined. I bet most people in the country feel similarly.

Social distancing is not primarily the result of government power. Instead, high-status persons are functioning as trendsetters in establishing new social norms, like hand-washing. Some people feel more constrained by those new norms than others, but that is not primarily because of government action. Instead, social distancing is a largely  spontaneous order of social norms, which do indeed restrict freedom, but not in a big brother kind of way

Here’s something odd about these complaints. Conservatives and libertarians traditionally argue that many public goods can be provided through ostracism and social norms. Government coercion isn’t required. But our present predicament is that people are providing a public good (safety from the virus) through ostracism and social norms, by and large. Yet conservatives and libertarians are complaining about this state of affairs rather than lauding it. I’m delighted because social distancing is coming from people’s own hearts and self-interest, and not through violence. People are mostly doing the right thing for the right reasons.

This suggests that we might be able to provide lots of other public goods through social norms. Cool! Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

My guess is that conservatives and libertarians are focused on the economic costs of social distancing, which are gigantic. I get that. I’m feeling it. My wife has been furloughed, I’ve lost thousands of dollars because of speaking honoraria that aren’t coming my way. We’re fine, and blessed to have what we have, but it is unfortunate and difficult all the same.

People are also understandably upset about the fact that we’re making big social decisions based on bad data and worse models. If conservatives and libertarians were simply upset that we’re being told things that aren’t true, then I would completely sympathize. But the truth is that we have bad models and bad data in large part because there are so many unknowns, such that the degree of social distancing we’re adopting may well be reasons. And, as I’ve said here before, it’s really hard to know how to make these trade-offs, and so people are defaulting to extremely risk-averse behaviors. I don’t see why that reaction is especially less reasonable than alternative plans of action. As a result, the spontaneous order of social distancing is a reasonable, moral, and local reaction to the virus. It is not a matter of mere top-down planning.

The Queen Builds Trust

Monarchies tend to be more trusting than non-monarchies. Why? One hypothesis is that societies with non-partisan leaders, who are “above the fray,” have the unique ability to remind everyone of the common interests of the tribe/nation. That’s one reason Queen Elizabeth’s amazing message to the British people is so effective. She speaks to all of the British people about their common concerns, about how they need one another, while taking no partisan stances.

It helps that, as she points out, she addressed the nation during World War II, as a teenager. This was a time when the Brits say “everyone did their bit,” activities that I think played a major trust-building role during and after the war.

The Queen also thanks people in whom people already trust a great deal, like nurses and doctors.

Further, she emphasizes how many people are observing important social norms and succeeding in tackling the virus. And she stresses that people will want to look upon their own actions favorably in the future, again stressing the importance and motivation for following important norms, like staying home, washing one’s hands, and so on.

In short, the Queen builds trust by being a long-time non-partisan, tribe-unifying, trust-reminding, norm-cueing, and compliance-motivating high-status trendsetter. From a trust-building perspective, she’s got it all!

Trump cannot be this kind of leader, not just temperamentally, but because he polarizes public opinion perhaps more than any figure in American politics in historical memory. The difference in leadership ability could not be more stark.

If you haven’t watched the video, take a few minutes and watch it.

Assess Common Good Constitutionalism With One Question: What Happens to Dissenters?

One of the remarkable things about Adrian Vermeule is that when he speaks, people listen. They even when, perhaps especially when, he shocks the moral conscience of his reader by rejecting traditional liberal pieties about the purpose of government. I endorse most of those liberal pieties, but liberals cannot approach those who dissent with mockery and scorn, which I’m seeing all over Twitter. So here I’d like to try to provide a sober assessment of Vermeule’s alternative to conservative originalism, common good constitutionalism (CGC). [I’ve assessed integralism here and here and here and here and here and here.]

1. What is Common Good Constitutionalism? What Makes It Unique?

Common good constitutionalism holds, roughly, that the constitution of the United States should be read such that it permits and even requires the state to promote the values emphasized by Catholic social thought, though in the article Vermuele does not put it this way. CGC is a kind of supra-Catholic integralism [where integralism can be understood as the view that the state is to promote the common good as understood by the Catholic Church and in tandem with the Catholic Church]. CGC leaves the content of the common good a bit more open than integralism does, but CGC is clearly meant to pave the way for integralism.

CGC is simple. It combines a substantive Catholic conception of the common good, a political perfectionist principle that society should be organized so as to promote the common good, and a principle of constitutional interpretation. The interpretive principle is that the constitution should be reinterpreted so as to gradually conform the state to promote the common good, that is, to become a kind of perfectionist state.

Many on the left adopt a left-wing version of CGC, where the common good is given by, say, the moral system advanced by John Stuart Mill, which prizes autonomy and collective flourishing. There are plenty of left-wing CG constitutionalists; they just don’t think of themselves in this way. Where Vermeule is unique is in boldly claiming that Catholicism provides the best account of the common good.

2. What Happens to Dissenters Under Common Good Constitutionalism?

To assess CGC, we must first ask what happens to people who reasonably disagree with the account of the common good that Vermeule endorses. It is unclear how dissenters will be prevented from disrupting the common good constitution, though Vermeule does endorse some pretty dramatic means of establishing Catholic integralism. And you can see similar ideas in the piece. Vermeule wants to co-opt the power of the administrative state to serve the common good rather than limiting that power. So he is prepared to use rather heavy-handed means to establish the common good, which presumably required the suppression of dissenting voices where necessary to ensure that the state can successfully promote the common good. This includes, I think, considerable restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and most importantly on freedom of religion. Any religious or secular organization that has an opposing view of the common good, and is a genuine threat to state power must be monitored and controlled before it can metastasize.

Vermeule does not address the treatment of dissenters in the piece. But once we ask the question, we can challenge CGC with what I shall call the dissenter trilemma. 

3. The Dissenter Trilemma

Catholic integralist states were prepared to use severe legal means to preserve the common good, from fines and imprisonment, to execution, and even burning heretics alive. In a way, this is all rather cooly rational. The human good is on the line, perhaps even the eternal good, and so threats to the good must be contained however possible. To be fair to Vermeule, however, he would surely use the minimum amount of harm necessary to protect the common good, and he obviously thinks that there are some ways of protecting the common good that are intrinsically evil.

For this reason, I will assume that Vermeule adopts a limiting principle that forbids certain methods of securing the common good even if those methods were known to succeed. Vermeule will not permit the killing of the innocent to realize the common good, or any means that requires people to sin.

The dissenter trilemma arises when we ask what the limiting principle is. The first question is this: is the limiting principle is adequately just? That is, does the principle forbid means of realizing the common good that the vast majority of reflective persons agree are unjust? For instance, does the limiting principle permit burning heretics alive? It is our settled considered judgment that no one should be burned alive for any reason. Similarly, I think nearly everyone, including theologically orthodox Catholic intellectuals, will think that executing people for heresy is unjust.

The second question follows from the first: assuming the limiting principle is adequately just, what relationship does it bear to the common good? In particular, is the limiting principle an external constraint on the common good or a proper part of it?

This leaves us with three options.

A. The limiting principle is inadequately just.

B. The (adequately just) limiting principle is external to the common good – an independent moral principle that limits how the common good may be pursued.

C. The (adequately just) limiting principle is internal to the common good – the common good fails to be the common good when the principle is violated.

Here are the problems with each horn of the trilemma.

On (A). If the limiting principle permits extreme acts of violence like burning heretics alive, then CGC will violate very deep considered judgments about justice. It seems unjust to imprison or execute people who dissent from the common good, even if the dissenters may lead others into deep moral confusion. This is a severe demerit for CGC, and is probably sufficient reason all by itself to reject CGC. Perhaps a few integralists are willing to take extreme measures, but the vast majority of people who might adopt CGC will be unsympathetic, to put it mildly.

On (B). If the limiting principle is adequately just, but operates as a constraint on the common good, as a principle of respect for rights might, then we don’t really have CGC. We have a common good + rights constitutionalism. But the whole point of CGC is that the common good is the master normative concept for how the constitution should be interpreted and applied. If we include an additional principle, we’ve violated the spirit of CGC.

On (C). If the limiting principle is adequately just and does not constrain the common good, then it must be internal to the common good, specifically by helping to determine what counts as the common good. If that is correct, we don’t know what CGC comes to because the proper understanding of the common good involves an appeal to a deeper principle. My hunch is that the limiting principle must appeal to the dignity of the human person. For instance, a society does not realize the common good if it sacrifices the one for the many because the individual has God-given dignity. And indeed, I think this is how modern Catholic theologians often think about how the dignity of the person and the common good are related: respect for the dignity of the person is a proper part of the common good.

But now one wants to know whether the dignity of the person grounds other rights. Contra Vermeule, most Catholic theologians think the common good requires respect for a robust right of religious freedom, including for baptized persons. In that case, reading the constitution so as to allow for violations of religious freedom would mean that the constitution can no longer be understood as advancing the common good, because respecting the right of religious freedom is part of the common good.

And unhappily for Vermeule, we’re now engaged in a thoroughly modern rights discourse that he wants to supplant.

4. Resisting the Dissenter Trilemma and the Originalist’s Reply

The best way out of the dissenter trilemma, in my view, is to adopts a theory of rights that includes a right to, say, nutrition and basic healthcare, but not a right to choose one’s own religion or to be free from state interference if one fails to contribute to the common good in other respects. This will involve an appeal to a theory of personal virtue, but in Catholic social thought, you can’t formulate a complete theory of virtue for the individual without attending to the person’s social context and the good of the community as a whole. Unfortunately, that means the best way out of the dissenter trilemma is to formulate a theory of rights by appealing to … the common good.

But now we have a difficult circularity to resolve, and I don’t know how Vermeule can resolve it. That’s not to say there’s no resolution; I’m sure Catholic theologians have tons of stuff on how the common good and rights are compatible and flesh out each others’ ambiguities. But I don’t know the tradition well enough to guess where Vermeule would fall. But I suspect this will be tricky business for him because most Catholics who theorize on the matter think the dignity of the person entails rights that Vermeule rejects.

In light of all this, here’s how originalists should respond to Vermeule. Yes, the common good is important, but the dignity of the person is a proper part of the common good, and the dignity of the person grounds extensive rights against state interference. The goal of originalism is to read the constitution in such a way as to limit government to protect those extensive basic rights. In this way originalism is a kind of common good constitutionalism because it protects proper parts of the common good: basic natural rights.



Economic vs Human Costs Under Conditions of Uncertainty (Not Risk)

We are presently suffering from a once-in-a-lifetime viral pandemic, and the only way to keep millions from dying is to shut down large parts of the economy. The economic costs are staggering, but we might keep hundreds of thousands of people alive, and millions more from bad health, lung damage, and the like. A lot of people, especially some conservatives and libertarians, are chafing under the restrictions. Their concerns are reasonable: the costs of the shutdowns are staggering! But I fear this is tempting many into conclusion-driven reasoning: “Oh, the reasons for the shutdown are based on bad models, but the economic costs are real, so let’s relax and stop freaking out before we destroy ourselves economically.” People are desperate for some degree of certainty so that we can figure out how to avoid paying all of these costs.This is part of what has driven the recent, severe, and frankly well-earned embarrassment of Richard Epstein for making predictions. He was almost certainly reasoning backwards: economic destruction and lost liberty are bad, and so the viral threat necessitating those costs must be being overblown. I’ve seen this all over Facebook as well.

But there’s also an error in the other direction. “Economic” costs are human costs. Human beings suffer, and often die, when they are poorer and out of work (though oddly it looks like human morality in the US has fallen off a cliff this year). Folks mocking people for caring about the economic costs aren’t taking the economic costs seriously enough and seem to prefer dehumanizing their opponents to figuring out a constructive solution.

Here’s the trouble for both sides, though: we lack the information necessary to determine, or even begin to determine, who is correct. And that’s because there’s a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, in particular its true fatality rate and how widespread it is at present. Because of that, we don’t have a sense for how many people could die, with estimates between a few thousand to millions. If we knew that social distancing would save a million lives in the US, the “economy” side of the debate would be wrong, and if we knew social distancing would only save ten thousand lives in the US, the “human” side would be wrong.

But we not only lack certainty, we don’t even know the probabilities of these outcomes. We are in the condition that Frank Knight dubbed uncertainty. We don’t know that there’s, say, a 20% chance of 1 million people dying, a 60% chance of 100,000 people dying, and a 20% chance of 10,000 people dying. Even in that case, we could make trade-offs, and we could debate which trade-offs were correct.

Until then, we’re all going to desperately grasp for knowledge of probabilities, but we must be careful not to manufacture probabilities without the very best information available. Until then, well, we should … Well, I’m not exactly sure because I don’t know the probabilities. I guess extreme caution is called for? Precautionary principle, save us all!


Why Won’t Trump’s Approval Ratings Change?

Wars are known to create a rally around the flag effect, where presidential approval skyrockets, as does trust in government. This was true for George H. W. Bush, and for George W. Bush after 9-11, so in political conditions not wholly unlike ours.

So far, Trump’s approval rating seems locked in, though we saw a bit of an uptick yesterday. Regardless, few people approve of him more or less than they did before the virus shut everything down. It seems like our political tribalization is preventing any movement in approval ratings. Remarkably, we were fairly polarized in 2001, but W still got a huge effect, and now Trump gets next to nothing.

So what’s going on? Why did 9-11 help W but the new coronavirus hasn’t helped Trump much?

Here’s my best guess. In the case of 9-11, everyone came to have the same beliefs about it pretty quickly (and this months before 9-11 was falsely tied to Iraq). The human death toll was immediate and visible, and the culprits were visible in many ways as well. Moreover, it was expected that there would be a military response, and so people geared up to support the troops and whomever was going to lead them.

Things are different with the virus. First, beliefs about the virus remain somewhat polarized. Second, the human death toll is not immediate and is far less visible, and cannot easily be tied to a human culprit. Moreover, while we all have to change our behavior to beat the virus, we aren’t going to war. People aren’t going to get shot and killed fighting against an enemy so the bonding effect is smaller.

And yet, you would still expect something of a rally, right? What else is going on? Trump was already quite unpopular, far moreso than W, and people’s beliefs about him are extremely polarized, more than they were about W, even following the 2000 election. Further, Trump has had an inconsistent response to the virus, which I think has dampened the rallying effect as well. But if his behavior is more consistently seen as positive, then we should expect a modest rallying effect. I can imagine his approval rating getting up to 60% or s0, though that would surprise me somewhat. But it could go above 50% for a few weeks. It might be enough to win the election depending on how things go, but right now both Trump and Biden are below 50%!

“The Chinese Virus”

I posted this on Facebook the other day, but I thought I’d share it on the blog. I thought it might be worth offering some thoughts about why Trump and now many conservatives are calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese” virus. In my view, it is not *because* of racism, even if the term has racist consequences by leading Americans to, say, harass Chinese Americans. And the term wasn’t picked because it is “accurate” because Trump could have picked a bunch of other accurate names, like the CCP virus.

Here are a few possible reasons, some of which have occurred to Trump, but all of which have likely occurred to his elite supporters:

1. One of Trump’s longtime fears is China’s growing economic power. He’s been talking about this for decades. I think Trump and elite Trumpers want us to commercially decouple from China because he thinks it is bad for the US. By blaming China for the virus, he makes decoupling more politically viable. It was unthinkable a month ago. Now things are different. Fox is talking about being all pharma production back to the US. And some on the left seem sympathetic.

2. Trump and elite Trumpers wants to isolate China politically and weaken Xi because they think China isn’t a mere economic threat, but a political one too. If the world blames China for the virus, and indeed there are some grounds to blame the Chinese government, then that could weaken them greatly.

3. Trump and elite Trumpers recognize that Trump can win re-election if there’s a rally around the flag effect over the virus. If he can get the country to blame China rather than him, or to blame a visible foe rather than just an invisible virus, he may make the rally around the flag effect more likely. It might work too. If some of the blue tribe can be convinced that China is a bigger threat right now than the red tribe, they might be willing to vote for Trump.

Along these lines, I expect Trump is going to go after Biden hard for purportedly pro-China trade policy under Obama. Biden wants to remind us of Obama-era normalcy to boot Trump, but now Trump’s most potent line of attack is that Biden and Obama made us more dependent on China than we should have been. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I can imagine it being an effective line.

I want countries to be economically interdependent because I think it promotes peace and prosperity. But I sort of get not wanting the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most evil organizations in the world, to be able to deny us all our pharmaceuticals if they decide they want to. I don’t think they’d do it, but they’re engaged in mass murder and concentration camps right now, so maybe we should mistrust them.