Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 5: A Political Warmup

Before I turn to theological issues in the post-Cartesian situation, I want to think about volitional models in political theories. I'm calling this post a "warmup" as this political discussion sets up some ideas for later theological discussions.

Grand political systems (as in theological systems) require some vision as to the nature and capacities of human persons. Whether the system is socialistic, democratic, Marxist, or whatever a grand political theory must start with a vision of man. Once "man" is specified, much of the theory follows.

One of the capacities of man that must be specified is his volitional capacity. How radically autonomous or free is man? Using my labels, do weak volitional or strong volitional models describe man? Do we possess characterological inertia? Or can we, volitionally speaking, turn on a dime?

Let's see how the weak versus strong volitional models help make sense of the two political systems dominating the American political scene: Democrats and Republicans.

In strong volitional models, people, due to their radical autonomy, can be morally praised or blamed for the outcomes of their choices. If success in life is simply a matter of making good choices, of sucking it up and "taking responsibility," than there is no one to blame but yourself for your situation in life. In America, where free markets set up meritocracies, strong volitional models cause us to moralize the poor and the rich. That is, if we are radically autonomous, those successful in life have excellent character: they are industrious, "take responsibility," and make healthy choices. They are good. Conversely, if you are failing to move up the American meritocracy, then you have only yourself to blame. You are either lazy or immoral. You are bad. In short, in America at least, strong volitional models lead to the moralization the rich and the poor.

This moralization affects issues such as tax cuts and the welfare state. Taxes, as we all know, are a means to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. However, given the logic of strong volitional models, taxes are immoral. Why should you take money from the good and the virtuous to support the lazy and immoral? Isn't this robbing from the good and giving to the bad? Did not the good earn their money through hard and honest labor? If so, let them keep their money. They earned it.

Weak volitional models see this situation completely differently. If will is contingent, then the fortunes of birth and circumstance will have huge impacts upon our character. Thus, although this is not to rob us of the truth that hard work pays off, our situation in life is impacted by fortune. Will, virtue, and hard work are not the only factors in play. If the person is a contingent agent, will, virtue, and work ethic, those engines of meritocratic ascent, are affected by circumstance. Luck is in play.

If luck is in play, we can't moralize the rich and the poor. The poor are not immoral, they are less fortunate. Unlucky. Conversely, the rich are not always good. But many are lucky. In short, when evaluating the rich and poor we must pause and factor moral luck into the equation. The drug dealer may not be the evil person we think he is. If raised in different circumstances and with different genes (i.e., if you have the genes to be a rocket science luck has helped you; I won't ever be a rocket scientist no matter how hard I work) you don't end up as a drug dealer. Maybe you get Neil Armstrong.

To summarize the weak volitional perspective, here's Spinoza: "And because [we] think ourselves free, those notions have arisen: praise and blame. sin and merit." Thus, if we are less than radically free, then moral luck attenuates strong volitional notions of praise, merit, blame, and, yes, even sin.

If we approach taxes and wealth redistribution from a weak volitional perspective we get the exact opposite view from the strong volitionalist. If weak volitionism holds, taxes are not immoral; they are exceedingly moral. That is, if the rich are rich and the poor are poor due, in some part, to luck, then it makes plenty of sense to redistribute to achieve some fairness. The rich don't get to keep it all because, in a weak volitional world, they didn't earn all they have. They might have earned some or even a large part of what they own, but luck helped as well. And it's unfair to benefit from luck at the expense of others. So, it makes sense, moral sense, to tax.

Here's the interesting thing. Views of person have consequences. Big consequences! An important issue like taxes is seen as either moral or immoral due to the answer to one simple question: What are the volitional capacities of humans? If they are vast, then taxes are immoral. If they are circumscribed, then moral.

Thus, embedded deep within the Republican and Democratic worldviews is a View of Person. And the rest, they say, is history.

My point: What goes for political models goes for theological models as well.

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4 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 5: A Political Warmup”

  1. I always thought socialism was a 'moral' model for a political system. What has always bothered me is that it doesn't seem to work as well as the greed-based free market that we have. This is perplexing, since one usually thinks that moral law is placed by God for our benefit. How do you explain an economy based on greed actually working to help more people have a higher standard of living rather than an economy based on equal wealth distribution?

  2. My take is that the over-simplified formula of Capitalism = Greed may be way overplayed. For an extended meditation on this, see The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce by Deirdre N. McCloskey

  3. A couple of days ago, fellow Harding grad, Chris Gonzalez (who is also a PhD psychology student at the U. of MN) came up with a striking narrative based on his experience in the 3rd grade that is pertinent to this discussion. He discusses a 100 yard dash for which some participants have a 70 yard head start. The implication is that there is an analogy with our culture. His blog is

    So what you might be saying is that one's View of Person would have something to say about where they would place the starting line.

    It is obvious that we do not all start at the same place and that there is not just one race but many.

  4. I think that what is going on in our system is slightly more complex. I think that, functionally, our public policy system assumes that three things factor into wealth:
    1. Opportunity
    2. Ability and
    2. "Volition" (to use your term)

    Thus, welfare and programs tend to be sympathetic toward those without opportunity or ability (examples: someone may be disabled or a minority that has historically been victimized by workplace discrimination), but they offer little to those who seem to have both.

    The question that tends to get translated into political dialog, then, is this: at what point does one have enough opportunity and ability to be "empowered" (a volitional term) to generate wealth?

    Dems tend to say that the threshold for "empowerment" is higher (reflecting what you might call a weaker volitional perspective) while conservatives tend to place it lower (reflecting what you might call a strong-er volitional model).

    Both agree that: (1) some people don't have enough ability/opportunity to make it AND (2) some people have everything they need, and are just "irresponsible." The debate centers on where to draw the lines.

    My point is simply this: while you are onto something that resonates with me, I think the acutal, political realities are not as greatly polarized as they could be. I also think the same thing will apply once this line of thought is brought into the theological arena.

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