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Sharia against success

By Lorenzo

When the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, part of his call is “come to success” (Hayya ʿala ‘l-falāḥ, literally “hasten to success”). The idea is that Islam leads to success in this world and the next. For the key problem in Islam is ignorance, and the answer to ignorance is guidance; specifically, the instructions given to Allah’s guide (Muhammad) by Allah. In Islam, a prophet is a guide of God and Muhammad is the final guide, the seal of the prophets (Khātam an-Nabiyyīn, a title used in the Qur’an to refer to Muhammad, understood as the Prophet bearing the final revelations).


Hayya ʿala ‘l-falāḥ (“hasten to success”).

Thus Islam is submission to (the instructions of) Allah; i.e. becoming a Muslim, so a whole person, complete in one’s submission. One becomes a Muslim by uttering the declaration of faith, the Shahada (literally, the witness or testimony of faith): There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.

The words, actions and life of Muhammad are the key to the Qur’an and to following the correct path, which is Sharia (literally, the path or way). Sharia is structured inference from the words (including the revelations recorded in the Qur’an), actions and life of Muhammad, the Sunnah. It is hardly possible to have a purely Quranic Islam, since the Qur’an is not structured chronologically (either in chapters or in verses within chapters) and later verses abrogate earlier ones–so the life of Muhammad puts the verses in their necessary sequence and context–while the Qur’an itself says to follow the example of the Messenger, the last Guide.

Sharia jacket

Which is what Sharia provides: the correct and informed path built on structured inference from the Prophet’s example. Sharia is not merely law, it covers manners, ethics, what you eat and when, ritual life. All based on inference from the words, actions and life of Muhammad. The events of his life are the cases and Sharia works as inference from them. (If you are interested in more detail on any of this, talks by Dr Rev. Mark Durie–Arabic linguist and Anglican vicar–provide a very accessible online resource: he blogs here.)

Sharia is not without its virtues. It provided a common set of laws from Morocco to Northern India and into the Malay world. For much of its existence, it was probably a superior set of commercial laws than that available elsewhere–this was part of its appeal in the Malay world, for example. Even today, in some circumstances, a woman can be better off getting a Sharia divorce than under the laws of England and Wales where, due to the Christian presumption of no-divorce, pre-nuptial agreements are not recognised. But Sharia also has some severe limitations. In particular, it is a major constraint, even barrier, to effective social bargaining.

What Western Europe and Japan had

In evolving higher levels of social activity and ability to mobilise resources through social bargaining, Western Europe and Japan shared certain advantages. Both had universal ethics (Christianity, Buddhism) which facilitated social bargaining. In both law was an entirely human thing. (Canon law was partly grounded in revelation and natural law, but it could be changed–even natural law was something of a moveable feast, as changes in Church teachings on slavery indicate–and did not trump secular law.) In both, single heir systems developed promoting concentrated inherited wealth and limiting the value of kin connections in social cooperation. Both were mountainous with lots of water transport, promoting factor (labour, capital) mobility and competitive jurisdictions. Both were isolated from conquering steppe nomads, so did not have their institutions flattened periodically.

Daimyo procession--a personage to bargain with.

Daimyo procession–a personage to bargain with.

Europe produced effective, responsive states able to mobilise resources far more effectively than any other civilisation. The result were enormously successful societies, for good and ill (mostly good for its own peoples, rather more mixed for their colonial conquests). This highly successful evolution ultimately produced prosperous, free and democratic societies. It also brought 1000 years of Muslim aggression against surrounding civilisations and cultures to a halt by evolving into much more successful social predators. Hence, European states began to roll back the Ottoman Empire out of Europe and came to occupy and dominate the Middle East from the early C19th to the mid C20th.

Japan was the civilisation who was institutionally most like Europe. In particular, it was the civilisation with the next highest level of social bargaining. It is not therefore surprising that it was the civilisation which was most effective in responding to the Western challenge.

That Islam didn’t

Islam had none of these advantages. The Islamic world from Morocco to Northern India was either accessible to steppe conquerors or to eruptions by its own pastoralists, or both, so there was a persistent tendency to institutional “flattening”. (Islam itself was made dominant in the region by just such a wave of pastoralist conquest.) The geography was open to imperial unification and generally militated against stable states with long institutional learning processes.

Mirza Abu Taleb Khan

Mirza Abu Taleb Khan

While Islam looks like a universal ethic–and it is certainly universal in its purported coverage–it actually puts major divides between people. Men have superior legal standing to women, believers over non-believers. (A non-believer could not testify against a believer, for example.) Moreover, any social bargain not compatible with the life and example of Muhammad was incompatible with Islam. (And still is.) For, in Islam, law is not a human thing; it is a religious, a divine thing. This hugely constrains its ability to support or ratify social bargains, just as the differential treatment based on religiously allocated status undermines the very notion of social bargaining across such barriers. Even without the issues of permitted deception or taqiyya and kitman.

Between 1798 and 1803 the “Persian Prince”, Mizra Abu Taleb Khan (1752-1806?), an Indian of Perso-Turkish background, travelled to Europe and wrote down his impressions in a travel memoir, which was translated in the early C19th in two volumes by Charles Stewart (1764-1837). In the second volume (published in 1814), Taleb Khan wrote:

Even the laws respecting culprits are abrogated or altered by Parliament; for the Christians, contrary to the systems of the Jews and Mohammedans, do not acknowledge to have received any laws respecting temporal matters from Heaven, but take upon themselves to make such regulations as the exigencies of the time require (p.81).

Taleb Khan admired much about British government (though the court system more in its theory than its practice), but he clearly finds this making laws rather strange. Earlier he wrote (and in both passages the touch of the translator can be discerned):

It is requisite to explain to Mohammedans that, in England, Law and Religion are distinct branches; and that the duty of the clergyman is limited to watching over the moral and spiritual conduct of his flock, to burying the dead, visiting the dying, uniting persons in marriage and christening children; for, according to their tenets, children are born without religion and, until christened, are not admitted to the pale of the Church (Pp63-64).

Sharia mandates division among heirs, undermining the development of powerful propertied families. In particular, in medieval Islam, the warrior elite was not given land (ownership) grants–which would have to be divided upon inheritance, and so become too small to support a (seriously expensive) mounted, armoured warrior–but tax grants (iqtatimartuyul, jagir) which, as public functions, were not subject to Sharia inheritance provisions. (They are often described as “land grants”, but that is misleading.) Such tax grants also greatly narrowed both the warrior elite’s connection to the productivity of the land, including productive relations with the peasants, and the scope and motive for social bargaining. The different effects between land-owning warriors and tax-collecting warriors was observed by Muslim observer ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) as long ago as the C12th:

Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj [Franks, i.e. Crusaders]—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria [Everything south of Anatolia and west of Mesopotamia up to Egypt] are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.

Centuries of such difference lead to very different social outcomes. That Western rulers had to bargain with powerful landed warrior dynasties and organised merchants made even more of a difference to social outcomes. There was no development of Parliamentarianism in Islam. Even if there had been reasons to engage in such bargaining assemblies, they would have had no competence to make legal changes.

It is possible to talk about Islam’s inadvertent patterns precisely because Sharia has been such a powerful and consistent social constraint. Even when it is not the actual legal system in use (as it was for over a thousand years), and even though religious belief can be something of a moveable feast, Sharia powerfully influences enduring cultural patterns among Muslims, even to their social psychology.

Social bargains

There was nothing in Latin Christianity which blocked broad social bargains (at least among Christians) and much which facilitated it. The blocking of cousin marriage (see Fourth Lateran Council 1215, Canon 50 which cut it back to merely 4 degrees) undermined kin connections as tools for social cooperation, encouraging use of broader social bargains; the universal ethics facilitated broad social bargaining; and the view of law as a human thing permitted both legal experimentation and law reflecting and enforcing social bargains. Out of these processes of social bargaining (and intensely bellicose inter-state competition) emerged highly effective and socially responsive states.

No agreement reached here can change.

No agreement reached here can change the laws.

Conversely, Islam put up a wide range of blocks to broad social bargains. The permitting of cousin marriage encouraged reliance on kin connections for social cooperation rather than broader social bargaining; the requirement to divide property among heirs undermined creating powerful propertied interests as long-term social bargainers; the ethical structure deeply divided people by faith and gender; the notion of law as divine and based on the life of a single C7th religious-political figure blocked it being used for either legal experimentation or reflecting and enforcing social bargains. Shura, consultation has positive standing within Islam, but such assemblies had no competence to change the law. Islam was not going to (and did not) evolve Parliamentarism, that is a Western import.

So Islam fell behind and now confronts a world dominated by infidel success. Something that is a great source of Muslim rage, as (the greatest) success in this world and the next is the prerogative of those who submit to the guidance of Allah through His Prophet.

Democracy and Islam

On the other hand, polls suggest that Muslims strongly or even overwhelmingly wish to live in democratic societies, the most extensive of broad social bargaining polities. Muslims have proved them willing to, en masse, defy threats to participate in elections. But democracy both grew out of, and operates on the basis of, broad social bargaining. Islam sets up all sorts of barriers to such social bargains. And the more you go back to the source material, the more you bind yourself to the C7th example, the more that is so. Hence the jihadi claim that democracy is blasphemous.

The jihadis are would-be reformers of Islam at war with its modernisers, a pattern that goes right back to the early days of the Abbasid Caliphate and the struggle between the Mu’tzallites and the (victorious) Ash’arites. The long-term pattern of Islam is depressingly clear–the reformers always end up defeating the modernisers, with the source materials of Islam being much more on the side of the former.

Given that the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers, it is much easier to have Muslims who choose to be democrats than a democratic Islam. That is a profound dilemma and the greatest delusion of all is to suggest that the dilemma is not real, is not powerful, is not a force in the world today and for the foreseeable future.


Things you find: TV News as it is done again and again

By Lorenzo

Something to finish off your weekend, an oldie but a goodie:



The tumblr post I got this from suggested it is how the BBC reports, well, everything.

Austrians and Marxists are wrong about the state

By Lorenzo

In 1718, after admiring how orderly his recently conquered province of Livonia was, Peter the Great (r.1682-1725) commanded an enquiry into how this was so. The enquiry found that the Swedish crown had spent as much administering Livonia as Peter spent administering the entire rest of the Russian Empire. Peter promptly dismantled the provincial administration.

In 1800, the United Kingdom (population under 20m) had the same number of government officials (pdf) as Qing China (population over 300m). The British central government extracted around four times the revenue (pdf) the Qing central government received, and did so from an economy about a sixth the size of the Chinese economy.

How so?

The social bargaining state

The British state deeply penetrated society, as did society the state. Britain was famously a Parliamentary state, constructed on high levels of social bargaining. In this continual process of social bargaining, the British state was able to extract far more resources from its society as a trade-off for providing far more benefits. The British state was therefore much more responsive to its society, providing a far greater range and level of public goods–the British state probably spent as much on the Poor Law as the Qing state spent on the equivalent (famine relief). In particular, the sale of British government bonds meant that private interests had a serious stake in the viability and success of the state. An arrangement that was both based on, and led to, high levels of information flow between state and society.

In early C19th Qing Empire, one county magistrate administered, on average, 300,000 people.

Conversely, the Qing state relied entirely on command-and-control mechanisms, with any social bargaining being of an extremely passive variety. Chinese law was designed to minimise recourse to the courts, with families and associations left to manage their own affairs. The Qing state had effectively no capacity to borrow, relying on the build up of silver reserves to deal with emergency financing needs. Its financial resources were limited to past and present revenues. Conversely, the British state, with its capacity to borrow, was not constrained by past or present revenues but could raise money from future income (pdf):

Britain’s debt rose with only a few peacetime pauses to 215 per cent of national income in 1784. After a brief peacetime decline in the following decade, it rose again to 222 per cent of national income in 1815 and reached a peak of 268 percent in 1821, …

… between 1760 and 1860 Britain’s it was never lower than 100 per cent and from approximately 1780 to 1845, never lower than 150 per cent of GDP.

If the income of the British central government was around 15% of GDP (it likely peaked at around 20% of GDP in the Napoleonic wars and was still above 10% in 1850), that would make its debt never lower than 10 times its income in this period–by comparison, the current US federal government debt is around 5 times its income.

The command-and-control passive-social-bargaining-only Qing central government extracted about 3.4 grams of silver per head of population. The actively social bargaining state-and-society-penetrate-each-other British central government extracted about 304 grams of silver per head of population. In other words, 90 times as much silver-equivalent per head–hence receiving four times the revenue (in silver) from an economy less than a sixth the size. Yet it was the Qing government, not the British, which was regularly rocked by massive popular revolts.

British politics--noisy, public and clubbable.

British politics–noisy, public and clubbable.

So, when the two states went to war in the Anglo-Chinese War, the first of the Opium Wars, the Qing Empire was going to war with a state that had better military technology, better military organisation, over four times its income and great capacity to borrow funds. It was not going to end well (for the Qing). Despite the fact the Qing Empire’s economy was around six times as large with maybe 18 times the population (around 21m to 380m).

The states that developed in Europe, particularly Northwestern Europe, were dramatically different in their evolution and outcomes than the states that developed elsewhere. Trying to develop a typology of the state based on European experience is to normalise the profoundly exotic. This is not a good place from which to base analysis. Even given that the process of colonisation and emulation spread practices and techniques of European state across the globe.

This (relatively) new thing

The state is a relatively new feature of human society. The first states grew out of chiefdoms a few thousand years ago. As recently as the early C19th, much of the world’s land area was not under the control (nominal or otherwise) of any state. Scrolling through the online TimeMaps historical atlas is a useful reminder of how part of the processes of history have been the expansion in the coverage of states. (The maps exclude the steppe polities, but they could reasonably be regarded as chiefdoms rather than states.)

Which also brings to mind how little stateless societies have achieved. A few basic inventions–fire, wheel-and-axle, farming, herding–but little else. Sure, they were the basic inventions on which the rest of human history has been built, but the overwhelming bulk of human achievement has been within state societies.


Starting with the fact that they are a lot safer to live in. Even given the horrendous killing records of modern states. State and non-state societies may have roughly similar range of homicide rates (pdf), but add in deaths from war, and state societies have much lower death-by-violence rates. It seems that on simple don’t-end-up-violently-dead grounds, Hobbes‘s Leviathan is worth having. Especially as a lack of states does not mean a lack of war; it just means war becomes a much more immediate and common experience.

The paradox of rulership

The paradox of politics–we need the state to protect us from social predators but the state is the most dangerous of all social predators–does indeed operate. Actually, we should really call it the paradox of rulership, since it begins to operate before actual states are achieved.

With lower levels of social predation, higher levels of social achievement are possible. In order for chiefdoms to become states, a certain level of population concentration and production is required. Indeed, a constant part of the story of the state from its origins onwards is its attempts to remould society so that it can be supported. In doing so, it seeks to raise the level of social activity. Hence the connection between state societies and human achievement.

Which is where both Marxism and Austrian school economics tend to go wrong about the state. They wish to draw a sharp moral distinction between state and society based on presumptions of causation. The natural tendency of the Austrians is to adopt the principle that human achievement is born in society without, even against, the state. Their principle is that human society is so great, that the state deforms it. But this is far too simplistic a conception. Again and again, the achievements they point to are profoundly based on the public goods provided by the state. And the prosperous liberal capitalist societies they extol were achieved in societies where state and society interpenetrated each other more profoundly than any other societies in human history up to that time. The Austrians keep wanting to leave the state out of (positive) historical causal processes when it was intimately, and necessarily, involved in them.

The natural tendency of Marxism is the reverse: hardly surprising, in many ways Marxism and Austrian school economics are mirror images of each other.  The natural tendency of Marxism is to hold that society is so flawed, that (only) the state can redeem it. But the state is not some epiphenomenon of social processes. State and society mutually create each other. An unequal and exploitative society has been created by, and created, its state.

Indeed, given the role of the state as dominant coercive power, the state will be the biggest force in moulding the society. But, in any decent society, it is a process of mutual creation; the notion that the state is socially omnipotent, that it can create any society with any characteristics it wants, is simply not true. Not least because the state is not, and cannot be, omniscient. Crucial to how state and societies operate is the information flows between them. Here the Austrians were spot on–the economic calculation problem will, in the end, defeat any such grandiose ambitions of state-as-society.

The scale of information flows were why the states of Northwestern Europe were so spectacularly successful. State and society interpenetrated each other, allowing high levels of information flows between them, and for state and society to tend to support and increase, rather than crush, the operation of the other. In particular, social bargaining led to more capital leading to more economic activity and more social bargaining leading to more revenue for states.

Mutual needs

Simple minded cheerleading–society good!, state bad! versus society bad!, state good!–is historical nonsense. We remain necessarily enmeshed in the paradox of politics. The notion that the paradox can be “solved”–either by creating a naturally just state or by dispensing with the state altogether–is delusory.

Of the two delusions, belief in a state which can transcend the paradox of politics is by far the more dangerous. For that project is profoundly and naturally tyrannical. To create the entirely just society, the state has to have enormous power. And if it is on the business of final justice, its actions are inherently absolutely worthy. This utopian project both expands the state to fill up any social space and justifies its power to crush any social dissent (as it defines it). It does not stop the state being predatory, it just turns it into the ultimate social predator. With C. S. Lewis‘s warning being absolutely apposite:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Later re-run as commissars and gauleiters.

Later re-run as commissars and gauleiters.

Conversely, belief that all will be so much better if we do without the state–as long as the belief is not prosecuted by acts of violence–merely encourages suspicion of the most dangerous social predator. A certain amount of that is just good sense. There is nothing in any of this which guarantees all state actions will have positive social consequences.

Indeed, the bootleggers and Baptists phenomenon reminds of how the state generates bootleggers. Just as those who complain about “developers” rarely pay any attention to how, for example, government approval processes squeeze out small developers (who are much less able to handle approval delay risks) thereby generating the housing industry dominance of well-connected large developers who then game the system. Like the rest of us, public policy operates in a world of unintended consequences. The state is not an epiphenomenon of society; it moulds the society, which then moulds it.

We live in the world of the paradox of politics where state and society create each other. The blessing is to be the heirs of a social evolution of an ever-widening spiral of social bargaining which ended up with universal suffrage and elections that matter. With states that, for all their moral limitations, are remarkably responsive and support–indeed, significantly create–societies of great openness, freedom and prosperity.

That exporting revolution business

By Lorenzo

Afghanistan successfully held provincial and first-round presidential elections. Various folk are in the running for President. Part of building a viable democracy is building the habit of elections and change-through-elections. Since the incumbent is barred from running again (two-term limit), a new President must result.

Afghan women register to vote.

Afghan women register to vote.

The high turnout is encouraging, especially as the Taliban threatened to disrupt the election, and there were some killings. But more is required for a free political outcome than elections: a viable democracy requires a viable state which requires lots of day-to-day habits and expectations. Still, having a high turnout election successfully conducted is a positive sign, just not a definitive one.

As an aside, we tend to forget that the US is a revolutionary state. It has proved to be still willing, if sufficiently provoked, to fight to export its revolution. Always an inherently tricky matter. One could argue, after all, that the late Soviet Empire’s attempt to export its revolution managed, in the longer run, to actually export the American one. Not what was intended …

First they came for the pagans and the queers

By Lorenzo

The upside of Mozilla’s purging of Brendan Eich is various folk are getting the point that penalising opinion and purging workplaces is so not a good idea.

The downside is a lot of folk just don’t get the bigger issue. This piece, for example, First They Came For The Mormons, exemplifies the common notion that “this” started with gay activists or modern progressivism, or whatever. This post mostly gets the bigger issue, the comments below mostly do not.

An old, traditional pattern
No, this is not a “new” thing, moral exclusion started much earlier and is deeply entwined with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. What happened to Brendan Eich is actually a relatively mild version of what was done to queer folk for centuries. The habit for much of the C20th, for example, of whenever bars catering for a queer clientele were raided, having all those apprehended listed in newspaper reports was exactly the same as finding out who contributed to the Proposition 8 campaign and then targeting them. (Ugandan newspapers are continuing that inglorious tradition.)

It is the modern, scaled-down, version of the theology of Deuteronomy 13Deuteronomy 13 enjoins the killing of those who have wrong beliefs–i.e. worshipping pagan gods:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Thoughtcrime was Biblical long before George Orwell. Purifying society by purifying public belief by outcasting the wrong-thinker is entirely Biblical.

The Christian right’s social model
And enforcing social conformity by boycotts and outcasting is entirely something the Christian right perfected long before the Brendan Eich case. There is a long history of Christian boycotts targeting the (extremely vulnerable) queer minority and those who stood up for them. The attempts to block TV shows and plays that dared to present them positively. To block openly employing them. To block any form of legal protection. Declaring permitting access to the ordinary amenities of life to be “promoting homosexuality”.

It cannot be said often enough: the purging of Brendan Eich is the Christian right’s social model in operation. The notion that you can cut a group out from the herd and deny them ordinary amenities of life is precisely what the Christian right did, attempted to do and continues to demand the right to do. When Scalia J wrote from the bench of US Supreme Court that “Americans” should be entitled to show their ”disapproval” of “homosexual conduct”:

Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible–murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals–and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.

he was endorsing the practice (though not the direction of the targeting) that the purging of Brendsan Eich represents. Being denied ordinary amenities for failing to conform is exactly what was meant in the above passage (except the doers and target has changed); expressing moral disapproval for conduct is what has now been done to Brendan Eich, and was done to queer folk for generations.


Those who see this purging as somehow something new, or a speciality of the left, are, at best, ignorant of this Christian history of boycotting and denial of ordinary amenities of life to enforce conformity; so that they literally do not see that it is precisely what the Christian right wanted and did and still seeks the right to do. For part of moral exclusion is an impoverished epistemology; the notion that what happens to the morally excluded literally does not count. That what was done to the queers has no implication for “real” people.

But there are no “proper” and “improper” persons, nor are there any “do not count” folk who are different from “real” people so that what happens to them has no implications for “real” people. What happens to any group counts, because it is a model that can be used against others–any others.

There is a deep sense of entitlement here–that people like us are entitled to do this to “them” but no-one is entitled to do it to people like us. Sorry, that sense of entitlement is entirely in your head and it will be taken over (and inflicted on) whomever has enough social power, and feels sufficiently entitled, to do it too.

There is, of course, a notion operating that traditional outcasting is somehow different. But that is simply a persistent flaw in conservative thinking–by valorising the past, one is blinded to inconvenient aspects of it. Yes, queers did have this experience and yes it did count. Both in itself and in providing a model for others to follow. The historical, very traditional, chickens are coming home to roost.

Fetishes of order
Which leads to another persistent flaw in conservative thinking–creating fetishes of order which are in fact causes of disorder. In the late 1920s and 1930s, a fetish of order which was a (disastrous) creator of (economic, then social then political) disorder was the gold standard. Nowadays, narrow inflation targeting performs the same role–a fetish of order which is a creator of (pdf) (economic) disorder.


The denouncing of homosexuality and homosexual pairing is also a fetish of order which creates social disorder. It tears apart families, leads to youth suicide and other self-destructive behaviour; when reflected in law, makes people vulnerable to blackmail and strips them of legal protections (as going to be police over any crime becomes so fraught), makes them vulnerable to criminal exploitation; makes building stable relationships harder. But you only notice this if the experience of queer folk counts; experience (and aspirations) which moral exclusion excludes from counting in its impoverished epistemology.

Acts above people
A moral exclusion which puts acts above people. Christ spends much of the Gospels criticising acts-based religious authority. Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian priests and clerics quarantine that by claiming Christ that was just attacking Jewish religious authority–the well-known blame the Jews move. And then promptly contradict that quarantine by saying that (the rest) of Christ’s teaching was for everyone.

Let’s not engage in the blame-the-Jews quarantining of the inconvenient past. This is all an excellent lesson in the power of the Gospel teaching–don’t focus on acts and fail to see the person. In particular do not fail to see them as a person, as an object of moral concern and protection, just like you. Which means listening to their experience and aspirations as you would want to be listened to. Which means permitting them access to the ordinary amenities of life as you would want access. Do as you would be done by. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Do not delude yourself that there is someone or some group out there who can be stripped of moral standing and protections, and access to the ordinary amenities of life, and yet this has no implications for you and yours.

A delusion which the Christian right has bought into for decades and the progressive left is doing now. Asterisked Christianity as its own reward.

Repeatable patterns
There is a certain amount of velvet rage in the purging of Eich. A cry of rage and pain over past and present miseries. Understandable but not helpful.  Well, perhaps a helpful moral lesson but not in the sense the purgers intend.

Brendan Eich apparently also donated to folk such as Patrick Buchanan, who said that:

… our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide …

… homosexuals have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution …

That expressing of moral disapproval for homosexual conduct Scalia J that judicially opined is just fine. Eich also donated to the cause of denying queer folk access to ordinary amenities of life (i.e. marriage). Well, having a career is an ordinary amenity of life too. And folk have expressed their moral disapproval for Eich’s anti-equality-before-the-law conduct. For his failure to successfully recant as, say, Hillary Clinton has done.


But recantation of their homosexuality and homosexual conduct is precisely what was and is demanded by the Christian right of homosexual folk. Which is yet another way in which queer-hatred is like Jew-hatred: making an utterly unreasonable demand (give up your sexual nature, give up your religion) as a requirement for full moral standing and equal protection of the law. Along with pretending it is not hatred, it is just “moral concern”.

The velvet rage is understandable, as the “moral disapproval” of homosexuality still tears apart families and ruins lives. But however useful the moral lesson from the Eich case that the moral exclusion beloved of the Christian right is a force for social disorder–not merely for queer folk, but by providing an example for anyone to use–it is still not a path to take.

The Jewish roots of homicidal purification
For we should remember that the Holocaust had Jewish roots. The notion that society is rightfully purified by blood and fire destroying a corrupting and perverse minority was part of Catholic and Orthodox teaching for generations: that was (and remains) the mainstream Christian reading of Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather than the traditional rabbinical reading that the cities of the plain were destroyed for withdrawing moral protection from the vulnerable–indeed, were so anti-moral that they punished those who protected the vulnerable.

And from whom did Christians learn to read Genesis 19 as moral purification by slaughter of a vulnerable minority? From Jewish natural law philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in On Abraham: XXVI-XXVII and Special Laws III:VII.


Now, I am sure God-fearing family man Philo had no inkling that this notion that society was purified by slaughtering a corrupting and perverse minority had any implication for folk such as him; that homicidal denunciation of pagan degenerate queers had no implication for “right-thinking” and “right-acting” folk. But, of course it did. Because one person’s proper thought and conduct is another person’s corruption and perversion. The constant iteration by the Church down the centuries of Philo’s notion of moral cleansing by slaughter of a targeted “corrupting” and “perverse” minority very much had implications for folk such as him, as centuries of Christian pogroms proved.


A notion of moral-cleansing-by-slaughter that the Catholic Church happily took up as a tool of preaching; endorsing (and, where they had temporal power) practicing “purifying” judicial murder of corrupt and perverse sexual actors and corrupt and perverse thinkers. Indeed, happily spreading the idea, in a compilation compiled by a (later beatified, mainly for doing so) prince of the Church, that Christ insisted on having all the sodomites killed–purifying the world–so that the Incarnation could happen. The Gospels as born in purifying massacre.

All leading up to the greatest pogrom, the starkest purifying massacre of all, the Holocaust. (Though the slaughters of Leninism also come from this root.) If you constantly preach that some vulnerable minority is corrupting, perverse and against God; if you preach that God endorsed purifying slaughter of such a minority, then there will be consequences. Not least because you also set up and inculcate the example for others to follow.

Just as pro-gay-rights folk are practising the outcasting that the Christian right has so long practised and still endorses. The Christian right that set up the example for others to follow.

And now really does not like the consequences. However tempting it might be to say “tough”, stew in the social juices you prepared, it is still not the way to go. Because moral exclusion is a moveable feast, a social game anyone can play, if they have the power.

Let’s not (also) go there
A game that does, as has been pointed out, greatly increases the cost of losing social struggles. Part of the civility of a good society is to not make politics mean that much, to have such profound implications. Nor religion, for that matter.

Yes, the sense of righteous entitlement involved is intoxicating. Yes, it is great to be a gatekeeper of righteous, enforcing a moral gulf between correct and incorrect acts and beliefs.


Philo’s natural law reworking of Genesis 19 had such appeal precisely because if sexual acts mattered so much that God would destroy entire cities over them, then you really had to listen to the priest and clerics as they led you through the divinely ordered moral universe of correct and incorrect acts and beliefs. To be pharisaical in the sense that Christ denounced is to be a needed source of entitled authority. Which, like other aspects of Judaeo-Christian belief and practice, can be happily secularised.

But the real lesson in rejecting the entitled moral bullying and outcasting of the Christian right is not to practice some “new improved” version for oneself–to take you your own sense of entitlement–but not to practise it at all. Yes, stand up for people’s rights, support equal protection of the law, but not as a new litany of “correct” and “incorrect” acts and beliefs, but because you do morally see the person, even when they do not morally see other people; do so even when, in some ways especially when, they are wrong.

To buy into error having no rights is to buy into the social tyranny of whoever has the power to deem what is right. A free society means having the liberty to be wrong. Just because the Christian right persistently refuses to grant that, does not mean the rest of us should not.

Boycotts work through social power. Part of the conservative outrage over the Eich case is the display of pro-queer social power and the evidence of the loss of anti-queer social power. A profound sense of moral entitlement encased in a fading sense of social significance is not a pretty sight.

Even so, social might does not equal moral right. The conservative Christian attempt to deny access to the ordinary amenities of social life was and is not right, and neither is the reverse.


ADDENDA: Some grammatical infelicities have been fixed since the original posting.

Ad inclusion

By Lorenzo

Honey Maid put out an ad about wholesome families:

This created some fuss. So, they brought out a response ad:

Here is a family talking about itself:

And here is another:

Providing some good commercial feels.

The solution to the problem of outcasting is not more outcasting

By Lorenzo

So, the new (since March) CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich made a $1000 private donation in 2008 to the Proposition 8 cause. So, he is–or at least was in 2008–against equal protection of the law for (some) of his fellow citizens. A somewhat problematic proposition; one of a series of such propositions with a long and ugly history.

This private donation has come to light and the witch-hunt was on. Where once being outed as queer would have destroyed one’s life and career, now being outed as actively (in a giving-a-donation-sense) anti-queer apparently can result in losing your job, as he has been forced out of his CEO position.

Outed as anti-queer

Brendan Eich: Outed as anti-queer

The hi-tech businesps is very queer-friendly, particularly in Silicon Valley, in the heart of liberal-gentry California. Even so, it is hard to see what Mr Eich’s private political views has to do with his competence as a CEO, unless one form of illiberal moral puritanism has just been swapped for another. Apparently so, as having the wrong opinions seems to be a sackable offense.

Indivisible freedom
Time for a little lesson in what being a free and open society means. It means folk will have different views, even different views on whether categories of people are entitled to equal protection of the law. The ability within a media-saturated society to generate hi-tech hate mobs creates a threat to being a free and open society if the common opinion of the best-organised-hatreds win; if they can drive people out of their jobs. Hi-tech outcasting is no better than the traditional low-tech variety.

It also gives aid and comfort to the “can’t trust the queers” voice. Yes, much of the outrage over Eich’s ouster is deeply hypocritical (though not all): a highly paid straight white guy loses his job and they shriek to the ether their being offended, and the wrongness of it. The simple human consequences of traditional queer outcasting typically utterly pass them by. So, they say such things as:

We will not stand by and allow this kind of persecution to go unaddressed.  Nor should you.

Starting the piece on how outrageous it all is with:

Imagine going to work one day only to be, in effect, fired — not because of anything you did or didn’t do at your job, but because of something you did in your personal life.

Yep, that was the fear and experience of gay folk for generations. But that is precisely the problem with moral exclusion, it generates an impoverished epistemology (if not an entirely crippled [pdf] one), rendering one (selectively) blind to human experience. Hence the call is made that:

You were terminated for no reason other than your personal religious, moral or political beliefs.  And the evidence is irrefutable.

Sue ‘em.  Sue their brains out.

All the time while the push is on to block queer folk from suing if it contradicts “religious liberty”–defined as the freedom to outcast. The “bigotry for me but not for thee” position.

Catholic defender of liberty

Catholic defender of liberty

For one impoverished epistemology is not better than another. The problem with the US “culture wars” is so much of it is not about stopping moral exclusion, about stopping moral bullies; it is about who gets to be the moral bullies, who gets to do the outcasting. About whose bigotry gets to be on top. Lord Acton’s comments on how limited the support for liberty typically is describe the contemporary American political landscape nicely:

At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.

Yes, this is about liberty, precisely in the sense Lord Acton meant it:

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.

And it is about liberty as the friend of diversity, and enforced conformity as liberty’s enemy:

The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.

That would include minorities of sexuality, gender identity or opinion. For, as Lord Acton also put it:

It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.

Strongest animus wins
So, it is perfectly true that many of those currently squawking in Eich’s defence have been more than happy to invoke the minority status of queer folk to pathologise their nature, experience and aspirations and the “right” of the majority to deny them equal protection of the law. To, as Scalia J has put it, to show their “disapproval” of “homosexual conduct”:

Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible–murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals–and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.

Well, now the social realities have shifted, and folk are showing their “disapproval” of “anti-equality conduct”. An animus which is most emphatically a moral disapproval. The sexual and gender correctness of the right is not superior to the political correctness of the left; in fact, they use the same mechanisms and meta-logic.

For bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim–it is a claim about who does, or does not, have what moral standing. The notion that error has no rights is both the fundamental principle of tyranny and a moral claim.

It not that error has rights, but that people (should be) free and freedom is nothing if it does not include the freedom to be wrong. The problem is being able to see the mote in the other eye but not the beam in one’s own.

A moveable feast
The most fundamental reason to defend equality before the law and freedom for all is precisely this: that moral exclusion is a moveable feast. That just because you have been the ones successfully doing the moral excluding does not mean you will remain so, that you will not become the morally excluded.


So, no doubt many of those outraged by the ousting of Eich will completely fail to “get” the deeper lesson. But those engaged in the hi-tech witch-hunt, shrieking that error has no rights, have also failed to get the real moral point of the fight for queer folk to have equal protection of the law.

The answer to one lot of moral exclusion and outcasting is not a “new, improved” version of the same. That is just the same errors and entitled hate, re-labelled and re-packaged. The fight to be the moral-bullies-on-top is a fight that should never be fought; and everyone who does, deserves to lose.

ADDENDA: Wondering when the “statute of limitations” will apply to supporting Proposition 8.
A nice piece on the perils of workplace purges.

That honour thing

By Lorenzo

The last vestige in Anglosphere criminal law of the use of violence in defence of one’s honour is the provocation defence. It is only a defence in mitigation, not exculpation, but it harks back to the historical role of honour as a social control mechanism.

The most recent controversy has been in NSW, where Yassir Hassan (54) was found guilty of manslaughter not murder when he stabbed his wife 14 times. In sentencing, Justice Garling said that Hassan:

was provoked into losing his self-control, which explains why he is guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter and not murder.

Since the other version of provocation which has generated controversy recently is the “homosexual panic” defence, it seems that heterosexual manhood is deemed worthy of special sensitivity. 

Protecting status
In both manifestations of the provocation defence, the lower status person (women, gay male) is held to be responsible for the state of mind of the higher status person (heterosexual male), thereby lessening the legal significance of the lower status person’s death. Hence the provocation defence is on the way out, as it has become a little too obviously an offence against equality before the law. (Note that this is not an argument for not differentiating between murder and manslaughter, just against building status games into legal practice.) 

The problem with the defence-of-honour status game is indicated by some of Justice Garling’s other comments during sentencing:

Mr Hassan was provoked by Ms Yousif immediately before the attack, [but] he was not acting in self-defence. 

I see no evidence of remorse whatsoever… He regards himself the victim of what occurred and not the perpetrator.

Hassan clearly takes his honour as being more important than his late wife’s life. In this state of mind, higher status does not grant more responsibility, but less, as the lower status person becomes responsible for the state of mind of the higher status person and so “guilty” of not showing proper respect. It is not people, but hierarchical relations that are being protected. 

Medieval honour
Separating honour from hierarchy can be a tricky thing.

In his Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, Philip Carl Salzman nicely defines honour as:

… a recognition of righteous behaviour, and a designation of high rank, while its absence is a recognition of failure to fulfill one’s duty, and a designation of low rank.

In medieval and similar societies, the implicit or explicit contract between warrior and lord both grants and recognises status. Any explicit oath invokes the honour of both parties. But the simple ability to provide such warrior service carries with its own honour and status.

The loss of honour can be a drastic thing. In Salzman’s words:

In the absence of honour, one is shamed, and one’s reputation in tatters, and one sinks to a low rank. The consequences are serious and can be severe: The willingness of others to work and cooperate with one, and to exchange children in marriage alliances … is based on reputation.

A person’s honour was a buffer against the actions of others, a personalised social space they were entitled to defend. One of the signs that Europe was moving out of the medieval—out of the society of franchised warriors—into a society of centralised states served by (employee) soldiers and police, is the decline in the standing that defence of honour was granted by legal systems. As the state took over coercion more and more completely, it took over the obligation of protection more and more completely. “He insulted my honour, so I killed him” steadily loses legal standing.

Hierarchy and violence
In one of his very informative papers on long-term trends in homicide, historical criminologist Manuel Eisner writes of honour that:

Much empirical research on the topic emphasizes the crucial role of insults in triggering situational conflicts. This is in accordance with a society in which ‘honour’ constitutes highly important social capital of the male person as a representative of his group (…). It requires retributive violence as a potential and culturally accepted means for maintaining one’s honour (…). Such a theoretical framework may help to better understand why the secular decline in homicide rates primarily seems to have been due to a decrease in male-to-male fights.  

In high homicide societies (pdf), over 90% of victims are male and high status individuals are frequently perpetrators of homicide. In low homicide societies, 30% or more of the victims are female and homicide is much more commonly by marginalised individuals.  

Hence the importance of how law and wider social norms regard the “social capital” of honour. In low homicide societies, violence is pushed to the social fringes and the intensely personal. In high homicide societies, violence is part of the protection of social standing. As Eisner discusses in his first above-cited paper, Emile Durkheim‘s argument that rising individualism helps lead to a decline in violence because people are less motivated by collective connections has considerable empirical support.

honour killing(1)

Which makes the provocation defence–at least to the extent that it gives legal significance to status games–look even more retrograde. Salzman notes that, in the lineage-driven societies of the Middle East, while men can gain honour (specifically, sharaf, fluctuating social standing), women can effectively only lose it (ird, the honour of female chastity and continence). If a women is seen as publicly shaming her lineage, that can lead to dishonour killing; the main targets of which are women and homosexuals. The very groups the legal significance of whose killing can be lowered by the provocation defence when it buys into honour-status games. 

In their different ways, both Norbert Elias, in The Civilizing Process, and Durkheim examine the social and personal aspects of the form of self-control that reduces homicide rates. The problem with the provocation defence–when it buys into status games–is that it gives legal standing to violent protection of personal honour in a way which works against the inculcation of that self-control by allowing defence of honour as a legally mitigating way to lose self-control.


The Russian conundrum

By Lorenzo

Bryan Caplan thinks there should be more analytical humility: in particular, that none of us know the best way to deal with Russia.

Part of the difficulty is trying to work out Putin’s intentions. According to someone who spent some years as his major economic advisor, they are to take what he can get away with (via). (Which is not the same as saying an invasion of, say, Finland is imminent.) So, that when Putin said:

First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.

he was not kidding. Since there is no sign Putin hankers for a return of the command economy, it is presumably Soviet Union-as-Russian Empire whose passing he regrets. And that he falls more on the “flight from Europe” than the “search for Europe” division within Russian history.

Another part of the difficulty is working out what the proper policy aim is. If we take minimising disruption to the world state system as the aim (which includes minimising the risk of war, which is a significant disruption of said system, without giving it absolute priority) then consideration of the general patterns of war and peace is useful. Historian Geoffrey Blainey’s principle that:

When nations prepare to fight one another, they have contradictory expectations of the likely duration and outcome of the war. When those predictions, however cease to be contradictory, the war is almost certain to end.

suggests that clear signalling is very important. Given that the US and its allies have clearly much greater military power than Russia–Putin goes on and on about the US spending 25 times what Russia does on defence–the danger is mutual misunderstanding about where the limits are.

Putin with toys.

Putin with toys.

So, what are the limits of implicit or explicit Western defence guarantees? NATO membership fairly obviously, EU membership presumably. Hence Putin’s hostility to expansion of either. Hence also the attractiveness of both to nervous neighbours.

The question then becomes–what are the limits to Western acceptance of Russian actions to block expansion of either? The extent of German sympathy for Russian actions suggest an answer of “whatever Putin wants”. Though the Budapest memorandum says he can’t use nuclear weapons.

So, the way to “deal” with Putin and Russia is to work out what the West would find unacceptable as means of pressuring Russia’s neighbours not currently in the EU or NATO and then make that clear to Putin. Geoffrey Blainey’s analytical principles that are particularly relevant:

If it is true that the breakdown of diplomacy leads to war, it is also true that the breakdown of war leads to diplomacy.

And the most pertinent one of all:

In human behaviour few events are more difficult to predict than the course and duration of a war: that is one of the vital unlearned lessons of warfare.

But that gets into the biggest difficulty of all–the strength of current “priors”. If one simply presumes that Putin could not possibly have a “more territory is better” and “malign forces manipulate events” view of the world, then that sort of clear thinking and signalling is not going to be engaged in. Which is why I like the above approach–it presumes very little, it just makes clear what the constraints are.

Failing to do so, however, could be much more dangerous.

The scope of moral concern

By Lorenzo

What Americans call “the culture wars” operate around different presumptions about human nature, social action and the scope of moral concern. Presumptions economist Thomas Sowell divided into conflicting visions; the constrained or tragic vision of human nature versus the unconstrained or utopian vision of human nature. The former sees human nature as a constraint, the latter sees it as an vehicle for social transformation (either because our “true” nature has been suppressed or because it is malleable in controllable ways).

Our nature has innate features in the sense that our minds are organised in advance of experience, not that they are unable to be revised. While common bodily functions and experience also provide shared constraints. None of which denies the reality of human diversity, just that there are ongoing, and recognisable, patterns and structures to human nature and behaviour. After all, if there were not, social action and organisation would become largely impossible since there would be insufficient common levers and expectations to work with.

Steven Pinker has argued very strongly against the “blank slate” view of human nature beloved of those who wish to believe all social ills to be directly tractable to the “correct” application of public policy. Note that accepting the reality of an underlying human nature is very far from an argument for pessimism or fatalism, as Pinker himself demonstrates. His The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes is very much a good news book. (TED talk here.)

MoralFoundationsListing (1)

Pinker’s work does, however, enjoin us to deal with people as they are, not as we would like them to be. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan recently noted, it is a great line that liberals believe nothing is genetic but homosexuality, while conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. For conservatives seem to think that public policy can “stop” homosexuality (and the failure to do so will “spread” it, or at least its baleful influence) while liberals hold that human sexual and gender diversity should just be accepted: something of a reversal of their more usual presumptions about the effective scope of public policy.

That moral conflicts might be something other than just a conflict between “stupid” liberals and “evil” conservatives is the subject of the work of Jonathan Haidt, particularly his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (TED talk here.) His ongoing research into the foundations of human moral perceptions and judgement seeks, in part, to explain why moral perspectives can vary as much as they do. It is a striking feature of contemporary life that, after the collapse of socialism as a plausible alternative to capitalism, the left v. right political conflicts went right on happening. In some ways, at least in the US, seem to get even more intense.

Acts or people?

The conservative presumption of the tractability of human sexuality and gender identity to public policy–or, at least, that they need to be policed–is very much based on particular moral conceptions. In particular, a strong belief in the centrality of acts to moral concern. The opposing view revolves around a strong belief in the centrality of people to moral concern. The former view is fading, and the latter view growing, in public support as people shift from focusing on acts to focusing on people. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah captured this nicely in his The Case for Contamination essay:

But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.

This difference in whether the focus of moral concern is acts or people fits in with the research of Haidt and others, which finds that Western liberals tend to be largely driven by the care/harm and fairness/cheating moral foundations (plus liberty/oppression, if that is added as a sixth foundation), while conservatives also put emphasis on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation moral foundations. Homosexual acts are treated as a betrayal of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of sex while transgender identities are similarly betrayals of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of gender. The opposing view being that queer folk are citizens and entitled to equal protection of the law.

The dynamics of belief

Much of this is simply religiously based–it is wrong because God says so. But, as Mark Lilla sets out in his The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, religion is a deeply flawed basis for public policy. Even within specific religious traditions, there is bitter dispute about what God does or does not enjoin us to do. The more the authority of God is treated as absolute, the more politics becomes a murderous dispute of entitled monologues. God is not a present-in-public Person who can be questioned, or even definitively commonly heard, after all: so monologues claiming entitlement via God’s authority become the natural metier of unavoidable disputes. This without considering the reality that clerics and priests have vested interests in outcasting, in displaying their authority as gatekeepers of righteousness by dividing human society with deep moral gaps. The more vulnerable the group, the better moral exclusion target they make–hence queers and Jews being such perennial targets.

The great trick of the Western Enlightenment was, as Lilla points out, to change the question from the relationship between God and people and turn it into one between people and the world. That was a shift not without its own difficulties, failures and disasters; but we only have to look to contemporary Islam, or back to the Europe of the Wars of Religion, to see the problems of societies which apparently cannot manage that trick. Which remain blighted by murderous disputes of entitled monologues.

Sacred homicide.

Sacred homicide.

Priests and clerics are going to tend to want to keep the moral focus on acts and not people, for that generally better suits their role as gatekeepers of righteousness. Hence regulation of belief acts, clothing acts, food acts, sexual acts, … Religious taboos are act-based precisely because we have to go to the priest or cleric to negotiate our way through the divinely-ordered moral landscape. Taboos are also ways of signalling religious commitment (thus invoking common loyalty and deference to shared authority).

Notions of sanctity and degradation are thus natural buttresses to priestly and clerical authority, since they are so amenable to very different constructions of what sanctifies and what degrades. To the Aztecs, after all, mass human sacrifice was the highest form of sanctity. The invading Spanish took that as horrifying degradation; but thought that throwing “third gender” cross-dressers to the dogs to be eaten alive was a sanctified and pious act. (We may also notice a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement operating in both cases.)

When a Christian claims to be “defending Christian tradition” in their opposition to homosexuality, an obvious response is “so you think committers of homosexual acts should be publicly burnt alive, do you?” That is, after all, a very traditional response. In reality, contemporary conservative Christians have partaken in the wider shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. They have simply not gone as far down that shift as others have done.

A rationalising device

The most intellectually sophisticated buttress to moral concern being focused on acts rather than persons is provided by Thomist natural law theory. Over the centuries, any form of outcasting or moral restriction the Catholic Church has wished to engage in–such as against homosexuality, heretics, Jews, denying women control over their fertility (no abortion, contraception, divorce or rape within marriage)–Thomism has found justification for. That St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and the Dominicans tended to run the Inquisition, was a useful conjunction.

More sacred homicide.

More sacred homicide (to punish “morally degraded” heathen drag queens).

One explanation for this ready application to whatever outcasting was required is that Thomism is simply philosophical truth and the Catholic Church just keeps getting it correct. An obvious problem with such a claim is that the Church has shifted its views on many of these issues. With Thomism successfully “keeping up” with the shifts.

An alternative view is that Thomism is actually a very sophisticated way of rationalising whatever conclusions are required, at least within a fairly broad ambit. It does so by two key features. The first is that it focuses on acts rather than persons. While it does claim to ground its moral reasoning in “human flourishing”, it turns out that acts deemed to contradict such “human flourishing” are given much more importance than specific persons or classes of person.

This is obvious in the case of homosexual acts, against which  the experience and aspirations of bisexuals and homosexuals have no standing–they do not count as part of “human flourishing”. But is hardly less so in the case of Jews, heretics and women. For the last, since procreation is deemed absolutely central to sex and marriage, according to Thomist reasoning (in accord with Catholic doctrine) women cannot have abortions, use contraceptives, get a divorce or deny their husbands sex (no rape within marriage, as they are “one flesh”). The consequences for women of so profoundly denying them control over their own fertility are also not part of “human flourishing”.

St Dominic presiding over error having no rights, including any to live.

St Dominic presiding over error having no rights; including any to live.

As “error has no rights”, whoever is deemed to be sufficiently in error is outside (positive) moral standing or concern. The morality of acts trumping the morality of persons. Terribly useful in rationalising the role of priests and clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

It is a basic principle that the wider the scope of moral concern for acts, the narrower the coverage of moral concern for persons (as the easier it is to lose or lack moral standing). Thus, while freedom of speech and belief can be argued for on truth-discovery grounds–which does not apply if a definitive source of truth is available–such freedom is also about the legitimacy and autonomy of individuals. Conversely, censorship is all about focus on acts trumping such personal legitimacy and autonomy.

A device for dismissing inconvenient evidence

The other feature of Thomism which makes it so useful for outcasting (and supporting religious doctrine generally) is that it uses its conclusions to set the ambit of its premises. For example, that the purpose of sex is procreation so the only legitimate use of sex is for procreation or binding procreators. The notion that, once created, something has a single definitive purpose is not an inference from reality, it is a metaphysical principle imposed on reality which permits contrary evidence to be ignored: that is, the conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises.

In fact, it is perfectly clear from observation of nature that sex has many functions. Not least because procreation is a lot more complicated than mere conception, and the more complex and social a species is, the more that is true. (A standard trope of conservative mis-reasoning is to conflate conception with child-raising under the term “procreation”.)

Sex has a wide range of functions in nature–conception, binding partners, building alliances and networks, diverting aggression, providing catharsis. Humans, like other primates, are capable of broad range of intense sexual pleasure and experiences because, as in other primates, sex has a wide range of functions among humans. Evolution does not just stop, it does not stand still; biological features evolve, and natural selection can alter and expand their uses. Particularly given the importance of culture in human evolution.

Creating culture

Which may help explain how queer people evolved. Precisely because they are less likely to have children of their own, they have more reason and time to invest cultural activities–they have reason to provide cultural services so other people’s children will have reason to look after them when they get older.

It is not merely that queer folk are currently, and have historically, been disproportionately involved in cultural activities: it is that human culture itself is wildly disproportionately their creation. The notion that queer folk have less interest in the functioning of society than straight folk because they are less likely to have children is the exact opposite of the truth. Precisely because children are less likely to be their pension plan (i.e. their support and protection in old age), queer folk have more reason to seek to have their society be willing and able to support them and what they provide. They have more reason to invest in the effective functioning of the wider society, not less. It is therefore not surprising that they are disproportionately active in cultural activities and caring professions.

From people to morality

But that is to infer from the fact of the diversity of the human to a conclusion, it is not to use a conclusion to pathologise the diversity of the human. By focusing moral concern on acts rather than people, by using conclusions to set the ambit of premises based on imposing a confining metaphysical principle on a much more complex reality, Thomism is a splendid vehicle for rationalising religious doctrine. Including religious outcasting; the buttressing of the clerical and priestly role as gatekeepers of righteousness given that the more intense the moral focus on acts, the more moral protections can be withdrawn from actual people.

The utility of Thomism as a sophisticated system of rationalising the withdrawal of moral protection is nowhere clearer than in the notion that “the” defining purpose of sex is procreation. Yes, such reasoning does appear in Greek natural law reasoning. But it was not held to have much moral import; it was taken as (falsely) indicating that humans were different from other animals in their sexual diversity, but not much more than that. It is only when monotheist religious taboos were added in, that it became a justification for judicial homicide. And we can see how the trick was done; through the focus on acts rather than persons and using a metaphysical principle that allows contrary evidence to be dismissed: that allows the conclusion to set the ambit of its premises.

It was Philo of Alexandria‘s application (in On Abraham: XXVI-XXVII and Special Laws III: VII–the former in particular including a strong dose of misogyny) of Greek natural law reasoning to Genesis 19 which, when adopted by early Christian writers, shifted the focus of the Biblical tale from the traditional rabbinical interpretation that the cities of the plain were destroyed because of their withdrawal of moral protection from the vulnerable to one which focused on homosexual acts. Given that the only reference to such acts in the Biblical narrative is an implied threat of group rape, it is a fairly heroic “re-interpretation” of the scriptural narrative–one worthy of post-modernism–to make homosexual acts the focus of the story, but a re-intepretation that natural law theory was up for.

moral foundations.

Philo was a “cultural warrior” in the Jewish-Greek kulturkampf of the time, so using the philosophical tools of the Greeks to damn their degenerate pagan ways no doubt had a certain delicious appeal. Just as St Paul (“Apostle to the Gentiles”) and Church fathers sought to use the established philosophical and intellectual language of Greek natural law reasoning to engage in their own culture wars against paganism. A role which still has a certain resonance in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

The difference between the ambit of moral concern being persons rather than acts also occurs in other traditions–in modern libertarianism, for example. Jeffrey Tucker’s distinction between (vialibertarian humanism, which focuses on freedom of (and for) people versus libertarian brutalism, which focuses on acts of freedom, regardless of consequences for people, is very much the difference between people and acts as focus of moral concern. Hence the latter’s natural affinity for conceptions of religious “liberty” which focus on the right to outcast and to impede women having control of their fertility.

One of the great patterns of our times, in some ways the greatest, has been the shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. We are all in this together, after all. Something that a certain religious figure also suggested, did he not, as he urged the shifting of moral concern from acts to persons, concern for whom was central to his teaching.