Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On Political Power, God's Kingdom, and Human Rights

For this article, I am interacting with philosopher Stephen Palmquist's interview questions at the end of his chapter entitled, "Wisdom on the Boundary: Ideas vs. Ideology." This is Chapter 27 of the 2000 edition of The Tree of Philosophy, Palmquist's opus of introductory philosophy (access it online here: http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/top09.html). The article is structured like an interview for a magazine or newspaper. Palmquist asks the questions, and I respond. Feel free to add your own insights and answers to the questions in the comments section below. Without further ado, let's begin the interview.


My dialogue partner for this interview: Stephen R. Palmquist
(picture source:  http://www.hkshp.org/philosophers.html)
Palmquist: What is power? 

Settecase: Power is ability, capacity. Someone who possesses power is able to cause his or her ends to come about. Power is the capability to cause one’s will to be done. Power is therefore inextricably linked with will, motive, and must involve some sort of means. Political power is power transmitted through the law.

Palmquist: Where does law come from? 

Settecase: Law comes from two sources: natural and special revelation. Natural revelation gives us the natural law and the moral law. Special revelation clarifies what is already found in the moral law and natural law. These principles are distilled and applied to contemporary situations. 

For example, the moral law teaches (without words) that it is wrong to kill someone without sufficient reason. Special revelation (i.e. Scripture) likewise says, “Thou shalt not kill.” These become synthesized in the legal system which prohibits murder.
Yes, this exists. (picture source: www.mtv.com. Where else?)
Palmquist: Is anarchy ("no ruler") a political system? 

Settecase: No. It doesn't meet Aristotle's definition of a political system. There is no power structure in place--not even an internal code of conduct by which responsible citizens are expected to live. As such, it is to politics as nihilism is to religion--the complete denial thereof. 

Anarchy promises freedom, but since there is no way of regulating human behavior, it will quickly degenerate into a Nietzschean, might-makes-right society. Absolute freedom will turn into the abolition of rights (and freedom) for the weak.

Palmquist: Is absolute freedom possible? 

Settecase: Absolute freedom is possible, if absolute freedom is described as living and practicing life in such a way that the maximal level of human freedom (assuming such a thing exists) is being reached and fulfilled at a given time. 

Absolute freedom is found in rising above the basic, animal desires and walking according to a moral paradigm which respects the freedoms of others and seeks their benefit. Persons are fully personal within community--in relation to other persons. Therefore, in seeking the realization of others’ freedoms, I am also seeking my own. This is what it looks like to live as part of God's kingdom here on earth.

Palmquist: How can God have a "kingdom" on earth? 

Settecase: God is immanent as well as transcendent. His kingdom would be likewise both part of this world--in the sense that it interacts with and impacts the world--and transcendent with respect to the world--in the sense that it is invisible and “deeper” than the phenomenal world. 

God’s kingdom is most fully realized when it is manifested in the lives of the highest-functioning beings (viz. humans) who carry out the values of the kingdom via their interaction with the world and with other (human) beings. This is part of what it means to be made “in God’s image.” We carry out the desires of God, functioning as “little Gods.” In fact, the word Christian means "little Christ." This does not mean that we are divine, self-existent, or autonomous (as God is), but rather that we are "in" God when we do his will, and God is "in" us.

In this way we share in God’s immanence and transcendence. Our limited, finite selves reach their fullest potential when extended, deepened, and lifted as they are when we become subjects in God’s kingdom. God's kingdom is one that is within. 

This is "theocracy," and as you discuss, a true theocracy--rule by God--is always in danger of degenerating into an "ecclesiocracy" wherein human representatives of God make their will the absolute law of the land. God is supposed to be the king in a theocracy, not people.

Palmquist: Would philosophers make good kings? 

Settecase: Ah, you mean as Plato famously proposed? Certainly they would, so long as, along with a penchant for deep, critical and/or synthetic thought, the philosopher-kings were also endowed with decisiveness and willingness to act--traits uncharacteristic of philosophers. 

The potential for unsuitability exists in the fact that philosophy rarely ever reaches a discipline-wide consensus on any issue. Kings need to act, as though there is consensus. And if there isn’t any, then they need to act as if there were. How else can human rights be protected in times of crisis?
Palmquist: Do human beings have any inborn rights? 

Tragedies like Hurricane Sandy cause us to realize the limits
of human rights (picture source: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com)
Settecase: In a phenomenological sense, yes. In a noumenal sense, no.

Palmquist: Please explain. 

Settecase: Phenomenologically (in the visible realm), we observe that humans have the right to life, property, liberty, etc. That is, we have an innate awareness that our fellow-man should not be abused without cause, be killed without cause, have his ability to pursue his own ends without cause, etc. This awareness is inborn in us, and it is part of the moral law of the universe written on our hearts. It is from this “sensus moralitatus” (to modify John Calvin’s term "sensus divinitatus" for the “God-sense” within each of us) that we are motivated to do things like protest unjust wars and abortion, donate to charity, and root for the underdog.

Noumenologically--that is, in the world as it really is, beyond our interactions with it--we have no rights. Folks die without cause all the time. Hurricanes sweep across the East Coast, knocking over trees and killing young men while they sleep. Volcanoes erupt and petrify whole Mediterranean cities in an instant, ending the lives of men, women children alike. Natural disasters and unexplained events damage property, harm, maim, and otherwise impede the pursuit of their own ends of countless people, worldwide, every day. 

More after the jump:

Human remains from Pompeii, Italy. (Picture Source: ttp://haiku--life.blogspot.com/2011/08/pompeii-part-i.html
There is a reason these acts are called “Acts of God,” as they lie outside of the purview both of our ability to prevent them and our ability to explain their significance.

We "the people" believe that human beings have high moral significance and inborn rights. We believe that this significance is built-in by our Designer. And yet, it is the very same Designer who oversees the destruction and rejection of those rights. This is the paradox of being human. Importantly, we believe that, just as the kingdom of God is transcendent beyond this world, so also the answers to the deep questions raised by this paradox lie beyond this world, waiting for us on the other side of what, from this world’s perspective, seems to be the most egregious violation of our rights: namely, death.

Palmquist: Is anything in the world really fair? 

Settecase: No. Thank God. On the grand scale, if we all got what we deserved (what was “fair”) we would be far worse off than we are. We have rebelled against a very scary God. Thankfully, that same God is as all-loving as he is all-powerful. Faith in God's son Jesus is the recognition that we don't deserve God's love, we haven't earned it, but we want it. We want to live as part of God's kingdom, with him as king, and experience true freedom. When we surrender our "rights" to God, we taste a freedom that is unlike anything else in life. And thankfully, that is not "fair."

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