Category: Liberal Arts

Economics – Law – Philosophy – etc.


Occasionally there is some odd comment here or there on this site alluding to “rational choice” models. Now almost nobody in economics uses this phrase, because you don’t need a word to describe what everyone is doing. Yet rationality seems to get some non-economists excited. Why?

Oops — I forgot

The judicial nomination of Thomas Griffith, General Counsel of Brigham Young University and Bush appointee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have hit a slight snag — as reported by this morning’s Washington Post, Griffith appears to have been acting as the University’s chief legal officer without the little detail of a license to practice law. Apparently Griffith’s admission to the District of Columbia bar lapsed for failure to pay his dues, and he never quite got around to sitting for the Utah bar. Highly embarassing, but perhaps not fatal to the nomination if no one’s out for blood during the confirmation process.

Blogging in a Different Voice

In my last post I raised several questions about the nature of participation in blogs and other computer mediated communication (CMC) fora, based upon research detailing the life-cycles of such fora. An additional, related line of research that seems to me important for the future of a blog such as Times and Seasons is a substantial body of work exploring the gendered nature of CMCs. This research arose out of observations that suggested a surprising scarcity of female participation in openly accessible CMC fora. Subsequent empirical and ethnographic studies by Susan Herring and others suggest that men and women have different discursive styles that are accommodated quite differently by CMC technologies. Analysis of messages posted by males in CMC fora find a masculine discursive style that tends to be aggressive, confrontational, and argumentative, placing a high emphasis on rationality and logical consistency. Posts by women on the other hand, are apt to be more conciliatory, emotive, and empathetic, placing a…

The Market for Bloggers

Those of us who have been using the Internet for awhile have watched the waxing and waning popularity of a variety of discussion media – beginning with USENET newsgroups, then listservs and chatrooms, various types of conferencing interfaces, IRC channels, and now weblogs. A few of us even remember FIDONET and dial-up computer BBS fora prior to the general accessibility of the Internet. Blogs seem to be the latest in a long line of electronic discussion formats. Researchers who study the social structure of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have noted that CMC discussions appear to evolve through one of a discrete set of predictable life-cycle progressions. Most start with a period of initial growth and enthusiasm, where participants join the forum and post actively. A very few discussions achieve an equilibrium of arrivals and departures that sustains them in a steady state over a long period. More often, they fall into decline; some slowly collapse in on themselves, like a white…

The Hipness of Divine Society

The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical…

Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

Few Mormon doctrines cause traditional Christians more consternation than the belief in mankind’s potential to become like God. This is of course the reason the authors of the most famous anti-Mormon work chose for their title The God Makers. But hacks who deliberately produce fraudulent anti-Mormon screeds aren’t the only ones to be offended by our unique doctrine. Without exception, every thoughtful Christian with whom I’ve discussed the issue similarly believes our doctrine to be blasphemous (though they are circumspect in telling me so). But the Benevolent Theodicy, as I have called it, shows that they are wrong.

A Partial Response: Philosophy

I want to thank the many people who took the time to comment on my initial post. You’ve showed me that this guest-blogging stint will be both more stimulating and more time-consuming than I anticipated. I hope it is understood that I cannot possibly respond to all, or most, or even more than a very few of these comments. I’ll try to write two posts today, the first (this one) addressing the philosophical questions raised by Jim F and others; the second post will bring things back to Mormonism. I think the latter is important because this could easily develop into a debate about theory. I’d enjoy that, but I’m unsure if it would be a good use of the Times and & Seasons website. So, on to philosophy, postmodernism, Heidegger, etc. . . .

Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

First off, let me thank Russell, both for inviting me to contribute to Times & Seasons and for his flattering comments about me. After that introduction, I fear I may disappoint. As Russell notes, I spent two years teaching at BYU, and have enjoyed dozens of email exchanges about LDS-related matters with the handful of good friends I made during my time on campus. Since I don’t have An Agenda for the following two weeks, I think I’ll start by sharing a few thoughts that have grown out of those exchanges.

Collective Action: Is it a Problem?

Given our dependence on a lay ministry and an (almost) all volunteer workforce, the fact that the Church operates at all is something of a miracle. Most of us credit (perhaps self-servingly) the “20” in the “80-20 Rule,” that is, those few individuals in every ward who seem to be shouldering the greatest burdens. As my time in the Church has lengthened, my affinity for the 80-20 Rule has waned. The Rule makes sense only when you count all of those nominal members who have no emotional attachment to the Church, but these people are largely excluded from the benefits generated by the “active” members. This isn’t like national defense, where everyone benefits even if only a few pay. With few exceptions, those who obtain the benefits generated by members of the Church are those who are actively engaged as members. To be sure, at any given time, some members are creating more benefits than they consume. Some people live…

The Criminal Law of Deseret

On January 16, 1851, the legislature of the State of Deseret passed a 34-section law entitled “Criminal Laws of the State of Deseret.” It actually makes for interesting reading. In 1851, the Mormons had been in Utah for only four years. The Territory of Utah had been formed in 1850, but federal authority in Utah was weak to completely non-existent. It would be another six years before any serious outside authority in the form of Johnston’s Army arrived. In other words, Mormon theocracy was firmly in the saddle, the real legal authority was clearly the State of Deseret and not the Territory of Utah, and Mormon political independence was probably as nearly complete as it has ever been. Hence, the laws that they chose to pass are particularly interesting as an insight into Mormon theocratic ambitions.

Mormonism, Liberalism, and Social Epistemology

In the most recent issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, Allen Buchanan, a philosopher at Duke, has a very interesting article entitled “Liberalism and Social Epistemology.” He starts his argument with the observation that our knowledge of the world is inescapably dependent on social institutions. It is social institutions that allow for specialization, which in turn carried great advantages in terms of knowing the world. These advantages, however, come at a price. We must cede a certain amount of epistemic independence to authorities. This, he argues, creates great dangers. Certain authorities can be badly – horribly – wrong. He points to the examples of teachers and scientists in the Third Reich who lent authority to Nazi ideology, leading many people to accept its truth. His other example is teachers, parents, and ministers in the segregated South, who inculcated ideas of racial superiority etc. The danger, according to Buchannan, is two fold. First, there is the moral danger that we will…

Fruity Con Law at Meridian

The ever exciting Meridian Magazine has been running a series of articles that purport to be “Constitutional Primers,” explaining to Mormons the way that the constitution functions. The most recent one argues that what is known as “selective incorporation” under the 14th amendment is a mistake. This doesn’t sound all that interesting or exciting, but it actually is. I promise.

A Mormon Theogony

Theogony is not a topic that comes up a great deal in discussions of Mormon theology. We tend to take the eternity of God for granted and as often as not end up affirming the eternity of man as well. The closest we generally get to discussion of the birth of the gods is when we ask the peculiarly Mormon question of how God progressed to become God. Orson Pratt, however, did get down to more fundamental questions of origins.

Some More Thoughts on Oaths

As I have a tendency to do, I have been reading law today. In particular, I came across a case dealing with the old rule against party testimony. Originally at common law, a party to a lawsuit could not testify in the suit. There were two justifications for the rule. The first was that the parties to a suit had an incentive to lie in their own interested and therefore their testimony was unreliable. The second justification was that testimony was given under oath, which gave it grave theological significance. Perjury was more than a crime. By virtue of the oath it was a grave sin for which one could be damned. The sin was not lyng per se, but rather oath breaking. The judges reasoned that the law should not present parties to litigation with such a grave temptation. Much better to do without party testimony and not risk people damning themselves.

Mormon Nominated to D.C. Circuit

For those who follow such things, President Bush has just nominated Tom Griffith, current general counsel for BYU, to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. For the non-law geeks of the universe, the D.C. Court of Appeals is an intermediate level appellate court (just below the Supreme Court) and after the Supreme Court it is widely regarded as the most important court in the United States, frequently serving as a training ground for Supreme Court justices. (Three of the nine current justices — Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg — previously served on the D.C. Court of Appeals.) If confirmed, Griffith, to my knowledge, would be the first Mormon to serve on the Court and (in informal terms) the highest ranking Mormon ever in the federal judiciary. Tom graduated from BYU, worked for several years as a CES director before going to law school at Virginia. Prior to taking his current job at BYU, he was Senate Legal…

The Epistemological Tensions of Mormonism

Now how is that for a pretentious blog-post title? What the [explitive deleted] am I talking about? In a nutshell, I am talking about the way in which Mormonism deals with how we gain knowledge and how that ability is socially situated. Here is my basic idea: Mormonism has a radically decentralized and democratic epistemology which is balanced by a highly centralized institutional structure.

Theology on the Model of Kuhnian Science

Many LDS thinkers are skeptical of “systematic” theology (e.g. Richard Bushman, whose posts we so enjoyed recently). Here’s a stab at a compromise. Thomas Kuhn presented a powerful way of understanding the development of scientific theories a few decades back in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; here’s a first pass at appropriating his work to think about how our knowledge of God and his ways might develop, in a way that is friendly to continuing revelation and eternal progression.

“Don’t Be Evil”

Unless you have been spelunking for several days, you have heard a lot more about Google recently than you ever wanted to know. (Of course, if you want to know even more, I invite you to check out my other blog where I have been writing about Google ever since the filing.) This event has attracted so much commentary because Google has provided so much fodder. Most importantly, the founders wrote a letter — “‘An Owner’s Manual’ for Google’s [Future] Shareholders” — that has struck a chord with many who fancy themselves as part of a “corporate social responsibility” movement. And no line in that letter has attracted more attention than this one: “Don’t Be Evil.”

A Contract Theodicy

A theodicy is a justification of the ways of God to man. Most frequently, the term is used in discussions of the problem of evil. Succinctly stated this problem goes like this: 1. God is all powerful 2. God is Good 3. Evil things happen 4. God can and should prevent these evil things (from 1 & 2) I don’t want to get into all of the intricacies of this debate. Generally speaking, Mormons “solve” the problem by in effect denying (1), claiming that there are metaphysical as opposed to merely logical limitations on God’s power. It strikes me, however, that there is another possible Mormon theodicy: An argument from consent.

The Value of Liberal Education

Between Julie’s post and this week’s challenge of composing the syllabus for the Introduction to Philosophy course I am teaching this fall, I am haunted by the question: Is knowledge good in itself? I have set myself up to be an educator, but many of the criticisms of public education we delivered in response to Julie’s post seem disturbingly relevant to most college education as well; do you agree? And even if knowledge is good in itself, how far should knowledge for its own sake be the goal of a philosophy course required of every student at a given University? (That would be Notre Dame) In your experience, do college students in general hunger to learn? if so, when and how? if not, how do we explain those few freaks who do crave knowledge?

The Case Against (Temporal) Perfection

In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Michael J. Sandel makes the case against perfection. Last month we had a vigorous discussion about “Enhancing Nature,” which focused on the use of medical technology (or herbal remedies) to enhance physical appearance. Sandel talks about similar issues (muscle enhancement, memory enhancement, growth-hormone treatment, and reproductive technologies that enable parents to choose the sex and some genetic traits of their children), but focuses on gene therapy. Interestingly, he connects these debates to the topic of human agency.

Belief and Practice

I said, “I don’t think that belief is central to LDS religion: it is important only as part of the practice of religion, not in itself,” and Susan asked, “Are you saying that LDS religion helps you to practice religion better and live better than you would otherwise?” Good question.

The Real Issue

What follows is a post on homosexuality. I am deeply sorry about this, because by and large I think that this is a very stale topic. Accordingly, I hope that any discussion that follows this post will focus on the particular questions that I pose, rather than spinning off into another SSM free for all.

The Quandry of the Sugar Beets

I think that I have finally isolated the great symbol of a recent set of intellectual and spiritual quandaries that I have found myself working through of late. I am not talking about polygamy, Adam-God, or blood atonement. I have in mind an even more challenging remnant of our past: sugar beets.

Brigham’s Attack on Communal Economics

One of my most prized worldly possessions is a complete set of the Journal of Discourses. I love these books. I love the way that they look. It probably has something to do with my fascination with law books, which they closely resemble. I also love the sermons. They are a wonderful mass of exhortation, speculation, advice, brow beating, and occasionally sublime testimony. They also have a wonderful ability to surprise you. A couple of Sundays ago, I pulled down a volume at random and started reading a sermon. (I do this from time to time.) While I was doing this, I came across the following attack by Brigham Young on New Testament religious communism. No joke:

Arresting Ministers

The State of New York is charging two Unitarian Universalist ministers with a misdemeanor for solemnizing a marriage without a liscense. (Story here) The Unitarians have long granted gay couples religious unions, but they have not exercised the power delegated to them by the state to create legal marriages. Given the ubiquitious comparisons between the gay marriage legal kerfuffle and the anti-polygamy crusades, is there a parallell here?