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Transcendence and technocracy

A friend complains about the following passage in my last entry:

[L]iberalism insists that everything is either a private taste or something that can be handled adequately by either contract or a bureaucratic administrator. As a result, it can’t handle the most basic issues—life, death, sex, religion and so on. Liberals have to pretend there are no problems in connection with those things, everything can be taken care of in a rational efficient mechanical way, and the only problem is that there are weird people with obsessions who have to be laughed off and ignored.

His specific complaint: “I don’t get how liberalism leads to this rational management you’re talking about.” Since this particular friend has been reading my stuff for years, I thought that if it’s obscure to him it’s probably obscure to a lot of people. So I tried to expand on what I said, and the following, more or less, is what I came up with. Any further comments or complaints would be welcome.

Liberalism is basically the abolition of the transcendent. The abolition of the transcendent abolishes all realities other than our own feelings and actions. Other things are beyond us at least to some degree, and whatever is beyond us is to that extent nothing for us.

That means that our only possible guides are (1) desire, (2) technical ability to bring about what we desire, and (3) content-free formal conceptions like equality. Those guides are wholly adequate from a liberal standpoint, because (1) value simply amounts to desire, (2) things have no reality for us other than their effect on our experiences and our ability to manipulate them for the sake of the experiences we desire, and (3) our only resource for bringing desire and the conditions of its satisfaction into a comprehensive system, and thus establishing a rationally justified overall morality and social order, is formal logic.

So the abolition of the transcendent—liberalism—logically leads to a view of the right ordering of society that involves turning it into a vast machine that treats absolutely everything as a resource for the rational equal satisfaction of desire.

Another way of putting it is that life, death, sex, religion and so on by their nature touch on things that go beyond us. It follows that to the extent one accepts liberalism and the abolition of the transcendent he can’t understand them and will try to pretend they aren’t there or treat them as if they were something other than what they are. Contract and bureaucratic administration are the ways we aggregate desire and integrate it with the practical realities of bringing about its satisfaction. It follows that to the liberal they constitute the whole of social and moral life.

An example: for the liberal there’s no God, just feelings—a subjective sense of sacredness—and whatever practices they inspire. The Episcopal Church, a liberal institution, is therefore wholly determined by whatever is agreed on at General Convention (contract) plus whatever the religious bureaucracy comes up with. That’s the rational approach to satisfying feelings, which is what’s at stake. Any other approach would be irrational and oppressive. Hence the current position of the Episcopal Church with regard to the parts of the Anglican Communion that have not accepted the abolition of the transcendent.



Great lecture on EWTN touching on this subject last week.

Traditionalists/Conservatives are objective, deductive, and principled .

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . .” is, agree with it or not, an objective principle from which all else is deduced.

Liberals are subjective, inductive, and experiential. They begin with the personal and inductively build from there.

The difference is most apparent in Congressional hearings. While there is much overlap, conservatives mostly argue from principle, liberals call witnesses who illustrate the need for legislative action.

This is why debate often stalls. The parties are speaking difference langu ages. We have Christopher Reeve vs the sanctity of life, the right of association vs someone harmed by that principle, the right to self-defense vs James Brady’s wife.

Bush and Rove have been sucessful in large part because they are adopting the subjective language of liberalism in order to advance objective principles.


The Declaration of Independence quote is an interesting one. It seems that what it does is take being subjective, inductive, and experiential and turn that into an objective deductive principle.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Ha! That clarifies things. I think. My comment “agree with it or not” puts the DOI in the subjective catagory but I didn’t see it.

They could have used a simple declarative statement: “These truths are self-evident …” But by “we hold” they certainl y meant more than “we took a poll and this is what we decided for now”. Yet they left open the right to sweep away all they were creating.

Were they trying to paper over the inherent conflict between subjective and objective thought much as they were a ttempting to find a middle way between monarchy and democracy?


Beyond the use of the words “we hold,” there’s the question of the extent to which the Declaration uses objective language to advance subjective principles. On the face of it, “life” means the continuation of subjectivity, “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” means that if you want something you should be able to go for it, and “created equal” can mean that your idea of what’s good has the same status as mine. As for “our Creator,” the Episcopal Church says that God is in favor of moral subjectivism.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I hope I don’t sound too rude, but this just looks like a collection of straw man arguments. It seems that, rather than answer the question, “What did the authors of the Declaration mean by these words?”, you are answering the question, “If a modern subjectivist liberal wanted to twist these words to his own purposes, how successful could he be at it?”

Let’s reason about what the authors likely meant, given their historical and cultural context:

Beyond the use of the words “we hold,” there’s the question of the extent to which the Declaration uses objective language to advance subjective principles. On the face of it, “life” means the continuation of subjectivity, …

No, “life” means that the authors wanted to define the limits of what governments can do to their subjects, according to their understanding of natural law, social contract theory, the “rights of Englishmen”, and other historical/cultural influences on their thinking. They are asserting that government cannot take away the (innocent) lives of its subjects, whether the government is a republic, monarchy, or whatever.

… “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” means that if you want something you should be able to go for it, …

No. Just because the authors were concise does not mean that they believed in a concept of liberty as radical individual autonomy rather than the ordered liberty that was their legal and intellectual heritage. The phrase “the pursuit of happiness” was substituted for “property” during deliberations over the draft of the document. Russell Kirk, in “The Roots of American Order,” interpreted this to mean that the authors were concerned that their new republic not be misinterpreted to only protect the propertied class. Those who do not own property still have rights to be protected by their government, such as the rights enumerated years later in the Bill of Rights. A man without real property still has the right to exercise his religion, his political speech, to not be subject to arbitrary search and seizure of personal effects, etc.

Again, it seems obvious that the Declaration is not being interpreted in this thread according to the intent of its authors, but according to “What could I make out of these words today if I wanted to?”

… and “created equal” can mean that your idea of what’s good has the same status as mine.

No, “created equal” means that the authors rejected the idea that King George was born to rule, and others were born to be his subjects, regardless of whether he respected their rights under natural law.

What does the phrase “can mean” imply above? I think this is the crux of the problem.

As for “our Creator,” the Episcopal Church says that God is in favor of moral subjectivism.

Yes, they do. And this has nothing to do with the intent of the authors of the Declaration.

Rather than saying “the Declaration uses objective language to advance subjective principles”, it seems that you should say “the Declaration uses objective language, well known and well understood at the time of its writing, that can be subjectively interpreted within today’s liberal modernist framework to mean something wholly different from what its authors intended. To an extent, this is because the Declaration is both broad and concise in its language, and does not explain details of the political philosophies that were its foundation.” That would seem true enough to me, but it is no more a criticism of the Declaration than it is a criticism of the Bible or the Constitution to point out that men with selfish interests at stake have been known to interpret both of them in a way that suits their interests. Would you think it fair if your words on this website were interpreted by a liberal modernist to suit his preconceptions, without regard for original intent?

I put the words “question of the extent to which,” “on the face of it,” and “can mean” into the comment to suggest that these are complex issues. I probably should have said “can mean” for “means” in each case.

I agree that if you had asked Madison and Jefferson “Do you think NAMBLA should be celebrated as part of our wonderful quilt of American diversity?” they would have said “No, I think people like that should be strung up.”

Is that what’s important, though? Our political problems have to do with fundamental principle, so principles matter more than intentions in thinking about these things. The question is what we need today, and whether it’s enough to go back to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. It seems to me it isn’t, because the principles those documents stand for aren’t enough to support the understandings of substantive value needed to make them workable. We need something further.

Regardless of what specific thoughts people had in 1776 or 1787, the basic issue as to principle is where a discussion will end up that starts by assuming that governments are set up contractually (“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”) for the sole purpose of protecting equal rights, where the rights are a matter of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and thus have to do with enabling people equally and securely to pursue their own goals.

When those principles were first announced there were lots of inherited habits and assumptions that had grown up when other principles were authoritative. Those inherited things naturally constrained interpretations of the new principles. The inherited assumptions didn’t last though. I think one reason is that there wasn’t a good way in the absence e.g. of formal public recognition of religious authority to articulate why they should still be authoritative. So when push came to shove, the inherited principles lost.

I think considerations like that are important in deciding how we should look at the Founding today and thinking about what’s gone wrong since and what needs to be done.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I agree somewhat with the outline of your analysis. However, over the years I have had some questions about the view of the Constitution and Declaration that has been expressed at this site and at View From the Right. That view is generally phrased something like this: “The flaw in our founding documents is that they made rights explicit, while the moral order that must be a foundation of (and limitation on) those rights was left implicit.”

My questions are these:

  1. Exactly how should the moral foundation have been made explicit?
  2. Do we have good historical examples of making this moral foundation explicit, other than in theonomies and theocracies?
  3. The Constitution, like the Bible, is often misinterpreted not because it is hard to understand, but because people come to it with an agenda. Things that are quite explicit in the Constitution are routinely ignored by the liberal elite today, right up through the Supreme Court. Given this fact, what assurance do we have that an explicit recognition of our moral foundations in the Constitution (much less the Declaration) would make much difference?

The combination of the Enlghtenment and the rise of the modern, centrally powerful nation-state, along with Romanticism, moral relativism, nominalism, etc., have produced large numbers of people who will ignore whatever the Bible, or the Constitution, or the Declaration actually say whenever it suits their pursuit of radical individualistic hedonism. The Constitution and Declaration can hardly be said to have played a significant role in this development. Thus, it seems to me that they are receiving misplaced blame for the spread of modern liberalism. The true liberal nominalist does not even care what the Constitution actually says.

1. The foundation would have been more explicit if the preamble to the Constitution had said

“We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of our inherited laws and liberties to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish under God, who is the source of all justice and authority, this constitution for the United States of America.”

I suppose it would also have been a good idea to do away with the “no religious test” clause too. It might or might not have been politic to have such a test, but as it stands it establishes the principle that American government has no concern with ultimate issues. That’s not possible.

As to the Declaration of Independence, it might have said

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that governments are instituted among men, holding their just powers by the consent of the governed, to establish justice, provide for the general welfare, and defend the people and their known laws and liberties, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect the ends of government.”

2. The United States of America was the first government I know of established without an explicit religious sanction.

3. We don’t have any assurance that redrafting the Founding Documents would have done any good. In Europe they had lots of religious sanctions and still have religious establishments, and look where they are now. Still, to the extent those documents matter we should recognize that they are flawed and don’t say everything a fundamental instrument of government ought to say and at the time might have said.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Countries prior to the founding of the United States had explicit recognition of the importance of religion. This was accomplished via declaring a certain church (Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) to be the state church.

State churches are observed to stagnate and lead eventually to nations in which liberalism is at least as rampant as in the U.S.A., and in which religious observance is lower than in the U.S.A.

As a result, the state church approach was not only rejected by our founders, but is not recommended today as a cure for the ills of liberalism. Instead, it is desired that the founding documents make it clear that the national government is not “neutral” with respect to religious belief and observance, but that it acknowledges that religious belief, and the accompanying morals and ethics, are essential to the nation, and that God is the source of all creation and of our rights.

It is not known whether this would have made a great difference over the last two centuries, but at least the founding documents would be better and would provide more intellectual ammunition for traditionalists, and less for liberals, in public discourse.

My conclusions: I don’t really disagree with any of the above. What I questioned were the rather strong statements that I have seen, on this blog and elsewhere, that the founding documents were “liberal” and were the source of much of the problem that we have today with liberalism. The above summary does not support such conclusions.

Liberalism in the sense of radical individual autonomy appeals to men’s selfish instincts. Once certain Enlightenment (and pre-Enlightenment) thinkers let Pandora’s box open, we were destined for a grim struggle against liberalism. State churches, religious tests, and general statements in founding documents all seem (to me) to be tangential elements in this struggle. The key is to promote religious faith and to teach citizens (believers and non-believers alike) to be self-consciously aware of the temptations of liberalism, why they are tempting, and what destructive results come from them. A lack of conscious awareness of these issues can be found even in the pews of the most faithful churches. That is the crux of the battle. A few statements in founding documents that the nation depends upon God, faith, and morality would be nice, but a nation full of people who are not even aware of the struggle against selfish instincts and radical individualism will not find much cure in a few such statements.

1. Complaints that the founding documents are liberal are a response to claims that they are sacred texts that are the basis of American social order. It seems to me they exist within a prior social order and should be understood as relative to that order and subordinate to its fundamental principles and assumptions. The founders weren’t demigods and America can’t be understood as based on propositions they enunciated. That’s the reason for pointing out unfortunate consequences of treating what they said as ultimate principle.

2. I don’t think state church versus no state church exhausts the possibilities. In the Middle Ages for example there wasn’t a state church because there wasn’t a state in the modern sense of a single identifiable sovereign social authority. The Church was an independent social authority that didn’t depend on the state. Nonetheless, it was fitting for secular rulers to defer to its authority within its sphere, just as it is fitting for secular rulers today to defer to the authority of physicists, physicians, civil engineers or parents within their sphere. If something is socially understood as knowledge or as an area of special responsibility then it makes sense for social institutions to treat it as such and take it into account when they act. I don’t think it’s a plus for religion to say that religious truth is different in that respect, and that from the standpoint of political institutions it doesn’t exist.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I agree that America is not a “proposition nation”, and the founding documents should not be divorced from their context. I don’t agree that the abuse of these documents by the “proposition nation” crowd justifies the claim that the documents are “liberal” and are the source of many of our modern problems with liberalism. While it might be human nature for extreme claims on one side to lead to extreme counterclaims, I don’t think we should continue this pendulum swing once we become aware of it.

As you point out, the church/state possibilities are not exhausted by the two examples I gave: strong nations with state churches, and strong nations with no state churches. There is also the possibility of a weak civil government, such as existed in the Middle Ages, which defers to the church in various matters. I don’t know that we can reproduce that system today, and I don’t know that anyone is criticizing our founders for not doing so.

So, I guess the area to explore is: How can we have a system today, in a world of strong nation-states, with a limited national government that attends to only those matters that are not properly handled by church, family, or local government, and defers to them on all other matters? In other words, a government that obeys the principle of subsidiarity.

On this score, I guess you could say that the Constitution could have been improved by explaining a political philosophy of limited government, subsidiarity, and traditionalism, before moving on to the Articles that spelled out the powers and limitations of that government. Nominalists/liberals/leftists would still try to argue that such words were like the Preamble, without authority, but the presence of such words would be helpful in exposing the Left as anti-American agents of corruption from within. It would be harder to “re-interpret” portions of the Constitution, like claiming the First Amendment supports some modern “separation of church and state” extreme, or that the interstate commerce clause means the total opposite of federalism and subsidiarity.

The Declaration, not being an establishment of a new government, would not be the place for such an explanation of the philosophy of the new government. The Declaration was a statement for a primarily European audience of why the colonists were renouncing the authority of King George III and the British Parliament to rule over them (and why those European rivals of England might want to support us against England). The Constitution could be improved, however.

In summary: The founders inherited a world of strong nation-states with state churches. That approach did not look too good to them, and does not look too good to me. Returning to the blueprint of the Middle Ages did not look possible, and I agree. The best they could do was to severely limit the central government of their new nation-state, so that the “public sector” would be minimal and the realm of faith, family, community, etc., would be maximal. This they tried to do, desperately, starting with the Articles of Confederation and proceeding to the Constitution. Their words were heeded for a while, then gradually ignored as the country grew, industrialized, etc. Their founding documents might have been less ignored, and more vigorously supported by the traditionalist sector of the populace, had they included explicit principles such as subsidiarity, deference to church and family, etc. In their defense, they were quite explicit about the limitations of government, but the willfulness of later men would not be denied, regardless of those words of limitation.

From all this, I am hard pressed to conclude that the founding documents were “liberal” or were responsible for the country becoming liberal over the centuries. Yet I have seen this claim made many times.

I think it’s worthwhile criticizing a tendency among conservatives to treat the founding documents as ultimate sacred texts. That criticism would include a discussion of what happens if their language and the stated principles and rhetoric of their authors are taken that way. After all, the point is that the United States of American is not a novus ordo seclorum, at least not in any grand sense, even though they might have said it was.

Is it true we necessarily live in a world of strong nation-states? I don’t think the United States was originally conceived as such, at least not by most of those who ratified the 1787 Constitutions. That might have been the necessary result though of giving the federal government exclusive control over ultimate issues of life, death and social identity and survival — that is, over war and foreign relations — without (as it turned out) reserving the right of secession. So I suppose another thing the 1787 Constitution might have done was state a procedure for secession. That would have made it clear that the United States should not be understood as a sovereign national state on the European model nor the federal government understood as the supreme social authority.

Today there’s a tendency to limit the nation-state by various trans-national arrangements. It seems to me that in general something of the sort is needed to keep the national government — which in America means a government created for rather narrow purely this-worldly purposes — from becoming the supreme social authority. The problem is that the purposes of the supreme social authority become the supreme social purposes, and in America that’s intolerable because of the limited nature of the federal government.

The problem with today’s internationalism, of course, is that if the American constitutional order as now authoritatively expounded is bad the world human-rights order is worse. It’s a piece of left-wing nihilistic statism. What’s needed is a way of understanding America as part of something more substantive, and the only more substantive thing I can think of that’s available is European Christendom. If that’s the answer I think you need the pope to bring it about. Christendom needs a definite institutional embodiment and I don’t see anything else that would serve. You need some other things too, for example an America and some other countries that habitually recognize the spiritual authority of the pope and a pope who’s willing to stop touting the EU, the UN and so forth. Still, there are lots of big problems anyway and I don’t see a better way of avoiding the hole of statism and nihilism we all seem to be falling into. If other people come to agree a lot can happen in 50 or 100 years.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.