Monthly Archives: February 2014

Justice and the “Problem” of Friendship

Chiara Cordell has just published an article in Political Studies entitled “Distributive Justice and the Problem of Friendship.”  Here is the abstract:

Friendship distributes critical benefits across society and does so unequally. Income, levels of education and health vary dramatically according to the quality of individuals’ friendships. Further, friendships shape the motivations and aspirations of their participants. In light of these facts, this article questions whether and how egalitarian requirements should apply to personal friendship. I first show that existing theories of distributive justice, whether they are ‘outcomes centred’ or ‘institutionalist’, have reasons to consider personal friendship as a direct subject of justice. However, both fail to provide reasonable guidelines for how to apply the requirements of justice to friendship. I thus argue that principles of justice, in particular fair equality of opportunity, ought to assess and govern that part of the social structure that controls the production and distribution of friendship bonds across society. I theorise a ‘relational distributive structure’, mainly constituted by civil society associations, as the appropriate subject of justice.

The basic argument is that differences in friendships creates differential, and inegalitarian, opportunities and outcomes and so friendships become, as it were, a “subject of justice.”  And since those differences in friendships end up in helping some more than others, the state has an interest in acting so as to equalize the consequences of friendship.  To her credit, Cordell doesn’t suggest anything especially totalitarian such as the state directly regulating our friendships.  Imagine each of us being categorized along three categories on account of our being more productive of social and human capital.  “Ok, you’ve already got three Cat 1 friends.  Now, you need to register some poor shlub as a friend to balance those out!” Ghastly.

But her preferred alternative is only modestly less problematic.  She supposes, rightly, that many of our friendships develop within the associations and institutions of civil society and it is here that she wants to apply the power of the state, by giving tax (and other, I suppose) advantages to associations and institutions that are more inclusive and less to those that are, of course, less.  In this way, she would place the thumb of the state on balance of civil society to create “opportunities” for people to make friends across social divides and promote her preferred sort of egalitarian justice.

One can just imagine the parade of horribles that would, no doubt, accompany such a policy (especially the insider dealing and temptation to use such a system to “reward friends and punish enemies.”) But what’s especially striking is the way that when she notes those associations that are more “exclusive,” it’s always religious groups that show up, if only in parenthetical asides.  I don’t think the point of the paper is to go after churches, but those do seem to be on her mind.  In the US, however, as much as churches are segregated by race and social status, they are the place where Americans are *most* likely to encounter someone of a different social class/profession.  What’s more, the *most* obvious places where “same” sorts of friendships are cultivated that do, in fact, help perpetuate privilege–our most elite colleges and universities–hardly get a mention.  Maybe I missed it, but I’d think that if you really want to go after the institutions in the US that do the most to create places where people make friends with people “just like themselves” (even if they look different, if people believe the same sorts of things and act similarly, they’re not really crossing social divides), our elite schools are the places to go.  So what do you say, let’s revoke the tax-exempt status of the top-50 universities in the US and cap their endowments at, say, $2 billion.

What’s that?!  You say that would destroy those institutions?  You don’t say…

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Speaking Truth to Chaos: The Arizona RFRA Amendment

There is a good deal of confusion as to whether Arizona’s SB1062, if signed, would enable businesses to systematically discriminate against homosexuals. Some major media outlets strongly indicate that it would and further suggest that this is the primary aim of the law. CNN Money states that the law: “would allow retailers to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers based on the owners’ religious convictions.” The L.A. Times describes it as “a measure to bolster the rights of business owners to refuse service to gays and others on the basis of religion.” Thus framed as a pro-discrimination measure, the law is the subject of great deal of public ire and disdain.

Speaking helpfully into these discussions, a number of prominent law professors yesterday sent this letter to Arizona Governor Janice Brewer. Its authors include Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School, Richard Garnett of Notre Dame Law School, and Douglas Laycock of UVA Law School, among a number of others.

While I commend reading the letter in its entirety, its major points include:

  • Framing this amendment to Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the larger context of Federal and state RFRAs, which provide certain limited protections for religious believers faced with the prospect of being forced to personally participate in an activity which would violate their religious beliefs.
  • Clarifying that when an is action covered under Arizona’s RFRA–even as amended–it does not mean that the action will be vindicated, but rather that certain guidelines will shape it’s subsequent adjudication in court (burdens on sincerely held religious convictions can only be sustained for compelling state interests–requiring assessment of sincerity, burden, and state interest). In the words of the letter: “So, to be clear: SB1062 does not say that businesses can discriminate for religious reasons. It says that business people can assert a claim or defense under RFRA, in any kind of case (discrimination cases are not even mentioned, although they would be included), that they have the burden of proving a substantial burden on a sincere religious practice, that the government or the person suing them has the burden of proof on compelling government interest, and that the state courts in Arizona make the final decision.
  • Explaining how the changes that SB1026 makes to Arizona’s existing RFRA legislation help to clarify ambiguities in its current language that lead to increased litigation, particularly on threshold issues rather than substantive ones.
  • Finally, noting how SB1026 does not suffer from the same discriminatory defects as Kansas’ HB2453.

The letter concludes:

“Business regulations do not often require a business owner to violate a deeply held religious belief, but sometimes they do, and when that happens, the Arizona RFRA should be available. Keep in mind that it will not guarantee either side a win; it will test the government’s claims and the religious believer’s claims under RFRA’s general standard.”

While many will still disagree about the substance of the law, this sort of clear legal thinking provides an important voice that may be missing from much of the current public discussion.

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Cognition and Embodiment: An Ongoing Conversation with Jamie Smith

Here are a few brief thoughts on Jamie Smith’s recent reply to “Irreducibly Embodied”—the Books and Culture review essay of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works that I co-authored with Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern.  I will note at the outset I am grateful for the charitable spirit with which Smith frames his reply.  If in some way our “push back” against aspects of his argument can help him advance a project that I have found so beneficial, I’m grateful to be included in such an ongoing conversation.  In that spirit, here are a few thoughts upon reading Smith’s reply. (I should also note that while the review essay was co-authored, I speak for myself in these reflections.)

First, Smith points out at the outset of his reply that his intent in ITK is not to critique dualism, focusing instead on the good aspects of maintaining dualities. While I’m with him on the relevance of maintaining helpful dualities, I’m inclined to stand by reading him as speaking to dualism. In his reply he describes dualism as “roughly, a hierarchical distinction that devalues one of the terms of the distinction.” This, I take it, is indeed one of the main thrusts of his larger project—critiquing the hierarchical prioritization of mind over body, especially in Christian educational institutions (hence the concern with cognitivist, “bobbleheaded” universities in Desiring the Kingdom). To the extent that ITK develops this argument and articulates further the import of the body, it does appear that dualism, thus construed, remains squarely in view.

Second, Smith avers that we have misread him as promoting too rigid of a distinction (dualism?) between mind and body, rather than the complex “betweenness” he means to communicate. However, I suspect we have heard and appreciated this argument more than Smith acknowledges. Despite this appreciation, we see his articulation of “betweenness” operating hierarchically (like a dualism) and we wish to explore extending his account of “betweenness” to a more robust dialectic between body and mind in which the body does not always take priority. To the extent that we see thought and action “neatly distinguished and ordered,” my sense is that we see this in the single-directionality that he articulates, ordering bodily perception first and reflection second. Yes, the intellect is embodied, but we’re not sure that Smith’s move away from “bobbleheaded” Christian thinking doesn’t risk simply reversing the hierarchy, making the body take priority over the mind. To be sure, as we note in the review and as Smith notes in his reply, he doesn’t practice such a reversal himself. He clearly sees reflection as essential for reshaping bodily practices (this is, after all, the endeavor of the book!). His theory just seems to give priority to the body in a manner that smacks of dualism rather than the sort of dialectic we might hope for. (As an aside, I’ll note that Smith wonders whether we have appreciated the nuances of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body-mind relationship. For my own part, I am more than ready to own this: I am sure I have not! My hope has been that we could do Smith some justice without aspiring to his expertise in Merleau-Ponty’s thought; where this hasn’t worked out well, I can only express my regret.)

Third, I fear Smith may have misconstrued the section of the review essay on the relation of the university and the church. Rather than accusing Smith of de-valuing the mind or collapsing the church and the university, here we sought to make two closely-related points. On the one hand, we meant to highlight the potential breadth of practices that might be described as “worship” and the need for careful thought about how these might be worked out in different contexts—including educational institutions. On the other hand, we intended to point out an apparent ambiguity in the implications of Smith’s argument for the relations of church and university. In probing these areas, we certainly explore aspects of Smith’s arguments that seem to point in competing directions (both towards a body-centered dualism focusing on church-worship practices as primary and towards a more helpful dialectical construction), and we illustrate potential problems by pointing out where aspects of Smith’s arguments might lead, if extended. But our call is for ongoing thinking and clarity and we do not accuse Smith of anti-intellectualism or church-college conflation. Indeed, we state: “Smith does not move powerfully in either of these directions—i.e., either to collapse or to define the distinctions between Church and college.”  I’m certainly open to the potential for the sort of “robust connection” to which he alludes in his reply and I am by no means ready to say that all of the church’s liturgies are “inappropriate” to the Christian university. Rather, I am eager to see this conversation spell things out further in this area.

Smith describes our review as operating from within the “intellectualist paradigm” that he has been at pains to challenge. This claim may well have some merit; we may be operating within something of an intellectualist paradigm. This claim does not, however, adequately reflect my appreciation for Smith’s project, nor my hope that the reflections in our review essay are pulling in much the same direction as is Smith: seeking rightly-related understanding and practices working in tandem with each other for Kingdom purposes.

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