Feast upon the Word Blog

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Liberal vs. Communitarian Conceptions of Accountability

Posted by Robert C. on December 31, 2009

Following up on the Brother’s Keeper discussion, I remembered a great essay by Nate Oman, “Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy,” that nicely frames the liberalism-vs.-communitarianism debate in political philosophy in Mormon terms. (Nate posted the essay as a series of 4 blog posts—the link takes you to the 4th part, but has links to the first 3 parts.)

In short, Nate argues that our notion of a pre-earthly council and eternal intelligences is very similar to the Rawlsian notion of the original position, and the Kantian (individualistically-conceived) transcendental ego that it invokes. Thus, ontologically, Mormonism is very close to liberalism (Kirk: think liberalism = Kant). However, the concepts of covenant and Zion are more conducive to communitarian conceptions and rhetoric. Nate calls this (somewhat unfortunately, on my view) a communitarian teleology. Nate doesn’t try to give an ultimate answer to the tension here, but sheds light on the underlying tensions (at best, and contentious political stand-offs, at worst…).

To apply this liberal-communitarian distinction more directly to the questions of Kirk’s “Brother’s Keeper” post, I’d argue that Kirk has effectively recognized that we live in a world that is dominated by (philosophically) liberal/individualistic conceptions of ourselves: we exist and are responsible, first and foremost, as individuallly (cf. Article of Faith #2). Economic reasoning is deeply based on these conceptions. For example, “homo-economicus” is a fundamentally individual person, with preferences that are independently formed, and typically only based on self-interest—hence the frequent citation of Wealth of Nations by economists.

Although this framework seems, in many ways, compatible with gospel principles such as (individual) accountability, stewardship, engendering a hard work ethic, etc., there is also something deeply at odds with the gospel with these conceptions that ignores the deeply communal nature of the world we live in. Liberal conceptions of individuals can, of course, talk about communal relationships, but there is always a kind of preference given to individualism that is perhaps unwarranted and even quite dangerous. The habits we develop, the preferences we have, the way we conceive of the world—all of this depends on a our nurturing environment, above and beyond our pre-given, pre-earthly natures. And this is what the liberal conception selfhood misses.

In his essay, Nate makes the point that President Hinckley explained the Church’s involvement in political issues in fundamentally communitarian terms. Taking political stands on moral issues like this grates against liberal (note: Nate and I are using the term to mean something closer to “libertarian” than “Democratic”) ideals. Thus, hard core libertarians would argue that individuals should be able to make moral choices for themselves, as long as this doesn’t harm others. However, “harming others” can take many subtle forms that liberal conceptions have a tendency not to recognize.

It is important that we recognize the role of individual agency and accountability in our lives. However, if we do not also recognize the deep sense in which we are interdependent—as members of our families, wards, neighborhoods, communities, and states—then we are not taking our sacred responsibilities seriously enough. If we do not teach our children righteous principles, if we do not bear one another’s burdens, if we do not share the gospel and “warn [our] neighbors,” if we do not care for the poor, then we are being deluded by the liberal philosophies of men that would have us believe we are only accountable for our own individually-contained lives and actions. Entering into the waters of baptism, we enter into a communal covenant that began with Abraham and Adam. Christ’s self-sacrifice and submission to the Father’s will epitomizes the communal nature of the Gospel plan. We must respect others’ free agency, so we cannot force others to enter into this same covenant, and we will not impose our beliefs on others, but we will exercise our Constitutional rights (as individuals and as a people) to safeguard some basic moral norms in society. Moreover, we must take our responsibilities to our neighbors very seriously—whether those neighbors are Samaritans, or Republicans, or Democrats, or atheists, or rich, or poor, or lazy, or work-a-holics, etc. In this sense, at least, we are our brothers’ keepers—contra Cain’s insinuating question.

17 Responses to “Liberal vs. Communitarian Conceptions of Accountability”

  1. KirkC said

    Robert, nice work here. This is a lot to take in at once. I will have to do a few things before I respond. First and foremost, I want to read Nate’s essay to have a nice background for discussion. The argument that liberalism works ontologically for Mormonism, but fails in the context of Zion is intriguing. I will definitely need to think on this. I should get around to this tonight sometime.

    Also, I am taking a Social Justice course this term (starting on Monday), and I will be reading extensively from both Kant and Rawl, so I might actually be better at this conversation in about 6 weeks! But this is good, because I can already feel a paper topic coming on somewhere in this thread (along with the “Brother’s Keeper”).

    • Robert C. said

      Kirk, that’s great you’re taking a Social Justice course—this will definitely help make for some interesting discussions, esp. as we try to better understand the scriptures (and Church leaders’) teachings on this topic (of taking care of the poor).

      Of course I’m painting with very broad strokes in this post, but my hope is to translate these theoretical ideas and issues into rhetoric that is closer to Sunday-school rhetoric. I hope to help us all get more out of—and contribute more to—Sunday school discussions and personal and family scripture study, and to help those who are interested and knowledgeable about the more theoretical/philosophical issues to think more carefully about how these ideas and insights can help us better understand the scriptures.

    • Kirk,

      Are you taking this classs on Social Justice at BYU?

  2. Sterling Fluharty said

    I really liked this essay and your goal of trying to reach a broad audience.

    Where does the concept of unity (as in Mosiah 18:21) fit into this tension? Do the scriptures imply that we lose some individuality when we are unified?

    Is it primarily in western nations that this tension is most keenly felt? What about in developing nations where communitarian ideals still hold some sway in society?

  3. Mitch said

    On a side note, I ask the question of how our church leaders focus on what they represent. Do they represent God to the congregation or do they represent the congregation to God? It seems to me that most church leaders look at representing God to the the congregation, but in my own view I feel they should represent us to God. The difference is that our leaders would take full responsiblitity for us instead of saying ‘I just told you so now it’s no longer my responsibilty’.

    Without question, each individual will account for their own self at the Judgement Bar. But like a parent to a child, we do all we can for those who we have stewardship over.

  4. KirkC said

    Ok, I read all four parts of the article. I thought Part III was the best, but I agreed with Parts I and II the most. I did not really read any of the comments, so if I repeat anything that has already been discussed it is not on purpose.

    Here is Nate’s definition of Liberal, just so we are all on the same page.

    “liberalism refers to the political philosophy that had its genesis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the work of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant. Liberalism sees human beings as autonomous, rights bearing individuals. In this philosophy, the chief aim of politics is to protect the liberty of each citizen to pursue their own vision of the good life and to minimize the reach of collective coercion.”

    In Part IV Nate says:

    “Politics, it could be argued, should be based on what is universal, and in a theology that offers the possibility of differing points along a continuum of connectedness it may be that only our origins are completely shared. Such a view need not preclude the possibility of Zion and community, but it would be conceived of in liberal terms.”

    This stance seems reasonable to me. However, I am not tied to it. I am more worried about where we came from and where we are going, then where we are at. Our political views in the church are not common with one another now, and I am not sure if they are meant to be. In Robert’s OP in he stated:

    “The habits we develop, the preferences we have, the way we conceive of the world—all of this depends on a our nurturing environment, above and beyond our pre-given, pre-earthly natures. And this is what the liberal conception selfhood misses.”

    I would ask, why would God do this if he did not want us to have different points of view? I think there is room in the church for a variety of different poltical beliefs and parties within the church. If there was not room for us all, then I do not believe we would have all these “pre” conditions and differing envioronments.

    I will provide more thoughts later, these are just some preliminary thoughts after I got through reading Nate’s essay and Robert’s post.

    I also want to get at the comments made by Sterling and Mitch. I think Nate deals somewhat with Sterling’s question, and Moses deals with the comment by Mitch. But that will be later.

  5. BrianJ said

    Robert: if I understand you correctly, you’re presenting what I have thought of in the past as a tension between individual salvation and community salvation. In Mormonism, as with most Christianity, we have a sense that Jesus can be our personal savior and regardless of what those around us choose to do, we can accept him and be saved. In contrast, we also emphasize the importance of Zion—a community—and vicarious work for the dead (as being essential for our salvation as well as theirs). So which is it: we are saved as individuals or as a group? In Mormonism, the answer is: both.

  6. BrianJ said

    Oh, just one more thought: I like how you’ve phrased this better than how I did because I think your politico-religious angle is quite interesting.

  7. J. Madson said

    These are the very issues we have been wrestling with in our paper. There is an argument that libertarianism combined with communal aspects best finds itself in the anarchist philosophy.


  8. KirkC said

    Chris (#1c) to stop the treaded discussion, I will answer your question here. Although, I started the treaded discussion in the first place, so maybe it’s my fault? haha. Anyway, no, I do not attend BYU (but a have a brother that does). I am a grad. student at Marylhurst University outside of Portland, OR.

  9. KirkC said

    J(#7), interesting article. I agree with quite a bit of it. The definition of anarchy that the author uses is a little different than I am used to, but it that is good because it makes the article unique. I would agree that many Mormons are to pro-war and to pro-capitalism. However, I think government can have a positive affect on people, so I never like the idea of abolishing it all together. This is one reason I am no longer a libertarian (in the modern sense of the word).

    Nice to see Yoder cited in the essay. I am a fan of his.

    The sections titled, “The Economic Dominion of Capitalism” and “The Exercise of Dominion in Mormonism” go very well with the discussion in the “Brother’s Keeper” thread. I would encourage anyone to read those two sections if they are not into reading the entire essay for which J. provided the link.

    Brian (#5) you asked, are we “saved as individuals or as a group?” Then answered, “In Mormonism, the answer is: both.” Yes, both. But I don’t think we can be saved without the group at the same time. What good is personal salvation if one does not have a family? Not sure if I phrased this comment very well.

  10. Robert C. said

    Sterling #2, great question. Indeed, I think that the unity-vs.-individuality tension is most keenly felt in Western nations. I think one of the benefits of studying ancient, non-/pre-Western texts, like the Old Testament, is the opporunity/challenge it affords of viewing this tension from a broader perspective, where there exists less of a tension.

    Mitch #3, great point about leaders taking full responsibility for their congregation, doing all they can like a parent. Your comment reminds me of Jacob’s concern in Jacob 1:19, “answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them . . . with all diligence.”

    Kirk #4, I think the scriptures and leaders in the Church are a minimum standard of unity that leaves great room for all kinds of diversity, including political diversity. Unity does not mean sameness, in fact, I think 2 Nephi 2 suggests that we opposition (i.e., differing viewpoints) is a prerequisite for there to be unity (the very phrase “compound in one” in 2 Ne 2:11 suggests this, on my reading). By the way, I’m a finance professor at Willamette, just down the road from you in Salem. We’ll have to meet up sometime.

    Brian #5, yes, I think there are individual and communal aspects to salvation in Mormonism—you can’t have one without the other. One of my goals here is to try and help us get a broader perspective of our own framework and culture of conceiving the world so that as we approach the very foreign world of the Old Testament, we will be able to understand it better and be more open to its message as it might be applied to our own world (or, better: reconfigure our world). Interestingly, the covenant in the Old Testament always seems to be a communal covenant. I think we have a tendency to miss the significance of that in the modern, liberal context that we live in today.

    J Madson #7, fascinating read, thanks. I hope you will continue to participate on this list, and I’ll try to participate at your blog and read your publications (I’ve enjoyed many posts and articles in the past). In general, I quite sympathetic to your views. I think there’s a tendency to paint a strawman picture of capitalism in a lot of anarcho-syndacalist writing. In fact, the Nobel prize in economics going to Elinor Ostrom is good evidence that there are many different ways of thinking about capitalism, spontaneous order, voluntary associations, and property rights. To think about the Church, and our families, as (anarchic) voluntary associations withink a broader capitalist society seems a very productive way of thinking about our work of building the kingdom. (In fact, I’ve wondered a fair bit about this as it plays out in the Abraham cycle. For example, might we read the capitalist/economic transactions with Abimilech and Eprhron in Genesis 21 and 23 as contrasting bookends with the non-economic/family “transaction” with the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22?)

  11. KirkC said

    Robert, yes, I was aware you were at Willamette. I have a good friend who attends there as an undergrad. English major. I’d love to meet up with you sometime. Feel free to email me whenever.

    J Madson, did you author the article you cited? You said, “we have been wrestling with in our paper,” as you using the “royal we” here or are you working on it with a group? Just wondering.

  12. […] Liberal vs. Communitarian Conceptions of Accountability […]

  13. J. Madson said


    No I didnt write that specific article. It was written by William VanWagenen, who started the paper. Im glad you like Yoder. I actually did an interview with Stanley Hauerwas for the paper a while back. Hauerwas was heavily influenced by Yoder as Im sure many Christian ethicists have been.

    Here is the interview if you’re interested


    RobertC #10

    thanks for reading. As you’ve probably noticed, the various people that contribute to our paper and blog come from a variety of viewpoints although most could prob be characterized as non main stream or radical. There are a few that are much more versed in anarchist thought than myself and are philosophically more akin to Chomsky I would say than other writers.

    As for myself, I primarily come to these issues through the lens of Christianity, as I understand it, perhaps best explained in writings of LDS writers like Nibley, England and non LDS like Yoder, Hauerwas, Rene Girard, Gil Bailie, and NT Wright to name a few. The more I think about the gospel the more I tend to think that while our individuality is certainly important, that all salvation is really about relationships. I dont think there are any easy answers but certainly society and our those of us in the church as well, could do much better in thinking long and hard about how our actions and inactions affect the world and those around us. We are pretty good at understanding the individualistic part of salvation and alot of good work can be done in returning to our communal roots.

    I’ll have to think more about the two examples you gave at the end before I can give an intelligent response.

  14. KirkC said

    J. (#13), You have won me over to your site. Great stuff there with Hauerwas. It appears you enjoy many of the same scholars as myself. I lean heavily towards pacifism, but see the need for Just War in the minority of situations. I really like this line from you, “The more I think about the gospel, the more I tend to think that while our individuality is certainly important, that all salvation is really about relationships.” That was the idea I was attempting to get across on my post on Robert’s Genesis/brother thread.

    I will have to think about submitting something to your site.

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