27 January 2010

Authority and the pretence of autonomy

You may not immediately recognize the name, but you will likely recall the famous experiments he conducted at Yale half a century ago. In 1961, a junior professor in psychology, Stanley Milgram, placed an advertisement in a local New Haven newspaper soliciting participants in what was claimed to be a study of memory and learning. The rest of the story is familiar to anyone with an undergraduate introductory psychology course under her belt:

As a respondent to the ad, John Doe is ushered by a white-coated experimenter into a room where another person is seated. Both are told the nature of the experiment about to take place. Having drawn straws, Doe becomes the “teacher,” and the other man the “learner.”

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority
Both are taken to an adjacent room where the learner is subsequently seated at a table. A strap attached to an electrode is placed around his arm, with the teacher looking on. The experimenter explains that the teacher will read through a list of word pairs, which the learner must then read back to the teacher in the correct order. If he misses one of the pairs, the teacher, seated in the other room, will administer an electric shock, beginning at 15 volts, increasing the voltage with each successive error up to a high of 450. The experimenter assures the teacher that the shocks are not dangerous to the learner.

The experiment proceeds with the teacher reading the first pair of words. At the first mistake Doe administers the initial shock to the learner, who is behind a closed door in the adjacent room. At some point, after a few more errors, the teacher hears the first audible, if somewhat muffled, indication of discomfort from the learner. The teacher looks hesitantly at the experimenter, expecting some guidance. The experimenter tells him to continue, which he does obediently. After more errors what started out as grunts from the learner become increasingly urgent cries of pain, coupled with a protest that he has a heart condition and wishes to end the experiment. Increasingly agitated, Doe fully expects the experimenter to intervene and put a halt to the ordeal. But the experimenter remains calm, assuring him that he himself assumes all responsibility for what happens, instructing him to continue.

At this point Doe is confronted with an ethical dilemma. Indeed the experiment is not about memory and learning at all; it is intended rather to gauge the extent to which an ordinary person, commanded to inflict pain on someone else, will do so in deference to authority, even under conditions that appear to compromise his moral commitments.

The entire situation is a set-up. The “learner” is in reality an actor hired to play the part. The drawing of straws is fixed, with “teacher” written on both slips of paper. The “teacher” is given a mild shock before the start of the experiment to give him a sense of what the learner will be experiencing, but, apart from that, the elaborate console in front of him is a façade. The switches he throws do not shock the “learner” at all. The sounds emitted from the other room come from a tape recorder, timed to run after each “shock” is delivered.

How far would the “teacher” go in carrying out orders? Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the “dangerous” level of 450 volts?

Milgram had gone into the experiment believing that virtually all decent people would at some point refuse to go further, because their moral convictions would not allow them to do so. However, the reality was that many people continued to obey the experimenter despite the verbal indications of pain on the part of the learner. “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”

Milgram concluded that, for people to be brought to the point of performing such an action, they must first abandon their autonomy and enter into what he calls an agentic state, in which they see themselves as no longer responsible for their own actions and as nothing more than agents for carrying out someone else’s instructions. Thus authority, so necessary for human survival, manifests a dark side by facilitating the rise of tyrannies and totalitarian régimes, which rely for their very existence on the obedience of vast numbers of citizens.

Like many people who had lived through the horrors of the Second World War, Milgram was appalled that so many ordinary Germans played their part in the nazi death machine in obedience to orders issued by higher ups. Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem seemed to confirm that, far from being cruel or sadistic, many nazi officials were mere bureaucrats functioning within an extensive chain of command.

How is it possible that otherwise ordinary, decent people can be brought to the point of doing harm to their fellow human beings? They do so, according to Milgram, by subordinating their own wills to those of others, thereby becoming mere agents of the latter. Their ability to reason morally is thus impaired by the felt need to defer to authority. In the case of these experiments, the presence of authority was conveyed by the white lab coat of the experimenter, by the official-looking venue and by the prestige of the university under whose auspices they were conducted. All of these elements combined to induce the unwitting subjects to give up their freedom and to commit acts they would otherwise not do.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to question whether Milgram’s dichotomy between autonomy and the agentic state is warranted. Milgram himself admits that, as the child matures, she is subject to various socializing agents, from family and school to workplace and government, all of which aim at the “internalization of the social order.” In this way, the person’s conscience is formed by the very structures of authority with which it may eventually come to stand in tension. In other words, the individual’s internal inhibitory mechanisms are shaped from the outset by various external inhibitors, all of which can be grouped under the broad heading of authority. Even when people believe they are acting autonomously, each decision they make is conditioned, either directly or indirectly, by numerous authorities, the most significant of which have made their impact long before.

Wiring up the 'learner' for the experiment
This is illustrated by two subjects whose actions and responses Milgram himself mentions, while nevertheless failing to draw out their full implications. The first subject is the pseudonymous “Jan Rensaleer,” an industrial engineer who was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States after the war. Rensaleer stops the experiment after 255 volts, refusing to go on. He expresses regret that he has gone as far as he has in response to authority, assuming full responsibility for his own actions and refusing to blame the experimenter. Yet, having lived through the nazi occupation of his native country, he is not surprised by the level of obedience in the other subjects of the experiment. Rensaleer reports that he is “a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.”

The second subject is the “Professor of Old Testament,” who discontinues the experiment after 150 volts, surprisingly asserting that “I’m taking orders from him,” that is, the protesting “learner.” Milgram notes that the Professor does not precisely claim to be disobeying as much as shifting his allegiance – from the experimenter, whom he appears to view as merely a “dull technician” of limited intelligence and imagination, to the learner/victim. Moreover, when later asked the best means of fortifying resistance to unjust authority, the Professor replies, “If one had as one’s ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority.” Milgram’s response to this claim is remarkable, both for what it indicates about the nature of authority and for his failure to make any more of it: “Again, the answer for this man lies not in the repudiation of authority but in the substitution of good – that is, divine – authority for bad.” This observation could have summed up his analysis of the experiments as a whole, had Milgram treated it as more than just the comment of yet another subject of the experiment.

Both “Rensaleer” and the “Professor of Old Testament” are evidently Christians, having been raised to distinguish between right and wrong. Their claim to selfhood thus lies, not in pretending to act autonomously, but in acting according to principles taught by another authority, or a series of authorities, whose presence is felt more vividly than that of the experimenter.

Milgram’s claimed mental shift from autonomy to the agentic state may not, after all, be an accurate way of accounting for what occurs in the person, either in the laboratory or in ordinary life. Our consciences are formed in such a way as to recognize and obey legitimate authority. Our very selfhood is fashioned in large measure by others, including our parents, schools, churches, peers and, for better or worse, the media.

To be sure, we are not simply the products of our environment, as argued by such radical behaviourists as B. F. Skinner. We grow into and retain our responsibility at every stage of the process of growth. When we come to see ourselves as part of a larger communal whole, we do not so much suppress our selfhood as adjust it to the realities of living among our fellow human beings. Indeed the recognition that we are not alone in the world and must therefore subordinate our wills to others’ for the sake of justice and the common good is integral to the development of the mature self, notwithstanding the views to the contrary of Milgram and his fellow heirs of the Kantian legacy, who persist in portraying deference to authority as a sign of moral juvenility.

25 January 2010

Academic responsibility

During my first years teaching at Redeemer University College, I quickly discovered the impact I was having on students and initially found it a somewhat jarring experience. I had recently gone from being a lowly graduate student at Notre Dame’s Department of Government and International Studies to being a not-quite-so-lowly (but not terribly exalted either) assistant professor of political science at one of Canada’s few Christian universities. This commanded the respect of the students, most of whom had grown up in the Christian Reformed Church and similar bodies and had been educated in the day schools connected with Christian Schools International. The Dutch Reformed tradition in particular has long had a strong educational tradition, beginning at least with Abraham Kuyper’s Free University of Amsterdam in 1880 and extending to Calvin College and other institutions in North America. One need only think of Alvin Plantinga’s and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s works as premier examples of scholarship in this tradition, to which Redeemer is heir.

One day while I was sitting in the cafeteria around a table with some of my students, one of them turned to me and repeated something I had said in class as though it were gospel truth. Still being quite green, I was startled at this. That night I had difficulty sleeping and James 3:1 kept running through my mind: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” To say that this scared the hell out of me would be something of an overstatement, yet I had come to understand something of the awesome responsibility of a teacher, even at the post-secondary level.

Not too long ago I posted something on Academic freedom and the faith-based university in response to John Stackhouse’s defence of Trinity Western and other confessional universities in Canada’s University Affairs. I return to the topic here.

As I see it, there are two sides to this: teaching and research, each of which must be handled somewhat differently, even if they are interconnected in numerous ways. Ideally each should support the other, which is why universities try to provide sufficient time and monetary resources for research, even if some overburden their faculty with teaching responsibilities. Many of the smaller Christian universities tend to have their faculty teaching as many as eight courses per year under nine-month contracts, thereby making it difficult for them to pursue a scholarly agenda in any serious way. This is an issue for another time.

The crucial concern for present purposes is that Christian universities often require of their employees adherence to a particular confessional statement, sometimes associated with the supporting denomination. It is not unusual for a Presbyterian university to hire only those agreeing with the Westminster standards. Calvin College itself requires its faculty to attend Christian Reformed Church congregations or those of other denominations with which it is in ecclesiastical fellowship. It also requires adherence to the Three Forms of Unity. Do such requirements constitute undue limitations on academic freedom? Not necessarily, though they can do so, depending on the content of the prescribed statements.

The stereotypical case has a professor of, say, biology coming to believe that the bulk of the evidence points to macro-evolution, including the descent of human beings and the higher primates from a common prehistoric ancestor. However, because she has signed a statement supporting fiat creationism at the time she was hired, her findings threaten her continued employment. Or what of the professor of biblical studies who has come to conclude, based on literary evidence, that Isaiah 40-66 were written centuries after the first 39 chapters, or that Daniel was probably written in the second century BC? If this conflicts with the official understanding of biblical authorship supported by the institution, this puts him in a tough position and could result in the loss of his job.

These are the sorts of scenarios of which faculty at christian universities ostensibly live in constant fear. To be sure, I think it is unwise to prescribe a statement of faith in effect prohibiting faculty from exploring human origins and other fields of legitimate human endeavour. In short, it ought not to tell scholars what they can and cannot learn about God’s creation or what sort of evidence they are allowed to uncover. But that the world is God’s creation should obviously not be called into question.

Does this limit academic freedom? In one sense, yes, it does. Christian believers are not free to accept the sort of dualism that assumes that our ultimate convictions can be safely sequestered from pedagogical and scholarly pursuits. Nor should we embrace the various reductionisms that plague the secular academy in so many ways. We are not free to ignore the many idolatrous worldviews that vie for our loyalty or to pretend that they have no impact on the life of the mind. Any effort to rehabilitate, say, the Marxian project without noticing its reduction of the full complexity of human motivations to material productive forces falls well short of the spiritual discernment sorely needed in academia.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as a university without some form of undergirding faith commitment, even if it is only implicit. In a public university, which is supposedly neutral with respect to various religious commitments, there are certain academic activities that are at least unofficially out of bounds. J. Philippe Rushton’s controversial investigations into intelligence and racial differences have skirted the edges of these boundaries for obvious reasons. One suspects the same would be true of those exploring gender differences. Even if the latter were permitted by one’s academic peers, one would have to tread very carefully to avoid causing offence to the easily offended. Yet, ironically, questioning Darwin’s theory, which would appear to imply at least the possibility of biological inequalities, is also beyond the pale. It overstates the case to conclude that a common commitment to methodological atheism is required for teaching at a public university. All the same, one could not simply assume that, say, God created the heaven and earth and redeemed it from sin through Jesus Christ, and then proceed to conduct one’s academic inquiries on the assumption that this is true.

Yet this is exactly what scholars at a Christian university are privileged to do. There is no doubt that, given my own faith commitment and how I understand it to impact my field of political science, I am freer at Redeemer to follow my own interests in teaching and research than I would be elsewhere. Academic freedom? Yes, but I prefer to speak of academic responsibility, recognizing that true freedom is not mere licence, as many seem to think, but always functions within a larger communal context wherein we exercise a fearful responsibility, not only for the young lives God has put in our care, but for the larger world of scholarship.

23 January 2010

Bradley on liberalism

Anthony Bradley pays me the compliment of appealing to my Political Visions and Illusions in this post on the WORLDMag blog: Conservative vs. liberal. Here's Bradley:
Koyzis rightly points out that we all tend to waffle between idolatry and gnosticism in our political alignment. We are idolatrous when we believe that our political preference is the remedy for the world’s problems, and we are gnostic when we believe that competing ideologies are inherently evil. In an honest moment, I would confess that I do believe that my political ideology is right and all others are wrong because, at the end of the day, I think I’m always right. This is why I struggle with whether I am liberal or conservative. . . .

Liberalism starts with the fundamental belief in human autonomy, which means being self-directed and free to govern oneself in accordance with rules in which one willingly submits. The most basic principles of liberalism, according to Koyzis, is that everyone possesses property in their own person and must therefore be free to govern themselves in accordance with their own choices provided that those choices do not infringe on the equal right of others to pursue the same. Human persons should be free from coercion that favors one person or group’s preferences for another. As such, true liberals have a consistent aversion to government coercion in ways that conservatives do not.

I am pleased, of course, that Bradley appreciates my book. In response I would indicate that I am less concerned with what separates liberals and conservatives than I am with probing the spiritual roots of a number of ideologies, of which these are only two. In reality, liberalism and conservatism are not the opponents people generally think them to be. Liberalism is predicated on the assumption that all communities, including such basic institutions as state, church, marriage and family, are reducible to voluntary associations. Because conservatism is merely a tendency and, unlike liberalism, lacks a distinctive account of state and society, there is much overlap between the two. One can easily claim the conservative label and at the same time accept the contractarian account of the state. American conservatives, with their affection for their own founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, are practically obligated to do so.

And, no, true liberals do not "have a consistent aversion to government coercion in ways that conservatives do not." At least not all of them do. This is the upshot of my tracing the development of liberalism through five stages beginning with the Hobbesian commonwealth, followed by the night-watchman state, the regulatory state, the equal-opportunity state and, finally, the choice-enhancement state. Because it is up to the parties to the contract to decide exactly what government should do, they are within their right to demand a full-blown welfare state, if they so desire. Yet they remain "true liberals," who simply take the logic of this position further than many professed liberals are willing to.

Bradley might wish to consider dropping altogether both conservative and liberal labels. If he admits that "there are some American conservative cultural traditions that America has benefited by extinguishing," then he may not be a conservative at all — at least not in the sense in which it is used on this side of the pond. Yet if he is willing to recognize, as I hope he is, that not all communities can be reduced to voluntary associations, he is almost certainly not a liberal either. At this point I refer him to the last three chapters of my book where I attempt to point to a way beyond the distortions of ideological thinking.

18 January 2010

Chesterton on checks and balances

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 19 April 1924.

16 January 2010

January snippets

  • It seems some television viewers were disconcerted by Brit Hume's comments shown in this segment below:

    Writing for The New York Times, Ross Douthat thinks that differences amongst religions should be openly discussed and not hushed up as if such conversations were intrinsically subversive of democracy: Let's talk about faith.

  • This finding can hardly be surprising: Eating junk food can lead to depression. Our physical well-being and mental health are so thoroughly interconnected that what we eat will inevitably have ramifications for both. I would add from personal experience that caffeine is no help either.

  • Notes from a Byzantine-rite Calvinist's annual Award for Political Education (APE) goes to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for single-handedly bringing prorogation back into the vocabulary of ordinary Canadians. Now if only he could do the same for responsible government.

  • Are faith-based universities intrinsically incompatible with the hallowed principle of academic freedom? The Canadian Association of University Teachers thinks so: CAUT versus Trinity Western. John Stackhouse mounts a somewhat weak defence of BC's Trinity Western University and similar institutions. Read more here: Academic freedom and the faith-based university.

  • Because these sorts of stories are not given the attention they deserve in the mainstream western media, those of us in what might be called the informal media have a special responsibility to alert our own readers to them: Muslims Slaughter Christians in Egypt. Fortunately, Egyptian authorities are doing something about it: Egypt security court to try suspects in Copt killings. While Chuck Colson's charge that Christians in muslim countries are Unprotected and unnoticed may be something of an overstatement, he is right to raise awareness of their plight amongst Christians in this part of the world.

  • Pakistan is another country in which Christians are routinely subjected to violence by members of the muslim majority. How many Christians live in that country? Two decades ago Gene R. Preston wrote: "The most recent census — conducted in 1981 — gave a rough count of 84 million people of whom not quite a million were Christian. The unofficial 1990 estimate is 108 million, with an explosive birthrate of nearly 4 percent. That could soon mean up to 2 million Christians in this land of Islam." Wikipedia gives a figure of "2,800,000 in 2008, or 1.6% of the population." However, Nazir S. Bhatti, President of the Pakistan Christian Congress, asserts that Christians make up fully 13 percent of the population of Pakistan, which the country's government deliberately underestimates for its own purposes.
  • 15 January 2010

    Haitian tragedy

    The earthquake in Haiti is shaping up to be a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, as tens of thousands are thought to have died and the capital city of Port-au-Prince is in ruins. Joel Dreyfuss dares to use a word that is in short supply at the moment: Saving Haiti: Seeking hope for my native land. For those wishing to donate to rescue efforts, here are four possibilities: Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Presbyterian World Service & Development, World Vision Canada and World Vision US. Please pray for the people of that suffering land.

    12 January 2010


    We know that Timbuktu, whose name has long since become a byword for the middle of nowhere, was once a thriving centre of learning and culture and an important commercial hub in west Africa. What some of us did not know is that many of the centuries-old volumes that made up the city's libraries are still in existence and held in private hands, where they are deteriorating. The Washington Post reports: Interest in ancient books could restore Timbuktu. Here is a similar article: Ancient Books Reveal Timbuktu’s Former Glory, Illustrate Need for Libraries. It staggers the imagination to think what literary treasures might be found in these ancient volumes. Is there any way to scan them and post them online without contributing further to their deterioration? Let us hope so.

    10 January 2010


    It is appropriate on this first Sunday after Epiphany to join with the congregation of St. Peter's Church in Bremerhaven, Germany, in singing Philipp Nicolai's immortal chorale, How Brightly Shines the Morning Star, or in the Plattdeutsch native to this particular community, Wo hell schient us de nee'e Steern. So frequently do we hear this chorale in the forms given us by such baroque composers as Bach that we tend to forget what it sounds like in its pre-baroque form. This is a good reminder.

    Psalter updates

    I have posted New year updates, 2010 on my Genevan Psalter blog, primarily describing the latest additions to the website.

    04 January 2010

    Court off to bad start

    For centuries the House of Lords was the highest court of appeal in England, although more recently the full Lords did not actually hear cases, which in 1876 were delegated to the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, or the Law Lords. As of 1 October, however, this body's jurisdiction was turned over to a new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the membership of the former becoming the first justices of the latter, thereafter losing their right to vote in the upper chamber of Britain's Parliament.

    Right off the mark the court has created controversy in ruling against London's JFS school, which had declined to enrol a certain "M" whom it judged to be further down the waiting list with respect to eligibility for admission.
    The 12-year-old boy was refused a place at the JFS (formerly known as the Jews' Free School) in Brent, north London, despite regularly attending a Progressive synagogue. While his father is Jewish by birth, his mother is Jewish by conversion. However, the conversion ceremony was conducted by a Progressive rather than an Orthodox synagogue, which is not recognised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The children of atheists, and practising Christians, were allowed to attend the school as long as their mothers were considered Jewish.

    For those of us who remember the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s in the US, the school's action sounds like a clear case of racial discrimination which the Court rightly prohibited. Yet all communities set boundaries around themselves, necessarily including some people and excluding everyone else. Sometimes biology sets the boundaries, as the female half of humanity obviously excludes men. Similarly, marriage is an intrinsically exclusive institution anchored in sexual complementarity between a man and a women, who, as the marriage vows put it, forsake all others for each other alone.

    Religious communities generally find their identity in shared ultimate convictions about God, the world and our place in that world. Sometimes, but not always, these convictions are summarized in a binding confessional document such as the Augsburg Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism. Christianity is deliberately multiethnic, embracing a huge variety of peoples and cultures around the globe, as indicated at the very outset of the christian era in Galatians 3:28.

    Judaism has always been different. To be sure, Judaism consists of certain tenets embodied in the Tanakh and such ancillary writings as the Talmud, which suggests a common confessional identity. Yet one of these beliefs is that God made his covenant with the biological descendants of Abraham more than three and a half millennia ago. God has a unique and exclusive relationship with these descendants whom he freely chose for his own out of all the other nations on earth. He gave them his Torah, or teachings, and commanded them to follow its precepts. God designated circumcision as the mark of the covenant, and this mark was often an offence to conquering nations, such as the Greeks in the 2nd century BC, who ruthlessly persecuted the Jews for not conforming to hellenistic ways (2 Maccabees 6-7).

    This scandal of particularity continues to be an offence to non-Jews, as is evident in this recent court case. I must say that my heart is with the boy's parents, who desire a Jewish education for him. For the school to exclude him because it doubts his mother's conversion seems unfair. That the school doubts further, not the sincerity of this conversion, but merely the procedure compounds the sense of injustice that many of us feel. Nevertheless, our feelings are not the only things at stake, nor are they the most crucial issue, especially as far as the law is concerned. The central issue is whether a public court of law has the authority to decide who is a Jew and who is not. That the new Supreme Court is claiming this authority has negative implications for other religious communities as well.

    The predominant liberalism of the English-speaking democracies would reduce all communities to mere voluntary associations. Of course, there are groups of Christians, especially those in the baptistic and free church traditions, that see their own churches precisely as democratically-governed voluntary communities of believers. However, the vast majority of Christians do not do so, recognizing their eccesial communities as authoritative institutions anchored in God's grace, as manifested in preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. (This roughly corresponds, though not entirely, to the difference between Ernst Tröltsch's sect and church.) Yet even those Christians embracing a voluntaristic ecclesiology should not wish to see the state, through its judicial arm, impose this on all religious groups, as that would see the state overextending its proper sphere of competence to the detriment of everyone, as David Goldman warns.

    Because Britain does not have a written constitution, its Parliament has the authority to curtail the new court's jurisdiction, as it deems necessary. Whether it will have the will to do so is another matter. Given the reluctance of Canada's legislatures to invoke Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against questionable judicial decisions, it seems unlikely that Britain's Parliament will intervene, especially as the Court's decision appears to accord so well with current individualist understandings of equality and nondiscrimination.


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