Against King Benjamin

I am sorry to say that I think that King Benjamin’s great sermon has badly distorted the way that Latter-day Saints think about charity, the treatment of the poor, and the redistribution of wealth. Consider this passage:

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, who soever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and have no interest in the kingdom of God. (Mos. 4:16-18)

This, to be sure, is strong stuff. It is a stark indictment of self-justification for withholding charity, and places our reaction to the poor at the center of our reaction to God. “For behold are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have…?” (Mos. 4:19) Not surprisingly, I think that these verses explicitly or implicitly structure virtually all Mormon discussions (as opposed to discussions by Mormons) of what we ought to do in the face of poverty. The debate generally goes something like this:

LIBERAL: King Benjamin’s sermon makes clear that we cannot excuse indifference to the plight of the poor. Accordingly, we ought to support government programs aimed at the redistribution of wealth to alleviate the suffering of those in poverty.
CONSERVATIVE: Ah, but King Benjamin is talking about personal virtue and generosity isn’t he? He says “ye yourselves” not “ye or the government bureaucrats that you can hire by taxing others.” In order for us to be virtuous in the way that King Benjamin is commanding we must voluntarily give of our own substance. Taxes and government spending aren’t voluntary, and therefore they don’t have anything to do with what King Benjamin is talking about.
LIBERAL: You are a bad, bad, person. Obviously, you are simply hiding behind the notion of personal generosity in order to justify keeping your taxes low. Besides, if we live in a democracy, there is a sense in which we consent to taxes and government spending. The government isn’t something that “they” do to “us,” but rather is something that we do together.
CONSERVATIVE: What pink-tinged planet do you live on? If you don’t pay your taxes, men with guns will come and confiscate your property and throw you in prison. If this isn’t coercion nothing is.

And so on. In a sense, I think that both sides of this debate are right. For all of our blustering over the social contract, democracy, and the like, taxes really are coercive, and voting to spend someone else’s money doesn’t seem to cut it as a great act of personal virtue. On the other hand, one can’t help but find the argument against taxes a bit self-serving. It does justify a less painful April 15th, and as often as not charitable giving gets forgotten or minimized. However, on a fundamental level, I think that this debate is mistaken, or at any rate radically incomplete. The problem is the way that King Benjamin’s framing of the issue relentlessly focuses our attention on the moral status of giver. This, however, is only part of what is at issue in our response to poverty.

Consider the story of Christ feeding the five thousand. A huge crowd follows Jesus to a desert place. He “saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were sheep not having a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34) At the end of the day, the crowd is hungry, and the disciples tell Christ to dismiss the people. Christ says that they should feed the people instead. “Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?” ask the disciples. No, says Christ, give me the food that you have. (Note: it is unclear who owns the food, at least in Mark. The disciples? The crowd?) He takes the food and miraculously feeds the multitude, and at the end of the feast they take up twelve baskets of extra food. Whoever’s loaves and fishes they were was amply recompensed for what amounted to a brief loan.

What I find interesting about this story is that in contrast to King Benjamin’s psychology, we know virtually nothing of the motives of those involved. All we know is that Christ was moved by mercy, but even this is ambiguous in a sense because he seems to be moved by the leaderlessness and lostness of the people. Yet he feeds them, and we take it that this was a good thing. The miracle, however, is at the heart of the story and it points towards an important point. The food ultimately did not come from anywhere. It simply arrived and fed the people. Ultimately, its source in a virtuous sacrifice (there is no sacrifice in the story) is not what matters. What matters is that the five thousand hungry people were fed.

This is what is missing in King Benjamin’s sermon and the debates that it provokes among Latter-day Saints. I take it that the feeding of the five thousand teaches us that all virtuous giving aside, a world in which the hungry are fed is a better world than one in which children starve. What is at issue in our reaction to poverty is not simply our own personal virtue, but also the material well-being of the poor.

Hence, I think that transfer payments can be justified independent of the question of whether or not such payments fulfill our duty to be charitable and generous. Indeed, I doubt that they do fulfill this duty. Voting for a government program does not seem to me to be an act of personal virtue or charity. However, if transfer payments result in fewer hungry children, then I take it that the scriptures teach us that the world is better and God is pleased, even if you and I still need to work on being charitable. None of this, of course, speaks to the empirical issue of what sorts of transfer payments actually help the poor and what sorts of programs are ultimately hurtful. Nor does it speak the question of what sorts of costs those programs have or other moral issues they raise. (Like, “When are we justified in sending men with guns to take the property of another.”) However, I take it that the claim that they are not acts of personal charity is, ultimately, beside the point.

[Note: this post was inspired by Blaine’s very thoughtful post over at Approaching Zion]

98 comments for “Against King Benjamin

  1. costanza
    April 28, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Perhaps I move in insufficiently sophisticated circles, but I never recall actually witnessing King B’s speech arousing this particular debate.

  2. Jim F
    April 28, 2005 at 11:19 am

    I am in a big hurry right now, so I will only post briefly, but it seems to me that you are right because King Benjamin’s sermon is about gaining and retaining a remission of sin. Verse 12 makes it clear that the verses that follow are Benjamin’s extrapolations on the signs of those who have received a remission of sin rather than commandments: “If ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.” The verses that follow, to the end of the chapter, follow that same grammatical format: these are the things that follow from having a remission of sin. He wasn’t giving advice about how to accomplish charity.

  3. April 28, 2005 at 11:21 am

    So, when it comes to virtuous acts, the ends justify the means? Is really all that matters is that the 5,000 are fed? I tend to agree with this position, but with some potential limits.

  4. Mark Martin
    April 28, 2005 at 11:24 am

    With Jim F’s insight, perhaps Nate could rephrase his opening statement to say: “I am sorry to say that I think that the typical misreading of King Benjamin’s great sermon by Latter-day Saints has badly distorted the way they think about charity, the treatment of the poor, and the redistribution of wealth.”

    Of course, that is much less provocative than his title and original statement.

  5. ed
    April 28, 2005 at 11:30 am

    Hmmm…at first glance I’m inclined to agree that what matters most is the welfare of the poor themselves.

    However, God does not seem to agree. He is all powerful, yet he allows millions to starve and suffer on an astounding scale. Apparently for Him, a world where children starve and the hungry are not fed is a better world, if it allows development of personal virtue.

    It’s not clear what our duty is. Obviously we are not God. But is our first duty to improve the lot of the poor, or is our first duty to try to develop virtue in ourselves and others however we can? Do these goals conflict?

  6. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 11:38 am

    I agree that there are other reasons for helping the poor besides making us more charitable. But I am not sure why you consider the source of the food in the story irrelevant. The whole point is that the food is a gift from God. I mean, that is the whole point right? To say that the source is irrelevant is exactly wrong. The bread is a symbol of Christ as the bread of life and a reminder of the manna in the wilderness (especially given its close association with the law given from the “mount”).

    So it is the mercy of God that grants them (and us) what we have. For the story to indicate what you want, that God favors helping the poor even if it means redistributing forcibly, it would be more effective if the Romans came along and passed out food to the beggars and Christ spoke of it approvingly.

  7. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 11:56 am

    Part of the problem, I think, is that in ancient times there were so few institutions even close to comparable to the modern welfare state. Even the least dribble of welfare benefits now could put somebody on par with the material well-being of the ancient empoverished.

    So while I think we can and should draw what we can from the scriptures as far as general principles, a more fruitful approach to thinking about modern welfare states is to turn to modern prophets and apostles. And what we find there is not very encouraging for a large welfare state. There are some apostles who favored some transfer programs, but all in all the Church leaders have tended to be strongly opposed to large government transfer programs.

    That said, the topic is not much addressed in General Conference, which I take as a signal that it is not of first-order importance either way. It may become so later, like it was when all-out communism was a viable threat, but currently it is apparently not..

  8. April 28, 2005 at 12:03 pm

    Hm. Why not some synergy. Why can’t individual “conservatives” actually give aid, individually, to poor individuals? Then…there is no charge of “hiding.” Personally, I’ve found that the greater benefit lies in personally interacting with another brother/sister that is in need. Government programs do not provide the personal interaction that can uplift both.

  9. Seth Rogers
    April 28, 2005 at 12:07 pm

    You know, the thing that EVERYONE seems to miss about King Benjamin’s address (consertive and liberal alike) in EVERY Gospel Doctrine class I’ve ever sat in on is this:

    Before giving his laundry list of righteous behavior (don’t let your kids fight, don’t turn away the beggar, etc.) is what he says before that list.

    “IF ye shall do these things …”

    What “things” is King Benjamin referring to?

    Read the passages before the list and it becomes apparent that the “things” he is referring to are actually a discussion of repentance and accepting Christ’s atonement.

    This isn’t even presented here as a list of things we should do. Rather, it is presented as the natural fruits of true acceptance of Christ.

    So much for the Mormon notion of works over grace …

  10. Mark Martin
    April 28, 2005 at 12:37 pm

    #2 and #9 together sum up the context well.

  11. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    To clarify: My point is not that the ends justify the means. I don’t think that feeding the hungry justifies any and all actions. My point is more modest — albeit one that seems to be frequently forgotten — namely that feeding the hungry is good independent of whether this resulted from a virtuous act of charity. This doesn’t mean that feeding the hungry justifies any and all actions. It does mean that objecting to the feeding of the hungry because it does not come about as the result of an act of personal virtue is beside the point.

  12. gst
    April 28, 2005 at 12:41 pm

    Lyle, each day I have several opportunities for “personal interaction” with various
    individuals in apparent need between my downtown office and parking garage a block away. I’m rarely uplifted.

  13. April 28, 2005 at 12:57 pm

    Well, gst, what are your ‘interactions’? Do they involve you giving them anything…from a burger to a smile? If you don’t feel uplifted by Christian Charity…perhaps the recipient does? Personally, I find these folks have very unique, often hilarious, histories.

  14. N Miller
    April 28, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    I do not agree with your treatment of the feeding of the five thousand. First of all, the people had been with the Savior for much of the day, so of course, they were hungry. As the disciples tried to send them away, Christ said that “they need not depart, give ye them to eat”. Of course the disciples were taken back. The only food found was five barley loaves and two small fishes, from a lad (not from the disciples, but a boy or young man (found in John)).

    Now, as Christ had been teaching the people up to this point, it is reasonable to assume that the Savior continued to teach as they ate into the evening. The Savior wanted these people to stay and listen to his teaching. This would be similar to the story of Martha and Mary. Martha was out preparing dinner, not listening to the words of life from Life himself. She was gently rebuked. The story of the feeding of the five thousand was more about learning from and of the Savior and that his teachings were what would save people. The teaching of charitable acts may have been a secondary teaching, but intentions described by the writers in the New Testament are that the first was taught. This is evident later in the gospels as the apostles accompanied the Savior in his ministry, they had forgotten to take enough food with them for their journey. When this came up and the disciples seemed wary about it, the Savior rebuked them for they did not remember the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (and the four thousand). They had forgotten that this Son of God had power to take care of them, a teaching they had forgotten.

    This was not about charity; it was about the power of God. No scriptural reference states that it was by mercy the Lord fed the five thousand rather in John 6:6, it states that the Savior was to prove himself. Using this story and saying that it relates to the Saviors feelings of material well-being of the poor do not have evidence to support the assertion made. (Read John 6:22-67 or end of chapter for further details of why he fed the five thousand) As such, your claim to the missing material in King Benjamin’s sermon is unjustified and your conclusions have no base.

    Perhaps you have other insights that might lead to your conclusion, but I cannot agree in this case.

  15. Mark Martin
    April 28, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    So Nate (#11), is one of your points that we should seek coordinated efforts to help the oppressed, rather than limit ourselves to scattered individual efforts?

  16. a random John
    April 28, 2005 at 1:08 pm

    I really don’t see how two miraculous feedings resolve the ongoing debate that you start off with. What am I missing? Jesus also turned water into wine. Does that indicate the government should distribute wine?

  17. Jonathan Green
    April 28, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    Nate, while Constanza seems to have missed the usual discussion of King Benjamin, I think I’ve heard it enough to make up for it (and trust me, Constanza, you aren’t missing anything). This is the most sensible comment on it that I’ve heard.

  18. ed
    April 28, 2005 at 1:24 pm

    Nate clarifies: “[O]bjecting to the feeding of the hungry because it does not come about as the result of an act of personal virtue is beside the point.”

    I agree completely, but I don’t think I’ve heard “conservatives” argue this point. Rather they argue that while Benjamin’s speech obliges us to help the poor through personal action, it does not necessarily compel us to favor government action. I think the conservatives are right about this. But I’ve never heard anyone say we should help the poor if and only if it demonstrates our personal virtue.

    Perhaps if we believe that government action will in fact help the plight of the poor without causing unintended consequences that may make things worse overall, then we would be obligated to favor it. But I think that conservatives often doubt that this is the case.

  19. April 28, 2005 at 1:29 pm


    We had this conversation a couple weeks ago at LDSLF. You should have referenced that site/posting as well. We left off in that discussion with how you introduced this one but I never responded then so I’ll take the time to do so here.

    You completely misinterpret the Miracle of the 5,000/7,000. Talmage in JtC points out that there’s no evidence that the members of the crowd consisted of the “poor” of the time though it can be safely considered that the crowd was dominated by members of the “working/trade” class who were by no means priviledged but were able to generally meet their basic needs. Talmage provides something of a three pronged justification for the miracles. First, feeding the crowds was practical. Dismissing a hungry crowd of that size could have posed significant danger of riot as constituents would all immediately begin to compete for resources in the nearby town. The crowds had just spent the day patiently being taught and no doubt the Savior wished to thwart any potential disturbance that would have put a real damper on His sermon. Second, feeding the crowds represented something of a reward for having forsaken carnal needs in order to pursue spiritual necessities. And third, the miracles were meant to provide a tangible symbol to the crowds and remind them of how the Lord had fed Israel with the manna from Heaven. Nothing from these miracles implies that there is any moral value in feeding someone for the sake of releiving someone’s hunger.

    God does not care about our material well-being. He is concerned about the ultimate disposition of our souls and I have yet to find doctrinal support for the concept that our material position in this life, in and of itself, determines that disposition. That disposition is determined by how we deal with the blessings and challenges we encounter during this life. Variances in material position simply provide for different experinces.

  20. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Nate, I am mostly interested to hear your take on ed’s comment #5 which is certainly on point to the question of how God trades off free agency and poverty. You note that God wants people to be fed, but you are beating down a straw man. The question is to what extent should that feeding take the form of government transfers. The feeding the five thousand is not a good example.

    I simply don’t see much in the Church literature that justifies a large welfare state. The best the Mormon socialist types could do was this list, and it just doesn’t even come close ( if you stick to church leader quotes) to encouraging an active welfare state.

  21. April 28, 2005 at 1:40 pm

    Frank, I’m not sure, but I’m detecting something of a bias against centrally administrated welfare?

    I take from what Nate says that, contrary to your assertion that “the question is to what extent should that feeding take the form of government transfers,” the question is, do the poor get fed.

  22. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 1:51 pm


    Actually I favor centrally administered welfare ala the Church welfare system. I find federal systems to be problematic. Which brings me to your closing statement:

    “…contrary to your assertion that “the question is to what extent should that feeding take the form of government transfers,” the question is, do the poor get fed.”

    You wish to answer, “should we have a benefit” but are not interested in asking “how much does it cost?” This is ludicrous. Try this one: Should we make crime stop?

    The answer to any policy question depends on both costs and benefits. The benefit is feeding the poor, but what is the cost? If it has no cost, then the answer must clearly be “yes”. If the cost is the end of all life on earth, then I think the answer is “no”. If the cost is somehwere in between then we’ll have to think about the costs of feeding the poor.

  23. April 28, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    It’s all about costs and benefits with you economists! Did Jesus ever talk about the costs of feeding the poor?

    Frank, you realize of course that for the most part I’m just trying to yank your chain, because I believe we’ve had this discussion before. But in seriousness, I would say that the scriptures do not resolve cost/benefit analyses for us, but rather lay out moral imperatives for us to follow in a general sense. So while in terms of policy implementation you may be (regrettably) right to focus on weighing costs & benefits, God engages in no such weighing, at least not in a repeatable pattern for us to follow.

  24. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Frank: I don’t actually think that I am offering an argument per se for a large welfare state. Indeed, in actual fact I think that such a state is probably not sustainable as an economic matter, and I think that many transfer programs are ineffectual at best and counter-productive at worst. Hence, I don’t see myself as offering a refutation per se of conservative critiques of the welfare state. These, however, are emperical arguments as to (1) the costs of feeding the poor in this manner; and, (2) the effectiveness of feeding the poor in this matter. They do not rest on Paul Mortensen’s to my mind absurd claim that God does not care about our material well-being.

  25. N Miller
    April 28, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    God does care about the material well-being of peopole, otherwise, why would he have instigated the welfare system? The fasting and welfare principles of the church are the principles best used to assist people in need. Better than any tax/ governmental program I have seen.

  26. ed
    April 28, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    I don’t find Paul Mortensen’s claim absurd. Why is it obvious to you that God cares about our material well-being? (Or, if He cares, that it’s not a very, very low priority?)

    Furthermore, I don’t know that Paul Mortensen is claiming that we shouldn’t care about the material well-being of others.

  27. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Ed: The issue that you raise with regard to God’s tolerance for widespread poverty and the associated physical suffering goes to the general problem of evil. One response to this problem is to claim that ultimately these things are not really evil, which is what I take Paul to be claiming. This, it seems to me, is the least satisfying response to this question. I don’t have any clear answer to this question. However, it may will be that poverty exists to test our souls and our personal generousity. I see no inconsistency between that claim and my claim, namely that regardless of personal virtue ceterus paribus a world with fewer starving children is better than a world with more starving children.

    This does not mean that the alleviation of poverty is our primary duty or goal. I think that there are any number of side-constraints if you will on our pursuit of this goal. My point is the narrower claim that reducing poverty is a good independent of its effect on our personal virtue. Let me flip the argument around this way: I think that the market is a moral institution. In part, I believe this because I think that the market is better at producing material prosperity than any other mechanism of social organization, and I take it that a world in which their are fewer starving children (in this case children fed by the largess of the market) is better than a world in which there are more starving children. It may be that there are other things that commend the market to us, for example the claim that voluntary transactions are better and more virtuous than coerced transactions, but I take it that the ability of the market to feed the hungry constitutes a point in its favor independent of any value it may have in promoting our personal virtue.

    I think that the fact that there are so many who resist what I see as an utterly uncontroversial claim — namely that feeding hungry children is good in and of itself — points out one of the problems of virtue-centered ethics (aretaic ethics for those who want another cool polysyllable), namely that they can have an oddly narcissitic quality.

  28. Jed
    April 28, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    I guess I don’t understand the contestation of this text. Nate’s view strikes me as intuitively true. Benjamin goes on to say the hungry are to be fed “according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:26). The word want is quite different from the word need. The text is about them, as we say, not about us.

  29. Jed
    April 28, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    The word need, I might add, implies a judgment on our part. But Benjamin lets the hungry be their own judges. We are not to judge the validity of their wants.

  30. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    “Furthermore, I don’t know that Paul Mortensen is claiming that we shouldn’t care about the material well-being of others.”

    I agree, and I don’t think that I claimed otherwise. My point is not that “Conservative” in my dialogue above does not care about the poor. Rather, my point is that he only cares about the poor insturmentally, as an opprotunity for increasing or exercising his own personal virtue. This, I think is mistaken. I do not deny that the poor present an opprotunity for cultivating personal virtue, and that generousity towards the impoverished is good for this reason. I simply go on to make a second claim, namely that feeding the poor is good independent of whether or not we are being personally virtuous. I don’t think that it is the highest or only good. I simply deny that it is a purely insturmental good.

  31. April 28, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    Jed: “The word want is quite different from the word need.”

    Not in the context you mention, it isn’t. In that sentence, want is a noun, i.e., “The condition or quality of lacking something usual or necessary.”

  32. danithew
    April 28, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    Frank McIntyre wrote:

    “Actually I favor centrally administered welfare ala the Church welfare system. I find federal systems to be problematic.”

    I have observed that Church welfare (on the local level) depends quite a bit on the personality of the bishop and his disposition to dispense funds. One bishop might be quite open and will give money to anyone in the ward who asks for help, without too many questions. Another bishop might be quite strict about the conditions under which monetary help is given.

  33. danithew
    April 28, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    BTW, I don’t know that in the examples I gave above, that either bishop is wrong. I trust that bishops are called by inspiration and that different personalities and approaches to Church policy are needed at different times.

  34. April 28, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    Poverty is not inherently evil. Poverty (the world-wide variety) is most often the result of evil institutions but it is not evil in and of itself. How do you read 2 Nefi 2 and arrive at the conclusion that the state of poverty is evil?

  35. Aaron Brown
    April 28, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Nate said:
    “I think that the fact that there are so many who resist what I see as an utterly uncontroversial claim – namely that feeding hungry children is good in and of itself – points out one of the problems of virtue-centered ethics (aretaic ethics for those who want another cool polysyllable), namely that they can have an oddly narcissitic quality.”

    Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

    Nate, you really should link to the prior discussion you had with Paul Mortenson over at some other blog (I honestly can’t remember where it was). The one prompted by a discussion of Jeffrey Sachs’ _The End of Poverty_. Your and Paul’s argument there flesh this issue out in a most interesting and entertaining manner.

    Incidently, I have also seen King Benjamin’s speech speech misinterpreted by some Mormon liberals as a blanket injunction against making judgments/evaluations concerning the needs of the poor. Thus, the argument goes, one should engage in individual acts of giving without giving heed to whether the gift is likely to actually benefit the recipient or not (Think of handing out cash to a drunk in front of a liquor store). After all, who are we to make judgments about how others are likely to spend their money? Our duty is just to give without analysis (and presumably to collect the resulting “blessings” that flow from giving). This is perverse, it seems to me, and is a self-centered narcissistic attitude of a different kind. (It also may or may not be common; I don’t really know).

    Aaron B

  36. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Paul: I assume that your reference to 2 Nefi 2 is to Lehi’s teaching that there must needs be opposition in all things. I take it that Lehi is arguing for the necessity of the existence of evil. This is quite different from saying that evil is not in fact evil. It may well be that poverty is necessary for the divine economy. It does not follow from this that it is good, nor does it even follow that it is not evil. Evil, it would seem, is necessary, but this does not mean that it is less evil.

  37. ed
    April 28, 2005 at 2:53 pm

    Nate: “ceterus paribus a world with fewer starving children is better than a world with more starving children.”

    First, I’m skeptical that there really are very many who oppose this idea. But it’s not so easy to apply it to questions of policy, since anything we do will make the ceterus not paribus.

    Second, the only one who would seem to have the ability to alleviate suffering “ceterus paribus” is God himself, yet he chooses not to do so! And this would seem to call into question your seemingly uncontroversial premise. You’re right that this goes to the general problem of evil, which is a thorny problem indeed.

    (Lest there be any doubt, I think do think we should try to feed the starving. Since we are not God, we’re better off following simple rules like “do unto others…”)

  38. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    “Second, the only one who would seem to have the ability to alleviate suffering “ceterus paribus” is God himself, yet he chooses not to do so!”

    This is a controversial theological claim, particularlly given our finitistic conception of God. It is far from clear to me that we know what God can or cannot do ceterus paribus. It is obvious, however, from our scriptures — I would submitt — that it is not true that he can do ANYTHING ceterus paribus.

  39. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 3:00 pm


    Christ actually does talk about the costs of discipleship. And I don’t have any problem with the moral imperative to help the poor. I think that it is an important part of our personal salvation, as King Benjamin makes clear. What I am waiting for is some authoritative references to our state responsibility to help the poor.


    Methinks thou doth protest too much. You are arguing that all else being equal, God prefers the poor to be fed. This is reasonable. What is unreasonable is to think that this is a meaningful statement. I don’t think anybody is claiming otherwise. Like Steve, you wish to establish that some benefit is strictly positive. I agree, but find the proposition to not have much content.

    For example, God could rain food down on the hungry if he so desired, but he does not. He doesn’t do it because,a pparently He considers the costs to be too high. What are those costs? Well, it would reveal his existence without faith and it would decrease our chances to give. Apparently those goals are enough to prevent God from benefiting the poor.

    And suppose God just made the Earth a more pleasant environment, such that food andf shelter were readily available. This could have been done without revealing himself as God, but He chose not to do that too. Why? Surely it has caused people to suffer more. Apparently He felt there was some benefit to either the suffering or to us helping the sufferer. And that benefit is worth creating a world that has famines and malnutrition.

    I should note that God’s response to evil and suffering is occasionally to obliterate it, but often it is to heal it through the atonement. That healing may not be complete in this life, but apparently, once again, the suffering provide an opportunity for succor, and so it is deemed worth allowing in mortality.

  40. April 28, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    “it is not true that he can do ANYTHING ceterus paribus”

    yes, but then He would cease to be God. Which is one of the neatest doctrinal tricks in mormondom.

  41. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 3:01 pm

    I see Ed already made comments similar to my own. This must be because Ed is such a bright guy.

  42. norm
    April 28, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    A less sophisticated post. But an interesting one, I think, where one asserts that the question ought to be: “should the poor (or hungry) be fed?”.

    Man #1. I was downtown yesterday and had lunch at a deli. I had lunch sitting next to an obviously homeless man, who had just eagerly purchased a large car of beer, and was slurping it at the table, with a very satisfied look on his face, smiling at me. I smiled back, he didn’t want to talk. (he was drinking it still in the bag, probably by force of habit, despite being in what counts as a restaurant).

    Man #2. As I left, I decided to buy a soda. While I was in line, another less smily, apparently poorer, although better dressed, vagrant came in. He yelled at the woman in front of me in line. Insulted and Physically threatened her, as well as the diminutive woman who was behind the counter. He was a large man and appeared ready to intimidate or assault them unless they would give him food. “Gimme something to eat! I’m HUNNNGRY,” he bellowed. Mixing demands and threats with a variety of sexual and racist language, directed at the women.

    (Ultimately, he approached me with the same violent air, the same demands, and similar threats. The shop owner feigned calling the cops and he went away eventually. But I didn’t know how to respond… I feared I would have to defend myself.)

    How should these two be fed? Or, should they be fed?–
    Clearly both had needs. More clearly, one was using very offensive, vicious means to try to satisfy his need of food (or money). If being fed is the goal–does knowing that my contribution to the first man will go driectly to beer (which has lots of calories and will keep him alive), mean I should give or not? It will feed him, sate him.
    Is it better to leave the violent man hungry, than to ‘train’ him to use violence to get food, by rewarding his behavior? Or, should I still feed or sate him, if I can afford to?

  43. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    Frank: I think that my claim does have content. Consider something like this.

    “The United States ought to increase foreign aid spending to provide vacination against preventable diseases for poor children in Africa.”

    One might respond to this claim with the following counter arguments:

    r1: “Foreign aid to Africa is counter productive. It goes into the pocket of corrupt elites who then use the money to further entrench their position and oppress the poor.”

    r2: “Private property is inviolable. Taking property from someone — even to spend on aid to children dying in Africa — is immoral.”

    r3: “Government expeditures on dying children in Africa represent involuntarily extracted transfer payments and hence do not constitute a case of personal charity.”

    I take it that r1 rests on contestable emperical propositions. (As it happens, I believe — alas — that this proposition is probably more often than not true.) I take it that r2 rests on a highly contestable moral claim about the nature of property rights. I take it that r3 is completely beside the point if you are willing to concede that actions may be judged by their effect in the world as opposed merely to the motive behind them.

    In other words, if my argument is right it means that we ought to fight these arguments ought mainly on emperical grounds, something that I think would warm the cockles of your social scientist’s heart.

  44. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 3:22 pm

    Here is the link to LDS Liberation front referred to by Aaron:

    “Ending Global Poverty”

  45. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 3:37 pm

    Perhaps I do not understand your claim.

    Your claim in #27 was that, morally, one should prefer the poor being fed, ceterus paribus.

    In r2 and r3 the CONSERVATIVE is claiming that there is a cost to the aid, thus ceterus is not paribus. But you are saying that these claims are invalid? Are you claiming, then. that extracting money from one group to give it to another consitutes “holding everything the same?”

    On a broader note, I admit that I much prefer arguments about things like r1. They are more gratifying and they raise the rents to my particular set of skills.

  46. Seth Rogers
    April 28, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    “And suppose God just made the Earth a more pleasant environment, such that food andf shelter were readily available. This could have been done without revealing himself as God, but He chose not to do that too. Why? Surely it has caused people to suffer more. Apparently He felt there was some benefit to either the suffering or to us helping the sufferer. And that benefit is worth creating a world that has famines and malnutrition.”

    I suppose this is an appropriate place to mention “the Fall.” Adam and Eve inagurated the era of human freedom of choice, rather appropriately, with an act of disobedience.

    This represented a conscious choice on their part not to rely utterly on God for everything (which basically describes their previous state of innocence). They would now make their own decisions.

    Of course, there were natural consequences, one of which was the Lord’s statement:

    “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy bread.”

    In Eden, everything was a free gift from God. It wasn’t a question of Eve earning her food. “Earning” was an alien concept in Eden. Total and complete reliance on the Father was the order of the day.

    But once they made the choice not to rely on God, they were left alone to make do the best they could. Humankind had made a choice to prosper or perish by its own strength. When God made the “sweat of thy brow” statement, he wasn’t saying anything about the virtues of hard work in particular. Neither was he necessarily giving a commandment (although there might be a hint of that in the statement). He was simply telling like it was (and is). In fact, there’s even a hint of condemnation in his observation. Adam had rejected God and would now have to sort things out on his own. There was now a barrier between God and humanity, symbolized and objectified by humanity’s need to work for its food.

    The entire plan of salvation can be summarized as a method for bridging this gap between us and God.

    Money symbolizes the exchange of “sweat for bread” in our society today. So, I guess you could say that money is the continuing reminder of our estrangement from God.

    In a sense, every dollar you make is another brick in the wall between you and God. Likewise, every attempt we make to work out our progression on our own further estranges us from God because we are trying to rely “on the strength of the flesh” instead of God. It was in this context that Jesus admonished his apostles to “become as a little child.” For a child is utterly dependent on her parents, just as we ought to be utterly dependent on God. This is why human effort is incapable of bringing us closer to God. Everything you do on your own strength is yet another statement of rejection of God. Like the toddler who rejects help tying his shoes shouting “I can do it myself.” We are always getting farther from God.

    This is probably why Jesus stated “there is none who doeth good, not one” and “callest thou me good? There is none good but He that dwelleth in Heaven.”

    This is why the popular Mormon equation:

    [My good works] + [Christ’s Atonement] = Salvation

    is utter nonsense. The truth is that your good works don’t bring you any closer to God, in and of themselves. All human efforts are tainted (even the ones that seem good) and cannot be counted to us in righteousness.

    It is in this sense that I say that every dollar you earn is just another brick in the wall shutting out God.

    This is why our faith ultimately requires the sacrifice of ALL things.

  47. April 28, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    First of all, this is a great post and a great discussion! Encouraging such conversations is nearly the entire reason the LDS Liberation Front blog exists–so I´m happy to see the heavy hitters also in our cause!

    With respect to Nate´s original comment, I agree that voting for a system that produces less inequality (via transfer payments or whatever) is not an act of charity. However, that does not mean that it isn´t virtuous. When you´re asked to vote on a particular proposition, taking the time to think it through, figure out which side of the policy is best for the world, and then vote for that side is a virtuous act!

  48. N Miller
    April 28, 2005 at 4:07 pm


    Excellent post on agency, sacrifice, and dependancy.

    However, I disagree with you that all human efforts are tainted. May I ask how you come up with that thesis? D&C 35:12 states “And there are none that doeth good except those who are ready to receive the fulness of my gospel” If you have charity, the pure love of Christ, your works are not tainted.

  49. April 28, 2005 at 4:08 pm


    I’m very confused by your faith in the free market economy while at the same time you capriciously reject what you refer to as “aretaic ethics.” They both operate on the same principle– rational self-interest of the participants. Is it unreasonable to think that God would deliver a Gospel that took advantage of our own egotism to help us achieve salvation?

  50. SpeakingUp
    April 28, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    [For a child is utterly dependent on her parents, just as we ought to be utterly dependent on God…] -Seth Rogers #49

    Is this what God wants? For us to be utterly dependent on him? To be like mindless sheep (children) and just follow without thought? How will we ever to learn to be like him? Is this what he does, wander around utterly dependent on his God?
    It seems weird to think that Adam and Eve fell so that they could hope to return to their prior state and be like children. Are we to only to gain from the fall the knowledge of Good and Evil? Perhaps we are to try and learn to think as he does so that we won’t need to be utterly dependent. This probably deserves its own blog line…

  51. April 28, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Wow – once again the debate rages with 50 comments in only a few hours. Makes us less frequent readers wonder what we can add.

    Let me say this. Is Utah county the only place Nate’s hypothetical discussion between Liberals and Conservatives comes up? I notice that conversation transpires whenever Benjamin’s address in Mosiah is studied.

  52. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    Paul: You are confused because you seem to be misunderstanding what I mean when I say aretaic (virtue) ethics. As I understand it (and Ben Huff actually studies this stuff and is a much better person than I to opine on this), virtue ethics claims that ethical conduct is primarily concerned not with abstract moral duties (a la Kant) or consequences in the outside world (a la Bentham) but rather with the cultivation of perfection or excellence in by the doer. My point is that when charity is viewed entirely in aretaic terms, that is entirely in terms of the virtue of the giver, we have the perverse result that the status of the object of our charity becomes irrelevent. My point with regard to markets is that they are morally good institutions in part, I believe, because of their consequences in terms of material well being, as opposed to the particular virtues or characteristics that they inculcate.

  53. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    A minor point about government coercion:

    The point in the post about coercion is only half right. The government taking money is coercion, but most people (probably above 95%) believe that coercion undertaken by the U.S. government is “legitimate coercion” because that government is a legitimate government. Legitimacy of the force is the key question (however you choose to decide that question). Life is not set up in such a fashion that you get to choose political outcomes: you get to choose processes that produce outcomes. Indeed to actually produce the “right” outcomes, you would need far more coercion. Thus I don’t think both the liberal and the conservative are both right. They have both chosen to obscure a central part of the question.

    This point about legitimacy does nothing to resolve the question of whether or not people SHOULD support such transfer programs. Though if we choose a government process that produces those programs, we should not assume that the process is necessarily a bad one. As in welfare programs, there are very uncertain costs and benefits associated with available sets of processes. Because of this significant uncertainty, I suspect this means that God is far less interested in how we vote than how we treat those around us.

  54. April 28, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Y’all should know that really, this post is coming out of the fact that Nate hates the Virginia Department of Taxation, to whom we have paid a hefty amount of our income over the several years of our marriage. The Virginia Department of Taxation, put simply, are a bunch of jerks who should burn in hell forever for their evil tax policies that no other state in this union has.

    Sorry, just had to vent.

  55. April 28, 2005 at 4:47 pm


    What’s wrong with the concept that the recipient of charity is irrelevant to the charitable act? For instance, suppose I’m taken in by a talented con artist and I donate something, in good faith, that ends up benefiting a criminal organization. Is my behavior somehow morally less valuable than if the recipient had been “legitimate?” Under your line of reasoning the anser would be “yes.” At that point charity then becomes an exercise in outcomes (read: outward appearance) which is not doctrinally grounded.

  56. danithew
    April 28, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Amen Heather. You could just say _____________ taxing department (insert any locality in the given line) and I’d support it one hundred percent. By the way, I’d like to add the parking enforcement Nazis at the University of Utah to that flaming pile.

    Whoops. I forgot that one of my fellow ward members is employed there. I hereby repent of aforesaid evil intentions.

  57. M Cox
    April 28, 2005 at 4:54 pm

    In response to Clark, just about every time I hear these words of King Benjamin’s, the conversation goes like this (as opposed to how Nate has it):

    liberal: So, you see, we MUST give to everyone that begs from us – no excuses!
    conservative: But haven’t you seen the sign as you walk out of the Salt Lake Temple that says “Don’t give to the beggars standing here”
    liberal: Yes, but that’s just so they don’t clog things up.
    conservative: OK, I think we should give, but I don’t give cash.
    liberal: OK, let’s just both give food.

    On another note, I agree with Jim F. (#2). I’ve tried before to bring this up in discussions, but no one seems to care.

    Also, I liked Seth’s comments (#46) up until the whole “every dollar you earn is just another brick in the wall shutting out God.” I just see it as too contrary to the virtue of work and self-reliance. Obviously, if one is of the attitude that his dollars are from HIS own effort and doesn’t acknowledge God, THEN he is putting bricks in a wall.

  58. April 28, 2005 at 5:46 pm


    As I read your comments I was reminded of the words of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (chapter 36):

    But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone. But dost Thou know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth will rise up against Thee and will strive with Thee and overcome Thee, and all will follow him, crying, “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against Thee, and with which they will destroy Thy temple. Where Thy temple stood will rise a new building; the terrible tower of Babel will be built again, and though, like the one of old, it will not be finished, yet Thou mightest have prevented that new tower and have cut short the sufferings of men for a thousand years; for they will come back to us after a thousand years of agony with their tower. They will seek us again, hidden underground in the catacombs, for we shall be again persecuted and tortured. They will find us and cry to us, “Feed us, for those who have promised us fire from heaven haven’t given it!” And then we shall finish building their tower, for he finishes the building who feeds them. And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them!

    I don’t think that those of us who consider ourselves conservative will argue against the idea that feeding the hungry is independently good.

    However, I think you are mistaken when you say that our reason for objecting to feeding the poor through coerced redistribution of wealth by the state is simply because it does not come about as the result of an act of personal virtue.

    We are opposed to it because government derives its just powers from the people. An individual cannot justly take his rich neighbor’s money by force or threat of violence in order to give it to his other poor neighbor. That’s called stealing. Since the people cannot grant just power to the government that they do not possess, they cannot grant their government the right to forcibly wrest wealth from the rich and distribute it to the poor. Since the people have no right to steal, even with noble ends in mind, the government cannot have that right.

    So conservative opposition to caring for the poor through the forced redistribution of wealth has more to do with the proper derivation of just government power than it does with concerns that it bypasses the personal virtue of giving alms. I don’t think that such a position represents any ?narcissistic? qualities.

    The Liberal position is wrong because it grants powers to the government that the people do not have to give it.

    This conservative view was y Ezra Taft Benson while serving as Secretary of Agriculture in 1968.

  59. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    Jonathan Max Wilson writes “[Conservatives] are opposed to it because government derives its just powers from the people. An individual cannot justly take his rich neighbor’s money by force or threat of violence in order to give it to his other poor neighbor. That’s called steeling. Since the people cannot grant just power to the government that they do not possess, they cannot grant their government the right to forcibly wrest wealth from the rich and distribute it to the poor. Since the people have no right to steel, even with noble ends in mind, the government cannot have that right.”

    I do not understand. It seems to me that the people grant the government all sorts of power that they do not possess: taxation, police powers, dispute resolution … this list is close to endless. Is the U.S. constitution (which pretty clearly grants all of these powers) unjust or illegitimate? If you can only grant powers that you already have, what’s the point in having a government, anyway?

    I will reiterate that a significant problem with discussing this issue is the question of legitimacy: which processes are legitimate and which are not?

  60. yoda
    April 28, 2005 at 6:02 pm


    Ivan’s Jesus is not Dostoevsky’s Jesus.

  61. Daylan Darby
    April 28, 2005 at 6:13 pm

    Without a kidney from Bob, Alice will die.

    Do we (i.e., government) use force to take the kidney from him and give it to her?

    Without food Alice will die. Do we use force to take (part of) Bob’s dinner and give it to Alice?

    If you had a gun would you use it to force Bob to help Alice?

    Why are these actions suddenly ok if 50% +1 vote to say that it is ok?

    Satan = force. Christ = free will.

  62. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Daylan Darby, a question:

    Do you seriously prefer the world where there is nothing to stop someone from killing Bob to help Alice? Or would you prefer a world where elections, government and law combine to create processes to decide these questions?

    You don’t have to be thrilled by everything government does to recognize that it’s legitimate existence is preferrable to the alternative: anarchy.

    Besides that, your hypothetical assumes people are actually voting on kidney transplants (and confiscations). I’m unfamiliar with that system. Examples?

  63. April 28, 2005 at 6:34 pm


    People may vote to let government wield powers that they do not possess, but they do so unjustly. Certain forms of taxation, police powers, dispute resolution, etc are derived from rights individual people possess in a state of nature, which they relinquish and turn over to the government for their mutual peace and protection. The power to punish a criminal is derived from the right an individual would have to punish someone who had committed a crime against his or her family to compensate for losses and prevent further injury and the rights of other individuals to protect their families from those who have cause harm to others in the past. Taxation is derived from a right to payment for services. People turn over their own right to resolve their disputes to the government, and agree to abide by the decision.

    Using taxes to redistribute wealth, however, cannot be derived from a right to payment for services. It is baswed on the principle of steeling, to which no one has a right.

  64. Nate Oman
    April 28, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Jonathan Max Wilson: You speak with great confidence about the rights that we have in the state of nature. How do you know what they are? (Granting merely for the sake of argument that the “state of nature” is a coherent concept.)

  65. HL Rogers
    April 28, 2005 at 6:42 pm

    JMW: While I have several issues with your statement, I’ll only ask: why can’t wealth redistribution be seen as payment for a service. We are paying the government to take care of the poor or less wealthy. Do you have less issues with government services for the poor than you do with government giving money to the poor?

  66. Seth Rogers
    April 28, 2005 at 6:54 pm

    SpeakingUp and M. Cox (#50 #57),

    You both bring up valid points which I don’t necessarily disagree with. To cover this issue thoroughly would require going into the meaning of the Atonement in some depth. However, I intentionally left some things out of the analysis.

    The points you bring up are usually brought up in Gospel Doctrine class whenever the “are riches evil?” question comes up. And rightly so.

    It’s fine to bring that stuff up, but the problem is that whenever I hear someone make that comment in class, it just feels like we’ve all been let off the hook somehow. I don’t have to feel guilty anymore because we have established that God wants at least some degree of self-reliance and “it isn’t money that is the root of all evil, but the LOVE of money.”

    Fortunately for us, the DEGREE of self reliance is completely subjective and so is the LOVE of money. Since it’s subjective, that means nobody has the right to make me feel guilty about it. Every last brother and sister in the class breathes a sigh of relief because they know they can go home feeling somewhat self-justified.

    I don’t know about you, but this seems like a major cop-out to me.

    Rather than focusing on the stuff that makes us all feel better about ourselves, perhaps it would be more useful to focus on the things that make us a bit uncomfortable. After all, according to Brigham Young, prosperity and complacency are the number 1 threats to the saints.

    Responding to N. Miller (#48)

    I wasn’t referencing the D&C, but some other scripture. I forget which (that’s what I get for shooting from the hip without scriptures handy). I’ll try and look it up later.

    Those who are ready to receive the “fulness of the Gospel” have:
    1. Accepted Christ’s Atonement which cleanses the “taint” from our flawed and misguided works.
    2. Agreed to live the law sacrifice (i.e. give everything to God).

    The only reason that these individuals are designated as “doing good” is that they have freely accepted God’s will in all things. That stil doesn’t give them much to brag about personally.

    It’s sort of like a guy in a sailboat bragging about what good time he’s making when it’s the wind doing almost all of the significant effort. The only thing he gets to do is “set sail.” After that, he’s just along for the ride.

    Just to throw another factor into the mix:
    Christ said it is easier for a “camel to enter the eye of a needle” than for a rich man to enter heaven. Hugh Nibley has pointed out that in the Jewish tradition of imagery this was a recognized euphemism for saying something is impossible.

    Christ was literally saying “it is impossible for a rich man to enter heaven.”

    And the disciples were astonished.

    We ought to be too. And worried.

  67. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 6:57 pm

    I’ve never been in a “state of nature,” so let’s deal with something I have had some experience with: taxes. I suspect there is no tax in the history of the world that some sizable section of the population didn’t like. Correspondingly, there are plenty of government “services” that many of us don’t use and sometimes don’t even like (e.g. daycare programs, the national science foundation, medicare, etc.). Are these programs all unjust? For the significant fraction of the population that doesn’t use them, in what possible way could they be considered payment for services?

    The key point is that people don’t get to pick collective outcomes they get to pick collective processes. Sometimes those processes produce good outcomes, and sometimes they don’t. That’s government: it doesn’t really work very well. It’s simply preferable to the alternative.

    P.S. Should I take it then, that the U.S. constitution is unjust or illegitimate since it clearly exceeds your set boundaries?

  68. April 28, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    JMW, like Nate, I tend to find the notion of rights Libertarians adhere to problematic. But beyond that it isn’t clear to me why we can’t enter into a social contract to give up for the greater good. So long as it is done willingly, I don’t see the problem. In any case I think few people will find extreme Libertarian positions that compelling. As a practical matter we just don’t live in a country with such Libertarian views. So the more practical issue is what to do in our government.

  69. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 7:58 pm


    The justness of process means that we needn’t revolt. But it does not make it right to vote for me to vote to tax others. Thus I pay my taxes, even if I actively proselyte others to not vote for taxing me, and appeal to morality in doing so.

    Of course one can vote to have the government perform a service for you and then pay taxes. But the question is to what extent is it right to vote to have the government take things from someone else to give them to you (or some third party)? At some low level, most people are fine with that. At some high level, most people find it repugnant. .

    To put it another way, if all you wish to do is talk about process, then it should be fine to have the government take from the poor and give to the rich. Even if we agree that this is done by legitimate majority rule, we still would be wrong to vote for it.

    And yes, many government program are unjust. Any list that long certainly contains buckets of unjust services!

  70. Mike Wilson
    April 28, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Does the administrated church welfare system absolve us of responsibility to assist even other members of the church? Example: A friend of mine was petitioned (about 5 years after the mission) by a former missionary companion in S.A. for $300 to help him through a difficult time for him and his family. This friend asked his mission president for his thoughts and asked his father (a bishop) also. Both recommended that my friend not give direct financial assistance, but encourage him to use the church’s system. My friend followed the advice and has really regretted it since.

    Our responsibility to others is really independent of what the church or the governments may be doing. As was mentioned early, if we desire to retain a remission of our sins, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick are all something we do regardless of what other “programs” are set up to do the work for us.

    Regarding Seth R. comments about dependence on Christ: that is the ultimate message of King Benjamin’s address and only after we are humbled and recognize our place in the world do we feel naturally the desire to serve.

    It is interesting that those who we may believe as being “godless humanists” are those who do the most for others. I believe that partly is because they have recognized that all of us human beings on the earth are really in the same boat. It frustrates me at times that we (culturally Mormons/Christians) put forth our doctrines of all being brothers and sisters here on the earth and children of God yet we justify and rationalize our lack of service and giving.

    Regarding the question of the value that I get from supporting federal or state welfare programs with my taxes: I get less crime, less prostitution, less children on the street. These are very valuable to me. This is not dissimilar from the argument that people who homeschool or have children in private school should not have to pay property taxes to fund public education. Although they may not be benefitting directly, the community benifits greatly and thereby the individual.

  71. April 28, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Kudos to Nate for his excellent post, and to everyone who has commented: this is a great thread. I wish I could keep up with it, but unfortunately I’m going to be dependent on my in-laws’ computer for the next few days. I hope it continues long enough for me to add something when I have time.

  72. Dan Richards
    April 28, 2005 at 8:13 pm

    How much money flows from the Treasury of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the impoverished nations of Africa?

  73. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 8:51 pm

    Frank writes: “But the question is to what extent is it right to vote to have the government take things from someone else to give them to you (or some third party)?” That’s certainly a question we could ask, but my point was not about how people should vote (I don’t know and so far no one I have ever spoke with has convinced me that they know). My point was about how we should think about legitimate (or illegitimate) uses of government power, and that when we do consider the legitimacy of the process, questions about coercion very quickly grow much, much thornier.

    I would be surprised to find a tax/service relationship that doesn’t fall disproportionately on some group of people. We can (and in my opinion should often) strive for taxes that are collected from those who will use the program or service. I am not sure who is asserting that the tax system has no inequities or problems: it’s in pretty bad shape.

    But the truth is that we don’t get to pick a tax system: we get to pick a process for levying taxes. I disagree with Frank that this process distinction is not very relevant. It’s crucial, particularly for discussions of morality. Frank should be applauded for contemplating and arguing the ethics of taxation, but to really enact a system that consistently produced low tax rates levied only on those who used the specific program or services would require very stringent restrictions on representation—so few people want that world that it is close to irrelevant in any democratic system.

    A philosopher-king might produce such a world (Indeed, I believe King Benjamin claimed that he did!), but a republic or democracy is congenitally incapable of producing that world. I’ll stick to democracy (for now). Sadly it gets a lot wrong, but the alternatives are generally quite horrifying. Process isn’t the only thing I think about, but careful thinking about process is the elephant in this living room conversation.

    P.S. By the way, the notion that legitimacy is conferred simply by majority rule is definitely not one I would agree with. The question of what produces legitimacy is a big can of worms, too big to take up here.

  74. Ivan Wolfe
    April 28, 2005 at 9:37 pm


    How do you know who my Jesus is?

    (oh, wait – you meant that OTHER Ivan……………) ;-)

  75. Frank McIntyre
    April 28, 2005 at 9:39 pm

    JCP, nobody here is arguing for an end to democratic government. The argument is about how we should vote in such a regime. I happily grant that we live in a certain process with certain rules, but that does not at all answer the more interesting questions, the ones you think nobody can answer. If nobody can answer them, then what do you do at the ballot box? Draw lots? If you just do the best you can, well then that is exactly what we are discussing; what is the best guess as to how to do things?

  76. JCP
    April 28, 2005 at 10:39 pm

    When someone picks up the argument that government actions are illegitimate—such as the coercion arguments made above—she (perhaps unintentionally) picks up a lot of baggage with it. I’m suggesting people should think MUCH more carefully about the baggage. I did put it in stark terms to make the point, but I think that my point about restrictions on the quality of representation implied a continuum of possible systems (not a binary choice, as you seem to have read it). It’s hard not to discuss these matters in broad strokes (without graphs, anyway), and perhaps I should have been more clear. Bottom line: comparisons between taxes and stealing are misleading because they obscure highly relevant questions about legitimacy. Once you concede that, it makes the question of whether or not people are acting immorally with their ballots a lot more complicated, because it is no longer clear that anyone is “stealing.”

    I should have been clearer regarding what I said about voting. I find most of the answers about how people actually vote (i.e. positive descriptions) wanting because there is too much heterogeneity in the population: different people care about different things, and this makes generalizations about voting very problematic.

    Worse: this leads to trouble regarding the normative question of what people SHOULD care about. Votes are binary choices, but have effects on multiple dimensions. Which dimension(s) should people care about? Obviously that’s an even harder question to answer, and the answers I’ve heard people give aren’t very satisfying. But believing that available answers aren’t very good hardly implies that the question can’t be answered. I’d love to hear a good answer; I just haven’t heard one yet.

    Certainly voting is an interesting topic, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But, actually, I don’t go in much for normative discussions of politics, so I probably shouldn’t have commented so much in a place that is clearly mostly about normative questions. I just like to see politics discussed with precision, and couldn’t help myself.

  77. Keith
    April 28, 2005 at 10:49 pm

    This is an aside for a film recommendation, though an aside relevant to this discussion.

    I’m in the L.A. area for a bit and my wife and I saw the movie “Millions” at a second run, more artsy kind of theatre. A boy of seven, who knows and loves all the Saints, has a large bundle of money dropped on him. In his purity he wants to do something saintly with it and give it to the poor. The film shows the real need/demand to care for the poor, but also the complexity of the issue. I found it to be well done and moving. There are even some Mormon missionaries involved in the movie (the boy perks up when he hears one of them say their Latter-day SAINTS).

    Well worth the time.

  78. Frank McIntyre
    April 29, 2005 at 12:28 am


    Obviously there are differences between stealing and taxes, but it is quite possible to act immorally as a voter and, in effect, vote to steal from other people through the government. The fact that there is a voting process would not somehow legitimize the theft.

  79. Jason Stout
    April 29, 2005 at 2:23 am

    , ……..for his punishments are just – But I say unto you, OMAN! , who soever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent;……….

    Nate- I think he was only talking to you and your family!


  80. Nate Oman
    April 29, 2005 at 8:41 am

    One fruitful way of getting a handle on the distinction (if it exists) between theft and taxation might be to ask yourself what it means to own something and why it is that you have a right to your property. I suspect that it is answers to these sorts of questions that are going to render this debate meaningful. Without some sort of theory of property, I suspect that all you have are dueling assertions.

  81. JCP
    April 29, 2005 at 9:38 am


    This clarifies things. You think that government can’t legitimately levy taxes—at least beyond some point. How do we know what point that is? Everyone wants different tax rates. Whose point do we pick? I think this takes us back to process and legitimacy, you think we should figure out what is just or moral.

    I think the key distinction here is between justice and legitimacy. Maybe legitimacy is not a big deal. Lots of possible worlds are legitimate and perhaps we don’t care much about what is or is not legitimate. But I think we can get a handle on what is and is not legitimate: definitions are possible, and a discussion can proceed.

    Justice sounds more like a preference to me, and it’s impossible to choose between people’s preferences without running right into process issues. This is why I suggested that to have the world you’re suggesting would require a lot of restrictions on government and representation (ultimately rather draconian ones, I suspect).

    Interestingly, the great tax revolt of 1776 was not so much about taxes as it was about process. I think that the protestors knew that the process by which you levy taxes was a much bigger deal than the actual rates (since the Empire was perfectly willing to give them a sweetheart deal on rates).

    P.S. If the voters act in good faith (and I have no evidence they are not), I don’t see how it can be immoral. High tax rates just sound like a bad idea.

  82. HL Rogers
    April 29, 2005 at 9:42 am

    I would assert that property ownership only exists within a societal framework. We can only “own” something when someone else is around to make a competing claim. Thus, in a very real way ownership is a societal construct and not some divine Lockean right. As such, society from a baseline has the authority to regulate such ownership. However, we are charged to vote responsibily.

    Property, regardless of Locke and Jefferson, is not on par with life and liberty. While the three concepts are inter-related, especially once man enters society, property is more alienable than life or liberty–or at least should be. Though it seems in our modern society that all are equally alienable.

  83. Frank McIntyre
    April 29, 2005 at 10:03 am


    Justice for me would be the set of preferences held by God. For many other people, justice is some other set of well defined beliefs that hold true for all people. Thus they are well defined even if they are not known. As such, one does not have the standard problems of conflicting preferences. The problem is determining God’s preferences. Those who have a different definition of justice can use that definition, but once again this is a conflict over what is right for everyone, not merely a conflict over preferences for vanilla and chocolate.

    Of course, when arguing over vanilla and chocolate, the obvious solution is to let everyone pick their own flavor. Thus there is no need to convince others of one’s position. The fact that people wish to run welfare through the government is a strong indication that this solution is unsatisfactory because those who wish for welfare services want to impose their revealed preference for justice on those who don’t (and, in a limited way, vice versa). We do this in criminal law all the time. Alternatively it may be more of a free-rider problem even though everyone wants the welfare program done.

    “If the voters act in good faith (and I have no evidence they are not), I don’t see how it can be immoral. High tax rates just sound like a bad idea.”

    What is good faith? Is that where you aren’t just trying to take stuff from others and give it to yourself? This sounds like you are making a moral judgement.

  84. Frank McIntyre
    April 29, 2005 at 10:05 am

    HL, your definition of property seems like it could be used ofr life as well. Thus my right to life only exists when there is someone else making a competing claim (i.e., to kill me). THe same for liberty. Is that what you mean?

  85. JCP
    April 29, 2005 at 10:14 am

    Frank writes: “one does not have the standard problems of conflicting preferences. The problem is determining God’s preferences.”

    This may be your problem, but I fail to see why it is everyone’s problem. Actually, I’d like to be everyone’s problem, but wishing away preference heterogeneity is not a solution to any significant process issue. Everyone is attempting to impose his vision of the good on others. So what?

    I would loosely define “good faith” as sincerely believing that your actions are beneficial. It’s a definition, not a moral judgment. The moral judgment I make is suggesting that if a voter passes this bar, it’s hard for me to see how his action could be considered immoral—a bad idea, maybe, but not immoral.

  86. HL Rogers
    April 29, 2005 at 10:23 am

    I am trying to make a distinction between life and liberty and that of property (referring to property not including our own physical bodies). Life and liberty are transcendent. Meaning both life and liberty (or free will to put it into a more religious context) are eternal and from God. While I think ownership of fragments of phsyical mortality (such as the money I make, my house) is not–it is a societal invention or concept (did we have physical possessions in pre-mortality, I don’t know, but I don’t think so, mainly b/c there wasn’t much physical there but also b/c I don’t think God puts the same emphasis on possessions as he does on life and free will). My property is very very important but altogether far more alienable than my life or free will (though the giovernments treats both as alienable).

  87. Daylan Darby
    April 29, 2005 at 11:53 am

    JCP, you didn’t answer the question: “If you had a gun would you use it to force Bob to help Alice?” If it is not morally right for you do to this, what makes it morally right for 50%+1 of you to do this?

    JCP says:

    “Do you seriously prefer the world where there is nothing to stop someone from killing Bob to help Alice? Or would you prefer a world where elections, government and law combine to create processes to decide these questions? ”

    I prefer a world where Bob (and willing neighbors) hire self-defense. The rights of Bob (and willing neighbors) to hire self-defense have morphed into the modern police/judicial force – nothing wrong with that except that Bob can’t opt out of the system (paying for police/judicial taxes and receiving police/judicial benefits).

    “Besides that, your hypothetical assumes people are actually voting on kidney transplants (and confiscations). I’m unfamiliar with that system. Examples? ”

    The kidney transplant was of course a hypothetical example. Real world examples that voters get to vote on include: minimum wage, local sport arenas, open spaces, etc. Real world examples that representatives vote on include medicare, SS, Welfare, Rent control, tariffs, drug prices, etc.

  88. April 29, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    Nate, Clark, etc,

    I apologize for not responding sooner. Nate asks how one, such as myself, can be confident of what our individual rights would be in a state of nature? And Clark doesn’t buy the Libertarian notion of rights.

    For the record I do not subscribe to libertarianism, applied objectivism, or the school of Austrian economics. I think that it is a shame that the libertarians have successfully co-opted the state of nature vocabulary to their own brand of Austrian Economics and Anarchist/Minarchist government models. I tend to lean more toward the Harry Jaffa branch of the Leo Strauss school of political philosophy–which I suppose makes me a “neocon” in some circles. I dislike some of the Straussian philosophy and the esoteric/exoteric conspiracy theories that involve Strauss and his followers, but I do like the direction in which Harry Jaffa takes the philosophy (read a little here).

    I am very much an adherent of my own brand of the “Natural Law” approach to government. My approach grafts good portions of the Madison/Jefferson adaptation of Locke, along with some Jaffa, onto the trunk of the Restored Gospel and the Christian Natural Law/Tao philosophy expounded by C.S. Lewis in the first part of Mere Christianity and in the book The Abolition of Man.

    In Mere Christianity, Lewis says:

    EVERY ONE HAS HEARD people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kinds of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”–‘That’s my seat, I was there first”–“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”–“Why should you shove in first?”–“Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”–“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

    Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that some thing has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

    Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the “laws of nature” we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong “the Law of Nature,” they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law–with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.

    I believe that Paul expresses the same idea in Romans 2:14-15:

    For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

    I take C.S. Lewis’s outline of the Tao or Natural Law as the basis for just individual action as well as just government action. It was by appealing to the Tao that the colonists justified their rebellion against Great Britain.

    Jefferson said:

    Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding, and should therefore be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties, which may make anything mean everything or nothing, at pleasure.

    So to finally answer Nate’s question about how one knows what natural rights are, I appeal to the Natural Law; that shared standard that Lewis refers to; I appeal to common sense rather than metaphysical subtleties.

    As for the concept of property, unlike HL, I do not think that it is only a societal construct. I feel ownership over anything that I have labored to produce or improve, regardless of whether or not there is another who might try to take it. If I work to cultivate seeds then the fruit that results is my property. Within society, I have a right to expect just compensation for my labors or the fruits of my labors. The concept of property is inherent in the natural law, and the prohibition against stealing another’s property is universal. The atonement even seems to include some concept of property in that we are Christ’s property because he has purchased us through his labors.

    As for the reality of a “state of nature,” one can take the interaction of independent nations with no supergovernment over them as existing in a real state of nature. A nation punishes someone (i.e. Osama) for crimes committed against its citizens by an appeal to the natural law, as there is no social compact between the people of the nation and the criminal.

    I’m sure one can find justification for stealing in metaphysical subtleties, but I will stick with common sense and a universal Natural Law. That law includes, in Lewis’s words, the “Positive” law of “General Beneficence”, which includes taking care of the poor. But that aspect of the law cannot trample the law of Justice, which includes not stealing another’s property. In other words, mercy cannot rob justice.

    As Harry Jaffa puts it:

    …the great principles of right and wrong must govern the people, for the people to be able to govern themselves. No majority, however great, can authorize what is intrinsically immoral. According to George Washington, no nation can prosper that “disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” These rules bind the majority no less than the minority.

    And James Madison:There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation, than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonymous with “ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true.

    But taking it in its popular sense, as referring to the immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. In the latter sense it would be in the interest of the majority in every community to despoil and enslave the minority of individuals…. In fact, it is only establishing, under another name and a more specious form, force as a measure of right….
    (emphasis added)

  89. April 29, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    The links in my last comment got messed up somehow. They should be:

    read a little here
    outline of the Tao

  90. April 29, 2005 at 3:36 pm

    Jonathan, while I’m very much a proponent of common sense, one problem is that individual commonsense and even community common sense seems unstable and varies from community to community. Further it so often seems wrong. Just look at the common sense view of non-whites on up through the 1960’s. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in common sense. (Not to mention that in most things scientific common sense also gets the facts wrong)

  91. JCP
    April 29, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    Daylan Darby:

    I thought my position on that question would have been made clear. But you’re quite right that I didn’t answer this particular question directly. In the spirit of clarity …

    My killing someone to provide a kidney is wrong (and you’d better be prepared to do this or the threat isn’t credible, and therefore useless). I wouldn’t do it. Should a government be able to do it? I would want to put in place a process where that outcome was as unlikely as I could make it. But my point was that you get to choose processes not outcomes. People empowered to choose outcomes have a special name: dictators.

    I think you will always run the risk of a government that runs amok (unless you eschew government entirely). As George Washington wisely put it: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” But despite his fear of government, experience that dwarfs yours and mine, and myriad opportunities, Washington was wise enough never to ordain outcomes, as you are implicitly suggesting here: he recognized the devious seed of tyranny when he saw it.

    As a practical matter, any government powerful enough to do the things most people want (provide currency, protect property rights, protect the other rights of citizens, etc.) is powerful enough to do many bad things as well. But from your statements, I wonder if you don’t even want a government powerful enough to do those things. Good luck in that world. I have a feeling you would not find it such a friendly place as you seem to imagine. I hope your neighbors would band together, but I hope they wouldn’t band together against you.

  92. Sheri Lynn
    April 29, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    I know someone living on the edge of genuine hunger. She is supporting her (grown) daughter and (grown) grandson on her social security check. We have provided them with much material assistance and have shared our food storage with them. How could we not? We like them, our kids like them. But I had to sit politely and listen to them fly off the handle, that the daughter could not find work because the Patriot Act had caused her to be subject to credit check with potential employers, a test she cannot pass because the Republicans destroyed her credit when they stole the Presidency. It’s not her fault, it’s President Bush’s. She believes this fervently. Her notions of causation are not so complicated as to include factors like the stock market bubble bursting, 9/11, low interest rates which caused lenders to seek to reduce their risk, or the fact that she may well have contributed to her own misfortunes in more than one way. (When I hear of the assets she had repossessed, I am reminded that we are discouraged from getting luxuries on credit for a reason!) King Benjamin’s reminders to me that it doesn’t matter if I feel she got herself into her situation are timely. We may be of completely different political beliefs, but I still won’t have a neighbor going hungry. But the son is 23 and able bodied. I do resent it that they make excuses for him. He is lazy and they know it. He gets mad that he has to eat at home due to the money situation, instead of going out to eat. He wastes what little they have. He was too busy to help us move a big heavy item one day–when he’s been eating food we gave them.

    I hope that the mom at least gets her act together and gets a job soon. I don’t like being resentful against people I basically like. There *are* jobs here, and I’m quite sure many potential employers will sympathize with her because of how this cruel and sadistic President has personally and deliberately persecuted her.

    Am I judging them? Yeah. I know I am.

  93. April 29, 2005 at 5:37 pm


    The principle of Subsidiarity helps to mitigate some of the differences that may exist in common sense, but when I am referring to common sense I am meaning the sense of right and wrong that is common among mankind.

    Lewis explains in Mere Christianity that

    This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are color-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right….

    I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all men is unsound, because different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

    But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Creeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to–whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put Yourself first. selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

    It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.

    Then in the Appendix to the Abolition of Man, to which he refers, Lewis explains:

    I am not trying to prove its validity by the argument from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it.

    That is why Jefferson referred to certain truths as “self-evident.”

    The fact is that neither you or Nate will deny that stealing is wrong, or that people deserve just compensation for services. One can navigate the subtleties of metaphysics and come up with some kind of definition of property to try to justify what common sense would call stealing, or to rename black to white, but, while people make mistakes, for the most part we all know what is just and what is not, and it is upon that innate knowledge that good government is built.

    Pre-1960’s, people knew that race discrimination was wrong, just as the Nazis at some level knew that what they were doing was wrong, they justified their actions with rationalization contrary to their innate morality.

    So to bring the conversation back to my original assertion. The forced redistribution of wealth is wrong because it is a form of stealing. It is the poor wielding the force of government to plunder the rich and is malum in se as they say.

  94. Pete
    May 1, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    I’m seeing some incomplete thought in a few responses above. There’s no inherent meaning in the phrase “what really matters.”

    “What really matters is that the poor are taken care of,” or “what really matters is that we do everything in our power to take care of the poor.”

    Matters to whom? Nothing matters, unless it matters to someone or to something.

    Obviously, having food and shelter (regardless of the source) will matter more to the poor.

    Doing our best to help the poor will matter more to our own souls.

    But as Nate pointed out, doing the best we can may involve more than a generous and friendly hand to needy people within our immediate reach. Living in a Democratic society that allows freedom of speech and assembly, gives us power that our predecessors never had. The parable of the talents comes to mind. If God expects us to give of our time and money and talents in behalf of our less fortunate brothers and sisters, then why would God not also expect us to use our vote, our freedom, and our power to influence others for the same righteous ends?

    For example, we don’t see many starving people in America, but how many people do we see in misery because of unemployment? How many of us have the capacity to help one of these people to get a job? What about putting pressure on a few cities for public transportation to help those who can’t afford cars or gas to actually be able to support their families? This is just one example. I’m sure that everyone can think of some ideas that would do more for the needy, for less money, than putting food in their hand from day to day.

  95. Matt Evans
    May 1, 2005 at 7:41 pm

    Great thread, everyone, I’m sorry I missed so much of it. Fortunately Ed, Frank and others were here to keep the thread sane.

    Nate, I think you’ve employed a sleight of hand when you argue that “feed my sheep” should be understood as the equivalent of “ensure that my sheep are fed.” Arguing this equivalence is the burden of your hypothetical liberal, who must show that the relevant passages of scripture should be rewritten to focus on the outcome rather than personal duty. Making that argument is difficult, impossibly so in my mind, because every argument would apply equally to the parallel constructions like “love thy neighbor,” and “serve one another.” (I’m hoping that even hypothetical liberals are reluctant to use coercion to ensure that everyone is “loved” and “served.”)

    As for property rights, it would be most instructive to try to figure out what system God had in mind when he commanded us not to steal. Because “stealing” is only coherent within a system of property rights, God implicitly revealed (1) that there is an ideal system of property rights independent of human laws, or (2) that Israelite property laws reflect God’s ideal system, or (3) that no matter what system of property laws a society adopts, it is a grievous sin to violate them.

    Finally, I should point out that I interpret our moral duties toward our neighbors as strenuously as any liberal I know. For my personal views, see my comments on this thread from the early days of T&S. Some of my representative comments are at:

  96. Nate Oman
    May 2, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    JMW: Let me offer an alternative account. Suppose that I think that property rights are insturmentally useful because they promote social welfare. Hence, I might support property rights in things like land or concete personalty because they solve commons problems, but oppose property rights in intellectual property because there is no commons problem and the creation of such property rights allows for the extraction of monopoly rents with deadweight losses in welfare.

    Such an argument would account quite nicely for our common intuition that theft is wrong, in that theft would tend to undermine the property rights regime and lead to decreases in social welfare. On the other hand, the argument would also justify what amount to forced “sales” or transfers in situations where the costs of bargaining are very high, such as perhaps in cases of nuisance law, etc.

    This essentially utilitarian account of property rights (deepened by a smattering of economic theory) would provide no traction to the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor so long as we were confident that such redistributions increased aggregate welfare, something which is almost certain if we make the quite plausible assumption that people have diminishing marginal utility for money.

  97. May 2, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    So, Nate, if I understand you correctly, “property” is nothing more than an arbitrary construct that is useful in as far as the illusion of ownership can promote social welfare, but that ultimately it is ok to forcefully deprive someone of what they consider their own property, which they have acquired through their own efforts and ingenuity, as long as it provides overall benefit to social welfare, since the concept of ownership itself is purely utilitarian.

    Under this view property is nothing more than a useful lie that we tell people because of its social benefits, but since we know that it is a lie, there is no problem with acting contrary to the concept of ownership and screwing a few chumps that bought into it as long as it will maximize overall pleasure/satisfaction.

    I guess that it all boils down to a never ending deontologist vs. consequentialist argument.

  98. Nate Oman
    May 2, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    JMW: I don’t see that property is a lie under the inturmentalist version that I sketched out above. As it happens, that theory accounts pretty well for some core rules in property law — such as the difference in remedy for nuisance (damages) and tresspass (injunction) — that have been more or less stable features of our law for several centuries.

    My point is not that I necessarily am convinced of the insturmentalist theory, but only that one cannot resolve these questions easily by recourse to assertions about the “nature” of property or even to our core intuitions (eg theft is bad), given that differenting theories can account equally well for those intuitions but produce divergent results in other situations.

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