Why Churches Aren’t Good at Pursuing the Good

by Benjamin Studebaker

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how some left-wing organisations act like churches–they are communities in which people come together to develop and refine their understandings of the good rather than strategic operations for achieving discrete political goals in the world. A few people wrote replies to my piece. The most interesting and recurrent counterargument I saw alleges that it’s fine for the left to be a church because people enjoy the sense of community churches provide and like the opportunity to come together with like-minded people to develop their understanding of what it means to be good to one another. These people deny that we ought to prioritise strategic efficacy, that it’s at least as important to become good people, and that left-wing organisations facilitate this personal growth. I disagree with this priority on the personal because I think it’s egoistic. But today I want to make an additional, larger argument–I want to argue that churches and other communities are not good devices for pursuing the good, and that the conclusions communities reach about the good are very likely to be deeply wrong.

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I am far from the first person to make this kind of argument–you can find it embedded in Aristotle’s concept of the vulgar and Rousseau’s notion of amour-propre. Aristotle argued that we could use our leisure time in both virtuous and vulgar ways. The virtuous use their leisure to cultivate virtue and become better people, while the vulgar use their leisure to make money or to increase their popularity. It’s this last bit which is interesting here–if we decide what to do on the basis of what other people will think of us, on whether people in our community will shame us for our behaviour, we are no longer guided by a quest for true virtue. We are instead guided by a vulgar quest for approval.

Rousseau believed it was inevitable that when people come into communities and groups, they experience amour-propre, a self-love which depends on the approval of others. He contrasts this with “amour de soi”, a self-love which does not depend on other people’s opinions. When we enter into communities, the desire for amour-propre overwhelms the desire for amour de soi. To achieve amour-propre, we must seek status in our communities, and this quest for status corrupts us and leads us into vice.

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Aristotle believed that we are political animals who crave the opportunity to rule over slaves, households, and cities. Rousseau believed we needed to join societies to escape a state of nature in which amour de soi leads us into recurrent, endemic conflict over resources. Neither of these people thought we could do without communities and societies. But both recognised a danger in them–amour-propre requires status and political action often tempts us into a kind of vulgar rule, in which we govern to increase our wealth and popularity rather than to build a virtuous city.

This is supported by more contemporary research by people like Cass Sunstein, who argue that in likeminded communities–especially those which are closed off from outsiders–people reinforce each other’s beliefs, producing mutated conceptions of the good. Seeking popularity and status, participants in these enclavist communities use virtue signalling and shaming to elevate themselves and denigrate their competitors. Existing alongside (and sometimes, in the case of highly anarchist organizations, instead of) formal hierarchical structures, these informal hierarchies of status produce unrecognised, implicit forms of bullying and abuse. In their quest to pursue the good, people in these communities both form mutated understandings of what the good is and impose those mutated understandings on others through abusive, bullying methods which are themselves morally objectionable. Both their ends and means are perverted, until there is nothing of the good they sought left to be found. Instead of pursuing the good together, these communities slip into a spiralling darkness.

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The Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt believed that politics consists in the making and reshaping of friend/enemy distinctions. The friends are the people on our side, who affirm our way of life. The enemies are the people who threaten our way of life, people who have to be fought and potentially killed purely on the basis that they are members of the threatening group. Many people join left-wing groups precisely because they want to oppose this way of thinking about politics, which they rightly associate with fascism. But in the moral depths of communities and churches, Schmittian friend/enemy distinctions are essential. It is crucial to know who is one of the friends, pursuing the good in the community-approved way, and who are the enemies who must be shamed, attacked, expelled, annihilated. This is the sense in which elements of the church left are genuinely fascist–they may not make a friend/enemy distinctions on the same bases on which the Nazis made them, but they are in the business of making and enforcing the same kinds of distinctions. The church left wants dissidents to be recognised as not merely those with whom we might respectfully disagree, but as Schmittian enemies. As members of a group which must be destroyed by any means necessary.

Gandhi wished to save communities from this problem. He thought we could live together while still practising swaraj, Gandhi’s notion of “self-rule”. Those who are self-ruling actively cultivate in themselves an independent set of beliefs about what is morally true and false and hold onto those beliefs no matter what the social penalties are for doing so. Gandhi believed we could not truly self-rule unless we were willing to die for our beliefs about truth. We should never allow ourselves to be silenced or made to change by coercion of any kind, be it formal or informal, violent or nonviolent. Gandhi wanted us to shed our fear of the people in our community and our desire for their approval:

That voice within tells me, “You have to stand against the whole world although you may have to stand alone. You have to stare in the face the whole world although the world may look at you with blood-shot eyes. Do not fear. Trust the little voice residing within your heart.” It says: “Forsake friends, wife and all; but testify to that for which you have lived and for which you have to die.”

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The parts of the left which make shaming their strategy reject this completely–they want others to conform to their moral beliefs from fear, and they wish to use shame as a tool of coercion. It is the tool by which they rise at the expense of others in their fallen church communities and it is the tool by which they hope to expand the power of those communities in the social domain. Gandhi asked a great deal from us, and it is hard for us to live up to his ideals when we are embedded in enclavist communities run by political animals who constantly seek to control us by manipulating our amour-propre with shame and threatening us with the enemy classification.

This is why though we must necessarily participate in communities and societies, we should always maintain a wariness about them and keep them at arm’s length. We should never enthusiastically journey to the heart of them, because the heart of human community is all too often a heart of darkness.

I’ll close with one last Gandhi quote, a piece of advice I remember when set upon by communitarians gripped by animal spirits:

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.