Killing for the Telephone Company

In a highly thought-provoking section of his new book, Migrations of the Holy, essentially reprinted from his essay “Killing for the Telephone Company,” Cavanaugh summarizes the arguments of Alasdair Macintyre:

Alasdair Maclntyre refers to this dual aspect of the nation-state in the following memorable quote: ‘The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one  to lay down one’s life on its behalf…. [I]t is like being asked to die for the telephone company.’

MacIntyre thinks that the nation-state can and does promote certain goods of order, but he also contends that it is incapable of promoting the common good. Integral to the political common good is a distribution of goods that reflects a common mind arrived at by rational deliberation. Rationality, in turn, is contingent on our recognizing our fundamental dependence on one another. According to MacIntyre, the nation-state is an arena of bargaining among different group interests. In the absence of any generally agreed-upon rational standard to adjudicate among such interests, decisions on the distribution of goods are made on the basis of power, which is most often directly related to access to capital. The sheer size of the nation-state precludes genuine rational deliberation; deliberation is carried on by a political elite of lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals.

 For the same reason, the unitive community that the idea of the nation offers is an illusion. The nation-state is not a genuine community, a functioning rational collectivity whose bonds make possible the ‘virtues of acknowledged dependence’ necessary for the common good. MacIntyre says: ‘The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both.'”

O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment.  It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.

“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’  It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake.  The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them.  This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain.  The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once.  The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on.  Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’  No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations.  By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”

If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates.  However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch.  Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”