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The Bible and Hayek on What We Owe Strangers by Sarah Skwire

It’s so much easier to sympathize with our own problems and with the problems of those we love than with the problems of complete strangers.

Adam Smith observes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that our ability to sympathize with ourselves is, in fact, so out of all proportion to our ability to sympathize with others that the thought of losing one of our little fingers can keep us up all night in fearful anticipation, while we can sleep easily with the knowledge that hundreds of thousands on the opposite side of the world have just died in an earthquake.

Hayek makes the same point in The Fatal Conceit:

Moreover, the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules.

It may not be the best part of our humanity, but it is a very human part. We care more about those we see more often, understand more thoroughly, and with whom we share more in common.

And maybe that’s not so bad. We treat family differently, after all. My daughter will get a giant pink fluffy stuffed unicorn from me on her birthday. I don’t believe that I am similarly obligated to provide fuzzy equines for all other eight-year-olds. Different treatment is a way of acknowledging different kinds of bonds between people and different levels of responsibility to them.

All of this is on my mind because the other night, after I gave a talk on liberty and culture, an audience member and I had a discussion about banking, debt, and interest rates during which he carefully explained to me how Jews lend each other money for no interest, but when they lend to Christians, the sky’s the limit. Everyone knows it, because it’s in the Bible.

He was right, sort of. It is in the Bible, sort of.

It’s right there in Deuteronomy 23:

You shall not give interest to your brother [whether it be] interest on money, interest on food, or interest on any [other] item for which interest is [normally] taken. You may [however], give interest to a gentile, but to your brother you shall not give interest, in order that the Lord your God shall bless you in every one of your endeavors on the land to which you are coming to possess.

But textual interpretation is a tricky business. And textual interpretation of a text that has existed for thousands of years and been wrangled with by millions of interpreters — well, it doesn’t get much trickier than that.

But it seems worth noting that the word used here (both in translation and in Hebrew) is literally “brother.” This has been interpreted over the years to mean “fellow Jew.” But the word, as given, is brother.

What I think the passage means to emphasize by using this word — regardless of whether we are talking about literal brothers, or just “brothers” — is the importance and of treating those who are closest to us with particular care and concern. The kind of business relationship that is part of Hayek’s extended order, or that is located in an outer ring of Smith’s concentric circles of sympathy, doesn’t come with extra moral responsibilities to one another. A price is agreed on. A bargain is struck. An exchange is made. Everyone is content. But in an intimate order — with brothers or sisters, husbands or wives, parents or children — we have a responsibility to give more and do more than in the extended order.

And so observant Jews are told that they should not pay or charge interest to brothers — whomever they consider those brothers to be.

Though it has been interpreted uncharitably by many over the years, this passage from Deuteronomy is not a passage about cheating the outsider. This is a passage about taking special care of those who are closest to our hearts. It’s hard to find anything to object to in that.

Sarah SkwireSarah Skwire

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

School Is About Freedom, Marco Rubio, Not Just Money

Republicans including Marco Rubio parrot leftist lines about how education’s ultimate goal is money. It needs to be a great deal more than that if our republic is to survive.

Once again, presidential candidate Marco Rubio, when asked a question about education, disparaged liberal learning by repeating his well-rehearsed lines about preparing students for careers in a “global” and “twenty-first-century” economy.

During the CNN town hall last week, he said that rather than teaching philosophy (“Roman philosophy,” no less), colleges should teach practical things—like welding. Sadly, Rubio is not alone. Many Republicans, forgetting their conservative roots, have joined Democrats in advancing a utilitarian view of education.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a welder. My father, an immigrant, was one. And there is nothing wrong with philosophy—for the student in a technical school. In fact, it was our Founders’ belief that only a literate, well-educated citizenry could govern themselves. Even the tradesman should be versed in the basics of literature, history, and ancient philosophy, they thought. “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” said James Madison.

Modern Philosophy Is Merely Cynicism

Rubio, however, does not distinguish between legitimate philosophy and what philosophy, like the rest of the humanities, has become under the regime of tenured radicals. The problem is that philosophy professors no longer teach their subjects or, if they do, it is to cast suspicion upon the very enterprise, as I learned in graduate school in the 1990s.

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience.
My seminar on ancient rhetoric consisted of the professor elevating the sophists, the teachers who for fees taught the art of persuasion by making the worse case seem better. The ends were practical: so citizens could defend themselves in court. To my amazement, my professor ridiculed the traditional philosophical goals of searching for the truth.

In the intervening decades, the situation has become worse. Consider Emory University philosophy professor George Yancy. This full professor, according to the university’s website, specializes in “Critical Philosophy of Race (phenomenology of racial embodiment, social ontology of race),” “Critical Whiteness Studies (white subject formation, white racist ambush, white opacity and embeddedness. . .),” and “African-American Philosophy and Philosophy of the Black Experience (resistance, Black identity formation . . .).”

Yancy received national attention in December for penning the screed “Dear White America” in The New York Times. He began, “I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.”

Yancy would do well to review the Greek philosophers on the art of rhetoric and what they have to say about not insulting your audience (“Did you hear that?” “Well, at least try.”). Behind such appeals like Yancy’s is an implied threat. Invoking the names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other allegedly innocent victims of police violence, he accused “White America” of being racist through and through. Such rhetoric presages and justifies the angry mobs on our campuses and in our streets.

Philosophy Doesn’t Mean Grievance-Mongering

College campuses, once the places where the civilized arts of debate and the pursuit of truth were taught, have become places where the PhDs, doctors of philosophy, lead mobs of students in pursuit of retribution against some “systemic” wrong, usually in reference to race, ethnicity, or gender. Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, supporter of the Black Lives Matter mob movement, is promising to make such education free.

Our presidential candidates should consider what philosophy, rightly understood, could do. Indeed, by studying Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” students would be able to distinguish between different rhetorical appeals and learn the legitimate arts of persuasion—those that allow us to live in a civilized manner, where we resolve our differences through debate, not violence.

Were students to study Plato’s “Republic,” they might understand the dangers of a popular democracy and why the American Founders rejected one. They would consider Thrasymachus’s contention that justice is synonymous with strength, with being a “winner,” regardless of the methods. They might decide to evaluate such rhetoric carefully when it comes from a political candidate, like Donald Trump.

They would consider whether it is good for the government to put people in certain classes, as craftsmen or “guardians,” instead of allowing them to choose for themselves, or whether government should raise children rather than parents. What has been the historical outcome of such societies with centralized government, five-year economic plans, government-assigned jobs, and child-rearing from infancy? Are there any similarities to what Sanders is proposing?

Education Is Ultimately about Self-Governance

This is not to say that a class discussion should center on current political candidates. Indeed, the truly philosophical professor will keep the discussion largely away from the immediate. If the lesson is taught well, the student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education, not regimented job training and political molding.

The student should come to his or her own conclusions and be able to carry those lessons into adulthood. That is the purpose of an education.
The responses to Rubio’s statements in November, by such leftist outlets as ThinkProgress, CNN, and Huffington Post, were quite telling. They replied in kind to his materialist arguments. “Philosophers make more money than welders!” they said. In this they betrayed their utilitarian view of education, one that dominates the Obama administration, specifically through Common Core, a federally coerced program designed to produce compliant workers in the global economy.

The job training part has lured some short-sighted or corrupt Republicans. In higher education, too, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker advanced short-sighted “careerism,” as if he had forgotten, as Peter Lawler pointed out, Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument for studying the Greek and Roman classics. Earlier this year, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin suggested that electrical engineering was worthy of support, while French literature was not.

The other part of the progressive vision for education is to produce graduates who adhere to the state’s status quo. Students are trained to work collectively, focus on emotions, refrain from making independent judgments, and read in a way that does not go beyond ferreting out snippets of information. They are not asked to read an entire Platonic dialogue or novel. They do not get the big picture, from the dawn of civilization.

Our current educational methods are a far cry from the Founders’ robust views, of preparing citizens who are literate, logical, and knowledgeable; citizens capable of voting intelligently.

We Need Cultural Renewal, Not Materialism

We should embrace this conservative view of education. Although it is extremely rare in today’s college classrooms, it is being advanced in more than 150 privately funded academic centers on and off campuses. According to the John William Pope Center for Education Renewal, these centers “preserve and promote the knowledge and perspectives that are disappearing from the academy.”

One of these is the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, where I am a resident fellow. It was founded by three Hamilton College professors in 2007, and is located in the village of Clinton.

AHI offers students the option to read the classics in a manner that is increasingly difficult to find in the typically highly politicized open curriculum. AHI-sponsored reading groups have focused on the works of such important figures as Leo Strauss, St. Augustine, and Josef Pieper. This semester Dr. Elizabeth D’Arrivee is leading a discussion group on Plato’s “Republic.”

Political candidates would do well to explain how they will support such efforts for educational renewal, instead of disparaging philosophy and literature.

RELATED ARTICLE: Campus Protesters Try to Silence Conservative Speaker, Demand College President’s Resignation

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Federalist. Photo Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

VIDEO: Why Wouldn’t You Save a Drowning Child? by Matt Zwolinski

Would you lose $500 to save a drowning child? We explore a thought experiment that just may save someone’s life.

Imagine you’re walking to work in the morning down a quiet rural road to the side of the road there’s a pond and pass by every day. Only today, something is different. Today you see a small child in that pond.

He is alone, he’s flailing his arms, and if you don’t act quickly it looks like he is going to drown. Luckily, the pond is shallow. You can wade in, grab the child, and bring him to safety without putting yourself in any danger at all.

Unluckily, you’re wearing a very expensive set of clothes, and there just isn’t enough time to take them off. So even though saving the child is perfectly safe, it is going to cost you at least $500 to replace your suit and shoes. There’s no one else around, so the decision is yours alone to make.

Do you wade in, save the child, and ruin your expensive clothes? Or do you decide that $500 just too high a price to pay for the life of someone you don’t even know and walk on by.

If you’re like most people, the answer is obvious. Of course you save the child. Anyone that would would let us small child die just to keep their nice clothes from getting wet would be a moral monster. As peter singer, the philosopher who originated this drowning child thought experiment argued, if you had the power to prevent something really bad from happening to someone else just by suffering something merely slightly bad yourself, then “taking the hit” is the right thing to do.

Now of course most of us will never come across a drowning child on her way to work but all of us do find ourselves living in a world where over six million children die each year from preventable causes. And while none of us have the power to help all of those children, almost all of us have the power to help some of them. By donating a small amount of money much less than $500 to an effective charity through a site like GiveWell.org, you could literally save someone’s life. But that brings up another question.

How do we make sure aid efforts do the most good and the least harm?

Matt Zwolinski
Matt Zwolinski

Matt Zwolinski is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego. He is also a co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, a member of the editorial board of Business Ethics Quarterly, and a blogger for Bleeding Heart Libertarians.