Bishop John Shelby Spong, RIP

I was saddened to learn today of the death of John Shelby Spong, Bishop Emeritus of the Newark, New Jersey diocese of the Episcopalian Church. Though I can’t claim to have known Bishop Spong very well, he was a close friend of my parents’, and a constant presence in our family home. He was for decades Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where both of my parents worked–my father for forty, and my mother for thirty years. So we knew Bishop Spong less as a bishop than as a hospital trustee. The stories–or legends–I heard about him for decades were about health care, not theology.

Spong speaking in England; photo credit: David Gibson/RNS

Christ Hospital started its life as an Episcopalian institution. It later merged (or attempted to merge) with St Francis Hospital across the city, a Catholic institution. The merger initiated an apocalyptic sectarian battle for the mortal souls of both hospitals, a battle in which (I’m told) Bishop Spong did a fair bit of the fighting. Eventually, after a series of Jesuit-worthy legal complications I’ve never been able to grasp, Christ Hospital was consumed by the godless and soulless CarePoint Health System. By then, Bishop Spong had had the good sense to leave the hospital behind; Jesus Christ may or may not have been resurrected, depending on your theology, but Christ Hospital was not going to be resurrected, at least not in the form it originally took as an urban community hospital in the Episcopalian tradition.

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A Dilemma for Reasonable Acceptability?

Estlund’s Democratic Authority makes much of the idea of acceptability requirements for political justification. Acceptability requirements come in different versions, and one respect in which those versions can differ is what they are requirements for. They might be requirements for laws, policies, procedures, constitutional structures, the kinds of reasons that citizens or certain officials can give in certain public fora, and so on; they might also require acceptability as a condition for justification quite broadly, for political or legal authority more narrowly, or for political legitimacy — i.e., the moral permissibility of a government’s enforcement of its laws by coercive or punitive means. For Estlund, as for many, the most important application of acceptability requirements is to legitimacy, since coercion raises peculiarly urgent questions of justification. The rough idea of an acceptability requirement on legitimacy is that laws backed by coercion must be acceptable to the citizens that they purport to govern, and must be acceptable to them despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical disagreements.

Discussing the views of Joshua Cohen, Estlund writes:

For Cohen the fundamental tenet of a deliberative account of democratic legitimacy is the principle that coercive political arrangements and decisions are morally illegitimate unless they can be justified in terms that can be accepted by citizens with the wide range of reasonable moral, religious, and philosophical views likely to emerge in any free society. (Democratic Authority, 91)

Earlier in the book, Estlund cites Rawls describing what he calls the “liberal principle of legitimacy”:
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The Past is Another Country, but Rather Like Ours

One of the chief reasons for studying the past and reading old books, as for learning about our contemporaries in other cultures and other parts of the world, is to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human possibilities. It is, however, difficult to spend much time studying the past without being impressed by how similar people can be across wide spans of time and despite great differences of culture. For someone who, like me, has spent many years with his head crammed in books written over two millennia ago, 1859 AD doesn’t seem so long ago, and Victorian England doesn’t seem quite so different from America in 2017. But of course the differences are striking once we zoom in a bit; to take but a few examples, neither the lightbulb nor cocaine had yet been invented, women could not vote and the United States had about 4 million slaves, and probably nobody believed that it would ever be possible to create bombs that could kill millions of people in seconds. It was a different world. Yet John Stuart Mill could write this in On Liberty:

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Aristotle, Seneca, and Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Aristotle gets a lot of flack for defending slavery. It’s not bad enough that he accepted it, like so many Greek thinkers before him; he went to the trouble of arguing for it. Worse still, his argument is, by almost universal scholarly consensus, pretty bad. The gist of the argument is that some human beings are so rationally deficient that they cannot lead autonomous lives and therefore need to be ruled by others in order to keep out of trouble, or at least in order to live decently; slavery is actually beneficial for them, and they’re better off being slaves than being left to their own devices.

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