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Foucault and the Drugging of Society

"You feeling nice and dopey? Good...."

(This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.)

When I lived in San Francisco I worked as an overnight counselor in a lock-down facility housing adolescents with various social and/or psychological disorders. It was rough. There was a reason these kids-who-were-adults-too-early were not allowed to wander around in society. Whenever they were “free” they were incontrollable.

Many had horrible experiences as children–verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, watching day after day of domestic abuse from one parent toward another, drug abuse. This causes nights to be a source of angst for many. Nightmares were normality. I saw teens who would act like adults at 9AM turn into fearful children at 9PM.

One way to help these people cope was to provide them with drugs. I will admit, I often wanted these kids to take their drugs. When they were drugged they were “normal”. Some would do it. Some hated it. Those who hated it knew it doped them up, it slowed their thinking, it calmed them down while taking away their sense of control, their sense of autonomy, their sense of “being”. Nightmares or dopiness? What a choice.

One philosopher/sociologist/historian we encountered in our reading is Michel Foucault. I do not know enough about him to pretend that I can summarize his views on matters, but I do know he was skeptical of modern systems of control like the place I worked and the pharmaceutic companies that provided the drugs. We “knew” what was best for these kids and our “knowledge” was “power”….if they took the drug. I saw the decision as an easy night at work or a hard one. They saw it as their humanity or robotics.

Foucault noticed this. Those of us who do not suffer with mental trauma want those who do to take the drugs because their instability challenges our way of life. We want them drugged. We want them locked away. We would rather pay $200,000 annually to have them taken away then wandering our streets. Is Foucault right? Is our “knowledge” of what they need “power”?

If it were you who had to chose between fearful humanity or numb robotics which would it be? It is easier for those giving the drugs than those asked to take them. Some are not even asked as our love for diagnosing children with ADHD has shown over the years! Is this moral? Are we in “the right” when we drug to control? Or is this mere power disguised as “rightness” and “truth” and “order”?

What do you think? As a Christian theologian what do you say to the drugging of society? What is our response to madness? Should we support it because it is “good” in a utilitarian fashion or should we oppose it because all too often the drugs are not for the worst case scenario but for the control of those whom we find uncontrollable?

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What makes a view of government/law Christian? (Acton 2)

How should Christians understand the nature and role of government? That was the question addressed in the second foundational lecture. This lecture builds from the premise that a particular view of humanity and human flourishing should lead to a particular understanding of the state. In other words, states are simply a means to achieve human flourishing in the world. Although they often fail to do so, that is their basic purpose (a purpose they would still have served even if humanity had never fallen into sin).  So, society serves the development of the person. Or, said differently, “The person is at the center of society.”

Before addressing the specifics of a Christian view of government, the lecturer argued that there is no single form of Christian government. Although certain forms are necessarily excluded because they are antithetical to a Christian worldview (e.g. Marxism, anarchy), there may be many other Christianly viable forms of government. Rather than identifying the one appropriate form of government, the lecture focuses on building from a Christian anthropology to those principles that a Christian view of government must maintain.

  1. Human flourishing: They keep coming back to this as a fundamental starting point, and I get the distinct impression that one of two things is true: (1) they think they’ve provided a definition already; or (2) they think that we all agree already on what this means. Either way, they’re wrong. This is such a critical piece for everything being discussed in these seminars that it warrants much more time than it’s been given and it cannot simply be assumed as an already existing part of a Christian worldview.
  2. Human fallibility: Since our fallenness there is a need both for coercion (we can’t be trusted to do what we should voluntarily) and limited government (governments can’t be trusted either).
  3. Natural law: This was the most fascinating to me. Nothing had been said about natural law earlier, yet this was still presented as a natural consequence of a Christian anthropology. (More on this when we discuss the fourth lecture.)
  4. Human choice: Since God created us to be volitional beings, government should facilitate healthy human choice. It must exercise a coercive function at times, but it’s primary purpose is to enable human choice whenever possible.

These principles lead directly to four principles that we must maintain about a Christian view of jurisprudence:

  1. Common good: Unsurprisingly, the primary purpose of law is to serve the common good (i.e. human flourishing). And, no, they still haven’t defined it.
  2. Rule of law: Interestingly, several ideas were introduced here as though they can simply be assumed from Christian anthropology and natural law: due process, consistency, impartial judiciary, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but much more work needs to be done to establish the idea that these are necessary correlates of a Christian anthropology.
  3. Subsidiarity: Not being particularly well versed in Catholic social teaching, this was probably the most interesting part of the lecture for me. The idea of subsidiarity is higher-level organizations should facilitate the agency of lower-level organizations or individuals. Thus, laws should promote the agency of individuals and non-governmental agencies. I would have appreciated hearing more here, though, about the presumption that the growth of the state necessarily weakens human agency and responsibility.
  4. Limits of law: Following from the idea that law should facilitate human flourishing without undermining individual/private agency, the lecturer contended that we need to recognize that laws shouldn’t try to cover everything. Some things are immoral (e.g. lying) but should not be made illegal. So, laws are one way of promoting human flourishing, but not the only way.

Concerns/Questions:

  1. I’m continuing to struggle with the lack of anything distinctively Christian about any of this. I’m not convinced that this is driven by a desire to operate out of a natural law/theology framework with which we can engage non-believers.
  2. Related to the first, I’m concerned about how “western” all of this sounds. We need to be aware of the danger that our understanding of “natural” law/theology is actually an attempt to read our cultural ideas/constructs into the natural structures of the world to make them seem divinely ordained. I’m not saying that’s happening here. But, my radar is up.
  3. I forgot to blog about this earlier, but there is a pervasive anthropocentrism  in all of this. That came out very clearly in this lecture. Law/government is entirely about the human person. Sure, we should care for creation because that (1) contributes to human flourishing (whatever that is) and (2) serves humanity’s creative purpose as lords over creation. But, law/government does not need to pay any attention to creation in its own right.
  4. Going back to the title of this post, I’m not sure that we’ve really addressed the question of what makes a particular view of law/government legitimately Christian? They’ve given a view of government that coheres with certain aspects of a Christian “worldview,” but that is inadequate to ground a robustly Christian approach to these issues.