Today at Ethika Politika, I explore the prospects for a renewed embrace of the Christian spiritual and ascetic tradition for ecumenical cooperation and the common good in my article “With Love as Our Byword.” As Roman Catholics anticipate the selection of a new pope, as an Orthodox Christian I hope that the great progress that has been made in ecumenical relations under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI will continue with the next Roman Pontiff.

In addition, I note the liturgical season: “The calling of Lent, for Christians of all traditions, reminds us of the ascetic heart of the Gospel way of life.” I continue to say,

Indeed, how many of our social problems today—poverty, violence, abortion, etc.—would benefit from such personal and relational love? We cannot view such problems with regard to statistics and policies alone (though we ought not to ignore them). On a much deeper level, they show us the suffering of persons in crisis who need the love of those who live a life of repentance from past sin and striving toward the likeness of God, the “way toward deification.”

I have commented in the past on the PowerBlog with regards to asceticism and the free society, but here I would like to explore the other side of the coin. We ought to embrace the radical way of love of the Christian tradition when it comes to the social problems of our day, but as I note above, we ought not, therefore, to ignore statistics and policies.

In his 1985 article, “Market Economy and Ethics,” then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality.” Heeding this warning means uniting good intentions and sound economics.

Failure to do so, despite having the right intentions and even the right morals, can lead to great error and unintended, harmful consequences. It reminds me of two passages from the readings for the past weekend’s Acton/Liberty Fund Liberty and Markets conference that I had the opportunity to attend.

The first passage comes from F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom on the importance of the rule of law. While I am somewhat hesitant to classify the state as purely “a piece of utilitarian machinery,” his point nevertheless is one worth considering:

Where the precise effects of government policy on particular people are known, where the government aims directly at such particular effects, it cannot help knowing these effects, and therefore it cannot be impartial. It must, of necessity, take sides, impose its valuations upon people and, instead of assisting them in the advancement of their own ends, choose the ends for them. As soon as the particular
effects are foreseen at the time a law is made, it ceases to be a mere instrument to be used by the people and becomes instead an instrument used by the lawgiver upon the people and for his ends. The state ceases to be a piece of utilitarian machinery intended to help individuals in the fullest development of their individual personality and becomes a “moral” institution-where “moral” is not used in contrast to immoral but describes an institution which imposes on its members its views on all moral questions, whether these views be moral or highly immoral. In this sense the Nazi or any other collectivist state is “moral,” while the liberal state
is not.

The basic point here is that whenever a policy is enacted for the sake of moral ends, it comes with a tradeoff. The tradeoff is the limitation of personal liberty. The problem with such policies is that it makes the state a moral arbiter, rather than the upholder of an order that allows persons the freedom to act morally.

What ought to be the case, rather, is that the state, too, is subject to morality, rather than determining it. However, without the proper moral foundation—in this case, I would add, the natural law—the opposite danger would be that the state withdraws from upholding the natural rights of its citizens, which would be just as much an injustice. The tension that Hayek highlights here, nonetheless, underscores the importance of both the right moral ethos and sound policy decisions grounded in empirical realities.

The second passage is along the same lines and comes from Wilhelm Röpke’s A Humane Economy on the dangers of centrism. He writes,

We see also that the centrist is what we have called a moralist, a moralist of the cheap rhetorical kind, who misuses big words, such as freedom, justice, rights of man, or others, to the point of empty phraseology, who poses as a paragon of virtues and stoops to use his moralism as a political weapon and to represent his more reserved adversary as morally inferior. Since, again, he looks at things from on high, well above the reality of individual people, his moralism is of an abstract, intellectual kind. It enables him to feel morally superior to others for the simple reason that he stakes his moral claims so high and makes demands on human nature without considering either the concrete conditions or the possible consequences of the fulfillment of those demands. He does not seem capable of imagining that others may not be lesser men because they make things less easy for themselves and do take account of the complications and difficulties of a practical and concrete code of ethics within which it is not unusual to will the good and work the bad.

Röpke’s “centrist” is the sort of person who sees the solution to every moral problem in the state. Their reasoning follows this basic line of thought, for example: “It is a moral imperative that we love our neighbors, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. Therefore, the state….” Armed with such logic, such a person may champion “freedom, justice, [or the] rights of man” and, indeed, view themselves as purely noble in so doing, but their high and lofty view obscures the empirical realities of the fact of the matter, abusing such moral words in their usage “to the point of empty phraseology.”

On the other hand, when someone tries to highlight economic realities, the “centrist” often lambasts them for supposedly not caring about the moral matter at hand. Just because an economist, for example, warns that certain forms of green energy are, in practice, prohibitively expensive and tend to burn more fossil fuels than they conserve, does not mean that the economist does not wish to care for the earth that God has entrusted to us. As Röpke puts it, the centrist “does not seem capable of imagining that others may not be lesser men because they make things less easy for themselves and do take account of the complications and difficulties of a practical and concrete code of ethics within which it is not unusual to will the good and work the bad.”

In the same way in which I argue at Ethika Politika today that Christians ought to work together with renewed solidarity to live out the Gospel way of life, preserved for us by the ascetic tradition of the Church, so also, on the other hand, ought we to guard ourselves against facile moralisms of the kind Hayek and Röpke highlight above. Indeed, as Pope Benedict pointed out, in practice such moralism “is the antithesis of morality.”

In his recent enthronement speech, His Beatitude John X of the Antiochian Orthodox Church commented on the need for a more careful engagement with the modern world:

Our Church must not fear to use the methods available in our time to modernise its practices, to build bridges towards its children, and to learn to speak their language. This is what the holy fathers did when they used Greek philosophy, which was widespread in their time, to convey the message of the Gospel in a language that the people understood. We have to follow their example if we are to remain faithful in transmitting the message. The challenge lies in making the life of Jesus Christ glow in our faces, in our worship, and in all the aspects of our Church that the people may find their salvation in it.

The key to preventing our morality from degenerating into mere moralism lies in being attentive to the most effective methods of our time to seek moral ends, rather than thoughtlessly defaulting to top-down approaches on every occasion. In addition to the need for developing a proper daily ethos, we also must develop and support prudent policies. For effective coexistence and cooperation with others in society, in order that we may affirm with His Beatitude, “Love is our byword and our weapon,” we must sharpen the weapon of love with the coarse stone of whatever knowledge we can gain of the empirical realities of our time. In this way, we will not only live in a manner that promotes a more moral culture, but develop the prudence to support effective policies that successfully achieve the goal of good intentions and resist any policies that twist such good intentions for the sake of costly and ineffective measures.