Category: Acton Commentary

My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.

John L. Allen, Jr., at the National Catholic Reporter, took note of the address recently given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, just as Acton did.  Allen’s blog post, which referenced Acton’s Samuel Gregg and his National Review Online piece,  noted that the Cardinal posed some very specific and probing questions for business people who wish to integrate their spiritual life and work life:

  • Am I creating wealth, or am I engaging in rent-seeking behavior? (That’s jargon for trying to get rich by manipulating the political and economic environment, for example by lobbying for tax breaks, rather than by actually creating something.)
  • Is my company making every reasonable effort to take responsibility for unintended consequences [such as] environmental damage or other negative effects on suppliers, local communities and even competitors?
  • Do I provide working conditions which allow my employees appropriate autonomy at each level?
  • Am I making sure that the company provides safe working conditions, living wages, training, and the opportunity for employees to organize themselves?
  • Do I follow the same standard of morality in all geographic locations?
  • Am I seeking ways to deliver fair returns to providers of capital, fair wages to employees, fair prices to customers and suppliers, and fair taxes to local communities?
  • Does my company honor its fiduciary obligations … with regular and truthful financial reporting?
  • When economic conditions demand layoffs, is my company giving adequate notifications, employee transition assistance, and severance pay?

Allen points that this document will be concretely useful: retreats for business people, a foundational document for business education, etc. He says, ‘… it manages to bring Catholic social teaching down to earth without actually floating a single concrete policy proposal. Instead, it asks hard questions and trusts people of intelligence and good will to figure out the right answers.’

Read more…

Did you know Che Guevara was at heart an Irish freedom fighter? In this week’s Acton Commentary (published April 11), Samuel Gregg looks at how the left “has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Back in 2011, then-Bishop Timothy Dolan pointed out that our nation’s budget is not simply a matter of numbers and balanced books.  “It reflects the very values of our nation. As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements.”

In a reiteration of this, House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says local control and concern for the poor must inform national budget issues.

Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.

To Ryan’s way of thinking, this means creating government policy that empowers people in power to achieve financial independence.

Read more…

Cardinal Peter K. Turkson, in a recent address to French businesspeople, spoke about integrating faith and work.

In its exercise of business, therefore, humanity would become a ‘rock’ that sustains creation through the practice of love and justice. And this appears to be really the vocation of the Christian business leader: to practice love and justice and to teach the business household for which he or she is responsible to do likewise, for the sustenance of all creation, beginning with our brothers and sisters.

The cardinal was focusing on themes from the pontifical council’s new document ‘Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection.’  He urged his audience to focus not only on business, but an integrated spiritual life in order to avoid a personal ‘disconnectedness’.

Read more…

You also might like:  Entrepreneurship in the Catholic Tradition, available at the Acton Book Shoppe.

Blog author: ehilton
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I found this video on NPR’s ‘Planet Money’  intriguing.  A young woman reflects on the cost of her wedding dress, which she’s obviously worn once.  She recognizes that there is enormous emotional attachment to this garment, but there is something going on in terms of how much she spent; she just can’t quite put her finger on it.  She eventually finds out that she probably over-paid by about $1200.

She believes she has been ripped off.

There are a few problems with this.  First, no one needs an expensive wedding dress.  Yes, we ladies like to dress up and look good – no more so than on our wedding day.  But need?  Nope.  The decision to spend a bunch of money on a white lacey dress has more to do with desire and certain cultural and personal expectations than necessity.

Second, the young lady complains about ‘asymmetric information’; that is, she went into the dress-buying experience at the mercy of those selling the dresses.  They all knew far more about labor, material, cost, etc. than she did, and she was just along for the ride.  If they said the dress cost $2000, so it must be.

But clearly, she wasn’t at their mercy.  AFTER she bought the dress, she went to a wholesale material buyer and a tailor, and got the low-down.  Why didn’t she educate herself BEFORE buying the dress?

In Money, Greed and God, author Jay W. Richards says this:

 “Free exchanges, by their very nature, will be viewed as winning exchanges by all parties involved.  Otherwise the free parties wouldn’t be involved in the exchange….A free market is best for distributing goods, services and information, whether they are trucks, trumpets, or trashy novels.  But the system doesn’t determine what choices people will make.

In other words, in a free market, one is free to be a bad consumer and/or a bad business person.  But poorly informed or unethical personal choices are not the fault of the market.  As Richards points out, “We shouldn’t expect the economy, free or otherwise, to instill virtue in people.”

Did this young lady pay too much for her dress?  It appears so.  She certainly looked attractive at her wedding, and the photos of this day, she is sure, will be lovingly preserved for generations.  But emotions can make for immoderate desires, poor financial decisions – and really expensive lessons for consumers.

Visit the Acton Book Shoppe and purchase Money, Greed, and God.

Don’t blame the culture wars for the recent debates about contraception, says Phillip W. De Vous in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Apr. 4), the real culprit is statism. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.