Category: News and Events

anatomyentreperneur-1 Is moral enhancement of the entrepreneur possible? That’s the question Michael Severance, operations manager for Istituto Acton (the Acton Institute’s Rome office) recently posed to Dr. Adriana Gini, a neuroradiologist at San Camillo-Forlanini Medical Centre in Rome and an expert bioethicist at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. Dr. Gini recently led Istituto Acton’s monthly Campus Martius seminar “Moral Enhancement: Back to the Future” and offers some further insight on her topic. An audio recording of her seminar is available on the Istituto Acton home page.

Michael Severance: Dr. Gini, thank you for taking time to explain your views on the fascinating subject of moral enhancement. Most of us have heard of various forms of “physical” enhancement, as with genetic splicing for disease prevention, pre-selection of human embryos to produce “savior siblings” and mixing chemical cocktails to improve the physical endurance of our organs…In what way are the two types of enhancement – physical and moral – related, if at all? Or is this just a play on words?

Adriana Gini: The association between the word “moral” to the type of life we live, the decisions we make, our efforts and struggles to improve society and ourselves is perfectly natural. In fact, morality depends on our acts and our acts are the expression of what we are as human beings. Our behavior, as moral agents, is quite complex and, no doubt, involves our physicality. Nonetheless, a pure physical/neuronal explanation of morality -with no reference to a more comprehensive knowledge of the human person- is rather hazardous. As such, the term “moral enhancement” does not have an immediate, direct connection to some forms of genetic, pharmacological or biotechnological enhancement, unlike the ones targeted at cognitive enhancement.

MS: From an Acton perspective, it is interesting to know if there is some type of “competition” or “economic” factor driving neurological science in the direction of improving the human moral condition. What is at the bottom of all this? For example, is the real inspiration to improve human action found in creating a competitive edge in intelligence within the marketplace? Some might find it hard to believe that secular science is really interested in fostering moral excellence for its own sake in its laboratories. Much less so in its lab rats and guinea pigs!

AG: According to some authors, as with Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Centre for Practical Ethics and head of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, contemporary research aimed at enhancing human cognition will result in an economic improvement (cf. Chap. 1.4 of Enhancing Human Capacities edited by Dr. Savulescu). In other words, better people make for better jobs, and in the end, better, more productive societies – in an economic sense. However, Savulescu’s claim is that such enhancement might also lead to a greater world of evil action. For example, we can use drugs or other biotechnological means to improve our mental abilities, but sometimes also to our detriment: smarter terrorists mean fiercer terrorist attacks with the mental enhancement to fabricate more powerful, more intelligent weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, in Savulescu’s opinion, any means to morally enhance the human species in terms of cognitive enhancement should only progress alongside research on moral enhancement. No one really knows, however, how to improve the human species morally by biotechnological means alone, since morality is not purely “biological”…, although there are certainly biological correlations to human moral behavior. (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Friday, May 15, 2009

richards-book1The belief that the essence of capitalism is greed is perhaps the biggest myth Jay W. Richards tackles in his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem. One reason for confronting this challenge is that many free market advocates subscribe to the thought that capitalism produces greed, and for them that’s not necessarily a negative. But for those with a faith perspective, greed and covetousness are of course serious moral flaws.

It’s also the kind of myth that less articulate writers would rather not challenge, especially in this troubling economic climate. Richards does however have a skill for tightly honed logical arguments, and he not only is able to defend free markets but tear lethal holes into many of the economic ramblings of the religious left. He even takes on holy of holies like fair trade and Third World debt relief. Richards argues that the free market is moral, something that may come as a surprise to many people of faith. This book provides a crushing blow to those involved in the ministry of class warfare or those who wish to usher in the Kingdom of God through “nanny state” policies.

The book divides into eight chapters, with each chapter discussing a common held economic myth like the “piety myth” or “nirvana myth.” Richards says the piety myth pertains to “focusing on our good intentions rather than on the unintended consequences of our actions.” The nirvana myth characterizes the act of “contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives.” Richards himself states, “The question isn’t whether capitalism measures up to the kingdom of God. The question is whether there’s a better alternative in this life.”

The influence of libertarian economist Henry Hazlitt and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder are evident through out this book. But the overarching strength of Richards work is how he places the free market message into the context of Christian discussions and debate. Unfortunately before this response, many of the economic arguments by the Christian left weren’t properly countered in popular mediums. Furthermore, the wanton excess of prosperity gospel advocates only fueled or provided ammunition for the religious left’s rebuke of the free market. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Much of the blame for the current financial crisis has been aimed at Wall Street and the bankers who, the story goes, created toxic debt instruments and then lined their own pockets with the proceeds. In “Verdict on the Crash: Causes and Policy Implications,” a new analysis from economists and scholars — including Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg — the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs comes to the opposite conclusion: It was governments and regulators who erred. Moreover, the IEA report says, the people most often berated for their part in the crisis – the hedge fund managers and those who run tax havens – are among the least guilty. The report also spells out the need for a “radical overhaul” of the financial system to guard against a repeat of the errors that led to the crisis.

The authors of “Verdict on the Crash” assert that “a revolution in financial regulation is needed. The proposals of the G20 governments and the EU are wholly misconceived. Specific and targeted laws and regulations could restore market discipline.”

Read a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph from the economists and scholars who wrote the “Verdict on the Crash” report for IEA. Read highlights and download the full report from the IEA blog. Acton’s Samuel Gregg authored the chapter titled, “Moral Failure: Borrowing, Lending and the Financial Crisis.”

In today’s Detroit News, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg talks about the sort of “moral, legal and political environment” that must exist if entrepreneurs are to flourish. He applies these precepts to the very serious economic problems in Michigan, where Acton is located:

… in the midst of this enthusiasm about entrepreneurship, we risk forgetting that entrepreneurship’s capacity to create wealth is heavily determined by the environments in which we live. In many business schools, it’s possible to study entrepreneurship without any reference being made to the role played by factors such as rule of law, property rights and low taxes in stimulating wealth-creating entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs gravitate to places where conditions for starting a business are optimal and the infrastructure — financial, legal, and technical — supports new businesses. Here, Michigan has a double-barreled problem: the out-migration of Michigan job seekers — much of it compelled by the steep decline of the auto sector in recent years — and the college graduate “brain drain” from state universities. How many of these people saying goodbye to Michigan are taking their entrepreneurial dreams, and maybe the next Big Thing in the economy, with them?

Read “Entrepreneurs Require More Room to Survive.” An extended version of this essay is slated to run in tomorrow’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up online for this free email newsletter here.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Update: The Michael Medved Show streams here.

Former Acton research fellow Jay W. Richards will be on the Michael Medved Show today talking about his new book, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem. He will be on during the show’s third hour. If your station carries it live, that’s 2-3 p.m. Pacific, 4-5 p.m. Central, and 5-6 p.m. Eastern.

Go here to see if a station in your area carries the show.

Jay is also scheduled to appear on The Dennis Prager Show Wednesday morning.

I had the chance to read an early copy of the book. Richards distills the core arguments for a free and virtuous society superbly. Money, Greed, and God is highly readable and yet more incisive than many academic books on the subject. Disciples of the nanny state and a naked public square beware.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, May 6, 2009

joker It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.

This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”

Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.

If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:

Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. What I know now, and which didn’t occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.

After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:

For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.

This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).

In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.

This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”

In the June issue of Reason Magazine, Ezra Levant details his long and unnecessary struggle with Canadian human rights watchdogs over charges that he insulted a Muslim extremist, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. This sorry episode also cost Levant, the former publisher of Canada’s Western Standard magazine, about $100,000. Read “The Internet Saved My Life: How I beat Canada’s ‘human rights’ censors.” (HT: RealClearPolitics). Levant sums it up this way:

The investigation vividly illustrated how Canada’s provincial and national human rights commissions (HRCs), created in the 1970s to police discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services, have been hijacked as weapons against speech that offends members of minority groups. My eventual victory over this censorious assault suggests that Western governments will find it increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet to continue undermining human rights in the name of defending them.

In a Religion & Liberty review of “Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns” by Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), I talked about the archbishop’s critique of human rights laws and how they should be properly understood by Christians.

In the essay “Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” Anastasios takes a critical view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and the later development of these declarations into exhaustive lists of economic, social, and political rights. Anastasios makes an important distinction between rights declarations, and their enforcement through legal and political forms of coercion, and Christianity’s preferred method of persuasion and faith. “Declarations basically stress outward compliance,” he says, “while the gospel insists on inner acceptance, on spiritual rebirth, and on transformation.”

Anastasios reminds us of Christianity’s contribution to the development of political liberty. “Human rights documents,” he says, “presuppose the Christian legacy, which is not only a system of thought and a worldview that took shape through the contributions of the Christian and Greek spirit, but also a tradition of self-criticism and repentance.” Those words should be hung from banners everywhere new constitutions and declarations are being drafted.

(more…)

Blog author: rsirico
posted by on Friday, May 1, 2009

For those following the University of Notre Dame controversy, this moving article over at First Things poses a compelling question at the end – a question that each member of the Board of Notre Dame (meeting today) ought to ask themselves:

There have been many things written about the honors to be extended to President Obama. I’d like to ask this of Fr. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president: Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama—the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?

Read Lacy Dodd’s “Notre Dame, My Mother,” at First Things.

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, April 30, 2009

roose3Brown University student Kevin Roose has written a largely sympathetic and often amusing outsider’s account on the spiritual lives and struggles of conservative evangelical students at Liberty University. Roose, who took a semester off at Brown, decided to enroll at Liberty posing as an evangelical for his book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. Possibly setting out to write an expose of sorts on Liberty’s quirky Southern Baptist fundamentalism and the students efforts there to gear up for the culture wars, he unsurprisingly finds a much more complex story to tell.

Complex because Liberty students, like most evangelical Christians struggle with temptation, relationships, and the trials that go with being an authentic believer living in a fallen world. In regards to Roose’s own preconceived notions or stereotypes, listen to his own words:

All in all, the Liberty students I’ve met are a lot more socially adjusted than I expected. They’re not rabid, frothing fundamentalists who spend their days sewing Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls and penning angry missives to the ACLU. Maybe I’m getting a skewed sample, but the ones I’ve met have been funny, articulate, and decidedly non-crazy.

In fact, Roose’s account does a good job of demolishing the left’s stereotypes of places like Liberty, a school where you can probably find some absurd stereotypes about Ivy League schools. Roose, by a twist of fate, actually ends up conducting the last print interview of Liberty’s president Jerry Falwell before his unexpected death a few days following Roose’s hour long sit down session with Falwell. This is where the author who was once a foe of Falwell because of his many public statements, decides Falwell is more “complex” and points out a good deal of his compassion in the pages of his book. While he still disagrees with Fallwell’s brand of ministry and politics, Roose can’t but help admire his authenticity:

Realizing that Dr. Falwell isn’t a fraud – as troubling a notion as that is – has helped me solve one of the great mysteries of this semester. For months now, I’ve been puzzled by the thousands of good, kind-hearted believers at Liberty who follow a man who seems, to my mind, to be almost unredeemable. They like him, I’m learning, because he’s a straight shooter. In a half century of preaching, Dr. Falwell has said some outrageous things, and he’s angered Christians and non-Christians alike, but he’s never revealed himself as a hypocrite. He’s never been caught in sexual sin, and he’s been transparent in his financial dealings as you could reasonably expect. And in the world of televangelism, a world filled to the brim with hucksters and charlatans and Elmer Gantry – type swindlers, a little sincerity goes a long way.

The book is a great account if one is looking for funny tales and anecdotes about evangelism, the Liberty dating scene, the teaching of young earth creationism, and Christian fundamentalism in general. There are also spiritual lessons to be learned. I believe each reader will pull different lessons and truths from this account.

I’ve noticed the Emergent Church movement has embraced Roose’s book and Roose himself calls the Emergent Church, “A growing brand of evangelicalism that de-emphasizes political issues like abortion and gay marriage and seeks to return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.” This of course is a wildly sympathetic view of the Emergent Church, because some evangelicals who question the practice of de-emphasizing substitutionary atonement, hell, and doctrines like justification by faith would definitely disagree with the idea that the Emergent Church is a “return to a more spiritual form of Christianity.”

At any rate I can relate to some of what Roose experiences from my own seminary experience. Although I came in as a believer and graduated as a believer I bristled at some of the legalism associated with a Wesleyan Holiness school and worked to tame my tongue around others. Sometimes I felt like I was trapped in the endless mandatory spiritual formation in the small groups that accompanied many courses. There were many a days I felt like an outsider. But when I had problems with a decision made by the administration or from all the busy work that at times seemed unbecoming of a graduate student, I was buoyed, like Roose, from knowing and being in fellowship with some great Christians in my seminary community.

While I’m a conservative evangelical, like many evangelicals I’ve been both amused and frustrated with an element of fundamentalism. Sometimes its rigidity can appear like an eternal plague of locusts, causing me to flee wherever it lands. But if this book reinforced anything for me, it’s a very basic truth, and that is as an evangelical I love God’s people and I grieve for lost souls. I found myself wanting to minister to the troubled souls described in Roose’s book, and of course Roose himself. According to this AP article he even thinks about joining a church.

Since leaving seminary, like so many others, I’ve struggled with areas of ministry, but one thing I think I’ve always been blessed with is an ability to preach and exhort God’s Word. I can remember sitting in preaching class and my professor said, “You have to preach John 3:16 every sermon. You might have to use different passages and find different ways to say it, but the central message should be a John 3:16 one.” I agree and when I look out on a deeply troubled and complex world, it’s important to see people as the image bearers of God, and that they were created for fellowship with the Triune God, and there is no love like God’s love. And ultimately the toils and trials of this world have already been decided by the victory of Christ over sin and death. And that is indeed news worth sharing.

In “The Real Culture War Is Over Capitalism,” Arthur C. Brooks argues in the Wall Street Journal that the “major cultural schism” in America today divides those who support capitalism and, on the other side, those who favor socialism. He makes a strong case for the moral foundations of free enterprise and entrepreneurship and points to the recent “tea parties” as evidence that Americans still favor the market economy. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, says Americans are revolting against “absurdities” like the bailout of General Motors that will be financed with ballooning budget deficits and trillions in new federal debt. He writes:

… the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

Voices in the media, academia, and the government will dismiss this ethical populism as a fringe movement — maybe even dangerous extremism. In truth, free markets, limited government, and entrepreneurship are still a majoritarian taste. In March 2009, the Pew Research Center asked people if we are better off “in a free market economy even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time.” Fully 70% agreed, versus 20% who disagreed.

He also points out that the government has been increasingly “exempting” Americans from paying taxes, an intentional strategy to create a larger class of government-dependent citizens.

My colleague Adam Lerrick showed in [the Wall Street Journal] last year that the percentage of American adults who have no federal income-tax liability will rise to 49% from 40% under Mr. Obama’s tax plan. Another 11% will pay less than 5% of their income in federal income taxes and less than $1,000 in total.

To put a modern twist on the old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at 40 either has no head, or pays no taxes. Social Democrats are working to create a society where the majority are net recipients of the “sharing economy.” They are fighting a culture war of attrition with economic tools. Defenders of capitalism risk getting caught flat-footed with increasingly antiquated arguments that free enterprise is a Main Street pocketbook issue. Progressives are working relentlessly to see that it is not.

Read the “The Culture of Charity,” the Spring 2007 interview with Brooks in Acton’s Religion & Liberty. Watch a 16-minute video interview with Brooks recorded at the Acton Grand Rapids office in May 2008