Posts tagged with: ethics

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2012

One of the conclusions from last week’s commentary was that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting a particular vision of the good life in America. That’s not to say that the government doesn’t have some role in promoting the common good or making some normative judgments about the good life. But it shouldn’t get anywhere near the level of specificity of promising a family, home, college education, and retirement for all.

In part this is because while moral good is objective, happiness is, by definition, subjective. The technical gloss on happiness in the scholarly literature is “subjective well-being.” This subjective element gets at why there can be such paradoxical disparity, say, between objective standards of rising affluence and static or even declining levels of happiness. Happiness has much more to do with how people assess their own levels of satisfaction and well-being than with simply objective measures.

Becky Hsu explores this over at the Black, White and Gray blog by observing the irreducible diversity and subjectivity of defining happiness: “The trick is in how people define happiness to begin with.”

The delicate balance that results from these considerations is that people must be free to define happiness for themselves within the boundaries of the moral order. And the role of the civil government and positive law in promoting that connection between liberty and happiness is definitive for good government. As Jefferson put it, “the freedom and happiness of man” are the “main objects of all science,” and such concerns help to “keep ever in view the sole objects of all legitimate government.”

I would argue that the best conceptions of happiness are those that intimately connect the subjective sense of well-being with the objective moral order, the source of which is God. The Christian doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation can go a long way in explaining why there is so often this disparity between objective material well-being and subjective well-being in human life.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” confesses Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Or as the Teacher puts it, God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV). This life is the beginning of the story.

Blog author: jwitt
posted by on Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.

First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.

A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.

King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.

The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.

Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:

Policy
Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.

Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.

Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.

Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …

The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.

What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.

I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.

Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.

In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.

In an editorial in a previous issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), I examined developments in research methodology, particularly with an eye toward digital research tools. One of the tools I highlighted was a project that I had some involvement with, the Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL). The PRDL has launched a new version today at it’s own website, and includes a substantive move from bibliography to database, as well as expansive coverage of over 1,900 authors.

I participated in a roundtable discussion yesterday at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference, where we talked about some of the trends and challenges involved with digital tools. The PRDL was very useful to me recently as I was working on editing a new publication of a translation of a text by Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), A Treatise on the Alteration of Money. The original translation was undertaken some years ago by Fr. Brannan, and I did not have a copy of the treatise by Mariana easily at hand to do some comparison. So naturally I went over to PRDL to see if the original was listed among the site’s contents.

Mariana’s treatise, De Monetae mutatione, was one of seven treatises (treatise #4, actually) published together in 1609 in Cologne. Via the PRDL I quickly found a version available from Google Books and downloaded it. As I opened the document, however, I found that the pages of the fourth treatise seemed to be missing from the PDF. When I looked at the title page, I found that the contents listing for De Monetae mutatione was crossed out, and there was in fact a signature affixed to the document noting that the treatise had been expurgated.

As Stephen Grabill observes in his annotations to the new translation, Murray Rothbard recounts the “fascinating saga surrounding Mariana’s De monetae mutatione” in his Economic Thought Before Adam Smith. As Grabill writes,

Mariana’s tract, which attacks King Philip II’s debasement of the currency, led the monarch to haul the aged (seventy-three-year-old) scholar-priest into prison, charging him with the high crime of treason against the king. He was convicted of the crime, but the pope refused to punish him. He was released from prison after four months on the condition that he would remove the offensive passages in the work, and would promise to be more careful in the future.

King Philip, however, was not satisfied with the pope’s punishment. So the king ordered his officials to buy up every copy they could find and to destroy them. After Mariana’s death, the Spanish Inquisition expurgated the remaining copies, deleting many sentences and smearing entire pages with ink. All non-expurgated copies were put on the Spanish Index, and these in turn were expurgated during the course of the seventeenth century. As a result of Philip’s censorship, the existence of the Latin text remained unknown for 250 years, and was rediscovered only because the Spanish edition, which Mariana himself had translated into Spanish, was incorporated into a nineteenth-century collection of classical Spanish essays.

Unfortunately for me, the censorship would have lasting effects, as the copy first available to me from Google Books was one of those that had been expurgated. I was relieved when PRDL alerted me to another copy digitized by Google. I went to the site and found the listing on the table of contents intact. So again I downloaded the file, assured that my efforts had met with success. But as I examined the file, I found the same set of pages to be missing again. As I looked back at the front matter, I found that a similar note was appended on the verso side of the contents page, noting that the treatise De Monetae mutatione had been expurgated in 1632. The text was expurgated and I was exasperated.

But fortunately I did know that Google Books has some quirks, and so I went to the book’s “About” page and located yet another digitized copy under “other editions.” While the other two originals were from Spanish libraries, this third file was held by the Austrian National Library. Lo and behold, this third time was the charm, as the Austrian library’s copy had not been mutilated.

This is just one instance of the promise that digital research tools and methods allows us, in many cases recovering long-lost texts, or undoing the machinations of long-defunct political regimes. The fruits of this labor can be found in the current and future generations of scholarship, which have the task to make full and responsible use of these possibilities. To do your part to make sure that Philip II doesn’t get the last say in mutilating both money and Mariana’s text, purchase a copy of A Treatise on the Alteration of Money, the first installment of our new Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law series, today.

Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton in Rome, is quoted extensively in a story about the Vatican’s note on economic centralization written by Edward Pentin, a reporter for the National Catholic Register. If you wonder why the Acton Institute is around — why we feel the need to connect your good intentions with sound economics — well, Kishore explains:

Kishore Jayabalan… welcomed the Vatican’s attempt to deal with the economic crisis, but he said their conclusions were based on “political and economic ignorance rather than experience.”

But the note, written by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, lacks more than sound economics; it lacks theological depth. It speaks throughout of the common good, but without a moral framework, that common good can have little ethical consequence. The kind of economic reform the note calls for could only be motivated by a conception of the common good rooted in a full, Christian understanding of human nature. Jayabalan again: “[the note] doesn’t speak of God or the natural law and so neglects this substantial notion of the common good,”

There is comparatively little talk even of greed and idolatry in the note — those vices seem get more attention at Occupy Wall Street drum circles than at the PCPJ. We’ll talk about them though:

Jayabalan, a former official at the Pontifical Council, said greed and idolatry are permanently recurring temptations that require “constructive ways” to combat them. And yet “quite surprisingly for an office of the Roman Curia and from a Catholic perspective, the note does not tell us much about the spiritual battle that must take place.”

Rather than draft this note, Jayabalan said the Vatican should have drawn on the “economic wisdom of the division of labor” which would have told them “to stick to what it knows and does best.”

Acton Research Fellow Dr. Anthony Bradley spoke about his book Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development at The Heritage Foundation earlier this month, and the video is now online.

Dr. Bradley explained just why he called his book “Black and Tired:”

The hopes and dreams, aspirations, virtues, institutions, values, principles that created the conditions that put me here today, are being sabotaged and eroded by those who have good intentions, but often do not think through the consequences of public policy decisions, because they have different views on the human person, and human dignity, then those who actually structured our government in the first place. And while the effects of this anthropology are not immediately seen, the long-term effects have been uniquely and harshly experience among a black underclass, and this makes me tired.

Dr. Bradley blames a “poisonous cocktail” of converging trends that has allowed a class of political elites to sabotage and erode the American spirit. He blames the decline of American religious life, the erosion of an understanding of human dignity, and concern with equality of results rather than equality of process. These trends are symptomatic of a pervasive narcissism, says Dr. Bradley, that sets them off and is then fed by them.

The black community needs an ethical rebirth — as Dr. Bradley says, “moral problems require moral solutions” — in order to escape the fatal “patriarchy of good intentions.” His book provides lessons for a recovery of black culture and a return to moral responsibility. He reminds the audience,

The Civil Rights Movement at its core was about … liberating African Americans from the control of others who sought to make their decisions for them, as if they were children. So during the civil rights movement you saw men carrying placards that read “I AM A MAN” — I’m not a boy.

For how to turn things around, to turn out men instead of boys, read Dr. Bradley’s book. Here’s the full video:

In the Grand Rapids Press, reporter Ann Byle interviews Acton’s Michael Miller about a live, national webcast on Sept. 24 of the Colson Center’s “Doing the Right Thing: An Exploration of Ethics.” Byle notes that the webcast “features a live panel discussion with [Chuck] Colson, experts Del Tackett, Robert George, John Stone-street and host Eric Metaxas. Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute’s Michael Miller also will participate as a panelist, thanks to his work as a research fellow and expert on the intersection of business and ethics.” Miller says:

‘Doing the Right Thing’ is building the case for thinking seriously about ethics and doing the right thing. I’ll specifically address how we think seriously about ethics in the business world and how we apply our moral sense in making business decisions.

Read more about it in “Grandville Baptist Church to host national webcast on ethics” in the Grand Rapids Press.

You can purchase the “Doing the Right Thing” curriculum from the Acton Bookshoppe here.

For those in the West Michigan area, some details on the church event:

Doing the Right Thing: An Exploration of Ethics

What: Live webcast shown at 300 locations around the country
When: 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 24
Where: Grandville Baptist Church, 4325 40th St. SW
Details: Local event is free, but registration is required at grandvillebaptist.org. Visit doingtherightthing.com for additional information.

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My contribution to this week’s Acton News & Commentary:

Flash Mobbing King’s Dream

by Anthony B. Bradley

Every black person apprehended for robbing stores in a flash mob should have their court hearing not in front of a judge but facing the 30-foot statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his Washington memorial site. Each thief should be asked, “What do you think Dr. King would say to you right now?”

I was not angry when I initially saw the news footage of young blacks robbing convenience stores across America; I was brought to tears. In fact, as we approach the dedication of Dr. King’s memorial we may all need to take a closer look at his chiseled stone face for the presence of tears. Tears like the one shed by Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody in the 1970s public service announcement about pollution. The historic PSA shows the Native American shedding a tear after surveying the pollution in an America that previously had none. It ended with the tagline, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” If Dr. King were alive today he might proclaim, perhaps with tears, that “people start flash mobs. People can stop them.”

Dr. King’s dream has been realized by many African Americans who have been able to take full advantage of the opportunities made available through his martyr’s quest for justice. Would Dr. King ever have imagined that 40 years after his “I Have A Dream” speech that a black family would be in the White House, not as maintenance or kitchen staff, but as the First Family? Yet, years after the civil-rights struggle affirmed black dignity, we have young black people ransacking stores in groups.

Every time a flash mob loots, it is robbing Dr. King of his dream. All over America, from Philadelphia to Chicago, from Washington to Detroit, young people who could be contributing to common good are trading in their dignity for the adrenaline rush of stealing from others. “We will not tolerate such reprehensible behavior here,” said District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray in a statement responding to recent mob thefts there. “Some news coverage of this incident has reported residents questioning whether the robbery could have been morally justified,” he added. “Actually, both morality and the law are quite clear: It is wrong to steal from others. And if people do not obey the law, they will be apprehended, arrested and prosecuted.” What Gray highlights is a troubling regression of public virtue and civil rights.

Dr. King’s dream was one that harmonized morality and law. However, King’s dream will never be realized in America as long as this country continues with the mythology that freedom does not require personal integrity and character. Proponents of dubious sociological and psychological theories allege that these flash mobs loot stores because minority young people feel disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream society. What King taught us is that political and social frustration does not justify breaking the law. Perhaps if these disenfranchised youth where familiar at all with life under Jim Crow, or cared about the legacy of civil-rights heroes like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Young, and others, they could tap into the imagination of an heroic generation, formed by the virtues of religion, who pursued public justice by pursuing public virtue.

An ailing American culture is responsible for this spectacle. In a society that does not value forming young people in the way of prudence, justice, courage, self-control, and the like, why should we be surprised that convenience stores are being robbed by youthful mobs? In a society that does not value private property and fosters a spirit of envy and class warfare through wealth redistribution, why should we be surprised that young people don’t value someone else’s property? Radical individualism and moral relativism define the ethics of our era and criminal flash mobs expose our progressive failure.

As we celebrate King’s memorial, we must lament the fact that America’s abandonment of virtue is destroying the lives of young black people and undermining the legal and economic catalysts that could end our recession for good. In solidarity with Mayor Gray, I stand in front of the King statue, called “The Stone Of Hope,” with a new dream: that a resurgence of virtue would give rise to a generation of moral and law-abiding citizens. In this way will young blacks truly experience the dreams of King and others who died for justice.

On September 24, thousands of people from all over the United States will tune in to a live webcast of Doing the Right Thing, a discussion of the ethical crisis our country faces and what’s to be done about it.

Doing the Right Thing is national project intended to spark an ethical reexamination by Americans. The initiative is led by Chuck Colson and group of Christian luminaries, including Acton’s director of programs, Michael Miller. Through a six-part DVD curriculum and live webcasts, they build an ethics for modern America—one founded in a proper understanding of the human person.

The discussion transcends spirituality and politics, asking “How should we act?” based on our common human nature. It is thus meaningful in public schools and private schools, churches and businesses, government institutions and military commands all across the country.

In addition to Michael Miller’s involvement, Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Acton research fellow Glenn Sunshine are featured guests in the curriculum. The Acton Institute itself is also a partner of the project, joining Focus on the Family, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and others.

There will be a live viewing of the September 24 webcast at Grandville Baptist Church (you can register here) beginning at 9:30 in the morning, and a list of hosts around the country is available on the website. And don’t worry—if you cannot attend a hosted webcast, you can view it at home with friends and family.

I was listening to news radio and heard an update in which the senate majority leader Harry Reid gave his interpretation of events on the debt ceiling negotiation. The part that really got my attention was where he insisted that further committee work would go after those “millionaires and billionaires.”

I wondered, “What is he really saying?” Let’s begin with millionaires and billionaires. Is Reid charging them with having committed some evil? If a person had made a lot of money by force or fraud, then I would agree that disapproval and punishment might be merited. Can we confidently say that rich people, as a class, have committed evils which make them suitable subjects of a public official’s desire to punish?

Why is he so angry? Why does he make these people sound like bad people? Is it the fact that they have quite a bit of money? I suspect he does, too. Indeed, it has been noted that Reid has become a somewhat wealthy man while holding office. Does he impute ill motives or actions to himself by virtue of his possession of resources well above the average?

What if we do think that having a lot of wealth is a sign of moral weakness? Perhaps we believe that having much more money than is needed to live (even live comfortably) represents a bad choice. Even if we think that, does that mean we invest the government with the moral right to appropriate that wealth as needed so as to operate without hard debates about limits on spending? Maybe our only right is the right to have our own opinion of how wealthy people should spend their money.

I think Harry Reid needs to think more about why he’s so morally exercised. Follow the conclusions of that anger and maybe we’ll get down to basic principles. Once we get there we can have a legitimate discussion.

Hear Chuck Colson, Acton’s Michael Miller, Scott Rae, John Stonestreet, and others at the Doing the Right Thing conference on Saturday, May 7, 9am – 1pm, at Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill. Preview a new ethics curriculum; explore issues of truth, morality, virtue and character; and learn how to educate others to discover the framework to distinguish right from wrong and begin doing the right thing. Cost is $25 (pastors and students free). To register, visit this link.

This event is part of a nationwide tour to preview a six-part curriculum produced by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, “Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics.” This DVD-based series and the live tour events explore topics such as How did we get into this mess?; Is there truth, a moral law we can all know?; If we know what is right, can we do it?; What does it mean to be human?; Ethics in public life; and Ethics in the marketplace.

Event participants will preview extended clips from the video series, hear presentations from leading experts on the topics, and have the opportunity to pre-order the DVD series at a special advance rate in order to begin with others conversations on ethics, morality, virtue, character, truth and issues of right and wrong.

Co-sponsors for the event include the Acton Institute, BreakPoint / Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, WMBI / Moody Radio and WYLL-AM.