Posts tagged with: ethics

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, published a new column today in the Detroit News:

‘Social Justice’ is a complex concept

Rev. Robert Sirico: Faith and Policy

A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that “Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.” He went on to say that “there can be no disagreement” that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has “concentrated” money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.

What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of “social justice” that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.

He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.

A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.

The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.

What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.

We’re seeing the train wreck of the “social assistance state” in Europe.

In his 1991 social encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” I call that prophetic.

Let’s also be clear that the Church’s teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.

The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.

So let’s drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church’s understanding of social justice.

A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yesterday I noted some items related to the question of punishment and restorative justice in the American criminal justice system. And in the past we’ve looked here at the PowerBlog of the issues surrounding political and social activism on prison rape.

Now today Joe Carter, web editor at First Things, considers the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the broader cultural attitudes toward prison rape:

While such laws are a useful beginning, what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common and broadly accepted.

Joe makes an important case, and it is worth serious consideration. Given his position on water boarding and torture more generally, I’m sure that Joe agrees with what I’ve written previously on this issue: “Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.” One of the things it means to treat someone with the dignity they deserve as a human being is to not subject them to conditions where the threat of rape is rampant.

With regard to the relationship between humor and prison rape, Joe is right to point to the double standard. One commenter on one of my previous posts contended, however, that “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.” You can judge for yourself the accuracy of that claim.



But I wonder too whether one aspect of why prison rape humor is so relatively prevalent in our culture is that, as Joe has noted in his always worthwhile 33 Things, comedy has something to do with “making immoral behavior seem harmless.” In this sense, then, the danger isn’t that humor about making prison rape seem moral, but rather that it makes prison rape seem inconsequential or “benign.”

In a fine post over at the History News Network (HT: Religion in America), Jennifer Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster and author of the forthcoming book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, reflects on what the Michael Vick saga (to date) shows us about American attitudes towards crime, punishment, and redemption.

Graber briefly traces the development of public policy and social attitudes towards punishment for violent and heinous crimes. She writes,

In the colonial era, government authorities issued tough criminal sanctions. They branded thieves; they put forgers in the stocks; they hanged murderers and even counterfeiters. The punishments came swiftly and were intended to hurt and to shame. They might deter future criminal activity. But no one expected them to prompt a criminal’s personal reformation.

But things began to change by the time of the American Revolution. At this time, she writes, “Americans encountered a host of new ideas about law, punishment, the body, and individual rights. Some citizens used these notions to call for a dramatic transformation of American criminal punishment.”

So there is a mixed legacy in contemporary attitudes toward punishment and imprisonment, particularly from a Christian perspective which emphasizes the personal transformation that is possible through God’s grace.

In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.

I survey four different Christian views on these matters in a 2008 law review essay, “To Abolish or to Reform? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF). As I show in that piece, “it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative
justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches.” As Graber aptly notes, there are a variety of approaches to the relationship between punishment and restoration. Some hold that the two must go together, while other views hold they are antithetical to one another.

One lesson from the Michael Vick case, I believe, is that imprisonment can have a transformative effect, even if that transformation is note the sole, or even one intended, purpose of incarceration. Imprisonment is one way that society makes it clear to someone that particular behaviors are out of bounds and deserving of significant consequences. It puts the indelible stamp of “No!” on someone’s actions.

As for Vick, he’s recently made public his Christian commitment. Reflecting on his conviction and imprisonment at last week’s Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, “I wanted a chance to redeem myself,” he said. “Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.”

Vick’s case is only one of the most recent of many such stories of prison redemption. It’s been said before, “Prison saved my life.”

On Thursday, Acton kicks off the 2011 Acton Lecture Series with an address by Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico entitled “Christian Poverty in an Age of Prosperity.” (If you haven’t done so already, you can register to attend the lecture at this link.) To set the stage for the 2011 series, I’ll be posting video of last year’s lecture series on the Powerblog all week long.

In January of last year, we welcomed Dr. John Pinheiro to the podium to discuss “Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding.” In his lecture, Dr. Pinheiro – associate professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College here in Grand Rapids, Michigan - examined the American Founders’ understanding of liberty as rooted in a classical and Christian understanding of virtue. His talk touched on the reasons why George Washington argued that public happiness could be attained without private morality and why John Adams wrote that, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, November 19, 2010

Today is my last day at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meeting in Atlanta. I plan to make my purchases from the various book sellers this morning, having already reconnoitered the exhibits and mapped out my plan of attack.

One thing that has struck me is that there are a number of new books discussing ecumenism and Christian unity from host of different perspectives. On the one hand this shouldn’t be surprising. The unity of the church is a constant theme, one that is confessed in the Nicene Creed (“We believe…in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”).

But for a period of time it seemed that ecumenism was in decline. After all, it used to be its own area of theological specialization; there have been (and still are some) professors of ecumenics. On the broader level one thing that breathed life into the ecumenical movement in the last half-century was the founding of what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (I had the pleasure of meeting the pope’s representative, Fr. Gregory Fairbanks, at the WCRC Uniting General Council earlier this year in Grand Rapids).

An ENI story notes a recent address from Pope Benedict XVI regarding ecumenism: “Today, some people believe that this journey has lost its impetus, especially in the West,” the Vatican Information Service quoted Pope Benedict XVI as saying. “Thus do we see the urgent need to revive ecumenical interest and give a fresh incisiveness to dialogue.”

Now this story is in the context of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican dialogue. But “new energy” needs to be found in the mainline ecumenical movement as well. I outline some of the reasons for the decline of groups like the WCC, LWF, and WCRC in my book, Ecumenical Babel. And as the Vatican celebrates fifty years of institutional ecumenical efforts, we have seen a corresponding decline in vigor in the mainline Protestant groups. Some evidence of this is the consistent outreach and emphasis on engaging “evangelicals” from the WCC, whose new president expressed such sentiments at both the WCRC Uniting General Council and the recently concluded Cape Town 2010 meeting of the Lausanne Movement.

So says Mark Tooley of IRD. “Sadly, over the last 50 years, it (the ecumenical movement) has faded into the sidelines and is now largely ignored,” he said. In the 1980s Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that “the ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse.”

I outline some of the things needed to reinvigorate the mainline ecumenical movement in my book. I outline correctives on three main levels: the ecclesiastical, the social ethical, and the economic. But I conclude too that

Without pursuing correctives along these general lines, the answer to Gustafson’s challenging question, “Who listens to the moral teachings of Protestant churches?” will continue to be indeterminate, and deservedly so. Without doing the hard work of serious ethical deliberation that engages a variety of conflicting perspectives, the ecumenical movement has little claim to possess authentic moral authority in the public square or among the churches.

After the break you can read the full ENI story on the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican secretariat (now council) for promoting Christian unity. (more…)

Via TechDirt:

…a judge has tossed out the wiretapping claims pointing out that there was no expectation of privacy out in public.

“Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public,” the judge wrote. “When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation.”

There’s more here and here on the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, September 27, 2010

The Colson Center for Christian Worldview is preparing to release a new study DVD this fall titled, Doing the Right Thing: A Six-Part Exploration of Ethics. The DVD is designed as a resource for small-group studies and features leading thinkers who explore the need for ethical behavior in the marketplace, public square, political life and other areas. Hosts Brit Hume, Chuck Colson, Dr. Robert George and a distinguished panel — including Acton’s Rev. Robert Sirico and Michael Miller — undertake a six-part exploration of ethics before a live student audience in Princeton, N.J.

The panel, students and interviewed guests will examine and discuss the following questions over six 30-minute sessions:

– 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 the Market Place
– Ethics in Public Life

Panelists and guests include:

– Donovan Campbell, Chuck Colson, Doug DeVos, Joni Eareckson Tada, Dr. Robert George, Jim Grant, Dr. Chris Hook, Brit Hume, Alveda King, Dr. David Miller, Michael Miller, Eric Pillmore, Dr. Neil Plantinga, Dr. Scott Rae, Bob Rowling, Dr. Stan Samenow, Fr. Robert Sirico, Ben Stein, Glenn Sunshine, Dr. Ken Swan.

Doing the Right Thing is a joint project between the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Lansdowne, Va., and The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The latest issue of the newly launched Journal of Religion and Business Ethics is now available (vol. 1, no. 2).

Check out the contents at their website.

From the journal’s about page: “The Journal of Religion and Business Ethics is a peer-reviewed journal that examines the ethical and religious issues that arise in the modern business setting. While much attention has been given to the philosophical treatment of business ethics, this is the first journal to address the more inclusive scope of religious ethics and their understanding of right and just economic relationships.”

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.