Posts tagged with: human nature

Blog author: amandaachtman
posted by on Friday, December 13, 2013
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Dan Clements, an American student studying at the University of Leuven, and I help greet conference attendees

Last week, an exciting new organization called the Transatlantic Christian Council (TCC) hosted its inaugural conference. The theme of the conference was “Sustaining Freedom”, which aligns well with the Council’s mission “to develop a transatlantic public policy network of European and North American Christians and conservatives in order to promote the civic good, as understood within the Judeo-Christian tradition on which our societies are largely based.”

What I find most exciting about this Council, for which I commend Todd Huizinga and Henk Jan van Schothorst on their vision and initiative in founding, is this: like the Acton Institute, the TCC is not exclusively devoted to just one aspect of life, but rather aims to provide a forum for conversation on a broad range of life’s many important and fundamental human questions.

The starting point for these conversations is with a basic concept of human dignity. This concept is rooted in an openness to the idea of man as an image of God — endowed with the capacities for willfulness and reason, a creature and a sub-creator. And it is this understanding of the human person that serves as a point of departure for working through all sorts of interesting questions of politics, economics, liberty, government, religion, and family.

When I mentioned to a friend that I would be travelling to Belgium for this conference, he said to me: “Be sure they don’t euthanize you and harvest your organs!”

“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s certainly a novel way to wish someone a good trip.”
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Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, November 5, 2012

The first presidential election I remember was the Ronald Reagan – Walter Mondale race in 1984. My kindergarten class in the Philadelphia suburbs held a mock vote that Reagan overwhelmingly won. It of course reflected the way our parents were voting. I can remember at the age of five, John Glenn was one of the Democrat candidates seeking the nomination and I knew he was a famous astronaut. The truth is, I’ve always been fascinated by presidential elections and Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms by Ed Rollins and Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater by John Brady are two political books that deeply influenced my thought. Both books remain relevant and offer valuable lessons today.

Frank Hill, who directs The Institute for the Public Trust, has a solid post discussing Robert Kennedy, self-government, and tomorrow’s election. Hill quotes Lord Acton in his essay as well. He cites Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation Address” in South Africa in 1966. It was a striking address, touching on the universal truths recognized by the West. Below is a great line from Kennedy’s speech that day:

At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society.

Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign are probably the two campaigns that offer the most mystique and magic for liberals and conservatives. One campaign ended with a tragic assassination and the other left conservative activists heartbroken by a narrow defeat. Both candidates were treated to adoring fans and followers and shook up the political landscape. While they represented different ends of the political spectrum, they were both visionary presidential campaigns. Those two campaigns caused a lot of young people to get excited not just about politics or power but deeper ideas about government and the human person.

Tomorrow is a big election. We’ve rightfully placed a heavy emphasis on the limits of politics here at the Acton Institute. Politics will not solve the deeper issues and problems facing this nation. The topic was the overarching theme of Rev. Robert Sirico’s 2012 Annual Dinner address. Jordan Ballor and I hosted an Acton on Tap addressing that very question in 2010. But elections and politics are important and serve a purpose. There are clear philosophical differences between the candidates and the peaceful transition of power reflects well on the foundations of our country.

At Acton we’ve always tried to raise the discourse and talk about higher truths. In a country that now faces crippling debt, moral chaos, and threats to religious freedom, we would be wise to draw upon some words James Madison used to close a letter he penned to a friend in 1774. Madison, concerned about persecuted Baptists in Virginia wrote, “So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty and Conscience to revive among us.” I would think most of our readers would agree and wish that much would be so.

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Socialism, despite its deficiencies, still has its fans. “Visit the philosophy and English departments on most college campuses, and you will still find intellectuals waxing eloquent on the glories of socialist theory. Students are still encouraged to imagine that it could work,” says Fr. Robert Sirico, in Crisis Magazine.

However, Pope Benedict XVI is not one taken in by the great lie of socialism:

History is strewn with intellectuals who imagined that they could save the world–and created hell on earth as a result. The pope counts the socialists among them, and Karl Marx in particular. Here was an intellectual who imagined that salvation could occur without God, and that something approximating the Kingdom of God on earth could be created by adjusting the material conditions of man.

History, in Marx’s view, was nothing but the crashes and grinding of these material forces. There was no such thing as a fixed human nature. There was certainly no God who is the author of history. There are no permanent themes that follow along moral lines. Rather, we are all merely pushed around by large and impersonal forces. But it is possible to wrest these forces within our control, to our advantage, provided we take the right steps.

Socialism has failed because it fails to understand human nature.

Read the full article here.

Below is an excerpt from an early speech given by Calvin Coolidge to the Algonquin Club in Boston, Mass. in 1915. These remarks are included in a series of speeches Coolidge published in the book, Have Faith in Massachusetts. The speeches primarily deal with his philosophy of government, which because of his emphasis on foundational beliefs, remained consistent.

In the excerpt, Coolidge quotes a “Dr. Garman,” who was a professor at Amherst College, in Amherst Mass. Coolidge graduated from the school in 1895. Coolidge’s political rise certainly coincided with a rise in popularity of the social gospel and the progressive movement. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were progressive presidents that preceded Coolidge. The rise of the progressive era saw the belief that the ideas and ideals set forth in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence could be improved upon. Coolidge would later masterfully pick that kind of thinking apart in his presidential address on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926.

As stated before on the PowerBlog, Coolidge is receiving considerably more attention today. Amity Shlaes, interviewed in the Fall 2009 issue of Religion & Liberty, will release a new biography of the 30th president in June. If you are in the Grand Rapids area, I will be hosting an Acton on Tap on Coolidge’s philosophy of government on May 10.

Coolidge uses the backdrop of a lecture that mentions the purpose of Christ and his coming to earth, the value of work, service, and human nature, to check the social gospel and the progressive utopian ideal. In his remarks, he strongly posits progressive and social justice schemes within the materialist worldview.

Coolidge believed that America’s founding principles could not be improved upon, and that they were in fact the real progressive view. He believed that there were fundamental truths about man and his relationship to the state. Furthermore, he held those views because of his understanding of the fall of man. Below is the excerpt from his remarks “On the Nature of Politics:”

The State is not founded on selfishness. It cannot maintain itself by the offer of material rewards. It is the opportunity for service. There has of late been held out the hope that government could by legislation remove from the individual the need of effort. The managers of industries have seemed to think that their difficulties could be removed and prosperity ensured by changing the laws. The employee has been led to believe that his condition could be made easy by the same method. When industries can be carried on without any struggle, their results will be worthless, and when wages can be secured without any effort they will have no purchasing value. In the end the value of the product will be measured by the amount of effort necessary to secure it. Our late Dr. Garman recognized this limitation in one of his lectures where he says:

“Critics have noticed three stages in the development of human civilization. First: the let alone policy; every man to look out for number one. This is the age of selfishness. Second: the opposite pole of thinking; every man to do somebody’s else work for him. This is the dry rot of sentimentality that feeds tramps and enacts poor laws such as excite the indignation of Herbert Spencer. But the third stage is represented by our formula: every man must render and receive the best possible service, except in the case of inequality, and there the strong must help the weak to help them selves; only on this condition is help given. This is the true interpretation of the life of Christ. On the first basis He would have remained in heaven and let the earth take care of itself. On the second basis He would have come to earth with his hands full of gold and silver treasures satisfying every want that unfortunate humanity could have devised. But on the third basis He comes to earth in the form of a servant who is at the same time a master commanding his disciples to take up their cross and follow Him; it is sovereignty through service as opposed to slavery through service. He refuses to make the world wealthy, but He offers to help them make themselves wealthy with true riches which shall be a hundred-fold more, even in this life, than that which was offered them by any former system.”

Coolidge continues:

This applies to political life no less than to industrial life. We live under the fairest government on earth. But it is not self sustaining. Nor is that all. There are selfishness and injustice and evil in the world. More than that, these forces are never at rest. Some desire to use the processes of government for their own ends. Some desire to destroy the authority of government altogether. Our institutions are predicated on the rights and the corresponding duties, on the worth, of the individual. It is to him that we must look for safety. We may need new charters, new constitutions and new laws at times. We must always have an alert and interested citizenship. We have no dependence but the individual. New charters cannot save us. They may appear to help but the chances are that the beneficial results obtained result from an increased interest aroused by discussing changes. Laws do not make reforms, reforms make laws. We cannot look to government. We must look to ourselves. We must stand not in the expectation of a reward but with a desire to serve. There will come out of government exactly what is put into it. Society gets about what it deserves. It is the part of educated men to know and recognize these principles and influences and knowing them to inform and warn their fellow countrymen. Politics is the process of action in public affairs. It is personal, it is individual, and nothing more. Destiny is in you.

Why do people so readily assume the worst about the religious motives of their fellow citizens? Why do we let partisanship take precedence over implementing policy solutions? In his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and attempts to show the way forward to mutual understanding. In his review of Haidt’s book, Anthony Bradley writes in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Mar. 21) that,”In one sense Haidt is not saying anything that religious leaders and economists haven’t been saying for centuries, namely, that at the root of our understanding of politics are fundamental beliefs about human nature and definitions of morality. In recent decades, Americans have increasingly turned to psychologists as experts on morality and human action.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
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Blog author: kspence
posted by on Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Solyndra and the False Hope of Green Jobs” I look at the original problem with federally funded Green Jobs. The Solyndra debacle has been called a “microcosm of Obamanomics,” an example of what always happens when the Federal Government starts handing out $500 million checks. That’s true, but it’s a microcosm of something more — of an economy that’s lost it’s understanding of vocation. We stumble around trying to “create jobs” by Congressional action without really knowing what a job is.

A concern for jobs, simply, is dangerous. The dignity of a man’s employment does not come from his salary per se. Rather, it comes from his nature — man is called to work, to till the soil, from the very beginning, and the nobility of his labor is wrapped up in both the activity itself and in its ends. It does not befit a man to do work that is of no consequence.

Sadly, in the rush to “create jobs” by government stimulus, little thought is given to what work really is, or how more of it can be created. It is considered enough that a job run from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon, and that it come with a regular paycheck.

The green jobs movement is especially guilty of this unthinking attitude — indeed, it has never been defined what a green job is, and various bodies give widely varying definitions. If it’s not known broadly what a green job is, it won’t be possible to know whether all green jobs are compatible with the dignity of human labor, and whether governments are really capable of spurring their creation.

The now ubiquitous pictures of the president’s visit to Solyndra last year perfectly illustrate our now-empty conception of work: it is the U.S. Government that now creates jobs, not the entrepreneur.

The risks taken within the free market by an entrepreneur are calculated to yield a profit. That profit is, as Pope John Paul II put it, “the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society.” The entrepreneur must create meaningful jobs, or else face the consequences imposed by the market.

Governments, because of their coercive power, do not feel the consequences of failure. The Department of Energy is the entrepreneur’s antagonist: it has just taken $535 million and flushed it, over the course of two years, down the drain. The loss was unintentional, but predictable, and we should expect that it will happen again, because the department’s work as a regulatory body is to consume, not to produce—as long as it is pretended that a job is nothing more than a desk and a salary, “jobs” will be created at a loss.

No arm of the government can purchase jobs as commodities and promote the common good, because such a purchase commodifies the worker and strips him of the dignity of real work.

Full piece here.

Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg has two new pieces today, in Public Discourse and The American Spectator.

The first is a response to Greg Forster’s “Taking Locke Seriously” on June 27 in First Things. In that article, Forster took issue with Gregg’s June 22 Public Discourse piece, “Social Contracts, Human Flourishing, and the Economy.” Gregg argues, in a July 29 response to Forster titled “John Locke and the Inadequacies of Social Contract Theory,” that Locke’s political thought is based in a false understanding of human nature, which any student must keep in mind. Locke’s unrealistic social compact theory, based as it is in a State of Nature myth, reveals his ignorance of man’s innate political drive, and thus his whole nature. Says Gregg,

Locke … has an inadequate grasp of the workings of intentionality, practical reason, and the will, and therefore of human freedom and human flourishing.

These insufficiencies might owe something to Locke’s metaphysics of the person, which essentially locates human identity in consciousness. As for Locke’s conception of the will, Locke specifies that “the will in truth signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose.” Taken together with his tendency to treat freedom as absence of constraint, these constitute a potent combination of dualism, voluntarism, and perhaps even nominalism.

Gregg’s other target is across the globe, but China’s leadership share the same nominalist confusion about human nature. What precisely they may think about human nature is not a matter of public record, but it’s a good bet they don’t agree with the Acton Institute. The Chinese government is having trouble controlling the economic freedom it has granted to citizens: it turns out morality and economics are connected, and now Chinese in free enterprise zones are turning to the Church for metaphysical answers Maoism can’t provide. That grounding is essential to a polity:

Back in 2006, the then-head of China’s religious affairs ministry, Ye Xiaowen, begrudgingly acknowledged the various Christian churches’ contributions to helping Chinese society cope with the effects of increasing wealth.

Beijing’s predicament, however, is that the same Christianity which provides people with a moral compass in rapidly changing societies also insists the state is not God and may not exercise religious authority over the Church. This position is especially pronounced in Catholicism. It receives doctrinal and canonical affirmation in Catholicism’s insistence upon the need for all Catholic bishops to be in full communion with St. Peter’s successors as Bishop of Rome. Among other things, this means Rome’s approval must be granted before ordination as a Catholic bishop is considered licit.

China is a living example of what starts to happen when the metaphysic of a people is deeply and swiftly uprooted. The political theory of John Locke threatens to encourage that same uprooting if it is not tempered with Christianity. Let us rejoice that even in China, the state does not seem to be able to quash man’s religious impulse.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, December 16, 2010

In “Human Nature and Capitalism” on AEI’s The American, Arthur C. Brooks and Peter Wehner look at three different “pictures” of what it means to be human and point to the one, foundational understanding that has undergirded the flourishing American culture of democratic capitalism:

“If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist Paper No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But Madison and the other founders knew men were not angels and would never become angels. They believed instead that human nature was mixed, a combination of virtue and vice, nobility and corruption. People were swayed by both reason and passion, capable of self-government but not to be trusted with absolute power. The founders’ assumption was that within every human heart, let alone among different individuals, are competing and sometimes contradictory moral impulses and currents.

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

And they draw a parallel to institutions of government where democracy, with all of its flaws, also works itself out to be the most fitting form of government under this model of human nature. When I engage with critics of the market economy, I use the following Churchill quote but substitute “market economy” for “democracy.” Valid, I think, because we have some disastrous experience with political systems that do not operate in concert with a more or less open market.

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. — Winston Churchill (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

Brooks and Wehner:

… our “picture of human nature” determines, in large measure, the institutions we design. For example, the architects of our government carefully studied history and every conceivable political arrangement that had been devised up to their time. In the course of their analysis, they made fundamental judgments about human nature and designed a constitutional form of government with it in mind.

What is true for creating political institutions is also true for economic ones. They, too, proceed from understanding human behavior.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this matter. The model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one embraces (free-market capitalism versus socialism) to the political system one supports (democracy versus the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Like a ship about to begin a long voyage, a navigational mistake at the outset can lead a crew to go badly astray, shipwreck, and run aground. To use another metaphor, this time from the world of medicine: A physician cannot treat an illness before diagnosing it correctly; diagnosing incorrectly can make things far worse than they might otherwise be.

Those who champion capitalism embrace a truth we see played out in almost every life on almost any given day: If you link reward to effort, you will get more effort. If you create incentives for a particular kind of behavior, you will see more of that behavior.

A free market can also better our moral condition—not dramatically and not always, but often enough. It places a premium on thrift, savings, and investment. And capitalism, when functioning properly, penalizes certain kinds of behavior—bribery, corruption, and lawlessness among them—because citizens in a free-market society have a huge stake in discouraging such behavior, which is a poison-tipped dagger aimed straight at the heart of prosperity.

Read the full article on The American.

In stating his opposition to a proposed ban on the creation of human-animal hybrids, or chimeras (the Human-Animal Hybrid Prohibition Act of 2007), Wired blogger Brandon Keim writes, “People — and, for that matter, animals — can’t be reduced to a few discrete biological parts. An embryo is not a person. Strands of DNA do not contain our souls.”

I’m not sure that human eggs and sperm aren’t comprised of souls in some sense, or at least aren’t made up of soulish bits (I tend to lean toward viewing a traducian account of the origin of the human soul as plausible. A traducian view may also explain more than a purely materialist account with regard to the transmission of non-material realities, such as culture).

But the crux of Keim’s argument is that because embryos aren’t “persons,” they can be treated in a instrumentalist/utilitarian fashion. This is one of the reasons that debates about embryonic stem cells, chimeras, and other bioethical matters so often break down into the traditional pro-life/pro-choice lines concerning abortion. There is a disagreement over the first principle of when life begins, when personhood begins, and so on.

Jacques Ellul identified what he called the plague of a technocratic society—doing something because it can be done, not because it should be done (HT).

In a series attempting to explicate a biblical-theological approach to chimeras, I argue that because animals do not have a purely instrumental value, we cannot simply make utilitarian judgments about how and when to use them for experimentation. And this is to say nothing of the objectively higher value that is placed on human life in the biblical account.

I’m increasingly sure that the answer to “what it means to be human” needs to be put in such a way as to emphasize ultimate capacities “for thought, feeling, consciousness and active volitional power,” and therefore to positively value the teleology of a thing, not simply the current form of its development or existence. See for example, Moreland and Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics, p. 25 et passim. Embryos are persons if you define personhood in terms of ultimate capacities.

See also: “Hybrid Test Drive,” on the rather more advanced situation in the UK.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I saw a spate of headlines over the weekend that proclaimed something like, “Now scientists create a sheep that’s 15% human.”

15% human? Really? Isn’t that like being “a little pregnant”?

Followers of this blog may already know that I’ve written a fair bit, most of it disapproving (at least with respect to the newest genetic innovations), on the creation of chimeras. One of the concerns raised about this latest effort is the potentially devastating effects of so-called “silent” viruses, which are harmless to animals but could migrate with the harvested parts.

According to reports, Dr Patrick Dixon, an international lecturer on biological trends, warned: “Many silent viruses could create a biological nightmare in humans. Mutant animal viruses are a real threat, as we have seen with HIV.”

I’m inclined to think that this kind of work respects neither the animal nor the human person. And the latter is in part illustrated by the fact that if you just went off of what the headlines said, you’d think it’s possible for something to be partially human. It’s really a confusion about what it means to be human. You either are or you aren’t.