Posts tagged with: jeremy bentham

“If there was ever any doubt about one of the Obama Administration’s key philosophical commitments,” writes Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg in a new article in the American Spectator, “it was dispelled on Jan. 20 when the Department of Health and Human Services informed the Catholic Church that most of its agencies will be required to provide employees with insurance-coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs: i.e., products, procedures, and chemicals used to facilitate acts which the Church and plenty of others consider intrinsically evil.”

Gregg writes that “modern liberalism has a long history of trying to exclude consideration of the proper ends of human action from public discourse in the name of tolerance. But neither liberalism nor secularism are as neutral about such matters as they pretend.” In fact, that neutrality looks more and more like coercion. Gregg:

And here we come face-to-face with the essence of what a certain Joseph Ratzinger famously described in an April 2005 homily as “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most people think of tyrannies as involving the imposition of a defined set of ideas upon free citizens. Benedict XVI’s point was that the coercion at the heart of the dictatorship of relativism derives precisely from the fact that it “does not recognize anything as definitive.”

In this world, tolerance no longer creates the safety for us to express our views about the nature of good and evil and its implications for law and public morality. Instead, it serves to banish the truth as the reference point against which all of us must test our ideas and beliefs. The objective is to reduce everyone to modern Pontius Pilates who, whatever their private beliefs, wash their hands in the face of obvious injustices, such as what the Obama administration has just inflicted upon not only Catholics, but anyone whose convictions about the truth requires them to abstain from cooperating in acts they regard as evil per se.

Of course, modern liberals do have their preferred ends, which (despite all their endless chatter about reason) reflect their profoundly cramped vision of man’s intellect. Here they follow the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. He argued that “reason ought to be the slave of the passions.” Reason’s role, in other words, is not to identify what is rational for people to choose. Instead, reason is reduced to merely devising the means for realizing whatever goals that people, following the profound moral reasoning of a five year-old, “just feel like” choosing.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “Obama and the Dictatorship of Relativism” on the website of the American Spectator.

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.