Posts tagged with: John Rawls

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters makes some comments about my book Becoming Europe based on a review he had read by Fr. C.J. McCloskey. Here are the most pertinent of his observations:

I know that American exceptionalism lives on both the left and the right, but when did the right become so Europhobic? And why? National Catholic Register has a review of a new book by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg entitled Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, & How America Can Avoid a European Future. I confess, come August, when Europeans sensibly take the month off and head to the beach or the mountains for time with their families, I am envious of them, not scornful. When I look at Europe’s lower rates of income inequality, I am envious, not scornful. When I look at the creative ways Germany minimized unemployment during the recent economic downturn, I was deeply envious.

Of course, given the fact that Gregg works for the libertarian Acton Institute, where the false god of the market is worshipped day in and day out, it should not surprise that he misses the Catholic and Christian roots of the modern social welfare state as it exists in Europe.  And the fact that Rev. C. John McCloskey misunderstands the Christian roots of the modern social welfare state shows the degree to which some members of the Catholic clergy have bought into what can best be described as the Glenn Beck narrative of the relationship of faith and culture.

Alas, Mr. Winters apparently hasn’t actually read the book. Because if he had, he would know that Becoming Europe (1) notes several good economic things happening in Europe (such as in Germany and Sweden) and (2) addresses at considerable length the various Catholic and Christian contributions to the development of European welfare states and the European social model more generally. In the case of the latter, I’d direct his attention to Chapters 2 and 3 of Becoming Europe where these matters are discussed extensively. The point is that it is always prudent to perhaps read a book before venturing criticisms of its arguments.

Then there is the label of “libertarian.” Again, if Mr. Winters took a moment to read a few of my writings, he’d know that, in books such as On Ordered Liberty, I‘ve articulated critiques of libertarian thought, especially with regard to the way that libertarian thinkers approach, for instance, moral questions. Figures such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman have many interesting economic insights. But I have always viewed their philosophical positions (which include, among others, commitments to nominalism, epicurism, utilitarianism, social-evolutionism, and social contractarianism) to be less-than-adequate. In many ways, their conceptions of the human person are virtually indistinguishable from modern liberals such as John Rawls. (more…)

Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reviews America’s Spiritual Capital by Nicholas Capaldi and T. R. Malloch (St Augustine’s Press, 2012) for The University Bookman.

… Capaldi and Malloch are—refreshingly—unabashed American exceptionalists. One of this book’s strengths is the way that it brings to light a critical element of that exceptionalism through the medium of spiritual capital. Part of the American experiment is its commitment to modernity—but a modernity several times removed from that pioneered by the likes of the French revolutionaries, Karl Marx, and modern social democratic movements in Europe. Capaldi and Malloch underscore how America’s spiritual inheritance permeated the political and economic habits and institutions associated with the emergence of its democratic and capitalist order, and in ways that avoided the challenges of theocracy as well as moral relativism. (more…)

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg addresses the “considerable fractures” that continue to divide conservative and libertarian positions on significant policy issues as well as on “deeper philosophical questions.” He pulls apart the “often tortuously drawn distinctions” surrounding the political labels and then offers some reasons why the “often unconscious but sometimes deliberate embrace of philosophical skepticism by some conservatives and libertarians should be challenged.”

Perceptive critics of skepticism have illustrated that the concern to be reasonable and avoid self-deception about reality is the starting point of any quest for philosophical truth: i.e., the very knowledge that skeptics believe we can’t know. What reason could skeptics therefore have for desiring to comprehend that, in the final analysis, all is unknowable, unless they are engaged in a quest for truth? In other words, skeptics draw their deduction that we should be philosophical skeptics from foundational assumptions they cannot doubt.

Also self-refuting is the common skeptic claim that reason is purely instrumental. For to defend this position, the skeptic’s reason necessarily engages in a non-instrumental task. He presumes it is good to know the truth of skepticism, and on grounds of reason rather than feelings. It is thus inconsistent for skeptics to assert that all philosophical viewpoints are arbitrary opinions. When skeptics posit that humans can only be motivated by sentiment rather than reason, they are not proposing this statement as their own impetuous preference. They claim to be making a rational judgment.

Read “Beyond Conservatism and Libertarianism” on Public Discourse by Samuel Gregg.

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
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Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg takes a look at a recent Charles Blow op-ed in the New York Times in which the writer hyperventilates about statements made by Rick Santorum on the subject of income inequality.

Economically speaking, income inequality reflects the workings of several factors, many of which are essential if we want a dynamic, growing economy. Even your average neo-Keynesian economist will acknowledge that, without incentives (such as the prospect of a higher income), many entrepreneurial projects that create wealth — not to mention jobs and often greater incomes for others — may lie dormant forever. Either that or the entrepreneur will simply leave for a more friendly economic environment in which his ideas, willingness to assume risk, and potential job-creation capacities are taken more seriously.

Part of Mr. Blow’s unhappiness with Santorum was that he made his inequality remarks in Detroit, despite Blow correctly noting that “income inequality in the Detroit area isn’t particularly high.”

But Detroit’s well-documented economic problems have little to do with income inequality per se. They have far more to do with decades of corporatist collusion between bailed-out car companies and the UAW, rampant political corruption, and assorted crony-capitalist arrangements — the same arrangements that recently helped, as a recent University of Illinois study illustrated, the Chicago metropolitan region merit (yes, merit) the unenviable title of “the most corrupt area in the country since 1976.”

Read “Inequality Anyone?” by Samuel Gregg on National Review Online.

“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.

In a new article on Public Discourse, Samuel Gregg explores social contract theory and how that may apply to the current budget battles:

In very broad terms, social contract theory is a way of understanding the relationship between governments and the people. It holds that, having agreed upon the need for a government, individuals create a state on the basis of mutual promises. This permits the state to claim that its authority is based on a delegation of people’s rights to pursue their particular interests in their own way.

Our present economic disputes are, at a deeper level, about the precise content of those mutual promises. One influential interpretation may be found in John Rawls’ Theory of Justice.

On the basis of what reasonable people in an imaginary “original position” and blinded by a “veil of ignorance” about their future abilities, social status, etc., would want, Rawls argued that each person had “an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties with a similar system of liberty for all.”

As part of this calculation, Rawls maintained that no one in the original position would risk being abandoned at the bottom of the social heap. Rawlsian social contract theory has thus, economically speaking, usually been interpreted as translating into extensive entitlement programs and large welfare states.

At the other end of the social contract spectrum is an older concept. This was given prominent expression in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government.

In Locke’s view, what he called “the Law of Nature” meant that individuals were morally bound not to damage other people’s lives or property. The only way to ensure that this was given effect was through a government that defended everyone against anyone else’s attempts to damage their lives or property. The citizens thus agreed to set up a state that would protect the life, liberty, and property of everyone living under its sovereignty.

In economic terms, this position broadly equates to a state that focuses upon protection of property rights and adjudication of contractual disputes. Issues of distribution according to criteria such as need are deemed beyond the state’s competence.

The significance of these understandings of the social contract is difficult to overstate. The Lockean conception profoundly shaped the Declaration of Independence and much of today’s movement for limited government. By contrast, the Rawlsian interpretation represents the most contemporary philosophical underpinnings of modern American progressivism.

Not only does Gregg explain the problems with different ideas of social contracts, but he articulates what is needed for people to flourish in a society. Gregg states that many times it is the principle of subsidiarity that allows people to be successful:

Subsidiarity’s genius is the manner in which it uses this attention to free choice, human flourishing, and the need for support to provide guidance concerning how we apply subsidiarity’s two axioms of non-interference and assistance. It helps us determine (1) what economic roles can only be performed by the state (such as the provision of courts to adjudicate contractual disputes); (2) when the state should allow other communities to provide assistance (private banks should normally be the first place of call for loans); (3) when the state should intervene outside its normal economic responsibilities (when those communities that would normally assist are clearly unable to do so); and (4) when such interventions should cease (when they start impeding human flourishing or when the communities that normally provide assistance are now able to do so).

Click here to read the full article.

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Europe, Immigration, and Merkel’s Christian Values

By Samuel Gregg

It’s not often senior European political leaders make politically-incorrect statements, but Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently made a habit of it. The subject has been the touchy question of Muslim immigration and the challenges it poses for European identity. Not only has Merkel upset the European political class (especially the Left and the Greens) by saying what everyone knows—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”—but she also argued that the issue was not “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity.”

“We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” Merkel claimed in a recent speech. She then stressed that Germany needs to reflect more upon “the values that guide us, about our Judeo-Christian tradition.” It was one way, Merkel maintained, of bringing “about cohesion in our society.”

Merkel: Multikulti not working for Germans

On one level, Merkel is surely stating the blindingly obvious. How can Europeans ask Muslim immigrants to integrate into European society and respect European values without Europeans themselves being clear in their own minds about what values are at the core of European identity and where these values come from?

And as much as significant portions of European society would like to deny it, it’s simply a historical fact that the idea of Europe and European values such as liberty, equality before the law, and solidarity did not suddenly appear ex nihilo in the late seventeenth-century with the various Enlightenments. Central to the formation of European identity and such values was the synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem achieved by Christianity following the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in 476 A.D.

Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that the antecedents of most of the various freedoms and genuine achievements of the various Enlightenments are to be found in Christianity. There is increasing recognition, for example, that the idea of human rights was first given concrete expression by medieval canon lawyers.

Yet it is hardly a secret that the Judeo-Christian heritage sits very loosely on many European societies. We find this in a type of secular-fundamentalism—exemplified by Spain’s current Socialist government—that has become fashionable among sections of the European Left. But the ambiguity also manifests itself in the persistence of historical legends that diminish, distort, and denigrate Christianity’s contributions to European civilization.

A good example is the mythology of the so-called “Dark Ages” that permeates popular and elite discussion of European history. Most of the moral, political, and legal foundations of modern market economies, for instance, were established in Europe well before the sixteenth century. Likewise the scientific method was born in the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers such as Albertus Magnus made crucial contributions to the development of the natural sciences. Yet despite these facts, many persist in claiming that market economies are essentially a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, or that Christianity is essentially “anti-science.”

But the problem is not only with secular opinion. Since the 1950s, many European Christians have gradually reduced their Christian faith to a vacuous humanitarianism worthy of the best EU-funded NGO. One difficulty with “liberal Christianity” (or whatever’s left of it) is that it isn’t especially interested in affirming any Christian values that go beyond sentimental platitudes about tolerance and equality which are routinely emptied of any specific Christian content. It’s goodbye Thomas Aquinas, hello John Rawls.

This makes it even more ironic that increasing numbers of secular European thinkers believe Europe can only reinvigorate its distinct identity and values through reengaging its Judeo-Christian heritage. This is certainly the conclusion of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas.

A self-described “methodological atheist,” Habermas has been insisting for some time that Europe no longer has the luxury of wallowing in historical denial. As Habermas wrote in his 2006 book, A Time of Transitions: “Christianity, and nothing else [is] the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

It follows that any serious discussion of Europe’s Christian values in the context of contemporary immigration and identity debates will require many Europeans to go beyond their often-truncated understandings of European history and Christianity. There’s something paradoxical about this being facilitated by the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Europe. But such an engagement is arguably being made even more urgent by the economic reality that Europe will need even more immigrants if its present demographic winter persists for any significant period of time.

What Chancellor Merkel herself understands by “the Christian view of mankind” was not clear from her remarks. Nor is it evident that particular Christian ideas are always compatible with some Muslim positions. Despite the interfaith babble to the contrary, there are some fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam, many of which have implications for subjects ranging from religious liberty to the nature of the state. Merkel, however, is undoubtedly correct to insist that any discussion of immigration in Europe should involve Europeans worrying a little less about Islam and paying far more attention to knowing the truth about their own heritage and Christianity’s place in it.

The truth doesn’t just set us free. There’s no future without it.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

As the squabbling continues over the at-times contradictory policy-suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, there’s a risk that the deeper – and more important – theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected.

For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was – and remains – an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the Church’s engagement with modernity.

Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians – including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez – maintained that the Church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. It was on this basis that they thought the Church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues. They were certainly not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as physics or economics. They were, however, convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message was bound to be lost.

Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting-point. They argued that Church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.

The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature.

In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with Divine Revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as somehow summarizing the content of Revelation. In effect, whatever is considered to be modern – and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity – becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian. (more…)