Posts tagged with: moral philosophy

coolidge bioCalvin Coolidge’s autobiography was published in 1929, shortly after Coolidge left the White House. He wrote the book in long hand completely by himself. Sales at the time were great but some commentators panned it as being too short and simplistic with little new information or juicy tidbits. In Amity Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge she notes, “Not every reader appreciated its sparse language, but the short book would stand up well to the self-centered narratives other statesmen produced, especially those who relied on dictation and, in their vanity, failed to revise.” Those who read it will find the writing style impressively clear and will easily comprehend the deep well of conservatism which shaped Coolidge’s thought.

Coolidge devoted a number of pages in his autobiography to the positive influence he received from some of his professors at Amherst College. Much of the praise was given to Charles Garman, Coolidge’s favorite professor. Garman, an alumnus of Amherst, was a professor of moral philosophy and metaphysics. Garman also studied theology at Yale and offered a high degree of religious instruction in his courses. He cultivated critical thinking and class discussion. A short overview on the Amherst College website of the Garman years, reads in part: “Garman’s teaching was considered subversive by some for he encouraged his students not to memorize or parrot what they had heard, but to think through the issues for themselves and come to their own conclusions.” In his autobiography, Coolidge said Garman “was one of the most remarkable men,” and he “truly drew men out.” Throughout his life, Coolidge leaves little doubt of the positive influence Garman had in shaping his thought and character. In this excerpt from Coolidge’s autobiography, he describes the spiritual learning that went on inside Garman’s class. It also serves as a pronounced contrast to the kind of instruction that occurs in most contemporary philosophy classes across colleges and universities in America today:
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Some of the aspects of the movement in ‘new economics’ highlighted by Sumita Kale sound quite promising. For instance, it is true that “many issues of economic policy (traditionally called ‘welfare economics’) are primarily ethical-economics in nature, and should be informed by moral philosophy rather than economics in isolation.” The growing conversation between economics and other disciplines, specifically moral philosophy and theology, is most welcome.

Indeed, some of the principles animating the work of the Cambridge Trust for New Thinking in Economics sound similar notes: “economic behaviour is influenced by aesthetic and ethical values as well as economic values.”

But when we drill down to the objectives of the Trust and look at some of the other principles, it becomes clearer that what is “new” about “new economics” is that economic research is pursued with an overtly and explicitly socio-political agenda: “It is vital that two social problems be solved. The first is the obvious degradation of the planet and its atmosphere by over-consumption and over-production through the exploitation of resources in pursuit of monetary gain. The second problem is the toxic pollution of the global money supply, also obvious, caused by financial practices over the past twenty years, led by the investment banks of Wall Street and the City of London.”

What we have here is economics as social engineering, providing norms for behavior rather than describing it. “New” economics (traditional economics with just a dash of moral philosophy thrown in) becomes a prescriptive rather than a descriptive discipline, and therefore simply one more voice among many clamoring for dominance in the legislative process.


The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome held a conference last month dedicated to Elizabeth Anscombe’s work Intention and essay “Modern Moral Philosophy”, a groundbreaking paper for the field of ethics. Anscombe (1919-2001), an Irish convert to Catholicism, was a fellow of philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, wife to philosopher Peter Geach, and mother of seven. She wrote a number of different papers and articles following ethical questions of her day, for example just war theory in WWII, the advent of birth control, and more.

The questions raised by Anscombe are still trying to be resolved in philosophy, in particular, the relevance of the word “ought” to the modern position on morality. She argues that the western concept of moral “ought” is based in the Judeo-Christian tradition of divine legislation. In other words, the concept of justice in western society is fundamentally linked to Christian morals. When modern secularism attempts to retain the idea of morality without the idea of God, the power of the word “ought” is merely psychological.

The idea of a moral “ought” is also linked to the concept of justice, and what we are owed. Without an objective moral framework, such as is found in natural law theory, justice becomes a subjective interpretation. An obvious consequence of this error is found in political lobbyists who make excessive demands of the concept of human rights.

Here is an excerpt from a paper I gave on human rights talk at the conference, “Fundamental human rights are being supplemented with entitlements, and sometimes the distinction between the two is lacking entirely. This moral equivalence fails to demonstrate what is unique and defining about human persons that man is an end in himself, and has the responsibility of making free moral choices ordered toward that end.”

It is wrong to make the means to an end, an end in itself. It is wrong to put material benefits, which provide for human flourishing, in the same category as human freedoms. For example, there is a difference in saying that “I have a right to freedom from oppression by my government” and saying “I have a right to be provided with a job by my government”. It is one thing for the government to guarantee it’s citizen’s liberty; it is another to guarantee their financial success.

The framework of the Christian moral tradition and natural law theory are able to qualify the concept of justice much better than a secular guilt trip. Something to think about the next time you hear someone demanding his or her rights.

Kevin noted earlier this week that the UK has issued a paper bill featuring Adam Smith. I also received notice this week that the Adam Smith Review is planning a conference in January of 2009, celebrating the semiquincentennial (250th) anniversary of the publication of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The conference announcement notes that scholarship has “come to appreciate the importance of Smith’s moral philosophy for his overall intellectual project.”

For more on just how Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments fits in with works like Wealth of Nations, see this article in the Journal of Markets & Morality by Robert A. Black, “What Did Adam Smith Say About Self-Love?” Black makes the following methodological point: “The first two chapters of [Wealth of Nations] must be read as a whole and in light of Smith’s idea of ‘sympathy’ from the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS 1759) to get the full meaning of the appeal to self-love.”

Also, check out this nice introduction to Theory of Moral Sentiments from the Adam Smith Institute.

The Adam Smith Review is published by the International Adam Smith Society.