Posts tagged with: morality

I came across a troubling essay in this month’s issue of Grand Rapids Family Magazine. In her “Taking Notes” column, Associate Publisher/Editor Carole Valade takes up the question of “family values” in the context of the primary campaign season.

She writes,

The most important “traditional values” and “family values” amount to one thing: a great education for our children. Education is called “the great equalizer”: It is imperative for our children to be able to compete on a “global scale” for the jobs that fund their future and provide hopes and dreams for their generation.

So far, so good. But from the somewhat uncontroversial assertions in that paragraph, Valade moves on to make some incredibly unfounded conclusions. (I say “somewhat” uncontroversial because it’s not clear in what sense education is an “equalizer.” Do we all get the same grades? Do we all perform as well as everyone else?)

Valade simply assumes that an emphasis on “education” as a “family value” means that we ought to push for greater government involvement in education, in the form of funding and oversight. “Education funding should be the most discussed topic of the campaign; it should be the focus of budget discussions,” she writes.

Let’s be clear that the immediate context for these comments are the national primary elections. It’s thus fair to conclude that Valade is talking primarily about the role of the federal government. This is underscored by her claims that “Head Start and pre-school programs are not a ‘luxury’ in state of federal budgets; they are an absolute necessity.”

The problem with Valade’s perspective is that it equates concern for education with concern for political lobbying: “Who will ask for such priorities if not parents? Who will speak on behalf of our children’s well-being if not parents?”

It is the case that the great concern that so many parents have for their children’s education have led them to move them into private schools and even (gasp!) to home school them. There is no facile and simple connection between valuing education and valuing government involvement in education. Given the performance of public schools in general compared to charter schools and private schools, there is an argument to be made that greater government involvement in education weakens rather than strengthens our children’s education.

Placing a high priority on a child’s education leads some parents to want their kids to be instructed in the truths about God and his relation to his creation, and this is instruction that by definition is excluded from a government-run public education. So there’s at least as strong a case to be made that valuing education means that we should lobby for less government involvement rather than more, or at least not think of education as primarily a political issue but rather a familial and ecclesiastical responsibility.

“There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce,” said Lord Acton. “It must leave them to the enterprise of others.” One of those “good purposes” is an education centered on Christian moral formation.

See also: “Too Cool for School: Al Mohler says it’s time for Christians to abandon public schools.”

And: H-Net Review, Religion in Schools: Controversies around the World (Westport: Praeger, 2006).

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is interviewed by James Freeman, assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, about markets and morality and about the Acton Institute’s Call of the Entrepreneur documentary.


Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Anthony Bradley offers a rave review of the new book published by Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint of Harvard Medical School, Come On People: On The Path From Victims to Victors. “Cosby and Poussaint remind us that black America’s hope for escape from abysmal self-destruction is moral formation — not government programs or blaming white people,” Bradley writes.

Read the full commentary here.

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

A quote from T. H. Green, refuting the view that the law’s “only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual,” construed as doing what you like as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights to do what they want. Green writes:

The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and morality consisting in the disinterested performance of self-imposed duties, ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and for the play of disinterested motives.

From Green’s Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (PDF) [1883], quoted in Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society, p. 152.

See also, “Moral Duties and Positive Rights.”

These two brief essays provide a good juxtaposition of two perspectives that view immediate and mandated action to reduce carbon emissions as either morally obligatory or imprudent. For the former, see Vaclav Havel’s, “Our Moral Footprint,” which states rhetorically, “It is also obvious from published research that human activity is a cause of change; we just don’t know how big its contribution is. Is it necessary to know that to the last percentage point, though? By waiting for incontrovertible precision, aren’t we simply wasting time when we could be taking measures that are relatively painless compared to those we would have to adopt after further delays?”

Contrast that with Bjorn Lomborg’s “Our Generational Mission,” which uses the economic concept of opportunity cost to argue that immediate action is not necessary, and perhaps will never be. He wonders, “Why are we so singularly focused on climate change when there are many other areas where the need is also great and we could do so much more with our effort?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 17, 2007

Here’s a justly famous quote from C. S. Lewis on why the danger posed by a nanny government can be much more oppressive than that posed by the consolidation of economic power:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

That’s taken from his essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” and it speaks well to the difference between political and economic power. While Lewis is writing within the context of government power in the administration of criminal justice, just think about how perceptive Lewis’ observation is when applied to the ever-expanding reach government regulation via so-called “sin” taxes.

Progressives are right to be concerned about the conflation of those two sorts of power, but I think they are wrong to be reflexively more suspicious of economic power than political power.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 10, 2007

Here are some book reviews of note from recent weeks that you may find to be of interest:

I was thinking this morning about the moral calculus that goes into discussions about climate change policy. It’s the case that for any even or action, there are an infinite number of causes (conditions that are necessary but not sufficient for the event to occur).

But only a finite number of causes, perhaps in most cases a single cause, can have any moral relevance. For a cause to be a moral cause, it has to have be related to a moral agent. So, for instance, if the earth is warming, one of the contributing causes is the energy output of the sun. Since the sun isn’t a moral agent (as far as I know), solar activity isn’t a moral cause of climate change.

But if human activity is changing the makeup of the earth’s atmosphere so that it retains relatively more of the solar output of energy, that’s a cause that has moral relevance. Even though the sun’s activity is a prior cause (both logically and temporally) to any human activity, only human activity has any moral bearing. This might be a major reason why folks in not only policy circles, but also in more popular discourse, tend to focus on what humans are or are not doing that is affecting the climate.

It’s a truism that the perspective of human beings is essentially anthropocentric, but this truism is valid even for those who like to think of themselves as more enlightened. So, environmentalists and other activists instinctively focus on the moral causes of various policy issues. For climate change, that means the focus is almost exclusively on the human contributions to climate change, even if these are objectively a rather small contributing cause compared to other factors.

This holds true in the most recent reaction to the flooding that has hit London. One commentator observes that “The prophets of Biblical times, who warned of the misfortune that would befall those who turned away from God, have been replaced by computer-generated models which apparently conclusively prove that ‘The End is Nigh!’”

Climate change prophets point directly to the “sin” of emitting carbon. There is a real reason to question the validity of this moral reasoning, not least of which because it resembles Pharisaical moral calculation. When a man born blind came to Jesus, the spiritual authorities inquired as to the direct moral cause of the blindness. Had this man sinned or had his parents? Jesus rejects their attempts to find individual or personal moral cause of the blindness.

If the London floods are a case of God’s judgment, it’s likely that the divine reaction isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, to the chosen mode of human transportation. When John Chrysostom preached a sermon following a huge earthquake, it did cause him to reflect on the moral causes of the disaster.

What Chrysostom didn’t do was point to specific human actions that would naturally occasion an earthquake. He wondered instead, “Have you seen the mortality of the human race? When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?”

Following Chrysostom’s lead, which better follows the biblical precedent than the latest eco-prophets, would lead us to question a far greater range of moral failings than filling up an SUV: “So I was not afraid because of the earthquake, but because of the cause of the earthquake; for the cause of the earthquake was the anger of God, and the cause of His anger was our sins. Never fear punishment, but fear sin, the mother of punishment.”

It’s also important to note that Chrysostom links punishment to love, in the sense that the punishment is intended to bring repentance and reconciliation. Divine wrath is one form of treatment for sin, and in this way can actually be an expression of God’s love. So, God’s love and God’s wrath might not be so easy to juxtapose as some others have done in the wake of the recent flooding.

More reading: “Blaming the Victims: An Ecumenical Disaster”

The New York Times today ran an Associated Press story reporting that teenage sex rates have hit a new low. This is good news. The teenage birth-rate has hit a record low as well.

In 2005, 47 percent of high school students — 6.7 million — reported having had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991. The rate of those who reported having had sex had remained the same since 2003.

Of those who reported having had sex during a three-month period in 2005, 63 percent — about 9 million — said they used condoms. That is an increase from the 46 percent reported in 1991.

The teenage birth rate in 2005, the report said, was 21 per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 17 — an all-time low. The rate in 1991 was 39 births per 1,000 teenagers.

However, there may be other factors that mask the fact that teenage sexual activity hasn’t really changed at all.

(1) Teenage birth rates are lower because more and more teens have easy access to abortion and birth-control. There is no social stigma assigned to being a sexually active or pregnant teenager and baby-boomer parents have no scruples about encouraging abortion and birth-control for kids, unlike any other generation of parents in American history. This is a moral problem.

(2) Teens have redefined what constitutes as sex. While the rates of intercourse may have declined the study leaves unanswered questions about the rates of other forms of sexual activity including oral sex, pornography, etc. “Hooking up” can include all sorts of sexual activity that is not specifically intercourse. The myth, of course, is that only intercourse negatively affects teenagers psychological, emotionally, and spiritually.

The Washington Post reports that nearly half of all teens engage in oral sex.

The story touts school sex education as responsible for the decline. While this may be good rhetoric, sex education in school does not reduce teen pregnancy. In the 1970s, when sex education began, the pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-old females rose from 68 per thousand in 1970 to 96 per thousand in 1980. With sex education teenage birth rates rose 29 percent between 1970 and 1984.

The key determiners of sexual health for teens includes two basic elements: (1) spiritual and moral formation about the nature and function of sex in God’s design that enhances love and human dignity, and (2) loving, parental involvement in openly discussing sexuality and laying down morally-grounded expectations that communicate clearly what is in the best interest of the child in the long-run. If our nation had more of this teen sex rates would decline precipitously.