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.
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.”
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) , 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?”
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.
Here are some book reviews of note from recent weeks that you may find to be of interest:
- Charles H. Parker. The Reformation of Community: Social Welfare and Calvinist Charity in Holland, 1572-1620. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xv + 221 pp. Illustrations, map, tables, notes, sources cited, index. $37.99 (paper), ISBN 0-521-02540-0. Reviewed by Victoria Christman, Department of History, Luther College.
- Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006. xv + 259 pp. Notes, index. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-56663-624-8; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 1-56663-722-8. Reviewed for H-Albion by Stewart Weaver, Department of History, University of Rochester.
- Norman Etherington, ed. Missions and Empire. Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiii + 332 pp. Notes, chapter bibliographies, index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-025347-1. Reviewed for H-Albion by Jane Samson, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta.
- Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton Economic History of the Western World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN-10: 0691121354; ISBN-13: 978-0691121352. Reviewed for the New York Times by Nicholas Wade.
- Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. New York and London: Doubleday, 2007. xxiv + 374 pp. $24.95. ISBN 978-0-385-52341-7. Reviewed for Denver Journal by Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary.
- Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. Emory University Studies in Law and Religion; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006, x + 310. $38.00 (paperback). Reviewed for the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary by W. Travis McMaken.
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.
According to published reports, “One popular theory comes from a story in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, about Ibrahim and his son, Ismail. This theory picked up speed because many bloggers wondered if the shootings could be related to terrorism.”
The report continues, “In Islam, Ibrahim is known as the father of the prophets and, upset that people in his hometown still worshiped idols and not Allah, he smashed all but one statue in a local temple with an ax. Ibrahim’s son is Ismail, who also became a prophet. Ibrahim is Arabic for Abraham, who plays a significant role in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
From what I’ve seen, however, there is no other evidence so far linking Cho Seung-Hui to Islam.
One of his rants does include this portion, presumably to his classmates: “You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”
These complaints echo Dinesh D’Souza’s take on the major motivations behind Osama bin Laden’s animosity toward the United States: “the immoral ingredients of American values and culture,” and “a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies.” But its not at all clear whether D’Souza is ultimately right, and therefore even more questionable whether such perceived similarities reflect any real link.
The words “Ismail Ax” were also written in red ink on the killer’s arm. The Times of London relates the identity of Ismail in Islam as the ‘son of sacrifice’. NBC News says that the killer’s manifesto includes the following statement: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
Of course, despite the killer’s intentions, that’s where the similarities to Jesus Christ end. Jesus is the one who resists the temptation to strike back at his oppressors and willingly endures suffering for the sake of others: “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” More on this by PowerBlog contributor John H. Armstrong at his home blog, “A Tragic Day in Blacksburg: Making Sense of People’s Actions and the Words of Jesus.”
But, then again, maybe the explanation for “Ismail Ax” is just as simple as this: “Ismail Ax” is an anagram for “Alias Mix.”
Update: A columnist in a Kuwaiti newspaper writes that America leads the world “towards the abyss and towards a bitter fate – and the crimes that we hear of occasionally are just a drop in the sea of their false culture.” If Cho Seung-Hui wanted to indict American culture, then anti-American sentiment around the world is certainly lending its assistance to his purpose.
See also PowerBlog contributor Jennifer Roback Morse’s piece in NRO, “Waiting Until It’s Too Late: Mental illness and the Virginia Tech massacre.”
Update #2: Jerry Bowyer at NRO on the contents of the killer’s media package: “Envy, deep and powerful, comes through it all. Resentment against our society. Christianity, capitalism, and sports all take their hits. This was a man who hated the American regime — our very way of life.”
During a conference I attended last year, I got into some conversation with young libertarians about the nature of moral duties. In at least two instances, I asserted that positive moral duties exist.
In these conversations, initially I was accused of not being a libertarian because I affirmed positive rights. This accusation was apparently meant to give me pause, but I simply shrugged, “So be it. If being a libertarian means denying positive moral duties, then I’m not a libertarian!” I then pointed out that I never said that government must be the agent of respecting or meeting those duties, to which the accusatory tone of my dialog partners subsided.
I gave the biblical example of the case of the Good Samaritan, who recognized the love imperative to stop and assist a victim of violent crime. I think it is an established element of Christian theological ethics that both negative and positive rights exist as a basic reality. That’s why we can commit both sins of commission and sins of omission, and the Book of Common Prayer includes confession to God that “we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
This, for instance, is in part why the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the Decalogue, describes both the positive and negative elements that are obliged in each commandment. So in the case of the commandment against murder, the Catechism outlines both “duties required” and “sins forbidden,” the former of which include “comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent,” and the latter of which include avoiding anything that “tends to the destruction of the life of any” (Q&A 134-136).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic text, Life Together, that
The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all. The other person never becomes a burden at all for the pagans. They simply stay clear of every burden the other person may create for them. However, Christians must bear the burden of one another. They must suffer and endure one another. Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled. The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it.
The confusion of these young libertarian thinkers on the distinction between positive and negative rights as well as the knee-jerk assumption that positive rights entail government action speaks to the important difference between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a full-blown world-and-life view. The former is certainly not without its problematic elements, but is far superior to a Weltanschauung that cannot account for positive moral responsibilities to family, friend, and neighbor.
By the way, I don’t mean to equate the errors of a few representatives with the entire variegated classical liberal tradition. Arnold Kling’s articulation of a “civil societarian” perspective seems pretty well immune to the criticisms noted above.
As I noted above, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the claims upon my time and abilities that are made by other people. Bonhoeffer writes,
We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–pass by the man who had fallen among robbers.
Ironically, Bonhoeffer rightly observed that religious professionals face a particular danger in not respecting the concrete claims of individual moral responsibility.
It is a strange fact that, of all people, Christians and theologians often consider their work so important and urgent that they do not want to let anything interrupt it. They think they are doing God a favor, but actually they are despising God’s “crooked yet straight path” (Gottfried Arnold).
I explore the truth of this observation in my own experience in a previous Acton Commentary, “The Good Samaritan: Model of Effective Compassion.”