Posts tagged with: morality

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 9, 2006

A week ago, The CBS Evening News with newly installed host Katie Couric featured the father of one of the victims of the Columbine school shootings in their so-called ‘freeSpeech’ segment. In this ninety-second spot, Brian Rohrbough said,

This country is in a moral free-fall. For over two generations, the public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value.

We teach there are no absolutes, no right or wrong. And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.

Suicide has become an acceptable action and has further emboldened these criminals. And we are seeing an epidemic increase in murder-suicide attacks on our children.

As Gina Dalfonzo at The Point writes of the reaction to the segment, “CBS received bushels of mail from people who acted as if Rohrbough had gone on the air to advocate the drowning of kittens.” Dalfonzo links to a WaPo story that summarizes some of the complaints, including this gem, which referred to Rohrbough’s remarks as “the biggest load of hogwash I have ever witnessed. How could you use an unspeakable tragedy to give a rightwing flat earth nut job a podium?”

So much for the absolute moral authority conferred on the family members of the victims of tragedies. Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion notes, “Rohrbough’s views were strongly stated, but millions of Americans would affirm all, most or much of what he said.”

Count me among those in agreement. Moral education matters. Here’s what Herman Bavinck has to say about the importance of the dignity of the human person created in the image of God:

The acceptance or rejection of this point of departure is decisive for education and upbringing. Whoever maintains the divine origin, divine relationship and divine destination of man arrives naturally to another theory and practice of upbringing than he who rejects all that and knows only the dumb power of nature. If anyone says what he thinks of man’s origin and being, it is easily shown which pedagogy, at least in principle, must be his.

One specific way in which we can see which pedagogical principle is in play is by measuring a person’s view of the value of human beings relative to that of other creatures.

In this way, Bavinck writes that in light of the unique dignity of the human person,

there is no other conclusive reason thinkable why the killing of an animal is permitted and that of a man is unlawful, than that which lies in the background that man, separated essentially form the animal and related to God, is God’s offspring. He who, with the theory of evolution, obliterates the boundary between man and animal, making both the same kind, must also, as a matter of principle, think lightly concerning the killing of a man. Or, out of fear of this consequence, he must seek support with Buddhism, and respect as inviolate all life also in the animal, and as much as possible in the plant. It is noteworthy that both these trends find innumerable spokesmen in our day. On the one hand it is cynically taught by some that in our day men spend too much care upon the weak and ill, and ought rather to cooperate with the strong to improve our generation; while on the other hand, a sentimental sympathy is preached which has more pity for animals and plants than for man.

What better identifiers of the “moral vacuum” and godless secularism to which Rohrbough refers than these?

A paper recently published at the National Bureau of Economic Research calls into question some conventional economic wisdom about the effects of certain kinds of legislation. In “The Church vs the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?”, Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman find that when so-called “blue laws” are repealed in any given state, “religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well.”

But in addition, “repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.” For more information on the study, check out this article from the CS Monitor, “Maybe ‘blue laws’ weren’t so bad” (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

Richard Morin wrote an op-ed in the WaPo last week (HT: Religion Clause) about this paper, and wonders “why would the elimination of blue laws suddenly provoke such an outburst of sinning among the religious? After all, there are six other days of the week to shop (or drink) until you drop. And it’s not legal to buy cocaine or marijuana on any day of the week.”

Before I paint the broad outlines of an answer, let me point out the potential significance of Gruber and Hungerman’s conclusions. It has long been assumed that laws prohibiting or restricting the sale of certain controversial items (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, drugs) has a net negative effect. Mark Thornton over at Mises.org published a piece that claims, for example, that “prohibitions have no socially desirable effect.”

Acton’s own Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an essay on the “sin tax,” wrote that sin taxes, prohibition, and presumably blue laws are each “a different point on the same continuum.” Sirico goes on to cite Paulist priest James Gillis, who said that prohibition of alcohol “was the greatest blow ever given to the temperance movement.”

Gillis writes,

Before prohibition, the people at large were becoming more and more sober. Total abstinence had become the practice, not of a few, but of millions… Under the Volstead Law, drinking became a popular sport. The passage of the law was a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity… The only way to make the country sober is to persuade individual citizens, one by one, to be sober.

It seems, however, according to the NBER paper, that blue laws do have the opposite effect, and in this way can perhaps be distinguished from prohibition. Is there a theological explanation for this? (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, September 7, 2006

Seth Godin issued a call recently for marketers to take stock of their trade and embrace the moral aspects of their industry: “You’re responsible for what you sell. When you choose to sell it, more of it gets sold.”

I particularly like how Godin emphasizes personal responsibility. This is something that is not unique to a particular profession, of course, and is therefore a reality that constantly needs to be reiterated. “As marketers, we have the power to change things, and the way we use that power is our responsibility–not the market’s, not our boss’s. Ours,” he writes.

Indeed, the logic of the marketplace is not enough by itself. That’s true for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the powerful and dominating attraction of sin.

“We’re responsible for what we sell and how we sell it. We’re responsible for the effects (and the side effects) of our actions, ” Godin states. “It is our decision. Whatever the decision is, you need to own it. If you can’t look that decision in the mirror, market something else.”

Godin’s analysis may not in itself be sufficient to arrive at a comprehensive and full-blown morality of the marketplace, but I think it’s a pretty darn good start, especially considering it comes as a call from within the profession.

Dr. Grabill can take heart…recognition of the natural law isn’t dead.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 4, 2006

I just completed an interview that will air this Sunday on the Michigan Talk Network about state-run lotteries and Christian views on gambling for the “Michigan Gaming and Casino Show,” hosted by Ron Pritchard.

The occasion was this piece I wrote awhile back, “Perpetuating Poverty: Lotteries Prey on the Poor.” For more, see also “Betting on Gambling is a Risky Wager” and “Gambling Hypocrisy.”

You can check out the show live on the MLive talk radio feed here (click on “News radio”) at 3 pm on Sunday, August 6. The show will also re-air at 7 pm that same day, and we’ll try to post audio of the interview when it becomes available.

Update: Audio is available here.

In Parts 5 and 6 we addressed the two most common Protestant objections to natural law. And now, as promised, we will see what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law, even as they affirmed its value. (Incidentally, the treatment of the natural knowledge of God that Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Francis Turretin provide, to mention only a few, is completely in step with that of the early church. For more on that topic, click here.)

The widespread assumption that Reformation theology allows no access to natural law—that its view of Scripture, revelation, Christ, salvation, and faith excludes every kind of natural theology —needs serious correction. Yet, in affirming natural law’s value as a bridge, it is also necessary to acknowledge its limitations.

The Reformers hold to the existence of a natural knowledge of morality in creation, conscience, and reason, but they think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. In fact, its primary role is to make people accountable for the basic moral truths they already know by undercutting any excuses they may propose along the way. In other words, according to the Reformers, natural law informs the mind of what is right and wrong, but it cannot ensure that the will shall choose to do good over evil. In this sense, they think natural law is ineffective and insufficient to bring about right action, even if it is a reliable source of moral information.

The Reformers’ assessment of natural law is complicated further when the issue of free will and morality is considered. They think the will is free in the sense that it is not coerced but self-determined, choosing voluntarily, on its own to do or not to do something. This is why people can be held responsible for their choices: They are self-determining moral agents who know right from wrong. The Reformers reject the extremes of the will’s complete unimpeded freedom, on the one side, as well as the will’s external coercion, on the other. Instead, they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption is in bondage to sin and therefore subject to a constant state of sinning.

Underlying the bondage of the will is the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Following Augustine, the Reformers see the fall affecting every aspect of human nature with the result that fallen human beings are in bondage to sin. Despite the fact that human nature was originally created good, it has become corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin. Thus, prior to the action of God’s grace, the will is in bondage to sin, which means there is no way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where the Reformation doctrine of prevenient grace comes in.

Grace is prevenient; that is, God’s grace precedes any human good will. Prevenient grace does not simply make it possible for people to respond affirmatively to God’s call; it actually brings conversion about. This is true not just of the beginning of the Christian life. Grace is needed at every stage and, in particular, for final perseverance. Prevenient grace is a gift of God, not something that is merited by previous obedience.

Other questions also enter the discussion about natural law in relation to free choice and grace. One such question is whether it is even possible to obey the moral law. The Reformers reject the assumption that “ought” implies “can”: That people can do on their own without divine assistance what they know they should do. While “ought” implies “can” was certainly true for Adam and Eve in the Garden, after the fall they think it is no longer possible to observe perfectly the moral law’s internal and external requirements. The purpose of the law, according to the Reformers, is not to show human ability but to point to grace. Grace gives what the law commands. Tied directly to the law is the question of “good works.” The Reformers argue that even the best of human works are tainted by sin. Thus it is by God’s grace and generosity that he rewards good works. Furthermore, all good works are the gifts of God’s grace and thus, as Augustine put it, when God rewards our merits he crowns his own gifts.

In Part 8, the final installment of this series, I will summarize what I think natural law is.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

The newest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality is now available online to subscribers (the print version should be along shortly). The newest issue features a “symposium” in which several authors discuss the “Dynamics of Faith-Based Policy Initiatives” (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

The editorial for this issue is available to the general, non-subscribing, public and can be read online. “The Economics of Information Control” examines the rising demand for free academic scholarship and literature, specificially within the Open Access movement. Stephen Grabill, the executive editor, asserts that because scholarly publishing is largely funded by journal subscriptions, eliminating a cost-structure for those publications will ultimately cause a shortage of funds for continuing publication of scholarly materials.

In addition to the release of the new journal, a new past issue will be archived. Volume 8, Number 1 is now available to the non-subscribing public.

Finally, a brief announcement about a new subscription option. Following our plan to integrate the journal with an economically sound internet based delivery system, a new option is available to subscribers of the journal. In the past we have offered both individual and institutional based subscriptions in one or two year plans. We have added a new option for individual subscribers: you can now subscribe for an online access account for the low price of $10. This account opens access to the online Journal for one year, but you will not recieve a print copy. We hope you enjoy this new option!

Two Acton scholars, Andrew Yuengert and Fr. Paul Hartmann, were interviewed on “The World Over” (EWTN Studios) last Friday, April 28, about the Catholic response to immigration rights. Yuengert, author of the Acton monograph “Inhabiting the Land,” emphasizes the dignity of the human person as a foundation for looking at the issues surrounding immigration. Yuengert says that the “right to migrate” is not an absolute right, but to prevent people from assisting immigrants in need is immoral. Immigrants come because they want to work. They generally find positions as low-wage laborers, and tend to send large amounts of money home to poorer nations. The economic burdens that immigrant workers place on the United States are relatively small, although those burdens tend to fall heavily on specific regions, most noticeably on southern California. Yuengert says that the burdens themselves do not justify new restrictions on immigration although, viewed from an economic perspective, the nation could probably adjust to a massive loss of immigrant labor.

Fr. Hartmann reiterates the necessity of being allowed to provide charity to those in need. It becomes a major problem, however, if laws exist which make it a crime to extend a helping hand to immigrants and their families. The Church should oppose such laws, he says. What’s more, Christians have a moral obligation to “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked,” without prejudice.

Anthony Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, was interviewed on “Heartland with John Kasich” on Fox News last Saturday. He was talking about the need for a “hero to emerge” from the Duke lacrosse team in the wake of a sexual assault scandal. Bradley emphasizes the need for moral leadership in the United States as a whole and why we should discourage markets from promoting the dehumanization of women.

Bradley earned quite a bit of attention after writing a commentary last Wednesday bringing attention to what he calls the “cowardly and dehumanizing … commoditized sex-for-sale industry.” Bradley asserts that the United States, as a nation, should be “outraged that two adult women subjected themselves to voyeuristic, live pornography” in the first place.

Court TV Morning, a radio show aired on Sirius satellite network (Channel 110), has also invited Anthony Bradley to discuss his Duke lacrosse commentary on Wednesday, May 3, at 7:15 a.m. Eastern time.

For more information read Anthony’s commentary, “Wanted: A Duke Lacrosse Team Hero.”

Duke University is embroiled in a sensational scandal involving its lacrosse team and allegations of sexual assault of a stripper at a wild party. But, as Anthony Bradley points out, the case is really symptomatic of a much larger problem in American society. “Why is there no national outrage about the fact that two adult women subjected themselves to voyeuristic, live pornography?” he asks. “What kind of men do we raise in America that they would even want to hire a stripper?”

Read the full commentary here.

While doing research for my upcoming lecture at the Drexel University Libraries’ Scholarly Commmunication Symposium, I ran across this excellent book by Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: Free Press, 1997). Dr. Murray at that time was a professor at MIT and is now at Georgia Tech.

One of the interesting things that Dr. Murray discusses is the necessary element of what she calls “moral physics” in narrative worlds. She writes, “Stories have to have an equivalent ‘moral physics,’ which indicates what consequences attach to actions, who is rewarded, who is punished, how fair the world is. By moral physics I mean not only right and wrong but also what kinds of stories make sense in this world, how bad a loss characters are allowed to suffer, and what weight is attached to those losses.”

This observation reminds me of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus in the first installment of the Matrix trilogy. While rhapsodizing about the origins of the Matrix, Smith relates this tale:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

I think Murray’s analysis is reflected in Smith’s character, and that this is a representation of the moral realities that objectively exist in our world.

The moral order is, after all, objectively real. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.”

There are normative limits then to the imaginative creation of fictional narratives. In the same way that even an anti-metaphysician is still a metaphysician of a kind, attempts to create amoral or anti-moral worlds are still grounded in the moral order.

This is in part because, as Murray rightly notes, “When we enter a fictional world, we do not merely ‘suspend’ a critical faculty; we also exercise a creative faculty. We do not suspend disbelief so much as we actively create belief. Because of our desire to experience immersion, we focus our attention on the enveloping world and we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience.” The creative faculty, the active imagination, is not insulated and cannot be isolated from human moral faculties.

Related items:

Jordan Ballor, “The Matrix Anthrophology,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (August 26, 2005).

John Bolt, “The Necessity of Narrative Imagination for Preaching,” in Reading and Hearing the Word: From Text to Sermon: Essays in Honor of John H. Stek, ed. Arie C. Leder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary/CRC Publications, 1998), pp. 203-217.

Vigen Guroian, Rallying The Really Human Things: Moral Imagination In Politics, Literature & Everyday Life (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2005).

Peter J. Schakel, “Irrigating Deserts with Moral Imagination,” Religion & Liberty (Winter 2006).