Posts tagged with: morality

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 8, 2008

On an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last month, professor Jay Parini of Middlebury College discussed his role in the criminal justice sentences given to students who were involved in the vandalism of the former summer home of renowned poet Robert Frost.

Some of the younger students involved took part in a class on Robert Frost as part of an alternative sentencing plea agreement. As Prof. Parini says, “It’s a sort of unique punishment, talk about the punishment fitting the crime.”

Be sure to listen to the show to get the details of the whole story. This sounds to me like a perfect example of jurisprudence, that is, wisdom in the application of law. By connecting the offenders to the reality of Robert Frost’s life and work, the real impact of what they had done was communicated to them.

The potential for alternative sentencing agreements like this is just one of the possibilities I discuss in a newly published essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 481-511. In that piece I lay out a basic scheme for understanding the different Christian approaches to restorative justice, particularly with regard to the relationship between punishment and restoration, along with some of the theological and practical implications for these various streams.

“It seems obvious that from a perspective of personalism,” I write, “relevant contextual differences should be considered in sentencing, and judges should have the ability to exercise prudential judgments on such matters.”

The case of the Frost house vandals underscores the value of this perspective, contrasted with that which emphasizes strictly controlled mandatory sentencing, especially for minors and youths. As Parini also says, “Poetry is about reparation and restoration.” The task for the prudential administration of justice is to balance and coordinate the necessity of punishment as an end in itself and as an instrument oriented toward reconciliation.

As an aside, I might also note that Prof. Parini would do his regular college students better service to teach them as he taught the offenders. Talking about his treatment of the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “When I teach the class to my students at Middlebury, it’s a you know sophisticated group, I do a fairly post-modern reading of the poem…. In a post-modern reading of that poem it’s more complicated.”

But in teaching the class of offenders Parini emphasized the recognition of metaphoric and symbolic values as a necessary part of coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of life: “I realized these kids are at a very simple level here and Frost is confronting one of the issues that we have moral choices breaking in front of us at every moment.” This latter approach does more justice, so to speak, to the duties of the moral imagination than the sophistry of a post-modern reading, in which there is really no “wrong” road to take.

The theme of this issue of the Ave Maria Law Review is “The Constitutionality of Faith-Based Prison Units,” and there are some valuable resources for coming to grips with a practical dilemma facing the relationship between church and state in America. Another noteworthy and timely essay in this issue is Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s “The Enduring Achievement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”

Last week I attended a lecture on the campus of Calvin College given by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford. His lecture was titled, “God and Morality,” and was the fourth in a series of lectures for a summer seminar, “Science, Philosophy, and Belief.” The seminar was focused on the development of Chinese professors and posgraduate students, and included lectures by Sir John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Owen Gingerich.

Swinburne, who is a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, has recently turned his attention to questions of morality, having previously dealt with most every aspect of the philosophy of religion. I will not attempt a summary of his presentation here. The lecture has been digitally archived on the seminar site (downloadable MP3 here), and the comments and critiques I offer below will best be understood after having listened to the presentation yourself.

Swinburne’s list of publications includes a forthcoming article, “What Difference Does God Make to Morality?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), scheduled for release in October of this year later this month. This article will presumably present a similar case as appeared in Swinburne’s lecture. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I explore the differing mainstream cultural views of gun rights and abortion in the United States and Europe. The point of departure is last month’s Supreme Court decision in DC v. Heller (07-290) striking down the District’s handgun ban (SCOTUSblog round-up on the decision here).

In “Guns, Foreign Courts, and the Moral Consensus of the International Community,” I write that the “tendency to invoke foreign jurisprudence is becoming more troubling as it becomes clearer that the moral consensus that once united Western nations has almost entirely broken down.”

As Paul J. Cella commented on a number of related stories at home and abroad, “We are only a tendentious opinion from one of the Liberal Usurpers on the Court, or their creature Kennedy, under the spell of the New York-DC elite adulation — one tendentious opinion citing foreign law, or sweet mystery of life, or mystical evolving standards, away from the same tyranny that would send the homeowner who defends his wife against thugs to jail, while showering the thugs with sympathy.”

At the same time the Court was deciding Heller, it ruled “that imposing the death penalty for child rape violates the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.” La Shawn Barber has details on the difficulties surrounding that decision, but in relation to the topic of my commentary I want to point out that the EU Constitution in its original form as circulated for ratification in 2004, under Article II-62, titled “Right to life,” held in part, “No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed.” At the same time this article made no explicit or special mention of abortion.

For more insight into the disconnect between the UN/EU on the one side and the US on the other over gun rights, see Kenneth Anderson’s illuminating post, “International Gun Control Efforts?” (HT: The Volokh Conspiracy).

As Mike Huckabee was wont to say, we wouldn’t have the First Amendment without the Second. And if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have knives (that explode?!).

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, March 11, 2008
A victimless crime?

Via Hugh Hewitt, here are Carol Platt Liebau’s thoughts on the prostitution scandal now engulfing New York Governor Eliot Spitzer:

The whole idea, pioneered by you-know-who and enabled by you-know-who-else, is that illicit sexual behavior and the scandals resulting therefrom can be brazened out by the insistence that they are irrelevant to the discharge of public duties. As I argue in my book, it’s all part of a new ethical calculus concluding that — uniquely in the constellation of virtues — sexual morality is a subjective and purely personal matter that’s of relevance only to “religious” people (or else prurient and “judgmental” ones), even when it impacts the public.

All of us are human, all of us are sinners, no one is perfect. Certainly, there but for the grace of God go any of us. But that doesn’t mean that there should be no standards. In particular, it’s unfortunate if and when public officials conclude that sexual behavior that’s deeply disgraceful (not to mention illegal) doesn’t merit resignation. It degrades our culture, makes others complicit in condoning conduct that shouldn’t be condoned, and normalizes behavior that’s wrong.

As has become the norm, there are also plenty of voices (here’s one) decrying the fact that Spitzer may be forced to resign over a sexual indiscretion, that the worst he’s guilty of his hypocrisy, and that prostitution is essentially a “victimless crime.” It remains to be seen whether or not Spitzer will step down as a result of the scandal, but in the meantime Jordan Ballor offers some food for thought in this post, which looks at the differing standards that seem to apply to business and church leaders on the one hand and governmental officials on the other when sexual indiscretions are revealed. And be sure to take a look at the David Hess essay that Jordan references in his post as well.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Should Spitzer step down, or is his indiscretion not that serious?

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Vladimir Solovyov

Towards the end of his life, the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov published his “On the Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy” (1897). In this book, wrote historian Paul Valliere, Solovyov abandonded his vision of a “worldwide theocratic order” in favor of the more concrete demands of building a just society. With “Justification of the Good,” Solovyov (1853-1900) presented a general theory of economic and social welfare based on the idea that all human beings have “a right to a dignified existence.”

The following excerpt is from the chapter, “The Economic Question from the Moral Point of View” in Solovyov’s “On the Justification of the Good.” Translated by Nathalie A. Duddington; annotated and edited by Boris Jakim; foreword by David Bentley Hart. Wm. B. Eerdmans (2005). Cross posted from The Observer.

For the true solution of the so-called ‘social question’ it must in the first place be recognized that economic relations contain no special norm of their own, but are subject to the universal moral norm as a special realm in which they find their application. The triple moral principle which determines our due relation towards God, men, and the material nature is wholly and entirely applicable in the domain of economics. The peculiar character of economic relations gives a special importance to the last member of the moral trinity, namely, the relation to the material nature or earth (in the wide sense of the term). This third relation can have a moral character only if it is not isolated from the first two but is conditioned by them in the normal position.

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From a CT interview in 1995 by Michael Cromartie:

Certain things which the market authorizes simply in terms of law are unchristian and ought not to be done. The big issue today has to do with the fidelity of marriages. The tendency now to leave your wife because you have an infatuation with a younger woman of tenderer flesh is an enormous temptation. It’s carnal, and it’s also easy to justify with all the solipsistic reasoning that we hear today. That is about the gravest offense that a human being can commit, to throw away a wife.

From this it doesn’t follow that the state should make the law tougher, but rather that the culture needs to be reformed. Modifying the law is only one way, and often not the best, to do that: “…unless we create a virtuous society, it’s not a society that’s going to endure. So the right things should be encouraged and the wrong things discouraged. Today, roughly speaking, there is zero taboo against fornication.”

The whole thing is worth reading, as they say (HT).

Over recent weeks a great deal of controversy has been swirling in Michigan over allegations of an affair between Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former Chief of Staff Christine Beatty. Lower courts have approved the release of text messages between the two that would seem to belie the sworn testimony of Kilpatrick and Beatty, and an appeal is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, presidential candidate John McCain came under media scrutiny following a NYT piece that raised questions about the nature of his relationship with a lobbyist. These are just two of the most recent instances of high-profile political figures being embroiled in allegations of immoral conduct (AP reporter Libby Quaid gives a rundown of the reaction of a number of the spouses in recent instances).

The recent case of Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal comes to mind. Prominent Michigan businessman and political activist Peter Secchia reportedly linked the Kilpatrick scandal to Clinton.

At an Economics Club luncheon earlier this month,

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Secchia managed a swipe at Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former President Bill Clinton. Starting with his back to the crowd, he turned quickly to face the podium. “I did not have text with that woman,” he said, pointing at himself with both thumbs.

While particular occasions can be easily used for partisan jokes and finger-pointing, the questions of immoral actions by public servants cut across both aisles and through the annals of history.

Moreover, these kinds of allegations (and actions) are really no laughing matter (indeed, the reaction among conservatives to the NYT story has been anything but jovial). The accusations alone can be powerful enough to destroy lives, marriages, families, and careers.

In a penetrating essay on the Kilpatrick affair, David Hess compares the consequences of alleged marital infidelity between elected government officials and corporate CEOs. He makes a strong case that there is a double-standard, with the more stringent line being taken not in politics but instead in the private sector.

He writes of the comparative consequences for a CEO: “A steadily declining share price? The board of directors will give you a second chance. An ethical violation that does not have an immediate, direct impact on company performance? A resignation is expected as soon as possible.”

Hess examines both the internal (e.g. setting organizational values) and external (e.g. loss of consumer confidence) reasons for this moral “high ground” among both for-profit and non-profit corporations and organizations. He looks in particular at the cases of Mark Everson, former chief executive of the American Red Cross, and Harry Stonecipher, former chief executive of Boeing.

Hess’ analysis bears out upon reflection. Just consider in recent memory how many politicians in office have survived sexual scandals. Larry Craig is still a United States senator, but Ted Haggard was rather ignominiously dismissed as head of the NAE and a mega-church in Colorado Springs.

This, too, makes some sense. That oldest non-profit of them all, the church, has had some pretty stringent requirements for leadership since its very inception, such as being “above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable,” and so on. I wouldn’t want to make the correlative claim that instances of sexual immorality are less common among Christians than the general populace, or among the church’s leaders than other public figures.

But, as Hess claims, it seems pretty clear that there is a different standard of judgment for such things, and that the higher standard applies not in the case of political figures but rather among business, church, and community leaders (perhaps sports figures like Kobe Bryant being an exception).

It’s also the case that calling out political figures on their infidelities has historically been a dangerous calling, but one that the church’s prophetic responsibility embraces.

The pertinent question seems to me to be not why the market and the church typically hold their leaders to such high standards, but rather why citizens and voters don’t do the same for the government. Apathy? Secularism? Something else?

Speaking of the history of morality and moral judgments in historiography, Alister MacIntyre makes a pointed observation about a complementary distinction that arises between what might be called “intellectual” and “social” history:

Abstract changes in moral concepts are always embodied in real, particular events. There is a history yet to be written in which the Medici princes, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Frederick the Great and Napoleon, Walpole and Wilberforce, Jefferson and Robespierre are understood as expressing their actions, often partially and in a variety of different ways, the very same conceptual changes which at the level of philosophical theory are articulated by Machiavelli and Hobbes, by Diderot and Condorcet, by Hume and Adam Smith and Kant. There ought not to be two histories, one of political and moral action and one of political and moral theorizing, because there were not two pasts, one populated only by actions, the other only by theories. Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.

After Virtue, 2d ed., p. 61

See also: Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (1906).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Success unsettles the principles even of the wise, and scarcely would those of debauched habits use victory with moderation.
– Sallust

Last Saturday Dr. Ben Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal. In his speech marking the occasion, President Bush said that Carson has “a tireless commitment to helping young people find direction and motivation in life. He reminds them that all of us have gifts by the grace of the almighty God. He tells them to think big, to study hard, and to put character first” (emphasis added).

One of Carson’s themes in his speeches and writings is the comparison of America to Rome, in that the latter foundered when its basic morals were corrupted. America, says Carson, is at a crisis point similar to Rome in the centuries before its decline (for a study of the move from “virtue” to “values” and beyond in the modern West, see Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values).

The Roman historian and politician Sallust wrote of the situation in the first century BC in his first published work, The Conspiracy of Catiline,

When wealth was once considered an honor, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.

It furnishes much matter for reflection, after viewing our modern mansions and villas extended to the size of cities, to contemplate the temples which our ancestors, a most devout race of men, erected to the Gods. But our forefathers adorned the fanes of the deities with devotion, and their homes with their own glory, and took nothing from those whom they conquered but the power of doing harm; their descendants, on the contrary, the basest of mankind have even wrested from their allies, with the most flagrant injustice, whatever their brave and victorious ancestors had left to their vanquished enemies; as if the only use of power were to inflict injury.

Lord Acton was another historian who felt that part of the discipline’s interpretive craft was to render moral judgments about events in human history.

Following his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in a lecture on the study of history in 1895, Lord Acton urged his audience “never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”

Commentator Perez Zagorin judges that Acton’s “claim that moral judgment on past crimes and misdeeds is one of the supreme duties of the historian was at odds with the entire trend of historiography in his time and set him apart by its rigor from all the noted historians and thinkers about history of his own generation and thereafter.”

But how, after all, can we learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past if we are unwilling or unable to make moral judgments?

Last week, Istituto Acton’s close Italian ally in defense of liberty, Istituto Bruno Leoni (IBL), presented the 2008 Index of Economic Freedom in Rome. The IBL invited speakers to discuss the decline of economic freedom in Italy over the last 12 months. Il bel paese ranks as the 64th freest economy in the world, with Hong Kong at number one and the U.S. at five.

Italy’s economic problems were blamed on corruption and weak law enforcement. While corruption to some extent reflects individual moral failings and certainly does affect economic growth, the reverse is also true: corruption tends to flourish in environments already hostile to markets and free competition.

Bad and excessive regulation tends to create opportunities for the arbitrary use of power when dealing with citizens and companies. This, in turn, distorts market incentives and deters investment but it also creates mistrust among people and alienates them from the governing institutions. Better and less regulation, on the other hand, not only boosts economic growth but could tackle a more deeply-rooted crisis of political and social ethics.

Not surprisingly, a labor union representative at the IBL event argued for stronger government to fight corruption at the expense of additional economic reforms. He unfortunately missed the point: The lack of economic freedom simply leads to more opportunities for the moral evils that already plague Italy.