On Aug. 28, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Acton president and co-founder, was interviewed by Freedom Watch host Judge Andrew Napolitano in a wide ranging discussion of natural rights, the moral law and politics. They were joined by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine.
One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.
Historian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).
Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as conducive to our flourishing.
As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:
What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).
All three were distinguished for
- consistent antistatism,
- appreciation for modernity and commerce,
- love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
- a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
- a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.
[….] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition […] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.
As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.
Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:
“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton
His Eminence George Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, who delivered the keynote address at Acton’s 2004 annual dinner (full text here), has recently produced two notable commentaries: the first on global warming, the second on the Christian foundations of modern Western Civilization.
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
18 July 2010
Humanly induced climate change was once “the greatest moral challenge of our age”. No longer. The hullaballoo is much less.
A politician referred my February article on global warming to the Bureau of Meteorology for comment. In a roundabout way they conceded the truth of most of my factual statements, but ducked the issue of Roman warming and claimed that “all available hemispheric to global scale analyses” suggest recent decades have been warmer than in the Middle Ages. This is misleading.
Professor Ian Plimer, in Heaven and Earth: Global Warming the Missing Science (Connorcourt, 2009) cites the scientific evidence from pollen studies, drill cores and lake sediments to show that temperatures were 2 to 6°C warmer around the world in the period from 250BC to 450AD (the Roman Warming). Records from the time report citrus trees and grapes being grown in England as far north as Hadrian’s Wall, and olive groves on the Rhine. It was wetter and warmer, but sea levels were also lower. Areas which are now either forests (because it is cooler) or deserts (because it is drier – for example, the Roman provinces of North Africa) were growing crops.
Professor Plimer also cites scientific evidence from the Middle Ages. Tree rings, boreholes, sediment cores from oceans and flood plains, pollen studies, peat bogs, ice cores, fossils and carbon chemistry show that temperatures were warmer throughout the world during 900-1300AD than they are now, by 1-2.5°C in different places. The amount of land used for agriculture increased. In Greenland, cattle and sheep were run and crops like barley were grown. Grapevines were grown in Newfoundland, and vineyards in Germany were grown 220 metres higher than the maximum altitude today. Roots and stumps in the Polar Urals suggesting the tree line there was 30 metres higher in 1000AD. The North Atlantic was free of ice, allowing the Vikings to travel to North America.
Warmer temperatures and higher rainfall during the Medieval Warming enabled societies and economic life to flourish. In Europe it saw the growth of cities, the establishment of universities, and a boom in cathedral building. China’s population doubled in the course of a century and records from China and Japan also indicate that they experienced warmer temperatures. The Medieval Warming also brought higher levels of water in lakes and rivers.
There was no industry in Roman or Medieval times.
Why were the temperatures higher? What were the causes then and now?
Next are remarks delivered at a recent program of the Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent Australian think tank. Here, Cardinal Pell reminds us that the heritage of Western Civilization comes from its uniquely Christian character:
The Heritage of Western Civilization
Remarks at the launch of the Institute of Public Affairs’
Foundations of Western Civilisation Program
Stonington Mansion, Melbourne
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
It is a privilege to speak at the launch of the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilisation Program tonight, and I propose to begin my few words on “The Heritage of Western Civilization” by speaking about China. This is not because I believe that China must achieve economic supremacy (twenty years ago we were ascribing that honour to Japan) but because China is a radically different culture, nourished for two thousand years by the teachings of Buddha and Confucius before the destructive barbarism of Mao and the Red Guards; a nation which is now searching for the secrets of Western vitality and for a code or codes to provide decency and social cohesion that is compatible with economic development.
Let me give two examples, admittedly only two straws in an vast cyclone. (more…)
Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.
Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”
Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.
Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.
There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).
The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.
Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.
This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.
In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.
On the Economix blog at the New York Times, Uwe E. Reinhardt wrote a post titled “How Businesses Create Wealth.” That elicited attention from a commenter who wondered where he was “trying to go with this essay.” Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, answers with “Companies: What Are They Good For?” He also cites an article from Acton’s Journal of Markets & Morality: “A Communitarian Model of Business: A Natural-Law Perspective.” Reinhardt:
Actually, I was not trying to go anywhere with my analysis, other than to point out that businesses create value and wealth beyond the usually narrow slice that accrues strictly to the owners.
In most firms, the largest fraction of the gross value that businesses create with the goods and services they produce is channeled to employees. That allocation helps create household wealth, which may be held in the form of a home or other real estate, pensions or investments in mutual funds, or highly productive human capital — that is, highly educated offspring.
With their chronic suspicion of for-profit business, commentators on the left of the ideological spectrum insufficiently acknowledge that major contribution that business makes to social welfare.
Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.
But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.
For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers'” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).
Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.
Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).
That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?
These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).
On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God’s] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.
While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.
While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.
Ryan T. Anderson, editor of the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse, takes note of an in-depth NYT profile of Prof. Robby George (HT: MoJ). In the NYT profile, George is presented as the central figure in the formation of the ecumenical coalition behind the Manhattan Declaration, and adds a number of important contexts for George’s academic, intellectual, and political endeavors.
Anderson characterizes the profile as “pretty evenhanded,” saying it “provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.” But Anderson levels a serious charge against the piece by David D. Kirkpatrick:
But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.
Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.
Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.
I can certainly understand Anderson’s concerns that George be properly presented as heir to a long-standing intellectual tradition. But I disagree that the profile does injustice to this aspect of George’s work.
For instance, the dominant paradigm that is presented throughout is that George is drawing deeply on the Thomistic tradition. Kirkpatrick writes early on in the piece, for example, that George “has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence.” Kirkpatrick also notes that George’s “admirers” say that “he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.” Of course at other points, including in the section below, specific natural-law arguments that George makes are referred to as “new,” so in this sense Anderson’s clarifications are valuable.
It seems to me that the most serious potential misunderstanding in the article is at least superficially based on George’s own declaration that in organizing the broad Christian support for the Manhattan Declaration from a variety of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions, “I sold my view about reason!” This is of course a reference to the specifically (neo)Thomistic view of reason’s relation to natural law that serves as the intellectual framework for the entire article, and indeed, for George’s own intellectual career.
Somehow I doubt that the signers of the Manhattan Declaration understood themselves to be endorsing a specifically Thomistic view of natural law when they pledged their support for the document’s agenda.
Here are the concluding paragraphs the profile in full:
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.
It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges.
Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.
“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”
On the one hand the canard about the Reformation’s wholesale rejection of natural law is repeated here full stop. But at the same time it is true that in the time since the sixteenth century there have been varieties of natural-law thinking, both within and without Roman Catholicism, that more or less diverge from the standard neo-Thomistic line.
Acton’s own Stephen J. Grabill has definitively shown that Protestants who draw their inspiration from the magisterial Reformation don’t need to be “sold” a view of natural law; they have their own explicit natural-law traditions on which to draw.
As Grabill has summarized elsewhere, “the Reformers felt no tension in affirming a strong doctrine of original sin, on the one hand, and natural law, on the other. While every aspect of reality was affected in the fall, including the rational and social nature of human beings, the Reformers did not believe the divine image was totally annihilated. Instead, only aspects of the image were destroyed while other aspects were permanently disoriented. That disorientation put people in a wrong relationship with God, their neighbors, and the world. However, the implanted knowledge of right and wrong, which survived the fall as a relic of the original image, was now weakened and obscured.”