Posts tagged with: philosophy

At Ethika Politika today, I examine the recent critique by David Bentley Hart in the most recent issue of First Things of the use of natural law in public discourse in my article, “Natural Law, Public Policy, and the Uncanny Voice of Conscience.” Ultimately, I offer a measured critique—somewhat agreeing with, but mostly critical of Hart’s position—pointing out Hart’s oversight of the vital role of conscience in classic natural law theory.

What I find so bizarre, and have for some time now, is the relative ambivalence, at best, of many contemporary Orthodox writers when it comes to natural law. Hart, for example, hints that he might approve of natural law reasoning so long as all parties involved hold to a metaphysic that acknowledges “a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate.” However, even then he is not clear. Indeed, he begins his article by writing,

There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. (emphasis mine)

Hart is not alone among Orthodox writers in this regard. With the notable exceptions of Stanley Harakas, Tristram Engelhardt, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (if there are others I apologize for my ignorance), contemporary Orthodox writers scarcely have employed natural law in their social ethics, if they even endorse it at all. Often it gets thrown under the bus in ill-advised false dichotomizing between all that is Eastern and therefore wonderful and all that is Western and therefore overly rationalistic. (more…)

What do we mean when we talk about “liberty?”

roman-slaveWhile it may appear that we all use the word in the same way, closer examination reveals that Americans have a wide range of meanings for the term. For instance, when those of us at Acton refer to liberty we tend to have in mind the definition we use in our “core principles”: Liberty, in a positive sense, is achieved by fulfilling one’s nature as a person by freely choosing to do what one ought.

Other individuals and organizations often define the term in ways that differ, either subtly or radically, from the Acton Institute. Liberty, then, is less an easily definable term than a word used to refer to a range of loosely related concepts. Understanding how “liberty” has been used in the past can therefore help us understand how and why we have different views of it today.

A prime example is political historian Quentin Skinner’s explanation of “neo-Roman liberty.”

JMM_15.2_WebThe newest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality has been published. The issue is available in digital format online and should be arriving in print in the next few weeks for subscribers. This issue continues to offer academic engagement with the morality of the marketplace and with faith and the free society, including articles on economic engagement with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, biblical teaching on wealth and poverty, schools as social enterprises, the Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s economic theory, and much more.

As we have done in the past, Jordan Ballor’s editorial is open access, even to non-subscribers. In “Between Greedy Individualism Editorial and Benevolent Collectivism” he examines the enduring impact of Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, writing,

At the time of its publication, Novak’s work must have been like a window thrust wide open in a dank room, introducing a breath of fresh air and the sanitizing rays of sunlight. Against ideologies that posit state power as a neutral or even benevolent force arising of necessity against the rapaciousness of the market, Novak observed instead that it was democratic capitalism that arose first as a system designed to check the invasiveness of state tyranny. The “founders of democratic capitalism,” wrote Novak, “wished to build a center of power to rival the power of the state.” Indeed, “they did not fear unrestrained economic power as much as they feared political tyranny.” Still more would they fear the union of economic and political power that we find all too often today in corrupt and cronyist regimes.

You can read his full editorial here. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Life of Michael Angelo, 1912 - The Prophet JeremiahWhy do the wicked prosper? This plaintive query is a consistent cry from the psalmist and the prophets. As Jeremiah puts it, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

The concern in large part has to do with injustice; why do those who are so morally and spiritually bankrupt enjoy such great temporal blessings?

Over at the IEA blog, John Meadowcroft passes along an answer, at least insofar as it relates to the political structures of social democracy. Drawing on Friedrich Hayek, Geoffrey Brennan, and James Buchanan, Meadowcroft writes that “we should expect that the people most willing to work to attain political office will be those who expect to gain the most from holding it.” And it turns out that quite often those who stand to gain most from political office are those who, in the words of Brennan and Buchanan, “place higher values on the possession of such power.”

Meadowcroft concludes by invoking Hume’s “dictum that political institutions should be designed as if every person was a knave with no end other than his or her own private interests, even though we know that not all people behave knavishly.” The lesson for political power is that it ought to be limited such that the knaves who seek it for their own selfish ends (or those who are turned into knaves by the exercise of their power) ought to have their ambitions blunted by the constrained scope of their authority.

In the context of political power, the wicked tend to prosper, that is, they tend to become powerful precisely because it is so important to them to become powerful. The truth of this insight from public choice theory can also be applied more generally to the prophetic concern.

Why do the wicked prosper? The answer is in part, at least, because the wicked under examination here are the ones who are so attracted to material or temporal gain that they are willing do to pretty much anything to get it. They often achieve their goals, and thus prosper in this limited sense for a season. But in enabling them to achieve what they so desire, God allows their desire to become its own judgment.

A corollary to all this is that there is an obligation on the part of the church and other morally-formative institutions to do their best within their mandates to encourage and promote the development of those who might seek to exercise authority (whether political or otherwise), not as selfish knaves but as suffering servants. Since there are no systems or structures that are incorruptible, it is perhaps just as important to develop non-knavish leaders as it is to limit the scope of any particular leader’s power.

Rick-Warren-PhotoIn response to the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church, has released a statement at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty:

…The government has tried to reinterpret the First Amendment from freedom to PRACTICE your religion, to a more narrow freedom to worship, which would limit your freedom to the hour a week you are at a house of worship. This is not only a subversion of the Constitution, it is nonsense. Any religion that cannot be lived out … at home and work, is nothing but a meaningless ritual.

Some flippantly say ‘A business cannot be a Christian’ but the truth is, every business is either moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, depending the values they base their business on. When the government starts coercing businesses to violate their religious, moral, and ethical values, that is a flagrant violation of our Constitution.

I predict that the battle to preserve religious liberty for all, in all areas of life, will likely become the civil rights movement of this decade…Regardless of your faith, you should pay attention to this landmark case, and pray for a clear victory for freedom of conscience.”

Read the full statement here.

G. K. Chesterton
(one of the founding fathers of distributism)

Today at Ethika Politika, in response to a few writers who have offered, in my estimate, less-than-charitable characterizations of capitalism, I ask the question, “Which Capitalism?” (also the title of my article). I ask this in seriousness, because often the free economy that people bemoan bears little resemblance to the one that many Christians support. In particular, I ask, “Which Capitalism?” in reference to the following from Pope John Paul II, who outlines in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (no. 42) two different forms of capitalism as follows:

The first is “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” that “is the victorious social system” since the fall of the Soviet Union and that “should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society.” The second is “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious.”

All three of the authors I take issue with are Roman Catholic and two of them have voiced their support for distributism as an alternative to capitalism. However, I ask with all sincerity, “[S]hould not distributists be asking whether distributism is a form of capitalism, rather than setting it up as an alternative to capitalism?” Given the high praise given by Pope John Paul II to capitalism, rightly understood as the free economy, ought not distributists simply be arguing that they, perhaps, have some valuable insights for supporters of capitalism, rather than opposing distributism to capitalism, uncharitably understood? (more…)

As we reap the benefits of market exchange and observe the many achievements of free trade and globalization, it’s easy to give credit to the market itself, either ignoring or forgetting the supporting individuals, communities, and institutions who actively leveraged it for the common good.

Capitalism is, after all, a mere framework for human engagement. Although the constraints it imposes (“thou shalt not steal”) and the features it elevates (ownership, stewardship, risk, and sacrifice) may fit well within a broader Christian context, it says more about what we can and can’t do than what we might or might not imagine or accomplish.

As Michael Bull recently explained, through capitalism’s continuous process of value creation, it is in many ways similar to a “biblical covenant structure”:

Good businessmen understand how it works. It invariably necessitates the risk and sacrifice of what we now possess for a greater reward. Steve Jobs told us that, and demonstrated it again and again. It takes money to make money. This requires faith in the one who made the promise, even though business people do not recognize the source of the abundance is the hand of God.

Yet, of course, it is different:

God calls Man to work, which involves risk (faith), a sacrifice and some obedience to laws (which include natural and business laws), which will bring fulfillment of the promise — a greater abundance than what you sacrificed. That is where capitalism ends, but it is not where Covenant ends, and here is the problem for which socialism is tendered as a solution. (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the relationship between sacrifice and self-interest. One of the common complaints against market economies is that they foster selfishness.

But as Paul Heyne points out, it is crucially important to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness: “Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.” The failure to make such a distinction leads to some pretty strange conclusions about the motivations behind human behavior. If you want to know why people work, just look at what they do with the money they earn.

To this end, I also highlight the perspective of Herman Bavinck, who describes the rhythmic relationship between the spheres of family and work:

Through the family God motivates us to work, inspiring, encouraging, and empowering us to work. Through this labor he equips us to survive not for the sake of satisfying our lusts but for the sake of providing for our family before God and with honor, and also to extend the hand of Christian compassion to the poor.

We go out to work to provide for our families, and we return home from work to enjoy and share the fruits of our labors. We do this daily, in fact. There is a deeply intimate connection here in the cycle between home and work, the dual aspects of the cultural mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 9, 2012

Article: “The Ethics of Digital Preservation”
Peter Johan Lor and J.J. Britz. “An ethical perspective on political-economic issues in the long-term preservation of digital heritage.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61, no. 11 (November 2012): 2153-2164.

The article provides an overview of the main ethical and associated political-economic aspects of the preservation of born-digital content and the digitization of analogue content for purposes of preservation. The term “heritage” is used broadly to include scientific and scholarly publications and data. Although the preservation of heritage is generally seen as inherently “good,” this activity implies the exercise of difficult moral choices. The ethical complexity of the preservation of digital heritage is illustrated by means of two hypothetical cases. The first deals with the harvesting and preservation in a wealthy country of political websites originating in a less affluent country. The second deals with a project initiated by a wealthy country to digitize the cultural heritage of a less affluent country. The ethical reflection that follows is structured within the framework of social justice and a set of information rights that are identified as corollaries of generally recognized human rights. The main moral agents, that is, the parties that have an interest, and may be entitled to exercise rights, in relation to digital preservation, are identified. The responsibilities that those who preserve digital content have toward these parties, and the political-economic considerations that arise, are then analyzed.


Blog author: jballor
Friday, October 12, 2012

Panel: “Why Morality-Free Economic Theory Doesn’t Work”

“Why Morality-Free Economic Theory Does Not Work: A Natural Law Perspective in the Wake of the Recent Financial Crisis.” The recent worldwide financial crisis has revealed a serious flaw in current thinking about markets and morals. Contemporary legal theorists and political economists commonly assume that markets can (and even should) provide morally neutral zones for the exchange of goods among free persons, constrained by nothing other than the laws of contract and the imperatives of self-interest. Professor Bruni’s lecture will challenge this dominant assumption, and will offer an alternative, ‘natural law’ perspective on the interrelatedness of markets, morals, and human sociality.