Posts tagged with: Social philosophy

One of the more famous quotes from the eminently quotable Lord Acton is his dictum, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” Actually, this appears in his writings in a slightly different form, as is seen below.

It is clear from the quote itself that Acton is contrasting two different views of liberty. But from the larger context we can rightly describe these two views as corresponding to Acton’s conception of the Catholic view of liberty in contrast to the modern view. Thus he writes,

There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state. It is founded on the divine origin and nature of authority. According to the prevailing doctrine, which derives power from the people, and deposits it ultimately in their hands, the state is omnipotent over the individual, whose only remnant of freedom is then the participation in the exercise of supreme power; while the general will is binding on him. Christian liberty is lost where this system prevails: whether in the form of the utmost diffusion of power, as in America, or of the utmost concentration of power, as in France; whether, that is to say, it is exercised by the majority, or by the delegate of the majority, — it is always a delusive freedom, founded on a servitude more or less disguised. (emphasis added)

The source of this quote is an essay on “The Roman Question” from The Rambler (January 1860), in which Acton considers the temporal power of the Roman pontiff in the context of modern revolutions.

One confirmation of the validity of Acton’s contrast, at least as regards the status of his definition of Catholic liberty, what we might identify as a basically Augustinian definition of liberty, is the appearance of this definition in an almost verbatim form in Pope John Paul II’s homily at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1995: “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

The newly released movies, Lone Ranger and Iron Man 3 both feature an evil capitalist as the villain. Writing at The American Spectator, Jonathan Witt addresses this common practice in Hollywood:

This media stereotype is so persistent, so one-sided, and so misleading that an extended definition of capitalism is in order. First a quick bit of housekeeping. Yes, there are greedy wicked capitalists—much as there are greedy wicked musicians, greedy wicked landscape architects, greedy wicked manicurists, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum—just as there are good people in each of these professions.

Now onto what capitalism is and isn’t. Capitalism is an economic system characterized by private (rather than state) ownership of businesses, a system where investments are determined by private decision, and where prices, production, and the distribution of goods and services are determined mainly by free choices in a free market overseen by the rule of law and stable property rights. In cultural terms, most of us are what you might call functional capitalists. At least when we’re not wrestling with theoretical abstractions, we buy, sell, trade, invest, donate; and we much prefer to do so free from the dictates of one or more government bureaucrats. (more…)

The right’s rhetoric is all about individual liberty, says Michael R. Strain, but love of fellow humans is essential to a functioning society — or policy.

Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.

Ryan argued that “the federal government has a role to play” with respect to community, but that “it’s a supporting role, not the leading one.” This is generally true. Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society — which exists in the space between government and citizen — can flourish. Speaking generally, government should help support these institutions, but it should not do their work for them.

But this is not to say that a communitarian ethic should be absent from politics and public policy — quite the opposite. Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies. Let’s discuss a few.

Read more . . .

Today at Acton University, Fr. Michael Butler gave an engaging lecture on the subject of Orthodoxy and natural law. Despite the contemporary ambivalence among many Orthodox (if not hostility) toward natural law, Fr. Michael argues that it is present in the Eastern Tradition from the ancient to the medieval and modern periods, focusing especially on the thought of the seventh century Byzantine Saint Maximus the Confessor.

A few months ago, I observed,

While it may be that there are important differences between a Thomist understanding of natural law and an Orthodox understanding of natural law, the historic difference is most assuredly not that Thomists accept it while the Orthodox do not.

Fr. Michael’s research further strengthens this statement and helpfully highlighted some of the similarities and differences between natural law in St. Maximus and that in Aquinas. The audio of his lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I will briefly share some of Fr. Michael’s insights here. It’s a little heady, but worth consideration. (more…)

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Thursday, June 13, 2013

AEI Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers is on a quest to reclaim feminism. Her new book, Freedom Feminism and Why It Matters Today, explores why so many women today reject the title of “feminist.” She discusses the topic further in the following video.

Michael J. Gerson’s encomium to Jim Wallis’ book on the common good includes this curious paragraph:

Nearly every Christian tradition of social ethics encompasses two sorts of justice. The first is procedural justice: giving people what they deserve under contracts and the law. The second is distributive justice: meeting some needs just because human beings are human beings. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism; confiscation is not compassion. But distributive justice requires a decent provision for the vulnerable and destitute. And this is not just a matter of personal charity. Social justice is more than crumbs from the table; it depends on the existence of social and economic conditions that allow people to live, work and thrive.

Gerson should be applauded for grappling with such substantive doctrines as the common good and social justice. It is certainly brave to do so within the confines of a short opinion piece.

But his treatment of these in the context of this short op-ed illustrate the difficulty of doing so in a responsible fashion. For one thing, the common good is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to get a handle on in the history of Christian moral reflection. In the end, Gerson summarizes it as “the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.” We might quibble with this description as not quite getting at the common good as a telos rather than a process, but given that he quotes John Paul II in the previous line, this isn’t that large of a quibble.

We might also note that even though it is commonly associated with modern Roman Catholic social thought, as Gerson notes, the idea of the common good is much more of a catholic legacy of Christianity shared by a variety of Christian traditions. See, for instance, Gerson’s claim that Wallis’ invocation of the common good is “further evidence of the intellectual advance of Catholic social teaching across Christian confessions.” I think this is probably true in the case of Wallis and many evangelicals, and in this Roman Catholic social thought has done a great service in preserving this inheritance and serving as a reminder and inspiration for those who have forgotten the place of the common good in their own tradition’s moral reflection.
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Does the free market encourage moral behavior? Virgil Henry Storr, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at George Mason University, recently wrote a report called “The Impartial Spectator and The Moral Teachings of Markets.” He addresses critics’ concerns that the free market brings out and nurtures human vices.

Countless commentators have stated that “engaging in market activity can be corrupting.” Storr highlights two notable quotes. Aristotle “believed that there was something unnatural about the kind of wealth getting that occurred in the market.” Karl Marx “believed that the market could transform man into a ‘spiritual and physical monster.’”

Storr, who is also Director of Graduate Student Programs in the Mercatus Center, addresses these famous claims with quotes from those who have “made the point that markets are moral training grounds where virtues are rewarded and cultivated.” Michael Novak stated that engaging in trade “teaches care, discipline, frugality, clear accounting, providential forethought … fidelity to contracts, honesty in fair dealings, and concern for one’s moral reputation.” Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says:

Capitalism has not corrupted the spirit. On the contrary, had capitalism not enriched the world by a cent nonetheless its bourgeois, antifuedal virtues would have made us better people than in the world we have lost. As a system it has been good for us.”

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"Help me help you."

“Help me help you.”

Yesterday in conjunction with this week’s Acton Commentary I looked at Tim Riggins’ gift of freedom to his brother and the corresponding sense of responsibility that resulted. When Tim takes the rap for Billy, Billy has a responsibility to make something of his life. As Tim puts it, that’s the “deal.”

When Tim feels that Billy hasn’t lived up to his end, it causes conflict. Tim’s gift has created an obligation for the recipient. This reality is on clearest display in this exchange between the two brothers:

Billy: “How long are you going to hold it over my head, man?”

Tim: “The rest of my life if I feel it needs to be.”

This hints at the shadow-side of much of our gift-giving as human beings, as this good thing can be turned into a way of manipulating, controlling, or holding “it over” someone.

Consider these words about Augustine and their implications for the kinds of gift-giving that we ought to pursue:

A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about. If such a thing as spiteful benevolence existed (which is impossible, of course, but supposing it did), a genuinely and sincerely merciful person would wish others to be miserable so that he could show them mercy!

The “spiteful benevolence” that drives much gift giving is actually intended to keep the recipient in a state of dependence, in a relationship that gives power to the giver which can be lorded over others. This, I think, is actually one of the key dynamics of much of the modern international aid movement. Aid can become a tool of a kind of neo-colonial policy.

It is this debased and corrupted form of gift-giving that has led so many to the extreme position which argues that true gifts require no response and inspire no responsibility. But as I argue this week, this abuse of the reality of gift is no argument against its proper use: “The connection between gift and gratitude invigorates a life of stewardship and responsibility.”

Elsa Walsh and her daughter - Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

Elsa Walsh and her daughter – Courtesy of Elsa Walsh

In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Elsa Walsh offers some healthy reflections on motherhood and career, hitting at some of the key themes I pointed to in my recent post on family and vocation.

She begins by discussing her own college-aged feminism, saying, “I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. I wanted love, but I wanted to be free.” With marriage and children, however, her views on freedom, family, and success would eventually change. “I’ve come to question many of the truths I once held dear,” she writes. “The woman I wanted to be at 22 is not the woman I wanted to be at 38 — not even close — and she is certainly not who I am now at 55.”

Tying things to the current discussion about women and career — driven largely by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead — Walsh notes that, much like the revolutionary feminism of the 1970s, there’s something narrow and unsatisfying in the way that womanhood and career are currently being discussed:

Every few years, America rightly plunges into a public and heated discussion about women and feminism, work and family. The latest round has been stoked by Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer, who have become symbols and participants in the argument over what women want. Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life. (more…)

Update: Acton now has a PDF of this article available. You can download a color or black and white copy of it here:

Gregg on Social Justice

Gregg on Social Justice (black & white)

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about “social justice” and what that term actually means. In order to provide some clarity, and precision, to better understand the concept, Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg, wrote an essay for Library of Law and Liberty , published today.

He begins by looking at justice generally:

Natural law ethics has identified justice as one of the cardinal virtues ever since Aristotle commenced his treatment of justice with the general notion of “legal justice” (the terms “legal” and “general” being more-or-less interchangeable). By this, he meant comprehensive virtue with regard to relationships with other persons. Justice-as-a-virtue was henceforth understood in this tradition as having a uniquely social dimension in the sense that one of its key elements is other-directedness.

As a virtue, general justice properly understood involves one’s general willingness to promote the common good of the communities to which one belongs. Here the common good should be understood as the conditions that promote the all-round integral flourishing of individuals and communities. Another element of justice which presents itself very early in the tradition is that of duty in the sense of what we owe to others. This is closely associated with a third element: equality. This should not be understood in the sense of everyone somehow being entitled to precisely the same, regardless of factors such as need or merit. Instead it means fairness as expressed in the Golden Rule. Injustice can after all involve doing things to people that entail no violation of any prior undertaking. Robbing someone, for instance, involves no breaking of any freely-entered-into agreement with the person from whom I steal. But does anyone doubt that an injustice has been done?

These three elements—other-directedness, duty (or what might be called rights today), and the Golden Rule—are closely linked and substantially overlap with each other. But attention to all three elements underscores that the same common good which is the end of general justice requires more than simply a broad inclination on the part of individuals and groups to promote the flourishing of others and themselves. On one level, as Aquinas specifies, it is a special concern of the rulers since they have a certain responsibility to promote the common good. But Aquinas also notes that it is a concern of every citizen: that is, those who participate in some way with the ruling of the community.

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