Posts tagged with: Social philosophy

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.
(more…)

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.”

(more…)

"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.

(more…)

Today at Ethika Politika, Fr. Gregory Jensen, a contributor to the PowerBlog as well as other Acton publications, explores the potential of the Orthodox Christian ascetic tradition as a response to the paradox of American individualism:

We come to know each other in our uniqueness “only within the framework of direct personal relationships and communion…. Love is the supreme road to knowledge of the person, because it is an acceptance of the other person as a whole.” Unlike the more theoretical approaches we alluded to above, to say nothing of our own neurotic strivings, love doesn’t “project on the other person” our own “preferences, demands or desires.” Rather love accepts the other as he or she is, “in the fullness of [his or her] uniqueness.” This is also why our highly individualistic culture struggles with a whole range of problems related to sexuality. It is “in the self-transcendence and offering of self that is sexual love” where husband and wife learn to live in mutual acceptance of each other’s uniqueness (Yannaras, p. 23).

For the theological anthropology of the Orthodox Church, “‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person” (p. 22). Christian asceticism has as its goal the liberation of the truly personal from the merely individualistic. In the full and proper sense, moreover, the liberty that ascetical struggle offers is not simply an absence of constraints (a “freedom from” if you will) but a “[p]erfection and sanctification” that makes possible the person’s “restoration to the fullness of [his or her] existential possibilities” and so to be what he or she “is called to be — the image and glory of God” (p. 109).

Read more . . .

If we assume that the institutions of civil society, like churches, recreation centers, fantasy football leagues, and book clubs are essential for a flourishing society, it becomes very important to determine how such institutions are developed, maintained, and promoted.

For thinkers as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Kuyper, and Pope Paul VI, the realm of civil society provides an indispensable area of connection and protection between the individual person and the political order. In Quadragesimo anno, Paul VI writes of the need for “the reform of institutions,” necessary in part because of “the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State.”

It is at this point that Paul VI invokes the principle of subsidiarity, which is dependent upon and recognizes the rich variegation of human social life, which consists in human identity not only in terms of the individual citizen and the political order, but also in the human person as friend, co-worshiper, family member, co-worker, neighbor, and so on. One of the things most pressing for Paul VI was the idea that these institutions of civil society needed to be strengthened, not only for their own good but also for that of the political order itself and even more broadly for the common good: “for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

How do we reinvigorate civil society once it has declined? How do we help build up what has atrophied? These are questions that are vital for moving beyond a false dichotomy of market and state or individual and state, not only conceptually but practically. As Matthew Kaemingk writes, “Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.” But if associations of civil society help lead to these outcomes, what helps lead to associations of civil society?

Melissa Steffan reports at Christianity Today this week on some research that bears on aspects of the necessary answers to these questions. Steffan writes, “Parents considering whether or not to send their children to private school can now weigh more than just tuition and curriculum. According to a new study from professors at Calvin College, the affiliation of a high school student’s school significantly impacts his or her sense of civic duty.”

She is referring to a new article from Jonathan Hill and Kevin den Dulk, “Religion, Volunteering, and Educational Setting: The Effect of Youth Schooling Type on Civic Engagement,” which appears in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
(more…)

In a story about looming budget cuts associated with the federal sequestration, Acton Research Fellow Kevin Schmiesing was called on by Aleteia to suggest “ways Catholic social teaching might be used to guide the cuts.” Schmiesing pointed out that the “cuts” are really “only a slow-down in the rate of growth in federal spending.” More:

“Much more dramatic cuts and/or revenue increases are needed to reach a position of fiscal responsibility,” he said in an interview. But the principle of “solidarity,” from Catholic social teaching, he suggested, would guide specific cuts in spending to be made in a way that “expresses shared responsibility for our nation and its problems.”

“For example, firing a lot of lower staffers while preserving intact the comfortable salaries and benefits of the higher-level staffers might be seen as a violation of solidarity,” he said. “It puts all of the sacrifice on one segment of the population.”

Schmiesing suggested too that cuts should be “managed in a way that encourages rather than undermines the institutions that operate at a level more local than the federal government.” This would be based on the principle of subsidiarity, which, to cite one example, would be violated by “closing a military base – cold turkey – that serves as the foundation of a local community comprised of families, churches, and businesses.”

In addition, budget decisions “must keep foremost in mind the effect on those who are most vulnerable,” Schmiesing said. “It would not be in line with Catholic social teaching (and its principle of a preferential option for the poor) to preserve inviolate the comfortable salaries of upper middle class bureaucrats while at the same time firing” lower-wage office staff.

Read “The Concrete Impact of Sequestration” on Aleteia.com

The February issue of Sojourners magazine presents various perspectives on the surge in evangelicalism’s interest in exploring new national and international peace initiatives. For example, The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Initiative acknowledges “that in our zeal for evangelism, we have often overlooked the biblical mandate to pursue peace. We commit ourselves anew to this mandate within our homes, churches, communities, and among the nations.” Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) promotes itself as an evangelical organization that “consistently campaigns at the grassroots and policy level for a world that is pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-creation care.” “We want Christians to look deeply, act justly, and love radically,” says ESA.

Justice and peace are, of course, themes we can all support. What Christians are there in the world who are pro-war and pro-injustice? Even with these themes, however, is it possible that those who are oppressed and suffering need more than a society that is merely peaceful and where people are acting justly? Because “peace” and “justice” are normally situated in light of negative realities, more often than not, the discourse tends to focus on what we should not do in society instead what allows people to be free to live out their vocation to be human. The solutions offered tend to narrowly focus on lofty hoped for visions that deny trade-offs necessary in a broken world.

Additionally, we find the surprising promotion of a ruling class of elites in government having concentrated decision-making power over those with less money and less political power, rather than considering ways to allow people to make decisions that empower them to seek their own solutions to meeting their needs. We need to do more than “end slavery” or “end poverty.” We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how we can put people in positions, in accordance with their design by their Creator, to live well. In other words, we need to focus our attention on human flourishing.

In a 2003 article on human flourishing,” Dr. Edward W. Younkins helps us get a sense of the advantages of focusing on human flourishing: (more…)

Blog author: jsunde
Thursday, February 7, 2013
By

Nation-of-takersJordan Ballor recently reviewed Nicholas Eberstadt’s A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, pointing out in some additional commentary that when “government is contiguous with society…perhaps our conceptions of ‘making’ and ‘taking’ need some re-examination.” Today, he connects some more dots, including a helpful reference to Herman Bavinck.

In my own review of the book at Values & Capitalism, I offer a similar response, focusing particularly on William Galston’s critique of Eberstadt, which is included in the book itself. Whereas Eberstadt can be overly dichotomous in his categorizing, Galston gives way to a blurrying impulse.

Galston’s primary critique of Eberstadt’s maker-taker paradigm is that his emphasis on “dependency” is over-hyped and undeserved. “The moral heart of this fiscal challenge is not dependence,” Galston writes, “but rather a dangerous combination of self-interest, myopia, and denial.” For Galston, dependency is a natural and healthy part of any society. Thus, as long as all the giving and taking balances out, who cares about the particular channels of exchange?

As I summarize in my review:

For Galston, the steep climb toward increasing entitlements is only a dangerous hike if we fail to tax the citizenry accordingly. While Eberstadt emphasizes that there is more to this lopsided situation than mere lopsidedeness, Galston struggles to understand why “dependence” and “entitlement” are features to be avoided in and of themselves, pointing out that planning for long-term security through a giant bureaucracy is no different than putting one’s life savings in a retirement annuity. “I do not see why transferring this case to the public sector makes a moral difference,” he writes.

If this rash conflation of distinct social and institutional orders weren’t enough, Galston goes further, comparing dependence on the state to the safety and security of the family. “We are in no way troubled when children depend on their parents,” Galston points out. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be … As long as we contribute our share, taking is morally unproblematic. We can be a nation of takers, as long as we are a nation of givers as well.”

Father/daughter = Obama/serf?

Potato potahtoe, tomato tomahtoe. (more…)