Posts tagged with: Social philosophy

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).

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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.
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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
posted by on Thursday, February 7, 2013

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…)

I have wrapped up a brief series on the principle of subsidiarity over at the blog of the journal Political Theology with a post today, “Subsidiarity ‘From Below.’” You can check out the previous post, “Subsidiarity ‘From Above,’” as well as my introductory primer on the topic as well.

For those who might be interested in reading some more, you can also download some related papers: “State, Church, and the Reformational Roots of Subsidiarity” and “A Society of Mutual Aid: Natural Law and Subsidiarity in Early Modern Reformed Perspective.”

There’s also this recent coverage from the PowerBlog of a paper by Patrick Brennan and further responses (here, here, and here).

Ken Endo, who has done a great deal of work on the historical and legal background to the idea of subsidiarity, has a helpful summary of the two basic constructions as differing emphases of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism:

Founded on a strong sense of autonomy and self-determination that could be influenced by the Protestant tradition, the local municipalities and regions in Sweden and Finland considered subsidiarity indispensable if they are to join the European Community….

Their approach towards subsidiarity as well as that of Denmark and perhaps the Netherlands takes on a bottom-up character, and does not necessarily coincide with the conception of southern European countries, which are in general coloured by Catholicism.

Of this latter view, Endo is referring to the idea that “the Catholic Church presupposes the hierarchical view of Society in which all its components should be located in the ‘proper’ places. Moreover, the Church considers that other components of Society than the State are subordinated to the State in a harmonious way as if they were part of its body (to put it in a different way, in accordance with the common good.”

You can download the text of Endo’s lengthy essay, “The Principle of Subsidiarity: From Johannes Althusius to Jacques Delors,” in PDF form.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on 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.

The “culture war” is going to determine the future direction of evangelical political engagement, says Greg Forster. But Forster wonders why we can’t fight for justice in politics and build civic solidarity with our unbelieving neighbors:

We have a moral imperative to be the church militant and fight for justice; we also have a moral imperative not to impose Christianity on people by force. God did not create a chaotic universe. Therefore, a way to do both at the same time must exist. Our job is to find it.

I am a political guy and always have been. Politics affects every aspect of human life. The things we say and do in politics are the most important single factor controlling what people throughout society perceive to be just and unjust. That’s why we have such an important responsibility both to be involved in politics and also to keep our involvement faithful to real justice.

However, I have also come to realize how dangerous it is when political people like myself start to view everything in society as merely “downstream” from politics. Church, family, the economy, and other social spheres also have an effect on every aspect of human life, just as much as politics does. We have to preserve the integrity of these other spheres rather than merely subordinating them to politics.

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David Brooks recently took on the conservative movement for relying too heavily on pro-market arguments and tired formulas rather than emphasizing its historic features of custom, social harmony, and moral preservation.

As I’ve already noted in response to the Brooks piece, I agree that conservatism needs a renewed intellectual foundation brought about by a return to these emphases, yet I disagree that a lopsided devotion to “economic freedom” is what’s stalling us. If we hope to restore traditionalist conservatism, we’d do well to recognize that this means restoring economic conservatism along with it. Brooks is upset that dogmatic pro-market folks have seized the Republican Party, yet this is the same Republican Party that nominated the architect of Romneycare and can’t seem to get serious about the deficit.

Conservatism is faltering all around, and the reasons for each “sect’s” demise are more or less interrelated. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to restore a holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and economic strains together by grounding them both in Russell Kirk’s “enduring moral order.”

For David Brooks, restoration is all about “balance,” but for the true conservative, it needs to be about integration.
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