Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category
This week, the Boston Herald revealed that Massachusetts welfare recipients have absolutely no restrictions on what they spend their government aid on:
Bay State welfare recipients can play the slots, pick up a six-pack of beer or nab a flat-screen plasma TV under loosey-goosey Bay State restrictions that allow those on the dole to treat taxpayers’ wallets as their own personal ATM.
Recipients of the Department of Transitional Assistance programs get Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work like regular debit cards, allowing them to withdraw cash from ATMs and use it for whatever they want – all with scant oversight by the state.
Two days before the Herald revealed this, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought federal permission to restrict the almost 2 million New York City food stamp recipients from using government-sponsored food stamps to buy soda and other sugary beverages. Bloomberg’s motivation is part of an overall anti-obesity campaign after a failed attempt to impose a “fat tax” on sodas (a move which everydaythomist supports). According to the NYTimes,
Public health experts greeted Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal cautiously. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said a more equitable approach might be to use educational campaigns to dissuade food-stamp users from buying sugared drinks.
“The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages,” Mr. Hacker said. “However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps.”
The fear of stigmatizing welfare and food stamp recipients is doubtless one of the reasons that Massachusetts and other states place no limitations on how government aid may be spent (the Herald also revealed that California welfare recipients spent $1.8 million in government aid on casinos). However, Bloomberg’s effort to restrict food stamp expenditure on sodas (which have no nutritional value) reveals that placing restrictions on how food stamps may be used can also be an act of justice.
Aquinas sees an important role for human laws in society, but his understanding of the role of law is contextualized within his understanding of virtue:
Man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training. Thus we observe that man is helped by industry in his necessities, for instance, in food and clothing. Certain beginnings of these he has from nature, viz. his reason and his hands; but he has not the full complement, as other animals have, to whom nature has given sufficiency of clothing and food. Now it is difficult to see how man could suffice for himself in the matter of this training: since the perfection of virtue consists chiefly in withdrawing man from undue pleasures, to which above all man is inclined, and especially the young, who are more capable of being trained. Consequently a man needs to receive this training from another, whereby to arrive at theperfection of virtue. And as to those young people who are inclined to acts of virtue, by their good natural disposition, or by custom, or rather by the gift of God, paternal training suffices, which is by admonitions. But since some are found to be depraved, and prone to vice, and not easily amenable to words, it was necessary for such to be restrained from evil by force and fear, in order that, at least, they might desist from evil-doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves, by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did fromfear, and thus become virtuous. Now this kind of training, which compels through fear of punishment, is the discipline of laws (I-II, Q. 95, art.1)
This is a long quote but it essentially means that the primary purpose of law is to restrain people from those vicious acts they are inclined to commit which prevent them from developing the virtue necessary to live a good life. Human law is rooted in the natural law, but, unlike the natural law, human law is not universal, but varies from group to group: “The general principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in the same way on account of the great variety of human affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws among various people” (I-II, Q. 95, art. 2, ad. 3). Moreover, citing Isidore, Aquinas affirms that human law should be “just, possible to nature, according to the customs of the country, and adapted to place and time” in order to foster discipline (I-II, Q. 95, art. 3, c.).
With this in mind, we can look at restricting welfare expenditure as an appropriate use of human law. Those who are on welfare and food stamps are, for various reasons (many of them good ones) dependent on the government in order to manage economically. Ideally, the goal (or telos) of welfare legislation is to allow economically disadvantaged individuals to flourish through the development of virtue. Unrestricted welfare aid may seem merciful in that it strives to protect such individuals from discrimination, but it also fails to provide the restrictions necessary for the development of virtue. By restricting food stamp and welfare expenditure for items like cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, and, yes, even sodas, the poor are taught through coercive legal measures, how to act in such ways that are conducive to the development of the virtues necessary to flourish, virtues like moderation in consumption, prudence in purchasing, and health in eating.
This may seem paternalistic and discriminatory, and, in a way, it is. But paternalism and discrimination are not necessarily counterproductive to the goals of justice, at least from a Thomistic perspective. Justice demands that each is given what is due to him or her, and if we are going to say that justice demands government expenditure for welfare and food stamps (which I think it does), then it is also perfectly reasonable and just to place restrictions on how such aid may be used in order to accomplish the just goals which justify its very existence. When people use welfare money on lottery tickets and cigarettes and alcohol, they are not becoming more virtuous; they are becoming dependent on nicotine, potentially abusive of alcohol, imprudent consumers, and more dependent on the government for their subsistence.
Restricting food stamp expenditure on soda may seem a step too far. However, the goal (telos) of food stamp money is to ensure that poorer individuals and families have access to the nutrition necessary to flourish. Soda is completely contrary to this telos. Sodas provide no nutritional value, and worse, contribute to obesity-related health problems that tax the healthcare system and endanger lives. Bloomberg’s proposal is discrimination, but it is a just discrimination which will hopefully receive the support the “fat tax” on sodas failed to get.
Despite the fact I hail from Boston College, I have not yet had the opportunity to immerse myself in the study of Lonergan. Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian famous for addressing methodological foundations in philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, and in particular for developing an ethical method of the mind. Lonergan wanted to know what the mind was doing when it made a moral judgment. Because of my interest in connatural knowledge and practical reasoning, I am beginning to turn to Lonergan for insights (no pun intended).
I just finished an excellent book by Mark J. Doorley called The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics: The Role of Feelings in the Ethical Intentionality Analysis of Bernard Lonergan. Doorley begins by reflecting on how “uneducated” people often were able to teach him more about an existential and moral commitment to God than any of his intense philosophical and theological studies had done. “How did they arrive at such a profound knowledge of God?” he writes in the Introduction. “Each spoke from the ‘heart,’ as they said. It was in their ‘guts’” (xiii). The question of how one could know “in the heart” or “in the gut” is the driving question of this book, to which Doorley turns to Lonergan for answers. He writes,
“Lonergan was interested in the human good and the way in which that good is to be realized through the cooperative efforts of human beings under the sway of the grace of God. His reflections on such a cooperative effort led him to wonder about human feelings. Moral effort is not merely a rational exercise. Feelings are involved as well” (xv).
Lonergan, in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, adopts a middle ground between emotivism and rationalism, rejecting that the emotions are either separate from or superior to reason, while also acknowledging that the emotions play a massive role in practical reasoning. However, this balance is a difficult one to strike (Thomas himself often does not achieve it, leaning more toward rationalism), and Doorley notes how Lonergan’s earlier work also reflects a tendency toward rationalism. In Insight (1957), Lonergan’s study of the conscious operations that function in human knowing, Doorley argues that Lonergan more often than not identifies the feelings “as obstacles to the operation of the unrestricted desire to know.” However, he holds this position with a certain level of ambivalence, recognizing the importance of feelings in decision-making. This ambivalence, as well as the influence of Max Scheler and Dietrich Von Hildebrand, allows him to develop a typology of feelings and an examination of their role in intentional decisions in Method in Theology (1972).
Borrowing directly from the work of von Hildebrand, Lonergan distinguishes between feelings as non-intentional states or trends like fatigue, hunger and anxiety, all of which occur independently of perception and/or apprehension, and intentional states or trends which occur in “answer to what is intended, apprehended, represented” (52, MT 30). Intentional feelings are ones which relate the human subject to an object like an apple, rather than a goal like relieving hunger (as with non-intentional feelings). His list, by no means inclusive, of intentional feelings include
our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our joys and sorrows, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror . . .(52, MT 31)
The important thing to note about these feelings is that they arise in the subject following the apprehension of some object, either real or imagined. I may wake up experiencing a non-intentional dread which becomes real intentional fear when I open my computer and apprehend my dissertation I am preparing to defend. I may experience non-intentional hunger, but I may also experience intentional desire for piece or rare seared tuna. Intentional responses respond to the specific content of the apprehension. This means that these responses follow knowledge. Citing von Hildebrand, Doorley writes that “one cannot respond with joy at the arrival of a friend unless one first has knowledge of the friend’s arrival” (53).
In order to better understand intentional responses, Doorley compares them to insights.
An insight is a supervening act. It adds to the data what is not intrinsic to the data as data, namely intelligibility. . . As with insights, intentional responses operate in relation to a presentation or an image. They operate, as well, in relation to an apprehended object or a possible course of action. Once these feelings occur, they are capable of directing the flow of consciousness. such direction influences the further images, further questions and further insights that might occur. Rather than becoming moments in the formation of a viewpoint, as insights do, intentional responses have the capacity to become vectors in the flow of consciousness (54).
Intentional responses, like insights, go beyond the empirically apprehended data (the empirical residue) and add something to the object, something that goes beyond a merely biological response. Such intentional responses move the subject from mere experience and response to a state of self-transcendence. A dog may desire a steak, and this is a kind of intentional response. But a human may desire a steak, and have that desire “sublated” to a higher level of consciousness which allows her to decide about the goodness of the steak, to transcend the mere empirical data to the immaterial round of goodness.
This brings us to Doorley’s argument that in Lonergan, there are two types of intentional responses, one to pleasure and one to value. The latter orient the subject to that which is valuable independent of the subject. According to the former, the farthest I get in emotionally responding to the steak is whether it is good for me. This is self-oriented response. An intentional response to value allows me to transcend myself and respond to the steak apart from my own subjective pleasure. This self-transcendence is made possible by my unrestricted desire to choose the good. Doorley writes,
The subject who allows this unrestricted desire, in both its cognitional and moral manifestations, to be the primary force in consciousness is one who is able to achieve cognitional and moral self-transcendence with some degree of regularity. Authenticity, then, is achieved when, and insofar as, the unrestricted desire to know and choose the good is the central dynamism of one’s existence. (75)
How does one allow the unrestricted desire to choose the good become part of one’s existence? By practice, by “painful yet persistent, practice” (77). This is the important part. If one does something, say, eats a steak, that action is grounded in a judgment that this action is good. Now, eating a steak could be good for myself in that it is tasty and juicy. But if I just restrict my judgment of value to what is good for me, I never really achieve that truly self-transcendent state where the unrestricted desire to choose the good is completely operative in my existence. To get there, I have to go beyond myself, to ask whether or not eating the steak is good for the cow, good for the environment, good for the economy. And if I decide that it is not, and I choose not to eat the steak out of concerns that go beyond my own pleasure, I am forming the habits necessary for moral self-transcendence:
The judgment of value, then, on the fourth level of consciousness plays a pivotal role between the intentional activity of the subject and his moral activity. A judgment of value presupposes the activities of experiencing, understanding and judging. It presupposes the process of deliberation which allows further questions to arise, discerns the movement of one’s feelings, and grasps the sufficiency of evidence for a judgment of value. The judgment of value is presupposed by a further process of practical reflection which issues a number of alternatives for action. These alternatives are then met by the deliberative question which seeks the best possible option. A comparative judgment of value, different from the simple judgment already mentioned, pronounces which alternative is the best. A decision chooses which alternative will be followed in accord with the prior judgment comparative judgment of value. And action realizes the value in question. The action itself is conditioned by a disposition in the subject to act in accord with the evaluations of conscious intentionality. (77)
Lest this seem too intellectualistic or rationalistic, the role of the feelings play a dynamic role here. The feelings help establish the horizon of a person, that is, the limit of her concern. A horizon is determined by past insights, judgments, decisions, and actions. If I decide to act out of concern for the cow who made my steak, this concern for animal life becomes part of my horizon. This forms the basis of future concerns for animal life. This means that it is possible for such an intentional response to value to arise in the future. We can compare this process with being in love. When a person is in love, their whole being is directed outward towards the beloved. The state of “being in love” provides the basis for all of her actions. This feeling establishes her horizon, expands it beyond herself, so that she acts in a way that is good for the beloved. To return to Doorley question at the beginning regarding the knowledge of God possessed by uneducated people, the reason is that their horizon is constituted by the love of God. As such, their judgments of value or at the height of self-transcendence. What they know, and what they are able to do, is established by an almost-limitless horizon.
It’s complicated stuff but we can break it down to a basic need to be attentive to one’s feelings, because one’s feelings reveal one’s values and the limit of one’s horizon (or sphere of concern). When one discovers that one’s values are self-centered, one can use the activity of reason to direct one’s concern outward, and to act in such ways as to expand one’s horizon and transcend mere self-regard. The feelings and the mind are mutually interdependent in satisfying the human desire to know and to choose the good. As Doorley concludes, the task of integrating one’s feelings into activities of consciousness reveals to a person that “she is the source of the person that she has become and that she is the source of the person that she might want to become. This is the beginning of moral conversion” (99).
I just got finished reading Wayne Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians. The “moral world” which Meeks analyzes here is more of the “social world” of the early Christians, that is, the cultural context which helped shape their worldview and moral judgments. This social world was a complex one, rooted partially in Hebrew culture and religion, and partially in Hellenistic culture and religion.
Meeks is not concerned here with a careful delineation of the specific moral judgments of the early Christians. There is no mention of what members of the infant church thought of homosexuality, of abortion, of divorce. Rather, Meeks has something much more comprehensive in mind than figuring out what Christians thought of particular issues—he wants to figure out the worldview which framed any particular moral decision. In other words, he wants to know how the first Christians engaged in moral reasoning, not what their specific conclusions were. This is what he calls “looking at ethics from the bottom up,”
[According to ethic from the bottom up] it is a perfectly proper form of ethical directive to say, for example to a child, “We do not do that.” Probably the response from the child, and perhaps also from the professional ethicist, will be, “Why not?” Very often that is an important question to ask, but there are other occasions when it may be more productive to ask a different question: Who are “we”? The question “Why?” calls for an explanation; “Who?” invites understanding. . . . Most, perhaps all, of the writings that now make up the New Testament, and a great many of the other earliest Christian writings as well, had as their primary aim the shaping of the life of Christian communities. Arguments and rules, of course, had their place in those writings, but we fail to understand the force of the arguments and rules if we take them out of the contexts in which they stand. A much more comprehensive process was going on, by which participants in the new movement we call Christianity were discovering a new identity–learning to think of themselves as”the churches of God,” “the holy ones,”"children of God,” “slaves of Christ,”"brothers and sisters,” “those for whom Christ died,” and so on. “Practice” or custom” was not something added to that process of developing identity, but an integral part of it. The writers repeatedly urge all the Christians to “exhort,” “admonish,” and”encourage” on another. The aim of such moral conversation is, as Paul puts it in another place, “that you should behave in a manner worthy of the God who calls you”(1 Thess. 2:12) (11)
Hauerwas fans will find much to be lauded in this description of ethics, and Meeks explicitly mentions Hauerwas’ term “communities of character” as particularly apt for describing what he is trying to describe as “‘character’ suggest the essential dialectic between community and self. Groups as well as individuals have character. Character signifies identity, and it implies specifically moral identity. Character takes shape, moreover, within a social process.” (11)
So who was this early Christian community? Meeks places heavy emphasis on the prominence of the Hebrew influence. In his chapter on Israel, Meeks surveys later wisdom literature (Sirach), Qumran, Philo, and the Rabbinic tradition as providing much of the basis of the symbolic world that the first Christians occupied, with a special emphasis on the themes of purity, Torah, and a moral interpretation of history (i.e. God’s intimate involvement in the trajectory of history). The early Christians drew explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that they did not with other literature of their social world (e.g. Homer or Plato).
However, Greece and Rome also provided much of the substance of the early Christians’ moral world, particularly the philosophical traditions of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism. It is from the Romans and Greeks that the first Christians learned to think of the polis, of the virtues, of ways of conceptualizing pleasure, of the legal process. Even for Christians who did not study the legal, literary, and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, their was a top-down transmission of the ideas of the academic elite to the masses.
In chapter 4, after surveying the great traditions of Greece, Rome, and Israel, Meeks compares the social forms of the early Christian communities with those of the surrounding cultures, first by comparing the early Christian communities to messianic Jewish sects, and second with household associations in the polis. In chapter 5, he turns to the “grammar of early Christian morals,” examining both canonical (1 Thess. and 1 Corinithians) and non-canonical sources (The Didache, Iraneus) in order to discern the “grammar of their sensibilities and their behavior, which of course includes the force of ideas” (125). The goal of this chapter is to show how the first Christians were “re-socialized” into a new distinctively Christian symbolic world.
What does this volume teach us? It teaches us that the ethics of the first Christians was not a deductive process of applying certain principles, rules, and norms to concrete issues. Rather, the ethics of the first Christians was an inductive process of first figuring out who they were, and then discerning what behavior was appropriate to that sort of identity. The parallels with contemporary virtue ethics should not go unnoticed, and MacIntyre’s useful summary of virtue ethics as asking three questions (Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there?) definitely seems operative in Meeks’ understanding of ethics.
What is useful about such an approach for our contemporary world is that it allows us to see Christian ethics not as something fixed and unchanging, but rather a dynamic process of identity influencing behavior. Thus, to figure out what the “Christian” way to behave in our world today, Meeks would not advocate turning to the Scriptures for specific rules of conduct to apply:
We cannot every fully know the world of the early Christians; still less can we re-create it. to be sure, those movements in the history of Christendom which have sought to restore the church to its “primitive” purity, from the Montanists to the Campbellites, have released powerful currents of change. Yet what they in fact brought about was inevitably something unlike the past. there is no time machine. We must live in our own world, which is irreversibly different from the of the first Christians (162).
Moral concepts like “duty,” “virtue,” “sin,” and “purity,” had very different meanings for the first Christians than for Christians today because they occupied very different symbolic worlds than we do. We Christians today have formed our own synthesis from the influence of the various symbolic worlds we occupy (post-Enlightenment rationalism, humanism, scientific empericism). Thus, we must live with the messy understanding that what we deem sound Christian moral judgments regarding sexuality, political involvement, the economy, and the environment are largely syntheses of the moral worlds around us, influenced of course by the literary and living tradition of the Christian church. We must be willing to accept change, not because there is something inadequate about an earlier form of Christian ethics, but because that earlier form is not our own and can never be recovered. As Meeks concludes,
In the first generations of Christians, we see many people who have a kind of double vision. Two different kinds of symbolized universe overlap in their minds and in their social experience. . . . Somehow, they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find a way to do that. There were many disagreements, many alternative ways, some of which failed. From them everyone who craves a vision of a juster, kinder world, everyone caugt not merely between what is and what ought to be, but between conflicting certainties, disparate but impinging maps of what is, all may have something to learn” (162).
As the owner of several energy-efficient light bulbs and a recycled umbrella, I’m familiar with the critiques of “ethical consumption.” In some cases, it’s not clear that ostensibly green products are better for the environment. There’s also the risk that these lifestyle choices will make us complacent, sapping the drive to call senators and chain ourselves to coal plants. Tweaking your shopping list, the argument goes, is at best woefully insufficient and maybe even counterproductive.
But new research by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto levels an even graver charge: that virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. In their study (described in a paper now in press at Psychological Science), subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal. . .
. . .[T]he findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as “moral credentials” or “moral licensing.” Historically, psychologists viewed moral development as a steady progression toward more sophisticated decision-making. But an emerging school of thought stresses the capriciousness of moral responses. Several studies propose that the state of our self-image can directly influence our choices from moment to moment. When people have the chance to demonstrate their goodness, even in the most token of ways, they then feel free to relax their ethical standards.
This article illustrates the difference between an act-based and a virtue-based morality. According to an act-based morality, certain actions are right and wrong, and hence to be good, you simply need to perform the right actions and avoid the wrong actions. A virtue-based morality says that not only actions, but also dispositions or attitudes are necessary for an action to be good. In other words, it is not enough to simply do the right thing but you must also do it for the right reason.
When it comes to buying eco-friendly products, we assume that the act itself is virtuous. Clearly, a person who buys organic produce and local meat is better than a person who does not, right? But a virtue ethicist like myself would say that we need to look deeper and examine the motives and character from which our people are acting. Does the person buying organic and local really love the earth and want to do what is best for the environment, or are they just buying these products because they want to look good for their friends or because they want to feel good about themselves?
In general, I think that buying eco-friendly products only makes us virtuous if we do so mindfully, using our reason to examine and shape our inclinations. And we need to recognize that just because we decide to start buying eco-friendly products, these acts alone don’t immediately make us virtuous. Aristotle famously said that it takes more than one sparrow to make a spring, and so too, more than one act to make a virtue. Buying eco-friendly products is only truly virtuous if these actions proceed from a deliberate will motivated by love of the environment, ecological restraint, and moderation in consumption. And thus concludes the article:
Another strategy is to make worthy actions habitual. When volunteering at the soup kitchen—or turning off unused lights—becomes routine, you’ll stop basking in that halo every time. Cultural norms are also key. If everyone is driving a Prius and taking the stairs, I won’t feel so smug about doing the same. Now, for instance, I don’t feel heroic when I sort the paper and plastics and take the blue bin out to the curb. That’s just what people in my neighborhood do on Monday nights.
A decade or two ago, buying green products and other environmentalist measures might have just seemed idiosyncratic. Now such conduct is widely lauded—which is precisely why, according to researchers, it may be capable of producing this behavioral backlash. But, for the most part, it’s not yet a matter of course. What’s the lesson here? Let’s stop congratulating each other—and ourselves—for using nontoxic cleaning products and compost bins. After all, it’s really the least we can do.
This past weekend I was in San Jose, CA for the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE). As with any conference, you have to be discriminating about which of the concurrent sessions you attend, and this year’s meeting had some great ones.
Bill Mattison, editor of New Wine, New Wineskins and author of the introductory textbook Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues presented a paper that is part of a forthcoming book entitled “The Beatitudes and Christian Ethics: A Virtue Perspective.” The paper argued that the beatitudes be understood in the context of classical (meaning largely Greco-Roman) notions of happiness (eudaimonia) and virtue. Mattison argued that the relationship between the two parts of each beatitude in Matthew’s gospel can be understood as a relationship between “qualifying conditions” and a fulfillment or intensification of the qualifying condition as reward. As such, the beatitudes are not meant to be understood as a simple reversal of the unpleasant situation Christians find themselves on earth, but rather that the virtuous activities Jesus calls his disciples to offers a foretaste of what they will enjoy fully in eternity. In other words, both the qualifying condition and reward are activities which are intrinsically related.
For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the Kingdom of God,” according to Mattison is not just a simple reversal of the condition which those who are poor in spirit find themselves in. Rather, being poor in spirit is an activity, namely, the activity of not clinging to material possessions, an activity which finds its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” identifies an activity, namely desiring justice, which continues and is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.
Mattison had to stretch at times to show how the qualifying condition is a continuation, rather than a reversal, in the reward state, but once you work out the kinks, the point, I think, is a sound one: Jesus does not offer an otherworldly ethic in Matthew’s beatitudes. Rather, he calls his disciples to be the people that they will most fully be in the Kingdom of God. Discipleship offers us a foretaste of what in heaven we will possess completely. And so, in this sense, Jesus really is calling his disciples to be “happy” in the beatitudes.
One of the largest criticisms Mattison’s paper received in the discussion was that he relies too heavily on Greco-Roman, and mostly Aristotelian, ideas of happiness in his interpretation of the beatitudes. Mattison has good reason to do so, and he can cite a litany of early church theologians who interpreted the beatitudes in such a way. But Mattison also has a good precedent for his understanding of happiness in the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, all of which was written about three hundred years before the time of Christ, in a Hellenistic culture. Mattison’s argument would gain more of a hearing among more biblically-oriented theologians and ethicists (i.e. Protestants) if he took the effort to show the solid Hebrew scriptural foundation for his interpretation.
There was a great panel on “The Neurosciences and Theological Anthropology” featuring the Hastings Center Sidney Callahan, Marilyn Martone from St. John’s, and Maryann Martone from UCSD. This interdisciplinary discussion incorporated biomedicine, psychology, and theology regarding issues like the adaptive unconscious, the role of interpersonal relationships in brain development, and the moral status of the severely mentally handicapped.
Marilyn Martone gave a very moving personal reflection on caring for her daughter, who, following a car accident, was in a falsely-diagnosed irreversible vegetative state. Martone’s daughter, Michelle, now lives at home, and though she has made significant, though unpredicted progress, she is still dependent on round-the-clock care from her parents. Martone reflected on how she used to place lemon-flavored glucose sticks on her daughter’s tongue and rub her hands with aromatherapy lotion, despite the fact that doctors told her that Michelle was unaware of these efforts. “I didn’t know if she knew what I was doing,” noted Martone tearfully, “but I treated her like she did.” Martone’s lesson is this: Science and medicine cannot give us the full scope of what it means to be human. Much of humanity is an acceptance of the other in love and in faith. We do not know if the unborn, if those in a persistent vegetative state, or if the severely handicapped are fully human, but, as Martone argues, we should treat them as if they are.
Martone’s presentation was a healthy antidote to our empirically-minded society which is increasingly turning to science to answer the question about what it means to be human. Works like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Hauser’s The Moral Mind, and Haidt’s The Happiness Project are assuming an increasingly more significant status in our societal discussions on the deepest questions of human behavior, values, and meaning. Martone reminds us that these materialist pursuits are an asset in our study, but cannot take the place of philosophical and theological reflection, and above all, personal experience in human relationships.
Another panel featuring Stanley Hauerwas, Cathleen Kaveny, and Michael Sherwin, discussed the 2009 document released by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled “In Search of a Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law.” Among the panelists, there was widespread consensus that the Vatican has moved past a wholehearted of the “new natural law,” pace Finnis, Grisez, and George, but as for what continuing significance the natural law will have in providing the basis for a universal foundational morality in a pluralistic society, the conclusions were less certain. Hauerwas, in his typical Hauerwasian fashion, insisted that natural law should not provide the basis for a universal ethic, but rather articulates what Christians already know to be the case. On MacIntyre’s point (see the new collection of essays just released from Notre Dame) that the ten commandments can be derived with only a minimal amount of practical reflection, Hauerwas was adamant: “Do you think, with only a minimal amount of reflection apart from a theological ethic, we can conclude that ‘Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy’ refers to Jesus’ resurrection?”
By far the best two sessions I attended, however, were on untraditional topics in Catholic ethics. Dan Scheid, a former colleague of mine, gave a marvelous paper putting the eco-ethics of Jim Nash in dialogue with the Catholic moral tradition. Unfortunately, Dan was part of a panel of friends and colleagues of the late Jim Nash who wanted to do more anecdote-sharing than scholarly reflection, but Dan’s paper was bright spot in an otherwise dull and internecine session.
Dan used as a jumping-off point Nash’s idea that human beings are “altruistic, creative predators” to articulate four significant points of divergence between Nash’s eco-ethics and the Catholic moral tradition. First, creation has an intrinsic goodness which should demand of Christians to extend the love of neighbor to the love of creation. However, nature is a realm of violence with which human beings can never be in complete harmony with. The biophysical reality of the created world is such that creatures kill other creatures, but humans in their privileged position in creation (this is Dan’s second point) can do so creatively and responsibly, minimizing the harm we cause by subjecting our predatory powers to the power of reason. This is a good Thomist argument.
Third, the well-being of the poor, what might be called the preferential option, deserves a privileged place in any Catholic eco-ethic, and consequently demands of us an ethic of frugality, Dan’s fourth point. Dan recommends inculcating a sense of sacrifice in every death (an idea with wide support in the Hebrew scriptures—think about it . . . when do the Hebrews eat meat apart from the ritual sacrifice time), a forgoing of human self-exceptionalism in order to extend moral concern to all creation, and a sense of subversiveness in a society in which over-consumption is the norm.
Dan’s paper helps us reflect on how virtue ethics might gain a more universal scope, how we might, for example, conceive of temperance as an environmental virtue, or justice (giving to others their due) may be extended to non-rational creatures. I think his paper foreshadows the future direction of virtue ethics, and his commendable effort to put the 13th century virtue ethics of Aquinas in dialogue with the twentieth-century Protestant ethics of Nash indicates the widespread agreement that Christians can reach on even the most controversial matters like a sustainable eco-ethic.
Finally, and in great continuity with Dan’s paper, David Clough gave a paper entitled “The Future of the Animal in Christian Ethics: Beyond a Politically Motivated Silence.” Clough spent the first part of his paper systematically and quite convincingly arguing against a theological basis within the Christian tradition used to support the exploitation of animals (think Genesis 9). Clough argues that this theological argument for the supremacy of humans at the expense of all the rest of creation has its origin in Stoicism, with its emphasis on the preeminence of the rational powers in the order of creation, not in Judaism. Clough reads Genesis 9 not as a de-emphasis of the importance of non-rational humans, but rather as an emphasis on God’s graciousness towards human beings in light of the fallen state of the natural order. Clough draws on the relevant passages from the Hebrew prophetic literature in addition to Romans 8 and the opening of Ephesians and Colossians to argue that Scripture provides a sound basis for the belief that God’s redemption will extend to all of creation, not merely those with a rational soul.
Although a Barthian, Clough redeems Aquinas from those who would use him to support the exploitation of non-rational animals through such practices as animal research, intensive farming, and inhumane slaughtering. In Thomas’ cosmology, there exists a three-fold hierarchy, whereby first, all created things exist as an end in themselves (and are loved by God accordingly); second, lesser creatures are subject to greater creatures in that plants which have only a vegetative soul are subordinate to animals who have a sensitive soul, and non-rational animals are subject to rational animals; and third, all creation is subordinate to God and exists not just in and for itself, and for the sake of the greater in the hierarchy, but predominantly for the glory of God.
As such, Clough argues that we need to reclaim this first point in the Thomistic hierarchy and, in contemplating the moral treatment of non-rational animals, determine how it is that God created them to exist in and for themselves. This helps us to avoid the naïve tendency to idealize the wild and argue for the release of all domesticated creatures to the untamed woods from whence they came. But it also helps us to critically evaluate how we may unjustly subject the ends of non-human creatures to our own desires, thus thwarting the intrinsic teleology to the natural order. Intensively-raised animals are perhaps the most compelling example, in that such animals are raised and slaughtered in conditions of extreme suffering only to satisfy the enormous demand of the developing world for cheap meat. However, Clough does not shy away from the “fringe” cases. For example, we may assume that our pet German Shepherd is happy in his predator-free urban apartment where we feed him the finest organic dog chow and let him frolic on an extended leash twice a day on the sidewalk below, but Clough pushes us to examine how that dog’s telos is being fulfilled in our relationship with it. More often than not, we are willing to justify the unnatural status of the animals with which we relate merely to fulfill our own pleasure.
Clough’s talk was perhaps the most thought-provoking of all the talks I heard because it was on a subject that Christian ethicists are not really paying all that much attention to. “Look around at a conference like this,” noted Clough, “and see how many ethicists are choosing to eat vegetarian.” Indeed, the status of non-human animals will need to receive more systematic treatment in upcoming years as Christian ethics moves towards more environmental and social justice concerns. Unfortunately, both Dan and Clough’s talk were the two poorest-attended sessions which I attended. Which means, I take it, that the “new wine” still has some progress to make.
My esteemed adviser and I have been in an ongoing debate over the steamy summer months about the essence and ethics of golf. Initially, our conversation focused on whether or not golf was a sport. I argued based on the etymological root of “sport” coming from “disport,” meaning “to be lively or frolic” or “spiritus” meaning “life, breath, or wind” that to be a sport, a certain degree of liveliness, vigor, and activity that transcended that of ordinary activity, was necessary for the essential nature of a sport. Football, basketball, and hockey were clearly included; baseball was more tenuous. Golf, because the level of activity was lacking liveliness and vigor, could not be included.
My adviser argued (I think rightly) that the level of bodily motion of a golf player in full swing was both “aesthetically beautiful as well as intellectually complicated.” He went on to argue (I think wrongly) that such motion included a certain degree of liveliness, at least in the moment of the swing, that led gold to be rightly categorized in the realm of sport.
After a long discussion with my husband, we have established the following three essential criteria for a sport: (1) physical activity which, if using an instrument, requires that the instrument not be capable of acting on its own (baseball bats are acceptable; Nascar vehicles are not); (2) competition. That is, sports are something that are played against another party. So competitive golf could potentially be a sport whereas golf played alone or casually with a few buddies who don’t keep score may be an activity, but is not a sport. And finally, (3) a set of rules that maintain the integrity of the game and allow for clear winners and losers without a judge acting as a third party. So basketball is in, but gymnastics, which requires a judge to determine winners and losers would be an athletic activity but not a sport.
The debate about whether or not golf is a sport is fun, but my real vocation is in the realm of ethics. Thus I find this article from the New York Times Ethics Columnist Randy Cohen much more up my alley. Cohen examines the recent vote to include golf in the 2016 Olympics and the subsequent protests from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who, in response to the Olympic committee’s decision, denounced golf as a bourgeois sport and took measures to close some of Venezuela’s courses. My adviser wanted to know whether I had more in common with Chavez than I did the Olympics Committee.
Cohen, if you read the article, introduces his argument with some pretty arcane points like the facts that golfers are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, male, and conservative. He brings these issues up because they are probably what Chavez is referring to when he calls golf “bourgeois.” But the people playing golf are accidental to the ethics of golf in itself. So in that sense, I disagree with Chavez.
What I find much more convincing is the arguments (which Cohen raises though Chavez does not) is that golf in environmentally unsound. He writes,
Unesco warns of the lamentable consequences of building golf courses to attract international tourists: “An average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500 kg. of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.” Some courses have become more frugal with water, and a team of British scientists argues in “The Biologist” that “many golf courses actively promote nature conservation and harbour some of our rarest plant and animal species.” But it is hard to believe that the best-designed nature preserve includes 18 putting greens, or that even the most sophisticated golf course is better for the environment than no golf course at all. These considerations are putatively important to the Olympic Movement, which declares its intent “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport.”
An extraordinary amount of natural resources and labor go into maintaining golf courses, which are largely private and available to only a select few who can pay the extraordinary fees to gain the “rights” to play on such prime property. While some public course are available (16,000 nationwide, as Cohen notes), they still require exorbitant green fees. The golf course nearest to me charges anywhere from $25-50 in green fees, clearly precluding the vast majority of people from participating. From a market perspective, it makes sense to charge such high fees to participate–the upkeep of the course probably requires it.
But let’s think about what this upkeep entails. The course constantly needs to be watered, which, for 18 holes, is already quite a strain on at least one valuable natural resource. The green needs to stay green, which in most cases requires pesticides and fertilizers, which not only pollute the natural environment, but also cause chemical run-off that also contaminates neighboring environments and water supplies. And to build golf courses in the first place, you have to cut down trees and destroy existing ecosystems. As this article points out, golf courses cover more than 1.7 million acres and soak up nearly 4 billion gallons of water daily. All of this to feed an upper-middle class desire to play a game.
When ethicists talk about consumption of the environment and of natural resources, a word they throw around a lot is “sustainability.” Sustainability is based on the principle that current consumption practices in no way limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The question about the ethics of golf, to me, boils down to the question of sustainability. Obviously, there is no way to tell if future generations are being deprived by present golf practices. But we can say that generally, golf courses consume environmental resources without contributing anything in return. A farm which cuts down trees and uses fertilizer and consumes water at least produces a product that in some way allows that use of natural resources to be sustainable in the long run. But a golf course, at least as far as I can tell, contributes nothing accept some pleasure and some minimal athletic activity to mainly upper-middle class suburban folks.
The question of sustainability is also a question of virtue. Are we a society that is flourishing? That is, are we a society who is practicing social activities in such a way as to support and build up the common good? A society which is only interested in its present needs, and especially of meeting the need of satisfying the appetite of middle and upper-class individuals at the definite expense of the environment and the probable expense of the good of future generations is probably not a society which is striving for the common good.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that if you play golf and if you enjoy it and if you want to keep playing in the future you are in some grave way an unethical person. I am simply asking that we look at a widely-accepted society practice and question how this practice is forming us as a society. I am not convinced that a practice like golf, which consumes resources without contributing any resources in return, and which is a luxury that can only be enjoyed a select few with the prerequisite financial resources and leisure, is a practice that is making us a more virtuous society. Maybe Chavez has a point.
In New Wine, New Wineskins, Christopher Steck, SJ has an article entitled “Saintly Voyeurism: A Methodological Necessity for the Christian Ethicist?” In this essay, Steck notes the lack of attention to the personal qualities and character of the professional ethicist, and argues that contemporary Catholic moral theology should incorporate of his proposed method of “saintly voyeurism” into moral education. “Saintly voyeurism” according to Steck is a return to concrete models of Christian holiness as found in the stories of the saints in order to facilitate a neglected goal for the moral practitioner, namely, their own holiness.
Steck’s concern is that contemporary moral theologians are not sufficiently rooted in and transformed by the Christian story. On an institutional level, Steck complains that that there is insufficient support both from the church and the academy to support the development of catholic ethicists own development of Christian disciples as they practice their trade. He writes,
Achieving such a vision [of Christian discipleship for the professional ethicist] is complicated in the academic culture in which Catholic ethicists practice their trade. That culture is given shape by a constellation of values whose form does not align well with that of the field of Christian ethics, especially insofar as it is concerned with questions of what constitutes the holy life. This misalignment, I argue, is due in part to the dominance of rationalistic and acutely critical modes of contemporary research, along with a lack of concern for the personal moral character of the one engaging in research. . . More though needs to be given too how Catholic moral theologians can ‘form’ themselves into Christian ethicists and address issues of Christian discipleship and the holy life.
In essence, Steck’s concern is that not enough attention is being directed towards making ethicists more ethical, and within a Christian context, more holy. Instead, the virtues of the professional ethicists encouraged in the academy are the virtues which Steck identifies with scientific rationalism. They are
• Agorism: the virtue of argumentation and debate, or the “need to position one’s work in opposition to someone else’s and disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, [to] make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability” (28).
• Circumscription: the inclination against universalist or comprehensive claims
• Unmaking: a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion or “belief that truth claims conceal subtle and pernicious advancements of self-interest (whether personal, group, social, or institutional) and unconscious desires of power” (28-9).
Such critique-oriented rationalistic virtues have their advantages in the academy and particularly for scholarly research, but Steck worries that such virtues are not in themselves sufficient for the development of the scholar, and particularly the Catholic ethicist. That is, such virtues encourage intellectual competency but neglect other fundamental parts of the academician’s character. As Steck puts it, “Our ends [as scholars] are not just intellectual ones; they have to do with what brings us emotional well-being, psychological peach, and deep satisfaction about a life lived well” (30).
What we need in the academy, argues Steck, are spiritual practices that nurture a more comprehensive vision of the Christian life for the professional Catholic ethicist. That is, the Catholic academy needs institutionalized ways of encouraging Christian discipleship and Christian holiness among its professional ethicists.
What Steck recommends is a sort of “saintly voyeurism,” or as he describes it, “ethical reflection on the ordinary acts of a holy existence to better understand the demands of Christian discipleship” (36). Concretely, this takes the form of a kind of revised hagiography, a study of the lives and actions of the saints with an eye toward discerning which actions are most consonant with a saintly life. He quotes Richard McCormick who says “that the meaning of Christian discipleship is best gathered from the lives of the saints” (37):
Elizabeth of Hungary’s disobedience of her husband’s wishes in order to serve the poor, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s engagement with religious antagonism of her time, and Ignatius of Loyola’s apostolic choice to minister not only to the poor but to the powerful represent choices that raise interesting ethical issues for those wishing to better understand the saintly life.
Steck does not recommend an exact imitation of the saints, but rather a “casuistry at a distance,” that is, an observation of what sort of actions might be considered saintly in a given situation in order to train the ethicist’s own vision of holiness. This moral tutoring through hagiography can occur in five ways, according to Steck:
1. It can confirm for the ethicist the viability of the Christian vision, and strengthen the ethicist’s commitment to living as a Christian disciple even in the face of great adversity
2. Studying the lives of the saints can reemphasize the theological dimension of the Christian life by emphasizing such features as surrender, obedience, participation in the paschal mystery, and trust in the abiding power of love
3. The saints can offer new paradigms for how Christian discipleship can be lived out in changing historical situations
4. The lives of the saints can offer a context for examining how holiness can break through the trial and limitations of creaturely existence.
5. Finally, the saints challenge us always to respond to the situations we find ourselves in, rather than passively accepting the lot we are given. The saints give us options for our own lives for how to live out a life of holiness.
Christian moral theology is not simply a deductive or rationalistic science. It requires that its practitioner have a well-formed heart that is attuned to the Gospel and the values at its core. In an ideal world, Catholic moral theologians would be saints and scholars. However, Catholic ethicists now perform their trade in a context that often does not sustain the kind of Gospel vision associated with a saintly existence. The indifference of the academy toward traditional virtues and the loss of preconciliar spiritual practices within Catholicism leave Catholic moralists more susceptible than moralists of an earlier generation to an almost exclusively secular and narrowly rationalistic formation. . . . Scriptural mediation, prayer, devotional practices, and liturgical participation are just some of the practices that form the Christian into a disciple. But examining the lives of the saints, ordinary people achieving great moral character, is one practice that allows ethicists to practice their art—that is, scholarly reflection on human action—and thus represents a distinctive resource for moralists.
I think Steck is right on the money. I would recommend two developments to his argument. First, I think we need to accept the fact that much of the lives of the saints can be psychologized in today’s rationalistic environment, but that need not deter us from recognizing moments of great holiness or the fact that God has worked throughout history through very flawed individuals. My pet example is St. Catherine of Sienna who allegedly went seven years eating nothing but the Eucharist and occasionally some bitter herbs. Clearly, this part of her life seems psychologically unsound, and for good reason. However, the important point to be gleaned from a study of her life is that God inspired her to do great feats of holiness requiring great courage, like caring for victims of the plague and confronting the pope concerning matters of politics, despite the fact that she was a flawed, psychologically fragile and vulnerable individual. Clearly, a great lesson for us all.
Second, I would encourage Catholics to look beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to identify both historical and contemporary saints that were not necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. Due largely to my husband’s influence, I consider the Christian singer Rich Mullins a great saint. Mullins, inspired by the Christian message and anxious to live a life of Christian witness, gave his profits from his singing career to charity, and dedicated large portions of his life to charitable activities not associated at all with his career, like moving to a Native American reservation to teach the children there about music. When I listen to Rich Mullin’s music, I cannot help but be inspired by the vision of the Christian life he encourages both through his music and the story of his life. Clearly, Rich Mullins can be considered a contemporary saint for Catholics today.
I’m interested for all the professionals or soon-to-be professionals reading this post: (1) what role do the lives of the saints play in your own professional and personal life, and (2) what ways institutionally can you think of that you are encouraged to live a life of holiness within your profession, rather than a life of pure academic achievement?