Archive for the ‘natural law’ Category

Pinker on Grammar and an Update on Human Nature

The Hub and I do the New York Times crossword puzzle in the evenings (since we do not have a television) and the Thursday Lewis Carroll theme provides the perfect opportunity to add to the last post on Pinker by briefly addressing his thesis on grammar which is related to his arguments in favor of a universal human nature. In The Language Instinct, Pinker quotes Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Pinker writes:

“As Alice said, ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!’ But though common sense and common knowledge are of no help in understanding these passages, English speakers recognize that they are grammatical, and their mental rules allow them to extract precise, though abstract, frameworks of meaning. Alice deduced, ‘Somebody killed something; that’s clear, at any rate–.’ And after reading Chomsky’s entry in Barlett’s ["Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"], anyone can answer questions like ‘What slept? How? Did one thing sleep, or several? What kind of ideas were they?’”

Pinker’s point is that human beings are born with an innate capacity for language, and despite the great differences in language, share a common biologically-determined grammar, a point originally made by Noam Chomsky. As the title of the book suggests, Pinker sees language as a characteristically human instinct, analogous to geese flying south for the winter. We are creatures who have evolved to use language. Even children born deaf will draw on this universal grammar to “babble” with their hands.

Like The Blank Slate, the arguments in The Language Instinct point to the evidence for some sort of universal human nature, a human nature which can be explored scientifically through genetics and evolutionary biology. However, there are implications for philosophy too. For example, by drawing on such evidence for a universal grammar or an evolutionarily-evolved shared human nature, can we enhance attempts to use natural law reasoning as the basis for cross-cultural dialogue on such issues as human rights? Can we provide scientifically-backed evidence for normative claims about what it means for individuals–and entire societies–to flourish? Can we talk about the virtues as a sort of “moral grammar” with differing and distinct content in different societies but sharing the same underlying structure? Does the universal ability to read and understand “Jabberwocky” point to the possibility not only of a universal grammar, but possibly a universal ethic?

On Wednesday, the Gasson Chair Professor for 2009-2010, Andrea Vicini, presented the annual Chair Lecture on the topic of natural law and possibility of a universal ethic. Although he gave only passing mention to the fields of cognitive psychology, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that collaboration with such fields will be critical for Vicini’s project–establishing natural law as the basis for cross-cultural and interreligious moral conversations. Natural law ethicists need to start reading Chomsky and Pinker in addition to Aquinas and MacIntyre.

Using Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball to Understand Alasdair MacIntyre

At the most basic level, what is Alasdair MacIntyre arguing in the foundational essay of Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law? He says in the conclusion of his opening essay that he is not arguing that “Thomists have resources that should enable them to refute their opponents in way that are or should be compelling to any rational individual, whatever her or his standpoint” (51). But he goes on to say

I do indeed believe that Thomistic Aristotelionism provides us all a well-founded and rationally justified moral philosophy, but I also believe that in the forums of rational public debate, by the best standards available for such debate, it will often be unable to defeat its critics and opponent.

In short, MacIntyre thinks that his Thomistic rendition of the natural law can be rationally defended even if it isn’t persuasive to people who disagree.

To illuminate this concept, we might turn to the great sage Bill Simmons. In The Book of Basketball’s “Most Valuable Chapter,” Simmons outlines a theory for picking the MVP that includes four criteria. The fourth, Simmons explains thusly:

If you’re explaining your MVP pick to someone who has a favorite player in the race—a player that you didn’t pick—will he at least say something like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like it, but I can see how you arrived at that choice’?

Simmons goes on to explain that he added this fourth criterion after his ’08 MVP column in which he picked Garnett for the MVP according his original three criteria (KG transformed the Celtics defensively in a way no other player in the league could do, added new leadership and revived a floundering franchise, and spawned a 42-win turnaround), but was still criticized for favoring the hometeam over more objectively-qualified picks, i.e. CP3. Simmons concludes that in retrospect, Chris Paul was a more rational choice for MVP because he could be defended to a prejudiced party: “any Lakers fan would disagree with Paul over Kobe, but at the very least they would have understood the logic. They wouldn’t have agreed with it, but they would have understood it” (227).

And this, I take it, is what MacIntyre is saying the Aristotelian-Thomist natural law tradition provides us. It gives us rationally-defensible moral arguments that may not convince those in deep disagreement, like utilitarians, but at least they will be able to understand the logic. Don’t you love how basketball helps us understand philosophy better?

The Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics

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.

Maybe WWJD is the Wrong Question

I’m spending the Christmas holidays with my in-laws and there is a lot of discussion about how different the values between the parents and the kids seems to be. The topic of these debates ranges from food (organic and local vs. economical), pastimes (urban activities like yoga vs. suburban activities like golf), alcohol consumption (enthusiastic vs. opposed), and attitudes (young professional cool-shoulder vs. Southern chattiness). Additionally, I am reading a collection of essays discussing Alasdair MacIntyre’s take on intractable moral disputes. All of this has me thinking about whether or not there is an objective universal morality, and if there is, how do we figure out what it is?

During the 17th-19th centuries, people assumed that there was some sort of objective universal standard of morality that transcended history and culture that was accessible to reason alone. This is what MacIntyre calls the “Enlightenment Project,” which he has, I think, correctly identified as a failure. Rational people simply do not agree on what sort of life towards what sort of goals is worth living, and due not, as it appears, to some failure in reason.

The goal of the twentieth century, advanced most notably by John Rawls and still supported by many modern liberal thinkers, was to argue that societies could agree on basic political, social, and economic institutions and procedures independently from any comprehensive agreement about what constituted a good life. Rather than argue rationally about metaphysics, argues Rawls et. al., we should just agree to disagree and focus rather on using reason to construct a basically just society, wherein people of all mindsets and metaphysical assumptions can flourish.

Let me explain this a little. When I talk about “metaphysical assumptions,” I am not just talking about an arcane topic that pertains only to scholars. Metaphysical speculations includes questions like “what is the good,” “what is my conception of God,” “how if at all is God actively involved in human affairs,” and “what goal is my life is ultimately oriented towards?” These are not trivial matters at all, and it is the answers to these questions that ultimately provide the basis for our morality.

Say, for example, you think there is a God, and that the world is corrupt and unjust, but that ultimately God will prevail and rectify what human beings are themselves unable to do. This metaphysical assumption may lead you to support more lenient penalties for convicted criminals, for example, because you believe that a human criminal justice system can only imperfectly mete out punishments, and ultimately, God’s judgment will prevail in the assignation of eternal punishments and rewards. Or, with such metaphysical assumptions, you may be less likely to concern yourself with human-caused global warming, because you believe that the fate of the earth is ultimately in God’s hands. You may also be willing to forgo pleasure, to live a simpler and more ascetic life in hope of maximizing pleasure in the next life.

Say another person does not believe in God or an afterlife, but rather believes that this life is all that we humans have. This person may support idealistic social program oriented towards constructing the most ideal society possible. This person may be very concerned with the impact human beings have on the environment, based on the assumption that if human beings don’t fix it, nobody else will. This person may believe in experiencing as many pleasurable situations as possible in order to “suck the marrow out of life,” since it is the only life we have.

You see where I am going. Each of my hypothetical individuals can be very rational and very intelligent and nevertheless disagree on almost everything. And so we end up with a bunch of shrill debates like the ones we have about politics in this country where liberals accuse conservatives of being unenlightened and uneducated and conservatives accuse liberals of being idealistic hedonists. If you’ve experienced a holiday gathering with a significant generation gap in values and political orientations, you know first-hand what I mean.

Rawls and others say that we will never reach an agreement on those big, over-arching metaphysical questions, but we can agree on such things like that goods should be allocated in such a way as to not unduly favor a privileged minority or that everyone in a given society should have enough freedom to pursue their basic goals (i.e. no slavery). The thing is, we don’t actually agree on such procedural claims.

MacIntyre argues, contra Rawls, that individual traditions with their own individual narratives can come to a rational agreement about metaphysical claims so that subsequently, they can agree about more specific moral questions and procedural claims. In MacIntyre’s own words, he offers “a conception of rational enquiry as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition.”

But in a pluralistic world, what happens when two conflicting traditions clash? This question takes on immediate significance for me when I listen to my brother and sister-in-law arguing with their parents. My brother and sister-in-law argue that where they live, everybody has their values, their political leanings, their tastes, and their lifestyle (they live in Washington DC and live a young urban professional life). They could never come and live the suburban life in Dallas where their parents live because everybody is so different from them—they just wouldn’t fit in. Fine, but during the holidays, there is a week and a half of clashing values in practically every discussion they have with their parents, from very basic food choices to very weighty political questions like healthcare reform and abortion. Can they ever come to an agreement, or are they doomed to simply “throw up their hands” in futility and frustration at the end of each argument?

MacIntyre says that opposing groups like my in-laws can come to some broad agreements on questions of morality by adopting the standpoint of the opposing tradition to the extent possible (methodologically this is highly questionable but bear with him) and identifying irresolvable problems within the opposing tradition that could be solved by their own. MacIntyre uses the example of the clash between utilitarians and Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theorists, arguing that utilitarians cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes happiness (physical or intellectual pleasure based on individualistic or communal assumptions), on which the principle of utility is based, but that natural law theorists who know and can apply the concept of a natural end (telos) to human existence can solve this problem. Thus, he claims, the natural law tradition is rationally superior.

Here’s a simpler and more concrete example. My sister-in-law believes that everybody should ultimately do what is in their own best interest (rational egoism) but arguably, it is such rational egoism that has led to mortgage crisis and widespread recession we the United States is now in the midst of. As a political liberal, she is forced to support financial policies based on the widespread redistribution of wealth based on self dis-interest, such as corporate executives forgoing bonuses or credit card companies voluntarily lowering interest rates (and subsequently lowering their profit margin). Now, she could try to make these political arguments based on a more far-sighted rational egoism, that ultimately, eliminating corporate bonuses and lowering interest rates on credit card debt is in the best-interest of the parties in question, because it is in their best interest to have a stable and functional economy, but it is not clear this is the case. It seems that even now, the “smartest guys in the room” are able to figure out how to make a lot of money at the expense of a lot of people and the economy as a whole, simply by acting rationally in their own self-interest.

You could argue then that rational egoism is rationally inferior to a system like, for example, Christianity’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” If everybody tried to serve their neighbor’s interest before their own, and lived more ascetically, forgoing unnecessary pleasures like wine, exotic travel, fashion, and fine cuisine, our country’s economy would not be in the mess it was in now.

The problem is that my sister-in-law may agree on the rational foundation of this point and yet still adhere to rational egoism in her own life. This leaves an opponent with the option of either claiming her position is irrational or that she has not actually been convinced of the rational superiority of the opposing system. Practically, the way this shakes out is that she ends up criticizing my father-in-law’s way of life for insufficiently appreciating the finer pleasures in life like wine and gourmet meals and he ends up criticizing her way of life for its excessiveness.

In order to come to some sort of rational agreement, they would need to step back and ask themselves what it is that they mean by a good life, not accidentally, but essentially. That is, they need to ask themselves not what sort of ideal contingents they desire for their life, but essentially, what is constitutive of flourishing in this life. So they don’t need to debate whether it is better to live in a city or in the suburbs, or whether it is better to eat diverse and exotic cuisines or the same Caesar salad every day. These are accidental qualities of a good life. Rather, they need to ask themselves what, in every conceivable setting (city or suburb, rich or poor, educated or not) is essential to a good life. Even debating the merits of rational self-interest vs. altruism misses the point—we need to ask what both of these systems are oriented towards. What is the goal of self-interest or altruism? What is the good that both systems are implicitly working towards?

It is the answer to this foundational question that answers the question I poised at the beginning of this blog regarding the existence of an objective and universal standard of morality. If we can agree on this foundational, metaphysical question, then I think we can come to some sort of basic universal agreement on some foundational moral claims.

But I don’t think we can. I think that we might be able to agree that there is some ultimate good which we are all striving for, but I think that based on rational speculation alone, we cannot ascribe any content to this good. MacIntyre says that the good derives its thicker substantive claims within a tradition, but even that I feel is too idealistic. I think our true and substantive knowledge of the good rests on the elevation of the rational apprehensive power by the infused virtue of faith. It is faith that gives us eyes to see what we human beings are really meant to do on this earth (and consequently, it is hope and charity that give us the will and hearts to do what we are made to).

And this brings me to the title of my post. WHAT Jesus would do in any given situation doesn’t really tell us anything. The real question is WHO Jesus is. If Jesus truly is God incarnate, perfect in every way, the ultimate good, then He consumes our vision such that all other goods must be subordinated to Him. In Scripture, once people know who Jesus is (think Peter and Paul, for example), what they need to do becomes clear. Disagreements may exist, but they get worked out. This is why, I think, Paul goes out not to proclaim Jesus’ life, but rather, Jesus’ identity (see Colossians 3, for example).

Problem is, this knowledge only comes through faith. No rational arguments can convince somebody that Jesus is God. Faith is a gift. And so I think, so long as some of us have such a gift, and others are without, the disagreements will remain intractable. Reason cannot resolve our most deep-seated disputes, and maybe that’s ultimately okay. Maybe it is good that we have to be dependent on God’s grace to ultimately resolve what we cannot.

So for Christians, maybe we need to spend less time getting bogged down in intractable disputes and more time doing what Paul did—proclaiming who Jesus is: God incarnate, crucified and risen. We’ll leave the convincing to faith.

*Although I used my in-laws as examples throughout this post, my conclusion in no way reflects on them or their faith.

The Pope’s Very Political Encyclical

Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.

The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.

There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:

Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”

Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”

What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”

Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.

I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.

Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.

The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).

So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.

One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.

So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.

Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.

Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)

No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.

Neighbor Love, Natural Law, and Universal Moral Norms

Last Thursday, Barack Obama spoke at the Annual Prayer Breakfast about his faith and what he sees as the role of religion in public life. Judging from the fact that President Obama referred to unbelievers as “humanists,” it is pretty clear what Obama thinks religion is there to do: help us love one another.

“Whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’

” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists.

“It is, of course, the Golden Rule -– the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.”

The interesting thing about this claim our president is making is that it rests on anthropological and metaphysical principles that we all do not actually agree on. Conservative Christians, for example, lost no time in pointing out the hypocrisy of President Obama’s insistence that there is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being when he has one of the most consistent pro-choice records of any politician around today. This is because Barack Obama does not think that the fetus is a full human being with full moral rights; Conservative Christians do.

Turns out, in the history of humanity, we have never been all that clear about what it means to be human or what counts as a full human being. Metaphysically, the question is “what is the essence of humanity?” Some people think we can resolve this question through practical reasoning and consensus. Jacques Maritain, for example, thought that natural law reasoning could provide the philosophical foundations for an anthropology that would support the drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Maritain thought we could get all nations together and agree on such rights even if we did not agree on their metaphysical presuppositions. But as post-1948 history has illustrated, we might like the rights when they apply to ourselves, but it still isn’t all that clear who counts as human and gets to benefit from them. Our progressive-minded president draws a line in the womb somewhere. Peter Singer draws the line at infants. Aristotle drew the line at barbarians, women, and natural slaves.

A lot of people, many of them Catholic but not all, think that natural law can provide a fixed understanding of human nature. The idea is basically that human beings can rationally derive what it means to be a human, and what is normative for human nature, based on rational discernment about what is “natural.” Some have described this as an unwritten law on the human heart, and it is normally not thought of a religious way of thinking about humanity and morality. The Founding Fathers in the United States were deists, and were very influenced by natural law reasoning from the Enlightenment that led them to the American Proposition that “all men are created equal.” Because of its characteristic “unreligious” nature, natural law reasoning has been dismissed by many Protestants like Karl Barth who claim that God’s will, not human reason, is up to the task of figuring out what human beings are and what they are supposed to do.

Natural law, as defined by Aquinas (though Aquinas’ definition in no way exhausts all the different ways natural law has been conceived from the time of the pre-Socratics to the present) is the rational creature’s participation in the Eternal Law (I-II, Q. 91, art. 2). The natural law is a capacity to distinguish between good and evil that rational creatures are endowed with. This capacity is expressed through moral precepts like the Golden Rule. The natural law can yield more specific precepts and includes a fundamental capacity for moral judgment, but there is considerably less certainty on the level of particular norms. Basically, the Golden Rule might be absolute and universal, but how to apply it is not. Rather than thinking of the natural law as a series of universal norms, it is better to think of it a rational principle of discernment–a built-in mechanism human beings have to discern between good and evil.

What the natural law does not give us, despite what some people think, is a fixed understanding of human nature. Natural law does not allow us to grasp absolute, fundamental, and universal aspects of human nature. Rational discernment gives us an idea of what is fundamental to human nature, but our ability both to know these elements and to express them is limited, not only by our inability as finite creatures to grasp the absolute and the universal, but also due to sin which clouds our intellect and veils the truth. Moreover, human nature is not something that exists in a fixed way prior to becoming embedded in a culture, but is rather a political or social thing. God may know the essence of human nature, and what should be normative for human beings to do in any given situation, but human beings do not have access to such knowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the one absolute is that human beings do not know the absolute.

What we get from natural law reasoning are a lot of different norms and a lot of different ideas about human nature. Aristotle, Aquinas, Peter Singer, and Barack Obama are all using the natural law to make judgments about what is good and what is evil, and I am betting that none of my readers agree with all of them. Although modern natural law theorists have attempted to provide a universal moral code based purely on practical reasoning, I think this is an impossibility. Natural law reasoning, rather, is always embedded in a particular belief system and a particular metaphysical conception of the good. You cannot separate the work of practical reasoning from the political, social, and religious environs in which such reasoning occurs, nor can you present a definition of human that is detached from such an environs. At least, not an absolute or universal definition.

So what are we to do in this global environment where we are desperate, as President Obama illustrates, to find commonalities, or the universal among all the particularities? Does natural law provide us with any way of generating universal norms or a universal definition of what it means to be human? Jean Porter has argued convincingly that people like Thomas Aquinas thought of natural law as a Scriptural concept, that his understanding of human nature was guided by scriptural and theological principles of interpretation. Consequently, Aquinas’ idea of human nature was not grounded in the conclusions of pure practical reasoning, but rather in the image of God in the person of Jesus Christ. For thinkers like Aquinas, natural law reasoning occurred at the locus where reason and revelation occurred, and this allowed him to construct an elaborate, virtue-based ethic delineating not only what was possible but also what was desirable for human nature under the aid of grace. What is normative for the human being under such specifically Christian natural law reasoning is not just the Decalogue and the two-fold command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but also the call to perfection in the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, and that ever-tricky love of enemy.

The consequence of this idea of natural law is that Barack Obama cannot just say that everybody across the globe knows to “love their neighbors as their selves.” I’m sure the Hutus bought into that as they were slaughtering the Tutsis. Good thing the Tutsis weren’t neighbors. The British probably bought into as well as they were legislating apartheid in South Africa to keep the non-neighbor Africans in their place. The German National Socialists, many of them good Lutherans in their free time, undoubtedly thought love of neighbor was important, but Jews and Communists and homosexuals were fair game. And Barack Obama can cite the universality of the command in front on the National Prayer Breakfast with a clear conscience, even though he thinks that partial birth abortion is okay, and has done all he can to make sure it stays legal in this country.

For Christians, who counts as the neighbor cannot be separated from what revelation through Scripture tells us. For the hard-core biologist, the neighbor will be defined differently, probably based on some scientific standard for who counts and who does not. For the philosophical humanist, we will get another definition. Barack Obama is right to point out the universal nature of the Golden Rule, but the Golden Rule tells us practically nothing. As the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 indicates, the juicy part of that question is “who is my neighbor.”


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