Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

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.


Overcoming Realism with the Anabaptist Vision

When Barack Obama was elected, I wrote a post on his connection with Christian realism of the Reinhold Niebuhr variety, which you can read about here.

Christian realism is basically the idea that the world is evil and that in order to fight that evil, you have to get your hands dirty. Christian realism says that an idealistic stance of non-violence allows evil to triumph over good. Although non-violence or pacifism may be an ideal, Christian realists say that this ideal must be subordinated to the utilitarian calculus of political force and violence. Augustine adopted a Christian realist position in advocating an interior ethic of love, but an exterior ethic of expediency. Luther adopted a Christian realist position against the peasants in his treatise “Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants.” Reinhold Niebuhr was the Christian realist par excellence in his support of strong-armed cold war politics.

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks notes that realism is still alive and well in the political philosophy of Barack Obama, articulated so very eloquently in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. . . I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Brooks commends President Obama for a “thoroughly theological” speech which “talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor.” Brooks, himself a Christian realist, clearly finds the president’s moral position a prudent one.

I agree that Obama did a fine job articulating a realist stance and defending his political foreign policy on respectable moral grounds. But remember the context—Obama’s realist speech, which Brooks says “was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life,” was given at his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is meant to acknowledge those idealists like Martin Luther King Jr. who choose not to get their hands dirty, who refuse to succumb to violent tactics even in the defense of a just cause. Such prizes are meant to provide recognition and encouragement to those idealists who provide a witness for what is morally possible, even if it isn’t morally expedient.

Christians like Brooks are supportive of the president’s speech because, since Christianity has existed, Christians have been more comfortable compromising with the world’s evil than they have been resisting the world’s evil with non-violent agape. Those idealistic, non-violent witnesses, minority that they are, are necessary and important reminders of the task to which Christians are called. One group of such idealistic witnesses were the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptists were a group of Christians involved in what was called the “Radical Reformation.” Concerned that reformers like Luther and Calvin were compromising too much in their political stances and failing to live up to the demands of the Christian life, the Anabaptist vision offered a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship (die Nachfolge Christi), the essence of the Christian church as a community of brothers and sisters, and the essence of Christian ethics as one of agapic love and non-violence.

The Anabaptists refused to accept the state church system which reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin were a part of. They did not participate in the government for the precise reason that earthly institutions like the magistracy required moral compromise that the Anabaptists found inconsistent with Christian life. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith, an early Anabaptist collection of beliefs states this as an agreement to separation [from the world]:

A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them [the wicked] and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who [have come] out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other. To us then the command of the Lord is clear when He calls upon us to be separate from the evil and thus He will be our God and we shall be His sons and daughters. . .

Therefore there will also unquestionably fall from us the unchristian, devilish weapons of force — such as sword, armor and the like, and all their use [either] for friends or against one’s enemies I would like the records — by virtue of the word of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil.

In other words, the Anabaptists did not believe that Christ came so that we could continue resisting the corruption of the world with the tools of corruption or using evil to fight evil. Rather, Christ came to liberate us from evil, and by choosing to follow Him, the Anabaptists believed we must necessarily forsake force, violence, and political power of any kind.

Because of their commitment to non-violence and the principle of worldly separation, the Anabaptists had a lot of enemies. From 1527-1560, the Anabaptists were severely persecuted. The 1529 Diet of Spires passed a death sentence on all Anabaptists of either sex [by] fire, sword, or some other way.” The 1551 Diet of Augsburg decreed that any judge or juror who had scruples about executing an Anabaptist be removed from office, fined, and/or imprisoned. As a result of these decrees, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in the 16th century, without trial or sentence. Yet, as Harold Bender writes in his quippy “The Anabaptist Vision,”

The authorities had great difficulty in executing their program of suppression, for they soon discovered that the Anabaptists feared neither torture nor death, and gladly sealed their faith with their blood. In fact, the joyful testimony of the Anabaptist martyrs was a great stimulus to new recruits, for it stirred the imagination of the populace as nothing else could have done.

Bender goes on to conclude:

However, the Anabaptist was realistic. Down the long perspective of the future he saw little chance that the mass of humankind would enter such a brotherhood with its high ideals. Hence he anticipated a long and grievous conflict between the church and the world. Neither did he anticipate the time when the church would rule the world; the church would always be a suffering church. He agreed with the words of Jesus when He said that those who would be His disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him, and that there would be few who would enter the strait gate and travel the narrow way of life. If this prospect should seem too discouraging, the Anabaptist would reply that the life within the Christian brotherhood is satisfying full of love and joy.

Compare this to Obama’s Nobel speech:

[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

Understandably, Obama cannot reasonably embrace the Anabaptist vision, but I do think that the Anabaptist vision can embrace Christians who have too long capitulated to the claims of realism. David Brooks seems pleased with the theological underpinnings of Obama’s political philosophy. He writes, “Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.” While Brooks may be correct in noting the theological underpinnings of Obama’s politics, Christians need to question whether those underpinnings adequately reflect the nature of discipleship to Christ.

Love and evil are not two warring powers, as Brooks so dualistically proposes. What the Anabaptist vision reminds us is that Christian love overcomes evil not by force, but by inspiration and imagination. Christian love, as lived out by the Anabaptists, provides a witness to what is best and noblest in human nature. In the wake of such love, evil simply becomes impotent. The County of Alzey, after executing 350 Anabaptists in Palatinate, was said to exclaim, “What shall I do? The more I kill, the greater becomes their number!” Barack Obama’s speech says that such love cannot ultimately triumph against the world’s evils, and that if good is to overcome evil, force will be necessary. But the Anabaptist vision says otherwise. Heinrich Bullinger, one of the Anabaptist’s enemies and persecutors, wrote that the Anabaptists taught,

One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God. It is wrong to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put to death anyone for the sake of his erring faith. It is an error that in the church any sword other than that of the Divine Word should be used. The secular kingdom should be separated from the church, and no secular ruler should exercise authority in the church. The Lord has commanded simply to preach the Gospel, not to compel anyone by force to accept it. The true church of Christ has the characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone.

It is unfortunate that a peace prize meant to recognize those idealists who believe peace without violence is possible ended up rewarding a spirit of moral compromise this year. But it is even more unfortunate that Christians like Brooks think that Obama’s message is grounded in theology of Jesus Christ. So I will conclude this post with the same words in which I concluded my last post arguing against Christian realism:

As Stanley Hauerwas notes,

Jesus’ cross . . . is not merely a general symbol of the moral significance of self-sacrifice. The cross is not the confirmation of the facile assumption that it is better to give than receive. Rather, the cross is Jesus’ ultimate dispossession through which God has conquered the powers of this world. The cross is not just a symbol of God’s kingdom; it is that kingdom come.”

Jesus does not play power politics. He does not fight the evil of the world on evil’s terms. He does not use violence, power, and coercion to fulfill his mission. Nor does he expect his disciples to. Jesus invites his disciples to his own non-violent love, a love that will indeed overcome the powers of the world, but not through coercion and force.

The Anabaptist vision gives us a glimpse of what Jesus’ non-violent love actually can accomplish.

A Thomistic Argument for Labeling Retouched Media Images

Valerie Boyer, a member of the French Parliament, has drafted a law requiring all digitally-altered photographs of people used in advertising to be labeled as “retouched.” Her proposal has not yet come to a vote in the National Assembly, but has understandably initiated a debate extending beyond France.

According to the NYTimes article on the subject, the real issue for Ms. Boyer is “about her two teenage daughters, 16 and 17, and the pressures on young women to match the fashionable ideal of a thin body and perfect skin.” Boyer noted in an interview: “If someone wants to make life a success, wants to feel good in their skin, wants to be part of society, one has to be thin or skinny, and then it’s not enough — one will have his body transformed with software that alters the image, so we enter a standardized and brainwashed world, and those who aren’t part of it are excluded from society.”

Photographers and models largely oppose the proposed law, citing concerns about destroying the nature of photographic art and misplacing body concerns and eating disorder prevention efforts to images rather than other complex causal factors.

But EverydayThomist is on the side of Boyer, with a Thomistic argument to boot. According to Aquinas, the sense of sight is the most important of the senses (this point he derives from his Aristotelian biology). While Aquinas thinks that there is something ontologically superior granted to the sense of sight not shared by other senses, a primary reason that the sense of sight is so important is that it is through our vision that we know the truth.

This requires some explanation. Human beings, in Aquinas’ hylomorphic anthropological schema, are composed of a material body and an immaterial soul. We know the truth through our immaterial intellect. However, unlike the angels and other spirits, human beings, being corporeal, cannot grasp the truth simply through the immaterial intellect. Rather, all knowledge of the truth must be mediated through the corporeal body, and specifically, through the external senses–sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.

The external senses apprehend external objects which it then communicates to the immaterial intellect. The intellect, being immaterial, cannot have knowledge of material objects perceived by the senses unless it abstracts from these material objects to form an image in the mind, what Aquinas calls a phantasm. It is by means of this image that the mind knows. This is an important point in Thomistic epistemology that bears repeating: the mind can only know by means of the creation of phantasms.

However, the process of knowing by means of the creation of phantasms is a complex and highly dialectic process. The mind must continue to return to the external senses which apprehend (and are corporeally transmuted by the perception of the external object) in order to maintain and develop the phantasm. Think of this analogously to apprehending a complex piece of art. As you think back on the work of art in your mind, your knowledge will be fragmented. You have to continue, time and again, returning to the piece of art before you can truly see it in your mind’s eye, even when the artifact itself is absent. Turns out, all knowledge of externals is like this. We have to continue returning to the external object before its phantasm can be firmly planted in the mind and our knowledge of the object can be said to be true.

Multiple empirical studies have indicated a significant correlation between exposure to idealized media images and various manifestations of body dissatisfaction including depression anxiety, and anger. A 2003 Australian study investigated the effect of body dissatisfaction in adolescent boys and girls (aged 13-15) after viewing 20 commercials containing idealized thin female images versus 20 nonappearance television commercials. The study found that girls, but not boys, who viewed the commercials with the idealized images reported significantly higher body dissatisfaction compared with nonappearance commercials, supporting the general hypothesis that televised images of attractiveness lead to increased body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls. A 2002 study by Durkin and Paxton found that in a controlled study of seventh and tenth graders, both grades experienced a significant decrease in state body satisfaction and a significant increase in state depression attributable to viewing idealized images of females in advertising. Another 2002 meta-analytic review of 25 studies on the effect of mass media images of the slender ideal on body dissatisfaction found that body image was significantly more negative after viewing thin media images than after viewing images of thin models than after viewing images of average or plus-size models.

The role of the media and specifically the espousal of the thin-ideal image of female beauty is frequently implicated as a cause for the onset and maintenance of eating disorders, and experimental data from the last two decades seems to confirm that this is the case. Several studies confirm that body-image dissatisfaction is the most consistent predictor of the onset of an eating disorder. A three-year longitudinal study of female adolescents confirmed a statistical significance between body dissatisfaction and the onset restrictive eating behaviors.

Aquinas would not be surprised at such empirical studies. Aquinas, along with the ancients, knew that what we see influences who we are. Aquinas called this the process of becoming connatured to what we see. The strongest phantasms in our minds, the phantasms of external objects we are most frequently exposed to through our vision, naturally influences our appetites, inclining us toward those objects in the appetitive movement of love. If we continuously are exposed to thin-ideal images of beauty in popular media, those phantasms of that beauty ideal will be strong in our mind, and our appetites will be duly influenced as well. Women may be inclined towards behaviors like food restriction and over-exercise to manifest such an ideal in their own body. Men may be inclined towards women embodying such an ideal, thus reinforcing the knowledge (derived from the phantasm), that thinness is the ideal of feminine beauty.

Boyer’s proposal offers a way of bypassing this psychological process. By labeling thin-ideal images as retouched, the phantasm that the mind would like create upon exposure to such images is more likely to be a phantasm of a falsely-represented external object, rather than an accurate representation of reality. The mind would not just create a phantasm of an overly-thin beautiful woman, but would accompany this phantasm with the cognitive judgment that such an image was a lie. Thus, the appetite is more likely to be inclined towards such images as good and desirable.

Now, EverydayThomist in no way thinks that Boyer’s proposal is going to solve the eating disorder problem. Eating disorders are complicated phenomena, and the representation of thin-ideal images of women in popular media is only part of the problem. But her proposal is a step in the right direction. It recognizes that eating disorders are not simply problems with food, but also problems in seeing. Transforming what we see is frequently the first step in solving problems in what we do.