Archive for the ‘Virtue’ Tag

Some New Years Articles of Note

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have probably noted that the last few months have not been particularly fruitful. Defending a dissertation and traveling around the country for job interviews make blogging difficult. However, I hope to return to the blogosphere in a few days, but until then, here are some recent articles I have read that you may find of interest:

1. Can’t Kick Bad Habits? Blame the Brain. This is a short and easy to read piece exploring the neural underpinnings of habit formation, which all virtue ethicists should be attentive to. In brief, dopamine is the neurotransmitter which seems to play the biggest role in habit formation by conditioning the brain to seek out certain pleasurable activities again and again (like a glass of wine after work). Breaking a bad habit seems to be less about imposing rational control over one’s emotional reaction to a source of pleasure and more about putting oneself in the right situation where the cause of the bad habit is not readily available: “What you want to be thinking about is, ‘What is it in my environment that is triggering this behavior?'” says Nordgren. “You have to guard yourself against it.” Here’s a great quote from the article:

“People have this self-control hubris, this belief they can handle more than they can,” says Nordgren, who studies the tug-of-war between willpower and temptation. In one experiment, he measured whether heavy smokers could watch a film that romanticizes the habit — called “Coffee and Cigarettes” — without taking a puff. Upping the ante, they’d be paid according to their level of temptation: Could they hold an unlit cigarette while watching? Keep the pack on the table? Or did they need to leave the pack in another room?

Smokers who’d predicted they could resist a lot of temptation tended to hold the unlit cigarette — and were more likely to light up than those who knew better than to hang onto the pack, says Nordgren. He now is beginning to study how recovering drug addicts deal with real-world temptations.

2. Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage. This New York Times article outlines research which will also be important for ethicists. One of the most interesting parts of the article describes a woman with a rare congenital syndrome leaving her completely fearless, “raising the question of whether it’s better to conquer one’s fears, or to never feel them in the first place.”

As Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa, and his colleagues describe in Current Biology, the otherwise normal SM is incapable of being spooked.

She claimed to fear snakes and spiders, and maybe she did in her pre-disease childhood, but when the researchers took her to an exotic pet store, they were astonished to see that not only did she not avoid the snakes and spiders, she was desperate to hold them close.

The researchers took SM to a haunted house, and she laughed at the scary parts and blithely made the monster-suited employees jump. She was shown clips from famous horror films like “The Silence of Lambs” and “Halloween,” and she showed no flickers of fright.

This fearlessness may be fine in the safety of one’s living room, but it turns out that SM makes her own horror films in real life. She walks through bad neighborhoods alone at night, approaches shady strangers without guile, and has been repeatedly threatened with death.

“We have an individual who’s constantly putting herself into harm’s way,” said Mr. Feinstein. “If we had a million SMs walking around, the world would be a total mess.”

Yet more scientific evidence for the importance of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean.

3. The Unborn Paradox: “No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.” 20% of pregnancies end in abortion. Yet millions of women will spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive therapies this year. In the meantime, only 1% of pregnancies will end in adoption. A great basis for making an ethical argument on the adoption imperative.

4. Philosophy Lives: Who hasn’t seen the following quote from esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (on yet another important topic I failed to blog about in the last few months) from their new book The Grand Design:

“[Just] as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

While Hawking and Mlodinow argue that these newest developments in physics signal the final death knell for philosophy and natural theology, John Haldane argues that “at its most abstract, theoretical physics leaves ordinary empirical science behind and enters the sphere of philosophy, where it becomes vulnerable to refutation by reason.”

5. Changing Our Minds: An overview of the implications of digital technology for an ethic of virtue. Heavy attention is given to the vice of curiosity, which Paul Griffiths has brought back in vogue recently, but also an interesting treatment of the virtue of recollection. I love the conclusion:

The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.

I hope to do a real blog soon but in the meantime, what articles have you been reading that everydaythomist should be attentive to?

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Cyberbullying and the Limits of Law

A few days ago, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted a video of him making out with another male student. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another classmate have been charged with two accounts of invasion of privacy for using a secretly-placed webcam to view and transmit a live image, without Clementi’s consent. The maximum charge is five years.

The Clementi case follows close on the heels of a related case involving several Massachusetts high school students who bullied 15-year old Phoebe Prince both physically and over Facebook and other social networking sites, allegedly pushing Prince to hang herself. For many young students who die, their Facebook page becomes a memorial for friends and family to post messages and keep the memory of the deceased alive, but with Prince, bullies continued to post disparaging messages on her wall even after she died. Eventually, her Facebook wall had to be disabled.

Massachusetts lawmakers hurried to draft anti-bullying legislation as a result of this incident, and the NYTimes asks in this week’s “Room for Debate” whether the Clementi case too demands tougher laws for those who commit online acts of bullying. Laurie Levenson, the first contributor, raises an important point in answering the question of anti-bullying legislation:

Cyberbullying is growing and our legal system does not seem ready for it. With legitimate concerns about the First Amendment on one side, and equally legitimate concerns about the dangers of such conduct on the other, prosecutors are often left to shoehorn this new wave of behavior into laws created long before there was an Internet.

Because it is difficult to draft a law that allows the full range of free speech, but also serves to deter the type of behavior recently in the news, the government is left to use statutes that don’t quite fit, like false statements to Internet service providers or invasion of privacy or civil rights violations. All of these are weak substitutes for crimes that really involve psychological warfare.

Bullying in general, and cyberbullying in particular, are clearly heinous acts with potentially devastating consequences. But is the criminal justice solution the right place to turn? Levenson goes on to note that bullying is an antisocial behavior that is learned and practiced. Better laws are not necessarily the solution to antisocial behavior.

Another contributor, John Palfrey, also questions whether the criminal justice system provides an adequate solution to the problem of bullying. Turning to the social sciences, Palfrey writes,

Cyberbullying is just bullying that happens to be mediated through digital technologies. There’s nothing fundamentally different about it.

What we know from research is that the incidence of kids harming one another psychologically in ways that are mediated by new technologies is going up over time. But those same data do not tell us that the overall incidence of bullying is going up, nor that it is getting worse. We also can’t say that kids are meaner today than they were in the past.

I want to suggest that the problem of cyberbullying points to the limit of law-based approach to solving some of our moral problems. There are a number of reasons that laws are insufficient to address issues like cyberbullying. First of all, laws must be crafted incredibly specifically to ensure that they actually achieve justice. For Aquinas, laws were mutable rules which were highly dependent on particular circumstances. Second, Aquinas recognizes the limit of law in getting rid of every evil. By getting rid of certain evils, we also get rid of certain sometimes greater goods. For example, stricter laws on cyberbullying may get rid of some cases of evil, but they may also limit free speech, which in a liberal society is considered a great good. In light of these two points is a third point: the best laws are those which are absolutely necessary for the state to achieve its ends. Other issues of interpersonal regulation not necessary for the state to achieve its ends better addressed through custom and the development of moral character.

Law and virtue work together to create good citizens. Whereas law is an external restraint on a person’s actions, virtue is an internal disposition of the person to act in ways conducive to their overall flourishing and the common good. Virtue is developed through practice. That is, by acting in certain just ways, one learns justice. Law and virtue are mutually compatible and mutually necessary because good laws require virtuous lawmakers, but also, good citizens cannot be made simply through good laws. People must be trained through action and custom (consuetudo) to be good.

The case of cyberbullying strikes me as an opportunity to reflect on the necessity of virtue in our society to solve this problem, rather than simply the creation of new laws. After Phoebe Prince took her life, her high school and others created programs to teach people the danger of online bullying. Schools must continue to develop strategies to teach young people about the nature and dangers of online bullying. They must learn courtesy and respect in their homes and classrooms, and courage to stand up when a classmate is being abused.

It is also an opportunity to look at the moral exemplars offered to young people in our society. The popular television show GLEE, for example, frequently makes light of bullying if not subliminally glorifying it. When young people watch a show like GLEE, they are learning not only how to bully, but also that bullying in general does not have any negative consequences. They are learning that bullying, at least in some sense, is cool.

No amount of lawmaking can reverse the effect of custom on behavior. Some legislative action may be necessary for extreme cases like this, but the general problem will remain unless there is a similar effort to change the character of those young people who become the bullies.

Defining ‘Normal’ Behavior: The New DSM and the Old Manuals of Sin

Today’s NYTimes front page features an article on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), due out in 2013. The DSM is the psychiatric field’s encyclopedia of mental disorders which allows practitioners to determine who is mentally “normal” and who is not.

This is no small deal:

“Anything you put in that book, any little change you make, has huge implications not only for psychiatry but for pharmaceutical marketing, research, for the legal system, for who’s considered to be normal or not, for who’s considered disabled,” said Dr. Michael First, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who edited the fourth edition of the manual but is not involved in the fifth. “And it has huge implications for stigma,” Dr. First continued, “because the more disorders you put in, the more people get labels, and the higher the risk that some get inappropriate treatment.”

One concern is that the revisions for the new DSM have “been the subject of intense lobbying by advocacy groups.” Considering the fact that many of the new diagnoses will also come with prescription drug remedies, many worry that the pharmaceutical industry is playing a big role in expanding the diagnostic criteria in order to increase profits from psychiatric drugs. Many of the comments on the NYTimes page note that it seems the new DSM is a matter of politics rather than medicine, or another move by “big pharma” making money by drugging people.

From the EverydayThomist perspective, the problem with the new DSM is that it assumes too much normativity in human behavior. Human behavior is not only incredibly complex, it also varies a lot from person to person. Some children are born with more of a natural tendency toward moderation in food and drink; others are prone to excess. Some children are very shy; others are prone to excessive anger and aggression. Human beings are too diverse to be able to neatly label as “ordered” or “disordered” to the extent that the new DSM attempts to do.

It reminds me of the manuals of moral theology, especially those written at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century which strived to precisely label and categorize every possible sin. This is, however, impossible, as Josef Pieper notes in his most excellent book The Four Cardinal Virtues:

How are we to react to a proposition such as this one, found in one of the most popular handbooks of moral theology: “To look at the private parts of animals out of curiosity, but without voluptuousness . . . is a venial sin”? Not to mention other distortions, it seems that here the limit beyond which casuistry becomes meaningless has been considerably exceeded. Propositions so constructed seem entirely to miss the true purpose and scope of casuistry, which is to provide a tentative approach and an auxiliary means for the practice of discernment. Is it not to be feared that a discernment schooled by such methods will be misguided toward an unrealistic rigidity and a prematurely fixed judgment, instead of toward a sober evaluation of the realities of life; and that this in turn may lead to a total incomprehension of the reality of man as a being who responds to the richly orchestrated world with every power of his soul, and thus reaches his choice?

The pre-conciliar moral manuals were striving toward certainty in their evaluation of human behavior, in much the same way that DSM V seems to be doing. Whereas the moral manuals wanted to define precisely in every possible case what could be considered “sin,” the DSM uses the more contemporary scientifically minded language of “pathology” and “disorder,” but the intent is the same–the desire for rigid and precise criteria to judge human behavior.

A virtue ethics perspective rejects the need for such certainty, recognizing that two people may do the same things, and yet act (in light of circumstances and intentions) in very different ways. As Josef Pieper writes,

It is temperantia, the virtue that realizes the inner order of man in himself, which St. Thomas has in mind when–in contrast to justice, in whose province that which is ‘properly and in itself right’ can and must be determined–speaking of ‘the other moral virtues which refer to the passions and in which right or wrong cannot be determined in the same fashion, because men vary in their attitudes toward the passions,’ he says, ‘therefore it is necessary that what is right and reasonable in the passions should be determined with reference to ourselves, who are moved by the passions.’ But especially in the province of temeprantia ‘we ourselves’ have the choice of innumerable possibilities: for example, to desire halfheartedly or wholeheartedly, to tolerate, to let things take their course, to give in to pressure or to be carried away. ‘Who could determine,’ writes the perceptive Thomist H.D. Noble, ‘who could determine when lack of control ends and where temperance begins?’ St. Thomas says that the realization of temperantia varies too much according to individuals and periods to allow the establishment of hard and fast, universally valid commandments.

Aquinas recognized in the 13th century that there was no such thing as “normal” human behavior. Which is why he referred to the virtues as powers within a person to help her realize for herself within a specific community with specific practices which behaviors would be conducive to happiness. But the problem for a lot of people with virtue ethics is that it leaves too much room for ambiguity, too much room for diversity in behavior which makes human beings, even the most open-minded contemporary human beings, very uncomfortable. So we’ve done away with sin manuals, but have we simply replaced them with an ever-expanding encyclopedia of mental disorders?

What Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink Teaches About Virtue

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink provides an anecdotal account of how split-second decisions are made through a process Gladwell calls “rapid cognition” or “thin-slicing.” Gladwell distinguishes this type of rapid cognition from intuition, which he claims is more emotional, claiming that rapid cognition is a distinctly rational process, a type of thinking that simply movers a little faster than ordinary conscious and deliberate decision-making.

One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with first impressions about race, particularly those that happen at a subconscious level. In the chapter entitled “The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Dark, Handsome Men,” Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT, developed by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, measures a person’s attitude on an unconscious level and the immediate and automatic associations a person makes before that person has time to think. In the IAT designed to examine automatic associations with race, a tested individual is timed to see how quickly they associate categories of good and bad adjectives with black and white faces. The test results reveal that the 80% of Americans more quickly pair words like “love,” “peace,” and “joy” with white faces and words like “terrible,” “evil,” and “failure” with black faces. The level of difference is a matter of microseconds, yet is still statistically significant.

What the IAT most significantly reveals is that unconscious attitudes and the behaviors which those attitudes give rise to may be completely incompatible with a person’s conscious values. Even those who consider themselves very enlightened in matters of race still overwhelmingly tend to have an implicit preference for whites. Gladwell himself, who is half-black, was found to have a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” As he notes in the chapter, he considers himself an enlightened and progressive individual on the matter of race relations, with a strong conviction that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell’s point, however, is that just knowing of cognitively assenting to the idea that the two races are equal does not tell the whole story. He writes,

Our attitudes towards race and gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious level. These are what we choose to believe. . . . which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. . . . But the IAT measures something else, our attitude toward racism on an unconscious level. the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we have had time to think. We do not deliberately choose our unconscious attitudes . . . [and] we may not even be aware of them. The giant computer that is our subconscious silently crunches all the data it has from all the experiences we’ve had the people we’ve met, the lessons we’ve learned, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen . . .and it forms an opinion. That is what is coming out in the IAT. The disturbing thing about the IAT is that it shows us that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated values.

The IAT does not just reveal what we subconsciously believe, which a virtue ethicist like myself would call a “disposition.” It is also a predictor of how we behave. A person with a subconscious preference for or dispositional tendency towards whites will in conversation lean in towards black people less, stutter more, and become visibly tenser. These subtle cues can have a major impact on our social engagements. Gladlwell cites law professor Ian Ayres’ study of racial discrimination by Chicago car dealers which found that car dealers gave the lowest initial offer to white men, and the highest initial offer to black men. Even after 40 minutes of negotiating, black car shoppers were still offered prices nearly $800 times higher than the initial offer made to white shoppers.

Much more disturbing is the discussion of Amadou Diallo, a black man who was shot 41 times by four cops who saw him standing on the street corner in the South Bronx late at night. Gladwell argues that these cops, though probably not explicitly or even consciously racist, displayed certain racially-motivated automatic implicit associations that caused them to make a prejudicial, and in this case, lethal split second decision:

The officers, observing Diallo on the stoop, sized him up and in that instant decided he looked suspicious. That was mistake number one. Then they backed the car up, and Diallou didn’t move. [Officer] Carroll later said that “amazed” him: How brazen was this man, who didn’t run at the sight of the police? Diallou wasn’t brazen. He was curious. That was mistake number two. Then Carroll and [officer] Murphy stepped toward Diallou on the stoop and watched him turn slightly to the side, and make a movement for his pocket. In that split second, they decided he was dangerous. But he was not. He was terrified. That was mistake number three.

Seven seconds later, Diallo was dead, shot 41 times, wallet in hand. When the four cops went to trial and were found “not guilty,” there were protests against what was widely perceived as a racial injustice. It seemed that these four cops were clearly guilty of overt racism that motivated them to shoot an innocent man. Gladwell, however, interprets the situation differently. He argues that these four cops, due to past experiences both personally and professionally with black people caused them to automatically and implicitly associate black people with danger, much more quickly than they might associate white people with a threat. These cops were habituated to automatically conclude that a black man in a dangerous New York neighborhood reaching into his pocket meant trouble, and their automatic implicit associations cost an innocent man his life. Gladwell’s point in describing these racial anecdotes is that even if we do not think of ourselves as racist, and even if our consciously held values hold that blacks and whites are equal, our split second decisions or “thin-slicing” activities, as Gladwell describes them, may indicate deep-seated, racist tendencies.

So what do we do about our subconscious, split-second tendencies to prefer whites over blacks? We cannot, as Gladwell argues, simply try to develop our conscious values. That is, we cannot just think more that blacks and whites are equal. Gladwell considers himself a consciously tolerant person and still, his IAT indicates an unconscious preference for white people.

“I’ve taken the race IAT on many occasions and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your feelings towards blacks and whites are. I answered, as I am sure most of you would, that I think of the two races as equal.”

Gladwell’s theory about rapid cognition or thin-slicing indicates that it is not enough to make certain conscious changes in attitudes or values, but must also acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter our subconscious, thereby undermining our conscious attitudes. Gladwell argues, however, that by taking control of the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, one can also control rapid cognition and prevent or lessen the mistakes made.

He suggests that we have a responsibility to not only alter our conscious values, but also to alter our environments in such a way to develop our rapid cognition to make the best possible split-second decisions. People’s results on the race IAT change if they expose themselves to images and verbal information about black people with positive connotations prior to taking the test. People who look at a picture or read a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. right before taking the IAT, for example, register much less implicit racial prejudice than other test takers. More practically, Gladwell suggests that putting ourselves in environments that expose us on a regular basis to racial minorities can alter our stereotypes of them and thus alter our unconscious automatic reactions to them. Thus, despite the fact that racial and other implicit attitudes operate on both a conscious and unconscious level, Gladwell seems to think that we are still morally accountable for even those automatic associations not governed by conscious choice.

Although Gladwell does address any theory of virtue or the moral psychology underlying a virtue ethic, his description of rapid cognition illustrates a remarkable parallel in contemporary psychology with what Aquinas calls a habit [habitus]. More remarkably, Gladwell inadvertently illustrates how habits—both good and bad—can be developed not through rational control over attitudes and behaviors, but by the subtle interaction between a person and her environment. Changing a bad habit, therefore, is not just about conscious effort. Any smoker can tell you this. A person who tries to quit smoking despite the fact that her friends are all smokers and much of her social engagements revolve around smoking is likely to be unsuccessful, no matter how hard she tries to change her habit. Rather, she must also change her environment. She must put herself in situations where she cannot reach for a cigarette for pleasure or stress-relief; she must surround herself with non-smokers, and engage in activities where smoking is contrary to enjoying the activity, like long bike rides. In short, developing virtue through habituation is as much about trying to make conscious dispositional changes as it is about putting ourselves into situations where we don’t need to try.

Additionally, if we take Gladwell’s book seriously, we must conclude that we are habituated in ways which we do not intend all the time. We may read fashion magazines and think that we approach these enlightened about body satisfaction and weight, but simply exposing ourselves to these magazines over and over again, whether we realize it or not, habituates us to associate beauty and desirability with thinness, as I wrote about here. We may think that we can watch overtly violent or sexually explicit films and not become influenced to be more violent or more lustful, but Gladwell’s research (and virtue ethics) says otherwise. We may live in an overwhelmingly white and middle-class neighborhood and think of ourselves as racially unprejudiced, but I bet the IAT would say otherwise. What Gladwell’s book teaches us is that our moral development is much more dynamic than we consciously recognize.

Your Local, Eco-Friendly Purchases Aren’t (Necessarily) Virtuous

My friend Matt passed this great article on to me, entitled “Buy Local, Act Evil: Can Organic Produce and Natural Shampoo Turn You Into a Heartless Jerk?” The author writes,

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.

The American Leviathan

In David Brooks’ op-ed yesterday, he compared Obama’s administration to Hobbes’ Leviathan:

[Obama] is no ideologue, but over the past year he has come to seem like the sovereign on the cover of “Leviathan” — the brain of the nation to which all the cells in the body and the nervous system must report and defer.

Americans, with their deep, vestigial sense of proportion, have reacted. The crucial movement came between April and June, when the president’s approval rating among independents fell by 15 percentage points and the percentage of independents who regarded him as liberal or very liberal rose by 18 points. Since then, the public has rejected any effort to centralize authority or increase the role of government. . .

. . . The American people are not always right, but their basic sense of equilibrium is worthy of the profoundest respect. President Obama has shown himself to be a fine administrator, but he erred in trying to make himself the irreplaceable man in nearly every sphere of public life. He erred in not sensing that even a pragmatic government could seem imperious and alarming.

Brooks says that the American people want a servant, not a Leviathan, but I think he’s wrong. The thing about Hobbes’ Leviathan is that it is a political theory which assumes that on their own, people will not be virtuous, and so they need a strong governmental power to check their vicious appetites and curb their selfish desires. The Leviathan image is a provocative one because it illustrates how the government has its “tentacles” in all spheres of society, controlling human affairs in order to prevent chaos from breaking out.

I don’t think that Scott Brown’s election yesterday is a vote against Leviathan, as Brooks seems to indicate, but rather against the effectiveness of this particular Leviathan. You see, the alternative to a Hobbesian political theory is a virtue-based theory in the vein of Aristotle and Aquinas which claims that the government has a positive role, not just to restrain the evil impulses of people, but also to foster their good inclinations and inculcate virtue. And Americans don’t want the government encouraging them to be good; they really just want the government to leave them alone to do what they want.

Take the healthcare debate. Healthcare in our country is in desperate need of reform largely because our system is bloated and our citizenry is unhealthy. Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts yesterday indicated that people don’t like the current attempts to initiate reform which mainly involves the Democratic congress throwing massive sums of money at the problem, probably raising taxes, and increasing the deficit. I’m with Brooks that this is a Leviathan-like solution. But Massachusetts voters weren’t opposing the solution yesterday, or the Leviathan behind it, but rather, I think, the cost.

The reason people in our country are unhealthy is not so much due to a lack of money, but rather a lack of good lifestyles. The diseases we face in this country are largely preventable—Type II diabetes, heart disease, complications related to obesity. Treating these conditions requires time, money, and resources that our system, no matter how big it is, simply cannot adequately provide. These are problems that are not going to be solved by expanding healthcare coverage. They are only going to be solved if Americans change their lifestyle.

This means that Americans would have to take the initiative to eat less, eat better, and to make physical activity a regular part of their lives. It would also require infrastructural changes like better school lunches with more fruits and veggies, better urban planning that would encourage walking by making parking and driving more expensive and more difficult, more grocery stores with fresh produce in poor, urban neighborhoods, and a whole host of other changes.

But most Americans don’t want to change their lifestyles, they just want to suffer less because of the implications of their lifestyle. And these are the exact vicious tendencies that Hobbes wanted to curb. He recognized what I think hold true in this country—if you leave people to their own devices, people suffer and chaos reigns.

As a Thomist, I think Hobbes was wrong in his anthropology. I do think that people have virtuous inclinations that need to be encouraged, and that the government should play more of a positive role in encouraging virtue than in restraining vice. But I also think that societies can become so vicious that the virtuous tendencies of people get squelched and vice rules. This is what I think American consumerism, globalism, and militarism has resulted in.

Brooks concludes:

If I were President Obama, I would spend the next year showing how government can serve a humble, helpful and supportive role to the central institutions of American life. Even in blue states like Massachusetts, voters want a government that is energetic but limited — a servant, not a leviathan.

Yes, Americans want a servant, a government that does exactly what they want and lets them do exactly what they want. And until Americans want to start doing the right thing—living temperately and moderately, curbing their excessive desires, caring more for their neighbors—Leviathan is all they are going to get.

Why be altruistic? Because it makes you happy.

One of the nice things about Aristotelian virtue ethics over a deontological or utilitarian moral theory is that morality is considered something natural to human beings, something intrinsic rather than extrinsically imposed. The virtue of temperance towards food, for example, is not something unnatural to human beings, meaning that in order to be temperate, one would have to overcome one’s human inclinations towards food, but is rather the natural way in which human beings are supposed to relate to food—not eating too much or too little, eating a variety of foods, eating at the right time in the right place, etc. Virtue then, rather than being contrary to inclination, can be considered the perfection of inclination.

An op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff in this weekend’s NYTimes illustrates this point nicely on the topic of altruism. Drawing off the work of Jonathan Haidt, Kristoff writes,

Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.” . . .

. . . Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.
I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.
The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

Unlike a deontological theory which says that we should give of our resources because we have an obligation to, or a utilitarian theory which says that we should give of our resources to maximize overall utility or societal contentment, it seems that empirical evidence is supporting the virtue perspective that we should give of our resources because we are inclined to do so. More specifically, human beings are created to share what they have, and doing so leads to their own happiness, in addition to the happiness of others.

Learning Ethics from Les Miserables

Everydaythomist is going to take a small break from discussing scripture and metaphysics in today’s post. But don’t worry—we will come back to some of the same topics we have been discussing on Thomas Aquinas’ use of metaphysical speculation to understand God as revealed in scripture.

Today, however, we are going to look at a well-known story, popularized by the musical, of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I watched and discussed the Dreamcast version of the musical last night with my church small group. We aren’t going to rehash the whole story here. If you don’t know it, go out and get the DVD immediately, and then be sure to read the book as soon as you can. In this post, we are going to look at the various ethical theories which different characters represent, and what the story overall can tell us about ethics.

One of the ethical theories the movie portrays is what is called a deontological, or rule-based theory, most clearly represented by the police inspector Javert. Deontological ethical theories say that the moral thing to do in any given situation is to follow the rules, to obey the law, to do your duty. Deontological theories tend to downplay the relevance of consequences. This means that if there is a rule not to lie, it is immoral to lie, even if lying will help a lot of people.

A famous hypothetical scenario to illustrate what deontological theories look like if taken to an extreme is the “Nazi at the door” scenario. It goes as follows: say you are hiding Jews in your basement to protect them from being sent to a concentration camp. A Nazi comes to the door and asks if you have any Jews in your house. You know that lying is wrong, but you also know that if you do you obey your duty to tell the truth, the Jews in your basement will probably die. A deontological theorist would say that even in this scenario, lying is immoral.

In contrast, a utilitarian approach to ethics looks at the consequences of actions to judge their morality. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and tends to say that what is moral in any given situation is to maximize the good effects. So a utilitarian would say that more good can be done by lying to the Nazi officer and saving the Jews than can be done by telling the truth.

Javert is a deontological thinker par excellence. In his first stage encounter with Jean Valjean who is just getting released from prison, Javert tells Valjean that he is thief who has been justly punished for his offense. Valjean explains that he stole a loaf of bread to save his starving niece who was close to death. Valjean is using utilitarian reasoning here—he broke the law because doing so could potentially bring about more good (saving his niece) than obeying the law could. He appeals to Javert for compassion, “We were starving . . .” but Javert gives a deontological response:

You will starve again, unless you learn the meaning of the law!

Obeying the law comprises the totality of morality for Javert. His solo “Stars” illustrates how important the law is for him. The law maintains order. Without the law, there would be chaos, and so Javert insists that the law must be upheld regardless of the consequences, and if the law is broken, justice demands punishment. Even when he encounters Fantine who is clearly on the brink of death and requests only a little time to make sure her daughter is safe does not sway his commitment to the law:

I have heard such protestations
Every day for twenty years
Let’s have no more explanations
Save your breath and save your tears
Honest work, just reward,
That’s the way to please the Lord.

Javert is not just being high and mighty in his role as police commissioner. We learn that he also comes from a poor background to criminal parents, but chose to escape his background by strictly following the rules no matter what the consequences:

Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way
You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too!

While Valjean occasionally uses utilitarian reasoning in his approach to ethics, he is more representative of a third approach to ethics, a virtue-based approach. If a deontological approach to ethics first asks “what does the law say?” and a utilitarian approach first asks “how can I do the most good?” a virtue-based approach asks “what does this action say about the kind of person I am, and what are the implications of this action for becoming the person I want to become?”

Alasdair MacIntyre, a famous philosophical advocate of virtue ethics, says that virtue ethics can be summed up in three questions:

Who am I?
Who do I want to become?
How do I get there?

Virtue ethics is unique because it sees ethics as concerned not so much about discrete actions (should I do X or not), but how every action fits into a total life narrative. Virtue ethics acknowledges that people change over time—they become better or worse people depending on what they do.

We see Valjean struggling between a utilitarian approach to ethics and a virtue-based approach to ethics in his son “Who am I?” In this song, Valjean contemplates the utility of turning himself into Javert to save a man who has been mistaken for Valjean and arrested. But if Valjean chooses to turn himself in to save one man, hundreds of others will suffer since val Jean is the mayor of the town and the owner of the factory where most of the town works.

I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
How can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!

Utilitarian reasoning falls apart for Valjean, and he has already recognized the limitations of Javert’s deontological approach. He understands that weighing the consequences will not tell him what is right in this complicated situation, nor will trying to follow the rules lead him to the right choice. Instead, he turns to his own character and asks “who am I” and “who do I want to become?”

Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgment in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!

But just because Valjean does not base his decisions primarily on either following the rules or maximizing the good consequences, there are guiding principles that he brings to his deliberation. But they are not rule-based principles like Javert (e.g. don’t steal); rather, Valjean’s guiding principles are the virtues, which are vaguer but which allow Valjean to account for the complexity of each moral dilemma.

Virtues are certain aspects of a person’s character that lead them to do good things. A person develops virtues through actions. One develops justice, for example, by trying to be just and giving to others and oneself what they deserve. One develops courage by facing fear, and by not avoiding good actions even when they are difficult or frightening.

There are lots of different virtues that people develop like temperance (moderation), prudence (right judgment about things to be done), generosity, etc. The dominant virtue for Valjean is love. In each ethical dilemma he faces, Valjean asks “what is the loving thing to do?” Javert asks “what is the right or the legal thing to do?” and as a result, ethical dilemmas are much simpler for him. But for Valjean, things are more complicated. It is not always easy to be loving, and he sometimes has to break the rules to do so, which is how he ended up in prison and an enemy of Javert in the first place.

And this brings us to what I see is the entire point of the story. Ethics is messy. Ethics is complicated. There are so many particular dimensions of each ethical dilemma that we face that we cannot possibly account for them all. And so if we look at ethics as primarily concerned about discrete actions, about what is the right or wrong thing to do in any given situation, we miss the point. Ethics is about becoming a good person. Ethics is primarily about the story of one’s life with all the successes and mistakes taken as a whole. It is about being able to die and say “I lived the best I could, and I am proud of the person that I am.” Rules are important, as is attention to consequences, but both rules and consequence are meant to facilitate the ultimate goal which is living well.

Acknowledging the complicated nature of ethics gives a person compassion for others in their own path to a good life. We see this too with Valjean. He can sympathize with Fantine who has sold herself into prostitution to get enough money for her daughter. He can sympathize with the prisoner who was caught stealing and mistaken for him. He can sympathize with the student organizers and with Cosette and with Marius in his love for his daughter. Because his approach to ethics gives val Jean sympathy, he has relationships that Javert, in all of his uprightness and stalwartness, does not. Because it is so clear to Javert what the right thing to do is, he cannot understand when people do not do it. So virtue ethics provides an approach to ethics that keeps us from judging too quickly.

On a final note, I would say that it is very difficult in any given situation to do the right thing. Even the most virtuous and heroic characters fail in their attempt to do what is best. We see this with Valjean who allows the foreman to fire Fantine because he needs to keep order in his shop. Valjean was not being malicious there—he simply could not account for all the relevant particular factors in the situation. A rallying motto of the virtue ethicist, however, is this: “It takes more than one sparrow to make a spring.” This means that we are not defined as a person by any one particular action. Who we are as people depends on an entire lifetime of actions. So Valjean is not a thief simply because he stole. Nor is he the hardened 24601 that he was in his time in prison. He is simply Jean Valjean, an identity which the audience of the musical does not see in its fullness until Valjean’s death.

Is Anger an Appropriate Response to Suffering?

In the last post, I said that I was going to do a series of posts on some of the thoughts I have been having related to the “theodicy” issue, or the problem of evil and suffering in light of the belief that God is all-good and all-powerful. In this post, I am going to use as my starting point a quote from Harold Kushner, who I mentioned in the last post wrote a very famous book on theodicy called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In his effort to explain God’s involvement in the suffering humans experience on this earth, Kushner writes,

We can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side and God is still on ours (45).

In this post, I am going to expound on Kushner’s provocative idea about anger from a Thomistic framework in order to determine the moral and theological significance of anger, and whether Kushner is right is saying that suffering should prompt anger.

We tend to think of anger as vicious or harmful. Somebody may say, “I didn’t mean to do X, but I was blinded by anger,” or “anger is wrong; I want to be a more peaceful person.” Aquinas is aware that anger connotes sinfulness. There is good reason for this. In Matthew 5:22, for example, Jesus claims that one who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment. In his discussion of anger, Aquinas asks whether all anger is contrary to virtue, to which he answers a resounding no. Anger, which is a passion, can be aroused according to reason, which makes anger in some situations virtuous.

So how do we determine if anger is virtuous (according to the standards of reason) or not? Aquinas looks at the object of anger, or that to which the anger is directed. He identifies two objects to anger: one is the injury that the person suffers, and the other is vindication (vindicatio) that the person seeks. The vindicatio is the justice that one seeks to exact against an perceived injustice. It is the way of making an injustice right. The vindicatio is an evil under the aspect of good. Denying a person his freedom for a number of years in punishment for theft, for example, could be a vindicatio because it is an evil (imprisonment) that seeks to rectify an injustice (the theft), thus rendering the vindicatio itself a good.

If a person seeks a vindicatio against a person who does not deserve it, for example, the anger would be sinful. If a person seeks too great a vindicatio, such as when a person repays an injustice with a much greater injustice (beating a child for spilling milk), such anger would be sinful. So anger is virtuous if a truly unjust offense occurs and the response is proportionate to the injustice.

What about Matthew 5:22 that says that anyone who is angry against their brother is liable to judgment? In light of scripture, how can Aquinas still say that anger can be virtuous? One way which Matthew 5:22 has been explained is using the person/sin distinction. That is, it is wrong to be angry against a person, but okay to be angry against a sin. Because Jesus is referring to the former in his condemnation of anger, it does not contradict the thesis that anger can be virtuous. This is the explanation Augustine used, claiming that one is properly angered at the sin of one’s brother, not one’s brother himself. Thomas disagrees with this, claiming that if a person is unjust, it is fitting and proper to be angry towards that person, granted that one’s anger is proportionate and the vindicatio sought is just.

The reason is that anger is that, according to Aquinas, has a two-fold object—the injustice, and the rectification of that injustice. An injustice is when a person is not given their due. The order of the universe which is in natural things and in the human will reveals that there is justice in God. God orders things and orders that they be in right relationship, and this is what is meant by God’s justice. Kushner is right in identifying that when we recognize that things or people are not in right relationship, we are participating in God’s justice.

Anger, then, because it is concerned with justice, is properly determined by relationships. In order to determine if anger is appropriate, one must be in some relationship of justice, that is, a relationship that is ordered according to God’s standards. This requires a little explanation. I cannot be angry against an inanimate object, for example, because the inanimate object cannot do me an injustice. I may stub my toe on my desk, but my anger cannot rightfully be oriented towards the desk. Nor can I be angry at a hurricane or a virus for the same reason. I may be hurt by these things, but they cannot be the object of my anger because they did not commit an injustice against me. Anger, for Aquinas, is really properly directed at people.

Additionally, if anger is to be justified, the right rectification must be sought. A child who commits a grievous fault–perhaps he hits one of his siblings–has committed an injustice which the parents, due to their relationship of justice with the child, have a responsibility to rectify. Perhaps they will ground the child, or require some sort of positive compensation to the assaulted sibling. However, the sibling who has been harmed is not in a relationship that allows him to seek the necessary vindicatio. It would be inappropriate for the sibling to ground his own sibling or to hit his sibling back. It would also not be appropriate for a stranger to punish the pugilistic sibling. Nor would it be appropriate if a child was the victim of an injustice committed by a parent to seek vindicatio. If a child is hit by a parent, the appropriate response is to appeal to a higher authority, like the police. In short, in order to seek a vindicatio, one has to be in the right position of seeking justice.

This is why we frown on vigilantes, or civilians who go out to seek vindicatios against injustices that are going unpunished. Because such civilians are not in the proper relationship of justice to the people whom they are punishing, they are actually committing an injustice in their actions in seeking a vindicatio that is not theirs to seek. Their anger is not virtuous, because the vindicatio sought is not virtuous.

Reasonable anger (and hence, virtuous anger) according to Aquinas is (1) prompted by an occasion of injustice, (2) directed at the perpetrator of injustice, and (3) seeks a just vindicatio to restore the injustice. If anger meets these three requirements, Aquinas would say it is virtuous.

So how does this play out regarding the theodicy question as Kushner sees it? First of all, the object of anger must be an actual injustice, not just something that makes us unhappy. Aquinas would not say it is virtuous to be angry if you, for example, get diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not an injustice that should rightfully prompt anger. Moreover, there is no committer of an injustice towards which one can direct their anger. A more proper response would be sorrow at the fact that one is experiencing an evil, but not an injustice. But it would be proper to experience anger at a news story relating how somebody has been raped or murdered, or to be angered when you hear about the violence in the Middle East or Zimbabwe. Here, we do have an injustice, and perpetrator, which can be the object of our anger.

Second, the anger must be directed at the right person. If I read about what is going on in Zimbabwe and get angry at Robert Mugabe, my anger may be justified. If I read about Zimbabwe and get angry at black people, my anger is definitely not. Similarly, if I get angry at God when I hear about Mugabe’s egregious offenses against his people, my anger is not targeted at the right person. Such anger, according to Aquinas would not be justified.

Lastly, the vindicatio sought must in itself be just. If I decide that I am going to go assassinate Mugabe to stop his injustices, the unjust vindicatio thus renders my anger unjust. A more just vindicatio might be writing to the UN or raising awareness in this country by writing letters to the newspaper or marching in DC, or praying to God for the Zimbabweans who are suffering.

Kushner is right that we should feel compassion and sorrow for those who suffer. But I am not quite sure that an appropriate response to suffering is anger. Anger connotes that an injustice is being done that one can do something about. Sickness, death, and natural disasters are indeed evils, but they are not injustices. Such tragedies may be handled in an unjust way. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not itself an injustice, but the subsequent way it was dealt with in many ways was.

This is not to say that Aquinas thinks we should remain Stoic in the face of suffering. He acknowledges that the passion of sorrow, which is the apprehension of some pain or evil, is a appropriate. When one is faced with a pain or evil, it may be appropriate to weep, to seek to remove or alleviate the harm, or even, as is the case with Job, demand answers from God. But for Aquinas, and I think he is right, it is not an injustice to experience pain, nor does God owe us any answers. The proper response to suffering, I would argue against Kushner, is not anger, but rather sorrow. The situations that concern Kushner, the death of a child for example, do not arouse God’s anger because no injustice is being done. God’s universe is still in order, even if we suffer.

But this is not the final word for Aquinas against Kushner, which will be the subject of another post on the issue. Aquinas, as a Christian, has not only a God that gets angry at injustice, as Kushner does, but also, a God who through the incarnation, is capable of suffering with, or feeling compassion and sorrow with his creation. And through the resurrection, Aquinas has a God who not only suffers with his creation, but has also ultimately defeated suffering in the grand eschatological scheme. Thus, for Aquinas, suffering should prompt not only anger if an injustice is done, or sorrow if no injustice is done, but should also prompt us to reflect on the God who loved us so much, that he suffers with us, and is himself ultimately the remedy to our sorrow.

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.