Cavanaugh and the free market

William Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at St. Thomas. Apparently his writing on political and economic issues has made him popular in "radical" Catholic circles. Considering myself something of a radical, and also learning that Prof. Cavanaugh is rather well respected, I thought I should become acquainted with his thought. I have heard a good introduction is his book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.

Perhaps contrary to your intuition is the idea that the study of God could have anything to say about the study of economy. And in some important way, you'd be right. In the first place, theology does not say anything about human economy; theology studies God. But in the Christian tradition, the revelation of God to Man was also the revelation of Man to Man. This is because Christians believe Jesus was both fully Man and fully God. As such, the study of God is also the study of man. And so in learning the truth about man, we learn things that we necessarily need to incorporate into our economic thinking. That is, if our economics is going to have any basis in reality, any basis in the nature of man.

Theology can teach us about anthropology, and anthropology is, or ought be, the basis of economics. And so Cavanaugh's book teaches us about human anthropology. His first major argument is that democratic capitalism explicitly condemns the notion of a public telos, a public purpose, and that this is a bad thing:
All of this indicates that there are true desires and false desires, and we need a telos to tell the difference between them. The second corollary of free-market economics is that freedom is maximized in the absence of a common telos. A market is free if individuals are free to choose their own ends based on nothing more than their own wants. (pp.10)
I am following along with the professor until he states his "second corollary" of free-market economics, which seems to me to be largely of his own convenient invention. He says that free-market economists believe 'freedom is maximized' in the absence of a common telos. Is that quite right? Yes, but it's not the whole story, or the most important part of the story. If he is going to criticize the free-market economists, he ought to fairly represent their argument. They do not love freedom qua freedom. They value freedom because they believe that freedom is the key to the maximization of prosperity. They also believe that the free market best respects the the nature of man. So the point of the free economy is not just that people are free; it is that this freedom is most conducive to human flourishing and creating wealth - i.e., moving people out of poverty. So I think Prof. Cavanaugh, at least in these first few chapters, is misreading the free-market economists and making a straw-man argument. He is correct about the necessity of a telos - nothing can or ought to happen in a moral or spiritual vacuum, economic choices included. (Whether it ought or can be common to all members of a society is another question.) But he is not fairly representing their whole argument, he is reducing it to love of freedom for freedom's sake.

A man that we must re-elect

Please read P. J. O'Rourke's piece on Sen. Sununu.

Jeanne Shaheen cannot be elected to the Senate. She will advance a liberal-socialist agenda in Washington, but worst of all we will lose a great public servant.

It is so rare to have a public servant who not only approaches political issues with an analytical background, but also with a sound political philosophy.

I look forward to the debates this fall. I also look forward to campaigning for the "smartest man in the senate".


the man who lies to himself

"Above all, don't lie to yourself. the man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn't it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill - he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful posturing..."

from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
Part One, Book Two, "The Old Buffoon"

Flip flopping won't matter this year

“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” - Sen. Kerry (Check out the "Top 10" flip flops of Kerry)

Those words are probably what sealed the fate of Sen. Kerry in November 2004 and the over arching charge of "flip flopping". The American people were not necessarily thrilled about President Bush, but in the uncertain times of a post-September 11th America, they polled the lever for Bush over Kerry.

Fast forward to 2008. The tediously long primary season has opened the candidates to an increased opportunity of hypocrisy. McCain was against off shore drilling, before he was for it. (His explanation seems to make sense to me, but that is another post...) I am sure there are more flip flops of the 2008 season that McCain has made, but Obama has flipped and flopped so dramatically on a wide range of issues. And not just stances on policies, but things like where he attends Church with his family.

Krauthammer documents these eloquently per usual. I'll let him explain them rather than try to clumsily reclaim his thoughts as my own here.


McCain on Roe

via Feministing:

He's no different than Obama!

confusing the basics

Policraticus of Vox Nova says:
External pressures come to bear on moral judgment, as does the formation of conscience and knowledge of sin (basic Catholic moral teaching). If a person is found to be unaware of the moral magnitude of his/her sin, culpability is diminished, but not eliminated. As the popes have taught countless times, basic human rights (e.g., life, property, health care, economic stability, shelter) are conditions of freedom of choice. In the absence of these rights and factors, sin prevails.
Policraticus is going along quite fine until he says "basic human rights" are "conditions of freedom of choice". If he is simply saying that in the absence of basic human rights, it is more difficult to live virtuously, then he is correct. But if he is saying that freedom of choice is itself conditional on the security of basic human rights (which in my opinion is the only reasonable way to read what he wrote) then I think he is making a grave error. God always gives us the strength to say "yes" to him, and his gift is not taken away by any socio-economic conditions, however oppressive. Sin only prevails when individual souls let it prevail.

Policraticus also says that this teaching, that "sin prevails" in the absence of basic human rights, is expressed by the modern popes in social encyclicals. This may be the case, but he never provided a reference to substantiate such a claim. Do any of the readers of this site know where I might find such a statement?

One last thing - I think it is reasonable to say that human nature fairs better in relatively poor socio-economic conditions. I don't mean destitution, but something like lower-middle-class socio-economic status. We fair better when more is required of us, when more is asked of us. Our priorities tend to straighten out. It's easier to recognize our total dependence on God. This is not to say prosperity is necessarily a bad thing; it is to say that we easily delude ourselves with thinking our achievements are ours alone.
"Hypocrisy consists not in failing to practice what we preach, but in not believing what we preach."

Is this quite right?


Liberals, Conservatives, and the Constitution pt. 2

I'd like to continue with yet another selection from Russell Hittinger's lecture, American Constitutionalism. I've mentioned it previously here and here. Obviously, I'm a big fan. In this selection, Professor Hittinger outlines the argument the Federalists made against the enumeration of rights. In spelling out this argument, some aspects of American Constitutional thought become clear - specifically, the reason the Constitution is devoid of moral language.
Now, our Framers tried to avoid swamping our Constitutional discourse in continual philosophical disagreement and religious disagreement, by simply saying: we either gave to the government a power or we didn’t. If they don’t have the power, they can’t do anything about that matter. Why get into a debate about what conscience is? Especially in a pluralistic society in which people have many different ideas of what conscience is and what its scope might be. In Federalist 51, James Madison said, “In framing a government to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” The Federalist argument was, it’s easier to make the government control itself by enumerating its powers. It is easier to enumerate the powers government has than to enumerate the rights you think you have. Hamilton, for his part, argued in the debate over whether the Constitution should include a bill of rights that it’s very difficult to list all of the legitimate rights people might have. Not only because that list might turn out to be pretty long, but because it’s very difficult to put into a list of rights precisely what the right is you have. To say you have a right of conscience isn’t telling anyone anything. It’s not precise enough, it’s not specified enough. And Hamilton warned that if we get into the business of listing our rights, it would furnish to men a plausible pretense for claiming power. Why? Because if you list rights against government, and these rights are not precise, if they are very vague, you have simply invited the government now to interpret what those rights were and once the government claims power to interpret vaguely formulated rights, you have increased, rather than decreased the power of the government. In fact, almost all lists of rights, both at the national and the international level tend to be what I call underspecified rights, very vague and general. So vague and general that no one really knows who owes what to whom.
This last idea - who owes what to whom - is a good definition of justice. Hittinger is saying that enumerating vague rights confuses our ability to see justice done properly. You can see an example of a vague right entering our Constitutional discourse in Anthony Kennedy's ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, where he writes "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life". This is the ground that a woman's right to procure an abortion rests. This is to say that that right rests on a meaningless, self-contradictory metaphysical claim. This nebulous right leaves the issue of the justice of abortion left unsettled.

In the course of his takl, Prof. Hittinger gives many more reasons the Framers left moral language out of the Constitution:
...because there is no way to make an adequate and precise list of all of the moral principles that ought to limit a government. This list will teach people the wrong message – it will teach people the message that, if you don’t have something on that list, then it’s open season.


[Justice Story] is paraphrasing here, Alexander Hamilton’s famous argument from Federalist 84 on whether a Bill of Rights is necessary. Hamilton’s argument was this: “The Constitution is itself in every rational sense a Bill of Rights.” Why? Because the Constitution delegates and enumerates the powers of the U.S. government, and therefore there is no need to limit the government by the addition of natural rights claims, or indeed, any kind of rights claims. Hamilton asks, “Why declare that things should not be done which there is no power to do?” Accordingly, the internal structure of the government protects rights by spelling out precisely what the government can and can’t do. If Article I gives to Congress no power to make a law respecting an establishment of religion there is no need to reiterate that point in a list of rights.
I think it is important to be familiar with these arguments. All too often, we buy into the enlightenment myth of progress - we believe our knowledge, in all areas, always increases. When we do this, we assume that we now know more about the best system of government than any previous generation could have. Of course, this is not necessarily true. In learning the reasons and wisdom of the Framers, it's easy to see that in many ways, we know much less.


"When one is enough"

A heartbreaking story from the New York Times:
When we saw the specialist, we found out that I was carrying identical twins and a stand alone. My doctors thought the stand alone was three days older. There was something psychologically comforting about that, since I wanted to have just one. Before the procedure, I was focused on relaxing. But Peter was staring at the sonogram screen thinking: Oh, my gosh, there are three heartbeats. I can't believe we're about to make two disappear. The doctor came in, and then Peter was asked to leave. I said, ''Can Peter stay?'' The doctor said no. I know Peter was offended by that.



A Harvard student comments on Ben Bernanke's class day speech:
Though the words of the Fed chair can often move markets—and media outlets nationwide paid close attention to Bernanke’s remarks—graduating seniors were far less interested in hearing what he had to say.

Benny E. Chen ’08 was unimpressed by the larger significance of the speech.

“I’m just upset because I feel like this event was used as a pulpit to speak to the masses, rather than to my class,” he said.
- Harvard Crimson

Pope Quotes

In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent. But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behaviour as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception.

- Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendour
For some reason, this makes me think of another Pope quote:
"Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist."

- Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno


Idealism and Peace

Apropos to the subject of Christianity and war, so frequently dicussed at Vox Nova, is Fr. James Schall's latest column, "Peace Research". He begins with reflections on human nature and the demand for "peace at any cost":
Behind the war question, sane people recognized that "peaceful means" do not always guarantee justice or even existence. "Peace at any cost" has long been understood to be the virtue of cowards. Scripture is not only full of wars, but unsettlingly reminds us that in all human history will be found wars and rumors of war. This view is stated as a matter of fact. We should not be shocked when it happens in our era or place. It assumes a familiarity with human nature, with the Fall in all its consequences. As a grudging practical principle that never fails to upset the idealists, realistically armed societies are usually those that enjoy the most peace. Those who merely "long" for peace seldom experience it. They may enjoy it, but it is not the result of their own efforts.
He moves on to qualify his definition of peace, because paradoxically, the desire for peace without any qualification can lead to less peace.
Peace is not an object of war. Peace is always a result of something else, primarily justice. But not everyone is inspired by justice. The question of war is thus never far from the question of what goes on in our souls. Wars seldom initially arise with armies. When unjust, they arise in the souls of the intellectual guardians or in those of the citizens, usually as a result of personal disorder. The necessity to protect oneself and others is, then, something that arises from a realistic look at the human condition.
He then briefly mentions how modern philosophy departed from Christian thought. These thoughts beg to be extended. Here are Schall's words:
Modern philosophy often proposed itself as a method to create among us "universal peace." What this philosophy claimed was a superior understanding of human nature. Modern thought strove to replace the Christian realism that expects wars and rumors of war. With modern science, this thought will finally bring about "peace" in this world. Indeed, a principal argument against Christianity was that it was too slovenly about wars. It did not "work" to eradicate them. It read Scripture about their abidingness, so it did not act.
I will attempt a brief extension here.

There is good reason to believe that absolute intolerance for war and inequality is not so much a result of traditional Christian thought as it is an offspring of what I would call the projectionist philosophers [thanks Prof. Corbin!]. Philosophers, beginning with Machiavelli, no longer sought to merely inquire into the nature of reality; rather, these philosophers claimed to have definite knowledge of reality and sought to project their particular vision of it onto the world. These philosophers were not content with our impartial and imperfect knowledge of what is, and so they constructed their own version of what is and attempted to persuade others of it. They were very successful.

Some Christian political thinkers bought into the methods of the projectionist philosophers. They took a Christian truth - liberation from the consequences of sin - too far. Buying into the Utopian temptation, they attempted to write original sin and its consequences out of reality. In the words of the philsopher Eric Voegelin, they attempted to "immanentize the eschaton". This can be seen in the various attempts to plan and organize the perfectly just political community, as if such a thing might exist this side of paradise.

So the argument against them is this: Any truly Christian political thought must take into account what is, and part of what is is original sin and its consequences. Demands for a world without war, or a world without peace are properly called idealistic, because they ignore or minimize the nature and significance of reality. They deny what is and want to force what ought.

So what does this mean? Does this mean we must simply accept war? Well, no. We should expect war, but not accept it. In Father Schall's words, "We do what we can" His conclusion is worth repeating in its entirety. Please excuse this massive quotation, but I really think it is worth drawing attention to these words.
Now, of course, Christianity has never thought that something could not be done about the prevalence of war. Its frequency and heinousness could, with some wisdom, be limited. The notion of "limited" as opposed to "universal peace" strikes me as by far the more feasible and indeed less dangerous goal. "Universal peace" by human means has the overtones of totalitarianism in modern times.


These remarkable words of Ratzinger are worth memorizing:
Even a cursory glance at the actual reality of every century suggests that such "signs" [wars] indicate a permanent condition of this world. The world has always been torn apart by wars and catastrophes, and nothing allows one to hope that, for example, "peace research" will manage to ease this watermark of all humanity.
In other words, we do what we can. But when we promise that we can eliminate war by studying peace, we show that we do not understand either Scripture or the human condition.

In the recent past, we have had earthquakes, floods, wars, and sundry other disasters. We can only be "surprised" at such things if we really think that we can totally eliminate them -- if, in other words, we lapse into ideology from practical realism. It is in this latter world where we are to accomplish our salvation, which is not ultimately in this world.
Thoughts? Catholic Anarchist?



Congratulations to the Boston Celtics!


true, beautiful, scary, and wonderful

Peter Kreeft again:
So this is a very dangerous thing, this loving-thing. It changes you. It changes your life. It's as objectively real as a large, hot rock thrown in your face. It's not just a thought or a feeling inside you; it really happens. We unite with what we love. We become what we love. The more you love chocolate, the more chocolate you become. The more you love cannibalism, the more cannibalistic you become. The you love Christ, the more Christlike you become. Nothing is more scary than that. Look how scared the world was of Christ: they had to crucify Him.
He quotes Saint Augustine, who wrote:
Amor meus, pondus meum - "my love is my gravity."

sanctity and metaphysics

Peter Kreeft teaches high philosophy:
And because saints are "little Christs," Gabriel Marcel is right when he says that "sanctity is the true introduction to ontology." ("On the Ontological Mystery," in The Philosophy of Existentialism.)

That is one of the most puzzling and pregnant sayings I have ever heard from any philosopher. IT is not sentimentalism; it is perfect logic. For:

1. Ontology, or metaphysics, is the science of being.
2. And our clearest understanding of being, or reality, must come from the most real being, not from the less real.
3. And the most real being, the source and standard and archetype of all reality, is God.
4. But we don't know God directly, as an object, for His name is not "IT IS" (object) but "I AM" (subject).
5. And we too are subjects ("I's"), not objects, since we are created in His image.
6. Yet we can and do know ourselves somehow.
7. So it is personhood, or I-ness, that is the key, or door, or window, to metaphysics.
8. But personhood, or I-ness, like being, is analogical. It is a matter of degree. We are more or less authentic, more or less real. Atoms are not as real as souls, and human souls are not as real as God.
9. The most real human persons are saints. They are what we are all designed to be.
10. Therefore the study of sanctity is the key to the study of being.

new and old America

Apologies if you already read the WSJ, but Peggy Noonan has an excellent column up where she distinguishes between the Old America (represented by McCain) and the New America (represented by Obama):
Roughly, broadly:

In the Old America, love of country was natural. You breathed it in. You either loved it or knew you should.

In the New America, love of country is a decision. It's one you make after weighing the pros and cons. What you breathe in is skepticism and a heightened appreciation of the global view.

Old America: Tradition is a guide in human affairs. New America: Tradition is a challenge, a barrier, or a lovely antique.

The Old America had big families. You married and had children. Life happened to you. You didn't decide, it decided. Now it's all on you. Old America, when life didn't work out: "Luck of the draw!" New America when life doesn't work: "I made bad choices!" Old America: "I had faith, and trust." New America: "You had limited autonomy!"

Old America: "We've been here three generations." New America: "You're still here?"

Old America: We have to have a government, but that doesn't mean I have to love it. New America: We have to have a government and I am desperate to love it. Old America: Politics is a duty. New America: Politics is life.

The Old America: Religion is good. The New America: Religion is problematic. The Old: Smoke 'em if you got 'em. The New: I'll sue.

Mr. McCain is the old world of concepts like "personal honor," of a manliness that was a style of being, of an attachment to the fact of higher principles.

Mr. Obama is the new world, which is marked in part by doubt as to the excellence of the old. It prizes ambivalence as proof of thoughtfulness, as evidence of a textured seriousness.

Both Old and New America honor sacrifice, but in the Old America it was more essential, more needed for survival both personally (don't buy today, save for tomorrow) and in larger ways.

The Old and New define sacrifice differently. An Old America opinion: Abjuring a life as a corporate lawyer and choosing instead community organizing, a job that does not pay you in money but will, if you have political ambitions, provide a base and help you win office, is not precisely a sacrifice. Political office will pay you in power and fame, which will be followed in time by money (see Clinton, Bill). This has more to do with timing than sacrifice. In fact, it's less a sacrifice than a strategy.

A New America answer: He didn't become a rich lawyer like everyone else—and that was a sacrifice! Old America: Five years in a cage—that's a sacrifice!

In the Old America, high value was put on education, but character trumped it. That's how Lincoln got elected: Honest Abe had no formal schooling. In Mr. McCain's world, a Harvard Ph.D. is a very good thing, but it won't help you endure five years in Vietnam. It may be a comfort or an inspiration, but it won't see you through. Only character, and faith, can do that. And they are very Old America.

Old America: candidates for office wear ties. New America: Not if they're women. Old America: There's a place for formality, even the Beatles wore jackets!
I like the distinction and think she sees things correctly.


Peter Kreeft as Socrates as Time-Traveler

He does a pretty good job. At worst, the book is overwhelmingly corny, and the course of the dialog hard to believe. But if you are reading the book for apologetic insights, you will be overwhelmed. Kreeft is a master articulator of the many reasons to believe in the Christian Gospel. In addition, there are a number of psychological insights in the earlier chapters where his Socrates is dissecting the pretensions of the modern mind. Overall, highly recommended, as long as you can stomach some serious lameness.


neither the day nor the hour ..

Tim Russert, Requiscat in Pace


A while ago, I was surprised to learn that, for Catholics, all Fridays throughout the year remain days of obligatory penance.

I think (not sure), the most authoritative document on this subject is Paul VI's PAENITEMINI: The Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence. In Chapter III, he provides some norms for Catholics:
I. 1. By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance.

2. The prescriptions of ecclesiastical law regarding penitence are totally reorganized according to the following norms:

II. 1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.

2. Apart from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast is to be observed on Ash Wednesday or, according to the various practices of the rites, on the first day of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent) and on Good Friday.
The USSCB echos this teaching when they write that "In memory of Christ's suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day." This traditionally meant abstinence from meat, and the Church still holds this form of penance in highest regard. The U.S. Bishops have, with the authority of their office and permission from Rome, changed the regulations involved in the penance. Friday is still to be held as a day of penance, but abstinence from meat is no longer the only acceptable form. You can substitute some other penance.

Personally, I have found it difficult to practice some other form of penance. I am big fan of red meat, so I think that particular form of penance is appropriate for me. I also think there is something to be said for the universal obligatory abstinence from meat. It creates a sort of visible Catholic identity; in a way, a sign of the Cross.

Any Thoughts? From the Catholics? From the non-Catholics?


excluding and dividing people with labels

Henry Karlson, a contributor to Vox Nova, comments on some members of the anti-abortion movement he doesn't like:
I know many people who are pro-life who see that we must be pro-life in all aspects of our thought and culture, and that if you ignore life after the womb, which isn’t hidden, and find excuses to ignore it, it is obvious you will ignore what is also hidden. It’s why life at all stages must be protected. And aided. That which is more apparent has an effect and that which is hidden.

This is why I find many who are so-called pro-life are not; they are anti-abortion alone. They don’t know what it means to be pro-life. Their ability to shrug off death in front of them because it’s not in the womb is a disgrace.
It's an argument he's made many times before and in many different ways.

Where does he get the idea that, as a society, we “ignore life after the womb”? We certainly do not! Life at all stages after birth IS protected and aided by the law - in many respects!

Not advocating for a centrally planned health-care system is not “ignoring life after the womb”. Not advocating for a massive federal welfare system is not even close to “ignoring life after the womb.” Even less, could such advocates be considered, on the basis of their opposition to these programs, to be “anti-abortion alone”.

In my experience, and I suspect the experience of many others, people in the pro-life movement care about justice at all stages of life. It's just that - I don't know - most of them don't think Robin Hood is the greatest teacher of government and political philosophy.

Henry makes a very crass argument. Whether he intends it or not, his argument paints people who disagree with him, namely fellow Catholics and Christians, as somehow being enemies of the Gospel. Yuck.


Kass on the ethics of cannibalism

In the midst of his book The Hungry Soul Leon Kass provides a philosophical discussion of the ethics of cannibalism and their implications for human nature. Here is his disclaimer about the subject:
(I feel compelled to apologize to my readers for speaking about cannibalism, and not only because it is revolting. Some things should perhaps not be spoken of at all, for, especially in democratic times, familiarity breeds tolerance more often than contempt. Our sensibilities are blunted by frequent mentioning of the unmentionable, and the force of revulsion is weakened should an argument to defend the reasonableness of such revulsion fail to persuade. Still, unlike other once-upon-a-time horrors such as abortion, adultery, infanticide, suicide, sodomy, pederasty, incest, and bestiality, cannibalism is not an American temptation, and I doubt if my speaking about it can make it one. Moreover, we liberals ought to ponder the prohibition against eating human flesh - an act that, if the victim is already dead, is what we would call "a victimless crime." For we might thereby learn the insufficiency of our liberal belief that one does evil to a man only in violating his will or in not respecting his autonomy (read "mind"). Thus, by thinking about what's wrong with cannibalism, we might be able to re-discover the indispensable foundations of liberalism which are not themselves liberal.)


liberals, conservatives, and the American Constitution pt. 1

Modern liberals(progressives), following F.D.R. and some 19th century European intellectuals, do not believe in limited government. By and large, they reject the political order established by the American founders, which was a political order of separated and defined powers. They believe that the objects of all levels of the American government (local, state, federal) ought to be numerous and undefined, subject only to the whims of the people. Liberals want to progress beyond the limitations imposed by an earlier, and as they see it, benighted generation.

Conservatives, on the other hand, see good in the original American political order. Looking at the relative social stability, prosperity and progress the American nation has seen in the course of its 200-some-odd year history, they want to identify and conserve what is good in our particular tradition. Conservatives follow the Founders and some lessons from history and they argue that democracies can be unstable. Because of this, they say, the will of the people ought to be constrained to fight against the inherent instability. Conservatives believe the Constitution, in its constraints - the division and limitations of political power - has some valid purpose, and it is partially responsible for our stable political order. In short, they reject the idea that we should ignore entirely the advice of our Founders.

So, if liberals want to critique conservative ideas and vice versa, I would argue it has to be done on the level of principles. This is really the only way to make any progress in a conversation. And it is impossible to understand the principles that shape our government without attempting to understand the Constitution. Professor Russell Hittinger, in a previously mentioned lecture, has a masterful overview of our Constitutional principles. Here is a lengthy selection from his lecture, with some of my own emphasis.
But first, we must address a historical question. One of the framers of our Constitution, James Wilson, observed that the government created under the U.S. constitution was “hitherto a system unknown.” Why? Because the U.S. government was not just limited by law, or a feudal-rights system, customs and common laws, nor was it just limited by separation of powers (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) Our new government was a brand new type of government, why? Because it was limited by other governments. Who has ever thought of such a thing? To create a government that is limited by other governments, according to a system of dual sovereignty. In fact, in Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville contended that the entire genius of this new government is summarized in these four sentences from Federalist 45 (written by James Madison): “The power delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinable. The former will be exercised principally on the external objects of war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce, with which the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved for the several states, however, will extend to all of the objects which in the ordinary course of affairs, concerning the lives, the liberties, the properties of the people, the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the state.” Now, according to Madison, the political rule of this regime created in 1787 consists of two quite distinct governments. Not one government in a small version and one government in a big version, but two distinct types of government. For example, in Federalist 51, he writes “in the compound Republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is divided between two distinct governments, hence a double security arises to the rights of the people.” Now, on the one hand, there are the governments of the states, and as Madison says, there powers are “numerous and indefinable,” because the objects of there concern extend to all those things in the ordinary course of affairs that bear upon the common good – protecting happy hours, midnight basketball, education, crime, religion, just make a list, well make a list of everything President Clinton proposed in the State of the Union address a month ago and Madison would have thought they pertained to State government for the most part. Now, in this kind of government, which has numerous and indefinable powers, treating families, crime, education, hoot owls, all sorts of things, we would expect in this kind of government to be an abundance of moral language about government, because government is teaching things that are so immediately questions of morality and social morality – what is a family? What is a crime? - And so on and so forth. But, the U.S. government was not created to be that kind of government. The U.S. government was a government of few and defined powers, limited chiefly to foreign affairs and the collection of taxes to support the national government, having very few objects. SO the US government was not to be the kind of government in which Madison and his colleagues thought was a government that was going to be so quick to talk about moral discourse, because the objects that it reached were so few and far between. Remember, our Framers, by and large, were against even the government building roads – they thought they had really dropped the ball when they allowed the postal service, for Heaven’s sake. Our Framers did not conceive of the U.S. government as a general type of government. It was a government of few and defined powers.

It should be emphasized this does not mean the government is not informed by moral principles, but that those moral principles are kind of indirect. Rather than listing all the moral principles that ought to limit the U.S. government, our Framers simply decided to list the powers that it had. The Constitution is silent, by and large, on how the powers ought to be used from a moral point of view. Enumerated powers do not necessarily tell us whether any particular law made by the U.S. government satisfies or dwarfs natural rights. Nor does it tell us immediately whether liberties we have against the U.S. government are exercised rightly or wrongly from a moral point of view. Our Constitution is remarkable, among other reasons, because it does not talk about morality. It is not a target rich environment for moral discussion. Now, just a minute ago, I said that the word “right” is only mentioned once in our Constitution, it comes from Article I section 8 where Congress is given the authority grant temporary rights to inventors; but Article I section 8 does not tell us about whether or how this right is to reach something like a Kevorkian suicide machine, much less, which of any writings have any redeeming social value. Question: does Congress have authority under the Constitution to grant a temporary right to someone who is making a suicide machine? Yes, I think. Question: Should Congress use that power it has to give rights to the inventor of a suicide machine? My answer? Probably not! But the interesting issue is that the Constitution doesn’t tell us. The Constitution lets Congress make that judgment. It’s up to Congress to make the judgment about the morality of the use of that power. And who’s going to tell Congress? You and me, and other people as well. I’m sure corporations who want to get into the business of suicide machines as well. There will be a healthy conversation in Congress about Article I Section 8 power – how it should be used morally rather than immorally. The Constitution does not constitutionalize that issue. Is having the power to grant temporary rights to inventors and their inventions – is that in accord with natural law? Sure, it’s not out of accord with it. But the next question is – is any particular use of this power moral or immoral? That is not constitutionalized. To decide that question, it will do no good to read further into the Constitution. That question has to be decided by reflection and debate.
The key connection he makes here is the relationship between morality and the Constitution. The Constitution is silent on matters moral, and this upsets many thinkers. So the question for next time is: why is the Constitution silent on moral matters? Is this part of the problem of American government, or is it part of its genius?


neat Catholic stuff

A commentator named Fr. Andrew on Amy Welborn's website explains the distinctly Catholic concept of a parish.
...a parish is a geographical entity under canon law, so anyone living within the boundaries is technically a parishioner and their soul is the responsibility of the pastor and his parochial vicars. Though they may not be Catholic and so not be accorded certain rights (such as the Eucharist). The way modern language thinks of parishioners is a more protestant notion of individual decision and personal choice.
This is a great teaching and helps to explain exactly how the Church understands Herself - as universal, for every living soul.

the philosophy of biology

Leon Kass doesn't think the deterministic worldview makes any sense:
The living organism directs the comings and goings of molecules and all their inter-relations, as the legislative guides the executive or a musical score the musicians. And organization, legislation, and harmony, I remind you, are not themselves material.

None of this is altered by the marvelous findings of biochemistry and molecular biology, claims of molecular biologists or biochemists to the contrary nonwithstanding. We cannot here present a full argument. But suffice it to say that even DNA - the genetic material, the so-called molecular basis of life - functions not as a chemical material but as information carried by material. True, the information carried in DNA is borne by its material elements - that is, by the nucleotide bases (adenine, guanine, thymine,cytosine) - though here too the preservation of the same kind of base, not of this particular nucleotide molecule, is all that is required. True the nucleotides of DNA are chemically well suited to act as the coded letters of legislative messages for protein synthesis. But the medium is not the message. Call it a plan, a program, organization, whatever - this ruling principle is in itself immaterial. Proof: One can hold DNA molecules in a bottle, but one cannot physically hold or grasp the messages they carry.
This is an interesting argument but it leaves me with an odd feeling. It's spelled out a bit further in his book , The Hungry Soul. Not entirely sure what to think. In my mind, it seems to at least cast doubt on the capacity of science to explain, without ambiguity, all physical processes.


"Magic Johnson Shares 'Thoughts' On Lakers-Celtics Finals"

BOSTON — Appearing on ESPN's SportsCenter Wednesday, former Lakers point guard Magic Johnson provided his "thoughts," "insights," and "analysis" of the NBA Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Celtics, assuring viewers that the series will hinge on "whoever team does its things better more." "I think this, I think, this is really going to come down to basically overall game play and which team can win four or five games, and do it first," said the three-time NBA MVP, adding that scoring could also be as much of a major factor on the outcome as total points. "There's also a possible definite possibility of matchups occurring. Could happen, yeah. And we can't overlook the influence that—that that effect or effects, might have on something." When pressed by SportsCenter anchor Rece Davis as to which team was favored, Johnson responded by saying "the one that's going to win...Win the NBA championship."
bahah... I love the Onion, but poor MJ.

go Celtics!


The fashionable academic disposition is one that is critical of the status quo. Being privileged to observe our prosperous society 'from above', academics observe the relative levels of inequality in the world and tend to feel guilty (I'm not saying this is misplaced). This guilt manifests itself in a variety of ways, but it generally translates into a contempt for all things American. This turns into a blindness that corrupts their scholarly pursuit for truth.

However warranted their guilt may be, I do not think it is an excuse for not investigating the reasons that our society has been so successful, over and above others. We ought to be able to explain what is good about America without feeling bad about it. Likewise, we should be able to explain what is bad about America and prudently work to correct it.

I would argue that, being overcome with guilt, some academics are unable to honestly confront the foundational principles of our moral, cultural, and political system. It is obvious that, in America especially, human beings have been able to create a society where vast numbers of people live in a level of economic and social stability never before seen on the world stage. Faced with the massive inequalities created by the American experiment, should we buy into the Marxist argument that it is the result of the oppression of the working class? Or should we give the subject a more serious philosophical investigation before reaching our conclusions?


We are not simply what we eat

Socrates was wrong to say that all vice was the result of ignorance, and that all virtue can be instilled through education. But it's probably equally wrong to say that virtue cannot be taught at all. After all, good philosophers can be great teachers of virtue. If you would like to see evidence that substantiates this claim, I recommend Leon Kass's book The Hungry Soul. Kass is a masterful observer of those distinctly human things. Through his observations, we see clearly that the most distinctive human characteristic is the capacity for moral and spiritual greatness. By asking some simple questions about hunger, Kass demonstrates that even our physical nature is inclined towards greatness.

Over the next few days I will post a few highlights from Kass's overall argument so I don't forget them.

Here he is on one of my favorite subjects, wine:
Wine represents and encourages this elevated life beyond necessity and calculating rationality. Its very existence depends on surplus; one does not ferment the grapes or grain needed for survival. At a meal, too, it is a sign of freedom and grace, and also their cause. Offered to guests it betokens easy generosity, demonstrating that one clearly has more than the necessities for oneself. Indeed – to reconnect this discussion of the human food more explicitly to the humanizing custom of hospitality – drinking wine with someone goes beyond breaking bread. For wine permits and encourages us to let down our guard, to be at ease and in intimate communion with one another; the offer of wine expresses trust in and desire for such intimacy. For only with certain kinds of people, those who already are or we hope will become our friends, do we let wine dissolve our prudent caution. If basic hospitality, as was said, is an assertion against the dog-eat-dog character of the world, sharing a bottle of wine lifts us to the next step: the assertion of the friend-loves-friend possibility of the world, of human intimacy founded on more than common neediness.

But wine in excess does not elevate, liberate, or gladden: It makes men wild. Or perhaps one should say that it lets loose powerful animalistic forces latent in the soul; forces that wash out our ability to make distinctions; that work to overthrow our customs and restraints; that conduce to violence; that seek, as it were, to dissolve all form an formality into the primordial watery chaos. These wild and dangerous powers the Greeks attributed to the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), the god responsible for bringing wine to mankind. Though the Dionysiac is the enemy of civilization, civilized and upright man’s failure to recognize and placate the powers of Dionysus could lead to his ruin. Festivals that require ritualized drinking in large amounts – the Bacchanalia of the Greeks, Purim among the Jews – are an attempt to give the Dionysiac its due, but only by bringing it under strict regulation.

Wine, like the other human foods we have discussed, thus partakes of the moral ambiguity of the human. Like man himself it can enhance and it can destroy his humanity. Like the temptation to brutality connected with meat eating; like the temptation to domination and pride implicit in the institution of property, linked with bread and agriculture; like the temptation to excessive pursuit of the tasty at the expense of the healthful, implicit in the craving of salt and spices – so too the temptation to violent chaos is present in the gladdening fruit of the vine. Thus merely ruling out the eating of human flesh, though certainly just, is not enough to bring human eating under the aegis of virtue. How we eat, more than what we eat, will be decisive.


man as god as future president of the US

Well, it's finally over. With Obama securing the nomination, the Democrats have set themselves up for a super-victory come November. I don't think McCain has any chance, although I am historically very bad at these types of predictions. So with a future Obama-presidency in mind, it is worth taking a look at his deeper philosophical convictions. Here he is speaking in 2004 about his religion (HT: Closed Cafeteria)
Do you believe in sin?


What is sin?

Being out of alignment with my values.
Admittedly this is a very clever answer, because he is able to satisfy all his possible constituents. First, he says everything necessary to maintain a critical distance from any real Christian belief. Thus it can be laughed off by party elite as something necessary to American politics at "this stage" in the greater progress of history. Second, he seems to be talking about values or something, so he gives comfort to people who have reduced Christianity to some type of governmental program that demands we redistribute wealth.

It's also worth pointing out the subjectivity of this response. Sin is being out of alignment with his values. But what are his values? Are his values his own, that is, of his creation? Or are they God's values? In which case, should they be everyone else's values too, or did God make different values for different people? How are we to know? Indeed, if we assume his values are of his own creation, than according to his definition, sinning is offending not another person (e.g. God), but only himself. In which case, what bearing should it have on anything at all?

Who the heck knows.


on the meaning of Atheism

The 'good' news of Bertrand Russell:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.”

-A Free Man’s Worship


Understanding America

There are many different ways people understand the tradition and history of American liberty. Some perceive within the American experiment a radical individualism that threatens our solidarity and human brotherhood. Others perceive an insidious and inevitable march towards collectivism. More often than not, these two tendencies are viewed in opposition. Usually they are held by people of opposite political persuasions. But are these two understandings necessarily contradictory? I think not.

A distinction between our political tendencies and cultural tendencies is helpful here. The great Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, argued (rightly, I think) that the movement of history was the unstoppable desire for more and more equality. This desire for equality, according to Tocqueville, tends to override all other concerns - even our desire for political freedom, our freedom from servitude. I think this is a strong force in our political culture. It is fair to say that both major parties value equality a priori, albeit in different ways.

And on the other hand, our culture is indeed poisoned by radical individualism. Most of us believe as a matter of faith that, so long as we do not intrude on someone else's freedom to do what they want, no wrong has been done. To see an example of this, think of those who argue for the legalization of suicide. It is accomplished with the specious 'don't tell me what to do with my body' argument, as if suicide has no effect on other persons or the well being of the community.

Both of these tendencies are poisonous to a healthy political community, and both of these tendencies are present in America today* . And they are related in a fundamental way. The radical individualism in our culture paradoxically affects our ability to control ourselves. As we isolate ourselves from each other and from moral truth, we start to lose control of ourselves. As we lose control of ourselves, we want the government to take control. This produces a something of a downward spiral towards some form of tyranny or corruption of the political order. Tocqueville and others thought American tyranny would be great but relatively benign - he was first to predict the nanny-state. But who knows how long the state will remain benign? What reason do we have to think that our power will always be used for the common good? I'm not sure.

So what is the necessary corrective to these two problems? Do we declare the American experiment a failure, as some are inclined to do? I think while the intentions of such an effort might be noble, it is ultimately wrongheaded. The problems we are discussing here are in no way unique American government. I think they can be traced to our fallen human nature, and will thus manifest themselves in any political community we establish.

So what is the solution? Both the Founders and Tocqueville though that the antidote was a religiously-informed people, a religious people. Why? Religion is the best teacher of self-government; of morals and mores; of discipline and prudence. And so I think this is what we should be demonstrating in our conduct in the public square - that we are a religiously-informed public. I'm not sure it's possible to recover such a thing, as it has already been lost. But I think we have to have hope, and I think we have good reason to hope if we get our principles right. There are great philosophical resources in the American natural law tradition that are worth rediscovering.

So the gist of this is as follows: the American experiment in self-government will fail if people who constitute the political community cannot self-govern. Individuals will not adequately self-govern unless commanded by some divine law. The more secularly-minded readers of this short essay might find themselves repulsed by such a conclusion, and that reaction is intentional. Criticism of any stripe is more than welcome!

(*I would argue both of these tendencies are in some way sown into human nature, but that's a topic for another day)