Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Wanted: More Public Intellectuals

A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.

A public intellectual is different.  She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day.  Now, a public intellectual  is not the first need of a society,  by any means, but all societies need them.  The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals.  So were Socrates, Plato,  and Aristotle. 

America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals:  Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.  But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad.  We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.

To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way.  Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help  shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national  dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote  his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.

The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center).  With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism.  I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism.  Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual  center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies. 

But the left and center aren’t much better off.  In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes,  we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today.  I can think of a few:  Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum,  Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it.  Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.

We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues.  We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals. 

Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else. 🙂

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June 27, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, moral discernment, philosophy, politics | 27 Comments

Why the Attacks on Empathy?

A president comes to the microphone and introduces his nominee to the Supreme Court to the world.  The president says, “I have followed this [nominee’s] career for some time, and he has excelled in everything that he has attempted. He is a delightful and warm, intelligent person who has great empathy and a wonderful sense of humor. He’s also a fiercely independent thinker with an excellent legal mind, who believes passionately in equal opportunity for all Americans. He will approach the cases that come before the Court with a commitment to deciding them fairly, as the facts and the law require.”  Obviously this was said by Pres. Barack H. Obama this past week about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and I’ve just changed the gender of the pronouns, right? Wrong.  The year was 1991.  The president was George H. W. Bush (R) and the nominee was (now) Justice Clarence Thomas!

About Thomas, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), emphasized his compassion and understanding of the impact of the Supreme Court on the lives of ordinary Americans in arguing for his confirmation.

Similar remarks by conservatives can be found with regard to other Supreme Court nominees (and sitting justices) they admire, including Justices Scalia, and Alito.  So, why the attack on empathy now?

The lack of empathy in a person is a defining characteristic of sociopathy–the mental illness where a person “has no conscience” because is unable to look at the world except from the view of “what’s in it for me.”  Unlike other psychoses and neuroses, sociopathy has no outward signs of odd behavior.  That’s why sociopathic mass murderers can live next door to people without them ever suspecting the “quiet young man” of the capacity for incredible evil.  Judges are not “brains in glass jars,” nor are they robots–and we don’t want them to be.  Show me a judge without empathy and I’ll show you a monster who should be in a padded room, not in robes on a bench.

Empathy is not being ruled by emotion without regard to the letter of the law.  Nor is it weak pity or sympathy.  Rather, empathy is the ability to transcend one’s own viewpoint to see the perspective of others.  It is the mental ability to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as the ancient Native American saying puts it.  It is at the root of morality.

Recall our discussion on moral discernment.  There is a role, along with reasoning, for the passions, and the virtues. In his wonderful book, Virtuous Passions, my friend, Father Simon Harak, S.J. (a Palestinian Christian, Jesuit priest, pacifist, theologian, peace activist, and so much more) argues against the pop-psychology view that our emotions are neither good nor bad, only our actions are moral or immoral.  While there is some truth in the idea that if I do not act on my bad emotions, I am better than otherwise, that is not the whole story.  After all, if you recited to me the testimony of a child being abused and the emotion I felt was joy, or delight, you would (rightly) think that something is wrong with me morally–even if I never came CLOSE to harming a child.  (This is why modern folk should not be so quick to dismiss old-fashioned advice about watching the material we read or watch.  We need not take a Victorian prudish attitude toward all things erotic to be concerned about pornography, for instance, or the “torture porn” of many horror movies and TV shows like 24, and The Unit.)

Morality is more than emotion or passion. It includes learning how to reason morally, it includes attention to one’s loyalties and interests, one’s deepest convictions, and one’s perception of the situation, too.  But the passions, especially empathy, are the root of morality.

What does that have to do with judges?  Well, as I have said before,  legal reasoning has  much in common with moral reasoning.  [Aside:  I hate it when well meaning liberals and progressives cite the old chestnut that “you can’t legislate morality.”  Of course you can.  In fact, MOST laws uphold some view of morality.  A law against murder or torture or rape or robbery is “legislated morality.”  To say one cannot legislate morality is sheer idiocy.  And it isn’t even original with liberals or progressives.  The saying was first touted by conservative racists against efforts to end segregation–which they called “legislating morality.”  Now, it is true, that morality has more than legal dimensions and that it is neither wise nor practical to try to turn every moral principle into a law.  That way lies totalitarianism.  Clashes over what should or should not be legislated,  are either clashes between different moral conclusions (e.g., the abortion debate) or are clashes about the wisdom of outlawing some morally problematic behaviors (e.g., clashes over gambling statutes, debates over which drugs should be banned, etc.).  Even debates over the  amount and type of taxation are debates with MORAL dimensions.]  In The Audacity of Hope, then Senator Barack Obama specifically named empathy as the center of his own moral system and makes the claim that it is at the center of any democratic form of government–certainly of the American experiment.  One cannot understand the struggle of the Abolitionists against slavery, for instance, without seeing that it was their empathy–their ability to put themselves into the situation of others–that drove them.  The same is true for the struggle of the suffragists and other women’s rights movements, the struggle against child labor, and for unions and for worker safety, the struggle against segregation, etc.  Our great failures as a society (e.g., imprisoning Japanese Americans during WWII “on reason of race”), including our legal justifications for those failings (e.g., The Korematsu decision or Plessy v. Ferguson) are failures of empathy as much as they are failures of reasoning.  As a presidential candidate, Obama cited a lack of empathy as one of the reasons he voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts, saying that 95% of the time the law is clear and the case is clear–and conservatives, liberals, centrists, etc. all reach the same conclusion.  But in that 5%, judges need to be able to get beyond the words on the page to their impact on people’s lives. (Whether Obama is correct in his assessment of Chief Justice Roberts is a separate question from his point about empathy.)

I am not arguing that Judge Sotomayor should not be questioned deeply.  I don’t know, for instance, that the claim that she is emathetic is true.  For instance, I have not seen much evidence that George H.W. Bush was right in claiming that Clarence Thomas was a man of great empathy. I don’t think his judicial record reflects that at all.  But that’s different than claiming that empathy is something BAD in judges.  It is something good that we should WANT in judges.  I have no desire to replace human judges with Artificial Intelligence computers just programmed with exhaustive knowledge of the law.

An editorial in the conservative National Review claims that “empathy” is just a “liberal code word” for “judicial activism.”  (They said this even before they knew whom Obama planned to pick.) Well, first of all, there is evidence that conservative judges are more likely to be activists who “legislate from the bench” than liberal or centrist judges do.  But this also misses the number of times that conservatives have praised empathy and related virtues like compassion.  A good judge, especially an appellate judge or Supreme Court justice, needs MORE than empathy, but not less.

Nor does empathy mean agreement with the other whose perspective one seeks to understand.  If the kind of terrorism that is spawned by warped versions of Islam is ever to be stopped (apart from debates on what tools should be used to stop it), we in the West MUST seek to understand the motives that drive our foes.  Nor should we be satisfied with quick and shallow summaries such as “they hate our freedoms,” or “they are religious fanatics,” etc.  We have to strive to see the world as they see it, to see Western (especially U.S.) actions from their perspective–even if we NEVER share that perspective.  Similarly, a judge may be very empathetic with a convicted criminal and still think that justice and the public safety demand a very harsh sentence.  A judge may be empathetic with an overworked public defender and still demand that she be ready for trial at 9 a.m. the next day or very empathetic with a prosecutor whose case just went south not because of police misconduct and still demand that the accused be set free–even if she suspects the accused is actually guilty–because that’s the law.  Empathy is not automatic agreement.

When I was a teen, my Sunday School teacher was a crusty old man who happened to be judge in the Duval County Florida Circuit (i.e, felony) court.  He and I often disagreed since he was a Republican and I was, even then, a liberal Democrat in my sympathies.  He was known as a tough trial judge and I can attest to that since I later worked in his court as a bailiff while trying to discern whether my own path should be toward theology or law.  His reputation did NOT include showing much mercy or compassion from the bench, but this part of his reputation I would dispute. I saw this judge show compassion and mercy for all sides from the bench–while running a very strict courtroom.  While trying to discern my future path I asked him what quality a judge most needed. He didn’t hesitate:  “The same thing a minister most needs, Michael, empathy–a feel for the human condition both in the large picture and in individual cases.  The most brilliant legal mind without empathy would be a horror.” 

In fact, we know from history that this is the case.  For the Nazi judges who were tried after WWII at Nuremberg were precisely that:  brilliant legal minds who lacked sufficient empathy to understand the horror of what they were doing to Jews, Gypsies (Rom), communists, gays–and all dissenters from the “orthodoxy” of the Third Reich.   

Judge Sonia Sotomayor must be questioned deeply about all sorts of matters in her confirmation hearings–and I could wish that the public had more input.  I am not defending her nor trying to preclude vigorous hearings–that’s a constitutional DUTY of the U. S. Senate.  But put me down in praise of empathy as a REQUIREMENT for all judges.

And today, I will lift a prayer for the cultivation of empathy by EVERYONE in our society–even by empathy’s current critics.

May 31, 2009 Posted by | courts, judges, judicial philosophy, moral discernment, passions, virtues | 16 Comments

A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty: Prologue

In March, I reported on the new life and momentum that the anti-death penalty movement has found in the U.S.  This led one reader to want to debate the morality of capital punishment directly.  I simply did not have the time for such a debate then, but promised to have such a thread as soon as possible.  That time is now.  In this post, I will outline the shape of the case I will make in a series of posts.

I have written numerous articles on the death penalty since 1985.  Many of these articles have been published in book-length collections and symposia.  I will draw on those earlier works and may site my own writings as well as others.

First, since I assume that pacifist Christians already oppose the death penalty, and already read Scripture from that perspective, I will, instead, argue a case from a non-pacifist perspective.  I opposed the death penalty since my early teens, long before I became convinced that Christians must be pacifists and quit the U.S. army as a conscientious objector.  So the case I will argue will assume that lethal self-defense is a moral option.

I will begin by examining the biblical texts that are most often used (by both sides) in the intra-Christian debates over the death penalty.  Unless one is already is a pacifist and reads Scripture from such a hermeneutical perspective, I do not think that the biblical case the death penalty is open and shut.  My claim is (slightly) more modest:  that the biblical narratives should bias Christians against the death penalty.  That is, Christians, being shaped in the biblical narratives, should be suspicious of the moral claims of the death penalty.  The burden-of-proof, for biblical Christians, should be on those who would make a moral argument for the death penalty.  (Thus, I call this series “A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty,” and not The Christian Case Against the Death Penalty.  I do not assume there is only one way of arguing for or against the death penalty.)  I will also examine several Christian practices that should re-shape the debate over the death penalty among U.S. Christians.

I will then examine the common public moral arguments for and and against the death penalty.  I will argue that the moral case for the death penalty falls short and that the moral case for abolishing the death penalty is stronger and more compelling. 

I will then argue for alternatives to the death penalty that take the concerns of pro-death penalty advocates seriously.

Throughout the series, I will call attention to the dimensions of moral discernment noted in that series

I am not a lawyer, but legal reasoning bears many similarities to moral reasoning.  As an epilogue, I will briefly examine the case that the death penalty is unconstitutional based on the 8th Amendment to the U.S.  Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I hope readers will find this conversation informative and stimulating.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | death penalty, ethics, human rights., moral discernment | Comments Off on A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty: Prologue

Index of Posts on Moral Discernment

Here’s the index of the moral discernment series.  I’ll soon add this to the page on “popular series” in the upper right of this blog.

Critical Variables in Moral Discernment

Convictions and Moral Discernment 1

Convictions and Moral Discernment 2

Convictions and Moral Discernment 3

Moral Discernment: Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Perception and Moral Discernment

Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse

April 27, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 4 Comments

Styles of Moral Reasoning/Modes of Moral Discourse

With this post, we come to the final dimension of the 4-dimensions of moral discernment, according to Glen Stassen, Christian ethicist and my mentor.  Although this series has not proved popular (based on the few comments), I will nevertheless index it and place it on the Popular Series page for easy reference for future readers. That’s because of the importance I attach to this topic. I will undoubtedly refer to this series in future discussions of ethical issues.

The top right box in the 4-dimensional chart  denotes one’s “style of moral reasoning” or “mode of moral discourse.” I saved this dimension for last precisely because in far too many textbooks on moral philosophy (ethics) ALL the discussion is here and the other dimensions of moral discernment are neglected–as if people were disembodied reasoners.

Generally speaking, moral reasoning takes one of two BROAD forms:  deontologicalforms of moral reasoning focus on whether a particular moral action is intrinsically “right” or “wrong” and usually right and wrong are deontological categories.  The most famous Western philosophical version of this is German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant argued that actions were either right or wrong regardless of consequences.  He argued that one could deduce unbreakable moral rules from a universal categorical imperative. (However, Kant formulated the categorical imperative in two very different fashions. He thought they were just two different versions of the same thing, but not all have agreed. Some have affirmed one version without affirming the other.)  1. To be moral, an action must be universalizable, i.e., one must be willing that everyone should do it.  Examples: One can affirm that everyone should tell the truth, but one cannot affirm that everyone should lie, ergo lies are always immoral and special pleading for one’s own self is wrong.  2. An action is moral if it never treats persons merely as means to an end, but always treats persons as ends in themselves.  A Kantian would say that torture is wrong, no matter any ticking time bomb scenarios, because it treats the one tortured as a mere means to an end. A Kantian who also believed that fetuses were persons from conception onward (once again, we see how the different dimensions intersect–here the basic convictions dimension influences the style of moral reasoning) would argue against abortion in all circumstances because such a Kantian would see all abortions as treating unborn persons as means to an end. (On the other hand, a Kantian who did not share that metaphysical view of fetal life, may come to a very different conclusion.)

Almost all forms of arguments for universal human rights are deontological to some degree or another. These often grow out of the natural rights tradition with its roots in Medieval nominalist philosophy and going through the -Leveller Richard Overton (c. 1599-1644) to the later John Locke(1634-1704). In a different fashion, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is also rooted in a natural rights form of deontology.

In theology, Divine Command approaches to ethics tend also to be deontological in approach. Something is moral because God commands it. Something is immoral because God forbids it. Period.  (This takes varied shape from Calvin to Barth.)  Natural law approaches tend also to take deontological shape. 

By contrast, teleogical approaches to ethics look to goals or outcomes.  The most famous modern version of teleological ethics is utilitarianism.  An action is Good (“good” and “bad” are teological terms as “right “and “wrong” are deontological terms) if it leads to the most happiness for the most people with the least unhappiness for the least people.  Utiltarianism is associated with the British lawyer Jeremy Bentham(1748-1832) and his disciple, the civil  libertarian John Stuart Mill(1806-1873).    More recent famous utilitarians include Australia’s Peter Singer (now at Princeton University)  and the pioneer of modern medical ethics, Joseph Fletcher(1905-1991).

Because American society is highly pragmatist (focusing on “what works”), there is much utilitarian thinking in American public moral reasoning–e.g., the arguments between those who claim that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tool (e.g., most American military commanders and FBI interrogators) and those who claim (e.g., Dick Cheney) that torture is effective in interrogation and therefore justified in saving lives by foiling furture terrorist plots.

(This is  a good place to point out that few people are consistent in their style of moral reasoning?  I often notice conservatives denounce utilitarian reasoning when it comes to stem cell research, but embrace it when it comes to torture.  Many liberals are mirror images–embracing stem cell research despite the destruction of embryonic life because of the potential good, while denouncing torture no matter if it is effective or not.  There may be consistent ways to consider both ends and means, but most people simply are not being consistent in their mode of moral discourse.)

A very different form of teleological ethics focuses not on the end or goal of an action (in terms of consequences), but of the end or goal of a person or community.  This kind of teleology asks about the purpose and goal of the moral life. The ways to that end are found in the practices and habits that form the person or community in certain virtues, i.e., moral qualities of excellence such as honesty, courage, wisdom, peaceableness, kindness, etc.  Almost all religions take some thought to the virtues, to moral character formation.  In Paul’ s Epistles, they are listed as “fruit of the Spirit.” (Paul also has vice lists–immoral qualities he wants churches and their members to avoid).  We similar concerns in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.

Note: This does not mean that all religions teach the same thing morally.  The shape of the virtues is narrative dependent, i.e., dependent on the shape of the story being lived out. (We are back to basic convictions, again.) Do different moral and religious systems mean the same thing by particular virtues given the same name?  It’s a difficult question that is highly contested in current philosophical, theological, and interfaith discussions.  Example of a major difference:  The ancient Romans greatly valued the virtue of courage–but courage was usually seen in terms of ARMED RESISTANCE TO AGGRESSION.  Thus, the nonviolence of the early Christians was often viewed as cowardice.  We see similar differences today in the debate over whether talking with enemies (which Jesus commanded) is a sign of weakness or strength in foreign policy.  However, I am among those who claim that this need not mean that no communication can happen between moral systems:  some Roman soldiers recognized the courage of the Christian martyrs–and it sometimes led to conversions.

Another critical variable in this dimension of moral discernment is the level on which one is discussing. I don’t mean intellectual level, but level of concreteness.  Situationists believe every moral act must be judged separately, usually with guidance from only a very broad rule of thumb, such as “love” or “compassion.”  Legalists focus on the level of moral rules.  If they are Christians, they tend to see the Bible as primarily a rulebook.   Principlists do not neglect moral rules, but when moral rules conflict, they reach back to the broader principles behind the rules.  E.g,, behind the rule “thou shalt not kill,” one might find the principle “Respect for human life.”    Still broader are those who function at the paradigmatic level, or the level of basic convictions.  Behind the principle, “respect for human life,” for instance, might be the basic conviction that all humans are created in the image of God and/or that all humans are persons for whom Christ died.  This is a narrative or ground of meaning level, again.

Often in moral discourse persons talk past one another because they use different levels of moral reasoning.  One is speaking in terms of rules, while another is speaking in terms of principles, and a third is outlining a broad theological or philosophical narrative paradigm.

I should note that these descriptions are fairly male-dominant.  Feminist theologians and philosophers (as well as female psychologists like Carol Gilligan) have noted that women’s moral reasoning is somewhat different–though whether this is cultural or genetic or what is a huge debate that I am NOT qualifed to answer.  Basically, women tend to be more relational in moral thought.  If posed a moral dilemma, men will often weigh conflicting moral principles “like math problems with human variables.” Women do not.  They seek win-win solutions rather than either-or answers to dilemmas.  They tend to reason morally in ways that keep families and communities together.  The moral world is a world of relationships, a web.  Few ethics texts, whether philosophical or theological, written by men, have yet to attempt a deep integration of feminist perspectives.

With this we have examined the critical variables in the 4 dimensions of moral discernment or judgment.  I want to emphasize again that EACH dimension influence every other dimension.  Further,  “history is the laboratory of ideas” and our encounters with the realities/outcomes of particular moral judgements acts as a “feedback loop” to influence every variable of all the dimensions–whether to reinforce previous conclusions or to challenge and modify them.  Hopefully, people and communities seek to grow as moral agents–to learn from mistakes, errors, sins.  The biblical name for such a “feedback loop” is “repentance.” 🙂

April 26, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 4 Comments

Perception and Moral Discernment

We have been discussing the dimensions of moral discernment, using the 4-dimensional diagnostic tool designed by Christian ethicists Glen Stassen.  Moving clockwise from the lower right, we have discussed the way basic convictions (or “ground of meaning beliefs”) shape our moral judgments and then the way our varied loyalties, interests, and passions also shape our moral discernment.  We now come to the upper left-hand box in our 4-dimensional diagram, the dimension of Perception, that is, how we see our moral environment, and the moral “issues” or decisions or problems or judgments that we encounter.  This dimension of perception is another part of ancient ethics  that was lost for awhile with Western ethics concentration on disembodied moral reasoning, but is being rediscovered in both moral philosophy (philosophical ethics) and moral theology (theological ethics).  See, e.g., Stanley Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (1981); Judith A. Dwyer, Vision and Values:  Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition (1999); David McNaughton, Moral Vision:  An Introduction to Ethics (1991); Duane L. Cady, Moral Vision:  How Everyday Life Shapes Ethical Thinking (2005).

Once again, Stassen identifies several critical variables that shape our moral perception.  One is authority.  There are authorities in every life.  In logic  arguments from authority are considered weak arguments.  But no one can master every field of information. We all take some things “on authority.”  If we identify the locus of authority for persons (religious leaders, government officials, parents, teachers, respected elders, etc.) we know a key factor in how people perceive the moral world around them.  But in addition to the locus of moral authority(ies), we also need  to pay attention to the nature and degree of a particular authority, asking “What kind of authority is it?” and “How much authority does it have?” My own commitments in politics are to rest authority with the people through elected representatives with lots of checks and balances, critical inquiries by a vigilant free press and answerable directly to the people. (Yes, this is an ideal rather than current reality. One works to make reality closer to the ideal.)  In religion, my Free Church commitments are similarly to non-heirarchical authorities, answerable to the gathered community and the whole people of God.  For Christians, Scripture is also an authority: For Eastern Orthodox Christians, Scripture is embedded in the liturgies and writings of the early Church Fathers.  For Roman Catholics, Scripture and Church Tradition form parallel strands of equal authority mediated by the Magisterium and the unique institution of the Pope who, when certain conditions are met, is believed to give infallible doctrinal and moral teaching. (There is a whole discussion of ordinary and extraordinary papal tradition that goes well beyond our purposes here.  See what you learn when you’re a Protestant who gets the chance to teach at Catholic universities?)  For Protestants, Scripture alone is to be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, but there is wide divergence in approach to interpretation.

For persons of other faiths or persons who have no religious faith (atheists, agnostics, etc.) there are also moral authorities.  Identifying their locus, nature, and degree is just as critical in understanding their moral perception.

Another critical variable in moral discernment is identifying the moral or existential threat, including both its nature and degree.  For example, in discussing stem cell research through the destruction of human embryos, some find the threat to be to the sacredness of human life while others see the threat in terms of the genetic diseases that could be cured if such research is allowed. (Notice how we are back with different convictions about the nature of human beings. Each dimension of moral discernment influences the others. This cannot be emphasized too much.)

In the debate over torture (and I have to write a post showing why even having a debate over torture is already a sign of moral confusion and decay that didn’t exist even in America even a few years ago) some see the threat of terrorism as justifying torture.  Others, such as myself, see torture as a threat to both the dignity and well-being of the tortured, to the torturer, and to the moral fabric of the society which allows it.

Another critical variable is social change.  Is any social change acceptable?  If it is, what speed or rate of change is acceptable? What allies are acceptable in working for change?  What method or methods are acceptable? 

During the civil rights era, the influential Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey was conflicted, not because he was racist (far from it), but because he had a strong sense of order. Ramsey supported the work of the NAACP which tended to work for change through the courts.  The nonviolent movement led by such organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee struck Ramsey as “chaos in the streets.” The threat of such rapid and “undisciplined” social change was greater for Ramsey than the threat of segregation or the slower disappearance of segregation.

The final variable in the perception dimension is the integrity of information.  Is the moral agent (or community) open to new information or not? Does the agent manipulate information to fit a predetermined answer or does the agent allow new information to lead to new perspectives?  How does the agent handle information which contradicts previously held views?  This is not to say that one surrenders convictions easily (that’s what makes them convictions, rather than opinions), but one wants to make discernment based on accurate information, not innacurate or manipulated information.

April 25, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment | 1 Comment

Moral Discernment: Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Philosophers (and some theologians) often talk as if moral discernment was simply a matter of correct reasoning (e.g., deontologists vs. utilitarians).  The last 25 years has seen a mini-resistance movement focusing more on moral character (virtues, passions, affections)–a return to classic and medieval interests in a postmodern era.  Glen Stassen’s 4-dimensional approach to moral discernment was a forerunner of this interest.  We have looked at the dimension of basic convictions looking at the critical variables of God and human nature; justification and sanctification; love and justice; and the mission of the church in the world.  (These are Christian convictions, but we tried to indicate that there are usually analogues in other religious or moral systems that function similarly.)

Moving clockwise to the next dimension we examine the critical variables of loyalties, interests, passions, virtues, & affections.  The main point is that we all have loyalties and interests that affect our moral outlook.   A scientist who sits on the board of Exxon-Mobil is likely to approach the issue of global warming with a desire to defend the interests of the oil industry whereas an equally qualified scientist working for Environmental Defense will have a very different outlook. 

(Now, usually when I point this out, someone screams that I am making an ad hominem argument.  I’m not.  At the end of this post, I will deal with the issues of ad hominem  and genetic fallacies.  )

Our loyalties include our friends, mentors, and role models.  At least since Aristotle, philosophers have known the moral importance of friendship.  Parents are right to worry about the friends their kids make, although the influence can go both ways.  The same concerns are prominent in the Wisdom writings of Scripture, especially Proverbs.  Jesus gathered disciples and Paul held himself up as a role model for leaders in the churches he founded.

Our loyalties to our friends shape our moral discernment, but they need not determine it.  We can be aware of the limits of our friends and mentors. We do not need to romanticize them.  So, for instance, friendship with a rape victim who chose to abort may influence the way someone approaches the abortion issue, but it doesn’t preclude that person deciding that her friend made a moral mistake.  Similarly, and sticking with the same “issue” for sake of illustration, if a person is the parent of a special needs child, he would probably respond very negatively to the kinds of “quality of life” arguments that a utilitarian like Peter Singer makes for abortion (and Singer also  argues for infanticide!!) in cases of genetic “abnormality.”  But such a person, deeply loyal to his child, also understands the huge demands of raising special needs children and his loyalty would not necessarily lead him to rule out abortion in ALL cases of genetic  deformity–Tay Sachs is very different from Downs Syndrome.  But we should not make the mistake of thinking that our loyalties do not influence our moral judgments, both for good and ill.

We also have loyalties to particular practices and processes.  For instance, a particular conservative commenter who is not favorable to same-sex marriage nonetheless recently praised the Vermont legislature for passing legislation allowing same-sex marriage because he is committed to the priority of local and state legislatures and dislikes judicial decisions which appear to him to make new law.  This is a commitment to representative democracy and to a very restrictive understanding of judicial review.  A gay friend of mine disagrees:  While happy that Vermont passed such legislation (and several other New England states appear poised to follow suit),  he worries that rights that can be legislated into existence can be legislatively removed as Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage last year in California.  His commitment is to a certain view of universal human rights that it is the responsibility of courts to recognize, uphold, and enforce.

We also have loyalties to particular communities and institutions. The way this can shape moral judgment is too obvious to need to explicate further.

We also have interests, including monetary interests, power interests, prestige interests, etc.  Some deconstructionists like Foucault may go too far in seeing all moral arguments as disguised power plays,  but we are naive if we don’t ask about the interests of those who make moral arguments.  To take an obvious example, former Vice President Dick Cheney has a strong self-interest in making his argument that the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists is both necessary and effective in protecting Americans.  Judges are expected to recuse themselves from cases in which they would have an interest in one side or the other prevailing (e.g., if a company was being sued in which the judge’s spouse was employed). 

In addition to other loyalties, each person also has an ultimate loyalty.  That ultimate loyalty may be to one’s nation or race or sex or to one’s religion or ideology.  Christians (and other theists) would say that their ultimate loyalty is to God  and would judge these rival claims for ultimate loyalty as idolatrous.  But notice that this connects this dimension back to the basic convictions dimension because if our ultimate loyalty is to God then rival conceptions of God’s character become very important in determining moral judgment.  Also, remember that classic theologians like Calvin have called the human heart an “idol factory,” and all of us deceive ourselves constantly.  So,  we may think that our ultimate loyalty is to God and someone else may examine our actions and conclude that our ultimate loyalty is money or power or the nation-state.  We are not always our own best judge concerning our loyalties.

Now for our “footnotes” on two logical fallacies.  Ad hominem (“against the man”) arguments attack the character of the person making a moral argument rather than the argument itself.  Nothing said about our loyalties and interests negates that.   A scientist working for Exxon-Mobil may still have valid arguments against the consensus on global warming.  I would  say, against some ethicists, however, that examining the loyalties and interests is highly useful.  For those of us who are scientific laypersons, however, that scientist’s employer is a good reason to view his conclusions with suspiscion and to stick with the scientific consensus until the Exxon-Mobil scientist manages to convince a substantial number of peers who DON’T work for petroleum companies.

The Genetic Fallacy is a related logical fallacy.  If one dismisses an idea or an argument or a moral position because of its origin, one commits the  genetic fallacy.  For example, I am a Democrat, but I would be foolish to dismiss an idea just because it was advanced by a Republican.  (Republicans have had two  very good ideas in economic justice in the last few decades:  The Earned Income Tax Credit and inner-city “empowerment zones.”) In diagnosing people’s interests and loyalties, we have not automatically discredited their  arguments.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | ethics, moral discernment | 3 Comments

Convictions and Moral Discernment 3

We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen.  Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook.  We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.

The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world.  That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station.  (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.

The patterns and options on these matters is fairly large.  One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types.  H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing  the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther;  HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).

HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom  he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their  wider cultures selectively.  For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners.  Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian  bartenders to be absurd.  Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces.  But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.” 

In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew.  I recommend especially the following:

Authentic Transformation:  A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.

Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.

The Transformation of Culture:  Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr  by Charles A. Scriven.

Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen.  This gem needs to be more widely discovered.

I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful  on this issue:

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.

Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.

Frederick Herzog, Justice Church

Letty Russell, Church in the Round.

Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis:  The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.

Others could be added.

Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians.  But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment.  Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world.  For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.”  Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.

An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role.  A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists.  Anarchists and radical  forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable.  Maybe some moral  systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.

So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world.  And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.

P.S.  With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the  complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL.  Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world.  But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.)  Again, there are non-Christian parallels.  Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state.   Further examples could be multiplied.

When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).

[Here your author engaged in a self pity-party that he has removed.] 🙂

April 21, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment, theology | 5 Comments

Convictions and Moral Discernment 2

Continuing our series begun here  and here on moral discernment.  The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic convictions” dimension are Justification and Sanctification, two terms from the Apostle Paul concerning different facets of salvation.  (Again, non-Christian moral systems have rough analogues to these variables.) If we think of salvation as primarily Justification (e.g., Martin Luther or Reinhold Niebuhr) we focus on forgiveness for our sins.  Grace is then understood primary as “unmerited mercy” for our sinful acts.  A theology that plays up justification to the exclusion or marginalization of other dimensions, is not likely to have high moral hopes for people.  Specifically, it would not expect a higher morality for Christians than others.

Other theologies focus more on sanctification or Christian discipleship (i.e., moral improvement), whether understood as a slow process or one that may happen instantaneously.  Some Christian theologies (e.g, some readings of John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox) stress sanctification in a way that suggests that Christians may achieve some form of moral perfection (although for Wesley, this was simply a “perfection in love.”) If this is our focus, then we see grace not primarily as “unmerited mercy,” but as “empowerment to faithfulness.”   

Think back to our last section on the variables God and human nature and it is easy to see some of the many combinations that would lead to differing moral outlooks.  I have an aunt who is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan Holiness group.  Her version of this theology (which I do not claim is normative for Nazarenes) combined a judgmental view of God, a perfectable view of human nature, and a stress on sanctification/perfection to lead to a constant spiritual temperature taking. You will recall others with other combinations.

The next pair of critical variables are differing convictions about love and justice.  Most theologians have stressed Christian love (agape) as the highest Christian moral norm.  Many define such love as “sacrificial,” but others as “equal regard for all” (see Gene Outka),  “mutual love” (many feminist theologians) or “delivering love” (Glen Stassen). 

However defined, it is crucial that love be related to justice.  Justice is understood also in various ways and applied to various dimensions of life:  economics (distributive justice), racial relations, gender relations, civil rights, war and peace, etc. 

Reinhold Niebuhr saw Christian love as sacrificial but almost impossible to live out, even for Christians.  Therefore, it functioned only as a criterion that judged how far from Christ’s teachings our best moral efforts lie.  So, he focused on justice understood as a rough balance of power and of competing interests.  He stressed the difference between love and justice. 

By contrast, someone like Dorothy Day sees love and justice as intimately related and both as commanded to be lived out in this world. 

Next chapter will finalize the dimension of basic convictions by focusing on the mission of the church in the world.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment, theology | 2 Comments

Convictions and Moral Discernment, 1

Recall the chart of 4 dimensions in moral discernment:  https://levellers.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/critical-variables-in-moral-discernment/  We begin with the lower-right hand box:

Basic Convictions or “Ground of Meaning” Beliefs:

God  and Human Nature

Justification and Sanctification (or Forgiveness and Discipleship)

Love and Justice

The Mission of the Church in the World

Now, longterm readers may recall that, following the late theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and his sometime writing parter, philosopher James M. Smith, I argued here  that we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our basic convictions.  Opinions are easily formed and easily changed.  We usually know when and how we came to particular opinions, too.  Convictions, however are different.  They are not easily formed, we often do not remember forming them and they cannot easily changed.  Further, convictions are so self-involving that we cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different.  If an individual or community changes one or more convictions,  then, in a real sense we are not talking about the same person or community.

Example:  Differences between those who hold that lethal violence is sometimes justified (“non-pacifists”) and those who believe that it is never morally justified to take the lives of human persons (“pacifists”) are fundamental differences of basic conviction.  As a former soldier who is now a pacifist (for 20+ years), I can testify that turning from a belief in “just wars” to gospel nonviolence is more like conversion from one religion to another (or from unbelief in any faith to faith in a particular religion) than it is like correcting an error in logic.  And, in a sense, I am not the same person that I was before I laid down my rifle and refused to don my uniform.

Well, this first dimension of moral discernment doesn’t contain EVERY conviction, but those which my teacher, Glen Stassen, found were “critical variables.”  Differences in these 7 Christian theological convictions (or analogues in other belief systems) lead to very large differences in moral discernment.  (I will formulate this primarily for Christians, but try to indicate it’s adaptability to other belief systems.)   The first 6 of these critical convictions are paired because they tend to affect each other in noticeable ways. (Yes, every conviction affects every other, but these are not idly paired together as we will see.) 

God  and Human Nature.  How we understand God is a huge factor in our moral discernment.  Obviously, if one is an athiest or an agnostic, that also affects one’s moral judgment greatly.  But suppose one believes in God.  How one understands the character of God (Primarily loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, or primarily judgmental, wrathful,  capricious–or an impersonal Unmoved Mover disinterested in individual lives, etc.) is a major variable in one’s ethics–especially if one’s religion teaches that one should emulate God’s character.

  Also important is how one understands the way that God works in the world.  Someone who believes that God is removed from the world, that history and nature are closed systems will approach  things very differently than someone who believes that (in one way or another) God is dynamically active in history and the created order.  Example:  One reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to keep his followers nonviolent in the face of police  and mob violence was that so many shared his faith that they had “divine companionship in the struggle” (in his words), that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Imagine how different things  would  have been if most of those struggling in the Civil Rights movement had believed instead in a Deistic God that, watchmaker like, set the universe in motion, but left everything alone to impersonal forces.

Paired with our views of God are our views of human nature.  The ethics of someone who holds to the behaviorist views of B. F. Skinner, for example, in which humans simply respond to stimuli will have a different ethic than one who holds that most of our behavior is genetically determined.  Similarly, one can contrast those who think of people as mostly good with those who think of people as mostly evil or sinful.  (My own view is that we are mixed.  The best of us  are deeply flawed, but the worst of us can rise above our baser tendencies.) And someone who believes that humans have freewill will approach things differently than someone who holds to any form of determinism.

Now, someone who holds to a harsh, judgmental view of God and a view that humans are mostly evil will be very pessimistic and distrusting of people and desire strict laws with harsh enforcement to keep people in line. (So might an athiest with a pessimistic view of the world and people.) A person who views God as mostly loving and humans as free agents  who are mostly good will have a very different approach to things.  And so it goes–along nearly infinite combinations.

Next time: we’ll discuss justification and sanctification.

April 15, 2009 Posted by | convictions, ethics, moral discernment, theology | 9 Comments