Posts Tagged virtue
Reason.tv recently interviewed some folks at the Democratic National Convention, aiming to draw out inconsistencies in the political left’s oft-pronounced “pro-choice” stance.
Watch it here:
Now, if one’s overarching philosophy and political ideology boils down to choice, choice, and more choice—as it certainly does for many of the folks at Reason.tv—being “pro-choice” on abortion and “anti-choice” on light bulbs is a glaring inconsistency. Yet I would hope that the the rest of us are working from different premises and aligning our beliefs to different ultimate standards. Life is, as they say, about so much more.
So what gives?
Why do many progressives believe women should have the “freedom” to kill their own children and homosexuals should have the power to redefine natural institutions, but they don’t believe Plump Little Jimmy should be able to choose between a 16 oz. or 32 oz. soft drink, or Catholic Lucy should be able to choose between a private school and a public one?
Why do many conservatives believe in free choice in education and healthcare, but they’re not so loosey-goosey on opening the flood-gates on infanticide, “family” redefinition, or drug legalization?
There are plenty of ways to explain the disconnect, but one fundamental conflict, as Thomas Sowell thoroughly illuminates in his book, A Conflict of Visions: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, boils down to how we view the nature of man—“not simply his existing practices,” Sowell writes, “but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations.” Here, we find that as a matter of discerning worldviews, it’s far less helpful to talk about “choice” than it is to talk about our underlying philosophies of life. Here, we find the beginnings of the premises from which we should launch our critiques of any diverging “inconsistencies.”
How do we view the human person? Is he imperfect yet capable of redemption, or, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it, is he “born free” but “everywhere in chains”?
How do we view the project of improving mankind? Is it a process of constraining our basest passions and relying on Burkean “prudence,” or must we blindly trust in and submit to what William Godwin called “the magnanimous sentiment of our natures”?
Through what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision (what we might label today as “progressive”), the human person is a Rousseauean blossom, whose (seeming) faults are ultimately tied to imperfections in the systems that surround him rather than fundamental, universal imperfections in the human person himself. Knowing the “right path” and the “right thing to do” is the easy part. It’s overcoming all those pesky institutions that’s tricky (e.g. “Marxism works. It just hasn’t been implemented properly.”). Perfectibility is achievable (the rise of the oceans will begin to slow) if only the right captains are at the helm. Once they’re there, we need only follow the guidance of the Enlightened—buy the “good” light bulbs, drive the “good” car, go to the “good” school—and we shall further the “magnanimous sentiment of our natures” that has thus far been prohibited by systemic oppression. Fundamental to this view, Sowell writes, “is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.”
For the unconstrained, it’s not about trade-offs or complicated analyses of history, political theory, moral philosophy and the nature of man himself. It’s about “solutions” (“Forward!”). The “good” is a given, and thus, once the wise old sages have subsequently “freed” our benevolent human nature toward collective salvation, everything the State hasn’t already delivered is ours for the taking. Follow the leader, build the tower, and give way to the “general will,” but outside of the carefully constructed Collective Mission, what you do and who you destroy is as noble as your properly pampered noble-savage self.
Now, like most dichotomies, not everyone fits neatly into place—Sowell certainly doesn’t claim as much, pointing specifically to Marx—and even those who fit the category can launch from this framework in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. But one need only look at the DNC, where the freedom to butcher “inconvenient” infants gets Read the rest of this entry »
In a response to a mother whose 16-year-old daughter has “given up believing in God,” Albert Mohler provides a marvelous critique of the mother’s initial premise: that she had tried to raise her family “under the same strong Christian values that [she] grew up with.”
Mohler’s most basic point: “Christian values” will never be enough:
Christian values are the problem. Hell will be filled with people who were avidly committed to Christian values. Christian values cannot save anyone and never will. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a Christian value, and a comfortability with Christian values can blind sinners to their need for the gospel.
This one sentence may not accurately communicate this mother’s understanding, but it appears to be perfectly consistent with the larger context of her question and the source of the advice she sought.
Parents who raise their children with nothing more than Christian values should not be surprised when their children abandon those values. If the child or young person does not have a firm commitment to Christ and to the truth of the Christian faith, values will have no binding authority, and we should not expect that they would. Most of our neighbors have some commitment to Christian values, but what they desperately need is salvation from their sins. This does not come by Christian values, no matter how fervently held. Salvation comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ…
… Human beings are natural-born moralists, and moralism is the most potent of all the false gospels. The language of “values” is the language of moralism and cultural Protestantism — what the Germans called Kulturprotestantismus. This is the religion that produces cultural Christians, and cultural Christianity soon dissipates into atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief. Cultural Christianity is the great denomination of moralism, and far too many church folk fail to recognize that their own religion is only cultural Christianity — not the genuine Christian faith.
This connects quite well with James Davison Hunter’s thesis in his book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil, albeit toward slightly broader ends.
For Hunter, focusing on sacred truths — or, in Mohler’s case, salvation through Christ — is the best approach not just for retaining belief in God, but for achieving a moral and virtuous society filled with individuals of strong character:
The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed…
This destruction occurs simultaneously with the rise of “values.” Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. They are substitutes for revelation, imperatives that have dissolved into a range of possibilities. The very word “value” signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable. Both values and “lifestyle”—a way of living that reflects the accumulation of one’s values—bespeak a world in which nothing is sacred. Neither word carries the weight of conviction; the commitment to truths made sacred…
…Whatever benefits such a fluid and temporary moral universe may offer, they fail to lessen our dismay when we witness random and senseless violence; our outrage when we see open displays of corruption; our indignation when we observe a flouting of basic standards of decency; and our sadness as we watch callousness when compassion and mercy cry out. But why should we be surprised? When the self is stripped of moral anchoring, there is nothing to which the will is bound to submit, nothing innate to keep it in check. There is no compelling reason to be Read the rest of this entry »
I recently finished up James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age of Good and Evil, which provides a marvelous critique of American moral education, chronicling our gradual descent from a focus on virtues and eternal truths into a modernistic abyss of slippery and subjective “values clarification.”
Hunter’s diagnosis, from the prologue:
A restoration of character as a common feature within American society and a common trait of its people will not likely occur any time soon. The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy-making, or money can change that reality. Its time has passed.
These “social and cultural conditions,” Hunter believes, have been replaced with Enlightenment-heavy, inclusivist fantasies, believing that morality is “self-evident” in and of itself and all we must do is help individuals “clarify” what is right and wrong for themselves. Anything else is too dogmatic, too sectarian, too potentially offensive.
Particularity is inherently exclusive. It is socially awkward, potentially volatile, offensive to our cosmopolitan sensibilities. By its very nature it cuts against the grain of our dominant code of inclusivity and civility. In our quest to be inclusive and tolerant of particularity, we naturally undermine it. When the particular cultures of conviction are undermined and the structures they inhabit are weakened, the possibility of character itself becomes dubious.
Indeed, there’s something about particularity that scares us, regardless of our own particular beliefs in our own particular moral philosophies. The secular progressive is afraid of the conservative Christian. The conservative Christian is afraid of the Muslim. The Muslim is afraid of the secular progressive. And so we fight for control over the monopoly on the narrative.
So if this inclusivist approach is ineffective and actually undermines the ways in which morality is formed, how is morality actually formed?
Morality is always situated—historically situated in the narrative flow of collective memory and aspiration, socially situated within distinct communities, and culturally situated within particular structures of moral reasoning and practice. Character is similarly situated. It develops in relation to moral convictions defined by specific moral, philosophical, or religious truths. Far from being free-floating abstractions, these traditions of moral reasoning are fixed in social habit and routine within social groups and communities. Grounded in this way, ethical ideals carry moral authority. Thus, it is the concrete circumstances situating moral understanding that finally animate character and make it resilient…
A morality conceptualized without basic links to a living creed and a lived community means that the morality they espouse entails few if any psychic costs; it lacks, in any case, the social and spiritual sanctions that can make morality “binding on our conscience and behavior.” What is more, without the grounding of particular creeds and communities, morality in public life can be advocated only as yawning platitudes—variations of the emotivism that now prevails everywhere. Critics who point to the absolutist quality of this moral pedagogy are not far from the point. Outside the bounds of moral community, morality cannot be authoritative, only authoritarian. In the end, these alternatives [i.e. any modernistic attempts to instill virtue] do not advocate virtue, but at the their best, it is virtue on the cheap.
I have previously commented on Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, as it relates to his larger argument of our “inequality of human dignity.” This week at Values & Capitalism, I offer some additional thoughts, this time on Murray’s analysis of America’s recent decline in industriousness.
Murray sees industriousness as one of America’s “founding virtues,” the others of which include honesty, marriage and religiosity. Yet while these others are important, Murray argues that industriousness was the most defining.
The founders talked about this virtue constantly, using the eighteenth-century construction, industry. To them, industry signified a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place—a desire not just to be free to speak one’s mind, to practice religion as one saw fit, and to be taxed only with representation, but the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children…If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.
Murray provides plenty of data to indicate a decline in this virtue, including shifting attitudes about work, rises in physical disability benefits applications, decreases in labor force participation, and decreases in hours worked per week.
The data affirm what many of us already know, and what I’ve made a habit of regurgitating in this space time and time again: Americans have shifted away from an energetic, purpose-driven, higher-order pursuit of value, and are instead moving toward security, insulationism, materialism and minimum-commitment thinking. Rather than building upon our history of sacrificial innovation and difficult labor, regardless of immediate or tangible personal benefits, many Americans are seizing our economic prosperity as an opportunity to slack off and opt for personal leisure, short-sighted consumerism and near-boastful protectionism.
If Murray’s data don’t persuade you, look no further than our country’s lackadaisical response to our debt crisis and our salivating over the pandering promises of our politicians. We yearn to be shielded from competition and globalization, nitpicking over which candidate offshored how many jobs to where. We want to be promised a retirement that no longer exists, and one that will never exist without a painful departure from the status quo. We want the government to do all of our risk-taking and weighty decision-making on our behalf, whether in entrepreneurship, health care, housing or charity. We want to be told that less will be expected of us, not more.
Rather than recognizing and embracing our basic human need to experience earned success, we are becoming more focused on simply putting in our 40 and demanding the stars in return. This shift in our attitudes about work—this decline in our culture of industriousness—is only one factor in this emerging cultural divide, but its corrosive cultural effects have no discernible limitations.
We must return to that attitude that Francis Grund once described, pursuing Read the rest of this entry »
I don’t think the answer is necessarily “yes,” but I have some serious reservations with many prominent attempts to synthesize the two.
Joe Carter contemplates the question at the Acton Institute in response to this post by friend-of-the-blog and co-blogger at Values & Capitalism, Jacqueline Otto (though hers is actually a different response to yet another Carter post). The back-and-forth is well worth reading in full.
I certainly don’t consider myself a “libertarian,” but in my early deep-dive into politics I was actually quite close to crossing over. I still find myself swimming in many libertarian ponds, and I actually enjoy doing so (most of the time). What else is an economics-loving conservative to do?
Indeed, given my many inclinations toward libertarianism in the economics realm, and even some in the social (e.g. drug laws), some of my many (many, many) Christian libertarian readers might have even assumed that this blog was itself an attempt to reconcile the two. Fooled ya!
Anywho, Carter breaks his discussion down into five distinct types of Christian libertarians:
- Type #1: Those who have developed a consistent philosophy in which libertarianism and Christianity are fully compatible.
- Type #2: Those who mash the two words together.
- Type #3: Those for whom the “Christian” in Christian libertarian is a weak modifier
- Type #4: Christians who are really conservatives, but don’t like the label conservative
- Type #5: Those who are Not-all-that-Christian and/or Not-all-that-Libertarian
I responded to his post with some initial “informal” reactions (not around any particular theme), so I thought I’d repost them here (albeit with some minor edits for this environment). Again, these are responses to the back-and-forth, so I encourage you to start by reading Carter’s post. Given that many of my favorite readers are self-described Christian libertarians, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and critiques about Carter’s post, my reactions, or all of the above.
1. The libertarian movement is diverse.
And this is the case with the movement Type #1s. One of the challenges in such a discussion is that there are many different types of libertarians. This is, I think, largely due to that whole Internet popularization thing Carter speaks to. You’ve got the folks who like Milton Friedman, and then you’ve got those who think he is the devil because he semi-collaborated with Reagan and the Republicans and was, um, kinda sorta practical and effective. Likewise, you’ve got the folks who love Hayek (who detest Friedman), and then you’ve got those who think Hayek was Read the rest of this entry »
Kenneth Minogue seems to be heavy on my mind these days. I recently finished his newest book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, and it has provided me with lots and lots to chew on (some of my initial comments are here, a full review is forthcoming).
In a video I came across last week (not connected to the book), Minogue does a fine job of outlining the threat of political idealism on our political development (what Minogue calls “civilization”). Minogue’s definition of such idealism basically boils down to any sort of excessive trust in the perfectibility of human systems. He even indicates that libertarians are often guilty of it (worshippers of the market…that sort of thing). In many ways, Minogue’s opinions align very closely with those of Thomas Sowell.
This discussion comes in the wake of what Minogue sees as modern society’s attack on libertarianism and individualism. In order to respond to such an attack, Minogue argues, we need “something more sophisticated than Hayek and Adam Smith and the glories of the free market.” The ideas offered in this video are indeed part of Read the rest of this entry »