Category Archives: Ethics

Catholic Social Teaching: Subsidiarity

Perhaps because of recent politics, I have become interested in the Catholic Church’s idea of subsidiarity. Below are some videos that explain the idea and, to some degree, broader Catholic social teaching.

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Filed under Catholic Church, Christian Life, Curious, Economics, Ethics, Politics, World View

John Paul II on Parents Educating their Children

The following is from FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO:

The Right and Duty of Parents Regarding Education

36. The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, “since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs.”(99)

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.

In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love.

This gets to the heart of why we have chosen to homeschool our children.

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novel reality: authorship and free will

Should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna?

This should sound like a strange question. And it does sound strange. Of course Raskolnikov should not have committed murder. But wait, does Raskolnikov exist? This is a crucial question in light of the question of transcendence. If Raskolnikov exists at one level of reality (as a character in a story) then Dostoyevsky must exist at a higher, more substantial, more transcendent level of existence. Which leads us to another question: Is Raskolnikov free of Dostoyevsky, that is, does Raskolnikov have free will, did he freely choose to kill Alyona Ivanovna? If not, should Dostoyevsky have been arrested for murder?

What strange questions. And yet they help us triangulate toward an understanding of our relationship to God. We think of God as being the author of creation. If so, then we can think of ourselves as being players in the story He is authoring−History. Raskolnikov is a real character within the world of the work we call the novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is real, but Dostoyevsky is more real. Raskolnikov’s existence, including his every choice, and even his thoughts, are contingent on his author, on Dostoyevsky. We are also contingent. We are real but God is more real. Or to put it another, more difficult to swallow way, if God is real (the standard of reality) then we are not real.

Of course, in a very critical and important sense, we cannot say we are not real, for “not real” is not the category of existence that God has given us in terms of our experience and in terms of our moral choices. We are real, for that is what we know. God may be more real, or so much more real that in comparison we seem merely like characters in a novel, but the reality we live is very real to us. Our reality is a gift of God’s creative act. We are real and we must come to terms with it. But we also must come to terms with God being more real, being our author, our creator. Or perhaps we do not “come to terms” with God, for that is a kind of negotiation. Instead we bow the knee, lie prostrate, tremble before God, who is both loving and terrifying.

God is sovereign, thus in an important sense we are not free from God, for we cannot be free from God and continue to exist. And yet, it is clear that it is God’s will that we are free to make choices, especially moral choices. Raskolnikov is not free from Dostoyevsky, and yet Raskolnikov’s choices (willed by the creative act of Dostoyevsky’s mind extending onto the page) are free and thus can be judged. He is not a puppet of his master, rather he does what he himself wills, and we read it that way even though we know an author is behind it all. We know we have free will because we experience free will. We know God is thoroughly sovereign because nothing can exist apart from God, and nothing can be counted on−including God’s promises−unless God is sovereign. But we cannot live fatalistically nor can we blame God, for we do what we will−and we know it. If we are held accountable for our free choices then we have met justice.

So, should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna? At the level of the world of the work, at the level of the story, the answer is no, and Raskolnikov should have to pay for his crime. And yet, at the level of the author, at the level of reality in which Dostoyevsky lived, the answer is yes, for it was the will of the author that it should be. This is the prerogative of all authors, and if we call God the author of creation and of our existence, then we must understand the prerogatives that are properly assigned to God, our creator, our author.

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Is Anything Really Right or Wrong? Peter Kreeft on Moral Relativism

This is an amazing talk (with question & answer at the end) on the modern blight and philosophical vapor of moral relativism. This is also a great example of how to construct an argument.

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Filed under Christian Life, Ethics, Philosophy, Truth, World View

Against the “Sovereign Self”

This article was first published on the Classical Conversations Guest Article blog.

The rise of the sovereign self* has become foundational for two sociopolitical systems presently deemed most worthy in modern societies: modern democracy and modern consumer capitalism. However, for these systems to be beneficial they must rely on a sovereignty of the self exemplified by the ability to rule oneself properly. We now live in an age (equally created, perpetuated, and exacerbated by the rise of the sovereign self) in which the very idea of proper behavior has been called into question and, for the most part, jettisoned. It may be that democracy and capitalism, regardless of their strengths, now fueled by moral relativism and a profound ignorance of the past, will become the two most powerful tools of our own destruction, wreaking havoc on all that is noble and good.

How we, as a society, have chosen to educate ourselves is fundamental to this predicament. By shifting from the prescriptive to the descriptive, from the normative to the analytical, we have given increased power to transform the natural world into the hands of untransformed man, and we have elevated cultural relativism to an unquestioned supremacy in an age of increasingly dubious and tribalistic sub-cultures. In fact, descriptive education leads to the de-transformation of man and to the removal of all institutions that might shore up virtue. Man, given his natural tendencies, thus slides back into the baser aspects of his nature.

What is this sovereign self? Before we seek a definition we must recognize that in a very real sense we are truly free of each other. My life is ultimately my responsibility in terms of my choices and my moral standing. Though we are social creatures and must live our lives in relation to each other, each of us must come to terms with our own, unique, individual selves. And yet, though we are ultimately, existentially free of each other we are not free of God. I cannot escape God. I must come to terms with Him. And in doing so, in taking God seriously, I am thrust into the true nature of freedom, that is, the choice to love. I become, in a very real sense, inextricably tied to others, to my neighbor, even to my enemy. In my freedom I become a servant. Such a servant is a man with a heart and soul, a man with the opportunity to embrace his nobility. The sovereign self, however, follows a radically different agenda. Seeking to be completely free modern man reduces God first to a watchmaker, then kills Him, then worse yet, makes Him into a useful myth. Man is now free of God, except that now he assumes God’s place. For all its freedom the sovereign self has only two options available, the tyranny of might and the tyranny of relativism. So-called enlightened societies are quick to point out the wickedness of mightful tyranny but relish the false promises of relativism.

What are the philosophical characteristics of the sovereign self? Among many here are several:

    • Ontological anti-realism: A belief in no objectivity regarding the existence and nature of anything. Many different ontological frameworks produce a constant interplay or flux of multiple “realities.” Ultimate questions of the nature of reality are thus unimportant. Individuals create their own realities. Even gender is largely ephemeral and personally transmutable.
    • Epistemological skepticism: Truth cannot be known. What is true for you is not necessarily true for any other. Thus one only has one’s inner impulses, one’s personal desires of the moment, for determining what is true.
    • Condemned to self: One is trapped in oneself and cannot truly know another, be known by another, or be other than what one chooses. Individuals are isolated by ontological anti-realism (nothing is objectively real) and epistemological skepticism (nothing is objectively true) and thus have only pleasure left to them.
    • No moral order: There is no objective morality bound to something beyond itself. There is a multiplicity of moralities and none are objectively more true than any other. Individuals must arbitrarily choose either an ordering moral system, e.g. religion or pragmatism, etc., or find morality in a vague inner voice. In short, we are all (and merely) individually embodied subjective moralities.
    • Beauty is a matter of personal preference: We cannot say beauty is truth and truth beauty, for there is no truth apart from what is true for oneself. Thus beauty can only be personal preference. That anything can be broadly understood as beautiful is a coincidence of history, cultural programming, and perhaps some quasi-Jungian collective unconscious.
    • All authority is inherently dubious: Established authority, i.e. any social or religious order, is questionable (and likely evil). One must embrace a suspicion of authority. A kind of personal soft-anarchism, free of political structures, economic responsibility, and objective morality, is the mode du jour.
    • Culture is tyranny: Culture is authority and a form of violence. What has come before may be historically interesting, but should be understood as a kind of tyrannizing power over the powerless. One must throw off (or not buy into) the cultures of the past and create one’s own.

It must be stated that, while many live and breathe these characteristics, few can articulate them. Most of us tend to operate at an uncritical level and would be hard-pressed to define the parameters of our worldviews, or to find the language necessary to speak coherently about them.

What are the values of the sovereign self? Among many here are several:

    • A lack of a moral imagination beyond personal preference: Traditional questions about morality, and even what constitutes a moral question, leave many modern people nonplussed. If morality is purely personal there is no need to struggle with the kinds of moral questions that have challenged the great thinkers through the ages.
    • Delayed adulthood: Particularly in affluent societies where one’s survival is largely taken for granted, there is little requirement to grow up. Consequently men (it’s mostly men, but women too) remain adolescents. Thus relationships are entertainment, parenting becomes a game, and the challenges of responsibility are uninteresting.
    • Communication is only for getting along or for pleasure: The great gift of communication, whereby men can sharpen each other and together pursue truth, is set aside for the more immediate desires of personal peace and good times. Communication, thus, becomes guided by a selfish pragmatism and a falsely moralistic utilitarianism. Communication becomes only a tool to shape the world according to one’s individual desires.
    • The necessity to acquire: The sovereign self has become the sovereign consumer. We have market driven cultures, market driven classrooms, and market driven churches. The consumer drives the content and experience rather than the statesman, the teacher, or the pastor. In the act of acquiring one is no longer condemned to be free, as the old existentialists claimed (e.g. Sartre), rather one revels in the continuous possibility of one’s relationship to the market. Buying (or not buying, as does the modern ascetic known as the minimalist) marks one’s territory and defines one’s self.
    • Fluidity of time/fluidity of relationships: Individuals, by using technology to live a more non-planned/non-scheduled life, create more convenient and “in the moment” relationships. Naturally, these relationships are also less “solid” or substantial. Additionally, always being “connected” creates a sense of not being alone; the problem of loneliness is “solved” and ennui kept at bay.

Much more can be said, and said better, about the sovereign self. But one can see the influence of this multivalent way of thinking pervading the world in which we live, including the world of politics, religion, and education. All of us in modern post-industrial societies are pressured to think this way. We have to work hard to follow another path. It must also be said that the sovereign self is primarily characterized by a profoundly ironic inability to rule oneself. Both the inherently faulty first principles and the inevitability of perverse outcomes secures that in one way or another the sovereign self is, in fact, a dethroning of man from his glorious place over creation. Sin plays no small part in this.

In times past people tended to believe there was a shared reality, that creation indicated the existence of a living logos in it and behind it, that morality extended from a transcendent origin, and that man has a nature. Therefore, man believed truth existed, could be known, could be communicated, and that man was beholden to the truth. With confidence cultures were created, traditions promoted, and ideals held up. The sovereign self has no need of all that. By definition, in fact, it must reject it.

Christian classical education stands in contradistinction to the sovereign self, its philosophical characteristics, and its values. When we teach our children in light of Christian classical principles we are building a bulwark, however small and precious, against the corrupting influence of the sovereign self and its enticing claims. Whether we feel it or not, in humble ways we are shining lights into the darkness.


* I am borrowing this term from a lecture given by Ken Myers at a 2010 Society for Classical Learning conference.

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The Mystical Body of the Corporation

This is a fascinating lecture. If you are not familiar with the history of how and why the modern corporation was created, or of their roots in Medieval society and law, you should take the time to watch this. One thought I take away is whether the modern corporation was born out of the broader Enlightenment project of doing away with normative morality, personal responsibility, and the nobility of man, in short, doing away with God and the world He created. Or, to put it more bluntly, is it a sin to create a modern corporation?

The lecturer is Dr. Eugene Brian McCarraher. His curriculum vita.

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>Bill Nye believes in science

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I like Bill Nye the Science Guy. If you have kids you probably have seen his show at one time or another. He is a great science teacher within the context of television (which has limitations, but can have a place as well). Bill Nye has a wonderful, goofy shtick that is engaging and somewhat effective. His goal, it seems to me, is to get kids excited about science. It’s possible that he succeeds in this, though real science if quite different in terms of personal experience. Regardless, it is clear that Nye loves science and is keen to promote it. So I am not surprised by his comments in a recent Popular Mechanics article. The article presents some statistics about the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. The numbers tend to show a surprisingly low level of embracing of evolution by teachers, at least in terms of confidently teaching evolution as scientific fact. Nye responds by saying this is horrible. No surprises there. But then he goes on to say:

Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster.

What struck me about this quote, which seems rather straightforward, is that it presupposes a naturalist/materialist philosophical position which is false. The idea that “science is the key to our future” comes out of the Enlightenment project which has both a deep power and fundamental flaws. This is even a bigger issue than whether evolution is scientific theory or fact. On the other hand, it is fair to say that “science is the key to our future,” but in a way not intended by Mr. Nye. Science has provided so much that we love and value, but it has not changed the human heart. In that sense science will bring about at least as much pain as good. Nye has forgotten that not many years ago people lived in fear of total earth annihilation from atomic bombs and radioactive fallout. The reality of that potential scenario is still with us. But that is not the real problem. If we continue to live and act as though science will solve our problems then our ultimate undoing will come from science in service of the human heart. The 20th century was the century of blood. Science made that possible. That will be our scientific future.

I support much of what Nye says. We must support science in the classroom. The problem is that science is one of the lesser subjects. The humanities, history, language, philosophy, and theology, social studies, literature, and rhetoric, are all more important subjects than science. That is a bold statement, but science must be in the service of those subjects, of that kind of education, first than put out front as something “solid” and powerful that is foundational. Physics and biology are not a foundational subjects of study. Our problems do not come from the inability to understand, manipulate, and subdue the natural world. Woe to the society that advances in subduing the earth ahead of knowing why to do so. Woe to us, for we are there.

Another way to say this is that believing in science, as Bill Nye would have us do, is fine as long as one first and foremost believes in a morality that guides that science. I would argue that that morality must over-arch all of life, including science, but also including relationships and all human action. I would also posit that morality must, necessarily, be metaphysical in origin. I am a Christian and I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I do not see another metaphysical origin to morality that can compete. On the other hand, to “believe in science” is, on the whole, laughable. That’s like saying I believe in Higher Criticism or Semiotics. One can speak of their relative value, but one cannot believe in them in the way one can believe in God. Science cannot prove or disprove God, but neither can science address what Christians really mean by believing in God. Such belief is not so much a question of existence, though that is a part of it, rather it is like saying, “I believe in you.” It is about trust and character, two necessary aspects of human existence that science cannot begin to explain or provide a satisfactory alternative.

Bill Nye, thanks for much of what you do. I love your show. But do not unwittingly lead us down a path to destruction, even in the name of something as appealing a science.

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