A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


'Bad Influence'

Over at Mirror of Justice, Robert P. George declares that Michael Sean Winters and I have engaged in "aggressively partisan efforts to smear Paul Ryan as a Randian enemy of Catholic social thought." Evidently he's referring to my critique of his response to "On All of Our Shoulders." In that post, I pointed out that George failed to engage the substance of "On All of Our Shoulders," whose authors write to remind us that Catholic social teaching is not well reflected in the ideology of libertarianism. Instead, George dismissed the statement as partisan -- which is odd, considering that he has endorsed and is advising Mitt Romney (as he did during the 2008 campaign). And he changed the subject, complaining that the authors didn't focus on the top three issues the Romney campaign would like to determine how Catholics vote (.pdf).That's his right, of course. But even though he's posted about "On All of Our Shoulders" several times since October 12, he still hasn't gotten around to addressing its authors' question: If Rep. Paul Ryan no longer looks to Ayn Rand to make sure his policies "square with the key principles of individualism," as he said in 2009, and instead looks to Aquinas to guide his work, then why haven't his policies changed? George seems to think that wanting to know how Ryan's self-described Thomistic shift has affected his policies is itself evidence of partisanship. If so, he's really not going to like our latest editorial, just posted to the homepage. It begins:

Rep. Paul Ryan has long enjoyed a reputation as a wonks wonk. Here was a Republican politician happy to engage in substantive conversation about tax policy, debt, and the future of entitlement programs. The press, accustomed to elected officials far less interested in the nitty-gritty of policy-making, believed it had discovered a serious man on Capitol Hill. Others were impressed that Ryan, a practicing Catholic, didnt shy away from discussing how his faith has helped shape his policies.Yet, as Ryans national stature has increased, so has scrutiny of his record. He has been well served by media coverage contrasting his allegedly Catholic-infused policies with Vice President Joe Bidens strained attempts to reconcile his prochoice politics with church teaching. But before long, the same press corps that had portrayed Ryan as a no-nonsense deficit hawk began reporting his long-standing avowal of the works of Ayn Rand as the touchstone for his political life. In 2005, Ryan told a crowd of Rand devotees that he looks to Rands writing to make sure his policies square with the key principles of individualism. And in a 2009 video he praised her for upholding the morality of individualism as what matters most. One might detect the influence of Rands individualism in Ryans 2011 description of the social safety net as a hammock that fosters dependency.

Read the rest right here.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Typo alert: "His right" should be corrected to say "He's right."

Fascinating correction, Grant.Thanks for clarifying your statement.

Methinks the Randian individualism of abortion presents a much bigger problem. But far be it from Obamaweal to post such things...

The Catholic bishops to the contrary notwithstanding, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that there is no serious problem with legalized abortion in the first trimester.The Catholic bishops argue that life begins at the moment of conception. Granted, an infra-human life-form begins when sperm inseminates an egg. But ensoulment with a distinctively human soul probably does not begin at the moment of conception, but at the time when the growing fetus is capable of living outside the mother's womb, as the U.S. Supreme Court has in effect suggested by its ruling regarding viability of the fetus. I say "in effect" here because the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling did not discuss ensoulment as such.

Bruce, Simply put: You, Robert P George, and the Catholic bishops should be ashamed of yourself. How it is not clear to all of you that your repudiation of Matthew 25 brings great shame on all of you. As the editorial points out: "The preferential option means the needs of the poor ought to come first, even if that means giving them food as well as job training." If you and et alii, deny the preferential option for the poor, then you clearly deny the gospel of Jesus.

Thomas, all you need to do is read a basic biology book to realize that a new human life starts at conception. But you ignored my point that abortion is grounded in a radical individualism - woman's exclusive right to choose - which ignores the claims of the father and the larger society as well as the unborn child. It is more Randian than any economic program perhaps including even slavery.

Thomas F. --Roe v. Wade does discuss ensoulment. It says that because there is disagreement about when that happens, the Court cannot make a determination as to whether or not a person is killed in an abortion. Therefore, it says that the "right to privacy" must prevail until the experts can determine the time of ensoulment.Note that Roe did not itself establish an absolute right to an abortion because of the right to privacy. The Court at that time was interested in whether or not the fetus was a person, but it said it just couldn't answer the question. I might add that prior to this decidion English common law had defined the beginning of the person as the time it first moves. I don't know what status that view had/has in American law, but it surely still influences the general culture.

Bill,Its remarkable that you judge me as repudiating Matthew 25 while actually knowing virtually nothing about me, or for that matter Robert George and the Catholic Bishops, other than our apparent ranking of abortion as more evil than somewhat lesser funding for the 'poor' of the US, which by the way, would be considered wealthy when viewed against the balance of the global population.

Bruce, All the proof that Cardinal Egan and all right to life advocates have is that "we do not know that there is a soul there nor do we have proof. But we cannot take the chance that there is a soul there." It is a fraudulent argument from fraudulent bishops who make the round of Theology on Tap but rarely mention the millions of children who die because of lack of food and medicine. Again, why do you not give a decent burial to all those "immortal" souls who are thrown into the garbage after a miscarriage?

Bill,Please consider the following: we are taught in the Bible that Christ was fully human and fully God from the moment of his conception. If it is 'ensoulment', as you claim, that makes a person fully human, then we know that in Christ's case this occurred at conception. Since that is the only data point we have, it seems clear that 'ensoulment' occurs at conception. As for the decent burial of miscarriages, it seems like a convenient distraction to justify your position. Most occur during the first three months the many of these occur before a woman misses her first menstrual period. So in addition to a lack of knowledge of the pregnancy, it would be virtually impossible to find the embryo to bury it. And it is entirely possible that some of these are not actually human due to problems with the fertilization. Btw, at week 13, the fetus is about 3 inches long, weighs less than an ounce, and moves its limbs.

we are taught in the Bible that Christ was fully human and fully God from the moment of his conceptionBruce,Exactly where is that found in the Bible?

Grant's post is not about abortion, and neither, mainly, is this election. The question is not whether abortion is a "bigger problem" than poverty or inequality or militarism. The question is, or ought to be, which of the two presidential candidates is more likely to have a positive effect in those areas where the next president will have the most influence. Those areas are foreign policy and economic policy (in that order). It is extremely unlikely that a Supreme Court nominee who could be counted on to help overturn Roe v. Wade would be confirmed by the next Senate as a replacement for a retiring Justice who can be counted on to help uphold Roe and it is far from certain that a President Romney would nominate such a person in the first place. (Other Republican presidents who have described themselves as prolife have chosen Justices who voted to uphold Roe.)On the other hand, it is extremely likely, if not quite certain, that if Gov. Romney is elected, the Affordable Care Act will be repealed (or gutted), along with the new financial regulations designed to prevent another crisis on Wall Street. If Romney is elected, it is also extremely likely that federal funding for Medicaid and food stamps will be cut to help pay for more tax cuts. It is perhaps too much to say that if Romney is elected, we are likely to find ourselves mired in another unnecessary and costly war, but surely we are more likely to find ourselves in such a war under a President Romney than under President Obama. (Never mind Romney's irenic tone in the last debate; look at his foreign policy advisors all people who supported the invasion of Iraq, and who still support it.)These are the humdrum considerations that ought to guide voters who agree with the church's teachings about abortion, just war, the preferential option for the poor, and the responsibilities of the state for the common good. It would be so much simpler, of course, if we could just vote for the candidate whose moral convictions seem in best accord with our own (simpler, though not quite simple). But if we do that, we are fooling ourselves. Better not to vote at all than to use your vote to make a statement as if the electoral college knows or cares that your vote was determined by an issue your candidate did not even bother to mention in any of the debates. (And by the way, do you think Romney failed to mention it only because no one asked him about it, or because he did not judge it politically expedient? Maybe Romney understands, as Bruce does not, that his position on this issue would have little bearing on his presidency.)

Fine post, Matthew.The main thing that the conservatives don't seem to *understand* is that an election is not simply an opportunity to express one's own moral principles. It is a requirement for naming leaders who both can and will get us closer to our moral goals. This requires us to think both short-term to the next election -- and what is possible in the next election -- and long-term as well. The possibility of an abortion-free country in the short-tem is precisely nil. It cannot happen because the vast majority of the voters think it should not happen. How to change that? Not by the ballot box, but by persuading the rest of the citizenry that abortion is wrong. But that will take fundamental changes in our cultural values (expressed largely in and by the arts), and this will require an educational system that truly respects reason as the method for reaching moral conclusions. What we have now is a hedonistic, individualistic culture which makes its moral decisions on the basis of feelings.Those feelings aren't irrelevant to moral decision-making, but they are only subjective reactions to objective problems which at best only point the way to sound decisions. The reaction of some conservatives to "bleeding heart liberals" is, I think, a reaction against that sort of emotivism in the political world, and I share their distaste for such "thinking". Too often it's not thinking, it's feeling. On the other hand, there are among the conservative group people who cannot seem to empathize with the suffering of others, and if you cannot feel with others (have com-passion) you can never see the necessity to act in their favor. To such conservatives (I think Romney is one of them) the 47% are like those ants on the ground that Harry Lime saw from the top of the ferris wheel, Harry Lime, that supposedly clever entrepreneur who sold polluted penicillin. (Compare the agribusiness executives who sell food contaminated by pesticide-poisons.) So, yes, the *lack* of feeling can be a moral obstacle to a more human nation. And, again, I think, the arts and education (including literature) can help the hard-hearted break out of their shells. Of course, fine preaching can help, but that is another problem, a complex one. Unfortunately, these days there don't seem to be any script writers as powerful as Graham Greene or preachers like Fulton Sheen who could reach both the minds and hearts of the general public. The arts are in sad, sad shape.

David,That's the entire story, as you well know...

Ann and Matthew, IMHO, the ability to change the trajectory of abortion in this country by how I vote in this election is much higher than you judge it. Further, I believe its a place to start. Witness the Dred Scott decision and Lincoln's election on the trajectory of slavery. Just removing Joe Bidens bully pulpit is a positive step toward persuading the electorate.

Bruce,Forgive me, but I don't see what Dred Scott and Lincoln's election have to do with the probability of Roe v. Wade being overturned if Romney is elected. The Dred Scott decision wasn't overturned, nor slavery ended, because of a Supreme Court nomination. It was nullfied by Constitutional amendment after a long and bloody war. (Lincoln became an antislavery hero during that war, not before his election. Most abolitionists distrusted him.)It is true that Roe will need to be overturned before states can pass or enforce laws that adequately protect the unborn, and it is true that Roe is more likely to be overturned soon if Romney is elected than if Obama is. But it is very, very unlikely to happen in either case. You say voting for Romney is a place to start. That is the kind of response I had in mind when I cautioned prolife voters against fooling themselves. If you saw me wading into the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island and asked me where I was going, you'd worry about my sanity if I told you I was making a start toward Timbuktuthough you couldn't deny that I was a step closer to my intended destination.Do you know anyone who is prochoice because of something Joe Biden said from his bully pulpit?

Matthew--As usual, you make many thoughtful points, but for me Alasdair MacIntyre's "The Only Vote Worth Casting in November," written in anticipation of the Bush-Kerry election in 2004, still rings true.

For what its worth: In his speech today in Ohio, Paul Ryan again spoke of an economic vision for America that reads as if he lifted it from Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."Ryan is what he is: A dangerous ideologue who must be driven from public office if our future is to be secured.

I incline also in the direction of Alasdair MacIntyre's view. It is all so discouraging.

Four years ago MacIntyre's views struck me as a cop out, and even an invitation to Really Bad Government (as opposed to Plain Bad Government). This year, while I do plan to vote, I feel more affinity to MacIntyre's point of view, and not just because of abortion. I've voted for third party candidates in the past, which is a "pox on both your houses" gesture. Would abstaining from voting for certain elected positions where a choice is untenable be much different? Maybe not.FWIW, I notice that a FAQ in many voter guides is whether you can leave some things blank on the ballot and still have the rest of your choices count. The answer is yes.

Generally I have the greatest respect for MacIntyre. But there is one thing I find very strange about him -- he has never entered any of the philosphical debates about when ensoulment takes place (the crux of the philosophical/legal/moral battle). True, what used to be called "special ethics" (ethics devoted to very specific moral problems) is not his area of expertise. But he could help show what the metaphysical demands need to be met by any argument pro=abortion. He hasn't even helped to clarify the philosopical problem, which he is more than competent to do.We might not like the George Weigels and Robert Georges of this world, but at least they enter the fray. And that goes for Finnis too. Big natural law expert avoids greatest moral challenge of his time. Sheesh.

Bruce is exactly right.

Finnis isn't an American citizen. He's an Australian by birth and an Englishman by adoption. And while he doesn't enter the American voting fray the same way his American peeps do, he has written quite a lot on questions of applied ethics. See volume 3 of his collected papers.

Serious Libertarians are not voting for Romney. Like some on the Catholic Left they are throwing away their vote to preserve their integrity/purity. Not having been persuaded by the Lefts Ryan is scary stories, they seriously doubt that Ryan will usher in the libertarian utopia.A typical libertarian response to a query: Between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who do you think would be worse regarding social freedom issues such as gay marriage, free speech, school choice, and reproductive rights? These issues fall on either side of the set of policy positions and/or groups to mollify our two major parties. Thus, it's likely to be a wash, with one better on some, the other better on others. Certainly no coherent set of beliefs in freedom motivate either of them. FWIW, in yesteryear, Ayn Rand did not endorse or even vote for Reagan.

Grants post is not about abortion, and neither, mainly, is this electionMatthew,Grants post and "On all of our shoulders" refer to Paul Ryan's economics as "Randian". As you will notice from my initial post, abortion also has 'Randian' philosophical roots. Yet neither Grant nor Commonweal has made any posts calling out the Obama/Biden ticket for that policy. Where is the balance?

When does ensoulment occur? Unfortunately there is not the ring of a tiny bell. It is late at night and I don't have time to look up all the sources, but here are some problems never faced by the life begins at conception set. 1) The fact that so many conceptions end in a miscarriage. Is God so wasteful of human life? And if each little life that passes from the mother's body is a human life with a soul, why isn't the pro-life movement standing on its head to find a way to save those lives? This makes God and his nature the greatest abortionist of them all.2) The dilemma of the identical twin. Identical twins occur after implantation in the wall of the uterus. The zygote (or whatever it is called, my apologies)splits. If we already have a human being with a soul, what do we have now? Two human beings with a one soul? Some kind of metaphysical split? 3) The dilemma of identical twins suddenly reuniting into a single reality. This happens. Now what has happened? Two human beings with two separate souls suddenly become one human being with a separate soul? Another metaphysical challenge if there ever was one. 4) At first, the fertilized egg with its multiplying cells consists in separate cells belonging to the mother and separate cells belonging to the father. This reality is not yet a single being. But then, at some point into the process, a single being emerged. If ever there was a moment when you could say that a soul has entered the body, this is it. But it happens somewhere along into the process, not at the moment of conception. When I discovered all this in my reading, the hieararchy's insistance that human ensouled life begins at conception seems extreme.

William T --I've never come across your fourth argument before. Could you expand it, or give an internet reference (It's impossible for me to get to a good library easily.)

I think Alasdair MacIntyre is wrong about just choosing not to vote. It may make one feel virtuous, but it lets down everyone who's counting on each of us to make the best choice we can of what we have to work with.

Ann,William's fourth point is wrong. Neither the egg nor sperm contains the full compliment of chromosomes. Fertilization creates one full complement. That full complement then directs cell growth and the multiple cell divisions. 'Ensoulment' is a distraction. I cannot differentiate my soul from me. I can tell I have a body, but a soul, who knows. Ensoulment is a great argument for those who do not want a solution because we can only perceive the physical. Could God be profligate in the creation of human souls? Sure, who are we to determine what is profligate? He is the creator.from WikipediaThe Ancient Greeks used the same word for 'alive' as for 'ensouled', indicating that the earliest surviving western philosophical view believed that the soul was that which gave the body life. The soul was considered the incorporeal or spiritual 'breath' which animates the living organism. Under that definition, the fertilized egg is 'ensouled'; it directs its own development into the multi-celled creature we readily recognize as a human being.

Crystal,I agree. Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote:Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

A good quote, Bruce, but it's no more relevant to this discussion than your reference to Lincoln was. Alasdair MacIntyre is not silent in the face of evil. He has spoken, eloquently, about why he refuses to votes, naming the evils in both parties that make them unacceptable to him.

Jean: I agree with you about third party candidates. Voting for a 3rd party may not change the outcome, but at least you're still buying into the democratic process that a lot of people before us worked hard to get. I don't think there is any excuse for not votiing at all

"I dont think there is any excuse for not votiing at all"There is a long tradition of Stoic warriors not voting. When I was active in the Marines in the 1990s, there were many people who would actively not vote for the obvious Stoic reasons but also to ensure nothing intefered with the execution of the mission and, more importantly, their oath.

MAT: How does voting interfere with the execution of the mission? Soldiers and Peace Corps Volunteers and all who serve abroad have a right to vote which is not diminished by distance. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act protects this right.

"How does voting interfere with the execution of the mission?"For some people their ability and willingness to kill on the orders of a third party is influenced by emotional attachments and constraints related to the persons along the chain of authority on behalf of whom they must kill. I cannot speak to the mission of Peace Corps Volunteers."Soldiers and Peace Corps Volunteers and all who serve abroad have a right to vote which is not diminished by distance. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act protects this right."Correct. I am not aware of anyone who feels that right is diminished by distance. Some people however make a distinction between a right and an obligation.

Bruce --Thank you. That is my understanding of the biology involved also. But the biologists keep discovering more and more surprising facts about the gestationprocess, and it is possible that, if the biology turns out quite different from what we've been thinking, then that could affect our moral concusions. All we can do is do our best with the best scientific explanations of the process that we have at the time. If that requires revision of our thinking, then so be it. But it's always hard to admit we were wrong, and it is always hard to adopt a different slant on life. Sometimes, however, that's exactly what we have to do. Ethics is not independent of science.

Bruce --The question of "soul" remains a great problem in philosophy. Today the battleground has shifted a bit to what is called "reductionism" or the reduction of all reality to what is material, measurable, physical. For some centuries, since the Enlightenment, the materialists seem to have been winning the argument. But the pendulum seems to be starting to swing back. Among other contemporary philosophers, Thomas Nagel, one of the great atheist philosophers of today, has started arguing on the anti-materialist side. He has a new book on it that causing quite a stir. Here's a short review of it from the NYT's The Stone:

Ann,You might find this review interesting

Matthew,I tink both quotes are very relevant. I have the hope that each represents change which is the goal.

Bruce -Thanks. Well done review :-) Yes, Aristotle seems to be on the way back. And *that* means the Enlightenment is over.

Here's another review in England's Prospect magazine. Looks like we might have a revolution brewing. Steven Pinker (him of little imagination) is so upset he is even wondering if Nagel, the revered Grand Old Man of NYU, has lost his mind :-)

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment