David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of catholicmoraltheology.com. He is the author of Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008) and is working on a book on the moral problem of luxury in contemporary economic ethics.
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In his beautiful new book Finding and Seeking, Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan offers an extended critique of what he calls “anticipation” as a basis for moral deliberation. Anticipation is of a “middle-distance future” stemming from our actions, differing from the immediate “nearer future” of the specific purpose of our actions and the “further future” which, for Christianity, rests on the virtue of hope.
It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.
Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).
The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.
Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.
Zenit reports on the pope’s earth day message:
“I exhort everyone to see the world through the eyes of God the Creator," the Pope said, namely that "the earth is an environment to be safeguarded, a garden be cultivated.”
As a moral theologian, I often think that claims about “relativism” infecting our society are overblown. Most people, most of the time, do not act as consistent relativists—at most, they view particular issues as relative, and even in these cases, their actual practice suggests implicit moral convictions. However, a recent New York Times piece about teaching a supposed “fact/opinion” distinction to second graders worried me. Domimic Preziosi also noted this piece, connecting it to the problems of artificial intelligence. But my worries are a bit more immediate and political.
The article makes some disputable particular points, but overall, the author rightly shows that a strong distinction between fact and opinion is not coherent. A supposed “fact/value” distinction was in ascendancy in some philosophical circles a century ago, but has been cogently criticized for at least fifty years. Innumerable examples can be adduced to suggest fluidity in both directions: one can have a difference of opinion about who is the best baseball player, but such opinion is itself constrained by facts—there may not be one right answer, but there are very many clearly mistaken answers. From the other direction, how one construes what “the facts” are (or at least what their significance is) is affected by what we value, the moral commitments we have. Again, from this side, we can’t completely “make up” facts, but even contemporary neuroscience affirms that what we actually “see” is affected by our commitments.
Oftentimes, it is good practice to ignore comment boxes (except at dotCommonweal, of course), but my concern was amplified by the comments that followed. The Times curates the comments, and so its “picks” rise to the top—and, astonishingly, most of the picks represent quite sane and rational responders who strongly reject the author’s claim, and who want very strongly to adhere to this distinction. As one commenter put it:
After reading many of the comments, it seems as though the great majority of the adults reading this blog don't believe in moral facts. And yet, many of them express this by vehemently claiming that McBrayer is WRONG to impose his view on others (implying that it is a moral fact that one shouldn't do this). Believing in moral facts allow us to call certain practices wrong. I believe slavery was and is wrong and that those who ever thought it was permissible had false beliefs—not just that we happened to change our feelings about it. One can believe in moral facts without being the moralistic monster many are claiming Professor McBrayer is (a judgment that seems to be based on the fact that someone apparently noticed he teaches philosophy of religion—an ad hominem if I've ever seen one). The extreme reactions here astound me.
Count me astonished, too. It is well-known that, with a depressing frequency, those on the far Right abandon reasoned discourse about what we should do; it is a supposed virtue that the political Left is more careful about these matters—say, on the economy or the environment. Yet here we have apparently well-educated Times readers displaying very fundamental irrationality. The great achievements of the Progressive Left in the last century—the New Deal, unionism, and civil rights—all sprang from quite firm moral convictions. And indeed, I still think many of these commentators in practice retain these convictions. What is alarming is that they reject a public discourse that could appeal to these moral commitments…at least as anything other than majoritarian preference.
What is going on? Another comment on the McBrayer piece might illustrate the problem:
Francis’ impending environment encyclical will be the Church event of the summer, but as we arrive at the Lenten season, taking stock of our own lives and choices seems timely. Our culture’s imbalances must be addressed at a systemic level… but that systemic change can’t happen without what Benedict called “a serious review of its lifestyle” that “is prone to hedonism and consumerism…. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 51).
Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.
Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.
But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”
Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form.
Keeping up with all the news coming out of the Synod is a challenging task for those of us in the midst of a full load of fall classes. I’ll leave it to full-timers like Grant and Josh and others to provide the updates. But as a moral theologian with a great interest in sexual ethics, I can’t help but try to reflect on the significance of what is going on at the Synod, especially because of how refreshing it is to see the Church at work in serious, civil dialogue about very important issues, with leaders placing their cards on the table. Our American civic culture is painfully broken in terms of achieving such frank and serious dialogue; it is a great sign of life that the Church is achieving it (and a sign, I might add, that the episcopal appointments of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were not as uniform as is sometimes said!). (I’ll follow up with a couple more posts later this week that expand on the problem in a broader context, over at Catholicmoraltheology.com.)
Two key conceptualizations seem to be rising out of the discussion. On the one hand, some bishops have wanted to treat the problem in terms of a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice. For example, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi has suggested that one can imagine reception of the sacraments for those divorcved and remarried so long as “confusion is avoided about the indissolubility of marriage,” and Cardinal Wuerl has noted that “the reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It's a pastoral application of the doctrine.... Just to repeat the practice of the past without any effort to see whether there is some awareness, openness, influence of the Spirit that might be helping us in total continuity with our past practice to find a new direction today.”
On the other hand, Cardinals Schönborn and Marx have focused on a different concept, that of “gradualism.”
In a recent general audience, Pope Francis urged people to memorize the Beatitudes, a message he took so seriously that he read each one and ask the gathered crowd to repeat them back. But, as CNS reports:
One repetition of the text of the beatitudes is not enough to "remember them and impress them on our hearts," the pope said, so he gave the crowd "homework," asking them to spend time in the coming days reading the text again, from the Bible "you always should have with you."
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