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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The overwhelming immediate importance of Laudato Si’ is to call both church and world to respond to the “urgent challenge to protect our common home” (13). As Tony Annett has already ably pointed out, Francis is not mincing words here, even if he is careful. Above all, the encyclical suggests we are home-wreckers, yet we also have a chance for a deeper conversion from our “internal deserts,” (217; one of the many quotes from Benedict XVI) to a more joyful and more challenging way of life: “Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom” (205). Such a response, the pope makes clear in chapters 1 & 5, requires international cooperation because of the nature of the problems. That Francis chose to highlight the atmosphere, water, and the diversity of species is telling – these are all problems where global cooperation is absolutely necessary. Your car, lawn, and hardwood flooring may very well be implicated, but “nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today” (219).
Chapters 1 & 5 contain a lot of the material that will grab attention in the larger media. But the heart of the encyclical theologically and spiritually is chapters 2-4. It is important to highlight that this document is firmly and clearly theological. If we contemplate the broad structure of these chapters, we can see an elegant scheme of creation, fall, and redemption. This fundamental pattern of the Christian narrative is so easy to forget – to sing “Canticle of the Sun” while forgetting the cross, or to offer the cross as an escape hatch from creation, rather than a tree of life that makes way for the Spirit’s renewal of creation. To read the encyclical as a whole – not always easy given its length and its incredible detail! – is to be reminded of this basic pattern: God’s gift, our human sinfulness, and the everlasting covenant sealed by the Spirit, promising a vision of renewal to the ends of the earth.
A recent survey indicated that Americans divide into three groups on the issue of climate change: believers, sympathizers, and skeptics. About half of Americans are “believers,” saying that the climate is warming and that this warming is caused by human activity, and another quarter are “sympathizers” who are less sure about causes, but who agree the climate in warming.
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.
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