Tag Archives: Nicholas Wolterstorff

The Evolution of Public Understanding of Human Rights

I accidentally got preaching to my friends on Facebook this evening, and after the fact I realized that I had written a blog’s worth of material without sitting down and intending to do so. So since I’ve been posting so sparsely here otherwise I thought it would be worth taking a few more minutes while I’m at it to copy-paste together those diatribes and put it up here for all of your reviews and comments.

The basic issue being discussed was prejudice, racism and what we should be doing to stop them. (The stimulus for discussion was this video.) Part of the discussion from there had to do with problems associated with race, and whether black civil rights activists of the current generation are to blame form flaming racial tensions. I find that to be a rather absurd charge, and one that is constructed for ignorant use as an excuse for all sorts of abuse against darker-skinned people: “But they’re being even more racist!”

I jumped in on a rather heated discussion that arose over this matter by commenting: “As long as conservatives talk about the problem of ‘black-on-black crime’ race remains an important construct in their minds by which they differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It isn’t any Sharpton or Jackson forcing them to see the world that way.” I hold to that: race is not something that black people have constructed and reinforced in the public imagination. It’s not something that lighter skinned folk can just randomly pretend doesn’t exist when it comes to protecting basic rights (“There’s only one race: the human race; it’s just these activists like Jackson and Sharpton who are keeping people from seeing things that way”) and then invoke when it comes to explaining away problems in the structure of society (“All of these problems black people are having are not caused by white oppression so much as other black people”). I find this sort of inconsistency in rhetoric morally disgusting, and I hope to discourage ignorant people of good will from falling into such hate-mongering narratives.

From there, in the flow of heated rhetoric that I wasn’t actively participating in, the issue was raised –– somewhat as a red herring and somewhat as a clarification of a previous side issue –– of the United States historic role in promoting civil rights and human rights. This rhetorical tack is generally used to claim that since the American tradition has been the source of so much good we shouldn’t critique it too harshly, even when it leads to things like obscene levels of economic polarization, imprisonment of large percentages of the population, lack of legitimate opportunity structures for people born into the wrong sort of families, and excusing of blatantly hateful attitudes projected against darker skinned people merely because they have darker skin (regardless of the barrage of excuses routinely employed for such).

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this "American heritage" deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture.

A picture from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. How much of this “American heritage” deserves to be overlooked because of good things Americans have contributed to world culture?

OK, what is uniquely valuable about American cultural heritage as such? What sort of new developments did the United States introduce into world culture? How are the other 6.7 billion people of the world better (or worse) off because of the existence of American political culture? It’s a question worth considering more carefully than it usually gets considered.

My very separate friends Aaron and Vinnie (who have never met each other and who have nothing more in common with each other than both being from the eastern United States and both being acquainted with me in some distant way) were going after each other on this point: Vinnie taking the position of defending “American Exceptionalism,” and Aaron downplaying this claim by way of introducing historical precedents and context. To this, in the midst of a bit of back-pedalling, Vinnie replied, “The American constitution was a large improvement on those documents. […] I am under the impression that the US constitution was a major evolution in the rights of human beings. […] I still stand by the US bill of rights being a major evolution in human rights built upon the magna carta, [sic] English documents, and French republican ideals.”

This was my cue. My reason for posting the video that started this whole discussion was that it included a tribute to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as standard for making blatant expressions of racism unacceptable. If the US documents in question were “a major evolution in the rights of human beings” over their predecessors, the UDHR in turn represents at least as large a leap forward in terms of human rights compared to American writings of the 18th century.

So on this basis I wrote:

“[My point] in starting this thread was to point out to many, conservative Americans in particular, that there have been a vast number of improvements in human rights legislation since the slaveholders wrote the US Constitution, that people in the US simply haven’t been tracking on — larger improvements than the US Constitution represented over its French and British predecessors. Under these circumstances it’s even a bit absurd for the US to position itself as the global human rights police, when so many Americans are so utterly clueless about the subject. Reading the UDHR and getting its principles operational within the US should be a moral prerequisite for preaching to other nations about human rights and trying to enforce them as an excuse for invading lands whose natural resources we covet. End of this evening’s sermon.”

But for better or for worse, mea culpa, I found myself unable to stop there. I had to give my personal perspective on what was in fact unique and revolutionary about the writings of the American “founding fathers” in these regards:

“BTW, the major revolutionary aspect of the US Constitution was not its emphasis on rights in general, but its break with what scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the tradition of ‘little christendoms’: This new little nation was not officially seeking religious justifications for its power structure, as had been the European tradition, nor was it allowing religious authorities to reinforce themselves as providers of the basis for civil authority. IOW the truly revolutionary thing was the degree to which the US was not founded as a Christian nation! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tea Party sympathizers.”

Vinnie, sincere open-minded thinker that he is (and I say that completely sincerely) then put forward the next important question: “I believe that we want to ask, how is the UDHR superior to the US const and is there any deficiency?”

This I answered at length:

“The UDHR was built on the premise that the multiple tragedies of WW2 in particular were based on the problem of people not being treated with the sort of dignity that all people deserve to be treated with, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE PEOPLE. It was also built on the premise that, when it came right down to it, NONE of the nations involved could claim that they were treating all of their people with the full dignity to which they should be entitled. (The US was, by our current understanding, shamefully segregated still at that time, and couldn’t claim any high moral ground, in spite of FDR’s idealistic inspiration for the project.) Thus all the nations involved officially pledged to take their agreements on the matter forward by learning from and teaching the content of this document. The US in particular has failed to live up to that commitment. (The Soviet Union did too, which largely led to its demise.)

FDR's four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

FDR’s four freedoms, as painted by Norman Rockwell and used as WW2 propaganda.

“Substantive issues that the UDHR raises in comparison with the US Constitution is that it codifies positive rights for individuals. FDR famously spoke of basic rights to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear and freedom from want. The first two of those were spelled out in the US Constitution. The latter two had yet to be properly codified. How should people, by virtue of being people, be protected from fear and want? What sorts of fears and wants do people deserve to be protected from, and by whom? (Fear of getting old or gaining weight is not something that people are entitled to protection from. Want is something that comparison-based cultures will never know the end of.) The UDHR explores these issues from a broadly multi-cultural perspective, trying to, for the first time, establish a set of standards for what people are entitled to as people that could be equally applicable in Russia, China, Japan, African nations, Arab nations, European nations, and yes, in American nations; acknowledging that all of these cultures had serious improvements to be made, and that none of them could claim the moral high ground in showing the others how they should learn to treat people.

“The primary problem with the US currently is an unjustified triumphalist mentality that the current (and transitory) period of global economic domination that American businesses have enjoyed for the past couple of generations is somehow a divine reward for a job well done. That attitude needs to be unlearned, and Americans need to get on board with the understanding that the point of governments isn’t to enable businesses to steal, kill, rape and plunder at will, but to insure that their people are respected as people. People need to seriously stop and think about what that responsibility for governments entails. They need to read through the UDHR and think critically about the issues it raises. They need to learn to hold their political leaders responsible to such standards, and in order to do that they need to learn what those standards are.

“A few hints in relation to the UDHR –– things that are self-evident to people in most other parts of the world, which the US hasn’t really caught on with yet:

– Corporations are abstract forms of human cooperation, not people which are entitled to rights as people.

– Being equipped to kill other people at will is not an essential right for all people as people.

– An education which enables the person to make informed decisions in the democratic process is something that every government must insure that all of its citizens have free access to, and which they are somewhat required to participate in.

– Insuring that workers are (primarily through their work) able to achieve a standard of living sufficient for housing, nutrition and health care for themselves and their children, is part of the governments moral responsibility as a government. These are not matters that the economically powerful should be allowed to grant or not grant to those they employ/enslave as they see fit.

“For further information on such matters start by actually reading the UDHR for yourself!”

Now in all fairness, Vinnie and Aaron are both among the minority of Americans who actually have read the UDHR for themselves, and who have started actively discussing the issues it raises. I hope the virus spreads from them to many others. I hope they respectfully learn from each other as they keep discussing such matters. I may even have reasonable grounds for such hope.

So what does everyone else here think?


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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Racism


In considering the varieties of “Christian Politics” lately, I’ve been looking at the question of which of the outspoken voices in this field are genuinely committed to a pluralistic democratic form of government and which believe that their priority should be to enforce God’s will on their fellow citizens, using the democratic process as one imperfect means of doing so until “God’s kingdom” can be more properly realized. This is actually a particularly hard line to draw, as many of the most conspicuous characters in the field work very hard on trying to have it both ways. The question is, when someone like the Southern Baptists’ lead lobbyist Richard Land says that his goal is to establish “an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority,” how seriously do we need to take that, either as a promise of stability or a threat to religious freedom? When Chris Hedges labels this sort of political action as “American Fascism” is he exaggerating, or does he have a legitimate point? This goes back to a question of the essence of American identity, the minimum requirements for freedom of religion, and the practical limits we are willing to place on freedom of expression.

silencerIf we start with the fourth point from Wolterstorff that I quoted last week –– “There is to be no differentiation among citizens with regard to religion [or lack thereof] in their right to hold office and in their right to political voice” –– the key question becomes, what constitutes a significant threat to the right to political voice for various players within the political process?

Since the term “fascist” is already on the table here, let’s go ahead and consider the negative examples of the Axis Powers leading up to World War 2. The Germans, due to a fair amount of frustration with the loss of their previous cultural stability based on “Christian tradition,” and the consequent economic turmoil that their country was going through, became increasingly polarized between Communists and right wing nationalists, both of which claimed to represent the interests of the common working people. As their country became more polarized and as it became more and more difficult to pass basic legislation due to ideologues’ unwillingness to compromise, basic legislation started to be passed more and more by executive decree –– using Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. The practical matter of getting stuff done –– keeping the power turned on and keeping the trains running –– became more important to people than the principle matter of everyone continuing to have a voice in government. Into this situation stepped a brash young Austrian-born leader by the name of Hitler, taking power as something of a minority compromise candidate and insisting on overcoming the problems of divisive fragmentation in German political culture through ruling by decree. The idea was to silence everyone who didn’t agree with him by calling their patriotism into question, especially those of the political left. Within two months citizens’ constitutional right to elect representatives to theoretically speak on their behalf became a thing of the past. Hitler’s speech of February 1, 1933 was a classic in terms of religiously justifying his party’s process of seizing power and silencing the opposition:

Since that day of treachery [the surrender at the end of World War 1] the Almighty has withheld his blessing from our people. Dissension and hatred descended upon us. With profound distress millions of the best German men and women from all walks of life have seen the unity of the nation vanishing away, dissolving in a confusion of political and personal opinions, economic interests, and ideological differences…

Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos…. This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor.

as leaders of the nation and the national Government we vow to God, to our conscience, and to our people that we will faithfully and resolutely fulfill the task conferred upon us.

The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and co-operation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life….

Turbulent instincts must be replaced by a national discipline as the guiding principle of our national life. All those institutions which are the strongholds of the energy and vitality of our nation will be taken under the special care of the Government.    

It is not hard to see how a frustrated and impoverished people who are prone to see trusting God as the answer to their problems would readily go along with this sort of program, and how they would gladly participate in the process of silencing anyone who would dare to disagree. With Communists and Jews as scapegoats for all that had gone wrong, and with no one daring to publicly challenge his “mission from God,” Hitler did indeed bring about a major economic turnaround in Germany, instilling people with a great sense of pride in their national destiny and their right to attack all who opposed the value system they represented.

Where did they go wrong strategically? Perhaps just in terms of over extending themselves militarily. Where did they go wrong morally? In too many places for me to try to detail here. Suffice to say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the best solution that the best minds of the time could come up with to reduce the risk of the same sort of tragedy happening again. This document brings together, in rather diversified form, the best of religious and secular thinking of that age about what people should be entitled to for no other reason than that they happen to be human beings. This in turn defines what the task of government is: insuring that the rights of all of its citizens are defended as thoroughly as possible.  I believe it would be fair to say that the primary risk of fascism in the current generation comes from those who have never bothered to acquaint themselves with this document, and/or those who consider their particular religious or nationalist agendas to have a higher priority than the principles of human dignity it lays out.

Some of the most broadly recognized general principles contained in this document are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from slavery, the right to citizenship, the right to family life, and the right to just and fair legal protection for all. These rights spill down into other things that may be more controversial: the right to travel internationally, the right to regular paid vacations, the right to a basic education, the right to change religions, the right to adequate health care… But perhaps the most challenging bit is the practical application of the rather broadly accepted Article 30: Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein. In other words, I can’t use my rights as a means of trying to take away your rights, and visa-versa. That is especially difficult when it comes to speech and religion. How do you allow someone to be free to practice a religion that contains the teaching that it must attempt to dominate all other religions? How do you allow everyone to have their own say when the purpose of speaking for many is to shout the next guy down?

It’s quite fair to say that both the US ideal of freedom of religion and the international ideal of the UDHR remain works in progress. We have never had a state of affairs where perfect respect for all members of society has been realized in an ideal fashion. There have always been some who have been unfairly discriminated against, abused as a labor force, stolen from and/or scapegoated. Since I have become an expatriate from the US the level of social protection and recognition has gradually improved for some, such as Hindus and homosexuals, while it has gradually fallen apart for others, such as inner city school students and minimum wage laborers. This was one of the main points of Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech, which was probably one of the key moments that ended up getting him elected as president. We need to avoid nostalgia for the days when some folks rights were better recognized, and we need to work towards the idea of having all people’s dignity protected more than it has been thus far.

So the question with regard to religious interests in politics is one of how far we can allow particular groups to dominate in the interest of unity, order and prosperity, at the expense of others rights to participate in the democratic process and have their other rights properly recognized? This leads us to consider which groups which are now dogmatically promoting their own agendas at the expense of constructive dialog between interest groups might be genuinely dangerous in the future. Who might we allow into power as a minority compromise group, assuming we can somehow keep them in check with the strength of the system, only to discover as the Germans did in the early 1930s that we have unleashed a monster? But just as critical a question: If we suspect that a particular group could rise up to become the new Nazis, how far can we go in working to preemptively silence them or shout them down without the cure (or immunization) becoming worse than the potential disease?

There are particular groups out there these days that I consider particularly dangerous in terms of having a stronger commitment to their set ideas of right and wrong than they have to constructive dialog and mutual recognition of each other’s basic rights. This, however, is a matter of human temperament for many, which cannot be fixed through eliminating particular political alternatives for them. I believe that the best we can do is to try to educate people in the processes of constructive dialog and in awareness of the rights of others. If we can, both from religious and secular perspectives, avoid tribal mentalities of praying to our various sorts of gods to “bless us, burn them,” we’ll stand a much better chance of not inadvertently wiping ourselves out in the next few generations.

Meanwhile, when we see political groups of various sorts doing hatemongering and attempting to silence the political opposition in the name of doing God’s work, remember where that sort of rhetoric has been used before.

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Filed under Ethics, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

A Vision of Economic Justice

Sitting and reading the most recent papal encyclical that I am aware of, Caritas in Veritate, I was suddenly flooded with thoughts about “Christian perspectives” on economic issues that have crossed my mind in recent months.  Let me see if I can put some of them together as a coherent personal statement on the matter.

bcarsonI recently read that Dr. Ben Carson has thrown his hat into the ring in terms of Republican presidential politics for the next round three years from now. I really wish I could support him. He is one of the world’s best brain surgeons, literally, and one of the children whose lives he may have saved with this skill is my half-sister. He is a gentle, likeable, funny, immanently confident black man who rose up from a significantly disadvantaged background to be the very best in his chosen field without becoming a total jerk in the process. He also makes no secret of the fact that his Christian faith is a source of personal strength for him, keeping his perspective on life grounded in something beyond his own genius and ambition; which I consider to be a major plus for anyone I’d support as a world leader. But alas, in the prayer breakfast where he set out to launch this political career he began by promoting the idea of a flat tax as opposed to progressive taxation. That says he’s become more concerned with the economic interests of his fellow surgeons than those of single mothers like the one who raised him. In some ways it’s not surprising that he’s more interested in where he has arrived at than where he comes from in that regard, but it still shows a lack of understanding of social justice of the sort I consider necessary for a political leader to grasp before they will get my support.

Nicolas Wolterstorff has pointed out that there are effectively three perspectives that we can take towards poor people in general politically, philosophically and theologically, all of which can have some legitimacy under certain circumstances: First we can consider them to be inherently lazy, not making a strong enough effort to achieve the level of success that so many self-made millionaires have as inventors, entrepreneurs, sports heroes and scientists. If they don’t have what they want and need it’s largely their own fault, and we should give them a swift kick in the seat of the pants to get them moving.

Secondly, we might consider poor people to be just tragically unfortunate, in the same way as someone born blind, or someone going through some of the sorts of disasters that the biblical character Job experienced. Some forms of misfortune just can’t be morally accounted for, and attempts to do so tend to make asses out of those offering the explanations. A case in point is when evangelist/politician Pat Robertson tried to explain the natural disasters that have hit Haiti in recent years as the result of their use of Voodoo religious practices in the process of their struggle for independence from France. If you need an explanation of what is wrong with that, look here; I’m not going to try to explain it beyond confirming that Robertson did indeed make an ass of himself. The proper response in such cases of misfortune should range from relatively helpless empathy to significant efforts at charitable assistance. This, however, is based on the assumption that we don’t actually owe the misfortunate persons anything; we only do so out of the goodness of our hearts, and we can refuse such aid to them if they are not doing as we expect them to.

A third perspective towards the poor, however, is that of many of the early church fathers and the teachings of the gospels: of those to whom much is given, much is justifiably expected, including helping the poor as a matter of duty. As Basil of Caesarea is quoted as saying, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” 

John Rawls is labeled as one of the most major bad guys of the last generation among those of America’s “Religious Right” these days, mostly because he claimed that political argument should not be based on religious premises, but rather on ideas that any reasonable person could be expected to appreciate, regardless of his or her religious or ideological perspective. This anti-religious political perspective, however, is somewhat a separate matter from Rawls’ economic ideals, which in fact have more than a little bit to do with his training for Christian priesthood before he went through a bit of a crisis of faith as a soldier in World War 2. The conclusions Rawls comes to in his post-Christian perspective is undeniably a bit radical by most other standards than those of the early church fathers: Rawls preaches that the only human inequalities which should be allowed are those which cause society to function better to the extent that even the poorest of the poor are better off as a result. In other words if someone is going to remain significantly richer than others, in order for that person to be allowed to keep those advantages over others he must show how allowing him to be rich is not only good for him, but good for the poor as well.

So for instance Dr. Carson is considerably richer than I will ever be, but allowing him to be so provides a dependable means of paying off the expenses that medical geniuses like him inevitably incur in the process of developing their skill for the good of all, and it provides an incentive for other bright young kids, even those in the ghettos, to work on following in his footsteps. So from Rawls’ perspective it is perfectly justifiable for the surgeon to have significantly more income than, say, the garbage collector, or the philosophy teacher even.  But ideally this advantage should go no further than what is necessary to enable future Dr. Carsons to achieve the sort of greatness we all benefit from. If it is enough to secure these benefits for the rest of society for him to earn fifty times as much as the cleaning lady, there is no justification for him to earn hundreds of times more than the cleaning lady; the difference should only go as far as is necessary to secure the benefits for all that the inequality enables.

popeinsider_640That may sound more than a bit leftist to many who, from a “Christian” perspective consider the ghost of Communism to be a serious threat to watch out for, but in fact the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI was in many regards more explicitly leftist still in his personal economic theory. To lift a few quotes from his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth):

“The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which farms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. ‘The scandal of glaring inequalities’ continues” (part 21).

“These processes [outsourcing and cheap labor competition] have led to a downsizing of social security systems […] with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. […] The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine […] for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past” (part 25).

“The dignity of the individual and the demands of Justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…

“Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness hinder the achievement of lasting development” (part 32).

“Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (part 36).

“Economic life […]needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift” (part 37).

“Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders –– namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society […] Paul VI [in the 1967 encyclical, Populorum Proggressio, “The progress of peoples”] invited people to give serious attention to the damage that can be caused to one’s home country by the transfer abroad of capital purely for personal advantage. […] [T]he requirements of justice must be safeguarded, with due consideration for the way in which the capital was generated and the harm to individuals that will result if it is not used where it was produced” (part 40).

“The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. […] In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences” (part 41).

“The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future” (part 49).

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all” (part 60).

“Both the regulation of the financial sector […] and experimentation with new forms of finance, designed to support development projects, are positive experiences that should be further explored and encouraged” (part 65).

“…there is urgent need of a true world political authority […which] would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties” (part 67).

“Only if we are aware of our calling as individuals and as a community[…] will we be able to […] muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism” (part 78).

So in case you missed it, the retiring pope’s political and economic ideal involves a one world socialist government of sorts, capable of controlling all existing states and with the power to socialize the industrial utilization of all non-renewable natural resources, with the ultimate goal of implementing significant programs of wealth redistribution! This isn’t some conspiracy theory I’ve dreamed up to scare American conservatives; this is a basic summary of the pope’s own words, quoted above. Now in between stating portions of this utopian vision within this encyclical Benedict comes out with statements against abortion and in favor of church involvement in politics that American conservatives have been quoting from it as part of their political campaigns. In the broader context though what he was saying about abortion is that it is a reflection of the evil within parts of society that are not properly submitted to Church doctrine, which in turn prevents his vision of a just international socialist government from being realized in our age. I doubt that many of my social and fiscal conservative Catholic friends have caught the drift of this message.

Now we have a new pope, who so far seems to be signaling a much stronger emphasis on the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the first pope to have taken the name Francis, for the saint who is known for remaining close to the earth and identifying with the poor. In Argentina he made some of the strongest statements against income disparity of any Catholic bishop since the fifth century. And he may have yet more to prove in that area: In rejecting Latin American Liberation Theology as the authentic voice of the church speaking for the poor, he still has to show that the “mainstream” Catholic Church can take up their cause without taking an explicitly Marxist line in the process. So rather than de-emphasizing these international socialist elements of his predecessor’s teaching, there seems to be every likelihood that Francis I will emphasize them all the more.

There is one quasi-Marxist idea that this encyclical hints at that I fully support however: the link between wealth and labor. Rather than going through historical background and comparison with Benedict’s position on this one though, let me just state what I believe on the subject. Wealth is standardly measured these days in terms of standardized currencies –– money –– which in turn is a purely symbolic implement, deriving its value from what people are willing to give you or do for you in exchange for a given quantity of it. The things that they might give you for some of your money in turn derive most of their value from the effort and skill that went into obtaining the necessary materials and producing the “things” in question. So wealth has less to do with “stuff,” and more to do with the amount of human ingenuity and labor available. The more skilled people you have in the world, the greater the available wealth. Finding enough of the basic “stuff” to work with to produce wealth requires a certain amount of specialized skill these days, but that places no set limit on how much total wealth we can have in the world. As long as we can maintain stable economic interaction between members of a growing pool of skilled producers, we can have a continued growth in wealth.

Rather than scarcity of resources then, the biggest threats to the continued expansion of wealth in the world –– as defined above –– are lack of education and radical inequality between the people involved in economic interaction. Thus I come down strongly in favor of increased investment in public education, based on building investigative and human interactive skills, and putting some functional regulations in place which limit the process of economic polarization within local, national and global economies.

I have my own radical proposal in this regard; not as radical as the pope’s, but radical none the less. I have heard the famous professor of psychology, Howard Gardner, make a similar suggestion to what I have in mind, but I wouldn’t blame my radical ideas on him. If anyone deserves blame it would have to be the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When they first built this hippie company they had a rule that the top executive could earn no more than seven times as much as the company’s lowest paid employee. Of course they have long since sold out on that one, but the principle still has some merit to it: we need to set some sort of limit in terms of just how much disparity we are willing to accept in our societies and in the world.

Obviously some disparity will remain necessary, as Rawls even has pointed out. In the name of freedom we may even want to allow a bit more disparity that Rawls’ rule would give us, but once we get to the point where some people are getting literally millions of times more than those who work for them, we’re talking about people not even recognizing each other as part of the same species any more. Somewhere in there we have to draw a line as to how much disparity we are morally ready to accept; somewhere greater than the original Ben & Jerry’s factor of seven and somewhat less than the current problem a factor of millions.

As a reasonable starting point for negotiations on such matters then I’d toss out a figure of a factor of a thousand. I don’t think economic motivation requires that anyone would be earning more than a thousand times as much as they are paying others whose skills and labor they are purchasing. If there’s someone out there who can’t be satisfied with a thousand times as much as other human beings have to subsist on, that person is probably too emotionally dysfunctional to play a positive role in human society to begin with. So I’d start with a progressive system of taxation that has a maximum bracket of 50% on the super-rich, up to a maximum of 2000 times the national minimum wage. That would effectively allow the most rich to be taking in 1000 times as much as the working poor.  From that point a 100% national income tax on all income exceeding the 2000 times minimum wage would kick in, so of course no one would be motivated to try to earn more than that. And of course every time the minimum wage would go up, the income ceiling for the ultra-rich would go up as well. If further motivation and means of competition between billionaires is necessary at that point, this can be provided in terms of added contractual benefits, such as armies of personal assistants, access to luxury corporate facilities or contractually required corporate donations on behalf of the valued individual to the charities of his or her choice.

So for instance let’s say that the basic salary of a full-time minimum wage burger flipper some day comes to $20,000 per year, and there is a basketball star whose presence on any given team is capable of boosting that team’s corporate income by over $80 million per year. That’s not entirely unrealistic.  Under the sort of law I’d propose no team could offer that player more than half as much as he would be worth to them, so how would they set about bidding for his services in the market?  Dozens of ways: offering him personal limousine and private jet services, putting members of his family and peer group on staff, sponsoring various young artists of the player’s choosing, building and operating a sports hall in his name in his old home town, building a health clinic in his honor in some needy part of the developing world… The same “perks” could be offered to others who bring in more than such an anti-disparity cap would allow in personal income: bankers, brokers, rock stars, inventors, designers… Rather than trying to further out-do each other in ostentation, they would be pressured to try and out-do each other in philanthropy and in solidarity with broader sections of humanity.

Expanding this rule to apply to all those who would do business within the country would be another step. Companies outsourcing to countries where workers are paid less than a thousandth of the top executives’ pay would be subject to heavy enough fines to keep this practice from being profitable. Heavy tariffs could be levied against any imported product produced by workers making less than a thousandth of what the corporate executives involved in the transaction are making, thus providing a strong incentives to raise miners’ and factory workers’ wages in developing countries. International inspections to improve compliance with such rules would also have the added benefit of drastically reducing problems of covert slavery and child labor abuses in poorer parts of the world. Not only would this go a long ways toward reducing human suffering in such places, it would enable far more young people to get an education and thus increase their capacity and opportunities to contribute to wealth creation that benefits all of us in the long-term.

All of this would be part of a process of recognizing that we really are all part of the same human race, that we are in many real senses part of each other, and that radical predatory selfishness is never a good idea, especially in the long term.

I’m not utopian enough to believe that any globally important politicians will read this essay and pick up the ball and run with it any time soon. I’d be surprised if any representatives of those with vested interests in the status quo would even pay enough attention to this essay to bother attacking my ideas. I toss them out for what they’re worth, with hopes that maybe someday they might play some marginal role in making the world a better place. Here’s hoping together with any of you who share such ideals.

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That Perennial Question: ”Who is my Neighbor?”

In the never-ending debate over gun control another issue has been raised which I believe deserves extended consideration unto itself: is gun control a waste of public resources, saving the lives of terribly few when for the same money we could save so many more by fighting against other sorts of crime, neglect and abuse?

Behind this question there is an assumption that, though we don’t like to talk about it, we do tend to put a certain finite value on given human lives, and do our own sort of triage when it comes to how much we chip in to help particular sorts of individuals. Are there certain people who, like my car, need to be tossed away because it would cost too much to try to save them? It’s self-evidently true that each of us has a finite capacity to help others, so how do we translate that into determining our practical duties regarding helping the unfortunate among us? How do we determine what is just with regard to where we should put our time and resources so as to do the most good… or at least fulfill our basic moral obligations to our fellow (wo)man?

Let me start with a horribly tasteless joke from nearly 30 years ago already: What did Rock Hudson have in common with the Ford Pinto? Both got rear-ended too many times.

I won’t explain that any further than to acknowledge that in its original telling this joke did have certain homophobic overtones to it, which I hope not to reinforce by passing it on. I apologize for any offense this may cause to those who are more politically correct than I am. Regardless of what rumors you may have heard about my deep-seated bigotry, I honestly mean nothing hateful by it.

fordpinto71-4_3_r536_c534That being said, I’m actually old enough to have ridden in the back seats of Pintos many times, and so I know something about being thought of as disposable. It would have cost the company over 120 million dollars to change the model so that the rear differential didn’t act like a can opener on the gas tank in the event that the Cadillac behind you couldn’t stop… but they figured if a few hundred people burned to death in these things that would end up costing the company less that 50 million in damage payments to the survivors, so what the hell.

Is there any way of justifying such reasoning? It was certainly enough to make juries sick, and to get that car pulled from production, but it might not have been enough to fundamentally change auto executives thinking about such matters –– at least in ways beyond covering up their paper trails more carefully.

More relevant at this moment in history though is the question, are we going to allow unregulated assault rifles and high capacity, high power semi-automatic pistols to remain in circulation just because it would cost too much per life saved to do anything about them? That is the suggestion I’ve been hearing, mostly from those too young to have ever ridden in a Pinto.

Let’s spin the thought experiments involving cars in a different direction. There is a moral reasoning exercise that I’ve given to 15-year-olds a few times that runs something like this: A successful young engineer is driving along a country road in his bmw-3-series-335i-m-sport-convertible-sat-nav-3-0-5281296-1beautiful new BMW sport convertible, with its wonderful Bose stereo, its custom metallic paint job, its custom cream-colored leather seats and its tamely aggressive turbocharged motor. He’s enjoying his ride and singing along with the radio when all of a sudden a 9-year-old boy on a bicycle comes flying out of this side streets straight in front of him on the right side. He swerves his car into the middle of the road and just manages to miss the kid, and as an instinctive reaction he gives a long loud blast of his horn. Seeing the car inches away from him and hearing the horn blaring, the boy swerves off the road, hits the curb, loses control of his bicycle and goes flying down a shallow embankment. The driver pulls over and stops. There on the rocky edge of the woods the kid lays, cut up and bleeding pretty badly from the sharp rocks he hit on the way down, and just barely conscious. The engineer pulls out his cell phone to call for help and discovers that he forgot to charge the battery; it’s dead and he doesn’t have a charger in the car. Now none of this is his fault, but the kid obviously needs more medical help than he can provide. He has to get the kid to a hospital. But to do so is going to get blood all over his car’s interior permanently damage the custom leather seats. It will cost him several thousand dollars/euros to get those seats replaced, and the kid doesn’t look like the sort whose parents would have that kind of money. Does he still have to make the sacrifice and get the kid to the hospital regardless?

As it happens, teenagers almost always have the same moral intuition on this matter: of course he needs to get the kid to the hospital. There’s something fundamentally wrong about even stopping to think about the money in such a circumstance. And as it happens, there are “Good Samaritan laws” that would require the driver to do just that, on the basis of which he would go to jail if he were caught NOT helping the kid.

But suppose the engineer were to argue, “Look, what happened to this kid is tragic, but it really isn’t my fault, and while it may look like I’m made of money, I’m really not. But what I can do is, rather than taking this kid to the hospital and messing up my car so permanently, I’ll go straight into town and make a 3000 € contribution to UNICEF for saving kids’ lives in African refugee camps. That way, for less than what it would cost me to get this kid patched up I can be sure to save 10 children’s lives this month. I’m making my own life much easier and doing more than 10 times as much good in the world in the process. Isn’t that the better thing to do?” From a utilitarian perspective such an argument would be rather difficult to refute, but that may just show the inherent weakness of utilitarianism.

This is as good a place as any to start rethinking the foundations of our ethical principles. And while I don’t want to rehash the whole “good without God” debate, I do think it’s time to reconsider the classical Christian “apapist” perspective on this question. The name is based on the Greek word “agape,” used in the New Testament for the sort of love that Jesus taught was the basis of Moses’ law and all subsequent ethical principles. In short, agapism is based on the imperatives that we a) consider all life, especially autonomous human life, to be inherently valuable, and b) make the sort of empathetic connection with those with whom we come in contact which motivates us to unselfishly act for the good (to enable the thriving) of the others in question. Within those guidelines there is plenty of room for debate on specific applications, but they nevertheless provide a profoundly stable basis for determining the difference between virtuous and vicious behavior.

Being able to personally care about our fellow human beings, without any likelihood of getting anything out of it in return, is the essence of agapism.

Being able to personally care about our fellow human beings, without any likelihood of getting anything out of it in return, is the essence of agapism.

This perspective can be fruitfully compared with at least four relatively popular ethical perspectives these days: the secular existentialist, the deontological, the eudaemonist, and the utilitarian. There is room for practical agreement on particular issues between followers of all of these perspectives, and many would argue that this is more important than agreement on the ethical premises, but there can come times when we need to stop and think about why we consider given things right or wrong, and how we can better promote the right in the long run. The gun control debate provides us with a good example of how this works.

The existentialist perspective basically says that whatever makes me feel alive and gives my life a sense of meaning and purpose is the right thing for me to do. I should never let others decide for me what it is that makes me important and valuable. Having a certain moral courage to stand up for my own worth and the worth of my influence on society is the highest principle I can act upon. Those for whom this broad brushstroke definition is not sufficient can look up a commentary or two on Jean-Paul Sartre’s thinking to fill in some of the details.

In contrast with this mainstream existentialist perspective, the agapist holds that much of my human value is based on my connection with others, and with our common source of value in God. For purposes of this discussion, however, let’s assume that people are capable of recognizing an inherent connection with one another without needing to postulate a religious basis for it. The point remains that we are inherently social creatures, and in order to be complete as humans we need to relate to others. In southern Africa this is known as the “Ubuntu” principle: “the person is a person because the people are the people.” Acting on the basis of a sense of connection with others is what the existentialist really needs to do in order to find the true essence of selfhood that he is looking for. In practice this means that even if I get a real thrill out of doing cocaine, drag racing, hate-mongering or war gaming of various sorts, if I see that these hobbies are causing the destruction and dehabilitation of my fellow human beings –– those I should be caring about –– the agapist principle says that I must to set aside my sense of personal fulfillment in these regards to serve the greater purpose of promoting the thriving of others.

The deontological perspective in turn focuses on consistency in following rational principles, with the idea that ethics should be sort of like mathematics: what is genuinely morally right will always be genuinely morally right as a matter of principle regarding how moral laws work. Thus if we recognize the importance of private property as one of the necessary presuppositions of our social order, we have to recognize that stealing is always wrong. If we recognize the importance of meaningful and trustworthy communication as a principle of human interaction, we must recognize that lying is always wrong. If we recognize that continuous fear for one’s life at the hands of one’s fellow citizens is an unhealthy state for one to live in, we must recognize that murder is always wrong. All the rest of our ethical principles should be established on similar bases. Those who wish for more detail on this perspective can look up commentaries on Kant’s moral theories.

In contrast with this perspective, the agapist sees moral laws fundamentally as abstractions –– useful, important and constructive abstractions, but abstractions none the less. This is what Jesus was driving at when he told the religious leaders of his day that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” There needs to be room for discretion and clemency in the application of the law or the system simply doesn’t work. Rather than promoting laws for their own sake we need to have laws which protect those we care about –– which enable people to have “abundant lives”. Thus ideas like the Second Amendment in the US Constitution is not something to be seen as a sacred principle unto itself, but at best as an abstract means of promoting human thriving –– at worst as a remnant of an outdated society of genocide, slavery and terrible random violence; but we don’t need to go into that just now.

The eudaemonist perspective, perhaps better known simply as “virtue ethics”, is based on the principle of promoting one’s individual thriving and maximizing one’s individual value through a system of balanced interactions with the rest of society. The final purpose here is to “be all that I can be,” and the means of getting there is by treating my boss, my friends, my spouse, my children and my slaves in the “proper” way as each case may require. The principle by which “proper treatment” is determined in each case is one of balance: I maintain trust, health and honor by giving to others as good as what I get from them, all things considered, and by going overboard with neither self-discipline nor self-indulgence in the various areas of life that I deem important. For a more detailed treatment of this perspective, see the various modern commentaries on Aristotle, particularly in terms of Alasdair MacIntyre’s interpretation of this ancient principle.

The agapist perspective differs here in not considering other people’s value to be instrumental so much as inherent. Other people just are valuable, having worth as people as the most basic premise of the system. This stems from a way of thinking that assumes God has given special value to human beings, but if you choose not to believe that, that’s your privilege. The point is that, in the case of the BMW and the bicycle accident for instance, the driver should have compassion on the kid regardless of whether or not there is anything in it for him in return. In the practical matter of gun control, even if those whose lives would be saved by limiting magazine capacity and firing speed would have nothing to offer you, caring about them and exercising democratic influence on their behalf is still the right thing to do –– not just because it makes you a better person, but because those others are genuinely worth caring about.

Utilitarian perspectives are too varied to sum up adequately in one paragraph. For me to point out the differences in perspective with an orthodox Benthamian perspective, for instance, might be of little relevance here. Suffice to say, most forms of utilitarianism think of all humanity as a giant, somewhat impersonal mechanism, and the preferred output of this mechanism is pleasure; the by-product to be most strenuously avoided is pain. The issues of whose pleasure and whose pain are largely considered to be irrelevant. Consequently most forms of utilitarianism have the difficulty of remaining rather cold and impersonal. Agapist ethics are much more focused on taking things personally, and less focused on mechanizing and universalizing things as important ends unto themselves.

The agapist ethic is perhaps best summed up by the old preachers’ story of the girl walking down the beach as the tide went out, picking up all of the little starfish that were stuck on the shore and throwing them into the waves. A middle aged cynic came along and tried to explain matters to the girl, saying, “Look, kid, there are hundreds of those things here. No matter how long you spend tossing them into the water it really won’t make any difference; most of them are still going to die. Why don’t you just leave them be and go on home already?”

The girl listened politely without breaking her rhythm in her task, and finally she replied to the man, “Overall you are probably right, but this one is going to live… and this one… and this one…”

It is that sort of individualized empathy that causes people to look at tragedies like Sandy Hook and think beyond the perspective that, in the big picture of things, it is a rather small tragedy. Just 20 little kids and a handful of adults –– far less than are killed on motorways every day. Why should we care? The cultural forces of paranoid survivalists like Mrs. Lanza –– stockpiling weapons and making sure they have as much lethal force at their disposal as the law allows and then some –– are seemingly as inevitable as the tides. Trying to prevent such factors from causing the deaths of innocent children every now and again would almost seem to be a fool’s errand.

For the agapist, however, the point remains: even when we can’t reverse all of the destructive trends in our world, individuals are worth caring about, and whenever we can make a difference in terms of saving a few individual lives here and there –– by doing things like labeling the absurd, paranoid mentality that the NRA is promoting for what it is, and passing laws to more sensibly limit the potential loss of life that happens when crazy people get their hands on these high-end killing machines –– that remains the right thing to do.

Does that mean we should care less about children dying of starvation and malaria in Africa? Of course not! Should we turn a blind eye to all of the innocents who die as “collateral damage” in various fronts of “the war on terror”? That’s absurd! Does that mean that we should ignore questions of highway safety and teenage suicide, which exact far higher tolls than assault weapons? Again, of course not! But these are not mutually exclusive matters. And when we see a tragic situation that it is within our power to do something about, with very limited risk to our own well-being to do so, rather than making excuses by speculating about the injustices of the world in general, our task is to decisively confront the situation before us; to help those whom it is most personally and directly within our power to help. That is the properly “Christian” thing to do, and I suspect it is the proper thing for non-believers as well.

I’m sure there will be many who will agree and many who will disagree with my perspective here, and divisions there will not be along religious party lines. Many who will agree with my conclusions will do so on the basis of premises that have nothing to do with Christian perspectives; and many who agree with the premise of agapism will fail to see it as applicable to the gun control debate. I can live with that. As to my own conscience and moral action, however, I will continue to do what I can to help those close to me, and to campaign (part-time) against the further proliferation of high-power weapons in and from the United States. Quixotic as this quest might be, I believe this is the best way for me to live out my spiritual and moral ideals.

Take this for what it’s worth. I actually hope a few readers here decide to take agapism just a bit more seriously. not (so much) for purposes of reinforcing my importance, but because even a few more practicing agapists is likely to translate into a few more deaths being prevented and a few more lives enriched. I believe that’s as worthy a cause as we’re likely to find in this life.

wolterstorffP.S. If I give credit to one individual whose thinking has influenced my own in this regard in the past month or two it would be Nicholas Wolterstorff, a retired professor from Yale who has dedicated a fair amount of his sunset years to such questions. But what I have to say here is of course my own personal take on meta-ethics, and if there is blame to be assigned obviously it goes to me alone.

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