Monthly Archives: June 2013

DOMA and Distributive Justice

Amidst the flurry of commentary following yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions in Hollingsworth v. Perry (California’s Prop 8 case) and Windsor v. United States (DOMA’s constitutionality), I may as well toss in two cents on one small aspect of this discussion. To be clear, I’m not speaking about the many, many, important issues that these cases raise (federalism, the ends and limits of law, the role of equality in the 5th Amendment, etc.). Instead, I want to reflect briefly and rather un-originally on the classical notion of distributive justice.

Aristotle’s familiar account of distributive justice in Nicomachean Ethics focuses on equality: it is distributively just to treat equals as equal and unequals as unequal, according to the proper standard of merit. The distribution of goods or honors in a polity is “just” when it follows such a scheme. This is why we don’t bat an eyelash when a serious athlete consumes quantities of calories that would put a sedentary academic on the fast-track to obesity. The proportionality of feeding the marathoner more than the professor communicates truth about caloric needs: it would be unjust to treat unequals as if they were equal.

It is just this sort of argument that undergirds the reasoning of important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education. When the “standard of merit” for access to goods in a community is inextricably tied to simply being human, then legally imposed segregation is deeply unjust because it treats equals as if they are unequal. It communicates falsehood through its disproportion.

I think it is this sort of assumption that animates the equal protection aspects of yesterday’s decision about DOMA (and as a disclaimer, I have only read portions of the decision). But the Court goes further than this and clouds the justice issue. Justice Kennedy, citing D.O.A. v. Moreno, writes: “The Constitution’s guarantee of equality ‘must at the very least mean that a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot’ justify disparate treatment of that group.” (Windsor, 20). Kennedy continues, arguing that there is “strong evidence” of DOMA “having the purpose and effect of disapproval of that class [homosexual couples].” (Windsor, 20-21). What I find interesting (and indeed problematic) is Kennedy’s insufficient attention to when and why social approval or disapproval may be justified. His opinion in Lawrence v. Texas made a similar move: moral disapprobation of particular behaviors was, ipso facto, treated as irrational prejudice.

It seems that there is a need for discussions about access to marriage (and indeed about most morality policy issues) to be clearer and more explicit about the standards of merit relevant to the sorts of goods at issue. (To be clear, raising this question the way I am in the context of Windsor requires tabling the state law questions that are actually central to Kennedy’s argument.) Because many laws differentiate between groups of people defined according to some discriminating criterion (tax brackets based on income, those who drive through red lights vs. green, etc.), clarity on this is essential.

Is Windsor a “win” for justice? I think Aristotle would answer that it depends on whether it treats equals as equal and unequals as unequal according to the relevant standard of merit. If moral norms and historical social practices must be excluded as “standards of merit” when assessing the behaviors and legal relationships surrounding marriage, then Windsor (and its expected social and political progeny) should clearly be counted as a win. If such exclusions are too sweeping (and I think both sides, if pushed, would agree that they are), then more clarity on relevant standards—such as shareable norms like those of natural law—will be needed in order to wisely assess it.


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Trust and Cynicism and Perry and Windsor

We will be sifting through yesterday’s rulings and their consequences for days and years to come. Ryan Anderson has been doing yeoman’s work on the digitized printed page and on television responding and reacting to Perry and Windsor. For a good summary and initial response, it doesn’t get much better than today’s Public Discourse.

One of the prominent elements of both decisions is the place of standing. In both cases, the Supreme Court had to determine whether one of the parties in the case had even the right to be involved in the case proceedings. In Perry, the Court ruled that defenders of Prop 8 did not have standing, and in Windsor, the Court ruled that defenders of DOMA did.

Standing was only an issue because the representatives of the executive branch in each case refused to defend the law in question in court. Thus the attorney general of the state of California refused to defend Prop 8, enacted by a clear majority of California’s citizens, and President Obama instructed his solicitor general to refuse to defend DOMA, enacted by an overwhelming majority of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

As Ryan notes, this is a scandal:

It is scandalous that the governor and attorney general refused to perform their duty. That abdication of their constitutional responsibility should not have prevented these laws from having a vigorous defense in court. This sets a disturbing precedent and distorts the balance of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. It would allow the executive branch to effectively veto any duly enacted law simply by refusing to defend it against a constitutional challenge.

This is surely right. Yet there is another element to this abdication that is deeply troubling and corrosive to our politics. It undermines the very social contract that we rely on in sharing a political and civic space with people with whom we deeply disagree about matters of fundamental import. Part of the deal we make in agreeing to a political culture is accepting that we cannot get everything we want. We accept the inevitability of losing on some things in exchange for the opportunity to make our case and have the chance of instantiating in law policies and principles we believe are crucial for the common good. We make this deal because it beats an absolutist approach that turns politics into a Manichean power struggle in which the only thing that matter is winning, and how we win is completely subservient to whether we win.

When it comes to the purpose of the executive branches, whether at the state or federal level, the duty is to execute and defend the laws passed by the legislative branches, regardless of whether the executive officials happen to approve of those same laws. This is part of the very purpose of the “rule of law”, and part of the compromise that makes principled politics even possible. It is why Lincoln defended the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act, though he found slavery repugnant. It is why presidents and governors should defend laws even if enacted by majorities of the other party. That’s what executives are supposed to do, that’s the deal we make in agreeing to democratic politics. If a policy or law is so repugnant that an executive cannot in good conscience carry it out, and other legal measures like the veto fail, the honorable thing to do is resign, and work to overturn the law through legislative means. Otherwise the very job definition of an executive requires an execution of the law, and a defense of the law when challenged in court.

To refuse to do so, to abdicate that responsibility, is in effect to say that my political tribe is the only player worthy of a seat at the table. Ryan is right to note that it changes, in an extra-democratic way, the structure of our political system. It goes even deeper than that, however, as it erodes the very trust citizens need to buy into the system in the first place.

Trust in American government has been falling among the American people. Rigging the legislative game such that majorities cannot count on having their duly enacted laws defended by the very same officials who take oaths to defend the laws will only serve to deep the cynicism already spreading like a malignant tumor in the body politic.

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Making Citizens Behave

Just ran across this article by Emily McTiernan in the new Journal of Political Philosophy entitled “How to Make Citizens Behave: Social Psychology, Liberal Virtues, and Social Norms.”  The essential point of the article is to argue that liberals who suggest the state should inculcate various kinds of virtues – say, toleration – as a means of making liberal society “work” are, empirically speaking, all wet.  Social psychology shows that we’re really not very good at inculcating virtues.  Instead, she suggests we focus on “social norms,” views held by most people to be authoritative.  If we can make it so most people take some norm – don’t drink and drive, recycle, avoid reality tv – to be something that most of their fellow citizens believe to be right, folks will behave.

Frankly, the whole thing sounds rather creepy to me.  But maybe that’s because I had Mayor Bloomberg in my mind as I read it.  I don’t at all object to the idea that the proper sorts of social norms are crucial for making free societies work.  To take a rather trivial example, if we were always (sincerely) worried that people walking by us on the sidewalk might randomly take a whack at us, we’d hardly be willing to be in public.  But McTierney’s article is all about the ways in which liberal states could employ their communicative, fiscal, and police powers to reshape social norms to putatively good ends.  She of course focuses on all the sorts of norms that her fellow liberal theorists like to talk about, but I wonder how the conversation would go if we talked about, oh I don’t know, norms of sexual fidelity?  Or attachment to a particular place?  Or familial nurture?  I suspect that those conversations would go much differently.

But this raises a very important question.  Suppose it’s the case that evangelicals (and Christians more broadly) can roughly agree on the shape of what constitutes the best sort of family and social life.  And suppose further that what the state does in its various aspects has some effects on family and social life.  To what degree should we be in favor of having the state act to what we think of good effects?  More thoughts along this line coming…

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Faith, Hope & Love…and Morality

Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order is a touchstone for a lot of evangelical (and more broadly Christian)  ethical reflection, in large part because there OOD offers up what he takes to be a properly “evangelical” approach to ethics and does so in a way that seems to steer a middle path between an overly narrow biblicism on the one hand and an a-theological pseudo-Christian moralism on the other.  (Though to be clear, when OOD uses the term “evangelical” I don’t think he has in mind the socio-religious movement we often mean; he means, I think, something like an approach framed above all by the Gospel and the person of Christ).  But I’ve long found the book – however intriguing it is – quite frustrating.  For O’Donovan tells us there that our ethics ought to be oriented toward the Resurrection and, of course, he’s right.  If ethics ultimately involves a kind of truth-telling about human ends and the Resurrected Christ is what it means to be truly human, then our ethics ought to be resurrection ethics.  But what that means was, to be nice about it, elusive.  Indeed, much of what I’ve read in conjunction with RMO tends to focus on the way OOD takes sidelong whacks at John Finnis’s “New Natural Law” theory as opposed to developing what it means to do ethics pointed at the Resurrection.  (Of course, that may just be my limited reading).

In chapters 5 and 6 Self, World, Time, OOD goes some distance toward delineating what that might mean.  (I’ve skipped commenting on chapter 4, you might note.  So far as I can tell, he’s basically thinking about the disciplinary distinctives among moral theology, ethics, philosophy and such.  Since I find those kinds of discussions utterly boring, I thought I’d just skip to the good stuff).  The basic claim – to the degree that OOD ever makes a “basic” claim – is that faith, hope, and love make moral action intelligible and, ultimately, possible.  It is not, pace our greatest Enlightenment thinkers, morality that limns what we might believe about God, but instead our apprehension of God and his acts that make morality what it is.

Consider, if you will, what it means to be a moral agent.  It means to act purposively, to make a choice in which one path is better than the other.  Suppose that only one half of Kant’s supposition at the beginning of the Grounding is correct – suppose we really are just fully determined creatures, as much a part of nature as anything else.  Whence morality?  How can we understand ourselves as agents in such circumstances? 

The current consensus among our neuroscientists (as I understand things) is that we can’t.  We’re not really agents, though it’s probably a nice thing that we think of ourselves as such, since it keeps the sci-fi dystopians (ala Brave New World) at bay.  But to have “faith” as the Christian professes is to recognize (or perhaps better, apprehend) the ground of our being in God and in his saving acts.  We can act (and indeed choose) precisely because God acts and chooses and we are imago Dei.  All possibility of moral action is premised on this reality (even if some, most, don’t quite realize it).

One of the things I’ve often found striking about Kant is his use of “history,” especially in his more political essays, like “Perpetual Peace.”  It’s always seemed to me that part of what Kant is doing in these kinds of essays is offering up to his readers a kind of “hope” that acting rightly, even if it doesn’t turn out well for you and me, will turn out well in the end.  This sensibility, of course, gets radicalized by Hegel and then Marx – and then suffers a bit of a body blow with the 20th century.  OOD calls this sort of hope “anticipation,” teasing out the possibilities immanent within the currently observed social and political order.  The trouble with this sort of faux-hope is, I think, that it alternates between apocalyptic revolution and cynical resignation (especially once the first doesn’t work out).  Christian hope, on the other hand, emerges from the unseen promise, the promise of a consummation that does not depend on getting our public policy just right.  Hope in this sense is wildly freeing; it gives us the confidence to act rightly even when History seems to point against us.  (Whittaker Chambers’ morose reflections on choosing what he believed to be the “losing” side – anti-communism – is redolent here, though overly long-faced, I suppose). 

But all of this is governed by the thing that will “endure” and is the greatest of these, love.  It is love, ultimately, that OOD wants to point to as the way to do ethics evangelically.  But this is not some sappy, sentimental, let’s make ourselves feel good sort of love.  This is the willingness to see things as they are – created by God for good things, excellent in their own way and to their own particular ends.

And here’s where O’Donovan is helpful, I think (even if my ruminations are not).  When we think about how to do Christian ethics (or Christian political thought), we are to be governed, ultimately, by the virtue of love.  Political orders, as the object of moral reflection, are to be oriented around love.  I might have some reflections on this once I think more about what this might mean…


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So What Can We Expect of Paula Deen?

This doesn’t quite count as evangelical political thought, but it’s an interesting set of questions.  Rod Dreher has offered a charitable defense (of sorts) of Paula Deen, the cooking TV personality who recently lost her job and reputation (such as it was) over her admission, in court depositions, that she had used racist language, most pointedly, the “N-Word” (as we now say).

Two problems strike me with regard to Rod’s defense.  First, note that the admission was in the context of a lawsuit alleging that Deen mistreated her employees and subjected them to all sorts of abuse, including racially tinged abuse.  Rod, of course, submits that if she did indeed do these things, she’s in the wrong.  But note that if she did do those things, then her language isn’t quite so innocent or dainty.  It isn’t just a quaint custom or a linguistic after-effect; it is, quite possibly, part and parcel of a nasty racist mindset.  Now, it’s possible that the lawsuit is without merit and it’s possible that her infelicities are just that and go no further.  But given that Food Network (her employer that fired her) is entirely in the business of promoting food personalities, it seems entirely reasonable to me that, given the facts before them, she’d be gone.  They’re in a business and having someone on your payroll who seems a throwback to a much worse era would likely cost them money.

Rod’s broader point, though, is that we shouldn’t really be too surprised at Deen’s language and not even really all that upset.  I think that is really quite miscast.  Though I live outside Chicago (sigh), I am, culturally speaking, a southerner.  Born in southern Alabama, went to high school in the Florida Panhandle (alternatively known as the “Redneck Riviera” or “Lower Alabama”) I’ve got plenty of Southern street-cred, as it were.  My father grew up in Opp, Alabama and moved to Montgomery in 1954 and I’ve never – never – heard him utter a word that could be construed to be racist or derogatory of racial or ethnic minorities.  And he’s not alone.  There are legions of whites in the South who grew up in racially discriminatory times who know (and act) better.  The point here isn’t that Paula Deen is some sort of moral monster.  She’s not.  She’s just an ordinary human being who hasn’t learned the obvious lessons that millions of her fellow southerners have.  That suggests that it’s right and proper to call her out.

The trickiest part is the repentance bit.  She said that she’s sorry and maybe she is.  And Rod is right that we’re generally reluctant to extend forgiveness (though in fairness, so many of our public apologies are hardly even that).  But isn’t it the case that public moral learning happens precisely through these kinds of episodes?  Don’t we want people to recognize that if they want to be considered leading members of our society (and I guess a FoodNetwork personality counts as that, alas) that they can’t talk or even really think in this way?  Isn’t that what it means to be a “community,” where social norms get revisited and reinforced through this kind of public opinion?

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O’Donovan’s SWT, Ch 3: “Moral Communication”

(Explanation of this series here)

PhD programs (at least in political science) typically require a set of comprehensive exams in which candidates are offered a ridiculously long reading list of the most important 200 or so works in their chosen sub-field and then examined on their ability to answer questions central to that sub-field.  Such exams mostly serve to (a) occupy a full year of reading; (b) expose you to your sub-field; (c) convince you that you don’t really know nearly as much as you had believed; and (d) train you to talk intelligibly about things/books with which you are only scantily acquainted.  It’s actually a crucial bit of training for being a professor, though don’t tell students that.

My program had two days of written exams and then a two-hour oral exam.  I’d cranked out 50 or so pages of responses in the my writtens and sat down with some anxiety for my orals.  Imagine writing 50 pages in approximately 12 hours and then having four senior faculty members sit down to ask you about them – you can imagine the argumentative holes-you-could-drive-a-mack-truck-through.  Almost like a blog post.  Well, I didn’t expect at all the first question, which came from my advisor.  She asked me who I considered an authority.  An authority?  For what?  For my thinking about politics?  What?  I had never considered the question before.  Authority?  I’m an American – I don’t have any authorities.   I’m my own authority, right?  Well, Jesus is an authority.  But I can’t say that.  So I began to think quickly about who I could say I thought of as an authority: someone who was plausible but whom they wouldn’t know anything about so that we could dispense with this rather scary line of questioning and move on to my exquisitely mediocre written exams.  After dispensing with a few of the authors from the classical canon, I alighted upon and said, “Augustine.”  At the time, I hardly knew anything about Augustine, but I knew more than they did and that was enough.  They all nodded their heads sagely and we moved on.   Whew. 

That incident came to mind as I was reading this third chapter where O’Donovan (I’ll start using OOD as shorthand, mostly because I’m lazy but also because it makes me seem all insidery) ostensibly ruminates on what it means to communicate moral knowledge or wisdom.  But really, I think, he’s interested in the question of moral authority – that is, what does it mean to have moral authority, how do we communicate it, how do we receive it, and how does that authority relate to human freedom?  The commonplace way of thinking about authority is to put it in conflict with freedom: freedom just is the absence of authority.  Or, as Hobbes might think about it, freedom just is the absence of an obstacle to the exercise of my will.  A moment’s reflection shows, I think, why that view doesn’t really make any sense: if our actions are, as Hobbes (and our sociobiologists today) suggests merely the product of the intersection of external (or internal) stimuli and our bio-physical selves, then even those desires or exercises of will are themselves determined.  Freedom is just a word for when we are not obviously coerced into doing something.  (Hence you eventually get Rousseau’s view that submission to the General Will is really freedom since you’re no longer dependent on any particular person but dependent on all and, thus, on none). 

Freedom, alternatively, might better be conceived as the capacity to act “truly”, or in accordance what “is”. (See my previous post for OOD’s reflections on this.  See how insidery this makes me sound?)  On Plato’s account, true freedom is only possible for the philosopher, whose “knowledge” comes out of highly specialized training and an acquaintance with “The Good.”  It’s possible to read Plato’s dialogues in The Republic to suggest the necessity of a kind of gnostic knowledge, available only to the select and isolated, ultimately, from any kind of experience.  And, indeed, knowledge of the Good is just simply knowledge of the Good itself without any presuppositions (which is why mathematics is the nearest thing to it).  But there’s something like 35 years of training that go on before the philosopher can even plausibly get to that sort of knowledge (if even then) – moral reflection, we might say, starts from somewhere and builds on traditions, expectations, etc.  If those traditions are bad, moreover, you’ll never get to knowledge of the Good.  Let your kids watch reality tv and they’ll be doomed.  Doomed. 

So how, then, do we discern what (or who) has the proper sort of moral authority?  Well, of course, it helps if the moral authority dispenses advice or communication that is true, but that seems obvious.  What’s more interesting here is how OOD suggests that proper  authorities communicate morally in ways that alert us to our proper selves, to our selves as agents in the proper sense.  That is, true moral authorities (and not just those that threaten us with the sword or the dollar) are those that teach us (whatever else they may say) that we are indeed responsible agents indelibly tied to communities of understanding which are capable of deliberating together about the proper actions to take.  No, I’m not sure what I think about this, either.  More later, perhaps…

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O’Donovan’s SWT Ch 2: Ethics as Prayer

Is it possible to be good without God?  Well, in one sense, it obviously is.  Unbelievers treat others justly, show kindness and mercy, love their families, and so on all the time.  It would be silly to pretend otherwise.  In another sense, of course, it’s just as obvious that it isn’t.  All of us, as Scripture attests unwaveringly, are sinners, our very selves bent away from the source and embodiment of true Goodness, God.  No one can be good “without” God since God is the source of all goodness and we are, absent his mercy, cut off from him.


Of course, when we ask that question, what we’re really asking is whether it is possible for human beings to recognize the substance of and act in accordance with what is morally right if we do not also “believe in” the true God?  O’Donovan’s answer here in chapter 2 is no, it’s not ultimately possible (though he does not deny the truism that unbelievers can act morally in many respects – as I noted above). 

Chapter 2 is a intertwined set of reflections (aren’t O’Donovan’s discussions always “intertwined”?) about the correlative relationships between theoretical and practical reason, fact and value, and the right and the good that leads to the claim, “Developed and self-conscious moral thinking beings and ends by calling on God.”(38)  Why think that?

My evening pleasure reading this summer has been several of Iain Banks’ sci-fi novels centered around the highly advanced civilization called “The Culture.”  Among many interesting things about The Culture is its radical libertarianism, which, combined with the end of scarcity made possible by equally radical technological progress, has, at first blush, produced a civilization that is peaceful, poverty and disease-free, prosperous, and so on.  It is a kind of Utopia made possible precisely by the laissez-faire social world in which practically nothing is forbidden and practically no one does wrong.  The surface lesson here is one that O’Donovan points out Hume had suggested: namely, that our desires run ahead of our reason and so to think morally was really just to think about how to achieve our desires, with the rather optimistic thought that our desires, properly understood, actually correlated with an attractive and indeed progressive kind of moral social order.  In his Culture series, Banks seems to offer a sort of de-monetized version of the Scottish Enlightenment (he was a Scottish writer, so maybe that makes sense) whereby freeing individuals up to do what they want to do actually produces the most benefit for all.

But underneath that happy exterior, I think Banks means to leave the reader a bit disquieted, as The Culture is happy (even if it denies this) to go to war (with devastating effect), interfere in other civilizations (think here of Mill’s admonition about “barbarians” in On Liberty), and manipulate its citizens in its own interest.  Things aren’t quite as happy and easygoingly natural as first appears.  And as O’Donovan points out, neither is the Scottish Enlightenment framework, since we all recognize that people are “blameworthy” when they make certain sorts of “mistakes,” mistakes involving proper recognition of what is true about the world.  And since we are all wont to make mistakes, both of the ordinary and morally maleficent kind, to “trust” in our desires leaves, well, a great deal to be desired. The Culture obviates this problem to some degree with its postulate of nearly omniscient computer “Minds.”  We have no such omniscience and there are no “facts” (aside from the most banal) that are not contested.  (See page 30 – this I took to be a subtle dig at the New Natural Law folks).

The point, I guess, is to emphasize that thinking morally is a kind of practical reason and that a properly functioning practical reason is indelibly tied to getting what “is” right.  To defend the innocent, you must know who is actually innocent.  But focusing on what “is” puts us in danger of falling victim to a kind of determinism, a view that our choices are not really our own but merely a product of History (or, more commonly now, Biology – with a capital “B”).  History didn’t turn out so well (at least in the 20th century) and I doubt that Biology will fare better, except as a narcotic to lull us to moral sleepiness. 

O’Donovan’s point is that it is only through recognizing and placing oneself in God’s hands – via prayer – that we can both recognize our indebtedness to our situatedness and hope for something “new.” The alternatives are to merely trust in history (as Kant and the host of 19th century German philosophers did) or to rebel against history and be the agent of “new” (as some other Germany philosophers and their heirs did).  Or, I guess, be like Marx and do both.  To act morally is to act properly in accordance with one’s best understanding of what “is” (both universally and in the particular circumstances) and in the “hope” that things will turn out well in the end.  And that’s why prayer matters for ethics.

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O’Donovan’s Self, World, Time: Chapter 1 (Moral Awareness)

(See below for an explanation of what I’m doing here).

I always begin my Introduction to Political Philosophy course here at Wheaton by noting to my students that there are plenty of political science departments around the country that do not employ a political theorist and do not offer my classes.  That, they suppose, is better left to philosophy proper.  So we start off the semester by talking about why it is that Wheaton teaches political philosophy in a politics department, and the answer I give them is that it reflects a judgment on our part that moral reflection about politics is intrinsic to understanding politics.  And why is that?  Because human beings–the very stuff of politics–are moral creatures, indelibly oriented around asking questions of right and wrong, justice/injustice, and so on.  To think of politics absent those considerations or, with Hobbes, thinking of them as posterior to politics (things constructed by politics) is, to my mind, to make a deep mistake about the nature of politics on account of making a deep mistake about the nature of human beings.

In this first chapter, O’Donovan seems to press in this direction (happily) by reflecting in a loose way on Paul’s admonition in Romans 8:12, “So then we are debtors.”  When we think about morality, we are thinking about how “we act” (3).  That is, in deliberating about moral matters, inherent in our reflections is the data, as it were, of our own self already acting.  The attempts to get “beyond” ourselves or to “reduce” our moral lives to some set of deterministic influences (biology being the latest effort in this direction) are not so much wrong–we are, of course, quite strongly shaped by our biology as by any number of other external forces–as radically incomplete.  For in our ability to reflect on our actions and recognize that we could, can and do choose to act differently, we are inevitably drawn intro moral reflection, into questions of ethics.

But what happens when we reflect on our actions?  O’Donovan suggests we recognize (or perhaps better should recognize) that we are caught up in a world not of our own making, that “we” are agents, and that we are agents with a responsibility to act in the proper sorts of ways in the here and now.  Of course, this reflection can go entirely wrong.  We can fool ourselves into thinking that the world is but our own construction, that there’s nothing “real” out there.  Or we can come to the belief that we aren’t really agents at all, that we’re merely carried along in the currents of biological necessity or dialectical materialism or whatever new deterministic fad emerging of late from the academy.  Or we can view ourselves as only abstractly responsible, oriented only toward a “perpetual peace” and never stoop to bounce around in the “unsocial sociability” (to borrow Kant’s phrase) of human societies.  But all of those are misapprehensions of the human condition and it is here that theology comes into play:

A wider wisdom is required if we are to hold this wisdom, the wisdom of morality, in its place: Christ the center of the world, the bridegroom of the self, the turning-point of past and future…Ethics opens up towards theology. (19)

It is theology, it seems, that both best accounts for our capacity for moral reflection and best serves to “wake us up” to the dangers of missing a leg of O’Donovan’s three-legged stool.  I like the set-up.  We’ll see what comes next.

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O’Donovan’s Self, World, Time: a set of reading reviews

I recently ran across a new volume by Oliver O’Donovan: Self, World, Time: Ethics as Theology and I thought I’d give it a read and write a bit here about what he has to say.  O’Donovan is, I would say, perhaps the most important theological ethicist of the past few decades.  Of course, I have no doubt that others could easily offer learned rejoinders to such a claim and perhaps they’d be right: I’m not a theologian and I don’t (professionally) run around much with the folks who do theological ethics.  But as a Christian who’s deeply interested (both personally and professionally) in how theological and political ideas intersect–that’s a delightfully ambiguous verb, isn’t it?–I don’t think there’s anyone whose work I’ve found *more* intriguing than O’Donovan’s.  That’s not to say I always have any notion of what he means: I don’t.  O’Donovan is famous for his frustratingly obscure writing and it’s often quite difficult to tease out just where he’s driving, even if you find yourself quite sure that you are enjoying the scenery along the way.  So perhaps by jotting down some reasonably unformed thoughts as I read through the volume (probably just a chapter a day) I thought that perhaps I’d get a better sense of what he’s doing and since the Internet is all about ensuring that no thought, no matter how bad or poorly formed, goes unpublished, I’ll share them with both of our readers here.

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Should American Foreign Policy Project Christian Values or Protect Christian Lives?

Joe Carter poses an interesting question  over at the Gospel Coalition’s blog: namely, whether Christians should press for foreign policies that (a) promote “Christian values” or (b) protect Christians?  He doesn’t quite come down on one side or another:

Some Christians in America believe, as do most secularists, that religious belief has no role to play in shaping foreign policy. But since all politics is rooted in religious presuppositions, all policies are shaped by some form of religious belief. It hardly seems wise for Christians to adopt the preferences of secularism rather than give credence to the commands of Christ. Foreign policy is merely an extension of the same principles that should drive our domestic policy—a God-impelled love of neighbor.

Sen. Rubio is right that whenever possible we should promote Christian values such as justice, mercy, and religious tolerance. But one of the values that should take precedence is protection of the innocent, particularly when they are members of the institution that commands our primary political allegiance—the body of Christ.

When it comes to actions that affect our brothers and sisters across the globe, a guiding concern should be primum non nocere, “first, do no harm.” That can’t be our only consideration, of course, but it should be given due weight. We should be particularly wary of allowing some vague “national interest” trump our “familial interest,” especially when it leads to the displacement and slaughter of Christians around the globe.

How such policies should be shaped is a difficult question and requires considerable prudence. But one of our duties as American citizens is to lobby for policies we think are moral and just. That duty does not end at our shorelines but extends to the lands of our brothers and sisters who we will not see until we are together in our final home.

The central question, however, is left unstated: that is, what is the state for?  It doesn’t seem right to me to choose either (a) or (b), except unless we think that “Christian values” involve having the state do what it ought to be doing, preserving order, rendering justice, etc.  That’s a much bigger discussion than should be included in a blog post, but that’s the question we should be asking.


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