Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Monday, March 26, 2018
I had the privilege of moderating a deeply informative -- if deeply troubling -- event on human trafficking at Harvard Law School late last week. Organized by third year law student Tiernan Kane of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, and co-sponsored by HJLPP, the Harvard Law Women's Association, the Harvard Law School Republicans, and the Abigail Adams Institute (where I am a research fellow), the event was perfectly timed following Congressional passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The bill awaits President Trump's signature but has already achieved notable success.
Keynoting the event was DOJ's Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams, a Harvard College, Harvard Law, and HJLPP alum. The panel included CUA Law's Mary Leary (former Assistant US Attorney and deputy chief of the Domestic Violence Unit for the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office in Cambridge, MA, and lead author of Perspective on Missing Persons Cases); David Tubbs (award-winning professor of politics at The King's College, author of Freedom's Orphans, and currently Ann & Herbert W. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program); and Audrey Morrissey (associate director of My Life, My Choice in Boston, an organization that mentors commercially sexually-exploited girls).
The moving and informative 60-minute video can be downloaded here. The forthcoming issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy will be dedicated to the topic. I will post the articles when the issue becomes available.
Monday, March 5, 2018
The much-anticipated Liberalism and Christianity conference, sponsored by the Harvard branch of the Thomistic Institute, took place at the Harvard Museum for Natural History this past weekend. Though more than a few were kept away by severe weather on Friday -- including Helen Alvare who was to give one the principal talks, and Patrick Deneen, whose new book was on the lips of many -- the conference drew more than 300 participants (including a hearty portion of really smart undergrad and graduate students who asked most of the questions).
Remi Brague, the noted French historian of philosophy and professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, kicked the conference off with his keynote "Made Free for Freedom." His talk, inspired by St. Paul's "Christ has made us free for freedom" was a walk from biblical antiquity into modernity, with a focus on the primacy of freedom for both. The trouble with liberalism is not liberty, he said, but liberty as an 'ism' --an aim in itself. The ancients (he called upon St. Paul, Plotinus, and Augustine) understood freedom as sought for the sake of the Good. This view was not one laid out in argument (before Augustine), but substantively presumed. In modern times, of course, the Good is dropped and freedom--as liberation--becomes a goal in itself.
This quote from T.S. Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society captures much of his talk (and was the high point, in my mind): "[liberalism] is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination..."
Fr. Dominic Legg, OP (graduate of Yale Law and incoming director of the Thomistic Institute) opened the next morning with a marvelous presentation of St. Thomas on law. He especially sought to distinguish St. Thomas' account of justice as first in God and particularly in God's divine intellect, as up and against later voluntarist conceptions of law. During the Q/A, he recommended a book that 15 years ago had changed his life (and is one of my very favorite books of all time), Servais Pinckaers' Sources of Christian Ethics. Fr. Pinckaers, also a Dominican, describes masterfully the movement from Thomas to Ockham to our current misunderstanding of freedom. This movement was the basic content of the first part of Fr. Legg's presentation.
I was especially interested to hear that Fr. Legg has discerned in Thomas a theory of individual rights. Most, he said, think the creation of individual rights is from the Enlightenment (including Deneen and Hanby, but prior to them, my teacher, Fr. Ernest Fortin). But Thomas has a such theory, even if it is a different conception of individual rights from that of the various Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas thought that what is due someone in justice is a subjective 'ius' (right) that an individual possesses and can assert. These rights, however, are never abstracted from the common good or a teleological ordering of the person and community toward God. Rights are merely a function of justice, directed to the common good, not the whole of it. But, acknowledging what is due individuals is part of what makes a city just. Rights are thus indispensable to a just regime.
Importantly, he noted that Enlightenment thinkers (and those in their wake) may have thought they were dispensing with the "good," but that every rights claim is aiming at some conception of the good, even if smuggled in under claims of neutrality (ie, Rawls). The problem is not so much rights then but the underlying vision of the good that is is deeply contested in our society. That question -- concerning the substantive conception of the good underlying each theory (or claim) of rights -- is the real conversation we should be having. Bravo!! I will post his paper on Thomas on rights when I acquire it.
The next portion of the day was when Helen was to have spoken, on the family no less. I think this explicit family perspective was definitely lacking, and Helen was the best person for the job. Hopefully she will publish the remarks she had prepared (and I will post). In her place, and to the great interest of participants, Harvard's Adrian Vermeule and Notre Dame's Phillip Munoz offered contrasting perspectives on liberalism, and on its influence over the American Founding. Adrian pulled from his deeply intelligent and thought-provoking review of Deneen's book in American Affairs. (Instead of trying to summarize it in this already long post, I will just suggest strongly that you read it in full.) Phillip, in addition to stirring the audience to laughter several times (boy, is he funny), also offered evidence that the Founders did not, on the whole or in the majority, share the view of liberalism that can fairly be imputed to Hobbes and Mill. Their shared view, rather, was that natural law -- thick on the deeply Christian ground in those days -- bounds and constrains natural rights. If there was a detente between the two panelists, it was in the view that liberalism ala Hobbes is quite wrong-headed, but that perhaps the Founders were up to something else. Bravo on this score as well!
In an effort to end this post, I'll skip Candace Vogler's talk on JS Mill and sex and gender, and head right for the final panel. Adrian was seated there too (as per original plans), joined by Rusty Reno and Princeton's Margarita Mooney. Reno offered a sophisticated response to Vogler's presentation of Mill, suggesting that though Mill wanted to encourage self-cultivation and self-possession (goods in themselves), his form of liberalism qualified by the harm principle tends to provide more advantages to the talented/well-off than the untalented and more disadvantaged otherwise. This is a theme of Rusty's and a really important one. The experiments in living that Mill endorsed (eg, alternative family structures) provide opportunities that the talented/wealthy seem to roll with, but that when embraced across society, lead to disastrous outcomes, especially for the poor. It's also one thing to redistribute economic advantages, say, through tax policy, but it is very difficult to redistribute cultural advantages. And, without a Christian impulse, the elite perhaps see no reason to sacrifice (apart from money) to the untalented. (The proof positive of this analysis can be seen in Richard Reeves' new book, Dream Hoarders.) Rusty then concluded that the true source of decadence is our unregulated sexual culture, and that we ought to engage in a moral project of cultural re-regulation. Hear, hear! [Original misspelling corrected.]
Margarita Mooney spoke of the importance of including other -isms in our critique (social Marxism and Freudianism) which she judged, calling upon the work of Augusto Del Noce, have influenced our modern situation perhaps as much as liberalism. She also thought it essential to report on the truly positive good people are doing - building new schools, starting new movements, changing their lives. Her important practical comments were taken up in a more spiritual bent by the exquisite concluding remarks of Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. I cannot begin to do these final remarks justice, so will post when I hear they are available.
Friday, February 9, 2018
Jay Webber is smart, talented, and conservative - and he's just announced he's in the race to capture the US House seat vacated Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen. Jay, a Harvard Law grad and devoted husband and father of seven, has served his district in the State House for the last ten years. He's a wonderful man and a dear friend.
Pay attention to this race - pray for him, and send monetary support if you can: email@example.com.
The Abigail Adams Institute, founded in 2014 to serve the Harvard intellectual community, is hosting two intensive seminars for advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and select professionals again this summer. Application deadline is March 15, 2018.
The first seminar, July 22-August 4, is The American Proposition.
The idea of American exceptionalism continues to be seen as somehow linked with the advent of American statehood. How are we to account for this connection? What are the roots of American political identity? Of American national identity? Have subsequent American developments fundamentally transformed the nature of the country, or is our destiny as a people working itself out in accord with our beginning? The writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Orestes Brownson and Fr. John Courtney Murray offer the starting points in our exploration of the continuities and changes of these and other charged terms through American and global history.
Faculty: Thomas D'Andrea, University of Cambridge; James Nolan, Williams College; and Danilo Petranovich, Director of AAI.
The second seminar, August 5-11, is Capital and the Good Life.
Capital: what is it, how is it created, and what kind of purpose does, can, or should capital serve? What is capital's relationship to work and to the notion of productivity? How does it influence our ideas of progress? In what ways does it order our society and government? The seminar looks at a variety of perspectives on capital creation, acquisition, and use. Our approach to capital and capitalism will be less from a strictly economic and more from a philosophical perspective. Featuring the thought of Adam Smith, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Polanyi, Ludwig Lachmann, Thomas Piketty, and Robert Skidelsky.
Faculty: James Bernard Murphy, Dartmouth College; Plamen Nedeltchev, Cisco Systems; Leonidas Zelmanovitz, Liberty Fund.
Full Disclosure: I'm a Research Fellow at the Institute while at Harvard Law.
Thursday, January 25, 2018
Don't miss this moving Washington Post story describing the courtroom testimony of former gymnast Rachael Denhollander: "She helped bring down Larry Nassar. At his sentencing for sex crimes, she spoke about her faith."
She was the first, in 2016, to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse, back in 2000 when she was 14 and he was the sports physician at Michigan State University. On the stand, she spoke to Nassar of the biblical description of the final judgment “where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you.”
She continued: “Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you. I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”
There's more. Check out the whole story. How fitting that this testimony be reported on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
The Thomistic Institute at Harvard Law School is co-hosting a conference on March 2-3rd dedicated to discussing the (irreconcilable?) tensions inherent in the interplay of liberalism and Christianity.
Speakers include: Prof. Emerit. Rémi Brague (the Sorbonne), Fr. Dominic Legge, OP (the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception), Prof. Helen Alvaré (Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University), Prof. Candace Vogler (University of Chicago), Fr. Thomas Joseph White (Dominican House). Panel participants: RR Reno, Adrian Vermeule, and Margarita Mooney.
Pre-registration is required, and I hear it is filling up.
In light of Rick's posts on liberalism - and the various interesting articles at First Things, especially - I wanted to mention a book published out of Cambridge University Press this year that may be of interest. The Political Theory of The American Founders describes, in a kind of archaeological dig, the evidence of the consensus theory of the founders as one bound by natural rights.
Probably the most unique and important contribution of the book is the middle section on the Moral Conditions of Freedom. Here, the author, Hillsdale Professor Thomas West, culls research from state constitutions at the time of the founding. West claims that most scholarship on the founding tends to focus on the philosophies of this or that particular founder, or delve into the thinkers who informed them, notably John Locke. He sought instead to find public material that would show consensus among thinkers.
If you only have an hour, watch this video with West and commentary by Patrick Deneen and UChicago professor Joshua Mitchell. West's short presentation doesn't do justice to the book, in my view, but Deneen is Deneen at his best. Mitchell offers some really thoughtful commentary on whether understanding the founding as the founders understood it actually does us much good. We are, after all, living worlds apart from their worldview, consensus or not, and so we probably couldn't recreate their theory today even if we better understood it.
It is my view - always subject to change - that shoring up our moral ecology is the most important work we have today, whether to provide the conditions for republican forms of government, or more primarily, because that is the most important work human beings must undertake, whatever form of government we have.
Thursday, December 28, 2017
I haven't yet written about the Harvey Weinstein #metoo affair. I guess I haven't felt it necessary to use this particular cultural moment to jump up onto my regular soapbox. Suffice it to say, I'm not at all surprised this predatory behavior emerged out of the dark underbelly of Hollywood, the cultural epicenter (and exporter) of a vulgar and sex-saturated America. One is just left wondering whether the moment will serve as an opportunity to rethink how we think about sexual intimacy, sexual difference, and sexual equality. Might I recommend Women, Sex & the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching?
Public Discourse has published some really good essays on the topic over the last few weeks. And the January issue of First Things has two well worth reading. All suggest how the #metoo moment presents the Church with an opening for which she has been preparing since JPII's Wednesday audiences more than thirty years ago. (Or, strike that: since her very founding). For a quick read that hits all the right notes, read this new editorial at the National Catholic Register. Here's a bit:
More than ever, we need a new social movement inspired by the Church’s own teachings on sexuality and chastity — chastity not as a form of social control, but as the path to an interior freedom born of self-restraint. This freedom makes it possible for a man to see every woman, but especially the woman he loves, as a priceless gift, not as an object to be used....And in marriage, this freedom creates the conditions for an authentic sexual relationship of mutual self-gift.
Though even further afield from 'Catholic legal theory,' I want to add one really practical (parenting) note about the self-restraint (though I prefer self-mastery) needed for self-gift. From my talk on the "hook up culture" at the World Meeting of Families in 2015:
The role of parents in forming our children to live lives of sexual integrity does not begin when boys and girls have reached their teen years and sexual hormones are already raging. If young men and women are going to resist both the urgings of their bodies and the cultural pressures toward recreational sexual encounters, self-mastery must be learned, in the smallest of ways, in the early years at home. As the Catechism puts it, chastity requires “an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is training in human freedom.” [Here I list the many, many practical ways the family serves as a school of virtue.] If children are habituated to give into their bodies’ every desire in little things [food, electronics, etc] or to remain sluggish in the face of family responsibilities, even well-catechized, intellectually converted teens will be hard-pressed to resist the allure of a premarital sexual relationship.
Finally, apropos of larger philosophical trends, if you haven't yet read Robby George's latest book, Conscience and Its Enemies, check out this lively presentation of its key chapter (in my view) at the recent Love & Fidelity Network conference. His description of the classical/revisionist disagreement of the nature of liberty and of a liberal arts education--to wit, what is it that we seek to liberate ourselves from?--is the proper lens through which we ought to understand the bad behavior in Hollywood and elsewhere. Is reason to be the master of my desires in and through the cultivation of intellectual and moral excellence (aka, virtue), or is reason, ala Hume, merely the "slave of the passions"?
Culturally, we've opted for the latter - so why are we so surprised?