Friday, April 20, 2018
From America, an essay by Fr. Aaron Pidel (Marquette / Ph.D. Notre Dame), called "Did Benedict Predict the Rise of Trump and Fake News?" A bit:
More than 13 years ago, in a homily given at the conclave that would later elect him Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of a growing “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” The urgent call for a return to truth-based religion, far from repelling the cardinals, distinguished Ratzinger as the frontrunner for papal office.
Ratzinger’s papal platform did not prove broadly appealing. The secular pundits of the last decade often ignored his warning as the scare tactic of a dogmatist unable to adjust to the benign pluralism of a world that had, in keeping with Kant’s rallying cry, “dared to think.” I doubt the pope emeritus has much energy nowadays to follow the many instructive ironies of the Trump era; but if he did, he might take just the tiniest bit of satisfaction in seeing not just the religious right but also the secular left denouncing a growing “dictatorship of relativism.” Ratzinger’s distinctive emphasis on freedom’s need for truth, in other words, may have come not too late but too early to find a bipartisan hearing in the United States. . . .
[T]he fundamental reality to which Americans, both right- and left-leaning, must return is that of being God’s creatures. Only when we accept the shape of human existence as something given by God, to be discovered collaboratively rather than defined privately, can we resist the encircling dictatorship of relativism.
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
At Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, there is this review, by M.T. Lu (St. Thomas - MN) of this book. MOJ readers might also be interested Prof. Kaczor's earlier monograph on the subject, The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
On Thursday, April 19, I'll be one of the speakers on a webinar sponsored by the American Constitution Society, "The Travel Ban at the Supreme Court: A Briefing on Trump v. Hawaii." (Information and registration, for a call-in password, are here.) I'll speak on the Establishment Clause issues--more broadly, the Religion Clause issues--raised by the travel ban's roots in anti-Muslim statements and promises by President Trump. (Oral argument in the case is next Wednesday, April 25.)
I ultimately support the religious-discrimination challenge to the third travel ban. (As I'd done before, I joined an amicus brief of constitutional scholars arguing that the ban is rooted in animus toward one religious faith, prohibited by the free exercise, equal protection, and non-establishment provisions. Our own Michael Perry also joined the brief.) But there are several complications in this analysis, and I'll discuss some of them and explain why I support the challenge.
The webinar runs from 3 to 4 p.m. eastern time. Other speakers are Doug Chin, Hawaii's former Lt. Gov., and Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, founder and director of the Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Penn State Law.
Monday, April 16, 2018
Michael Cassidy (Boston College) has posted his paper, "Catholic Social Thought and Criminal Justice Reform." Here is the abstract:
Professor Cassidy examines the criminal justice reform movement in the United States through the lens of Catholic social thought. In particular, he focuses on God’s gift of redemption and the Gospels’ directives that we love one another and show mercy toward the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned. Cassidy then examines the implications of these fundamental Catholic teachings for the modern debate about the death penalty, sentencing reform, prisoner reentry and parole.
Check it out!
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Unlike E.J. Dionne (who writes about Rep. Ryan's views, retirement decision, and legacy in Commonweal, here), I do think there is something "tragic" about the possibility that "Paul Ryan started his political life hoping to be the champion of a sunny, forward-looking conservatism [but will instead] step down from the House speakership as the personification of conservatism’s decline."
I do not share Dionne's view that "entitlement reform" needs scare-quotes or is a Randian euphemism for coldhearted indifference to the vulnerable. But, I agree with him that the contrast between Ryan's personal and public decency and that of the current leader of his party is glaring and also that Ryan (like many others in government and public life) has been insufficiently candid and clear about that leader's erratic and unworthy actions and statements. I would also contrast what I think (though perhaps Dionne does not) is Ryan's obvious aptitude for and engagement with policy and his basic moral commitments (commitments that were, I would insist, shaped more by a conscientious, good-faith reflection on Catholic Social Teaching than by Rand's foolish writings or by what some of Ryan's Catholic critics imprecisely call "libertarianism"). I think American politics -- and the larger conversation about Catholicism, citizenship, politics, and the common good -- will be worse off for his absence.
Friday, April 13, 2018
My colleague at Notre Dame, philosopher Don Howard, has posted this piece called "Whether Robots Deserve Human Rights Isn't the Correct Question. Whether Humans Really Have Them Is." He opens with this:
While advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are cause for celebration, they also raise an important question about our relationship to these silicon-steel, human-made friends: Should robots have rights?A being that knows fear and joy, that remembers the past and looks forward to the future and that loves and feels pain is surely deserving of our embrace, regardless of accidents of composition and manufacture — and it may not be long before robots possess those capacities.
Yet, there are serious problems with the claim that conscious robots should have rights just as humans do, because it’s not clear that humans fundamentally have rights at all. The eminent moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, put it nicely in his 1981 book, "After Virtue": "There are no such things as rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns."
It's not obvious to me that all "advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are cause for celebration" -- some are, certainly, but some might be more cause for concern -- but put that aside. I also agree (how could one not?) that "robots" do not possess or "deserve" "human rights." They are, and will remain, machines. The moral questions they present have to do with how they are used and not, say, with how they are treated by governments.
I understand, of course, the MacIntyre critique of "rights" and "rights talk", but think that taking just the "witches and unicorns" quote out of context gets both MacIntyre, and the facts of the matter, not-quite-right. Contrary to Howard's report, "most people" do not believe "that rights are conferred upon people by the governments under which they live" and, with all due respect, it is simply a (mistaken) ipse dixit to state that "[t]here simply is no objective basis for [claims that human persons ought to be treated in certain ways, and not in others, by virtue of what human persons are and are for]."
Certainly, Howard is correct to remind us that our thinking and talking about morality is incomplete if it revolves entirely around "rights" and does not include attention to "virtues." But, it seems to me (and I'm certain it seems to MacIntyre) that meaningful "virtue-talk" depends no less than meaningful "rights-talk" on there being certain things that are, objectively, true about persons.
Here's a Friday booknote. I first read John Gray about 10 years ago, and was struck by his description of the “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin. Gray’s Two Liberalisms picked up on and developed the themes in the book on Berlin in ways which influenced the way I thought about “tragedy” in law. I enjoyed Straw Dogs as well, but by this point there was an acidic quality in Gray’s writing that differed from the earlier books (I am not criticizing, just observing).
And Gray's essays are always a great read–whether on secular eschatology, Machiavelli and the weakness of law, or (my own favorite) the ubiquity of evil. He is iconoclastic, brilliant, bracingly skeptical, and deeply learned. Now comes a new book: Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Here is an early review (h/t Paul Horwitz) by Terry Eagleton in “The Guardian” (more positive, I think, than Eagleton’s very critical review of Straw Dogs). And here is the publisher’s description.
For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often very vaguely understood ‘science’. John Gray’s stimulating and extremely enjoyable new book describes the rich, complex world of the atheist tradition, a tradition which he sees as in many ways as rich as that of religion itself, as well as being deeply intertwined with what is so often crudely viewed as its ‘opposite’.
The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary and varied light on what it is to be human and on the thinkers who have, at different times and places, battled to understand this issue.
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
I enjoyed Sonny Bunch's review of A Quiet Place in the Washington Post. A bit:
. . . Merely surviving is not enough. Merely surviving is empty. Merely surviving is not what living a life to the fullest is all about. A life without family is sad; a life without family is a life without a future. Evelyn and Lee have to demonstrate to Regan and Marcus that there is a reason to go on — and the only reason any of us has to go on, really, is to ensure the propagation of the species. The paucity of dialogue required by the film’s conceit, and the confidence with which Krasinski shoots the picture, guides us through a life fully lived: We see the efforts undertaken to muffle a crying baby without killing it, how to live in a world where sound can be deadly. Far from looking horrible, it looks homey. Difficult, yes, but filled with love.
“A Quiet Place” is about what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, what it means to continue to exist in a world that has made being human virtually impossible. A film about the importance of passing on what you know and what you are to the next generation. . . .
I have similar thoughts about McCarthy's The Road.
This Commonweal article about Augusto Del Noce is one of the most insightful I've read in a while. Tolle et lege! (HT: Richard Reinsch @Reinsch84). A snippet:
By insisting that the true fault line of contemporary history ran between those who affirmed man’s religious dimension and those who denied it, Del Noce offered an unusual perspective on Catholic participation in the public arena. He thought its focus should be neither on protecting the power of the institutional church, nor on some list of religiously neutral ethical concerns, but rather on a conception of human flourishing that reflects the religious dimension. This would include an idea of education that is not just utilitarian but respects the deeper human need for beauty and knowledge as ends in themselves; respect for work as an expression of the human desire to build and to serve, not just a tool at the service of profit and economic growth; love for what Simone Weil called “rootedness”—namely “the real, active, and natural participation in the life of the community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future”; a passion for freedom, not as empty self-determination, but as protection of the most specifically human sphere, which is precisely the religious dimension, the search for meaning. A Catholic political orientation based on the awareness of the religious dimension would also allow—and indeed require—us to struggle for justice, but the justice we struggled for would not be our invention, much less a convenient fiction. It would be a moral reality that we recognize inside and outside of ourselves and to which we must ascend.
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Pope Francis has a new "Apostolic Exhortation" (for more on what that is, especially if you are a religion-beat journalist writing about the matter, go here) called "Rejoice and Be Glad" (Gaudete et exsultate). It is discursive, and covers a lot of ground. Among other things, the Pope talks about the challenges posed to joyfulness and "holiness" by some of our social-media and information-gathering technologies. A bit:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”
87. This Beatitude makes us think of the many endless situations of war in our world. Yet we ourselves are often a cause of conflict or at least of misunderstanding. For example, I may hear something about someone and I go off and repeat it. I may even embellish it the second time around and keep spreading it… And the more harm it does, the more satisfaction I seem to derive from it. The world of gossip, inhabited by negative and destructive people, does not bring peace. Such people are really the enemies of peace; in no way are they “blessed”.
 Detraction and calumny are acts of terrorism: a bomb is thrown, it explodes and the attacker walks away calm and contented. This is completely different from the nobility of those who speak to others face to face, serenely and frankly, out of genuine concern for their good.
115. [We] can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. [L]imits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result is a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. . . .
116. Inner strength, as the work of grace, prevents us from becoming carried away by the violence that is so much a part of life today, because grace defuses vanity and makes possible meekness of heart. The saints do not waste energy complaining about the failings of others; they can hold their tongue before the faults of their brothers and sisters, and avoid the verbal violence that demeans and mistreats others. Saints hesitate to treat others harshly; they consider others better than themselves (cf. Phil 2:3).
I particularly liked this passage, which seems relevant both to parenting tweens and teenagers and teaching in today's colleges and universities:
167. The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good. All of us, but especially the young, are immersed in a culture of zapping. We can navigate simultaneously on two or more screens and interact at the same time with two or three virtual scenarios. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend.
"A culture of zapping." Is the Pope sub-tweeting David Lodge?