When I was ten years old we lived in Connecticut for less than a year. I liked it: there was snow, more than I’d ever seen before, and my best friend’s father was a Congregational minister who let us play in the old white church for hours after services.

One day I trudged home though the snow and found boxes in the entryway of our house. I stood in a kind of stupor, with the bright winter whiteness behind me and boxes stacked in the still dark of my house.

That night my mom told me my fourteen-year-old brother and I were moving back to Texas. She and my father would stay to settle things up and sell the house. I was at an age where things could be explained to me very vaguely and strangely without causing me much pause. I didn’t really pry for coherent reasons.

Over the years our very sudden departure became a fact of history. It wasn’t worth investigating, it was just a certain turn of events. But in snatches and pieces I came to understand my mother had discovered, in a way I am still unsure of, that my brother had developed very precise and serious plans to kill himself. He had materials and a particular date. He was being tortured at school in the time before those things were taken remotely seriously, because he had learning difficulties and a thick Texan accent, and he could only see one way out.

So our mother created another. She saw a hole opening in his world that he was just about to fall through, and she closed it.

And this is something we would have to do again and again.

* * *

Pursuant to the suicide of Robin Williams, Matt Walsh published a blog post that contained a general meditation on depression and suicide. But it had one theme that people seized upon: the notion that suicide is essentially a freely willed decision:

“First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice.”

This point inflamed Walsh’s audience; evidently he’s been raking in the abuse now for a few days straight. Walsh has defended his point (as have others) by noting that by calling suicide a choice, we empower those considering it to imagine another option. It is right to desire that people considering suicide should know they have other options; the question posed by many of Walsh’s detractors is whether or not people dealing with immense emotional or psychological problems would actually internalize or experience that choice or not.

The debate seems to capture two competing views of suicide, though they don’t exactly have to compete, just to apply to two different species of the same behavior. One view of suicide holds that suicide is essentially a rational decision someone makes after weighing out various options, though they can sometimes be mistaken in their understanding of some of these options. In this view there are typically some cases in which suicide makes sense and is permissible; and some in which it does not and is not — but the essential question is one of rationale. Your average Platonist and Roman Stoic would have held a view more or less like this.

But then there is another view, a Christian view, wherein suicide is at all times wrong, and therefore never the conclusion of right reason (as God’s will is good and God’s will is also reasoned, being Logos and whatnot.) In articulating this view of suicide, Augustine introduces an interesting vein of community responsibility in the matter of suicide: as he argues against suicide, he submits arguments that would intervene in the reasoningof a rational person carefully weighing out their options, and those which would call others to rescue someone whose reason is dependent upon corrupted factors, or whose reason has diminished totally.

Much of Augustine’s discussion of suicide centers on whether or not Christian women should commit suicide in the event of rape, as many Roman women (most famously Lucretia) had done. He notes that when women feel compelled to take their lives rather than to live with shame, it is for very public reasons:

“For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him.”

Augustine goes on to argue that such shame was not really incurred, and that Christian women should not despair that any purity or chastity has been lost when others abuse them sexually. But he also exhorts other Christians to jettison the perspective that anytime a woman is attacked but doesn’t commit suicide that she must really not have objected to the attack. That is, Augustine makes a very early culture-of-death point: if we see that someone is suffering and we know they may very well feel compelled by their agony to consider suicide, it is in fact our duty to approach them with love and support rather than shame and suspicion.

No surprises here, in other words, from the religion that tips you off at the top of the book that you are your brother’s keeper.

Still: keeping brothers is a hard task.

* * *

Moving back to Texas did not fix everything. John got on better, and took up again with all his old friends. But he was still depressed.

And what I remember most about it was how tired it made him, and all of us. I looked around the corner into the bathroom one morning while he was supposed to be brushing his teeth, but he was just leaning against the counter, his palms spread out and planted, toothbrush clutched in one, shoulders arched up and head bowed. It looked like he could barely hold himself up.

This went on. He slept all the time. On weekends he would sometimes sleep though meals. When we could get him to come downstairs he would lay on the couch with his hands crossed over his chest, very still, like a mummy.

It made us tired, too, this constant striving, trying to get him to eat, to shower, to come sit with us. Sometimes it was easier just to let him alone, which was something we only entertained because we were so tired of trying.

Pain like this, pain that abuts futility, it’s exhausting. I have thought for sometime this must be one of the many meanings tied up in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ’s disciples can’t manage to stay awake with him while he prays. I can stay up all night for television marathons; I’m sure the majority of us could manage it at the request of Jesus, but agony is exhausting, it’s draining, it’s especially tiring when it all points toward the great black void of futility, when there’s nothing you can do.

It is tempting, as Christ suggests, to drop off into torpor and give up on matters that seem beyond one’s control. I don’t doubt people in the position of considering suicide feel this exact same way, but I do believe there’s value in recognizing that people considering suicide and people who don’t want them to can suffer that together.

And in Gethsemane Jesus’ example reminds us that suffering together matters, that it means something.

* * *

Émile Durkheim’s sociology classic Suicide is a grim book with an oddly uplifting observation swirling around in its core: a healthy degree of social integration is a bulwark against suicide. So, he says, is a healthy degree of internal moral regulation. In terms of preventative approaches, this seems to propose an Augustine-friendly middle way between those critics of Walsh who would argue suicide prevention can’t ever be left wholly up to the potential victims’ internal regulation, and those who, with Walsh, would say the only way to conceptualize suicide is as a failure of internal regulation. Empirics aside (and Durkheim has been criticized on his empirics), Durkheim would say: it’s a little of both. Augustine would agree.

Nonetheless it may be an error to imagine all suicides are alike enough to imagine in such straightforward terms. There probably are very different suicides, some impulsive, some considered, some the result of totally shot reasoning, some less so. A little more disturbing yet, it appears suicide rates can be reduced at the margin through very small interventions, such as decreasing the number of pills in packages of over-the-counter medicines often used to induce overdose. That such a minor setback seems capable of pushing some people off suicide suggests, as per nudge theory, that suicide is sometimes motivated by a very complex set of small, interdependent factors, and that disrupting one can avert the whole process.

For some, not all. To despair that no solutions are capable of eliminating suicide altogether is just to confront the void at the heart of suicide, but here again I think a good response is to commit oneself, against all temptation to exhaustion and resignation, that attending closely to the people one knows is still very worthwhile. Even that may fail, but that local attendance, coupled with the large-scale construction of a culture of life, seems a necessary response to the case-by-case nature of suicide itself. Tiring? Absolutely. Sometimes futile? Yes. But we’re called to suffer together, and sometimes there is a happy resolution.

I still have my brother, for example.

* * *

Life went on. We didn’t ever quit being with John, even when he was in the dark heart of his depression.

One summer my dad had a business trip to Amsterdam, and he took us all along. I was fourteen, John was eighteen. He was excited to get to drink beer.

Our mom planned every day to pack the most in, but after going through a slew of old churches and Rembrandt’s place one afternoon, it started to rain, which fouled up her plans of walking from one location to another. So we ducked into a museum, which turned out to be the Amsterdam Vincent van Gogh museum.

We wanted to wait for the rain to let up, so we took our time, rented the audio tours, and looked closely at all the paintings while we heard about Vincent’s life. Some people have said that his paintings have a suicidal sensibility about them, with the crows sometimes darkening the corners of blue skies and celestial bodies evidently on the verge of explosion, and with mournful cypresses spiraling up everywhere, with a profound loneliness often permeating even scenes of people together.

But I thought they were beautiful, mostly the colors. And as I listened I heard about Vincent’s little brother Theo, who loved him an encouraged him, sent him money, wrote him letters all the time. Over three quarters of the letters Vincent wrote during his lifetime were written to Theo. The last letter he ever wrote, only four days before the suicide attempt that finally ended his life, was written to Theo. Vincent wrote:

“My dear brother,

Thanks for your kind letter and for the 50-franc note it contained. I’d really like to write to you about many things, but I sense the pointlessness of it…

…But however, my dear brother, there’s this that I’ve always told you, and I tell you again once more with all the gravity that can be imparted by the efforts of thought assiduously fixed on trying to do as well as one can – I tell you again that I’ll always consider that you’re something other than a simple dealer in Corots,that through my intermediacy you have your part in the very production of certain canvases, which even in calamity retain their calm. For that’s where we are, and that’s all, or at least the main thing I can have to tell you in a moment of relative crisis. In a moment when things are very tense between dealers in paintings – by dead artists – and living artists.

Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it – very well –  but you’re not one of the dealers in men; as far as I know and can judge I think you really act with humanity, but what can you do…”

When so many things seemed very pointless and futile, Theo’s love, his humanity, his suffering-with, even the minor gestures of money and kind notes – mattered. They were still worth mentioning. And since Vincent wrote that you can see in his paintings that love between brothers, I’ve since collected prints of his work, because they remind me that even in the face of futility suffering-with matters. It amounts to something.

It lasts.

Thoughts on Bad Ethics

This week a particularly weird post ran at The Federalist. It’s an essay arguing against a piece by Freddie deBoer, in which Freddie calls for the destruction of the toxic masculinity that produced the Eliot Rodger murders. In response the author of the Federalist piece argues that dominance and violence are actually virtues, because, well:

“…to be a man is, in fact, to be violent, dominant, and powerful. One may even be right in saying that there is nothing else to being a man than to possess these qualities. And this is entirely sweet and fitting, for there may be no forces in nature more constructive than these. Someone may say: “How can this be sweet and fitting? These are obvious evils.” But this is not so. Our “someone” has made a simple mistake. He has made believe that the object of these qualities is some other: other people, women perhaps. Not at all. The object of a man’s dominance, power, and violence is himself alone, for to be a man is to have subdued one’s self entirely; and to do so is not at all a peaceable thing, for the bestial passions of man, his lusts and fears and selfishness are all quite strong, and so die hard.”

The argument is obscured by very bizarre language. But it appears to operate like this: men naturally have really extreme lusts and impulses, and to develop into a person who does not act on those wrong impulses is a violent process of self-domination. Now, this is taking some pretty extreme liberties with the words ‘violence’ and ‘domination’; Freddie invoked those principles to refer to a stabbing and shooting rampage, not the internal processes of ethical formation. And I do submit you could inflict violence upon yourself to aid in ethical formation, but I have a hard time imagining how that would actually play into a system of virtue ethics, which aim to develop a person who does the right thing without being coerced. (In the Christian framework this means developing into someone who desires God’s will.)

But that’s sort of secondary to my main problem with this analysis of virtue. The idea here is that masculinity is specifically the result of developing into a person who is inclined to better acts than worse, more impulsive ones. The author explains:

“A girl simply grows into a woman, or so most believe, whereas a man is something that is made. He is made because his masculinity consists in the destruction of his own nature, not in the maturity of it. He is born subject to a slew of desires, some more despicable, such as an unbridled lust for sex and drink, and some more acceptable, such as a desire for fame and affirmation. Though some of these passions are perhaps less unbecoming than others, they all make the man a slave for as long as he is in thrall to them and acts according to them.”

I can’t really tell what’s going on with this “or so most believe” clause; I was under the impression next to nobody believes that there are fewer cognitive differences between girls and women than between boys and men. In fact, I usually see people claim the opposite. Nonetheless the more extraordinary claim is that the subjugation of impulse to whatever framework underpins your virtue ethics can only produce masculinity, manhood, maleness. This seems a riff on the very old, very tired trope in which men are naturally scoundrels and women naturally angels, meaning male virtue is a greater accomplishment than female, and female vice is a greater scandal than male.

This author would probably be surprised to learn he has very odd bedfellows in resurrecting this antiquated take on gender and virtue. I noted a while ago in First Things that the phenomenon of “pearl-clutching” is a signal of a similar imagination, the idea being that people who express any kind of moral upset are feminine and matronly. The cool folks who do not express moral outrage aren’t ever painted in distinctly feminine terms; it’s only the uncool sticks-in-the-mud who are imagined as ladyish. Usually these kinds of smears pop up in feminist spots, though the habit has now radiated out into general discourse.

The result of both streams of thought is the conclusion that virtue is gender-slanted heavily in one direction, though the two sides differ on whether both sexes could use more virtue or less. Ostensibly people throwing around the ‘pearl-clutching’ saw wish everyone would clutch less, while people who imagine masculine virtue to be the result of a more difficult and necessary formation would have everyone shape up a little tighter. Nonetheless their anthropology is pretty similar. Men are inclined to lack virtue, women are inclined to have it. Ah, jeez.

My problem with this theory is that I think it seriously misconstrues the source of crappy ethical practice. I do not imagine that people who behave unethically generally do so because they’re just ethically un-formed, kind of brutishly rooting around in mud and acting like animals. On the contrary, I think truly horrible ethics usually come from very strong bad ethical formation, not a failure of formation. The men behind ISIS can explain their ethics to you, and though we use the word ‘barbaric’ for their practice it is not the case that they’re just sort of randomly lashing out on impulse: there’s a very considered, detailed ethic at hand here to which they’re adhering. It’s just evil.

This returns us to the core of Freddie’s original argument. There is such a thing as toxic masculinity, a cultural narrative about what one has to do and be in order to qualify as a man that actively instills bad ethics. But there is also such a thing as a healthy, positive masculinity that instills good ethics. Likewise there are toxic forms of femininity and healthy forms; the difference between them is not that one is the result of inaction and the other the result of action, but that one involves wrong action and the other right action. Some degree of managing impulses is clearly going to be required to properly be a good person regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, therefore, because choosing what not to do is only a very minor part of the equation; choosing what to do is the thicker and more interesting half. Thus I’m not convinced that the management of impulses produces de-facto masculinity, or that the management of impulse comes anywhere close to producing good ethical practice, at least not on its own.

One more point. The guy writes this:

“It is not among the Christians alone that such an association between servitude and masculinity is made, for in all places as far as I have seen, the mastery of the self is given to correlate with this same self’s service for others.”

I don’t think there is actually that strong of a correlation between maleness and servitude in Christianity. In fact there appears to be a very beautiful mutuality of service imagined in the relationship between Christ and Church, which is imagined in terms of husband and wife. It’s notable that this plays out in an ethically formative discourse, where both sexes are instructed to love and to serve just as there is mutual love and service between Christ and the Church; in other words, there doesn’t appear to be any presumption that one sex just inclines to virtue, and further, we are given the hope that virtue can be positively developed in dialogue with exemplars and one another. Perhaps, then, ethical formation isn’t such an internal, isolated affair after all: indeed, there appears to be a lot more to it than just quashing down impulse. As usual, Christianity is way more radical than the culture that seeks to appropriate it.

Coulter’s Argument is Non-Unique

I don’t know why I have to do this; Coulter isn’t being serious, so we shouldn’t have to respond seriously. But for the sake of clarity, here is why her arguments are non-unique, that is, they do not merely apply to the situation she thinks they do. Let’s do this one by one.

RESOLVED: Dr. Brantly should not have gone to Africa to treat Ebola charitably; he should have only done charity in the USA.

C1: It costs charities too much to treat people who get sick while treating Ebola in Africa.

Whatever good Dr. Kent Brantly did in Liberia has now been overwhelmed by the more than $2 million already paid by the Christian charities Samaritan’s Purse and SIM USA just to fly him and his nurse home in separate Gulfstream jets, specially equipped with medical tents, and to care for them at one of America’s premier hospitals.

This is non-unique. It could conceivably cost $2m to treat a doctor who got sick with ebola treating it domestically in a charitable context. Suppose disease X broke out, and each cure cost $2m. A doctor treating disease X charitably in the USA would therefore have done zero good in Coulter’s book despite the fact that he worked domestically. This means her argument here does not actually preference working domestically; it just preferences low-cost charitable work. If Dr. Brantly could teleport, for instance, or if he healed himself free of cost, this argument would no longer obtain.

C2: Treating Ebola in Africa means he couldn’t convert a Hollywood exec to cultural conservatism domestically.

If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Ebola kills only the body; the virus of spiritual bankruptcy and moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world.

If he were treating ebola domestically, he could equally not spend that time converting a Hollywood exec to cultural conservatism. Therefore this isn’t an argument for doing charitable medical work domestically, it’s an argument for not doing charitable medical work at all. If ebola broke out in the USA, Coulter would evidently still prefer doctors try to convert Hollywood execs to cultural conservatism rather than trying to treat sick people. If movies were made in London rather than Hollywood, Coulter would presumably hate all domestic charity and demand we go to London, where the film execs are. So her argument is only incidentally USA-related; at its core, it’s linked to where culture is produced, and would be anti-USA if culture were produced elsewhere.

It also means she doesn’t believe other countries’ charities should operate in their countries: they should be coming to Hollywood. This means she contradicts her argument that we’re all called to treat our own countries first and foremost.

C3: Doctors get sick treating Ebola in Africa, meaning there are more widows and orphans in the USA.

Right there in Texas, near where Dr. Brantly left his wife and children to fly to Liberia and get Ebola, is one of the poorest counties in the nation, Zavala County — where he wouldn’t have risked making his wife a widow and his children fatherless.

This means Coulter would not have doctors treat potentially fatal illness domestically, because they would risk dying and making their kids fatherless and wives into widows. Doctors should only treat non-fatal illnesses domestically or abroad by this measure.

Further, why Zavala county now, and not Hollywood? Would not a century in Zavala be a waste, like a century in Liberia, since to aid the poor aids only the body, while the souls suffer the onslaught of Hollywood decadence? Coulter gives us no guidance here; we know this is ideology.

C4: Your country is just more important than other countries.

Not only that, but it’s our country. Your country is like your family. We’re supposed to take care of our own first. The same Bible that commands us to “go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel” also says: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”

Contradicted by her culture industry point. Also the only non-utilitarian argument in the bunch. This is the thesis, sure, but it turns into just another contention in a series of arguments because it functions on a non-utilitarian framework — it’s a different type of argument than the rest, and has to be measured in a different way. It happens to be non-measurable because it’s axiomatic, but to indulge it: our own are already ‘taken care of’; there is no ebola in the USA. If there were ebola here and ebola there and both places were equally capable of treating it, it might be harder to explain why a doctor would charitably go there to treat it. But of course this is not the case.

WRAPUP: Are we seriously pretending this is anything more than a good firm pot-stir? Come on now. The arguments don’t cohere on a single framework and they interact poorly with one another because this is just ideology; it’s not motivated by a rational analysis, but rather backed-into with a smattering of impulse-points. I believe, especially given her snipe at Pope Francis early in the article, that this is just a little grunt about a stream of Christianity that isn’t sufficiently culture-warrish and nationalistic enough for her taste. The rest is just a shell.

Coping with Christianity

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I suspect Ann Coulter is a completely cynical careerist with a shtick. The regularity of her madness is too consistent to be the result of genuine personality defects. A person might angrily call, say, 9/11 widows ‘harpies’ once. But surely there’s no genuine frustration so perfectly timed as to result in predictably spaced controversies that usually correspond to book releases or slumps in popularity. You can set your watch by Ann Coulter saying nutty things, so I don’t much bother with her: we’ve all got deadlines to meet, and for her that means periodically ejaculating some bile into public discourse. Puts bread on her table, I’m sure. So I wasn’t much going to bother with her weird Ebola column, reading in part that:

“If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Ebola kills only the body; the virus of spiritual bankruptcy and moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world.”

The rest is more of the uninspired same: the doctor who decided to try to help with the Ebola outbreak overseas should have stayed home and tried to help Americans. If you’re familiar with the word ‘martyr’, you know it comes from the Greek ‘martus’, meaning ‘witness.’ In this sense our martyrs, those who die in the service of the faith, both die for their testimonies and make witnesses of us all. With luck their examples help us grow in virtue. Dr. Brantly has done a good and honorable thing not only in rendering aid to the sick (which we absolutely know is important to Christ, cf. Matthew 25:36), but also in serving as an excellent example for those of us who wonder at his courage and self-sacrifice. And let’s be clear: all of the harms Coulter cites — that is, devoting time to healing bodies instead of souls, risking one’s life by dealing with dangerous illness, and accepting funding from charities — would also obtain if Brantly were combating Ebola right here in the USA. So her argument is non-unique: though she claims her point is that we should focus on America as Americans, it turns out that what she really seems to desire is that we never devote charitable work to the treatment of physical illness…despite that pesky Matthew 25 scripture, and Christ’s own healing miracles.

Coulter’s bizarro tirade against international humanitarian aid comes at an especially strange moment, considering that Christians are being murdered abroad. Shall we focus solely on tooth decay in Appalachia while Christian children are reportedly being beheaded in Iraq? By Coulter’s lights, absolutely. By mine, we can do both. Universal healthcare here, aid and asylum for endangered populations abroad. I doubt Coulter would object to this like I doubt she even thought of it; I’m sure she completely phoned this in like she’s phoned in everything she’s done for the past ten years.

Coulter is, in other words, the Christian ethical equivalent of those Statler and Waldorf muppets. Lots of criticism, zero engagement. And heavily beholden to the work of the puppet masters who fund her career. But I digress.

The interesting part of this yawntastic non-argument is how other right wingers, like Red State’s Erick Erickson, responded to it. Coulter is something between a cheerleader and a mascot on the right (she certainly never generates her own positions or policies, just rallies around others’) and so it’s difficult for her cohort to ignore her when she goes a little too far. Usually they just defend her, but Erickson had trouble doing that, because he just couldn’t parse her argument with his Christianity. Writing at RedState, Erickson disagrees with Coulter:

“I think Christians should take up the cross in inner cities where too many liberal Christians preach a body nourishing social gospel that never feeds their soul…

Liberals treat prosperity in America as a zero sum game — if there are winners, there must be losers. They are wrong. Christians should not do the same with Christianity — surely a Christian may lose his life, but even then he is a winner. There are no losers except the Devil himself when a Christian goes therefore unto all the nations…

I have no reservations or caveats in liking Ann Coulter. She is a warm, kind, and generous person. I know this from my own experience. I must, however, disagree with her in this.”

What’s going on here is coping. Erickson is trying to somehow maintain an affinity with Coulter as a member of his political tribe while jamming the Christianity back in where she pretty blatantly zapped it out. This is what’s going on with all the bizarre swipes at unnamed ‘liberals.’ What exactly is wrong with feeding the hungry, something Jesus did and commanded we do? Erickson mucks around, supposing that feeding the hungry is wrong if it doesn’t also nourish the soul of the feeder. What a curious notion, the idea that preaching the Gospel and committing oneself to charity is not a virtue-building exercise. How on earth are we to make sense of that, what strictures does Erickson have in mind? I am not surprised he provides no detail.

Next we see a conflation between finite material resources and salvation, the end of which is to claim superiority-by-analogy for right wing economic policy. Yet the notion that, at least to some degree, that which is claimed as private is denied to others and must therefore be carefully examined is a cornerstone of the earliest Christian teaching, one that still echoes loudly today in the ministry of, say, Pope Francis. Isn’t the misstep to draw an analogy between the handling of finite material resources and Christian salvation? Surely to do so is either to enter into delusion on one side or heresy on the other. But Erickson perseveres.

At the end of the article he tells us why he has engaged in this weird game of public cognitive dissonance. It is because he has to somehow work Christian ethics into a political tribe that has notorious problems with hyper-nationalism, racism, apathy to poverty verging on antipathy to the poor, and commitments to economic policy that does not serve the vulnerable. But this is merely coping with Christianity, it’s trying to make Christianity comport with competing ethics that are neither derived from it nor amenable to it. The reason Coulter’s propositions don’t really follow from her purportedly Christian reasoning is the same reason Erickson has to struggle to force his Christian impulses into conjoint with conflicting principles. There’s a habit afoot here of coping with Christianity rather than reasoning directly from it, and I suspect it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Working, Eating

Pastor John Hagee has some intense thoughts about people who use public assistance:

“To those of you who are sick, to those of you who are elderly, to those of you who are disabled, we gladly support you,” he said as his voice began to rise. “To the healthy who can work but won’t work, get your nasty self off the couch and go get a job!” Hagee went on to say that “America has rewarded laziness and we’ve called it welfare,” before adding “The Bible says ‘The man who does not work, should not eat.’ I know the liberals hate that verse, but read it and weep! It’s God’s position.”

Fascinating. And then there’s Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium:

“In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor. This has been eloquently stated by the bishops of Brazil: “We wish to take up daily the joys and hopes, the difficulties and sorrows of the Brazilian people, especially of those living in the barrios and the countryside – landless, homeless, lacking food and health care – to the detriment of their rights. Seeing their poverty, hearing their cries and knowing their sufferings, we are scandalized because we know that there is enough food for everyone and that hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income. The problem is made worse by the generalized practice of wastefulness”.

Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

Hagee’s is the same reactionary nonsense we hear about people who use welfare all the time. Still, if I had to choose between Hagee’s vision of work and Pope Francis’, I would choose Francis’. This is not only because Francis actually seems to hold creative and socially valuable labor in high esteembut also because he displays a reasonable ordering of priorities: to engage in good, consistent work that results in flourishing, political circumstances must not only make work available, but also supportive. Most importantly, if people are to engage in good, consistent work, they must already be eating. It is not possible to expend energies both physical and cognitive on labor when a person is bereft of the most basic necessities of life; this is why in saner rightwing discourse welfare is at least identified as necessary to helping a person back onto their feet.

But the vision Pope Francis points toward surpasses even that, because it imagines a just distribution of goods and income to be a total social project rather than a stop-gap against temporary crises. This means that families will have just wages, that they will be able to bring their children up securely, that education and healthcare will be available to those children as they transition to adulthood, and that they therefore will never encounter a situation in which they are too deprived of some form of security to engage work as a creative, dignified activity. At the end of the day, Francis’ option for the poor seems to maintain a much more positive, robust view of both working and eating than Hagee’s.

Still, 2 Thessalonians 3:11 will undoubtedly continue to comprise the entire canon of the counterfactual Gospel of the Anti-Poor Jesus, a cynically political phenomenon as divorced from Scripture as it is from reality. Fortunately for us there appears to be an ascendant suspicion that these ethics, such as they are, neither reflect Christian tradition nor come close to illuminating the potential of a Christian politics.

On Death Penalty Debates

Zoinks, we’ve had a ton of pieces on ‘polyamory/open marriage’ lately, with Damon Linker’s Week piece summing up the lot of them. I am reminded here of Stanley Hauerwas’ prescient rebuttal of the notion of ‘open marriage’, a kind of side note in his 1978 essay ‘Sex in Public.’ In true Hauerwasian fashion, he takes a virtue ethical approach, and wonders what sort of story the ‘open marriage’ ethic tells us about ourselves, and in so doing ,what sort of people it shapes us to be. Hauerwas cites a book by a couple in an ‘open marriage’, the O’Neills, writing:

“…the O’Neills do provide a word of caution: they suggest that to have an extramarital affair without first ‘developing yourself to the point where you are ready, and your mate is ready, for such a step could be detrimental to the possibility of developing a true open marriage.’ I have thought a lot about this very interesting suggestion, namely that we develop ourselves to be ready to engage in an extramarital affair. What could that possibly mean? Would it mean that we each ate and then come home and compare notes on our experience and see how it makes the other feel? And what would be the object of such a project? Surely it is nothing less than for us to learn to devalue sexual expression between ourselves in order to justify it with other people.”

I find Hauerwas’ supposition of what the O’Neills’ ‘development’ could look like fascinating on two counts: firstly, he imagines that particular strands of discourse can be immensely powerful as tools of ethical formation; secondly, he imagines a kind of habituation to vice as the role discourse could play in that shaping. In this case that means that by discussing infidelity — the oft praised ‘communication’ proposed as a central element of situations like these — couples can grow desensitized to the pain and shame of infidelity, and can therefore come to trivialize sex altogether. This means they  can then proceed without much sentiment toward whatever they were planning on doing anyhow. It’s a kind of moral de-evolution.

But that’s probably all pretty clear anyhow, though I think it does place an interesting twist on the often obsessive fixation on ‘honesty’ and ‘communication’ in circumstances like these. Still the really interesting application in my view concerned another contemporary debate we’ve been having, that is, the debate over the death penalty. It seems we have had in recent memory a few major issues with the death penalty relating to botched executions that came out torturous:

Those three executions in recent months have renewed the debate over lethal injection. In Arizona, the inmate gasped more than 600 times and took nearly two hours to die. In April, an Oklahoma inmate died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after his execution began. And in January, an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped for 26 minutes before dying. Most lethal injections take effect in a fraction of that time, often within 10 or 15 minutes.

Naturally when things like this happen, the question of whether or not we should be up to the business of executing people arises, and with good reason. In the ‘we should not be executing people’ corner, the narrative is straightforward, so much so that I probably do not need to reiterate it here. But in the ‘we should be executing people’ corner, the narrative is a little more interesting. Consider Erick Erickson:

“One person who will not weigh in on the merits of Clayton Lockett’s execution is Stephanie Neiman. Clayton Lockett tried to rob a house Miss Neiman was at. She tried to fight him off. He and his accomplices overwhelmed her. They beat her, bound her with duct tape, taped her mouth shut, shot her, then buried her alive.  Many of those outraged at how Mr. Lockett’s execution played out will, hopefully, pause to reflect on exactly why the state chose to execute him.”

And this Red State fellow:

“Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing that has made me pro-life, but more likely it is a sober understanding and some basic research that has led me to this position in life.  And I have morally resolved that Catholic conundrum regarding the sanctity of all life.  Not all life is sacrosanct.  You rape and kill a 12-year-old, you lose that protection of sanctity.  But one thing I am sure of is that an unborn child is innocent, precious and more than worthy of protection.”

And Andrew McCarthy:

“I agree with Eli Leher that it would be wise, after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma (see Jonah’s post, here), to rethink lethal injection as a method of carrying out capital punishment. But the assertion that “these errors cross the line into torture” is nonsense. It is not possible to torture someone in error. As I pointed out earlier this week, to constitute the singular evil of torture, severe pain and suffering must not only be inflicted but inflicted intentionally and maliciously. Yes, a civilized society does not engage in torture, but what makes torture uncivilized is the sadistic intention to subject a person to extreme physical or mental anguish. Without that, there is no torture.”

It isn’t any mistake that the three rationalizations all have something more in common than trying to justify the death penalty; they are also concerned with trying to draw distinctions between executions, even tortuously painful ones, and forms of killing the authors do not want to encourage. Therefore the first distinguishes between the killing the killer committed and the subsequent killer of that killer; the second one tries to distinguish between the killing of the unborn and the killing of killers; the last tries to distinguish between the torture of the intentionally tortured and the torture of the unintentionally tortured.

I sense these authors felt the need to move in the direction of distinguishing between good-killing and bad-killing because, like Hauerwas’ married couple moving toward infidelity, every time we enter into national conversations aimed at rationalizing and justifying executions in America, we’re going through the motions of habituating ourselves to killing. We are naturally upset by hearing of painful deaths that just didn’t have to happen; therefore our national discussions meant to secure the continuation of the death penalty must numb us somehow (through rationalization or other means) to those humane impulses. But, like Hauerwas’ couple, it seems our habituation to killing has the potential to numb revulsion to the taking of human life in general. At least, the practice of openly rationalizing and justifying the killing of people in especially painful ways seems ripe to shape us in such a way that we are less disgusted by killing overall. Is this who we want to be?

It isn’t who I want to be. And it reminds me of the eighth thesis Avery Cardinal Dulles cites in this excellent First Things piece on the death penalty:

“8) The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.”

That repeated, public experiments in intellectualizing and explaining away our humane impulses in the face of killing could eventually guide us toward an overall numbness to killing at large seems pretty clear in the defenses themselves; it’s certainly something they appear to be concerned with, anyhow. And I agree that it’s a serious concern. But since these exposures will continue so long as we have the death penalty, I would rather argue that instead of relying on various distinction-drawing measures (which may themselves be dangerous lessons in self-justification) to shore up the practice, we should likely just phase it out. It’s only in the context of de-normalizing killing that we have a shot at shaping ourselves into the sort of people who tend toward a culture of life, by these Hauerwasian lights.

Tragedy, Marriage

I never imagined I would hear Sarah Silverman deliver the defining Christian ethical riposte in a film about infidelity, but then there was this:

[Silverman]: You think everything can be worked out if you just make the right move? That must be thrilling… Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic. 

It’s her final salvo in the otherwise uneven 2011 Take this Waltz, which until that line appears to be very sympathetic to its heroine, played by Michelle Williams. The film tracks the disintegration of Williams’ character’s marriage, a dissolution brought on by her boredom with her long-suffering, goofy, and ultimately bland husband, which is hastened by the arrival of a sexy and mysterious artsy-type neighbor. The husband is eventually and painfully dumped, and the neighbor replaces him with a montage of sexual licentiousness set to some Leonard Cohen (surprise.) Had it all ended there it would have been a fairly straightforward millennial film about sexual self-expression and the murkiness of relationships, and it would have been totally unmemorable. But it takes a turn: things with the neighbor aren’t so great; they get boring too, and instead of winding down as a reflection on the dangers of spontaneity or the defects of marriage itself it instead recognizes the role of tragedy in life.

And it is the right historical moment to make a point like that with respect to marriage and sexuality. Consider Leah Libresco, writing on the recent burst of ‘polyamory’ thinkpieces that have proposed multiple partners as the solution to marriage’s gaps:

“Monogamy isn’t premised on the idea that one person can ever be everything to a partner. When a marriage fails to fulfill “the full smorgasbord” it’s not a sign that anything’s wrong. An expectation that a partner (or full set of them) is meant to be a perfect complement is destructive to romantic and platonic relationships.”

Leah goes on to argue that the needs one has that a spouse can’t meet can be met by friends, relatives, or other forms of engagement, but that the mere presence of such un-met needs should not immediately predicate extra-marital sex. Including Leah’s piece in his excellent weekly ThinkProgress feature on conservative articles worth a read, my friend Jeff Spross notes the following:

“Things can get amusing, such as the moment in one of the articles Libresco cites when a woman in a non-monogamous marriage says she needs a second boyfriend to go to the theatre with her, since her husband isn’t a fan. As Libresco asks, why didn’t the woman “just book season tickets for herself and a friend?” Of course, the husband’s reason for taking on another partner was that his wife wasn’t interested in BDSM sexual practices — a problem that isn’t so easily solved by Libresco’s defense of a better understanding of the purpose of monogamous marriage.”

Emphasis mine. What Jeff is pointing out is that there are sometimes needs in a marriage that simply cannot be met by relying upon friends, family, or other forms of community engagement. These needs by their nature must shatter the monogamous commitment of marriage to be met. So the challenge to the Christian ethic of marriage becomes not “what do I do when my monogamous marriage isn’t meeting all my needs?” (which is the question Leah aptly answers) but rather “what do I do when my monogamous marriage cannot meet all of my needs?” That is, how do we cope with needs that are in direct conflict with the continued monogamy of marriage? Or more broadly, how do we cope with needs that are in direct conflict with any moral goods?

There is a lot of hemming and hawing that could be done here. We could mess around with the definition of ‘need.’ We could propose that some needs are perverse (in the ‘contrary to the good’ sense, not necessarily purely in the ‘kinky’ sense) and therefore don’t deserve a hearing in the court of adjudicating needs. We could argue there are classes of needs, like a Maslow’s hierarchy, that defines how we should think of them. And all of these are probably worthwhile thoughts. But none of these strategies would give us enough mileage to address every case in which a marriage cannot be monogamous and simultaneously meet all of each partner’s needs. There would always be some outlier, some limit case for which we would still have to account.

Instead I would propose we ask: what has given ‘needs’ such a weight of finality? That is, why is it that we feel a need being met is on the primary order of ethical concern, worth violating potentially all other principles for? Or worse, re-ordering all principles to serve? I would argue that we are inclined to view needs in such a way because we have lost the resolution offered by a healthy understanding of tragedy. In his essay “Four Biblical Characters: In Search of a Tragedy”, Ben Quash defines tragedy as:

“the woundingly ‘embroiled’ character of human action…the way in which it is possible for human beings to be the often unwitting perpetrators of their own enslavement; to so far tangle themselves up that they cannot undo the knots or cut through the meshes they have made. In particular, this embroilment often takes the form of a warping of what we intuitively regard as the natural relation between capability and culpability — and at two levels. Relatively easy to understand are the occasions when our power to make moral decisions and follow them through (our capacity for the good) finds itself confounded, vitiated and becomes even – to our surprise – a decisive agent in the overthrow of our aspirations. Our moral capability can even kill us in such cases. Much more darkly disorienting, though, are the occasions when we appear to have no power at all to make moral decisions in the first place, but still seem held to account. We discover a culpability that never knew capability. In both cases what we assumed were the normal mechanisms for translating action into a creditable reward for our labors seem wholly lacking and we stand helpless before the undoing of ourselves.”

How can we possibly cope when, through no evident fault of our own, we come to require for our happiness that which is manifestly evil? That this is a condition of fallenness doesn’t offer any immediate answers. Yes, we come to such situations because we are fallen; but does this mean that we are honestly and truly in situations where happiness is, through no wrongdoing of ours, utterly impossible? For instance, consider the man who evidently needed BDSM to be happy, while his wife could not be happy with it. It would appear one or more of them was simply destined to be unhappy within the parameters of monogamous marriage. Neither of them were by their mere desires doing anything wrong, yet they wound up in a tragic sort of bind: live with un-met needs, or destroy the monogamous character of the marriage. This is tragedy.

But the view that a tragic situation must conclude in either gross unhappiness or an immediate violation of virtue is predicated upon the finality of tragedy, or the idea that “this is all that there is.” Quash points out that the Christian view of tragedy offers much more:

“My view is rather than stopping short of tragedy, circumventing tragedy or resting with tragedy, Christianity’s doctrines embrace and heighten tragedy when it is understood a certain way. They do so in order simultaneously to acknowledge tragedy’s full power to disrupt, disturb, and destroy – making people the dungeons of themselves – and also to let it mean more than itself. Far from being anti-tragic, and concerned with the evasion or denial of tragic experience, I will argue that the Christian narrative is about a full entry into such an experience, in order to suggest it might have a ‘beyond’ – thus refusing to make an idol of the tragic moment.”

The Christian view, in other words, acknowledges and realizes tragedy without permitting it to define an entire worldview, thus permitting all kinds of travesties, like the destruction of monogamy in marriage. Yes, the Christian frame agrees, there are tragic situations: but the needs which must go un-met or the desires un-fulfilled have no finitude because human life itself continues. Desires and needs that conflict with the good and the good of others are the result of a temporary disturbed order, but with God order is undisturbed, and the Christian hope points to eventual unity with that order. The un-met need, I mean to say, is only the primary ethical concern when you imagine need-meeting to be the totalizing, final frame of human existing. But if you allow tragedy to guide you to look beyond the meeting of needs, beyond the temporary scarcities and lacks of life on earth, you see that the irresolution of tragedy imagines a looming surprise.

For the Christian frame, this surprise is salvation, an infinite life in which all needs are perfectly harmonized. Does it mean the tragedies of life are less tragic, less painful? Not at all. But it contextualizes them in such a way as to demonstrate that they shouldn’t be made primary in our ethics. They are not eternal like hope is, but rather incidental. Life has a gap in it: it just does. You can’t resolve it because it’s just the nature of life on earth, but the fact that we must qualify ‘life’ with ‘on earth’ in the context of tragedy means that there is life beyond this one, and it’s toward that end that we orient our ethics. This alone allows us to register our unhappiness and dissatisfaction while still sojourning on.


Wrapping up Child Allowance & Abortion

Today, you’re the debate judge! Again the NRO (very graciously, and without the usual acrimony that accompanies these conversations) has responded to my blog in defense of reducing abortion by offering a universal child allowance. Here are the points that remain unaddressed. If you’re a debatey type, you can extend these arguments right across your flow as they say:

I. All the harms attached to a child allowance are attached to a child tax credit. You can’t oppose one and not the other by this metric of harms. We must conclude that the NRO opposes the reformocon child tax credit.

II. Many of the harms attached to a child allowance are also attached to private charity for mothers. The NRO concedes this:

First in both of her responses to me, Bruenig states that by providing assistance to pregnant women, pregnancy resource centers are, in effect, increasing the population of single mothers and undermining norms against pre-marital sex. To put it another way, if single mothers are carrying their children to term because of either a child allowance or because of assistance from a pregnancy resource center, the effect is the same. I see Bruenig’s point, but I disagree with her. When one receives assistance from a charity there is a greater norm of reciprocity and less of a chance of repeat behavior. That is why I was concerned about a child allowance providing additional income for each additional child that was born.

In other words, private charity very well might have identical impacts, meaning that it would be best not to support it. If it even caused a marginal increase, which by this author’s logic it would, it has caused an incredible moral harm. Therefore we must, by this author’s thought, view a child tax credit and child allowance as extreme immorality-increasers, and private charity as mild immorality-increasers. But why would we allow any immorality increase? Never has a calculus been delivered by which we can measure what amount of immorality is acceptable to reduce what amount of abortions. You, the judge, should therefore acknowledge that the NRO’s own plan (private charity) will result in their own harms.

More intriguing here is that the argument has changed from its first iteration. Originally we were to oppose a child allowance because it would create more single moms and therefore normalize pre-marital sex. But now the argument has shifted to repeat pregnancies–surely a single mom of one is no less harmful on normalization grounds than a single mom of two or three. The singleness is the problem, not the number of kids, or so the NRO argument would logically proceed. So I am not sure the repeat pregnancies issue relates to the original point whatsoever; it appears to rather be a new and discrete point, the significance of which is unclear.


III. A child allowance is a step toward a more humane policy on abortion. 61% of women who seek abortions have other children. By throwing women in jail for seeking abortion, we would be breaking up families; this is not pro-life. The NRO never shares their plan for how to reduce abortion; by their own lights, private charity would probably increase it to a degree. They only say this:

Bruenig concludes her most recent post by saying that “It is worth it to me to reduce abortion on the margins.” I agree. I would certainly support a policy that would reduce abortion at the margins. In fact, I would like to go beyond that and see all unborn children legally protected. I just disagree that a child allowance would help pro-lifers achieve that goal.

Tantalizing, and we are in agreement here! But this is not a policy plan. You, the judge, must therefore presume what policy lurks beneath this shell argument. Mine is on the table.

IV. Nudge theory makes my case, as I wrote in my original TAC piece. This author says:

However, both the 2005 Guttmacher study and the 2013 study that appeared in BMC Women’s Health allowed women to offer multiple reasons as to why they sought an abortion. Both studies did find that economic pressure certainly played a role in a significant percentage of women’s decisions to obtain an abortion. That said, since many women cited multiple reasons for having an abortion, both studies are less clear about how often economic pressures were the most important factor. Economics may not play as large a role as Bruenig surmises.

If we can knock out the most common reason, being too poor, we can also impact a variety of other cited reasons: lacking shelter, healthcare, unstable relationships, career worries, etc. We can also probably even push on relationship instability with regard to marriage, as I have written previously. What nudge theory teaches is that behavior is usually multivalent and that small nudges can push folks in directions opposite their original course. One famous example from the UK involves reducing suicide by making bottles of pills slightly smaller; we could very likely do the same for at least some abortions by making the financial burden of childbearing less extreme. This has always been my argument: that a child allowance would reduce abortion on the margins. It remains my argument. I hope you have found it at least a little promising, and that you’ve enjoyed this great debate!

Why Think on Legal Realism?

Last week I talked quite a lot about Christian legal realism and the Patristic view of private property ownership. If you hung in there with that ping pong match, much appreciated! And if not this post will still answer the question: why go on and on about the Patristic wisdom on property ownership?

Firstly, as Brad Littlejohn, wise man and editor of Political Theology Today, confirmed after last week’s debate, the Christian legal realist view of private property ownership is not a quirk of patristic thought. He is definitely the person to listen to on Aquinas, with whom I’ve done comparatively little. Brad locates the Christian legal realist impulse very distinctly in Aquinas, quoting from John Finnis:

“The moral or juridical relationships to such an entity that we call property rights are relationships to other people. They are matters of interpersonal justice. Arguments for founding property rights on alleged ‘metaphysical’ relationships between persons and the things with which they have ‘mixed their labour’, or to which craftsmen have ‘extended their personality’, are foreign to Aquinas.”

Brad concludes:

“Thus, to Pegobry’s insistent question as to whether, according to Ms. Bruenig, “under correct Christian ethics, all property is contingent and rights of property . . .  have only instrumental and not intrinsic value,” it must be answered, in Thomistic terms at least, “Yes, instrumental to the service of the common use of humankind.”  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive, within such a framework, of just what sort of “intrinsic value” such rights could have.”

In his longer meditation on his blog as to the broader implications of the motives of this debate, Brad points out that there are very real reasons to express concern with the tyranny of the state, the wrong use of property, and the question of desert. I agree with Brad on all these counts, and it’s why I want to expand here upon what the use of Christian legal realism is, in my thinking.

In my opinion, it is not Christian legal realism that occludes questions of orthodox approaches to state power, desert, and the right use of property. It is rather a non-Christian liberal ethic that superimposes itself onto Christian discourse and claims that all of these questions have already been spoken for. This liberal ethic re-imagines Christian attitudes to property in the image of its own non-Christian framework, and leads to an understanding of the Christian view of property that comes to be seen as ‘common-sensical’ even though it is a secular innovation on historical Christian thought. In this weird inverted world, historical Christian understandings of property — that is, the ones that belong to our long, rich tradition — are then viewed as quaint and outmoded, while the liberal approach to property, Christian in name only, casts itself as the obvious and dominant one. It is at this point that Christianity can be leveraged to support a liberal politics that is antithetical to its own mission and ethics.

And make no mistake: this is what has happened. There’s a reason Brad and I appear to be taking oddball positions here. The reason is that now, after many years of liberal imposition onto Christian thought, Christians now speak of property in the language of ‘rights.’ As Joan Lockwood O’Donovan points out, this wasn’t always so:

The concept of subjective rights, or rights ascribable to individuals and groups, has entered contemporary political and legal currency primarily through the liberal contractarian tradition. Consequently, the meanings of the term ‘rights’ cannot be properly ascertained in detachment from this theoretical context. For these meanings are embedded in a constellation of political-legal, philosophical and theological concepts with a complex history. Thus, to appraise the contemporary vocabulary of ‘rights’ is to appraise the dynamic theoretical complex that has given rise to it. If such an appraisal seeks its standard of judgement in the Bible, then it is bound to proceed theologically…

A close analysis of the history of the concept of subjective rights reveals a progressive antagonism between the older Christian tradition of political right and the newer voluntarist, individualist and subjectivist orientation. Whereas in the older tradition, God’s right established a matrix of divine, natural and human laws or objective obligations that constituted the ordering justice of political community, in the newer tradition God’s right established discrete rights, possessed by individuals originally and by communities derivatively, that determined civil order and justice

Not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did the subjective rights of individuals supersede the objective right of divinely revealed and natural laws as the primary or exclusive basis of political authority, justice and law. These centuries dominated the transformation of the Western Christian tradition of natural law and natural right into a tradition of natural rights.

Emphasis mine. What O’Donovan is up to here, in her own words, is to “delineate the inherited theoretical content of the Western ‘rights’ tradition,” so that her readers can determine for themselves (not without later help from her husband Oliver) whether or not what we end up meaning when we talk about rights — including property rights — is consonant with Christian ethics. She points out that, through the adoption and use of the liberal language of rights, the content of those rights has come to be the main determining factor of political justice and law. In other words, where the Church fathers would have firstly considered the corporate human right to ultimate goods to try to understand the revealed matrix of obligations and duties that they would then infer to define political order, we now instead look to the content of ‘rights.’

So, okay — the idea of rights now dominates Christian political discourse in many venues (especially the popular); big deal, right? Maybe the liberal language of rights is a positive innovation that doesn’t interfere with underlying Christian commitments, one imagines. But the problem is that the language of rights is not empty (by this I mean neutral) rhetoric, but rather a piece of an overall liberal moral order; this is the ‘inherited content’ O’Donovan refers to. Using the language of rights, at least in the realm of property (where my concentration is) but likely in others as well, is therefore to import not only secular ideas into Christian thought, but also to import non-Christian morality and, by extension, to invite non-Christian ethics. Charles Taylor explains:

Now the modern idea of order, in contradistinction to the mediaeval Christian ideal, was seen from the beginning as for the here-and-now. But it definitely migrates along a path, running from the more hermeneutic to the more prescriptive. As used in its original niche by thinkers like Grotius and Pufendorf, it offered an interpretation of what must underlie established governments; grounded on a supposed founding contract, these enjoyed unquestioned legitimacy. Natural Law theory at its origin was a hermeneutic of legitimation.

But already with Locke, the political theory can justify revolution, indeed, make this morally imperative in certain circumstances; while at the same time, other general features of the human moral predicament provide a hermeneutic of legitimacy in relation to, for instance, property. Later on down the line, this notion of order will be woven into ‘redactions’ demanding even more ‘revolutionary’ changes, including relations of property, as reflected in influential theories, such as those of Rousseau and Marx, for instance.

Thus while moving from one niche to many, and migrating from theory into political imaginary, the modern idea of order also travels on a third axis, and the discourses it generates are strung out along the path from the hermeneutic to the prescriptive. In the process it comes to be intricated with a wide range of ethical concepts, but the resulting amalgams have in common that they make essential use of this understanding of political and moral order which descends from modern Natural Law theory.

Here ‘Natural Law’ refers to the emergent liberal doctrines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of which Locke is a major author. The point Taylor makes here is that what begins as descriptive — and what contemporary Christians might still feel tempted to view as simply descriptive, such as ‘property rights’ — actually becomes prescriptive over time, that is, comes to dictate ethics rather than describe political or social realities. Nowadays, when we talk about property rights, we do so in the way liberal theorists would have us do. We refer to contractarian and individualist terms, we view rights themselves as subjective (that is, tied to the subject, the person, not strictly related to the right use of creation and revealed obligations/duties) and we see the state as existing more or less to harmonize those conflicting rights claims. But this anthropology (that the subject or individual precedes in fullest terms society and corporate life, for instance) is not Christian, and the ethics that follow — for instance, that my right to property ownership should be politically protected while my obligations to others should have no political character — are not particularly grounded in the Christian tradition, either.

The result of all this is that the status quo in relation to property — that is, the way property now exists in our collective political imagination, as the claim of an intrinsically valuable right — conflicts essentially with a Christian construal. In practice, it means there are also contradictions in the Christian ethics of property use and ownership and the liberal ethics of the same. But because the liberal language of ‘property rights’ has insinuated itself so tightly into Christian discourse, it can be hard for Christians to see those contradictions, much less begin to imagine how to politically act on a different understanding of property. And so Christians wind up batted back and forth between the same old political options, none of them very appealing, all of them premised on the same flawed anthropology, and thus tending toward the same flawed practices.

So my hope with the legal realism stuff is to help to articulate an approach to property that is tenable in modern politics without submitting hook, line, and sinker to the liberal language of rights that has superimposed itself onto Christian discourse. I want to do this because I think it can help Christians act politically without the usual limitations that bracket the expression of Christian ethics in politics, e.g. the limitations that arise from uncritical acceptance of, say, the intrinsic good of property ownership via rights claims. And I think the legal realism discussion can help illuminate the degree to which the structures liberal political order so highly venerates are in fact within our control and subject to our moral judgment, not constitutive of it. We should therefore not be judged by the degree to which we promote, protect, or politically enshrine the alleged ‘intrinsic value’ in private property ownership, but should rather judge the political enshrinement of private property ownership by the degree to which it cooperates with a Christian anthropology and understanding of divine will for creation.

Or as Paul Bourget wrote, “one must live as one thinks, under pain of sooner or later ending up thinking as one has lived.” I think the legal realism point has the potential to cleanly and clearly illuminate some realities of property that are otherwise obscured, and to open up helpful conversations in the realm of Christian political engagement. To me, this is a helpful step toward freeing Christians and Christian thought up from liberal ethics of property that threaten to tamper with and occlude orthodox understandings of the divine will for humanity and creation.

**Quick notes: no, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value in the liberal rights tradition. No, this doesn’t mean that if the liberal rights-based theory of property isn’t consonant with Christian thought, then its opposite (usually conceived as communism) must be necessary.

Reducing Abortion on the Margins Redux

In my last post in response to the NRO’s critique of my American Conservative piece on using a child allowance to reduce abortions, I argued that a child allowance would be a humane response to the available data on poverty and abortion. I used polling data to argue that marriage is not less valued among the poor, but rather that it is less tenable. I also argued that Nordic countries like Sweden have seen their abortion rates rise as they have liberalized their economy and increased their poverty and child poverty rates. Lastly I argued that since the child allowance wouldn’t be means-tested but rather universal, it would not come with the harms associated with a means-tested program, and would instead host only harms identical (with respect to social outcomes re: single parenting and marriage) that a child tax credit would.

The NRO has responded again, now to my response. It is again a very kind and thoughtful response! I appreciate the calm, considered tenor of this debate, because as the author points out, arguments on this topic usually spiral into unhappiness quickly. The piece goes on:

I wonder if women would receive an increase in their allowance for each additional child they had. This would likely result in an increased number of children raised by single mothers and in a generally more promiscuous society.

Yes: the allowance would come per child. Countries with a child allowance (United Kingdom, various Scandinavian) have shown no increase in birthrates. Stable countries usually have lower birthrates, and universal social insurance programs are stabilizers. The child allowance would never be enough for a person to profit off of it. Therefore I doubt most women would go through the harm to work and relationships to intentionally increase the number of kids they had. On the other hand, I would rather a woman have a number of children than abort them. This is a bullet I’m willing to bite; all pro-lifers should be willing to bite it as well. We can’t be a culture that welcomes life only for well-off families.

The piece goes on:

I have additional concerns that there will be a crowding-out effect. Often when the government takes a more active role in solving a particular problem, private endeavors recede. I would hate to see pregnancy resource centers lose out on donations because the government is taking on a more active role in caring for mothers. Such centers attempt to alleviate the economic pressures of women facing crisis pregnancies.

I worry that this is not consistent with the piece’s internal logic. If extra resources cause single parenting and therefore encourage irresponsible sexuality, they do so whether they come from the state or the private sector. Dollars from a pregnancy center are no less spendable than dollars from the state. Therefore if you worry that a child allowance would encourage women to have promiscuous reproductive sex, then the same worry should extend to crisis pregnancy centers. That is, unless you intend crisis pregnancy centers would necessarily function less effectively than a child allowance, meaning that they have an element of ‘planned obsolescence.’ In that case, they are not quite as pro-life as a child allowance program would be, which is very curious given their mission! I am not sure I would mourn the loss of organizations that intend not to help very much.

On the other hand, if they do intend to help women give birth and raise kids, then they also bring the harms associated with any other program that would help women give birth and raise kids, like a child tax credit or child allowance. I suspect these harms, which relate to sexual mores, would not actually follow. (In fact, I imagine they precede as causal factors, not post-hoc outcomes.) But even if they did, they would be common to any program granting women greater resources for caring for children. Again, as pro-lifers, this is a potential we have to cope with. Carrying on:

Additionally, even though the U.S. economy was in poor shape during the late 2000s, the abortion numbers did not increase the way some had anticipated. Others have argued that the abortion-rate decline stalled, but it certainly did not increase during this time. Maybe economic pressures are responsible for fewer abortions than Bruenig thinks.

I can only go by the available data, which shows poor women have the greatest number of abortions, and that a majority of them give their financial unpreparedness as a reason for seeking abortion. I cannot estimate alternative reasons other than those they give. But I titled my last post ‘reducing abortion at the margins’ for a reason: I acknowledge a child allowance would not eliminate abortion. It would likely reduce it at the margins, which I still consider a win. It also has huge and obvious benefits for women who are poor and never considered abortion to begin with, which is the massive underwater iceberg bulwark of support for such a program. The abortion reduction would be, by the lights of most, a fringe benefit.

Which is to say, most people who support programs that give parents more money to raise kids aren’t as interested in the abortion reducing potential of such programs as I am. So the widespread support for, say, the reformocon child tax credit is unlinked with abortion generally, but as I pointed out above, would still host all the same harms the NRO is concerned with in terms of enabling moms to raise kids without dads, potentially proliferating the number of single mothers and thus impacting sex culture, and so forth. My question there remains very much open: what is the difference between a CPC, CTC, and child allowance? Why would the former help but the latter harm when they’re all doing the exact same thing, that is, ensuring moms money for taking care of kids?

I think that might remain a mystery. It appears rather to me that we’re looking at a disagreement over the perceived nature of the program as a ‘welfare’ program, which can elicit some conservative discomfort compared to identical private sector efforts or tax-based solutions with identical outcomes. In that case, please let me repeat: the child allowance would not be a welfare program proper, in the sense that it would not be means-tested like SNAP or TANF. It would be a universal program for all parents. Maybe that will help some warm up to it and maybe it won’t, but I still felt it was worth emphasizing.

It is worth it to me to reduce abortion on the margins. To me, this is a sure, stable way to do that which brings a host of benefits unrelated to abortion as well. I have yet to see a proposal that would function in the same way without bearing the same harms. Abortion is not an easy, monolithic thing to approach; it’s a varied and mosaic issue that will likely have to be chipped away at through many different means. But based on what data is available on women who have abortions and their reasons, I do think a child allowance would be a stable, reliable, robust response to the problems poor parents face, and I do not see a reason to imagine its unintended consequences would differ in any significant way from identical private or tax-based responses.