Dignity and placelessness

Gracy Olmstead on Sarah Smarsh’s bookHeartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth“:

“The American Dream has a price tag on it,” she writes. “The cost changes depending on where you’re born and to whom, with what color skin and with how much money in your parents’ bank account. The poorer you are, the higher the price. You can pay an entire life in labor, it turns out, and have nothing to show for it. Less than nothing, even: debt, injury, abject need.”

… many Americans disdain manual labor and the workers who do it. We talk dismissively about those who make our roads, buildings, and airplanes—the farmers who grow our food, the plumbers who fix our toilets, the electricians who make sure our houses have light. We pit blue-collar work against white-collar work as if the latter has greater dignity, meaning, and benefits for society. Yet if push came to shove, we could do without D.C. think tanks much more easily than the men and women who fix our roads. Sadly, all the financial benefits and security go to the knowledge economy workers, while those who make their work possible struggle from paycheck to paycheck. …

There are some important things in this book that conservatives should walk away with. First, we need to do a better job fighting poverty and empowering the poor. Those who call themselves “pro-family” should demonstrate it with policies that support single mothers and new parents (like paid family leave, for one). Sure, it would be better if businesses provided this on their own. But the fact of the matter is that many do not and will not.

Second, our language surrounding the dignity of work and self-sufficiency is good—but it is not sufficient. …

One thought I had while reading Smarsh’s book is that placelessness features largely in the instability and resulting poverty of her story. She does an excellent job explaining why instability is so common among the poor—especially poor women. But I’ve also observed the way embeddedness in good communities (ones with lots of involved citizens, nurturing neighbors, and vibrant associations) has historically fostered better opportunities and social capital for those who stick around, even the poor. Unfortunately, these sorts of communities are on the decline throughout America—which means you have to get lucky in order to find a place like that, or to be born into it. I have increasingly realized that I was one of the lucky ones. There’s a privilege that comes not just from a family or an income, but from a place that nurtures and grows you. Fewer and fewer Americans live in those sorts of places.

“Placelessness” reminds me of “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” that I saw sometime last year. It’s a “cinematic portrait of the changing landscapes and shifting values of rural America in the era of industrial agriculture, as seen through the mind’s eye of Wendell Berry.” It’s focused on the intersection of American culture and agriculture, but it’s also a good introduction to some of these concerns of Olmstead and Smarsh.

Constitutional approaches

Adam J. MacLeod writes on the Constitution:

I argue that the terms of our Constitution are intelligible when understood in the context of the centuries-old legal tradition from which they are taken. Today I explain why efforts to render intelligible the U.S. Constitution’s terms without reference to the tradition fall short. I examine four efforts to interpret the Constitution and argue that they succeed only insofar as they point to important aspects of our legal tradition. In tomorrow’s conclusion I describe the legal tradition that supplied our constitutional terms and how those terms can be understood and used in both legal and civic discourse. …

He explores four interpretive schemes: the Novelty Constitution, the Enduring Constitution, and the Axiomatic and Natural Rights Constitutions. MacLeod concludes his analysis in his follow-up piece:

The view that the Constitution evolves as judges invent new understandings of its terms falters, for the expansion of judicial power comes at the expense of judicial legitimacy. The text of the Constitution is not alone sufficient because the Constitution does not define its own terms. Interpretive methods that look to natural law and natural rights are grounded in the Constitution, but they are quite limited in practice. The Constitution is not, in Edward Corwin’s words, “a mystic overlaw.” The law of reason on which it is grounded requires specification in rules and judgments.

In today’s essay I argue that those rules and judgments are packed into the Constitution’s terms. For many of the terms of the Constitution are legal terms, pulled out of the common law. …

So, our Constitution is both particular and universal, both young and ancient. Its rules and specifications change over time, but they were designed to change in keeping with the artificial reason and peculiar institutions of the common law. Our Constitution is both much younger and much older than 231 years.

The common law that our Constitution declares and the common-law rights and duties that it secures have a thousand-year history in England and the United States. And the common law incorporates elements that preceded it by several centuries more. Aspects of our Constitution can be traced back to ancient Babylon, Athens, and Jerusalem. In a sense, our constitution is universal.

Yet our Constitution is also not universal in an important sense. It is ours. It reflects our commitments as a people. We have chosen those norms and institutions that enable our people to flourish, such as private property and the jury trial. We have rejected those that suppress human creativity, such as monarchy. And we have abrogated those that are unjust, such as slavery and racial segregation.

We continue to disagree about matters of civic importance. And today our disagreements are often emotional and expressed with rancor. But understood as an expression of the common law commitments on which it was built, our Constitution still supplies common terms in which we might re-transform our civic discourse into something rational and productive.

Worth reading, especially for non-attorneys interested in making sense of the often sharply different perspectives on what the Constitution really is.

Ambiguity, young people, and discernment

Pope Francis and the Vatican are hosting the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” in Rome this month. Chris Stefanick suggests what Catholic engagement with young people requires right now:

A back-to-basics clarity. I’m not merely speaking about clarity when it comes to specific teachings, but in a more encompassing sense of the word: They want clarity on what, exactly, we have to offer for their lives. And if we can’t answer that for them, they want us to get out of the way.

Our message, the “thing” that we offer, is the Gospel, which, despite all the failures of the Church, remains the best news ever. It’s the news that the human person isn’t a cosmic accident whose destiny is worm food and then nothingness. It’s the message that we’re created with a purpose, redeemed by a loving God who has a plan for our lives, and destined for eternal glory. It’s the message that we’re called to greatness by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. We’re not just invited to call him “friend” and then do what we want. It’s the message that he loves us, even in our weakness, and that his love has deep and profoundly good implications for our lives.

The results are conversions. Every week. A young woman recently approached me after an event and said, “I had an abortion. You’re the first person I’m telling this to. And this is the first time since my abortion that I feel like God can love me again.” I walked her to her priest who heard her confession, and she left a different person. These stories happen all the time. …

Ambiguous language about hard moral issues won’t win souls. After the McCarrick debacle, frankly, vague language from our clerics attempting to be more open-minded and push the envelope on sexual ethics will just seem … well … creepy. (Now is definitely the hour for black-and-white clarity to make a comeback.) …

Creating a rift between new propositions and old moral teachings in an effort to go along with the times won’t make us attractive. It will make us look faithless and confused.

If we want to actually win souls in a world where young people are bombarded by 3,000 ads per day, we have to get back to the basics. We need to be clear about what, exactly, we offer the world. … We have to be known as the Church of the Gospel again.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is in Rome for the Synod, and is a member of its permanent council. At gatherings like these, bishops offer statements called interventions and I’m excerpting from two of Archbishop Chaput’s interventions. First:

Who we are as creatures, what it means to be human, why we should imagine we have any special dignity at all — these are the chronic questions behind all our anxieties and conflicts. And the answer to all of them will not be found in ideologies or the social sciences, but only in the person of Jesus Christ, redeemer of man. Which of course means we need to understand, at the deepest level, why we need to be redeemed in the first place.

If we lack the confidence to preach Jesus Christ without hesitation or excuses to every generation, especially to the young, then the Church is just another purveyor of ethical pieties the world doesn’t need. …

In reality, young people are too often products of the age, shaped in part by the words, the love, the confidence, and the witness of their parents and teachers, but more profoundly today by a culture that is both deeply appealing and essentially atheist.

The elders of the faith community have the task of passing the truth of the Gospel from age to age, undamaged by compromise or deformation. Yet too often my generation of leaders, in our families and in the Church, has abdicated that responsibility out of a combination of ignorance, cowardice and laziness in forming young people to carry the faith into the future. Shaping young lives is hard work in the face of a hostile culture. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is precisely a result of the self-indulgence and confusion introduced into the Church in my lifetime, even among those tasked with teaching and leading. And minors — our young people — have paid the price for it.

And second, Archbishop Chaput on youth and vocational discernment in light of maturity:

In his opening Mass homily, the Holy Father described Jesus as “eternally young.” When I heard this, it reminded me of a song by the artist, Jay-Z, that was popular a few years ago. The song was entitled “Forever Young,” and it was a remake of a popular tune by the German group, Alphaville, from the 1980s. Jay-Z sang for the young – and for all of us – “I want to live forever and be forever young.”

The image of Jesus as “eternally young” is not only beautiful but powerful. As we deal with the many outside pressures on the Church today, and the problems we also face within our believing community, we need to remember that Jesus is alive and vigorous, and constantly offering his disciples an abundant new life. …

Of course, the Jesus who came into the world as an infant did not end his mission as a youth. He matured into an adult man of courage, self-mastery, and mercy guided by justice and truth. He was a teacher both tender and forceful; understanding and patient – but also very clear about the kind of human choices and actions that would lead to God, and the kind that would not.

The wealthy societies of today’s world that style themselves as “developed” – including most notably my own – are in fact underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.

[We need] to be much stronger and more confident in presenting God’s Word and the person of Jesus Christ as the only path to a full and joyful humanity.

I might share one or two more items as the Synod continues, but I’m following it as news filters from Rome. If there’s anything I’ve taken from this so far, it’s how true it is that relationships between different generations can be very difficult, especially for older generations. There’s a continual temptation to “read into” younger generations the same virtues or vices, the same spirit and passions, that characterized your own life, or your own entire generation at an earlier time. This sort of thing makes real encounter with others really difficult, because you’re bringing lots of psychological and emotional baggage into that encounter.

Diminishing specialization

Cal Newport writes on a study by Peter G. Sassone, a Georgia Tech economist, started in 1985 as computers were beginning to come into wide use in the office. The effects of the machines were not what was expected; principally, manager productivity decreased as those whose roles required the greatest degree of creative thought and specialization took on administrative tasks enabled by the machines. Newport writes:

Deploying a technique called work value analysis, Sassone measured not only the amount of work conducted by his subjects, but also the skill level required for the work. He found that managers and other skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees.

He identified several factors that explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff.

The positive impact of this change was that companies needed less support staff. The negative impact was that it reduced the ability of managers and professionals to spend concentrated time working on the things they did best.

Surprisingly, Sassone found that hiring more administrative staff and reducing the number of managers could yield the same outputs:

This rebalancing works because more administrative support means the higher level employees can spend more time working deeply on the activities that produce the most value. Because the former are cheaper to hire than the latter, the result is the same work for less total staffing costs.

This touches on something I think we all have felt with our machines, which is that, yes, on the one hand we can do more than ever before, but on the other, it feels as if we’re sometimes or often accomplishing less in significant and concrete terms.

I’d rather more of us be generalists than specialists when it comes to the quality of our thought, the depth of our attention, the ranginess of our curiosity, and the value of the humanities to harmonize our often unordered experiences into a meaningful whole—but for purposes of corporate performance, Sassone’s study is important.

Selectivity and discipline

Riffing off of Wendell Berry’s reflection that “nothing can take form except within limits,” here’s Matthew Kitchen writing on the problem with a limitless culture of work:

“Always-on culture is weird. It’s not how humans thrive. It’s not how productive people break through to the next level,” said Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism,” which details his philosophy of confidently saying no to things that don’t benefit you—a “disciplined pursuit of doing less,” but doing it better. “Modern culture now acts upon us so constantly that we start reacting to it rather than acting for ourselves.”

Mr. McKeown argues that being selective about how we spend our time turns it into a valuable commodity to be traded, ultimately earning you respect and making you more productive when you’re “on.” For instance, saying no to aimless meetings frees up your office time to finish tasks, eliminating extra work at home. But many of us still are burdened by FOMO—the fear of missing out, or in this case the fear of missing opportunity, of being seen as less hardworking and less reliable than co-workers and thus expendable. According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review study, 43% of those surveyed “sacrifice or significantly suppress other meaningful aspects of who they are” and give in to always-on.

So rather than using technology to augment our work, speeding us out the door in 6 hours instead of 10, or cutting down to an ideal four-day workweek, we’ve misused technology to bolster antiquated workaholic habits.

Aims, objectives, and goals require discipline, and I think discipline requires the sort of “essentialism” that Greg McKeown is talking about. That Harvard Business Review study is really dispiriting, if it’s true that nearly half of Americans “sacrifice or significantly suppress” their own personal and familial wellbeing simply to give the appearance of perpetual engagement.

Faction and trust in politics

I flew back to Washington late last night, and got to enjoy the relative novelty of a tarmac boarding in Charlotte onto our small plane:

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Elizabeth Bruenig has a compelling piece in the Washington Post that’s partly a reflection on American politics and partly a reflection on the necessity of honesty and trust in human affairs:

In American life, politics unfolds almost entirely in a language of lies, and people know when they’re being lied to — and they hate it. …

The reason for all the lying is, at least in part, nonpartisan, and it has to do with the limitations of classical liberalism, meaning the philosophy that underlies our entire system of government. Because liberal democracies aim to be tolerant and inclusive of multiple conflicting versions of the good, they have to find a way for people with vast philosophical differences to talk to each other intelligibly about politics. So we have a language of public reason, as political theorist John Rawls called it, which is a rhetorical universe in which we supply reasons for our political desires that don’t really have anything to do with what we believe or want — or at least, they’re not the primary reasons for what we want. Instead, we supply reasons that we think will be persuasive to people who don’t necessarily have anything in common with us philosophically. …

Politicians are bought and suborned in ways they won’t admit, and ideologically committed in ways they find it difficult or inadvisable to talk about in public. The result is that we all know we’re constantly navigating a web of lies and misrepresentations that possibly have a relationship with the truth and possibly don’t. …

What’s needed, when one political faction honestly intends to understand whether a member of an opposing political faction is guilty of a nigh-impossible-to-prove — but extremely serious — allegation of sexual misconduct, is trust. Each side has to trust that the other wouldn’t advance a scurrilous allegation for dishonest reasons, and likewise that their adversaries wouldn’t ignore a genuine allegation for dishonest reasons. Otherwise, the entire thing is an exercise in brute force: The truth is inaccessible; all that matters is which side has the power to win the day.

What is the cause of inspiration?

Elon Musk settled with the SEC yesterday after it alleged that his “thinking of taking Tesla private” tweet improperly influenced the markets this summer. He remains Tesla’s CEO, but the settlement cost $40 million and forced him out as chairman for three years.

I’m sharing all of this to circle back on something that Kevin Williamson wrote on Musk last month:

Elon Musk tweets that he wants us to read the end notes for T. S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Waste-Land.” He quotes from a brief section of the poem called “Death by Water,” which considers the drowning of a merchant sailor…

“The Waste-Land” is a famously obscure and recondite poem. It is part Grail lore, part social reportage, and part library. The poem, which was originally published with its end notes, is full of references to diverse works of literature, music, and philosophy. Its mood is bleak, and one of its themes is an isolation so deep that “loneliness” doesn’t really capture it — the belief that we are all prisoners inside our own minds (or souls), and that, being unable to pass beyond those walls, we are never able to truly know one another or to be known. …

Elon Musk is not religious. He has a net worth of around $25 billion… He is a man who has, or who could have, almost any material thing a human being might desire. And yet he has spent a year that he describes as “excruciating.” That’s an interesting word, deriving from the Latin word for crucifixion, a punishment that not even the SEC contemplates. (Excrucior is the word Catullus used to describe being tortured by love.) There is excruciating and there is excruciating: Elon Musk’s worst day (as I am sure he appreciates entirely) is not very much like anybody’s worst day in the tragically misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo. But, as Eliot suggests, it’s impossible to know exactly what someone else’s interior life is like. …

Return to Eliot’s divide “between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe in values realized out of time.” …

The desire to do great things is in and of itself motivating — but why? There is pleasure in the exercise of our creative faculties, and men such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have more than a little of what once would have been recognized as moral fervor around them. Gates would heal the world (“Our Global Health Division aims to reduce inequities in health by developing new tools and strategies to reduce the burden of infectious disease and the leading causes of child mortality”) and lead it out of darkness and misery (“creating and scaling market-based innovations to stimulate inclusive and sustainable economic growth”), and there’s nothing to sneer at in that. Musk believes that electric cars will encourage a transition away from fossil fuels, helping to avoid an apocalyptic climate emergency. Agree or disagree, those are well-intentioned programs. But “those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth” must be, in their own conception, rearranging the deck chairs on an existential Titanic that is ultimately headed for maximum entropy and heat death. And surely none of these men is so abject as to be doing all that work in the hopes of being remembered well. There is very little reason to put any value on the good opinion of the general public in our own time, and no plausible reason to think that the high opinion of future generations will deserve any more weight.

But, still: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

What Williamson is raising about Elon Musk and those like him is something like Bill Buckley’s lingering question, “What is the cause of inspiration?

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Art and its markets

Daniel Maidman reflects on art and markets for art:

I’ve been thinking this over for a while. There are a few consequences to the concept of art as a currency. One of them is the theory of monetary commodities, which are objects that are useful as currencies. There’s a set of properties that you need. It has to have a limited supply, but the supply has to expand slowly, which means you need living artists. It has to be interchangeable, which means that each piece has to be more or less similar to each other piece. It has to have no aesthetic value, because to have aesthetic value confuses the source of value of the object. The object has to be valuable because the market has a consensus that it’s valuable and not because it’s valuable in and of itself. It has to be chemically stable. It has to be transportable. All those things define Koons and Hirst. Koons was a finance guy, right? …

I don’t think he ever left finance. I think he just found a more fun way to do it. And it also resolve the weird collusion between the different high-end entities in the art world. The cool-world art schools are, as far as I can tell, mints. A mint validates the currency. And if you go to one of these schools, then you have been validated relative to a certain target market. The market actively conspires to maintain the value of certain objects…

This explains, to some extent, why so much public art at present tends to look not only materially cheap and also trendy or surprising rather than timeless.

Scruton on the sacred and transcendent

I’m sharing the second of two excerpts from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. Each comes from “Believing in God,” his first chapter, and conveys the challenge of belief in light of reason with the conclusion that what both faith and reason share is an interest in knowledge “beyond the horizon” of our world and a pursuit of transcendent experience. Today’s speaks particularly to the human desire for the sacred and the transcendent, and knowledge and experience which are not properly part of observable nature:

That God is present among us and communicating directly with us is a central claim of the Old Testament. This “real presence” or shekhinah is, however, a mystery. God reveals himself by concealing himself, as he concealed himself from Moses in the burning bush, and as he conceals himself from his worshippers in the Tabernacle (mishkhan) and the Holy of Holies. The nouns shekhinah and mishkhan are both from the verb shakhan, to dwell or settle: sakana in Arabic, from which is derived the noun sakīnah, used here and there in the Koran (e.g., al-Baqara, 2, 248) to describe the peace or comfort that comes from God. Dwelling and settling are the underlying themes of the Torah, which tells the story of the Promised Land, and of the people who finally settle there, to build in Jerusalem the Temple whose design and rituals were given to Moses, and which will be a dwelling place for God. As the narrative makes clear, it is not the chosen people only who are in search of a place to settle: it is God too, who can dwell among them only by being ritually concealed from them. As God says to Moses, no man shall look on my face and live. And the whole tormented story of the relation between God and the chosen people brings home to us the terrible truth, which is that God cannot show himself in this world, except by hiding from those whom he traps into trusting him, as he trapped the Jews. The knowledge of his presence comes with the failure to find him.

Metaphysically speaking, this is what we must expect. It is not just that the intervention of a transcendent God in the world of space and time would be a miracle—though miracles, for reasons made clear by Spinoza and Hume, are not the simple exceptions that their defenders make them out to be. It is rather that it is difficult to make sense of the idea that this, here, now is a revelation of an eternal and transcendental being. A direct personal encounter with God, when God is understood in the philosophical way of Avicenna or Aquinas, is no more possible than a direct personal encounter with the number 2. Now you see through a glass darkly, wrote Saint Paul, but then face-to-face. However, by “then” he meant “beyond the here and now,” in the transcendental realm where God resides. Saint Paul may seem to be denying the hidden nature of God; in fact he is affirming it.

And yet the experience of the “real presence” is at the heart of revealed religion, and foundational to the liturgy and ritual both of the synagogue and of the main Christian churches. It is important to grasp this point. Many of those who currently write against religion (and specifically against the Christian religion) seem to think that faith is simply a matter of entertaining beliefs of a cosmological kind, concerning the creation of the world and the hope of eternal life. And these beliefs are imagined to be in some ways rivals to the theories of physics, and exposed to refutation by all that we know of the evolution of the universe. But the real phenomena of faith are nothing like that. They include prayer and the life of prayer; the love of God and the sense of his presence in the life of the faithful; obedience and submission in the face of temptation and the things of this world; the experience of certain times, places, objects, and words as “sacred,” which is to say, in Durkheim’s phrase, as “set aside and forbidden,” reserved for uses that can be understood only on the assumption that these experiences mediate between this world and another that is not otherwise revealed to us. …

People who are looking for God are not looking for the proof of God’s existence; nor would it help them to be persuaded, say, by Aquinas’s Five Ways, or by Avicenna’s version of the cosmological argument, or by any of those specious arguments that have been doing the rounds in recent years, concerning the improbability that the universe should be just as it is, and there be no God as its creator. They are not looking for arguments but for a subject-to-subject encounter, which occurs in this life, but which also in some way reaches beyond this life. Those who claim to have found God always write or speak in those terms, as having found the intimacy of a personal encounter and a moment of trust. The great witnesses to this—Saint Teresa of Avila, Margery Kempe, Saint John of the Cross, Rumi, Pascal—surely persuade us that one part, at least, of the encounter with God lies in the irruption into consciousness of an intersubjective state of mind, but one that connects with no merely human subject. And included within that state of mind is the sense of reciprocity: the sense of being targeted by the Other, I to I. …

One thing is clear, which is that the old theories of magic, associated with Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, Frazer, and the nineteenth-century schools of anthropology, do not explain the sacred. There is a prosaic quality about magic, a here-and-now character, and a practicality too, which have little or nothing in common with the awe-inspiring otherworldliness of sacred things. Consider the examples familiar to us: the Eucharist, and the instruments associated with it; the prayers with which we address God; the Cross, the scroll of the Torah, the pages of the Koran. The faithful approach these things with awe, not because of their magic power, but because they seem to be both in our world, and also out of it—a passage between the immediate and the transcendental. They are both present and absent, like the mishkhan and what it hides from us.

That indeed seems to be a feature of the sacred in all religions. Sacred objects, words, animals, ceremonies, places, all seem to stand at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world, because it belongs in the sphere of the divine, and looking also into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face. Through sacred things we can influence and be influenced by the transcendental. If there is to be a real presence of the divine in this world, it must be in the form of some sacred event, moment, place, or encounter: so at least we humans have believed.

There is truth in Durkheim’s view that sacred things are in some way forbidden. But what is forbidden is to treat a sacred thing as though it belonged in the ordinary frame of nature: as though it had no mediating role. Treating a sacred thing in this day-to-day way is a profanation. One stage beyond profanation is desecration, in which a sacred object is deliberately wrenched from its apartness and trampled on or in some way reduced to its opposite, so as to become mean and disgusting. …

Is there anything that answers to this search for the sacred? Can the eternal be present among us in the way that rewards our search for it? We must not think of this merely as a theological or metaphysical question. For it is a question that inhabits the religious sentiment itself. It is the source of religious doubt and also the challenge offered to faith. …

The real question for religion in our time is not how to excise the sacred, but how to rediscover it, so that the moment of pure intersubjectivity, in which nothing concrete appears, but in which everything hangs on the here and now, can exist in pure and God-directed form. Only when we are sure that this moment of the real presence exists in the human being who experiences it, can we then ask the question whether it is or is not a true revelation—a moment not just of faith but of knowledge…

Autonomy of violence

Bobby Schindler articulates a view of autonomy that he and I have been talking through for a while, which is that an “autonomy of violence” and self-harm pervades life and ethics issues. He writes in CatholicPhilly.com about this, and includes a survey of practical examples around the world that’s worth looking over if you’re not familiar with what’s happening:

Attacks on autonomy and human dignity appear to be intensifying.

Autonomy, of course, refers to our ability to act as independent human beings, with an innate and inviolable human dignity inherent to each of us, regardless of our physical, medical, emotional, psychological, or financial circumstances.

It seems as if so many, however, are intent on reconsidering autonomy to mean something like an “autonomy of self-harm.” In other words, many are using autonomy as a means to advocate for forms of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Yet autonomy has traditionally referred to human good; our ability and desire as well as power to achieve a good life in cooperation with our loved ones, neighbors, fellow citizens, and others. It’s a tragic and perverse situation to use autonomy as a rhetorical battering ram for advocating the rights of human beings to intentionally end their own lives.

As so much of our attention is focused on dramas of the political arena, stories which ought to be receiving attention are simply not. Certainly, meaningful public dialogue surrounding issues like autonomy and human dignity are not taking place in any sustained manner. …

Autonomy means nothing if we allow laws or medical perspectives to compromise the innate and inviolate human dignity each person possesses, regardless of their state of health. When someone is encouraged to accept euthanasia or assisted suicide, and even worse, when individuals are forcibly euthanized against their will or without consent, the power of law and medicine become weapons rather than shields.

No humane society can accept the normalization of intentional human killing.

In practice, we’re too often favoring a simplistic “might makes right” sort of ethics when it comes to life and death issues, where autonomy exists in a limited way—enabling a sort of “autonomy of the powerful” to impose themselves and their judgments on comparatively weaker persons.