First Things RSS Feed - Paul J. Griffiths
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Tue, 01 Apr 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Richard Rodriguez has been an occasional companion of mine for more than thirty years, since the publication of
Hunger of Memory
in 1982. I feel I know him well enough, in part because so much of his writing is autobiographical; but until last September, I’d known him only on the page. Then I heard and saw him give a talk in Dayton, Ohio, shortly before this book was published, which confirmed my admiration for this writer whose work is consistently intelligent, beautiful, and deeply Catholic. Writers who manage even one of these are rare enough; those who consistently combine all three are something close to a wonder.
Sat, 01 Jun 2013 00:00:00 -0400Robert Bellah understands religion as an activity that takes us beyond the quotidian. The everyday world is ordered by lack, of food, shelter, sex, and so on; it is a world of demand and pressure and need. The non-quotidian world is ordered by excess; it is a world of play and sleep and is eventually given shape and made habitable by ritual, language, art, and so on, with all their accompaniments and entails. In this non-quotidian world, the fundamental mode of religious activity is ritual, and ritual serves as deeply meaningful play. Play is the paradigmatic non-quotidian behavior.
]]>The Good Samaritan's Burdenhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/02/the-good-samaritans-burden
Fri, 01 Feb 2013 00:00:00 -0500In his interestingly wrong-headed essay, Paul Miller argues that there are extraterritorial evils so great that they oblige the United States to intervene militarily to preempt them when they threaten, to put a stop to them when they’ve already begun, and to redress their consequences when they’re over.
Afghanistan is the case that motivates Miller’s argument, and the principal purpose of his essay is to advocate a long-haul American military presence there. But what makes the Afghan atrocities different from others? What, for example, about the current large-scale violence in Congo, Mali, Sudan, and Syria? What about the regime-produced body count from starvation and preventable disease in North Korea during the last two generations and continuing today? What about the ongoing mass killing of the unborn in the United States and many other countries? What about the large-scale civilian death produced by the American invasion of Iraq from 2003 through 2011? And so on.
Most of these cases—perhaps all of them—have brought about more non-combatant deaths by violence than anything that happened in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and more than are likely should we withdraw. If body count is among the criteria for distinguishing exceptional from quotidian evils, as surely it should be, it is hard to see what makes Afghanistan distinctive. Miller predicts that civil war like that of the 1990s will follow a precipitate American withdrawal. Perhaps, but compared to the decade of warfare since the American invasion, that might seem to Afghans no bad exchange.
Miller never shows why Afghanistan requires the soothing Samaritan presence of the United States’ armed forces while Mali and Syria and North Korea do not. This troubles him. He sees that his position can easily be understood to require military intervention in and occupation of many places, so as to provide a worldwide Pax Americana as the Romans once imposed their Pax Romana. And because he doesn’t want to arrive at that conclusion, he must, somehow, block it.
Of course, he says, his argument doesn’t mean that “the United States should have a direct combat role against every Islamist insurgency in the world.” No, we should intervene militarily only when an “insurgency threatens to overwhelm local governments or threatens broader regional instability.” But, then, why haven’t we invaded Yemen? Why no occupation and stabilization of Somalia?
He also says that what he argues is “not a call for an American empire.” But he offers, so far as I can see, no reason for this denial, other than the pragmatic claim that we can’t manage it. But that isn’t an argument against empire; it’s an argument that we should be as much of an empire as we can manage.
He then insists that “the United States does not have a moral duty to intervene everywhere there is injustice” and that we have such a duty only when we are faced with exceptional evils. Because he provides no way to distinguish exceptional evils from mere injustices, this is no more than hand waving.
Perhaps there is a modest pragmatic case for extending the occupation of Afghanistan beyond 2014”I don’t myself think so, but that’s a matter for reasonable disagreement. What there certainly isn’t is a high moral case of the sort Miller makes for continuing occupation.
There are deeper difficulties with Miller’s argument, peculiarly American and deeply dangerous ones.
The first is that Miller’s use of the Samaritan analogy is objectionable. The Samaritan’s instruments are those of mercy: water, oil, bandages for the wounded body, provision for continued care. The military’s instruments are, mostly, those of violence: guns, Humvees, drones, missiles, helicopter gunships. Tanks aren’t ambulances; bullets aren’t bandages; military encampments aren’t hospitals. To pretend otherwise is both confused and repellent. The Samaritan analogy works beautifully for Doctors Without Borders; it works not at all for the U.S. Army.
The second has to do with Miller’s axiomatic assumption that the political arrangements of the liberal world order are more just than the alternatives, particularly the Islamic alternatives. He doesn’t argue for this, but it’s not obvious, and probably not true. Capitalist democratic states have their own characteristic forms of injustice, their own peculiar ways of shedding innocent blood, their own idiosyncratic contributions to the malformation of the human. We Americans, for instance, kill by violence within our own borders and extraterritorially at a rate exceeding that of most contemporary Islamic states, and our history is not less bloody than theirs.
Blindness to these facts is necessary for a view like Miller’s to gain traction. But it is an indefensible blindness, and, I think, a very American one. We tend to excuse—or not to see—the blood we shed, because we are dazzled by the ideals in the service of which we take ourselves to be shedding it.
The third difficulty has to do with Miller’s belief that we can easily (or at all) predict the outcome of what we do militarily. He assumes that things will be better for Afghans if the United States continues its occupation than they would be were it to be ended summarily. This is an irrational assumption. A glance at recent attempts to predict the results, short- or long-term, of extraterritorial military adventures shows that, even when some prediction turns out to have been right, so many made at the same time turn out to have been wrong that we can have no confidence in the rightness of our predictions. Miller seems blithely unaware of this. That too is culpable.
Miller’s argument is a moral one, and I respect him for that. But it is vitiated, again in a very American way, by overconfidence, which is the fundamental and constitutive American sin, evident already in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”). The fundamental question, the one I worry about in the dark of the night, is whether we can resist the temptation to think that the only proper limit on our use of force to remake the world in our image is our capacity to deploy it. Miller has not resisted that temptation. His position is an imperial one, at least by aspiration, and that means blood and violence and darkness, as utopian imperial aspirations always do.
Does justice require that the United States continue, open-endedly, its occupation of Afghanistan? No. The argument Miller makes yields that conclusion only at the unacceptable cost of requiring morally a Pax Americana. The argument is distressingly intimate with a culpable blindness to the deformities of the liberal world order, and it requires an unjustified and unjustifiable optimism about our capacity to predict outcomes.
Can we do better? Perhaps, if we learn to lament our military necessities rather than celebrate them, and if we learn to separate the works of mercy from those of violence and to act as if we believed such a separation important. Then we might indeed become a beacon of hope for the world, rather than the reviled symbol of empire that we too often are.
And as for Afghanistan? We should do what we are doing, which is to withdraw militarily with all due speed. And we should offer the angels of mercy, the true Samaritans—doctors and teachers and engineers and donors, in quantity and without stint—to whichever government eventually emerges. Those efforts too, should they occur, would inevitably fail to some considerable extent. But they would be the right thing to do. And they would be beautiful, acts worthy of America’s own beauty.
Paul J. Griffiths
is Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School.
]]>Public Life Without Political Theoryhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/08/public-life-without-political-theory
Wed, 01 Aug 2012 00:00:00 -0400 The following is a response to Patrick J. Deneens
The other response, by Daniel J. Mahoney, can be found
]]>Our Stories and God’shttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/03/our-stories-and-gods
Thu, 01 Mar 2012 00:00:00 -0500 The Sense of an Ending
?by Julian Barnes
?Knopf, 163 pages, $23.95
]]>Review of Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammarhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/02/review-of-intellectual-appetite-a-theological-grammar
Mon, 01 Feb 2010 00:00:00 -0500 Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar
by Paul Griffiths
CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, 235 PAGES, $24.95
]]>From Eire to Eternityhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/01/from-eire-to-eternity
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 00:00:00 -0500 A Very Brief History of Eternity
by Carlos Eire
Princeton, 258 pages, $24.95
]]>The Nature of Desirehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/the-nature-of-desire
Tue, 01 Dec 2009 00:00:00 -0500This is the monstrosity in love, lady,” Troilus tells Cressida in Shakespeare’s play, “that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” Human desire, in other words, is doubly infinite: We are perpetually unsatisfied when we get what we want, and we are capable of wanting anything at all.
]]>The Very Autonomous Steven Pinkerhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/002-the-very-autonomous-steven-pinker
Tue, 05 Aug 2008 00:00:00 -0400 In May, Steven Pinker published in the
a jeremiad against dignity as a tool of thought in bioethics. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, works at the interface of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and psychology. He is, like most of that kind of psychologist, a materialist and naturalist in philosophy, and a Democrat in politics”and he is reflexively allergic to interventions in public-policy debates by Jews and Christians who speak and think as such.
He usually writes a clear, energetic, and winsome prose, but The Stupidity of Dignity was densely clotted with passion and threaded darkly with irrational hatreds. The occasion was Pinker’s reading of
Human Dignity and Bioethics
, a 550-page volume of essays commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Several things distress him about the volume.
First, he doesn’t like the fact that many of its contributors work for Christian institutions or are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life. He is especially exercised by the prominence of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the volume’s essays, even in those by non-Catholics. And he is even more exercised by the connections that some of the council’s members, and more of the volume’s contributors, have with
. (Along the way, Pinker asserts, incorrectly, that the council’s original chairman, Leon Kass, has been a board member of
On its face, these worries are instances of simple, dogmatic antireligious sentiment: If it’s Catholic or Jewish, it must be bad. Pinker himself sees this, sometimes, and draws back from it: Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality . . . . Of course, the validity of an argument cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions. But these
are interspersed with several paragraphs”perhaps one-fourth of the entire piece”in which these motives and affiliations are expounded at length.
Second, and more substantively, Pinker thinks that dignity is largely useless as a moral concept and that the uses it does have are not distinctive. It has, he thinks, no currently clear and agreed definition, and it is relative in the sense that its meaning varies according to time, place, and culture. This is the fungible-and-relative objection.
When applied to questions in bioethics, Pinker insists, the notion of dignity produces deeply negative results, including the rejection of the principle that medical practice ought to maximize health and flourishing; rejection of the modern conception of freedom; advocacy of pro-death and anti-freedom views (said specifically of Leon Kass’ deployment of the dignity idea); and support of moralistic justification[s] for expanded government regulation of science, medicine, and private life. This is the bad-results objection.
In light of these objections, Pinker thinks (following the bioethicist Ruth Macklin) that bioethical argument ought to replace
. That concept of autonomy provides all that’s needed by way of safeguard against abuse, and it does so without the drawbacks of dignity.
Well. Let’s take the fungible-and-relative criticism first. About this, Pinker is largely correct. It is indeed the case that there are wide and deep differences among the contributors to the volume he discusses as to what dignity means and, therefore, what it permits and rules out. This fact, by the way, calls into question Pinker’s depiction of the volume as a stalking-horse for the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church: If it were that, there’d be less variation on this matter than there is.
He’s also right that understandings of what it means to be dignified or to have dignity have varied over time. This is obviously true with respect to which human behaviors are thought dignified: Habits of dress provide the most obvious examples of variation (near-nakedness at dinner is dignified in some places and times, and very much not so in others), but it is true, too, with respect to sexual and eating habits (Kass thinks licking ice cream cones in public undignified; I, like Pinker, do not). Pinker is right, too, about variance in understandings of what human dignity essentially consists in. Some have thought that human dignity is given most essentially by being an image of God; others that it is given most fundamentally by being capable of rational thought or by feeling pain while knowing that one is doing so. The candidates are numerous.
But it’s hard to see why Pinker takes this to be a criticism of the concept. He certainly does not tell us why. He merely opposes it to the concept of autonomy, as though that idea were transparent and thus neither fungible nor relative. But of course it is at least as opaque, fungible, and relative as dignity. Though it has a much shorter history, autonomy exhibits at least as much variation in the ways it has been understood and applied as dignity does.
This is because autonomy, like dignity, is a high-order abstraction in theoretical anthropology, intimately linked in any particular instance with some particular and disputable understanding of what human beings are. Appeals to autonomy made by a materialist”someone who thinks that a complete inventory of what there is in the cosmos includes only things that take up space”look different from such appeals made by a Jungian or a Freudian or a Marxist. Terms such as
rest, whenever they are deployed, in the close embrace of detailed and particular construals of what it is to be human. Pinker’s sleight of hand in his diatribe is to pretend (duplicitously?”for surely he knows better) that this is not so in the case of autonomy. The fungible-and-relative criticism is no more than hand waving, a thoughtless prejudice given verbal form.
More interesting is the bad-results objection: the claim that those who like to talk about human dignity are thereby led to have public-policy thoughts they shouldn’t have and that certainly ought not be enacted in a modern and free society. By contrast, he says, the public-policy thoughts of those who like autonomy-talk belong in such a society and ought to be enacted there.
Pinker offers few examples to support this contention. So I’ll provide them for him. Autonomy-talkers typically support, among many other things, the effective absence of legal constraint on the availability of the following: the taking of human life in the womb; the bringing into being of humans as sources of stem cells; the bringing into being of humans as sources of cells and tissue for other humans (the English have a nice phrase for this”savior siblings); the freedom to kill the sick by removing nutrition and hydration from them; and the medical killing of those who seek and consent to it. Dignity-talkers are likely to oppose these public-policy positions. Autonomy-talk, therefore, provides what dignity-talk prevents: To replace the latter with the former yields, on the dominant present understanding, real difference. Pinker knows this. It’s just that he’d like to avoid arguing about it.
Of course, autonomy-talkers will not ordinarily describe what they advocate in the terms I’ve just used. That fact provides more evidence, if any is needed, that there is no transparency in these matters: How you prefer to describe these public-policy questions is inevitably deeply articulated with what you think human beings are, and are for. There is a real debate to be had”and it is being had; the volume to which Pinker objects is a contribution to it”between advocates of different understandings of these matters. It is to Pinker’s discredit to attempt an end run around these debates by excluding some positions on them as inappropriate to a modern democracy. To do that is obscurantist.
The deep question here is not that of transparency or religion or democracy or freedom. It begins, rather, with a need to find out what autonomy-talk and dignity-talk dispose us to think and advocate. The short answer is that autonomy-talkers such as Pinker are likely to think of worth principally in terms of capacity and thus to draw small the circle of those understood to be human and thereby in principle exempt from deliberate killing or damage. Dignity-talkers, Catholic or not, are likely to think of worth principally in terms of gift and thus to draw that same circle large. The quantity of blood shed differs significantly.
From there, we need to consider a question of truth. Are we humans better characterized as autonomous or as dignified? An equally short answer to this is that autonomy-talk scants, sometimes to the point of ignoring, our dependence on others: All that each of us has”every capacity, every skill, the fact that we are and continue to be”is due to the generosity of others. Autonomy-talk, to the extent that it denies this, says something false. Dignity-talk, to the extent that it affirms this, says something true.
There is a further incoherence in Pinker’s argument. He objects to the overweening hubris and soothsaying tendencies of many of the writers in
. They predict dystopias with excessive confidence, he says, and a look at past predictions shows that we ought not take present ones seriously. He is right about prediction on matters such as this: We can’t do it, and we shouldn’t try. But then Pinker indulges it: If we use legislation to delay biomedical progress by only a decade, he writes, then millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. It’s touching that Pinker has such confidence in his own predictive capacities, but it’s troubling that he does not see that his strictures on prediction apply to his own. If those who think that
Brave New World
is about to come true are soothsayers, then why aren’t those who think that stem-cell research will cure millions within a decade soothsayers, too?
Pinker has an odd imaginative disability. He seems to think that novels like
Brave New World
are principally of no value as predictions of the future, and so he makes a great deal, negatively, of his opponents’ appeals to them. But a better view is that novels like Huxley’s engage the imagination, permitting us, sometimes, to see more deeply into what is implied by an apparently innocuous proposal than would a position paper.
It is perhaps not surprising that some of the greatest novelists now writing in English are treating Huxley’s topic again, and in ways that do engage the imagination deeply. I commend to Steven Pinker’s attention, for the nourishing of his apparently undeveloped imaginative capacity, Margaret Atwood’s
Oryx and Crake
(2003) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s
Never Let Me Go
(2005). There’s more suggestive wisdom about many issues in bioethics to be found in these books than in Pinker’s The Stupidity of Dignity or even in the pages of
Human Dignity and Bioethics
Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.