Thursday, March 26, 2009

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on Economics and Morality

My Catholic readers are going to love this link:

Pope Benedict XVI is too traditionally conservative for my tastes, a comment a real Catholic ought to consider as a compliment. Regardless of his political beliefs, the Pope's 1986(!) essay makes some very good points. Take this paragraph, for example:

The great successes of this [free market] theory concealed its limitations for a long time. But now in a changed situation, its tacit philosophical presuppositions and thus its problems become clearer. Although this position admits the freedom of individual businessmen, and to that extent can be called liberal, it is in fact deterministic in its core. It presupposes that the free play of market forces can operate in one direction only, given the constitution of man and the world, namely, toward the self-regulation of supply and demand, and toward economic efficiency and progress.

What the Pope is saying seems all too prescient, given the recent collapse of the banking sector. The Pope continues to make some common sense points when he quotes Peter Koslowski: “The economy is governed not only by economic laws, but is also determined by men.” In other words, the free market may be a relatively good path, but men have flaws, and their decisions impact the free market. It sounds so simple when the Pope says it, you almost want to resurrect Milton Friedman for a debate.

The Pope's main point is that free market systems require self-restraint, and religion provides self-restraint. As a result, a free market system without religion probably won't be ethical and won't include self-restraint. Extrapolating from these points, the Pope is arguing that religion is required to inject ethics and discipline into the ethics-less enterprise of the free market.

Again, the Pope no doubt makes excellent points. Ethics can flow from religion, but he veers off-course when he argues that self-restraint and discipline are necessarily tied to religion. It is true that religion can produce self-restraint and discipline; however, self-restraint can be learned without religion. Given America's wise policy of separating church and state, we need to determine how to effectively teach all of our children self-restraint and other ethical behavior without using religion.

Law schools have attempted to teach ethics without religion, but almost every law school ethics course is a joke amongst students. This is because too much of the course relies on counter-intuitive case studies, such as defense lawyers who know where a body is buried but cannot reveal the location because of attorney-client privilege. Since lawyers have failed to create broadly applicable ethics courses, we need to go back to the time when ethics was a central part of education.

How do we do this? At first blush, it seems simple, because the subject matter already exists. Learned philosophers, which would certainly include religious philosophers, have written volumes on ethics. Sadly, most high school and college students lack the reading or analytical ability to study Immanuel Kant, Socrates, and Thomas More. Ultimately, the problem isn't available content, but the willingness to read and to spend time reading complicated texts. I hate to sound so stodgy, but television bears much of the blame. Given the way humans are designed--with traces of the hunter in all of us--visual stimulation is more powerful than the written word. As long as children are exposed to hours of television on a daily basis, their ability to read and to have the attention span to read profound works will evaporate. Even among the children I coach in basketball, I can see a discernible difference in attention span among the parents who restrict television time and the ones who do not.

But it's not just television that's the problem--the intellectual value of all visual media has declined precipitously. For example, I love old movies. I notice they are slower in pace, but I don't mind. More important, Hollywood designed the dialogue of older films for educated adults; consequently, movies challenged audiences and forced children and teenagers to evolve to a higher linguistic standard to keep up with mainstream culture. Just compare Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Man for All Seasons with most of the films in today's theaters. Outside of David Mamet's films, intelligent dialogue is a rarity in most modern films.

How does a society stop the corrosion of intellectual discourse, which includes ethics, when major media channels are dumbing down dialogue everywhere? I don't know the answer, but I do know this: when we implement a culture that prizes reading and books above television, we will be on the right path. Reading great books used to be automatic for society's elites, the college-educated, and the upper class. Today, it's hard to imagine George Bush or Sarah Palin fully understanding Shakespeare or Erich Maria Remarque. Pope Benedict XVI is correct that the free market needs disciplined practitioners to prevent itself from turning excessive. It's too bad he sees only one (unlikely) path to get to the promised land of self-restraint.

1 comment:

Jan Baker said...

The question put in this post is whether religion is or is not a necessary platform to a just and moral society and suggests that justice and morality are possible without public or explicit reference to God. The poster says the American separation of church and state makes such a condition, neutral one might say, essential.

That's an astute observation, but there is another possibility: let us abandon the futile discussion of whether or not it is possible to induce men to tell the truth without frightening them with a final judgment after death; let us just discard the separation of church and state instead and teach ethics the old-fashioned way, with the ten commandments scribed on the courthouse walls.

Because once posited that there is a Creator, justice itself demands that He be worshipped. And if the God in the Judeo-Christian religion crowds out, in the US, Allah and Kali and Buddha, so be it. If one, knowing about this God, does not fall upon one's knees, if one does not find the invocation of this God the right beginning and ending of each day, not only in every home, but in the public square, an necessary as one's daily vitamin and one's daily jog to a normal life, then one has lost the whole romance of life and substituted something stale and sad for something vivid and compelling and transcedent over small stuff, like death and suffering.

Without God there are no saints, and without saints life just isn't worth it. That kind of hell-for-leather, in-your-face, fuck-it, I-love sainthood, or nothing.

I know there are better reasons, more compelling arguments, but this is the one that matters to me. The separation of church and state is just too puny, and nothing to live by, and we need not frame out social philosophy just to be consistent with something so small. Yes, conflict comes from this. By civilized people, this conflict can give the energy to spin out the great centrifugal sparkwheel that mankind is--or can be, or ought to be.

Would you die for the truth if there were no God? Would you serve the poor graciously if there were no God? These are necessities to civilization! You know those who work with the poor, teachers and nurses and such, who do not do it for love, but for a paycheck, or have you been lucky enough to avoid them? Why do you think the world found it useful to swear on a Bible? Didn't they have enough time, since man began, to find out how much is helped if they swore on their widowed mothers? Pagans are notoriously poor credit risks.

That is to say nothing of the possibility of--and tradition of, among some nations--tolerance for all other faiths, nor the possibility of peace among them. But the Judeo-Christian God we were taught to call Father rules, and deserves both private and public worship. He deserves it. No man with a heart could give less. It's the way love is.

I can't prove anything, of course I can't, but I know dead when I smell it.