When to be Progressive

Monday, January 26, AD 2009

Being a contarian sort of creature, I’ve been wanting for some time to write a post on why the progressive instinct is sometimes the right one. I’m quite certain that neither conservatism nor progressivism, properly understood, is the only possible view for the moral and reasonable citizen — and yet I find myself impeded in this by being in fact a very temperamentally conservative person.

First off, I’d like to suggest that as most precisely used “conservative” and “progressive” (I’m avoiding the term “liberal” here because it strikes me as having an even more confusing and increasingly imprecise meaning) are very relative terms. The progressive seeks to change current social structures, attitudes and political institutions in order to make them better. He seeks to progress. Conservative seeks to preserve existing structures and institutions, and when he accedes to change he urges that it be done slowly in order to avoid the disruption which rapid change often results in.

I would argue that there are some times when we should follow the progressive instinct, others when we should clearly follow the conservative one, and many in which it is a matter of debate which should be followed.

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51 Responses to When to be Progressive

  • “A society without the means to change itself is without means of its own preservation.” – Edmund Burke

  • Chesterton has m any essays on being progressive; he is generally critical. And the reason foe that is the failure to define [even more or less] what is meant by being “progressive”. A brake-less car running downhill is progressing at greater and greater speed.

    The good of progress can lie only in progressing to a particular goal.

  • I think Gabriel nailed it. The whole idea that “change” is good is simply wrong, as wrong as the notion that “change” bad. Neither is true, if the change is good in intention, rightness of the act, and a result that is good, it is good, otherwise it is bad. Those generally referred to as “conservative” here are those who resist changes they believe to fail one of these tests, and to be in favor of those changes which they believe to pass all of these tests. My best understanding of “progressive” is the imperative to change the rightness of the “act” or even the definition of “good result”.

    I’m not sure I would consider the American Revolution progressive, it was not a revolution as such but an establishment of independence based on established principles and natural law, that is much different from a revolution.

  • Chesterton is a man with a thought on everything, and now that I think about it there’s one which touches closely on what I was trying to get at here. In 1924 newspaper column he wrote:

    “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types–the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine.”

    Now, I would agree that many progressives now (as in 1924 and as in 1789) hail change for change’s sake, but I think to a great extent that stems from a shorthand in which they assume that everyone must share their ideas of what the goal of society ought to be. One can hardly progress without a goal you’re progressing towards, and if you ask someone why they support same sex marriage or abortion rights or some such you won’t get, “Because that’s a change” but rather “Because marriage should be any kind of loving compact between two adults” or “Because women need to be equal to men not slaves to their wombs.” I think those are things we should run away from terribly fast rather than progressing towards the, but they’re definitely goals.

    Indeed, in the wider sense, I’d argue that one of the basic differences between progressives and conservatives is often that progressives believe human society is mutable and that we can thus achieve a world with no proverty, or no ignorance, or no war. So progressivism often seeks big, world changing solutions which will solve big problems. Conservatives are (or ought to be) much more modest in their goals and recognize that society is not perfectable. But in this comes the danger of hesitating to correct evils that _can_ be ameliorted.

    As for the American Revolution, my question would be: To what extent were the principles and natural law which formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence truly seen as established at the time? Only a couple generations before the people asserting the right of the representatives of the people over the rights of the king were the Roundheads of the English Civil War and the Parliamentarians of the Glorious Revolution — in neither case people one could label as “conservative”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m highy supportive of the ideals of the American Revolution — I’m just not sure one can rightly label them “conservative” within their own context — whereas in our present day to a great extent it is conservatives who want to hold on to a more classical American vision of representative government while progressives seek a much more all-encompassing modern state.

  • DarwinCatholic,
    As for the American Revolution, my question would be: To what extent were the principles and natural law which formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence truly seen as established at the time? Only a couple generations before the people asserting the right of the representatives of the people over the rights of the king were the Roundheads of the English Civil War and the Parliamentarians of the Glorious Revolution — in neither case people one could label as “conservative”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m highy supportive of the ideals of the American Revolution — I’m just not sure one can rightly label them “conservative” within their own context — whereas in our present day to a great extent it is conservatives who want to hold on to a more classical American vision of representative government while progressives seek a much more all-encompassing modern state.

    I think if you accept my premise, that conservatives are not opposed to change by nature but that the change must meet the overriding principles of good intent, right action, and good result, then the American declaration of independance is conservative (not that it is not “progressive” either). The right of self determination has a long history in jurisprudence, recognized in the Magna Carta 500 years before. Keep in mind that the turning point for the declaration was not the fact that the colonies were subject to royal rule as were all the constituencies of the British Empire, but that they lacked the representation which was afforded to the English alone. In fact, it was not strictly King George alone who was oppressing the colonies but the British Parlaiment.

    In my point of view, to be conservative is to believe in certain absolutes principles, and then to apply those principles to the situation of the day. Take the “New Deal” it was opposed by conservatives at the time, but today the damage of dismantling the Federal welfare state that it resulted in would be so grave that no mainstream conservative would support it. On the other hand, most conservatives believe that reforms can and do improve the situation, and so they support them.

    Progressivism, I think decries the possibility of absolutes which might interfere with the remaking of society to the absolute equality they seek.

    Matt

  • We cannot escape the Enlightenment, liberal framework of our existence. It is in everything, which is not all bad…..but I would say – with a recent VN debate on my mind – that a sentiment of morality, custom, the good, virtue, is the way to go….anti-ideology, anti-totalizing. This is not so much “conservative” as it is humanist.

    Much of American conservatism is heavily infused with liberal, EN, contractual thought….the assumptions of Locke, basically. But liberty and freedom as first virtue is a false anthropology. We should be free insofar as we are free to seek the good! Goodness and virtue are of the highest value.

  • I think the “progressive” label is misleading. I began moving from left to right when I started noticing how crestfallen and sour certain writers at “The Nation” were about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of Soviet style socialism. What in the world was “progressive” I wondered, about clinging to a system which had produced so much death and misery?

    Of course, liberals are not Communists. But the liberal prescription for solving human ills has not changed. Larger government and more government control and confusing charity with spending other people’s money. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if these social programs actually worked. But I lived in Washington DC for 13 years, a laboratory for every social program dreamt of and the crime rate never seemed to improve, the public schools got ever worse and the pot-holes got ever larger. More and bigger government was keeping a lot of people in Arlington and Alexandria and Georgetown employed – but was it really helping the folks in Anacostia?

    When people today talk of Obama’s “New New Deal” I remember that the first New Deal prolonged and deepened the Depression, which only came to an end with WWII. The “New New Deal” is not new, not fresh, and I really fear that it will turn a recesssion into a depression. Good news if you’re a left-wing policy wonk looking for employment in DC, bad news for the rest of us.

    Your post is a good reminder that we must have the wisdom to discern positive change from destructive change. One thing I truly admire liberals for is their support of MLK and the civil rights movement of the early ’60’s. The tragedy is that MLK was assassinated and more radical groups moved to the fore.

  • The fatal flaw in “progressivism” as a political ideology is that it ultimately reduces to the force of will. Might makes right; the raw exercise of power determines the Good. All is about dominant power structures. There is no appeal to a transcendent order, and there is no sense of telos. Change pointing toward what???

    Jonathanjones02 is right that liberty and freedom as first virtue is a false anthropology that often plagues conservatism; I would add that progressivism is also victim of a false anthropology, that of the preeminence of power. The only correct anthropology is that of the Cross.

  • I have often described myself as an American Conservative, because most of my political philosophy is grounded in the American Revolution: a wariness of governmental power, anti-utopianism, a firm conviction that men are not angels and that govenment is necessary because of that sad fact, that the best government tends to be that government which governs least, a fear of subordinating American sovereignty to any outside power, that the union of the states is necessary to preserve American freedom,etc. I do not agree with the Founding Fathers on everything, but on most things I am in accord with them.

  • Donna,

    great post!

    One thing I truly admire liberals for is their support of MLK and the civil rights movement of the early ’60’s. The tragedy is that MLK was assassinated and more radical groups moved to the fore.

    Conservatives of the 60’s are often villified for obstructing the civil rights movement, but that is not exactly their position:

    Bill Buckley, wrote at the time:
    we applaud the efforts to define their rights by the lawful and non-violent use of social and economic sanctions which they choose freely to exert, and to which those against whom they are exerted are free to respond, or not, depending on what is in balance. That way is legitimate, organic progress.

    Rightly or wrongly, he was applying a conservative view which believed in racial equality, but not one forced on the state or private citizens by the federal government, or by reverse discrimination policies. He may have been in error, but he was not the monster that many have painted civil rights era conservatives. Bear in mind that the civil rights era was preceded by an era when progressives were trying to remove the problem of racial inequality by exterminating “unequal” races…

    An interesting point that I have read of, is that progressives will often grab on to whatever movement is ascendant and ride it’s coat-tails to power. Thus you see a lot of far left infiltration into and integration with civil rights, gay activism, environmentalism, and even Catholic organizations.

  • “Bear in mind that the civil rights era was preceded by an era when progressives were trying to remove the problem of racial inequality by exterminating “unequal” races…”

    To me, nothing says “American progressive” more than Margaret Sanger and eugenics. Or Oliver W. Holmes writing in Buck v. Bell that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” (in favor of forced sterilization). American progressivism seems to follow the prevailing tide of opinion, hence the idea that power is everything.

  • Thus you see a lot of far left infiltration into and integration with civil rights, gay activism, environmentalism, and even Catholic organizations.

    Now that is interesting. On my way home from work, I was trying to think of a movement meant to remedy a genuine social ill that did not swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Far left infiltration certainly is one explanation. Another, perhaps, is just the human tendency to go to extremes, which is magnified in the mass (and another reason to fear an overextended government.) And there’s the rub – how do you seek to right wrongs without setting the law of unintended consequences into effect? I believe it was right, for instance, to decriminalize homosexual actions back in the ’60’s. But nobody then forsaw that gay marriage would be an issue 4 decades down the road. Heck, I don’t believe anybody saw it coming back in the ’80’s.

  • A historical note: France actually had two empires, the second under Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon I, from 1852-1870. A great post nonetheless, however.

  • The Radicals on the Right were wrong during the civil rights era, clearly wrong over the last 8 years by voting for dimwit W; and will, not surprisingly, be wrong on gay marriage and the environment. You are therefore deemed unfortunately hopeless. Please stand aside and let us adults take it from here.

  • “Please stand aside and let us adults take it from here.”

    Don’t you just love it when you make a point, and someone comes along a few hours later to prove it?

  • Please do not mistake your reality with reality. For yours is a special one that requires the full removal of reasoning and common sense. Nothing to fear, however; as cooler heads are now in charge and everything will be okay. It may take a little time for the grown-ups to undo the last 8 years of mid-bogglingly bad policies, but we will ultimately put it all back together again and make it all better. Sleep well, kiddo.

  • Keep digging the hole deeper, Obama-can! It gets better with everything you write.

  • I have to get it out of my system now, for once we move to full socialism I will not need to debate with you radicals as you will all be silenced, your churches shut down, and free-abortion clinics (paid for by your hard earned dollars) will spring up on every corner.

    Oops, did I just let the master plan cat out of the bag?

  • “The Radicals on the Right were wrong during the civil rights era…”

    This is historically false. Republicans were opposed to slavery, not Democrats. Republicans fought for civil rights, not Democrats. As an African American, my civil rights are partially indebted to the Republican men and women who fought for them — not to Democrats.

  • Lyndon Baines Johnson and JFK were republicans, I guess? You may try to rewrite the events of the day but you run into problems when rewriting history. It was the South, the predominantly republicans south, that fought literally to the death to try and continue slavery. I don’t think there were a lot of democrats named Bubba trying to prevent integration in the 60’s. To hang your hat on the republicans as the current representative of minorities is to miss almost every event of the last 150 years. Next you will argue that the republicans are the true protectors of the separation of church and state and are against torture. You have the right idea, just seemed to have the parties mixed up.

  • “and free-abortion clinics (paid for by your hard earned dollars)”

    What was that you were saying about reality? Mexico City, anyone?

  • Obama-can,

    I think you’re getting your history mixed up. It was the Democratically controlled south that seceded from the Union. And it was the Republicans in both chambers of congress that pushed through LBJ’s Great Society legislation.

    This is getting amusing I must say.

  • Eric Brown,
    This is historically false. Republicans were opposed to slavery, not Democrats. Republicans fought for civil rights, not Democrats. As an African American, my civil rights are partially indebted to the Republican men and women who fought for them — not to Democrats.

    This is pretty accurate regarding political parties, but I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to label all democrats as “progressives”, certainly not the the southern democrats who opposed the civil rights movement to the bitter end. Somewhere along the way the elitist northern democrats who really were progressives, realized they could abandon their genocidal approach and ride this wave to power and joined on. It may be fair to criticize democrats and republicans for a lack of action on civil rights in the 60’s, however it is certainly not terribly imbalanced on either side.

    In fairness, I think there were many principled democrats right up until the late 70’s and even into the 80’s who opposed the evils that their party was embracing, they’re all now deceased, or Republicans. Interestingly most of the old warhorses of the democrat party were once pro-life: Kennedy of course, Al Gore, Joe Biden to name a few.

    Obama-can,
    Lyndon Baines Johnson and JFK were republicans, I guess? You may try to rewrite the events of the day but you run into problems when rewriting history. It was the South, the predominantly republicans south, that fought literally to the death to try and continue slavery. I don’t think there were a lot of democrats named Bubba trying to prevent integration in the 60’s. To hang your hat on the republicans as the current representative of minorities is to miss almost every event of the last 150 years. Next you will argue that the republicans are the true protectors of the separation of church and state and are against torture. You have the right idea, just seemed to have the parties mixed up

    The greatest hero of civil rights was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. His nemesis Jefferson Davis was a Democrat.

    The South was heavily democrat until the early 70’s as the “party of death” abandoned it’s moral values entirely and embraced the holocaust of abortion as it’s major plank. So, yes, I imagine that there were quite a lot of democrats named Bubba. You might note, as I saw mentioned somewhere recently that it was a Republican Governor who executed the Brown vs Board of Education ruling… not a deathocrat.

    Here’s a little history lesson:
    Former KKK Exalted Cyclops Robert Byrd served as a Democratic congressman and senator from 1952 until today.

    Where are the progressives? Aside from the quite insane Obama-can, it would be nice to hear a defense of progressivism… or have they retreated to their haven, where posts they can’t refute are suppressed.

  • I almost suspect that Obama-can is pulling our legs. Surely nobody can be so deluded as to believe the South that fought the Civil War was Republican.

    But when I contemplate our public school system, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out they’re teaching that Lincoln, the first Republican president, was actually a Democrat.

    I recently met a young person who was under the impression that Nixon “got us into” the Vietnam War. Because only Republicans get us into wars, dotcha know? He was taken aback when I told him about a certain Mr. Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. No prizes for guessing who that young person voted for in Nov.

  • Looking at a couple of the interesting comments here (which would be basically all the comments except the odd interruptions of Obama-can) I should clarify that I’m essentially using “progressive” as an opposite term to “conservative”, not in the sense of the progressive movement as an entity which has existed in more-or-less unbroken form since the mid-nineteenth century.

    Part of what I’m wrestling with here is that I on the one hand have a strong sympathy with the basic reflexive “let’s not do anything too fast — you can’t change human nature” kind of conservatism, yet at a historical level the classical liberalism of the 18th century which is what so many modern American conservatives want to “conserve” was itself a “liberal” movement against the anciene regime kind of instincts that conservatives of the 18th century had.

  • DarwinCatholic,

    so you’re referring to “progress” vs. “non-progress” more than the progressivist movement. At that point, I think you’re 100% right, there are times for both, and it is very hard to know when each inclination should be followed. The first 2 principles of double effect are relatively easy to determine, the last one is the problem… will this change have a good effect which outweighs the bad effect. Even hindsight doesn’t always provide the needed clarity.

  • And expanding on the above: I’m hesitant to call “conservatism” an approach in which one preserves that which is good and rejects that which is destructive because that basically turns “conservatism” into a shorthand for “good sense as I see it”.

    I would hope that most self declared conservatives would take that approach, but I’m trying to come to some sort of an idea of what the conservative and progressive tendencies are, and I don’t think that turning “conservative” and “progressive” into synonymns for “reasonable” and “unreasonable” will prove to be useful in describing what is a conservative and what is a progressive tendency.

    Certainly, we want both self declared conservatives and progressives to be reasonable, but doing this means understanding what our overall political tendencies are and from that coming to an understanding of when we need to go against them: When the progressive needs to realize that he may not be able to organize a new system better than the status quo; and when the conservative needs to admit that overturning the traditions of the past in a given area would actually be a good thing.

  • “It was the South, the predominantly republicans south, that fought literally to the death to try and continue slavery. I don’t think there were a lot of democrats named Bubba trying to prevent integration in the 60’s.”

    Actually virtually all the Bubbas trying to stop integration in the 60’s were Democrats. George Wallace, Bull Connor, Lester Maddox, Orville Faubus, all Democrats. The Democrats in the South fought vociferously against desegregation. In regard to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 63% of Democrats in the House voted in favor of it, while 80% of Republicans did. In the Senate, 69% of Democrats voted in favor of it, while 82% of Republicans voted in favor. The Democrat Party controlled the South following Reconstruction for two reasons: The Republican Party led the successful fight in the Civil War to preserve the Union and end slavery, and because the Republican party nationally was the party in support of Civil Rights for blacks.

  • DarwinCatholic,

    neither do I think it’s reasonable to consider “conservatism” a monolithic rejection of all change, which is the mischaracterisation used by the left. Progressivism and conservatism have real meanings beyond the root of their name, just as the americanist heresy did. Calling all support of a change “progressive” and all opposition to change “conservative” makes those words really devoid of value in my opinion.

    I do recognize that their may be an subjective aspect, an impulse to change or not change, and that’s perhaps what tends to put us in one camp or the other. I just don’t think it’s something we can generalize on. I know some conservatives, on the far right who have a radical impulse for change (the Ron Paulites are typical of this), it’s perhaps only the moderates on either side who really have a smaller impulse for change.

    I would still like to hear a response to my proposal that “progressivism” allows for the movement of the definition of what is “right” to suit the common good. Take for example the progressivist view that torture is intrinsically evil. This is a change in what is right (at least according to the Church) which for hundreds of years considered that in the circumstances of the times torture was not intrinsically evil, and even carried it out to some extent. Now, one can be conservative and say that in the present context, torture is always evil, but that’s not the same as intrinsically evil. In the same way, it appears many progressivists support women’s ordination despite the fact that Church has absolutely declared it to be impossible, they are seeking to move the goal-posts.

  • Matt,

    Would you say that it is a mischaracterisation of the right to say that “progressivism” is a monolithic movement to change things for the sake of change, rather than to seek to reform — versus revolutionize — and adapt institutions to be better oriented toward true justice?

    In regard to torture, I think you’re profoundly mistaken. I’m a theology major at a vibrantly orthodox Catholic school and I have never learned anything, nor read anything as a convert, that has asserted anything other than torture is an objectively wrong intrinsic moral evil. My boss, Fr. Joseph Pilsner, who is a moral theologian with a Ph.D. from Oxford University confirmed this fact before I even began looking into it just now. I think it is safe to side with him on this matter.

    Torture IS in a fact an intrinsic evil that is objectively wrong in and of itself. Torture hardly has any place in Christian morality given that God Himself was tortured before his ghastly death on a Cross. It seems to me hardly reasonable to argue that as Christians — imitators of Christ — we would view torture as a justified course of action given that the ends do not justify the means and the basic fact that every person is made in the image and likeness of God with an inherent dignity that cannot be violated. It is hardly conceivable to see any moment or circumstance whereas such physical and moral violence that was inflicted on the Lord can and should be inflicted on another human being.

    “A prime example [of intrinsically evil actions] is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia… Direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States , No. 22, 23, November 2007)

    Pope Benedict XVI talked about this in September 2007, when he addressed an international congress of Catholic prison ministers. “Means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners” must be eschewed by public authorities, he said. Immediately he added the following statement, which incorporates a quote taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “The prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances’” (No. 404).

    The Bishops hit the point again. “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism” (No. 88). The terminology — fundamentally — refers to something that in and of itself, by its very nature is not compatitble with human dignity. Therefore, there is no justification of it. It is an intrinsic moral evil just as abortion is. In Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul II included ‘physical and mental torture’ in his long list of social evils that are not only ‘shameful’ (‘probra’), as they are declared to be by the Second Vatican Council, but also “intrinsically evil.”

    The following is from Gaudiem et Spes:

    “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

    Torture is listed in the Catechism as a violation of the Fifth Commandment. “Torture…is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Torture is not SOMETIMES contrary to human dignity. Torture is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity, period. The government or any party may have a good intention, but the problem is that since some action is not in accord with the natural moral law; therefore, the deliberate employment of and support of torture, no matter how one tries to disguise it or make it seem not like torture, is an intrinsic moral evil, which translates in Catholic moral theology as a mortal sin.

    I’m sure this may seem like “liberal-fuzziness,” but I am taken by the Lord’s commandment to love thy enemies. I can agree that sometimes loving one’s enemies can involve an unfortunate resort to self-defense, remotely in the form of violence. But torture since it is intrinsically evil does not fit the criteria. St. Paul beautifully says in his letter to the Romans , “No ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    In the spirit of Pope John Paul II to promote the intrinsic evil of torture and the scandal of capital punishment undermines credibility as well as spiritually and morally diminishes us and any attempt to truly build a Culture of Life.

  • Eric,
    Would you say that it is a mischaracterisation of the right to say that “progressivism” is a monolithic movement to change things for the sake of change,

    yes I would.

    rather than to seek to reform — versus revolutionize —

    both are true, I don’t think it’s properly called progressive if it’s just a matter of reform.

    and adapt institutions to be better oriented toward true justice?

    This is an intention that is neither progressive nor conservative.

    In regard to torture, I think you’re profoundly mistaken. I’m a theology major at a vibrantly orthodox Catholic school and I have never learned anything, nor read anything as a convert, that has asserted anything other than torture is an objectively wrong intrinsic moral evil. My boss, Fr. Joseph Pilsner, who is a moral theologian with a Ph.D. from Oxford University confirmed this fact before I even began looking into it just now. I think it is safe to side with him on this matter. Torture IS in a fact an intrinsic evil that is objectively wrong in and of itself.

    I know Fr. Pilsner is orthodox, and he is certainly entitled to that opinion, as are you. There are many eminent theologians past and present who disagree and the Church has not definitively said otherwise.

    Fr. Harrison is a good and orthodox priest also, and he disagrees with you. As does the namesake of your Catholic school (ST, IIa IIae 65, 1). As does the great theologian St. Alphonsas Ligouri.

    http://www.rtforum.org/lt/lt119.html

    Ligouri:
    Under what conditions can a judge proceed to have an accused person tortured (#202)? Answer: the judge may only “descend to torture” as a last resort, i.e., when full proof cannot be obtained by non-violent means; next, there must already be “semi-complete proof” (semiplenam probationem) of the accused’s guilt arising from other evidence; and finally, certain classes of persons are to be exempt from torture, either because of their frailty or their great value to society: “men of great dignity”, knights of equestrian orders, royal officials, soldiers, doctors [probably in the general sense of learned men] and their children, pre-pubescent children, senile old folks, pregnant women, and those who are still weak after childbirth.

    Are you saying these saints and doctors of the Church are in error in their moral theology? Or is it perhaps more likely that the context and circumstances of today render torture no longer an acceptable practice as Cdl. Palazzini suggests (1954):

    Other reasons [i.e., other than human rights per se] are very weighty, especially today when sophisticated investigative methods aided by scientific expertise render much less useful any recourse to methods [i.e., torture] which, to say the least, are so imperfect. Public opinion, which carries a certain weight among the various means of deciding on specific social goals, is today clearly against the use of torture.

    Torture hardly has any place in Christian morality given that God Himself was tortured before his ghastly death on a Cross.

    Really, spare me. Christ was executed by the state, does that make capital punishment intrinsically evil? no.

    It seems to me hardly reasonable to argue that as Christians — imitators of Christ — we would view torture as a justified course of action given that the ends do not justify the means and the basic fact that every person is made in the image and likeness of God with an inherent dignity that cannot be violated. It is hardly conceivable to see any moment or circumstance whereas such physical and moral violence that was inflicted on the Lord can and should be inflicted on another human being.

    I agree, I don’t believe that the type of torture and execution Christ endured could ever be justified, but there is a large difference between that and what the Church accepted as justified for most of 2000 years.

    “A prime example [of intrinsically evil actions] is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia… Direct threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life, such as human cloning and destructive research on human embryos, are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life and violations of human dignity, such as genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States , No. 22, 23, November 2007)

    Can never be justified, is not the same as intrinsically evil, and this document is not definitive in any event.

    Pope Benedict XVI talked about this in September 2007, when he addressed an international congress of Catholic prison ministers. “Means of punishment or correction that either undermine or debase the human dignity of prisoners” must be eschewed by public authorities, he said. Immediately he added the following statement, which incorporates a quote taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “The prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances’” (No. 404).

    Can never be contravened, is not the same as intrinsiclly evil, and this document is not definitive in any event.

    etc. etc. etc.

    Torture is listed in the Catechism as a violation of the Fifth Commandment. “Torture…is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Torture is not SOMETIMES contrary to human dignity. Torture is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity, period. The government or any party may have a good intention, but the problem is that since some action is not in accord with the natural moral law; therefore, the deliberate employment of and support of torture, no matter how one tries to disguise it or make it seem not like torture, is an intrinsic moral evil, which translates in Catholic moral theology as a mortal sin.

    You are proof-texting the CCC. The full quote is:

    Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity

    So, the CCC does not say that torture used in the classical ticking time bomb scenario is contrary to the respect for the person and for human dignity, nor does it say that it is intrinsically evil.

    I’m sure this may seem like “liberal-fuzziness,” but I am taken by the Lord’s commandment to love thy enemies. I can agree that sometimes loving one’s enemies can involve an unfortunate resort to self-defense, remotely in the form of violence. But torture since it is intrinsically evil does not fit the criteria. St. Paul beautifully says in his letter to the Romans , “No ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    You really need to read some more pre-Vatican II Church history, there’s 1960 years there, dig in. The Church does not instruct us to pacifism.

    In the spirit of Pope John Paul II to promote the intrinsic evil of torture and the scandal of capital punishment undermines credibility as well as spiritually and morally diminishes us and any attempt to truly build a Culture of Life.

    You need to not be so emotional in your arguments and stop talking past my actual statement, I’m sure Fr. Pilsner would not approve of such. I did NOT in any way shape or form, promote torture or capital punishment… you know this to be true. My point, which I was very precise about is that torture was permitted by the Church under certain circumstances, and now there is a move afoot to declare it intrinsically evil, thus changing the rightness of an action. Argue with the popes and St. Thomas if you like, but my statement is factual.

    I’m curious, how do you define torture? Is all means of inflicting pain mental or physical to be considered torture?

    Matt

  • Progressivism and conservatism have real meanings beyond the root of their name, just as the americanist heresy did. Calling all support of a change “progressive” and all opposition to change “conservative” makes those words really devoid of value in my opinion.

    I agree that the terms have real meanings beyond just “change” and “no-change” — to the extent that I think the “change” and “no-change” political philosophies are rooted in different understandings of human nature and the perfectability/maleability of society. However I think it’s important to try to understand the conservative and progressive approaches to society and politics outside of the specific topics in conflict now. Liberating the Russian serfs and American slaves was very much a progressive project, as was the push for civil rights and for women to vote. And yet eugenics, same sex marriage, abortion and a host of other wrongs (past and present) also spring from a progressive instinct. (And similarly, conservatives have at times clung to things that don’t deserve to be clung to — the conservative Southern Democrats of the 1950s and 60s spring to mind, as do the turn-of-the-century conservatives who strongly opposed votes for women.)

    I know some conservatives, on the far right who have a radical impulse for change (the Ron Paulites are typical of this), it’s perhaps only the moderates on either side who really have a smaller impulse for change.

    I agree that some on the far right seek very radical change in society, though I would tend to say that this makes them not truly conservative in their approaches. Reactionary, perhaps, but not conservative in a sense Burke would recognize.

    I would still like to hear a response to my proposal that “progressivism” allows for the movement of the definition of what is “right” to suit the common good.

    It happens, but I don’t think it’s conscious. Those who are strongly progressive believe that it’s possible to significantly remake society — moving it much closer to some sort of ideal. What that ideal is perceived to be, however, changes constantly, though often unconsciously. For instance, at some point feminists went from wanting women to be given voting and other key civil rights while retaining their traditional place within social and familiar structures to wanting women to be “equal” as in “the same as” men, and thus all sorts of demands centering around birth control and abortion became “feminist”. I don’t really think that was the result of a conscious, “We got the vote, now lets demand freedom from reproduction,” thought process, however, so much as that people in the movement gradually came to change their worldview in regards to what “justice” was.

    Take for example the progressivist view that torture is intrinsically evil. This is a change in what is right (at least according to the Church) which for hundreds of years considered that in the circumstances of the times torture was not intrinsically evil, and even carried it out to some extent.

    I don’t want to turn this into a torture debate thread, however I think this is a poor example. Asserting that torture is an “instrinsic evil” is not necessarily a strictly progressive view, and it’s an argument that gets into all sorts of definitional problems. Further, I think it’s a mistake to simply assume that because a practice was tolerated in the Church (and regulated and discussed by theologians) means that it was officially defended on grounds of moral theology.

    That St. Alphonsas Ligouri, to pull your example, described limited circumstances in which he thought torture might be used (clearly operating under the assumption that torture was a pretty standard method of judicial practice) does not mean that he was right — just as the fact that Paul gave advice to a slave owner on how to treat his slave kindly as a Christian does not mean that slavery is a good idea.

  • I would still like to hear a response to my proposal that “progressivism” allows for the movement of the definition of what is “right” to suit the common good.

    It happens, but I don’t think it’s conscious.

    I’m not so sure, while I think that many progressives are not actively aware of this, a glance at the ethics departments of most universities will find that there is an ongoing effort to redifine the “rightness” of an action to suit the progressive view of the common good.

    Take for example the progressivist view that torture is intrinsically evil. This is a change in what is right (at least according to the Church) which for hundreds of years considered that in the circumstances of the times torture was not intrinsically evil, and even carried it out to some extent.

    I don’t want to turn this into a torture debate thread, however I think this is a poor example. Asserting that torture is an “instrinsic evil” is not necessarily a strictly progressive view, and it’s an argument that gets into all sorts of definitional problems. Further, I think it’s a mistake to simply assume that because a practice was tolerated in the Church (and regulated and discussed by theologians) means that it was officially defended on grounds of moral theology.

    That St. Alphonsas Ligouri, to pull your example, described limited circumstances in which he thought torture might be used (clearly operating under the assumption that torture was a pretty standard method of judicial practice) does not mean that he was right — just as the fact that Paul gave advice to a slave owner on how to treat his slave kindly as a Christian does not mean that slavery is a good idea.

    It’s only a poor example because you’re not recognizing my point in using it. An act which is intrinsically evil could never have been justified under any context ever. It is evil by definition. The Church for nearly 2000 years did not define torture (or slavery) as intrinsically evil, but prescribed particular circumstances and limits to it’s use. Suggesting now that the Church was in error on a matter of faith and morals is certainly progressive. I’m not talking here about whether slavery or torture are “good ideas” but whether their very nature as viewed by the Church has changed, as opposed the context of their use, just as the circumstances of the times are suggested as making capital punisment all but unnecessary.

    My point here, and I am open to correction is that progressivism accepts as reasonable the changing of an act from evil, to not evil or vise versa, in order to make it permissible to effect a good result, or to eliminate a bad effect (as in the case of torture).

    Matt

  • Darwin,

    Sorry that this can’t be a rousing apologia for progressivism, but I thought I’d just throw in a few probably incoherent, and certainly fairly obvious, thoughts on finding a definition, from the point of view of someone who considers herself a political progressive.

    One is that “conservatism” and “progressivism” are highly context-sensitive. I say that I’m politically progressive, but I consider the pro-life movement progressive (and note that it’s adopted many of the smartest techniques of classic progressive civil rights action), as part and parcel of the defense of the dignity and civil rights of women, children, and the disabled (broadly construed here as those who are physically and mentally dependent and incapable of coming to their own defense–which must include the unborn). Further I see no necessary correlation between theological or liturgical “progressivism” and political progressivism, and in those areas am probably a (theological) “neo-cath” and a (liturgical) reactionary, chapel veil and all. In some areas, such as education, “progressivism” has come to mean a status quo in the theory American educational reform that is beginning to be attacked by many on the political left–E. D. Hirsch was the leader in this regard–as resulting in manifest social injustice, and so needing to be opposed vigorously by progressivists. And in some contexts, such as female suffrage (where the progressives decisively won the day) or eugenics of the last-century variety (where the conservatives won), there really is no “progressive” or “conservative” anymore as the field of battle has vanished.

    Another thought is that much of this discussion seems uniquely American. Europeans of my acquaintance laughed at the election-season discussion of whether Obama might count as a socialist or not; in many parts of the world, quite “conservative” people hold views far, far to the left of any serious American presidential candidate, and many “progressive” or “liberal” people hold views too far right for the American mainstream (I’ve heard comments about immigration from leftie Englishmen that would make your hair curl, Democrat or Republican). Try selling Chesterton’s British distributism to the American public, see which box it gets you put in.

    I’m not going to try to address the various points and challenges above, first because I’m clearly outnumbered and don’t even have the time to keep up my own blog, let alone defend the liberal cause here; and second because (as you know) even though I have fairly strong political views, discussing politics is one of my least favorite activities. Nothing against those who enjoy it, of course.

  • I say that I’m politically progressive, but I consider the pro-life movement progressive (and note that it’s adopted many of the smartest techniques of classic progressive civil rights action),

    This, I think, is a good point. It’s no coincidence that pro-life advocates frequently cite the campaigns against slavery and segregation for precedent. And it’s interesting how many of the “it would never work to restrict abortion” arguments one hear’s from pro-choice people are essentially of the “the side effects of trying to change society would be too dangerous” variety.

    Try selling Chesterton’s British distributism to the American public, see which box it gets you put in.

    Heh. Well, and that’s where you run into ideals versus context. Frankly I like a fair amount of what Chesterton has to say from my perspective as a conservative, but it strikes me that proposing to actually get there from here in any direct fashion would be highly un-conservative.

  • a glance at the ethics departments of most universities will find that there is an ongoing effort to redifine the “rightness” of an action to suit the progressive view of the common good.

    I guess I’d see the directionality differently. I’d say that both secular progressives and the secular inhabitants of ethics departments are both drinking the spirit of the age from the same well, to some extent, and so similar tendencies are not so much an attempt to revise “rightness” to match some existing progressive view, but rather everyone going with the flow.

    My point here, and I am open to correction is that progressivism accepts as reasonable the changing of an act from evil, to not evil or vise versa, in order to make it permissible to effect a good result, or to eliminate a bad effect (as in the case of torture).

    I don’t think that’s at all a necessary assumption of progressivism. It seems to me that progressivism has much more to do with the assumption that it’s possible to take direct action to reform society to make it closer to an ideal. It seems society and to an extent perhaps even human nature as mutable — but that doesn’t necessarily imply the ability to redefine what is good.

    Though I think that the “we’re making progress” mindset is probably more generally open to the idea that “we know better what is good now” than the conservative mindset is.

    On torture:

    It’s a long messy question, and I really don’t want to get into it here as I’m not convinced it’s relevant.

  • Eric Brown has got it exactly right. And in the correct manner, citing relevant passages from papal teachings and encyclicals [as the Catrechism does]. We cannot overcome such an evil as terrorism, for example, by bec oing ourselves terrorists.

    Is not such an act as that of torture more than equivalent to the bit if incense which our martyrs refused to burn for the idols of antiquity.

  • Gabriel Locuta Est, Causa Finita Est right?

    Wrong.

    Eric has not responded to Brian Harrison’s arguments, nor St. Ligouri’s, nor St. Thomas (pray for us), nor has anyone else.

    The argument has nothing to do with efficacy, or becoming terrorists ourselves, or that last bit of rambling you posted, so if you want to join the argument for real, by all means do so.

    I’m beginning to think that the mark of progressivism is the inability to respond substantially, instead just tossing out red herrings.

  • Matt,
    If you wish to continue a serious discussion, you should make a great effort to eschew efforts to be denigratory. [You must also be careul of using Latin if you are not good at it. Hint: I am not a woman].

    One of the marks of all the Church’s teachings is a painstaking examination in greatly tiresome detail. Yoiu cheerfully quote a bit from St. Alphonse Liguori and treat as Holy Writ. But St. Alphonse was never a pope, nor was St. Thomas Aquinas.

    Whether a papal doument is infallible or not, Newman writes that we must accept it obediently, perhaps until another pope does a further explication.

    In the papal documents, I believe that the popes are looking at the soul of the torturer.

  • Gabriel,

    If you wish to continue a serious discussion, you should make a great effort to eschew efforts to be denigratory. [You must also be careul of using Latin if you are not good at it. Hint: I am not a woman].

    my apologies, I was simply trying to draw you into a discussion rather than a pronouncement of Eric’s infallibility.


    One of the marks of all the Church’s teachings is a painstaking examination in greatly tiresome detail. Yoiu cheerfully quote a bit from St. Alphonse Liguori and treat as Holy Writ. But St. Alphonse was never a pope, nor was St. Thomas Aquinas.

    Yes, however, Thomas is a doctor of the Church, his teachings are the basis for the Council of Trent which is still in force. Nor do I treat their quotes as “Holy Writ” only arguments in favor of my premise, nowhere do I suggest they are definitive. Not all teachings of the Church are pronounced by Pope’s, in fact, that is not the norm. Nevertheless, if you’d care to refer to the link to Fr. Harrison’s essay he cites:

    Pope Innocent IV, Bull Ad Exstirpanda (May 15, 1252). This fateful document introduced confession-extorting torture into tribunals of the Inquisition. It had already been reinstated in secular processes over the previous hundred years, during which Roman Law was being vigorously revived. Innocent’s Bull prescribes that captured heretics, being “murderers of souls as well as robbers of God’s sacraments and of the Christian faith, . . . are to be coerced – as are thieves and bandits – into confessing their errors and accusing others, although one must stop short of danger to life or limb“.33

    Whether a papal doument is infallible or not, Newman writes that we must accept it obediently, perhaps until another pope does a further explication.

    In the papal documents, I believe that the popes are looking at the soul of the torturer

    Fair enough… but that’s not what the argument is about.

    I’ll ask it again…. Is all means of inflicting pain mental or physical to be considered torture? If torture is to be considered intrinsically evil, then we must know what it is.

  • I’m going to reply to you. I begin typing something, pressed back, loss the ordering, etc…so I’m waiting to re-collect.

    One thing to think about and is apart of my point — saints and Doctors of the Church do provide wisdom, but they do not share the charism of necessarily being a part of the college of bishops and/or being apart of the universal Magisterium.

    St. Thomas Aquinas explicitly argued against the Immaculate Conception and this was later declared by Pope Pius XII ex cathedra as a long-standing, irreversible dogma that is revealed in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Aquinas as brilliant as a thinker as he was, is not infallible nor is any other such thinker. St. Thomas is the patron of my university and I am certainly a fan of Thomism; it is just remains that it is not a fact.

    Moreover, I’m going to address the ordinary versus the extraordinary magisterium. When Pope John Paul II declared that women cannot be priests, he did not do it ex cathedra, but this does not mean that his statement is not necessarily definitive.

    I will wait and address the matter at once. Just a heads up.

  • By “pressing back” I meant the browser button which in effect deleted everything I wrote…

  • I meant to say it “remains a fact that each of his conclusions are necessarily the explicit universal norm that is to be accepted by the whole church unless each of them — judged individually — is in accord with the eternal truths of God.”

    I hope that’s clear — and I’m not saying Thomas was a heretic.

    I really should login to edit my messages, but oh well.

  • Eric,

    I appreciate that Aquinas was not a bishop, but his status as a doctor of the church and his influence on the moral theology of the Church since his time lend significant weight to his teachings, especially in that area. His question about the Immaculate Conception was around the need to reconcile it with the dogma that Christ was the Redeemer of all, if Mary was conceived immaculately, she was not (he thought) in need of redemption. This dogma was at the time a very open question, and Thomas struggled with it, it is not at all apparent that he had concluded against it.

    We all accept that not every pronouncement from the pope is “ex cathedra” but yet it could be definitive… if it is definitive it has to be, well, definitive. The equivocation in GS and the CCC, and the very low degree of authority in a papal speech given to the Red Cross suggest that he did not intend to make an “ex cathedra” statement, together with the lack of a universal norm of the ordinary magisterium, and the historical context of a pope authorizing the use of torture suggest it is not “intrinsically evil”, at least not yet. I would accept with docility a declaration which the Church instructs as definitive.

    I’m curious though, if capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, how is it possible that a much less severe form of physical harm is?

    I still would like to know if every act which inflicts pain, physical or moral is to be considered torture? And if the Holy Father intended to teach definitively that torture is intrinsically evil, is it possible that he envisioned that he referred to at least a certain level of severity, beyond say, imprisonment, caning, flogging, paddling, spanking, or washing of the mouth with soap….

    That’s a little bit of a segue, my point remains that the move to declare torture intrinsically evil involves a change in the inherent rightness of an act as at least generally accepted, rather than an acknowledgment of that it is not suitable or necessary in our time, or a conclusion that it does more harm than good. This impulse, is one of progressivism in my estimation, and is very dangerous. I don’t think I’m out of line in suggesting that John Paul II had a progressivist instinct in some areas, as did many of the authors of Vatican II.

  • Matt,

    I’ll address all those in the coming days, hopefully. I’m a student, other things come first. Racism is a less severe evil, technically speaking, than murder; however, it is too intrinsically evil because there is no justification for racism in any circumstances. The nature of the action makes it unjustifiable not necessarily the severity of it.

  • Eric,

    I understand, I look forward to continuing the discussion. I would definitely agree with you on racism, although slavery is another matter (except when it is based on racism as in the American model).

    We have to be clear that not being intrinsically evil doesn’t mean that it is acceptable in general, but that it may be been under certain circumstances even if those circumstances are not even possible. It is possible that when the pope speaks of things which can not allowed he is referring to the context of our present day where the rule of law largely holds over chaos.

  • Not to make the order taller, but it strikes me that the phrase “intrinsically evil” itself is one that is used often but seldom defined, and that this is part of the problem.

  • DarwinCatholic,

    I quite agree:

    This should suffice?

    1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

    It seems to me that if pointing a gun at the head of man who may not be morally culpable for any of his actions and pulling the trigger is NOT intrinsically evil, I don’t see how torture in an of itself could be, unless you define torture to a level which makes it exclude any possible treatment that would possibly be morally acceptable (ie. maiming and mutilation). In that case, I think it’s fair to suggest that it would not be a changing of the morality of an action to define it as intrinsically evil, and not a progressivist notion.

  • Dear Matt,
    Thank you for baccking down a bit. Now we can get to the core of the discussion – the morality of torture. It is indeed a complex matter. And it is, I think, parallel to the question of the death penalty.
    Both are to be examined in the light of the effect on the torturer or the executioner. Pain and death are part of our world, of our existence. And so much so that Our Lord subjected Himself to both. By which He conquered both.
    For us, death is but the prelude to the next world. So much so that we are forbidden to kill ourselves. We must wait until God calls us.
    I am uncetain whether torture has been specifically forbidden by the Church. I fear that its worst effect is on the torurer, [Greatly mixed in with this is sadism].

  • Gabriel,

    agreed.

    am uncetain whether torture has been specifically forbidden by the Church. I fear that its worst effect is on the torurer,

    I am certain that one could quite reasonably conclude that it has been forbidden, i’m not sure I would be comfortable arguing against that. That’s does not of course necessarily make it “intrinsically” evil. It’s possible that at some point, the Church could ban capital punishment if the circumstances of the times, and, as you point out our understanding of the moral effect on the executioner and society is ever found to demonstrate circumstances where it doesn’t cause more harm than good no longer exist. I would argue against such an effort, but would give intellectual assent if it were decided.

  • the vatican has to be careful about wnat mr. obama is doing. too much government is not good. he o.k. the use of our money to be used for family planning and the hand out of codoms in the u.s. and around the world. the church could promote more morality and spirituality. God always provides. everything will fall in place. have faith in God. Catherine

Freedom as a Political Good

Thursday, December 18, AD 2008

Historically the Catholic Church has had, or has been perceived to have, a rocky relationship with “freedom” in the sense that the term has come to be used in a political and cultural sense since the Enlightenment.

Freedom in the modern sense is often taken to mean, “I’m free to do whatever I want without anyone telling me what to do.” The Church, on the other hand, generally takes freedom to mean, “Freedom to do that which is good.” The Church sees sin as enslaving and as reducing one’s capacity to choose freely in the future, and as such even where acting contrary to the good is in no way forbidden, doing wrong is not seen by the Church as exercising “freedom”.

So the in the moral sense, the Church does not hold “freedom” in the sense of simply doing whatever you want to be a good. Rather, the Church holds doing the good to be the good, and freedom to be the means of achieving that.

I speak above in the moral sense. However, let us look now at the political question of freedom.

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2 Responses to Freedom as a Political Good

  • The issue about the state restriction of freedom, which Walter Berns advocates for very eloquently and I am sympathetic to, is a rather tricky one. Certainly we should not value freedom as the highest good, but to what extent to trust the state? Given the constant morass of sinful humanity, might it be better to have, for example, something like free speech absolutism where we can argue and shout and make fools of ourselves, and hopefully convince? We have something like this on the Internet, and I think it works well enough (child abuse is the only thing not instant accessible and not tolerated. Everything else is a go….often for the worse, but not without the good.

  • State power should always be used sparingly. As Washington noted: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

    Government should stop us from wrongfully harming others, one of many reasons why I believe government should ban abortion. Government can and should impose time and place standards of decorum: no parading nude down a public street. In the area of marriage, since the expansion of state power prevents it from being solely a matter for religions, the state perforce must make rules as to how marriages are made, who may marry, and how marriages may be dissolved and what happens afterward.

    One difficulty we are now experiencing is that the expansion of the role of government over the past 100 years has made it hard to limit government involvement in a plethora of areas which used to be dealt with by other means. For example, the whole area of divorce. Government decrees “easy” divorce. People take advantage of this and a whole host of new problems: child support, visitation, abuse by “step” parents, etc, are created which government must also act to “solve”. To what I am sure would be a total lack of surprise to the Founding Fathers, the government “solutions” tend to work poorly, are enormously expensive to administer, and undermine self reliance. At incredible cost we have developed a nanny state, but unfortunately we do not appear to have Mary Poppins running the show, but rather one of Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law from the DMV.

Trust Us, We Were Lying!

Wednesday, December 3, AD 2008

One of the arguments I’m starting to get very tired of is that when Senator Obama addressed Planned Parenthood and promised that the first thing he would do as President would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (thus cementing a more drastic pro-abortion regime than has ever existed in the US to day) he was obviously just scoring partisan political points, and that Catholics are not only ill advised to worry about FOCA passing and being signed but that if they do so they are actively behaving in bad faith by accusing Obama of supporting something he never really meant to do.

I don’t think it’s news to anyone that politicians often pander, and to anyone who doubted it in the first place it’s increasingly clear that the only difference between Obama’s “new politics” and the old kind of politics is that the “new politics” involves Obama being president. But even if it’s common knowledge that one of the good ways of knowing that a politician is lying is to see if his mouth is moving, I don’t see how we can even discuss politics if we don’t assume that the promises which a politician expressly makes on the campaign trial represent something which the politician at least thinks would be a good idea.

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9 Responses to Trust Us, We Were Lying!

  • It is an odd phenomena. A candidate makes a campaign promise, the promise is cited, and then the people citing the promise are accused of dishonesty for repeating the promise.

    At the same time, I would say there is a hierarchy of plausibility in campaign promises, and the promise to sign FOCA is on the lower end of that spectrum. It was made 1) To a particular interest group once (rather than repeatedly), 2) When Obama still was scrambling for the nomination by running to Hillary’s left. Additionally, Obama, as far as I can tell, is a pragmatist. He wants to be re-elected, and knows that whatever marginal increased appreciation from his base he received from signing FOCA would more than likely be outweighed by a backlash among moderates.

    BTW nice turn of phrase about the ‘new politics’. I’ve thought the same thing but hadn’t seen it phrased that way.

  • I agree that FOCA is probably fairly unlikely to pass. Now that Obama is out of the left-wing bubble, he’s having to find ways to please more than just the sort of activists one runs into in Chicago politics.

    I’d see the most likely situation for it doing so being a situation in which flagship administration priorities are going down and it finds itself in need of shoring up its base. Then we could potentially see a certain amount of cultural left stuff rammed through.

    But it was a massively stupid promise to make in the first place. (I have difficulty thinking of a GOP example extreme enough to give a comparison, but I think the “Pure America Act” suggestion comes close.) I suppose now that we’re stuck with him as president we must hope that he’s gaining wisdom, but color me unimpressed.

  • Start the betting line in Vegas- which bishop is first to close the Catholic health care institutions in his see. Chaput is always a favorite. Brusky of Nebraska, natch. I could even nominate our Cardinal Rigali of Philly- got on phone with City Council in a flash over some meaningless Pro-Choice City Proclamation, removed next session. Been reading that our hospitals constitute one-third of U. S. of A. health care institutions. Would not be a good idea to institute nationalized health care with swamped public and other E.R.’s. Ball’s in your court, Mr. Obama. FOCA or hospitals- choose.

    (Also- can’t wait for first video of bishop dragged off to jail on FOCA protest charges- at hospital, abortuary, etc. Can cut to sound of air flying from balloon, signaling end of Obama Presidency if it occurs.)

  • I’d say the election in Georgia makes passage of FOCA much less likely, and not just because there is one more vote to sustain a filibuster. A President is never stronger than after he is first elected, and the defeat by a wide margin of Martin in the Senate runoff makes the election of Obama seem a bit less like a realigning election and a bit more like a fairly natural party switch after a two term presidency, especially with the economy in the tank. As a President is perceived more as a conventional politician and less like a political tidal wave, his influence diminishes. However, I do think there will be an attempt to pass FOCA, even if it appears unlikely to prevail, and I do anticipate that the Obama administration will always be a staunch foe of the pro-life movement, as they will amply demonstrate by Obama’s judicial picks. The election of Obama was a disaster of the first magnitude for the pro-life movement, and pro-lifers who voted for Obama obviously have, for them, much higher priorities than seeking to stop the legal slaughter of children within the womb.

  • The promises we make speak of who we are.

  • Appointments matter – to the S. Court and lower courts obviously, but also throughout the federal branch. There are a whole host of policies that need advancement and protection…notification, military bases, wait periods, federal funding, forcing clinics/professionals to do or provide x or y……

  • You cite a blog I write for, I would hope you would honest about us.

    I have always admitted that Barack Obama is pro-choice and that I disagree with him and consider it a legitimate reason not to vote for him.

    I am all in favor of opposing pro-abortion legislation and supporting pro-life legislation.

    You make the statement “FOCA is probably fairly unlikely to pass.”

    That is all I have said as well. And certainly there have been others who do not agree with us and make claims that passage is days away.

    Equally there is no right to lie about what FOCA would do. The great bluster was by the bishop of Arlington suggesting civil disobedience. To do so would first require his diocese to actually open a Catholic hospital, a ministry he has heretofore not maintained in his jurisdiction. Second, using the most extreme possible understanding of FOCA, he would have to file false Medicaid claims. Really, not the TV action that is suggested.

  • Kurt,

    So tell me again why you support Obama (and vote for him)?

  • Obama just signed today a reversal of the abortion policy, now forcing our tax money to fund international abortions. So, the Obamanation has sadly begun. And sure, I’ll bet Hillary will make it a pre-condition that countries seeking aid be willing to provide this murder service. God have mercy.

2 Responses to The Road Back

  • This was a wonderfully written essay, and it was also very edifying. After reading the essay, I agree the whole-heatedly with the principles that US Representative McCotter wrote about.

    I especially loved this quote:

    Thus, Republicans must heed Demosthenes’ plea to his endangered fellow Athenians — “In God’s name, I beg of you to think!”

  • I agree with the principles, but I believe the owner of those core principles was misidentified. The principles are not those of the Republican Party; they are, rather, the principles of Conservatism in America. They belonged to Republicans only as long as they embraced their conservative history; as soon as they abandoned that legacy (most recently left to them by Gingrich and company), they became just another bad choice available to conservatives as the lesser of two evils. And the Other Guy (Elect) did a great job of sounding like a viable alternative.

Weary of Wonkery

Tuesday, October 28, AD 2008

Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe — though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.

There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.

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6 Responses to Weary of Wonkery

  • One word: liberty

    It seems that with each initiative/referendum that comes about, we end up with a more complex set of regulations intended to make our lives easier/better.

    For instance, we here in WA are deciding on a home health care initiative, cloaked in the language care for the vulnerable. What is more likely to come about should this pass, is more and more encumbrance and hindrance of those trying to provide the care by more red tape.

    I think the principled conservative has a steep hill to climb in that our society tends to look for solutions from our government rather than ourselves. This is evident from the rhetoric from both the left and the right these days.

  • “…our society tends to look for solutions from our government rather than ourselves.”

    It’s only going to get worse.

  • “…conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success — and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism.”

    I am all for conservatives spending their allotted time in the wilderness coming up with new ideas and/or new framing for good old ideas, and I think it’s important for the GOP to sort out how conservative it wants to be. The problem I have with the coming conservative civil war (which may have some very good results) was best expressed by Megan McArdle’s discussion the financial crisis: “Isn’t it marvelous how the financial crisis has been caused entirely by things that you were opposed to before the crisis happened?” To that end, a couple of points:

    1) Bush was incompetent. Let’s look at three of the major failures of his terms in office”

    a) The deficit. He cut taxes, increased spending, and ignored the resulting deficit. This isn’t conservative (or liberal). It’s just incompetent, and it does not take a major re-tooling of conservative philosophy to avoid this.

    b) Katrina. Hurricane relief is not a policy problem, it is a competence problem.

    c) Iraq was the major disaster of the Bush presidency. The failures in Iraq (both in finding WMD’s and establishing security) are what caused the public to turn on Bush. Granted, this was partially a policy difficulty, but Iraq (at the time of the invasion) was supported by almost 70% of the country, and by pundits with divergent approaches to foreign policy. For example, I didn’t think it met just war criteria; many people I respect did. In any case, I do not think the public will have any appetite for extensive military involvement oversees for quite some time, and so I do not think this is an area where the conservative movement has to do that much intellectual spadework for ’10, ’12, or ’16.

    2) The major reasons Obama is winning is that Bush is very unpopular, the economy tanked within the last six weeks, and McCain is not a great candidate. In that order. Bush and McCain are going away. Neither will run again. The economic crises was caused by a convergence of events, none of which were ‘big-picture’ intramural policy debates within the Republican party prior to the crisis.

    In short McCain is likely to lose by between 3%-8% in a year in which nearly everything has gone wrong for the Republican party. That doesn’t look like a party that is collapsing to me. I think Douthat makes good points regarding the fact that conservatives are in some sense a victim of their own successes as the center has moved rightward on welfare reform, the second amendment, and crime over the last twenty years, but I don’t think the poll numbers indicate that it’s time to blow up the Republican party. It’s been a rough two years, but ‘this too will pass.’

  • The problem I have with the coming conservative civil war (which may have some very good results) was best expressed by Megan McArdle’s discussion the financial crisis: “Isn’t it marvelous how the financial crisis has been caused entirely by things that you were opposed to before the crisis happened?”

    Heh. Ain’t that the truth. And certainly, the various claims as to where the conservative movement needs to go now mostly seem to fit that model.

    In that regard, I found very amusing the “Death of Conservatism” article which Ross Douthat linked to as being very emblematic of the various epitaphs for the movement being penned right now, except that this one was written in 1992:

    http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=bbbe161e-98ab-4937-bcb3-aefe1123502a&p=3

  • Wasn’t it just a few years ago, when Democrats lost the presidency and congress in 2004, that we saw lots of articles about how liberals were no longer in touch with the American public, liberalism needed to become more relevant, etc.>?

  • That’s a good link, Darwin. A well-made case that was not exactly vindicated by events.

    It seems to me that many of the loudest voices (e.g. Brooks) represent the smallest constituencies of the conservative movement. More broadly, I think pundits (and amateur pundits) project a concern about issues onto the general public that just isn’t there.

    S.B. – It seems like it was ten years ago, but yes, in 2004 the Democratic party was in complete disarray – in desperate need of a re-tooling to return to relevance in a center-right nation according to many pundits. Granted, it is unlikely that there will be a convergence of events quite like Katrina/Iraq failure/economic collapse within the next four-eight years, but it does mean that a strong candidate may have slightly less than even odds shot in ’12 or worst-case ’16.

    The political brilliance of Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid is unlikely to banish the Republican party to the wilderness for a generation. That said, Iraq has damaged the conservative advantage in foreign policy in the near-term, and it will take a while for conservatives to find their footing over the next several years.

Is Obama a Socialist? You be the Judge.

Monday, October 27, AD 2008

“If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court. I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I’d be o.k. But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society.

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6 Responses to Is Obama a Socialist? You be the Judge.

  • David Bernstein at Volokh has a fairly balanced take on Obama’s remarks:
    http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2008_10_26-2008_11_01.shtml#1225104785

  • Pingback: Redistribution and the Court | The Cranky Conservative
  • I think the post fus01 links to nails it pretty well, especially with its closing:

    It’s true that most Americans, when asked by pollsters, think that it’s emphatically not the government’s job to redistribute wealth. But are people so stupid as to not recognize that when politicians talk about a “right to health care,” or “equalizing educational opportunities,” or “making the rich pay a fair share of taxes,” or “ensuring that all Americans have the means to go to college,” and so forth and so on, that they are advocating the redistribution of wealth? Is it okay for a politician to talk about the redistribution of wealth only so long as you don’t actually use phrases such as “redistribution” or “spreading the wealth,” in which case he suddenly becomes “socialist”? If so, then American political discourse, which I never thought to be especially elevated, is in even a worse state than I thought.

    Not to sound like an elitist, but it’s one of the odd contradictions of the American voting public that although many essentially socialist (as in European stype social democrat) ideas are moderately popular with voters, and yet the concept of socialism is seriously unpopular.

    Or more cynically, perhaps it’s that Americans like free stuff, but don’t like the idea that their earnings might actually be taxed in order to give others free stuff.

  • Well said — DarwinCatholic and David Bernstein.

  • My opinion resembles the Volokh writer’s. Obama’s mention of redistribution is too vague to be scared or excited about. I’m not sure why Drudge got so excited about this. Why would he think it to be a bombshell?

    Government always redistributes wealth. This is most obvious in the case of, say, Social Security. But military spending, foreign aid, and domestic improvements channels wealth to government employees and contractors.

    I guess it’s the redistribution from private citizen to other private citizen *without pretense* that gets some people nervous.

  • Of course, the Christian Democrats in Germany accepted many of the same principles as Clement Atlee regarding the state’s duties to enforce positive rights and not just negative ones. I would agree with you that Obama is a social democrat, but on economic issues he shares a lot of ground with at least one branch Christian democrats as well.