Community in the Classroom

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Note: This post is a reprint from the November 2017 article in Fulbright Hearts and Minds. The piece and more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program can be viewed here.

In August and September 2017, Professor Candace Vogler from the University of Chicago spent three weeks in residence at the Institute for Ethics & Society at The University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, supported by a generous grant from the Fulbright Specialist Program.

Candace is a world leading moral philosopher, and one of the most creative minds at work today on how to translate the insights of moral philosophy into improving tertiary education environments.

Her expertise dovetails with the Institute for Ethics & Society’s research strengths in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Candace and researchers at Notre Dame share the conviction that integrating moral philosophy into university curriculums has a unique role to play in contributing to the intellectual and moral formation of all university students.

During her visit at Notre Dame, Candace delivered a public lecture, gave two keynote conference papers, taught a master-class on the history of moral philosophy, and facilitated a pedagogy workshop on creating community in the classroom.

She also consulted with researchers and senior leadership on how to develop connections between moral philosophy and professional education – a particular passion for Notre Dame in its commitment to providing an excellent standard of training for the professions.

The visit made a huge impact on students and faculty at Notre Dame, and led to the Institute for Ethics & Society being named an official partner institution with the University of Chicago’s $2.2m John Templeton Project “Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life” – a partnership which will bring the Institute for Ethics & Society into a global community of scholars and allow it to further develop its research expertise in moral philosophy and ethics education.

Professor Sandra Lynch, Director of the Institute for Ethics & Society was responsible for the successful FSP proposal. “Winning this grant has opened many doors for us and stimulated our thinking, especially in relation to ethics education. Not only did we have the pleasure of engaging with and learning from Candace for three weeks, but the link has enabled us to begin building research linkages around the world.

“A number of our researchers have been admirers of Candace’s scholarship for many years. This grant has provided us with a pathway to continue benefitting from Candace’s expertise in the future, and we also expect it will provide a platform for discussion and dissemination of our research in years to come as we interact with scholars of moral philosophy and ethics education around the world.”

The impact of this specialist visit was also felt in the wider Australian academic community. Activities associated with her visit saw researchers and students from universities across Sydney, as well as from the University of Oxford, University College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary, gather at Notre Dame to learn from Candace.

The Place of Virtue in a Meaningful Life

Solitude

Call both one’s efforts at being a good person and the ways of thinking, feeling, and responding to circumstances that develop while one works to be a good person ‘virtue.’ Let a ‘meaningful’ life be a life imbued with a sense of purpose or significance—a life that is full, engaging, and engaged, where the fullness comes of something more than mere subjective interest and enthusiasm.  It can seem as though virtue and meaning have very little to do with each other. Whatever sort of struggle might be involved in working to be a good human being can seem like something personal—an individual quest to have a beautiful character or a shining soul. Having a meaningful life, on the other hand, looks like the sort of thing that will require that I go beyond the business of working toward having a lovely soul and into a larger world where I try to find things that are genuinely worth pursuing, and devote myself to their pursuit. In this talk, I will work to bring the two together, partly by urging a different account of virtue, partly by developing a slightly more articulate account of meaning in human life, and always by drawing on work by Thomas Aquinas.

Learning to be Good

It may be that talk about virtue has never been common in ordinary life. It may be that the only common talk about virtue in North America happened a long time ago and was primarily concerned with women and their sexual habits, where ‘virtue’ was a matter of chastity. But in the latter part of the 20th century, Anglophone philosophers started talking about virtue again, and we now confront a wide variety of different kinds of talk about virtue in both moral philosophy and areas of empirical social science directed to exploration of moral psychology and moral education. By most of these lights, a specific virtue is a character trait that tends to make its bearer a better person than she would be without it, and the sorts of virtues that are topics of inquiry are acquired virtues—virtues that develop through training and practice. There are accounts of virtue that find their philosophical ancestor in the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. There are accounts of virtue that draw extensively from the work of Roman thinkers like Cicero. There are accounts of virtue rooted in work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The theorist of virtue I have found most useful is a scholastic neo-Aristotelian—Thomas Aquinas.

For Aquinas, there are four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. We need all four. Michael Pakaluk puts the point this way:

A virtue is a trait that…makes someone such that his activity—what he does, what he is responsible for—is reasonable. But there are four basic types of such activity: his thinking itself, as practical and directed at action; his actions ordinarily so-called…; and how he is affected. This last category splits into two, Aquinas thinks, on the grounds that acting reasonably in the realm of the passions involves regulating both the passions by which we are drawn to something and the passions by which we are repulsed from something. These two sorts of passions imply two sorts of tasks or achievements…which the ordinary distinction between the virtues of temperance and courage confirms (ST I-2.61.2 resp.).

I am happy to go into detail about the work of the virtues with you in discussion, if you like. For now, the point is just that the virtues foster coordination and cooperation among our various powers in such a way that we can pursue human good, and avoid what is bad for us, smoothly and well. And for Aquinas, even a fully virtuous person is likely to make mistakes in trying to act well.

Secondary virtues—generosity, for instance, or humility, or gratitude or kindness—work to strengthen and support the operation of cardinal virtues. Cultivating virtues is part of sound moral development. And sound moral development is crucial to human life, on this view. Unlike nonhuman animals, humans need more than just a combination of good fortune, instinct and training to lead good lives. We need developed characters.

Some contemporary neo-Aristotelians (and some more venerable theorists) think that acquired virtue is all that we need to lead a good human life. They think that living virtuously is enough to make us happy, and that, since virtue is its own reward, living virtuously ought to be enough to make our lives full and meaningful as well. For those who think that virtue is all that we need, what virtue does, for the most part, is make each of us a stronger and better person. This will give the virtuous person a measure of resilience when things do not go her way. It will help guide her when exercising virtue looks to put her at a tremendous disadvantage—as it will, for instance, if she called upon to deliver truthful testimony in court condemning a mob boss, or if she is called upon to care for an infirm parent who is demanding, ungrateful, and generally unkind, or if being mindful of the needs of her children and spouse requires turning down a very shiny job offer in a distant place. Virtuous activity can put the virtuous person at risk of death, misery, or serious personal disappointment. And, in general, one would have to be appallingly lacking in imagination to be incapable of thinking of anything more exciting to do than pay debts, help those in need, or work hard not to lie, cheat, abandon others, or steal when bad acts offer big rewards.

Aquinas knows that virtuous action can put the virtuous person at a disadvantage, as far as worldly success is concerned. He does not think that having developed a good character will, all on its own, make everything go well for the virtuous person. But his understanding of virtue has two features that are uncommon in other accounts of virtue, both of which give virtue a proper place in a meaningful life.

First, any specific virtue is directed to the common good, for Aquinas. Although he shares the general Aristotelian conviction that my virtues, if I have any, are good for me, the benefit that I get from my own good character is not the most interesting thing about my virtues for Aquinas. What my virtues do is direct me to good larger than just my own welfare and the welfare of those in my inner circle. Although what Aquinas means by saying that virtue is directed to common good, in the first instance, is not exactly what a contemporary Anglophone philosopher would generally mean by invoking common good, Aquinas’s understanding is not opposed to what we would mean either. It is just that the common good of interest to Aquinas operates on a cosmic scale. One could, for example, develop an interesting form of environmental ethics by meditating on Aquinas’s thought about common good. The commonality at issue reaches out toward the whole of creation.  The human community is, of course, part of creation.

Second, and relatedly, Aquinas does not think that happiness and a sense of meaning in this life are the highest objects of aspiration for us. The highest object of aspiration is eternal happiness in a resurrected life. We cannot get that for ourselves without God’s help, but, in a strong sense, it is what we are made for, and virtue in this life supports us in our efforts to be right with ourselves, right with our fellow creatures, and right with God.

So much for a very quick introduction to virtue.  What place do our efforts at moral self-improvement have in meaningful lives?

Meaning in Human Life

Questions about what makes life meaningful are relatively new questions in European philosophy. It looks as though the topic started to rise up explicitly for European thinkers in the wake of what was called “The Great War,” and again, with different urgency, in the wake of their Second World War, partly in response to the utter destructiveness of these ventures and pointedly in response to the way that neighbors turned on neighbors during efforts to annihilate Jewish people, gypsies, people with leftist political views, homosexual people, disabled people, and, in a different way, Slavic peoples, and to enslave many other peoples by the axis powers. In mainstream English-language philosophy, the topic did not get much currency until late in the twentieth century, and is only beginning to have spark more interest now. Part of the reason that mainstream Anglophone philosophers are reluctant to wade into questions about meaning in life is that there is no single, clear, precise characterization of what counts as meaning in this area.

There are desiderata—conditions that any adequate account of meaning in human life ought to meet if the view is to be a view about the sort of thing that despairing people find elusive and people leading significant or meaningful lives have. Anglophone philosophers being the kinds of intellectuals that they are, every one of the points I am about to list as reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful has been contested by at least one of the people taking up the question in the last thirty years. I will, for all that, move forward boldly rather than allowing us to be caught in the details of the disputations. Again, I am happy to trace the disputations for any of them if you like.  Here are what I take to be reasonable starting points for thought about what makes life meaningful:

  1. Meaning in human life is not merely a matter of subjective satisfaction with how things are going—people with tremendous hardship and burden can be leading tremendously meaningful lives even when they do not expect that their efforts in any of their areas of activity will succeed.
  2. Meaning in human life has an important objective dimension—I can take it that my life has not been worth living and be wrong (one can think of this as one aspect of an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ principle); by the same token, I can take it that my life is filled with meaning and be wrong.
  3. Related to (1) and (2), to whatever extent assessments of happiness in life are importantly subjective, happiness is distinct from meaningfulness.
  4. Whatever kinds of activities, relationships, ways of living, or experiences contribute to meaning in human life, meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives—that is, ‘meaning’ is not a purely descriptive term in this setting.
  5. Related to (4), there is an important distinction between meaning in life and moral status (however moral status is assessed)—full lives, empty lives, and lives that are neither especially full nor especially empty have moral status.

There are various ways to carve the territory of recent Anglophone philosophical work on the meaning of life. One clear line of distinction demarcates naturalist views from supernaturalist views.

Supernaturalist views hold that our relations to, and participation in a spiritual order is crucial to having a meaningful life. Such views, notice, might be true even if there is no such thing as the variety of spiritual order postulated by the relevant supernaturalist theorist of meaning. If there is no such order, then our lives are not lives that can be meaningful, by these lights. Some supernaturalist views are distinctively theistic—ordinarily, these are monotheistic views focused on our relation to God.  Other supernaturalist views find a spiritual order in the natural world, sometimes linked to pantheistic or polytheistic understandings of that order. These latter varieties of supernaturalism have not been explored extensively in the Anglophone philosophical literature. The philosophers have stuck with monotheism, for the most part. There tend to be three important dimensions to monotheistic supernaturalist views about the meaning of life:

  1. Metaphysical dimension: God’s existence is necessary to ground meaningful lives because an infinite, essentially good, almighty creator and legislator God anchors objective value generally, and the objective value of human life as part of this.
  2. Relational dimension: A meaningful life is informed by sound (if necessarily incomplete) understanding of God and involved in practical engagements that bring individual human beings into right relations with God.
  3. Ethical dimension: It is not possible to be in right relations with God unless one is also in right relations with others.

Naturalist views, on the other hand, hold that there is no supernatural, distinctively spiritual order, but that this is no hindrance to thinking about what makes life meaningful.  On such views, I could find meaning in life through pursuit of truth or justice, or by understanding my life as made possible by the struggles of people who came before me, hoping to carry good forward to those who will come after me.

This is the territory in which contemporary Anglophone philosophical exploration about questions of the meaning of life hangs out. Within each of the categories, there are many divergent views, and, by most philosophers’ lights, no one strand of thought on the topic is entirely fully developed at this point. There is, however, a common thread that runs through all the work, as near as I can tell, a thread that takes some of its coloring from the usual ways of distinguishing questions about meaning from questions about happiness. It goes like this—in virtually all contemporary work (except work committed to thoroughly subjectivist naturalism), meaningful lives are meaningful in part because those leading meaningful lives operate with an understanding of their lives as participating in a good larger than their own welfare or advantage and the welfare or advantage of those they regard as members of their intimate circle. What sort of “larger” is involved in this larger good? Thaddeus Metz offers the following proposal:

[T]he concept of meaning is the idea of connecting with intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self. The animal self is constituted by those capacities that we share with (lower) animals, i.e., those not exercising reason. These include the fact of being alive, the instantiation of a healthy body, and the experience of pleasures. These internal conditions may well be intrinsically valuable, but they do not seem to be the sorts of intrinsic value with which one must connect to acquire significance. To say that the concept of meaning is the idea of relating positively to intrinsic value beyond one’s animal self is to say that while merely staying alive or feeling pleasure logically cannot make one’s life meaningful, connecting with internal goods involving the use of reason, and with all sorts of external goods, can do so [“The Concept of a Meaningful Life,” in Joshua W. Seachris, editor, Exploring the Meaning of Life, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 88].

Perhaps more than any other Anglophone analytic philosopher working on questions about the meaning of life, Metz is immersed in the whole of the relevant contemporary literature. He covers the waterfront better than anyone else.  And he is acutely aware of the points at which his treatment of the concept departs from some recent analytic work on the topic. For all that, one can complain about various features of Metz’s account of the concept of meaning from a Thomist point of view. Here are a few of them.

First, Metz’s way of distinguishing what we share with non-human animals from our distinctively human capacities diverges from Aquinas’s metaphysics of human nature. For Aquinas, we are the animals with intellect. Intellect is not the same was what contemporary philosophers mean by ‘reason.’ In an early work, Aquinas remarks on aspects of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite that have something of reason in them:

It should be noted…that not only in the apprehensive powers but also in the appetitive there is something which belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature and something else according as it has some slight participation in reason, coming into contact at its highest level of activity with reason at its lowest….  Thus the imaginative power belongs to the sensitive soul in accordance with its own nature, because forms received from sense are stored up in it, but the estimative power, by which an animal apprehends intentions not received by the senses, such as friendship or hostility, is in the sensitive soul according as it shares somewhat in reason….  The same principle is verified also in regard to the appetitive power.  The fact that an animal seeks what is pleasurable to its senses (the business of the concupiscible power) is in accordance with the sensitive soul’s own nature; but that it should leave what is pleasurable and seek something for the sake of a victory which it wins with pain (the business of the irascible), this belongs to it according as it in some measure reaches up to the higher appetite [Disputed Questions on Truth, q. 25, a.2].

It is hard to separate the most complex operations of nonhuman animal apprehension and appetite from their simplest human counterparts. For all that, intellect sets humans apart from other animals on this view, and, among intellectual creatures, humans are further distinguished by having discursive reason—we are, as Aristotle might put it—the chatty animals. This is, for Aquinas, part of the way in which we are animals.

Second, not just any intrinsically valuable, discursively assessable goods will count as goods to which we can connect in a way that confers meaning on our lives. Active participation in a thriving human community, for example, will only count as lending significance and meaning to one’s life if that community is, itself, ordered to justice and guided by due concern for the common good. If we had to find a slot for Aquinas in the contemporary philosophical taxonomy, he will count as a supernaturalist for whom the metaphysical, relational, and ethical dimensions are all intertwined.

Finally, concern about virtue is kept at a distance in Metz’s treatment of meaning. If we wanted to ask Aquinas to speak to questions about meaning in human life, virtue would have a secure, central place in our discussion.

 

Putting Virtue in its Place—A Thomist Picture

How will a friend of Aquinas handle a question about the place of virtue in a meaningful life?

First off, a friend of Aquinas, if I understand those of us who are friends of Aquinas, will urge that a properly virtuous life will, insofar as it is virtuous, be a meaningful life. It may not be a happy life, on any ordinary understanding of happiness. I can be as wise, just, brave, and temperate as you please but face ethical circumstances so challenging and hostile that my good character makes me a target for abuse rather than an esteemed person. In this sense, a Thomist account will square with the first and third of the starting points for an account of meaning.

Second, the fact that even a person with a full complement of acquired virtues—a strong character—can make mistakes and will occasionally have good reason to regret her decisions and her actions squares with the objectivity constraint on claims to meaning in human life. I might throw myself into a cause, for example, after careful consideration and in good conscience only to find that the thing I fought for was not worth fighting for.

Third, because acquired virtue on Aquinas’s understanding is perfective of my nature as a human being, virtuous lives are better than vicious lives in a sense isomorphic with the sense in which meaningful lives are better than meaningless lives.

Perhaps most importantly, because acquired virtues are directed to common good in the first instance for Aquinas, a genuinely virtuous life will, by necessity, involve the right kinds of relations with intrinsically valuable internal and external goods to meet the kind of criterion for meaning sketched by Metz (echoing dominant trends in contemporary Anglophone philosophical work on the topic).

In this sense, pulling Aquinas into conversation with contemporary Anglophone philosophers on questions about meaningful lives gives through about virtue a central role in thought about meaning.

 


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Valparaiso University as part of their programming on the theme of the pan-humanities seminar taken by every freshman, and the theme this fall is “human meaning and purpose.” She was hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Valparaiso University. 

 

 

 

 

“A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” – Part 2

On October 14, 2017, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote, “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World,” at our Capstone Conference. We’re reprinting the text in two parts; Part 1 was posted yesterday. To watch the video and learn more about the conference, click here.

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Pathways and Priorities

In this final section I want to suggest some concrete pathways and priorities for creating a greater sense of solidarity in practice which would be in line with your goals of building the common good in a way that fosters virtue, happiness and the meaning of life.

Dialogue

The first is dialogue. Dialogue is essential for building solidarity, but it also demands self-transcendence. Avery Dulles, the son of John Foster Dulles, who served as secretary of State, became a Jesuit priest and then was named a cardinal in his later years. He once wrote that it takes great strength, virtue, to give permission to another person to sit across from you and tell you why they think you are wrong. Pope Francis put it this way: “We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person’s truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively.”[i] Dialogue only comes with patience and respect for the other. It takes into account that people, men and women, youth and adults, those from different cultures and economic backgrounds, communicate differently.  They speak different “languages” and they act in different ways. They ask and respond to questions differently and vary in their tone, timing, conditioned by so many factors. So dialogue requires discipline, the kind that refrains from speaking until it is time, and making sure that we have heard the other person out.[ii] It takes the kind of self-transcendence that cultivates an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without prejudgments or the distractions of worries, fears or one’s agenda. All of this creates a fresh environment in which real authentic human communication takes place, not just an exchange of ideas but an exchange of lives, aspirations, values, histories in a way that creates bridges between others where there only existed walls. We need to take all of this into consideration if we are going to encourage authentic dialogue that offers an effective alternative to the technological communications paradigm that promises much but delivers little when it comes to human flourishing and the common good.

Collective self- examination of conscience

In a his 2016 article in America Magazine,  James Keenan, SJ,  the Canisius Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College, notes that following the Second World War, European theologians, shocked by the complicity of believers in the Holocaust, “began a process of understanding their capacity for evil by examining the history of their own actions.” In effect, they called for a collective examination of conscience, inspiring them to take corporate responsibility.  “That understanding continues to be visible today when one visits Germany, for instance, and sees public, social reminders of the nation’s own atrocities. From the Concentration Camp Memorial in Dachau to the Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, we can literally enter and see the pangs of the European conscience evident in its enduring testimonials,” as Keenan observes.

He goes on to say that we suffer in this country from an arrested development of conscience, which is rooted to some extent in “the longstanding American incapacity to recognize its own wrongdoing. Indeed, historians comment on the practice of American exceptionalism, in which we excuse many of our actions by presuming that our nation has a manifest destiny that exempts us from the standards that others must follow.” As an example, he points to slavery in this country, noting that “Despite the nation’s own history of enslaving millions of people and of enjoying the benefit of slavery even without owning slaves, America has never collectively faced itself in conscience. As M. Shawn Copeland reminds us, the American conscience is haunted, profoundly damaged by the complex history of slavery in the United States and by its national willfulness to accommodate to and profit from racism.”

It seems to me that such a collective self-examination is the ultimate form of transcendence called for in your virtue project and is also an instance of radical solidarity with those who have been and are excluded from the common good. An examination of what this means for your project could make an important contribution in bringing healing to a gaping wound that continues to affect not only the body politic of our nation but the streets of our city.

Investing in Friendships

My final suggestion is less dramatic, but no less important and that is recovering the importance of friendship. Friendships develop naturally; they are relationships that grow organically. They take time, discipline, mutual respect, dialogue and discipline. They don’t just happen. They take work and they grow in ordered sequence. We meet someone. We see something in them that we like and they see something they like about us. In friendships we reveal something about ourselves that we may not have appreciated.

Friendships involve self-transcendence, allowing us to transcend differences of opinion and conflicts, bring comfort in trial and they grow in moments of forgiveness and failing. All human communities, and society at large understand the value of friendships for society. In fact, centuries ago, Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, noted that friendships are needed for the growth of civilization. He remarked that while friendships, like justice, are not found in tyrannies, they are proper to democracies, “because the citizens, being equal, have much in common.” St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps relying on Aristotle speaks of friendship as bene velle alicui – wishing well to another.

We seem to have lost the value of friendship in our social relationships. Our nation seems to have lost a sense of the importance of cultivating friendships as fellow citizens who, being equal, share much in common.  Instead, our politics and public discourse are often marked by enmity and animosity. There is an overly competitive character that defines how we relate to one another, emphasizing what divides us rather than what we share in common. And because we as the body politic do not value growing together, just as it is with any organism, cancers easily develop which can threaten to harm us all. Positions harden, progress is stalled, and it soon becomes clear that the body politic has only so much capacity to endure the suffering. Your turn to the classics as resource, I believe, offers you much on the topic of friendship, which I would encourage you to explore as you build out your understanding of the importance of self-transcendence for cultivating a virtuous life.

Conclusion

I hope that my words tonight leave you with a sense not only that the Church values the virtue project, but is a willing partner in furthering its aspirations. In fact, it is worth recalling the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council, which provided a new paradigm for the Church’s mission, declared that the Church embraces her role in the modern age of being “at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.” Gaudium et Spes 76.

Pope Francis witnessed to this approach in his 2015 Address to the U.S. Congress. He began by observing that his visit to our country coincided with anniversaries of several great Americans who demonstrated through their hard work and sacrifice the virtue of building a better future for all. He cited four in particular,   Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” but who throughout our history have helped us  “to live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women,” he continued, “offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”

The pope’s words seem to be a good way to conclude my remarks for they remind us of two important things I want to leave with you tonight. First, the importance of the word “self” in self-transcendence. The pursuit of virtue, as these four Americans show, begins with each of us, taking personal responsibility for the way we live, our own human development and formation in a way that forces us to be real and honest about the world we live in and the circumstances of our personal lives. In a word, virtue begins with us.

But, the words of Francis also highlight a key ingredient of social cohesion, we often underplay. I am talking about the value of giving good example. Good example, as Francis observes, has an enduring power to embolden, inspire and encourage others to live through crises and challenges as they tap into the deepest culture reserves that hold these good examples in trust throughout the ages.

Therein lies the two-fold value your project aims to achieve: rekindling in us a fresh resolve to take personal responsibility for our lives, joining with others in solidarity for the building up the common good, and at the same time as we live in a world weighed down by so many thorny challenges, to ever remain attentive to how much good there is in the world, in people around us who give us good example and who share these same aspirations. In speaking to you tonight, to a group that has gathered over these past 28 months for a very worthy project, you have done both for me, strengthen my resolve and opened my eyes in a fresh way to recognize that there is so much good around us. Thank you.

[i] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 138

[ii] Ibid, 136-141.

“A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” – Part 1

On October 14, 2017, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote, “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World,” at our Capstone Conference. We’re reprinting the text in two parts; Part 2 will go up tomorrow. To watch the video and learn more about the conference, click here.

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Introduction

Thank you Professor McGinn and all at the University of Chicago and the organizers of this Conference for your warm hospitality and welcome. It really is an honor to be with you this evening and I am very grateful to be invited to participate in this Capstone Conference entitled Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life. This is an important conversation for which – over a 28 month period – you have gathered scholars and professionals from various disciplines to focus on self-transcendence as integral to understanding the interrelationships of virtue, happiness and the meaning of life. Tonight I have been asked to add to that conversation, which I will do by considering how the notion of solidarity found in Catholic Social Teaching, when pursued as a consistent ethic for both individuals and society, might help to flesh out the meaning of self-transcendence, which you rightly state is needed for human flourishing and building up the common good. As I studied the information you sent me on your virtue project, it occurs to me that it shares much in common with the our understanding of solidarity in the Catholic tradition, such that we can benefit from each other in teasing out some points of convergence. And so, I want to begin by pointing out some connections between virtue and solidarity. I will then move on to what I consider some fault lines in the present age that give urgency to pursuing virtue marked by solidarity. I will conclude by suggesting some ways, or maybe priorities, all of us might want to consider as we move forward in solidarity to build up the common good in a way that fosters virtue, happiness and the meaning of life.

 

The Connection between Virtue and Solidarity

I have to admit I have no hesitation introducing the topic of solidarity into this conversation of virtue, particularly since your starting point is that virtue is not an individual pursuit, practiced and observed only for oneself as a personal improvement project. Rather, virtue has to do with one’s relationships to others and the world. So the ultimate measure of one’s virtue is not only how one personally improves, but how the common good is fostered and furthered by virtuous individuals as a whole. The pursuit of virtue by an individual is about stretching the identity of the person beyond the circumference of one’s body and life as defined by the individual. We often talk about expanding our mind, using more brain cells, but there is another way to increase our capacity as humans and that is by constantly exploring ways to intersect with the lives of others in a way that enhances their lives and the world’s good.

In other words, virtue’s end is solidarity Virtue when rightly pursued aims at uniting humanity through a reawakening of our interdependence as a human family. Pope John Paul II in his groundbreaking encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, called humanity to “see the ‘other’-whether a person, people or nation…as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper’ …a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”

 

It is worth noting that John Paul made a special point in pressing those in position of authority and power to consider their particular responsibility in being virtuous on a global scale, not just for their own sakes or the benefit of the nations they serve. “World leaders,” he urged, need “to recognize that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military or political imperialism, and the transformation of mutual distrust into collaboration. This is precisely the act proper to solidarity among individuals and nations.”[i]

Pursuing virtue in the key of solidarity does not come easily and will cost each of us something. It first of all will require in the words of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching “men and women of our day (to) cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence livable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods and by all that the human condition has produced. A similar debt must be recognized in the various forms of social interaction,” the Compendium continues, “so that humanity’s journey will not be interrupted but remain open to present and future generations, all of them called together to share the same gift in solidarity.”[ii]  Or, to put it in baseball language, especially appropriate in these days in Chicago, if you are successful, don’t think you hit a home run when all along you were “born on third base.” Or, again, this awareness of what we owe to others will require the kind of humility found in Isaac Newton’s famous saying: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”[iii]

Fault Lines and Urgency

Let me now say something about the urgency of a consistent ethic of solidarity in view of some fault lines present in society today. As I do so, my hope is that the link between the virtue project that relies on self-transcendence and a consistent ethic of solidarity will become clear.

 

Radical Polarization

The first obstacle we face today is a radical polarization in society. Our world has changed a great deal in our life time due to many factors that divide humanity. Our era is plagued by global terrorism. It irresponsibly tolerates the exploitation of limited resources and is threatened by climate change, which by its own inertia will imperil future food security as a result of decreased crop yields and result in the abandonment of populated areas due to rising sea levels. As a result of these unchecked forces of economic exploitation and globalization, many people feel excluded, while others are literally excluded as they are left homeless, or forced to migrate, by wars and privation. This has left us fearful of one another in a world marked by great divisions over race, ethnicity, religion and place of origin.

 

Without oversimplifying, the challenge for us today is not only that there is a division over issues, but humanity is divided. No longer is it that issues are siloed, people are. Their social networks, the media they consult, all operate in  silos, bereft of challenge or debate, isolated by differences of opinion or politics, race or social class in a way that obscures our shared humanity, as for instance with the issue of immigration where we are losing the ties that historically have united us as a nation of immigrants. And it is not too strong to say that this sense of disconnectedness is being legitimized not only by voices in the streets but by those in the halls of governance here and around the world, giving rise to xenophobia, nationalism, populism, racial intolerance.  All of this makes entire populations more vulnerable to disturbing influences, and centripetal forces which only further divide, while pretending to offer as solutions distorted views of the role of the economy and politics and how we relate to other nations and deal with global conflicts.

 

Libertarianism

A second fault line is a growing libertarian approach in the present day which is impacting, and I believe is distorting, the way we think about and respond to our politics, the economy and the ecology. In this context, I want to refer you to an excellent paper given by Bishop Robert McElroy in January, 2016 at the Symposium “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work,” sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. In his talk Three Kinds of Erroneous Autonomy he offers analysis of how libertarianism constitutes a compellingly different pathway for humanity at this moment in history which stands at odds with human solidarity. These conflicting pathways are based on two utterly divergent conceptions of the nature of the human person, resulting in two distinct trajectories when it comes to the meaning of economic life, and the goal of politics and the ecology in this era of globalization.

 

The example of the economy will suffice to make my point about the problematic claims of libertarianism. In fairness, it is important to recognize that many libertarians share with Catholic Social Teaching a respect for human dignity. Human dignity anchors their insistence on human freedom. They rightly argue that this dignity is not given by society but by the Creator and therefore freedom, self-determination and all other human rights are inalienable, echoing the principles in the documents of democracy. However, advocates of a libertarian philosophy stop short in considering what this means. They fail to uphold that since this dignity belongs to all human beings in common, it implies the solidarity of all peoples. By uncoupling human dignity from the solidarity it implies, libertarians move in a direction that has enormous consequences for the meaning of economic life. Let me put it more sharply:

 

  • In our understanding of solidarity, the human person seeks and claims an integral development, morally, spiritually and emotionally, which is joined intrinsically to the communities that sustain him or her. For libertarians, the human person is the autonomous individual, man the producer and man the consumer.

 

  • For advocates of solidarity, in this age of growing globalization, inclusion and economic security for all are measures of economic health, requiring global structures that help mold the forces of market capitalism to advance solidarity and dignity for all; while in contrast the libertarian has a one-dimensional measure of economic growth proposed for decision making, advocating that market forces left to themselves are the best arbiters of economic progress. It is for this reason that when it comes to politics, while solidarity seeks the common good, the libertarian advances a politics that seeks to maximize the freedom of markets and individual choice.

 

Challenges of Communications Technology

A final consideration as we think about the challenges of creating a greater sense of solidarity is the ongoing development in communications technology and its impact on the youth of the world. This technology is moving us and particularly young people to greater isolation while giving the impression of linking us. We can shield ourselves from the demands of others by the click of a key or by not responding on a device which we use to limit our interaction with the world. For many young people their smart phone is the only portal for interaction, but also information which they will believe. But, it is also the case that less personal and more electronic means of communication have gained a foothold in the minds of young people globally when it comes to news they believe over-against human encounters.  A menacing instance of this, of course, is the radicalization of young people who are being fed ideologies of hate, a manipulation that leads to the acts of terrorism we are witnessing today. Additionally, as communications technology continues to flatten the world as Thomas Friedman describes, there is an even more ominous threat looming when it comes to the youth of the world.  While it is true that many in our era have been lifted out of poverty, the numbers of people, especially children not just poor but trapped in poverty and exclusion, who are migrants, living in exile from their homes because of wars and famine, are staggering. Global communications surely conveys a certain sense that we are united in this world but many children living in abject poverty have good reason to believe that the world cares little about them. We may be together on this planet but they are receiving the message that they are not one of us. Living with no hope yet tantalized by what they see in the world of opulence, they will be challenged to deal with rising expectations in a non-violent way.

 

But, as a pastor working with families and parents as they raise their children, I am concerned about how this phenomenon of communicating through modern technology is also impacting family life, particularly the way youth and adults within a family relate, communicate and trust each other. Some years ago, a diplomat was telling me of a conversation he had with his daughter, trying to explain to her why he could not attend her dance recital, having been charged with serious negotiations impacting world peace that would force him to travel abroad. She was unconvinced, unsympathetic and hurt; what he said was not credible. But then, some days later she saw a news interview her father gave on a website explaining the importance of the meeting that took him away from home. She called her father to tell him she now understood because she saw it on a website channel. The moral of the story, if you want to talk to your children and have them believe you, send them a link to your YouTube upload.

 

Seriously though, I am convinced that we should consider the impact of the ever developing communications technology on our world especially our youth, which I am describing here, as a wakeup call. A good place to start, it seems to me, is to pay more attention to mining the results of your value project and the tradition of solidarity for resources that might challenge this narrow approach to communication and offer one that is more integrated and authentically human.

 

In fact, faced in this urgent moment with seemingly intractable challenges we face today, we would have much to gain by exploring how your advocacy of promoting virtue through  self-transcendence and the consistent ethic of solidarity I speak about today have the potential of informing each other to better contribute to human flourishing and the common good. My explanation of a consistent ethic of solidarity as aiming at uniting humanity through a reawakening of our interdependence as a human family, while not exhaustive of what Candace Vogler describes as your project in her piece featured on your virtue blog, seems to have a great deal in common. Let me quote just a bit of it here: “self-transcendence,” she writes, “shows itself when I live my life and understand my life as essentially connected to a good beyond my own comfort, the security and comfort of my friends and immediate family, the goods of personal achievement, success, self-expression, and the like. My life is lived through participation in a good that goes beyond personal achievement, expression, security and comfort, beyond even the need to promote those goods for members of my intimate circle. I work on behalf of bettering the community in ways that will help strangers … I have a self-transcendent orientation to the living of my daily life. My own life is a part of some good crucial to good life more generally, as best I can understand, serve, and embody that larger good.”

[i] John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39.

[ii] The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

[iii] Newton, Isaac. “Letter from Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke”. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 7 August 2016.

VIDEO: “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” – Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich delivered the Saturday Keynote “A Consistent Ethic of Solidarity: Transcending Self, Transforming the World” for the Capstone Conference for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. He was introduced by Bernard McGinn, Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology and of the History of Christianity in the Divinity School and the Committees on Medieval Studies and on General Studies.

 

We’ll publish the text of this talk in Part 1 and Part 2 blog posts on Wednesday and Thursday this week.

 


Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich obtained his B.A. in Philosophy from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1971. He attended seminary at the North American College and Gregorian University in Rome, where he received his Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology in 1974, and his M.A. in Theology in 1975. Cardinal Cupich is a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where, in 1979, he received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology degree in Sacramental Theology. He also holds a Doctor of Sacred Theology degree, also in Sacramental Theology, from the Catholic University of America, awarded in 1987, with his dissertation entitled: “Advent in the Roman Tradition: An Examination and Comparison of the Lectionary Readings as Hermeneutical Units in Three Periods.” Additionally, Cardinal Cupich was the Secretary at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. He also served as Chair for the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People from 2008-2011 and for the National Catholic Educational Association Board from 2006-2008. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops.