Occupy Cyberspace

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First there was Occupy Wall Street, but now the noisiest protest seems to be coming from those who wish to occupy the Internet. The irony of it all is that this time, it’s the powerful corporations who are staging the sit-in (or ‘blackout’ or ‘shutdown’, as the case may be), ostensibly on behalf of grassroots consumers. The power brokers of cyberspace, led by Google and Wikipedia, have mounted a substantial protest against the anti-piracy bills being debated in Congress. The bills known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Prevent Internet Piracy Act) have been attacked as threats to our freedom of speech and free market economics.

“Imagine a world without free knowledge…” begins Wikipedia’s protest page, “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” [BBC News, NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]. This must be some powerful bad medicine, if it threatens to kill the patient. At least, that seems to be the position taken by Wikipedia’s publicists.

Whether or not these pieces of legislation have been well-crafted is certainly open to debate. I’m not concerned here with the legalities, but rather with the moral stance of the corporate protesters. The invective being thrown at these bills calls into question the integrity of the internet companies’ response. What moral weight do their tweets and texts bear? Consider the source: these proclamations and accusations are voiced by the companies who make their living by building and driving traffic in cyberspace.

The protesters are careful, of course, to avoid any appearance that they are in favor of piracy. They don’t question the motivations or intentions of the legislation aimed at reining in the pirates out there far from our shores (China, Russia and the Middle East are frequently listed as pirate-friendly safe harbors).

Rather than offer constructive suggestions however for how to combat piracy, the corporate protests seemed designed to upset and rally people to the cry that this legislation may be bad for business. For their business, that is. Let’s be clear about that, because it was designed specifically to protect the business of other companies who produce the valuable content being peddled in cyberspace.  One protester in San Francisco, representing an online travel company, put it plainly, “this legislation is bad, it would directly impact our company.” [NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]

It’s the self-serving tone of such protests that raises the question of integrity. There is precious little moral content in the argument that what’s bad for my business is bad, regardless of how it affects others.

Of course the protesters do not mean to suggest that their moral footing is grounded in self-interest; rather, they imply that their moral authority stems from their concern for freedom as a general principle, as well as concern for the individual information consumers in particular. Of course, this argument is also suspect because their altruism seems to flow from concern for their own customers—the consumers of information services.

These moral arguments are weak. In the first instance, the argument for freedom could just as well be claimed by their opponents who argue for the freedom to earn a living and not to have their products stolen by pirates. Freedom of information is not an issue being questioned by the legislation; piracy is. In the second instance, concern for their own customers once again begs the question of whether the protests are self-serving.

A sincere moral argument rooted in altruism would take a different course. It would demonstrate motive and desire to help solve the piracy problem. It would demonstrate resolve and commitment on the part of the Board of Directors and management to help address a problem that is significantly undermining other significant businesses in our economy.

To protect one’s self-interest with defensive arguments lacks integrity to any source of morality higher than hunger or survival. True integrity recognizes a higher calling, namely, to act out of sincere concern for others’ welfare. That is why biblical notions of morality, based in kenotic self-emptying of self-importance, are just as critical to corporate moral authority as they are to personal integrity.

Perhaps the protesters had valid reason to question the structure of these bills. In that case they might have addressed those issues head-on in a manner which carried much greater moral strength. They might have shown integrity by demonstrating their sincere concern to solve the problem. They might have offered ways to strengthen their current anti-piracy policies. And yes, because “business is business”, this would most likely cost them something in the short run. But in the long run they would have demonstrated a concern for our entire economic system and not just for their own slice of it. They would also be living into the higher calling of integrity which flows from an understanding of the biblical call to be witnesses to a greater reality than pecuniary self-interest.

[this post has also been published at the Center for Integrity in Business: http://blog.spu.edu/cib/2012/01/ ]

The Perelandra Thesis

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upcoming seminar paper for Seattle Pacific University’s Common Day of Learning, October  19, 2011, featuring Dr. Jennifer Wiseman and the search for exoplanets:

C.S. Lewis, Astrobiology & the Perelandra Thesis

(presenters: Bruce Baker & Stamatis Vokos)

We will consider some of the theological implications of life on other planets. C.S. Lewis paved the way for us with his science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) which tells the story of human encounters with extraterrestrials. A mere 15 years ago, exoplanets were largely unknown outside of science fiction, but today we know of hundreds, and new discoveries are coming quickly. What are the implications for Christians on Earth? We will evaluate the scientific possibilities of Lewis’ imaginary exoplanet, Perelandra, share some theological reflection on the fanciful idea of extra-terrestrial souls, and guide a discussion of the issues.

Information Overlord

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In in a commentary on the recent announcement of the “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”,[1] Neal Gabler points out the hidden category mistake of this title: “In fact, none of them are ideas.” He says, “[W]e live in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”[2]

It’s become commonplace to worry about the effect that all our texting and tweeting is having on our ability to think. But brevity does not in and of itself beget banality. Pascal had it right when he said, “If I had had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.” It’s not the conciseness of the letter that crowds out the important ideas, but rather the lack of time to ponder and refine them. (Even so, I doubt that Pascal’s ideas would be so well remembered if he had delivered them solely in tweets.)

The real issue here is whether we as a society are losing interest in big ideas. The marketplace loves the stimulation of new inventions and entertainment, but has little use for new ideas unless some adventurous entrepreneur or promoter can figure out how to make money off them.

Given our fascination with the entertainment value of staying constantly in touch with friends, fans and idols, it’s easy to see how the information glut can overwhelm the limited bandwidth of our attention spans. There might be no harm in non-stop communicating and information surfing if these activities reliably added value to our greater purposes as a society. Unfortunately, the opposite effect seems more common. Political rhetoric for example seems to have been driven to the least common denominator of sound-bites.  “Yes, we can!” and “No new taxes!” make great fight songs, but they are no substitute for the kind of considered wisdom we will need to judge the trade-offs required to balance the budget and generate growth in human capital. To make progress on these fronts we must move beyond the polemical piling-on of spin-controlled projections, and take time to question their underlying presumptions.

The same pressures are at work in academia also. Especially in a business school, the need to stay current can tilt the curriculum in the direction of studying the latest trends, in order to graduate students with immediately profitable knowledge and skills. There is merit in this aspect of a business education, yet it should not obscure or obliterate deeper thinking upon the classical ideas of morality, justice and human nature.

This is what incites my passion to teach classes on big ideas like the spirit of capitalism and the modern moral imaginary. We need leaders who have thought about these things. We need managers who have developed a robust context in which to make trade-offs affecting people’s lives as human beings, and not merely as workers and consumers. We need economists and legislators who weigh the stewardship of resources in the balance of the transcendent. Business is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest consumer trends, or speeding up the time-to-market for the newest technologies. Business is for doers, yes. But what we do, and how we do it, depends upon the ideas which inspire us. Gabler says it well: “The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.”

Big ideas inform the choices we make regarding how to invest our time and our capital—both financial capital and human capital.

Here’s an idea: when business is driven as much by the transcendent ideas which inspire the human soul as it is by the ideas which monetize the newest information, then business will truly be a boon to human flourishing, and the “invisible hand” will be guided by the wisdom of moral sentiments.


[1] The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2011.
[2] Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea”, NY Times, August 14, 2011.

Help for Unbelievers

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“But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” [Mark 9:22b-23]

 “ ‘If you can’?”—

 The NIV translation is best here, because it brings out the nested entendres of Jesus come-back to the hapless father. “If you can?” “If you can?” “If you can!” And so on. The variety of possible meanings in this retort are tightly woven threads in a tapestry of meaning. Only on the lips of Jesus is their beauty revealed, as he mirrors the interlocutor’s phrase, and sends it back into the ears of all in this sharp retort. Is he chastising the father’s lack of belief? Is he pleading and encouraging the panicked man to have faith? Is he emphasizing his personal power, for the sake of the witnesses? Is he drawing a connection between faith and answered prayers? Is he admonishing his disciples and all within earshot to give up the hopeless argument that has embroiled them in a dispute with the scribes? Is he teaching by Socratic Method the meaning of belief? Perhaps he is doing all these things, and much more also, as he transforms the father’s plea into a speech-act which creates the possibility of revelation.

 Then immediately, before Jesus can shed any further light on the meaning of his retort, the father blurts out, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”[1] The father demonstrates his understanding of this encounter. He feels ashamed as well as frustrated that he has not had enough faith to heal his son. He stands condemned before the rabbi Jesus as one who has not enough righteousness in his life, in his home, to escape the torment of his beloved son by demons. “Help!” he screams.

 I am this father. So are you. In belief we come before the god-man Jesus to bring our petitions. In unbelief, we find condemnation in our failings. If only my unbelief, my lack of faith, were less severe! Then perhaps I would have enough faith to get it right, to have the power to heal my own family, or to trust at least that God would answer my prayers.

 And Jesus transforms my plea. He absorbs it and sends it back into my own ears, as my eyes see him heal this boy. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Jesus demonstrates that he himself is the man who believes. Jesus is the one who has the power to help, because Jesus is the one who believes. The question no longer centers on whether or not the boy’s father, or you or I, have enough faith. It’s decisively not a question of whether this father believes strongly enough to balance out his unbelief. It’s not a matter of getting faith and doubt in proper proportion. No, but rather the question is whether we know Jesus as the one who has faith for our sake.  He does. And all things are possible to him, because he is the one man whose faith is perfectly embodied in right relationship with God the Father. We have enough faith therefore, not by our force of will to believe ever more strongly, but by our encounter with the one who believes in proper proportion, and that proportion is to be wholly, personally and perfectly one with the Father. Amen.


[1] Here the NIV is not so good, for it inserts the verb “overcome” in the father’s request: “Help me overcome my unbelief!”

Musically Speaking of Ethics

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 What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter


[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.

Academically Adrift without a Rudder

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“Civilization is doomed unless the hearts and minds of man can be changed, and unless we can bring about a moral, intellectual and spiritual reformation.”

 

 – Robert Maynard Hutchins, Journal of Higher Education (1947)

    

    “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” This tit-for-tat describes the facile, unwritten social contracts that often develop between professors and college students. Does this tired compromise signal a stalemate in the struggle of college students and their teachers to eke out space for the demands on their time outside the classroom? If so, it is a sad surrender in the battle to foster academic and personal growth in higher education. George Kuh calls this campus stalemate a disengagement compact—a tacit agreement wherein professors say, “I won’t make you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”[1] Like a prickly weed, this compact takes root wherever it can, and infiltrates our institutions, crowding out the covenant of learning that inspires the goals of our colleges and universities to nurture the personal and intellectual growth of the ascendant generation.

 In their new book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa tell the story of how the  disengagement compact is eroding the mission critical capacities of our colleges and universities to get their job done:

 [T]he future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively. Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.[2]

 Academically Adrift serves as the latest signal flare to be launched over the drifting boats of academia, calling attention to the distress in institutions of higher education and calling for help to get them back on course.

 How did we manage to lose our way, and why do we allow so many students and courses to run adrift? There are many explanations, to be sure: economic pressures upon students and schools, overworked faculty, overhyped expectations that college should be a rite of passage for everyone in our highly competitive society, and the trend toward extended adolescence in our culture. I would like to set those issues aside for a moment in order to pay attention here to one specific fundamental factor which might deliver the deepest blow of all: the drift away from moral education as the raison d’être for a university.

 As Arum and Roksa note rightly, there has been a poignant shift in organizational missions away from “the responsibility of providing academic and moral guidance to young adults in their charge.”[3] To chart a course of personal growth in the absence of moral guidance is like sailing a boat without a rudder; there isn’t much you can do but to drift along wherever the tide and the wind carry you, hoping idly that all turns out for the best. But hope is not a strategy.

 George Marsden warns that this drift away from the mandate of morality in higher education has placed our institutions “in the midst of a moral crisis.”[4] This crisis results from the loss of consensus in our society that there exists some shared commitment to a greater moral reality that transcends tolerance of diverse ideas as end-all-and-be-all of moral virtues. We might as well say that the greatest value in the design of a boat is that it be rudderless, because after all, it matters little which way the boat goes, so long as it does not tack into any prevailing winds of cultural pressure. With tolerance alone as our guiding star, and relativism as our chart, we seem to have slipped quietly and subtly into the habit of launching students adrift on rudderless boats, hoping that no one will notice so long as the passengers on deck are having fun, and the faculty can be spared enough time in their cabins below decks to pay attention to their own pursuits.

 Here we see how the seeds of the disengagement compact have taken root and sprouted in the fallow soil of moral crisis. There is a vicious cycle at work here.  When an institution of higher learning loses its ability to steer a course of moral direction and nurture the ethical growth of its students, disengagement will emerge as the winning strategy. Since there is no longer any consensus to provide a unifying direction of moral development to be shared among faculty and students, individual preference becomes the default choice of moral virtues. Relativism trumps calling as the notion that ascribes ultimate dignity to persons and institutions called according to a higher purpose.  

 In the absence of a higher purpose (or teleological end or eschatological consummation, take your pick), the winning strategy is to merely give the students, parents and employers what they want. That’s common sense. This explains why students emphasize “social learning” (i.e., “fun”) as a priority, over and above studying (i.e., “work”).[5] So long as the job market is ready to accept the product, and the students are having fun, the institution can stay afloat and no one is the worse off. This pragmatic strategy of appeasement avoids the issue of moral direction and reinforces the vicious cycle which generates the disengagement compact between faculty and students.

 If permitted to go on long enough, this vicious cycle erodes the inherent capacity of the institution to nurture the moral development and integrity of students in a manner that would prepare them to take responsibility for the ethical dilemmas that await them. Moral education is no longer seen to provide a defining purpose worthy for its own sake, and ethics courses are viewed as add-ons to vocational degrees. In deference to the prevailing winds of relativism, rudders are seen to be unnecessary on the ship of higher education. Like religion and altruism, moral education is taken to be an evolutionary spandrel, which is no longer central to survival of the individual or to the social purpose of institutions of higher education. Let a thousand rudderless dinghies launch therefore, because no one cares where the ship was going anyway.

 This is why I teach ethics in a school that believes in the spiritual reality of faith, calling and the moral significance of personal integrity. Certainly, we face the same financial challenges and cultural pressures as every other university, yet we have a reason and a hope that transcends those pressures and gives us a rudder by which to steer.

 
 
 
 


 

[1] George Kuh, “What We Are Learning About Student Engagement,” Change 35 (2003): 28.

[2] Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 31.

[3] Academically Adrift, 13. Arum and Roksa cite the analysis of historian Julie Reuben to make this case; The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[4] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 423-24.

[5] “Undergraduate education is fundamentally a social experience.” This is the well documented conclusion of several studies; Academically Adrift, 59.

The Hole in our Gospel of Work

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(A Portrait of the Artist as a young John Galt)

   Who is John Galt? That’s the question which pulses through the heart of Atlas Shrugged, the massive novel by Ayn Rand that became my personal manifesto during college as I wrestled with the meaning of life, and sought to discover who I was as an adult. John Galt became my heroic alter ego—a rugged individualist who created new technology and built entrepreneurial companies to bring products to market, all for the sake of human achievement and progress.

In a sense, I became John Galt, claiming his ideals as my own. I patterned my life and goals on his. Atlas Shrugged gave me a ringing endorsement for my ambitions. Work became for me an avenue to achievement and success; I began to define myself by what I produced, as a scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and businessman. I developed new products and co-founded a company, earned patents, raised venture capital, managed teams of people, and got my picture in the newspaper. It was a wild, fun ride.

But through it all, there lingered in the back of my mind a worry that something was missing in the world of John Galt. To place absolute value on productivity reduced life to a balance sheet which held no place for intangibles like compassion and sympathy. Love seemed not to enter into the equation. I worried about how to place a value upon a life, or upon the experiences, and even suffering, of people whose worth couldn’t be measured by the standards of economic efficiency. Yet, I remained convinced by the example of John Galt that selfishness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that selfishness (or if you prefer, self-concern, or love of self) can produce all kinds of good things for humankind. That’s how profit serves the common good. But to treat selfishness as an absolute good is an entirely different matter. The absolutism of John Galt seems to have a hole in it. Love and mercy don’t seem to be accounted for in the “gospel” according to John Galt (read, Ayn Rand).

This is precisely the dilemma confronted by the biblical author of Ecclesiastes. The expectation that we might find out the meaning of life through personal achievement and the things produced by working is a “vanity of vanities”; it’s like “chasing after the wind” [Eccl. 1:2, 14…]. The problem is that the meaning of life and the purpose of work are not to be found in the act of work itself, but rather in the relational context of our work.  “What do you do for a living?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “What (or Who) makes your work life-giving?”

I can identify with the writer of Ecclesiastes. I was in mid-life before I finally discovered the only hope to enjoy meaningful work without “chasing after the wind”. The only answer I’ve ever found to that dilemma is to live in relationship with the creator God who loves you and me, and who designed us for work—the God who is, the God who is Love, the God we know in and through Christ Jesus.

When our work is celebrated as an expression of who God made us to be, it has meaning. When work serves God’s love for ourselves, for our neighbors and for all creation, it is life-giving, and takes on eternal value. The meaning lies in the relationships which make work valuable. Work has meaning when we see it as part of the story God is telling through us. Living by faith is the source of joy in our work. We don’t find our meaning by going to work, but rather, we bring the meaning of work with us when we enter into it in faith. In faith we discover that work is joyful, because its ultimate value exists in relationship. Here is the impact of the Gospel upon our work—our true, life-giving identity is found not in our job, but in Christ who makes our job meaningful. This is our secret identity as workers—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col. 1:27; 3:3,4]—which we bring to work and which redeems our work to the glory of God. The only way to lead a life which integrates purposeful work, ambition and love, is to live by faith. To discover our secret identity in Christ is to find the path to integrate our faith and work; this is where  we will find the Gospel at work.

Liberté, Egalité, Économie

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SPU Response: economy on life support  The French have come up with some dangerously good ideas. 

There’s a revolutionary spirit at work in the newest policy recommendations to come out of the report commissioned by President Sarkozy.  As the G-20 convened last week, Sarkozy arrived with the report of the French Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was headed up by the Nobel-prize laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen.

The report is based on the kind of common sense that led Stiglitz to his Nobel-winning insights: “What you measure affects what you do…If you don’t measure the right thing, you don’t do the right thing.”[1]  Given the disastrous proportions of the Great Recession, you might wonder, along with Stiglitz, whether we are measuring the right things when it comes to economic policy.  The US and the whole G-20 seem to be focused on one measurement in particular– GDP.

 The problem with GDP, as the Commission asserts boldly, is that GDP doesn’t actually measure what people care most about–  “quality of life”.  GDP is a one-dimensional scale of financial activity that contains no direct measures of health, wholeness, happiness, or the well-being of families and communities.  Not only does GDP fail to address these issues of life quality and happiness, but it also fails to account for the “externalities” of economic activity: for example, pollution, stress and waste.  When someone gets sick in the US, for example, GDP typically goes up, due to the cost of treating illness, even though the event of illness is a clear negative for that person and their community.  In light of all these short-comings, Stiglitz sums up the report as a call to abandon “GDP fetishism.”[2]

 It’s not easy to measure the subjective, intangible aspects of personal and communal health and life quality, of course, and the Commission hasn’t made much progress in solving that problem.  Still, that’s no excuse to give up on the task.  The business schools where I’ve studied and taught, Stanford and Seattle Pacific University, both make the same claim in their branding statements: “Change the World”. Changing our focus on economic measurement, from pure unadulterated economic power, to an enhanced metric of power and life quality, might help lead to a better tool for changing the world.

 


[1] Stiglitz quoted in the NY Times article by Peter S. Goodman, 23 September 2009.

[2] Economist, 19 September 2009, p. 88.

Economics & Table Manners

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reflections on Caritas in Veritate, part iii

family_eating_dinner

Trust makes for good business.  Without trust, deals are left undone, and markets collapse, as we have seen all too painfully in the present credit crunch. Credit evaporates when lenders lose confidence in borrowers.  As the current financial crisis demonstrates, even sophisticated risk-spreading insurance schemes like derivatives fail when there’s simply not enough good-old-fashioned personal trust to go around.

 Benedict XVI draws attention to the axiomatic importance of trust in his latest encyclical-

 [I]f the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well.  Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss…[1]

 Solidarity and mutual trust.  These are the recipe for market health.  But the interesting dilemma for economic ethics is that this trust cannot be manufactured.  Like good ketchup, it’s “grown, not made”.  The market economy, in and of itself, does not have the wherewithal to create trust.  So where does trust come from?  It grows up around the dinner table and the kitchen table, where people share and depend upon one another for their common livelihood.  The household is the primal model for economics (which is why the modern word “economics” is based in the classical Greek word oikonomia, referring to household management).[2]  Thus, table manners may rightly be seen as the first principle of business ethics.

 Benedict defines solidarity in terms of mutual concern and fraternity, and names this as the fundamental concern of economic ethics.  Such solidarity grows through relationships in which gift-giving transcends the motive of financial gain:

  [T]he principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity.[3]

 But here is the crux of the problem for economic ethics-how are the transcendent values of “gratuitousness” and the “logic of gift” to be built into the economic system?  The problem is that the marketplace lacks the impetus to reward the “logic of gift”.  As Benedict notes rightly: “The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law.”[4]   If gratuitousness shows up at all in the logic of economics, it shows up as an externality, a side-effect, and not as a prime motivator of market decisions.

 To understand the “logic of gift”, we do well to look at the kitchen table again. Giving and sharing are good manners, and table manners might be considered the first principle of business ethics, because it is there that the values of solidarity, trust and mutual sharing are learned.  When a community gathers round a table and manages to get everyone fed, and delights in that healthy outcome, the system works and community thrives.

 Much the same principle is at work in a society.  Augustine expressed this idea in his definition of a “people”-

 A people, we may say, is a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.  There can be as many different kinds of people as there are different things for them to love.  Whatever those things may be, there is no absurdity in calling it a people if it is a gathered multitude, not of beasts but of rational creatures, united by agreeing to share what they love.  The better the things, the better the people; the worse the things, the worse their agreement to share them.[5]

 Economic ethics and the health of the market system would therefore seem to be based in the degree to which a community shares common objects of love.  A society needs leaders who remind people of this love, cast a vision for its nurture, and draw attention to injustices where this love is lost.  How can these principles and values be built into the system?  We will turn to this question next.

 


 [1] Caritas in Veritate, 35.

[2] M. Douglas Meeks puts it well: “Every economy is shaped around a table… the crucial events of life largely transpire around tables…”; “The Economy of Grace: Human Dignity in the Market System”, in God and Human Dignity, ed. by R. Kendall Soulen & Linda Woodhead (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 196-214 (200f).

[3] Caritas in Veritate, 36.

[4] Caritas in Veritate, 39.

[5] Augustine, City of God 19.24.  quoted  by Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love (Eerdmans, 2002), 20.

Gratuitous Economics

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Show me the love?

market efficiency

Caritas in Veritate, part II

 In the previous essay, we saw that the ethics of economic activity are grounded in a vision of human dignity. Valuation and judgment of the costs and benefits of economic development proceed from a vision of human development and human worth.  Benedict XVI expresses this point cogently in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love/Charity in Truth), where he identifies the “transcendent vision of the person” as the basis for discussion of human development and vocation. Transcendence refers of course to the spiritual reality of God, and thus, to see the transcendent aspect of humanity is to see persons in relationship with God.  

 This means that mere economics-that is to say, economics shorn of the transcendent dimension of relationship with God-will lack the coherent vision necessary to make ethical judgments.  A realist approach to the ethics of economic activity will require to be understood in terms of a coherent vision of the whole person; and biblically speaking, this means the person as existing in relationship with God.  This relationship is the fundamental reality upon which theological ethics rests.  To forgo the vantage provided by a transcendent vision of human dignity is to make an a priori decision to rule out the very thing that gives humanity its ultimate value, and to replace it with a metaphysical artifice of moral norms.  While such metaphysical constructions can yield ethical rules, they cannot provide any transcendent significance to the value of human persons.

 Benedict notes rightly that a transcendent vision of persons requires ethical theory to countenance “the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity”[1], for it is only within the light of this mystery that the true meaning of love (caritas) can be discerned.  And so, making a neat turn of phrase, he inverts the biblical exhortation to speak the “truth in love” [Eph. 4:15], and speaks of ethics as being comprised of acts of “love in truth”, hence: Caritas in Veritate.  This is a profound statement, for it ties ethics to the transcendent reality of God’s love (agape in the Greek, or caritas in the Latin), which is known only by virtue of knowing God as love (1 John 4:7-8).   Ethics is thus defined as the practice of “love in truth”, or caritas in veritate.

 What does this mean for economics?  It means that economics is fraught with inherent moral challenges, and all the more so in a climate of globalization which tends to increase the distance between participants in the global marketplace.  How is a community of love to be formed out of the disparate, economically motivated, remote, and anonymous factions involved in transactions on a global scale?  How is a community to be formed of such factions, in order that they might truly love one another as Jesus instructed?  Here is the crux of the problem: how to build love into the economic systems of the global marketplace.

 And in recognition of this problem, Benedict names the fundamental ailment underlying the global recession and the credit crunch:

 The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth.

 The solution is to build gratuitousness (i.e., charity/caritas/love) and the logic of gift into the systems of normal economic activity which seem to rule the world.  But how?  Somehow we need to ensure that our economic structures are not only efficient, but also gratuitous!  Doesn’t this sound oxymoronic, to speak of gratuitous economics?  Difficult?  Yes.  Idealistic?  Perhaps.  But oxymoronic?  No.  There is indeed a logic to the idea of gratuitous economics.  It is precisely the logic of hope and the logic of confidence in the greater reality of human dignity which can never be adequately reduced to the mathematical principles of rocket science which have of late risen to such preeminence in the global financial playground.  This is the same logic by which the mosaic law of the Bible commanded harvesters to intentionally leave a little grain behind for the gleaners.  It is the logic by which the Israelites were commanded not to store up more mannah than they could eat.  And even more profoundly, it is the logic of the Sabbath, which bears witness to the transcendent reality that we depend ultimately on God, more than upon our economic diligence.  Hyper-efficiency, not gratuituousness, has been the historically more serious source of  an illogical streak within economics, because it leads into cycles of boom and bust, greed and despair.  In contrast to those unfortunate extremes, there is a logic of hope in gratuitousness which mitigates against those disruptive cycles.

 


 [1] Caritas in Veritate, 54.

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