Guests on Volume 153
• CHARLES C. CAMOSY on how the exclusion of theological affirmations in bioethics threatens human dignity
• O. CARTER SNEAD on how laws and public regulations conceal an implicit theological anthropology
• MATT FEENEY on how anticipation of the “college admissions process” increases the temptation toward competitive parenting
• MARGARITA A. MOONEY on how the liberal arts promote a love of learning
• LOUIS MARKOS on why Christians shouldn’t ignore the gifts to the Church given by Plato’s philosophical insights
• ALAN JACOBS on escaping the tempestuous climate of modern media by reading books by dead people
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Charles C. Camosy
“Some secular folks . . . claim to have a vision according to natural kinds where we would include the newborn, disabled infant along with the college professor as being along the same lines, despite the obvious difference . . . but I’m not very convinced that those arguments actually work. Frankly, I think we see the more and more people move, you know, from a theological lens to a philosophical one, the more that that particular set of arguments fails to convince, and instead we move more towards autonomy, rationality, self-awareness, productivity as the things that we value. And then we find quite readily that not all human beings have those in equal measure — some appear not to have them at all — and we end up with radical inequality.”
— Charles C. Camosy
Professor Charles Camosy argues that modern medicine lacks an adequate explanation for why all people should be treated with equal worth in his book Losing Our Dignity: How Secularized Medicine is Undermining Fundamental Human Equality. Instead, when the highest values are autonomy, rationality, and productivity, he states, “We end up with radical inequality.” Nonetheless, Camosy argues that the best ethical intuitions and judgments in modern medicine are grounded in a theological account of human nature. For example, historically, the de facto posture of “not aiming at death” emerged from medieval battlefield discussions between priests and doctors. Christians ought to be confident in our theological rationale, Camosy believes, because it has vital implications for thorny medical issues today.
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O. Carter Snead
“The methodological claim is that the richest way to understand matters of public bioethics – this area of law and public policy– is to ask the question of ‘What vision of human identity and human flourishing anchors and undergirds and animates the laws and policies under consideration?’ And the reason I think this is a valuable point of entry into that kind of analysis is because all law purports to (and is intended to and is best understood as) providing for the flourishing of persons or protecting of persons. And so, if that’s true – and I think it is – the law has to assume (or have a set of assumptions) about what a person is and what human flourishing is.”
— O. Carter Snead
Political scientist O. Carter Snead argues that all matters of public bioethics are determined by beliefs about human identity and flourishing. In his book, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, Snead analyzes abortion, end-of-life decision-making, and assisted reproduction, finding that the public bioethics concerning these matters is undergirded by the values of expressive individualism. Within this modern vision, human identity is found through a process of self-discovery, obviously prioritizing autonomy and detachment. And Snead makes the point that this vision is just a snapshot of humans at their most fortunate. Even at their very best, humans experience radical dependence at the beginning and end of life, which means that all humans have unchosen obligations and duties of care. Snead argues that this reality must be seriously reckoned with in public bioethics.
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“There’s an irony about this stuff because the kids are kind of trained in the appearance of . . . niceness and concern, but, you know, from the standpoint of citizenship, it’s also perhaps a training in pliability and agreeability and conformity. This is my argument: that the process . . . of forming yourself in order to satisfy a committee is a process of making yourself . . . pliable. You have to kind of bend yourself in order to look the right way and then, to turn yourself into the kind of person that a committee likes.”
— Matt Feeney
In his book Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age, political philosopher Matt Feeney argues that family life has become “colonized” for the sake of competitive child rearing. A father of three, Feeney started to explore this idea when his oldest daughter was in middle school, and he saw the pressure on students to take extracurriculars simply for the sake of their college application. Feeney does not take a scornful or shaming stance. Rather, his book flows from reflection on how children have been forced to compete in order to stand out to college admissions committees. These admissions committees now play an outsized role in the lives of students, and he wonders why college faculties do not do more to protest the diminishment of the formative role of the teacher as the center of collegiate life.
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Margarita A. Mooney
“A liberal arts approach to education is broader than simply the content of the curriculum. It’s broader than simply including the great works of philosophy, literature, and theology. It’s an approach to the human person . . . that builds social order from the ground up. The liberal arts vision of education presupposes that by forming persons holistically, they will know how to enter into common life and how to build social bonds. So, the liberal arts education is not a social project in the sense that it doesn’t set out to create a particular set of political or social institutions. It aims to equip the next generation with an understanding of the traditions that preceded them — with a starting point for which to venture out into their common life, their shared life together.”
— Margarita A. Mooney
Professor Margarita A. Mooney argues that a liberal arts approach starts with a holistic and personal understanding of the individual and “builds social order from the ground up.” In her book, The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts, Mooney invites the reader into conversations with seven individuals invested in educational philosophy. As a professor, her own interest in the subject began in listening to her students' needs and realizing how vital it was for them to grasp the telos of their educational model. She wants students to grapple with whether the end of knowledge in their educational model is primarily about power or about knowledge in and of itself (and its ability to shape the soul). Ultimately, she argues that a liberal arts education is the model that does the most justice to the shape of the human soul and the needs of the greater social order.
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“We need to move beyond the shifting shadows to contemplate that which is truly true, and really real. It was Plato who taught us to seek after the beatific vision of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Now, thankfully, we have special revelation to tell us that yes, we can contemplate, but what we’re contemplating is not impersonal forms, as they are in Plato, but the very personal, trans-personal, triune God. But still, Plato is explaining to us the need not to be deceived by shadows, and to grow and move forward into the light of reality.”
— Louis Markos
Professor Louis Markos is weary of Plato being blamed for everything bad in the western Christian world. In his book, From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith, Markos claims instead that Plato needs to be recognized for his unique and serendipitous role in preparing the world for Christ. While certainly recognizing that the fullness of revelation is not to be found in Platonic philosophy, Markos still believes Christians need to reclaim the goodness that the great philosopher was able to reveal. He also wants Christians to stop reading later Gnosticism into Plato himself. Though Plato could not have had the revelation that humans are “enfleshed souls,” he did not believe that the body is inherently evil. Essentially, Markos argues that Plato can be “lifted up” into the fullness revealed in Christ.
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“It occurred to me that one of the really great things about ‘breaking bread with the dead’ — that is, with the writers and the thinkers and all the people from the past — is that that’s not as scary as sitting down at table with a political enemy, knowing that the conversation could escalate into something very tense or even angry. When you’re breaking bread with the dead, you don’t have to worry about that. . . . If this dead person says something to you that offends or hurts you, you can set the book down. Maybe you can come back to it later or maybe you don’t come back to it later, but you’re in charge of the situation. And it occurred to me that maybe if we can learn to break bread with the dead, it might give us a bit of training that would help us to break bread with the living.”
— Alan Jacobs
English professor Alan Jacobs encourages readers to pick up old books, not primarily for the sake of greatness, but for the sake of difference. In his book Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Jacobs considers how reading old books may be an education in patience and therefore applicable to difficult relationships, especially in our current political and cultural climate. Taking his title from a W. H. Auden quotation, Jacobs reflects on the similarities between reading old books and table fellowship. But he claims that the advantage to reading old books is that readers are in control of the conversation. They can put down the book, pausing (or even ending) the exchange. Nonetheless, if readers patiently engage, especially giving attention to the differences that make them uncomfortable, they may become more adept in dealing with differences between people and even achieve a “tranquil mind.”