A Call to Virtue: Living the Gospel in the land of liberty

Pope Francis has declared that the joy of the Gospel can help the world to overcome the globalization of indifference to others. Undoubtedly, he will bring this message when he visits the United States. But when he does, he will face a society in thrall to a different idea—that of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The urgent core of Francis’ message, which is the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, challenges this American idea by proclaiming that the path to happiness lies not solely or mainly through the defense of rights but through the exercise of virtues, most notably justice and charity.

Pope Francis sees a crisis of the human spirit in our time, characterized by our inability to hear the suffering of others. This is a crisis not of material want, of the scarcity of material goods as taught by modern economics, but of morals. We suffer a poverty of the spirit in the midst of material plenty, a failure to live properly in an age of unprecedented material affluence.

This is an idea that is foreign to the ideology of rights that dominates American ideological discourse. In the United States, we learn that the route to happiness lies in the rights of the individual. By throwing off the yoke of King George III, by unleashing the individual pursuit of happiness, early Americans believed they would achieve that happiness. Most important, they believed that they would find happiness as individuals, each endowed by the creator with individual rights.

There is, no doubt, grandeur in this idea. As children of God, individuals have rights to be free of persecution, to be treated as ends and not means, as Immanuel Kant put it. The dignity of man requires the rights of man, as Thomas Paine declared.

Yet from the point of view of the Gospels, such rights are only part of the story, only one facet of our humanity. The Beatitudes, regarded by Pope Francis as key to the Gospel truth, are actually not at all about individual rights but about virtues, meaning the right path to the right kind of life. The Sermon on the Mount is not a defense of the individual but a call to humility, love and justice.

In modern terms, we would say that rights must be balanced by responsibilities. Kant said that the rights of individuals must be combined with duties, as guided by the categorical imperative. According to Kant, we have the duty to behave according to those maxims, and only those maxims, which can be made into universal laws.

Yet Jesus, and the ancient Greek philosophers, meant something different from responsibilities or duties in the way Kant understood them. It is useful for us to consider Aristotle’s views, for through St. Thomas Aquinas Aristotle’s vision of the good life was harmonized with Jesus’ teachings on the mount. For Aristotle, the issue was not the balancing of individual rights and responsibilities, as we would put it today, but the fact that we live our lives not only as individuals but also as members of society.

The Right Kind of Living

How strange to the American eye and ear is Aristotle’s declaration in the opening pages of The Politics that “the state is by nature clearly prior to the family and to the individual, since the whole is of necessity prior to the part.” Aristotle does not mean that the state can willfully crush the individual, but rather that the individual finds meaning in life, and the path to happiness, as a citizen of the polis, the state. In a phrase that reverberates powerfully still today, Aristotle noted that “man is a social animal.”

For Aristotle and for Jesus, as in the Beatitudes, the path to happiness is through the exercise of virtue, which means the right kind of living by each individual as a member of society. Aristotle’s message is that happiness (eudaimonia) is achieved through the practice and cultivation of virtues, including moderation in the pursuit of material wealth and the exercise of good citizenship. Jesus’ message is that happiness, and indeed salvation, cannot be found through material goods, or through the pursuit of happiness as consumers and moneychangers, but through the virtues of humility and justice, including most importantly “feeding the least among you.”

The church teaches that an individual’s happiness can be achieved only in solidarity with the community, in the individual’s “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good,” in the words of Pope John Paul II. As the church’s social doctrine declares, “The human person cannot find fulfillment in himself, that is, apart from the fact that he exists ‘with’ others and ‘for’ others”—a fact supported by psychological studies confirming that the act of giving is a powerful spur to an individual’s sense of well-being.

Can such rarefied ideas really help us to face the challenges of our own time? Can they really help to illuminate Pope Francis’ mission to overcome the globalization of indifference? I believe they can. For while the United States is a society of many glories, including the protection of the individual from state tyranny and the achievement of material well-being beyond any prior period of history, it is a society that has been wounded, even gravely, by its flawed and limited vision of humanity.

In current political discourse in the United States, the unalienable rights of the individual have been transmuted into the modern doctrine of libertarianism. This doctrine not only puts individual rights on a pedestal above all others but also actively denies any claim by society to hold individuals to account for their behavior toward others, other than to respect their liberty. In today’s America, the very idea of virtue has been privatized, individualized and increasingly commercialized. Each individual is at liberty to define virtue as he or she sees fit.

The results are disturbing. Trust between Americans is waning, as is recorded each year in survey evidence. A pall of corruption hangs over government, banking and other parts of the economy, even the health care sector. Americans are richer but no happier. Yet even as the United States has become more unequal in income and wealth than at any other time in its modern history, libertarians argue that the widening gulf between rich and poor gives no cause for any policy response. In the name of individual rights, the poor are left to suffer and the super-rich are excused from the requirements of virtue and common decency.

It is a long, fascinating and somewhat mysterious story how the American defense of the individual against tyranny in 1776 became the defense of the individual against demands of social justice and the recognition that virtues like compassion and moderation are the underpinnings of happiness. Perhaps in America’s highly diverse society, the only point of agreement across the numerous religions and cultures was the right to be left alone. Perhaps America’s remarkable commercial achievements meant that the norms of the marketplace—especially consumer choice—would eventually become the deep norms of society itself. Perhaps the advertisers and “merchants of persuasion” in public relations successfully convinced Americans that happiness would be found in one more purchase and one more possession.

A Compelling Message

Pope Francis is telling the world, and the world is listening, that the path from indifference to the suffering of others can be found through the reinvigoration of the Gospel virtues. This, I believe, is a compelling message, though one that is very strange indeed to the modern, and especially American, psyche. Americans might rather expect a call to legal responsibilities—“You must pay your taxes”—than a call to virtues. Yes, they will tend to dismiss such claims of social responsibility (“It’s my right to keep my money, since I earned it”), but at least they are familiar with the language of rights and responsibilities.

Yet the call to virtues is deeper and ultimately more compelling. Pope Francis is not coming as a scold but as a guide to help us find a solution to the paradox of the poverty of the spirit in the rising sea of affluence. He is not speaking the language of duties and responsibilities but of human meaning. He is not rejecting the libertarian defense of human dignity but saying that dignity is found not only through individual rights and free markets but from within, by each person pursuing the virtues of charity, justice and compassion in solidarity with the common good. This, after all, is the message of hope that brought the multitudes to hear Jesus preach.

As a macroeconomist, I have tried to put the challenge of compassion into the hard financial terms of the national income accounts. For 20 years I have tried to work up the balance sheet of social justice, so to speak, in order to measure the scale of investments that society needs to make in order to overcome extreme poverty; control epidemic diseases likes AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and Ebola; and convert our energy systems from climate-changing fossil fuels to safe, low-carbon energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power. The paradox that I have found time and again is that for a tiny investment of material goods—perhaps 2 percent to 3 percent per year of our global income—we could mobilize our technological excellence to end the scourges of extreme poverty, disease and environmental degradation that cause great global suffering and that in fact threaten our very survival. Solutions to our global material problems, whether climate change or epidemic control, are within our grasp, but only if we try.

We face, therefore, a moral crisis, not a material crisis. We face a problem not of means but of ends. As Aristotle might have said, we have the techne (the technological know-how) but not yet the phronesis (the moral wisdom) to choose survival over death. We are trapped by an indifference that ironically has been magnified by America’s exaggerated defense of liberty at the expense of virtue. Words do matter; and the Gospel teachings, like the teachings of Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius, about the path to happiness through compassion can become our guideposts back to safety.

Pope Francis will come to the United States and the United Nations in New York on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, and at the moment when the world’s 193 governments are resolved to take a step in solidarity toward a better world. On Sept. 25, Pope Francis will speak to the world leaders—most likely the largest number of assembled heads of state and government in history—as these leaders deliberate to adopt new Sustainable Development Goals for the coming generation. These goals will be a new worldwide commitment to build a world that aims to harmonize the pursuit of economic prosperity with the commitments to social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The S.D.G.’s can become a beacon for policy makers, civil society activists, scientists, business people and especially young people to infuse commitments of social justice and environmental sanity back into our politics and daily lives. Pope Francis’ message will help provide a universal language of virtue and happiness for the goals to be adopted by the member states of the United Nations. I believe that with such encouragement, the United States and the world can be stirred to choose a better course towards security, human dignity and well-being in the coming generation.

John Wakefield
2 years 2 months ago
There are cultures whose emphasis upon the polity is great. It could be that this is the case, with juche, in North Korea. Could be that this societal emphasis is not only pervasive, but prioritized, in Asian countries. A colleague noted how, in his growing up years in Wisconsin, there was the communal joining together at the time of harvest. We Americans have lost community and the family .. both of these behemoths enabling of a fuller, richer human life. It is difficult to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Down here, from where I write - the Dominican Republic - there is, in the poor sectors, in the ´barrios´, a sense of community; and, the family is very much alive. Get to the wealthier sectors, the people get snooter (más privonería), the ´look at me and my things´ ethos kicks in. With all the nuances of a different culture, outlook, this of the family and the community lives next door, in Haiti, as well. In the context of ´what is alive and well´ .. when an American comes down here to try to ´help´ .. when what he or she needs is help ... well. Isn´t that something!? None of the earth´s problems are very complicated. That is because we are human beings and, in a very ample sense of the word, not very complicated. However, to have vibrant community one must believe in vibrant community. For people in these countries (Third World), there is no such thing as sustainable development. Not in one´s furthest dreams .. it is a day by day situation. The British Ambassador to the Dominican Republic spoke recently (24 April) of the fact, the reality that there are two Dominican Republics. This kind of thing is busting out all over! The lingering eyesore along the lines of urban waste as visualized in Blade Runner. The very wealthy .. and all of the rest. An idea? For all sorts of thinkers, academics, social workers to come here – come here! .. come to the Dominican Republic .. with the following mandate: look, listen. DO NOT speak. Because, from the poor here there is everything to be learned: how to live, how to survive .. how to carry on every day with almost nothing in the way of money; yet, with the ability and fortitutde to face the day (heroic!), and smile! A good starting point: to recognize that you, the thinker, the academic, the social worker, have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO OFFER THESE, YET, EVERYTHING TO LEARN FROM THESE. .. in the little grocery store (colmado), give the colmadero a little pastry ... he will, without fail, divide it and give part to each of the others. That is an interesting ´automatic´ response. We may consider, also, a return to the Agora. The Agora, as physical space, can be summoned up .. it is the spiritual agora, the center of the community, needs be worked at. Probably the biggest problem in our America today is loneliness. Loneliness, and its stepchild, sadness.
C Maven
2 years 2 months ago
I hope this man's doctrine is not representative of the Pope's thinking or the modern Catholic church. This is "Liberation Theology"- Communism in plain language. It's a stretch that Jesus ever intended this. In addition, much of the article is simply untrue For one thing, "Capitalism" is a term made up by Communist god Karl Marx, whose writings have deceived and ruined the lives of many millions. It is a distortion of free enterprise, which a system of allowing private interests to build and run most of the economy. Free enteprise has proven to be extraordinarily successful, if government focuses on protecting rights and enforcing reasonable laws, rather than trying to command the economy and take over most of it. Unlike Communism and Secular Progressivism, it does not attempt to supplant religion, but happily coexists with it. To blame all crime and errors on the system, misrepresent said system and declare it to be invalid because of that is of course absurd. For example: "In current political discourse in the United States, the unalienable rights of the individual have been transmuted into the modern doctrine of libertarianism. This doctrine not only puts individual rights on a pedestal above all others but also actively denies any claim by society to hold individuals to account for their behavior toward others, other than to respect their liberty. In today’s America, the very idea of virtue has been privatized, individualized and increasingly commercialized. Each individual is at liberty to define virtue as he or she sees fit." This is another lie, There are thousands of laws to hold people accountable. The author also fails to note the USA is the most charitable nation on earth. Much of that is made possible by a system of free enterprise which has created the wealth to enable that and to lift more people out of poverty than any other system in the world, including the Catholic Church, which has proven rather ineffective at that. It has been proven over and over again that Communism doesn't work, yet elites persist in trying to ramrod it down the throats of unsuspecting people who find out too late to stop it. The hybrid Socialist/Democratic Parliamentary states will all eventually go bankrupt, because you can only confiscate so much of other peoples' money before you run out and the game ends.
Ernest Martinson
2 years 2 months ago
Speaking of America’s exaggerated defense of liberty at the expense of virtue is a false dilemma embedded in a false statement. First, virtue may be possessed by individual Americans but not by an abstract collective known as America. Even more confusing is America’s exaggerated defense of liberty. Is that a reference to the excessive spending of the Department of Defense? Granted, there is some need for defense to counter threats to our liberties from blowback by those resisting our foreign occupations. But a much greater threat is the Military Industrial Complex, that metaphor for us all, both big and small pigs, as we crowd each other at the public trough. Surely, the defense of liberty does not refer to coercive programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Affordable Care Act, public schooling, and the taxation of economic effort in order to distribute to others, such as agribusinesses, reaping what they have not sown? America has a gargantuan task in defending liberty when even the extent of federal laws is unknown. Anyone can break laws and not be aware. But we are aware that America has more prisoners than any other country. That hardly seems compatible with an American exaggerated defense of liberty.
Steve Phelan
2 years 2 months ago
What an odd article from Mr. Sachs. Whoever wrote it is quite conversant in authentic Catholic anthropology and some of its philosophical basis in Aquinas. He is also aware of the Church's critique of libertarianism and its radical focus on the individual. That a strong defense of of environmental responsibility is available from this tradition is clear, which is why the Church has for some time made these arguments. Yet almost everything else Mr. Sachs argues for in his public intellectual life is an affront to this same tradition, and the polar opposite of how the Church understands our social responsibility to one another. His consistent promotion of population control, coupled with his refusal to deal seriously with its more coercive manifestations (see China, India), is gravely offensive to Catholic virtue ethics. His view that abortion is "more economically responsible" than birth is utterly incompatible with the case made under his name in this article for a defense of the most vulnerable. His support of groups who find the Catholic Church's understanding of marriage to be "hateful" deserves mention here as well, since the ever-more-aggressive campaign to redefine marriage increasingly threatens religious freedom in this country and abroad. Pope Francis will remind the world that an environmentalism that ignores human ecology is anti-human, and causes rather than reduces human suffering. He will refute the false opposition between fertility and sustainable development, therefore refuting a great deal of Sachs' overall intellectual project. The Holy Father will demonstrate a sincere desire that the poor not be overrun by the greedy, and that the world's ecosystem not be ruined in a quest for profit; just as he will remind Sachs and co. that those who would destroy human life via contraception and abortion will not find approval in the Church and her social and moral doctrine.
Andrew Eppink
2 years 2 months ago
Pope Francis should find the courage to publicly attempt to change the attitude of Obama (in his upcoming meeting), Sachs and so many others regarding abortion and the egregious lib agenda generally, 'gayness' and all the rest of it. Not to do so is an abdication of his responsibilities.
Jim A
2 years 2 months ago
I was directed to this article by a link in a rebuttal written by Alan Keyes: http://dailycaller.com/2015/05/21/by-virtue-of-unalienable-right-pope-francis-and-the-american-idea/2/?print=1 So I had to read Sach's argument for myself. After doing so, I have to conclude that Sachs suffers from some measure of philosophical confusion (and shallowness) about what the Founders understood about the intersection of virtue ethics and free will, as Keyes outlines. Sachs proudly tells us that he's a macroeconomist. That's an area of expertise to which he should humbly constrain himself and leave the axiology to those who specialize in that field, or at least defer to their expertise. So if he wants to note the relevance of Kantian deontology to Revolution era American political philosophy, for example, he might be well served to defer to the expertise of someone like Roger J. Sullivan. Better yet, he could have re-read Kant's GMM. And maybe Adam Smith's TMS. Short of that, he simply embarrasses himself with a lot of misapplied eloquence--the root of of which is that he's really not a metaphysician, but somehow developed an impression (a la Hume) to the contrary. With all that said, what Sachs is really attempting to do, in a veiled manner, is advance Weber's critique of the Protestant work ethic as a defense of CST against Calvinist reformed theology which he perceives is operating at the core of the notion of inalienable rights. Like all ideologues of his ilk, he thinks an "inalienable right" is really just code for anti-Catholic materialistic predestination against which he would posit some pre-proto understanding of historical materialism. What he misses is that the Founders sought a middle way. Wrongheaded as his philosophical analysis is, at least that aspect of his critique is within his area of expertise. It's too bad he's not intellectually honest enough to be naked about it--but what non-SDS leftist ever is?
alan macdonald
2 years ago
I don't think Sachs realizes the Pope, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and by extension this magazine does not believe in birth/population control or abortion.
Mike Miket
1 year 12 months ago
The Pope should see the following presentation on “The Science of Rights”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wr_JRqPSwRY

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

“To the Bone,” which recently premiered on Netflix, tells the story of 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins), who is living with anorexia nervosa.
Karen RossJuly 21, 2017
The distinction between the disciplines of theological work and how these function in our common life is necessary.
What is it about habits and cassocks that capture the imagination of even secular audiences?
Ashley McKinlessJuly 21, 2017
Why Ron Hansen will never read the Gospels the same.
Ron HansenJuly 20, 2017