Religious Education Indispensable for Free SocietyREV. ROBERT J. SPITZER, S.J.
How do you view the role of higher education — and of distinctively religious schools, in particular — in a free society?
R&L: How does religious education uphold the notion of the intrinsic dignity of the human person, and how does that notion contribute to the free society?
Spitzer: Put another way, at a religious school, you can talk about a person having a soul. The moment you say that, you recognize the intrinsic dignity of the human person, and this recognition is absolutely necessary for a free society. The reason this is so is because if all you ascribe to people are extrinsic dignities, if you do not say that people have a unique irreplaceable value or even loveableness for no other reason than that they are human, then the whole doctrine of inalienable rights, quite frankly, topples.
The preservation of the notion of intrinsic dignity is absolutely necessary for the preservation of inalienable rights. An inalienable right is distinct from an extrinsic right. An inalienable right is one that belongs to a person by his very nature, and it cannot be taken away by a tyranny of the majority, where 51 percent of the people could outvote the rights of the other 49 percent. So once you have a doctrine of inalienable rights, you have an irreplaceable bulwark of the free society. John Locke saw that, and Francisco Suarez, the great Jesuit prior to Locke, saw that.
R&L: Similarly, what is the connection between transcendental ethics and principle-based ethics, and why is that connection important?
Spitzer: Religious institutions teach a transcendental ethic, a morality that is rooted in God. Therefore, religious people have no problem talking about principle-based ethics. They have no problem saying, for example, that stealing is wrong in itself. This view is counterpoised to another philosophy called utilitarian or consequentialistic ethics. Utilitarian ethics does not believe in the intrinsic evil or good of an action. A person with a strong religious belief definitely believes in principle-based ethics, or at least has some sense of the intrinsic good and evil of actions. If one does not have a view of intrinsic good and evil, one is left with the utilitarian view. This school views ethics in terms of the harms and benefits of particular actions. Rationalization is much easier when one uses a harms/benefits calculus.
Free societies need principle-based people. And anyone who is transcendentally oriented — that is to say, anyone who really believes that morality has some kind of divine ordination — will generally tend to have a belief in intrinsic good and evil. Because of that, such a person tends to have principles that promote free societies.
R&L: How does love relate to the free society?
Spitzer: Here we return to the notion of the intrinsic dignity of the human being. If you have intrinsic worth, then my love for you does not have to depend on my anticipation of your friendship or my affection for you. I love you because I recognize your intrinsic worth. In that moment of empathy, three very important things occur with agape: forgiveness, compassion, and care for the marginalized, all of which are absolutely important to the survival of the free society.
R&L: How is having an eschatological hope for the world related to having a broad and deep notion of the common good?
Spitzer: Religious people believe that God is guiding the world in some fashion to be a better place, and that the world itself is going to be brought into the very kingdom of God. Consequently, religious people have a very wide and broad notion of the common good. Of course, anyone can appropriate these four secular virtues without religion. But being religious certainly helps. A relationship with a loving God helps. A religious community that reinforces this worldview helps.
Religious schools fill those secular virtues with power, which they really could not have without that religious basis. Not only do academic institutions promote the transcendental virtues; they also make the connection between the transcendental or religious virtues, and the secular virtues. And it is that double function of the religious academic institution that promotes the free society.
R&L: In your new book, Healing the Culture, you argue that America's perceived cultural decline is a result of an incomplete view of the human person. How is this so?
Spitzer: Our society is tending toward an extrinsic view of the human person. Remember that extrinsic dignity has to be earned. No free society, no culture, can stand on that for very long because you can keep raising the bar on what is required to have extrinsic dignity. And if you cannot make the grade, you are a second-class citizen or, even, less than human. Anytime a culture reduces itself to the recognition of extrinsic dignity alone, it will tend toward bias, prejudice, and eventually the circumscription of property rights and freedom. In the end, it moves to the elimination of people because they belong to a particular group.
R&L: What would you present as a more adequate view of the human person?
Spitzer: One based on the intrinsic dignity of the human person. There is no reason that you have intrinsic dignity and worth other than the fact that you are human.
Do I think that the free society is losing its notion of intrinsic dignity with each passing day? Very much so. That is why I wrote Healing the Culture. We are not going to reverse this problem until we recapture the notion of intrinsic dignity and inalienable rights. There is only one way of preserving the free society: to identify "persons" (who are guaranteed rights) with "human beings" and nothing else.
R&L: In Healing the Culture, you introduce the reader to traditional principles of morality presented in a contemporary manner. What obstacles might prevent contemporary culture from responding to your invitation to a virtuous life rooted in a proper understanding of the human person?
Spitzer: Egocentricity is one obstacle. Most of the time, the culture is saying, "Ego is great." That hurts morality because people will do anything to satisfy their egos instead of looking at what they can do to advance the common good. Utilitarianism is another. As I said before, the problem with utilitarianism is that it is consequentialistic and therefore easy to make ends justify means. Those two things hinder the establishment of a traditional principle-based ethical system.
I try to get around these two obstacles by correcting the common misunderstandings about freedom. I distinguish freedom from from freedom for. What I mean by freedom from is escape from constraint, and it is an illusory notion of freedom. Freedom for involves the idea of self-determination, of being able to determine the person one will become. In other words, I am free only when I can do and be everything that I was meant to do and be, when I can secure various goods for my family, community, or church. The key concept in freedom, then, is commitment. You are never going to be able to do everything you are capable of doing for society, family, friends, or even yourself unless you can commit yourself to a course of action for the long term.
Once we are talking about commitment to a long-term course of action, we are approaching the topic of virtue, because virtues are habits of being oriented toward an end that is worthy of me. Freedom for is the only way of getting to that end; commitments are not something to be avoided but something to be pursued. So my strategy in reviving morality is redefining the relationship between virtue and freedom. Once virtue makes sense, there is a fighting chance that people will wake up every morning and try to pursue it.
R&L: In your ethical advisory role with various corporations, how do you bring a spiritual perspective to the business enterprise?
Spitzer: As opposed to ethical topics, which I can always address to a general group, spirituality is more difficult to present because a corporation cannot mandate it. The reason, of course, is that a non-believer may not want to hear about a spiritual life. However, many companies will allow voluntary religious groups to discuss this matter.
My way of bringing a spiritual perspective to the workplace is twofold. First, I form voluntary groups of people who want to integrate spiritual life with the workplace and so come together to talk and pray. Second, I try to show these groups how a spiritual life reinforces their ethics in the workplace. For example, spirituality very definitely reinforces the notion of freedom and commitment in the workplace. It reinforces the idea of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. It helps me to see the Good News in people, to keep a level head, and to have very good business judgment.
R&L: What do you find to be the most useful concept for bringing spirituality to the workplace?
Spitzer: The key thing that I try to emphasize is that spirituality is not simply good for ethics and leadership principles; it also promotes one important thing for the workplace: peace. If I have peace of mind, my business judgment is great. If I have peace of mind stemming from my prayer life, if I am coming to the workplace with a genuine attitude of calm because I have just said to God, "Thy will be done." If I am doing those things and have peace, my business judgment is great. On the other hand, if I come to work agitated, my business judgment is off. My egocentric perspectives hound me. Sometimes I am prideful, which turns off everyone around me. I spin my wheels and get angrier and angrier that things are not turning out as well as I thought they could, and so forth.
The best part about bringing the Spirit into the workplace is that you get peace, and peace is worth its weight in diamonds in terms of good business judgment. And most of my job is about judgment, not quantitative analysis. And those judgment calls are very much enhanced by being at peace. If you are at peace with yourself, you can be at peace with others, even if they are not doing things quite right or doing things that frustrate you. When you are at peace, you lead people well and can be a good ethical leader. When you are at peace, you are even a better analyzer because of the good judgment that is interwoven into your analysis. Such peace is invaluable.
Rev. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. "Religious Education Indispensable for Free Society." Religion and Liberty vol. 11 no. 5 (September/October 2001).
This article reprinted with permission from the Acton Institute. The mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.
Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. is currently the President of the Magis Center of Faith and Reason and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. The former is dedicated to showing the close connection between faith and reason in contemporary astrophysics, philosophy, and historical study of the New Testament. The latter is dedicated to personal and cultural transformation that supports principle-based ethics and leads to noble and enduring success. Father Spitzer was President of Gonzaga University from 1998-2009. He has published 5 books and numerous scholarly articles, started 6 national institutes, and speaks widely on the philosophy of science, philosophy of God, and ethics. Fr. Spitzer has as spoken to thousands of audiences, and has done ethics consulting for over 300 organizations, including Boeing, Caterpillar, Toyota, Costco, the British Prime Minister's Cabinet, the leadership of Costa Rica, Protestant and Catholic leadership in Northern Ireland, and the Orthodox Church in Russia. Father Spitzer is the author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, as well as videos such as Suffering and the God of Love, and Healing the Culture.
Copyright © 2004 Acton Institute
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.