Thoughts on John Carr and the Balance of Individualism (With Video)

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Picking up the second day of the 2015 Portsmouth Institute summer conference, on Pope Francis, John Carr began the Saturday session with an hour of humor and insight (full video below).  If Friday’s speakers — knowingly or incidentally — wove a certain trepidation that American Catholics might have about the new pope through the subtext of their talks, Carr unhesitatingly called on us to carry the message that the pope will bring to our country.

As he put it for his very last sentence responding to the final question of the Q&A, Carr believes that the message will be: “When you pledge ‘liberty and justice for all,’ become a nation of liberty and justice for all.”

Surely, we can all agree with that.  The difficulty is in the prudential determination of what constitutes liberty and justice and how it may best be achieved.

Listeners who are politically and economically conservative might hear hints in Carr’s presentation that his views are farther to the left than ours, and a glancing review of his résumé wouldn’t undermine that impression.  He’s walked in academic circles and once directed the Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.  However correct such assumptions might be, however, like a good professor (or a man charged with upholding Catholicism in the den of Washington, D.C.), his words were holistic and difficult to divide along political lines.

He suggested that the goodness of a society can be measured by how well the poor are doing, and in ensuring social justice, the Church balances four principles:

  • “The dignity of the human person”
  • “The priority for the poor”
  • “The virtue of solidarity” (basically, that we are all one human family, with a responsibility for each other)
  • “The practice of subsidiarity” (basically, the notion that higher levels of a community should not trample on the rights and judgment of more local groups except where necessary for “harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies”)

A society must construct a table with four legs, per Carr’s analogy:

  1. “What individuals and families ought to do,” mainly having to do with making good decisions and providing mutual support
  2. “What community groups… faith groups… churches ought to do,” mainly in helping families to make good decisions and working against injustice
  3. “What the market needs to do,” producing the opportunity for work that can support families and “a decent life”
  4. “What government ought to do,” leveling the playing field in “an economy where people can flourish”

“The problem with Washington,” he said, “is everybody falls in love with one leg of the table.”  It may be, too, that the trepidation about Pope Francis’s presentation to the world lies in the sense that his understanding of those legs, and the four Catholic principles that Carr cites, may cut them all at different lengths.  After all, it’s easy to talk to a society through its government, and Francis’s first stop in the United States, just after a visit to Cuba, will be for a joint session of Congress.  Few expect him to call for the feds to back off so that smaller subsidiaries and individuals can flourish.

One can harangue a government to make changes to the social order, and one can encourage people to tell their government officials to mandate a more just society.  With the agreement of a terribly small number of political insiders, one can get “justice” written down on paper.  Congress can pass a law, binding across the entire country, called the Liberty and Justice for All Act, and then the President and the bureaucracy can interpret its vague requirements to impose rules and regulations, and when the law makes things worse, rather than better, the advocates can look for the culprits who are preventing its beneficent effects and stamp them out with more rules and regulations.

But that doesn’t answer the moral call.  Where government decrees to the market, “make jobs,” the market must shuffle resources from elsewhere, and this combined corporatist force will drain the life of community groups and lure individuals and families toward bad decisions.

Where subsidiarity is pushed aside in the name of expediency, it becomes easier and easier to define “solidarity” in a way that excludes those who argue against the mandates — whether for practical, ideological, or selfish reasons.  Moreover, both the people who resist and the people who are the targets of patronage disguised as charity are treated with an absence of dignity as human persons.

With government-driven “social justice,” the ideal of prioritizing the poor is never held side by side with the practical question of whether the poor are actually the priority, as proven by outcomes.  The priority, in short, becomes the ability of the powerful to control everybody’s lives.

Carr perhaps articulates the type of thinking that leads good, moral thinkers astray when he says that our problem is “too much of two different kinds of excessive individualism.”  In the absence of elaboration from Carr, I’ve made some inferences, here, but his two kinds of individualism may be summarized as: economic, whereby we trust the market totally to arbitrate conflicts in our individual wants and needs, and lifestyle, whereby we minimize to the point of elimination the consequences of individuals’ decisions, either denying their reality or promising that the government will take care of them.

This dichotomy contains a good bit of truth, but it puts the problem in the incorrect framework.  If “individualism” is “excessive,” then the leaven may be presumed to be some measure of collectivism.  On this, the Catholic Catechism and its principle of subsidiarity is clear; it is “opposed to all forms of collectivism” (1885).

Indeed, one could argue that there is no such thing as “excessive individualism” in the eyes of the Church, when it comes to the structure of our society.  We can individually be too selfish, naturally, but that is a message for the pews, not for Congress.

As the Catechism puts it, “each community is defined by its purpose and consequently obeys specific rules, but ‘the human person… is and ought to be the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (1881).  The Holy Spirit does not speak to a government or a charity or even a church.  God speaks to the individuals who constitute that government, charity, or church… or business or any other organization.

In this framework, Carr’s critique of two variants of individualism falls short and would be better cast as a balance of individualisms.  It is not “the market” (the invisible hand) that arbitrates economic transactions.  It is individuals, and they can and should do so through every type of social subsidiary — not just as consumers, but also as members of families, community groups, religious groups, and even government groups.  The market can be a powerful mechanism for progress, of course, so this arbitration requires decisions to be made, but the balance falls to individuals to make, and it would be wrong both to hand a whip to government and to insist that profit proves morality.

As for lifestyle individualism, it is simply not possible — as an institutional matter — to decree minimization or elimination of consequences.  This is most sharply seen in the practice of abortion, whereby a child’s life is sacrificed in expiation of the parents’ sexual decisions, but it applies much more broadly.

Consequences lifted from the individual who made the decision simply fall to other individuals who did not, whether through the costs of government programs or through the decay of society.  Case by case, the shared burden may be imperceptible and morally shared, but that isn’t for a governing entity to declare.  Foisting the consequences of one person’s error on other people is manifestly unjust.  Again, the balance falls to individuals to make.

The Church developed “just war doctrine” when Christians gained enough weight in society to begin affecting military decisions, and it may be that the Church needs something similar for our social interactions.  Just as it is wrong to take away another person’s right to life, it is wrong to take a way his right to the fruits of his labor or her right to engage in charity, which is what occurs when a government entity takes money by force and puts it to causes that the government believes to be good works.

As it turns out, the basic rules for a “just war” apply very well to the modified task of determining when it is legitimate for government to restrain individuals (see 2309):

  • The damage to society by the individual action must be “lasting, grave, and certain”;
  • “All other means of” addressing the harm or persuading the individual “must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”;
  • “There must be serious prospects of success”;
  • “The use of” coercion “must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated,” and the deep, vast reach that technology has enabled the powerful to extend over the less powerful should “weigh very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

The trepidation about the direction of the Church — which can be seen in criticism of the bishops for being weak on subsidiarity as well as in conservatives’ reaction to Pope Francis — may result from the sense (almost certainly correct) that statist solutions will face nowhere near this degree of scrutiny.

Francis, in particular, causes concern that, in laying out his principles about the perspective that society ought to take, he grants moral permission for the expedient use of government to impose progressive priorities, even though they are certain to cause grave evil and have no prospects of success, even as alternatives exist.



  • ShannonEntropy

    As long as we’re quoting the Catholic Catechism, howz about these words =►

    1936 On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth.41 The “talents” are not distributed equally.42

    1937 These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them

    HMMMM …. From each according to his ability … to each according to his need

    Where have I heard *that* before ??
    Oh, right … THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO !!

    So is it any wonder to anyone that Francis is a socialist ??

    Maybe he should read The Old Testament, which says that laying around waiting for your EBT card to get renewed is an abomination =►

    9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
    When will you arise from your sleep?
    10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
    11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man.

    Proverbs 6:9-11

    • Justin Katz

      That gets to the point of my essay. The differences between people are part of God’s plan, and He wills that we support each other. It’s a matter of individual alignment with God’s will, not of using government to force people to share their talents according to the government’s plan.

      • ShannonEntropy

        Yeah, I got that … your point is well made in the last sentence of the post. So are you now turning into a “Cafeteria Catholic” ??

        (( For you non-Catholics, that is someone who picks & chooses which of the Church’s doctrines they will adhere to and which they will ignore ))

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that … even tho my two sisters have five kids between them, it is obvious they have used some form of contraceptives in violation of Church Law … but they still go to Mass every week and receive the sacraments

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