Creedal politics is a very dangerous thing. The most exaggerated example of this in the world today is Iran. In this country, it is the Moral Majority. Yet, with their recent pastoral letter on the economy, adopted in its final form in November, the United States Catholic bishops become contenders for the crown.
Using all the moral authority they can command, the Catholic bishops proclaim in "Economic Justice for All" that every man, woman, and child in the world has the right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, employment, healthful working conditions, and fair wages. Theirs is not just the obvious point that these things are beneficial to people and they ought to be allowed to pursue them. No, the bishops call these "economic rights," defined as "empowerments that call for positive action by individuals and society at large." In other words, these rights are entitlements that the citizens of the country are morally obliged to fulfill and that ought to be legally enforceable. "Governments may levy the taxes necessary to meet these responsibilities, and citizens have the moral obligation to pay those taxes."
The Catholic bishops thus call for nothing less than a moral and social revolution. They do not seek merely to change how individuals choose to conduct their private lives. Rather, they seek to determine, through public policy, how they will lead their lives. The bishops urge a "new American experiment" to change the principles by which this nation has defined the proper role of government.
Nor are the goods and services that these "economic rights" demand from others to be provided "merely out of superfluous goods." Unless a condition of absolute scarcity exists, every person in need has a moral claim on the time and resources of those who have more than the minimum necessary for life. Since no absolute scarcity exists in the United States, the bishops would have the resources of every citizen reduced to the minimum level necessary for life if that is what is required to make sure others—everyone else in the world—have sufficient resources to meet their basic needs. (Forget about that VCR, or even an ice cream cone, as long children are starving in Ethiopia.) "The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is the highest priority."
The Catholic bishops are supremely confident of the righteousness of their cause. They believe that "economic rights" are grounded in human dignity. "The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others, is the criterion against which all aspects of economic life must be measured." Though they admit that there can be disagreement regarding the best means to attain their moral priorities, they unctuously pronounce that "there can be no legitimate disagreement on the basic moral objectives." The arrogance of this statement is matched only by the offensive character of the moral viewpoint that supports it.
As many conservative and neoconservative critics have noted, the Catholic bishops' understanding of what wealth is and how it is created is hopelessly flawed. A far more fundamental error, however, lies in their understanding of human dignity. These so-called moral authorities, who command the respect of millions, talk a good line about human dignity but base their view of it on a conception of human flourishing that fails to accord primacy to human autonomy, or self-directedness. It is thus precisely their moral objective—the attempt to engineer human flourishing—that is wide open to challenge.
The picture of human flourishing that the Catholic bishops portray is that of a hungry mouth being fed. Flourishing results from what one receives. In fact, human flourishing requires that people conduct their lives according to their own reason and judgment. These are not just means to flourishing, like food and shelter—this the bishops would acknowledge. They are instead the central feature; without reason and judgment, no action could be virtuous.
Before ever addressing questions of what someone should think or how someone should act, an analysis of human flourishing shows that human beings ought to live their lives according to their own judgments. People ought to be self-directed or autonomous not because they will thus invariably flourish. Indeed, we can all think of examples from our own lives where we have thought through something, acted on our own best judgment, and pursued values in ways that were not conducive to our well-being. The important point is, though, that these activities, as central, necessary features of human flourishing, are right activities in themselves.
But this the Catholic bishops ignore. They ignore that human flourishing is fundamentally a self-directed activity. They ignore that human dignity results from the fact that humans are moral agents whose purpose is to choose the actions that will allow them to flourish. By championing "economic rights" the bishops promote a political order which denies that individual human beings are potential ends-in-themselves who cannot be ends-in-themselves save through their own self-initiated and self-maintained action.
The Catholic bishops advocate a political order in which the exercise of our judgments about how to use our time and resources—how to live our lives—is not to be legally protected but is to be sacrificed on the altar of providing for the needs of others. The picture of human dignity that the Catholic bishops ultimately portray is, like their picture of human flourishing, an offensive caricature. Yet, in the case of human dignity it is something much worse. As George Orwell has written, "Imagine a boot stamping on a human face."
Douglas B. Rasmussen is an associate professor of philosophy at St. John's University and coauthor of The Catholic Bishops and the Economy: A Debate (Social Philosophy & Policy Center, Bowling Green State University).