March 9, 2011

In Few Things, Charity?

There is a substantial academic literature on the imperative to construe charitably another’s position. In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation. 
In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others' statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. 
According to Simon Blackburn [in his entry for the principle of charity in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy], "it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject's sayings."   
Philosopher Nigel Warburton defined the principle as follows (for the new edition of his Thinking from A to Z)
Interpreting arguments or positions adopted by others in the best possible light. Rather than setting an opponent’s pronouncements up as an easy target, those who adopt the principle of charity look for the best case that this person could consistently be making rather than the worst. Adopting the principle of charity is the opposite of setting up a straw man. Rather than caricaturing an opponent’s position, charitable thinkers give everything about it the benefit of the doubt. The appropriateness of this depends entirely on the context. . . . There is no obligation to adopt a principle of charity, and in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate, labour-intensive, and unrewarding. But it can provide an occasional antidote to knocking down straw men, and the kind of relentless negativity that clear thinkers are sometimes accused of.
As future posts will document, almost every page of TCATL provides evidence of Mr. Ferrara's sin against this principle. Because he is a Catholic, this exercise in mockery is a disgrace: not only is grace absent from its pages, but so is charity, even according to the standards of secular discourse. By the standards one has the right to expect of a Catholic, for whom charity ought to be the chief virtue, it is scandalous.
Because that tone infects his case against Austro-libertarianism, however, it is hard to tweeze out the propositional content from the repugnant form in which he encases it. That tone poisons the atmosphere within which an exchange of ideas can take place, one that has the potential of benefiting both Austro-libertarians and their critics.
The common meaning of “in all things, charity” is apparently so alien to him that referring to his adversaries as “charlatans” (301) who promote a “form of lunacy” (251) is his idea of “a fraternal appeal.”(5) As a way of expressing Φιλαδέλφεια, suggesting that one’s adversary in controversy utters lunacy is interesting, but only clinically so. I reject that appeal as eyewash, as hostile as it is puerile.
Mr. Ferrara is of the opinion that
spokesmen of the Austro-Libertarian movement . . . have much that is good and true to say concerning the benefits of free enterprise and private property (309)
although the preceding 308 pages do not convey that impression.  Fourteen pages later in the same chapter, however, he writes:
Catholics ought to have nothing to do with the Austro-Libertarian movement.  (323)
Now, one  would think Catholics ought at least to have “something to do with” the “good and true things” that Austro-Libertarians say by acknowledging that their spokesmen say them and finding out why they say them. After all, the Austro-libertarian movement is an educational movement. (It is not, say, a paramilitary movement.) That is, the only way one could have anything to "do" with it is to consider its ideas. Therefore, he who deems some of them "good and true" cannot help having something to do with that movement, if only as one who entertains its ideas. One wonders how Mr. Ferrara would try to extricate himself from the prison of that genuine, self-imposed dilemma (which is not an illusion created by juxtaposing out-of-context quotations).
As I shall argue, Catholics are within their cognitive rights to be Austro-libertarians in their political thinking.  There is no necessary cognitive dissonance between the Gospel and the libertarian prohibition against the initiation of force.  On the contrary!
I would go further, however, by suggesting to my fellow Austro-libertarians—Catholic or not, Christian or not, theist or not—that the Catholic worldview is a congenial philosophical home for libertarianism (without suggesting that that is a reason for becoming a Catholic!).  
Catholicism should move out of the shadows of libertarian discourse and onto center stage. Catholics can make a difference to the libertarian movement by stressing rather than soft-pedaling their distinctive worldview. 
An integration of Austro-libertarianism with Catholicism should replace the current “settlement” whereby one notes either (a) the Catholicism of several leading Austro-libertarians as a mere biographical detail or (b) Murray Rothbard’s positive assessment of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the history of Western liberty.
In short, Austro-Libertarian Catholics should clarify that, for them, “Catholic” is the substantive and “Austro-libertarian” the adjective and, when appropriate, make their case for the greater intelligibility of the Catholic worldview as libertarianism’s wider context of meaning compared to any rival worldview.  
The potential for mutual enrichment is real: Austro-libertarianism is a set of propositions for consideration by the Catholic as he seeks to advance the Kingdom of God, specifically the Social Kingship of Christ, to improve the condition of the poor and to promote the common good.  Other Catholics may accept or reject some or all of those propositions.  
Of course, non-Catholic Austro-Libertarians, after considering the case for Catholicism as that nurturing home for their economic and politics, may lack the grace necessary for conversion (as a Catholic might interpret the situation) and yet be enriched by the encounter.  Even if they pass on Catholicism, their Austro-Libertarianism still needs a framework, and they should not want for Catholic associates ready to challenge them to justify their choice of any other.