New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical [Book Review]

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

The book is a compilation of two lectures given in 1996 – she was the Hesburgh Lecturer on Ethics and Public Policy that year. The premise is that for years scholars were stating emphatically that nationalism would go by the wayside as rationalism took a step forward. It begins with a brief history of sovereignty and its intended purpose: “…sovereignty was intended to regulate not only relations between states but also, perhaps even more fundamentally, their internal conditions, characterized by lawlessness and violence. The establishment of the sovereign state as a supreme coercive authority was intended to alter these conditions.” In her opening pages she talks about the middle ground between realism and idealism – both views will get you only so far – the whole world is not a battle field, nor is it peaceful along every border.

Her aim is to bring ethics into public policy (political realm) in a way that makes them interact with one another. As I was reading Elshtain’s ideas about sovereignty and the negative aspects of nationalism it made me think to recent comments by Angela Merkel in regards to anti-multiculturalism. Both are warning that too much pride in individual ethnic groups leads to distrust, power-struggles, and war. Neither is saying that celebrating difference is bad just that for the sake of a nation (state) it can be. Elshtain says, “because power lies at the heart of the matter, any critical unpacking of sovereignty must reveal how power is understood within sovereign discourse…” This should lead to a better understanding of what is needed to understand how ethics can fit and relate to political policy which is then needed to understand and possibly change sovereignty.

Her idea of politics is one that “would also profoundly shift the focus of political loyalty and identity such that we would no longer be seen as civic beings mobilizable to certain ends and purposes but as citizens who are responsible to and for one another and for that they hold in common and for articulating and embodying their differences in ways that do not create enemies, in part because the presuppositions of an enemy is not the place from which one starts.” Her ideal would give more power to the people and what they want rather than a government forced to work within borders and boundaries – remembering that these borders were put into place because people wanted to feel safe and because people wanted power – private property is above all else about power and the ability to share (or not to share) said power.

This is hard for people to understand because humans need reference points – we need groups to belong to – but why do these groups have to be violent towards groups that are different. Elshtain and Merkel rail against diversity and multiculturalism, but the original thoughts behind multiculturalism were tolerance – the Muslim view of tolerance which is about peace and acceptance – not the Western view which is about putting up with. I believe that the Islamic world’s definition (or translation) of tolerance is aligned with both Merkel’s hopes for the future of Germany and what Elshtain appears to be working towards in this book.

Elshtain calls nationalism “the great political passion of our time.” This is surprising for many as most political scientists expected rationalism to be the new world view. She quotes Pope John XXIII and George Orwell in defending her position that nationalism does not rightly portray reality. But changing this mentality is hard because nationalism begins in children – they are indoctrinated before they even go to their first day of school. She gives an example using Lithuania and Poland on page 30-32 which is similar to reading about Angela Merkel (Germany) and Cameron (United Kingdom) speak about their new anti-multiculturalism agendas.

After she finishes reviewing what nationalism is and how it affects politics and people she dedicated another chapter to the idea of forgiveness. This is not the I forgive you for harming me though. This is a nation’s ability to forgive and focus on forgetting past atrocities in order to move forward. It is more about the ability to move forward and past through acknowledgment rather than actual forgetting. She uses Hannah Arendt to make her points also using very Heideggerian language throughout.

It was an interesting read – one that makes me look forward to the other book by her on my list for this exam. It is also good in that it takes a different approach to the problem of diversity that so many states are dealing with and how this relates to ethics and war is crucial – it does make me wonder about relativism and if this is another fad of thought to fit what is happening in the world today or will it stand and push forward. Only more reading will answer these questions.

Thanks for reading,

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life [Book Review]

Bellah, Robert Neelly. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.

Just like in Moral Freedom, these authors interview citizens across the country. The biggest difference is Bellah spends more time completing a comparison of Toqueville’s Democracy in America with the way people think about democracy, politics, and what life should be like in general and then how this fits in with morality and the ethical culture of today’s society. “American traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation (6).” It’s as if the pluralistic approach that Hinman describes or the Aristotelian ethics that MacIntyre discusses have created this individualism that pushes America forward but that also is why many people feel isolated.

Key principles that come up are honesty and loyalty though some do not believe that these exist – or that it changes for people depending on their situations and what is happening around the world. Communication is also important to people.

Another reoccurring theme is one of moving out and on one’s own as well as how to decide if one should be loyal to the society/culture that one grew up in or should people move on and start their own traditions. How to reconcile the two ideals/way of life is something people work their entire lives to figure it out. People’s thoughts and feelings about individualism come into conflict sometimes with the idea of private property sometimes. Pages 76-77 – private property creates divisions among classes because of economic disparity.

The issue not answered is whether not all these individual moral guidelines for people to follow is okay or not. Should there be a government-regulated morality? Most would probably say no but the questions then what about the rampant unethical acts happening throughout the US. How is that dealt with? Reading this left me with more questions than answers about what to do with society as it stands today.

These are some of my thoughts – overall it gave me some ideas/thoughts on relativism which will fit into my dissertation, but it is very similar to Moral Freedom by Wolfe.

Thanks for stopping by,

What does FREEDOM mean to you?

It is July. Here in the United States we celebrated our Independence day earlier in the month – I feel as though it is becoming as commercialized as Christmas now though. Fireworks are great, but what is their purpose? How many kids (and adults) know why they went to watch the fireworks displays and why (in the Northeast at least) did rescheduling drive people crazy? Independence day is not about the fireworks, but about the people who fought so we could enjoy the freedoms we have today. But remember, they are not the same freedoms!

#FirstWorldProblems seems to be the new thing among young adults who complain about things like fireworks not happening when they want, or waiting too long for a table at a restaurant with friends, or even when the picture they take didn’t come out as great as they had hoped. For example, when our Founding Fathers included the right to bear arms in the US Constitution we lived in a land that your closest neighbor was hundreds of acres away and many were surrounded by forests (and the animals that lived in them) as we expanded and moved west – we were not millions of people living on the tiny island of Manhattan. Things have changed and so our living Constitution should change along with it, but this is a #firstworldproblem.

On the flip side “all men are created equal” did not actually apply to ALL men and we know it did not apply to women. This is NOT a #firstworldproblem because unfortunately there are still problems with this today, in our country and abroad. Here in the US there are stories of people being denied water. Around the world there are places without clean water. Just in the past few days there are have been more and more stories about illegal immigrant children traveling from Honduras thousands of miles to reach the US – ON FOOT!! And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Equality does mean fair, but it does mean that people have the right to pursue their own version of a happy and healthy life without fear of infringement by others – unless they are infringing on others, but that is a story for another blog.

Can I change it? No, but I can bring awareness and write about and write, write, write!! This is MY FREEDOM!

I use this blog to explore the themes of ethics, morality, and just war and how it pertains to society. Eventually, this will all fit into my dissertation, but without freedom, as it has evolved over time, I would not be able to do this. These subjects for me intertwine and intersect to work towards peace and freedom across borders and across cultures and shows no prejudice. We all face decisions that ultimately test our mores and character – how we use our freedom of choice is a whole other story. And that my friends is YOUR story to tell!

I also use this blog to write reviews of the books I am reading for my Oral, Subject-Field exams I have to take for my PhD program. This list will grow as I move through that list of 50. The list is very interesting to me :) Unfortunately, it does not leave me a lot of time for more “fun” and less “heavy” reading, but when I can I do fit in a fiction piece as well. I get those books from the following list at Rave Reviews.  If fiction is more your style then head on over as we are always looking for new and active members!!  So far I’ve read some great books I never would have been exposed to otherwise!

RaveReviewers please vote for your favorite Freedom blog!


Who Would Jesus Kill? [Book Review]

Such a provocative title. Love. It.

Allman, Mark. Who Would Jesus Kill: War, Peace, and the Christian Tradition? Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2008.

Book number 2 on my list for subject fields.  I won’t lie I was intrigued by the title and so made sure to add it to the book section. 

Maybe I had my hopes too high?  It was NOT all it was cracked up to be.  There were a few good points, but overall I’ve either read the information before or it seemed lacking for a book written in 2008.  For example, in his section about jus post bellum (very small) he mentions WMDs, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and even landmines and cluster bombs but there are no mention of drones (230).  I also felt that the book does not address a main concern about Just War Theory in that it has three components that should not be viewed in isolation.  I would have liked to see more about the Christian view on the overall/overarching standpoint on JWT in that regards. 

On a positive note, for those just beginning their journey into ethics and JWT it will provide a decent overview but it is just that – a starting point for the beginner.  I did learn about the different levels of conscience though and that was interesting but not relevant to my dissertation.

When discussing pacifism his tone and word choice made me wonder if he has forgotten that the US is considered secular and that we have a separation of church and state.  In the same section he wrote, “Our first loyalty is not to nation but to God, which requires a rejection of war, violence, and militarism (97).”  This statement, if taken out of context, is great cause for alarm.  I won’t get into all the ethics behind that, but I leave it to you, dear reader, to think of how our words and actions have consequences.  We must be careful with what we write and say.

Hopefully the next book, chosen by my Professor (examiner and dissertation mentor) will be better!!


Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice [Book Review]

This book, written in 2001, by Alan Wolfe was recommended as the jumping off point for dissertation research as well as for one of my subject-field exams within Salve’s Phd program.

While reading i took extensive notes and comments in the margins for later use it is filled with sticky tabs to help me remember the really important ones :) The book gives a good overview of where public morality stands in America today. I did expect more religiosity – from my own personal experiences listening to people, but his wide variety of people were more spiritual in nature – for them morality did not have to be linked to religion but many still refer to faith at moments. Wolfe’s depiction of how moral freedom came about, while not relevant to my dissertation, was still interesting as were the anecdotes throughout the book of what morality is to different people.

My own opinions and thoughts that individual morality influence more than just whether a person does “good” or not were affirmed which is helpful, though I found myself wishing there was more specific link to politics and US involvement in international relations other than a few gloss overs. I know those were not the focus points of his book, but I believe they are interrelated and would have made good questions for those being interviewed and could have provided helpful insights.

One book down, 24 more to go :)

Our Immoral Soul: A Manifesto of Spiritual Disobedience [Book Review]

I had to read this book by Rabbi Nilton Bonder this semester in my Ethics course for the PhD program I an enrolled in. If you are interested in religious ethics at all the this is a must read; but be prepared to look at the soul in a whole new light. This is the initial reaction I had to reading it and is one where I am looking forward to rereading it this summer.

Right from the beginning Bounder’s definition of the soul is provocative. He defines soul “as that component which is conscious of the need for evolution, that portion within us which is capable of breaking with norms and mores in order to attain a higher stage of development. The soul is therefore transgressive and ‘immoral’ by nature, for it does not validate the interests of morality.” This seems to fly in the face of traditional ideas of what Christians believe the soul to be and to represent. Biblical teachings across the world would have to be revamped if this definition was widely accepted. When you look at how he writes about the duality and what he believes the soul to be the idea can make sense and makes you wonder and think. It does help put the idea of free will and choice into perspective and make it make more sense. Also, the way this fits in with evolution and how those who break away from the norms may last longer is interesting and requires reflection.

Bonder discusses the Neanderthals briefly and their evolutionary changes in the first chapter. This makes me think of those who live on the edges and outskirts of normal society – the Bill Gates’ of the world. He started out in his garage and now look at Microsoft and his many foundations. Bill Gates was disobedient to society and we’ve benefitted from that disobedience. We may not be able to say that about all who defy “normal” but there are many out there who do not follow the majority ridden laid out rules and who end up doing great things because they take the road less traveled. At the end of one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems he writes:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Bonder and Frost could have been great friends if Frost believed the poem as it was written. Both focus on not following the norm and taking one’s own path through life based on the choices we make and not always picking what comes easiest. These are admirable qualities to what Bonder and Frost describe – qualities which society tends to praise after it has become beneficial to the majority. For example, Bill Gates is seen as great now because he has money and donates so much of it to charity; they called him crazy when he first started out.

Bonder furthers this idea when he describes Adam and Eve’s betrayal in the Garden of Eden as something else entirely: “It was an act of disobedience committed not out of disrespect for God but out of respect for something else – human nature or human inquiry; and this is an important distinction.” This is a very important distinction as it allows for the curiosity and desire to search for meaning that is inherent in being human. Human beings continuously search; they do it for spiritual reasons, economic reasons, and many other personal reasons. Based on Bonder’s ideas this is what the soul is meant to do and this disobedience to societal norms is not only normal but is needed for the betterment of society.

This reading also brings me to ideas in Heidegger, Nancy, and Benjamin. Each of them on some level discusses opposites, though in very different ways. We can’t have being-with if we do not understand the absence of space and time. There is no being-with-together if there is not a fundamental difference between togetherness and being together. You can’t have care without being displaced from it; and for Benjamin and his interpretations from Proust one cannot have memory without forgetting – this all comes to mind when thinking about Bonder’s idea of the duality of the soul and without disobedience one cannot have obedience. These play on the ranges of diametric found within human beings and society – and the language choices we make to describe them.

For those not familiar with Frost’s poetry here is the poem in its entirety:

The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference