How The Church Became Obsessed With Youthfulness


[A summary of pages 1-94 of Andrew Root’s Book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness]

The first half of this book maps out the historical story, or better, the philosophical genealogy showing how and why the Church has become obsessed with youthfulness. To tell this story is to show how the flows of our cultural history has moved the majority of us to see the point of life NOT as following an external authority or lining ourselves up with any greater realities. Instead we now focus our attentions on our own youthful, individualized meanings and purposes. It wasn’t always this way.

Andrew Root argues along the lines of the famed philosopher Charles Taylor that post 1960s, we are all living in a huge, calendar-like transition in our world. Our age is now “secular” in a very unique way. Like Taylor, the author of this book sees that our culture has shifted from acting primarily based on “duty” (1900s-1950) to now acting primarily in order to attain “authenticity” (1960s-on). As a result, the culture (and worse, the Church with it) has become obsessed with youthfulness. Youthfulness is our current cultural and ecclesiological “teenage dream” (to borrow a phrase from Katy Perry) that promises a life that is exciting, meaningful, and sensual. Here is my summary of Root’s summary of how it happened:

The dawn of our “Age of Authenticity” began way back in the Enlightenment (1600s-1800s). 500 years ago, people believed there were “secular spheres” and “sacred spheres” and the point of life was to commune with the sacred forces whenever possible. At this time in history, all people acknowledged sacred realities, and sought them. A few examples: The gothic cathedrals were understood to be powerful, holy things. A place where the eternal meets the temporal. The farmer also hoped to experience God as he milked his cow. And so on and so forth.

With scientific advancements that led us into the 1800s-1900, the “secular” versus the “sacred” was drastically redefined. In this second phase of secularity, the distinct divide disappeared as the human will and human rationality became the driving power of reality. In this revised scenario, “the sacred” becomes a distinct and special location where religious belief and practice are “allowed” their freedom. In the former age people were always on watch for the sacred. In the modern age, the sacred is understood to be bound within particular institutions, locations, or ideologies.

This trajectory creates the conditions for our current version of secularity in the 21st century where many people ultimately find transcendence and divine action unbelievable. The difference between our modern age and past ages is the default assumptions about what is believable and desirable

Up to the 1920s, youthfulness had little draw to the masses. The age of authenticity was not fully in affect. Duty, obligation, and authority, mixed with a sense of adventure, set the terms for American life. Then came the wars. World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. Then, its nightmarish twin was hoped to. But this too was not to be, for wars became the constant disposition of the Western world in the 20th century as they shifted cold and then back to hot again.

While these wars did not end all wars, WWII does seem to have ended the old world as we knew it, opening the door to the age of authenticity and the obsession with youthfulness. The Unites States entered the war in 1942 economically depressed. But with the dropping of the atom bomb, everything changed. The economic depression was soon over and in the almost two decades that followed the war, we rested in the light of our glorious victory.

At this time, an idea called “Keynesian economics” became popular, asserting that the engine to economic growth and strength rested in consumer spending. FDR exhorted people way back in 1933 to return their money from under their beds to the banks, allowing it to provide for a parched economy. After the war, the new challenge was to make every citizen a constant and continued buyer. And this is exactly what the citizens did. They saw their duty was to spend their money. They obeyed, by spending.

When this happened, the American economy became a “raging river the likes of which no nation had ever seen.” America became a superpower through consumption. This is partially why we call the men and women of WWII the “greatest generation.” Besides the fact that this generation had so many babies, they are great to us because they did something we cannot imagine: They followed duty and obligation over the desires of the self. They spent when they didn’t want to because that is what they were told to do. By the late 1950s it became their duty and their reward to move to the suburbs, drive a new car, and fill their green lawns with playing children.

What then swings the door open for the age of authenticity is this new consumer-based society. It is the duty to buy that brings forth the age of authenticity.

“Having picked up gun and grenade in the European and Pacific theaters, the weapons of the Cold War were tract housing, GE refrigerators, and Buicks.”

Conformity to the mass society became the call to duty;

keeping up with your neighbor’s buying became your national obligation.

For the first time in the American economy, the mass society had no need for the young in the labor market itself. At this point, toys became big business. To keep the consumptive drive of mass society going, segmentation became a central social strategy.

In the 1950s a distinct and powerful national youth culture built not on obligation but on the segmented products of the mass society formed for the first time. The postwar mass society also provided something to the young beyond free space and new toys: substantive education. The 1960s was the first decade that the vast majority of American teens not only attended high school but graduated with a diploma (Up until the 1930s, most teenagers worked for a living on farms, in factories, or at home, whatever the family required at the time).

In the 1960s, the new duties of a child became not to work the family land or honor family tradition, but to receive an individual education. What is unique is how the segmentation of the mass society made the teenage period self-contained. This allowed for the new assumption that just as products needed to be created for the young, to be sold by the young only to the young, so a youthful version of Christianity must be presented to the young by the young, only for the young. Pastors, then, needed to be turned into youth pastors. This, I learned, was mostly a Californian invention.

Faith formation begins to happen inside segmented spaces, disconnected from the larger experiences of others. Faith starts to be understood as participation in your segmented group – such as going to Young Life club, or youth group, with fewer and fewer ties to the broader church.

The experiment of making consumption an individualized duty in society and in church functioned well until its moral integrity was questioned. In the early 1960s it became known that the producers of products (especially car companies) were using a strategy called planned obsolescence: They make their products so that they would break down, or at least become obsolete, within a year or two. People had dutifully bought, conforming as they were told, and yet they discovered the whole game was rigged, so they began to lose trust in the system of conformity.

This is partially why Charles Taylor says that the 1960s were a hinge which moved the desire for authenticity [rather than conformity] to the populace, pushing it from avant-garde artists and writers in the 19th century to the masses, particularly in North America, in the 20th century. In the 1960s we all started to become uncomfortable with the language of conformity, duty and authority and began looking for tools that would free us from such repression. Out of this soil emerges not just a weed, but an indigenous plant species we now know as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

But meanwhile, this same generation in the 1960s was also grappling with issues such as racism and the holocaust. They started to see that conformity often leads to oppression. They realized their system of conformity via consumption was suspect.  Right at this time comes Freud who constructs a whole theory around repression and the need to voice authentic desire. So the youth of the 1960s demand a jailbreak, not by overthrowing the consumptive desire for want but by fully embracing the authenticity of their desires. Rather than conforming to the authorities, their focus turns inward to what they want. 

This gets us to the rise of the hippie (the result of a massive sixties generation that came of age) and the summer of love in 1969 when it became clear to all that our social imaginary had completely changed. The masses begin to believe that authenticity [NOT conformity or duty] is central to humanity. “The establishment” or “The Organization Man” was the new enemy. Refusing to grow up became the central act of revolt. Jake Whalen and Richard Flacks explain this further:

“The sixties youth revolt was in part about the possibility of redefining ‘adulthood’ in our society. If a single theme united the otherwise disparate forms of political and cultural protest that characterized the period, it was the romantic belief that the young could make themselves into new persons, that they need not follow in their parents’ footsteps, that they could build lives in which they could exercise a degree of self-mastery not given by the established structures of role, relationship, and routine.” (55)

The new goal was for individuals to free themselves from the shackles of bourgeois conformity by remaining forever full of youthfulness. While their parents were driven by duty and conformity, the young were driven by the pursuit of authenticity and the search for the hip or the cool. After all, whatever is cool, is true! While the drive to overthrow one culture with a counterculture never occurred for the hippies, the success of the 1960s youth movement was much more pervasive in both the broader culture and following it, the church.

Mostly through marketing, what happened in the sixties is that hip became central to the way American capitalism understood itself and explained itself to the public. Salvation became synonymous with authenticity and the sacraments of this new religion were the material realities (cars, clothes) named cool. “Cool” in America becomes the very lifeblood of capitalism. This switch turns buying from conformity to competition and keeps the consuming going. Marketers saw in the rebellious youth not an enemy of the system, but the new icon to keep people spending their money.

In the 1950s, you had to have a new car and a white fridge because it was your duty. But now you needed the coolest sports car and the brightest clothes to express your authentic individuality. To reveal that you were cooler than the other conforming squares in your neighborhood. Purchasing became a way to set yourself apart from others. Consumption is now the way towards distinction. I buy not to keep up with the Joneses but to beat them and to be cooler than they are. Authenticity and individuality become the new measure of “the good life.” 

By the end of the 1960s, the youthful rebel stands at the height of authenticity while buying stuff becomes an emotive experience of authentic expression, a way of remaining in or returning to your youth. This is when youthfulness becomes an idealized place where each person purchases their specific wants and desires as they bathe in the glory of being cool. “Youth” becomes a posture available to all! 

Note how the the cultural imagination is now drastically different than it used to be. Religion can now be understood apart from any real divine action or transcendence (the Deistic element of MTD). Our anthropology is now one of self-pursuit (the Therapeutic in MTD) and our ethic is primarily individualistic (the Moralistic in MTD). These are the people walking into church, and these are the people the church is trying to minister to.

In the early 1970s, churches begin hiring a specific pastor for (only) the youth! After all, Calvary Chapel churches were showing that if you could get the youth, you could, quickly and profoundly, build a church. The survival of the church is now perceived to revolve around the youthfulness of the church. Church leaders, marketers, producers and publishers see great entrepreneurial possibilities in this strategy… Root maintains, “the countercultural revolution has never ended.”

Everything is now different. By the 1980s-90s, faith formation and church participation are pursued by many people as a way to support their particular, individual pursuits for happiness and success. The Neo-Evangelical movement meanwhile affirms this desire and encourages everyone that they can find all the satisfaction they are looking for (not in drugs, sex, or rock or roll, but) in Jesus! So you get everyone acting like the Jesus Freaks. The Calvary Chapels. The California charismatics.

Root says that is now. We now live in an age where people see church as a place to help them stay authentic and young. We live in an age where church is a place to go to get an extra dose of excitement, or a helpful reminder that I can be a better person this week! In our journeys towards authenticity, the church is left offering some fun events, some good ol’ Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and hoping people don’t forget to show up. The loss would be too unbearable.

“It is little wonder, then, that in the last fifty years the churches that have sought to be the most like youth group have fared the best, for they’re seen as authentic. They possess the spirit of youthfulness.

It is odd that a church built in the suburbs in 1998 that looks like a movie theater could be considered more authentic than a two-hundred-year-old gothic building in the city. But because authenticity is bound to youthfulness, it is so…

When we link faith to the authenticity of youthfulness, we make youthfulness itself faith’s measure.”



A Review of the Book, “Philosophy in Seven Sentences” by Douglas Groothuis


Rating: 6/10

This book reads like a casual-yet-informed conversation. While I would have enjoyed a tad more inclusion of primary source material, I can see the value of a book of philosophy where summary is prioritized. Without summaries we all too easily get lost in the details. The author laments this fact.

Groothius says “Too many students too often give up too soon.” This book is Groothuis’ attempt to keep us asking questions…to continue the dialogue between the ancient philosophers and us. The sayings of the seven philosophers covered in this book may be viewed as:

“Several doors into worlds previously unknown. Or they may be our irritants to prod us to move away from facile factoids – ‘do your own thing,’ ‘Follow your bliss,’ ‘Keep calm and carry on’ – to more sobering reflections.”  

The philosophical sayings covered in this book include:

  1. “Man is the measure of all things” – Protagoras
  2. “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates
  3. “All men by nature desire to know” – Aristotle
  4. “You have made us for yourself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you” – Augustine
  5. “I think, therefore I am” – Descartes
  6. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” – Pascal
  7. “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all” – Kierkegaard

The format made for a fairly easy and focused read. Highlighted in every chapter were the epistemological views of each philosopher. By epistemology I mean how each philosopher conceptualizes “the self” and how that same “self” properly arrives at true knowledge, or Truth (with a capital “T”).

This is what I learned:

I learned Protagoras had a very high view of “the self” (and thus, himself). He didn’t really believe in any sort of objective good or evil. Instead, we humans (do and rightly should) make the calls on everything. “Man is the measure of all things” is the sum of it. It means we humans measure what is right or wrong, up or down, good or bad. There is no external law or order. There are no “experts.” there is only man, doing whatever man deems best. “Truth” is what each person measures “Truth” to be.

Socrates is similar who exhorts “the self” to examine itself for truth, for as long as it takes.  That is, we should find truth by analyzing with logic our own attitudes, beliefs and actions. Socrates wonders, if not logic for finding truth, what’s the alternative? Surely not by accepting custom or tradition! Socrates notices that no one can do the work for us, and so Socrates employs a dialectic style as the best means to fulfill the necessary inner analysis required from each person for truth to emerge from within.

The first words of Aristotle’s opus Metaphysics read, “All men by nature desire to know.” Aristotle argued that all knowledge came through the senses. This, contra Plato who thought knowledge simply resided in the soul, waiting to be recalled. How, then, does one go about this knowing? In answering, Aristotle pondered how we reason or argue rationally about anything and came up with the law of noncontradiction.

This law states that A cannot be non-A in the same way, in the same respect, and at the same time. In other words, a duck cannot be a non duck, and so on. For Aristotle, this law stipulates what objective reality can and cannot be – and especially how to find it. Aristotle believed it is in our nature and in our best interests to find truth by following the law of noncontradiction.

Descartes found his certainty not in logic or in the law of noncontradiction, but in his undeniable awareness that he thinks, and thus he exists. So, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was in pursuit of certainty about reality. He distrusted tradition and went instead to self-awareness as the method for attaining truth.

Descartes hoped to “exorcise the skeptical demon that has haunted the history of philosophy.” He did this by choosing to begin his pursuit of truth in an attitude of doubt, doubting absolutely everything that can be doubted, since any of his prior beliefs might be false. Having brought everything he can conceive into doubt, he turns back to the doubter himself. He finds that no matter what he believes or doubts, he is always entertaining thoughts. If so, he is a thinker, and this thinker must exist. This was no game for Descartes. It was his way of pursuing certainty. He sinks into doubt in order to rise above it. Through proper self-doubt: Truth.

Pascal was also interested in methods of knowing. He found science to be limited by its nature and what it can disclose about reality. Pascal felt science is a good servant but a terrible master. Pascal wouldn’t say science is illegitimate but that it is not nearly sufficient to answer all our questions.  Reason needs to be humbled therefore, while not destroyed. After all, while reason is one way of knowing, reason cannot provide or disclose all truth; neither empirical observation nor theorizing can do so. For Pascal, full knowledge is found only in the heart. Thus, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Kierkegaard was discussed last, but is always the most intriguing for me. Not because I ever comprehend even half of what Kierkegaard says, but because the little that I follow always seems to be, if not brutally, correct. Groothuis tells us Kierkegaard pursued a truth that made “stringent demands on his existence and on others as well.” That’s a good way of putting it.

Kierkegaard was concerned about living life well. He knew the danger of “the crowd.” The crowd was “always wrong…noisy…and the self may lose itself in the din.” Kierkegaard’s hope was to rouse a sleeping world, as one of his parable spotlights:

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater.

I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” 

Amurrica, anyone? Kierkegaard feared that people could easily lose their selves in a labyrinth of popular dead ends but still receive the applause of the crowds and the money of investors and customers. The worst thing is for us to lose ourselves in the impersonality and inauthenticity of the masses.

To escape this loss, we need to become self cognizant of our selves as selves. Kierkegaard’s pathway? Grapple with despair and sin! Only then can we emerge, ready to see truth as it is – staring back at us in the person of Jesus Christ. For Kierkegaard, Truth isn’t found within, or through logic, or even through the heart. It’s found in a person.

I was already hoping to do some more readings in the field of epistemology this year so was happy to read some initial comments. This book is a perfectly casual way of stepping into that world, “previously unknown.” It’s like batting practice before the game begins.






A Summary of Donella H. Meadows book, Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems

As a strategic thinker, I am enamored with this introduction to problem-solving via Modern Systems Theory. Donella H. Meadows defines a system as any set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. Examples of systems include a Slinky toy, a tree, a thermostat, your digestive system, a football team, a school, our solar system, a bathtub, a church, or a million other things.

Said another way, a system is any interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. According to those definitions, all systems consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and functions (or purposes). This book aims to help the reader understand what a system is, why a system acts like it acts, and what to do about it. The implications of her findings are too numerous to count.

The author begins her book by telling us that early on in teaching about systems, she often brings out a Slinky toy. She perches the Slinky on one upturned palm. With the fingers of the other hand, she grasps the slinky from the top, partway down its coils. Then she pulls the bottom hand away. The lower end of the Slinky drops, bounces back up again, yo-yos up and down, suspended from her finger above.

“What makes the Slinky bounce up and down like that? she asks students.

“Your hand. You took away your hand,” they say.

She then picks up the box the Slinky came in and holds it the same way, poised on a flattened palm, held from above by the fingers of the other hand. With as much dramatic flourish as she can muster, she pulls the lower hand away.

Nothing happens. The box just hangs there, of course.

“Now once again. What made the Slinky bounce up and down?”

The answer clearly lies within the Slinky itself. That is a central insight of systems theory.

Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns. 

In describing what a system is, Meadows tells us what to look for. She says the basics of any system include at least one stock, one inflow and one outflow. The diagram looks like this:


The bathtub works perfectly as one example of a system. The “stock” is the amount of water in the tub, let’s say for now its half full. The inflow is the nob we turn for more water, which increases the “stock” (level of water). The outflow is the drain, which decreases the water. If readers can understand the dynamics of stocks and flows (realizing these models are simplications of the real world) the readers are well on their way to understanding a good deal about the behavior of complex systems.

Within these systems, if there ever occurs a behavior that persists over time, we know there is likely a mechanism creating that consistent behavior. That mechanism operates through a feedback loop. Illustrated below by the thin curved arrows:


These feedback loops can stabilize or reverse a stock, balance the flows, reinforce feedback, etc. Her example of a one stock system with two competing balancing loops is a thermostat:

Whenever the room temperature (“stock”) falls below the thermostat setting, the thermostat detects a discrepancy and sends a signal that turns on the heat flow from the furnace, warming the room. When the room temperature rises again, the thermostat turns off the heat flow. However, this is not the only loop in the system. Heat also leaks to the outside. The outflow of heat is governed by the second balancing feedback loop. What happens when these two loops operate at the same time? Assuming sufficient insulation and a properly sized furnace, you end up with a warm room.

The principle is that if you understand the system for what it is and you take into account whatever draining or filling processes are going on (and what loops are doing what), you can figure out how to achieve the target level of your stock, in this case, levels of heat. If you don’t include all important flows and loops, you will be surprised by the system’s behavior, and you won’t know what to do.

Why is all this important? Well, the author’s premise is that you can’t navigate well in an interconnected, feedback-dominated world unless you take your eyes off short-term events and look for long-term behavior and structure because structure always determines behavior.

If you want to understand a tree, your digestive system, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, politics, or any other system, you have to realize its a system – and you have to realize how systems work. The first five chapters of this book are dedicated to helping the reader understand systems theory and by extension, how to see a system where a system is. The last two chapters, along with the appendix, are aimed at showing how to effectively leverage change within these complex systems. Chapter Six titled, “Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System” is dynamite. I’ll read this chapter a few more times before I put this book back on the shelf.

This book may as well be required reading for anyone who scores a “strategic” in their top 5 of the Gallup StrengthsFinder test because strategic thinking pervadesssssss. As “strategic” is my #1 strength, I couldn’t get enough. This book has opened my eyes to new ways of analyzation and has given me new strategic insights for dealing with the problems of the complex systems I work in every day.

Highly recommended to every strategic thinker I know, no matter what field of work. If any book were “multidisciplinary” it’d be this one.



A Review of the New CSB Apologetics Study Bible


I was doubly delighted to see this recent publication. First, I’ve been wanting an Apologetics Study Bible for years and this version is updated. Secondly, I’ve heard great things about the new CSB translation. This publication provides the reader with both. What a treat!

The distinctiveness of the CSB Apologetics Study Bible is its notes and articles appended to the biblical text at relevant points. Included are over 50 examples of “Twisted Scripture” entries where explanations treat instances of the Bible which have been misused by various religious movements. Also included are over 140 articles treating broader apologetic matters; 12 short biographies of apologists including Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, and Van Til, as well as a 12-page annotated bibliography in the back covering notable apologetic topics.

The most-often authored contributors within this work include Chad Owen Brand (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Ted Cabal (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Paul Copan (Palm Beach Atlantic University), Gary Habermas (Liberty University),  J.P. Moreland (Talbot School of Theology), and Scott B. Rae (Talbot School of Theology).

Throughout this book I found the apologetic articles to be concise, informative and yet properly limited in scope. My impression is that these short articles are not meant to answer all the questions on the topic (that’d be impossible). Instead, these article seek to give the reader a framework for understanding the broad contours of the debates. Two examples will show what I mean.

On page 4 Ted Cabal asks, “Are the Days of Genesis to be Interpreted Literally?” In this one page entry Cabal overviews the main passages and controversies between young and old-age creationist camps. In conclusion, he states, “Even if the correct interpretation of the creation days is not readily apparent in the present generation, the Bible can be trusted in every way.” I appreciated this comment. It allows the reader to embrace the difficulties of interpretation without losing trust in the veracity of Scripture.

The same dynamic is evident in Bruce A. Ware’s article titled, “How Can the Bible Affirm Both Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom?” He admits,

“We cannot understand fully how both are true together, but that they must work together is demanded by Scripture’s clear teaching…Not every question is here answered, but we see that we must affirm both…and what Scripture has joined together, let no man separate.”

Here we see a high view of trust in Scripture while modeling at the same time a proper epistemic humility. These articles don’t give us all the answers, but they help us frame our thinking so we can be wise readers of the text.

I love this resource and will utilize it often. In fact, just a few weeks ago a congregant asked me what the differences are between the Bhagavad Gita and Scripture. I noticed there is an entry in this book by RZIM ministries titled, “How Does Christianity Relate to Hinduism?” which should be a perfect resource to get me started to put together a meaningful answer.

One small critique about the format of the “Additional Features” section: While I appreciate the listing of all the articles in this book including titles, author, and page numbers, I wish it were somehow alphabetical or categorized so specific topics could be located quicker. Apart from running into helpful articles naturally as the reader goes through the text, it is a bit cumbersome to locate articles on the outset. At over 140 entries, the reader has to scan through four pages of entries to see if there are any articles covering the specific question in mind.

*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied*

A Review of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? By Michael J. Sandel

A few weeks ago I set out to read the following introductory books on Ethics:

2017-12-26 12.33.32.

(Feel free to check out my book reviews of MacIntyre, Warnock, Jones and Gosnell)

I saved Sandel’s book for last and it was by far my favorite of the bunch. Distinctive to this one is the pedagogical approach. The word on the street is that Sandel (still? Wikipedia says “yes”) teaches this course at Harvard. Whenever he teaches it, the class draws a ridiculously high number of students. I can see why. This book is chock-full of (mostly intense and some bizarre) modern-day examples of moral philosophical ideas in action.

Every chapter begins with a story that illustrates the ideas and philosophers at hand. Then after that, the reader can’t get through more than a few more pages of the book without reading of another example, and another scenario, and another dilemma. This strategy makes the difficulty of moral philosophy decision-making feel as contemporary, meaningful, and exciting as it actually is.

Throughout this book, 3 different models of justice are discussed:

  1. Justice as a way of maximizing utility or welfare – the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Utilitarianism ala Bentham & Mill).
  2. Justice means respecting freedom of choice – either actual choices people make in a free market (libertarianism) or hypothetical choices people would make in an  original position of equality (Kant & Rawls)
  3. Justice involves cultivating virtue and reasoning about the common good (Aristotle & MacIntyre). We find out in the last chapter of the book that the author prefers a version of this third approach.

Sandel is successful in his purposes. He tells us in the first chapter, this book,

“Is not a history of ideas, but a journey in moral and political reflection” and “wrestling with their dilemmas sheds light on the way moral argument can proceed, in our personal lives and in the public square.”

As such this book reads as a sort of map of modern philosophical ethics in Sandel’s own contemporized words. The real nice thing about this book is that reading it forces you to make decisions. There is no “neutral” option. You can’t NOT care about what he’s talking about – Whether he’s talking about trolleys, purple hearts, immigration, stem-cell research, abortion, homosexuality, or the million other topics covered.

While Sandel sums up complex issues concisely and effectively, he simultaneously forces the reader to discern what s/he thinks about the broader implications and underlying questions of each scenario. Sandel eventually spells out his own beliefs in the last chapter. But before that, the reader is making decisions on every page:

  • “How should a person (namely, me!) properly respond to THAT?”,
  • “Which conception of justice makes more sense in this situation?”,
  • “OHHHH, that’s why that issue is so contentious…so, what would be the truly ‘just’ thing HERE?” And so on and so forth.

Ethics in this book is all so complicated, as it should be. Sandel doesn’t make the decisions for the reader, but he guides the reader in knowing what questions to ask and to notice what is at stake in each ethical dilemma.

While not historically comprehensive or representative of the field, a lot is said. The font is surprisingly small for a New York Times Bestseller. Yet an EXTREMELY enjoyable overview for how to start thinking about what justice actually is. I don’t see how this book, (especially combined with Sandel’s Reader including the primary sources) could be any worse than any other intro to the subject. Certainly, much more lively and engaging than anything else I’ve seen on the same topic.

I recommend this book simply because it’s so fun to read. Would be GOLD if utilized within a book-club context. The likely result of such an endeavor?

Meaningful conversations and debates galoreeeeeeeeeeeeee!



A Partial Overview of Mary Warnock’s Book: Ethics Since 1900


A more catchy, tabloidy title for this work could be, “How Philosophers Are Still (After thousands of years!) Faltering to Find an Adequate Definition of ‘Good.'” Up until 1960 (the copyright date of this book), we’ve still got no firm philosophical answers to that simple question.

In Chapter One Warnock discusses the metaphysical ethics of F.H. Bradley. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ethics was predominantly metaphysical. At this time, philosophers linked their discussion of morals with views about the nature of the universe as a whole. What they set out to find was a system of ethics: A total explanation of the way things are. This, as a response to the blows of Hume, Bentham, Mill and the utilitarians that came before them.

In this milieu Bradley publishes in 1876 his Ethical Studies where he proposes that “the good is self-realization.” He believes people’s wills are directed over time and what makes an act morally good or bad is how it is self-asserted or self-expressed. Proper Self-realization as a whole way of life is Bradley’s definition of a “good life.” In satisfying ourselves, we make ourselves exist. Bradley didn’t like Kant’s conceptions of universalized pure duties and so Bradley emphasized our choosing to act as both the means and end of man. Warnock tells us that while Bradley was not the only metaphysician, it was his views that “dominated the beginning of the century and it is against this background that the later developments must be seen.”

Chapter Two discusses G.E. Moore. Moore first published PRINCIPIA ETHICA in 1903. It has become the custom to regard it as the source from which subsequent moral philosophy of the century has flowed. In this book Moore tries to answer two questions:

  1. What kind of things ought to exist for their own sake? And,
  2. What kind of actions ought we to perform?

Moore believed that if we could answer these two questions, we could then move on to supporting moral judgments. His answer to question one is this:

“The things which ought to exist for their own sake are things which we call intrinsically good. But it is impossible to define “good” since “good” is the name of a simple unanalyzable characteristic of things. But this does not entail that we cannot recognize when we see those things which intrinsically possess this unanalyzable characteristic… No evidence can be adduced to show that something is intrinsically good; it is just a matter of seeing that it is so.” 

Essentially: You’ll know it [the “good”] when you see it. Moore’s answer to question two, is:

We ought always to do that action which will cause most good to exist. 

Essentially: We should all do the sorts of things Moore talked about in his above answer to question #1.

Moore calls the attempt to define or analyze “good”: “The Naturalistic Fallacy.” He calls it a “naturalistic” fallacy because the effort of defining good, which while already problematic, seeks to define a non-natural object in terms of a natural object. “Good” has no nature to it as such, so to define it requires you to speak of it as you would a natural object, which is inappropriate.

At the same time, Moore holds that “good” as a concept is not totally meaningless. While we cannot analyze or define “good” we can still utilize it because we know it when we see it. After the PRINCIPIA ETHICA was published, the climate in England becomes on the whole unfavorable to metaphysical speculation in ethics. Notice this is a major shift from  the early 1800s as referenced earlier.

Mary Warnock discusses the Intuitionists in Chapter Three. Of this group included the Oxford philosophers Carritt, Prichard, Ross and Joseph, and in Cambridge, C.D. Broad. She discusses Prichard and Ross specifically. In 1912 Prichard publishes an article in Mind entitled “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” where he argues that we should not try to settle the question of what obligations we are under. Prichard believes that what cannot be analyzed about the “good” is when it can become an obligation, or duty. Instead of trying to create a systematized system of ethics, we should, essentially, follow our intuitions. Since we know good when we see it, and since all humans will always oblige themselves to particular actions, we should do good when we feel like we know what it is to do something good in a particular situation. Put simpler, while we can never know when “X is right” we can still feel and thus know “I ought to do X.”

Ross believes similarly. Ross posits that “principles cannot survive if they are taken to be absolute.” Ross believes that with any moral characteristic we have to ask three questions: “Does it exist, what is its nature and what objects are possessed of it?” When we ask those questions we realize no ethic is perfect for every situation – we only come up with certain actions that are “suitable” for one reason or another. The author finds both Prichard and Ross equally unhelpful in answering our fundamental questions.

Chapter four covers the Emotive Theory by discussing A.J. Ayer’s 1936 publication of The Foundations of Ethics, Language, Truth and Logic. The book lies firmly in the empiricist tradition. Ayer wrote that,

“Any statement which has meaning must fall into one of two categories. Either it must be analytic, that is necessarily true but not concerned with empirical matters of fact; or it must be empirical. If it is empirical, it can never be more than probable; it is in fact, a hypothesis.”

According to this theory then, no statement can be said to have any meaning which is not either analytic, or verifiable by observation of the world. Propositions of logic and mathematics fall into the first category, propositions of science and ordinary life fall into the second category. There are no other categories.

It can be seen at once that this creates a problem for ethics, as ethical propositions fall under neither of the possible categories. On this point Ayer states that “the presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content.” For me to say something is “right” or “wrong” does essentially nothing else besides to express my personal feelings or seek to stimulate action in someone else. To use an ethical term is just another way to talk about your own attitudes about a particular subject.

Warnock explains,

“No sooner was it published than it seemed that emotivists in ethics were everywhere. They had not been converted by the book; it was their creed already.”

Along the same lines came C.L. Stevenson who published “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms” in 1937 to show that “the major use of ethical judgments is to create an interest.” That which is “good” is that which “has a pleasing emotive meaning.” This insistence that ethics cannot be translated into non-ethical language, that every attempt to do so is a cheat, is the most fundamental principle of the emotive theory.

These thoughts, along with additions from Wittgenstein brought philosophers to look more closely at philosophical concepts. What were these concepts? How can we describe the way these concepts are used? At this point in history it is no longer considered enough just to state that “good” is indefinable, or that it is an expression of feeling. But it is considered that “goodness” is a very complex concept. If we want to understand it and its cognate concepts, then we have to analyze the functions of the language itself.

These insights eventually lead other philosophers to begin advocating a grading system for ethical concepts. The philosopher J.O. Urmson says this is similar to what we do with apples. We grade apples based on what types they are: Super, extra fancy, fancy, domestic, and so on. He believes we should be able to do this same thing with ethical cases as well. His contention is that ethical language is a sub-species of prescriptive language. Prescriptive language can be divided into two classes: imperatives and evaluations. When this division is applied to ethics, it seems that “ought” and “right” and “you should” belong to the imperative class, and “good” “desirable,” and so on fall into the evaluation class. Unfortunately, we are never told by what test we can decide whether a word or sentence is prescriptive or not. So, not very helpful in our development of what the “good” actually is. This will lead us to the movement of existentialism, and specifically, J-P Sartre.

Since 1900, metaphysics has been virtually dead and philosophers have been most interested in saying what is true than in constructing large-scale super-scientific explanations of things. But unfortunately, the metaphysical style remains in Sartre. In Warnock’s words,

“Sometimes, it must be admitted, a kind of despair afflicts one when reading these philosophers, Surely, one feels like saying, we have outgrown all of this.”

However, there is much acute criticism and serious descriptions of moral phenomena which ought not be ignored. The philosophers in this Continental tradition include Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger, Marcel and Sartre.

Sartre describes an existentialist as “one who holds that existence precedes essence.” Unlike a paper knife which is created for a purpose, humans exist first, and what they are depends on what they later do. As humans, Sartre believes we don’t have particular intrinsic purposes. On the contrary, our choices are what make us. Existentialists emphasize human freedom and choice as the distinctive of the human race. Nothing else is common to us, and nothing should limit our freedoms in this regard. This is the ethic of the existentialist.

Sartre, like all French philosophers, starts from Descartes in wanting to show how much can be derived from a consideration of consciousness. Sartre goes further than Descartes by saying that our essence is that we are directed towards objects. We don’t just think, we take note of different things.

We humans then try to organize these things, and nausea is induced when we are unable to do so. These limitations are examples of what is not good. Or, in Sartre’s words, “bad faith.” Any limitations of the freedom of our choices is the opposite of good. To see ourselves as limited is to deceive ourselves. While society may demand we limit ourselves, we can be whoever we want to be! Warnock sees this as a bit neurotic (as do I!) and admits that if this is the human situation, what then does this mean about how we ought actually to behave?

To say you can become anything is kinda like saying you can do nothing. At the least, it’s unhelpful. What Sartre seems to be expressing is a romantic view of morality, “according to which there is nothing but the conscience of each of us as a guide.” For Sartre, freedom is the supreme value – but Warnock wonders, freedom to do what, specifically? As she puts it, “There is no formula which can readily be derived from Being and Nothingness for deciding what I ought to do…”  So at the end of the 1960s we aren’t any closer to finding an adequate definition “good” than when we started.

In Conclusion, Warnock reminds us that just about everyone still agrees with G.E. Moore who was convinced that goodness is the central concept of ethics. But we’ve got a lot more work to do. Warnock believes in the past, philosophers have been overly concerned with moral theories as opposed to paying more attention to how people actually make decisions, or what it’s like to make moral decisions. Instead of focusing on “what is a moral judgment?” we should be asking why and how people make those moral judgments. Perhaps this will help us understand the “good” in a way we haven’t before. Warnock concludes her book by saying, If we can do this,

“Moral philosophy will be much more difficult, perhaps much more embarrassing, to write than it has been recently, but it will be far more interesting to read.” 





A Review of A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre


This book was one of the most difficult reads of my life.

Every once in a while finishing a book feels like a momentous, miraculous feat. This was one of those times. A sort of mountaintop experience.

I felt this way a few years ago when trying desperately (but to hardly any avail) to keep up with Meredith Kline in his book, Kingdom Prologue. I think I had to look up every second or third word in the sentence, the whole way through. Similar dynamic when I picked up (I thought, just for fun) David Tracy’s The Analogical Imagination a few years after that. To say that Tracy is “well read” is an insulting understatement. To read him is like trying to read at least a hundred really smart people, all at the same time.

I’m not sure who the targeted audience of this book is, but it feels to me like the only other people who could actually follow it all the way through are other philosophy professors, to which I am not. While technically this book works as a survey of the history of philosophy (he covers the classic questions: What is justice; goodness; virtue; freedom, etc.) it works more as a studied commentary on how the main philosophers differed from each other based on the culture they each imbibed.

And I think that’s the main take-away for me. Over and over again MacIntyre illustrates the fact that moral concepts change as social life changes. Moral concepts are embodied in and partially constitutive of forms of social life. So, to talk about goodness from Plato’s perspective and to talk about it from Hume’s perspective is necessarily talking about two (almost) completely different “goodnesses.” Within the history of moral concepts there are continuities and breaks. “Just here lies the complexity” he says. If you like primers on the history of language, this book works for that as well. MacIntyre believes this type of understanding  keeps us humble. As he says at the end of his introduction, “History is neither a prison nor a museum, nor is it a set of materials for self-congratulation.”

Of the next 250 pages of philosophical history that follow, I caught maybe a 1/4 of it. While there are times he takes a page or two to summarize the philosopher he’s talking about, he typically starts the discussion at about 90 mph. The only way to catch all his quips are if you’ve already previously, thoroughly read and understood the primary sources of the author he’s talking about. His survey is more a survey of how he interprets philosophers and how he has interpreted the conversation about those philosophers,  than a discussion of what those same philosophers said in the first place. I’m not mad at him at all. I can see why this text has become a sort of “classic.” I’m just mad that I’m not nearly as proficient as I need to be to catch everything that is happening here.

I did learn something, though: There is no such thing without history. And maybe more importantly, there are no philosophical concepts that are meta. That’s how I’d put it, at least. His words: To accurately understand our philosophical history, we have to understand the history in which these philosophical concepts emerged. This will help us to know how and when these concepts change. This, in turn, helps us realize more accurately the “complexity” of the conversation. And perhaps most importantly, again, this can keep us appropriately humble.

There is no conclusion in this book – no, that would be much too helpful for the average novice like myself. However, the last paragraph of his book goes like this, and I suppose it’s a fitting ending,

Like Sartre, the prescriptivist and emotivist do not trace the source of the necessity of choice, or of taking up one’s own attitudes, to the moral history of our society. They ascribe it to the nature of moral concepts as such. And in so doing, like Sartre, they try to absolutize their own individualist morality, and that of the age, by means of an appeal to concepts, just as much as their critics try to absolutize their own moralities by means of an appeal to conceptual considerations.

But these attempts could only succeed if moral concepts were indeed timeless and unhistorical, and if there were only one available set of moral concepts. One virtue of the history of moral philosophy is that it shows us that this is not true and that moral concepts themselves have a history.

To understand this is to be liberated from any false absolutist claims. 

I’d say more about the book, but I don’t think I understood most of the rest of it. I’ll lay content knowing I’m all the less likely to become a “false absolutist” now that I realize the history of moral philosophical concepts is as complex as it is.