Having vs. being better

Throughout the past two days I’ve been attending the Manning Networking Conference. There were more than a dozen panels on a wide range of topics. However, as this conference convenes conservatives, I found the common tendency of participants to reduce political topics to economic calculations. For example, during a panel on end of life care, someone asked whether palliative care is not too much of a “drain” on the healthcare system (as if the people are to serve the system rather than the system to serve the people). Then, some advocates of carbon taxes suggested that, even if carbon taxes are a total fraud and don’t do any real good for the environment, conservatives should still support them if that’s the trade-off for lowering income taxes.

Such unprincipled and misguided abound when disconnected from a sound account about the nature of the human person and of the nature of truth and our relationship to it. I was also struck by one politician who insisted, “Family is the most important structure in society” and then immediately admitted, “I’m agnostic about how to define what it is, though.”

A prospective candidate for the Conservative party, when I asked him what he considers the most important conservative principle said, “Personal liberty.” When I pressed him on euthanasia, he could not express any opposition to it given the primacy of liberty in his subjective hierarchy of values. With no values higher than liberty, how can you argue about what is true or good?

A Conservative MP was asked during a panel, “What is truth?” To this he replied that he thinks truth is treating everyone with respect and not judging others. Of course, the question arises: why are persons worthy of respect in the first place?

Many of the sessions throughout the conference focused on trade, taxation, etc. These topics matters, but they are not in the same category as politics. The ancient Greeks considered satisfying economic needs a precondition for the freedom and leisure of contemplating the much more interesting political topics that can be summed up with the question, “How then shall we live?”

The nature of the person is openness to transcendence. While conservatives love to talk about the next generation being better off than the current one, they usually mean that they next generation should be more economically prosperous, not that they should have progressed morally speaking from the contemporary barbarisms.

This made me revisit these two passages from John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments. […]

Finally, development must not be understood solely in economic terms, but in a way that is fully human. It is not only a question of raising all peoples to the level currently enjoyed by the richest countries, but rather of building up a more decent life through united labour, of concretely enhancing every individual’s dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God’s call. The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge.

I hope that conservatives in Canada will seek to guard against reducing politics to economics. And economic topics are most interesting when they are grounded in a broader philosophy of the human person that affirms that having should be in the service of being, rather than being instrumentalized in the service of having, of acquiring more and more.

 

 

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