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ELSHTAIN/ Moral Anthropology, Social Ontology, and Authentic Human Freedom

September Wed 25, 2013

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The work of the late Jean Bethke Elshtain reflects a commitment to careful, accurate, grounded descriptions of reality. To be sure, Elshtain was as deft and comfortable as a theorist ought to be with abstractions. Yet she always remembered that abstractions are, in a sense, tools, and that they are useful and illuminating only to the extent that they capture and reflect the particular, the everyday, and the lived experiences of real persons.

To “think really honestly”—as Elshtain called us all to do—we must speak as accurately as we can. Thus, as Professor Arlene Saxonhouse has explained, Elshtain corrected a feminist critique of language by insisting that “everyday, ordinary language infused with moral terms”—language that captures the fact that we are “situated creatures with particular and shared histories”—can be liberating, not oppressive. And Elshtain appreciated, as Professor William Galston once noted, that “theorists must engage with reality,” using “public language,” in a “spirit of generosity and inclusion.” Elshtain’s “social feminism,” he observed, is “based on the concrete lived reality of women” and on the centrality to that reality of their “historic mission,” namely, the “protection of vulnerable human life.”

My colleague at Notre Dame Law School, Professor Thomas Shaffer, proposed that ethics is “valid only to the extent that it truthfully describes what is going on.” The same thing is true, Elshtain’s work proclaims, of political theory and feminist discourse. We must “truthfully describe what is going on” with respect to the nature and destiny of real men and women. Our theory and law must reflect and protect what Pope John Paul II called the “moral truth about the human person."

This truth is the aim and subject of “moral anthropology,” a topic about which Elshtain’s work has much to teach us. By “moral anthropology,” I mean an account of what it is about the human person that does the work in moral arguments about what we ought or ought not to do and how we ought or ought not to be treated.  Every interesting problem that ethics, political theory, or law confronts is, then, an anthropological problem. Every attempt at solving such a problem will reflect foundational assumptions about what it means to be human.

These assumptions matter. If they are inaccurate or incomplete—if they are untruthful—then we have little reason for confidence in the analysis and conclusions that follow.

Elshtain appreciated, in her political theory and in her “social feminism,” the importance of an accurate understanding of “what it means to be human.” We cannot think well about what it means for men and women to flourish and be free if we don’t know what—and who—they really are.



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