Last weekend, many of us here at catholicmoraltheology.com gathered in Washington, DC for the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics. One of the wonderful things about SCE meetings is that it is a chance for many different. Each January, Christian ethicists gather alongside their colleagues in the Society of Jewish Ethics and the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics creating a unique and rewarding weekend of papers, plenaries, and rewarding conversation. The SCE theme is chosen by that year’s president – Stanley Hauerwas of Duke, who chose
War and Peace, and in particular the difference theological reflection makes for considerations on the ethics of war.
In addition to Prof. Hauerwas’s Presidential Address, there were plenaries by Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, Professor Stephen Carter of the Yale School of Law, and eminent political philosopher Michael Walzer as Society of Jewish Ethics. The overarching theme was the ethics of war; however, throughout the conference there were diverse papers such as:
Karen Lebacqz, Graduate Theological Union “Quilts, Wars, and Feminist Ethics”
Gerard Magill, Center for Healthcare Ethics, Duquesne University “Using Traditional Catholic Ethical Teaching to Justify Termination of Pregnancy when There is Imminent Threat of Death to the Mother: a Study of the Phoenix Case”
Irene Oh, George Washington University “An Islamic Ethic of Eating for the 21st Century: Balancing Food Choice, Piety, and Sustainability”
David True, Wilson College “The Niebuhrian President? Barack Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr on Power”
Alexander Green: “Between Maimonides and Spinoza: Constructing an Ethics of War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition”
In this roundtable, those of us who attended the SCE will offer our reflections and insights on the conference. I invite you to come back as new comments get added and I invite others who were at the conference to offer their own comments and reflections in the comment section.
My own thoughts:
This was my second SCE and once again, I found a welcoming and supportive mix of generations and colleagues. For now, I would just like to start with Stephen Carter’s plenary on “Targeted Kiling.” Professor Carter argued that the single greatest risk in the widening use of drones for targeted killing in warfare is that the it will become part of the background we barely notice. The greatest danger in this type of warfare is that it is “invisible to those one whose behalf it is being used.” I cannot help but be reminded of the sustained bombing program between the First and Second Gulf War – bombings that were commonplace and yet absent from most, if not all, American media. We must be constantly vigilant about the use of violence and weapons on “our behalf” by “our Government,” as well as, vigilant in seeking out the unintended victims of such warfare. Many aspects of the “ethics of targeted killing,” were addressed and need to be addressed further but found Carter’s point about the danger of weaponry that is easy to use and easy to make invisible (both in its use, its risk, and its unintended victims) insightful within the context of Christian ethics – which urges us make visible those which others would keep invisible.
Check back more to come…
Thanks for setting up this forum, Meg!
Despite its dizzying pace (formal aspects of the conference begin at 7:15 AM and then a session can START at 8:00 PM…to say nothing of the dinner and hotel bar conversation as well!) I just love SCE. Meeting old friends, making new ones, the depth and quality of the papers and questions. Attention to exciting new trends, but careful development of traditional ideas. A willingness to engage in high-level and direct argument about sensitive and important issues, but almost always with a sense of respect and charity that avoids casual dismissal and personal attacks.
Highlights for me included Tobias Winright and Mark Allman continuing to advance their understanding of the growing edge of Just War theory in exciting ways, Mike Baxter giving a presentation explicitly friendly to the Natural Law (!), and Julie Hanlon Rubio doing her ‘magenta’ thing on Family Ethics. Perhaps the best session for me though involved Gerry Magill giving his audience a good hour to discuss the Phoenix abortion case WITH him. It produced some of the most stimulating and sustained exchanges that many of us have had on this topic…perhaps since graduate school. What a gift he gave his audience.
What did others find in DC this year?
SCE is exhausting and rejuvenating at the same time. I had the chance to give two papers this year and I always find my colleagues’ comments to be very helpful.
I also liked Michael Baxter’s discussion of a “politics of natural law” alongside a “politics of Jesus”. I wasn’t surprised by it (he writes about making this move in Unsettling Arguments: A Festschrift in Honor of Stanley Hauerwas’s 70th Birthday, Eugene: Cascade, 2010), but I like that idea. What would it mean to have a “politics of natural law”? It makes me begin to reflect on natural law differently than I have, for I have mostly been concerned about articulations of natural law that seem too biologically deterministic.
But the highlight of the conference for me was the Presidential Address. I am Hauerwas’s student, so that might not be a surprise anyway – but I especially appreciated his concluding point that church does not allow us to escape bearing reality. I think too often his criticizers have suggested that he sees church as this idealistic group of people; everything can be solved by church. I don’t think this is it at all, either in my own evaluation of his work, nor in my own view of church, which has strong influences from him. Church doesn’t solve reality so much as it offers us a way “to go on” in the face of disheartening and often unacceptable options from what I suppose I name as mainstream society.
And finally, I just want to say how lovely it was to see so many of my friends and fellow theologians. I didn’t make it to SCE 2011, so it had been at least two years since I’d seen some of them. A good conference; a good start to the year.
Many thanks, Charlie, for your kind words.
It was great to present and be present to so many wonderful talks. For me, it was one of the best SCE meetings ever, probably because of the main topic. There were more sessions I wanted to attend then could.
Finally, I think this meeting is crucial if we, as ethicists, want to make sure we understand one another and treat each other with respect; especially when our ethics, conclusions and ecclesiologies differ.
Yes, the SCE was fruitful as always. (I found the discussion of the Phoenix case very interesting, too, Charlie!) For me, one of the highlights was a paper about how a number of Russian Orthodox leaders responded to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Betsy Perabo did a lot of research in primary sources and wound up showing that there was often staunch patriotism, but not necessarily exceptionalism. (interesting to hear, particularly after Bacevich’s talk!) One Russian Orthodox missionary priest in Japan decided, together with his mostly Japanese congregation, that he should stay on with them and that it would be fine if during the war, they would all pray for the victory of their respective countries, at the same time and in the same church. There were also descriptions by Russian chaplains of a truce offered by the Japanese for Christmas day – apparently a result of some inter-religious dialogue efforts with Buddhist monks! It was interesting to hear about Orthodox perspectives on war, since Orthodoxy isn’t terribly prominent at the SCE. Here’s hoping her paper makes it into the journal, because unfortunately it was scheduled for the very last session and so there were few folks left to hear it.
I think SCE is my likely choice for “the conference I would not live without.” The session format, which consist of substantial papers and discussions of them, with the papers often in great shape because of submitting them for JSCE at the conference, is most helpful. And I appreciate the ecumenical scene that is not a part of CTSA.
I echo the comments of others above, especially Jana’s point about Hauerwas’ keynote. For a student of his, it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, we commented on how good it was that we did not get the “caricature Stanley” that can sometimes show up for these occasions – with provocations and profanities (not a single one of those, right?). That is surely one aspect of Hauerwas, but his students know that the more substantial side – which we were privileged to see in our years there – is MUCH more like the man who delivered that keynote: subtle, beautiful, attuned to literature and philosophy that is not “Christian,” and in general, seeking to get us past the “easy answers” that so often pass as theological ethics. Defeating his own “easy answer” (the Church!) was the perfect culmination of his talk.
I would also mention two other talks. Andrew Bacevich’s keynote was excellent. I thought his knowledge of “Washington rules” was on display, and I think it important that he is a military man who is critical of many aspects of the present-day American military. The point about how the ending of the draft and the refusal to actually raise taxes to pay for wars are both so key to the present situation was great. When the rhetoric of war can be entertained without any general sacrifices, we are in trouble.
Laura Hartman gave a splendid paper, offering a rehabilitation and renarration of the virtue of modesty. By expanding the range of the term – for example, she offered a description of “environmental modesty” – she took its core meaning – an attentiveness and sensitivity to our actions on others – and managed to get past more dated notions of the idea, wigthout losing the substance of why it was (and is) important. As with my “rehabilitation of the critique of luxury” paper last year, the ensuing discussion was fantastic, and raised all sorts of questions about everyday choices that we so often overlook in our rush to analyze the “dramatic ethical dilemmas.”
In the (hopefully) better late than never category…
I agree with what has been said about what a great conference this was. I was particularly struck with the high level of discussion and engagement at the concurrent sessions. The papers at SCE tend to be in better shape than those I’ve heard elsewhere, and the way time is structured at the conference affords the opportunity to go beyond superficial analyses.
I think that this year’s plenary sessions were among the best ever. Hauerwas and the planning committee did exceptionally well choosing speakers. I found Bacevich to be particularly compelling as a speaker (I suppose it helps that I’m very sympathetic toward his viewpoint), although afterwards, I was left wondering whether his whole argument is tactical. In other words, is he just pointing out that empire isn’t working any more (it might have worked well in the past, but now it’s dragging us down). This is quite different from calling empire itself into question. Is he merely putting forward a better plan for maintaining a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth?
It was a real privilege for me to be on a panel with Allen Verhey to discuss dying well at the healthcare ethics interest group. I have enormous respect for his work, and I find him to be one of the most gracious people in the academy. It was interesting to discover that although I think that we agree on what dying well should look like for Christians today, we disagree about the extent to which the ars moriendi can be a useful source for insight into that question. Verhey finds the whole ars moriendi tradition to be marred by a Platonist dualism. There’s a lot of truth in that claim, but I don’t think that it’s quite as pervasive as he suggests. It’s made me want to go back and reread the sources with that question in mind to see for myself, though.
On a less enthusiastic note, I must say that I did not appreciate the Ethics and Catholic Theology interest group session on After Virtue. Jennifer Herdt’s paper was quite good, but I could have lived without Michael Baxter’s trip down memory lane – recalling the days of his seminar on MacIntyre with Hauerwas. I also thought his casual passing comment that Curran, Hollenbach, and Heyer all favor a state-centered approach to social reform was both unnecessary and inaccurate. Like Charlie Camosy (posted above), I was surprised to hear Baxter speak of a politics of the natural law. Very interesting idea, but I wonder how he plans to develop that idea while remaining disdainfully dismissive of the work of people like Hollenbach and Heyer. Finally, I must say that I find it hard to listen to Romanus Cessario. I found the tone of his remarks to bear the mark of someone with overconfidence in the rightness of his ideas and I find his need to cast opponents as wayward, unfaithful Catholics who have broken intentionally with the Tradition to be decidedly unappealing.