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Seeking Wisdom in the University: David Deavel on John Henry Newman and the Pursuit of Wisdom

aquino newman


This review is by David Deavel, Adjunct Professor of Catholic Studies, University of St. Thomas and a recent MacLaurinCSF speaker.

Frederick Aquino, An Integrative Habit of Mind: John Henry Newman on the Path to Wisdom

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is a figure whose stature seems to grow with every passing year. Though he left the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic in 1845, his influence in Protestant circles continued and continues to grow. On theology—particularly the theology of the Church—he continues to be loved even by those who strongly disagree with him. Reformed theologian Carl Trueman has recently written, “One [of] my favorite theological writers is John Henry Newman—and he is my favorite precisely because he offers different answers to the most fundamental questions and thereby demands that I refine and sharpen my own thinking. If I read Newman and remain unchanged, I know something is not right.”

Amusingly enough, Newman never actually considered himself a theologian in the technical, professional sense, despite the marvelous contributions he made to the study of doctrinal development, the Arian crisis, and many other subjects. While he was always a Christian and a priest first and foremost, he put his intellectual energy into philosophical questions about the nature of belief, knowledge, and wisdom. To this end his two great works are the collection from his Anglican days known as Oxford University Sermons (1843) and from his Catholic days The Grammar of Assent (1870). But like the ancient philosophers, this pursuit was not simply about a theory, but about life. In his work there was no strict line between the practical and the theoretical because, for creatures, all true wisdom has to be grounded in concrete experience and issue in change to one’s experience and behavior. In other words, philosophy (literally “love of wisdom”) was not a specialized subject for people with advanced degrees, but instead a subject for everybody. Philosophy was about education—what he called “my line.” And his thoughts about that subject have been immortalized in the series of theoretical and practical lectures known as The Idea of a University (1852).

Frederick Aquino, a long-time student of Newman and professor of theology and philosophy at Abilene Christian University, has been probing Newman’s understanding of how and under what conditions we gain knowledge and understanding (what the professional philosophers label epistemology) and how university education can facilitate those gains. His very good short book, An Integrative Habit of Mind, mirrors Newman’s technique of treating theoretical and practical aspects of the path to wisdom side by side, with an eye to showing what Newman can offer the professional philosophers and those involved in educational theory. If they can abide the academic prose, undergraduates and lay readers will gain much from Aquino’s treatments, particularly his third chapter focusing on suggestions for thinking about education as a formation of persons.

Aquino’s contention is that forming and keeping an “integrative habit of mind” is necessary for anyone who seeks wisdom. What is this habit? Aquino describes it as the ability “to grasp how various pieces of data and areas of inquiry fit together in light of one another, thereby acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand” and also to figure out “how this kind of understanding applies to a given situation.” In other words, wisdom involves having the big picture, a good sense of the details and how they relate to each other, but also how to apply that knowledge to given situations. Wisdom requires deep theory and prudent practice.

Aquino’s first main chapter, “Broadening Horizons,” indicates another requirement: the ability to engage others from “radically different points of view” in such a way that, even if one does not finally adopt their views, one can gain from them an even better understanding of the issues at hand. Engagement of others doesn’t mean approaching their thought as if one doesn’t have any convictions of one’s own, either. When paleo-Calvinist Carl Trueman reads the Catholic Newman, he is engaging in precisely the sort of practice that makes for wisdom. But unlike Descartes, who claimed to have doubted everything in order to build a foundation for true knowledge, Trueman no doubt doesn’t simply leave his Reformed convictions behind.

Aquino, following Newman, advocates the development of the virtues needed for true engagement—“interest in truth, intellectual honesty, concern for evidence, capacity to listen and to follow counterarguments, the ability to see how things hang together”—but firmly maintains that focusing on those virtues doesn’t “bypass” the very real questions of “authority and autonomy” that lie at the heart of most serious intellectual arguments. Instead, this focus helps one to behave well in situations where one does disagree. And it acknowledges that authority and autonomy are not, as some Enlightenment thinkers had it, implacable enemies. Humans begin with the acceptance of authorities whom they trust—this is neither unreasonable nor bad. It is only by a patient development of one’s own thinking and a probing of what we have been taught that we can come to the point where an autonomous informed judgment is possible. This development is not only a learning of rules or principles, but also an apprenticeship in how to think, whom to trust (and when), and how to persevere in being open-minded enough to gain from others while not being so open-minded that one can never make a critical judgment.

This emphasis on the what and the how of learning is continued in the second chapter, “A Matter of Proper Fit.” While this chapter is the most technical and academic in tone (thinkers are always “cognitive agents” or even “cognizers”—ack!), it is in many ways the most intellectually rewarding. Modern philosophers of knowledge tend to divide into camps of “externalists” and “internalists.” Roughly speaking, the externalists count it as knowledge if you get to the right answer while the internalists make the proper process of getting to the right answer the criterion for knowledge. One side focuses on what, the other side on how. Aquino doesn’t propose that Newman can solve all of the philosophical debates, but he thinks Newman offers hints of a mediating position. To be wise, sometimes it is important to focus only on the answer, while sometimes one has to go back to thinking about how to get there. In bumper sticker terms, it’s not the destination or the journey, dude. It’s both. A batter who focuses too much on anticipating the coming pitch will not be able to hit the outside fastball when it arrives—too much conscious thought is detrimental to his hitting. But if he misses enough of them, he’ll have to spend time in practice thinking through how to detect the signs of fastballs, sliders, and curves. Developing the “proper fit” between conscious knowledge and practice is the name of the game.

Christian readers will understand this chapter as very applicable to the life of faith, and no wonder, since Newman’s Grammar of Assent was written in order to defend unreflective simple reasoning of Christians against cultured despisers who think that believing in something one doesn’t fully understand or can’t explain on paper is simple superstition. But Newman also encouraged religious believers with the capacity and duty for it to explore their worldviews even though it could be dangerous and uncomfortable. Simple believers sometimes need to ask tough questions about how they came to their beliefs, while Christian intellectuals must sometimes tame their own capacity for criticism and complexification in order to believe that they might understand.

Wherever one starts, however, the goal is the same: a connected view of the world, or what some call a worldview. The third chapter is full of hints about how to achieve this connected view and what those involved in university education need to do to encourage its development. Aquino has suggestions about curricular and institutional issues to be sure, but his main focus is on the personal side of education, on educators forming a real “community of inquirers” who not only model how to work in their particular disciplines, but also how to listen and ask questions of others who are treating the same subject from a different discipline. (Here it may have been useful for Aquino to consider Newman’s notion of the “circle of knowledge” that grounds the need for interdisciplinary work in The Idea of the University.) While a syllabus full of good readings and assignments is important, true teachers realize their “embodiment” of a connected view is most important to students. Aquino quotes Newman about how ideas come to life more in “personal documents” than in “dead abstracts and tables.”

For a number of reasons, the modern university is not always the place for finding wisdom. Connected views of things have been damned too long as “metanarratives” that are oppressive. The nature of specialized research has also encouraged scholars to focus ever more narrowly on subjects such that the forest cannot be seen for the trees. Finally, the mass entrance of students into university education has forced changes on to the traditional university structure. But given its resources, the university still has a potential for leading students and faculty to understanding and breadth. Those who see and desire this potential would benefit greatly both from the wisdom of Newman and from Frederick Aquino’s valuable mining of it in this book. If they study Newman and are not changed, they should know, however, that something is not right.

Religion, Higher Education, and the Public Sphere

This summer at MacLaurinCSF, a few of us are reading some of the key works in the broad area of religion, higher education, and the public sphere.

We’ll post brief reports from our discussions as we read; weigh in in the comments with reflections or responses of your own: What place does religion have in higher education? Only as an object of study? Perhaps sequestered in confessional institutions? Present but private at the public university?

Week One

The Secularization of Higher Education

  • Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, chapter 6

For further reading:

  • Jon Roberts and James Turner, The Sacred and the Secular University
  • George Marsden, The Soul of the American University

Week 2

Morality and the Secular University

For further reading:

  • Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality

Week 3

What is the Secular?

  • Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University
  • John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, ch. 1

For further reading:

Week 4

Religion and the Public Sphere

  • John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited”
  • Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere”; “A ‘post-secular’ society: what does it mean?”
  • Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love

Week 5

Contemporary Proposals

  • Hauerwas, The State of the University, chs. 1 & 11
  • Gavin D’Costa, Theology in the Public Square
  • James R. Stoner, Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, David Bentley Hart, “Theology as Knowledge: A Symposium,” First Things

Week 6

Contemporary Proposals

  • Readings TBD

Recommended Reading on Faith and Economics – William Cavanaugh

William Cavanaugh - What Do I Want? Augustine and Milton Friedman on Freedom of Choice

On March 10, Dr. William Cavanaugh, a theologian and a Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul, visited campus to deliver a fascinating lecture on the relationship between desire, freedom, and economics. Entitled “What Do We Want? Augustine and Milton Friedman on Freedom of Choice,” Cavanaugh’s talk contrasted Augustine’s theological anthropology—his Christian vision of the human person—with the assumptions about humanity that informed Friedman’s economic theories.

Cavanaugh’s talk is available on YouTube and Soundcloud. If you’re interested in learning more, Cavanaugh recommends the following books:

Cavanaugh adds:

One way or another, all of these books question the idea that economics is a hard science, and see it rather as a kind of theology.

William Cavanaugh's recommended books on theology and economics

(Also check out our recent blog series on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a—yes, it happens from time to time—best-selling book about economics, which explores the relationship between capital accumulation and economic inequality.)

I’d be interested to know what you think about Cavanaugh’s talk and, more broadly, the relationship between theology and social sciences like economics—leave a comment below. A couple of our summer 2015 reading groups will be exploring related topics—particularly the Theology and Economics group and the group reading Christian Smith’s Moral, Believing Animals—if you’re interested and able, we’d love to have you join us.

Recommended Reading on Biotechnology and Bioethics – William Hurlbut

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In April, Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford University gave our second annual V. Elving Anderson Lecture in Science and Religion. Hurlbut’s lecture, “Biotechnology, Freedom, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is now available to watch on YouTube and listen to on Soundcloud.

Dr. Hurlbut suggested the following four books as the best resources if you’re interested in further exploring the issues he raised in his lecture:

If you’d like to read more from Dr. Hurlbut, in addition to his contributions to the Beyond Therapy volume, he is the co-editor of Altruism & Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy & Religion in Dialogue, to which he contributed several chapters, and the essay “Science, Religion and the Human Spirit” in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science.


William Hurlbut's book recommendations on biotechnology and bioethics

Recommended Reading on C.S. Lewis – Dave Deavel

David Deavel: The Tao of Jack - C.S. Lewis on the Foundation of Freedom

In March, St. Thomas professor Dave Deavel gave an excellent talk, “The Tao of Jack: C.S. Lewis on the Foundation of Freedom.”

Dave agreed to offer his own recommended reading on Lewis and the Inklings, which complements the previous posts in our series of recommended books on the Inklings—Joseph Pearce on J.R.R. Tolkien and Phil Rolnick’s earlier list on C.S. Lewis.

Here are Deavel’s recommendations:

2014-15 Wrap-up: Recordings of this year’s lectures

2014-15 event posters


As we wrap up another exciting academic year of lectures and programs, I wanted to share our video and audio recordings of those events for those who weren’t able to attend or who would like to watch and listen again.

Throughout the year, we focused on the theme of freedom and the free society, and many of these talks connect with that theme, from Gloria Halverson’s sobering talk on human trafficking and the ways healthcare professionals can combat it, to Patrick Deneen’s Holmer Lecture on liberalism and what comes after it, to Dave Deavel’s talk on the C.S. Lewis and the Tao.

We’ll announce next year’s theme soon; in the meantime, I hope you enjoy and learn from these recordings. The SoundCloud files are audio-only and downloadable.

What were the highlights of this year’s MacLaurinCSF programs for you? We’d love your feedback—leave a comment below!

Volunteer Opportunity: Spring Work Days

Our study center here on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota is the home and the heart of our work. It’s where we on staff have our offices, it holds our lending library (the library’s free and open to everyone, in case you’re looking for a good book), and it’s where we host everything from the meetings of our MacLaurin Fellows to our Mars Hill Dinners and events like our talks on the Inklings.

Our study center, like any home, requires all kinds of basic maintenance. So we’re hosting two upcoming work days here at the study center for us to take care of some of this work—our spring cleaning.

The work days are Saturday, April 25 and Saturday, May 9Both work days will take place from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., and lunch will be provided to all volunteers who let Cheri know in advance that they’re coming.

These work days are opportunities to contribute to our ministry in incredibly important, concrete ways. Our study center is the foundation for all the rest of our work. If you’d like to volunteer some of your time and your skills to our work by helping us with projects like

  • painting (indoors & out)
  • yard work
  • cleaning
  • misc. repairs

then please contact Cheri as soon as possible. And if you can’t make it but would still like to volunteer, please check out other volunteer opportunities and fill out our volunteer form. Thank you!

Science, Scripture, & Creation: An Introduction to John Walton & Keith B. Miller

Banner image for "Integration of Science & Faith," a conference on Saturday, April 18 at Constant Free Church

On Saturday, April 18, we’re please to be cosponsoring a half-day conference on the integration of science and faith with Constance Free Church in Andover, MN.

The conference speakers are Wheaton’s John Walton, a professor of Old Testament, and Kansas State’s Keith B. Miller, a professor of geology. Our aim in selecting these speakers was to provide you with the opportunity to engage—on the question of origins specifically and science & faith more broadly—with Christian scholars of the highest caliber within both the Biblical and scientific communities.

We hope you can join us on Saturday for what’s going to be a rich discussion of the relationship between science and faith, particularly with respect to origins. Learn more about our speakers below, and watch this blog for a bibliography of their recommended books on science and faith.

John Walton

John Walton is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His research focuses on the relationship between the Old Testament and surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures and literature. Walton says that in his teaching and research, he has been “driven by the desire to offer people a greater familiarity with God’s Word and a greater confidence in understanding God’s revelation of himself in its pages.”

Walton’s most recent book is The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Read a preview of the book on Google Books, or order through Amazon Smile.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve is Walton’s sequel to his earlier book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, which you can also preview on Google Books or purchase through Amazon Smile.

Between these two books, Walton coauthored, with D. Brent Stanley, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, which focuses on the relationship between history, theology, and Biblical studies—it provides some theoretical context for those who are interested in how Walton arrives at his conclusions in his other Lost World books, and gives an overview of how the Bible’s historicity (its status as a collection of historical documents, written by individuals in particular times and places) relates to its divine inspiration and status as the word of God. Read a preview of The Lost World of Scripture on Google Books, or purchase it on Amazon Smile.

Perhaps the best place to read more from Walton is at his BioLogos page, where you can find articles by Walton, videos of his talks, and resources for individuals or groups interested in reading his books.

Keith B. Miller

Keith B. Miller is professor of geology at Kansas State University; you can learn more about his geological research on his homepage. He’s active in public science education, and provides extensive resources on his website Pursuing Science & Faith in Kansas related to this topic. His book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation can be previewed on Google Books or purchased on Amazon Smile.

As it does with Walton, the BioLogos Foundation offers many blog posts by and resources related to Miller’s work, including a four-part series on death & pain in the created order and a six-part series on the Cambrian explosion, transitional life forms, and the tree of life.

Integrating Science & Faith

If you join us on Saturday, April 18, here’s what you can expect:

  • two talks from John Walton: one on cosmic origins; the other on human origins
  • a talk from Keith B. Miller on “The Meaning of Fossils and the Discover of Earth History”
  • a total of 1.5 hours of question-and-answer time with Walton and Miller
  • a friendly atmosphere where you can explore a range of ideas on how science and faith intersect, and a safe environment where you can ask challenging questions.

Everybody’s welcome; you don’t need to occupy any particular position in the debates about origins in order to attend and benefit from the conference. And it’s geared toward a general audience, so it’ll be accessible to everyone.

We hope you can join us! Learn more or register online at Constance Free’s event page—and feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

Bringing a Language Back from the Dead: The New Davenant Language Institute

The Davenant Latin Institute banner image


Editor’s Note: Our friends at the Davenant Trust have recently launched an excited new program for students who are interested in learning Latin. Read on for more on this fascinating program—it’s an online program, so it’s available to anyone, and the instructors are excellent.

  • If you’re studying Reformation or early modern theology, and want to read beyond the handful of texts currently available in English . . .
  • If you’re about to undertake graduate studies requiring you to read and translate scholastic theology . . .
  • If you want to really understand the literary world of the Reformers, including their marginalia, abbreviations, and even handwriting . . .

Enroll in our Advanced Early Modern Latin Reading Course!

  • If you don’t know the first thing about Latin but want to get started . . .
  • If you’re trying to pass a Latin competency exam for your seminary or grad school . . .
  • If you’d like to enroll in our Advanced course but are pretty rusty . . .

Enroll in our Introductory Latin Course (Summer Intensive or Year-long version)!

Using state-of-the-art online teaching technology and employing experienced Latin teachers and Reformation scholars, the Davenant Latin Institute is the best option for graduate-level Latin education.

The Davenant Latin Institute offers students of theology an excellent programme of introductory and advanced-level instruction in the Latin tongue. With a view to optimum utility, this programme is systematically constructed to provide students of the Reformation and early-modern philosophy and history with an indispensable scholarly proficiency.

~ W. J. Torrance Kirby, Prof. of Ecclesiastical History and Director of the Centre for Research on Religion, McGill University

Tuition is just $1,000 for the Summer Intensive (Jun. 22–Aug. 14) and $750 per semester for the Introductory and Advanced courses(Aug. 24–May 13).

To enroll (deadlines: June 5 for the Summer Intensive; July 24 for the year-long courses) or for more details, check out our website.

Sponsored by the Davenant Trust, in partnership with the Greystone Institute.

The Moral Dimensions of Capital: Daryl Koehn on Broadening Piketty’s Conception of Social Goods


Editor’s Note: Today’s entry in our forum on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Daryl Koehn, a professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas, where her research focuses on the nature of good and evil in the business and professional arenas. This is the seventh post in our forum, which kicked off with an introductory post, where you’ll find an index of all the posts in the forum.

Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century sets up five key questions:

  1. Is wealth inequality increasing within the US and elsewhere?
  2. If so, what are the causes of the growing inequality?
  3. If inequality is increasing, is that an economically good thing?
  4. If inequality is increasing, is that a morally good thing?
  5. What, if anything, should be done about rising inequality?

1. Is wealth inequality increasing within the US and elsewhere?

In Capital, Piketty presents historical data, arguing that from World War I through the Great Depression and World War II, the wealth-to-income ratio fell rapidly. Income inequality shrank as well, especially during World War II. Piketty explains the data with a model, projects the model into the future, and proposes high taxes to correct for growing inequality. Piketty is primarily focused on wealth inequality, which he defines as concentrated wealth in the hands of a few families, not on income inequality.

I am not an economist and so am not sufficiently versed in statistics and econometrics to assess Piketty’s argument that wealth inequality is indeed increasing (and doing so at an accelerating rate). I would note that a number of other prominent economists and think tanks have recently published studies concurring with Piketty’s basic thesis. So for purposes of my contribution to today’s discussion, I will accept that wealth inequality is, in fact, increasing.

2. So assuming that there is growing inequality, what are its causes?

One cause of inequality or the lack thereof is war and the government’s response to war. The low inequality around WW1 and WW2 was due to the low savings rate during this period (Piketty 7) and European government’s devaluation of rich families’ assets (8).

Now, however, wealth inequality is once again increasing. Why? Piketty’s key argument, as I understand it, is that when r, the rate of return on capital, is greater than an economy’s growth rate—g—then high levels of wealth engender still higher levels of wealth because the investments of the rich are far more lucrative than any wage increases labor is getting via economic growth. Insofar as this wealth gets inherited, countries veer toward plutocracies or what Piketty calls “patrimonial capitalism” (154; passim).

There are, however, a number of points to make about this assertion. First, Piketty does not establish that r will necessarily remain greater than g. r might fall faster than g at some point. Second, this claim does not state the cause of growing inequality. It shows at best why those who start off with a stash of capital may be able to increase their wealth far faster than those who depend upon salaried labor. The claim that r has been greater than g by itself does not explain how certain parties obtained their initial stash of capital: “Piketty isn’t saying that r > g is why inequality has increased so far. It’s why he thinks inequality will keep increasing along hereditary lines in the future. Nor does the r greater than g equation tell us anything about how and why those who are becoming wealthy have been able to preserve ownership in their capital (e.g,, that they live in country that respects property rights).

So why, according to Piketty, is wealth inequality increasing? Piketty offers several theories. One answer is that governments’ taxation rates are not as confiscatory as they were during earlier eras. Second, rubber-stamping boards (staffed with interlocking CEOs) are paying executives astronomical salaries. This claim is crucial for Piketty’s argument because wealth cannot breed wealth unless and until individuals have money to invest in the first place. The claim then is that it has become easier during the prior decades for business executives to amass fortunes. And that fact fuels wealth inequality, which supposedly gets ever greater and becomes inheritable because of the r greater than g dynamic.

But it seems to me that other factors affecting individuals’ wealth level have been at work as well. On the one hand, many middle class Americans have started to save an ever-greater portion of their income because they fear that social security will not be around when they retire. Money that once was spent is now saved; such savings count as accumulated wealth. So fear-based savings presumably is creating some wealth. On the other hand, generous defined benefit pensions have traditionally supported the middle class, enabling them both to spend and save at reasonably high levels even after retirement. The poor do not work jobs that have defined benefit plans. So defined benefit pensions have historically been available only to certain groups of people and thus likely contributed to wealth inequality. These defined benefit plans have gone away as firms have replaced defined benefit plans with defined contribution plans. The latter are far less generous in their payouts so the rise of these plans is likely also leading to income and wealth disparity during recent years.

Labor unions have been weakened in part because workers saw during the 1980s that the union leaders took care of themselves and long-time employees while doing little for less tenured rank and file members. In other cases, firms (e.g., Walmart and Starbucks, and many universities) have fought tooth and nail to prevent unions from getting a toehold in their operations. The eviscerating of unions means that labor has lost bargaining power and, as a result, has not been as well positioned to demand the salary increases and benefits they had been able to secure in the past. That factor has tended to suppress wages and probably savings as well.

The lessening of taxes on dividends and on estates has allowed wealth that does exist to maintain itself. However, given that most fortunes are spent within three generations, we need to identify other factors that are at work in contributing to income inequality. Part of the answer surely is the shift from public sector to private sector jobs in the financial industry—a point I will return to shortly.

I suspect that another reason for the increase in wealth disparity is the increasing number of very successful, innovative entrepreneurs. Many of the wealthiest people in America made their wealth by inventing something new and very disruptive—think of the products offered by Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, and eBay. This list of lucrative inventions goes on and on. These disrupters would have pursued these inventions regardless of the tax rate; America has a long history of nurturing innovation. The growing ability of innovators to gain easy access to capital (think of Kickstarter and the other crowd-sourcing funding mechanisms) and to draw upon the wisdom of crowds to perfect designs and to do marketing has made it possible for ever larger numbers of individuals to become entrepreneurs. Customers flock to these inventions and that dynamic has made those individuals hugely wealthy.

I doubt then whether astronomical CEO salaries has been the main driver of inequality.

3. Is Growing Inequality Necessarily Bad for Business?

Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman has made the point that New York City has done pretty well for years because very wealthy traders and bankers have spent heavily on fine dining, cars, services, etc. So it would seem that pockets of intense economic activity can occur even with extreme wealth and income inequality. We are not justified then in claiming that growing wealth inequality is always or necessarily bad for business. Piketty himself notes, “The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable” (35).

Moreover, the prospect of being able to become very wealthy may motivate entrepreneurs. In some respects, we clearly are moving within the US toward an entrepreneurial economy. Of course, the prospect of others succeeding can fuel envy; but it may also inspire others to try their hand at offering new products and services. Crowd-sourced funding and inventions have exploded; small businesses are the primary engine for job growth so becoming a successful entrepreneur is not as impossible as it might have seemed even ten years ago. If we see more entrepreneurs who succeed in offering new services and products, then wealth inequality might be the result of business being very good.

Conversely, growing wealth and income inequality may be bad for business if we have a consumption economy rather than a production economy. When folks don’t have money to spend, consumption flattens or declines.

4. Is Increasing Wealth Inequality a Morally Bad Thing?

Whether growing wealth inequality is immoral depends, in part, upon its causes and effects. As Aristotle argued long ago, inequality per se is not unjust. Milo the wrestler may need to consume four times the amount of food you or I do because he needs more calories to sustain his level of activity. In times of great scarcity, Milo might not merit this larger share of calories. But if and when a society has the resources to distribute to according to his or her due, then perhaps inequalities should not merely be tolerated but even encouraged. It is right that Milo get the food that he needs.

Injustice arises when people do not receive returns commensurate with their contributions. To quote Plato, there must be justice even among thieves. For his part,

Piketty not only concedes, but documents himself, most . . . inequality arises from labor income, not capital income—from compensation earned by executives at big firms, entrepreneurs, and financial wizards. Almost none of these ultra-high income earners are the teachers, engineers, and academics that, according to data collected by Harvard economists, used to be the core of a modest-income social elite in the 1960s and 1970s . . . Economic research shows that the medical advances sparked by the research done by medical academics added $3.2 trillion to the value in the economy, in terms of improved health, each year, since 1970. Yet all academics in the United States—including all the researchers in other fields—were paid less than $100 billion. Financial workers earned five times that amount. A system that delivers rewards in such poor proportion to the benefits society derives will stifle economic growth as well as sharpen inequality. Thus, the fundamental problem facing American capitalism is not the high rate of return on capital relative to economic growth that Piketty highlights, but the radical deviation from the just rewards of the marketplace that have crept into our society and increasingly drives talented students out of innovation and into finance. (Eric A. Posner and Glen Weyl, “Thomas Piketty Is Wrong: America Will Never Look Like a Jane Austen Novel”)

This excessive financialization of the US economy and the accompanying loss of manufacturing jobs somehow needs to be addressed if justice is to be seen to be done. It is hard to see how that will occur, given that the wealthy are able to use their vast resources to lobby politicians to create and skew rules that favor their activities, many of which are rooted in the financial sector.

In the meantime, we seem to be witnessing some hollowing out of the middle class. To the extent that is so, we ought to be, if not alarmed, at least on guard. Some evidence suggests that we have evolved from being an industrial economy into a consumption economy. The middle class drives much of this consumption. In addition, the middle class has traditionally done a fine job of educating its children. These children become the innovators and educators needed to keep America strong. Seventy percent of America’s entrepreneurs have come from the middle class. So the loss of the middle class would be serious indeed. It would threaten the very ability of the economy to meet citizens’ needs. We collectively would not be able to render to each party his or her due. Other virtues cultivated by the middle class—thrift, charity—might disappear as well.

When we shift our attention from the middle class to the lower class, a related concern emerges. Inequality becomes unjust when all members of the body politic do not obtain what they need in order to survive because some citizens are taking too much for themselves. Piketty contends that we are returning to a kind of “patrimonial capitalism.” In such a system, class and especially inherited wealth matter far more than individual effort and talent. America has historically been relatively stable because individuals believed that they could—through hard work—share in the good life and give their children the skills needed for the children to be similarly successful. When a society ceases to be able to persuade its lower class citizens to believe in this kind of future, inequality can become very worrisome. The Arab Spring occurred in part because so many educated young people throughout the Middle East have few job prospects. The rise of European neo-Nazis who encourage citizens to attack others who supposedly leach off the body politic should give us pause; these extreme parties have realized gains primarily in those states with economies that have imploded since 2007, devastating the lower and middle classes.

Part of the reason for the increasing dominance of inherited wealth has been the changes in the tax law mentioned above. George W. Bush cut taxes not primarily on high salaries but upon interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. We are moving toward a state in which some people in theory will never have to pay federal income taxes because all of their money comes not from salaries but in the form of a non-taxed return on assets that are passed from generation to generation. The tax burden on the middle class, however, has steadily increased. Progressive taxation is arguably the most just system, but in the US we have moved away from such a system.

But taxation policy, as I noted above, does not tell the whole story. The hollowing out of the middle class is due (I suspect) in part to the loss of significant pensions, especially pensions in the public sector. Insofar as these pensions were not sustainable; and insofar as the current generation was paying itself generous retirement benefits that would have to be funded by future generations who are smaller than the baby boom generation, the loss of these pensions is perhaps not unjust. No one has a moral right to benefits that come at the expense of young people’s ability to make a life for themselves. In that sense, Piketty’s book can be read as providing a salutary warning to the American populace as a whole to think twice about pension promises that cannot and should not be kept. Some of the touted prosperity and strength of the middle class in America and in Europe may have been a mirage.

5. What, If Anything, Should Be Done about Rising Inequality?

Let us assume that rising wealth inequality is both bad for the economy and morally reprehensible. One response is to keep on doing what we already are doing—namely, reducing consumption inequality by redistributing monies through the various welfare state programs. In the 18th and 19th century, wealth inequality translated into huge consumption disparities. Such disparities are less apparent in the 21st century largely because of various state subsidies and programs (e.g., nationalized health in the UK; social security in the US). As Tim Worstall has noted, “Wealth inequality in Sweden is higher than it is in either the US or the UK. [But] [i]ncome inequality, after taxes and after benefits, is significantly lower in Sweden and consumption inequality even more so” (“Yet Another Reason Why Thomas Piketty Is Wrong”). The problem with this response is that welfare states all over Europe are in danger of collapsing, in part because the tax base of middle class people is shrinking and in part because the burden has proven to be too onerous.

Another argument in favor of the status quo is that, yes, we have a growing number of ultra-rich individuals but these folks are part of the solution, not the problem. In his review of Piketty’s book, Bill Gates has conceded that “capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality”; like Piketty, Gates thinks government needs to “play a constructive role” in ameliorating the effects of wealth inequality. However, Gates goes on to make a case for the ability of philanthropy to help with social ills. Rich philanthropists, in Gates’s view, contribute to the social good in ways that, say, rich spendthrifts do not. Of course, that response by itself does not justify paying CEOs hundreds of times what the average worker in their firms make. Nor does it consider to whom the rich tend to make their donations—art museums, etc. It is the middle class and poor who give a far greater percentage of their income to the poor and favor donations to the social service agencies that are trying to deal directly with the debilitating consequences of poverty. This difference persisted during the Great Recession: “A 2012 study by the Chronicle showed that while middle income citizens gave 7.6 percent of their incomes to charity on average, the figure was just 2.8 percent for those earning more than $200,000 per year” (“Study: Rich give less to charity as low and middle income people give more”).

Piketty himself and many liberals reject the status quo, favoring a global wealth tax. The tax in theory would prevent or at least slow the accumulation of inheritable capital. However, much would depend on how easily the wealthy could evade such a tax. Moreover, I suspect that the real problem does not lie with wealth inequality per se but with a fundamental shift in how Americans and Europeans think about their working lives. Well-educated, ambitious and talented individuals now prefer to go into business and finance rather than to spend their lives working at less remunerative jobs in education, the public sector, etc. If so, then “the right solution . . . is not to shackle capitalism with a blunt wealth tax but to channel its energies into more productive, diverse activities. . . . But broad taxes, while useful absent better policy in other areas, are poorly targeted, because they do not distinguish clearly between people who are under-compensated for their social contributions (researchers, teachers, engineers) and those who receive excessive pay (financiers, lawyers)” (Posner and Weyl).

In the language of Michael Naughton and Ken Goodpaster, the real issue is that we as a society are failing collectively to focus on genuinely “good goods and useful services” (“Where Philosophy, Theology, and Ethical Leadership Intersect: Is Stakeholder Thinking Enough?” Unpublished). For example, high frequency trading churns the market, and there is nothing that traders like more (apart from astronomically large bonuses!) than market volatility, which creates the opportunity for great scores. However, such volatility is far less desirable in the eyes of consumers and businesses. These groups may suffer from wild swings in interest rates, commodity prices, etc. In this case, the real problem is not that HFT traders are getting rich but that the activity itself is suspect.

Distinguishing genuinely good goods and truly beneficial services from merely hedonic goods can be tricky. However, unless we begin to think about this distinction, our societies will likely continue not merely to tolerate but even to applaud activities that are very risky and that do not further the common good in the long run. Imposing draconian wealth taxes does not deal with this underlying problem of the goods we choose to pursue.

We should also encourage individuals to think about this crucial distinction between things and “good goods.” Although it seems that stagnant wages coupled with rising health and education costs have stressed the middle class, it is also true that many people now go into debt to acquire consumer goods that they do not need. We seem to be finding it harder and harder to defer gratification; the savings rate has been declining for generations. Yet saving money is key to being able to pay for truly good goods such as preventive care and a college education. I do wonder whether part of the rising income inequality is due to many folks saving less throughout their lives because they feel that they must have the latest phone, watch, car, etc. If so, then redistributing wealth will do little to prevent those who are able to save capital to start a business from earning far more than peers who spend every tax rebate or windfall on the latest hot item. Hedonic goods, although pleasant at the moment of consumption, tend to distract people from the task at hand and do not foster habits of concentration, persistence, etc. needed to build a business or to rise to the top of a profession.