Catholics and the 'trolley problem' of the presidential elections

Catholics and the ‘trolley problem’ of the presidential elections

Catholics and the ‘trolley problem’ of the presidential elections

CUA President John Garvey compliments Gretchen Wade, a Freshman on the CUA lacrosse team, on mural painting as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service at Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast, D.C. (Credit: Photo courtesy of CUA.)

According to President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America, who teaches the virtues through movies and novels, the choice facing Catholics in November's presidential election is similar to the famous 'trolley problem' in which every outcome seems immoral.

[Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part interview by Crux contributor Christopher White. The first part ran yesterday, Oct. 26.]

By pretty much any standard one cares to cite, President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America is among the more intriguing figures on the U.S. Catholic landscape these days.

First of all, despite running an academic institution, Garvey isn’t technically an academic. He’s a lawyer by training, has both taught law at Boston College and practiced it in San Francisco. He also served for a stint in the Solicitor General’s Office of the U.S. government.

By personal interest, he’s written on religion and the U.S. constitution, which positions him to be an important adviser and sounding board for U.S. bishops and other movers and shakers amid today’s increasingly contentious debates over religious liberty.

By inclination, Garvey is a doer, and although Catholic University has long occupied the back burner on the Washington, D.C., landscape relative to its better-known rival Georgetown, on Garvey’s watch the campus is increasingly becoming a go-to destination for Catholic thinkers and activists. Last September, the university welcomed Pope Francis to its campus during his visit to the United States.

Garvey has set his sights on building a great Catholic university here in the United States, one modeled after Pope Francis’s vision of a Church that “works for the integral development of every person.”

Garvey was recently in New York for the Al Smith Dinner where presidential hopefuls Trump and Clinton roasted themselves, and each other, to raise money for Catholic charities. I caught up with Garvey the day after the dinner to discuss Pope Francis, Catholic education, and, naturally, his thoughts on this election cycle.

You’ve just attended the Al Smith dinner here in New York, so I can’t help but ask you about the election. You’ve recently written that both candidates pose serious threats to this country. What’s a faithful Catholic to do come this November?

I offered this analogy in an editorial I recently wrote for Catholic News Service. There’s a well-known thought experiment in moral philosophy called the “trolley problem,” made famous by Philippa Foot.

Imagine that you’re the driver of trolley going down a track and your brakes fail. If you continue in the direction you’re going, there are five workers on the track that can’t hear you, and you will clearly kill them. You have the option of turning the wheel onto another track, where there is someone else working, and you will surely kill him too. What do you do?

This is meant to ask if you’re a utilitarian and you believe in minimizing bad and maximizing good outcomes, in which case you turn right. The idea of turning right bothers some people, because it’s your agency that brings about a death.

The design of American politics and our two-party system makes it a trolley problem, and there are morally serious problems with voting for either candidate.

Remember that we’re on a track and we’re going downhill and there’s no brake, so taking your hands off the wheel is also an action. It’s really unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this position. But I can see why thoughtful Catholics are all asking the same kind of question about what we should do. It doesn’t make it any easier.

We could create a political system where there’s a Catholic party — there have been some Western European experiments in doing that. It might ease our moral problems, but it might also complicate greatly the problem of creating a functioning political system in a world where Catholics are in the minority.

Look at the difficulties of religiously orthodox groups in Israel. We would divide this country up into religious groups all for the sake of our consciences. I think the great virtue of the two-party system has been that it’s driven people toward the middle. But not anymore — and I’m not sure what’s going to happen.

I’ve heard that both the Republican and Democratic student groups on campus at the Catholic University of America have an amicable relationship with one another. Do you see that as a reaction to this extreme polarization that we’re seeing at the moment?

It’s ironic for someone who grew up in the sixties to see that young people are setting an example for their elders about how to behave, but who knows, maybe it’s consistent. We were the ones who misbehaved in the sixties and we’re still misbehaving!

Young people are telling us what our parents told us: we should grow up!

I’m hearing a lot about the Catholic University of America’s new Human Ecology Institute. What’s the inspiration for this?

Pope Francis is the inspiration for the institute. Human ecology is a notion that we see in his encyclical Laudato Sí, which if you read it, you will see is mostly not about impending global warming, but a much larger set of ecological problems that include both biological and ecological changes.

It’s about a human ecology—what the world is like to live in—because we ourselves are part of the ecology. We’re not just observers or causal agents, we’re the ones who make cities unlivable, who make the air unbreathable, who create drug-addled young people. We do experiments on our own babies and not just on genetically modified corn.

The Human Ecology Institute is a way of looking at all of these issues, from the biological to the zoological to the anthropological, in the way that the Holy Father has invited us to do.

You’ve taken some flack for receiving Koch Foundation money. Would you accept money from the Soros Foundation if it were presented to you?

Yes. We’re happy to take money from anyone who is interested in the same projects that we’re interested in.  Whenever we’re offered money — and this is a lesson that good development officers will tell you — you have to make sure it’s a gift you want to accept because it furthers the mission of the university.

So, if we can find common cause with the Soros Foundation for doing things that we as the Catholic University of America want to promote, then I think we should be happy to do that. You find this in the Koch’s own behavior. They’ve found common cause with the left on criminal justice reform and good for them and good for the left for seeing that opportunity.

This is one of those things that we’re not seeing in contemporary politics, the ability to unite around an issue that we all want to resolve—like immigration or fixing the tax system.

I think we go down a bad road when we start making rules for one another that it’s wrong to cooperate with someone whose views on other things may diverge from your own just because we should punish them by shunning them all together. I think if there’s a chance for us to cooperate in doing something good, then we all make the world a better place by cooperating.

And, we may change one another by cooperating — and that’s a good thing too.

I don’t know of many university presidents who also teach during their administrative tenure.  What do you teach and why do you see it as valuable?

I teach this class about the virtues to freshman in the honors program, about twenty or twenty-five kids take the class. The skeleton of the class is about the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues. We start with temperance, then do fortitude, then justice and prudence, then faith, hope, and charity in that order. We read a lot of books and watch a lot of films, because I want people to fall in love with the virtues.

It changes every year, but for the virtue of faith I have them read some Josef Pieper. A couple of years ago I had them read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory about the whiskey priest. I just love it. What I love about it is that it’s so real. Here’s someone who thinks I’m better than this guy and yet, he holds on and is a martyr and Greene wants us to believe this is how you get to Heaven.

I also take them to vespers at the Dominican House of Studies because I want to show them this isn’t just book learning—it’s real, and these people are doing it. For the virtue of prudence — it’s a hard one, people don’t get prudence  the way they get the others — I have them read Sense and Sensibility.

For the virtue of fortitude, I have them watch 42, the relatively new movie about Jackie Robinson. It’s not sappy. Harrison Ford does a good job and the Jackie Robinson character is kind of true to what I imagine him to be. Not an admirable, but still a likeable man. Good to his family, just and brave, but complicated in a way that the whiskey priest is complicated.

I have them look at three paintings of Caravaggio’s martyrs. So we do that kind of stuff.

For the virtue of justice, I have them see A Man for All Seasons. I have also have them read a book by Bill Miscamble at Notre Dame on Hiroshima. Miscamble says, “Yeah, we should have bombed them.” Miscamble’s argument in the book is that was like the trolley problem. And so we consider those arguments.

I also have them read the “Emancipation Proclamation” and a piece by Sandy Levinson who wrote a piece about whether the Emancipation was unconstitutional. Should you do it anyway? Should you violate the constitution? Do you have a moral duty? That’s the nature of the course.

And I also spend a lot of time on temperance because intemperance is a problem — it’s what many college students are about!

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