5 questions with Matthew Wright
Matthew Wright is associate professor of government in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and a political theorist who specializes in the Thomistic-Aristotelian natural law tradition. This entails a methodology particularly sensitive to the diverse forms of natural association and authority that fall within political communities. He is interested in understanding how groups like families and churches relate to the political community and what political life uniquely contributes to the full development of human social capacities. He is the author of A Vindication of Politics: On the Common Good and Human Flourishing (University Press of Kansas, 2019) and will be a 2019-2020 John and Daria Barry Visiting Research Scholar in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He and his wife, Ruthie, have three children, Jackson, Harry, and Mary Clement.
Joe Waters: How does the nurture and care of very young children contribute, in your view, to the common good?
Matthew Wright: It is easy to see how virtuous, intelligent, ambitious young adults headed into the military, the academy, or the workforce contribute to the common good, but turn back the clock a couple of decades and the connection is often obscured. Yet, it shouldn’t be. The foundations of virtue and psychological health are formed in a child’s soul from her earliest years. A playing child’s release from external pressures and influences, for example, cultivates an ability to engage in activities for their own sakes -- something ultimately essential to a mature moral character. Parenting young kids can feel like an endless preoccupation with the most mundane features of human existence. In reality, loving parents are heroes of the common good: active cultivators of the affections, habits of mind, and relationships on which free societies depend.
JW: What is the role that relationships within families and communities play in building up the common good (our tendency towards individualism would suggest our relationships don’t play an important role in promoting the common good)? What are the threats to relational well-being in the 21st century?
MW: This gets at one of the basic questions of Western political thought: Do families and other local (i.e., subpolitical) communities impede our ability to contribute to the political common good? It is a serious and complex question, but in my view, the side of the argument represented by thinkers from Aristotle to Burke and Tocqueville wins out. This view sees the family as a kind of seedbed of civic virtue. As Burke put it, “We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen. We pass on to our neighborhoods and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting places . . . so many little images of the great country in which the heart found something which it could fill.” We might also ask with St. John, how can we love God, whom we haven’t seen if we can’t love our brother, whom we have? In other words, close, personal relationships draw us out of ourselves and cultivate our capacity for empathy, self-sacrifice, and commitment. When the family and other basic institutions of civil society break down, so does the very engine of political virtue and the common good.
In my view, perhaps the biggest threat to the power of these relationships is viewing them basically as a means to individual happiness. When relationships--especially those with children--are seen as a right or as an accessory to personal fulfillment, they lose their transformative power. Basic relationships cease to be something that call us out of ourselves and--partially, but essentially--define who we are and who we become. Commitment and self-sacrifice are superseded by the unpredictable fantasies of self-actualization.
JW: How can practitioners in social services, government agencies, and philanthropic organizations who support children concretely promote human dignity and human flourishing?
MW: Except in cases of clear abuse, the home should be seen as the primary locus of a child’s flourishing. This means that institutions seeking to support children should constantly look for ways to encourage, strengthen, and enable parents and families. Much contemporary thinking about children’s interests is saturated by a conviction that parental aims are fundamentally at odds with a child’s independent flourishing. On this view, external institutions should intervene in a relationship of massive inequality to protect the welfare of vulnerable children. As I argue in A Vindication of Politics, this grossly distorts the nature of the parent-child relationship and directly undermines the true interests of children.
JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to think more clearly about the world our children are growing up to inhabit?
MW: Readers who have not yet read the work of civil society theorists like Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and Yuval Levin will learn a tremendous amount from their work. I would especially recommend Murray’s Coming Apart. In my view, the dissolution of the nuclear family and its supporting institutions in civil society affects the social landscape our children will inhabit more than anything else. On a related note, I would also highly recommend Gilbert Meilaender’s Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. He includes a great chapter on childhood.
JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future your children will inhabit?
MW: This is a tough one, as America’s commitment to the radical autonomy of what Yuval Levin calls “expressive individualism” seems only to be increasing. This produces a flattened social landscape in which government exists to serve the expanding list of demands generated by “liberated” individuals. At the same time, there is in many sectors--both on the left and the right--an awareness that the impact of the last half century on civil society has been catastrophic--and the knowledge that this harms children most of all. I am hopeful that we will continue to see efforts to rebuild the vital institutions of civil society, especially the family, and that the success of these efforts will increase the movement’s influence.