April 14, 2011

‘Balance’ in budgets and banter

By Andrew Haines *

Between national debt and social issues, “balance” is the buzzword. In debates ranging from fiscal responsibility to gay rights and anything in between, today’s American dialogue is invariably tempered by this familiar call to action: “We need to be balanced. Not political. Not extreme. But balanced.”

As it turns out, balance can be a great thing. It can even be a virtue. Balance keeps us from resorting to excess, and from making hasty decisions. But balance isn’t balanced across the board: does eating a balanced diet teach us anything about balancing a checkbook?

When it comes to the case of finance versus values, the problem is exacerbated. The difference in discussing money and morals isn’t whether or not balance is a good thing. Instead, it’s about what that goodness refers to, and what making a certain decision says about that good.

Let’s begin with what’s familiar: given the spending deficit looming in Washington, finances seem like the right place to start. And what better time than in light of President Obama’s recent call for a balanced (approach to the) budget.

When it comes to money, we don’t have to be concerned with values—unless we spend our time trading currencies, or we’re preparing for a summer trip to Europe. For most of us, money just simply has value (e.g., the amount of McDonald’s food you can get for five dollars). A balanced approach to money comes when we figure out how that more-or-less locked-in value pertains to other similar things in our life. For example, that five bucks at McDonald’s can get me a burger, fries, and a drink. But being financially responsible—i.e., being balanced with my spending—forces me to ask the question, “How would spending five dollars on McDonald’s food now (as opposed to eating at home) affect my ability to pay the rent next week?”

With finances, balance is simple: if expenditures are equal to income, then the budget is balanced. If not, we’re either running a deficit or we’re on our way to savings. In a more general sense, a “balanced approach” to budgeting is one that recognizes the locked-in value of money and treats it for what it is, namely something that we can use as leverage to gain advantage in certain situations—for example, opting to take out a loan now to pay for a college degree that will make me more money, later.

When it comes to personal values, though, “balance” takes on a whole new meaning. While money's relatively stable value comes from a social agreement about its trade-in rate, personal value is stable—and it’s grounded in the very fact of what it means to be human. Thus, being “balanced” on moral issues doesn’t mean the same thing as it does for finances. Sometimes, deciding between two different moral values isn’t possible, since oftentimes those values are incommensurate.

A vivid example can be found in the modish subject of same-sex marriage, or the oft-spun topic of abortion. Civic leaders and citizen activists, alike, remind us of our obligation—as human beings—to be balanced and fair in the way we think of others and their lifestyle choices. Here, the charge to be balanced derives from the supreme social virtue of respect; and it’s often accompanied by words like “tolerant,” “non-judgmental,” and “open-minded.” No one’s personal choices—the argument goes—should be the object of scrutiny, so long as they “don’t hurt anyone else.” In this worldview, free choices are afforded the same value as human life. In other words, moral values aren’t certain. Rather, they’re created by each new, unique choice.

In reality, this can’t be the case. And we’re inclined to believe it at the most visceral level. Why else would we have to tack on the clause, “as long as they don’t hurt anyone else,” in defending unorthodox personal choices? Clearly, something about being a person is inherently valuable; and it’s this standard that we use to judge (or “tolerate”) other less distinct ‘values.’

On the moral front, “balance” is sometimes a cover for the betrayal of values. This is especially true when it comes to issues of life-and-death. But across the board, heeding the call to balance can be a dangerous thing. It can lead us away from the responsibility we have to uphold the truth. It can and does engender an attitude of indifference that leads to—not corrects—the unjust treatment of the poor and vulnerable. In the end, being balanced on moral issues puts us into the camp of the utilitarian, who struggles endlessly with the calculus of deciding which moral goods should be sacrificed for the sake of others.

Now more than ever should we as a nation embrace a “balanced approach” to our future. We should weigh seriously the impact of national debt, spending and investing in future growth. But we must also be balanced in our approach to personal goods and values—we must realize that the ability to “reach across the aisle” on fiscal issues doesn’t necessarily translate to moral ones. We, as Americans, need to do our best to balance the budget for the sake of our own well-being. But we as individuals need to remind ourselves that our own well-being is one rooted in our identity as persons; and that this is a value that stands unwaveringly, regardless of popular, cultural banter.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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