What would it profit the human race if we were to achieve a higher level of political and economic liberty than ever before, only to live like pigs, enslaved to our desires without reflection and deliberation? This would be a travesty, for it is not only our political and economic systems that must be worthy of our human nature, but also our habits of moral living.

For the last six or seven generations, human beings have been preoccupied with two questions: one political, one economic.

The political question was this: Which political system is better for all people, especially the poor—authoritarian power or liberal democracy? The horrors of the vast Communist Gulag Archipelago and the Nazi death camps convincingly settled this question. Through unimaginable suffering, nearly the whole human race has learned the superiority of republican government over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, the three progenitors of the new totalitarianism of the twentieth century. In 1900, there were only ten democracies on the planet; by 2013, there were 120.

The economic question was this: Which economic system is better for all people, especially the poor? Painful experiments from around the world, particularly with Communism, settled this question in favor of the system rooted in invention, discovery, and enterprise in new ventures—in other words, capitalism. One miracle after another resulted: the dramatic extension of lifespans and dramatic drops in infant mortality, the quadrupling of the earth’s productive capacity, the advancement of the virtues connected with personal responsibility and personal initiative. All of these provided very powerful evidence of the superiority of capitalism to socialism in raising billions of the poor out of poverty.

The Forgotten Question

What has been largely neglected during these many generations is a third and more important question: What is the moral ecology under which the dignity and solidarity of all the peoples of the world can best thrive?

What do we mean by “moral ecology”? I would define it thus: “the sum of all those conditions—ideas, narratives, institutions, symbol systems, prevailing opinions and practices, and local dispensers of shame and praise—that teach us the habits necessary for human flourishing, and support us in their practice.” Thus, the term “moral ecology”—by analogy with environmental ecology—refers to those ideas and institutions that guide human conduct toward the good and the beautiful, which are the true signs of human flourishing. Humans do not live by bread alone, and doing whatever one desires does not enable true human liberty. Dogs, cats, tigers, and all the other animals can do that much. What they cannot do is live by reflection and choice.

Human beings are called to higher aspirations. Even in the context of political liberty, the personal possession of wealth—if such wealth does not lead to full human flourishing—is empty and often self-destructive. Full human flourishing means striving toward beauty, nobility of soul, purity of heart, and great moral deeds. But how can the whole world together flourish in that way? If there is to be peace and amity on earth, there needs to be a new global vision that all cultures can strive for, even in the midst of darkness and strife.

The Need for an Earthy Global Vision: Toward Caritapolis

Caritapolis, the City of Caritas. That is, in effect, how St. Augustine defined The City of God. Obviously, most of the world is not Christian, nor even Western, so a term like Caritapolis is not native to much of humankind. Pope Paul VI and later popes preferred the expression “civilization of love.” That phrase, too, is apt, since even the pagan sage Cicero deemed friendship to be the cohesive inner bond that suffuses cities with trust. In other words, between the deeper, richer Christian view and the secular view there is an analogue. There is an earthy way of coming near to the idea of Caritapolis.

What exactly does Caritas mean? Where we in English usually try to make do with the one term “love,” the ancients and later sages distinguished among many different types of loves. The Greeks spoke of Storge, Eros, Philia, and Agape, the Romans of Dilectio and Amicitia, Dante of Amor, and Dostoevsky of “humble charity.” All these loves are related. Each ascends, as it were, upward to the next. All spring from God’s inner love, whether or not we initially recognize that.

For the purposes of our discussion, Agape and Caritas are the most important but today the most distant. Agape refers to this central love that is the source of all others—that deepest insight into the inner life of the Creator and Father. We Christians see this love shown in the willingness of the Son to become man and die on the cross. Christ shows us that the essence of our existence, and the inner existence of God, is suffering love. From Christ’s Agape springs Caritas in the lives of those who accept God’s friendship. To be close to God is to love even in suffering. God Himself, surrounded by insults, held in contempt, and scorned, submitted to the death of suffering love. He did this to show us what true love—true Caritas—really is. Suffering is not meaningless.

All human creatures are of one race, one family, each made in the image of God, each a unique image of God. We are meant to fashion (slowly) a global community—worldwide, concrete, and visible as well as invisible. But this community is very far from the present.

Within the inalienable freedom of each human soul, there is a battle between good and evil, between friendship with God and the freedom to turn away. God offers us friendship, but that friendship must be freely accepted or freely rejected. God does not want a coerced friendship. The deepest root of the idea of liberty lies here, in the unavoidable and inalienable duty of women and men to respond freely to God, as both Madison and Jefferson grasped.

God does not promise us a rose garden. He promises us the cross. He sees that all the inner beauty of freedom and suffering love flares out only when we see the burnt ember “fall, gall itself, gash gold-vermillion.” Only in dying to their earlier life do all beauty, all bravery, all heroism, and all true love “gash gold-vermillion.” Therefore, we must beware of merely romantic love, beware of false promises, and beware of utopias. We must fix our eyes on the points of suffering at the heart of things and watch for concrete results, not sweet talk. Caritas is a teacher of realism, not soft-headedness; of fact, not sentiment; of suffering love, not illusory bliss. To think in a utopian way is a sin against Caritapolis.

This is where good social, political, and economic thought begins. Caritas gives us a moving, ever-unfinished narrative of what a civilization of love is, what the Caritapolis of the future aims at becoming: one human family of brothers and sisters who are willing to give their lives for each other.

Four Cardinal Virtues of Caritapolis

The world is very far from that place, indeed. Yet there are four intermediate steps toward Caritapolis that are practical to aim toward. These are the virtues on which future world progress hinges: the four cardinal virtues (Latin, cardo = hinge) of moral ecology. These four virtues are cultural humility, the regulative idea of truth, the dignity of the human person, and solidarity.

1. Cultural humility. By this, I mean a proper sense of our own culture’s fallibility, past sins, limits, and characteristic faults. Of course, to see one’s own faults and limits, and those of one’s culture, is not necessarily to hold that all cultures are equal or to embrace cultural relativism. Rather, all cultures must be held to the same, or at least analogous, standards. Any nation, people, or culture lacking this humility before these standards will awaken enormous resentment—and resistance—from other cultures.

2. The regulative idea of truth. If we do not agree that some things are true and others false, that some actions are just and others unjust, then we doom ourselves to relativism, or even worse, destructive nihilism. And if we do not agree that the difference between truth and falsehood is to be decided by evidence and not the will of the majority, then we have no protection against tyranny and torture. Proponents of relativism in the West are playing with fire. In regimes built solely on relativism, without any possibility of appealing to evidence and fair judgment, power alone speaks. Thuggish power.

No one culture (or person) possesses the fullness of truth. Each struggles to get closer to it and to regulate its beliefs and actions in accordance with it. Civilized peoples do this through conversation and reasoned argument, not by forcing those who disagree into submission.

3. The dignity of the human person. More and more cultures are recognizing that human beings are worthy of esteem and honor, and are of primary importance. Through television and other media, more and more individuals around the world catch a glimpse of the higher standard of dignity under which other humans are living today. More and more, they are demanding that a greater dignity be paid them in their home countries. As Thomas Aquinas noted, the human person is the most beautiful creature in all creation, the one that most closely images the Creator. That is a major reason why, as Immanuel Kant argued, human beings must always be treated as ends, not merely means.

4. Solidarity. As human beings and cultures mature, they see that they are not alone. One cultural world impinges on another as never before. What begins to emerge is a virtue of solidarity, the habit by which more and more individuals come to see that they share a world in common with many others who are quite “other.” The rights and dignity achieved by human beings in some countries strike the hearts of many in other countries, who begin to confront their own political leaders and to insist on these rights for themselves.

These four cardinal virtues are compatible with Caritapolis and move in its direction, but alone they are not sufficient to fulfill all its aspirations. Even so, they would, if taken, constitute great steps forward in the direction of human flourishing.

The Interior Dimension of Caritapolis

Beyond these, and even deeper, the interior dimension of globalization is a change in the way individuals experience themselves and the way they think about others. For example, some persons of enterprise now think not only of supplying goods to their local markets, but also of how they can serve a global market. This is a new dimension of self-awareness. Along with this, the highly visible suffering and pain of other peoples awakens sympathy in faraway places, and the glaring tortures and little tyrannies practiced by some local leaders raise resentment and resistance rather than passive submission.

Similarly, we ourselves, in thinking of social justice, must form a clearer idea of what we would like the whole world to look like in twenty-five years, or fifty, or a hundred. As Reinhold Niebuhr taught us, until the end of time we live in the realm of the “not yet.” Still, it is important and helpful to think through a concrete vision of practical, achievable steps toward the “city on a hill”—Caritapolis. We cannot promise ourselves success, but at least we can see directions in which, however slowly, all cultures can move forward together toward Caritas.