Virtue, Narrative, and the Moral Identity

Virtue ethics and narrative ethics (or, more accurately, narrative approaches to ethics) have both made something of a comeback in modern moral philosophy, with many ethicists and moral philosophers claiming that virtue ethics simply make more sense in the modern than, say, ethical theories built on laws and duties. Narrative ethics, with its more psychological approach to understanding the self and moral action, also seems to make a good deal of sense with its grammar of self-actualization and elevation of the history of the self as constitutive of the whole person.

Both approaches tend to focus on character and dispositions as being of prime importance. Narrative ethics see the unfolding of the moral life as coherent only within a narrative framework – that is, only within a framework where a history is seen as an account of a series of temporally connected events. The immediate result of this is, as noted above, a kind of psycholog-ization of ethics. The narrative concept of the self is fundamentally subjective – the self is seen as constituted primarily by this history, a history constructed in the form of personal narrative.

Virtue ethics tends towards the less psychological, focusing more on ‘how to be’, which though at first glance also seems to invite psychologism is a more objective approach, since the virtues that the person seems to acquire are, generally and broadly speaking, objective kinds of things. Honesty, justice, courage are all things that we, as virtuous people, should strive to acquire regardless of our personal narratives – our disposition, habits and desires should be educated so that we desire and acquire the virtues.

These are rough sketches but serve well enough for me to note the strengths and weaknesses of each before attempting a synthesis of the two. Narrative approaches to ethics highlight the very important role that narrative plays in our thinking and in our life – our actions, habits and dispositions are all temporally connected and when viewed in this light our moral lives acquire a kind of meaning that cannot be had by thinking of moral actions as isolated, atomistic things. We can trace the developments of virtues, vices and character in a narrative framework and can easily see the impact of our choices and actions. The weakness here lies in the conception of the self as constituted by a narrative history when it can be strongly argued that our narratives selves are far more often than not smokescreen of self deception.

Virtue ethics showcase strongly how we should be – we should strive to be virtuous. However, the theory can falter in a few telling ways one of which is as follows – how do we prioritise the virtues? Suppose we have to choose between A and B where A is honest but unkind and B is kind but dishonest – both actions are virtuous, but to simply assert that we must act virtuous gives us no answer and leads to either infinite regress or appealing to something outside the framework of virtues. Thus, a pure or radical virtue ethic cannot be the whole story – we need something outside the virtue framework to really give it coherence.

Here I would offer a possible theory that may be a step forward: consider virtue ethics and narrative ethics as ethics of action and ethics of identity, respectively. Virtue ethics tells us how we should be, and we achieve that through action, through habit and actually doing whatever virtuous thing is at hand. Narrative ethics gives a framework for articulating the unfolding of our actions and their consequences. Virtue ethics, then, shows us how we should be and how we can achieve that, while narrative ethics gives us a grammar for articulating it.

Put another way, the essence of the moral identity is fundamentally found in action which unfolds and is primarily understood in a narrative form.

What this ‘theory’ avoids is the psychologism of normal narrative approaches by focusing not on the narrative of the inner life as constitutive of the self and determinative of the moral identity but rather focusing on the actions as constituting the self. Character is shaped and developed by action and is therefore primarily (but not exclusively) public. The inner narrative can be checked, as it were, against the character displayed in the moral actions constituting the essence of the moral identity.

By locating the essence of the moral identity in our public actions, we have de-psychologized the narrative approach while retaining its fundamental insight, and by retaining this fundamental insight have given a grammar to the ethics of virtue.

More Notes on Augustine’s Ethics

– Nicholas Wolterstorff charts a transition in Augstine’s though – a movement from roughly Platonic/neo-Platonic ideas of ascent and hatred towards this-worldly goods and relationships to an moral vision much more informed by Biblical ideas.

Reading Wolterstorff’s treatment of Augustine in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, I’m struck by how much Augustine modifies and breaks the ancient eudaimonism – while God alone will fail to disappoint love, our mutable neighbours are, in fact, love and disturbance-worthy, while locating the much sought after tranquility in the life of the world to come. To quote Wolterstorff, in this life, love trumps tranquility.

An example:

Augustine never loses the idea of tranquility or happiness being that which we should strive for – he holds that along with the various pagan schools quite firmly. What he does, however, is to modify and in some cases break away from the eudaimonism of those schools. His idea of tranquility becomes grounded not in an ascent to the heavens but in the eschatology of the life to come – we are not to seek tranquility among the evils and miseries of the world but to acknowledge these evils, and, in his most dramatic break with the eudaimonistic traditions, be compassionate towards others, feel sorrow, joy, and anger for people and events. To do otherwise is to deny our created nature.

– Augustine’s emphasis on compassion is probably the most non-eudaimonistic aspect of his ethical and moral thought – compassion being a profoundly kenotic kind of thing, opposed to eudaimonism and certainly opposed to (explicitly so) the Stoic conception of ethics:

‘Unlike such emotions as fear and grief, it (compassion) does not have a eudaimonistic basis. Because it does not presuppose any investment in the well-being of the other, it cannot have as its basis the perceived or threatened impairment of one’s investment. On being moved to compassion, the (Good) Samaritan proceeded to care for the man in the ditch; he invested himself in his recovery. The compassion evoked the care, the investment, not the other way around.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’, p. 218)

Quick Notes on Augustine’s Critique of Pagan Ethics

– Reading on Augustine’s ethics in the ‘Cambridge Companion to Augustine’ has been very enjoyable – it certainly has put to rest any idea that Augustine was a dualist of any stripe. Augustine firmly believes that this-worldly goods are, in fact, good – and that sometimes, the delight we get from them exceed any kind of practical or instrumental value. Some things, for Augustine, are just delightful because they’re delightful.

– His engagement with Epicurean/Stoic ethics is interesting. He essentially takes the view of the Stoics to be absurd – he simply cannot see how anyone can truly be happy while, say, being tortured on the rack. If anyone says or thinks they are, Augustine simply declares that they are simply wrong or in thrall to an ideology. When it comes to Epicurean ethics, it’s a bit more detailed – he argues that on the Epicurean conception of happiness (as he understands it) that immortality is required to be ultimately happy, on the grounds that, since we have to be alive to be happy, more life = more happiness. But, as Martha Nussbaum notes, true pleasure for the Epicureans is not additive – i.e. having it for longer or having more of it does not make it better.

‘Epicurus insists on this: when once ataraxia (tranquility) and aponia (absence of pain, trouble, etc) are attained, the agent is at the top of his life, and nothing – not even prolongnation or repition of the same – can add to the sum of her pleasures.’ (Martha Nussbaum, ‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 212)

– So it seems that he somewhat misunderstands the Epicurean conception of happiness

Achan, Ananias, Saphira and 1 Corinthians 5:13

The thought occurred to me the other day that the New Testament contains a number of passages dealing with just who not to include in the church and the appropriate measures for dealing with such ‘evil’ (to use the language of Scripture) persons. I thought of two cases: Achan, and Ananias and Saphira (sp?). A third case was pointed on to me, that of 1 Corinthians 5:13. Here’s a few of my thoughts:

– Achan and Ananias/Saphira (A/S) both commit crimes against God

– Both crimes are committed against the people of God as well – Israel and the early church. Both crimes can be said to hinder the spreading of the people of God, and both crimes are punished by death.

– A possible angle I haven’t really explored: perhaps it could be argued that Achan/A/S were opposing the righteousness/promises of God to his people?

– While both cases involve death, there are some interesting differences. Achan is firstly investigated, after Joshua has it revealed to via casting lots that Achan is the perpetrator. Joshua then brings a fairly ‘official’ punishment against Achan. The severity of the punishment is warranted by closely noting Achan’s crime, which was to effectively bring Israel under ‘the ban’, or the order of extermination, by bringing items under the ban into the camp – in effect, Achan contaminated Israel.

– A/S is a much quicker and much less official (at least much less official sounding) case: they lie, Peter knows, God strikes them dead, almost on Peter’s command. No lots, no nothing. Bam. Dead.

– 1 Corinthians 5:13 exhorts the church to purge the evil from among them (specifically regarding instances of perverse sexual sin – this is important), and it appears that both cases are instances of this happening. 1 Cor 5:13 is a quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7, which is a fairly detailed set of instructions on how to approach ‘capital’ cases where the death penalty could be applied. Instructions on witnesses, priests, etc are all detailed.

– What’s very interesting is the just a few verses prior to Deuteronomy 17:7, verse 17:2 places the offences to be punished in the context of ‘crossing the covenant’ – the offence isn’t just a random criminal act, it’s an offence against the covenant. Given the fact that quotations of Old Testament verses in the New Testament generally refer to entire passages from which they are taken, it’s safe to say that Paul in the Corinthian passage is grounding church discipline in the context of the covenant as well. This implicitly sets the Corinthian passage within the context of creation as well, which is significant for the issue of sexual sin.

– Paul effectively says the following: put the evil person outside the church for God to judge, because the church judges those inside the church (presumably referring to practicing and confessing Christians), not those outside the church – that’s God’s job. The ethical standards of the church can’t be taken and held to those outside the church.

– There are similarities here to an earlier statement of church discipline in the same letter, where Paul says to hand over an immoral man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit may be saved. Another angle I haven’t explored: perhaps this is saying that the immoral man must die and be raised to life?

– The ultimate purpose of this discipline, as noted above, is so that the spirit may be raised to life, and not to simply police the boundaries of the church though there is an element of that. All three of these cases demonstrate the importance of the radical separation of the people of God, a people called to be holy, because the people of God are to embody God’s saving covenant faithfulness/righteousness. This includes standards of moral purity that are to be upheld.

– What Achan’s story can serve as a kind of case study to show is the seriousness with which God takes His holy people. Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 17:7, a passage concerned with the application of the death penalty, shows that the separation and holiness of God’s people is a matter of life and death, as it were.

Short Ramble on Meta-Ethics

I’m not really confident in the application of analytic philosophy to the realm of ethics/moral philosophy. Consider non-cognitivism, which states that moral utterances have no truth-value. The opposite of this would be cognitivism, which states that moral utterances do in fact have truth-values (basically).

Both of these hinge on a common assumption in contemporary philosophy – that for something to be true it must be a proposition. If something isn’t a proposition, it has no truth value – moral utterances do not assert propositions, ergo, no truth-value and hence no moral knowledge can be had. This all hinges on various developments in philosophy in the 20th century (Frege, Russell, etc), so there’s a lot going on in the background here. Most of the time knowledge tends to be thought of in the ‘knowing-that’ sense.

So in a nutshell, moral knowledge can’t be had, because moral utterances can’t be true, because moral utterances don’t assert propositions, and you can’t know something that isn’t true.

It seems a bit odd to restrict knowledge to such a tight scheme, though. I mean, it seems that we know lots of things that aren’t strictly propositional – intuition of course can be very wrong about things though. But a more concrete example could be Polanyi’s tacit knowledge – non-propositional, non-codify-able, knowledge. ‘We know more than we can tell.’ Sure, this isn’t ‘known’ in the same sense as a proposition with a truth-value, but I can’t really see that too much follows from that (unless such knowledge is thought to be the only kind that matters, I guess). Interestingly enough, Polanyi investigates formal propositional logic and concludes that the tacit element is present even there. If that’s true, then maybe strict logic can’t completely meet the standards set by non-cognitivism. If we can only know something which is true, and the only things that can be true (have a truth-value) are propositions, and if there is a tacit (non-formal, non-codify-able) element in propositions, then it seems that there’s a bit of an awkward problem.

But that was a bit far afield – my basic point is that, granting that ethical ideas don’t assert propositions, based on the above considerations it doesn’t seem to follow that moral knowledge can’t be had. Maybe I’m on to something here, maybe not.

Thought Notes 9/22/2014

A significant but overlooked contributor to the topic of justification in Paul is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose roughly forty page discussion in his book ‘Justice in Love’ is just outstanding, focusing on the traditional medieval definition of the ‘dik’ words as ‘justice’. He fleshes out the content of Gods covenant and the justice thereof to a degree not really seen in a lot of discussions on the subject. Locating the topic of justice within the broader picture of God’s covenant faithfulness is a good way to advance the debate on Paul’s thought. Here’s a great review/interaction of/with the book. To quote from the review:

‘Whereas, for Wright, what is revealed in God’s justification of the Gentiles is his “covenant faithfulness,” for Wolterstorff it is God’s “justice”: not the “mere fact” of covenant fidelity but its substantive content.’

I continue to think on the nature of civil government, war, etc within the context of Christian theology. Wolterstorff makes a great point (somewhere, not exactly sure where off the top of my head) that government is essentially a rights-respecting entity (Wolterstorff thinks of rights as inherent). This allows for the state to ‘wield the sword’, to paraphrase the book of Romans, in the service of rights-defense.

I go back and forth on how important I think secondary sources are in philosophy/theology. I like sticking to primary sources myself. I haven’t read lots of commentaries on various philosophers and their thought – and all too often it seems that reading a secondary source is required to really understand said philosopher.

Here’s a comment I wrote regarding the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. It’s kind of a quick overview.

‘Kant was a transcendental idealist. His entire project was to overcome what he saw as the weaknesses of the dominant positions in epistemology, empiricism, where all knowledge comes thru the senses, and rationalism, where all knowledge is a priori. He also developed the analytic/synthetic distinction in a posteriori/a priori knowledge, which has been further developed by Saul Kripke into the necessary a posteriori and contingent a piori, and rejected by W.V.O. Quine. Kant’s project here was to figure out what the mind must be like for us to have any experience at all – which lead to his famous idealism, where he posits causality, space and time as constructions of the mind as well as his phenomenal/noumenal distinction.

His ethic is called the categorical imperative, which can be summed up in his famous maxim about acting in such a way that can be universalized as a moral law for all people. His ethics stem from his attempt to figure out how to make sense of our moral experience – its not too far removed from his method in epistemology. We have this inescapable sense of right and wrong, of duty, the sense of ‘ought’. Thru a long process I won’t go into here, Kant postulates
both freedom and God as necessary conditions for this experience of our moral life.

The categorical imperative derives from his grounding morality in reason alone – ethical reasoning for Kant cannot be derived from empirical data. Once you do this, that is once you discount the empirical, your moral reasoning is grounded in pure reason alone and hence is universal and hence binding on everyone else. Hence why Kant was able to assert that lying, for example, is always wrong.’

A lot of discourse in the area of ethics and moral philosophy (at least since Moore, Russell, et al) seems to try and use the tools of analytic philosophy to derive ethical truths (using ‘truths’ loosely). I’m not really sure how sympathetic I am to this approach. It appears rather unwise to use analytic tools to solve existential problems, and ethics is nothing if not existential.

Rough Thoughts on Pacifism

Prompted by a Facebook conversation – these are pretty off-the-cuff thoughts, since I don’t really have a terribly well-developed position, but here we go:

In a nutshell, I’m a pacifist in the same way I’m a universalist – hopeful but not really committed to it. As far as theological arguments for/against, I’ve yet to be really convinced that pacifism is a necessary part of Christianity, and all too often it seems that a nonviolent ethic is made to be central to the Gospel, and sometimes it seems that the Christian message is even reduced to one of nonviolence.

As a matter of personal opinion/ethic, I don’t really have a problem with a pacifist position – keep in mind that pacifism doesn’t = nonaction, just nonviolent action. The issue I have is primarily the extent to which it’s commonly seen as central to the Gospel.

I do think that the defense of children, widows, women, the weak, etc, can, will and do at times require violent force.I also think that pro-violence is a pretty terrible attitude to have – especially seeing Jesus’ very clear opposition to violence done in his name (Peter chopping off that one guys ear, for example).

 Having said that, one can’t ignore various Old Testament passages where various men and even heroes of the faith are praised for the willingness to commit acts of horrendous violence – Phineas kills an Israelite/Midianite couple in the midst of the sexual act, for example.Phineas and the Levites were called to be set apart specifically for their willingness to do some pretty raw things. Which, while not an argument by any means, is something one has to keep in mind.
With regard to whether Jesus commands Christians to not participate in national/state sanctioned violence, I see a couple of issues:

1) textual evidence – I’m not really aware of any real statements in the NT outright forbidding Christians to engage in national violence (say, a war or something like that). So we have to look elsewhere:

(2) Jesus’ posture toward violence in general – Jesus has very little to say about national/state violence – the famous turn the other cheek saying, for example, refers to personal insult/injury. Jesus certainly opposes violence in a sense, as I said before – he makes it very clear that the Kingdom of heaven will never be brought about by violent actions, perhaps in direct opposition to the zealots who sought to bring about the Kingdom by national violence. In that sense, yes, Jesus does forbid it by both word and deed.


Ethical Notes

– Being a Christian, my ethical approach takes on a decidedly (obviously enough) Christian tone . I generally fall within the virtue ethics camp – I think that the moral character of a person, specifically an ethicist, is of huge importance (though I’m predominantly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer). While anyone can utter correct moral tidbits (a murderer can tell you not to murder, and it’s still sound advice despite the status of the person uttering it), when one attempts to articulate a comprehensive moral way of life, surely their character must be taken into account.

– Christian ethicists have an even stricter standard – or at least I think they should. When a Christian ethicist lives in a way that is profoundly at odds with the doctrines and values they preach, while not invalidating the truth of what they say in a strictly logical sense (again, someone can say something true even if they don’t follow it themselves) that is serious cause to stop and reflect on whether or not they are a good source to be drawing ethical ideas from.

– To repeat: whether someone is of impeccable character or not doesn’t logically invalidate the truth of what they may say, but behaviour and action do provide a window to the heart, which, for the Christian, is ultimately the most important part of the person as a whole.

– The basis of Christian ethics is the invalidation of the knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer) – hence the importance of the heart in ethics and by extension the importance of character and action as well.


A Few Assorted Thoughts on God, Weakness, Jesus and the World

This is actually a discussion I had on a Facebook comment thread -I posted this and the following exchange ensued (one commentator is bold, one is italicized, and my responses are in plain text. I’ve edited here and there, so any awkwardness is my own fault).

I think I should disagree with this argument from Bonhoeffer. Perhaps it’s born of the times in which he wrote, in which evil seemed to be prevailing in his world, that he should see God’s true power in His apparent weakness, but I don’t think it reflects the Biblical picture we have of an intervening God, who conquered all through a seeming act of “weakness” (namely, the Cross).

The Kingdom principles which Jesus teaches tends to upend conventional wisdom, in that the last will be first and the first will be last, service is true leadership, there is virtue in suffering, etc. But God certainly made His presence felt in power as well as in seeming weakness, all through the Scriptures.

If Jesus is the Word of God, the full revelation of God, etc etc, then right off the bat, as Jeff pointed out, there are some serious challenges to conventional wisdom. If we go a bit further, and say that in Christ God was/is acting to reconcile all things and all men to Himself, then it seems that God’s way of acting in the world is completely at odds with how we think He should act in the world.

What I think is an appropriate way of thinking about what Bonhoeffer means by ‘weakness’ is this: the world is a world of striving, power, will, force, violence, etc. That’s what it means to act in power in the world. God doesn’t simply choose to armwrestle the world and win – through weakness (perhaps apparent weakness – we could say that this weakness is true strength) He overcomes the entire ‘machine’ of force, violence, striving, and power. When God flexes His muscles, it takes the form of the Cross and the Manger.

There’s a lot of merit to that, but the God who acts with meekness in so much of the New Testament also took down Annanias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit, and kicks butt and takes names at the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation. The Lord is complex, at the very least.

I think it can be pretty certainly said that when it comes to Kingdom/reconciliation, violence will never advance it (see Jesus’ rebuke to Peter for chopping that one guys ear off).

Though it IS rather interesting that Jesus instructed His disciples to go and get a sword…I don’t believe Jesus is at all contradictory…but I am sure He enjoys playing with our presuppositions, no matter where they sit.

Jesus also says that he comes to not bring peace but a sword – so there’s obviously more happening here than simple descriptions of primitive warfare. Though references to swords are very common (especially in Proverbs) – not to mention the sword of the Spirit, etc. One could probably argue that it’s a subverted metaphor – remember, the weapons of our warfare are not flesh and blood, so Jesus could quite easily command his disciples to gird up for war – but waged with weapons of the spirit – peace, the Gospel, etc.

The context of Jesus saying that He brings “a sword” deals with the division, especially of families, within the Jewish community over His claims to being Messiah. It creates near enmity between family members when one person in the family embraces Jesus as Messiah–the others see it as a betrayal, and the new believer is usually shunned by the rest of the family/community. It happened then, just as Jesus said, and it continues to happen today. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship, though that’s going to dovetail quite nicely into being a Bonhoeffer reference as well.

However, Jesus didn’t seem too off-put by the fact of war and violence…He often used the ideas of soldiers going to war, Kings planning wars, and such…I don’t believe Jesus was promoting war or violence, nor do I believe He was pleased by it. But I do think that He regarded such things as a reality of the fallen world that we all must live in. And, though He did use such examples to point to spiritual truths, it also strikes me that Jesus didn’t seem too adverse to earthly power, when such powers were in line with shaping world events for the spread of His Gospel.

Also, in spite of Jesus letting the Romans do with Him what they did, I don’t see Jesus being a pacifist at all. He would have told husbands/fathers to protect their wives and children against invaders, and were it not for Him seeing God’s hand of judgment against His people in terms of the Roman occupation of the Promised Land, He would have organized armed rebellion against the pagan invaders.

I’m not a pacifist or super zealous anti-violence-in-the-bible guy – so I don’t see Jesus as a pacifist (in the modern sense) in any way. I also agree that Jesus was fine working within the existing structures of power (most of the characters in the NT seem fine with that) but with the intent to both (a) subvert or reform them and (b) remind them who it was that their authority came from (I think we see both of those themes in Paul, though the anti-imperial themes are blown way out of proportion these days). Paul is a great example of someone willing to use the circuitry of the Roman empire to spread the mesage of the Gospel, even though those two things are pretty at odds with each other. But I believe that there is intent to subvert and reform by the spreading of the message – since there’s significant biblical witness to the Gospel being God’s power to save.

Thought Notes 8/1/2014

The last few days I’ve been reading about post-Kantian moral philosophy, primarily Fichte. It’s a very interesting project, which could probably be summed as an attempt to construct an ‘objective’ morality in the absence of God, using the ‘Ego’ or ‘I’ or ‘Self’ as an axiomatic starting point. It’s interesting – what started as a project grounded in the rejection of (what Fichte and Co. perceived as) ‘dogma’ ended up providing its own dogma in the form of the postulates of practical reason:

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality for a self-justifying fact. But when morality does not flow from what we know, it becomes free to prescribe for us what we ought to believe.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, p. 186)

I’ve also been reading ‘Faith and Rationality’, and started William Alston’s essay on religious perception and experience last night. Alston locates religious epistemology in the realm of epistemic practices – practices of forming belief. Fairly interesting, and more readable than Plantinga’s essay. I love Plantinga, but sometimes he can be a bit dense.

Another thought I had was whether existentialism makes more sense as a psychology than as a philosophy or metaphysic. I’ll ponder this one a bit more.