Augustine’s Worldy Goods

My working thesis in this post is roughly this: while Augustine was indebted to Platonism (or neoplatonism, to be a bit more precise), to regard him as a ‘dualist’ in any simple sense of the word is wrong. Augustine certainly makes use of neoplatonic thinking and definitely makes a distinction between the sensible and the intelligible – but he also is quite willing to attack the (as he calls them) the platonists. But what clinches it for me is his ethical thinking, in which he affirms worldly, mutable things as good and worthy of of being objects of our love and emotion.
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Against Narrativity

In a fascinating essay, ‘Art and the Moral Realm’, Noël Carroll argues that art is a valuable component of our moral reflection, and he argues that in particular narrative works of art shape our moral reflection in a unique and profound sense. This is so primarily because we have to see or configure our lives as narrative in order for them to have any significance:

‘…to answer the question of whether our life is worthy, we need a holistic sense of it, and that holistic sense is best captured by narrative – an incomparable device for organizing or colligating or collecting the diversity of our experiences into a unity. To see our lives as significant requires at least an ability to configure them as meaningful stories. But whence do we learn the skill of rendering or configuring our lives as meaningful narrative?’ (‘Art and the Moral Realm’, in ‘The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics’, p. 133)

The answer to this question Carroll finds in the exposure to other narratives, bildungroman, where we learn how to best how to configure our lives into a meaningful unity:
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The Slavery of Kant’s Maxim

Kant’s Maxim is well known in philosophy – perhaps one of the most well known maxims in philosophy, in fact. Roger Scruton calls the moral philosophy within which the maxim fits ‘one of the most beautiful creations the human mind has ever devised’, (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 286). And yet, despite the liberating intentions of the maxim, a strong case can be made for the idea that the maxim is a slave-master more than a liberator.

The maxim itself is a short one: ‘Act only on that maxim which you can will as a law for all rational beings.’ Our actions refer to reason alone, discounting any and all empirical considerations. This is how Kant derives the universal validity of his maxim such that by doing what reason demands of us we are doing something that is binding on all rational beings.

‘The demand of reason is a demand that I respect reason – that I allow reason the final say in my decisions. This means respecting reason not only in myself, but also in others. All rational beings have a claim to my respect, and this too is a fundamental axiom of morality. I cannot override another’s reason, as though it counted for nothing. I must try to persuade him, to secure his rational consent for those projects in which we are engaged together.’ (‘Modern Philosophy’, p. 285)

Kant’s moral philosophy presupposes freedom in order to make sense of our fundamental moral intuitions, the most important of which is the idea that something ought to be done – call this ‘duty’. Contained within the idea of duty is the idea of being able to fulfill it. Etienne Gilson notes how this leads to positing some difficult ideas in Kant’s moral theory:

‘Now, to be able to determine oneself according to a certain law is to be free. Consequently, freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings. Moreover, since man is not free as a member of the world of sense, it is to be supposed that man, as a moral agent, is a member of another world, purely intelligible, where no sensible motives can interfere with the exigencies of morality. We are thereby confronted with the necessity of accepting, as inseparably connected with practical reason, certain theoretical positions wholly “withdrawn from any possible insight of speculative reason.” The will to act from pure respect for duty postulates the possibility of a perfect moral order; if that order is impossible in this life, it has to be possible in another; hence the soul is immortal. Again, such a perfect moral life, undisturbed by the ceaseless strife between reason and sensibility, must needs possess happiness – happiness, not as the end of morality, but flowing from it. And what is moral law as cause of eternal happiness if not God? Thus God is posited by practical reason, which means that reason has to posit His existence, although speculative, or theoretical reason can know nothing about it.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 188-189)

The difficulties that arise as a result of these postulations are well-known, but the most obvious is that when taken to their conclusion, Kant ends up with a picture of man torn between living in the order of nature and in the order of morality, since both orders are, as Gilson notes, bound to the same man.

The most severe difficulty, though, is that in trying to preserve a freedom for man to act rationally, Kant ends up a victim of dogmatic (in the worst sense) theology, forced by his own morality to postulate things for which there can be no reason other than necessity to believe in.

‘Failing a rational justification of morality, and granting that morality is inseparable from human life, there is nothing else to do but take morality as 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…having refused to hold metaphysical conclusions on metaphysical grounds, Kant had been necessarily dragged from metaphysics, to ethics, and from ethics to theology.’ (‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, pp. 187-191)

Thus, by attempting to derive a universal morality grounded in pure reason alone acted on in freedom, Kant, by way of his maxim, is the victim of dogmatism. Such is the slavery of Kant’s maxim.

Emotional Ethics

– Let’s define ’emotion’ in line with current neuroscience/psychology: as the ‘process by which the brain determines the value of an event’. (Ledoux 1998)  Emotion, not to be confused with feeling, is largely unconscious, while feeling is conscious.

– Meaning, on this definition, is closely tied to emotion. Indeed, emotion is key to meaning – if, for example, the ventromedial/subgenual cortex is damaged, then there is a serious loss of meaning.

– In order to ‘move ethically’ in the world, we have to evaluate and judge situations/events as well as prefer some things to others. In order to do this, we have to assign meaning to things/situations/events so that we can assign them value. This can only be done on the basis of emotion, thus: emotion—->meaning—->value—->ethics.

– Lurking in the background here is the fact/value distinction. Are there facts without value – ‘raw facts’, as it were? To ‘see’ a fact as a fact is to to already value the fact as a fact. Thus, the as a aspect = a value statement. This leads me to think that there are no value-free facts

Some Bonhoeffer Thoughts

These are my comments on Kevin Davis’ outstanding 2-post series on Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity – do give them a read here. At the risk of self-advertising, here are some more of my thoughts on Bonhoeffer

‘We really don’t know what Bonhoeffer meant by “metaphysics,” and that is a big part of the problem with interpreting him here — but it is clear that he wants to secularize Christian concepts in some sense.’

There is definitely a problem there – I suspect, based on his reference to 12th-13th century as being when man ‘came of age’ that he has *some* form of scholastic metaphysics in his sights, but as you note, none of these things are carefully defined or discussed. The safe route would be to take him as simply trying to say how we can be Christians and have something to say to the world when God isn’t a given – stop trying to plug up apologetic/existential ‘gaps’ with God, stop trying to make man feel guilty when he’s oblivious to it, and simply live in faith in the world. That seems to be the safest option. But, again (again) this may not be the case – he speaks of Bultmann ‘not going far enough’ but then he also writes about how the mythology ‘is the thing’ of Christianity. Does he want us to return to the God of the Bible – revealed in weakness, operating in ways that are foolish to the world because of that weakness – or does he (as he almost seems to hint at) want us to do away with god-talk altogether and simply live in the world in faith?

Part of this also turns on the issue of the ‘secular’. You see that a lot, in guys like Charles Taylor, James KA Smith, etc – but who has pronounced us to be residents of a ‘secular’ age? No doubt our everyday experience may reflect a deepening secular-ity, but so what? Experience may be (and often is) wrong – why do we need to make the faith fit into our experience of the world as secular? There’s a lot of baggage here that needs to be opened and subjected to scrutiny when it is all too often simply taken to be truth.

The critique of Bonhoeffer’s uncritical acceptance of modernity or nonreligious man is right and could probably be extended to most modern theology. What’s interesting is that there still is a ‘given’ – only it’s no longer God’s existence but man’s non-religiousness. It’s not enough to just say that man has come of age – to paraphrase Plantinga, you don’t call something into question by simply saying (even loudly and passionately), ‘I hereby call this into question’ – you have to so why such and such is the case. Simply saying that man has learned to live without God as a working hypothesis won’t do it.

‘But I would caution ourselves. For example, the “Hellenization thesis” where Greek and Hebrew thought forms are strictly contrasted, which dominated 20th century theology, is not entirely without merit, even if we now know its over-simplifications.’

I agree completely – one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater in any case. The ‘problem space’ that we’ve been given by your example of the Hellenization thesis (though I more or less ocnsider the thesis *as a whole* to be wrong) has given us a good deal worth thinking about. Let’s not write off the good that can come from any problem space, even if we see what caused it as quite mistaken (as I think)!

I almost get the feeling that Bonhoeffer really didn’t know *how* to be modern in a way that is recognizably Christian but also not merely an apologetic religion. I think a good deal can be gleaned from his earlier writing – his christology lectures show how he was willing to affirm orthodox doctrines (virgin birth etc) while also affirming that they can’t be verified as an object of strictly historical study. His point being that things like the VB etc aren’t historical in the sense that their truth is contingent upon correct historical methodology. This does away with the need to base faith on ‘evidence’ as apologetics would have us do without relegating it to the realm of ‘myth’.

This can, I believe, be tied in with a remark he made about Bultmann in which he states that he doesn’t believe that Bultmann went far enough – and that remark really puzzled me. I think we can reasonably assume that he meant that, as a matter of consistency, Bultmann should have also demythologised God instead of rather arbitrarily stopping with him. So Bonhoeffer is perhaps caught between the affirmation of orthodoxy and his rebellion against apologetic religion – one of which leads to demythologization (which, as you noted, he saw as ‘the thing itself’) and one of which leads to a form of historical rationalism.

Bloesch and Kaiser on ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’

‘The sixth commandment forbids murder. The ethical theology that lies behind this prohibition is the fact that all men and women have been created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-26; 9:6). While Hebrew possesses seven words for killing, the word used here, rasah, appears only forty-seven times in the OT. If any one of the seven words could signify “murder” where the factors of premeditation and intentionality are present, this is the verb… Without exception, however, in later periods (e.g. Ps 94:6; Prov 22:13; Isa1:21; Hos 4:2; 6:9; Jer 7:9) it carries the idea of murder with intentional violence. Every one of these instances stresses the act or allegation of premeditation and deliberateness –and that is what is at the heart of this verb. Thus this prohibition does not apply to beasts (Gen 9:3), to defending one’s home from night-time burglars (Ex22:2), to accidental killings (Deut 19:5), to the execution of murderers by the state (Gen 9:6); or to involvement with one’s nation in certain types of war as illustrated by Israel’s history. It does apply, however, to self-murder (i.e. suicide), to all accessories to murder (2 Sam 12:9), and to those who have authority but fail to use it to punish known murderers (1 Kings 21:19)’ Kaiser, Walter C., Exodus, in Gaebelein, Frank E., ed., EBC, vol. 1, pp. 424f.

‘To kill in the name of Christ and in order to advance the kingdom of Christis expressly forbidden by Jesus (Mt 26:52, 53). Yet sometimes we have to take up the sword in order to preserve life, and this is permitted in the Bible but as something that pertains to the passing aeon, the world of sin and darkness, not to the new age of the kingdom of God. Since we belong to the old age as well as to the new, we act in two roles: as responsible citizens of the state, which can only maintain itself by force, and as ambassadors of the kingdom of Christ, which maintains itself solely by works of faith and love. The ethic of Jesus expressed in the so-called Sermon on the Mount was given to disciples, not to nations. If the radical ethic of nonresistance were applied directly to nations, it would mean the end of all civil government. Yet the church, which is under this higher command, can be a guide to the nations. It is the moral monitor or the conscience of the state. In Romans 13 the power of the state to wield the sword is expressly acknowledged by Paul; at the same time, the sixth commandment is vigorously reaffirmed. The principle of nonresistance or no retaliation can be a goal or ideal in the social arena, but never a political strategy.’ (Bloesch, Donald, Freedom for Obedience (NY: Harper and Row, 1987), 292-293

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.