Some areas of philosophical discourse require a different style that straight prose. The chief means of moral education is the telling of stories. I would like engage you in a meditation on the best life that we as human beings can live.
Ethical theory rests upon assumptions that lay outside of it. It is not a self-contained system. I want to spend some time upon virtue. Yet, virtue theory is not the totality of an ethical theory. Ethical theory assumes the value of human relationships. Ethical theory makes some assumptions about human nature. Ethical theory arises out of the cultural life of a people. It assumes some responsibility on the part of the persons it addresses for their course of life. Modern ethical theory needs understanding of the person that basic psychology provides. Modern ethical theory also needs the context provided by an authentic life. Finally, ethical theory needs to disclose the end toward which such a life aims.
I now want to consider some matters that we need to have firmly in our grasp before we can discuss a virtuous life.
To see the world from a human point of view is not an absurd thing for human beings to do. To suppose that it is, is to make the mistake of identifying the point of view of the universe and the human point of view. No one should make any claims about the importance of human beings to the universe: the point is about the importance of human beings to human beings. A concern for other animals is proper part of human life, but we can acquire it, cultivate it, and teach it only in terms of our understanding of ourselves. We have to ground our arguments in a human point of view. We cannot derive our arguments from a point of view that is no one’s point of view at all. Rationality does not drive us to get beyond humanity. The most urgent requirements of humanity are that we should assemble as many resources as we can to help us to respect it.
Moral questioning begins with: “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” When someone wrongs us, we suddenly understand such objective and impersonal arguments, and thus avoid both skepticism and solipsism. It requires us to reflect upon the interests of others in order to come to terms with what we ought to will and to do. We recognize the reality of the other person and have the possibility of putting ourselves in the place of the other through our imagination. Thus, the only source of reasons is not our interests (egoism).
To have a human body is the necessary condition of some genuine human goods. To have a human body also exposes one to assault, rape, hunger, and disease. Clearly, they are not goods. If we got rid of them, we would be losing nothing of value. Even the wisest and best human beings can encounter disaster. They also show us that many disasters are the result of bad behavior. The fragile character of human life that results from human laziness or self-preoccupation should not count as necessary sufferings. They represent culpable wrongdoing. Laziness, error, and ethical blindness cause many tragedies that have consequences for the topic of value conflict. What looks like grim necessity is often just greed, laziness, and lack of imagination. If we think that malice, ignorance, and callousness may lie behind the suffering, it suggests hope for change. It also means that the suffering was not necessary; if we had worked harder, we might have avoided it.
Although what we owe to each other is an important judgment people make concerning their lives, it is not the only judgment people make. We make decisions about our lives, some of which are ethical decisions. What is wrong in such discussions is not the use of the word decision; it is, rather, the implications that arise from an unexamined use of it. I do not find helpful to discuss ethical life apart from the rest of human life. I do not consider it helpful to reflect upon ethical life in a casuistic way, as if all that mattered was fulfilling certain legal obligations people owe to each other. Ethical life considers the possibility to move toward the best human life they can lead.
While we share many qualities in common with animals, one that we do not share is the capacity of our brains to store incredibly complex information and to share that information with others. We are rational creatures in ways that no other creature is. Further, our emotional life is part of that rational activity. What I hope to do is engage your whole self in this exercise of what constitutes the best human life. I will grant you that this engagement will not be clear and distinct. In a sense, the style most suited to ethical discourse is indirect, imprecise, and subtle. I hope to point the way for us to reflect upon the best human life, not just from the standpoint of gaining intellectual knowledge, but from the standpoint of action. The purpose of this exploration is not to gain knowledge as to what virtue is, but to become good persons. I can only write in broad outline; you will need to fill in details with your reflections and with your life. We develop virtuous character by doing virtuous things; we develop questionable character by doing bad things. The development of each virtue causes those who possess it to be in a good emotional state, to live well, and to do well. I will agree with Aristotle that generally, virtue is intermediate between excess and deficiency. I realize that this part of his system has the weakness of one person assessing the character of another. The usefulness of this part of the system is this. When we observe that someone has produced a work of art well, we mean that it has no excess or deficiency. It has achieved an intermediary condition appropriate to that work of art. In the same way, virtue is a matter of modifying behavior and feelings in such a way that they do not have excess or deficiency in legitimate pleasures of life. I do not mean to include in this conception of intermediary feeling and behavior those things that are clearly evil or criminal. They are unconditionally in error.
Moral or ethical reasoning depends upon theoretical reflections concerning human nature. Ethical reflection yields discoveries about human motivation. However, that means our full understanding of human motivation is broader than ethics. We transmit reasons across the relation between ends and means. That is the simplest way we transmit motivational influence.
We do not need to resort to a larger theory of desire to explain this phenomenon. Such practical judgments share with factual judgments the property of being assimilated to the standpoint of temporal neutrality. When we make judgments in relation to a future end, we depend on a belief in the reality of the future, and on a conception of oneself as temporally extended. Unity of the body and person underlies the fact that that all reasons apply derivatively to whatever will promote that to which they apply primarily. The conception of oneself as a single individual plays an important general role in determining behavior and the form of practical reasoning. The appropriate behavior will be among the criteria for ascribing to an individual the relevant aspect of the conception.
If human nature is fundamentally the same, no matter what culture or period in history, then we have a solid foundation for believing that basic ethical values apply, regardless of our social strata, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Birth is not simply a biological act. We enter an environment that will shape us, one that includes race, sexual orientation, gender, height, physical enhancements or defects, over which we have no control. Human beings have the same physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Prescriptive or normative or value judgments are universally true. If that is the case, then such judgments transcend various cultures and generations. The obvious differences among us exist because of differences in training and environment. Training refers to the differences in home environment and other early influences that often determine the unconscious and irrational forces that affect our behavior. Training also refers to the cultural influences that shape us, often without our consciously knowing what those influences are. Social institutions shape human desire and behavior to a larger degree than most of us would like to admit.
These types of differences lead us to explore further dimensions of human destiny. Our fear often makes us recoil at the differences, often leading to war. However, we cannot maintain a constant level of war. Through an often oppressive, self-destructive and messy process, we eventually become open to the difference. That is when we experience our common human nature as openness to reality. Part of reality is difference or plurality; we must become enriched by the difference. Such differences are essential to human nature working itself out in individual and social life. In fact, human nature consists precisely in its openness to the world. Human nature is potentiality, not actuality. As such, we are self-made persons through the decisions we make each day. Our ability to remold and reshape our lives in light of new evidence and experience, our ability to learn along the way, defines human nature in a distinctive way from the rest of the animal kingdom.
The project of giving to ethical life an objective and determinate grounding in considerations about human nature is not very likely to succeed. It is hard to believe that an account of human nature will adequately determine one kind of ethical life as against others. Agents’ dispositions are the ultimate supports of ethical value; in its general outline, the description of the ethical self we have recovered from the ancient writers is correct. The excellent life of an agent is characterized by having those beliefs, and most of the beliefs will not be about that agent’s dispositions or life, or about other people’s dispositions, but about the social world. One happy result of these reflections would be coming together in the arena of practical reason, a process by which people came to lead the best kind of life and to have the desires that belonged to that life. Convergence in ethical belief would largely be a part and consequence of that process.
Facing human nature honestly is to face its imperfections and evil. The weakness of will has been such a crux for moral philosophers, especially for those of a prescriptivist persuasion. The use of ought and must have a moral sense when they are prescriptive, universalizable, and over-riding (it is possible to go on holding them even when one does not obey them in a particular case).
We direct concerns about moral obligation toward what to do, governed by moral reasons, and concerned with a particular situation. Moral conclusions only announce that you may do something. They do not express an obligation.
How does the morality system deal with the considerations that seemingly do not yield obligations? Moral systems make a mistake in trying to make everything into obligations. Once we start down this path, we have difficulty finding room for morally indifferent actions. That one may take a course of action, then, does not imply obligation. The question of the virtue tradition is this: What traits of character make one a good person?
We even develop our personalities in flight from our fears. We develop a mask that we present to others. The personality is the lie we present to others, that part of ourselves that we desire others to know. That is why it is impossible to defend one’s own virtue when it is under attack. Every virtuous act carries with it the seeds of its dark side, a counter-balancing vice that will work against the best of intentions. In other words, when others attack us personally or slander us, all we can say is, “You do not know the half of it. If you followed me around, you would have even more evidence of how bad I am.”
Almost all worthwhile human life lies between the extremes that morality puts before us: force and reason, persuasion and rational conviction, shame and guilt, dislike and disapproval, mere rejection and blame. Purity is the label we may give to the attitude that leads it to emphasize all these contrasts. The purity of morality, its insistence on abstracting the moral consciousness from other kinds of emotional reaction or social influence, conceals not only the means by which it deals with deviant members of its community, but also the virtues of those means. The purity of morality itself represents a value. We fear the self-righteousness of many moral people we have met. We also fear empty and hypocritical standards that no one can reach. People who seek goodness and morality have a practical set of attitudes representing their own deep reflection on conduct, balanced by a deep respect for the parallel reflections of others. They observe the indifference of nature toward moral behavior. They wonder why bad things happen to good people, and why good things happen to bad people. They cannot accept this indifference. They seek harmony between morality and the experience of happiness in the world. They know it does not exist. Yet, they design the postulate of the harmony between nature and morality to inspire action. They believe that somehow, good people will experience happiness and bad people will not. People will get what they deserve in life. However, since this harmony is beyond experience, the postulate is insincere.
Blame always tends to share the particularized, practical character of moral obligation in the technical sense. The institution of blame seems to have something special to do with the idea that the agent had a reason to act otherwise. Cultural systems provide the content of that for which we think is worthy of blame or praise. As humanity continues to interact globally, stresses upon moral systems will increase to justify their systems of praise and blame to others in a coherent way.
The reality of human weakness, sin, imperfection, and need for forgiveness, all suggest that genuine human happiness is the result of grace in the world, and not the result of the achievement of fulfilling a moral law. Human flourishing, fulfillment, and happiness do not directly connect. The world does not divide so neatly between good people and bad people. The distribution of imperfection in individuals and cultures is 100%.
One cannot even point to intention as a measure of moral action. Many people justify an action by its intention. We accomplish this by isolating one aspect of the moral act and assert that it is the essence of the moral act. However, our intention to secure anything for ourselves or for another does not justify a wrong action. If a good intention, or a matter of the heart, justifies an action, we could always justify an act by reference to good intention and motives and by the conviction that it is good. Aristotle rightly suggested that all wicked people are ignorant of what they ought and ought not to do. Pascal did make the interesting observation that Christ’s prayer to forgive them, for they do not know what they do, is a superfluous prayer. If they really did not know what they did, he would have effectively removed the need for forgiveness. However, Aristotle had a better understanding of the connection between knowing and willing. Only a superficial philosophy suggests that the heart and enthusiasm are the true principles of ethical action, rather than knowledge. If a good heart or good intention justifies an action as moral, then all actions become moral. Yet, we often do the worst misdeeds while at the same time having our heart lead us. If we can excuse everything on this ground, then that terminates the rational judgment of good and evil, honor and shame. We minimize crime and evil when we describe it as only an error.
Human motivation has its imperfection as well. Motives do not determine our character. Our character appears in our deeds and actions and the external form of the course of our lives. Our actions often proceed from the unconscious forces of our psyche, and are therefore rationally groundless. That one is wicked and another good does not depend on motives and external influences such as teaching and preaching. In this sense, the thing is inexplicable. However, wicked people show wickedness in the small injustices, cowardly drops, and petty mean-spiritedness, practiced by them in their immediate surroundings. They can also demonstrate their wickedness on the scene of world history in the abuse of wealth and power. Some such wickedness has led to immense misery and suffering, shedding the blood of millions. We can never explain such actions from the standpoint of motive. They proceed from the irrational forces of our psyche.
Every act we perform has a motive, or the act would not take place. The motive may determine the character of a particular act. It cannot determine the multiple irrational and unconscious forces that we bury within us. We account for particular actions by the fact that purposes and motives guide our conduct means that we have an intelligible character, if not a fully expressible one.
The matter of motive becomes even fuzzier as we realize that our every act has our satisfaction as part of our intention and welfare. One of the differences between modern thought and that of antiquity is that the individual has a right to experience satisfaction through their action. However, it is narrow, empty, and malicious to assume that every action has only one’s own welfare as intention and purpose. We have a right to personal satisfaction because of the intention of an action. Though the aim of personal interest and the good often conflict, they ought to harmonize as an expression of the unity of the universal and the individual. However, we cannot justify bad actions by a reference to well-meaning hearts, in that they at least intend their own welfare. The free, morally acting people that we are have our own interest and welfare as a purpose and duty. Yet, aiming at the good ought not to make such personal interest the constitutive motive.
The experience of shame and guilt is the supreme example of our imperfection. Character leads to a sense of guilt over what we do. Character implies that moral virtue strengthens a sense of self. This moral sense is rooted in compassion, fairness, self-control, and duty. Not to concern ourselves with the development of character is to suggest that no standards exist outside of our sense of self to which we are accountable. We do not look honestly at ourselves. If we do not develop character, we suppress knowledge of the evil in within because it is unwanted knowledge and inconvenient.
Blame, self-reproach, remorse, or guilt is reaction within the moral system. Shame is, conditionally, a good thing, when it shows a fear of dishonor. Not to experience such reactions he or she would not belong to the moral system. We may characterize shame as the feeling people have when they experience an injury to their self-respect or suffer a blow to their self-esteem. We should note the distinction between shame and regret. Regret is a feeling occasioned by the loss of most any sort of good, as when we regret having done something either imprudently or inadvertently that resulted to ourselves. Regret focuses on the opportunities missed or the means squandered. Shame arises not from a loss or absence of exclusive goods, or at least not directly, but from the injury to our self-esteem owing to our not having or failing to exercise certain excellences. Our way of life becomes less fulfilling and we receive less appreciative support from others. Blemishes in us arouses shame, as well as acts and attributes indicative thereof, that manifest the loss or lack of properties that ours as well as ourselves would find it rational for us to have.
In the beginning, the moral system within which we feel shame and guilt is part of our form of life that family, religious community (if any), local community, and cultural heritage, hands to us in the form of tradition. As we become reflective individuals and choose a plan of life, the plan of life increasingly determines what we feel ashamed of, and so feelings of shame are relative to our aspirations, to what we try to do and with whom we wish to associate. We are open to moral shame when we prize as excellences of our person those virtues that our plan of requires and is framed to encourage. Guilt occurs because we have acted contrary to our sense of right and justice. Moral blame is a sanction that we can apply only if he or she has had a fair opportunity to avoid it.
Failure to distinguish the conditions of substantive responsibility from those of blameworthiness, on the other hand, leads to the view that if people are responsible for their actions then they can properly be left to suffer the consequences of these actions, since these are their fault. Political argument frequently goes this direction. I would appeal to an analysis of moral blame on the one hand and the idea of the value of choice on the other. People often have their greatest learning when they have experienced consequences for behavior. However, this is different from actual harm coming to them. When we criticize someone who has behaved badly, or when we follow a policy that leads to some people being injured because they have ignored the warnings they were given, we may be correct in feeling that what we do is justified. However, we must also recognize that what separates us from such people is not just that we behave better and choose more wisely, but our luck in being the kind of people who respond in these ways.
Hegel rightly criticized the abstract Kantian morality and contrasted it with the notion of a concretely determined ethical existence that was expressed in the local folkways, a form of life that makes particular sense to the people living in it. Hegel resolved the question of how local folkways can properly remain, while criticizing, ranking, and transcending them, by his teleological conception of history as involving the growth of self-consciousness. Human beings have the capacity to reflect, contemplate, consider, and re-consider, what they do with their lives and what they believe.
A moral philosophy characteristically presupposes a sociology. For every moral philosophy offers explicitly or implicitly at least a partial conceptual analysis of the relationship of an agent to his or her reasons, motives, intentions and actions, and in so doing generally presupposes some claim that these concepts are embodies or at least can be in the real social world. Thus, it would generally be a decisive refutation of a moral philosophy to show that moral agency on its own account of the matter could never be socially embodied. It also follows that we have not yet fully understood the claims of any moral philosophy until we have spelled out what its social embodiment would be. In many pre-modern, traditional societies, it is through their membership in a variety of social groups that individuals identify themselves and others identify them. These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover the real self. If my argument is correct, we are the last inheritors of a process of historical transformation. This transformation of the self and its relationship to its roles from more traditional modes of existence into contemporary emotivist forms could not have occurred of course if the forms of moral discourse, the language of morality, had not also been transformed at the same time.
Moral virtue comes about because of habit, from which comes the word “ethics.” We become virtuous through education, learning to relate to others politely and nicely, through a moral virtue, and through love. None of the moral virtues arises in us by nature. With other things that we must learn, we must learn about the skill first, and then gain in proficiency over time. With virtue, we acquire them first by doing them. Virtue concerns itself with pleasures and pains. We have self-destructive forces, such as anger, fear, envy, pride, greed, lust, laziness. We also have a sense for friendship, confidence, love, etc. We have the capacity to use our imagination and creativity to discipline such self-destructive forces as well as develop qualities that will more likely bring us toward happiness. That discipline is our character, and we develop it by ethical reflection and practice. Virtue is a choice that we make, choosing a course of action that lies between extremes. We achieve virtue dialectically, as Aristotle rightly observed.
When we are part of an ethical community, as family, religious institution, or other such gathering, ethical decisions become deceptively easy. We follow the rules of our social context; they become our custom or habit. Our private conscience has vanished. We experience genuine freedom in this social situation because we have moved from the prison of our private ethical world and into the social arena. Virtue develops our character. Virtue is work for the community as we sacrifice the self to it. Such sacrifice is both justice and benevolence. Virtue is the visible expression of benevolence. We develop such connections in our culture through family, civil society, and government.
People fear those who value
traditional, classical, and Christian ethics will use the power of the
government to enforce those values upon others.
Many secular people fear those who call upon God. Many religious people
fear those who call upon what they consider as the wrong God. This is a valid
concern. In history, we have can see
where the church enforced its morality upon
Modernism has had to teach religion that what we live from does not enslave us; we enjoy it. The life that is life from something is happiness. Life is affectivity and sentiment; to live is to enjoy life. To live is to play, despite the finality and tension of instinct to live from something without this something having the sense of a goal or an ontological means, simply play or enjoyment of life. It is a carefree attitude with regard to existence, which has a positive meaning. In enjoyment, the things revert to their elemental qualities.
For such reasons, we need some communities that bridge the gap between history and tradition on the one hand, and the present age on the other. Living is an art; we are both artist and the object of art.
Community develops character and principle. The concept of “rugged individualism” is deceptive. We do have the responsibility for building our own character. Yet, the isolated self will not develop into a person who has values, character, or principle. Someone needs to teach us the proper values by which to lead a reasonable happy and meaningful life. We do not intuitively know such principles of living. Each of us needs a community that teaches and encourages such ethics.
Two primary communities have undertaken this task. The primary source of values is the family. The family is not perfect. There are many bad families. They teach, by word and example, bad values. Yet, as one looks at family from the perspective of society as a whole, it is the most effective means we have of training people to adopt proper values and to socialize. The next source of values is the religious community. I grant that the rise of rational ethical reflection has meant the collapse of religion. Religious communities have often fallen short of their task, and have too often retreated from their role in society. They have too often become embroiled in the political controversies of the day rather than focus on what they can do to develop values among the population. Both families and religious communities can lose their focus, thinking that if they do not contribute directly to economic or political life, they do not make a valid contribution to culture. Yet, communities of faith and the family combined are essential for passing on the ancient traditions that have stood the test of time. The subtle language of ethical life is an important element of cultural life. If we asked, “In what kind of world would decision be unrelated to commitment and responsibility?” we might answer, “In a world in which morality had become politicized.” It is not secret that this has been happening to our world, and that we are perhaps incapable of what would make it stop happening. We all partake of that personal misfortune. The pain is made more exquisitely cruel when philosophers describe relations and conversations between persons as they would occur in a totally political world, a world, that is, in which relationships are no longer personal nor contractual.
Personal conduct, personal responsibility, and personal character are not only for oneself, but also for the betterment of society. The isolated self does not exist; but the self in relation with others does exist. If there is a break down of national character, there needs to be an emphasis, or even a crusade, to change the behavior of individuals so that we can restore national character. We must not charge the monotony we observe in humanity to the oppressive influence of circumstances crushing the individual soul. If many people miss their vocation, the modern social world is not at fault.
We are by nature social beings whose virtues and strengths we cannot know apart from our roles and responsibilities in the larger community. The good life is a complete human life lived at its best, and the exercise of virtues is a necessary and central part of such life, not a mere preparation to secure such a life. In a culture that rejects tradition and values and embraces the self, there is a nagging sense that we are always falling short. Resentment spreads, in that we think we ought to get more out of ourselves.
The modern social world provides the structural context in which we look forward to the future with hope. Where are we headed? What kind of future are we building? These are the questions asked in the search for hope. Memory is strong. Hope is stronger. People live on hope more than memory. The greatest threat any of face is that of our own death. Nothing shakes our desire to control ourselves, as well as the people around us, more than this reality. Though we may experience partially that for which we hope we never fully experience it. This suggests that hope drives humanity. Human destiny is toward wholeness, perfection, trust, and freedom.
Various hopes require that there be individuals with dispositions of character and a life of their own to lead.
Character implies moral limits of self-sacrifice and self-control, where our sense of self is defined by moral obligation. Personality implies unlimited self-expression, self-gratification, and self-fulfillment. Yet, we have no clear sense of self. Therefore, our ability to deny self becomes weak.
Character implies that the moral order is the bridge between self and society. It implies responsibility to people outside the self. Personality implies that no bond exits with society at all. The self has moral superiority over society. Others are a threat to the self.
This optimistic belief in the development of character is in the continuing possibility of a meaningful individual life, one that does not reject society, and indeed shares its perceptions with other people to a considerable depth, but is enough unlike others, in its opacities and disorder as well as in its reasoned intentions, to make it somebody’s. Philosophy can help to make a society possible in which most people would live such lives, even if it still needs to learn how best to do so. Some people might even get help from philosophy in living such a life.
Every time we interact with other human beings, ethical questions arise. The content of our ethical system of beliefs are the result of training and instruction. The fact that we are ethical creatures is simply who we are. As a result, if the government refuses to shape this area of our life together, human beings generally will figure out a way to work out their basic plan of life in unique ways, and they will figure out the best life together they can achieve.
Morality is not the invention of philosophers. We cannot escape being moral persons, through our reasoning and behavior. A system of orientation and devotion is a powerful source of energy in us. We are not free to choose between having and not having ideals. We are only free to choose between different kinds of ideals. Moral principles have a universal and categorical quality. If we ask seriously whether morality pays, we place ourselves outside of the moral reasoning community. A reasonable person is a morally committed human being.
William Blake once asked:
Can I see another’s woe
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief
And not seek for kind relieve?
(The answer is, regrettably, yes).
Ethical reflection arises out of experience, impressions, imagination, insight, rational thought and freedom. We readily experience our limits as human beings. However, we experience our potential through the exercise of our imagination, creativity, and dreams toward a self and a world that is not yet. Our “feeling” of right, justice, compassion, and so on, arises out of thought that we may not even express fully to ourselves. We can use our freedom to destroy restraint, become lost in mystical contemplation, or work for the utopian destruction of social structure. Much of our moral activity arises out of impulses, feelings, intuitions, instincts, which we cannot fully express to our minds, let alone to others. We have a medley of impulses within us, all of which arise out of thought, even if not yet expressible in a rational form. Whenever we discipline our desires, impulses, and passions, we reveal our often hidden awareness that our immediate desire needs to become part of a rational approach to life.
An understanding of language will help us deal with a simple question throughout such enquiries: Who is speaking? Language contains specific connecting units that allow us to designate individuals: definite descriptions, proper names, and indicators such as personal pronouns, deitic terms (this, that), adverbs of place (here), and adverbs of time (now). Bodies are the first identifiers, thus eliminating mental events as the place to begin. Speaking contains several acts. We say something about something (locutionary act), what the speaker does (command, give advice, make a promise, and son) in speaking (illocutionary act), and the facing toward each other of speaker and listener (perlocutionary act). Every advance in the notion of self for the speaker has its comparable advance in the otherness of the partner with whom is the speaker engages dialogue.
Yet, we do more than speak; we also act. Who is acting? Here, our focus is taking initiative in the present. The referential character of an understanding of human action in terms of personal pronouns is the strength that a theory of action adds to a notion of self. Action and its motives, the event and its cause, have become separated so deeply that we must first restore them to their coherence and mutual dependence. That conceptual analysis of intention has omitted phenomenology and wonders about distinguishing between intentional acts and non-intentional acts. The only way toward an answer to this wonderment is that intentional acts can provide reasons for acting. We can also use intention as a forward-looking motive in this sense of practical reasoning: to make a future state of affairs appear as a subsequent stage of a process in which the action considered is the earlier stage. This approach does not conceal the agent as the possessor of the action, as does the analysis of Donald Davidson. We ascribe an action to an agent. First, persons are basic particulars in the sense that all attribution of predicates is made, ultimately, ether in respect of bodies or of persons. The attribution of certain predicates to persons cannot be translated in terms of attribution to bodies. Second, it is to the same things (persons) that we attribute psychological predicates and physical predicates. The person is the sole entity to which we ascribe both series of predicates. Third, mental predicates are directly attributable to oneself and someone else. The difficulty in attributing to a particular agent a determined series of events is the way actions of each of us are intertwined with the actions of everyone else; the physical and social course of human activity. Determining the end point where the responsibility of an agent ends is a matter of decision and not some fact someone establishes; conflict situations between rival claims makes this decision especially complex. Acting requires the union of opposing forces in initiative. Initiative is an intervention of the agent of action in the course of the world, an intervention that effectively causes changes in the world. The phenomenology of the “I can” and of the neighboring ontology of one’s own body already points to an ontology of the self.
We do more than speak or act; we tell our stories. Who is telling the story? Our focus here is on the question of personal identity. The person who speaks and acts has his or her own history. Within the framework of narrative theory, the dialectic of selfhood and sameness attains its fullest development. Narrative theory finds one of its major justifications in the role it plays as a middle ground between the descriptive and prescriptive viewpoints. The continuation of identity over time has its foundation in character (the set of distinctive marks that permit the re-identification of a human individual as being the same) and keeping one’s word. Identity refers to the fact of connectedness between physical or mental events. First, the interconnection of events constituted by emplotment allows us to integrate with permanence in time what seems to be its contrary in the domain of sameness-identity, namely diversity, variability, discontinuity, and instability. Second, the notion of emplotment, transposed from the action to the characters in the narrative, produces a dialectic of the character which is quite clearly a dialectic of sameness and selfhood. Narrative identity takes a decisive step in passing from the action to the character. This leads to ethical applications of this shaping of life plans. The narrative unity of a life not only results from the summing up of practices in a global form but is governed by a life project, however, uncertain and mobile it may be. The idea of gathering together one’s life in the form of a narrative serves the basis for the aim of a good life. We must gather together life if we are to place it within the intention of genuine life. If I cannot grasp my life as a singular totality, I could never hope it to be successful or complete. My birth belongs to the history of others than to me. My death will be recounted only in the stories of those who survive me. My movement toward my own death prevents me from ever grasping it as a narrative end to my life story. I can trace out a number of itineraries and weave several plots; yet, each lacks a sense of ending. Every novel unfolds in a textual world. Our life history is caught up in the histories of others. Whole sections of my life are part of the life history of others. This entanglement of life histories differs from literary ones. The elusive character of real life suggest the help we need from fiction to organize life retrospectively, after the fact, prepared to take as provisional and open to revision any plot borrowed from fiction or from history. We stabilize the real beginnings formed by the initiatives we take. We also have the experience of what is meant by ending a course of action or a slice of life. Literature helps us to fix the outline of these provisional ends. Fiction also helps us to envision a noble end; it is the apprenticeship of dying; we receive consolation in mourning for ourselves in advance. Literary narrative and life history complement each other. Narrative is part of life before being exiled from life in writing. It returns to life along the multiple paths of appropriation and at the price of the unavoidable tensions.
We do more than speak, act, and tell our stories; we have moral and ethical actions in relation to each other. Who is the moral subject of imputation? Note that I reject a radical break from describing and narrating on the one hand and prescribing on the other. In what follows, ethics is the aim of an accomplished life and morality is the articulation of this aim in norms characterized at once by the claim to universality and by an effect of constraint. I would suggest the primacy of ethics over morality, the necessity for the ethical aim to pass through the sieve of the norm, and the legitimacy of recourse by the norm to the aim whenever the norm leads to impasses in practice. To the ethical aim I will suggest corresponds self-esteem; to the moral norm I will accord self-respect. In this sense, self-esteem is more fundamental than self-respect, self-respect is the aspect under which self-esteem appears in the domain of norms, and the difficult of establishing duty create situations in which self-esteem appears as both the source of and recourse for respect, when no sure norm offers a guide for the exercise of respect. Self-esteem and self-respect together represent the most advanced stages of the growth of selfhood, which is at the same time its unfolding. The ethical intention is aiming at the good life (living well; the true life) with and for others, in just institutions. Our life plans designates the person as a whole, in contrast to fragmented practices; along with the narrative unity of life and the good life, it denotes the unity of person as a whole. We cannot expect scientific verification of our life plans, for we exercise judgment that can aspire only to plausibility in the eyes of others. The self deserves esteem because of its capacities: I can evaluate my actions, assess the goals of some of them to be good, capable of evaluating myself of judging myself to be good. I need the mediation of the other along the route from capacity to realization. In order to be the friend of oneself, one must already have entered into a relation of friendship with others. Friendship forms the bed of justice. Further, we cannot limit living well to interpersonal relations, for it extends to the life of institutions. By institutions I mean living together as this belongs to a historical community not reducible to interpersonal relations. Just faces toward both the good and the legal; I will focus here upon the former. The concept of distribution is important bringing down the wall between interpersonal and societal spheres of ethical life. The norm puts the wish to live well to the test. The norm is something like the golden rule and the second Kantian imperative. The norm suggests concern, consideration, care, and kindness toward others. The scandal of inequality sets thought in motion about justice. Far from eliminating conflicts, democracy is a political system that encourages them to become open and negotiable in accordance with recognized rules of arbitration. We can only be faithful to our own commitments, and thus to ourselves. Yet, I wish to be faithful to the other, in which case I become available to the other. Our concern and care for the other leads to respect for them, and is the basis for resolving conflicts in specific norms. No system of distribution is universally valid. All know systems express revocable, chance choices, bound up with the struggles that mark the violent history of societies. The more our conception of justice is procedural, the more it defers to an argumentative ethics to resolve the conflicts it engenders. Cultures are not just ultimately; we do not just have difference for the sake of difference, thereby making all differences indifferent, to the extent that it makes all discussion useless. Responsibility assumes the consequences of actions (future), we assume a past that affects without its being entirely our own work but that we take on as ours (past), and accepts the thick quality of the present in initiating new directions with unforeseen consequences (present). Holding oneself responsible is accepting to be held to be the same today as the one who acted yesterday and who will act tomorrow. Our acts are inscribed in a great book of accounts, registered there, and preserve there.
Realism suggests that any statement of virtue, morality, and the ethical life consists in a form of life that people like us can live in our daily life. Any theory that requires moral excellence in every virtue does deal honestly with our failure to compile a complete list and fails to deal with the human experience of practicing excellence in some areas and pitifully in other areas. It would require a humanly impossible attention to every area of human behavior.
If any science is going to yield conclusions that are for each person, it will be some branch of psychology. We could hope that psychology would demonstrate that some ethical conception is necessary for human happiness. Yet, it would have to be independent of ethical conceptions, yet closely related to the complex processes of human life that are ethical, determinate in its results, and favorable to ethical considerations in some form.
We need to live in society and if we are to live in society, some ethical considerations or other must be embodied in the lives of many people. Any adequate psychology of character considers that many people are horrible because they are unhappy. Their unhappiness is not something specially defined in ethical terms. Some are not horrible, and try hard to be generous and to accommodate others’ interests, are miserable, and from their ethical state. Some may be horrible enough, but also happy. Another is horrible and rather miserable, but also successful and has some pleasures.
Moral statements involve the total person: cognition, emotion, and intuition. As such, it is on the same psychological foundation as all forms of knowledge. Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn have demonstrated that the process of building knowledge within the scientific community involves the total person. It is not nearly so rational or objective as many within the field would like non-specialists to think. The difference between descriptive and prescriptive statements is not as broad as some people have suggested. Both must confront what is; both require the personal involvement and commitment of the person seeking knowledge. Therefore, moral and ethical knowledge rests on the same psychological foundation as all forms of knowledge.
Psychology provides a general picture of how persons are put together. It helps us in the task of setting constraints on our conception of what sorts of persons are possible. It contributes to our understanding of the degree of difficulty of realizing various moral personalities from among the possibilities. We might consider natural psychological traits closer to what biology determines, while narrow ones fall more on the side of social psychology.
An ethical conception acknowledges the separate nature of persons, as well as that each person has a separate point of view. We exist as spatial and temporal particulars, biologically distinct for most of our lives from every other member of the species. Each of us has his or her own experiences. We also develop awareness of ourselves as spatial and temporal particulars with a subjective life that has a certain sort of unity and continuity. We care about how our lives go. We are intentional systems that guides and regulates our lives in accordance with our desires and beliefs. Any such system will actively care how its particular life goes over the long haul. In that sense, a human life is one lived according to a plan. Persons develop certain projects and commitments that give their lives meaning and have a certain standing in terms of both perceived importance and the length of time over which they grip a particular agent and underwrite his or her behavior. The picture of persons whose lives consist of a nexus of plans is the best way to capture the usual nature of persons and their plans. All persons will have projects and commitments.
Persons with projects and commitments that give life both meaning and structure is a reasonable way to understand what is to be a person. It helps us come to terms with the view that persons are separate individuals with distinctive personal points of view. On the negative side, it would not be reasonable to accept an ethical conception that required people to treat their aims and desires as if they did not belong to them or as if they did not have the right to satisfaction and were not appropriate objects of practical attention. Everyone has reason to reject any conception that does not permit us a special guardianship with respect to our preferences and desires and which does not require others to respect this space. This view involves protected agent-centered space. We will need socially specific information to give shape to both spaces.
We need to consider the emergence of self and the sense of self. First, from the start, the activity of the infant engenders the emergence of a self, and the infant experiences this emergence. In the first eight weeks of life, the infant can experience the process of emerging organization of a sense of self. Second, during the period of two to six months, infants consolidate the sense of a core self as a separate, cohesive, bounded, physical unity, with a sense of their own agency, affectivity, and continuity in time. This core self involves a clear sense that one goes on being. Third, between seven and fifteen months, the child develops a firm sense of self as a subjective being. The child becomes increasingly adept both at conveying his or her inner life to others and interpreting their inner states. As the child achieves greater autonomy and has newly found psychological savvy to solidify and deepen various interpersonal unions explains the project of solving the problem of other minds. Finally, during the second year we see the emergence of language and the ability to self-represent. The degree to which the child uses language for self-representing is highly variable across cultures and individuals. The emergence of the verbal self is not the marker that the self is beginning to emerge. It is a marker that the process is already in its late stages.
Our state of mind and the availability of personal energy are important aspects of moral development. When we explore philosophy we explore our own temperament, and yet at the same to attempt to discover the truth. We need a working philosophical psychology that can attempt to connect modern psychological terminology with a terminology concerned with virtue. We need a moral philosophy that can speak significantly of Freud and Marx, and out of which we can generate aesthetic and political views. We need to take the broken and alienating forces of human life seriously, even if not with the finality that Freud and Marx took them. We need a moral philosophy in which the concept of love can once again be central. Aesthetics and the experience of love are preparatory to ethics, even if not ethics in themselves. Individuals are accountable to forces outside of them, suggesting a basis for the religious conception of life. We must account for the dark or shadow side of a human life. Our moral philosophy must be realistic and commend a worthy ideal. We are selfish creatures. Does human life have an end or purpose beyond itself?
A conception of morality focused on rights, duties, and obligations misses something of major moral psychological significance. We might consider it unlikely that people will pass through particular holistic stages. Further, the evidence is far from clear. Claims about advanced stages and less advanced stages lose credibility. The idea that morality is all of a piece and amenable to a unified rationalization is philosophical fiction that Kholberg has brought to ethical discourse. Others seem to think that it is important that our moral personalities be rooted in tidy philosophical unities that are amenable to unified justification. The moral stage theory over-emphasizes matters of justice and fairness and does not value many other goods that play important roles in the moral lives of most individuals. Whether these values can survive lack of public recognition and sustenance remains for us to see. In particular, societies presuppose prior relations of care between new members and those members involved in child rearing. We mislead ourselves when we view justice and fairness as the first or highest virtue of society. Justice focuses on fairness, right, and obligation. Care focuses on the interconnections among the parties involved, on particular personalities, and their health and suffering. Moral reflection is not homogeneous. It does not have a universal competence that people learn. In trying to lay out for us the deep structure of moral psychology, Kohlberg showed that there is no such thing. Moral development occurs at different levels and at many different locations within the person.
Nietzsche charged that Western morality will come apart as people recognize that its traditional religious foundations are missing. However, his charge is significant for those to whom foundations for justification and unified justification in particular are important.
The likelihood is that we tend to think of the good person or the evil person as more of a unity than he or she is in actuality. Neither the good nor the evil person has a governing principle that operates equally across all powerful inclinations and urges applicable to moral development.
We think of each other and ourselves as intentional systems, as functionally distinct but internally integrated economies of beliefs, desires, traits, faculties, and states. The concept of a system or an economy helps capture the idea of both parts or components, of some sort of modularity, and some sort of integration among them. We tend to think that the integration is achieved mostly through a top down control mechanism. However, a high degree of vertical coordination, without any overarching control mechanism, is also a possibility. Indeed, consciousness notices and regulates a unity that emerges from other sources as much as it creates whatever unity exists in the first place. We have strong presumption that some sort of integration, coordination, unity, or wholeness of being is both more or less inevitable and a necessary and sufficient condition for being a person. We do, after all, possess personality. When we think of each other as intentional systems, we are taking a stance toward each other. The intentional stance may be ubiquitous and useful, however, without also being true. The imputation of beliefs and desires from the point of view of our everyday dealings with each other is our study of the character traits of others.
A trait is some sort of standing disposition to perceive, think, feel, and behave in certain characteristic ways in certain situations. Traits are dispositional modules, which, depending on the personality of the particular individual and certain characteristics of the trait itself, vary in the degree to which they are penetrable or impenetrable, and in terms of their functional roles and hierarchical position in an overall psychological economy. Traits are psychologically real phenomena. However, they are not in a person. Traits are highly situation sensitive psychological and behavioral dispositions with multifarious relations to each other. They are individuated, in part in terms of the complex relations they have to other traits, to behavior, and to the environment. People will make inferences from particular beliefs and desires to predicting behavior. This view presumes a rational setting for the person. Yet, truly predicting behavior requires tacit and direct awareness of one’s overall psychological and behavioral tendencies, and not just their beliefs and desires. We use nonverbal cues, situational assessment, and complex dispositional and culturally embedded assumptions. This suggests that when we name traits, the illusion is that we give a name to a substantive thing. The reality is that traits name complex processes with fuzzy edges. Yet, trait terms are economical in that they communication and inform. They draw together complex and multifarious data and regularities without spelling out the regularities or requiring encoding of every relevant datum.
The enterprise of virtue ethics depends on individual traits of character that are causally effective in the production of behavior across situations of a kind. Virtue theory is not compatible with behaviorism, for if virtue theory is true, virtue is not merely behavioral. The virtues are psychological dispositions productive of behavior. The integrated system called person does not need to take shape in particular systematic form. We tend to assume some evaluative consistency when it comes to the practice of the virtues. We seem unprepared when certain sorts of inconsistencies arise. We readily project connections we hope are true in the person. This tendency is actually naïve. We experience surprise when Martin Luther King Jr.or John F. Kennedy have strong beliefs in public morality and have such lack of awareness or practice of virtue in the sexual arena. Looking back, people have made this disjunction in the area of racism and anti-Semitism for centuries. People could compartmentalize in one area being a good parent, conscientious citizen, and highly cultivated person, while in the other area being vicious in anti-Semitism and racism. Yet, we are dealing with a human world, and therefore with inconsistently applied values and principles. Further, the Christian view of sin recognizes the depth of resistance persons have to the application of virtue. The shape this resistance takes is rebellion against genuine caring for others. Our default position is to focus too much upon ourselves. Gaps form in the development of personality and in the development of virtue. All of this shows that although parts of character do influence each other, it also happens in a modular way. Good persons can possess the most repulsive of attitudes. The relationship between various personality traits and behavior are complex, multifarious, and highly indirect. Some personality traits are primarily attitudinal, others primarily behavioral, and still others mixed. Virtue theory has paid insufficient attention to the situational constraints on traits and has undoubtedly assumed greater universality of individual traits than warranted by facts. Subtle, mundane, and largely unnoticed forces produce odd moral effects.
Resistance to the ethically repulsive seems to have its source in moral fiber, adventurousness, strong identification with a morally good parent, and a sense of being socially marginal.
We might still puzzle about the relationship between an ethically good life, a psychologically healthy life, and a happy life. We often connect goodness, health, and happiness to wholeness and integration of personality. In the human world, these three things are not necessary or sufficient for the others. The tensions among various ideals, such as happiness, personal maturity, psychological health, and moral goodness, are real. These tensions partially explain why the ethical life is almost never found unproblematically appealing and is almost never seen as easily integratable with all our other legitimate aspirations. It would be good if the three sates of affairs were not totally independent of each other, but rather had some important conceptual relations and some more than coincidental empirical relations. It would be good if ethical virtue, mental health, and happiness co-occurred to some fairly high degree and if their co-occurrence were more than a mere coincidence.
Happiness, goodness, and psychological health are not inexorably linked. There do exist some relations among the three concepts, some patterns of co-occurrence, that we can seek to amplify by paying attention to creating social and political arrangements that raise self-esteem, project reasonable ethical standards, and widely distribute the resources necessary for happy, good, and healthy lives. There may be trade-offs among the demands of a stark and complete authenticity about oneself and the ways of the world and happiness, between a certain kind of contentment and a deep understanding of the world. God did not coordinate either our natures or the nature of other things so that they mesh perfectly with each other or with our wishes for them. Gaining as much coordination as is possible among things is a project requiring human effort suited to its particular time and place and with no guarantees of success. In a human world, the best we can do is to maximize the desirable co-occurrences where we can. This is a good thing. The best we can do under the circumstances.
Unfortunately, moral life can lead people away from the authentic or genuine life. The moral life can become little more than the application of universal principle or law to every situation, apart from genuine concern for self, for others, and for the situation. We can envision settings where sticking to moral principle can actually lead to the avoidance of responsibility for self and for others. Persons oriented toward morality can actually close themselves off from this moment and this person. Moral law can become an escape into abstract security. Devotion to a moral system or a religious system can escape the call of conscience in this unique setting. The call of conscience is an awareness that we have responsibility in this time and space. In this situation, we disclose who we are and discover who we are. Our capacity for self-reflection reviews life as we think it through to the end, finding our deepest aspirations given the preciousness of time. We are responsible for ourselves because we have no alternative but to choose ourselves from the contingent basis of our time and place.
Anxiety forces us to face the certainty that our lives will end at indefinite time. Our lifetime is an incomplete, anticipatory whole that we are responsible for integrating throughout the course of our lives. We typically submit ourselves to the received network of social practices, doing and saying what anyone would typically do and say in our situation.
Inauthentic life loses itself by becoming absorbed in the anonymity of everyday life. People who dwell authentically, by contrast, stand open to the structure of existence and take hold of their situation in light of the constraints of history, embodiment, and mortality. When we think of ourselves objectively, separate from the natural and social world, we feel homeless, displaced, and contingently related to others and things. We need to abandon this Cartesian view of an isolated self. Some view science as unethical in the sense that it denies us a sense of being at home in a larger natural world. In reality, science increasingly makes the lives of human beings more at home. We understand ourselves from the things and others with which we are involved in a practical situation into which we have been thrown. We participate or swim in our world. We do not distinguish ourselves from the others. We immerse ourselves in the average possibilities prescribed by prevailing social practices, norms, and modes of interpretation. We do not exist in a state of isolated purity apart from others. Average everydayness is an inescapable dimension of our lives. The possibilities we can make our own do not come from nowhere. Everydayness involves the discourse of idle talk, the sight of curiosity marked by distraction, the lust for novelty and the refusal to dwell anywhere, and its mode of interpretation is noncommittal superficiality. We lose ourselves in the possibilities prescribed for us by others. We are the “other” for someone else. I would relate this to Charles Cooley’s looking glass self, David Riesmann’s other-directed person, and Christopher Lasch’s narcissistic personality, and Woody Allen’s Zelig. Beneath the veneer of cooperation, antagonism remains. Such persons do not open up their existence as a whole to themselves. They lose themselves in the crowd.
Yet, we should be suspicious of an analysis of human existence that relegates the moral domain as a whole to the level of inauthenticity. Virtue is not just a matter of achieving dominion over self. It is not simply a matter of training and exercise. Self-mastery is important, in that one needs to guide one’s desires, feelings, and pleasures. Yet, this self-mastery is also a matter of steadily uncovering one’s true self, discovering the gifted quality of one’s life, and then sharing it with others. It is a matter of living truly, sincerely, and authentically. Such care of the self is actually freedom. Further, we should be suspicious of any interpretation of self-responsibility as a process wholly independent of the claims of moral responsibility. We should suspect an interpretation of human existence that fails to account for the prior determination of people’s freedom within a range of moral considerations they do not constitute but by which they find themselves obligated. We cannot understand the nature of our self-responsibility on Sartre’s model of radical choosing. His examples of moral dilemmas are genuine only because they recognize contrasting moral obligations. The non-relational, individualizing character of our movement toward death appears to subvert the prior claim that others have on our will insofar as we are moral agents. Morality becomes one among many inauthentic possibilities we may or may not appropriate.
How does the way that I care for my own being bear on my caring for the being of others? In our modern social world, we sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions. None of us occupies a privileged place of insight. None of us has access to a god or goddess who passes on to us any secrets. Being nothing than mortals, and lacking divine informers, we have little choice but to confess that we do not know the master name. Authenticity involves owning up to this embarrassment. We understand the whole of life as belonging to a larger reality by being open to others who must find their own possibilities of authentic living. We characterize our desires qualitatively, in terms of the kind of person we aspire to be. We may judge certain of our desires as unworthy of our vision of the kind of person we desire to be. We characterize desires in terms of the quality of life they express. We find ourselves subject to moral obligation, even if we do not live up to it. That obligation does not have a source beyond human beings. The moral obligation is morally relevant, even of we do not honor it. Cruel, dishonest, and selfish acts are wrong and ought to be avoided because in them we do harm to others for no good reason. That is why punishment is justified. That the obligation to be relatively kind, honest, and fair is a nuisance to vicious people does not mean that they are exempt form the obligations to avoid such behavior. Basic moral requirements exist independent of and prior to our personal act of valuation. If we are condemned to freedom, we are also condemned to moral responsibility as we are to self-responsibility. Nothing can compel us to own up to our moral responsibilities to others. We must decide whether to do the morally responsible or irresponsible thing. However, we do not decide whether to be morally responsible.
What is the place of moral conscience within the life of authentic individuals who honestly face the absence of a ground that would secure and provide a measure for their existence? We can only modify inauthenticity; we cannot escape it. Our own anxiety, for example, alerts us to the degree to which others are inadequately appreciated in the course of average everydayness. We are obligated to treat others in a manner consistent with their potential for authenticity. We may become the conscience of the other we meet. We have a moral obligation to accord others the respect owed to a free individual. Authentic persons know where to draw the line. This anxiety may make us more aware of a deeper, heart-felt solidarity with them. Our being lost in the crowd and average everydayness is where we begin. The anxiety of our being toward death robs us of that connection with others. Yet, our feeling of being displaced, isolated, and helpless, one turns to others for support and strength in one’s hour of need. However, authentic living moves beyond this experience to re-orienting ourselves to a new solidarity with others. We share the same tenuous and uncertain fate, and so turn to them with compassion in their struggle to face honestly the insecurity and groundlessness of mortal existence. We know the difference between good and evil from within because one has depended on the willingness of others to help at times when others could have easily taken advantage of our weakness. We prefer good over evil insofar as we recognize in the neediness of others and their vulnerability our identification with their condition as our own as well. The experience of mortality provides a this-worldly norm or measure for responsible human action. This is a phenomenological basis for the difference between good and evil and for the preference for good over evil. To accept our mortality is to undergo a moral conversion. The healing of the rift between self and others is by the recognition that we are all trying to forge meaningful lives for ourselves under conditions that always threaten to undermine meaning and reduce our highest aspirations to nothing. Out of the memory that we were all once children who depended on the kindness of strangers in order to grow up and attain the illusion of adult self-sufficiency, and out of anticipation that we can easily find ourselves as helpless as children again, we can be moved to treat others compassionately. This interpretation of authenticity stresses the appreciation of vulnerability and inter-dependence of one who is attuned to the fragility of our being with others. We not only help the other to experience their freedom; we help in their hour of need.
Authentic life may open up the possibility of authentic co-existence. We become humble in proposing schemes and programs for dealing with the issues life poses. We have compassion for others who face the same anxiety in life that we do. Being authentic is important if it allows us to appreciate the most desirable alternatives. Authentic individuation opens us up to us a new way and makes liberating solicitude possible. Authenticity frees us to pay attention to the world in a way that is not governed by how things have been publicly interpreted. Although I must live authentically, others also have that obligation, thereby opening up a particular kind of relationship to other persons. From a stance of attentiveness, we can let beings be so that they show themselves in ways other than average everydayness. A relationship of authentic care in which one is able to help the other become transparent to ourselves in our care and to become free for it. The authentic individual possesses a kind of moral conscience, a feeling not only of self-responsibility but also of responsibility to others. Does not moral conscience not only separate that individual from others, but also enable us to treat others as ends in themselves beyond the horizon of their public and roles and stations?
Crucial to genuine moral conscience is the refusal to lose ourselves in the anonymity of what others dictate, a willingness to take one’s stand against what is fashionable, to criticize public opinion for the sake of the community, to judge what is right beyond the horizon of what others take for granted. That we think for ourselves is no guarantee that our judgments will be wise. However, at least the habit of critical reflection puts an obstacle in the way of banal evil, for thoughtful individuals may have after thoughts about saying or doing what they cannot account for.
Genuine moral conscience attests to authentic individuation and freedom. Moral conscience involves an attunement to the particularity of others, to others as truly other, stemming form an awareness of the singularity of our own existence. It shows itself as an interpersonal orientation motivated by our desire to let others be in their freedom for their own possibilities and to allow our own self-understanding to be informed by their self-understanding.
The individualizing thrust of our anxiety toward death is the basis for a correlative mood that discloses the dignity of others in their struggles to become who they are. We feel solidarity with others in their otherness. Authenticity points toward a form of co-existence in which one remains attentive to others as centers of transcendence and possibility who are never subsumed by the public projects in which they happen to be absorbed. I grant that this is a dialogical interpretation of authenticity. Authenticity is a double movement of withdrawal and return, of disorientation and reorientation in which others disclose themselves to us in new ways. We care about the existence of the other, directing ourselves to their possibilities, as a form of leaping ahead by becoming the conscience of the other and letting the other be in their responsibility for their future. We help the other become transparent to his or own self; we heighten their awareness of their possibilities. We help others unfold their unique possibilities. The goal is to help the other care for themselves. We must recognize the cost others pay in not owning up to their own death, fleeing their self-responsibility, and that losing oneself in the crowd is self-defeating.
Silence or reticence lies at the heart of authentic communication. Nothing is objectively best for the other; each of us must resolve the issues of life for ourselves. Authentic individuals pay attention to the other in their otherness, in their singular responsibility for taking hold of their own possibilities. The goal of authentic communication is to lead others to question and reflect upon the interpretations of the crowd in such a way that they are freed to interpret the meaning of their existence for themselves. If we lose sight of the other’s potential for authenticity, we subject the other to humiliation in the guise of helping them.
Contemplation is hard to understand and maintain in a world increasingly without a sense of the sacred and without ritual and in which philosophy destroyed the old substantial view of the self. We need to listen to ourselves; therefore, we need to be alone with ourselves. However, such abilities are rare in the modern social world. Rumi reminds us of its importance:
There is a way between voice and presence
Where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.
We look back and analyze the events
Of our lives, but there is another way
Of seeing, a backward-and-forward-at-once
Vision, that is not rationally understandable.
Don’t think all ecstasies
Are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.
Drink from the presence of saints,
Not from those other jars.
Meditation and contemplation upon the virtues of the good life is something similar to the religious act of prayer. Prayer primarily gives attention to God, a form of love. Prayer has a foundation in grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavor that overcomes empirical limitations of personality. We have the ability to act well and at the appropriate time. As the apostle Paul has said,
(Phil 4:8 NRSV) Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
The aim of ethical thought is to help us to construct a world that will be our world, one in which we have a social, cultural, and personal life. The end is that we might live well and do well in action and desire. The natural world is not our home; it is not the proper perspective of ethical thought. The natural concept of science is that of physics, and ethical theory cannot derive its principles from within it. Moral argumentation involves a distinct reasoning process that involves stating and explaining facts, evaluating works of art, clarifying utterances, bringing unconscious motives to light, and so on. The question is whether actions and the norms governing them are right, as over against true. We can carry out this discourse only in the context of the life world. The participants coordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the inter-subjective recognition of validity claims. We cannot live the best human life possible if we do not have the external resources needed to live that life. This reality makes us painfully aware of how vulnerable the best human life to forces that are beyond our control. Although I hope to show we can do much to train our behavior and emotions to move us toward a life that is best for us, I cannot omit the reality that good fortune and bad fortune can intervene to disrupt our ability to arrive at the best human life that we can achieve. In that sense, the best human life is always an on-going project that we build throughout our lives. We may achieve a degree of happiness at one stage of life, and then have it disrupted by bad fortune. We may make many bad choices, and then have some good fortune that turns our lives around toward what is best. We must always wait until the end before we can pronounce that one has lived well and done well. We must work hard to achieve the best human life that we can achieve, for we do not easily find the balance that we need in behavior and feeling. Getting angry is easy; getting angry at the right things, in the right situation, and in the right amount, is difficult. Given and spending money is easy; doing so in the right proportion and for the right things is not. Doing such things with the proper balance is rare – do we not admire and praise persons who find it? I suspect the reason that we have such a difficult time finding balance is our confusion over the experience of pleasure.
A life in community with others is the only life that we would accept as complete. The good life is not self-sufficient, detached from the forces of good and bad fortune, possessions, friendships, family, political life, and the human family. A false belief, one that would lead to disease, would exclude such relationships from an understanding of fulfillment in life. We are part of communities bound to each other by shared ends and ties of affection and concern. Participants identify themselves as essentially social and political beings.
The individually good life for which we seek involves the health of the community: family, civic life, and political life. The rational discussion of that which this health consists is not a finished product. Engaging in that discourse is beneficial in itself. This is where the medical analogy breaks down. I cannot suggest that anyone is passive in this process, and accepting the authority of another. We engage in the process together. What we are after is to find out more clearly what we share or can share. Part of the good life is to care about certain things in the world: friends, family, one’s own life and health, and conditions in the world. By opening ourselves to the external goods such as love and other feelings, by valuing in such a way as to be living a passionate life, we open the core of ourselves to the possibility of invasion and control by forces outside of ourselves. We extend our self, in one sense, over other parts of the world. Happenings in that world can lacerate the self. Our self can be enslaved, raped, and devoured by forces outside us. Such things can affect our own happiness and fulfillment in life, and thus some fear is appropriate. Good persons will have an appropriate amount of fear in the loss of happy connections with such things that exist outside the self. We dwell in one realm only, the realm of nature, and that all of our powers, including moral reflection, are worldly and in need of possessions for our flourishing. Connections between being well-fed and being free, between bodily integrity and moral functioning, are all directly and clearly drawn in such a theory. By acknowledging these vulnerabilities and their connections to valuable functioning, we gain incentives for promoting the appropriate distribution and redistribution of material goods, so that all citizens have enough.
Ethical theorizing proceeds by way of a reflective dialogue between the intuitions and beliefs of the interlocutor and a series of complex ethical conceptions, presented for exploration. Most people, when asked to generalize, make claims that are false to the complexity and the content of their actual beliefs. They need to learn what they really think. When, through work on the alternatives and through dialogue with one another, they have arrived at a harmonious adjustment of their beliefs, both singly and in community with one another, this will be the ethical truth; a truth that is anthropocentric, but not relativistic. The greatest obstacles to communal agreement are deficiencies in judgment and reflection. If we each are led singly through the best procedures of practical choice, we will turn out to agree on the most important matters, in ethics as in science.
In the moral journey, modern people are infants. The ancients have thought far more deeply about matters of the soul than this generation could ever hope to do. We rarely give ourselves the gift of contemplation, reflection, and meditation. Psychoanalysis has increased our knowledge of humanity. It has not increased our knowledge of how of how we ought to live and what we ought to do. Its main function has been that of unmasking our personalities. While this is valuable, it became sterile when it failed to go beyond mere criticism. We cannot understand our emotional and mental disturbances without understanding the nature of value and moral conflicts. Many think that all ethical, moral, and spiritual decisions are equal. Many have lost the ability to discern the difference between good and bad spirituality. Many can no longer distinguish between good and bad ethics. Cultures in which people are free need a body of laws to protect the innocent, a pluralistic understanding of society that allows for freedom, and a people with the moral framework to obey the unenforceable. A free people, guided by the self-restraint of a moral vision of their lives, are an important function of a free society.
Modern people question tradition. Traditional moral authority often exerted power over people, often using the command of God or the authority of the church, instead of using the art of moral persuasion. However, turning what is good into something eternal, or making it a property of an eternal God who revealed it, does not make “good” more “good.” If what is good is good for a day, it is good, just as if something is white, we do not make it more white by declaring that white-ness is eternal. Rather than trust that each of us are responsible for our lives and our relationship to each other, traditional authority appealed to awe and submissiveness, making disobedience the root sin. We do not define right and wrong in terms of the will of God or the authority of the church. Reasoning rather than religious faith guide us. Morality and religion have different spheres of influence in our lives. Restlessness regarding the very foundations of morality seems to many especially discouraging. For that concerns both the seen and the unseen world, both the truths that justify the toil spent upon exact science, and the hopes for the love of which the religions of people have seemed dear. What is science worth, and what is religion worth, if human life itself has no genuine moral standards by which one may measure its value? If our moral standards themselves are questioned, the iron of doubt seems to enter our very hearts. Our age is perplexed regarding its moral ideals and its standards of duty. It has doubts about what is really the best plan of human life. This perplexity is not wholly due to any peculiar waywardness of our time, or to any general lack of moral seriousness. It is just our moral leaders, our reformers, and our prophets, who most perplex us. Whether these revolutionary moral teachers are right or wrong, they beset us, they give us no rest, they call in doubt our moral judgments, and they undertake to transform vales. The result is practical. It deprives us of the confidence we all need to be ready to do good works. It threatens to paralyze the effectiveness of many conscientious people.
I want to suggest that the modern social world has placed ethical reflection in a different place than what it has in other cultures. Cultures in which religion enforce their values upon all citizens do a disservice to both their religion and to the people. To coerce or force people to act in what a religion believes to be virtuous ways is to remove the action from becoming genuinely virtuous. The source of action is external to the person. Moral praise and blame arise because people have freely chosen their course of action. In order for an action to be virtuous, it must be the result of rational deliberation and decision. People must have the source of action within themselves, their own knowledge of the situation and their assessment of an appropriate plan of life. We deliberate about the actions we can do. We do not deliberate about all human affairs. We do not deliberate about the sciences, for they simply describe what is. We deliberate over matters over which the outcome is unclear the right way to act is not clear and distinct. We enlist partners in the dialogue on large issues because we distrust our own ability to discern the right course of action. In ethical reflection, we deliberate about what will help us to live well and to do well; about that which will lead to the best human life we can achieve. Further, we must acquire virtue through developing habits that build character. The sources and means that we use to develop each virtue can also ruin it. The modern social world does not impose virtue upon citizens. However, what we have discovered is that freely interacting human beings develop ethical life needed for such free interactions. The subtle ethical language of the modern social world arises out of freely interacting human beings in civic, family, economic, religious, and political settings.
The world to which ethical thought now applies is irreversibly different, not only from the ancient world, but from any world in which human beings have tried to live and have used ethical concepts. The resources of most modern moral philosophy have not adjusted well to the modern social world. Too much ethical reflection rests upon administrative ideas of rationality that is no longer tenable. In other ways, it is not involved enough in the modern social world. The dream of a community of rationality that governs our reflections on life together is too far removed from social and historical reality and from any concrete sense of a particular ethical life.
I want to address the question of the kind of truth, if any, that we can achieve in moral discourse. In order to do so, some matters seem self-evident to me, which simply means that it would be difficult for carry on a rational conversation with someone who seriously questioned them. It also means that, outside of an abstract intellectual exercise, I doubt if anyone actually lives without the truth of these assumptions.
First, human beings have lived always and everywhere as if human beings owe each other something in terms of behavior. I cannot imagine a human life without also a moral life. Our birth into a specific social world nourishes us into adulthood, making some degree of thankfulness for that world a reasonable response. We also have the capacity to reflect upon the rightness or wrongness of that social world, accept it, or rebel against it. Such decisions are moral judgments we make concerning that social world.
Second, our contact with the social world is real. It is not our imagination. We confront real traditions in our families, in our local communities, in our culture, and because of technology, in our global setting.
Third, our talk about our social world, and in particular its sense of right and wrong, matters to us. Our language contains moral words, especially referring to a sense of shame and guilt, as well as a sense of receiving pleasure when our others accept our behavior. The culture does shape the content of such feelings, but it does not give us the capacity to feel them or talk about them. Ethical discourse assumes that we have a responsibility to construct a personal and social vision of reasonably fully human life. Our language itself suggests that we are actors in history, and thus assume some responsibility for the course our lives takes.
Fourth, we can talk about morality, in part through propositions, and in part through the stories we tell, that reveal the kind of person and world we envision. Talking about ends and purpose is meaningful and important discourse.
Fifth, what a person believes and values has an influence upon the form of life a person has, and thus affects their influence upon others and the way others treat him or her.
I would now like to consider matters of ethical truth in a modern society.
Human beings can actually live it, or attempt to do so. This suggests an experimental and empirical dimension to these truths. For ethical theory, it means the ability to persuade people intellectually that this theory is a good way in which to live and then to have people actually live in this way with a reasonable degree of success. The physical sciences describe how the physical world works. Ethical discourse concerns our ability to verbalize the beliefs by which we live. We enter into moral discourse because some statements are true and some are false – or at least, we have some sense, intuition, or hunch that this is so.
Morality consists in bringing together values and human nature and the nature of the social world. Moral language is a practical kind of discourse that concerns itself with a question like, “What should we do?” It guides choices as to what to do when we are faced with certain alternative courses of action. It seeks to guide conduct and alter behavior or attitudes. Practical discourse concerns human conduct. Attitudes, advice or appraisal of conduct is not always moral. Moral discourse seeks altering feeling and guide actions so that people can live together in harmony. It seeks to bring our independent desires and needs into some manageable peaceful coexistence. Moral rules intend to allow as many people as possible to achieve as much as possible of whatever it is that they want. We only seek to achieve those desires that are compatible with our other desires or with the desires of other people. Morality is social. Duty is a choice in the context of how our conduct will affect the life another member of the community. Moral discourse is objective in the sense that they do not apply exclusively to the speaker or to a class of people but include potentially all persons. The rational element that moves toward communication with others predominates in moral discourse. It seeks the universal and impartial. Moral discourse guides conduct and alters behavior to achieve the harmonious satisfaction of as many independent desires and wants as possible. Moral discourse is universal in that every culture contains it. Why? We all want to be able to lie down at night in peace and sleep. We need some social mechanism that will curb our personal desires so they will fit into social and asocial patterns. We are social animals; we will have conflicting desires and goals; we will not attain them all. We need some impartial mechanism to adjudicate these desires and strivings so that humanity can live together in reasonable harmony. Moral discourse is the means we use to harmonize desire and goal in the context of community.
Practical philosophy is not knowledge of the right thing to do in a given situation, in the way that mathematical and scientific knowledge is. Practical philosophy is not a theoretical science in the modern sense, in which we might apply a theory to practice in natural science. Practical philosophy is more like knowledge of cures. Any talk of the application of theory to practice would presuppose a separation between the theory and lived practice. Such a separation does not exist here. The ideal of an objective theory, neutral concerning all the interest at stake in any practical application of it, is not my objective. The theoretical doctrine has to be of use in practice. Practical philosophy is useful in the way it is useful for an archer to pick out a definite point on the target at which to take aim. This way he will score a better hit. One is better able to keep one’s aim fixed in the right direction when one can set one’s sights on a specially targeted point instead of on a larger object. The theoretical instruction that can be given in practical philosophy puts in one’s hands no rules that one could follow in order to hit what is right in accordance with an art. After all, taking aim does not constitute by any means the whole of archery. One has to have learned how to handle the bow, and whoever wishes to profit from practical philosophy must be trained for it in the right way. Only then is practical philosophy of use in decision making. It assists our concrete, practical ability to size things up insofar as it makes it easier to recognize in what direction we must look and to what things we must pay attention. One does not rely on the theoretical generalities of practical philosophy in the way that one relies on a rule. What is the existential status of moral rules, and how can we be said to know them when we apply them? The methodological models of the mathematical sciences and technology are misplaced here. For the being of the rule or ethical principle is not like that of the being of something that is always apart from its instance and toward which the latter may be said to strive, even while nevertheless always falling short. Rules in ethics have their reality only in the tradition of their applications, instances, or interpretations. Each of these is an enlargement of reality. This understanding of the reality of ethical rules requires that we revise our conception of how we know them. We do not know them as we know the clear and distinct mathematical realities. We know them only in a limited way from within the tradition of their applications, in which we always already find ourselves under way. Consequently, the same measure of exactitude is not to be expected here as in the mathematical sciences and technology. Indeed, this kind of rigor would be disastrous. Understanding moral principles is not being a stickler for the rules. Judicious discretion is faithfulness to the tradition, adjusts to the particularities of the given case. Practical philosophy cannot guarantee that one will hit the target in a specific case.
The goal of ethical reflection is practical. Therefore, the life of which we write must be within our capabilities. Further, it must be a life that, as we deliberate, we can choose. It must be a plan of life that we survive in such a life. A human being must be able to live this life. Good and valuable things may not be so relatively to all imaginable ways and conditions of life. The good of some genuine values may be relative to context and no less good for that fact. The values that constitute a good human life are plural and incomparable. A perception of particular cases takes precedence over general rules and accounts. For any given piece of deliberation, it must be about something, which is itself not up for question in that particular piece of deliberation. However, within the piece of deliberation, I can ask both for means to that end and for a further specification of the end. This conception demands comparability. Something can be an end in itself and at the same time be a valued constituent in a larger or more inclusive end. This particularity of ethical life leads to vulnerability. The rules and universal principles are guidelines or rules of thumb. They summarize particular decisions, useful for purposes of economy and aids in identifying the salient features of the particular case. In deciding to work with such principles, we would be acknowledging that people whom we revere as people of practical wisdom have judged choices of this sort appropriate. Principles are descriptive summaries of good judgments valid only to the extent to which the correctly describe such judgments. They are normative only insofar as they transmit in economical form the normative force of the good concrete decisions of the wise person and because we wish for various reasons to be guided by that person’s choices. The simplicity of such principles aides in teaching and guiding functions, as well as make it less correct as a summary of complex choices.
This view allows for the contingent features of the case at hand to be authoritative over principle. It keeps us in a significant sense at the mercy of luck. A new, unexpected, or even idiosyncratic feature can cause us to revise the rule. This theory has room for surprise, room for both the cognitive insecurity and human vulnerability. In this sense, ethical principles are non-technical and non-scientific. Practical wisdom uses rules only as summaries and guides. It must be flexible, ready for surprise, prepared to see, resourceful as improvisation. The crucial prerequisite for practical wisdom is a long experience of life that yields an ability to understand and grasp the salient features, the practical meaning, of the concrete particulars.
The person of practical wisdom is a person of good character; a person who has internalized through early training certain ethical values and a cert conception of the good human life. He or she will focus upon friendship, justice, courage, moderation, and generosity. The character of people and their value commitments are what that person is; personal continuity requires a high degree of continuity in the general nature of these commitments. This continuous basis goes a long way towards explaining what that person can and will see in the new situation: an occasion for courage, for generous giving, and for justice. This conception is open to revision even at the highest level. This revision may come from the perceptions embodied in new experience. The general conception is not inclusive of everything that is of relevance. The particular case would not be intelligible without the guiding and sorting power of the principles.
Any theory must have testable qualities. The difficulty we have is that ethical theory must both persuade people intellectually and invite people to live by it. The test becomes social life and the ability to persuade. Such tests require pluralism, freedom, and a community of persons who are potential adherents to the theory and the form of life it commends. What one thinks about the subject matter of ethical thought, what one supposes it to be about, must itself affect what tests for acceptability or coherence are appropriate to it. The use of those tests must affect any substantive ethical results. The use of certain tests and patterns of argument can imply one rather than another view of what ethical thought is.
Moral philosophy must consider what must be said if a particular philosophy of language or philosophy of social explanation is true. It should track the truth. How are we to understand the relations between practice and reflection? Does the practice of the society, in particular, the judgments that members of the society make imply answers to reflective questions about that practice, questions they have never raised?
Even in the area of norms and standards, we need to accept the importance of future verification or falsification. The truth of moral judgments will not be clear today. Those who propose ethical theory, as well as specific action, do so at the bar of history and of future verification or falsification. Moral judgments imply a claim to be objective and rationally justified or valid. Such judgments claim that they will stand up under scrutiny by oneself or others in the light of the most careful thinking and the best knowledge. They also imply that rival judgments will not stand up to such a test. Morality involves the evaluation of lives, forms of life, traits, motives, decisions, and so on. Ethical judgment and inference does not yield demonstrative ethical knowledge. Yet, in this, it is like many other kinds of respected and fallible cognitive enterprises. Every judgment in ethical discourse is open to conversational challenge. Ethics has no analytic truths about the nature of the good. It has no interesting demonstrative arguments for what ought to be done.
The aim of theory is not simply to understand conflict. The aim of ethical theory is to resolve the conflict. It should give some compelling reason to accept one intuition rather than another. The question is: how can any ethical theory have the authority to do that? Only one answer to the question makes sense. Reason draws ethical thought in the direction of theory and systematization. Clearly, theory has a strong hold on ethics. As rational beings, we develop reasons for believing and behaving the way we do. We act in certain ways because of deliberation, as a way of thinking about our behavior and its consequences. Such reasoning involves psychological and emotional health, the kind of family relationships we have, the kind of job or career we will develop, the development of an overall plan of life, the development of character and moral action, and our beliefs. Such reasoning suggests striving toward consistency in thought. We desire a fit between the impartiality that reason requires, the requirements of life together, and our natural inclination to care about others.
Can theory in some other way be a product of the demand for rationality? Practices that make distinctions between different groups of people demand justification because we are not content with unreflective traditions that can provide paradigms of prejudice. Those prejudices seem irrational. Rationality requires criticism and removal of what is not justified. How can such reflections not eventually lead us to ethical theory? The first question is how far what is wrong in such practices is wrong because it is irrational. Reflective criticism should go in a direction opposite to that encouraged by ethical theory. Theory looks for considerations that are general and have as little distinctive content as possible, because it is trying to systematize and because it wants to represent as many reasons as possible as applications of other reasons.
Yet, theory must give up on the foundationalist enterprise of resting the structure of knowledge on some favored class of statements. Any ethical theory must simply live within the sphere of moral language and offer its gift in that context. Even though matters like human nature, psychological assessment and personality, authenticity, and care, all precede ethical considerations, they do not form a foundation outside ethics that determine what ethical discourse should take. Rather, ethics is part of the human enterprise. In thinking about the foundations of moral belief, we explore whether we can objectively justify any ethical code or any moral code. Simply thinking something is right or wrong does not make it so.
Ethical reflection has the intention of governing action. We try to find out how to live and how to arrange social institutions. Science has the luxury of finding an increasingly adequate picture of the world as it is. Ethical reflection has the ambitious project of inviting discourse on how the world and one’s life ought to be. Ethics has a connection to motivation and to goals in human behavior. Biology does not have the tools to give us this picture, even if it can provide a context to understand better what is. Ethics has its sphere of interest and argumentation, while biology has its sphere. Although they may overlap, they are not the same.
The central problem of ethical reflection is how the lives, interests, and welfare of others make claims on us and how we reconcile those claims with the aim of living our own lives. Ethical reflection will need to define both the moral life and the good life, living well and doing right. Although in most cases the two operate in harmony, most of us recognize that the moral life will trump the good life. The shape of a moral theory depends on the interplay of forces in a culture. Given the advances in technology, that culture is now global. How do complex, rational beings live well together in such a setting? This view requires a theory of the institutions under which people live, for cultural institutions largely determine individual starting points, the choices individuals can make, and the consequences for what they do. Among the most important tasks of political thought and action is to arrange the social world so that everyone can live a good life without doing wrong, injuring others, benefiting unfairly from their misfortune, and so on.
We experience a note of urgency when we ask for a justification of morality. It is not obvious what a justification of the ethical life should try to do, or why we should need such a thing. We should ask pretended justification three questions: to whom do we address it; from where do we address it; against what criteria do we address it? People may grant them force, and so not be a skeptic, but still not think that they constitute knowledge because they do not think that the point lies in their being knowledge. Moral claims can be true and known to be true through rationally argued statements of belief, even if the source of such arguments are feeling, intuition, imagination, and other traditionally non-rational sources. If we cannot make rational arguments for our moral commitments and test them against differing views, all we have is the strength of feeling, and thus often pure power, to assert one moral commitment over another.
Any effort to reason calmly and constructively about the foundations of the moral life may serve, not merely to clarify our minds, but to give vigor to our deeds. Our restlessness implies a sense of our need to revise moral standards; it is a good thing. I do not believe that unsettlement is finality. Nor to my mind is the last word of human wisdom this: that the truth is inaccessible. Nor yet is the last word of wisdom this: that the truth is merely fluent and transient. The on-going cultural dialogue in a free society reshapes the norms of society. Morality is the effort to guide our conduct by that for which we have the best reasons for doing, while not being arbitrary as to who will benefit by one’s conduct.
There is no route to the impartial standpoint from rational deliberation alone, as Kant’s considerations demand. Utilitarian writers often start with a plea for equal consideration of everyone’s interests, and then extend this upward to ideals and downward to mere tastes. However, what are the attractions of such universal pictures? What is the pressure toward such theoretical structures? The reductive undertaking is wrongheaded. The reductive enterprise has no justification. The project rests on an assumption about rationality, to the effect that people cannot rationally weigh two considerations against each other unless there is a common consideration in terms of which people can compare them. This assumption is at once powerful and baseless. The drive toward a rationalistic conception of rationality comes instead from social features of the modern world, which impose on personal deliberation and on the idea of practical reason itself a model drawn from a particular understanding of public rationality. The thought of Socrates was that the good life must have reflection as part of its goodness: the unexamined life is not worth living. We may think that we can see the world as it is only from the outside. We want some degree of objectivity. However, is such objectivity even possible for science? Although I think such objectivity is a worthy ambition for science, this would not make it an attractive or appropriate place in which to rest our ethical consciousness. The difference between practical and theoretical reason is one basis for me to suggest this. Further, the scientific understanding of the world incorporates the recognition that we occupy no special position in it.
I would like to suggest a holistic type of model, in which we question, justify, or adjust some beliefs while we keep others constant. However, no process can question all beliefs at once, or all justified in terms of nothing. We repair the ship while we are on the sea (Neurath). In ethical reflection, we may show how a given practice hangs together with other practices in a way that makes social and psychological sense. We may not be able to find anything that will meet a demand for justification made by someone standing outside those practices. We may not be able to justify it to ourselves.
Rumi says it well:
A friend remarks to the Prophet, “Why is it
I get screwed in business deals?
It’s like a spell. I become distracted
By business talk and make wrong decisions.”
Muhammad replies, “Stipulate with every transaction
That you need three days to make sure.”
Deliberation is one of the qualities of God.
Throw a dog a bit of something,
He sniffs to see if he wants it.
Be that careful.
Sniff with your wisdom-nose.
Get clear. Then decide.
The universe came into being gradually
Over six days. God could have just commanded,
Little by little a person reaches forty and fifty
And sixty, and feels more complete. God could have thrown
Full-blown prophets flying through the cosmos in a instant.
Jesus said one word, and a dead man sat up,
But creation usually unfolds,
Like calm breakers.
Constant, slow movement teaches us to keep working
Like a small creek that stays clear,
That doesn’t stagnate, but finds a way
Through numerous details, deliberately.
The human communities in which one directly lives ethical life is family, religious communities, work environment, and local community. Such local action leads to an influence in a hierarchical way to the top of the cultural system. However, what occurs at the top, in terms of economic and political leaders, influences beliefs and values throughout the cultural system. One must be able to live ethical theory and life at that level, or it does not prove to be a viable theory.
The surface rhetoric of our culture is apt to speak complacently of moral pluralism in this connection, but the notion of pluralism is too imprecise. Pluralism in ethical judgments among individuals and culture is an obvious fact. In some cases, the differences mean little. Some differences are only apparent, and await further context to show their commonality. Yet, the human capacity to reflect upon what we believe and do, to engage genuine difference in the ethical lives of other individuals and cultures, suggests that relativism does not carry the weight its proponents suggest. Our capacity to make moral progress and to reform self and culture all suggest that relativism, while it has its place, does not end ethical discourse. Pluralism without the context provided by citizenship and our cultivation of our common humanity becomes nothing more than a battle for power in which the powerful, by definition, must win. The rhetoric of our culture may equally well apply to an ordered dialogue of intersecting viewpoints and to an unharmonious mélange of ill-assorted fragments. The suspicion that it is the latter with which we have to deal is heightened when we recognize that all those various concepts that inform our moral discourse were originally at home in larger totalities of theory and practice in which they enjoyed a role and function supplied by contexts of which they have now been deprived. Contemporary moral argument is rationally interminable, because all moral, indeed all evaluative, argument is and always must be rationally interminable. The project of providing a rational vindication of morality has decisively failed.
Though reality is pluralism in ethics, this does not mean that all ethical systems are the same, as the theory of ethical relativism assumes. Every generation is accountable to the landmarks in the tradition that help define ethics and morality. This view cannot even engage in moral discourse. Without reasons, we are not making moral judgments at all; we arbitrarily do what we feel. Therefore, no individual and no generation can be arrogant enough to assume that it has the right to re-define morality. Our capacity for self-deception is far too high to go that direction. Previous generations had their blind spots. We see them clearly. We do not tend to see our own sins quite so clearly. Human civilization makes errors along the way. Humanity has a way of correcting those errors, mostly through freedom to innovate and test alternative theories. Society has an interest in encouraging the development of moral persons and encouraging moral decisions. We could hardly encourage the conditions for a satisfactory human life for people living in groups without it. However, does morality always work toward the good of the individual? Though we can make a case that this would generally be true, we cannot say that it is always true. At times, the moral decision will work to the disadvantage of the individual.
Can there be ethical knowledge? How does ethical knowledge compare with scientific knowledge? Objectivity in moral philosophy consists in comparing ethical beliefs with knowledge and claims to truth of other kinds. They start from considerations about disagreement. However, disagreement is far from surprising. In relation to ethics, we find genuine and profound difference. The difference is enough to motivate some version of the feeling that science has some chance of being more or less what it seems, a systematized theoretical account of how the world really is, while ethical thought has no chance of being everything it seems. We can come to understand in what this disagreement consists through understanding disagreement. The basic difference lies in our reflective understanding of the best hopes we could coherently entertain for eliminating disagreement in the two areas. What would be the best explanation of convergence?
The fundamental difference lies between the ethical and the scientific. In a scientific inquiry, there should be convergence on an answer, where the best explanation of the convergence involves the idea that the answer represents how things are. In the area of the ethical, we have no such coherent hope of describing how things actually are. An absolute conception of the world as independent of our experience we must distinguish from the world as we see it. This view depends upon notions of explanation. Science contributes to explaining how creatures with our origins and characteristics can understand a world with properties that this same science ascribes to the world. The ethical is the opposite of converging on how things are. Ethical reflection and reasons for action relate to each other. What reason we have for action, and to whom, depends on the situation. Solving moral problems is largely a matter of weighing up the reasons that we can give for various alternatives. Concepts like coward, lie, brutality, gratitude, and so on, help to guide action. The world also guides the application of these concepts. How can they be both at once?
The concept of ethical knowledge is an ambiguous one. At a practical and unreflective level, at the level of local ethical concepts, we can speak of people having ethical knowledge. However, as soon as we rise to a reflective level, we discover that reflection can destroy knowledge, a concept Socrates would not like. If we allow knowledge at a practical level, all prepositional knowledge is additive, rather than a combination of pieces of knowledge into a larger body of knowledge. What we seek in ethical reflection is a method for finding our way around the social world in which we live, unless we live in an extremely disordered world. Is this a good way of living compared with others? Alternatively, is this the best kind of social world? The reflective account requires reflective ethical considerations.
Normative statements prescribe what is consistent with what is good for us, and corresponds to genuine human needs. We judge moral statements based on their conformity to right desire or motive. Moral and ethical life depends upon the development of character, who a person is, rather than what a person does. For example, suppose someone does a good deed. You discover the person was motivated by power or wealth alone. The deed is still good, but you no longer consider it a moral or ethical act. You make this decision because of motive.
We place our moral judgments into the public arena for rational scrutiny and discussion, claiming that they will hold up under such scrutiny and discussion and that our audience will concur with us if they will also choose the same common point of view. Such a person does not claim an actual consensus. Such a person does claim that in the end, which either never comes or comes on the divine Day of Judgment, his or her position will be verified. Such verification will come by those who freely and clear-headedly review the relevant facts from the moral point of view. Such a person claims an ideal consensus that transcends majorities and actual societies.
We can make good judgments without being able to give total justification. Given sometimes conflicting moral values, we may not be able to justify a particular course of action in a particular situation, even though this does not mean the decision without meaning. Proceeding beyond explicit rational justification is a reasonable course of action, as long as one listens to a morally developed intuition of the rightness of one’s course of action. Aristotle called this practical wisdom. Just as we will unlikely find a single theory for developing what we believe, we will unlikely find a single theory for ethical decisions.
I would like to offer the notion of importance. Moral systems typically have an intimidating structure built around obligation. Rather, obligation is simply one type of ethical consideration among others. This can help lead us out of the moral system altogether. The concept of obligation impinges directly upon importance and deliberative priority. We have a variety of things that are simply important (without out moral significance) and we must distinguish what is important from questions of deliberative priority. Ethical life is important, but it can see that things other than itself are important. What should be people be able to rely on? We can think of others not killing us or of others not using us as a resource, and on having some space, objects, and relations with other people they can count as their own. We can think of others not lying to us. One way we serve these ends is by some kind of ethical life. Ethical life can encourage certain dispositions and motivations to give the relevant considerations a high deliberative priority. An effective way for us to rule out actions is that they never come to our process of thought. One does not feel easy with the politician or businessperson who says of rivals, “Of course, we could have them killed, but we should lay that aside right now.”
My central thesis is that ideals are important, notwithstanding their impracticability, because of their capacity to guide thought and action in beneficial directions. Something significant is at stake. We must base the study of virtues and vices on a proper appreciation of the fundamental role of moral ideals and aspirations.
While adopting an impossible goal is often foolish, there are nevertheless some cases where it is the course of wisdom rather than folly. Yet, how can something be a sensible person’s goal if seen as unattainable? The answer is that it suffices to see this as something for which we might devoutly wish and to bend thoughts and efforts toward its realization. The salient aspect of impossible goals is that the ultimate outcome is not contingent. Failure in goal attainment is a foregone conclusion. All the same, the benefits of pursuit may simply outweigh the negativities of failure. However, does the pursuit of an unattainable goal not automatically entail certain negativities, such as inevitable failure, frustration, and dissatisfaction, which vitiate the whole process? The appropriate answer must grant that this is indeed bout to happen to some extent. Yet, the real issue is one of relative weight. Do these bad effects of failure outweigh the presumed good effects of adopting and pursuing that goal? Here the answer is possibly yes, though by no means necessarily so. There will certainly be cases where the balance of benefit favors the adoption of an unachievable goal. Rationality is a matter of the intelligent exploitation of our opportunities in the cultivation of the good, and nothing prevents the pursuit of impossible goals from forming an integral part of this overall effort. The quixotic pursuit of a recognizably lost causes can instantiate that seeming foolishness which is allied to genius. These deliberations indicate that a cogent rationale for adopting and pursuing an unattainable goal can be developed along the following two lines. First, as a component element of a holistically unified, wider goal structure, this also incorporates other appropriate desiderata that indeed are achievable. Second, as a way to maximize actual achievement in circumstances where the adoption of other cognate goals that are less ambitious and more realistic would actually be less productive.
We do not abrogate an obligation by the impossibility of its accomplishment. It would be appropriate to demand a system of ethical rules that did not permit this sort of inconsistency to arise. Moral dissonance is not disaster. An insistence on rules that did not allow this to occur would actually be counterproductive and contrary to reason, because the prospect of allowing moral dilemmas and inconsistent obligations, of admitting ethical contradictions, serves an important positive function in any viable system of moral rules. The idea that consistency is a basic requisite of rationality is accepted without question on virtually every side. However, this widely prevalent idea fails to reckon properly with the profound difference in the way that the conception of inconsistency is generally applied to rules on the one hand and to theses on the other. The salient point is simply this: you ought always to do your duty and fulfill your obligations. Sometimes you just cannot because unforeseen circumstances preclude. Your failure to discharge it becomes excusable. Moral dilemmas can be perfectly real. Obligations can collide, contrary to Kant. In such cases, a failure to honor obligations may well entail no personal fault. We arrive at a recognition of the tragic condition of humanity. There will be circumstances in which we must excuse such defaults because we simply cannot do as we ought. Obligation, commitment, and responsibility can outrun the reach of the possible. Moral dilemmas are misfortunes that lead to remorse, self-reproach, regret, and residual duties. Ought does not entail must. Having a certain duty does not automatically constitute a preponderant moral reason for action. The fact that some duties overshadow or suppress others does not mean that these others are annihilated and set at naught. They remain living and active. They ought to be obeyed and honored, even though in the circumstances they need not be because conflicting duties momentarily overshadow them. Moral dilemmas are real and painful precisely because those conflicting duties all remain alive, active, and unsatisfied. An ought may well survive and persist even after cannot enters upon the scene.
We can pursue ideals only within the limits of the possible in a complex and imperfect world. Things can go awry through the neglect of due balance in the pursuit of perfectly sound and appropriate values. Health is a question of harmony and balance. While values should be cultivated, they never deserve total dedication and absolute priority, because this would mean an unacceptable sacrifice of other ideals. We need to have a spirit of compromise and some mutual accommodation. Betrayal of an ideal is something else. It is a matter of sacrificing it for unworthy reasons, such as greed, convenience, conformity, and so on.
To attain the limits of the possibilities inherent in our powers and potentialities, we must aim beyond them. Ideals are visionary, unrealistic, and utopian. By viewing the world in the light of their powerful illumination, we see it even more vividly and critically. Our ideals ask too much of us. We cannot attain perfection in the life of this world. Are ideals irrational? We must reckon with the standard gap between aspiration and attainment. We may strive for perfection, but we cannot ever claim to attain it. It is important for a person to have guiding ideals. A life without ideals need not be a life without purpose, but it will be a life without purposes of a sort in which one can appropriately take reflective satisfaction. People for whom values matter so little that they have no ideals are condemned to wander through life disoriented, without guiding beacons to furnish that sense of direction that gives meaning and pint to the whole enterprise. Someone who lacks ideals suffers an impoverishment of spirit for which no other resources can adequately compensate.
The hope for truthfulness is essentially that ethical thought should stand up to reflection, and that its institutions and practices should be capable of becoming transparent. Ethical thought has no chance of being everything it seems. Expression does not consist in giving us the other’s interiority. Others who express themselves precisely do not give themselves, and accordingly retains the freedom to lie. Deceit and veracity already presuppose the absolute authenticity of the other, the privileged case of a presentation of being foreign to the alternative of truth and non-truth. We are unknown to ourselves, us who view ourselves as so knowledgeable. We have never sought ourselves, so how could we ever find ourselves. So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not comprehend ourselves; we have to misunderstand ourselves. We are not people of knowledge with respect to ourselves. Rumi suggests,
There is nothing worse
Than thinking you are well enough.
More than anything, self-complacency
Blocks the workmanship.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.
Virtue is a power or capacity and always a specific one. The virtue of a thing or being is what constitutes its vale, its distinctive excellence. The good knife is the one that excels at cutting, the good medicine at curing, and the good poison at killing. Human virtue is the capacity to affirm our own excellence, our humanity. We identify those qualities that make us more human. We have a desire for humanity without which moral life would be impossible. We acquire virtue as a disposition to do what is good. It is the effort to act well, with the effort itself being virtue. The virtues are moral values that we embody, live, and enact. Aristotle said that a virtue is a summit between vices; to think about virtue is to take measure of the distance separating us from them; to think about their excellence is to think about our own inadequacies or wretchedness. We can be thankful to religion, to Christianity, and to modernity, that the virtue Aristotle reserved for gifted individuals has transferred to all persons.
What I will attempt to do is combine a theory of right action with that of moral character. Moral problems concern what we should do.
Virtue does not determine what we should do in particular circumstances. A theory of virtue can only supplement a theory of action. The virtue theory, taken alone, cannot explain why these particular virtues are important. Although individual virtues may conflict in specific circumstances, where we must make choices, moral reflection allows us to value all the virtues, even where we must make choices of one value over another. Further, those circumstances in which virtues conflict are not as difficult as might appear. The virtues develop a foundation of character that, when virtues conflict, we can trust the person to do what, in their judgment is right action.
I do not separate virtues from their purpose, namely, a reasonably happy life that consists of the weaving the struggle to actualize the virtues in a life which has narrative unity. The combination of character as a foundation and the end of narrative unity that has virtue provides the context within which we initiate action in the present. We can trust that process generally to enable individuals to do right actions in circumstances within which virtues conflict. I do not contend that right action always has a corresponding virtue as a reason for it. In fact, we often reason toward moral decisions by uniquely combining virtues to help us provide such reasons, usually at the service of what is best for oneself or most conforms to lessening suffering and increasing pleasure.
Virtue cannot be a total theory of ethics, which must begin by taking human welfare as the surpassingly important value. Liberal democracy provides the freedom within which people can make their own decisions as to what will lead to reasonably happy and satisfying lives. It provides the appropriate context within which individuality and community have their dialectical dance in family, civil society, and democratic political institutions. The question the virtue tradition focuses upon is the kind of character needed to create and sustain reasonably happy and satisfying individual lives.
Virtue theory opens one to the need to compare and contrast the ways in which live their lives. This capacity is an important biological function of the brain. The development of the mind gives people the ability to observe the lives of others and learn from them. It also means discriminating or making judgments concerning one’s observations of the lives of others. One chooses to live like one person, and reject the form of life of another. Such learning is vital maturity. Maturity slowly leads to conscious decisions to adopt the form of life of one’s parents, or to reject it. In an educational system, one learns far more than simply a subject matter of the class from the professor. The teacher also exhibits a form of life that attracts or repels the student.
However, such a capacity can also turn into ugliness. One can become judgmental in the process of making judgments about one’s own life through comparing and contrasting the lives of others. Such observation needs to have genuine love and care for the persons from whom one learns, whether one learns by positive or negative example.
A theory of virtue will have several components.
First, there should be an explanation of what a virtue is. A virtue is a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, which it is a good for a person to have.
To formulate a tentative definition of a virtue, consider the following. A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goals that are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods. By practice, I mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence that are appropriate to that form of activity. The concept of virtue requires for its application the acceptance for some prior account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which people have to define and explain it. We define our relationship to each other by reference to standards of truthfulness and trust, so we define them too by reference to standards of justice and of courage. To enter into a practice is to enter into a relationship not only with its contemporary practitioners, but also with those who have preceded us in the practice. It is thus the achievement, and the authority, of a tradition that I then confront and from which I have to learn.
Second and third, it should list specific character traits that are virtuous and it should explain of what these virtues consist. I will share what a meditation upon a list of virtues I consider significant. I hope they are consistent with the best of the religious traditions.
In the Christian tradition, developing lists of sins and virtues are common. Paul includes his ethical instruction at the end of most of his letters. They are essentially lists of specific qualities or behavior that he believes give evidence of Christian maturity. Here are three of the most well-know lists.
Philippians 4:8-9 (NRSV)
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Galatians 5:19-23 (NRSV)
19 Now the works of the
flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry,
sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21
envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as
I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
Romans 1:18-32 (NRSV)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
The idea of listing sins arose out of the monastic movement. John Cassian contributed to this trend. However, only in the 5OO’s did Pope Gregory the Great finalize the list of seven deadly sins. The list has served well the needs of the monastery, of course. It has also provided spiritual guidance for all persons. The seven deadly sins are the following.
Pride is the lack of humility befitting a creation of God.
Greed is too great a desire for money or possessions.
Lust is impure and unworthy desire for something evil.
Anger is unworthy irritation and lack of self-control.
Gluttony is the habit of eating or drinking too much.
Envy, is jealousy of some other person’s happiness.
Sloth is laziness that keeps us from doing our duty to God and people.
The seven capital virtues of the Orthodox Church:
The theological virtues, as rooted in the New Testament are
Fourth, a virtue theory should explain why these qualities are good ones for us to have.
Human life is rich and complex. Each individual is part of a larger cultural setting, a local community, and a particular family story. A whole human life has a social context that allows for enough freedom to live out one’s best life. A whole human life has setting in a local community and family that provides enough nourishment to sustain life physically and socially. A whole human life includes provision for this body and for those closest to us. Each human life has an orientation toward the best life he or she can lead. Yet, family, community, and culture can significantly depress this orientation. This orientation toward the best human life, a well-lived and reasonably happy human life, is the reason virtue becomes significant. Virtue does not define such a well-lived human life. Rather, virtue is a component that can lead to a happy life. Developing a rational plan for one’s life means we intentionally orient our lives toward maximizing the potential we have for the best-lived human life we can lead. This plan recognizes the limits placed upon us by culture, community, and family, even while critically evaluating those limits. A rational plan recognizes the various components of a reasonably happy human life. One is regard for the worth and dignity of oneself as the unique gift one has to offer others. Two is the choice of marriage partner and family. Three is the nature of the work in which one will invest one’s interest and passion. Four is the area of values: how one expresses feeling, uses the material goods of life, and relates to the people in one’s life. Five is one’s response to adversity and random happenings in life, recognizing that one’s small slice of time and space is part of a larger whole. Consequently, individual virtues are part of this plan for one’s life, and are virtues only in relationship to this richness of human experience and life.
Well-being is important. It matters how well our lives go. Well-being is not a good separate from other values and is not a master value. We best understand well-being as an inclusive good, and among the things that make a life more successful, and hence better for the person who lives it; it is the successful pursuit of worthwhile goals. Although successful pursuit of all these goals contributes to the agent’s well-being, this contribution is not always what makes them worthwhile. A reason to value something is a reason for us to value it; a reason to adopt certain attitudes toward it and to allow the idea of respect for that value to shape our lives in certain ways.
Fifth, a virtue theory should tell us whether the virtues are the same for all people, or whether they differ from culture to culture.
Critical reflection should seek for as much shared understanding as it can find on any issue, and use any ethical material that makes sense and commands some loyalty. This approach takes some things for granted. The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection. We have to live during it as well. Theory typically uses the assumption that we probably have too many ethical ideas, some of which may well turn out to be mere prejudices. Our real problem is that we have too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can. Since all of us have beliefs upon which we have not reflected, all of us live with prejudices.
Feeling is thought for which the person who has the feeling may not yet have words. Human beings need to come to a judgment concerning their feelings as to the nature of the thought struggling for expression. This requires discipline of feeling so that one has the opportunity to listen to the feeling, consider its rational basis, and then express it.
For example, self-control is a virtue.
The ascetic is an example of immense self-control. Such people deny bodily pleasure in order to attain some perceived spiritual objective. The ascetic denies aesthetic pleasures, such as making love, developing a taste for the best food, developing taste for the arts, to beautify one’s surroundings, and so on. The ascetic denies the core value of this earthly life, as well as this bodily life, in favor of an infinite an eternal life in the realm of spirit.
The self-indulgence is an example of the lack of self-control. The pleasures of this bodily life are all that matter. In fact, satisfying every possible passion and whim is all that seems to matter. Persons may over-indulge in food. They may over-indulge in alcohol. Persons devoted to as much sex and sexual partners as possible, to eating everything they enjoy in the amounts they desire, surrounding oneself with every luxury possible, would be examples of self-indulgence.
People often have a tendency to seek excessive and immediate pleasure. Other people will deny themselves any pleasure in this life, and believe that they do not deserve any. Self-control involves developing the habit of self-discipline. One takes a somewhat polemical attitude toward oneself. In the self exercising control over the self, it moderates the intensity of desires and pleasures. This virtue develops the habit of training and teaching ourselves to be in reality the person we say we want to be. This is the private, internal victory that we need. We wage battle against those self-destructive and deceptive forces that reside within us. We become our own teacher, trainer, coach, and disciplinarian. We disciple ourselves. Without self-control, we may feel enslaved to self-destructive forces. Too often, we say to ourselves, “If only I had stopped myself” The failure to control tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses has led to much personal distress. The control we achieve over ourselves gives us increased control over our destiny. This is freedom. We determine the course and development of our lives. Self-discipline helps us determine the priorities we attach to ourselves, to the people around us, to God, to society, and to material things.
Prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues of the Middle Ages, makes it possible to deliberate correctly on what is good or bad for us, and through such deliberation to act appropriately. It is good sense in the service of good will. It is modest and instrumental. We enlist it to serve ends that are not its own. It presupposes uncertainty, risk, chance, and the unknown. One deliberates only when one has a choice to make, when no proof is possible or adequate. This virtue assumes the freedom and responsibility the person has for making choices. Prudence considers the future, recognizing all the while that how we confront it depends on us. A virtue of the present, prudence is primarily forward looking and anticipatory. One cannot live in the moment. Prudence is the art of taking into account the uncertain future, its obstacles and detours. Freud calls it the reality principle. It is about enjoying as much and suffering as little as possible, while still taking into account the constraints and uncertainties of reality. It is about enjoying and suffering intelligently; it takes the place of instinct in animals. It determines what to choose and what to avoid. It is a virtue as it serves honorable ends. Prudence stands in faithfulness to the future.
Temperance is not about enjoying less but about enjoying better. Temperance promises purer or more fulfilling pleasures. It is enlightened, mastered, and cultivated taste. Temperance is that moderation that allows us to be masters of our pleasure instead of becoming its slaves. It is free enjoyment and hence better enjoyment, for it enjoys its own freedom as well. The intemperate person is like a slave. Temperance is prudence applied to pleasure. The point is to enjoy as much as possible as well as is possible. We especially need this virtue when times are good, it is a virtue for the ordinary, a virtue for moderation.
Another example in the discipline of feeling is the virtue of courage.
I suppose the reckless person shows courage of a sort, but not as a virtue. One who is never afraid is a rash or reckless person. The murderer and criminal can display courage. This person shows no fear, but in a way that shows little virtue. The reckless shows little value in this life or the value of the lives of others one risks.
The coward is the one who allows fear to rule their life. The coward refuses to take risks or to stand firm for what he or she believes. Fear paralyzes us into inaction, even that of flight.
This virtue has its origin in classical literature for the courage soldiers show in battle. In all of the virtue lists in the New Testament, this virtue does not occur. One can see examples of courage in the text. Jesus remaining true to himself and what he taught as he faced certain death is an example of courage. The apostle Paul faced death by whipping three times. Yet, the New Testament and the first two centuries of Christian writing did not consider courage as a virtue, largely because of its association with the quality needed in battle. David showed courage as he fought for his victories over Philistines. Soldiers have shown courage in the face of certain death and defeat throughout history. The virtue of courage reminds us that things in which we believe and values we have are important enough for us to die for them. Some beliefs and values are more important than the continued existence of this bodily life.
We face fear and inspire confidence in others. Those who face fear and fear the right things from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence, become courageous people. We become courageous people by doing courageous things. We build virtue into our lives through practice. Fear is normal when confronted with fearful things. As Starbuck said in Moby Dick, “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale.” Courage has a low sensitivity to fear, either because the individual feels it minimally or because the individual withstands it. Courage triumphs over fear, or at least attempts to, and any such attempt is already an act of courage.
That which we respect about courage, and which has its culmination in self-sacrifice, is the acceptance or incurring of risk without selfish motivation. Courage is a form of altruism in the sense of distancing from self, acting on behalf of others even at cost to oneself.
We admire courage in anyone
psychologically or sociologically. It becomes morally admirable when it at
least partially is in the service of others and more or less free of immediate
self-interest. Courageous behavior on the part of one person can inspire
others. As a virtue, courage presupposes some form of selflessness, altruism,
or generosity. That is the key to Horatius at the bridge in ancient
Hope gives strength to courage. Yet, true heroes face the certainty of death and defeat. This is the courage of the vanquished, a courage no less great than the courage of victors. Why fight in such cases? Because it would be unworthy of us not to.
Each individual has one human life to lead, in this time, in this space, and in this body. The uniqueness of each individual means that what we do with the material goods we possess matters. How it matters is part of what it means to build character, which is what virtue seeks to build.
Productive work is another virtue.
Becoming overly stressed about work, even obsessed about it, to the exclusion of everything else, can bring abundantly productive work. Yet, it hardly constitutes a virtue.
Idleness, laziness, or sloth, is one of the seven cardinal sins noted in the Roman Catholic Church. Laziness is not the possession of any economic class. I have heard about the idle rich. Often, the productive work that leads to wealth in one generation creates idleness in the next, and the wealth of that family passes to other families eventually. Too often, idleness is the reason someone is poor. Unless one has severe mental or physical disability, people have the capacity to provide a living for themselves and contribute to the livelihood of a family. Too many people aim for the least amount of work, the easiest work, doing just enough to get by in life. Although I suspect most people want to achieve their best in this life, some appear to have no vision for what constitutes the best life they can lead.
Some personalities move toward inactivity, laziness, and sloth. They merge with loved ones, losing boundaries. They learned early that their needs were not important. They can relate to all sides of an argument. They avoid conflict at all costs. They have a low level of energy for life. They withdraw from the world, combined with a strong desire to adjust to the world. They lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem. They counter this feeling toward themselves with the hope of receiving unconditional love and diligence. Possibly suffering from some neglect of basic love and affection in early life, they came to expect little from life. They will not get excited about very many things, and when they do have trouble distinguishing between what is important and what is not. They feel uncomfortable with any tension or lack of harmony between people. Nothing is so important as being at peace and responding to all situations with restraint. They want to maintain their own inner tranquility, but also want to maintain peace and harmony among those around them. This makes them always ready to listen and almost shock proof in terms of what others say. They like routine and as little change as possible. At its best, this merging in relationships offers genuine support. As a defense, the adoption of many points of view cushions them from having to make any commitments. They form personal positions with difficulty. However, they recognize and support what is essential to other people’s lives. They need right action, productive work, to counteract their tendency toward inactivity and laziness.
Leisure and play are opportunities for personal renewal. We can also misuse them to waste time. Sleep is a good investment of time. It can also become a way to escape from the issues one faces.
What is your work in the world going to be? That is not a question about jobs and pay. It is a question about life. Work is not so much what we do for a living but what we do with our living. We derive happiness from taking pride in what we do. Among the greatest joys of life is to derive enjoyment with the work of one’s life. The first step in work is to learn how to do something. The most satisfying work involves directing our efforts toward achieving ends that we ourselves endorse as worthy expressions of our talent and character. We gain self-esteem, not through some internal attempt to feel better about self or race, but through intentionally focusing on making external our desire to express our worth and dignity. We improve self-esteem indirectly, but engaging in producing through work.
Another virtue related to the things we possess is liberality or generosity.
Extreme generosity, liberality, and compassion would be wasteful. One has an obligation to care for self and family. Further, what one views as help to another person may support the other person in self-destructive behavior, such as idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and so on.
Stinginess and greed would constitute the absence of a generous spirit. Greed is the second cardinal sin of the church and works against the development of compassion. The opposite of generosity is one who is low, cowardly, petty, vile, stingy, greedy, egotistical, and squalid. We are all these things; however, not always and never completely.
Generosity sets us apart and frees us from either wastefulness or greed. Generosity entails giving other people what does not belong them, but belongs to us. Generosity is subjective, individual, affective, and spontaneous. Generosity owes more to heart or temperament than to mind or reason. Generosity means doing more than what the law requires, conforming to the sole requirement of love, morality, or solidarity.
Compassion imagines the suffering of another and recognizes one’s own vulnerability to it. It allows us to move beyond our group. Compassion steers attention away from self and toward another human being. It desires their worth and dignity to find expression in their unique life. In political life, what we now know as identity politics separates a group, such as African-American, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, from other groups. Identity politics needs to give way to identify with other groups, and not simply the group to which one belongs. At least, that would be an example of compassion.
Pity entails some degree of contempt or superiority in the person who experiences it. Pitiful is justly a negative term, synonymous with inferior, pathetic, or contemptible. Compassion, however, presupposes no value judgment with regard to the object of compassion. We can have compassion for someone we admire as well as for someone of whom we disapprove. We convey compassion or sympathy to one who suffers. Pity comes from the top down. Compassion realizes the equality that exists between the suffering person and the person who feels it; they become equal in sharing suffering.
Some people will always view the generous and compassionate person as weak. Truly, generous persons can be naïve. Other people can take advantage of them. Nietzsche views kindness as a weakness of the Christian community. For him, kindness is a form of cowardly life, in that people expect only that others should not hurt them. They want to please and gratify others, and so fail in the courage to seek their own happiness. Although Nietzsche may have a point, any person who has been in church knows that the community falls short of the ideal that Nietzsche expresses as Christian. To broaden the observation, one might like to see all religious communities offer more generosity and compassion than they do. Contrary to Nietzsche, I find the world lacking in this virtue. One might wish more religious communities would cultivate this virtue toward those outside their communities and toward those who disagree with them.
Generosity is the virtue of giving. We can give only what we possess and only on condition of not having our possessions own us. Generosity elevates us toward others, and toward ourselves as beings freed from the pettiness that is the self. Those in need of aid are in a crisis: some external force threatens their lives, starving, in great pain, or bare subsistence in living conditions. If I have information that would be of great help to another that would save them time and effort in pursuing their life project, I have a moral responsibility to help them. We cannot reduce generosity or greed to money. Still, money has the merit of being quantifiable. What percentage of our incomes do we devote to helping those who are poorer or less fortunate? Remember, taxes are mandatory and what we give to family or friends is out of love, not generosity. One reason why high taxes is morally questionable is that it lessens the moral choice of individuals to practice generosity toward others, since our first obligation is generosity toward our families. Most of us give less than one percent. Although generosity is not just financial, why would our hearts be more open than our wallets? We value generosity precisely because we lack it, our selfishness wins out, it is conspicuous by its absence.
Compassion takes its stand with others in their distress. It means to suffer with; yet, we often say that suffering is bad. How can compassion be good? This virtue takes seriously the reality of other persons. It shows concern for their inner life as well as their external circumstances. David Hume once said: “There is some benevolence, however, small, infused into our bosom, some spark of friendship for human kind, some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau agreed: “Compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species.” Compassion is at the heart of moral awareness. To experience kinship with the other person is the beginning of compassion. Sympathy is an emotional participation in the feelings of others. Compassion participates in the suffering of others. All suffering deserves compassion. Compassion lets us open ourselves not just to all humanity, but also to all suffering beings. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, suggests that compassion is a pain for an apparent evil, destructive or painful, befalling a person who does not deserve it. We recognize that such evil may fall upon us as well, and hope that someone may be there to help us. Yet, what difference does that make? The feeling of compassion is no less real, even if it includes self-interest.
Humility is another virtue related to external goods. Rumi put it this way:
Humble living does not diminish. It fills.
Going back to a simpler self gives wisdom.
One of the seven cardinal sins is pride. Some suggest it is the fountain of all human sin. Arrogance and smug satisfaction with self is another way to live one’s life.
One can forsake one’s true worth, underestimate one’s true value, to the point of refusing to be the best person and accomplish the best one can accomplish with one’s life. Such an approach fails to respect one’s own worth, dignity, and the unique gifts one has to offer through being who we are. Religious traditions often have strong language that suggests hating oneself. Although this often means that individuals need to have a sense of worthlessness in the presence of God, I suspect that even that interpretation lacks the respect for this life that God intends. Religious traditions are wrong. We need mercy and gentleness toward self as well as toward others. Nietzsche ridiculed humility and favored greatness. Yet, his call to greatness rings rather hollow when we consider the spirit of St. Francis of Assissi, Buddha, Simone Weil, or even Pascal and Montaigne.
Humility makes the virtues discreet, unself-conscious, almost self-effacing. Humility is extreme awareness of the limits of all virtue and of one’s own limits. Spinoza notes that humility is a sadness as we consider our weakness. Humility is a strength of mind and always joyful. We can be sad about our powerlessness without exaggerating it. We can find in this sadness an added measure of strength with which to fight our powerlessness. Humility is this truthful sadness of being merely oneself. How could we be anyone else anyway? We must be merciful toward ourselves. Mercy and gentleness with ourselves teaches us to be content with what we are, which we could not otherwise be without also being vain. I am writing about self-acceptance, but without illusion. Humble people have advanced in character beyond the braggart. Better decent people’s humility than the self-satisfied arrogance, which suggests Nietzsche is wrong about humility.
Honor is another virtue.
Pure ambition and desire for fame are other forms of life. One appears to accomplish much. One appears to achieve greatness.
Simplicity is another virtue.
The false uses the experienced complexity of human life as an excuse to avoid the simplicity of human life. We are both conscious of things, what philosophers call intentionality, and conscious that we are being conscious, what philosophers call introspection. Our capacity for reflection in this way means we experience the complexity of causes and the complexity of reality. This complexity is important for us to appreciate. Human life is too full of duplicity, narcissism, pretension, and self-importance to be naïve about life. Without appreciation for complexity, we would hardly have compassion for self or for others in the struggle to live human life to its highest potential. That is why simplicity is a virtue difficult to attain. Yet, silence and contemplation can lead us to other side of this complexity and experience the simplicity of presence and being here.
Simplicity constitutes an antidote to introspection and to intelligence. It prevents them from deluding themselves, from getting lost within themselves and losing contact with reality, from taking themselves seriously, and from obscuring and standing in the way of the very thing they claim to reveal or disclose. Simplicity is detachment from everything, including itself. Simplicity is freedom, lightness, and transparency. Simplicity is a window open to the grand breath of the world, in the infinite and silence presence of all things.
Simple people are real individuals, reduced to their simplest expression. Simple people live effortlessly, unremarkably, and shamelessly. If we cannot state a thought clearly, of what value is it? Simplicity is an intellectual virtue, but it is first a moral and spiritual one. Openness of gaze, purity of heart, sincerity of speech, rectitude of soul and conduct are elements of simplicity. Simplicity is spontaneity, joyful improvisation, unselfishness, and detachment. It disdains proving, winning, and impressing. With Fenelon, we can agree that simplicity sheds useless re-examination of the self and its actions. Simple people forget about themselves, which is what makes simplicity a virtue. Simple people have an unconcern with themselves, with their image or reputation, and do not calculate, have no secrets, and act without guile, ulterior motives, agendas, or plans. Simplicity is childhood rediscovered and recaptured, as though liberated from itself, from its need to imitate adults, from its impatience to grow up, from the seriousness with which we approach life. We learn simplicity gradually. Simple people are not interested enough in themselves to judge themselves. Mercy takes the place of innocence. Simple people do not take themselves seriously or give tragic dimensions to themselves or to their life. They go their way lightheartedly and peacefully. Simple people do not long for the past or have impatience about the future.
Responsibility or accountability is a virtue.
Some people manage to view themselves as responsible for everything. If something goes wrong at work or in a relationship, they assume it is their fault.
Some people always have an explanation for why they are responsible for nothing that goes wrong and everything that goes right.
We do not take responsibility for our lives because we have a distorted view of ourselves as victims of life. Victims are powerless to effect meaningful change in their lives. They must, in order to remain victims of live, have persecutors and rescuers. They always have someone to blame for their lack of happiness in this life. They look for someone to rescue them. Such relations are sick by their nature. If I receive help from another person, yet I do not choose to change, I will eventually blame my rescuer for not doing enough. The one rescuing will eventually get mad and ask, "Why don't you help yourself." This the basic game people play. Until people take responsibility for their lives, stop being controlled by the past, live in the present, and work with others toward a brighter future, they are doomed to repeat the game continually.
“Mistakes were made” we often hear. Nearly everyone has an excuse for why things go wrong. We claim credit whenever we can. Being part of a crowd who does wrong may make us feel less responsible. However, it does not do so in reality.
Viewing oneself as a victim has far-reaching effects. Women are victims of sexism, ethnic groups are victims of racism, the handicapped are victims of people who do not adjust to them, the one who grew up in an alcoholic home is a victim of the parents, the one abused as a child is a victim of that parent. All are victims of dysfunctional homes. To a certain degree, there is a "me too" mentality, the desire to include oneself in the victim group of society. All of us are, of course, at some point victims of life. Yet, this betrays a desire to have things our way, to manipulate and control the world so that it meets all our needs and wants. Life never has been, and never will be, that way.
Another way we do not take responsibility for our lives is through distorted thinking about life. The actions of other people are beyond our control. Those actions cause a series of internal events that are within our control. These thoughts will either accurately relate to what is outside us, or we distort them. Distorted thoughts might be seeing everything in black or white categories, overgeneralizing a negative event, filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative, jumping to conclusions about another person or imagining a negative future, exaggerating the importance of something or minimizing the importance of something else, assume one's emotions are accurate about what happened, should statements, labeling, personalizing everything.
Consistently distorted thinking is the result of the habits that the person has established in life. The past haunts the present. If one is accustomed to thinking with distortion, one will continue to do so. One will need to make a choice to have responsibility for one's life and nurture the habit of thinking clearly and accurately. The importance of this is that the thoughts one has, whether clear or distorted, produce feelings and behavior. Distorted thinking will lead to inappropriate behavior. What is needed is the courage to take responsibility for one's life and nurture the kind of thinking which responds accurately to life by ordering of life and by open and trustful connection to it.
Yet, we can move forward in a responsible way with our lives.
What hinders us from functioning properly is the failure to take responsibility of one’s life. Responsibility is to be answerable to someone. It is experience of accountability. Irresponsible behavior is immature behavior. Taking responsibility is a sign of maturity. People who exercise their power have provided the accomplishments of human history. In the end, we are answerable for the kinds of persons we have made of ourselves. We become what we are as persons by the decisions we make. Responsible persons take charge of themselves and their conduct. They own their actions.
Tolerance is another important virtue.
Tolerance counters fanaticism, sectarianism, and authoritarianism.
Although it may not seem like it, many areas of human life have great certainty. In such situations, tolerance is a vice. When we know a truth with certainty, tolerance is irrelevant. We would not tolerate the refusal of an accountant to correct mistakes in calculation. We would not tolerate a physicist standing fast by a hypothesis that experiments have proven wrong. To persevere in error is no longer an error, but a fault. Mathematicians have no need for tolerance; proof is all they need.
The virtue of tolerance arises only in matters of opinion, which is why it arises so often. A philosophy is a set of reasonable opinions. To tolerate means to accept what could be condemned or allow what could be prevented or combated. It means renouncing one’s own power, strength, or anger. To tolerate is to take upon oneself.
We do not renounce the love of truth in order to be tolerant. This love of truth, stripped of illusion, provides us with our main reason for being tolerant. The problem of tolerance arises only in matters of opinion. Believers in any set of opinions acknowledge that they cannot prove they are right, and thus rely upon a similar position of others who disagree and are just as convinced of their positions.
Tolerance has its foundation in a theoretical powerlessness, our inability to attain absolute truth or knowledge. Tolerance merges with humility at this point. To love truth is to accept the doubt in which truth must culminate. Truth emerges in human experience and through rational discourse. Belief and values already suppose a situation that is not certain knowledge. This openness of paradigms and theories to future verification or falsification is an important part of human exploration into truth. In the case of ethics, religion, economic theory, and the role of government in culture, people need the freedom to experiment, remaining open to future amendment. The power of theory in such areas important areas demonstrates itself in their power to convince and persuade people to live by them.
Politically, a state that is not tolerant must weaken eventually. The strength of the state makes for the freedom of its constituents, and their freedom makes for its strength. Even if we had access to absolute truth, our values would not be the same; we would still need the gentleness of tolerance.
That is why tolerance of evil is actually cowardice. Tolerance of racism, torture, and extermination camps would be morally reprehensible. To tolerate the suffering of others, to tolerate an injustice of which we are not a victim or an atrocity that we are spared is not tolerance, but selfishness, indifference, and collaborating with evil. Tolerating everything would mean tolerating atrocity.
Here, I feel a need to say something about the cultural context of tolerance. The modern social world, the world of democratic institutions, has established the best context in which genuine tolerance can occur. Totalitarianism is the complete power of a party or the state over the whole of society. Totalitarianism is a tyranny of truth. Intolerance tends toward totalitarianism or fundamentalism. Dictatorship that governs through force is despotism; if it governs through ideology it is totalitarianism.
In the extreme, toleration would end up negating itself. It would tolerate forces that seek to destroy it. Tolerance applies within certain boundaries, which maintain and preserve the conditions that make it possible. If we extend unlimited tolerance to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerance, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. Whether a specific individual, group, or behavior should be tolerated depends on how dangerous they really are. An intolerant action or group should be banned if it genuinely threatens freedom or the conditions that make tolerance possible. When a nation is strong and stable, democracy, tolerance, or liberty will not be endangered by a demonstration against them. If institutions are fragile, if civil war threatens or has already begun, if seditious groups threaten to take power, the same demonstration can become a genuine danger. It then may be necessary to prohibit it, even by force, and not to do so would be to lack resolve or prudence. As long as we can counter intolerant philosophies with rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would be unwise. However, a free and tolerant nation must claim the right to suppress them if necessary, even by force. The intolerant group may denounce all rational argument, it may deceive, and answer rational argument with fists, pistols, knives, and bombs. A nation must claim the right not to tolerate the intolerant. Any movement reaching intolerance places itself outside the law. Democracy is not weakness. Tolerance is not passivity.
Justice is another cooperative virtue in social life.
On one side of justice is living without law. Such a situation would mean the powerful would reign. The unjust person is grasping everything for self.
On the other side is lack of mercy. Such a situation requires adherence to abstract right, combined with no consideration of the worth and dignity of persons involved.
Lack of justice means people grasping for power, wealth, and fame, unfairly relating to the worth and dignity of others, dishonesty, deception, prejudice, and bias.
Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. We cannot sacrifice justice to well-being or happiness, not even happiness for the greatest number. The form of justice is complete virtue in relation to neighbor. Yet, people often have a concern for justice because they genuinely care for other human beings, develop friendships, and develop a sense of fellow feeling for others. They may also want society itself to operate at its best.
Justice usually means either conformity to the law or equality. Whether something is legally just is a factual question. Lawful acts are just acts, in this circular reasoning. When the law is unjust, it is just to fight it and violate it. The equality justice seeks equality between the subjects involved, their equality in rights, equally informed and free, at least as far as their interests and the conditions of the exchange are concerned. Wealth can confer to special rights. Even if wealth gives special power, power is not the same as justice. Genius and saintliness confer no special rights.
Justice has its root in the affirmation that the other counts as against me. The needs of the other count, just as my needs count. The needs of the other have a validity and dignity like mine. I receive this de-centering of need as an obligation. I humble my life by the values put into action by institutions and structures jointly constituted by the diverse demands of individuals.
Justice requires us to put ourselves in the place of the other person, and then still approving the contract or exchange. The idea of justice as the coexistence of individual freedoms under a law is a function not of knowledge but of will; it is a guide for passing judgment and an ideal for action. Thinking about justice requires making self incapable of influencing the judgment. Justice is neither selfish nor altruistic, but rather aims at equality. To be just people means refusing to place ourselves above the law or above others. Justice is the virtue that leads each of us to try to overcome our natural tendency to place ourselves above everything and consequently to sacrifice everything to our own desires and interests. Justice must include the weak, for justice relates to equal rights, not power.
The demand for justice can be secretly vengeful. Mistrust in those whom the desire to punish is strong is wise. They often call themselves good and just. They strive for power over those whom they want to punish.
Just people place their strength in the service of both law and rights, decreeing for themselves the equality of all people, regardless of the countless inequalities in what they are or can do. They institute an order that does not exist but without which no order could ever satisfy us. The world resists such order; so does our nature. We must resist both the world and ourselves. We begin by resisting the injustice that each of us carries within ourselves. The fight for justice is unending. Fortunate are those who hunger for justice, for they will never experience satisfaction.
Truthfulness or sincerity is another cooperative virtue for social life.
Some people lead the kind of life in which they must unnaturally elevate themselves. They magnify everything they do and everything that happens to them, in order to make themselves the center of the story.
Some people lead a life of false modesty. They have genuine gifts and talents, and yet refuse to use them for the benefit of others.
People do not trust the hypocrite, the two-faced, the unreliable or the misleading.
Rumi reminds us of the ambiguity of such judgments concerning the other person.
That’s why you see things in two ways.
Sometimes you look at a person
And see a cynical snake.
Someone else sees a joyful lover,
And you’re both right!
Everyone is half and half,
Like the black and white ox.
Joseph looked ugly to his brothers,
And most handsome to his father.
Truthfulness consists of the agreement of our acts and words with our inner life, of our inner life with itself. As a virtue, it consists of love or respect for truth, the only faith worth having. People of good faith say what they believe, though they may be wrong, and believe what they say. It is true belief, being true to what we believe. Good faith is what we call sincerity. Sincerity is an open-heartedness that shows us as we are; a love of truth, loathing for disguise, desire to make up for our faults and even lessen them by the credit of admitting to them. Sincerity refuses to mislead, dissemble, or embellish. We have the right to remain silent, for sincerity does not forbid silence, but only deception. What we say should be what one thinks. Sincerity is the virtue that makes of truth a value and submits to it. One must be faithful to the truth first, lest all fidelity be more hypocrisy. One must love truth first, lest all love be mere illusion or deception. Sincerity is this fidelity, this love, in both spirit and deed. In being a love that commands our acts, our words, and even our thoughts, sincerity is the love truth and the virtue of the truthful. The point is to live and think truthfully, even at the cost of anguish, disillusionment, misfortune. Fidelity to truth first; true sadness is better than false joy. Truthfulness should be tempered by compassion, gentleness, and tenderness. Truth cannot take the place of everything. Thus, circumstances condition even telling people they have a terminal illness.
Good humor is another cooperative social virtue.
Some people are little more than clowns. They entertain for a while. Yet, the mask they always wear, wears rather then after a while. One never hears from them, but only from the mask.
Some people are rude and have little social refinement, usually without being aware that they have offended.
To lack humor is to lack humility, clarity, and lightness; humorless people are too full of self, too self-deceived, too severe, or too aggressive and thus lack generosity, gentleness, and mercy. Too much seriousness is somehow suspect and disturbing.
The best or most profound humor plays on meaning that touches important areas of our lives, drawing into its wake and shaking up larger fields of significance, our beliefs, values, and illusions.
Friendship is another cooperative social virtue.
Some people are too rude to others to be genuine friends. They are difficult people with whom to work. They oppose everything and care nothing about giving pain.
Some people have almost no personality of their own. They become whatever the person they care about wants them to be. In the end, they bring nothing of themselves into the relationship, because they become what they think the other wants them to be. Friendship can be a mask. They think it is their duty to give no pain to the people they meet. Seeking closeness to a neighbor may arise from valuing ourselves so little that we want to be near someone truly valuable – the other. We may even hate ourselves so much that we give our love to another.
We have difficulty living with others because we have difficulty with silence. In silence, we are with ourselves. That experience can be painful when we do not properly love ourselves.
Friendship is more than acquaintance. It involves more than affection. It arises out of mutual interests and common aims. The benevolent impulses that eventually grow strengthen these pursuits. Friendship demands honesty and self-revelation. Friends offer criticism and admiration. Friendship offers loyalty and self-sacrifice. They take effort to make and effort to keep. It is a form of love. It matters who we make as friends. They stick together in adversity. They give more than they expect to receive. They incite each other to higher purposes. They do small deeds as well as great acts of sacrifice. They give pleasure and comfort. We suffer pain when we lose a friend.
Friendship collects and compacts and conserves, bringing people together by conversation and good will.
He (Pythagoras) was the first to say that friends’ possessions are held in common and that friendship is equality. His pupils contributed their goods to a common store.
Similarity of mind makes friendship.
True friendship is a reflection of one’s own soul. The moral resemblance between them creates a unity that transcends what they would be individually. Death itself does not truly separate them, since the one remaining alive savors the memory and honors the life of the other through the direct influence that the other has had.
Friendship is a virtue or implies a virtue, and is necessary with a view to living. To be friends they must be mutually recognize as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other. Perfect friendship is the friendship of people that are good, and alike in virtue. They wish the best for each other.
Their friendship lasts as long as they are good. Love and friendship are found most and in their best form between such people. Most people seem to desire others to love them rather than to love. Such friendships should be infrequent.
Good friends are rare. Such friendship requires time and familiarity. Such people take time to have fellowship around the table together. Friendship begins with feelings of love and trust. Love is a feeling while friendship a state of character. However, mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character. People wish well to those whom they love, not because of a feeling but because of a state of character. In loving a friend people love what is good for themselves. One cannot be a friend to many people, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once. Friendship depends more upon loving, so loving seems to be the characteristic virtue of friends. Friendship depends on community. All forms of community are like parts of the political community.
If we do not extend ourselves in caring, we will not fulfill our need for friendship. The development of this quality must go, at times, against one's experience of individuals. After all, we can be so rotten to one another. We move toward treating people in terms of what they can become, rather than what they are that moment.
A variety of qualities will be necessary for true caring to become reality. First, paying attention to one's self, the alternating rhythms of life, is important. Patience with other people, for they will not always make choices one agrees with. Trust in the processes of life and in the other person to grow, as well as trust in one's own ability to grow. Humility to recognize the other person is not simply another way to satisfy one's own needs or as clay to mold in one's own image. Hope looks beyond the present to see the potential in others. We need courage to move into the unknown future with others.
We rarely achieve happiness by pursuing it. We achieve it as a by-product of life lived in loving relations with others. There are several factors in friendship that might be helpful to identify. We must be willing to assign a top priority to friendships. All of us need someone we can call upon in time of distress. We need to have people we can drop in on without advance warning. We need to be able to share recreational activities with others. We need people who will care about us in practical ways in time of need.
We need to cultivate transparency. We develop masks, largely because of fear of rejection. There is that portion of ourselves which most of us feel ashamed. Sometimes it is our sexuality. More generally, it is our dark side, when we have pride, selfishness, meanness that erupts occasionally. Taking the risk of self-disclosure draws others closer to us, for it is an act of trust.
We need to be able to communicate affection and warmth for others. We often fear sounding too sentimental. However, to communicate honestly with others our feelings is an important ingredient in friendship. We need to learn the great variety of behaviors in love. Sharing a common meal or sharing tasks two people care about or giving simple gifts are ways of doing this.
We need to learn that personal space and freedom are important to friendship. People are often good manipulators at getting what they want. In a friendship, this simply cannot be the dominant force. We will be cautious with criticism, use the language of acceptance a great deal, encourage the uniqueness of our friends, allow for solitude, encourage other relationships, and be ready for shifts in relationships.
The relationship between male and female is complex. Lust is one of the seven cardinal sins of the church. Maybe friendship is the best way to approach it. Intimate friendships need the warm touch. Much communication can happen with the hand placed in a warm way and at the right time, whether in private or in a crowd. Clearly, it is a mistake to limit such touch to intercourse. Intimate friendships need to be liberal in their praise of one another. Praise is the best way to continue behavior that one likes or finds enjoyable. This is true in children, and is true in marriage. Third, it is important to have leisurely breaks for conversation. There will be no intimate friendship without communication. We need to learn to listen. We listen with our eyes, rarely give advice, never break a confidence, and show gratitude that the partner has confided. We need to learn to talk freely about our feelings. No one should be afraid to cry. We must not be afraid to be needy at this point.
In any friendship, anger is an important emotion to be able to share. It is important to talk about one's own feelings, rather than the faults of the other person. It is best to stick to one topic. It is also best to allow the friend to respond. The point is to ventilate feelings, not defeat the friend. Such criticism needs to be balanced with lots of affection.
Perseverance is another cooperative social virtue.
Some people remain in relationships, but nag and carp at the other all the way through it, whether with a friend or a company.
Some people falter, waiver, and vacillate in relationships that one never knows if they will stay or jump ship at the least sign of trouble.
Perseverance is an essential quality of character in high-level leadership. Whether by leading others or improving oneself, perseverance or persistence is often crucial to success. Much good that people might have achieved in the world is lost without it.
Honesty is another cooperative social virtue.
To be dishonest is to be partly feigned, forged, fake, or fictitious. Dishonesty seeks shade, cover, or concealment. It is a disposition to live partly in the dark. Every social activity, every human enterprise requiring people to act in concert, is impeded when people are not honest with each other. In order to cultivate honesty, we must take it seriously. Dishonesty fully respects neither oneself nor others.
To be honest is to be real, genuine, and authentic. Honesty expresses both self-respect and respect for others. Honesty fills lives with openness, reliability, and candor. It expresses a disposition to live in the light. It is a fundamental condition for human intercourse and exchange, for friendship, for all genuine community.
Loyalty is another cooperative social virtue.
Some people are fickle.
Some people are obstinate.
One does not change one’s friends the way one changes one’s shirt. It would be as ridiculous to be loyal to one’s garments as it would be reprehensible not to be to one’s friends. The virtue of fidelity is a good way to approach the matter of personal identity about which some philosophers puzzle. Why would I keep the promise of yesterday when I am no longer the same today? This sense of continuity of self from day to day is an important quality. We need to imagine our future self, and be faithful to that future self. We want that future self to look back on today and be glad to have the association.
We can have faithful thought. Thought resists forgetfulness, changing fashions and interests, the charms of the moment, the seductions of power. In order to think, we must want to remember. However, wanting to hold to the same ideas at all costs would mean refusing to put them to the test of discussion, experience, or reflection. Being faithful to one’s thoughts more than to truth would mean refusing to put them to the test of discussion, experience, or reflection. Being faithful to one’s thoughts more than to truth would mean being unfaithful to thought and condemning oneself to sophistry, albeit with the best intentions. We must be faithful to truth first, thereby distinguishing fidelity from fanaticism (mistaking our thought for absolutes), dogmatism (refusing to change one’s ideas), or faith (subordinating thought to something other than oneself (faith). Faithfulness in thought means refusing to change one’s ideas in the absence of strong, valid reasons; holding as true ideas whose truth has been clearly and solidly established. Faithfulness in thought is neither dogmatic nor inconstancy. Fidelity allows us to adhere to the historicity of a value, to the particular presence within us of the past.
Fidelity to the law is keeping faith with a particular and historical moral law. Yet, legalism is not a friend to the best that humanity can be. We need faithfulness to the development of our humanity. We must not betray what humanity has made of itself and of us.
For the couple, fidelity is another story. For some couples, an exclusive relationship has brought convenience and security into what needs to be an intimate friendship. It makes life easier and happier. Loyalty in this setting is a virtue only if the relationship continues to be a loving one. Exclusiveness does not necessarily involve morality or love. Each of us must choose for ourselves how we want to live with each other. We need to understand what makes a couple. Having a sexual partner is not enough. Living together is not enough. A couple presupposes both love and duration, and therefore fidelity, since love can last only if passion is made to last by way of memory and will. That love will subside or decline is always the likelier course of events. Whether a couple separates or continues to live together, they remain a couple only through this fidelity to love received and given, to love shared, to the deliberate and grateful memory of that love. Fidelity is faithful love. Fidelity means preserving love for the sake of what once took place, love for love in this case, love in the present, willing and willingly maintained, for love in the past. Fidelity is faithful love, and faithful first to love. Once love dies, what is the point of maintaining the fiction and the responsibilities and demands to which it gives rise? There is also no reason for disowning or denying what once was. Must we betray the past in order to love the present? Couples can always be faithful to the love they know now.
All of this suggests that loyalty does not act as a rubber stamp. Such loyalty does not require blindness to genuine wickedness on the part of friend, social institution, or nation. Remaining loyal to the worst promotes that which is worst in us.
That to which we are loyal signifies the kind of people we have become. They mark a kind of constancy or steadfastness in our attachments to those other persons, groups, institutions, or ideals with which we have decided to associate. To be a loyal citizen or friend means to operate within a certain framework of caring seriously about the well being of one’s country or friend. Rather, it is loyalty through disagreements. Loyalty endures inconvenience, withstands temptation, and does not cringe under assault. In the Bible, Joseph remains loyal to Potiphar, in spite of the sexual advances by his wife. David remains loyal to Saul, and the loyalty of Jonathan to David in difficult circumstances. Daniel remained loyal to God with the threat of death.
Emotional maturity is another cooperative social virtue.
Some people seem easily angered.
Some people seem unusually passive.
We ought to praise those whom become angry at the right things and with the right people, and as they ought, when they might, and as long as they ought.
Forgiveness is a form of emotional maturity, and is another cooperative social virtue.
To forgive does not mean to erase or forget. It means that one ceased to hate, the essence of mercy, the virtue that triumphs over rancor, justified hatred, resentment, and holding grudges. Mercy triumphs over the desire for revenge or punishment.
We can still hold the grudge we bear against the person who offended or harmed us. Oscar Wilde, in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, noted that “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow up they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” However, outside of the family, love becomes an unlikely source of mercy. We could not even tolerate our enemies, let alone love them, without forgiveness.
Forgiveness accepts the other person in order to stop hating. Forgiveness is an abundance of freedom for the forgiving person. We need to overcome our own hatred if we cannot make our opponent overcome their hatred. If we cannot master the other, we need to master ourselves. We need to win this victory over hatred and evil, and not add evil to evil. We need to avoid becoming the accomplice of evil, as well as its victim. We need to hold fast to the good, and then to love.
Evil is a matter of will. It is a matter of heart. Evil is selfishness, wickedness, and cruelty. For this reason, it requires forgiveness. Evil needs to be punished, but hatred is different from punishment. We can justify punishment by its social or private usefulness and bring justice into a situation. Hatred is an added sadness, not for the object of hate, but for the person who hates. What good does it do to hate? Mercy does not nullify this evil will, nor does it give up the fight against it. What mercy does do is to refuse to partake of it, to add hatred to hatred, selfishness to selfishness, anger to violence. Mercy leaves hatred to the hateful, wickedness to the wicked, resentment to the resentful.
We may forgive out of pure grace, assuming the person has willfully chosen evil. We may forgive out of knowledge of the complex circumstances that led to forming evil in the person. In either case, hatred disappears. We accept the evil for the horror that it is, and fight against it, or a misfortune for us to pity, a reality we must endure, and ultimately the act of a person we should love, if possible. Mercy is the great peace of truth, the great gentleness of love and forgiveness. We have no right to forget the crime, or our duty of fidelity toward the victims, or our obligation to fight criminal elements today.
When the other does not ask for forgiveness, we need to forgive them. Hatred has its own sadness. We do not need to reconcile with monsters or tolerate their demands. However, do we have to hate them in order to fight them? We cannot forget the past. Do we need to hate in order to remember it? The point is to eliminate hatred if we can and carry out the fight with joy in our hearts, mercy in our souls. To love enemies means we have enemies. Having enemies does not mean we must hate them. Loving our enemies means fighting them joyfully. Mercy is not love, but takes the place of love where love is not possible or premature. It also prepares the way for love. When we are unable to love, we can at least cease to hate.
By the way, we can also forgive ourselves, since we can also hate ourselves and we must overcome self-hatred. We must forgive ourselves for being merely what we are. We must also forgive ourselves for feeling hatred or pain or anger so strong that we cannot forgive.
Gratitude is another form of emotional maturity and is a cooperative social virtue.
Egoists enjoy receiving and keep that enjoyment within. They forget that others might have hand something to do with their pleasure. Egoists are ungrateful because they do not like to acknowledge their debt to others. Egoists do not like to give in return. Ingratitude is the inability to give back a little of the joy that one received or experienced.
If we offer gratitude only to continue receiving, we offer only flattery, obsequiousness, and mendacity; it becomes a vice rather than a virtue.
Regret or nostalgia are the opposite of gratitude, as are hope (desiring a future) or apprehension (fearing a future). People regret the life they hoped to live or the life they did not live. They miss the past as well as the future.
We so often lack gratitude because we cannot give. To thank is to give; to be gracious means to share. Gratitude is the acknowledgment of the debt we owe to others for assisting us in the journey of life. Gratitude is giving thanks in return for what others have done for us. Gratitude gives away itself, like a joyful echo. Gratitude is a gift, it is sharing, it is love, when the cause is another person’s generosity, courage, or love. Gratitude is the secret of friendship, not because we feel indebted to our friends, since we owe them nothing, but because we share with them an overabundance of common, reciprocal joy. We do not cause ourselves. Love wants to delight the person who delights us. Gratitude sees in the other the source of its joy. This is why ingratitude is dishonorable, and why gratitude is good and makes us good.
Gratitude rejoices in what has taken place or in what is. Wise people delight in living having lived. Gratitude is this joy and love of the past, the past recaptured by which we understand that the idea of death is made immaterial, for even death cannot take from us what we have lived. Death deprives us only of the future, which does not exist. Gratitude frees us from death, through the joyous knowledge of what was. Gratitude is acknowledgement. Gratitude is knowledge, which makes it touch upon truth, which is eternal, and inhabits it. Gratitude is the enjoyment of eternity. Gratitude does not abolish grief; it completes it. We must heal our misfortunes by the grateful recollection of what has been and by the recognition that it is impossible to make undone what has been done, thereby completing the mourning process. Mourning is about accepting what is, hence also what no longer is, and loving it as such, in its truth, in its eternity, so that we can go from the unbearable pain of loss to the sweetness of remembrance, from unfinished morning to its completion, from amputation to acceptance, from suffering to joy, from love rent apart to love appeased. How fortunate for one to have lived.
Gentleness is a form of emotional maturity and is a cooperative social virtue.
Its opposite is war, cruelty, brutality, aggressiveness, and violence. Aggressiveness, anger, and violence, when not mastered, is weakness.
Gentleness is a feminine virtue; that is why it is especially pleasing in men. Men tend to be the ones who commit violent crimes, little boys play at war, and men wage war and sometimes find pleasure in it. Gentleness has courage without violence, strength without harshness, and love without anger. Gentleness is a kind of peace, either real or desired. Gentleness is love in a state of peace, even times of war. Gentleness is strength in peace, serenity, patience, and leniency. It resembles loves. Many acts of generosity and good deeds can offend; others might receive them if offered with gentleness. Gentleness makes us generous. We cultivate gentleness, it sustains us, and it makes us more human. Spinoza says that the wise person acts kindly and generously. Montaigne says that we owe gentleness to animals, trees, and plants. Gentleness is a refusal to inflict suffering, to destroy unnecessarily, to devastate. It is respect, protection, and benevolence.
Faith, hope, and love are the central theological virtues. They mark dispositions of persons who are flourishing in life from that religious perspective. However, Christianity does not have a monopoly on the importance of faith.
Faith is a source of discipline and power and meaning n the lives of the faithful of any major religious creed. It is a potent force in human experience. A shared faith binds people together in ways that we cannot duplicate by other means.
Clashing faiths divide people in sometimes the most violent ways. Human societies have a tendency to dissolve into factions.
Faith contributes to the form and the content of the ideals that guide the aspirations we harbor for our own lives. It affects the way we regard and behave with respect to others. Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, noted, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” A human being without reverence for anything is morally adrift. The major religions of the world provide anchors for people morally adrift. They furnish ties to a larger reality for people with the freedom to do anything they choose.
Adversity is a part of life, even at the very center of it. No one is entitled to happiness; that happiness is not a consequence of life well lived. Adversity puts us to the test and purifies us. We built our character this way. It is the path of the hero. Adversity is also the centerpiece of the moral order. Our choices are decisive because they formed what we are. Choices matter because of their moral content, as well as the social and economic consequences. This requires a surrender of the self, a sacrifice. The secret of happiness is in renouncing the right to be happy. Only through working consistently to improve ourselves will we discover meaning in life and our place in the great scheme of things. Unfortunately, happiness has come to mean a life free from struggle and pain and suffering. There is much injustice in life. Yet, it is often through such struggle and pain that we grow, learn, and can make our greatest contributions.
Good fortune and bad fortune, the random, chance happenings of life, play a significant role in our experience of happiness. At times, we are at the right time and place, and other times at the wrong time and the wrong place. We do not cause either situation. It is part of the natural order.
Faith is the confidence we have that our slice of time and space is part of a much larger and meaningful whole of reality that we cannot see or understand yet. Through the adversities and random happenings of life, we have the confidence that everything will fit together in a meaningful whole.
Values come from a sense of moral order in the world. What should I as an individual do with my life? What overall plan of life should I adopt? What kind of person should I try to become? How much concern should I have for my life compared with the lives of others? How can I, when I reach the end of my life, look back and have a sense of happiness and peace that my brief life has been worthwhile?
To ask questions as this is to take charge of one's own life, take responsibility for it, and move forward. Not to ask such questions may mean immaturity. It may mean lack of concern for self or for others, although I cannot imagine such a life. I suppose it would be genuine evil. It may also mean that one simply live out the plan for our lives which others give us, or to engage in a smattering of activities which lack any overall rationale.
What I offer to you is that we can have a happy outcome to this moral quest only as we assume the importance of the development of character to reasonably happy human life. One spends a lifetime developing character and principle. This is the classical view at its best. There are certain habits, which it is important for people to develop. We learn over time to discipline feeling, discipline our use of the external goods of life, discipline our relationships with other people, and develop faith and hope in the future in spite of the adversities of life.
Society has become a collection of victims. African-Americans are victims of racism, women are victims of sexism, homosexuals are victims, and other minority groups are victims. The poor are victims. The result is that two thirds of society, and more, are victims. Where there are victims, there must be persecutors and oppressors. Turning white men, business people, or people in the churches, into the persecutors will not help the people of society to move forward with their lives.
One feature of a rational plan is that in carrying it out people do not change their minds and wish that they had done something else instead. We do not regret following a rational plan, even if it is not a good one judged absolutely. Rational people may regret their pursuing a subjectively rational plan, but not because they think their choice is in any way open to criticism. They do what seems best at the time. If their beliefs later prove to be mistaken with untoward results, it is through no fault of their own. We have no cause of self-reproach. There was no way of knowing which was the best or even a better plan. We have the guiding principle that rational people always act so that they need never blame themselves no matter how their plans finally work out. Any risks they assume must be worthwhile, so that should the worst happen that they had any reason to foresee, they can still affirm that what they did was above criticism. They do not regret their choice, at least not in the sense that they later believe that at the time it would have been more rational to do otherwise. Nothing can protect us from the ambiguities and limitations of our knowledge, or guarantee that we find the best alternative open to us. Acting with deliberative rationality can only insures that our conduct is above reproach, and that we are responsible to ourselves as one person over time.
A rational plan of life is one that is consistent with the principles of rational choice and chosen with full awareness of the relevant facts and after a careful consideration of the consequences. We make decisions rationally when we adopt the alternative that realizes the objective in the best possible way, choose the plan that fulfills the aims of the other plans, plus other aims, and has a greater likelihood of success. Making a decision of minor importance may involve simply listing pros and cons. Making a vital decision, such as a mate or profession, may need to add a contemplative element of allowing the deeper inner needs of nature to rise to the surface.
In terms of time-structure, plans become less specific for later periods. If in the future, we may want to do one of several things but are unsure which, then, other things equal, we are to plan now so that these alternatives are both kept open. Rational plans try to keep our hands free until we have a clear view of the relevant facts. A long-term plan mirrors a hierarchy of desires proceeding in similar fashion from the more to the less general.
I now wish to examine the other extreme in which one has to adopt a long-term plan, even a plan of life, as when we have to choose a profession or occupation. Human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities, their innate or trained abilities, and that this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. The desire to carry out the larger pattern of ends that brings into play the more finely developed talents is an aspect of this principle. Deliberative rationality means that our future good is what we would now desire and seek if the consequences of all the various courses of conduct open to us if we accurately foresaw and adequately pictured in imagination. Earlier and later activities affect each other; the whole plan has a certain unity, a dominant them. Other things equal, we should arrange things at the earlier stages to permit a happy life at the later ones. It would seem that for the most part rising expectations over time are to be preferred. We might try to explain this preference by the relatively greater intensity of the pleasures of anticipation over those of memory. The rising or at least the non-declining plan appears preferable since later activities can often incorporate and bind together the results and enjoyments of an entire life into one coherent structure as those of a declining plan cannot. Human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater complexity. Human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it. Of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle discriminations. Complex activities are more enjoyable because they satisfy the desire for variety and novelty of experience, and leave room for feats of ingenuity and invention. They also evoke the pleasures of anticipation and surprise, and often the overall form of the activity, its structural development, is fascinating and beautiful. Simpler activities exclude the possibility of individual style and personal expression that complex activities permit or even require, for how could everyone do them in the same way? It is a principle of inclusiveness. It is a principle of motivation. It accounts for many of our major desires, and explains why we prefer to do some things and not others by constantly exerting an influence over the flow of our activity. It expresses a psychological law governing changes in the pattern of our desires. As the capacity of people increase over time, and as they train these capacities and learn how to exercise them, we will in due course come to prefer the more complex activities that they can now engage in which call upon their newly realized abilities. The simpler things they enjoyed before are no longer sufficiently interesting or attractive. As we witness the exercise of well-trained abilities by others, these displays are enjoyed by us and arouse a desire that we should be able to do the same things ourselves. We want to be like those persons who can exercise the abilities that we find latent in our nature. This principle assumes that it will be rational to realize and train mature capacities. A rational plan allows people to flourish, as far as circumstances permit, and to exercise their realized abilities as much as they can. We stop moving up a chain when going higher will use up resources required for raising or for maintaining the level of a preferred chain. One might object that we have no reason to suppose its truth. However, many facts of everyday life, the behavior of children, and even that of higher order animals, suggest its truth. Further, natural selection must have favored creatures of whom this principle is true. It characterizes human beings as importantly moved not only by the pressure of bodily needs, but also by the desire to do things enjoyed simply for their own sakes, at least when the urgent and pressing wants are satisfied. This suggests going beyond mere pragmatism and toward the aesthetic. This principle accounts for our considered judgments of value.
We ask and answer our question about the good life within our world. Ethical reflection is fully anthropocentric. Any attempt to find a vantage point outside our physical and social world is futile because such a vantage point is unavailable and destructive because the glory of the promised goal makes the humanly possible work look boring and cheap. Such a focus tends to encourage neglect the study of ethics, politics, biology and physical science in our world in order to escape the cave (Plato) and move into the sunlight. If it is a universal human desire to grasp the world and make it rationally comprehensible, then it seems clear that oversimplification and reduction will be deep and ever-present dangers. In seeking to be at home, we may easily become strangers to our home as we experience it. In our anxiety to control and grasp the uncontrolled by various techniques, we may all too easily become distant from the lives that we originally wished to control. We become strangers to some aspect of the life we live and the language we use as we adopt simple pictures of the world: hedonism, materialism, mechanism, and so on. Someone who does not want to return to our physical and social world is one who is not at peace with his or her humanity.
Much of what we value in the internal human viewpoint on the world is a source of intolerable pain for a rational being. We are motivated to seek true, stable, value because we cannot live with the pain and instability of our empirical lives. From within our human lives, for the moment, their pain, we have a deep and positive natural desire to get at something more perfect than the merely human. We often simplify and flatten human moral psychology by omitting a longing that is in tension with many of the other things that we are and do.
Ethical reflection directs our attention toward establishing and developing a way of life. Epictetus memorably described philosophy as the means whereby we gain insight into the art of living. It does not help anyone acquire external things. We rule ourselves. We are part of a vast interconnecting community of individuals and cultures where humanity must also find ways to order its life together. We cannot discuss the matter of values, morality, and ethics, apart from community. Ethics is the theory of how to live, or a theory of human living. An ethical task is essentially one of which we can never say that our work is finished. Special tasks have an end. We can never finish the work of offering our unique service in any time, however great.
Ethical reflection begins with the given quality of life, since we do not give life to ourselves. Ethical reflection involves that part of life over which we have responsibility. Any sense of right motives and sense of duty or ought comes out of the responsibility we have for our lives. If life has been given, we must also receive that life. As such, we assume at least a limited freedom on our part. Ethical reflection continues with the giving of life. We do this as we contribute to the lives of others, as we contemplate the presence of others in our actions, as we accept the social nature of human life, as we accept responsibility for others, and as we give ourselves in love. Ethical reflection is on life. As such, it includes the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of life, it includes our whole lives, we move beyond our individual lives through communication to others. In the process of the communication of our ethical reflection, we anticipate the success of our moral vision.
We discover meaning as we integrate our experience of community in the development of knowledge and personality. Meaning is cognitive in that it moves from the immediate world of experience into intelligence, rationality, and responsibility. The larger world within which we live our lives does not lie within the immediate experience of anyone. That larger world is insecure. Discovering meaning enables us to engage the world. We participate in meaning and we communicate meaning through our way of life and interactions with other people and with the institutions of society. We experience meaning in the context of community, an authentic or inauthentic existence, and in the flow of history.
Irrationality and desire impress us. Desires are psychological states that are the basic motivators of actions and have fundamental roles as starting points for justification. Desires do not have special motivational force or a role for justification. The language of reasons, as opposed to mere desires, is crucial to an adequate description of the structure of our own practical reasoning and to our relations with others. One who rejects equally the claims of the future self and the interests of others is not only irresponsible with respect to them but concerning their own person. They do not see themselves as enduring individuals. The principle of responsibility to self resembles a principle of right. We are so to adjust the claims of the self at different times that the self at each time can affirm the plan that one follows. This principle does not exclude the willing endurance of hardship and suffering. It must be presently acceptable in view of the expected or achieved good.
Emotion and passion have an essential motivational role to play in human excellence. A model of rationality that suppressed or neglected these elements would starve the soul of nourishment essential for living well. Emotions are selective and responsive to training, and therefore play a constructive role in moral motivation, impelling persons toward more appropriate objects in keeping with their evolving conception of the appropriate. They are well equipped to do well by us. Beyond motivation, we can recognize and cultivate emotional states so that they will be good guides for reason in the situation of choice. Choice is an ability that is on the borderline between the intellectual and the passionate. Further still, emotion has full intrinsic value in the best human life. Moderation is appropriate choice with respect to bodily pleasure and pain. It is not compatible with practical wisdom to seek to minimize the appetites or unduly to dissociate oneself from their claim. Appropriate eating, drinking, and sexual activity has intrinsic value, because of the way in which they satisfy contingent needs. To be needy is an appropriate thing for a human being to be. We are not self-sufficient creatures. The perception that is the most valuable manifestation of our practical rationality is a complex response of the entire personality, an appropriate acknowledgement of the features of the situation on which action is to be based, a recognition of the particular. It has non-intellectual components.
Good activity is vulnerable to circumstances. Calamities that are temporary or partial diminish the best human life for that person. A stable good life, based upon steady character and consisting in activity according to the excellences of character and intellect, is vulnerable. Excellence based upon goodness of character makes the good life tolerably stable in the face of the world. However, this stability has limits. A gap exists between being good and living well. Uncontrolled happenings can step into this gap, impeding the good state of character from finding its proper fulfillment in action. In certain cases of circumstantial constraint, the good person may act in deficient or even shameful ways, doing things that he or she would never have done but for the conflict situation. They act as well as they can. Yet, they will do something bad they would not have chosen. Circumstances of life can impede character itself. Especially at risk are those virtues that require openness or guilelessness rather than self-defensiveness, trust in other people and in the world rather than self-protecting suspiciousness. Virtues like love and friendship require trust in the loved person. Generosity is incompatible with continual suspicion that the world is about to take one’s necessary goods away. Greatness of soul requires high hope and expectation. Even courage requires confidence that some good can come from such action.
Human excellence requires some external resources and conditions. For example, membership in a political community has a necessary instrumental role in the development of good character, for habituation is the most decisive factor in becoming good. If the political regime is itself evil, habituation of good becomes incredibly difficult. Civic activity and the presence of good political surroundings prove instrumentally necessary for the development and maintenance of good character. Favorable political conditions are required instrumentally for people to act well according to excellence. Participation in a well-functioning political community is a necessary condition for the development and exercise of the individual’s other excellences. The political participation of the citizen is an intrinsic good or end, without which a human life, though flourishing with respect to other excellences, will be incomplete. The citizen has a claim to office, even if he or she yields this claim to another. For a political community to deprive individuals of the chance for office diminishes the good life for that citizen.
We cannot keep the fullness of human life safe from good fortune or bad fortune through the controlling power of reason. We live with a certain amount of luck that affects whether we will experience a full human life. Luck plays an important role in the area of human excellence and the activities associated with it, leaving aside the countless ways in which luck affects mere contentment or good feeling. A rational plan of life will allow for elements such as friendship, love, political activity, attachments to property or possessions, all of which, being vulnerable, make the person who stakes his or her perception of the good life open to chance. The absence of such vulnerable good things in individual life deprives the individual of the resources needed to live well. Further, irrational elements of the soul, passions and emotions, offer dimensions and complexity of human life. The soul is soft and porous. We need to learn to live well within a world in which the external has power over our experience of the fullness of human life. We experience the good life along with friends, loved ones, possessions, and community. The value of ethical theory is that it forces to work through rational ethical evaluations, without which we would live purely by sentiment or cultural habit.
The ideals of morality have without doubt played a part in producing some actual justice in the world and in mobilizing power and social opportunity to compensate for bad luck in concrete terms. The matter of chance and randomness in the universe, as well as in human life, presents its unique challenge to ethical reflection today. When we say that something is due to pure chance, the explanatory regress is terminated. In view of the immense variety of ways in which good and bad luck can come people’s way, there simply is no workable way in which one could compensate people for their bad luck. Chance is too variable and many-sided a factor. Would we even want to try to offset the influence of luck in human risk-taking ventures? Should we as a society even try to somehow to compensate people for the innumerable negativities that sheer chance brings their way? There is no practical way to iron the wrinkles of luck out of life’s fabric by compensatory arrangements. While social utopians would like to compensate for this world’s unfairness of fate and luck, philosophers have generally looked elsewhere for compensation, such as the next world. Rationalists are uncomfortable with luck, for it limits the domain of life over which we have control. Life is unfair. Luck is a great leveler. Luck brings surprises. It distributes favors and penalties in a basically fortuitous way. Even those blessed by fortune with great endowments may yet falter; even those who lack fortune’s favor may get lucky. Luck prevents life from being too rational and too predictable. Luck contributes to the leveling of life’s playing field by creating a multi-track access to success, ensuring that ability and drive need not always prevail by giving some chance to the just plain lucky. Luck is a great populist force that gives everyone a chance. The world is not more just because of luck, but it is more democratic. We do not choose our character, just as we do not choose language. We can raise no question of origin. We have a constitution toward language and morality. Yet, we are morally responsible for having character. Luck does not enter in. One can meaningfully be said to be lucky not concerning whom one is but only with respect to what happens to one. How happy we are, according to the Greeks, is primarily an accident, depending upon circumstance and fortune. Acting morality is a normative matter that calls for proceeding correctly. Right action and rational belief and just judging involve appropriateness of process. In normative contexts such as morality, appropriateness requires correct procedure. Morality is secure against the luck-sensitive issue of how things chance to turn out. Luck can play no determinative role.
Human beings are social creatures, and therefore develop families, communities, economic networks, ethical life, political life, and religious life. Religious institutions arise out of the same orientation and drive out of which other institutions arise.
Religion is not the experience of isolated individuals. Religious communities play a primary role in transmitting and communicating religious inspiration. Further, the intellectual reflection offered by religions makes a profound difference in the way people behave, suggesting that intellect and feeling come together in religion. Yet, religion in a modern society trends toward becoming increasingly private, even though religious community provides the framework for such private practices of religion. The reason for this is the increasingly significant role of the individual in society. In fact, if one is to take religion seriously in a modern society, one must find ways to make it personal, devotional, inward, and a committed way of life. Deeply felt personal insight now becomes our most precious spiritual resource. For Schleiermacher, the crucial thing to explore was the powerful feeling of dependence on something greater. To give this reign and voice in oneself was more crucial than getting the right intellectual formula. One will not set aside a meaningful spiritual path to conform to some external authority. Such an approach is hardly comprehensible to many modern persons. This view builds pluralism into it. My spiritual path has to respect those of others. It must abide by the no harm principle. Orthodox positions are no longer as accepted. Even those within traditional ritually based religions will no longer hold closely to the stated beliefs. However, one can expect that the loosening of the religious societal ties will mean that those for whom religion is important will seek local religious communities who are passionately committed to their form of life and belief.
For the thoroughly secular person, such a trend toward private religion is a form of devaluing religion, for they think that it is inseparable from mindless or unreflective external conformity. The drive toward secularity in modern society has a parallel development in the increasingly personal elements of religion. In this sense, pietism, revivalism, evangelicalism, and the charismatic renewal within Christianity accept the role that modern society desires for religion. Buddhism and Taoism largely fit into this role as well. Hassidim in Judaism would also fit into modernity quite well. Forms of Islam related to Sufism, which build on the longing of the soul for unity with God. A version of devout humanism also spreads in modern society. Romanticism is one of these devout forms of humanism, reflected in music, poetry, and novels. This movement searches for an authentic way to express individuality. Each person has a unique way of realizing his or her humanity. This orientation toward self has become a mass phenomenon.
Orthodox Judaism and versions of Islam that emphasize full compliance with the shar’ia would not fit with modern society. Hinduism probably requires a cultural commitment to its myths, rituals, caste system, and food prohibitions that a modern society could not accommodate.
The ways of the divine with humanity appear to be social. The divine may call humanity to live together in brotherly love, and to radiate outward such love as a community. In that case, the locus of the relationship with God is through the community. Religion provides a collective connection through a common form of life. Further, religion consists of various rituals and sacramental signs. The negative stance that many secular persons and devout humanists take toward religious community is a mistake. Every religion also needs ways of providing propositional statements, myths, narratives, and so on, to gain its identity inwardly and to persuade to others. Every religion places its faith and hope in something, and it needs to express it. The experience has no content if one cannot say anything about it. Experience requires a vocabulary, and therefore the religious experience is communal, no matter how intensely personal it may feel. Individual experiences are greatly enhanced by the sense in which they are shared.
Science assumes that every hypothesis needs to be treated with maximum suspicion. However, religion seems to assume that some truths will not reveal themselves to us unless we go at least halfway toward them. In terms of interpersonal relationships, we discover if another person loves us by moving toward them and loving them. Love and self-opening enable us to understand what we would never grasp otherwise. From the standpoint of human rationality, this means the fear of believing something false. On the other hand, one has the hope of opening out what are now inaccessible truths through the prior step of faith. To reject religion is to yield to our fear of it being false rather than to our hope that it might be true.
Sacred space acknowledges that the origin of inanimate and animate entities have their source in the Infinite. The universe is not the random coming together of atoms and cells, but is headed to a place not determined by human beings. Although science explains nature in mathematical ways, nature is also a cipher of the divine.
Sacred time acknowledges tradition as a source, for the Eternal embraces our finite life and addresses humanity in some specific space and time. Sacred time embraces rituals to remember those sacred times of history, and make them present for believers today. Eternity embraces individual human life in such a way that it brings the completion to a life that can never find completion in itself. Relating this history reminds believers of a reality that transcends their time and space, that their lives have accountability to that which is beyond even culture.
religious person, the natural and human world is open to another world, a
divine world, which wants to say something to humanity. Religion opens another
dimension that is not human. The religious person is
societies have had a religious legitimizing of the social order. Secular
societies do not desire this. Communism explicitly rejected it.
The unfortunate side effect of this approach to society and culture is to alienate human beings from the social order they constructed. The social order is not divine. Rather, social order is the result of quite human processes of individuals in community, competing and cooperating with each other. Putting a divine face on social order alienates humanity from the work of its own mind, passion, rationality, and hands. This former role of religion meant that religion actually participated in producing a false consciousness on the part of those in power and on the part of those whom the powerful often oppressed. The use of religion toward oppressing the people religion helped on an individual life is one of the sad records of human history.
The orientation that people have toward a meaningful life, the sense of the Infinite and Eternal that embraces them, often leads people to justify the importance of this space and time as of a divine order. Such an approach turns religion itself into a false consciousness. Therefore, those whom the present order serves well want to believe the present order is divine. Yet, the need of the elites for this form of religion does not generally generate new religion for mass appeal. However, intellectual elites do generate their own brand of religion, such as Deism, Unitarianism, and possibly New Age religion. The need many intellectual elite exhibit to incorporate in a condescending tone some sense of religious feeling does not enliven present religion or begin new religion. Many of the masses respond to a message of salvation that directs them beyond receiving consolation in the present social order and instead receive consolation in the divine order. People alienated from the present social order find a home as children of God in the divine order. The lack of honor, worth, and dignity they receive in the present social order receives fulfillment in the future order God provides. They receive some comfort that the ethics and ritual of religious institution give their lives worth and dignity that transcends the social order and will find recognition in Eternity. Individualizing piety and morality often leads them to view social oppression as the divine will. Religion becomes another way to justify a social evil that human action could remove once people recognize that social evil is the creation of human thought and behavior. Some of the masses will find power in the divine will toward overturning the present social order and establish a new social order built upon a new conception of the divine will for this life.
The problem is that legitimizing the social order is the not reason religious institutions exist. Religion refers to a divine communication that makes relative the social and economic order. Rumi put it this way:
“Love of one’s country
is part of the faith.”
But don’t take that literally!
Your real “country” is where you’re heading,
Not where you are.
It encourages a humble approach to all human activity, recognizing that all human activity is contingent, open to future verification or falsification, and needs connection with the thought and behavior of others. When religion does not serve that purpose, it loses its sense of purpose. It makes a lie to the Eternal and Infinite and encourages people to grasp at the finite and temporal as if they had Eternal and Infinite significance.
Liberal democracy has steadily removed the external ties to Christianity. This world will be more secular and neutral in its public life. It will be less possible to allow the social connections to reflect a Christian connection. Individual decisions will be increasingly less hospitable to collective connection. This process scares many devout Christians. The moral majority and fundamentalism are an attempt to re-establish the old religious order. Much of the religion Left would like to reassert its view of Christianity onto the political and economic landscape. The very embattled nature of these efforts demonstrates that Western societies have already slipped into a new dispensation. Yet, I would like to suggest that this separation has benefited society and has benefited Christianity and can benefit all religions. Religion no longer needs to legitimize the social order. This frees religion from matters it has never done well, such as guide economic and political life. Secular society actually frees the church to fulfill its primary purpose: that of connecting people to a meaningful life.
moral order of mutual benefit has actually strengthened social ties, even while
heightening individuality. Ideals of fairness, of mutual respect of the freedom
each individual has, are strong ideals for social cohesion. The ethic of
authenticity lets each person do his or her own thing, and not criticize the
values of the other. They have a right to live their own life, just as you do.
The pursuit of happiness took on new meaning in
Religious life or practice must speak to me. It must make sense in terms of my spiritual development, as I understand this. The choice of denomination is the result of a sense of comfort. The focus is on my spiritual path and the subtle languages I find meaningful. Orthodoxy of the past is no longer a given, and in fact must persuade each generation of its validity in both thought and life.
The core religious experience is that of an awareness of one’s temporal and finite life as carved out of the Eternal and Infinite. This core experience can move in many directions. With the ascetic, it means that one must struggle against, deny, and leave, the temporal and finite world in order to experience the liberation of connection with the Infinite and Eternal. This form of religion rejects this world in favor of the divine world. This believer becomes a warrior on behalf of God. For other believers, the ascetic seems inordinately focused upon the danger of finite and temporal things to spiritual life. For the contemplative, this core experience means that reflection upon the finite and temporal leads on in stages to reflection upon the Infinite and Eternal. One finds rest in the divine order. One sees a cipher of the divine in the physical and social world. For the ascetic, all the contemplative actually contemplates self. Neither the ascetic nor the contemplative can affirm this world and its importance to self or to the divine. Both approaches minimize activity in the physical and social world in order to direct attention to the divine. Neither the ascetic nor the contemplative is the source of meaningful social reform. The world is primarily a source of temptation. They have their purpose in exposing the oppressive forces of demons and sin, thereby bring liberation to the converted.
When religion rightly shifts its focus to ethical and moral life, engagement with the world and participation in it become important. However, the nature of this shift is significant. If it leads to religious institutions and leaders gaining dominance in matters economic, ethical, and political, it becomes a destructive engagement with the world, for religion involves itself in matters of which it knows little. The assertion of divine legitimacy of a theocratic order is a false consciousness because it makes divine a social order that is actually a human construction. This assertion removes the social order from the realm of rational discourse about what works and what needs to change. Reform of genuine wrong and evil becomes impossible.
Religious people and institutions engage the world through re-focusing upon ethical and moral life. Making this shift means that this world, this time and space, this body of people, are important to religious institutions and to the divine. This world becomes significant to the divine, to religious institutions, and to believers. It begins moving toward an increasingly friendly relationship with the world. War-like imagery no longer speaks, and instead education, inspiration, insight, and activity orient religious life. Intellectual grounding comes from an understanding that God cares for nature, for the social world, and for the individual. At some level, human care for the world needs to mirror the care the divine has for the world. The experience of divine love and grace for oneself can lead the believer toward participation in the world.
Tensions between religious institutional and charismatic forms of religious community seem universal. The institution tends to want affirmation of its intellectual propositions, affirmation of the divine source of its ritual, awareness of the divine source of its ethical life, and the way it legitimizes the social order. In particular, the clergy bear the weight of these demands. Laity will experience them, though to a lesser degree. Unconditional trust in the decisions of the church becomes a point of pride. Such devotion can lead to the surrender of one’s rationality in order to be part of the institution. Core religious experience becomes secondary to assent to intellectual propositions.
The distinction in role between prophet, priest, and teacher is important, though both seek to influence laity in an ethical direction. The priest has a direct connection to sacred tradition and to religious institutional life. The teacher, full of a new or recovered understanding of ancient wisdom, gathers disciples, counsels private individuals in personal matters and seeks to mold ethical ways of life. The goal is to influence ethical regulations. The bond between the teacher of religious or philosophical wisdom and the disciple is uncommonly strong. It involves reverence. The prophet is a threat to priest and teacher, both of whom typically have a closer connection to the institution and to tradition than does the prophet.
The prophet has an indirect connection to tradition and institution, in that prophet presupposes the religious community out of which the prophet comes. Yet, the prophet has an inner sense of divine call for a specific historical setting, often involving an insight into the divine will based upon tradition while extending the insight into new directions. Prophets authenticate their message through miracles or sometimes through wisdom. Prophetic revelation involves a unified view of the world derived from a consciously integrated and meaningful attitude toward life. To the prophet, both the life of people and the world, both social and cosmic events, have a certain systematic and coherent meaning. To this meaning the conduct of humanity must be oriented if it is to bring salvation, for only in relation to this meaning does life obtain a unified and significant pattern. The structure of this meaning may take varied forms. The whole conception is dominated by practical valuations. Yet, it always denotes an effort to systematize all the manifestations of life. It seeks to organize practical behavior into a direction of life, regardless of the form it may assume in any individual case. It always contains the important religious conception of the world as a cosmos that is challenged to produce somehow a meaningful, ordered totality, the particular manifestations of which are to be measured and evaluated according to this requirement. The conflict between empirical reality and this conception of the world as a meaningful totality produces the strongest tensions in the inner life of humanity as well as in its external relationship to the world.
The prophet arises out of a religious community. If the prophet is successful, followers emerge. A community arises in connection with a prophetic movement because of the process whereby the prophet or disciples secure the permanence of the preaching and the congregation’s distribution of grace. The powerful position of priest is increasingly confronted with the necessity of keeping in mind the needs of the laity, in the interest of maintaining and enlarging the membership of the community. Tensions develop between the prophets and their lay followers on the one hand, and between the prophets and the representatives of the priestly tradition on the other. To what degree the prophet would succeed in fulfilling his mission, or would become a martyr, depended on the outcome of the struggle for power. Jesus engaged this struggle. The collection of prophetic revelations may take place in the form of oral tradition.
The social role of religious institutions and the role of religious leaders would have no validity if they did not arise out of the genuine religious orientation of human beings. Religious life, its beliefs, values, and institutions, arise out of movements within human life and human community.
Religious people have an experience of human life that contains tensions between the Eternal and temporal, the Infinite and the finite. Religious life carries such contradiction within the self. Religious receive no final rest from this tension. The distance between the finite and temporal individual from the Eternal and Infinite leads to various forms of devotion and longing for connection. However, any satisfaction of this longing tends to be in the realm of emotion as a form of enlightenment, conversion, or mystical illumination. The various forms religious life takes both in private devotion and in institutional life, has the effect of denying happiness from participation in this world. Any happiness they receive is from God, rather than from their activity. This sense of unworthiness leads the believer to a religious community and tradition that fulfills the role of mediator. For the religious person, reconciliation and freedom cannot take place in this world, given the distance the religious person experiences in this life from that of Eternity and Infinity.
One form of
religious life attempts to overcome this tension. What we might call the healthy
minded religious consciousness focuses upon the satisfaction of happiness. How to gain, how to keep, how to recover
happiness, is in fact for most people at all times the secret motive of all
they do, and of all they are willing to endure. With such relations between religion
and happiness, it is perhaps not surprising that people come to regard the
happiness that a religious belief affords as a proof of its truth.
Another form of the religious consciousness refuses to accept such an easy connection the world. It maximizes evil based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and that the world's meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart. Evil is emphatically irrational, and not to be pinned in, or preserved, or consecrated in any final system of truth. It is a pure abomination to the Lord, an alien unreality, a waste element.
The psychological basis of the twice-born character seems to be a certain discordance or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution. To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that we need a direct divine operation to bring about such a moral change. To say that people are "converted" means that religious ideas, previously peripheral in their consciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual center of their energy. But a new perception, a sudden emotional shock, or an occasion which lays bare the organic alteration, will make the whole fabric fall together; and then the center of gravity sinks into an attitude more stable, for the new ideas that reach the center in the rearrangement seem now to be locked there, and the new structure remains permanent. The symptoms are the same,--sense of incompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like. The result is the same--a happy relief and objectivity, as the confidence in self gets greater through the adjustment of the human life to the wider outlook. The distance between human and divine remains, but at least some of the tension finds rest in the knowledge that the distance is present and will find resolution only in Eternity.
In the modern context, such a loss of significance that lies behind the twice-born occurs in a context in which a meaningful life is not self-evident.
The intense moralism of the age constitutes one of our most important defenses against this sense of pervasive evil.
Many voices in modern society suggest that religion is a voice of the past. In a sense, they are right. However, modernity needs these voices from the past in order to rich its fullness today and to move into a lively future.
Humanity experiences the depth of distance between the Eternal and temporal, the Infinite and the finite, in the continuing presence of misery, suffering, and death. Logically, we know that the struggle to live the condition of being a living entity. Every living entity has a point of beginning and a point of ending. Every living entity has its continued existence threatened prematurely. The core instinct is to continue living, as if the assumption is that some value consists in this entity continuing to live. Yet, none of this comforts us. The suffering and misery of a human life is enough for many people to believe that the Infinite and Eternal are nothing but intellectual constructs that resolve nothing of the tensions in human living.
Whenever we experience what people call “senseless violence,” we must face the tragic condition of human nature. Unfortunately, what we consider senseless murder has been part of the human experience from the beginning. We have darkness within us. It does not matter whether we are in power or among the masses. It does not matter what race or economic strata we belong. We must face our capacity for sin and evil. We are being irrational when we ask such naive questions as: How could anyone do such a thing? People have been killing people, as long as there have been people. Why is it so incomprehensible that they are killing each other today?
When we refuse to face the fact of deliberate evil -- in a century that has seen mass murders of the innocent by the millions -- our squeamishness does not protect anybody. It only leaves more people exposed to more dangers. Declaring murderers crazy, sick or some other explanation will only get these killers sheltered from the law in psychiatric facilities -- and then turned loose to walk the streets again.
The desire of people to lash out at other people has always been there. Babies are born into the world today with all the savage instincts that they had back in the days of the cave man. If most civilized people are unlikely to kill anybody, it is because of all the efforts put forth during our childhood to give us some sense of morality. However, some children do not get as much moral training as others, or as good moral training as others -- or it just does not take for some reason. That is why there have always been evil and dangerous individuals.
Religion maintains the socially defined reality by legitimating marginal situations in terms of an all-encompassing sacred reality. This permits the individual who goes through these situations to continue to exist in the world or society, not as if nothing had happened, but in the knowledge that even these events or experiences have a place within a universe that makes sense. It is thus even possible to have a good death, that is, to die while retaining to the end a meaningful relationship with the order of one’s society, subjectively meaningful to oneself and objectively meaningful in the minds of others.
Nothing shakes human confidence like the reality of one’s own death. All of us must give up our lives to an unknown future. Most of us avoid this painful reality on a daily basis. In the great scheme of things, knowing that earth has been here for several billion years, and will be here several billion more, none of us matters very much. We are a fearful people. We are afraid to become our highest hopes and our lowest fears. We have restlessness within us that the rest of the animal kingdom does not share. Though habit and instinct form a small part of our lives, at our core, we live by freedom, imagination, and creativity. We use such qualities to help us perform the most heroic of acts – courage in the face of our impending death. Making sense out of life is not easy. That is why this project calls forth from us all the faculties of our imagination.
The result is that we construct illusions to help us get through life in what we believe will end with a reasonable degree of happiness. We seek fulfillment in what this world has to offer. Yet, we also discover that there is a dimension to our lives that is simply not satisfied by anything that this world offers. Pleasures, fame, wealth, and power over others can only go so far. They become empty wells, where we thought our thirst for meaning could find satisfaction. Our fear often impels us in cowardly directions. We shrink back from what we can become.
Yet, the heroic act in the face of death is to open ourselves to the world around us. We often live by a series of inspirations and clues that guide us through life. We are more recipients than actors in this process. Such contemplative awareness opens us up to the power of silence and solitude, of reflecting and meditating, becoming increasingly open to the world in the deepest and most profound sense. Such a process makes us open to the possibility of trust to that which is outside of us. We discover meaning; we make sense out of our lives, through investments in family, relationships, and work, developing character and principle along the way. In the midst of the restlessness of human existence, most of us find a sense peace and contentment. Ultimate questions do not consume our daily lives. We recognize that life is too big and threatening to deal with in its totality. We focus on that part of life we can deal with at the time. This is the natural therapy of everyday life. Passivity or aggression is often the result of not accepting making this heroic decision.
To act with courage, given the human situation, is to act with heroism. Facing our sense that life is out of control, facing alienation and loneliness, facing the questions of why and where, takes courage beyond what many of us are willing to admit. To face it all by giving the gift of ourselves, by sacrificing for others, is central to a meaningful, successful life. The average person gives the gift of his or her everydayness to family, friends, work, and society. The one who gains public recognition for talent in the arts gives his or her gift in a uniquely personal way. The way toward fullness and happiness in life is renunciation, giving one’s live as a gift. This natural therapy of everyday life that helps us get through the day. Giving and sacrifice are what people do every day, with their search for meaning in family and religious communities and wit their quest for achievement I work.
Religion is the expression of one type of fundamental experiences of humanity. Religion is the vision of something that stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something that is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something that is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension. Religion is a vision of something that possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something that is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship.
For the individual, life is hard to bear, just as it is for humanity. Civilization often imposes a measure of suffering, as does being part of nature. This uncertain and ambiguous human experience could result in an almost continuous anxious expectation of when the next moment of suffering will come. People cannot live with the truth. Ideologies influence or determine the behavior of individuals and the fate of people. We need illusions to live: art, religion, philosophy, science and love. The more we identify our illusion (our way of thinking) with reality, the healthier we are. We learn to accept appearance as reality. Reality itself can become so painful that neurotic reactions result. Religion itself, as does civilization as a whole, provides a softening of the blows with which life confronts us. The sufferings of this life serve the higher purpose of the perfecting of human nature. We have a need to defend ourselves against the crushingly superior force of nature, as well as to rectify the fact that no social world is utopia. The latter reality gives religion the opportunity to offer the hope of a future beyond any social world in which we will find happiness. Although religion often asks its adherents to believe what the scientific world might consider absurdities, they have no binding force. No one has an obligation to believe something absurd. We can view religion as the fulfillment of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of humanity. The terrifying impression of helplessness and the need for protection from a parent, and therefore a basic trust, begins our journey of the recognition of our basic helplessness throughout life. God becomes the ground and the future fulfillment of that trust.
Modern people also experience a strong sense of alienation from the Infinite and Eternal from its emphasis upon certainty of knowledge. In matters related to domestic life, psychological health, economic health of a nation, ethical life, and religious life, one will never reach the end of human reasoning and experience. Religious people will need to be content with the quality and confidence one can have in a human world.
religious thought of our time has reached a position that arouses the anxiety
of all serious thinkers, and the interest of many who are not serious. The academy has gotten rid of theology as an
important aspect of intellectual dialogue, at least in the
I realize that many people today are skeptical of the possibility of saying anything meaningful about God. Many theologians have given up on the possibility of genuine knowledge of God. In placing God beyond our reason and the pale of all human things, we gain the convenient license of indulging in our own fancies. We free ourselves from the necessity of referring our knowledge to the True and Divine. The Christian religion in particular depends upon the revelation of God’s own self. This means God has given us the means to understand whom God is, and thus to no longer conceal God and keep God secret. With this possibility of knowing God, the obligation to know God is imposed upon us. In this respect, our method in philosophy is a theodicy, a justification of God.
As with all forms of confidence that we develop, the subjective formation of us as individuals, consciously and unconsciously, forms any religious knowledge we have. Religion pursues rationality through imagination. When it explains events or assigns causes, it is an imaginative substitute for science. When it gives precepts, insinuates ideals, or re-moulds aspiration, it is an imaginative substitute for wisdom. The conditions and the aims of life are both represented in religion poetically, but his poetry tends to arrogate to itself literal truth and moral authority, neither of which it possesses. Hence, the depth and importance of religion become intelligible no less than its contradictions and practical disasters. Its object is the same as that of rationality, but its method is to proceed by intuition and by unchecked poetical conceits.
The vision never overrules. It is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony. Such order as we find in nature is never force. It presents itself as the one harmonious adjustment of complex detail. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting.
The power of God is the worship God inspires. That religion is strong that in its ritual and its modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety. It is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.
The modern social world, liberal democracy, the world that values science, democratic institutions, limited government, individual rights, freedom, and tolerance, is the best social world that humanity will have. I want to suggest that such a secular culture is the best hope for the world to improve the life of the masses. I also suggest that liberal democracy is the best hope for the religions of the world to fulfill their purpose in the human quest for the best possible human life. Religion needs secular powers to teach them humility when it comes to the formation of society. Religious wisdom and ultimate meaning are not the sum total of the human quest. People also have this life to live, and this social world to improve. Many aspects of this human life religion has already shown it has little capacity for improving. At the same time, modernity needs religion as the primary place for the embodiment of the wisdom of the ages. People in a modern society need this sense of mutuality in that religious institutions need to be part of the social conversation for improving human life in modern society.
The best modern life is one that embraces the modern social world and tradition. The reality is that if modern society represents rebellion against religion in general and Christianity in particular, then religious people have no reason to engage or participate in modern society.
Many modern persons, especially its intellectuals, although the attitude seems to be spreading, think of religion as a hindrance to human progress and improvement. Modern culture and religion have long been at odds. From the perspective of modern intellectuals, religion is the source of human sacrifice, slaughter of children, cannibalism, sensual orgies, superstition, hatred between races, maintaining degrading customs, hysteria, and bigotry. Religion becomes the last refuge of human savagery. Religion can point out that often, political forces used religion for its deathly purpose. Further, modern life itself has produced its own savagery in slavery, world war, military dictatorship, nationalism, Nazism, and communism.
Christianity has again become a target of modern intellectuals. It does not take much study to discover the sins of Christianity. Christianity justified slavery, glorified serfdom, and justified the oppression of workers. The classical saints of Christianity castigated their bodies for the salvation of their souls. Modern saints castigate the body of the masses for the salvation of their own souls. Over the long course of Christian history, the most depressing thing--because repeated so often--has been how tragically far short of Christian ideals we ordinary Christians so regularly fall. Christianity gained its interest in self-examination and the examination of conscience from the Hellenistic culture, although it made vast changes. The task of testing, examining, and monitoring oneself in a series of well-defined exercises, makes the question of truth central to the formation of the ethical person. The process ends in a rule over self. It places its members, through its confession of faith, within the obligation to discover truth of dogma and the truth of self. It uses the medical model, in that one must show the wound (confess to the clergy) in order to be healed. It also uses the language of the courts, in that one must appear before the court (the clergy) and confessing one’s faults in order to find forgiveness. Christians have the obligation of knowing themselves, the faults they may have committed, and the temptations to which they are exposed. Further, Christians have an obligation to say these things to other people, to tell these things to other people, and hence to bear witness against themselves.
The rise of liberal democracies politically and the rise of science have progressed together, in spite of religion and the church. We do not have to think very far to understand why science favors such political powers as over against the church and religion. The purpose of both is knowledge and rationality, rather than faith and feeling. Most philosophers of the modern social world have strong criticism of the Christian influence upon the world. Those who have helped shape the modern social world have profound questions about the continuing influence and role of Christianity.
The church forced as great a person as Galileo to recant on his knees when he gave his exposition of the Copernican view of the solar system. One of the strongest of passions is the love of truth in a person of genius. Galileo was convinced by his observations of the movement of the earth around the sun. He developed the proofs in his favor. However, an assembly of Cardinals declared this heresy. They compelled him to recant his teaching under the pain of severe imprisonment. Yet, he remained convinced of the truth of his observations. He devised the method of a dialogue between three speakers, thereby hiding the direct presentation of his views. Though the person who presented the Copernican system clearly had the best of the argument, he gave due consideration to the proponents of the Ptolemy view of the universe. One might think church leaders would leave the man alone. Instead, in his 70th year, the Inquisition brought Galileo before it again. They imprisoned him. He had to sign the following statement:
I, Galileo, appearing in person before the court in my seventieth year, kneeling, and with my eyes on the holy Gospels which I hold in my hands, abjure, damn, and execrate with my whole heart and true belief the absurd, false, and heretical doctrine of the motion of the earth . . .
What a spectacle. He
was an aged, venerable man, famous throughout his long life, and exclusively
devoted to the study of nature. The
church forced him to witness against his own conscience the truth that he
demonstrated so convincingly. After a
year in prison, they liberated him in the custody of the Grand Duke of
Florence. He died in 1642.
is the only major religion that has had to make a variety of adjustments in
order to survive within liberal democracy. Modern society has carried over more
of the values and teachings of Christianity than it cares to admit. Buddhism,
Taoism, and Confucianism all have an ethical and peaceful orientation in their
source documents that provide a good base for future dialogue with modern
civilization. Although all religions have plenty of violence in their
background, peaceful religious source texts provide a good base for religions
to bring reform. Christianity with its New Testament has a largely pacifist
document at its core. In fact, it took several centuries before the church said
Christians could use violence to defend others. It took several more centuries
before Christians could use violence to defend themselves. It took 1000 years
before the church organized armies to re-take the
Christianity has the most experience in adjusting to the enlightenment, democratic institutions, and science and technology. It has accepted a humble role in society. It has shown a heart for evangelism and mission. It has shown power to address the modern age. This religion seeks anew a metaphysic in every generation and every culture. This gives it flexibility in relation to cultures and historical periods. The reference that Christianity makes to religious moments in history is the way it seeks to make itself credible to others. Thus, Jesus gave his life to the world. God shows commitment to humanity with the gift of Jesus as the son of God. The concern that God has for the best possible human life gains credibility with that gift. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine. The life of Christ is not an exhibition of over-ruling power. Its glory is for those who can discern it, and not for the world. Its power lies in its absence of force. It has the decisiveness of a supreme ideal. The church will perish unless it opens its window and lets out the dove to search for an olive branch. In Christianity, the Lord hits the world with the force of a hint. We want God to be God. However, God wants to be a human being, a babe in a manager, if you please. We want God to be strong, so that we can be weak. God wants to be weak so that we can be strong. Christ came to earth, not to overpower, but to give power to others. Christ came to provide maximum support and minimum protection.
Religions usually refer in some way to the mysterious dimensions of life and the need for believing, trusting, and having faith. For the modern person, this often sounds like opposition to reason and truth. Faith seems to deceive people by making them naïve and unreflective. When religion seeks to ground itself in science or history, it shows the weakness of its faith. Yet, history, science, and rationality are precisely what modern society values. Faith seems to want comfortable conclusions about God. Faith seems to want inner assurance without the contingency of history, reason, and science. For many modern intellectuals, and increasing numbers of the masses, religion is an imposition upon humanity, rather than a development of and from humanity. Too often, religious institutions require devoted adherents, and turn negatively toward those who do not believe, except to convert them. The appeal to special revelation as a guarantee of the truth of a religion is hardly persuasive to the intellectual community, or even many of the masses. Such revelation must occur in a historical setting. Since history is contingent, religion gives up the claim to certainty as it opens up its claims to historical research. The comfort of faith is no longer so comfortable. Religions that meaningfully engage and participate in the modern social world will assert the symbols of its faith in its original sources and tradition as resources for worship. This place for symbols recognizes that words cannot define or contain the Infinite and Eternal, and thus such symbols serve a continual source of reflection and contemplation upon the proper setting for a human life. The historical sources of religion will have continuing significance for modern people as they show themselves to continue as rich resources for meditation, reflection, and contemplation concerning ultimate reality. The ability of any religion to continue through the course of history lays in its ability to persuade people that its core symbols remain meaningful, and to that extent truth. Most religions recognize that cold affirmation of historical affirmations is not sufficient for the vital practice of their religion. The beliefs and values of the religion need to actually shape and transform human life. Yet, religion that focuses its attention upon ethical and moral matters is clearly the best way for them to engage the modern world. The openness of religion to the future consists in placing its beliefs and values before the hearts and minds of people who can freely choose to entrust their lives to this body of teaching and this tradition. People will entrust themselves to such religions because they can envision it being part of the best human life they can lead.
For liberal democracy, the importance of religion is in how it contributes to the best human life. For the believer, the focus is on adhering to the realm of the divine. Religion becomes a private and voluntary activity, no longer being a unifying force in the social consciousness. However, religions can break through such social roles, as long as it recognizes that its influence will be part of the subtle background that shapes individuals and communities and slowly shapes a nation. Transformation of humanity is not something that occurs in this generation. Religions position themselves well as they continue their contact with their tradition.
The moral conversation takes place in the public sphere, in dialogue between disagreeing factions. The confidence of liberal democracy is that truth will advance through the free exchange of ideas and example of life. This “truth” is not absolute. It is a truth open to the future adjustments along the way of history. In reality, moral changes occur primarily through change in the thought and life of individuals. From the perspective of the sociology of religion, the role of faith consists in the shaping of a value system through which society makes decisions. They provide the context for discussions about meaning in life that filters through societal structures. For this reason, direct changes in law to enforce morality are hardly helpful as a witness to a secular society.
The proposition that the religions are socially irrelevant is not necessarily disturbing from an enlightened secularist point of view. People holding such a point of view can well afford to be tolerant of the religious activities of their fellow citizens and can even admit that these activities may do some good occasionally while their own social concerns find expression in purely secular channels. This tolerance of the churches social irrelevance will be even more benevolent if one takes a basically positive attitude towards American society.
society in which we live has a tremendous impact upon the church of today. We
live in a society that has acquired its nature and power precisely from its
liberation from its formerly religious center. Thus, secular can mean the
process of withdrawal of whole areas of life, thought, and behavior from the
influence of the church. The state
emancipates itself from religion, even if the overwhelming majority is still
religious. Yet, that majority does not
cease to be religious by being religious in private. Humanity achieves freedom from religion as it
no longer shapes public law, thereby making religion a private right. In that
sense, movements within Christianity in particular complimented the movement in
secular society. Presbyterian and Baptist groups in particular wanted the
political state to remove itself from involvement in religion. The increasingly
secular society desires to free itself from the institutional church as much as
possible. The constitution of the
I use the word "secular" and “modern” to describe our society. Intellectuals used the word secular centuries ago to describe the process of government taking the vast land holdings of the church and making them available to the government. We can understand the secular society in varieties of ways. If the base line is a sacred world, in which there are gods all around, then secularization is the process of turning nature from a "thou" to an "it." If the base line is Christendom, then secularization means the steady removal of Christian elements from Western civilization. Secular society wants to withdraw from the church.
The base line for defining secular society is the view that prevails among the opinion makers, that is, those who manage the flow of ideas. Scientists, academics, media people, have come to view religion as increasingly irrelevant for their own thought and conduct. Religion is harmless for those who retain it, though religion can be threatening if it goes into the public arena. It is this latter view that we will mean when we speak of our society as becoming secular and modern. Liberals like H. Richard Niebuhr and the conservatives like the National Association of Evangelicals agree on one point. The church ought to have the objective of transforming culture. The problem is that Niebuhr said this in a largely churched culture of the 1940's. Today, with a secular culture, this talk could sound rather threatening. It comes across as arrogant. Most of secular society believes it is doing just fine without the church. Much of that society believes it would be better off without the church. This withdrawal of society from the church can be seen in a variety of characteristics of the people of this generation. Many are essentially ignorant of basic Christianity. Instead of worrying about life after death, they are concerned about whether there is true life before death. While the church continues to focus on sin, the people of this generation are more concerned about doubt. They have a largely negative view of the church as irrelevant to their life concerns. There is an alienation from a variety of life experiences: nature, neighbors, political and economic systems, and vocations. There is loneliness in this generation that goes beyond the surface because of this. It is a largely untrusting generation. It struggles with low self-esteem. History is viewed as being out of control. One must remember that this generation experienced the assassination of their heroes in John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Self help groups spread because of the awareness of a variety of addictions people face. Many of these people do not know where even to begin in their quest for God.
important aspect of the intellectual sources of Western civilization is its
religious heritage. Modernity needs to come to a place where it acknowledges
that religion is a constant factor in human existence that has positive and
negative influence upon human behavior. In particular, the modern intellectual
needs to face such realities. Only in this way can modernity help religion
adopt its humble role within society. Modern intellectual can join with
religions in those places where they can, rather than engaging the church in
war. It can also help religion make a positive contribution to the developing
of the best human life for individuals and for our life together. I do not
believe religion will get to this place on its own. I do not think modernity in
itself has the moral sources that religion provides. In a strange way,
modernity and religion need each other. Modernity provides the structural
freedom in which all persons may pursue their best plan of life, and for many
persons that plan will include religious texts, institutions, communities, and
style of life. Religious institutions become part of the public sphere and seek
to persuade others. However, religions need modernity to teach them their
humble role within society, no longer driving toward shaping or transforming
culture into a reflection of its own ideals. Religion needs modernity to care
enough about religion and religious people in order to teach religion to make a
positive contribution toward the best human life for individuals and society.
Religion has totalitarian impulses. Christianity in
The churches must restore tradition to its proper place. They need to think along with the past, although they have their blind spots in the area of social justice. The present is not pure. After all, future generations will undoubtedly judge this generation for its own blind spots.
Where would civilization be today without Christian notions of compassion and solidarity? As atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Richard Rorty have noted, these ideas spring from the legacy of Christ. You do not have to be a Christian to appreciate parts of the legacy of Christ. I offer a few reflections upon that legacy, not in the form of legitimizing modern society, but in terms of showing that modern society needs the language of religion and its traditions.
First, the universalizing vision of modern society is an inheritance from Christianity. Modern society believes that freedom, justice, respect for individual rights, science, and technology, transcend gender, race, nationality, or culture. It believes that it represents an improvement of the human condition as these social practices spread in the world. Christianity has a mission to the world, believing that its message is for all persons.
belief in the worth and dignity of individuals is an inheritance from the
Christian tradition. The English word dignity is rooted in a Latin word meaning
"worthy of esteem and honor, due a certain respect, of weighty
importance." Christianity insisted that the Creator loves every single
human, made in the Creator’s image, and destined for eternal friendship and
communion with God. Both Aristotle and Plato held that most humans are by
nature slavish and suitable only for slavery. Most do not have natures worthy
of freedom. The Greeks used "dignity" for only the few, rather than for
all human beings. Belief in the moral equality of human beings led to
acceptance that freedom is a birthright, ruling out permanent social
inequalities, and in that way, religion and liberty became allies. The
multiplicity of Christian groups in
Among the figures of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant is probably the one who most clearly spoke to the concept of human dignity. He did so in the light of a categorical imperative that he discerned in the rational being, and he made famous this formulation of the principle of human dignity: "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only." It is not difficult to see in Kant’s formula a statement in nonbiblical language of the essential humanistic aspect of Jewish and Christian teaching: "Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself" (Lev. ); "And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also" (1 John ).
principles of freedom and equality the modern society value derives from
Christian teaching and from Stoic sources. People deserve the possibility for
living the best human life they can lead. The social condition of freedom
provides that opportunity and responsibility for the individual.
Fourth, the sense of fraternity among human beings is an important conception of modern society. This sense that humanity is of value and are in life together is one it derives from Christianity. God is the source of all life and the loving Father of all. This suggests that people living in a society together also have a responsibility to each other as part of the same human family. The belief in fraternity brings ethical questions into view. Modern intellectuals like to point to the failures of the church as an institution of power to practice its values. Yet, history also shows times when believers who are strong and powerful because of their wealth, education, political power, superior culture, or favored location, have have reached out to the despised, the forsaken, the abandoned, the lost, the insignificant, or the powerless. Christianity has sometimes made a difference by surrounding the use of power with humility and fraternity.
Fifth, conscience is a term that relates to the moral life as a form of life. The first practical problem of the moral life is to find out what to do in the unique circumstances in which you (a unique, unrepeatable) person find yourself now. The moral life taxes our capacities for practical knowing. Even when we know the model or ideal we are pursuing, the right thing to do now is not always clear. Besides, we sometimes wish to evade clear knowledge, or we prefer to let passion drive us. After we act from passion or evasion, we sometimes see clearly what we ought to have done, and feel the bite of remorse. This bite, too, comes from our faculty of practical knowing. Conscience, then, is the practical habit of discerning the right thing to do in immediate circumstances, and by which we blame ourselves when we have turned away from this discernment--that is, failed to use the light within us. By frequent failures to use it, and by deliberate abuse of it, we can dim this light and all but extinguish conscience. We can also deceive it.
Conscience is not a term of the ancient Greeks or Romans.
Neither is it, exactly, a biblical concept.
However, many texts in the Bible show the inner conflicts that gave rise
to the need for such a concept.
"And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him,
because he had cut off Saul’s skirt" (1 Sam. 24:5); "For the good
that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do" (Rom.
Seventh, the concept of person also entered Western thought by way of reflection on the Bible. They needed a way to name the special kind of spiritual being capable of acts of insight and choice. Theologians also needed a concept to express what it is in Jesus Christ, who had both a human and a divine nature, that remains the same. A person came to be understood as a being with a capacity for insight and choice, and an independent existence as a responsible agent. Acquiring this concept of the person was a crucial step for the modern age, leading directly to the first declaration of human rights in history.
Religion can engage modern society, but recognizing its changing role.
First, every religion will need to realize that whatever truth it holds is provisional and open to future verification or falsification. In the case of religion, the test is the ability to win adherents, not to impose its laws upon all the people through legislation. It means willingness to have open debate with other religions and with atheism.
Second, people still face great adversity, misery, and suffering. In addition to caring enough for humanity to move toward healing, religion can offer hope for connecting individual human life to the Infinite and Eternal.
Third, religions will have influences upon society that exceeds direct membership and adherents. Modern people may feel alienation from religion, given its record of sins, the continued presence of suffering, and the lack of certainty concerning the divine dimension to which religion points. These same people will reap benefits from the ethical dimension of the teachings of religion. This group of modern, open, tolerant, freedom loving and religious persons has yet to find much institutional formation. One of the challenges religions in modern societies face today is to identify with these persons in their struggles with religion and believing. Indeed, those who would be leaders in any religious institution will have deal with the matter of why so many apparently religious people are doing quite will without institutional religion.
Religious people can lament the process of secularization that takes place in secular, liberal democracy. Religion can wish for itself the exalted role it once had in history. Religion can condemn secular culture. None of this will turn back the clock to a different age.
A secular society is still a religious society. Its members have religious needs, even if not religious training. Modern people will no longer simply accept whatever the institution says. People are searching for meaning and significance in their lives. People want to believe in something. People want to connect with other people in ways that go deeper than mere acquaintance. People are hurting.
The secular society needs accurate information about the religious tradition. It is the responsibility of the institution to share that information. The pluralistic, secular society in which religious institutions carry their message is a highly competitive one. The aim of such a program would be to present the religion and its tradition as an intelligible and plausible vision of the world. The goal is to inform rather than impart or convert, and this has a valid purpose in the highly competitive society in which the religion must live its life. Religions will have to overcome their tendency to talk to each other about their beliefs and values and direct their talk toward those outside their religious community. In addition to information, religions can cultivate readiness to hear and perhaps respond to their message. This will mean a willingness to use television. This medium has become the primary tool of the culture, and religion outside of fundamentalism has not used it well. However, TV has the capacity to motivate by being immediate and intimate. It is possible to develop programming that uses these qualities to the advantage of the faith. Often, this will mean the use of music. TV can arouse curiosity and cultivate a readiness to hear the message.
In relationship to political culture, religious institutions will have to give up their sense that they are responsible for society. Religions are first accountability to those who have gone before them. They bear witness to the continuing vitality of a tradition to persuade intellectually and to help form human life and community. The modest role of religion in modern society is to have a long-range commitment to human flourishing.
The political organization of culture articulates the movement of the human struggle for worth and dignity in institutional life. Political life develops firmly fixed distinct powers, laws, and institutions. It builds order into the social world. This has been the task of humanity throughout world history. Religion is part of the civil life of the modern social world. It depends upon the structure of the social order that the government secures. In the modern social world, that structure centers on a culture of freedom. As part of civil life in the modern social world, the church assists people in clarifying their personal interests, assists them in their question for community, meaning, and ethical life. The government discharges its duty by affording every assistance and protection to religion. It can afford a liberal frame of mind toward the increase of religion. To deny civil rights to any group is for the government to deny its basic principle and purpose.
example, religion needs to give up the theocratic ideal. The Old Testament contains the vision of a
nation under God. Prophets could call
the king and the leaders of the nation to task because of that vision. The Roman Catholic Church continued that
perspective throughout the period from
Religion needs to learn the subtle language of human worth and dignity, rather than the overt language of economics, law, and politics. This requires some clarification of the deepest impulses of a culture upon with the wisdom of one’s tradition may shed light. This means carefully separating itself institutionally from the political vision of any group in society. This also requires illuminating a sense of self. Religion does this through an understanding of what a whole, healthy, meaningful human life is like. Religion can also assist modern people in their quest for community. This also involves helping modern society developing a narrative that helps to set its life in a meaningful context. This dimension of religion in modern society is important, but also quite difficult to envision. The intellectual challenge to religion is immense. The secular and scientific intellectual system is persuasive to increasing numbers of persons. What will persuade modern people, however, is both a reasonable faith and authentic community life.
The form of thought and life that advances religious life does not advance economic or political life. Collective political and economic action by religious people is not advisable for this reason. I hope the following explanation makes clear why.
Religion begins with a sense that individual human life carves itself out of the Infinite and Eternal. It has a sense of the whole, of which individual life is a small part. Religion seeks the best human life and seeks truth in this context. It seeks an understanding of life in this context. Religious people live with this tension and difference between individual self and the whole that gives life its meaning. However, this whole is something that religion claims to have only provisional grasp. Religion struggles for hints and clues that attract it toward some presence of the whole that gives life its meaning and purpose. When religious people discover what they believe to be that presence of the Infinite and Eternal, they experience peace, freedom, and satisfaction. Religious people have such an experience, even though human life is changeable, frustrates aims, lose interest, and lose possessions. This form of experience to which religion refers contains feeling, intuition, and passion, a form of thought that struggles toward explicit expression. The religious reference to a whole or future no human being can fully experience means it must use symbolic language, narrative, myth, and story, rather than the precise language of math and logic. Religion also requires adherents to place their lives in the context of the beliefs and values of the religion in advance of certain knowledge of their truth. Although people make such judgments of faith in many areas of life, religion is especially open to such commitments that take one beyond what one can rationally explain. Some adherents will take such leaps more readily than others do. The willingness to open oneself to the Infinite and Eternal makes this world less significant. The present social world and individual life do not carry the same ultimate nature that they can for those who do not share the religious perspective.
The problem for religious people becoming involved in the political order is that they bring all these hunches, feelings, intuitions, senses, hints, and clues into the political arena. Politics becomes prey to weakness, insecurity, and disorder in the explicitly religious context. Religious people seek guidance from the divine realm. Although such intuitions may have some truth, the political order requires people to apply themselves to the rational task of relating in the social world. This involvement of the religious person in political life often leads to folly, abomination, and the destruction of the ethical order. The religious person too quickly turns toward the divine world, often with a sense or intuition of the divine world. In turning toward the divine world, religious people turn too quickly from this world, this social world, this life, and this space and time. Through rational discourse with other people, truth fit for a human world often emerges. Unfortunately, religious people seem to renounce the difficult path of rationality in favor of the path of least resistance toward belief. Claiming humility in receiving divine truth, the religious person shows conceit. Their claim to immediate godliness leads them to claim an ability to see the heart of law and political life and passing judgment so quickly. Often, the source of such claims is piety, which tends to claim an infallible and unimpeachable insight. The religious source of such insights tends to lead one to think that no one has the right to criticize them. After all, they are insights from the divine world. Religious institutions add to the problem by claiming to be the only path to God, instead of humbly sharing the way they believe the divine is at work in them.
The point is that the language and thought that brings people into the hierarchy of the church are the opposite qualities needed to engage political and economic life. Morality and religion do not dictate political or economic decisions. Rather, morality and religion form part of the background and subtle language out of which the nation makes political and economic decisions. Wisdom in this area has multiple sources. Religion and morality are two of the sources. Religious people engage on an equal basis with others reflecting upon political and economic matters. Political and economic reflection, on the other hand, require practical reasoning, engaging in information and rational discourse with others.
Morality and religion speak a language that science and technology simple do not know. Yet, as scientific, technological, and enterprise oriented as modern society is, it needs the language of heritage and tradition. This language is that of narrative and story, rather than simple propositional statements.
What the agent is able to do and say intelligibly as an actor is deeply affected by the fact that we are never more that the co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please. In life, we are always under certain constraints. Human beings are discourse. The story moves through us where we say anything or not. The events of life have pleasure and warmth because of the delight of the discourse always going on. We enter upon a stage that we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in our own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others. It is considerations as complex as these that are involved in making the notion of intelligibility the conceptual connecting link between the notion of action and that of narrative. An action is a moment in a possible or actual history or in a number of such histories. The notion of a history is as fundamental a notion as the notion of an action. Each requires the other. Rumi put it in the following way.
You own myth, without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
Sartre suggests that to present human life in the form of a narrative is always to falsify it. There are not and there cannot be any true stories. Human life is composed of discrete actions that lead nowhere, which have no order; the story-teller imposes on human events retrospectively an order that they did not have while they were lived. Human actions become unintelligible occurrences.
History is an enacted dramatic narrative in which the characters are also the authors. At any point in an enacted dramatic narrative, we do not know what will happen next. The kind of unpredictability is required by the narrative structure of human life. This unpredictability coexists with a second crucial characteristic of all lived narratives, a certain teleological character. We live out our lives in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us. We have no present that is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future that always presents itself in the form of a telos, or of a variety of ends or goals. Unpredictability and teleology coexist as part of our lives. Like characters in a fictional narrative, we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form that projects itself towards our future. Thus, the narratives that we live out have an unpredictable and a teleological character. Humanity is in actions and practice essentially a story-telling animal. We become a teller of stories that aspire to truth. We enter human society with one or more imputed characters, roles into which we have been drafted, and we have to learn what they are in order to be able to understand how others respond to us and how our responses to them are apt to be construed. Complaints and suicide suggest that the narrative of their lives have become unintelligible to them.
To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is to be accountable for the actions and experiences that compose a life that tells a story. It is to be open to being asked to give a certain account of what one did or what happened to one or what one witnessed at any earlier point in one’s life than the time at which the question is posed.
The other aspect of narrative selfhood is correlative: I am not only accountable; I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, as they are part of mine. The narrative of any one life is part of any interlocking set of narratives. Moreover, this asking for and giving of accounts itself plays an important part in constituting narratives. I am not arguing that the concepts of narrative or of intelligibility or of accountability are more fundamental than that of personal identity. In what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask what is the good for me? Is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. To ask what is the good for humanity? Is to ask what all answers to the former question must have in common.
The systematic asking of these two questions and the attempt to answer them in deed as well as in word provide the moral life with its unity. The unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest. Quests sometimes fail, are frustrated, abandoned or dissipated into distractions. Human lives may also fail in all these ways. Yet, the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or be narrated quest.
A quest for what? Let us call attention to two key features of the medieval conception of a quest.
The first is that without some at least partly determinate conception of the final telos there could not be any beginning to a quest.
Second, it is clear the medieval conception of a quest is not at all that of a search for something already adequately characterized. It is in the course of the quest and only through encountering and coping with the various particular harms, dangers, temptations and distractions that provide any quest with its episodes and incidents that the goal of the quest is finally to be understood. The virtues are those dispositions that will sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices. In addition, virtues also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions that we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good. The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the kind of households and the kind of political communities in which people can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical enquiry about the character of the good.
A provisional conclusion about the good life for humanity is that the good life is the life spent in seeking for the good life for humanity, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those that will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for humanity is.
I am never able to seek for the good or exercise the virtues only as an individual. What the good life is for a fifth-century Athenian general will not be the same as what it was for a medieval nun or a 17th century farmer. I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. What I am is in key part what I inherit, a specific past that is present to come degree in my present. I find myself part of a history and that is generally to say, whether I like it or not, whether I recognize it or not, one of the bearers of a tradition.