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Christ-haunted Modern Morality
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By Anonymous, November 4, 2010 in Outside the Classroom, What is Education?

Sentimentality, according to Cambridge philosopher Michael Tanner, is a certain “disease of the feelings” that is at once aesthetic and moral. If Tanner is right about our present cultural situation, sentimentality is characteristic of advanced societies in the west, and this subjects reflective people who live within them to a peculiar kind of anxiety, which Tanner himself admits to feeling.  He argues that

…enormous numbers of our feelings and attitudes towards the most basic issues are based on some more-or-less traditional Christian outlook.  But we are no longer living in a Christian society, in any serious sense, and most of us are not Christians.  Our general view of the world is not at all like Christ’s.  And yet we depend for much of our emotional and spiritual succor on art and teaching that not only presupposes the truth of Christianity, but actively propagates it.  Many an atheist thinks that the B minor Massis one of the greatest works of art; that is what I feel.  But I am not at all clear that I should.

Tanner perceives Bach’s B minor Massas beautiful, but he wonders whether he is entitled to judge it so.  Bach’s depiction of the Christian Eucharist is consoling, reverent and majestic, but Tanner denies that the Eucharist is what it claims to be, and so he presumably must deny that it really is consoling, reverent or majestic.  Is he not therefore having his emotions “on the cheap” by taking a loan out on Christian teaching, which he refuses to pay in belief or in deed?  Tanner worries that may be guilty of the very sentimentality he condemns as defective and self-indulgent, and evoking such sentimentality is a signal mark of bad and debasing art, which the B minor Mass manifestly is not. 

Tanner’s doubts about the integrity of modern emotional and spiritual succor in the post-Christian west can be generalized to doubts about the integrity of our moral sensibility as well.  Our moral sensibility too may rely on ideas, teachings and emotions that are characteristically Christian and are unsupportable within the context of a secular morality.  This worry is not simply a version of the Dostoyevskian premonition that without God there cannot be morality.  On the contrary, the worry takes morality’s reality for granted but wonders what its content, force and structure could be in a secular context.  Wittgenstein observes that 

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfectas sick.  Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

The concepts of imperfection and sickness may have the same extension or range of application, but thinking of oneself as wretched as opposed to thinking of oneself merely imperfect invokes a whole new valence of self-evaluation.  The difference lies in the degree of evaluative force or depth, and not scope.  Outside a religious worldview—indeed, outside a religious worldview of a quite particular kind—the force of such an evaluation would be quite alien.  Wittgenstein fastens onto wretchedness as an instance of this phenomenon, but he might as well have mentioned other ideas that implicate a religious morality.  One such idea is moral obligation.  Can morality have genuinely obliging force given secular assumptions about morality’s immanent source?  Or must morality be legislated by a divine lawgiver if its claims are to oblige of necessity?  “Obligation” here refers not to an action that is obligatory, but to the purported force of demand or necessity that compels an obligatory action’s performance. 

Again, the problem here is not whether we can come to know moral truths apart from first believing in a divine legislator.  I think we can, and indeed there are logical problems with believing a purportedly divine revelation if you don't already know that lying is bad and therefore God can be trusted.  The problem I am pointing out is about the normative or rational force that morality can have with or without conceiving of God as morality's ultimate source.

I want to approach these and other questions about obligation by first considering another idea that implicates religious morality, which is the liberal idea of moral equality.  Equality is an aspect of justice and justice is the virtue linked most tightly with obligation; the relationship between justice and obligation is a subject I will examine in subsequent chapters.  The most influential contemporary account of equality is perhaps John Rawls’s theory of justice, which he calls “justice as fairness”.  The central device that Rawls deploys in developing his account of justice is the celebrated hypothetical contract scenario of the “original position.”  The original position is a rational decision procedure under conditions of uncertainty, which is supposed to yield the affirmation of Rawls’s two principles of justice as fairness by those parties who subject themselves to the procedure.  The original position bears an uncanny resemblance, as Bernard Williams notes, “to another argument designed to lead to momentous moral consequences under conditions of uncertainty,” which is Pascal’s Wager argument for affirming the existence of God.  Why should someone put himself in the original position before considering what principles of justice to affirm?  At first blush, the intuitive reason is the same reason behind the immemorial ‘I cut, you choose’ rule for dividing up a cake: a rule or system will be impartial if certain parties would agree to it before they knew what their individual role in the system or relation to the rule would actually be.  Thus we agree that either one of us can cut the cake, so long as the other gets to choose first which piece to take.

No matter how intuitive this commonsense rule is, Rawls ends up packing the original position with so many additional, contestable moral assumptions that the justification of the original position cannot pretend to be merely intuitive.  The original position may be able to tell you what principles of justice are according to its strictures, but it cannot tell you why you should care for justice to begin with.  Whence the rational forceof justice’s claims?  Rawls’s most evocative answer to the question why anybody should put himself in the original position to begin with comes in a striking passage from the conclusion of A Theory of Justice.

Thus to see our place in society from the perspective of this [original] position is to see it sub specie aeternitatis:it is to regard the human situation not only from all social but also from all temporal points of view.  The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world.  And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint.  Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.

In proposing to immanentize the perspective of eternity into “a certain form of feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world,” Rawls echoes an unlikely predecessor, namely John Stuart Mill.  A major objective of Rawls’s project in A Theory of Justiceis to release Anglophone moral and political theory from its captivity to consequentialism, to which it had been more or less beholden since Bentham and Mill.  Nevertheless Rawls’s defense of the original position in terms of sentimental secular religiosity echoes Mill’s defense of the principle of utility, and this returns us to the idea of obligation.  Both the virtue of justice and idea of obligation seem to require special justification, and therefore especially to provoke skepticism, in a way that other moral notions do not.  It seems much less plausible to deny that friendship or temperance are virtues that benefit their possessors, for instance, than it does to deny that justice really is an excellence of character or that morality binds with the force of obligation.  And yet we think, or at least our culture has taught us, that justice is an excellence of character and that morality does oblige.

In the third chapter of UtilitarianismMill wants to account for the “ultimate sanction” of the principle of utility—that is, the authority and obliging force of morality.  Morality must have an ultimate sanction, he assumes, and he wants to explain how people’s admittedly fickle and inconstant concern for general welfare can nevertheless bind them with the force of obligation.  If he cannot show this, Mill will have failed to meet a desideratum for any candidate theory of morality as he conceives it.  Mill locates the force of obligation in conscience, which he construes as “a subjective feeling in our own minds.”  Conscience obliges because in effect it threatens psychological punishment violating its deliverances.  He argues that morality’s “binding force … consists in the existence of a mass of feeling which must be broken through in order to do what violates our standard of right, and which, if we do nevertheless violate that standard, will probably have to be encountered afterwards in the form of remorse."

Mill’s conception of conscience faces a problem similar to the one faced by Rawls’s original position.  Suppose that someone does not feel the pangs of conscience, or even if he does, suppose that he can overcome them by an act of self-will?  For such a person, why mus the not violate—why is he bound not to violate—the standard of right action, which (presumably) will be the principle of utility?  Mill’s answer is at root the same one that Rawls proposes more than a century later: morality can generate obliging reasons through being transformed into a religion of social emotion.  Thus Mill:

Consequently, the smallest germs of the [social] feeling are laid hold of and nourished by the contagion of sympathy and the influences of education; and a complete web of corroborative association is woven round it, by the powerful agency of the external sanctions….  If we now suppose this feeling of unity to be taught as a religion, and the whole force of education, of institutions, and of opinion, directed, as it once was in the case of religion, to make every person grow up from infancy surrounded on all sides both by the profession and by the practice of it, I think that no one, who can realize this conception, will feel any misgiving about the sufficiency of ultimate sanction for the Happiness morality [of utilitarianism].

Mill thinks that Auguste Comte’s (at the time) new system of positivism demonstrates the real possibility of a secular religion of morality.  For Comte, he argues,

… has superabundantly shown the possibility of giving to the service of humanity, even without the aid of belief in a Providence, both the psychical power and the social efficacy of a religion; making it take hold of human life, and colour all though, feeling, and action, in a manner of which the greatest ascendancy ever excercised by any religion may be but a type and foretaste; and of which the danger is, not that it should be insufficient, but that it should be so excessive as to interfere unduly with human freedom and individuality.

On Mill’s view as on Rawls’s it become uncertain whether the force of obligation and the claims of justice are ultimately a force or claim of reason as opposed to prejudiceHow seriously are we to take Mill’s and Rawls’s references to “religion” in these contexts?  I do not think that we can read them simply as rhetorically overwrought invocations to public moral education, because in each case the posited religious sensibility has to do real philosophical work within the given argument.  As a matter of intellectual history, in any case, there is little question about whether obligation implicates religious morality quite literally.  In his Lectures on the History of Ethics Rawls declares, “It is from Christianity that the idea of a dictate, or imperative, of reason specifying our duties and obligations enters modern moral philosophy."  Rawls argues that modern moral philosophy had its central problematic set by the theological and political consequences of the Protestant Reformation.  Therefore, the aims of modern moral philosophy is genuinely distinct from the task that ancient Greek moral philosophers set themselves to accomplish.  In contrasting the ancients and the moderns in this way Rawls of course takes up a theme with a long and complicated history of its own.  Rawls follows the 19th century English philosopher Henry Sidgwick, whose proposal is that the distinctively modern moral sensibility is associated with “quasi-jural notions” such as duty, obligation, and right—or what Rawls calls the dictates and imperatives of reason.

Sidgwick sees modern moral psychology as fundamentally divided between opposing motivations: “in the modern ethical view, when it has worked itself clear, there are found to be two [faculties], Conscience and Self-Love.”  By this score Mill counts as an archetype of the modern moral sensibility because he divides practical interest between equivalent categories, which he calls “morality and simple expediency.”  Sidgwick’s and Mill’s pair of contrasts mirror the Kantian distinction between acting from the motive of duty and the motive of enjoyment, and again between the moral and the prudential.  Each of these parallel modern division contrasts with the uniform moral psychology of the Greeks (or at least of the intellectualist philosophers among them, particularly Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics).  As Sidgwick understands the Greeks, 

The chief characteristics of ancient ethical controversy as distinguished from modern may be traced to the employment of a generic notion [of good] instead of a specific one [such as rightness] in expressing the common moral judgments on actions.  Virtue or Right action is commonly regarded [by the Greeks] as only a species of the Good: and so the first question … when we endeavour to systematize conduct, is how to determine the relation of this species of good to the rest of the genus.

For the Greeks, to use the contemporary idiom, the good is prior to the right.  Obligation, duty, right, wrong, etc. are subsidiary moral concepts that depend somehow upon human good, and it is the good that is the fundamental normative category.  For modern utilitarians like Mill there are three phenomena in play, each of which is separate: there is (a) individual self-interest or “simple expediency”, (b) morality (general utility), and (c) the psychologically binding force of conscience.  It is clear that whether or not (c) reinforces the claims of (b) is a contingent matter and there isn’t any conceptual connection between them.  Why, for instance, couldn’t conscience reinforce simple expediency instead of social morality, if you happened to subscribe to an ethic of individual authenticity? 

For this reason and others I am skeptical of modern theories of obligation, which is why I subscribe to the project adumbrated by Elizabeth Anscombe in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy.” In that essay Anscombe contends that within the context of contemporary secular moral theory the concept of moral obligation is confused and unsustainable.  Like Wittgenstein’s remark about concept of moral wretchedness, and again like Tanner on beauty, Anscombe in her essay argues that the meaningfulness of moral obligation presupposes a particular theological framework.  Outside of such a framework, moral theory should scrap the conception of moral obligation it has uncritically inherited.  Anscombe says:

But if such a [theological] conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation’, of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word “ought” has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of “obligation”, it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts.

It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.  A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by “criminal”, which alone gave the word its sense.  So Hume discovered the situation in which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the word “ought” was invested with that peculiar force having which it is said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.

Anscombe’s genealogy of obligation is provocative.  It has inspired more or less systematic attempts at vindication, most famously Alasdair MacIntyre's work in After Virtue and its sequels; I believe it is largely correct.  Anscombe is a natural lawyer in the sense that she believes we can know moral truths through rational enquiry.  But her treatment of moral obligation, if she's right, shows that even on a natural law account God is not superfluous to morality, and His official absence from modern secular moral theory belies the haunting presence of a still-Christian sensibility. 

Tags: Ethics, Theology, Modern philosophy, Aesthetics, Culture

8 Comments
Lee Trepanier on Nov 5, 2010 at 9:34 pm

This is a thought-provoking piece. I wonder what would be the best attempt to remedy to situation: to reclaim the culture to be more Christ-centered? Or is there another alternative?

Anonymous on Nov 8, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I think that reclaiming the culture to be more Christ-centered is a good idea. Of course my secularist friends don't, and neither do Jews or Muslims, and among Christians there is disagreement about what it is to be Christ-centered.

As I understand it, the task of the Christian scholar (and I have in mind Catholic Christians specifically) is twofold: first, to study his own tradition, engage contemporary problems from within his tradition, and pass his tradition on to his students; second, to study and engage with secular modernity and to show the extent to which it presupposes properly Christian ideals that it can't account for, and is therefore rationally inferior to the Christian tradition.

Both of these tasks are necessary, but the second is subordinate to the first. These tasks also require having sufficient interdisciplinary, humane knowledge beyond the focus of one's specific academic training.

Scott Pryor on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:34 pm
Anonymous on Nov 14, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Prof. C. Scott Pryor makes some kind comments on his blog about my post: http://pryorthoughts.blogspot.com/2010/11/two-cheers-for-anonymous.html He is dismissive, however, of Anscombe's remark about the Protestant Reformation's influence on law conceptions of ethics, which I quote. He calls this a "Catholic canard." Let me give a partial reply.

First, Pryor is certainly right that the roots of natural law theory's collapse trace back prior to the Reformation during the medieval period. This is a familiar point. But of course the roots of the Reformation itself trace back to the medieval period as well. It wasn't as if the Reformation was unrelated to the nominalist crisis of the middle ages. The disintegration of the natural law tradition was part of the same process which produced the Protestant Reformation.

Now of course it is possible to find Protestant scholastics who continued to hold a more or less 'orthodox' Thomistic conception of the natural law, in the same way that you can find Protestants who hold pretty much any Catholic doctrine you can name. Doctrinal eclecticism is a necessary consequence of denying ecclesial authority. The real point about the significance of Protestantism for natural law is brought out by Anscombe in a footnote in her essay:

"[The Protestants] did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man's incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied not merely to the ramified prescriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of 'natural divine law.' Cf. in this connection the decree of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator" [footnote 2].

Thus I would modify Pryor's remark to say that the Reformation, for what part it did play in the rise of secularism, wasn't just the continuation, but the _acceleration_ of a process that had begun hundreds of years before.

The best intellectual history of natural law which I'm familiar with is Michael Bertram Crowe's The Changing Profile of the Natural Law (1977). I don't know David van Drunen's book, but I look forward to checking it out.

Last updated on Nov 14, 2010 at 11:16 pm.
Cyrus on Nov 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Thank you for this. The material reminded me of some comments from Pope Benedict XVI in 'Caritas in Veritate': Par. 7 on the unity of love & justice: 'To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it.' This quotation greatly aids my ability to think through constructive criticism offered by those who love us; they desire our good, and if we are honest too, our good remains that towards which we most need to aim our efforts. Par. 43: 'it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.' My students cash in on the currency of moral 'duties', but most often the reference is vacuous, since the only referent for such duties remains 'feeling' (Lewis's comments in 'Abolition of Man' are here relevant); and as Lewis famously said, emotions come and emotions go...but mostly they go. So what is to hold us fast, anchored to principled action in the face of suffering (see Frankl)??

Anonymous on Nov 11, 2010 at 7:58 pm

David Foster Wallace fan?

Anonymous on Nov 14, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Nope. Should I be? I read about him when he died. How does my post relate to DFW? I'd be interested to know.

Last updated on Nov 14, 2010 at 11:14 pm.
Anonymous on Nov 29, 2010 at 9:41 pm

He, like Anscombe, was a "student" of Wittgenstein. Anscombe hits the mark, Wallace pokes at truth but has no anchor.