The Good, the Right, and Theology: A Theological-Traditionalist Critique of the Arkes-O'Brien Debate
By Peter Haworth, March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

ISI readers will enjoy Thaddeus Kozinski's fine article, “The Good, the Right, and Theology.” This elucidates a theological-traditionalist account of ethics, and it offers an alternative resolution to contemporary debate (e.g., between Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien) about competing eudaimonistic and deontological theories in moral philosophy. Kozinski's essay was recently published in ANAMNESIS, A Journal for the Study of Tradition, Place, and ‘Things Divine.’ Here is an excerpt:

Theology has been a curious non-interlocutor in most public debates among conservative theists regarding how best to defend the objectivity, intelligibility, and communicability of moral truths and their application to contemporary legal issues, such as racial discrimination, human rights, and abortion. One such debate occurred recently on the pages of On the Square and Public Interest. (For a summary of and commentary on the debate, see Micah Watson’s A Tale of Two Philosophers). The main issue of the debate was not the content of basic moral principles, but their epistemological, ontological, and rhetorical aspects: the fundamental structure of moral thinking and judgment, its relation to what precisely is being thought about and judged, and the most reasonable and effective mode of public ethical and legal discourse. The two interlocutors agreed “that the source of morality is human nature, that human nature is essentially a rational nature, and that moral truths are discoverable through reason apart from revelation,” and they both condemned the moral evil of racial discrimination. What they were at odds about is exactly why this or any evil act is evil, and what makes an act good and a moral principle true. The question comes down to the precise ontic and epistemic character of “ought.”…

As it seems to me, this debate is a scuffle in an ongoing human feud, begun back in the wranglings between the ancient Stoics and Epicureans. It is a war between “two rival versions of moral enquiry,” to use MacIntyre’s expression, eudaimonism and deontologism: an ethics of happiness, flourishing, virtues, eros, and the good, versus an ethics of self-sacrifice, duty, law, agape, and the right. This feud is not going to end any time soon, at least not without some mediation, by a third, peace-making interlocutor.

As I said at the outset, theology, unlike in the ancient debates, has not been an interlocutor in this and virtually all other academic and public discussions of ethics and politics. Sure, the theologian is allowed to have his say, but he is barred from ever having an authoritative say, from being one of those insiders whose deliberations and speculations are to become an integral part of “public reason.” The theologians have a quite compelling story, the philosophers and public policy folks admit, but we need a story more appropriate, more “true,” for our pluralistic, secular, political culture. However, when dealing with the foundations of ethics, the Christian theologian’s story is not just one story among others—it is one that must be read by everyone, for it is meant for everyone. It is ultimately everyone’s story. Moreover, as Radical Orthodoxy has shown, the ostensibly a-theological, secular stories that automatically pass the muster of public reason are nothing if not theologically implicated, even if only implicitly. Now, although the Christian story is everyone’s story, only a very select audience has heard it in its entirety, believed it fully, and made it a model for their own life-stories. Yet, even for the unbeliever, the theologian’s story has clear and arguable logical, ethical, philosophical, legal and political ramifications and components, just as the “non-theological” stories have implicit yet robust theological moorings. Let those who have ears—that is, those who have taken out their old and decrepit, modernist, Enlightenment earplugs—hear: “We are all theologians now.”

Kozinski’s theological-traditionalist argument is further developed in the article. Here one will find a serious critique of modern Kantian attempts (e.g., those of Hadley Arkes and, albeit not mentioned in the article, Robert George) to develop a ‘publicly reasonable’ moral philosophy.

Many thanks to the Front Porch Republic for publishing a similar version of this post.

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Lee Trepanier on Mar 24, 2011 at 5:14 am

Thanks for the reference to the article, Peter! I look forward to reading it.

Steve Schaper on Mar 25, 2011 at 10:38 am

Good to hear. Of course one mistake is to say that Man is the rational animal. Man is actually the -rationalizing- animal.

about the author

Peter Haworth
Peter Haworth

My name is Peter Haworth, and I am an independent scholar who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. I received my Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University in 2008, and I am currently working on various writing projects in American Political Thought, Ethical Philosophy, and a critically sympathetic work on Distributism. My interests include American Political Development, Traditionalist Thought, Constitutional Law, Southern Americana, Virtue Ethics, Natural Law, Political Theology, and many other topics within the history of political theory.  I also frequently read economic theory (only the qualitative stuff) and follow the trends in the macro-economy. 

With me in Phoenix is my darling wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Puckett Haworth of Columbus, Mississippi, our soon-to-be-born first child, and our English Bull Dog, Lord 'Finley' Nelson. My hobbies include voracious reading, minimal gun collecting, and dreaming about our future farm that might be located in beautiful Mississippi.