Case Study in my Ethics/Metaphysics

Yesterday, I posted an adaptation of a speech I gave at Yale and promised to use it as a lens on why some Christian metaphysics is a good match for my ethics.  Here goes.  Questions welcome.

The first, and most obvious problem in the essay and in my views is that I have a pretty bad grounding for my virtue ethics.  It’s hard to explain why exactly it is important that people not desire to harm others rather than we just prevent them from harming others through law or other barriers or coercion.  I think this hope is more universal than people admit (would it really be a comfort if your child has intended to murder someone but found it unfeasible?  Or would your concern for him/her be the same whether or not they acted?), but most people don’t sign on to it as an ethical telos.

If you recall, this is the same problem I talked about several months ago, when I was explaining how much I had liked Mere Christianity (“Here I Am, Dressing Up as Christ“).  Wanting people to be better is a tough sell when that process will be cut off at some arbitrary point by death.  It seems more coherent in a Christian framework where death doesn’t necessarily cut off moral improvement.  It works better with some source of Grace that can save people whose previous actions have warped their moral sense.

Without those additional elements, my system isn’t just unsatisfying in its foundations, but unsatisfying in its conclusions. Plenty of people end up hurt and twisted beyond anyone’s capacity to heal or are cut off from communities that are looking out for them.  Christians have an out, since Jesus can save, but I just end up with a bit of a bleak, high-stakes moral philosophy.

That’s the big picture tension, but other parts of my speech and my thought are currently indebted to Christian ideas.  I spoke about shame as a way to heal others by using our own pain as a sign of love.  As several friends pointed out after the debate, I only would have needed to add a paragraph and tweak a few sentences to have a passable sermon on the transfiguring love of Christ crucified.  The idea of manifesting woundedness as the key to redemption tracks very well with the Christian story.

I live in a country and as part of a tradition that has been intensely influenced by Christian ideas, so I can’t tell how Christian dominance of some of my ethical ideas and the language I use to describe it is the result of truth or just prevalence.  That’s not helped by the fact that some of my ethical shifts and research efforts occurred around the same time I started reading Christian apologetics.  Still, I can’t shake the feeling that my ethical intuitions slot very well into some Christian traditions and don’t fit as well anywhere else.  So I’m still looking.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    "It's hard to explain why exactly it is important that people not desire to harm others rather than we just prevent them from harming others through law or other barriers or coercion."I don't think that's hard to explain at all. No law-enforcement program has unlimited resources, no deterrence scheme is perfect: if people still desire to harm others, they may act on that desire as soon as they perceive a good chance of getting away with it. If people genuinely desire the good, they'll continue to do the right thing even when no one is watching, and that leads to happier lives for all of us and a stabler and more prosperous society overall."I spoke about shame as a way to heal others by using our own pain as a sign of love. As several friends pointed out after the debate, I only would have needed to add a paragraph and tweak a few sentences to have a passable sermon on the transfiguring love of Christ crucified."I read the transcript of your speech, Leah, and I didn't see what about it was specifically Christian. Yes, Christianity uses the concept of shame in its moral system, but so does virtually every other faith in the world in some capacity or another. Shame is one of the basic moral emotions in our evolutionary toolkit, along with things like empathy, jealousy, xenophobia, and altruistic punishment, which all faiths and cultures (as well as our closest primate relatives) mix and match in their own ways.Yes, you could have turned that speech into a Christian sermon with a few alterations. You could also have tweaked and added a few parts to turn it into a Buddhist sermon about how Prince Siddhartha was compelled to leave his palace and seek enlightenment because he was shamed by the sight of beggars dying in rags while he lived a life of luxury. "Plenty of people end up hurt and twisted beyond anyone's capacity to heal or are cut off from communities that are looking out for them. Christians have an out, since Jesus can save, but I just end up with a bit of a bleak, high-stakes moral philosophy."Yep, there's no way around that. Atheism is a high-stakes moral philosophy, since it only gives each of us one chance to get things right. Is that satisfying to us, does it fulfill our wish for a just universe? Not really. But we all wish for a lot of things that we can't realistically have. Unfortunately, the universe isn't constrained to satisfy our desires.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "I live in a country and as part of a tradition that has been intensely influenced by Christian ideas, so I can't tell how Christian dominance of some of my ethical ideas and the language I use to describe it is the result of truth or just prevalence."One way of dealing with this (at least a little) might be to think about what other ethical systems do with suffering and love. For example – Buddhism, Stoicism, Platonism, and various atheist or agnostic writers have to say about suffering and love.I assume you've read this already – http://evesenioressay.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    "would it really be a comfort if your child has intended to murder someone but found it unfeasible?[sic] Or would your concern for him/her be the same whether or not they acted?"How do I know what goes on in other people's heads and why should I care? Only their actions impact me, or society.If you could somehow make someone change from not being able to murder through lack of resources/opportunity to not wanting to murder through a lack of desire then have you not simply placed a mental/ethical barrier in place of the former fear of punishment/lack of opportunity barrier? Is one truly better than the other? If so, on what basis?Incidentally, you are getting very close to wanting to punish people for thought crimes which, if memory serves, is pretty central to Christianity."Wanting people to be better…"You are actually wanting them to think better which you have decided makes them better. I am not necessarily disagreeing, simply pointing out that you cannot simply declare someone to be objectively better because they think in a way you, and most folk, find reassuring."people whose previous actions have warped their moral sense"This seems backwards. Would a warped moral sense not impact their actions rather than the other way round?In terms of shame you should distance yourself from Christianity – they wish thoughts to be shameful: lust; envy; greed; pride etc. they want private actions to be shameful (e.g. masturbation) and want women to be shamed to stay with abusive spouses. No Leah, Christianity's take on shame is quite different from yours.

  • dbp

    I have been thinking about this post ever since you posted it, because something about it doesn't seem to be clicking entirely. On the surface of it, even speaking as a Catholic, it almost seems like Ebonmuse's straightforaward reply should satisfy; but on the other hand, something still nags.So let me just take a step back and see if my sense of your dissatisfaction is in the ballpark. These are just guesses, but I suspect the following:1) You are well aware of game theory explanations for civil systems of justice and social contracts, and presumably are completely comfortable with those as evolved characteristics of society. However, you also realize that such systems rely inherently on self-interest, either of the individual or the society. But if you adopt such a viewpoint, it ultimately leads to a moral code focused primarily on two things: A) compelling others to abide by the social contract, and B) staying sufficiently within the social contract so as not to bring its retribution down on you. The problem is, that's not good enough for you, because aside from those two imperatives there is nothing but self-interest. You prefer something which demands the attachment of genuine and inherent value to the Other– those people who are not you and whose interests may even conflict with yours. That's why your ideas of Justice and Morality are so distinct.2) Atheism would seem to reduce both shame and love to mere parts of our "evolutionary toolkit," and as such are ultimately subservient to the system outlined in #1 above. But you don't buy love as an illusion (if you will permit me using the term) used to drive us to an evolutionarily-maximal result. If this were true, it would subordinate love to, or at least reduce its status to that of, other things also serving evolutionary purposes. You see love itself as a hidden economy all to itself, distinct from and superior to that of evolutionary competition. But for this you have no basis, whereas Christianity (where God is Love) certainly does.3) You look around your universe and you see Mathematics, to which the human mind is marvelously attuned. It represents logic and rationality, which is again mirrored in the mind. But then you see something in the human mind, love, which seems to be as transcendent as mathematics, and perhaps more so, in that it sometimes seems to require some of the oddest things (love your enemy? what?). But love is necessarily a personal thing; how can it be a characteristic of a universe without any immanent persons? And if it isn't as deeply embedded in the universe as mathematics, then how can it trump evolution?4) Your system of morality is concerned first and foremost not with regulating or mitigating the behavior of others, but with regulating yourself. No amount of game theory gets you there, and the best Ebonmuse's suggestions would seem to offer is that such practice of virtue is essentially the self-indulgence of empathy and other mere moral emotions. Which, again, isn't enough for you.Sorry if this is somewhat rambling and disconnected. Like I said, it's nagged at me but isn't something I've been able to put my finger on. Maybe I'm way off base.


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