“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.’” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Notable links from the week, with a smattering of commentary

Buzzfeed(!) profiles pioneering Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson. I blogged about Johnson’s book She Who Is back in 2009–see here, here, here, and here.

Nadia Bolz Weber preached a good Ash Wednesday sermon.

Rep. Paul Ryan thinks free school lunches are bad for kids’ souls. I take this a bit personally since I got free lunches when I was a kid and don’t think my soul is particularly worse off for it. You know what is bad for your spiritual and moral development? Being too poor to eat.

David Brooks wrote a great column about the evils of solitary confinement.

A wonderful essay from the New York Review of Books on the “secret life” of W. H. Auden. Apparently the great poet–who was also Christian, if a somewhat idiosyncratic one–did a lot of surreptitious charitable works, even when it made him look like a jerk in public.

The impending publication of some of his journals reignite the debate about whether philosopher Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite.

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is next month, and the Washington Post has put together a helpful guide on where the candidates stand on various issues. I’m still undecided on this.

Political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. published an essay in Harper’s (not available online) about what he says (apparently; I haven’t actually read the essay) is the long decline of the American Left and its over-investment in the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party.  This garnered some push-back from various quarters (see here, here, and here, among others); Reed replied to some of these criticisms here. I’m probably less left-wing than most of the participants to this argument, but it’s hard to deny that conservatives have been more successful than the Left in recent decades in building a grass-roots movement that can drive policy changes. The GOP is far more beholden to the conservative movement than the Dems are to the Left. I don’t think, however, that investing in such a movement should prevent anyone from supporting the superior alternative (or lesser evil if you prefer) in a given election. And for left-of-center folks this will almost invariably be the Democrat.

On the situation in Ukraine, and the persistent demands that the U.S. “do something,” I found this helpful.

Music-wise, I’m still on a St. Vincent kick. Here’s a great live session from a couple of years ago.

Utilitarianism as “moral Esperanto”?

The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.

Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.

Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:

One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.

For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?

The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.

If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.

Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like

–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?

–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?

–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?

–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?

Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.

To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.

UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.

The ACA, social insurance, and human solidarity

Most liberals and Democrats admit that the rollout of the Affordable Care Act has been a mess. How serious this is for the long-term success of the law is a matter of debate, but no one thinks this has been anything other than a rocky start. The most visible problem, of course, has been the all-but-non-functional healthcare.gov website, which has prevented people (how many is uncertain) from signing up for insurance plans under the new federal exchange. But more recently the focus has shifted to the architecture of the law itself–specifically changes to the individual insurance market which have resulted in people having their existing policies cancelled and, in at least some cases, seeing the amount they will have to pay to get new policies go up.

There are good wonky liberal responses to this–Jonathan Chait provides a nice overview here. The short version is that two groups–those without any insurance at all and those who purchased individual insurance–were always going to be the ones most affected by the ACA. For the former, the effects were virtually all positive: they would either be able to afford insurance on the exchanges, possibly qualifying for subsidies to help, or they might fall under expanded Medicaid eligibility. In the case of the latter group, things are a bit more mixed. Many of these people would find that they could now afford policies that were cheaper and/or better than what they had before. But at least some of these people (no one seems to know for sure how many) would end up paying more for policies comparable to what they had before. This is the much-vaunted “sticker shock” we’ve been hearing about.

As Chait explains, the reason for this is relatively simple: the whole purpose of insurance is to put people into risk pools in order to spread risk (and hence cost) around. Thus in any risk pool, those people with lower risks (in this case, the young and healthy) are going to end up “subsidizing” those with higher risks (the old, the sick, etc.). So people who were able to get policies for less, because insurers could discriminate based on your health history, may now find themselves paying more because they are in a pool with people who previously would’ve had to pay more, or wouldn’t have been able to get insurance at all. The very same principle operates in the employer-based insurance model, which is how most Americans currently get their insurance. People whose age and health vary widely are grouped into a single risk pool, with the younger, healthier people effectively subsidizing the older and less healthy.

From a certain point of view this all sounds horribly unfair. But only if you take an ultra-individualistic, short-term view of fairness. As David Kaib nicely explained in a post yesterday, the concept of social insurance rests on a sense of social solidarity. We spread risk around because we want everyone, within limits, to be taken care of and have a shot at a decent life. All wealthy societies have implemented forms of social insurance, including the U.S., despite our individualistic rhetoric.

The notion of solidarity rests not only on concern for our fellow citizens, but also a more realistic understanding of our own self-interest. Social and political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Susan Moller Okin have pointed out that much of the Western political tradition assumes that the typical or normative human being is a healthy, independent, male individual, and this has distorted our concepts of justice. In reality, all of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, dependent on others, whether as infants and children, or because we get sick, or because we get old and frail and lose our minds. We are “dependent rational animals,” in McIntyre’s suggestive phrase. Vulnerability and dependency are instrinsic to the human condition.

This means that even if you are a young, healthy person, you will, inevitably, be an old or sick person. And when that happens, younger, healthier people will be caring for you. Social insurance is simply a way of institutionalizing this, making it less ad hoc and subject to chance.

It should be obvious that these principles are congruent with Christian ethics, which enjoin care for the neighbor, respect for parents, and justice for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Moreover, the doctrines of original sin and unmerited grace emphasize our common human lot and fact that none of us can save ourselves. Conservative Christians sometimes argue that social insurance is not a proper responsibility of government but that relief for poverty and sickness should come voluntarily from churches and other non-governmental entities. But there’s very little in the Christian ethical tradition per se to support such a restrictive role for government; this view owes more to libertarian conceptions of the “night-watchman state” than anything specifically Christian.

Unfortunately (from my perspective), the U.S. is still caught in the debate over whether the government has a proper role in ensuring economic security for all its citizens. This distinguishes us from most European social democracies, where the debate is more about the means by which the government should do this, the precise levels of expenditure, etc. During the last election, the Democrats emphasized solidarity and interdependence to some extent (e.g., the president’s (in)famous “you didn’t build that,” and in some of the speeches at the Democratic National Convention), but American political discourse still seems largely driven by notions of individual rights and deserts. We need a stronger culture of solidarity to underwrite a commitment to social insurance, and thus the possibility of human flourishing for all.

God is no gentleman

Men who are strongly of the fact-loving temperament, you may remember me to have said, are liable to be kept at a distance by the small sympathy with facts which that philosophy from the present-day fashion of idealism offers them. It is far too intellectualistic. Old fashioned theism was bad enough, with its notion of God as an exalted monarch, made up of a lot of unintelligible or preposterous ‘attributes’; but, so long as it held strongly by the argument from design, it kept some touch with concrete realities. Since, however, Darwinism has once for all displaced design from the minds of the ‘scientific,’ theism has lost that foothold; and some kind of an immanent or pantheistic deity working in things rather than above them is, if any, the kind recommended to our contemporary imagination. Aspirants to a philosophic religion turn, as a rule, more hopefully nowadays towards idealistic pantheism than towards the older dualistic theism, in spite of the fact that the latter still counts able defenders.

But, as I said in my first lecture, the brand of pantheism offered is hard for them to assimilate if they are lovers of facts, or empirically minded. It is the absolutistic brand, spurning the dust and reared upon pure logic. It keeps no connection whatever with concreteness. Affirming the Absolute Mind, which is its substitute for God, to be the rational presupposition of all particulars of fact, whatever they may be, it remains supremely indifferent to what the particular facts in our world actually are. Be they what they may, the Absolute will father them. Like the sick lion in Esop’s fable, all footprints lead into his den, but nulla vestigia retrorsum. You cannot redescend into the world of particulars by the Absolute’s aid, or deduce any necessary consequences of detail important for your life from your idea of his nature. He gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with Him, and for his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely saved by your own temporal devices.

Far be it from me to deny the majesty of this conception, or its capacity to yield religious comfort to a most respectable class of minds. But from the human point of view, no one can pretend that it doesn’t suffer from the faults of remoteness and abstractness. It is eminently a product of what I have ventured to call the rationalistic temper. It disdains empiricism’s needs. It substitutes a pallid outline for the real world’s richness. It is dapper, it is noble in the bad sense, in the sense in which to be noble is to be inapt for humble service. In this real world of sweat and dirt, it seems to me that when a view of things is ‘noble,’ that ought to count as a presumption against its truth, and as a philosophic disqualification. The prince of darkness may be a gentleman, as we are told he is, but whatever the God of earth and heaven is, he can surely be no gentleman. His menial services are needed in the dust of our human trials, even more than his dignity is needed in the empyrean.

– William James, “What Pragmatism Means” (1907)

Putnam and Plantinga on religion

This discussion on religion with heavy-duty philosophers Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga is from way back in 2000, but I found it well worth a listen. Somewhat ironically–considering that Putnam is Jewish and Plantinga is a Christian–I found myself more sympathetic to Putnam’s overall approach. I’m not nearly as familiar with his work, but the way he draws on pragmatism, existentialism, and negative theology resonates pretty closely with how I think about this stuff.