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July 04, 2009


Nathan Smith

re: "Though I do find your suggestion that our moral and biological ends ought to be totally separate to be slightly incredible. Surely they intersect all the time? Most obviously in sexual ethics, and (bringing this back to the original topic of the post) marriage, where physical and spiritual realities intersect in important ways."

Yes, there are points of contact between moral and biological ends. But they are equally likely to support or to oppose each other. To stay fit and well-nourished is morally and biologically good. To preserve one's life by kowtowing to a tyrant is biologically good but morally bad. To marry, for a man, is only partly a biological good: it enables him to reproduce (good) but limits him to reproducing with one woman (bad, from a biological point of view). For a woman, it enables reproduction (good), but precludes the opportunity of reproducing later with a more fit specimen should the opportunity arise (bad, biologically speaking). Fasting, at least if pursued to extremes, is biologically bad but might be morally good. Monastic celibacy is the ultimate biological evil, but has often been regarded as something near the ultimate moral good. Dying for one's country is biologically bad and morally good. Whether something serves the interests of one's selfish genes tells you next to nothing about whether it's morally right or not.

re: "Must Christian theology tether herself to a primary-school level of philosophical development, just because the majority of the faithful will never get much beyond that level?"

The problem is not so much one of Christianity being tied to a primary-school level of philosophical development, as being tied to a particular school of philosophy, which is not in itself any more Christian than any other. I don't think most people today, including some reasonably well-educated people, philosophically speaking, use the word "being" in a sense that would make a claim such as "being is goodness" intelligible. C.S. Lewis approaches some of these traditional themes from a perspective closer to Descartes than to Aristotle. Part of the point I'm making is that Kant or Bentham seem at least as good as Aristotle for providing philosophical clothing for basic Christian ethics-- as good, and as inadequate and in need of supplementing. Thomas Aquinas used the best philosophy available at *his* time to strengthen the case for Christianity, but this is by no means the best philosophy available for *our* time. Of course, if you think that modern philosophy is a big mistake and Aristotle is a better basis for philosophy than Descartes, I disagree, but fine. But don't get that *philosophical* position entangled with a *religious* position.

When formulating a moral maxim, there must be some notion of how to bridge the gap between the generality of the maxim and the specificities of situations. The maxim, "Children should respect their parents," may seem to apply only to some and to contradict the universalizability test, but of course, if you formulate the maxim, "If you are a young, dependent child, respect your parents," adult orphans would find the maxim inapplicable to them. Of course, any maxim is tacitly dependent on circumstances. For example, "Do not kill," implies the maxim, "Do not shoot a gun if there is a person in front of it": it would be senseless to insist that the condition in the "if..." clause undermines the universality of the maxim. And yet we (or I, at least) still want to claim that "I can exploit anyone I like, but others must not exploit me," violates the universalizability test, even though it could be formulated in a fashion parallel to that described above, i.e., "If you are me, exploit whomever you like; if not, accept my exploiting you without indignation or resistance." I can offer no simple and fully satisfying way to discriminate between the two cases. A certain imaginative honesty is required. If I am so inclined, I can always persuade myself that "if I were in the position *he* is in, I would certain have paid the debts he owes me; in that other situation when I failed to pay my debts, the situation was crucially different." (Though in the case of polygyny the rationalization would become difficult. Could a man really believe himself if he said, "If I were one of those poor men, I would not mind seeing my rich neighbor marry a dozen wives while I have none?")

Ultimately I think that even simple solipsism cannot be rationally refuted. What I sometimes call, maybe or maybe not in a special sense of the word, *faith,* is required. Ethics involves the application of this meta-belief that others are, somehow, *the same as* or *equal to*, oneself, although this is obviously false in a thousand superficial ways and the sense in which this is true is almost impossible adequately to express. Once accepted, though, it follows that if another ought not to treat me this way, I ought not to treat another this way.

Joyless Moralist

Finding new ways to articulate older truths is fine, and sometimes necessary, but that's not what's going on here. There is no sense in which Kant or Bentham are finding new expressions of the same insights developed and honed by the Fathers in the early centuries. They are uprooting those ideas, and seeking to supplant them with something very different. There is no plausible way to view these modern approaches as a supportive, organic development of Christian thought; either Christian theology (in the East and the West both) was sorely misdirected from the early centuries, or else Kant and Bentham were.

As for your "use of language" complaint... it is very often the case that, as philosophical ideas are eroded, language is likewise made more superficial. I've had students tell me that "this complex thing we're discussing in a Christian context isn't what *I* mean by love; I just mean an emotion," or that, "*nowadays* freedom just means doing whatever you want, I don't know what these old philosophers meant by it."

That sort of thing. It can be a legitimate request for a more careful development of an idea, but it can also just be a mark of laziness. Words have deep roots, which leave traces even in an impoverished language. Sometimes we do have to find new strategies for expressing concepts that have been virtually lost to our time (two common strategies are leaving the word in an older language, and using a series of hyphenated words to get at the concept better.) But often, it's better just to try to help recover the full complexity of the older meaning. This is particularly so when the word, even in its modern usage, is still sufficiently complex that we really *ought* to be prepared to do some work in figuring out what it really means. That may not be true of words like "habit" or "prudence," both of which have fairly limited, attenuated meanings in modern English. But it is true of words like "freedom" or "love" or "being."

Being, in particular, is like this. In a sense nothing could be more obvious to us than being; on another level, nothing is more mysterious. Ontology, whatever else may have happened to it, has had recognizably the same subject matter throughout, so there's no point in confusing things quibbles over language.

I think I'll mostly leave the biology/morality debate for now, except to say... why buy into the Darwinian idea of "biological success" at all? The ancients never thought about biology that way, and I see no compelling reason why I should either.

Joyless Moralist

Another way of putting my earlier point might be: I don't agree with you that Platonism or Aristotelianism are "no more Christian" than any other philosophy. In the first place, I think they were uniquely excellent forerunners to Christianity (I tend to think that they were divinely inspired in a Providential way, for the good of the Christian era to come), such that their concepts, while not *perfectly* compatible in every way, were astonishingly close to the truth for words out of the mouths of pagans, and thus were particularly suited to enrich the newly born Christianity. But secondly, these philosophies *have* been used extensively by faithful Christians from the earliest times to articulate truths of the faith... whereas I would argue that the works of Kant and Bentham have served much more to attack and denigrate the faith, and indeed, that this will always be their tendency. Aristotle and Plato were pagans reaching, as well as their mental powers allowed, for truths that had yet to be revealed. Kant and Bentham (and yes, Descartes) were citizens (or harbingers) of the post-Christian world, searching for ways to build a philosophy that could stand independently of, and also exclude, Christianity. Though it might be true that none of them, in and of themselves, can be called "Christian" philosophies, that doesn't mean that there isn't plenty at stake for the Christian in deciding which to use.

And by the way... while I basically agree with your analysis of imperatives, I have to point out that getting rid of the "if" clauses -- that is, moving from hypothetical to categorical imperatives -- was one of Kant's major goals. And what you call "imaginative honesty" is precisely the thing that, in my contention, the Aristotelian or natural law tradition is supposed to explore.

Nathan Smith

Descartes, as far as I understand, regarded himself as a faithful Christian. And it is not obvious how it can be true to say that Kant and Bentham could be harbingers of a post-Christian era considering that the Victorian era which followed them seems, as a matter of the historical record, to have been characterized by a higher degree of Christian religiosity than any in history. There was a decline of Christianity after that, of course, a couple of generations after Kant and Bentham, but when a really anti-Christian philosopher like Nietzsche comes along, he's rebelling against Christianity *and* Kant and Bentham.

Most philosophies have blind spots and errors and awkward concepts and cliches and various weaknesses. Nonetheless they may be of use in explaining Christian concepts. The danger, though, is that Christianity will become too entangled with a secular philosophy that is used to explain it, and then someone who rebels against that secular philosophy will find themselves in rebellion against the institutionalized intellectual Christianity, even if they have no quarrel with the essence of Christianity at all. That's the danger to try to avoid.

In the case of Aristotelianism, it seems that what has happened might be summarized thus. The great philosopher Aristotle was a great lover of biology. In his studies of living organisms, he found that *purpose,* or final cause, or *telos,* seems to be important in the explanation of the natural world. This was, for him, primarily a scientific proposition, though it also became entangled with morality and to the explanation of heavenly bodies, etc. We now know that Aristotle was both right and wrong. Modern science generally found Aristotle's final causes to be a useless or misleading concept. Darwin's theory of evolution showed how the apparent role of purpose in explaining biology arises from the necessary nature of ecological equilibria (though unfortunately his theory has tended to be abused as a creation-myth, not least by Darwin himself). Of course, in Darwinian biology, purpose *does* play a role in explaining why the biological world (but only the biological world) is the way it is. But it is not fundamental, or at any rate, the reasons Aristotle had to think so are illusory.

Anyway, in the Middle Ages, the Aristotelian notion of *telos* was beautifully applied to man by St. Thomas and others. To say that "the *telos* of man is to praise God" is so beautiful and so exaltedly true that it may be worth mastering the history of this arcane and, it turns out, misguided concept solely for the purpose of using it as a metaphor for the final end of man. And indeed, biological desire can serve as a beautiful and illuminating metaphor for man's desire for God. As Psalm 42 says: "As the deer pants for the waterbrooks, so pants my soul for You, O God." The idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ is another example.

I can imagine why, after the efforts of St. Thomas and so many others painstakingly to reconcile Christianity with Aristotelian philosophy, it would be frustrating for philosophically inclined Christians to see Aristotelian philosophy overturned by the moderns. But it just won't do to upbraid Descartes for asking deep questions. If it is true to say that Kant and Bentham were uprooting old ideas honored by the Fathers (an accusation against which Aristotle has an ironclad alibi!), it is surely also true to say that the Fathers honored (and rightly so) some ideas that were, however, merely philosophies of men, and prone to error. The task is not to reverse the modern philosophical revolution, but to acknowledge its achievements, and to use what truth it has attained to shed light on the greater truths of Christianity.

I think someone who tried to be a consistent Kantian or Benthamite would behave like a saint. Think about it. Imagine a person who really tried to maximize the greatest good of the greatest number. Or to live by maxims they wished to be universal, i.e., to live the Golden Rule. The effort would be a very difficult one, and would, I think, lead them to insights and spiritual experiences which would, in due course, supply their lack of theological education. Also, I think the Gospels would stand up admirably to a Kantian or Benthamite standard.

Joyless Moralist

What none of your nice platitudes about the happy moderns have addressed is: substantively, what important insights did the Christians of the early centuries have? And can those insights be reformulated in the terms of the modern philosophers, or is modern philosophy so antithetical to those ideas, even at its root, that one must choose between 1) rejecting the work of the major modern philosophers as being at least substantively misguided, or 2) rejecting the substance of the Christian tradition? You will not be able to answer this question until you have spent a reasonable amount of time and energy giving a credulous hearing to earlier Christian thinkers. And you would need to go into it with a genuine openness to either possibility.

The question addressed earlier in this thread is an excellent example of what I mean. The privation theory of goodness is a core principle of Christian thought from very early times. It can be found in some of the earliest Christian thinkers, and for centuries it was one of the major "fronts" if you will in the spreading of Christianity; the list of treatises explaining the errors of Gnostic or Manichaean good/evil dualism is long, and includes many saints and doctors. I've already given you a thumbnail explanation of why this point is theologically important. But I don't see how something like the privation theory could possibly be cashed out in, say, a Kantian metaphysics. And in an important sense, part of the *point* of such a metaphysical view is to cut ourselves off from, not just that question, but a whole family of related questions. So, at some point you have to make up your mind. Were Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ephrem and St. Hilary and St. Augustine and St. Justin Martyr and a whole cadre of other early Christians just getting in a dither over nothing because they hadn't had the benefit of Descartes and Kant to explain to them that none of that really matters a jot because epistemically responsible people don't even believe in the reality of things in themselves? Or is it the moderns who have rebelled against faith and tradition, and thus found themselves caught up in epistemic labyrinths that have virtually no chance of leading to the truth?

The point is, there are real and serious conflicts here -- *substantive* conflicts -- that raise significant questions about how much the Christian tradition can really be worth. I often don't feel that you take these conflicts very seriously.

The perfect Kantian would think it morally defective to go to another's aid because he was moved with compassion for that person's plight. The perfect Benthamite would be willing to sell his own children into slavery if he thought that the playground he could build with the money would bring more overall pleasure. He would be prepared to execute a man he knew to be innocent if that would satisfy the bloodlust of an angry mob. He would certainly be ready to deny Christ if that would spare him from torture and death. To me, that doesn't seem particularly saintly.

Nathan Smith

It is a strange thing in Kant's theory that he thinks compassion is a defect, but since it wouldn't affect behavior, its importance is limited. The perfect Kantian would be merciful to his enemies, knowing he would desire mercy; he would pay his debts when he could; in competition for goods or offices, he would be fair and generous; he would (probably) give generously to beggars; he would not exploit or cheat or lie to others.

It's pretty implausible that anyone would think a playground built with one's own child's slave-price would bring more pleasure than slavery would bring pain. It is far more likely that a perfect Benthamite would, like Mother Theresa, dedicate himself to serving and comforting the sick and dying in Calcutta rather than being a lawyer or doctor in Houston or Chicago. It is easy enough to adapt our perfect Benthamite to say that he's slightly agnostic about his chosen meta-ethic and so, in the face of great uncertainties about what really does maximize the happiness of the greatest number, will avoid violating other meta-ethics too sharply. The biggest danger would be that he would fall under the influence of an ideology, like communism, that envisions some radical alternative order and lets the end justify the means; but that, of course, would simply be a mistake, even from a Benthamite point of view, as history has clearly shown. Now, to avoid such errors I think our Benthamite would have quickly to become something more than a Benthamite. Benthamism is most certainly not enough, nor is Kantianism, nor is Aristotelianism, nor stoicism, etc. And all of these meta-ethics could corrupt a man as well as better him (most obviously Aristotelianism, which disdains humility and endorses slavery).

I don't know much about Kantian metaphysics; the difficulty of privation theory lies not in its conflicts with modern philosophy but with common sense. Evil just seems to exist; we see it every day. Suppose there is a good thing, like a butterfly. It is created, and before it is created it does not exist; it perishes, and after it perishes, it no longer exists. Is its non-existence before and after its brief lifespan... evil? Then the world must be full of tremendous evils we cannot even imagine, since we cannot imagine all that might exist.

I seem to remember a long ago debate about whether we can know "things in themselves," as opposed to merely recognizing patterns in observed phenomena. I remember that it baffled me.


Dennett's solution (if one can call it that - I doubt even he would) to the various epistemically-impractical ethical systems was to endorse the piecemeal, heuristic search of ethical space that our aggregated consciences perform on a day-to-day basis. We most readily match proximal cause and effect, and naturally (though imperfectly) estimate the 'probable outcome.' No one ever knows the ultimate outcome, and it's the labor of many to push the bounds of what we can reasonably know about the consequences of anything. So, we have a variety of different contextually-constrained rules (e.g. intentional killing is a great crime except under very constrained circumstances) that have, generally speaking, proven themselves to indicate the best available action.

Theorists recognize this as inadequate - how is this supposed to help us in any *new* conundrum? To which a pragmatic ethicist might reply "If this conundrum is truly so new that you don't have much information about it, how is one to apply theory to it in any case?" There's some justice to both sides of this, but my main concern with this dispute is that it argues over the exceptional case, where in most day to day actions it's rather more obvious what the right thing to do is. The exceptions are important, of course, but it's probably important to note how odd it is to try and determine what to do in a situation we don't often encounter and the likely outcome of which is obscure.

Nathan Smith

Dennett's solution seems to me question-begging. What is the criterion by which to identify the "best available action?" He seems to assume it's a utilitarian criterion, without adequately defending it or indicating awareness of controversies and alternatives. It would seem one needs to know one's destination before one can discuss the best way of arriving at it in the dark.

I wanted to juxtapose two of JM's statements. First:

"What none of your nice platitudes about the happy moderns have addressed is: substantively, what important insights did the Christians of the early centuries have? And can those insights be reformulated in the terms of the modern philosophers, or is modern philosophy so antithetical to those ideas, even at its root, that one must choose between 1) rejecting the work of the major modern philosophers as being at least substantively misguided, or 2) rejecting the substance of the Christian tradition?"

To the latter question my answer is a confident no. But when JM writes this:

"As for your "use of language" complaint... it is very often the case that, as philosophical ideas are eroded, language is likewise made more superficial. I've had students tell me that "this complex thing we're discussing in a Christian context isn't what *I* mean by love; I just mean an emotion," or that, "*nowadays* freedom just means doing whatever you want, I don't know what these old philosophers meant by it."

That sort of thing. It can be a legitimate request for a more careful development of an idea, but it can also just be a mark of laziness. Words have deep roots, which leave traces even in an impoverished language. Sometimes we do have to find new strategies for expressing concepts that have been virtually lost to our time (two common strategies are leaving the word in an older language, and using a series of hyphenated words to get at the concept better.) But often, it's better just to try to help recover the full complexity of the older meaning. This is particularly so when the word, even in its modern usage, is still sufficiently complex that we really *ought* to be prepared to do some work in figuring out what it really means. That may not be true of words like 'habit' or 'prudence,' both of which have fairly limited, attenuated meanings in modern English. But it is true of words like 'freedom' or 'love' or 'being.'"

It sometimes happens that an advance in epistemology occasions a loss in real insights which were not developed in ways that satisfy new epistemic standards. That may have happened in modern philosophy.

Joyless Moralist

"To the latter question my answer is a confident no."

So I've gathered, but your confidence is not based on any significant understanding, so far as I can tell. Have you ever done any serious study of patristics? Do you have much sense at all for the shape of the theological controversies that shaped the early Christian tradition? At least from our discussions, I don't get the sense that you're familiar even with some of the more fundamental Greek-borrowed philosophical concepts that were influential for the early Fathers, and while I'm not terribly well-read in Orthodox theology, my sense from the handful of Orthodox scholars that I know is that their communities are, if anything, even more pessimistic about the potential of modern philosophy than we Catholics tend to be. So I guess I don't really understand on what your confidence is based. You're in a fairly sparsely populated bracket, wanting to give deference to the early Church Fathers, *and also* Descartes, Kant and Bentham... and yet you're not even entertaining the possibility that there might be some serious tensions here.

"It sometimes happens that an advance in epistemology occasions a loss in real insights which were not developed in ways that satisfy new epistemic standards."

This is one of the funniest statements I've read on this blog. New epistemic standards? So, it's as though the FESC (Federal Epistemic Standards Commission) passed some new rules, and now earlier insights, even though you admit that they're "real", have to be recalled? Maybe we could bribe the Epistemic Standard Police to look the other way while we sell some on the sly through the philosophy black market.

But seriously. When I say that an insight is "real", I mean that it captures some part of the truth. If you're adhering to an epistemic standard that excludes that, there's a problem with your standard, because the whole point of philosophy and theology is to seek the truth. Look, do you think that the ancients and medievals weren't *aware* that there were more and less vigorous epistemic standards that one might apply towards truth claims? Radical skepticism wasn't born with Descartes. (Actually, very little was literally born with Descartes, because Descartes' greatest talents were for manipulation and marketing. Most of the philosophical ideas for which he was famous can be found earlier in other thinkers -- Vico, for example -- but Descartes had a particular talent for concealing the more sinister parts of his agenda and affecting a sort of wide-eyed innocent demeanor that made the whole project seem more palatable. Thus he plays a sort of Stephen Jay Gould to Vico's Richard Lewontin, and, like Gould, ends up capturing a much larger market.) Similar lines of thought could be found among the pre-Socratics. They come up periodically in ancient and medieval texts. I'm confident that none of the greats of the ancient world would have been floored by "Meditations on First Philosophy" -- well, maybe floored in the sense of being scandalized (even the title is a jab at them, properly understood), but not in the sense of being flustered or excessively pressed or fumbling for responses.

What these great thinkers of antiquity understood was that philosophy and theology were first and foremost about seeking truth, and especially those highest truths that can help us to understand all of reality, including the meaning of our own lives. That should be our central goal, and we should set our epistemic standards with that goal in mind. Setting the highest possible epistemic standards will prevent us from ever knowing almost anything (as Descartes so kindly illustrated for us), so presumably that's not going to be the best bet if you want to make any progress towards the truth. The moderns didn't "discover" something that the ancients had never imagined about epistemic warrants. It would be more accurate to describe their movement as a rebellion against a long tradition that, admittedly, by the late Scholastic era, was not in its healthiest or most vibrant condition.

Another thing that you might take a moment to consider. I gather you tend to put Socrates and Descartes into the same category as Epistemic Warrant heroes, who devoted themselves to helping to break down unjustified claims to knowledge. While I can understand why you might think about it this way, I think a closer look at their concerns shows them to be on very different tracks. Socrates did, it is true, aim to confound people by showing them how much of their supposed "knowledge" was really just artifice and empty presumption. But he never showed any interest in anything like a Cartesian "rebuilding" project, and even a brief examination of his *own* arguments (or Plato's, at any rate, which is the only window we have) shows that he was happy to express confidence about all kinds of things that the moderns (and also many of the pre-Socratics!) would have regarded as unjustified beliefs. What we really see again and again in the Socratic dialogues is the use of elenchus as an instrument for tearing down pride and misconceptions, and creating a temporary state of confounded uncertainty, which in turn allows greater insight to bubble up, as it were, into the space that's been left fallow. Native faculties for perceiving the truth will do their work once the obstacles have been removed, and thus the soul climbs ever higher on its ascent to true wisdom. Descartes, by contrast, brings the wrecking crew and little else. His rebuilding, such as it is, is so weak and unpersuasive that many people think he intended it to be so, and if you buy into his project, philosophy is left looking pretty much like Ground Zero, with most of the possible paths to wisdom blocked off from the start. In short, they may both be interested in tearing down false knowledge claims, but looked at in a larger context, they're not much alike at all.

As for your Kantian and Benthamite saints... ask your beloved whether she'd like a Kantian for a boyfriend or husband. You'd have to explain to her up front that you can't ever cultivate special feelings of affection or compassion or special regard for her, and you really don't believe in love, but no worries! You will always recognize her worth as a rational being and thus do your duty with respect to her. Whoooeee! That's sure someone I'd like to know! (Note that, by this standard, Jesus did wrong every time he was "moved with compassion" by the suffering people.)

As for the Benthamite "saint", you were right on the money when you said that the only way he'd be able to be saintly is by ceasing to be a Benthamite. Maybe you don't find my playground analogy persuasive (though frankly, it seems perfectly plausible to me that, under the right circumstances, a playground enjoyed by scores of children might bring a greater aggregate of happiness than one person would suffer growing up as a relatively well kept slave), but the examples can just keep coming. What about hanging an innocent man, or denying Christ? (Maybe St. Peter was just a good Benthamite when he did?) Are you okay with dubbing the person who would readily do those things a "saint"?

Or, to use another example that I've given my students: suppose that I'm an astronomer, and I periodically get stationed for a few days on research station in a remote place, alone with one other man. He explains to me that he'd like to have an affair with me, even though both of us are married. I refuse, saying that this would damage our marriages, but he points out that, given the remoteness of the location, there's no way we'd ever be caught, and neither of us need ever tell. He successfully persuades me that this would give him *great* pleasure if I acceded to his request, and I'm pretty confident that he genuinely would not tell. I still don't really want to, but as a good Benthamite, am I *obliged*? Of course, you might factor my feelings of guilt into the equation, but if I'm really committed to that philosophy, it seems reasonable to say that the *best* thing -- the most ethical -- would be to train myself *not* to feel that way, since the feelings are serving as an obstacle to something that would otherwise be a good.

And if you really want to intensify the drama, suppose he tells me that he's going to "punish" me by killing his children's beloved dog and burning down his wife's cherished vacation cabin if I *don't* have the affair with him. Normally this would sound pretty screwy -- you're going to punish me by messing with my own family? But for the utilitarian, there doesn't have to be any logical connection between causes and effects so long as we're reasonably confident that they really would follow. All agents (including myself) are anonymous in the calculation, so evils that my companion would inflict on his family should weigh just as heavily on me as evils that he planned to inflict on mine. So maybe I'm obliged to give in at this point, since the utilitarian scales seem so obviously tipped that direction?

The bottom line is that, for a person who really subscribes to such a philosophy, there's no vow they won't potentially break, and almost no action that they might not potentially do. They can make no real commitments to anything or anyone, because every action or decision is relentlessly subject to the utilitarian calculation, and that, I think, is decidedly *not* the path to sainthood.

You want to draw some equivalence between all of these theories, but they just are not the same. The nature-oriented account may need considerable development, but that development is at least possible. The Kantian and Benthamite accounts are not just in need of development -- those agents will effectively have to *cease* being what they are in order to become healthy, admirable people.

Nathan Smith

The reason I'm confident that there's no contradiction between Orthodoxy and placing considerable value on the thought of modern philosophers (to be a dogmatic adherent of every tenet of a modern philosophy is another question, but clearly I am not that) is because JM's understanding of the relationship between religion and philosophy is just foreign to Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church, bear in mind, exists in the midst of a society that is if anything more philosophically modernized than America's. It does not fight rearguard actions against modern philosophical notions, but preaches the gospel of love and forgiveness. And one might say that the Orthodox have rejected the idea that one has to be an Aristotelian to be a Christian for a thousand years, ever since the Roman Catholics got into the habit of wedding the two in the Middle Ages under the influence of St. Thomas.

Obviously I would deny that the immoral actions JM claims are required by a utilitarian ethic in various far-fetched situations actually contribute to pleasure. To believe that an adulterous affair will make one happy is so foolish that I doubt even many who engage in such affairs believe it. Certainly to reward a man for making threats to one's family would be to lead him into a terrible sin that would have devastating ramifications for his soul. Ultimately, I have a somewhat vague and not fully provable, but certainly not easily disprovable and I think readily defensible in most of the problematic cases that may suggested, belief that one contributes the most to utility by behaving *morally,* in a fairly ordinary sense of the word and/or in a somewhat loftier sense of the word informed by the Gospels. In the case of Kant, I've already said that I don't accept the idea that feeling affection or love for someone is immoral; that's an oddity of Kant's doctrine, and certainly one can regard the principle of universalizability as a useful guide to ethical thinking without being under the slightest compulsion to accept this strange idea.

I'm glad JM finds the idea of rising epistemic standards amusing; now I hope she'll try to understand it. It's very simple, and one can't grasp much about intellectual history without it. The basic idea is that some means of arriving at opinions are more reliable than others. I could decide who's going to win the 2010 election by calling up my relatives and asking who they'll vote for. Or I could conduct a scientific poll. If scientific polls have not been invented yet-- if the statistical principles have not been developed, or polling companies have not been organized-- high-caliber writers may well opine on the basis of mere anecdote; there is, after all, no better evidence available. Once scientific polls become available, people will be more reluctant to use anecdotes to establish predictions about election outcomes.

But, of course, sometimes anecdotal evidence, skilfully and discriminatingly gathered and applied, might yield insights that scientific polls will miss. A rise in epistemic standard results in the rejection of a wide body of ideas that are not adequately verified by the new standard; and this is an advantage, because much of what is rejected is false. But some of what is rejected is true. So there is room for going back to the older texts, and discovering insights that were stated with unwarranted confidence and intermingled with much that was erroneous, but which are nonetheless truths that are worth renewing.


Any ethical system would seem curiously bootless if we didn't make *some* reference to outcomes.
"Don't hit people"
"Why not?"
"Would you want someone to hit you?"
"I wouldn't mind."
"You wouldn't mind if I hurt you?"
"You didn't say anything about hurting me!"
"Well, of course that's what happens if I hit you."
"But you told me not to *hit* people, you didn't say anything about hurting."
"Well fine, don't hurt people."
"But hitting is okay."
"I guess, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone."
"I didn't say anything about hurting anyone, I just said hitting is okay."

And so on.


I don't think a reasonably sophisticated Benthamite would regard themselves as any more obliged to err in JM's situations than a decent chess player feels obliged to take any piece she can attack. That's straw utilitarianism.


"...ask your beloved whether she'd like a Kantian for a boyfriend or husband. You'd have to explain to her up front that you can't ever cultivate special feelings of affection or compassion or special regard for her, and you really don't believe in love, but no worries! You will always recognize her worth as a rational being and thus do your duty with respect to her. Whoooeee! That's sure someone I'd like to know! (Note that, by this standard, Jesus did wrong every time he was "moved with compassion" by the suffering people.)"

I'm not sure where JM is getting these ideas about Kantian ethics. Kant saw emotions as essentially conative phenomena, but grouped them with inclinations enticing the will to act on motives other than that of duty. Feelings may be amoral to a Kantian, but that doesn't make them wrong. There's nothing about Kantian ethics that prohibits emotion, it merely suggests that there is no moral content to emotion, that it is spectacle, instinctual, irrational. In general, I would agree with the Kantian that actions done for purely emotional reasons lack moral content; doing something because it makes you or others happy is not sufficient to make the action moral; the moral content of an action is prior to emotion, as it is prior to nearly all other considerations. And that is the whole point of deontology. I can understand why you don't like it since deontology is opposed to teleology. But on the other hand, Kant's Categorical Imperative is basically a restatement of Jesus's Golden Rule, and much of Christian apology is deontological (much of it is also teleological, which must be why it's so epistemically "rich").

It's really interesting to me that you criticize utilitarianism so much, and yet have such deference for Aristotle. After all, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics seem to be not terribly dissimilar to utilitarianism (with a hint of Kant?): happiness is the highest goal of all human deliberate actions, the Good is That at which all things aim, and the best life for a human being is the life of excellence in accordance with reason. John Stuart Mill even called Aristotle a "judicious utilitarian", though Bentham would not have said the same. Also note that both systems are teleological.

I don't agree with JM on much, but I will say that I agree that both Kantian and Utilitarian ethics are inadequate. However, one shouldn't pretend that these systems have nothing to teach us, as Nathan suggests.

Joyless Moralist

It's true that there are somewhat more sophisticated forms of utilitarianism than what I've described -- Peter Railton and his ilk, for example -- but you make things easy by referencing Bentham. Bentham's conception of happiness was very hedonistic and unsophisticated. Sensual pleasure seemed was basically the locus point of it. So yes, I think all of those examples would stand for Bentham. Obviously if you expand your conception of goodness/happiness sufficiently, you can call pretty much any philosophy utilitarian -- almost nobody thinks that their philosophy of choice leads to more bad than good in the long run -- but then the contribution of utilitarianism per se becomes nil. When JS Mill claimed that every important person in history had actually been a utilitarian, he was right at least thus far: nobody thinks their philosophy leads to more wrong than right.

"I don't think a reasonably sophisticated Benthamite would regard themselves as any more obliged to err in JM's situations than a decent chess player feels obliged to take any piece she can attack."

You're begging the question. Why is it error? Maybe if we could all insulate or dismiss our guilty feelings in these unusual situations we really would do all kinds of good for the world. Actually, in my experience, act-utilitarians normally are inclined to concede that the utilitarian should do the dastardly deed in these extreme situations, while Railton-like utilitarians get out of it essentially by suggesting that we should distance ourselves from our true utilitarian motivations (do the more utilitarian thing, but without ever letting ourselves think like utilitarians), which allows us to create "rules of thumb" that need not be overturned in unusual situations like this. The disadvantage to the former is obvious; the latter leaves you wondering, first, what kind of a moral theory it must be that requires you to hide your moral reasoning even from yourself most of the time, and second, in what sense can such a person be said to be a utilitarian at all?

If utilitarianism can contribute anything at all, it must be that 1) motivations don't matter, only outcomes, and 2) all people should be regarded "anonymously" as it were when making decisions. In other words, you can't have any preferences as to who benefits when you make your calculation, but also (this is one of the points that Bernard Williams makes very well) you can't attach any importance to *agents* of action. The fact that *I would be the person doing* X evil thing is irrelevant to my moral reasoning, if I'm confident that the evil would be done regardless. None of this squares at all well with Nathan's idea of a morality-based utilitarianism, wherein we all do our best to make the world more moral. If morality is what matters the most, presumably we would care very much about motivations, and be very scrupulous about our own actions in particular. The morality-based utilitarian isn't really a utilitarian in any meaningful way at all.

(btw, if you really want the goods on utilitarianism, you should read JJC Smart and Bernard Williams' 'Utilitarianism: For and Against.' Smart gets his say, but I think Williams' case is ultimately pretty devastating.)

Likewise the Kantian who values actions motivated by inclination. A similar argument can be made for universalizability as for utility, as I've already explained in this thread -- pretty much everybody thinks morality should be universalizable, if you make that sufficiently broad and nuanced, so no special thanks to Kant for that. What Kant did do was to set his universalizable ethics on a metaphysical plane so bare that it really does begin to seem more like an exact science, which was what he wanted... but the cost, of course, was some very wacky (but unavoidable) results, like being forced to say that inclination-motivated actions were all bad, including being moved with compassion to help somebody. (Tom is right, btw, that having emotions is not bad per se for Kant... as long as the play no role in moral motivation. That's why I said, not that the Kantian lover couldn't *have* feelings of affection, but that he couldn't *cultivate* them... since it's hard for me to imagine any way of cultivating attachments that didn't involve expressing/bolstering one's feelings through action. But maybe you could cultivate the feelings so long as it was always and only a mental exercise. It's important to realize that Kant doesn't just prohibit actions *entirely* motivated by inclination; inclination literally should have nothing to do with determining the will. That is a very freakish model of human behavior, and notably different from Christ's Golden Rule.) If you think those aspects should be rejected, you're just not a Kantian in any significant way. Those aspects of Kant that are distinctive are wrong, and those aspects that are admirable are common to many moral theories.

In a way it was thoroughly predictable that modern ethics would have bifurcated into these two main branches. The old method of doing moral philosophy -- one based on a deep probing of human nature and contemplating the final end of mankind -- was way out of style at that time, and if you want to construct a moral theory in the absence of such a picture, you pretty much have to base it on one of two things, either 1) motivations or 2) consequences. The first gives us deontology, the second utilitarianism. In a sense you're right that both have something true about them, because it's true that both motivations and consequences are relevant to moral philosophy, and each of our two main branches is based on one or the other. But what's really most distinctive to each of these moral theories is not what it includes (which is non-unique), but what it *excludes.* So in a way I think Nathan (and maybe Tom too) has a true insight that each of these moral philosophies has something that we need, but what you don't seem to grasp is that they're really both branches broken off from a central trunk and trying to pass themselves off as complete, independent organisms. The way to heal the breach is not by trying to paste the two branches together, but rather by going back to the trunk from whence they came. We *need* that thick, robust account of human nature if we're to make any sense of what's good in these modern ethical theories; on their own they are mutants, not able to form a complete person.

"It's very simple, and one can't grasp much about intellectual history without it. The basic idea is that some means of arriving at opinions are more reliable than others."

Actually, I don't think one can grasp much about intellectual history if one *is* saddled with this clear example of the progressivist fallacy (that is, the assumption that people must necessarily get wiser and closer to the truth over time.) In philosophy, there's no reason to think that higher epistemic standards will necessarily lead to more truth. Actually you don't even claim that -- you only refer to more "reliable" information -- and if you mean by that only "with less chance of being wrong" then maybe there is a necessary correlation (at least in theoretical terms. In practical terms I still don't think there is, because I think there's a limit to how much we can actually function in a kind of vacuum of zealously guarded ignorance. We can't in practice resist the incursion of more reasonable epistemic standards in living our real lives, and the person who theoretically subscribes to standards much higher than they can actually live by will be inclined to gather all the rest of their beliefs in a much less sensible way that will probably in the end give rise to a lot more error.)

Still, in theory, not claiming to know almost anything probably does reduce one's chance of falling into error, just as refusing to love anyone diminishes the chance of having one's heart broken, and not starting any projects lowers the odds of failing at one's endeavors. Just as in the latter two cases, this doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good idea, or the one likely to give us access to the most truth. In the case of Cartesian-level epistemic standards, we should sure hope it isn't, because then we'll be left in the predicament of *virtually nothing* being the most we can know, and we should all stop discussing things on this blog because I have to tell you, there's LOTS of epistemic irresponsibility going on here, if we apply Cartesian standards.

The problems with your scientific-poll analogy are two. First, the scientific poll is not an exclusive means of gathering knowledge. And it has certain benefits and weaknesses, just like any other means of opinion-formation. I personally would think it ridiculous of us to stop relying on other means of developing opinions just because of the advent of the scientific poll, though of course there might be some cases in which we give deference to the poll over other forms that might previously have been our only available data. But I really wouldn't see it as one means of opinion-formation *replacing* another, so much as supplementing it. Maybe the availability of more sources of information does de facto raise epistemic standards somewhat, but in an organic and natural way, not suddenly and by fiat as in this case. And as I mentioned before... it's not as if the ancients and medievals weren't *aware* of the possibility of applying more rigorous epistemic standards. Skepticism is quite an old idea. They just didn't think that such standards were appropriate to philosophy. It's not like advanced data analysis, where the necessary tools just weren't available to the ancient world. Another reason not to rush to the progressivist conclusion.

The second problem is that, even if the scientific poll does reign supreme, it isn't analogous. You seem to suppose that, while some data may be lost in the "transition" from one to the other, most of it can be retranslated (more accurately even!) into the new terms. I contend that, in this case, the greater portion of it (the vast majority, in fact, if we really applied Cartesian standards) *cannot* be, and so even if we are left with less errors (which I don't actually believe, for reasons explained above, but theoretically) we're also left with much less truth. There are no such inherent incompatibilities between the scientific poll and anecdotal means of forming opinions.

Which leads to the final point. I'm not Orthodox, and so cannot speak authoritatively, but what I gather from your reply is that you either don't think there is much of a theological tradition within Orthodoxy, or else think that, insofar as there is, you're not beholden to it in any very serious way. That seems to me a very misleading characterization of Orthodoxy. The ROC, it's true, has a lot of other battles to fight right now, and isn't embroiling itself too much in theological controversy; to a lesser extent the same could be said of Rome in recent decades. But that doesn't mean that there aren't still important Orthodox theologians, and, more importantly, a long and rich theological tradition, which ought to command some deference from you, and which is very much steeped in Greek philosophical ideas. (It's true that the Eastern thinkers tend to draw more heavily on Plato than Aristotle, but the points of overlap are substantial, and the former is every bit as much in tension with significant parts of modern philosophy.) Which is presumably why, as I've said, the Orthodox scholars I've known are much more reliably, virulently anti-modern than the Catholics I know! I can't tell you precisely what is required to be an orthodox Orthodox, but it does seem to me that it would be fitting to give a respectful and credible hearing to the early Fathers (not Aristotelians, mind you, but saints and doctors as much respected in the Eastern traditions as in the West) before effectively assuming that the moderns are not only compatible with them, but probably more reliable and advanced.

Nathan Smith

Just to clarify, I never claimed to be either Kantian or utilitarian, but I think JM has a bad habit of reducing them to strawmen before engaging them. What if I were to say that since Aristotle endorsed slavery and conquest of inferior peoples, the only true Aristotelian is a slave trader or a Nazi conqueror, and someone who tries to weasel their way out of these implications has no right to call themselves Aristotelian at all? That would be unfair. Her treatment of utilitarianism and Kantianism has something of this character.

Or perhaps JM is engaged, instead, in a laudable effort to keep us close the historical sources which we are citing. But I, at least, am less interested in what Kant or Bentham themselves had to say than in what one can learn by thinking seriously about some of the basic, stereotyped principles that one gets from these writers. In the case of Bentham, I'm influenced by the way utilitarianism has evolved in the context of economics, where a focus on sensual as opposed to mental pleasures has long since been left behind by the doctrine of "revealed preference." Thus, I don't really care whether Kant "gets points" for being the first to discover the criterion of universalizability; he placed special emphasis on it and got his name identified with it, so I call it a Kantian idea. But I also think it's quite clear that universalizability is NOT a characteristic of every meta-ethic; and the Aristotelian meta-ethic, in particular, fails the test, since to be Aristotle's "magnanimous man," you basically have to be rich, since Aristotle thinks there are such things as "natural slaves," etc.

If I remember, I'll come back to the epistemology issue in another post. JM is quite mistaken to think me guilty of any sort of "progressivist fallacy;" there is nothing inevitable about epistemological progress, nor is there any reason epistemological regress cannot occur, and in fact it sometimes has, in both people and societies. I agree, too, that the Cartesian project was too ambitious; I respect Descartes so much partly because the failure of his project (elucidated by Hume in particular) forces us to recognize the need for a more (I like this word) "latitudinarian" epistemology.

But on the "orthodox Orthodox" issue, I just have to reiterate that the idea that to have a high degree of sympathy for many modern philosophers as against Aristotle places one in tension with the Orthodox Church is just to misunderstand how religion and philosophy relate to each other in Orthodoxy. It's not that the ROC has other battles to fight and is willing to tolerate some philosophical heterodoxy in the meantime. The Orthodox Church has a very rich *theological* tradition, and of course the manner in which the early Fathers expressed this borrowed from the philosophical language of the time; but it does not have the kind of *philosophical* commitments (embarrassing ones in my view) that the Roman Catholics have become saddled with. Of course there is a sense in which the Orthodox are very "anti-modern," but that is simply a case of being in the world but not of it, the age-old tension between the Church and the world, and the rejection of the world. It is not that there is anything particularly wicked about the modern world; to the extent that any impression to this effect exists it would focus on particular moral issues, e.g., sexual morality (a topic on which I am perfectly orthodox), and not on philosophical changes.

Whether these generalizations apply to Orthodox scholars in Western universities I can't say. I suspect that those are an unrepresentative lot, which is not to say anything bad about them, simply that one reason Westerners turn to Orthodoxy is that they are in personal revolt against modernity and are drawn to something which is very very ancient; which of course Orthodoxy is. But I don't get that vibe at all from priests and prelates I've encountered in America, and there's no trace of it in "patristic" writings of contemporary Russian teachers and spiritual advisers. Anti-modernism unfortunately takes some paranoid and embarrassing forms at a grassroots level-- I believe there have been some in Russia who think social security numbers are a diabolical invention, for example, though not the church leadership-- or may have a national character; some Russian Orthodox yearn for the lost greatness of the tsarist empire. But you just don't encounter urges to turn back the clock philosophically. The message really is a timeless one.

Joyless Moralist

In a way I think you've said it exactly. The message of Christianity is timeless, and we must strive to be in the world but not of it. Much discernment is often needed, however, to determine what it is we must not be "of." And while we shouldn't always assume that older is better, we do need to be prepared to find that, in significant ways, we are obliged to be in opposition to the ways (and ideas) of the world.

Nobody's simply trying to turn the clock back, philosophically or otherwise. Anyway, I'm certainly not. One of the things the most inspires me about Christianity is that its message is indestructible, and while there is one sense in which the high Middle Ages are something of a golden age for Catholic thought, there have also been shining figures that have emerged to carry the torch through darker times in which the assault on the faith has been much more severe and widespread. That's inspirational in a very different way, and says something, to me, about the timelessness of the message being transmitted. Although it's easy to feel nostalgia for things of the past, it is still my firm belief that nothing essential can have been lost over time; the very fact that certain ideas (devotions, customs, liturgical practices, etc.) *have* effectively been lost must be evidence that they were not vital to the faith, since Christ promised when the Church was founded that "the gates of Hell will not prevail against it." Nonetheless, the more I study those "shining lights" that remain, the more clear it seems to me that, philosophically speaking, the Good News of Christianity is significantly in tension with many of the major philosophical trends that have manifested themselves in the modern era.

Although the impression is to some degree anecdotal (though not entirely -- I have read at least a few Orthodox writers and theologians), my overwhelming impression is that Orthodox thinkers tend to be in agreement on this general point. I don't think I'm quite as ignorant as you suppose about the relationship between philosophy and religion within Orthodoxy -- at any rate, I've discussed it with a good number of committed Orthodox people, since it's a question of some interest to me. I think most of them, and I as well, would agree with you that the philosophical language of the Greeks (which the Orthodox have used just as heavily as we have; the divergence between Plato and Aristotle is rather trivial compared to the rifts between the ancient and modern worlds) is to a large degree an imperfect medium for expressing Christian truths that, properly speaking, are more theological than philosophical. That's true of all human expressions of truth, for that matter, and all forms of worship. But it doesn't follow that just any philosophy will do for articulating the truths that the Fathers spoke in Greek-inspired terms, and it's still very possible that the tendency of particular philosophical currents might be deeply contrary to the truths of the Gospel. Above all, I think it is very definitely within the spirit of Orthodoxy to say that philosophy is dangerous, and that one of the *most* dangerous things of all (with respect to philosophy) is to indulge in the study of it without constant and serious consideration of how the ideas studied can be understood in light of the long and rich theological tradition of the Church. Thus, while serious study of the Fathers and other important theologians may not be necessary for all the faithful, it seems to me that it is highly expedient -- a necessity really -- for those who would dabble in modern philosophy.

Note that deciding, as I have, that Christianity is significantly in tension with many of the major trends within modern philosophy, doesn't mean that *nothing* useful *of any kind* can ever be gleaned from the moderns, nor does it mean that we have to be committed reactionaries across the board. I have known people who adopt what seems to me a pretty unreflective and intractable reactionary stance (dressing like pioneers, not wanting to read any book written within the last century or two, shunning technology, etc.), but I don't sign onto those sorts of movements. Unless their primary points of contact with me involve either 1) philosophy or 2) liturgy, I don't think most people would find me weirdly anachronistic or reactionary. And certainly Catholics in general are not, unless you think it weirdly reactionary to oppose abortion and gay marriage. We should not, however, allow the general sense of "normalcy" within our lives or communities to breed complacency about the compatibility of modern ideas with the Christian message.

As for Kant or Bentham... well, what can I say? I'm a philosopher, and most recently a teacher of ethical theories. When you make reference to Kantians or Benthamites, I naturally tend to assume that you're referring to those ethical theories, such as I understand them to be. And while a certain amount of simplification is required in a blog discussion, I do think that the negative aspects of those theories that I've emphasized are central and *ineliminable* in a way that, say, the endorsement of slavery isn't for Aristotle. I've tried to explain why here, again, allowing for the need to simplify in a com box discussion. But it does seem a touch presumptuous to tell me that I reduce these theories to straw men before engaging them when, in fact, I do engage trained proponents of each of them in a professional context. And the matter is further complicated by the fact that at the end of the day nobody here actually seems to want to endorse either of the theories in question as such, but only a vague collection of insights "inspired by" them. Which is for me a bit like how it might be for you if I boldly claimed that Keynesian economics held the *real* answers to the economic crisis, but then, when pressed, declared that I only really meant that government shouldn't be entirely disassociated from the economy, and that regulation of some kind might sometimes be in order.

But never mind. It's a blog; throwing ideas in a somewhat loose way is part of the point. I hope that you feel the discussion has been profitable in some way or another, at least.

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