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In “The Idea of Perfection,” Iris Murdoch – who channels an interesting amalgam of Platonism, socialism, analytical philosophy, the idea of God, virtue ethics, and atheism – explains why progress in the moral life is slow.
Moral change and moral achievement are slow; we are not free in the sense of being able suddenly to alter ourselves since we cannot suddenly alter what we can see and ergo what we desire and are compelled by. In a way, explicit choice seems now less important: less decisive (since much of the ‘decision’ lies elsewhere) and less obviously something to be ‘cultivated’. If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. This is in a way the reverse of Hampshire’s picture, where our efforts are supposed to be directed to increasing our freedom by conceptualizing as many different possibilities of action as possible: having as many goods as possible in the shop. The ideal situation, on the contrary, is rather to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience’ (Existentialists and Mystics, 331).
Moral achievement or advancement is not, contrary to a large portion of the analytical tradition, a result of choice or act of will. It is rather a redirection of the gaze, the focusing of attention on an object, in such a way that choice or volition soon falls to the wayside.
In The Realm of Lesser Evil, Jean-Claude Michea looks to revive the original socialist critique of liberalism in both its cultural or economic forms. For a person on the left, such as Michea, to attack economic liberalism is about par for the course; for a person on the left to attack cultural liberalism – that which rejects tradition, virtue, moral values, and “common decency” – is to be labeled “reactionary.” Michea’s work is of interest to “Sublunary Sublime” in that he echoes the ethos of the Christian Socialist tradition, beginning with F.D. Maurice.
According to Michea, cultural and economic forms of liberalism are governed by the same underlying logic, and the misguided attempt to disentangle the two only serves to reinforce the worst ravages of economic liberalism. The foundation of liberalism rests on a pessimistic anthropology – despite the best intentions of Smith or Hobbes – and the political desire to secure peace through the market. Government’s role is somewhat secondary, tasked to play the disinterested arbitrator, except that the market’s logic always triumphs over the state’s empty form. “Political liberalism always ends up finding its natural centre of gravity in economic liberalism,” writes Michea (32). This is because, as Michea goes on to argue, Law and Market are structurally and substantially identical (64 – 70). Michea delivers a bit of damning evidence here, quoting Milton Friedman, “who has described most precisely (or cynically) the real nature of this liberal tolerance, when he celebrates the Market as the magic mechanism enabling ‘millions of individuals to come together on a daily basis without any need to love one another, or even to speak to one another’” (54).
From the outset Michea recognizes that his argument will be a hard pill to swallow for many on the left, who typically like “to distinguish between a ‘good’ political and cultural liberalism and a ‘bad’ economic liberalism” (1). In truth, however, “the soulless world of contemporary capitalism is the only historical form in which this original liberal doctrine could be realized in practices. It is, in other words, actually existing liberalism” (2).
If there is no difference between good and bad liberalism, what then is to be done? For Michea, the task is then to revive the spirit of original socialism, as opposed to Marx, who is but “the direct heir of ‘English economic science’, i.e. of original liberalism” (41). As Anca Simitopol states about Michea’s work, “the rediscovery of the political philosophy of the first socialist thinkers is highly important because it represents the only way out of the all-embracing capitalism (italics mine).” Early socialism, according to Michea, was directly opposed to liberalism: at the heart of all early socialist manifestos is “the critique of egoism and the liberal atomization of society” (139). Standing at odds with liberalism, Michea wants “to anchor the fundamentals of socialists practices in basic human virtues”; that is, to revive the Orwellian sense of “common decency”: trust, generosity, working-on-oneself, and, most importantly perhaps, holding to a sense of limits as opposed to unending economic growth. Pace Marx, the reviving of virtuous socialistic practice is not reactionary. Orwellian socialism, as Michea clarifies, “is less the nostalgia for a vanished world than a determined opposition to the moral pessimism of the Moderns. It is the constant refusal to drown the ‘common people’ in the icy waters of egoistic calculation” of both liberalism and totalitarianism (113).
Although Michea presents a controversial thesis, he is absolutely right to point out that it is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of liberalism out from under the all-mighty market. What’s worse, it is quickly becoming the case that liberalism is no longer content to cast itself as the least bad option. As Michea writes, “the realm of lesser evil, as its shadow has stretched over the entire planet, seems set on taking over, one by one, all the features of its oldest enemy. It now wants to be adored as the best of worlds” (140).
Catholicity and Covenant has written a patient, yet forceful, critique of GAFCON’s response to the Pilling report. It’s well worth a read.
As it stands, the GAFCON statement seems to have formed an unholy alliance with the logic of moral intuitionism. With the help of Oliver O’Donovan, C&C notes that such paradigms are dominated by the modern “immediacy of insight” and therefore run the risk of making “the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous.” Truth is here regarded as self-evident, immediately present to the subject irrespective of ethical formation, authority and history. Kant again triumphs over Aristotle.
In Church in Crisis, O’Donovan doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing such forms of biblical-moral-intuitionism:
We must not, then, in the supposed defense of a “biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic of “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief – a refusal to open ourselves to the questions, What is God saying to us through his world? […]
The interpretation of Scripture is a matter in which we wait upon God – not, of course, as though we had understood nothing, but simply because we have not understood everything. The text and my reading of the text are two things, not one, and the first is the judge of the second. I can always read further, study harder, think deeper. To precipitate myself from the pinnacle of the text, and demand that angel wings shall bear my interpretation up, is to cut short the task of waiting and attending; it is to tempt the Lord my God (79-80).
Be sure to check out Elizabeth Stoker’s recent post, “Pope Francis, Abortion, & Quandary Ethics.” As Stoker shows, both the left and the right are having a very difficult time placing Pope Francis; try as they might, the man just doesn’t quite fit into their narrow political paradigms.
Stoker goes on to discuss and diagnose the problem of “quandary ethics,” a form of moral reasoning that continues to infect most of our cultural debates. Quandary ethics imagines a world of renegade trolley cars and fat men being tossed from bridges; it seems to have little time for everyday dilemmas, like affordable day car or PTA involvement. Such ethical reasoning represents
a tendency to think of ethics as the universal rules that arise from the resolution of high-stakes, zero-sum moral puzzles, like abortion and the infamous ‘trolley problem.’ As Pincoff points out, one of the major problems with the quandarist pursuit of ethics is the type of reasoning it demands to produce suitable solutions: “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me must be right for anyone.” This is essentially the stripped-out, hyper-abstract sense in which we’ve come to imagine abortion, despite the fact that both sides harp endlessly about dealing in the harsh realities of lived human experience. In practice, the discussion of abortion zeroes down to categories so broad they’re almost vacant: woman, fetus, equality, freedom.
This form of abstract reasoning not only creates unhelpful generalizations, but creates political stalemate. As just one example, witness the impasse in The Episcopal Church over sexuality. The net effect of this peculiar ethical reasoning insists “upon ethical rules too general and too extreme for our real sense of the matter,” as Stoker points out.
Proponents of quandary ethics tend to side with Kant over Aristotle: authority is rule-based in nature and application. Compare this, however, with traditional catholic teaching on ethics, where factors like “intention, purpose, and overall cultural tendencies” inform moral decision making, and you can see how far some Christian ethical discourse has strayed from its classical roots.
But isn’t this to be expected? After all, “Aristotle is the great historical figure that the Enlightenment forgot,” according to Sam Wells.
At the end of the day, Classical Christian ethics is a messy affair; it doesn’t have the luxurious clean lines of quandary or rule-based ethical systems, which is to say, it doesn’t have the precision of math. As Wells reminds us, “the key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same?’”
If Herbert McCabe is right, that to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is not only a battle over abstract philosophical ideas, but as “a tiny contribution to the liberation of our world from bourgeois presuppositions that have quite definite oppressive economic and political correlatives,” then it would seem that Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft’s is onto something.
In his NYT article, Crawford contrasts his time as a “knowledge worker,” a euphemism for exploited labor if there ever was one, with the “soulcraft” he was able to cultivate in motorcycle repair. Yet it’s not the case that Crawford is simply contrasting manual labor with office work; rather, he’s contrasting the difference over what type of work builds character and leads to moral excellence. In a word, Crawford is harkening back to Aristotle: moral virtue has to do with the formation of certain habits. Crawford is also challenging the entire modern edifice of efficiency and effectiveness.
Unlike his soul-sucking office job, “mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about.” Crawford asks his readers to consider the character of work over and against something as nebulous as “jobs.”
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.
So, how do we reconfigure our sights on the character of work – especially when so many are being left behind in the global workforce? There’s a temptation, as Justin McGuirk writes in Dezeen, to simply focus on what is close-to-hand when our capitalist economic system breaks down. “It seems that when industrial capitalism is in crisis we fall back in love with our tools,” writes McGuirk, “there is something steadying about the feel of the screwdriver in our hand. It makes us feel in control again.” The problem, however, is that there are structural and political issue at play beyond what takes place in the private garage or studio.
In light of our many problems, Crawford is onto something in attacking the idols of the left and right; something that appears to be theological in nature. To get back to McCabe’s point above, to invoke Aristotle against Cartesian dualism is to resist the modern binaries that plague our dominant political paradigms. Good old fashion communal-based moral formation might be the best way out of this mess.
In his recent lecture, “Wholly Holy: What the Identity of Being LGBT adds to the Identity of Being Christian,” Sam Wells argues that we need to shift the debate of human sexuality away from creation to the new creation; away from something like “pure nature” to the new identity given in baptism. That we tend to begin such debates with a modernist anthropology – beginning with a static account of human nature rather than graced nature – belies that fact that much of our thinking is still colored with Enlightenment presuppositions that stand at odds with orthodox Christianity.
For Wells, the issue hangs on whether one reads the New Testament in a modernist, Kantian framework, or whether one reads the text in a classical vein, as the narrative of God’s involvement with fallen humanity. As Wells goes on to explain:
The key question about New Testament ethics is not ‘What exactly do these instructions require and are exceptions ever legitimate?’ Instead the key question is ‘What kind of a community did the early church need to be to be faithful to Jesus in the light of the world’s challenges, and thus what kind of a community does the church today need to be to do the same? […]
This is where I think the terms of the debate need to change. If you see heaven as an embodied interaction between God, humanity, and the renewed creation, then embodiment is essential to human identity, because it is part of our eternal nature. The human body is not a ladder we kick away when we enter heaven… It must be that we discover all our desires are a sublimated desire for God, and a poor token of God’s fundamental desire for us, on which the whole five-act play is predicated. What I’m talking about is shifting the conversation from creation, which happened once, to heaven, which last forever.