Posts Tagged ‘Alasdair MacIntyre’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 6, conclusion)

June 17, 2019

Personally, I do not completely agree with MacIntyre’s communitarian ethics. I do think that his critique of Enlightenment and Modern thought offers the best argument for the conservative project. The political rhetoric of today’s Republicans, whether it is named “emotivism,” “nihilism,” or “bullshit,” reflects a loss of faith in the existence of an objective reality or truth. Nietzsche seems to have described this stance pretty well: God is dead, and they killed him, but they don’t quite recognize themselves that he is dead so they continue to make universal pronouncements about how right they are and how foolish and wrong their enemies are while rejecting the validity of logic, objective facts or expertise, all things once prized by conservatives. My own preference is for an epistemology resting on receptivity coupled with a humility regarding our ability to attain complete truth, the whole truth and nothing but: an epistemology and an ethics more rooted in Hamann, Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen.[i] Humility was the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin, according to St. Augustine of Hippo; and there is too much pride in the reliance on “alternative facts” and spin and will-to-power and bullshit and threats and actual violence coming from the Republican Party today.

It is that which causes so much concern in the LGBTQ community, the African American community, the immigrant community, all religious groups outside of the Christian Religious Right (especially non-Christians but also those non-“Evangelicals”) and virtually all others who are not white, conservative Fundamentalist males. Almost everyone outside the Trump base suspects that the supposedly necessary and neutral fact-finding panel is merely cover for narrowing the human rights of everyone who does not fit a very narrow and ideological vision of “human nature.” Perhaps more troubling, the very language of the announcement of this new panel suggests a fundamental abandonment of the whole concept of “human rights” in favor of a conception “American rights.” Instead of looking at humans as a class and declaring that they are valuable in and of themselves, entitled to certain rights, the announcement of this committee’s inauguration said it would found its notion of rights on specifically American history and values. This is abdicating the defense of “human rights” versus attacks by China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that have insisted that in fact there are no “human rights” and that Western nations have simply been attempting to impose their own values on everyone else. Instead, those nations have wanted to say that some people don’t matter, because they are the wrong religion, or wrong gender, or wrong ethnicity, or have the wrong politics. With this declaration, the Trump administration has thrown its lot in with other nations that seek to impose a government-mandated, government-allowed standard of “human” on others, suiting some for exaltation and others for persecution and humiliation, rather than accepting all people as they are, as people, and treating them first as people.

[i] For more on this, see my blog under the category “Humility” https://philosophicalscraps.wordpress.com/category/philosophy/humility/

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 5)

June 16, 2019

Interestingly (to me at least) the very nihilism at the heart of the Republican administration which is putting together this panel actually suggests an argument that something like this is actually necessary.[i] According to Alasdair MacIntyre, it was inevitable that Western culture would collapse into Nietzschean nihilism once it ceased to base morality in the values of a particular culture. The Enlightenment dream of a universal ethics valid for all persons qua persons was a fantasy from the start. All morality has to be rooted in and derived from some vision of human flourishing. The virtues recommended by that ethics are the character traits that aid in living the sort of “good life” embraced by that particular culture. Outside of any social context, those virtues are arbitrary and unsustainable. Unless you embrace the sort of eudaimonia prized by Athenian gentlemen, the Aristotelian virtues such as bravery, self-control and pride won’t make any sense. An Augustinian Christian’s virtues such as humility and universal love would seem absurd to Aristotle, just as some of his virtues would seem to be nothing more than “glittering vices.” In MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of Western thought, the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal reason alone apart from all religious, national or other communal standards was doomed from the start, and in fact cut the foundation out from under human moral thought. The result was emotivism, where moral language simply collapsed into a contest of wills, each individual attempting to get everyone else to feel the way he or she felt about whatever point was being debated. From this point of view (sometimes called “communitarian ethics”), the moral nihilism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is simply an open acknowledgment of the fact that God is dead and has been for a long time, and all the lofty claims by liberalism to seek universal ethical standards has simply been a fraudulent attempt to impose the standards of their group on everyone else through trickery and persuasion. The notion of “human rights,” from MacIntyre’s perspective, would be rights as defined by a certain group using a certain understanding of human nature, but using language that asserts their view to be the only legitimate one. Conservatives, in this view, are simply more honest in relying on political and physical force rather than sophistical argument.

If MacIntyre offers a reason to doubt the common notion of “human rights” as a culturally and religiously neutral, universal ethical standard, then MacIntyre also offers a solution that would cast more doubt on the legitimacy of the State Departmet’s human rights panel as presented in the press. In his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that loyalty to one’s own group is the cardinal virtue, the one essential quality for any further moral life.[ii] The virtues stem from one’s vision of the good, fulfilled, “happy” human life; and that vision of human flourishing is conveyed to one by one’s particular culture. Without a particular culture, one has no human ideal to seek to live out, hence no virtues as habits enabling that good life (or vices to lead away from it), no moral roots, and one’s moral life simply withers away. Each of us are products of our culture, and our vision of the good life comes from that culture. However, MacIntyre says, that does not mean that everyone in the culture agrees on everything. For example, he points to Adam von Trott, who was involved in a plot to kill Hitler.[iii] Trott did not act out of commitment to some abstract universal morality; he acted because he felt the Nazi leadership of Germany had betrayed German values and German culture and had to be stopped. On this view of patriotism, “dissent is patriotic,” if it is rooted in core values of the community itself and aims to perfect the community as a project. To discover those core values in any community, one would have to look not only at its explicit claims but at its overall history and trajectory, what that society valued as shown in its deeds and its aspirations and what it seemed to be striving towards.

By this standard, conservatives today seem to be going astray; they do not discover and live out their country’s values, but try to recreate it in terms of some other, smaller community’s project. For example, conservatives in America today do not study history; they rewrite it. Even in the communitarian view, facts are facts; what value one puts on those facts may be another matter. And the facts are that the leaders of the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers,” studied and quoted Enlightenment philosophy, particularly social contract thinking inspired by Rousseau and Locke. They distrusted religious extremism, what we would call “fanaticism” and which they called “enthusiasm.” They embraced the scientific, empirical investigation of truth. Many (roughly half) were Freemasons, embracing a religious liberalism that rejected sectarian or what we would call “fundamentalist” spirituality; a good many were not even Christian, but rather Deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the three men selected by the Continental Congress to write the nation’s Declaration of Independence, were religious liberals. Jefferson, who is credited with describing the “separation of Church and State” as a “wall” between the two, was the third president of the United States; yet in conservative circles he is treated as an outlier and unimportant fringe thinker compared to Aquinas despite the fact that only two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.[iv] In an attempt to undermine “liberal” and “Democratic” importance in American history, the Christian Reconstructionism or Christian Dominionism promoted by such religious conservatives as Rousas Rushdooney and Jerry Falwell has sought to present the American revolution as a conservative revolution against a liberal monarchy. In fact, it is no coincidence that both the British Conservative party and the Americans who supported King George III were called “Tories.” So when Pompeo says the State Department’s new panel on human rights will seek to express “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” this seems disingenuous. The overall thrust of conservative efforts, including those by some people on the panel, has been not to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, but to rewrite them. A better way for such a committee to establish “our nation’s founding principles” would be to include historians who could review the personal views and public writings of our Founding Fathers, as well as seminal texts such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and other documents that have contributed to the wider civil religion of the USA.

To be continued….

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue second edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 1-78

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Pearson Education Inc., NY 2014) pp. 405-410; originally presented in The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (1984).

[iii] “Patriotism,” p. 408

[iv] For example, Brian Thevenot, “TribBlog: SBOE vs. the Media,” The Texas Tribune March 22, 2010 (https://www.texastribune.org/2010/03/22/sboe-removes-thomas-jefferson-blames-media/). The actions described here are by no means unique to Texas, but are representative of conservative rhetoric for at least the last several decades.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

 

 

This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x1h7ku/weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/ last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/video-playlists/cuwvn6/daily-show-10035/zz9jnz (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.2

March 24, 2015

Up to the present in everyday discourse the habit of speaking of moral judgments as true or false persists; but the question of what it is in virtue of which a particular moral judgment is true or false has come to lack any clear answer.

—-Alasdair MacIntyre

 

One of MacIntyre’s more important contentions is that philosophy is a central activity in human culture. True, today’s academic curricula isolate it as an esoteric occupation for professors and wannabes only; it is generally an “elective” course offered in isolation from history, political science or any other field that would give it meaningful context. In turn, the other social and physical “sciences” can carry out their activities without consulting the long history and broad context of human thought which once was encompassed by the term “philosophy.” Political philosophy may deal with what a “just” society would be, what the true function of a political commonwealth is, and so on; but political science primarily discusses only how power is gotten and used, regardless of goals or values. I noticed this myself when, as a young philosopher, I made some brief forays into the world of the political science majors. Their concerns and mine simply had no intersection. They were solely interested in how they could implement their agenda when they graduated; what that agenda should be was no concern of them, or of their professors and textbooks. The assumption was that whatever the leader wants is what is to be achieved, and political science is the study of how to achieve that. Whether it should be achieved is the province of philosophers or prophets, they might say; but they would then say that philosophers and prophets are mere dreamers who can and are ignored by the doers. Thus, the goals of politics are the topic for discussion by people who politicians are not to listen to; the political scientist is supposed to study and advise politicians, and the political scientist’s field is not goals but only means. This is exactly the sort of society MacIntyre says we should expect when emotivism becomes the dominant theory of moral language; when moral language is treated as merely a tool to manipulate others, questions about goals largely drop out and only questions about means to ends remain, regardless of how arbitrary those ends might be.

The hollowness of late 20th Century society can be illustrated, MacIntyre thinks, by considering the “characters” in the drama of our social life. He uses the term “character” as it might apply to a medieval morality play: as soon as The Fool steps on stage, we all know what that person will be like, what he will say, and so on. Values, behavior, and social role are all one in “the character.” Another term might be “social archetype.” And the character that MacIntyre believes is most central and illustrative of today’s society is The Manager.[1] The Manager is supposed to be an expert in achieving any sort of end, the essential leader in any bureaucracy; and since we live in a bureaucratic society, The Manager is the most important character. And the expertise of The Manager, as Weber has shown, is the manipulation of others to achieve whatever the goals of the organization are. It is not The Manager’s part to choose those goals, but only to achieve them. It is not The Manager’s job to bring people together to discuss a problem and find the best solution; it is his (or her) job to so shape the initial assumptions and boundaries of the discussion that the group comes to the conclusion The Manager has already chosen, while believing they actually played a real role in setting the goal so they will fully buy into the plan. This is the very sort of leader that an emotivist society would have, and the only sort it could really recognize: one that claimed authority not on the basis of wisdom or justice, but only on effectiveness. The supposedly esoteric debate over the meaning of moral language, which was thought to be locked away in ivory towers where emotivist philosophers wrote and taught, actually is both the expression and cause of the moral vacuum underlying our society as a whole. The Enlightenment sought to found a fairly traditional morality (don’t lie, don’t kill etc.) on notions of human nature as such, rather than the teleological or theological foundations that had supported morality since the days of Socrates and Moses. That project failed, and MacIntyre argues that it was impossible from the start. We live now in the society born of that failure: a society with no foundation for moral thinking and no consensus what moral language even means, but continuing to use the terms of morality as rhetorical devices to manipulate others to follow the agendas set by the preferences of those with the strongest wills.

To be continued…

[1] Alasdair MacIntyer, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 27-32

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.1

March 23, 2015

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984)

 

….(T)he problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net. (p. 98)

Alasdair MacIntyre begins his signature work with a rather audacious proposition: that all of today’s culture has forgotten what morality is, and what moral language really means, and therefore no moral philosophy and no moral agreement is really possible. Once moral philosophy sought to describe the “good life” and those “virtues” (character traits) that are part of the good life. Over time, particularly since the Enlightenment’s rejection of tradition and culture as essential elements of human life, we have lost the shared sense of what a “good life” would be or how to obtain it. However, we have kept the moral language of good and evil, virtue and vice, duty and justice and so on. We all use the same words, but rarely do we speak the same language. Much as an English speaker, seeing “sin” in a Latin sentence might think the Latin refers to wrongdoing (when in fact it is a conjunction meaning “if however”), two postmodern English speakers can use words like “good” or “rights” without realizing that they have different definitions for those terms. By the Twentieth Century, this sorry state of moral language had led to the rise of emotivism: the philosophical claim that all moral language is nothing more than an emotional declaration by the speaker, roughly translatable as “Hurrah for (x)!” or “I approve of (x), you should too!”

 

It is possible to argue with MacIntyre’s historical argument as applied to Western philosophy as a whole. However, it makes even more sense when applied to the United States of America, and the moral culture that arose here. This land was first settled by humans thousands of years ago, and many varied cultures arose. Most of these were destroyed with the arrival of Europeans, through a combination of disease and deliberate cultural genocide. Settlement of North America was not done in a cultural vacuum, but most of the new immigrants from England and elsewhere did not pay much attention to the spiritual or philosophical values of those they displaced. England itself, however, was not culturally homogenous. During the early settlement of the “New World,” England underwent a series of religious upheavals, and the American colonies were settled by disparate and at times hostile groups of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others. In addition, the New York area was originally settled by the Dutch, with their own values and moral traditions. During the various conflicts between English, French, Spanish and original nations, people from many different cultures came to be “Americans.” Thousands of Germans too came to be in the Thirteen Colonies, first as settlers and then as mercenaries fighting for the British Crown who simply never returned to their native lands. By the time the Constitution of the United States of America was written and ratified, there were many conflicting philosophies and theologies in the various states, as well as regional differences between the states. European nations generally had organic origins. They grew out of prehistoric tribes over thousands of years. The United States had a definite beginning and a definite social contract, in writing. It is, to put it simplistically, an artificial nation. We didn’t wake up one day and discover we had become one culture. We resolved to be a free people and to create a new culture together. As our original national motto put it, we are one made from many: E pluribus unum. And because of this, our Constitution is written largely as a way for those conflicting groups and conflicting values to compete peacefully and politically, rather than on the battlefield. Democracy is basically a way to have conflict while avoiding civil war.

MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment project of trying to find a universal basis for morality apart from either Aristotelian notions of telos or religious notions of divine covenant and command led more or less inexorably to the rise of emotivism in the 20th Century. We still have the words for ethical thinking, but we have no settled definitions for those words. It is therefore impossible to really seek for “the good” even when we say we are doing so, and even when we think we are doing so. Instead, those words function merely as expressions of approval and as tools to manipulate others into approving of our values. Moral discussions don’t involve rational debate over how to achieve the best human life, but only a contest of wills as the contestants strive to maneuver one another to accepting his or her own preferences. It is for this reason, MacIntyre claims, that public discourse has become “shrill” and “interminable.” It is literally interminable, he says, because it is rationally impossible that any of our crucial debates should find a terminus. There is no agreed-upon standard of what an “end” should be. MacIntyre does not discuss the supposed decision-maker in our Lockean social contract: the will of the people. However, anyone can see that even “majority rule” settles nothing. Sometimes the majority is simply morally wrong, as it was when the majority of the nation approved of slavery. Sometimes the majority is right, or at least not demonstrably wrong. At times contending sides can agree on a framework and engage in something resembling rational debate. More often, however, this does not happen and is not even attempted. For every reasoned debate between two contestants of good will seeking to find a truth both could recognize, we have a dozen televised “panel discussions” of “pundits” and “spokespersons” trying to shout over each other, twisting one another’s words, claiming “facts” that seem to have no root in empirical reality while simultaneously ignoring “facts” that seem to contradict their settled views.

It is the interminability of public disagreement that leads to its shrillness. We know those “others” will never listen to “our” reasons and arguments, so we don’t even try. And often, on some level we know ourselves that our preferred values have no basis beyond our own chosen moral framework. How can I rationally argue that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals, if I know that my only reasons are my emotional revulsion and my religion, neither of which you share? And if I cannot even appeal to the will of the majority, how can I continue to argue? Only by sheer volume, or rhetoric, or by political maneuvering.[1] While a rational argument is ostensibly an appeal to or search for truth, what we have instead is manipulation of others and a contest of wills.

 

To be continued…

[1] See “Kentucky Students Get Hard Lesson in Politics from Lawmakers,” ABC News http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/kentucky-students-hard-lesson-politics-lawmakers-29565223, accessed March 19, 2015

KIERKEGAARD AND THE VIRTUES OF WEAKNESS

September 14, 2011

KIERKEGAARD AND THE VIRTUES OF WEAKNESS

Presented to the American Academy of Religion

                                                                                                                                                        November, 2005
In his seminal work After Virtue, MacIntyre portrays Kierkegaard as the arch-liberal, destroyer of moral reasoning and the virtues.  He is said to have championed the “criterionless choice,” the decision to be esthetic/or ethical for no reason, since there can be no reasons for existential choices.  All that is important, in this reading of Kierkegaard, is to choose with passion, to be sincerely and unequivocally committed to whatever arbitrary life-choice one has made, whether to be saint or sinner. [1]  As an illustration of the breakdown of the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal standards (rather than revelation, tradition or community) this portrayal serves an important part in the overall argument of After Virtue.  But as a reading of Kierkegaard, it is tendentious because it is partial; it only works if one ignores the signed works which Kierkegaard published alongside his pseudonymous books.

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? by contrast, MacIntyre quotes Kierkegaard with approval, contrasting his “Purity of heart is to will one thing” with the fragmentation of value seen so often today.[2]   He does this in the context of his discussion of the Augustinian moral tradition, suggesting that Kierkegaard may not be the absurdist boogeyman he is often said to be (in, for example, After Virtue).  The claim that Kierkegaard might be an Augustinian is nothing new; what particularly interests me is the notion that MacIntyre’s writings themselves seem to support this reading, and what the implications of this might be for his argument and for an understanding of Kierkegaard.  The key elements of the Augustinian moral tradition are identified in Whose Justice? as (1) the expansion of the moral community beyond the polis to the civitas Dei; (2) the centrality of the concept of will (voluntas) to direct and order human desires, and thus to motivate human morality; and therefore (3) the characterization of pride (superbia) as “the fundamental human vice,” and humility (humilitas) as the cardinal virtue, so that no other virtue is possible unless pride is checked and humility attained.[3]  I shall return to the first later, and the centrality of will is almost a cliché in Kierkegaard discussions; so let us turn our attention to pride and humility.

The upbuilding discourses have relatively little in common with Kierkegaardian ethics as expressed, say, in the deontological portions of Judge William’s writings.  By contrast, they show a keen interest in the virtues, a theme not alien to other aspects of William’s thought.  In modern philosophy (such as MacIntyre’s discussion), it is common to associate virtue ethics with antifoundationalist, tradition-based ethics.  A tradition or linguistic community will have certain character traits that it values, and these become its virtues.  In Christianity these would include love and humility, whereas in the Homeric age courage would be more highly valued.[4] Kierkegaard is himself heir to an ethical tradition running from Pauline Christianity through Augustine, Luther, Kant, and many others.[5]  However, his adoption of virtue ethics is not here based on a self-conscious membership in this tradition.  Rather, it seems more rooted in epistemological considerations.  William assumes that he knows the essential human nature, and that he knows what is the universal that we are to realize, and hence he has a pretty good idea of duty as well.  Kierkegaard by contrast has asserted that we do not know what the good is, or even our own nature.  We do not know what our duty might be, what values or what human nature we should strive to actualize.[6]  But we can know what character traits are appropriate to our state of ignorance.  Love was discussed in the discourses of October 16, 1843.  Patience is another virtue that receives extensive treatment, in following discourses.  Concern and expectancy are also discussed.  Each of these virtues or character traits has one thing in common— receptivity.  In adopting these virtues, one opens up to the other, to God, to the unknown.  One must receive knowledge of one’s true self, of the good, of God, of the needs of the neighbors one ought to help.  The religious individual must adopt the stance of positive passivity, actively awaiting some sort of revelation, however long it might take and however piecemeal it may turn out to be.  While “patience” is specifically described as a virtue of weakness, in fact all the virtues described in these upbuilding discourses are virtues of weakness.  After one has nurtured the proper virtues and developed the proper nature, right action and true understanding of duty will follow more easily.  One begins from a condition of ignorance, and must learn, often slowly, what one should do or become.  Remarkably, even courage, traditionally thought of as the most aggressive, assertive, “manly” virtue, is described by Kierkegaard as the courage to be humble; and cowardice is described by him as self-assertion and pride based on a fear of one’s own nothingness before God.[7]

Why pride should be the deadly sin is clear from the first upbuilding discourse to the last. In “The Expectancy of Faith” (1843) Kierkegaard describes faith as the highest gift, the only unqualifiedly good gift.  It is equally accessible to anybody; at the same time, it can only be received by one who is willing to grasp it.[8]  One must have the expectancy of faith if one is to be assured of victory over time; one must be taught by God to have that faith in God.  And if one is unwilling to grasp this, and would instead have pride in being self-taught or in having distinguished learning not available to all, one can never receive the expectancy that alone can overcome anxiety throughout one’s life until its end.  It is pride that would block the individual from receiving the one good gift; humility is the condition to receive the gift, and the gift itself is the humility to rely upon God.  Likewise, in the last of the eighteen discourses, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In That God is Victorious,” again it is pride that leads away from victory and humility that is essential to attain it.  Here the “struggle” is to convince God to give one the good gifts one desires and save one from the bad; the “victory” is not that God relents and gives one what one asks, but that one realizes that God is goodness itself and already wants what is truly good for each person, so that you give up your pride or desire to be in the right if God fails to fulfill your wish.  One struggles with God to persuade God to fulfill one’s desires; one is victorious when one’s desires change, and one’s only desire is God.  Just as Job demanded God appear and explain why he, a righteous man, was suffering, so the one who struggles in prayer wants first to have good things, then concentrates his or her will on one wish, then ends by seeking an explanation why God who is good did not give this one good thing.  Kierkegaard writes:

The external world and every claim on life were taken away from him; now he is struggling for an explanation, but he is not even struggling his way to that.  Finally it seems to him that he is reduced to nothing at all.  Now the moment has come.  Whom should the struggler desire to resemble other than God?  But if he himself is something or wants to be something, this something is sufficient to hinder the resemblance.  Only when he himself becomes nothing, only then can God illuminate him so that he resembles God.  However great he is, he cannot manifest God’s likeness; God can imprint himself in him only when he himself has become nothing.  When the ocean is exerting all its power, that is precisely the time when it cannot reflect the image of heaven, and even the slightest motion blurs the image; but when it becomes still and deep, then the image of heaven sinks into its nothingness.[9]

All of this is a far cry from the stereotype of Kierkegaard as the champion of the choice “for no reason,” who urges one to make the leap of faith by one’s strength of will and live sincerely with whatever choice one has made.  Here there is a reason:  victory, fulfillment of one’s truest and deepest needs and wish.  One does not make a leap, but ceases to struggle and allows God to pull one across.  There does seem to be something one can do by one’s own will, but that is only to resist God.  The pride that leads one to try to do for oneself leads to failure; the humility  to cease striving allows  one’s nature to reflect God’s, and allows one to receive the good gifts God freely offers.

Kierkegaard has both theological and philosophical reasons for endorsing just this sort of virtue ethics; and his strategy can be interpreted in two very different ways.  The discourses are certainly based on Scripture, and hence reflect Christian traditions even if they are held to be only “religiousness A.”  Furthermore, the Scriptures are interpreted through a largely Pauline-Augustinian-Pietist lens, emphasizing individual will and commitment, and the importance of humility before God and of openness to God’s grace.  Therefore, it is possible to see Kierkegaard as a voice of the Augustinian moral tradition, and to see his arguments as valid only for readers who have bought into that tradition. At the same time, many of his arguments appeal to more universal standards of rationality and truth and objective (gasp!) reality.  Is he writing for the internal consumption of the Augustinian moral community, or to convert the unconvinced?

These same questions arise when we look at one of Kierkegaard’s favorite authors, Johann Georg Hamann.  Hamann was a contemporary and friend to Kant, and introduced Kant and Germany to the philosophy of David Hume. Kant famously took Hume’s epistemology as a challenge to be met and overcome, rescuing certainty in human knowledge by moving the realm of knowledge from the physical and metaphysical realms to the realm of a priori concepts.  Hamann saw Kant’s solution as worse than Hume’s skepticism, for if Kant is right and truth itself does not come through the senses then the Incarnation (where Truth became a flesh and blood man to be known through the senses) is essentially false.  Additionally, he had philosophical objections to Kantian idealism; he claimed that Kant’s solution relied on abstracting knowledge so that it could be systematized, then rejecting whatever did not fit the system.[10]  In response to Kant’s first Critique, Hamann argued that Hume basically had it right:  all knowledge really is derived from the senses.  Until thought can eliminate the need for language, thought cannot eliminate its essentially sensual roots, for language is sensuous and arises from the senses.[11]  But Hume has shown (convincingly, Hamann thought) that there is no certainty either of sense knowledge nor of spiritual knowledge.  Hamann accepted this and argued  that reason, believing and sense-experience are in fact all connected and all rest upon receptivity.[12]  If one is to have anything other than skepticism either of God or earthly matters, one must have faith.[13] It is pride that leads a person to reject the conditions under which true knowledge is given and to grasp after an impossible certainty; it is humility that opens up to receive the knowledge which is available to our human condition.

For Hamann, faith is humility, and humility is both the cardinal virtue and the essential prerequisite for knowledge; pride is the deadly sin and the first error.[14]  As he writes:

Faith and doubt affect man’s ability to know, as fear and hope affect his appetitive instinct….  All our knowledge is in part, and all human grounds of reason consist either of faith in truth and doubt of untruth, or of faith in untruth and doubt of truth…. If the understanding believes in lies and enjoys it, doubts truths and despises them with disgust as bad food, then the light in us is darkness and the salt in us has lost its savour — religion is pure church parade, philosophy is an empty word-display, superannuated and meaningless opinions, out-of-date rights without power.  Scepticism about the truth and credulity of self-deceit are thus inseparable symptoms as cold and heat in a fever.[15]

Or as Kierkegaard writes:  “False doubt doubts everything except itself; with the help of faith, the doubt that saves doubts only itself.”[16]

CONCLUSIONS

Hamann has been called the first important Augustinian of the modern era.[17]  Kierkegaard might be the most widely influential, considering the range of thinkers who have drawn from him.  Kierkegaard learned much from Hamann, and both shared a concern to protect Christianity (specifically Augustinian, Lutheran Christianity) from corruption and co-option by philosophy.  Each sought to carry out this task not by simply opposing Christianity to philosophy, but by developing Christian philosophy.

If we return to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, we see that his history of philosophy needs a fundamental rewrite.  One of his primary villains in the Enlightenment corruption of moral philosophy actually turns out to be part of an Augustinian alternative to the Enlightenment project, one with roots going back to the days of Kant and Hume.  It is not simply a reactionary or fundamentalist stonewalling, but a genuine attempt to respond to the Enlightenment challenges with different answers.  This Augustinianism extends the cardinal virtue of humility from theology and ethics to epistemology.  Epistemologically, humility means accepting uncertainty and seeking receptivity, accepting that knowledge is given rather than created in the human mind.  Morally, humility means accepting the other as other, recognizing the independent concrete reality and importance of the other.  (With minor extensions this humility can even be extended to the nonhuman world and offer a basis for environmental ethics.)

My first, almost trivial conclusion is that MacIntyre has misread history:  moral philosophy and virtue did not vanish; they were still going on at least as late as Kierkegaard.  This means, second, that we should consider the Augustinian alternative proposed by Hamann and Kierkegaard  as a live option, not simply as a passé forerunner to Aquinas as MacIntyre implies.  By what standards can we judge this option?  By its own standards, Augustinianism would claim that pride leads to errors of morality and understanding, to crimes and sins as well as prejudices and mistakes.  Humility means being open or receptive to the otherness of persons and the otherness of facts, practicing love as well as open-mindedness. However, this argument only justifies Augustinianism in holding to its own values; can it produce an argument why  anyone should  embrace its views?

In Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? MacIntyre claims that the strength of a tradition is seen largely in how well it can account for the arguments of rivals.[18]  If, as Cardinal Ratzinger has said, our age is a dictatorship of relativism, can modern Augustinianism respond with anything other than dogmatism?  The chief appeal of relativism is its toleration.  Truth claims are seen as inherently oppressive; only a moral nihilism is sufficiently open to the feelings of others.  It is impossible and even immoral to make judgments or raise questions about the practices of another culture, the argument goes; each culture and perhaps each individual must define its own good and evil.  Looking at the history of crosscultural judgments over the millennia — crusades and jihads, pograms, segregation and so on — the moral mandate to “live and let live” is undeniable in the would-be postcolonial world. This is why Benedict XVI’s call to respect the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has such limited appeal. He offers an answer to moral ambiguity and uncertainty, but he seems to be speaking only to those who already more or less belong to his moral tradition and are in danger of leaving or diluting it.  That is, the appeal to authority is meaningful primarily to those within the group, and only to those who are already convinced that ambiguity and uncertainty are bad.  Many in the postmodern world seem more than ready to embrace this uncertainty, in order to preserve the more valued virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness and progress.

Hamann was able to remain a strong advocate for tolerance while remaining a vigorous defender of objective truth.  When the cardinal virtue is humility, one must accept the fact that some of one’s beliefs are in fact false even while remaining committed to the search for truth.  And likewise, at least some of the other’s beliefs may well be true; in any case, it would be the height of arrogance to attempt to forcibly impose one’s views on another.  This approach to morality and theology rejects the bigotry of insisting that everyone must adopt the same tradition or values, beyond the value of openness to truth; at the same time, it remains optimistic that there is in fact truth and that it will make itself known, albeit partially, to anyone who is truly willing to accept it.  Ironically, relativism or emotivism are usually considered rationalist positions, as compared to the intuition and revelation called for in an Augustinianism like Kierkegaard’s; yet it is relativism that renders reason irrelevant to morality, while Kierkegaard allows an important continuing role for moral reason.  It seems that prideful reason cannot achieve the universal moral certainty is seeks, and ends up with skepticism or with rival claimants to absolute truth; it finally must abandon its quest to guide moral action entirely, yielding the task to emotion and custom.  Kierkegaard’s approach to the virtues, based upon Hamann’s simultaneous convictions that truth is knowable and that uncertainty is unavoidable, relies on revelation and grace, on God’s power and on human humility; yet this humbled practical reason is able to remain fruitfully engaged in guiding human choice, action and belief.

Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses present a vision of virtue largely based upon Hamann’s epistemology.  This epistemology was itself based upon Hamann’s understanding of the Incarnation, where truth (God) gave itself so that any who would receive it humbly could do so.  He broadened this theological doctrine to become the basis of general theory of knowledge:  all truth must give itself, and faith is necessary to receive knowledge of the world just as much as knowledge of God.  Therefore humility is a cardinal virtue not just for the Christian pursuing a life of discipleship, but for any knower, and in relation to any reality.  If Augustine widened the moral community beyond the polis to include the civitas Dei, Hamann may have widened it even further; now the moral horizon and moral community includes anything that is.

Given all this, what is there here for the nonreligious person?  Is this a morality of use only to the believer, or is there a word here for the nonbeliever as well?  After all, it is hardly likely that postmoderns are going to line up to embrace Augustinian Christianity no matter how solid its philosophical underpinnings or how worthy its virtues.  Certainly, it is possible to embrace the virtues of humility, love, patience, even faith (in Hamann’s sense) without becoming an avowed theist.  Simone Weil has a very similar moral vision, though she frames it in reference to an impersonal God which Kierkegaard explicitly rejects.  Iris Murdoch presents a non-theistic morality based on love as humble acceptance of the other and the rejection of egocentric pride.  Clearly there is much to work with here in exploring the virtues, as well as in the philosophical framework of Hamann and Kierkegaard.  On the other hand, Hamann would be the first to admit that epistemology is not innocuous; every philosophy has its own theological assumptions, its own gods.[19]  The essence of the Augustinian moral tradition is the recognition that the self is not the center of the universe, that there are other centers of value and the highest center of value is God (for the theist) or Being (for the non-theist).  Even if one rejects the concept of a personal God, it is very difficult to reverence Being and the cosmos as higher than oneself without coming to feel something akin to faithful submission.  Therefore, it seems likely that eventually the implications of this sort of ethic would lead one towards the religious.[20]

Bibliography

Alexander, W. M.  Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith.  Martinus Nijhoff, The

Hague.  1966.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with

introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton University Press; Princeton NJ:  1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue.  University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:

1984

Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press; Notre Dame IN:  1988

Smith, Ronald Gregor.  J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with

selections from his writings.  Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York.  1960.


[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1984) pp. 40-43, 49; see also Louis Pojman, Kierkegaard and the Logic of Subjectivity

[2] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame IN 1988) p. 165

[3] Whose Justice?  pp. 153-58

[4] Whose Justice?  pp. 1-29; 146-63

[5] Robert C. Roberts, “The Virtue of Hope in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses,” in The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, ed. by Robert L Perkins (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 2003) pp. 184-5

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 126-32

[7] Martin Andic, “Against Cowardliness,” The International Kierkegaard Commentary, v. 5, p. 290

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Expectancy of Faith,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, edited and translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1990) pp. 8-14, 28-9

[9] Kierkegaard, “One Who Prays Aright Struggles with God and is Victorious — In that God is Victorious;” Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 399

[10] W. M.  Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann:  Philosophy and Faith  (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.  1966), p. 72

[11] Ronald Gregor Smith, J. G. Hamann 1730-1788:  a Study in Christian Existence; with selections from his writings  (Harper & Brothers, Publishers; New York; 1960), pp. 214-217

[12] Smith, p. 257

[13] Smith, p. 76; Alexander, p. 163

[14] Alexander, pp. 37-39

[15] Smith, pp. 231-32

[16] Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses  p. 137

[17] Alexander, p. 160

[18] Whose Justice?  pp. 166-67, 362-66

[19]Alexander,  p. 86

[20] And of course, that is what Kierkegaard, and Hamann too,  have been saying all along.