Realism Rules!

When I first moved into the house where I now live (it was August of 1997, by the way, for those of you with a prurient interest in the boring details of my existence) my neighbor noticed that we got up en famille on Sundays and went out. She asked me what was up, and I told her we were Catholics and were off to Mass.

"Catholic! You must love guilt, then!" she said with a smile, then went back to mowing her lawn.

The view of Catholic moral theology here expressed has the remarkable, if unsurprising in this day and age, property of being both banal and widely shared. The idea appears to be that Catholics live their lives as slaves to some set of Divine Command moral rules that are inscribed upon their hearts like prison tats on burly forearms, and infractions of these rules inspire in their benighted adherents spasms of fear borne of a superstitious belief in places of eternal flame. The old joke, based upon the instructions one once found on shampoo bottles, went "Sin; confess; repeat", but what seems to strike most outsiders about Catholic life is a perceived emphasis on sin--especially of the sexual kind--that drives the people in the pews to distraction.

I was reminded of this as I wrote yesterday's post, because Plato's Gorgias ends with a myth about the fate of just and unjust souls. In the text, the soul of the person who has lived a just life goes on to a kind of eternal paradise, while the soul of the unjust person goes, well, to a very different place. Students invariably misinterpret this as evidence of Plato's adherence to a kind of utilitarian view of justice, where the point living well is so that you can get to heaven and avoid hell. Nothing could be further from Plato's real intention in that section of the dialogue, where what he really has in mind is a rather straightforward point about the independence of the soul's happiness from the body's physical state. It is easy to make a similar mistake about the point of Catholic moral theology--in fact, some Catholics themselves appear to believe that the reason why one ought to live in accordance with God's commandments is precisely so that we may win heaven at the end of this earthly sojourn. But, like Plato, the Catholic Church is not utilitarian: the point of living in accordance with God's commandments is not at all that one will thereby win heaven--that is merely a fortuitous artifact. In principle, one will want to live in accordance with God's commandments regardless of what happens when one's body dies--even if there is non-existence afterwards. One follows them because that is what our proper good is, and all things ought to seek their proper good. The point of Plato's myth is that the just life is its own reward, and the Church's teaching does not differ all that much.

One variety of moral realism recognizes that members of natural kinds, such as human beings, are subject to certain objective conditions of flourishing, and that the pursuit of those conditions is what constitutes the best sort of human life. Different theorists will differ as to what, precisely, those conditions are, but it is safe to say that it is never merely following a rule for the sake of mere rule following. The rules, on the contrary, are merely linguistic representations of the means necessary for the attainment of those conditions; hence following them is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for human happiness.

Although this is a rather straightforward point, it never ceases to amaze me how few people really understand it. I am not a Marxist, but I am familiar with the fundamental tenets of Marxism, and Marxism isn't even a dominant intellectual force in our culture. Why then, are so many otherwise well-educated people so ignorant of the fundamental tenets of Christianity, which has been a powerful force in our culture? One hears about it all the time. Even if one wants to criticize it, it seems that it makes a little sense to find out a little bit about what one is criticizing before launching into a seriously wrong-headed critique.

In a pair of comments to my post of yesterday, a reader appears to endorse this rather misbegotten view of Catholic moral theology when he writes, in response to my claim that I've never come across a student who was not a moral relativist "of some kind":
I suppose that if you use the phrase 'moral relativism' a bit like the Pope sometimes seems to, to refer to any view which is not rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based, then I am certainly a moral relativist 'of some kind,' since I tend to believe that there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead, and that right action is underdetermined by rules of anything more than a very general kind....I suspect that there are a good number of students who think that they are relativists, but only because they mistakenly believe that the only alternative to relativism is a rule-based deontology or divine command ethics.
The implication appears to be that the Pope speaks ill of a moral system, which he calls "moral relativism", that he intends to contrast with its opposite, presumably "moral realism", which is here assumed to mean a "rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based" view of normativity. The reader then goes on to say, rather wildly, that he is rather in agreement with folks like Aristotle and Martha Nussbaum that "there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead", and he appears to think that this makes him a moral realist "of some kind", or at least not a moral relativist of any meaningful kind. Well, I can't speak for Martha Nussbaum, though I am fully prepared to believe of her that her thinking is indeed every bit as muddled as my dear reader suggests, but Aristotle would never say such a thing as is here attributed to him, so it isn't just morons like Benedict XVI who think that the proper end for humans entails--yes, that's right, entails, and I'm not even a Kantian deontologist--a certain set of guidelines for living. Whether these guidelines translate into "absolutist" rules is, I suppose, a function of how one happens to view the nature of prudential reasoning. It is, for example, an absolute rule that if one wants to obtain 5 from 3 and 2, one must add them together. Similarly, if one wants to live well a certain form of life, it is necessary (in an absolute sense) that one refrain from killing innocent persons without justification. It is, indeed, rigid under a certain description, but there is no compelling reason to appeal to that description rather than another. For example, one may say of the Ten Commandments that they are absolutist, rigid, rule-like prescriptions, or one may take the view of the prophet Baruch, who wrote:
Hear, O Israel, the commandments of life: listen, and know prudence! How is it, Israel, that you are in the land of your foes, grown old in a foreign land, defiled with the dead, accounted with those destined for the nether world? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom! Had you walked in the way of God, you would have dwelt in enduring peace. Learn where prudence is, where strength, where understanding; that you may know also where are length of days, and life, where light of the eyes, and peace. Who has found the place of wisdom, who has entered into her treasuries? He who knows all things knows her; he has probed her by his knowledge--he who established the earth for all time, and filled it with four-footed beasts; he who dismisses the light, and it departs, calls it, and it obeys him trembling; before whom the stars at their posts shine and rejoice; when he calls them, they answer, "Here we are!" shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him: he has traced out all the way of understanding, to Israel his beloved son. Since then she has appeared on earth, and moved among men. She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; All who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her. Turn, O Jacob, and receive her: walk by her light toward splendor. Give not your glory to another, your privileges to an alien race. Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!
Although the image of stars "shining with joy for their Maker" is tough to top, surely the point of "absolutist" rules lies in the final clause: these aren't just any rules, they are the keys to pleasing God, and since finding joy in our Maker is our highest good we need to know what those "rules" are.

Not so that we may win heaven, though a banal and superficial reading of the prophet might give one that impression, just as many students come away from Plato's Gorgias thinking that Socrates is really a proto-utilitarian. Both talk about living rather than dying, after all, and in our debauched times that is always translated into utilitarian calculations about survival.

I imagine that, if one put one's mind to it, a thoughtful person would easily find that any form of moral realism entails a certain set of rules, whether or not one thinks that members of a single kind can have multiple highest ends. The more difficult task is, I suppose, psychological rather than merely logical. The difficult task here is to conquer one's inner instinct to find "rules" repulsive just insofar as they are rules. This is a difficult instinct for the libertarian to overcome, since freedom is just about the only rule that he recognizes, and since "absolutist rules" give the (false) appearance of restricting the behavior of others, libertarians naturally balk at them. But the sorts of "absolutist" rules that Benedict and the Church advocate restrict no one any more than the "absolutist" rule that human beings need water to survive. Just as there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human body, so too there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human person. One can learn about medicine and exercise physiology if one wants to keep one's body flourishing; to keep one's whole person flourishing one needs to learn about the "absolutist" rules that follow from the logic of morality.

Comments

Apollodorus said…
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Apollodorus said…
"In a pair of comments to my post of yesterday, a reader appears to endorse this rather misbegotten view of Catholic moral theology...The implication appears to be that the Pope speaks ill of a moral system, which he calls "moral relativism", that he intends to contrast with its opposite, presumably "moral realism", which is here assumed to mean a "rigidly absolutist and generally rule-based" view of normativity."

Now, before you start accusing me of making grand generalizations about Catholic moral theology, notice that my comment applied only to my impression of the Pope's rhetoric, not to the substantive teachings of the Catholic Church. The Pope's rhetoric seems to be, and the rhetoric of a good number of Christians certainly is, rigidly deontological and rule-based in a very different sense than the view that you've sketched about rules that are derived from the objective conditions of flourishing. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the Pope actually holds a view like the one you've described, since it is more or less the Thomistic view, but I never made any claims about his substantive views, let alone about the substantive views of thinkers in the Catholic tradition, many of whom I admire. I had no intention of starting a discussion about Catholic moral theology at all; the Pope simply seemed to offer a good example of someone whose pronouncements against 'relativism' seem to be (notice, again, that I say 'seem to be') pronouncements against any view contrary to the Church's, and not to a particular philosophical idea about the nature of morality. That may not be what the Pope really means, but if so, then there are a good number of very loud Catholics who have apparently been misunderstanding him, and consistently invoking his clout in denouncing under the name of 'relativism' anything contrary to the rules of Catholic moral theology. But now back to the original point.

"The reader then goes on to say, rather wildly, that he is rather in agreement with folks like Aristotle and Martha Nussbaum that "there are a variety of legitimate and yet mutually exclusive good kinds of life that people can lead", and he appears to think that this makes him a moral realist "of some kind", or at least not a moral relativist of any meaningful kind. Well, I can't speak for Martha Nussbaum, though I am fully prepared to believe of her that her thinking is indeed every bit as muddled as my dear reader suggests, but Aristotle would never say such a thing as is here attributed to him, so it isn't just morons like Benedict XVI who think that the proper end for humans entails--yes, that's right, entails, and I'm not even a Kantian deontologist--a certain set of guidelines for living."

I don't want to make this an argument about the proper interpretation of Aristotle or the soundness of Martha Nussbaum's views, but you seem to have been a bit wild yourself in concluding that the recognition of a plurality of incompatible good kinds of life excludes the view that "the proper end for human beings entails a certain set of guidelines for living." Pluralism is not relativism, and it is certainly not anarchism. Maybe I was unclear by what I mean by 'mutually exclusive' kinds of live. By calling kinds of life 'mutually exclusive' or incompatible, I mean that the same person can not coherently live both of them at once. It is just not possible for me to live a life like Socrates, dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, and also to live a life dedicated to alleviating poverty and suffering. These lives are not incompatible in the sense that they embody conceptions of the good that are fundamentally at odds with one another; they are incompatible in the sense that the same person can not live both of them at the same time. Again, they are not incompatible in the sense that noone could recognize and pursue both of the goods mentioned; they are incompatible in the sense that the same person can not live a life devoted to both of those goods, or if he does, he will be living a life very different from the life that prioritizes one over the other.

Maybe we shouldn't use the phrase 'kinds of life' to describe the different ways that people can choose to structure their lives around different goods. Whatever we want to call them, though, it seems clear to me that there is not just one good way to structure the various goods of human life. Nothing about that claim, though, entails that any and all ways of structuring our lives are good, or that all ways are equally good. Nor does it in any way lead to a denial of your claim that the objective conditions of human flourishing entail a set of guidelines or even rules for living. Only if those conditions are taken to entail a very rigid set of rules, so that the good life for man is the life lived according to the Benedictine Rule, say, or the way of life of the Amish, or the life of a middle-class, white American family, would anyone who holds my view need to object. I am not even necessarily opposed to the idea that there could be a hierarchy of good kinds of life; but recognition of a hierarchy of good kinds of life is a far cry from the claim that there is only one good kind of life.

None of that has me denying that objective conditions of flourishing require justice. None of it has me claiming that slavery, or the subjection of women, or torture, or any other form of injustice are really okay for some people because they are different from us. So I'm still not quite sure how on earth I am a relativist unless the only thing to contrast with relativism is a strict, rule-based morality. If the only alternative to relativism is the kind of absolutism which holds that it is never permissible to lie, never permissible to disobey a parent, never permissible to break a law, never permissible to utter certain words, never permissible to eat certain kinds of food, wear certain kinds of clothes, or to work on the Sabbath, then I am a relativist, because I hold that whether or not these things are permissible depends rather on what is actually good for people, and that what is actually good for people is not nearly so determinate as to justify categorical rules of that sort.

Given that you do not subscribe to any such rule-based view, I'm not quite sure why you count yourself as a moral realist of a non-relativist variety, but you count me as a relativist who dubiously claims to be a realist. In fact, as far as I can tell, you and I have virtually the same view about the theoretical structure of ethics -- we just differ widely in our beliefs about what is actually good for people. I agree with you that, as you put it, "just as there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human body, so too there are objective conditions for the flourishing of the human person." I disagree with your claim that "the sorts of 'absolutist' rules that Benedict and the Church advocate restrict no one any more than the 'absolutist' rule that human beings need water to survive," but surely you aren't going to insist that only orthodox Catholics are moral realists. You'll insist that only orthodox Catholics are right, of course, but having a correct rather than a mistaken theory of the good is not quite the same thing as being a realist rather than a relativist.

If you really still haven't accepted the fact that you have known and taught undergraduates who were not moral relativists, you could think of one or two of the Christian HTC students you've had in the past five years, and you'll either reconsider or further redefine your idea of what 'relativism' means.
I liked the image that Presbyterian pop-theologian Frederick Buechner used: "Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst." You might replace "lust" with "sin" and preserve the same idea.

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