Scatter’d Comments on Ivory Tower Ethics

Intelligent, insightful, and rational people can come to a belief in God … or not. German philosopher Habermas made the remark in a debate with then Cardinal Ratzinger (The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion) that reasoned, consistent rational arguments exist for God as well as for not. The Smart/Haldane book (Atheism and Theism) is a wonderful example of such a debate, in which a debate on the topic by two established academic philosophers shows that acquiescence on the point that both sides are defensible is something that both sides of this discussion need to do.

Recently, blog-neighbor Jason Kuznicki wrote (in a comment):

But here’s what I really believe: I think what is good is that which furthers the intelligent, examined, thoughtful life. I think what is evil is that which either encourages death, or suffering, or brute force supplanting the life of the mind.

For each of these things, I don’t need a spirit in the sky to guide me. I can recognize them on my own. There is nothing transcendent about them, and nothing that I need to take on faith. (Even if I admit, as I do, that I don’t understand how the mind works.) Read the ancient philosophers — Aristotle above all. God isn’t necessary for any of this, but simply a willingness to recognize the life proper to man, which is the rational one.

First of all, apparently, if one believes statistics and polls, the far less educated transcendent believing religious conservatives give far more, out of far less, to charity than the highly educated and less transcendent believing secular crowd. And, it is true, by and large the intelligent self-examined crowd isn’t out there commiting crimes, murders and other large violent ethical lapses. The manage to be decent (if not good) without the help of any belief in the transcendent. So too, do the self-examined educated faithful. That covers somewhat less than 1% of the population. What then of the rest?

It seems to me highly likely that the “rest” of those not living in an Ivory tower do in fact benefit greatly from belief in the transcendent, in weekly lectures on ethics and morals, praise and glorification of a transcendent example to which they should aspire. Exhortation in the 8 blessed virtues to combat the 8 deadly vices and so on. Habermas, in opening the lecture above, asks:

Does the free secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whether the democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence, it also expresses the assumption that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature.

Because the self-examined thoughtful segment of our population is so very small, it seem likely to me, that the answer is to Habermas question is … Yes. The free secularized state does exist crucially depending on normative presuppositions provided by Church. If that free secularized state was comprised of angels (or demons) who were all (or a great majority) were self-examined thoughtful people … well, yes. Such a society might work. But, who would pick up the trash and man the assembly lines and do those tasks which many if not most self-examined thoughtful people find intellectually, shall we say, unstimulating. However, we are normally talking about building societies made up of actual humans, of which a scattered few find ethics, philosophy (natural and otherwise), and the like not just their forte but in the least bit interesting. There is good reason which societies have not yet existed (no likely will exist) which suggest to its citizens that their own common sense is the only and primary landmark to use in discerning right from wrong.

In the above, I cited charity as a particular virtue which is primary in the Church, but not so much in the secular society at large. In the Eastern Roman Empire, in the first few centuries after Constantine, for the first time narratives telling the stories of the poor are recorded, writen down and shared, in Church homilies and introduced. Thereby due to a distinct lack of separation of Church and State in that time and place, those narratives came into play in the State as well. Secular (actually not as secular as might be supposed) thought existed and flourished for some 800 years following the Golden age of Greece and Pericles. Legalistic and pagan Rome followed as well. But it took caritas and the Church to bring the poor and their story to the stage. Modern political thinking holds a high place indeed to narrative, but rarely do they note the above example, that these particular much needed narratives come to the fore only through the auspices of an institution which, frankly, they disapprove.

It is true that reading Plato or Aristotle and a with a lot of thought one can make a good man without God. But … it takes more to make a good society. Metropolitan John Zizioulas in his dizzying work Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Churchchanneling Sartre via St. Maximus the Confessor teaches that the problem of “Other” and our division (as opposed to our difference) is a problem which cannot be bridged by ethics. For this problem is an ontological not ethical problem therefore it needs an ontological not ethical (or governmental) solution. He proposes Baptism and Eucharist alone can provide that ontological solution.

As an aside, the above quoted phrase is an interesting remark for Mr Kuznicki, an avowed Libertarian, to make. It is my view that Conservatism is that philosophy in which the conservative feels that the primary purpose of government is to provide, following Aristotle (or is it Plato?), an environment in which virtue can prosper. Libertarianism holds that protection of freedom (liberty) as the primary role for government. Given the above statement, perhaps Mr Kuznicki is closer to (my naive reading) on the conservative camp than one might think.

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  1. I’m staying with some friends this weekend and can’t comment at length on this post at the moment, but I would definitely like to. Consider this a placeholder until I get back to you in detail. You’re right, by the way, that I have significant conservative tendencies. I have much to think about before I get back to you on these questions.

  2. Mark says:

    I’ll look forward to it. Have a good weekend!

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