Friday, July 01, 2011

The State of Virtue

Recent times have seen a shift in many circles back toward a more virtue based approach to ethics. Alistair MacIntyre, in a landmark book called After Virtue, argued that the Western world has lost its ethical way. [1] “We have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” [2] For MacIntyre, modern morality is a collection of incoherent, fragmented survivals from the virtue oriented tradition of Aristotle. [3] Whether you agree with MacIntyre or not, he highlights a key question: Are good and evil real? Are virtues something real and “intrinsic” to life, built-in to reality, if you would? Or are they simply a matter of human feeling or cultural perception?

Earlier in the chapter, we mentioned David Hume’s sense that an uncrossable gulf existed between “facts” and “values.” How do we get from “you killed someone” to “you should not have killed someone.” MacIntyre points out that a lot of ethical theory in the early twentieth century amounted to “You shouldn’t kill people because we don’t feel good about such things,” a theory of ethics called “emotivism.”

Immanuel Kant had tried to address Hume’s fact-value problem by suggesting that morality was one of the innate, “built-in” categories of our minds. He thought it was a matter of logical reasoning. All we need to do is think through what course of action would make sense at any time and place, and we have the Golden Rule. However, Kant’s ethic has been far from convincing to very many people.

We might also mention another question philosophers have tossed around since the ancient Greeks. Plato put it this way, “Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” [4] You could also put the dilemma in this way, “Is good good because God says so, or does God say it’s good because it’s good.” It is a “which came first” question. Has God created good, as it were, by his command, to where he could make murder the right thing to do if he wanted or perhaps he could create an alternative universe where murder was good? Or is good a standard that God himself must follow, to where if God were to have someone like Abraham to murder his son Isaac, he would be guilty of a crime?

The one approach is called “divine command theory” (DCT). It sees good as a question of what God commands. There is no intrinsic good or evil to the creation. Rather, good is whatever God wants it to be. Most Christian thinkers have opted for something closer to the second option, perhaps suggesting that God’s “nature” is good, and therefore that he has built within himself an absolute definition of good.

Those who take different positions on the question of "intrinsic morality" can make their "base camp" in differing Scriptures.  Those who favor DCT point out that God often seems to command things in the Old Testament that would be immoral if any of us did them.  The instance of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is usually mentioned (Genesis 22).  And, for that matter, there is the instance of God commanding the Israelites to slaughter everyone down to the children and animals of the Canaanites (e.g., Josh. 6:17-21).

On the other hand, James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted with evil.  Hebrews 6:18 says that it is impossible for God to lie.  And we have various indications in Scripture that the understanding of divine agency gained in precision as we move from the older parts of the Old Testament to the later ones and then into the New Testament.  For example, the earlier 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God did something that the later 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan did!

Then again, the apostle Paul makes the morality of eating meat that might have been offered to an idol a matter of personal conscience (Rom. 14:5-8).  Food for him is neither clean nor unclean (a development in understanding from Leviticus) but its status depends on whether the person eating thinks it is clean or unclean. One might use this line of thought to argue for a form of DCT in which what is good and evil is a question of how God thinks about it.

However, most Christian thinkers see a much more substantial connection between the nature of God and what is good or evil in this world.  Historic Christianity has emphasized that "goodness" is one of God's attributes and thus that goodness is thus something intrinsic to his creation, even if it is currently marred by sin.  This connection would thus give a fixed point by which to judge what is good and evil in the world.
[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985).

[2]After Virtue, 2.

[3] After Virtue, 257.

[4] Euthyphro, 10a.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

If God himself is "good" and desires "the good", and "cannot lie", then why does he approve of those who lie, murder, cheat, and steal in scripture? these are the ones who were granted "honor" by "God" as "the Father of faith", or "Israel", or the "Mother of God"...etc.!

Robert said...

Surely those are traditional stories reflecting the way people understood God at the time. I don't think you can deduce anything about God from a simple application of scripture, as you can make him say anything you like by appropriate manipulation thereof. We're the People of God; that lot over there are the Canaanites/Babylonians/any Biblical enemy you like. So we can exterminate them, enslave them, grab their land, bash their babies' brains in, do anything we like to them. The Bible's a dangerous collection of texts, and therein lies the problem!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The question of the fact/value is also a question of the is/ought. And this gets into the libertarian or socialism aspect of governing!

What should a government mandate? or "command"? Or should everyone be granted an equal voice in our society. Should that voice be a personal choice of value? Government should allow personal choice, otherwise, one doesn't have a real voice about their life.

Do individuals have a right to private property rights without government interference? What is the 'personal", and "the private"? We have different areans, that government was not to interfere with....

Public officials thought were accountable to their people to represent them, which meant that their life was to be more that corruption would not breed on the heels of power!