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Podcast: Emily Heady on the Christian Worldview, Ethics, and A Christmas Carol

Podcast with Emily Heady

In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.

 

Photo:  “A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library” By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.

Music:  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.1, Intrinsic Value, “‘Abd al-Jabbar,”

 summary by David Baggett

Hare begins by roughly translating al-Jabbar’s language of “hasan” and “qabih” as “right” and “wrong,” respectively, but this will introduce a strain in certain contexts. Hare then makes two qualifications: al-Jabbar doesn’t distinguish between two normative families of terms (value and obligation) the way Hare does. But he does have an account of obligation. The second qualification is to distinguish qabih (wrong) from “zulm,” meaning injustice, something a bit narrower.

Al-Jabbar defines “wrong” by connecting it to that which deserves blame, but there are two qualifications. An act can be wrong without a person being blamed—if the action is such that, if certain conditions held (like the person was awake), performing the action would have been blameworthy. Also, sometimes the wrongness of an action can be overridden by a greater or equal right-making property. The second qualification is that there is no such neutralizing or overriding right-making property in the act that deserves blame.

The contrary of wrongness is obligation, where the person who omits the act (if he’s able to do it) deserves blame. Distinguished from both wrong and obligation are two other kinds of right, the “merely right” and the “recommended.” Cases of the “merely right” are breathing the air or eating harmless food, where the agent doesn’t deserve praise or blame. But they’re not simply neutral, for they are good things to do (as we’d put it in English). Cases of the “recommended” are praying or fasting beyond what’s required, where the agent is praised for the act but would not be blamed for the omission. [Supererogatory?]

Al-Jabbar holds that the right and wrong acts distinguished in his system are evident to human reason in their right and wrong character. They are “known immediately,” independently of revelation. Revelation does indeed inform us of the obligations we already have, but these truths are known by reason when they are revealed, and this knowledge by reason is primary in justification. These standards that we learn from reason apply also to God. “The Eternal Glorious One is able to do what would be wrong if He did it.” Because God in fact only commands and does what is right (though he could do what is wrong), we can use these standards to judge what God is and is not commanding us to do.

Al-Jabbar claims that there are “aspects” by which wrong acts are wrong and right acts are right, and that we can discern these aspects with our reason. “Lying” and “wrongdoing” are aspects that necessarily bring wrong with them, on his account, unlike “injury,” which may bring wrong or right depending on the situation. He distinguishes between the aspect of an act and the genus of an act. The genus does not make an act wrong. Entering a house is a genus of act, as is bowing in prayer. But neither is necessarily right or necessarily wrong. But “injustice” is not a genus of act, because injustice is named together with the bad. But lying is an aspect, not a genus. Al-Jabbar holds that lying necessarily brings wrong with it, but he also holds that a small lie may be exempt from blame, on account of the good past deeds of the speaker and the amount of praise he has earned.

The aspect of injustice is not to be attributed to God’s acts, according to al-Jabbar, but not because there is some difference between aspects as ascribed to humans and to God. He allows that we might seem to judge God’s acts differently from our own, when, for example, we judge that his goodness is consistent with causing pain to children. But in fact there is a difference of circumstances here, because we are assuming that God compensates the children in the next life, and so in fact the same standard is being applied. A key difference between the three authors in this chapter is that they disagree about whether God could do something wrong, even if he does not in fact do so.

Two more preliminary matters: first, previous chapters assumed an affinity between natural law theory and eudaemonism. One value of studying Islamic medieval moral theology is that we can see a school where this pairing does not obtain. The Mu’tazilites, and al-Jabbar in particular, hold that the right in all of its aspects attracts us in itself, intrinsically, not because it leads to a benefit for us as agents of the action. Al-Jabbar recognize that his opponents will claim that people do not avoid injustice and lying intrinsically, but only because of some benefit to themselves. He replies that people will do wrong for the sake of some benefit, but they will do right without any benefit to themselves. Even a heartless man would warn a blind man against falling into a well. Al-Jabbar replies that it is possible to act without thinking about one’s own interest at all. [Seems right to me, contra Piper.]

hare god's commandSecond, al-Jabbar offers explicit arguments against divine command theory. DCT can be found in all three Abrahamic faiths, and it creates much the same difficulties in all three. Al-Jabbar offers at least seven arguments against it, and Hare presents four of them. The first is that commands do not imply obligation. Al-Jabbar quotes the Qur’an: “Surely God bids to justice and good doing and giving to kinsmen.” Al-Jabbar thinks such virtues are indicated by the command but not produced by it. This sort of objection is frequently made by those who can’t see what normativity is added by a command, even a divine one. Either, they think, the thing commanded is already right or it is not; the commanding can’t change it from one to the other, though it can inform us of a character that the act already has. (Hare had earlier rejected this view that reduces imperatives to an indicative indicating that someone wants something. Hare thinks the best response, on al-Jabbar’s own terms, is to point out that al-Jabbar has the concept of obligation, distinct from rightness, and that God’s command might make something right but not obligatory into what’s both. This wouldn’t involve the command making the action right, because it already is.)

On al-Jabbar’s second objection to DCT, the account of wrong as what is forbidden by God does not fit our normal language. We don’t say it’s forbidden of God to do evil, for example, even though it would be evil of him. Moreover, there are things that are virtuous and would still be virtuous even if God told us not to do them. [Here I think al-Jabbar’s mistake is rejecting DCT instead of God’s ability to issue such hideous commands. Hare’s response is similar but a bit different, saying God’s commands are based on what’s good. I resist that because on occasion it seems to me God’s command might be predicated on what’s less evil, not what’s good. Perhaps even God chooses to break a tie.]

Third, if DCT were right, we couldn’t know our obligations without knowing they were commanded by God. But al-Jabbar says the sane man knows his obligation even though he doesn’t know that there is a commander. (Hare’s reply is to punt to Adams’s reminder that we can distinguish between what a term for a characteristic means and what makes a thing have that characteristic.)

Fourth, DCT has a problem understanding the goodness of God. If we say God’s acts are not wrong because God is not commanded, we can’t say God’s acts are right either. But we need, and the Qur’an gives, standards of value intelligible to us in terms of which we can praise God for doing right. [Hare says one reply is to say that ‘good’ means “attracting us and deserving to attract us” (where both conditions are necessary), and that we can say that God and God’s acts are the paradigm case of what is good in this sense. My own reply to these last two objections would also punt to the ontology/epistemology distinction and their different orders.]

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

Notes:

[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

Intuiting the Beauty of the Infinite: Ramanujan and Hardy’s Friendship and Collaboration

By David Baggett 

The Man Who Knew Infinity, a recent movie based on a book of the same name by Robert Kanigel, recounts the short but remarkable life story of India’s great mathematical prodigy Srivivasa Ramanujan (henceforth SR). Although what follows is a response to the film, the book is well-worth reading, filled with luscious prose such as in this sample: “The Cauvery was a familiar, recurrent constant of Ramanujan’s life. At some places along its length, palm trees, their trunks heavy with fruit, leaned over the river at rakish angles. At others, leafy trees formed a canopy of green over it, their gnarled, knotted roots snaking along the riverbank.”

The movie begins by quoting Bertrand Russell (a character in the movie itself): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty.” It then shows SR in India, doing his mathematics (without much formal training) while trying to eke out a living for his family. His passion and talent for math are obvious; trying to describe maths (the preferred British abbreviation) to his wife, he says it’s like a painting, but with colors you can’t see. There are patterns everywhere in mathematics, he adds, revealed in the most incredible forms. Finding himself in need of someone who could understand and appreciate his ground-breaking work, SR wrote G. H. Hardy, legendary professor at Cambridge, and eventually Hardy invited SR to traverse the ocean and come work with him there.

This incredible opportunity required SR to leave his wife behind and endure the long journey and culture shock of moving to England, which contributes to a compelling narrative, with many twists and turns I’m not discussing but that make for a terrific, sometimes heart-wrenching tale. Despite the trials and challenges (including a war), what’s amazing was how much work SR and Hardy were able to do over the next five years—publishing dozens of groundbreaking articles.

The divergent worldviews of the two men make the dynamics of their friendship particularly fascinating to chronicle. SR was a devout Hindu whereas Hardy was a committed atheist—though the first time Hardy says this to SR in the movie (“I’m what’s called an ‘atheist’”), SR replies, “You believe in God. You just don’t think he likes you.” Incidentally, this is a key structuring question in C. S. Lewis’s moving novel Till We Have Faces: whereas both Psyche and Orual believe in the gods, Psyche believed they were marvelous and loving, but Orual thought they were only dark, unkind, and mysterious. In Rudolph Otto’s terminology, Orual was familiar with the tremendum aspect of the Numinous, but Psyche with both the tremendum (the awe-inspiring mystery) and the fascinans aspect of the Numinous. Fascinans is the aspect of the Divine involving consuming attraction, rapturous longing—and is often connected to the imagination, beauty, even poetry.

The diametric difference in SR’s and Hardy’s ultimate worldviews proves to be related to a central aspect of the plot. Hardy is adamant about the need to show step-by-step proofs of SR’s conclusions, while SR is depicted as functioning on a much more intuitive level. I’m not concerned for now what artistic liberties the moviemakers might have taken in this regard, but it is true that SR would often write down the conclusions of his work and not all the intervening steps. There may be at least a partial explanation of this which is fairly prosaic: paper tended to be in short supply for SR in India. But it’s at least intriguing to consider the explanation advanced in the movie: SR possessed incredibly strong intuitive skills. Mystifying Hardy, SR could just see things that few others could and felt little need to offer the proofs.

Hardy—though incredibly impressed with SR’s abilities, likening him to an artist like Mozart, who could write a whole symphony in his head—repeatedly says that intuition is not enough. Intuition must be “held accountable.” Proofs mattered, to avoid projecting the appearance of SR’s mathematical dance or art as on a par with conjuring.

It isn’t that SR’s intuitions were infallible. His theory of primes, however intuitively obvious, turned out to be wrong. Still, though, many of his intuitions were eventually vindicated and proved right. One among other interesting questions that SR’s reliance on intuitions raises is how much discursive analysis they involve. It’s a vexed question among epistemologists whether intuitions are a lightning quick series of inferences, or something more immediately and directly apprehended. The quickness with which they come naturally lends itself to the latter analysis, but perhaps there’s something to the former option—particularly if much of the analysis is done beneath the level of conscious awareness. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, Sherlock’s inferences would come so quickly that Watson characterized them as resembling intuitions; likewise, realizing it’s sometimes easier to know something than to explain the justification for it, Sherlock himself recognized the way knowledge can have features that resemble more immediate apprehendings than just the deliverances of the discursive intellect. A couple of real-life Sherlocks, Al Plantinga and Phil Quinn had a dust up some years back on whether basic beliefs are formed inferentially or not.

The difference in Hardy’s and SR’s styles, we come to see, is related to their divergent worldviews. Exasperated at Hardy’s recurring disparagement of intuition as lacking in substance, SR finally blurts out, “You say this word as if it is nothing. Is that all it is to you? All that I am? You’ve never even seen me. You are a man of no faith. . . . Who are you, Mr. Hardy?” The underlying dynamic that brought this exchange to a head was the way SR connected his own identity to those intuitions. Hardy had asked SR before how he got his ideas. Now SR gives his answer: “By my god. She speaks to me, puts formulas on my tongue when I sleep, sometimes when I pray.”

SR asks Hardy if he believes him, and adds, “Because if you are my friend, you will know that I am telling you the truth. If you are truly my friend.”

Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.
In Till We Have Faces, we find a similar scene. Orual can’t see the gold-and-amber castle that Psyche tells her of, but Orual also knows that Psyche had never told her a lie. One issue here is testimony, and the conditions that need to be in place to take it as reliable. Of course someone could be telling the truth, the best they understand it, and still be unreliable—for perhaps they’ve unwittingly made a mistake, or they’re delusional or confused.

At any rate, Hardy’s reply is transparent: “But I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in anything I can’t prove.”

“Then you don’t believe in me,” SR responded. “Now do you see? An equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses the thought of God.”

Hardy remained skeptical of SR’s theology, but couldn’t dispute with the results. He would go to bat for SR to get him a fellowship at Cambridge, and in his impassioned defense of SR’s accomplishments he extolled his incredible originality, by which SR could apprehend so much truth otherwise missed. On Hardy’s view, the creativity and originality, though they provided SR a lens through which to see, didn’t subjectivize SR’s findings; rather, they were a tool for seeing farther and seeing more.

This contrasts with, say, Simon Critchley’s interpretation of the poetry of Wallace Stevens. On (Critchley’s) Stevens’s view, the only reality we experience is mediated through categories furnished by the poetic imagination, rendering our perspectives products of the imagination and, thus, subjective—yet still able to be believed despite their fictive nature. This is what some might call a more “postmodern” perspective than Hardy’s more traditional view that there’s an objective reality we’re able to discern, however imperfectly and through a glass darkly.

In real life, when Hardy died, one mourner spoke of his “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends . . . think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”

Hardy didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in SR and in the objectivity of mathematical truth. He wrote of his Platonism in his Mathematician’s Apology, and the movie captures this too. In one of his defenses of SR, he related the story of the way SR said mathematical truths are thoughts of God—a view parallel to, say, Plantinga’s view that modal and necessary moral truths are also thoughts in the mind of God. Then Hardy added, “Despite everything in my being set to the contrary, perhaps he’s right. For isn’t this exactly our justification for pure mathematics? We are merely the explorers of infinity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. We do not invent these formulae—they already exist and lie in wait for only the brightest minds to divine and prove. In the end, who are we to question Ramanujan—let alone God?”

Though math, on Hardy’s view, is discovered, not invented, it may take those with prodigious talents to uncover its deepest truths. Speaking of which, near the start of the film Hardy had said, “I didn’t invent Ramanujan. I discovered him.” Even more than the math, this is a movie about men and their remarkable friendship and fertile partnership across radically divergent and conflicting paradigms. The humanity of the film is its best feature of all.

After five years of collaboration between these unlikely friends, SR returned to India, having contracted a fatal disease—likely tuberculosis. Within a year he died, at the age of just 32. Hardy was crestfallen when he heard the news, and grieved the loss deeply. Near the end of the movie, he reflected on his collaboration with both SR and another colleague, Littlewood, saying he’d done something special indeed: “I have collaborated with both Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.”

Paraphrasing Hardy, he once commented that out of 100 points, he would give himself 30 as a mathematician, 45 to Littlewood, 70 to Hilbert. And 100 to Ramanujan. In the year SR spent in India before his death, he poured his brilliant findings into another notebook. It was lost for a while, but when found, the importance of its discovery was likened to that of Beethoven’s “10th Symphony.” A century later, these formulas are being used to understand the behavior of black holes.

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The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: The Victory of Christian Virtue (Part 5 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

By Jonathan Pruitt

Chapter Three

The Victory of Christian Virtue

In Chapter One, it was argued that for a particular worldview to be compatible with virtue ethics, it has to meet two kinds of criteria. First, it must be able to account for teleology of persons and the world. Second, it must have a view of man that allows for the narrative unity of a single human life.  Chapter Three will demonstrate two claims. First that experience and reason confront the Buddhism with facts that are difficult to explain away; these same facts naturally flow from the Christian worldview. Therefore, Christianity provides a better explanation for the nature of reality and human persons than Buddhism. The second claim is that Christianity can accommodate a virtue view of ethics.

The Foundations of Christian Ethics

The Nature of God

Any account of Christian ethics must begin with God. In Christian thought, God is metaphysically necessary: “The existence of God is a first truth; in other words, the knowledge of God’s existence is rational intuition. Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning.”[1] Further, he is the “infinite Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.”[2] God is defined as the greatest conceivable or maximally great being. As such, he is said to possess all great making properties, like moral perfection and ultimate value.  By definition and ontological necessity, God constitutes the good of Christian ethics.

As a maximally great being, God exists with certain attributes. Strong divides the attributes of God into two categories: the absolute or immanent attributes and the relative or transitive attributes. The absolute attributes are those attributes that God possesses without reference to anything else. God possesses life, personality, aseity, unity, and moral perfection as ontologically necessary properties.  The life that God possesses is not biological life, but rather mental energy. He “lives” as a personal being, possessing “the power of self-consciousness and self-determination.”[3]  God, then, is fundamentally and necessarily a unified, conscious, and rational person who possesses libertarian free will. In addition, he constitutes the ultimate ground of all value and moral objectivity.

The Nature of Man

The imago Dei explained  

As a free being, complete within himself, God chose to create mankind in his image:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”[4]

While the Bible does not specifically explain the nature of the imago Dei, Erickson argues that there are at least six facts that can be inferred from what the Bible does say.  His first five facts explain that the image of God is something bestowed freely by God, without reference to any trait or merit within man, and that all humans possess the image equally. Each of these facts is vitally important to ethics, and the application of ethics in particular. However, his sixth point is especially important to demonstrating that Christianity meets the requirements of virtue:

“The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image is the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, thinking, and of willing freely.”[5] Essentially, possessing the imago Dei is what makes human beings persons; the absence of which makes animals merely animals.

J.P. Moreland has argued that as the imago Dei relates to persons, there are five principle parts: consciousness, free will, rationality, the soul, and objective moral values and the intrinsic value of a human being. If Christianity is true so that people are, in fact, created in the image of God, then there ought to be facts about human persons that are difficult for other worldviews to explain away. This provides an excellent opportunity to offer an apologetic toward Buddhism and a fuller explanation of what constitutes the imago Dei and how it is relevant to Christian ethics.

The recalcitrant imago Dei: human persons and the failure of Buddhism[6]

One of the criticisms made of the virtue view of Buddhism is that it is motivated for some reason other than obtaining an honest interpretation of the Buddha’s ethics. Some Buddhist virtue ethicists even openly admitted that they had ulterior motives.[7] It was suggested that Keown was a kind of “revisionist.” This raises an important question: Why would someone want to reinterpret the Buddha in favor of a virtue ethic? The answer seems to be that a theory of virtue ethics makes better sense out the world than the theories that the Buddha taught. While the insights of the Buddha are tremendous, they are nevertheless out of step with what human beings can know by experience and reason. In particular, Chapter Two pointed out that a virtue view of ethics was guilty of ignoring or distorting truths about the nature of a human person and the moral quality of reality. There are recalcitrant facts about the nature of man and morality for Keown and other Buddhist virtue ethicists. These are facts about the sort of world human beings find themselves in as well as the sort of lives they experience, facts about the apparent narrative unity of the human life and the teleology of the world in general. Specifically, the Buddhist will have trouble explaining the five parts of a person who possesses the imgao Dei.

Consciousness

Moreland argues that “mental states require a subjective ontology–namely that mental states are necessarily owned by the first person sentient subjects who have them.”[8] According to Moreland, there are five states of consciousness and each is expressed in terms of a subject/object relationship.  A sensation is a state of awareness. One might have the sensation of “seeing red,” or “feeling pain.” A thought is a “mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence.” “All fire trucks are red,” is a thought and so is “My favorite fruit is apples.” A belief is a “person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are.” A desire is a “certain felt inclination to do, or experience certain things or avoid such.” And finally, an act of will is a “choice, an exercise of power. . . usually for the sake of some purpose.”[9] The states of consciousness do not constitute some conventional person nor are these states aggregates of a whole. Instead, the five states are all properties of a mind (mental states), which is a unified whole and indivisible. Moreland further suggests that there is an I that stands behind and above these various states so that they belong to a particular individual: “the first person perspective is not a property persons have, it is the thing that persons are – centers of a personal kind of consciousness.”[10] On this point, Moreland agrees with Strong:

Self-consciousness is more than consciousness. This last the brute may be supposed to possess, since the brute is not an automaton. Man is distinguished from the brute by his power to objectify self. Man is not only conscious of his own acts and states, but by abstraction and reflection he recognizes the self which is the subject of these acts and states.[11]

Moreland’s view of consciousness as mental states stands in contrast to the Buddha’s.

The Buddha believed that there are five aggregates that constitute a conventional person:  form

(rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara), and awareness[12]

(vinnana).   The last four of these aggregates are mental states,[13] similar to the ones utilized by Moreland, although the Buddha is clear that these mental states do not belong to anyone. An unnamed monk, in a dialogue with the Buddha, argued that human persons mistakenly assume that one of the skandhas might be identified as the self.[14] Later in the discourse, the Buddha explains that each of these assumptions is unfounded. The Buddha asks the monk concerning each of the skandhas, “Is this what I am?” The monk responds, with Buddha’s approval, “No, lord.” There is no unified self; there is only an aggregate of parts with an illusion of self.

However, the idea that a person is merely a collection of parts does not solve the problem that Moreland raises. For example, the Buddha suggests that awareness or vinnana is the “awareness of sensory and mental objects.”[15] But awareness, as a mental state, requires necessarily a subject and an object. There must be a subject who experiences awareness of a particular object or state of affairs. The other aggregates (with the exception of form which merely describes the physical body) have the same requirement. Perceptions will require both a “perceiver” and an object to be perceived.  Formations (sankhara), which are “a range of mental responses to objects,” also require a subject/object relationship.[16] By formulating the aggregates, the Buddha has not solved the problem of the I standing over and above the aggregates. Instead, he has merely described the conscious states that an I possesses.  Further, it is not likely that the doctrine of “no-self” and a belief in the aggregates as mental states can be held simultaneously. The only option would be to either affirm that a conscious self exists over and above the aggregates or that the five aggregates are not describing mental states.  The juxtaposition of the “no-self” doctrine and the strong sense of the reality of self creates a tension within the Buddhist worldview to such a point that the language employed must be understood as either being only conventionally  true (there is a self) or ultimately true (there is no self).

Besides the subject/object problem implicit within the aggregates, there is a kind of cosmological problem. How could consciousness arise when reality is fundamentally empty, non-personal, and lacking any causal powers? A monk asked the Buddha this question directly:  “Lord, what is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form? What is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness?”[17] The Buddha responded:

Monk, the four great existents (earth, water, fire, & wind) are the cause, the four great existents the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of perception. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of fabrications. Name&-form is the cause, name-&-form the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of consciousness.[18]

According to the Buddha, consciousness arises as result of a material cause (earth, water, fire, and wind) intersecting with particular conditions, the reality of dependent origination. While the

Buddha refrains from metaphysical speculation, there is nevertheless another tension in Buddhism at this point: how does consciousness arise out of reality as the Buddha understood it?

The answer is not clear. Consciousness, for Buddhism is a recalcitrant fact.

The unity of human life (the soul)

If mental states are something possessed so that there is an indivisible I over and above them, then another issue presents itself: the concept of a substantial soul.  Moreland argues against naturalism, but his point can easily be adapted to a Buddhist view:

I. I exist, as does a particular arrangement of skandhas associated with me.

II. I am not identical with the skandhas associated with me.

III. I am not identical with any single skandha (like vinnana, for example).

IV. I do not have any proper part which is not part of the skandhas

V. Therefore, I have no proper parts: I am altogether simple entity.

The Buddhist would likely find (III) and (IV) uncontroversial. There would be no ultimate I to be identical to a set of skandhas and whatever an I is, it would consist totally of the skandhas. Clearly, there would a problem with (I). But, if Moreland is right about mental states necessarily requiring a “subjective ontology,” then (I) should be acceptable even if there is protest. If (I) makes it through, then so do (II) and (III). If there is a “subjective ontology” that possesses the five skandhas, then it follows that a person is not identical to the skandhas.  The result is that the self is an “immaterial, non-extended substance”[19] that has no necessary relationship with the skandhas. This would explain why “we have very strong, deep intuitions that we are enduring continuants even though we undergo various changes and… experience part replacement.”[20]

The Buddhist faces a problem here: if there is a self that exists over and above the skandhas, that self would, presumably, not be conditioned by the laws of dependent origination or karma since it stands outside the space where those laws would have causal powers. The self would create a kind of dualism within Buddhism: there is what is unconditioned and without self (nirvana) and there is the unconditioned self. To explain these phenomena, Buddhism would need to develop a doctrine of the soul. The apparent necessity of an unconditioned self, enduring over time, and being metaphysically simple, the apparent necessity of the soul, creates another recalcitrant fact for Buddhists.

Free will

The concept of free will creates another tension in Buddhist thought. In one of the most important suttas, responding to the question, “What is dependent co-arising?” the Buddha said,

From birth as a requisite condition comes aging and death. Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this regularity of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma, this this/that conditionality. The Tathagata directly awakens to that, breaks through to that. Directly awakening & breaking through to that, he declares it, teaches it, describes it, sets it forth. He reveals it, explains it, makes it plain, & says, ‘Look.’ From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.[21]

From the dependent co-arising of things come “dependently co-arisen phenomena.” These phenomena are the complex conjunction of several “lines” of dependent co-arising and result in events like birth, becoming, craving, and so on. [22] The Buddha summarized his teaching on causality by saying that “Where this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises. When this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases.”[23] The Buddha extended this kind of causality uniformly to explain “the evolution and dissolution of the world process…plant life… and [even] to human personality.”[24] However, the Buddha is said to be able to break this chain of causation so that he is free from the cycle of rebirth. This assumes that the Buddha is able to enact “top-down” causation, and that he is significantly free from prior causes.  In short, the Buddha possesses a form of libertarian free will.[25]

Once again, there is tension within Buddhism.  The Buddha has explained the universe in fully deterministic terms so that every effect has, at least theoretically, a detectable cause. The Buddha also wants to maintain that he and others like him are sufficiently free to break the chain of causation. However, he provides no means by which this is possible. Persons, in particular, are not a good candidate for the sort of top-down causation that is required as persons are themselves an aggregate of parts reacting according to the laws of karma and dependent-origination. The apparent existence of free will establishes another recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

 

 

Rationality

Buddhism faces a similar problem with the idea of rationality. The Buddha taught that the world was arranged in a rational way so that causes have predictable effects; he had a kind of process metaphysics. His teaching represents a “framework of thought that hinges on the ideas that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned, impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood.”[26] The Buddha consistently emphasizes that reality is a rational place in his teaching on Right View.  A disciple named Kaccayana Gotta asked the Buddha, “What is right view?” The Buddha said that

This world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and nonexistence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.[27]

Clearly, there is a twofold assumption here: first that reality is a fundamentally rational place and second that human persons are rational themselves so that they are able, at least potentially, to apprehend reality as it is. However, the Buddha does not provide reasons as to why reality and human persons would be arranged in just this way. Thomas Nagel suggests that the fact that humans have the ability to reason is only possible under two sorts of circumstances: either “we can reason in these ways because it is a consequence of a more primitive capacity of belief formation that had survival value when the human brain was evolving” or “the universe is intelligible to us because it and our minds were made for each other.”[28] In Chapter Two, it was shown that the sort of teleology presupposed Nagel’s second option is unlikely on the Buddhist view. Presumably, then, the Buddhist would have to accept some sort of naturalistic (naturalistic in the sense that it would arise out of the impersonal laws of dependent co-arising and karma) mechanism as the origin of rationality. But Nagel says that this answer is “laughably inadequate” and it would still not explain why reality itself is a rational place. In addition, Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalistic accounts of rationality are self-defeating; it seems likely that his argument would stand against Buddhist forms of naturalism.[29] Thus, once again, the Buddhist faces a recalcitrant fact.

Objective moral value and intrinsic human value

One final area of tension in Buddhism concerns the nature of morality and the intrinsic value of human persons. The ethics of Buddhism are “thought to be objectively true and in accordance with the nature of things.”[30] The dharma defines good and evil so that

Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.  Just this is the path — there is no other — to purify vision. Follow it, and that will be Mara’s [the demon of corruption and desire]  bewilderment.[31]

This objectivity of ethics in Buddhism led Velez de Cea to conclude that Buddhism has characteristics of moral realism because “certain external actions are unwholesome or wholesome.”[32] As moral realists, Buddhists believe that “moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right.”[33] A statement like “murder is wrong” is objectively either true or false.

Karma serves as the foundation of moral value: “For the Buddha, the moral order of the universe is contained first and foremost in the doctrines of kamma and rebirth.”[34] Given its lack of belief in a personal God, it seems fair, then, to characterize Buddhism as “atheistic moral realists” who “affirm that objective moral values and duties do exist and are not dependent on evolution or human opinion, but they also insist that they are not grounded in God. Indeed, moral values have no further foundation. They just exist.”[35] The trouble here is that it is difficult to understand how moral values could exist independent of persons. Craig and Moreland suggest that the idea may be incoherent and that “Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions.”[36]

If moral values can exist as an abstraction that only raises another question: how is it that an abstract moral foundation would have any relevance to human persons? Even if moral value could exist as an abstraction, it would not provide moral obligation. The only way persons could be morally obligated to a set of values is if those values were grounded in a person: “A duty is something that is owed… But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”[37]

Related to the existence of objective moral value is the intrinsic worth of human beings.

The value of the human person is often taken to be self-evident in Buddhism. For example, the

Dalai Lama begins Ethics for the New Millennium by stating that the proper goal of ethics is the “great quest for happiness,” a fact that “needs no justification and is validated by the simple fact that we naturally and correctly want this.”[38] According to the Dalia Lama, the natural and correct desires of human beings define what is valuable. Such a view seems to presuppose that human beings are, in fact, incredibly valuable. Keown points out that “compassion (karuṇā) is a virtue that is of importance in all schools of Buddhism” and that the Buddha serves as a primary example of this when he decided to delay returning to nirvana in order to teach others the dharma.[39]However, if persons only exist in the conventional sense, it is difficult to see how some ultimately impersonal, dependently arising, arrangement of parts could be said to possess intrinsic value. Further, given the questionable nature of the Buddhist moral universe, conventional persons may not be able to be moral agents in the first place. Thus the existence of objective moral values and duties, as well the intrinsic value of human beings, is also a recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

These facts, the nature of consciousness, the soul, rationality, free will, the existence of objective moral values and duties, and the intrinsic value of human persons, are features not easily explained within the Buddhist worldview. However, these truths are central and fundamental to the Christian worldview. Alvin Plantinga makes this very point:

What is it to be a person, what is it to be a human person, and how shall we think about personhood? …The first point to note is that on the Christian scheme of things, God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.[40]

God, as a unified, conscious, personal, rational, and ultimately valuable person, created man in his image. Man possesses these same traits, though to a different degree, because he is essentially made in the imago Dei. Given the Christian doctrines of God and man, it has been demonstrated that it can ably accommodate the necessary components of virtue: the narrative unity of a single human life and an explanation of teleology in man and the world.

Christ: The Ideal Man and Savior of Virtue

Aristotle argued that the good for man was to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the development and practice of the virtues. The driving question behind his ethic was, “What kind of person should I be?”  The ancient Israelites had an answer to this question: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).” Their “basic moral doctrine is the imitatio Dei, to be like God as much as is humanly possible.”[41] They were to do this by following God’s commandments. Primarily, the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were deontological. They were obligated to obey God in light of who God is and what he had done for them.  While the character of God provided the standard of right actions, it did not constitute the

good for man in the Aristotelian sense. However, with the incarnation of the Son of God, the ethics of the people of God shifted: “Christ is the Word made flesh, the perfect revelation of the Father, which means that, to the Christian, God is most perfectly revealed in a person, not a set of commandments or any written or spoken words, although Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.”[42] The absolute center of Christian ethics is the person and work of Jesus Christ.

One of the key texts on Christian ethics was written by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

Paul’s purpose in writing was to convey that God had begun “cosmic reconciliation” through his Son, Jesus Christ.[43] Given this wide scope, Ephesians is a good place to look for what is fundamental to Christian ethics. In the first three chapters, Paul explains the role that the individual, the church, and himself has within the plan of God for the world. In chapter two, Paul explains that the individual is “saved by grace, through faith.” Salvation is not given according to an individual’s actions, but because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Here Paul affirms that people have both intrinsic value and a teleogy. They are intrinsically valuable because they are “a product God’s making (αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα).” They possess a telos because they were made with a purpose: “created in Christ Jesus for good works (κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς). On the basis of these realities, Paul formulates his Christian ethic throughout the rest of the book. But, Ephesians 4:22-24 is especially relevant: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

In these verses, Paul teaches that the Christian life is a process of putting aside sinful habits and attitudes, replacing them with habits and attitudes that are reflective of who God is. This dynamic component also corresponds to Aristotle’s ethic.[44] Aristotle taught that the moral life did not consist merely in performing right actions, but also in becoming a certain kind of person through the development of character. Through this development, one can reach his telos.

The process of sanctification in Christianity is similar: “sanctification is a teleological concept. More specifically, sanctification involves the growth and transformation of oneself and one’s character toward a partially determinate picture of the human good or end.”[45] But what constitutes the telos of man in a Christian context? While not answering this question directly, Paul nevertheless provides the answer as he concludes his thought in 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When Paul provides an example of the end goal of this process of sanctification, he says that Christians should “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” According to Paul,

Christ is the moral exemplar, the ideal man, and Christians should model their lives on the life of

Christ. The Christian answer to the Aristotelian question, “What sort of person should I be?” is

“You should be like Christ.” The gospels provide the fullest picture of the mission and life of Jesus Christ. According to Hauerwas, the key ethical feature of the life of Jesus was that he “did not direct attention to himself, but through his teaching, healings, and miracles tried to indicate the nature and immediacy of God’s kingdom.”[46]

The Aristotelian virtues were realized largely within a political context. The virtues were those goods that enabled the ideal kind of society, and individuals within that society, to flourish. Both Aristotle and Christianity agree on the social nature of human beings and that “human wellbeing and flourishing occur in various relationships where life is shared and common goods are realized.”[47] Aristotle argued that only within relationships between people of a certain class, gender, and social status can one achieve eudaimonia. Virtue was attained through relationships with people like one’s self.  However, in the Christian context, the kinds of relationships that allow moral development are the kinds of relationships found within the kingdom of God – relationships between God, the individual, and the kingdom community.

While Aristotle required a group of like individuals for moral growth, Christian ethics emphasizes the difference between God and man.[48] Moral development occurs when a person exists in right relationships, not only with other human beings, but also with God himself (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus demonstrates how these relationships should be worked out when he “comes to initiate and make present the kingdom of God through healing of those possessed by demons, by calling disciples, telling parables, teaching the law, challenging the authorities of his day, and by being crucified at the hands of Roman and Jewish elites and raised from the grave.”[49] Jesus demonstrated that the ideal life is characterized by obedience and love for God as well as sacrificial love for other human beings, especially human beings that are considered unworthy of that sacrifice. This is why Jesus is the human paradigm of virtue; “he realized our full human potential. He resisted selfish temptations, identified with the weak and oppressed, made love his motivation and guide, responded in love to both friends and enemies, was obedient to God (even to death), and found self-fulfillment in relationship with God rather than in autonomy.”[50]

Reuschling makes an excellent point here:

Jesus himself is the exemplar of the virtuous life. It might be easy to attribute the virtuous life to Jesus based on his divinity. Yet the virtues that Jesus taught were demonstrated in the life he lived through his humanity and in his social and personal interactions. It’s Jesus’ humanity that gives us the window through which to view the quality and shape of a life that pleases God. Jesus did not just teach about the virtue of mercy. Jesus was merciful. Humility was not an abstract idea in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus himself was the model of humility. Jesus did not present theories of justice. Jesus was reconciling, securing justice and righteousness as marks of shalom.[51]

Conclusion

A Christian ethic of virtue, then, is well founded and superior to a Buddhist virtue ethic. The Christian worldview provides the necessary foundations, an account of teleology and the narrative unity of human life, while Buddhism does not. Christianity does more than merely allow for a theory of virtue ethics. It provides a rich, substantive, and attractive theory of virtue. The Christian account affirms what we all we want to affirm and know intuitively: that human life is immensely valuable and that we were meant for some incredible good. Jesus Christ provides the fully realized example of the human telos that affirms these intuitions and calls humans to the good for which they were originally intended. By contrast, the Buddha asks men to deny a substantive good and even the commonsense understanding of themselves in order to achieve the extinguishing of life:

Delight is the root of suffering and stress, that from coming-into-being there is birth, and that for what has come into being there is aging and death. Therefore, with the total ending, fading away, cessation, letting go, relinquishment of craving, the Tathagata has totally awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening, I tell you.[52]

In stark contrast, Jesus declares, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”[53] Jesus affirms what the Buddha denies, which is they very essentials of virtue. Therefore, I invite the Buddhist virtue ethicist, who correctly wants to affirm the goodness and value of human life, to identify with Christ, who, “in his full humanity and solidarity with us, became what we were created to be: the image of God.[54] The good life does not consist in the extinguishing of it, but in entering into the Kingdom of God, conformed to the image of his Son.

[1] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium and Commonplace-Book Designed for

the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland Press, 1907),  52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Gen 1:26

[5] 158  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 532.

[6] 159 This heading is adapted from Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure

of Naturalism

[7] 160  James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[8] James Porter Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: University of Nottingham, 2009), 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] 164  Strong, Systematic Theology, 252.

[12] 165  Typically, vinnana is translated as consciousness. However, this translation is not consistent with what is usually meant by consciousness, “the totality of conscious states of an individual.”

[13] 166 Peter Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 265.

[14] 167  Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse, trans. Thanissaro Bhikku,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.109.than.html

[15] Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy,” 266.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse

[18] Ibid.

[19] Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 120.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Paccaya Sutta: Requisite Conditions, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.020.than.html.

[22] Kalupahana, Buddhism as Philosophy, 29.

[23] 176  Ibid., 66.

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25] 178  Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 50.

[26] Noa Ronkin, “Theravada Metaphysics and Ontology,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14.

[27] 180  Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View), trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.015.than.html.

[28] 181  Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 75.

[29] See Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated,”

http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf

[30] Keown, A Short Introduction, 25.

[31] Maggavagga: The Path, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.than.html

[32] Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness,” 134.

[33] 186  Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[34] 187

Gowans, Buddhism, 29.

[35] 188  James Porter Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 492.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 83.

[38] The Dalia Lama, Ethics, 5.

[39] Keown, A Short Introduction, 30.

[40] Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers (1984): 6.

[41] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 316.

[42] Ibid., 316.

[43] D. A. Carson,  Ephesians: New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1994), 134.

[44] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 117.

[45] 198  Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University, 1996), 72.

[46] 199

Stanley Hauweras, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University, 2001), 117.

[47] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 116.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Hauerwas, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” 119,

[50] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

[51] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 123.

[52] 205 Mulapariyaya Sutta: The Root Sequence, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.001.than.html

[53] John 10:10

[54] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 3 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt

The Case for Buddhist Virtue

The first step in evaluating Buddhist ethics will be to understand the Buddhist worldview.

Ethical systems are always intimately tied to a worldview, but this is especially the case for Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching was in response to an ethical problem, the problem of suffering. Through much effort and insight, the Buddha was able to perceive reality as it really is; he saw the Four Marks of reality. The solution the Buddha offered was also ethical: the solution to suffering is to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the virtues of the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha often spoke in parables. In one famous parable, he explained that a man struck with a poison arrow does not demand that someone explain the origin of the arrow to him before it is removed by a physician with the antidote.[1] Here the Buddha is represented by the physician; humankind is represented by the warrior so unfortunately wounded. According to the Buddha, it is not so important why humanity is in this injured state, as the fact that the Buddha has provided a solution – a solution that is entirely ethical.  Early Buddhism was an orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. But, practice is always related to belief. There is a fundamental relationship between reality as it is (Dharma) and ethics. The Buddha himself explained this using another parable:

Just, oh Gotama, as one might wash hand with hand, or foot with foot, just even so, oh Gotama, is wisdom purified by uprightness, and uprightness is purified by wisdom. Where there is uprightness, wisdom is there, and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there.[2]

In this context, the Buddha is equating wisdom with insight into the true nature of existence (Dharma). Thus, according the Buddha, living a moral, upright life is necessarily tied to understanding the universe as it really is. That being the case, understanding Buddhist ontology will be the first step in understanding Buddhist ethics.

The Four Marks of Reality

The Buddha taught that there are four essential properties of reality. One early sutra records the Buddha’s teaching: “Whatever is phenomenal is impermanent. Whatever is phenomenal is suffering. Whatever is phenomenal is devoid of self. Nirvana is eternally tranquil.”[3] Reality is, at its most basic level, characterized by impermanence, suffering, the absence of self, and the existence of nirvana.

Impermanence

The Buddha taught that “all things are transitory [anitya].”[4] This is a straightforward point that is apparently confirmed by everyday experience: every material thing human beings encounter will, soon or later, pass out of existence. People will eventually die, so will flowers. Even mountains will eventually be brought down. Some of the early discourses draw out the implications of the Buddha’s idea, suggesting that everything that exists is changing moment by moment so that, as Heraclitus suggested, one can never step in to the same river twice.[5] Even

something as apparently static as a rock changes from moment to moment so that it is not identical to the rock that existed a moment before and will be different from the rock that will exist in the next moment. One way of understanding this point is to think of the Buddha as denying the existence of something like the Platonic forms, which are permanent and unchanging.

Another implication of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is that all conditioned things are ultimately contingent, the result of an endless series of other causes. Whatever arises, arises co-dependently with a multitude of other causes and will pass from existence sooner or later. One of the most famous illustrations of this concept is the Wheel Dharma which shows how each effect is dependent on a previous cause, which itself is dependent on another cause. Each effect also serves as the cause for the other effects.[6]

Suffering

The second characteristic of reality is that “All created beings live in sorrow [duhkha].”[7] Usually, duhkha is translated as suffering. However, as many authors have pointed out, suffering is not an adequate translation. When the Buddha said that all things suffer, he did not mean that existence in the world would always be uncomfortable; rather, he meant that phenomelogical existence would always be conditioned by states of ignorance, greed, and hatred.[8] Reality that is conditioned is called “samsara.”[9] Because people exist within samsara, they are never able to have their desire for what is ultimate or eternal satisfied. They will always be disappointed with the temporary, fleeting happiness derived from the phenomenal world and are destined to be continually reborn so that suffering will never cease.[10]

The ideal sort of existence is an existence that is completely unconditioned, free from the vicious cycle of dependent co-arising resulting from ignorance, greed, and hatred. People suffer “because we take too seriously the useful fiction of the person.”[11] When a person is ignorant of reality as it is characterized in the Four Marks, then suffering arises as a natural result. Life based on the assumption that the world is permanent and that selves exist causes clinging to the cycle of samsara and thus there is rebirth.[12] To cease suffering is to cease being conditioned by external factors; this is nirvana. The doctrine of dukha teaches, simply, that the kind of existence that human beings experience is not the ideal. [13]

 

No Self

The third and most controversial of the Four Marks is the doctrine of no-self. The Buddha taught that “all states are without self [anatman].”[14] In affirming this doctrine, the Buddha was denying that composite entities, like rocks, people, and animals, exist in the commonsense way they are normally understood to exist. Instead, objects and people only exist as collections of parts, aggregates of other, more basic elements.[15]  Persons, in particular, are composed of five

parts called the skandhas: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. As the Buddha taught, “The body is composed of the five skandhas, and produced from five elements. It is all empty and without soul.”[16] However, the Buddha emphasized the importance of composite objects as they relate to themselves and to other objects. This tension in Buddhist discourse has resulted in a distinction between the conventional and ultimate existence of an object. A Buddhist might refer to an individual as a single, distinct person that exists through time; however, he does this only as a convention of language and not in reference to the person’s ultimate, ontological condition.[17]

“The Discourse of the Not-Self Characteristic” from the Pali Canon provides an excellent record of the Buddha’s argument against a persisting self. Within this narrative, the Buddha answers questions from five of his disciples. The Buddha explained that each of the five skandhas cannot be identified as the self. Each of the skandhas are subject to change, inconstant, and give rise to suffering. At the end of the analysis of each skandha the Buddha asks, “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”[18] The disciples responded, “No, lord.” In response to this the Buddha gave his approval. The discourse concludes with an explanation of how to achieve freedom from the suffering arising through the skandhas:

Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’[19]

The argument the Buddha makes here has at least two presuppositions: there is not an I that stands behinds the skandhas–the skandhas are all a person is–and if there were an ultimate self, it would be permanent.[20] From those two assumptions, he proves that since the skandhas are impermanent and cannot be identified with the self, then there is no ultimate self. The perception that a person possesses a substantive identity that endures over time is incorrect.

Instead of “substance-selves,” the Buddha argues that people are “process-selves” that exist only momentarily and only “in a dependent sense.”[21] The “self” is dynamic so that a new self arises and departs each moment.[22] However, there is a causal connection between these moments, so there is a loose relationship between past, present, and future “selves” in a single collection of parts. This conclusion should be understood as a middle way between the sort of egoism taught in other Indian schools of thought and a complete denial of the existence of self in any sense.[23] Clearly, the Buddha wanted avoid the sort of clinging that results from egoism, but he also acknowledges that there is at least a conventional self even if there is no ultimate self. Sideritis sums up the matter: “The Buddhist view of non-self says that a person just consists in the occurrence of a complex causal series of impermanent, impersonal skandhas.[24] “The person who lives at 9 a.m. this morning is the result of the person who lived at 7 a.m.”[25]

 

Nirvana

The final mark of reality is nirvana and it the most difficult of the Four Marks. The term nirvana literally means “‘extinguishing,” and in its broadest sense nirvana is the extinction of samsara: “This is the peaceful, this is the sublime, that is, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion cessation, Nibbana.”[26] Nirvana is the cure for what ails humanity.[27] However, it is not merely the proper goal of all conditioned beings, it also the ultimate reality in Buddhism: “‘Nibbana is supreme,’ say the Buddhas.”[28] So in addition to being the foundation of reality, it is also the soteriological goal of Buddhism.

Buddhist doctrine teaches that the solution to suffering is the attainment of nirvana: “It signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion, the forces which power saṃsāra.”[29]As the soteriological goal, there are two elements: “the Nibbana-element with residue left and the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[30][31] The element with “residue left” refers to the kind of nirvana that was available to arahants[32] that still exist in their composite form. The Buddha described the arahant in this condition as a person who has

The holy life fulfilled, who has done what had to be done, laid down the burden, attained the goal, destroyed the fetters of being, completely released through final knowledge. However, his five sense faculties remain unimpaired, by which he still experiences what is agreeable and disagreeable and feels pleasure and pain. It is the extinction of attachment, hate, and delusion in him that is called the Nibbana-element with residue left.[33]

On the basis of this text and others, there are several conclusions that can be made about nirvana in this life. First, the Buddha takes it as self-evidently true that nirvana is the appropriate goal in light of impermanence, no self, and suffering. Second, it is clear that the arahant lives without ignorance concerning the way things really are. He lives in light of the fact that all is impermanent, there is no ultimate self, and that all conditioned states are full of suffering. He exists in contrast to the unenlightened who still suffer from greed, hatred, and ignorance. Whereas the unenlightened might despair over his home being destroyed in a flood, the arhant recognizes that the home destroyed is not his and that clinging to material possessions only results in more suffering. He is able to face such disaster with steadfastness and a kind of aloofness, not because he is apathetic, but because he views the disaster as if it happened to someone else far away. He feels concern that such destruction results in more suffering, but he is not overwhelmed and he does not experience it as a personal disaster.[34]

Some might object that this kind of existence would create a lack of empathy for others or even an unhealthy lack of concern for one’s self. The Buddha himself is said to have been living in a place called Atuma when “two people were killed, being struck by lightning, but the Buddha, who was seated under a tree close by, did not hear a sound.”[35] However, Buddhists argue apathy is not the result of attaining nirvana. Instead, it is the realization of what is actually important: the destruction of suffering which arises out of ignorance. The Buddha himself is the greatest example of a person who achieved nirvana in this life, and though he seemed aloof in the example of the lightning strike, he nevertheless reacted appropriately. Even though he was passive in this incident, there are other examples of the Buddha taking an active role in bringing about the cessation of suffering, the greatest example of course being his commitment to teach the dharma. So, Buddhists argue, while an arahant might have behavior that seems apathetic to the ignorant, his behavior is nevertheless justified in light of the dharma. They are illuminated so that they act appropriately in light of all the facts. The arhanant becomes liberated from selfishness and an unfounded concern for his own well-being to the freedom of experiencing “delight and enjoyment at whatever happens in the present moment.”[36] Only through this sort of liberation is one able to have peace.

The Buddha further taught that nirvana with remainder was not the ultimate goal of life. Nirvana without remainder, nirvana after this life, was the desired destination. The Buddha describes this element of nirvana: “Here a bhikkhu is an arahant. . . completely released through final knowledge. For him, here in this very life, all that is experienced, not being delighted in, will be extinguished. That, bhikkhus, is called the Nibbana-element with no residue left.”[37]

This aspect of nirvana is notoriously different to articulate. One of the reasons for this is that the concepts and definitions derived from conditioned reality do not apply to nirvana which is unconditioned. The Buddha illustrated this point in a conversation he had with a disciple named Vacchagotta. Vachhagotta asked whether an arahat would exist after death. In response, the Buddha asked Vachha whether, once a fire was extinguished, it made sense to ask, “to which direction did it go: to the east, the west, the north, or the south?”[38] The answer, of course, is that the question does not apply. In the same way, concluded the Buddha, the question of whether an arahat exists after death does not apply. In the Udāna, the Buddha gives his most complete teachings on nirvana.[39]At the end of his first teaching on the subject he says

There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.[40]

The point is that the question of existence beyond the conditioned does not fall into easy to understand categories. Nirvana is both not static and not dynamic The arahat does not exist but he also does not cease to exist.  This is not a contradiction of logic, as some naïve interpreters have understood it to be. Strictly speaking, the Buddha does not teach something like “A and not A.” Such a claim would violate the law of non-contradiction. What he actually suggests is “Not A and not B,” while offering distinctions between what is, apparently, not distinct.[41] The Buddha is expressing that nirvana is not comprehensible while trapped in samsara and conditioned by ignorance. To achieve nirvana is to transcend conventional ways of understanding the world; it is to understand the world as it really is, without conditions. The extinguishing that takes place in nirvana is not the destruction of an individual; the individual never really existed anyway.

Instead, it is the extinction of all conditioned states. The illusion of self is destroyed.

 

Karma

Intimately related to the Four Marks is the law of karma since “in the moral order, Dharma is manifest in the law of Karma.”[42]  Karma is the mechanism that allows present actions to have effects on future states of affairs.  In this way, karma is like the law of cause and effect.  Gowan suggests that karma “is an impersonal feature of the causal relationships in the world, and there is no prospect of deviation from the causal effects of kamma on the grounds of mercy.”[43] According to Keown, “Karma is not a system of rewards and punishments meted out by God, but a kind of natural law akin to law of gravity.”[44]  Karma is a moral arithmetic. Certain actions have certain effects.  Karmic actions are like a seed that will ripen into a specific fruit.[45] The Buddha explained it this way:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draw the carriage. All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.[46]

Thus, according the Buddha, karma has at least two important aspects. First, it is objective. It operates according to predefined, constant values. If one performs action X, it will have result Y. However, there is no set way that consequences are dispensed.[47] The consequences of a particular action may appear immediately, in the next life, or even several lives from now.[48] Second, while the law of karma cannot be changed to suit one’s needs, it can be used to bring about desired consequences. The Buddha makes this clear when he says that by performing actions with “pure thought,” one will, as a matter of fact, be rewarded with happiness. The Dali Lama states this rather explicitly: “To suppose that karma is some sort of independent energy which predestines the course of our lives is incorrect. Who creates karma? We ourselves. What we think, say, do, desire, and omit creates karma.”[49] Therefore, as Harvey states, “Good actions are thus encouraged because, through their goodness, they lead to pleasant, uplifting effects for the doer.”[50] Karma is the rudder that allows one to steer from suffering to liberation in nirvana.

Karma is typically understood as having a moral dimension. There are differing interpretations regarding just how karma is related to morality. There are proponents for understanding karma as a deontological moral law, although this view is not widely held.[51] There are others who suggest that karma is a means to a desired end, nirvana. Another option is to understand karma as rewarding actions that are good in themselves. Keown has proposed that at this point Buddhism faces its own version the Euthyphro dilemma:  Is an action good because it generates good karmic results or does an action produce good karmic results because it is good? If actions generate karma because they are good in themselves, like the virtues of Aristotle, then Buddhist ethics might be a kind of virtue ethic. If an action is good because it generates the desired consequence, then Buddhism is more similar to utilitarianism.[52] Which of these interpretations is most likely will be discussed later in this chapter.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Marks represent that which is most fundamental to Buddhism, the Dharma.[53] When the Buddha received enlightenment, it is these Four Marks that he perceived. From these marks, he assembled his Four Noble Truths: (1) suffering arises, (2) the origin of suffering is desire, (3) suffering ceases when desire ceases, and (4) the Eightfold Noble Path is the way to bring desire to an end.[54] Many have pointed out that the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are like a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription. In the first two truths, Buddha gives his diagnosis. In the third he provides the cure. In the fourth he gives a prescription.

The prescription suggested by the Buddha is the most critical part of his Four Noble Truths for ethics. One might rephrase the fourth truth like this: ethical practice is the way to reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path consists of eight criteria for reaching nirvana: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. One might further clarify the purpose of the Path as having the purpose of helping those who practice it to understand reality as it really is: “The principal cause that allows us to overcome our cyclic existence [samsara] and the basic misunderstanding that underlies it is familiarizing ourselves with the dependently existing nature of things.”105 The way to escape suffering is to act appropriately in light of the true nature of reality (impermanence, not-self, and [55]suffering) both practically and intellectually. This moves one closer to achieving nirvana.  According to the Buddha, it is the Eightfold Path that “opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind.”[56]

Therefore, the Fourth Noble Truth should be understood as defining the goal of Buddhism: to extinguish the conception of self, to remove the clinging to this world that causes samsara in order to achieve liberation. Karmic merit, accumulated through adherence to the Eightfold Noble Path, is instrumental in achieving the liberation, nirvana, that the Buddha saw as the solution.[57] Indeed, all of Buddhist thought and practice is designed to aid in the obtaining of nirvana. It is because nirvana is described as the goal that it is sometimes as seen the telos and meaning of Buddhism. As Keown argues, “Nirvana is the perfection of these virtues [listed in the Eightfold Path].”[58] However, others are more reserved in ascribing a telos to Buddhism. For example, Siderits argues that “there is no one whose life either has or lacks meaning. There is just the life.”[59]

This Fourth Noble Truth reveals how ethics is related to ontology in Buddhism. The way a person ought to live is determined by the certain desired outcomes; in this sense, Buddhist ethics is teleological. Ethical practice in Buddhism is at least partially motivated out of soteriological goals. Harvey points out that “from the perspective of the Four Noble Truths, ethics is not for its own sake, but is an essential ingredient on the path to the final goal.”[60] Keown agrees and says that “It is the purpose of the Eightfold Path to bring about the transition from saṃsāra to nirvana.”[61] The question that remains for a virtue view of Buddhism is whether Buddhism is merely teleological. Is the Eightfold Path merely a means to an end or is it good in itself? Is Buddhism a utilitarian or a virtue ethic?

Notes:

[1] See the Majjhima Nikaya.

[2] “Sonadanda Sutta,” in Dialogues of the Buddha , trans. T. W. Dīghanikāya, Rhys Davids, and Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids. Sacred books of the Buddhists (London: Luzac,1956.), 157.

[3] Ekottara-agama               

[4] Magandiya Sutta, in In the Buddha’s Words, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Somerville: Wisdom, 2005), 205.

[5] 56  David Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy  (University of Hawaii, 1984), 36.

[6] Tich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching (New York, Random House, 1999),  229.

[7] Magandiya Sutta, 206.

[8] 59  Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition (London, Routledge, 2000), 42.

[9] 60  Ibid., 51.

[10] Kalupahana, Buddhist,  37.

[11] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 76.

[12] 63  H. Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethic: Essence of Buddhism (New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 21.

[13] 64  Some, like Tich Naht Hahn , have suggested that second mark of existence is nirvana. In a sense, nirvana

and duhkha are, as Hahn suggests, two sides of the same coin. Nirvana is the state of being without duhkha and dukha is existence in anything but nirvana.

[14] Magandiya Sutta ,206.

[15] 66  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 11.

[16] “The Skandhas and the Chain of Causation,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 89.

[17] Siderits, Philosophy, 56.

[18] 69  Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.than.html

[19] Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.

[20] Siderits, Buddhism,  39.

[21] 72  Christopher W Gowans, Philosophy of the Buddha. (London: Routledge, 2003), 23.

[22] 73  Winston L King,. In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics (LaSalle: Open Court, 1964), 15.

[23] 74  Kalupahana, Buddhism, 39.

[24] 75  Siderits, Buddhism, 69.

[25] 76  Gunapala Dharmasiri, Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics (Antioch: Golden Leaves, 1989), 13.

[26] Bodhi Ñāṇamoli, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima NikAya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995), 540.

[27] Gowans, Philosophy, 135.

[28] 79

Buddhavagga: The Buddha, trans. Acharya Buddharakkhita

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.14.budd.html

[29] 80 Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 49.

[30] 81  The Nibbana Element, trans. John D. Ireland, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.2.042-

[31] x.irel.html#iti-043

[32] An arahant is a person who has achieved nirvana.

[33] The Nibbana Element.

[34] Gowans, Philosophy,  144.

[35] Kalupahana , Buddhism, 76.

[36] Gowans, Philosophy, 142.

[37] The Nibbana Element, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.2.042-049x.irel.html#iti-043

[38] The Middle Length Discourses, 593.

[39] Gowans, Philopshy,148.

[40] Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.01.irel.html.

[41] Although, the Buddha is not really offering distinctions. He is pointing to the fact that distinctions made on the basis of conventional reality are not valid. In reality, the categories of “existence” and “non-existence” just do not apply.

[42] Damien Keown, Buddhist Ethics A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) Kindle Edition, location 294.

[43] 93 Gowans, Philosophy, 105.

[44] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 308-19.

[45] Dale Stuart Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 53.

[46] “Wisdom of the Buddha,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 98.

[47] Lynken Ghose, “Karma and the Possibility of Rebirth: An Ethical Analysis of the Doctrine of Karma in Buddhism,” Journal of Religious Ethics 35, no. 2 (2007): 286.

[48] Dharmasiri, Fundamentals, 37.

[49] Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 186.

[50] 100 Harvey, Introduction, 28.

[51] 101  Charles Goodman, Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 23.

[52] Keown, A Very Short Introduction, locations 652-63.

[53] 103  Williams and Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 7.

[54] 104 Ibid., 41-46.

[55] Sonam Rinchen, Ruth Sonam, Nāgārjuna, and Tsoṅ-kha-pa Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising : An Oral Teaching (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 27.

[56] “The Sermon on the Four Noble Truths,” in Anthology of Asian Scriptures, ed. Robert E. Van Voorst (Belmont: Wadsworth), 88.

[57] 107 Tribe, Buddhist Thought, 47.

[58] Keown, Nature, 107.

[59] 109  Siderits, Philosophy, 77.

[60] Harvey, Introduction, 41.

[61] Keown, Nature, 107.

 

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 2 of 5)

By Jonathan Pruitt

Part 1

The Foundations of Virtue

Given the goals of this thesis, the first and most important task is to establish just what virtue ethics is and what it entails. A survey of the literature will show that the field of virtue ethics is both broad and deep. Its history extends back to the Homeric epics and into current, cutting-edge moral philosophy. There is also a wide variety of virtue ethics. There are Aristotelian, feminist, and “agent-based” virtue ethics, among many others.[1] Each of these accounts of virtue has slightly different and often apparently contradictory conceptions of what virtue is. So while the amount of information about virtue ethics is not lacking, the vast number of voices in the field does create another problem: discovering what is universally true, if anything, about virtue ethics.

Contemporary virtue ethicists are quick to give broad definitions of virtue ethics. For example, Hursthouse says that

Virtue ethics has been characterized in a number of ways. It is described (1) as an ethics which is ‘agent-centered’ rather than ‘act-centered’; (2) as concerned with Being rather than Doing; (3) as addressing itself to the question, ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than to the question, ‘What sorts of action should I do?’; (4) as taking certain areteic concepts (good, excellence, virtue) as basic rather than deontic ones (right, duty, obligation); (5) as rejecting the idea that ethics is codifiable in rules or principles that can provide specific action guidance.[2]

Schneewind adds that virtue ethics is a theory of ethics that “requires an acceptable view of the human good which will enable us to show how morality can be explicated in terms of character traits that are indispensable or useful for the attainment of that good.”[3] Unfortunately, these definitions are too broad for the purpose of this thesis. The terms they use are largely, often intentionally, undefined. Schneewind’s definition only raises the question, “Acceptable to whom and under what criteria?” while Hursthouse’s definitions highlight just how important the construal of “agent” or personhood (and the ideas presupposed by the concepts) will be to a virtue ethic. While these broad definitions help to give the contours of virtue ethics, in order to test both Buddhism and Christianity for their compatibility to a virtue view, what is essential to virtue must first be drawn out. In order to get a first approximation of the core of virtue ethics, it makes sense to start with Aristotle, who was one of the first virtue ethicists and still widely considered “its finest exponent.”[4]

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethic

Examining Aristotle’s writing on the virtues, and in particular the Nichomachean Ethics

(NE), it is clear that he had at least three key concepts in his ethic: virtue (ἀρετή), moral wisdom (φρόνησις), and eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία).[5]  Aristotle begins the NE with a discussion of teleology. He argues that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[6] He takes this same line of reasoning and applies it to man, saying that just as all things aim at some good, so does the life of man. The aim of man’s life is to achieve and maintain eudaimonia. Thus the telos of man is eudaimonia. 

Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” which is unfortunate because that only confuses his meaning. In contemporary culture “happiness” is something subjective, totally dependent on the state of mind a person at a given time. However, Aristotle’s eudaimonia, is not a subjective state, but an objective one with clearly defined criteria.  To possess eudaimonia is to be a certain kind of person and living within a certain kind of society.[7] A person who possesses eudaimonia is a person who embodies the virtues “throughout an entire lifetime.[8]”  The telos of man for Aristotle was not an end of man, in the sense that the life of man ended when he achieved eudaimonia. Instead, it was the goal and purpose (the aim) of man. Eudaimonia is an active and continuous state where man continues his life, but fulfilling his telos. Further, for the state of eudaimonia to be complete, this person must live within a society of people who are also practicing the virtues and who are also moving toward their telos.

Virtue, for Aristotle, is bound up in his teleology. He views “the acquisition and exercise of the virtues as means to an end,” but, the virtues are not merely a means.[9] Eudaimonia itself is a continuation and perfection of the virtues so that when one practices a virtue, he is not only brining about a desired end, but also participating in the good in a more immediate sense. If Aristotle is right and there is some “chief good” at which all things aim, then he must also be right that an act is good in itself whenever it corresponds to that chief good. For example, when a solider practices the virtue of courage, his action corresponds to the chief good so that in the moment he is courageous, he participates in the good and also helps to bring about a state of eudaimonia for himself and the society he lives in. In this way, the virtues are both a means to an end and good in themselves.

Another implication of the relationship of eudaimonia and virtue in Aristotle’s system is that in order for a person to achieve eudaimonia, he must actually possess the virtues as states of his character, “The virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.”[10] This means that he must have a certain kind of character, a character that has been transformed by the practice of the virtues to the point that he is spontaneously generous or courageous.

The final element of Aristotle’s virtue ethic is moral wisdom (φρόνησις). Moral wisdom has two aspects: “the rational choice (prohairesis) on which a person acts, and the process of

deliberation or reflection by which a rational choice is formed.” [11] Essentially, moral wisdom is the ability to choose the best action in light of the circumstances by drawing on one’s experience. For example, a person might have the virtue of generosity, but lack moral wisdom. Such a person might give his fortune away to an unworthy cause, like a fraudulent TV preacher for example. If a person possesses both moral wisdom and generosity, then he will take into account that TV preachers are often frauds, and even though they have apparently good intentions it would be best to give his money to some other cause that has a proven record of integrity and effectiveness. Hutchinson provides an excellent summary here: “All in all, practical wisdom is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”[12]

Given this brief sketch, it is clear that there are already certain assumptions lurking in the background of Aristotle’s thought. For example, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia presupposes that there is, in fact, a chief good for man, that man has a particular function or purpose. Man has a certain function (ergon) that he is meant, in some sense, to fulfill and this function is morally good so that it grounds the virtues. How eudaimonia itself is good is an important question and part of the solution for Aristotle seems to be that “the supremely happy life is the life which most closely imitates God’s life.”[13]  Aristotle’s conception of the virtues further presupposes a certain view of man, namely that individuals exist as unified persons over at least the period of their lifetime. In fact, Aristotle thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [14] Moral wisdom also presupposes that humans are certain kinds of moral agents. It supposes, for example, that a person has access to past experiences in order to make the best decisions.  In short, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deeply imbedded within his own worldview.

A Universal Account of Virtue

Given all the presuppositions mentioned here, as well as others that are not (like

Aristotle’s metaphysical biology) it is clear that his account of virtue will not translate easily into other cultures or worldviews. On the surface, Aristotelian virtue ethics and Buddhism appear to be irreconcilable because Buddhism strongly denies the commonsense understanding of a self, something critical to Aristotle’s system.  But it is not fair to discount Buddhist virtue ethics at this point because there might be ways of understanding virtue ethics that are compatible with Buddhism. Besides, many modern accounts of virtue ethics try to avoid making the kinds of assumptions Aristotle does. Slote, for example, specifically states that he wants a virtue ethic distinct from Aristotle’s, an ethic that is totally agent-based and avoids some of the Aristotelian ontology.[15] Such a move brings up an important question: is a virtue ethic only possible within an Aristotelian framework? Clearly, philosophers have answered this question negatively, but if the Aristotelian framework is not necessary to virtue ethics then the next step is to discover just what is necessary. What is needed is to separate virtue ethics, as much as it possible, from the components that are only cultural artifacts or only contingent to virtue and find out what is necessary for a successful account of virtue. In order to test different worldviews for their compatibility with virtue ethics, there must first be a way to understand virtue ethics that can be more universally applied.

Fortunately, MacIntyre tackles this precise problem in After Virtue. He examines a wide array of different accounts of virtue ethics, from those of Homer to Benjamin Franklin. Each of these accounts is just as embedded within a culture or worldview as Aristotle’s. MacIntyre points out that at first glance each account of the virtues is contradictory to the next. After his initial survey of these many systems, he asks, “Are we or are we not able to disentangle from these rival and various claims a unitary core concept of the virtues of which we can give a more compelling account than another of the other accounts so far?”[16] MacIntyre responds: “I am going to argue that we can in fact discover such a core concept.”[17]

MacIntyre suggests that in order to understand the virtue ethic of a particular culture or worldview, it must be examined against three background factors: the concept of a practice, the concept of the narrative order of a human life, and the concept of a moral tradition.[18] Each of these factors is related to and dependent upon the previous factor so that MacIntyre’s conception of a “practice” becomes foundational to his account of virtue. Of course, by “practice” MacIntyre means something largely different than its common meaning:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realised in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. [19]

Key to understanding this definition is the concept of “internal goods.” MacIntyre uses the practice of chess playing as an example. Goods external to playing chess might be a monetary reward earned in a tournament or the notoriety gained from being an exceptionally good chess player. These goods are contingently related to playing chess and could be achieved by other means. Goods internal to chess are “the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity.”[20] These are the sorts of goods that can only be achieved by playing the game of chess or some other game that is sufficiently similar. Further, these goods are both utilitarian and teleological. They are utilitarian in the sense that possessing these goods will help one to excel at the practice. They are teleological in the sense that possessing these goods constitutes what it means to be excellent at chess. In this way, goods internal to a practice both help to achieve the aims of that practice and constitute excellence within the practice.

The other key component of MacIntyre’s definition of a practice is his contention that a practice must be a “socially established cooperative human activity.”  By this, MacIntyre means that to enter into a practice is to enter into a community with established rules and standards of excellence.[21] For example, a painter will be subject to the standards and rules of excellence within the artistic community. Being an excellent painter will mean meeting the expectations and standards of the artistic community.

The second background issue for MacIntyre is the narrative order of a human life. MacIntyre suggests that it is only when a particular action is understood within the context of a single, unified human life that the action becomes intelligible. An agent’s actions are understood only when the reasons for his actions are understood.[22] Simply describing an agent’s actions is not sufficient for understanding her behavior.  MacIntyre argues that “behavior is only characterized adequately when we know what the longer and longest-term intentions invoked are and how the shorter-term intensions are related to the longer.”[23] An accountant entering information into a spreadsheet may, in the short term, only be trying to finish his current project. In the longer term, he may be trying to get a promotion. In the longest term, he is trying to make sure his family is well provided for. The only way to make sense of his action is to examine it within the narrative order of his life. Further, the narrative of human life has an ideal “genre:” the quest. According to MacIntyre, the good for man, the teleology, is to live his life as quest for the good.

The last piece of background information MacIntyre says is needed is an account of a moral tradition. Unless there is a kind of telos that “transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.”[24]In a sense, what MacInytre means by a moral tradition is simply an extension of what he means by the narrative order of a single human life. A moral tradition is the context within which the good for a human life must be understood: “Within a tradition, the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. Hence the individual’s search for his or her good is generally and characteristically conducted within a context defined by those traditions of which the individual’s life is a part.”[25] What this suggests is that, as the individual has a telos, so does society itself. It is in society’s moving towards its telos through traditions that the good for man is to be found.  It is only within a society aimed at its telos that “the virtues matter.”[26]

With these background features explained, MacIntyre’s preliminary definition of virtue makes sense: “A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods.”[27] However, he argues that such a definition introduces too much arbitrariness and that the foundation of virtue must extend beyond mere practices. A full definition of virtue must account for all three of the background factors: an account of practice, the narrative unity of a human life, and an account of moral tradition. When such factors are considered, MacIntyre’s definition of virtue becomes much more nuanced. A virtue is more than a human possession enabling one to achieve goods internal to practice; virtue is the both the means and the end to the good for man and for society as a whole.  Further, when

one practices the virtues, he is participating in not only the narrative of his own life, but the narrative of his tradition. By practicing the virtues, one both participates in the telos for himself and society as a whole; he helps to bring about the good.

The goal so far has been to arrive at conception of virtue ethics that goes beyond the broad, vaguer definitions of virtue ethics.  The account that MacIntyre offers is unique in that it provides a substantive way of understanding virtue ethics that is not bound to a particular culture or worldview. Such an account is exactly what is needed to allow for fair analysis between Buddhist and Christian conceptions of virtue. However, before moving into that analysis, what this account presupposes in terms of a worldview ought to be drawn out. There are at least two presuppositions underlying this account of virtue: a particular view of man and a particular view of the world.

Virtue ethics is an agent centered ethic. The result is that, as Smith points out, “in any account of virtue ethics, the self must play a prominent role.”[28] Further, any account of virtue ethics will require a certain kind of self, a conception of self that has several minimum criteria. MacIntyre’s account requires that the self must be able to “learn, acquire knowledge, be rational or irrational, understand concepts… and even co-author their own narratives.”[29] If there is a self with these abilities, that self must further be able to “maintain their personal identity through time and change, since they, and not someone else are the subjects of their own ongoing narratives.”[30] This unity of a single human life is critically important to a theory of virtue ethics. MacIntyre argues that apart from this unity, the actions of a moral agent become utterly meaningless.

In MacIntyre’s account, the narrative unity of a person’s life allows the agent to ask,

“How ought my story to turn out?”[31] Essentially, this is the same question Aristotle asked, “What is the good for man?” [32] only framed slightly differently. The unity of a human life allows for the actions within that life to have significance and to be directed to a certain teleological end. On this point, he remains compatible with Aristotle. Aristotle strongly emphasized that the good for man, eudaimonia, was something that must persist throughout an entire lifetime.[33] Aristotle further thought that “a man who made no effort to make a unity of his life, being free, was very foolish.” [34] Both MacIntyre and Aristotle believe that for virtue ethics to succeed, a human life must be understood as a whole and aimed at particular end. This confirms that a substantive account of self will be required of any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic.

The telos for man also presupposes that man has certain ontological features. In particular, it presupposes that he actually does have a particular function or purpose. Man is meant for something. While Aristotle argues that the telos or purpose is eudaimonia, MacIntyre suggests the good for man is to participate in a certain kind of quest, a quest for the good.  He argues that “the good life for man is spent in seeking the good life for man.”[35] This is not in contradiction to Aristotle, who saw eudaimonia as a state of affairs, that even when attained must be continually pursued. Both MacIntyre and Aristotle agree that the good for man is not a static end of virtue, but the continuation and perfection of virtue.  The significance here is that man’s telos does not constitute a fundamental change in the nature of man, but rather the ideal realization of it. Therefore, the telos of man in any account of virtue should preserve man as he essentially is, only in a perfected or ideal state.[36] Such a conclusion is in line with the criteria Devettere gave for the end of man:

We can note that virtue ethicists emphasize three major defining characteristics of happiness: (1) happiness in life is mostly, perhaps totally, a result of our choices, (2) happiness thus requires deliberation and reasoning so we can make good choices, and (3) happiness also requires good character because only people of good character are able to reason well and make good choices.[37]

If moral value is essential to human nature, the telos ought to be a context where man, as essentially man, continues and perfects his moral nature so that the virtues are practiced in their most excellent form once telos is attained.  Further, this kind of good for man that is presupposed by MacIntyre and Aristotle must possess intrinsic value so that it is worth pursuing for its own sake; it must serve as a kind of ground for moral value. It must also exist in an objective way, that is, it cannot be something subjective–it must actually exist. Thus any worldview that wants to accommodate a virtue ethic must have the sort of metaphysics that allow for concepts like objectivity, intrinsic goodness, and ultimate value.

Another way that the unity of a human life is important is in how it incorporates Aristotle’s concept of phronesis or moral wisdom.  For Aristotle, moral wisdom “is an appreciation of what is good and bad for us at the highest level, together with a correct apprehension of the facts of experience, together with the skill to make the correct inferences about how to apply our general moral knowledge to our particular situation.”48 With his concept of narrative unity, MacIntyre introduces the same idea. A person should act in light of the [38]narrative of her life. Doing so, a person will take into account her past experiences (her narrative past) as well as the possible future outcomes (her narrative future).

Even the concept of character, a key element in virtue ethics, presupposes the unity of a human life. The virtues are understood as human possessions or qualities that modify or develop one’s character towards it telos.[39] The only way it makes sense to talk about “development of character” is if the character of an individual is identical (in the strict, logical sense) to the character possessed in the past and will be identical in the future. If there is no unity of human life, then it remains to be seen how the virtues can be intelligibly practiced.

In addition to the unity of a human life, MacIntyre’s account further presupposes a certain kind of a world: a world that contains multiple, distinct selves that relate to each other in meaningful ways and that itself possesses a telos. MacIntyre constructs his account of virtue ethics in three stages. The first stage concerns the role of activities within the life of a person. The second stage concerns the relationship of a person’s actions within the whole of that person’s life. The final stage explains the relationship between a person’s life and a historical community.[40] It is only when the individual human life is placed within the larger context of a society that a human life becomes intelligible.  MacIntyre further argues that the virtues themselves will depend on society: “One of the features of the concept of a virtue which has emerged with some clarity from the argument so far is that it always requires for its application the acceptance of some prior account of certain features of social and moral life in terms of which it has to be defined and explained.”[41]

In light of all of this, there are at least two sorts of criteria for any possible account of virtue ethics. First, the account itself ought to conform to the expression of virtue that MacIntyre has developed. That is, it should be able to be expressed in terms of practices, narratives, and moral tradition. If it cannot be expressed in these terms, then there ought to a reason why other accounts of virtue, whether Aristotle’s, Homer’s, or Eyre’s, fit MacIntyre’s account but not this particular account. Second, the worldview assumed in the account should be able to accommodate the presuppositions about man and the world he inhabits. If the account of virtue fails either of these criteria, it is not an adequate account of virtue.

 

 Notes:

[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[2] 12  Rosalind Husrthouse, On Virtue Ethics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 26.

[3] 13  J.B, Schneewind, “Virtue, Narrative, and Community: MacIntyre and Morality” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 11,  653.

[4] Peter Simpson, “Contemporary Virtue Ethics and Aristotle,” in Virtue Ethics: A Critical Reader, ed. Daniel Statman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997),  245.

[5] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 27.

[6] Book I, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross.

[7] Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics, 9.

[8] D.S. Hutchinson, “Ethics,” in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 203.

[9] Alasdair MacIntryre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007) 147.

[10] Book II, Nichomachean Ethics

[11] 21  Sarah Broadie Ethics with Aristotle (Oxford University Press, New York, 1991), 179.

[12] 22  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[13] Howard Curzer, “The Supremely Happy Life in Aristotle’s Ethics,” Aperion 24 (1991), 51.

[14] Stephen Clark, Aristotle’s Man: Speculations upon Aristotelian Anthropology (Toronto: Clarendon, 1983),  26.

[15] Michael Slote, “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 20 (1995): 20.

[16] 26  Macintyre, After Virtue, 149.

[17] 27  Ibid.

[18] 28  Ibid., 178.

[19] Ibid., 187.

[20] Ibid., 179.

[21] Ibid., 180.

[22] 32  Schneedwind, “Virtue,” 656.

[23] MacIntyre, After Virtue,  192-3.

[24] Ibid., 203.

[25] 35  Ibid., 222.

[26] 36  Greg Pence, “Virtue Theory,” in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 251.

[27] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 221.

[28] R. Scott Smith, Virtue Ethics and  Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003),  145. 

[29] Smith, Virtue, 148.

[30] 40  Ibid., 148.

[31] Shneedwind, “Virtue,” 657.

[32] 42  Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[33] 43  Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 203.

[34] 44  Clark, Aristotle,  26.

[35] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 219.

[36] There could be an objection here that man, in his current state, finds himself in a state where he is estranged from who he essentially is. However, it is rather inelegant to suggest that at any point man could be separated from what is essential to man. To make such a separation would be the end of man.

[37] Raymond Devettere, Introduction to Virtue Ethics: Insights of the Ancient Greeks (Washington, Georgetown University, 2002) 53.

[38] Hutchinson, “Ethics,” 207.

[39] Hursthouse, “Virtue,” par 3.

[40] Schneewind, “Virtue,” 655.

[41] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 179.

Mailbag: Why Do You Think Christianity is True?

Letter:

Hello professor, I was just wanting to reach out to you and ask you for some guidance. I recently came across a post of the computer that stated this. Do you identife with a specific religion? If you do, ask yourself these questions: 1. Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?   2. Why didn’t your God choose a global revelation instead of a culture specific one? 3. Why were you born in the “right religion”? Now I am kind of stumped by these questions. Do you think, if you have time, could you give me your thoughts on them? Thanks, Billy

Response by Jonathan Pruitt 

Hi Billy,

Thanks for writing to us at Moral Apologetics! Dr. Baggett has just left on vacation and so I’ll be responding to your letter. Let’s take these one at a time. The first question is “Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?” The question as stated is imprecise, but I think the heart of the question is something like this: “As a Christian, what do you say about the fact that there are religions older than yours?” That’s a fair question and one we can offer several responses to.

First, we might ask what the problem is supposed to be. If there are religions older than Christianity, does that suggest Christianity is not true? I am not sure how an argument for that position might go. The age of the religion has little to do with the likelihood of it being true; what’s more important is the sort of evidence that gives credibility to the claims of the religion. Say, for example, that tomorrow all the stars moved in space so that from earth they spelled out, “Scientology is true.” That would make Scientology much more plausible than, say, Baal worship, even though the Baal religions are much older.

Second, if what the Bible teaches about God’s interactions with mankind is true, then the Christian God has been revealing himself to mankind since the beginning. Worship of the Christian God was the original religion, according to the Bible.  So the first question presumes a certain view of the development of religion and of world history in general that Christians deny. Worship of the Christian God is as old as mankind itself and so, in a sense, Christianity is the oldest religion.

The second question concerns the kind of revelation that the Christian God provides. The questioner seems to think that if a religion were true, then it ought to have “global revelation” pointing to its truth. I take it that this is a critique of the resurrection of Jesus, which happened at a specific time and place in history. This sort of revelation is what I suspect the questioner means by “local” revelation—sometimes this goes by the name “the scandal of particularity.”

In response, I will first say that I share the questioner’s concern. If God exists and he is good, then we should expect that he provides everyone with adequate reasons for believing in him. Of course, what the skeptic thinks are adequate reasons and what actually are adequate reasons are not always the same. As Paul Moser points out, we are often presumptuous when considering the evidence for God. We ask, “What evidence would satisfy me?” And we expect God to personally tailor the evidence to fit our expectations. We do not usually ask, “If God exists, how would he like me to know him?”

That said, I think God has given universally accessible reasons to believe in him. Let me give some examples. First, even if we take the resurrection which is supposed to be an example of a “local” revelation, the fact of the matter is that most people in the world are aware of the Christian claim to the resurrection of Jesus. Most people in the Western world even have the resources to conduct serious investigation into the veracity of these claims. So even though the resurrection is a localized event, it is open to investigation by a very large number of people.

The Bible also teaches that God does reveal himself universally. For example, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, God’s righteousness, and the coming judgment (John 16:8). Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). In his speech in Athens, Paul proclaims,

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28).

So the Bible clearly teaches that God reveals himself on a global scale and that he specifically arranged the world so that people would have the best chance at knowing him. The Bible teaches that God is intimately concerned with the salvation of the whole world and that he has actually revealed himself to every human being.

We also have highly intuitive theistic arguments which are universally accessible. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver. If there is a universe, there must be a cause to the universe. If the universe appears intelligently designed, then likely there is a designer. Those are just very brief and rough summaries of only three of the theistic arguments, but the point is that they rely on common sense and basic empirical observations; they are open to investigation by any human person. In that way, they provide a kind of universal (or global) revelation of God.

The third and final question is “How do you know you were born in the right religion?” Clearly, if a person inherits their beliefs from their parents, this does not make them true. But the fact that I learned Christianity from my parents does not make it not true, either. If the questioner intends to say that, he would be committing the genetic fallacy. But if we answer the question as asked, we can provide two kinds of responses. The first answer is that I know that Christianity is true on the basis of my encounters with the Christian God. The Holy Spirit has provided the conviction of the truth of the gospel to me. And I have direct awareness and relationship with the Jesus of the Bible. These provide good reasons for me to believe in Jesus. But I also know that Christianity is true on the basis of critical thinking and the use of evidence. I mentioned some of the theistic arguments earlier, but there are also good arguments that Christianity in particular is true. There are philosophical arguments, like the one provided by Moral Apologetics contributor Brian Scalise that says a Trinitarian (and therefore Christian) conception of God makes the most rational sense. And there are empirical and historical arguments, like the minimal facts case for the resurrection employed by scholars like Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. So I know that I was born in the right religion because I have encountered the living Jesus myself and because careful and fair analysis of the evidence leads me to that conclusion.

In sum, it seems that the questioner is concerned about why we should think Christianity is true given the many religions in the world. The bottom line is that Christianity is better evidenced and more plausible than any other worldview.

 

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 20: “Does Religion Cause Violence?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

With Chapter 20, F&C enter the fourth part of their book, which both expands the discussion of the OT God and explores a number of related questions concerning theism and violence.  In this chapter they take on the general question of the relationship of religion to violence.  A number of writers suggest that there is an inherent relationship between religion and violence such that religion will inevitably lead to violent acts.  Charles Kimball declares in his book When Religion Becomes Evil that “religion has caused more violence than any other ‘institutional force in human history’” (259).  Mark Jurgensmeyer states that “religion is violent by its very nature because it tends to ‘absolutize and to project images of cosmic war’” (259). In her book, The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz claims it is not just religion, but monotheistic religion in particular, that leaves violence in its wake. Belief in one God is an exclusivistic claim creating outsiders who “will be ostracized, abhorred, even obliterated because they fail to acknowledge ‘the one true God’. Monotheism inevitably leads to an us-versus-them mind-set” (259-260). Instead of religion, these authors endorse the employment of the “enlightenment values” of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.  These authors suggest that abandoning one’s religious commitments and adopting enlightenment values will significantly reduce the amount of violence in the world.  F&C spend this chapter examining and refuting these charges against religion.

They begin their exploration by examining the meaning of the concepts of “religion” and “enlightenment values.”  One irony they recognize at the outset is that “the pro-enlightenment advocates and/or ‘religion’ attackers are not even clear on what ‘religion’ is” (260).  Because there is little widespread commonality between traditional religions, F&C suggest “we would be wise to think in terms of an all-encompassing ‘worldview’ or ‘philosophy of life’ instead of the misused and abused term ‘religion’” (261). Such a worldview would be marked by three characteristics: comprehensiveness, incapable of abandonment (as it shapes the identity of the self), and of central importance.  Religions certainly fall into this concept but so do many secular worldviews such as humanism, post-modernism, and Marxism.  A second irony noted by F&C is that “political visions – even allegedly secular ones – often take on strongly ‘religious’ overtones” (262). Political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jung II have been practically deified by many of their followers. “The line between the religious and the secular is quite clearly irrelevant when it comes to the phenomena of exalting dictators” (262). A final irony is that “secular ideologies can readily compete with the most fanatical and dangerous elements found within traditional religion” (262). F&C raise the question, “Why single out religion?”  Numerous examples can be drawn from political and secular instances of violence and war and they list several examples of totalitarian societies, many of which had completely abandoned religion.

F&C apply these three ironies in their examination of the “religious wars” of 16th and 17th century Europe and ask the question, did the enlightenment make a difference?  To begin with, they point out that, with the onset of the enlightenment, the political power of the church was replaced by that of the state.  The 20th century shows that violence and tyranny can be just as, if not more, prevalent in the name of nationalism and atheism (witness the holocaust, and the atrocities of Stalin and Pol Pot, just to name a few).  Second, “the ‘religious wars’ were in fact not predictably divided along doctrinal lines, but rather political ones” (264). F&C list a number of examples of the so-called religious wars of the 16th century. Third, the supposed “enlightenment values” that are often touted by today’s critics of religion were not nearly as enlightened as they are often promoted to be.  For example, many “enlightened” thinkers supported slavery while it was mostly the Christian church that opposed it.  David Hume referred to those who believe in miracles as “ignorant and barbarous” peoples – an obvious reference to non-white religious people.  Third, rather than opposing violence in general, many of these modern enlightened thinkers (including the new atheists) advocate violence against traditional religionists. Sam Harris advocates a nuclear strike against Islamic fundamentalists while Christopher Hitchens advocate beating and killing the “enemies of civilization” (religious persons).

F&C go on to point out that not all religions are the same and that they should not be lumped together and treated as if they are.  There are religions that have done much good for society and some that have been harmful.  They argue that Christianity falls into the former group on the basis of three lines of evidence.  First, many scholars, including some atheists, have documented the benefits that Christianity has brought into the world.  They quote at length from Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and the Time magazine correspondent David Aikman, among others, who praise many of the humanitarian accomplishments done in the name of the Christian faith.  Progress in the west has been attributed to the Protestant work ethic by a number of scholars.  Second, Christian faith has not only elevated the west, but has made a significant impact in non-western nations as well.  Robert Woodberry performed a study of the impact of western missionaries and shows how they were responsible for “the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, volunteer organizations, most major colonial reforms . . . and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (268-269). Third, F&C point out that any attempt to attribute these gains to other sources, such as Greek ideals or the enlightenment, is inadequate.

In the final sections of this chapter, F&C take on the particular criticism by Regina Schwartz that somehow monotheism or the biblical account of the curse of Cain are ultimately responsible for much of the violence in the world.  They ask first why one should think that God’s oneness has anything to do with violence?  Besides the fact that Yahweh is often described as compassionate and patient, there is nothing about oneness that automatically sets up an “us-or-them” mentality.  Second, there are plenty of examples of violent polytheistic religious tribes as well as non-religious groups responsible for much violence.  Finally, even if monotheism could be held partially responsible for certain wrongs, it should not be considered the sole factor.  As far as the curse of Cain, Schwartz does not take a number of factors into account in her criticism of the story from Genesis.  First, Cain wasn’t so much chosen by God to be cursed as he himself chose to disobey and dishonor God.  He was given opportunities to alter his course and chose not to do so.  Second, the same opportunities were given to Jacob and Esau.  God did not play favorites.  Third, God’s election of Israel as the chosen people, rightly understood, was nothing that they could brag about – it is made clear in scripture that they were not chosen because of some superiority on their part.  Fourth, Schwartz fails to distinguish between the non-elect and the anti-elect.  Most nations were of the former category and Israel was allowed to engage in cordial relations with them.  It was only three nations (Amalekites, Canaanites, and Midianites) that they were to have nothing to do with.

F&C close this chapter with a reference to William Cavanagh’s observation that “the notion that religion causes violence is one of the most prevalent myths in the West” (274).  Such a charge is simplistic at best and misguided and misleading at worst.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

 

The Possibility and Pursuit of Truth

By Andrew J. Spencer

Editor’s note: 

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics is a close second. In addition to blogging at www.EthicsAndCulture.com, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

The Christian worldview is nothing if it is not true. John 14:6 records Jesus’ declaration of his truthfulness and the exclusivity of that truth claim: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Paul comments that the historicity––the truthfulness––of the resurrection is a foundation that Christianity stands or falls by in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.

The most basic question we need to strive to answer is not, “How does this make me feel?” Rather, we need to answer the question, “How do I know this is true?” Truthfulness is at the heart of Christianity. The entire Christian perspective is worthless if it isn’t true.

Recently I was struck by overlap between my overwhelming interest in truth and the perspective of someone with a very different view of life. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger announces something should be obvious but needs defense in the contemporary age: “Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.”

Dreger is an advocate for intersex rights (which deserves more nuanced attention from Christians) and a proponent of sexual ethics at odds with Scripture. However, the commonality in understanding between my worldview and hers is noteworthy. We both recognize that truthfulness has ethical implications that are essential for society to exist. We both believe that truthfulness will lead to justice.

And this is important methodologically in our discourse with unbelievers. Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 demonstrated that he was willing to start with where his interlocutors were at, complement them when he could, identify features of their worldview that resonated with his own, and even quote writers and poets that his opponents would recognize as their own and as potentially authoritative. In all of these ways, incidentally, Paul was following the well tread dictates of Greek rhetoric. Starting with shared ground in our evangelistic efforts is an impeccable bridge-building exercise and features a distinguished biblical pedigree and precedent.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life. We have access to truth, because of God’s illumination of his self-revelation in Scripture, in a way that secular thinkers and practitioners of false religions lack. This does not mean we possess a perfect objectivity—the ability to see things without bias—but it does mean we have access to truth and should strive for objectivity.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life.

Even Dreger argues for the importance of objectivity. She wryly comments, “Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de fact criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners.”

We may disagree with Alice Dreger about what the content of truth, but we should be able to agree with her that the truth is essential and the pursuit of objectivity is necessary if we are going to find truth. Often, our first step in reaching out to people with the hope of the truth needs to be making a case for the existence of truth itself.

I recently reviewed a book for the academic journal Environmental Ethics. In Religion and Ecology, a professor from Florida International University, Whitney Bauman, applies queer theory to ecology in an attempt to discover a planetary ethic. The book, at its heart, is trying to re-envision the relationship between “self-and-other beyond substance-based notions of identity.” Bauman is rejecting the foundational understandings of the existence of truth in search of something that “works better” for the environment.

In Bauman’s post-foundational approach, he rejects the possibility of objectivity in natural sciences because science necessarily begins with certain assumptions. As Dreger acknowledges, and I affirm, any human pursuit of truth is tainted with our own perspectives. However, Bauman calls for an abandonment of the quest for objective truth altogether, which creates enormous difficulties both in theory and in practice. A standard we can only asymptotically approach without ever being able to achieve perfectly is not evidence for its absence, nor grounds to suggest that more closely approximating it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

The end result for Bauman is a mishmash of experience, emotion, and knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, much less defend. His goal, it seems, is to find a unity by erasing distinctions between categories. This includes his contention “that atheism and theism are really like two sides of the same coin, as are reductionism and holism or relativism and universalism.” Such a rejection of differences is bound to make both the theist and atheist unhappy.

For Bauman, reconfiguring the means of gaining knowledge is necessary, and it allows him to conclude that the best solutions for contemporary environmental problems are “free” higher education, universal healthcare, and the promotion of leisure time. The book offers no explanation as to why those things are good for the environment, but that just illustrates the problem with Bauman’s approach to truth. The method undermines the possibility of a meaningful solution.

Both Dreger and Bauman are people in need of the truth, which is rooted in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the approach to engaging them––and people that share their views––is entirely different.

People who accept that truth exists and is an objective reality can be influenced by traditional apologetic arguments. They recognize the cogency of the world and are seeking to find a systemic understanding that has explanatory power.

Others, though, who consider belief in any truth to be naïve, are more difficult to engage. With palpable paradoxicality, their axiomatic belief is that foundational beliefs are inappropriate. This illustrates the circularity of the belief system, but breaking through the infinite regress is much more difficult. The first step here is more important and harder. It requires demonstrating that an objective truth is possible and necessary.

In the arena of moral apologetics, it’s harder to reach those who don’t believe in at least certain obvious moral truths. Fortunately this remains a distinctly minority position among secularists, but, if Nietzsche was right (and he may well have been), it’s a position that is likely to grow in popularity as the implications of naturalism sink in. Ours is a culture that still benefits from the effects of being steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as even recent events have shown, the Christian framework for apprehending reality is gradually losing its grip on the popular imagination.

As we reach into the world with the hope of the Gospel, there is more to the discussion than just memorizing an evangelism outline. We need to ask enough questions to be aware of the appropriate starting point and make the case that needs to be made. The Bible itself makes it clear that our outreach needs to be audience-sensitive. In Paul’s speeches in Acts, his sermons to Jews and God-fearers were filled with biblical references; but at Lystra or Athens he shifted gears, finding common ground elsewhere: in nature, in pagan poetry. Although his preaching on such occasions tapped into biblical truth, explicit references to the scriptures came to a screeching halt. One size doesn’t fit all. In some cases, in a culture increasingly relativistic, pluralist, and postmodern, the conversation will have to begin by explaining that there is an objective moral order in the universe and that such truth is both available and valuable.

 

 

Image:”What is truth” by Nikolai Ge – http://www.picture.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=7515. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:What_is_truth.jpg#/media/File:What_is_truth.jpg