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Keeping the Moral Demand and the Christian Hope for the Good Life

By Jonathan Pruitt

If we think that moral realism is true, and we live in a morally rich world then some unsettling issues arise. If, for example, humans really are intrinsically valuable, then something like Kant’s categorical imperative must be required of us. That is, if humans really are rational agents, then they ought to be treated never merely as means and always as ends. This is our moral obligation. The unsettling part of this is that this creates a moral demand upon us that we could never possibly meet. All we need to do is think of the history of humanity, a history riddled with war, injustice, and selfishness of a mind-boggling variety. If that is not enough, at least in my case, I need only think over the past week to tally up a rather depressing number of cases where I have failed to do what I ought. But it only gets worse.

In order to keep the moral demand placed on us, we must follow something like the categorical imperative perfectly. But how is that possible? The only way I can see is by a total transformation of character. That is, not only must we keep the moral law perfectly, but in order to do so we must actually become persons of moral character. Kant saw this himself when he suggested that not only must we do the right thing, we must do the right thing with the right motivation and for the right reasons. Simply doing the right thing is not enough, we must become a certain kind of person. Indeed, we must become morally perfect people if we are going to live up to the moral demand.

And there is yet another difficulty we must overcome. If we understand the human telos in Aristotelian terms, moral perfection requires not only the maximizing of our own character, but a society of others with similarly formed character. That is, in order to really live the moral life for which we are intended, we must not only transform ourselves, but the very society we live within must also be transformed. This is a very high demand indeed and one that history gives us reason to doubt will ever occur. No human individual seems able to meet the moral demand, and if we ever hope to actually live as we are intended, all humans must meet the demand together.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of problems here. One: we have a moral demand we cannot meet on our own. Two: if we want to live successfully as human beings, if we want to really experience the good life for which we are intended, we face apparently insurmountable difficulties in our way. So there is a challenge to human rightness and human goodness.

How should we respond in light of this incredible demand placed on us by morality? One might be tempted to give up the moral life together. What is the point of pursuing the good life or trying to do the right thing if we can never succeed? This does not seem like an acceptable option. We must find a way to meet the impossible demand or face the unacceptable reality that the moral and good life is just not possible.

John Hare has suggested that naturalists will opt for one of three strategies when faced with this demand: they will either suggest some naturalistic way for humans to be aided in meeting the demand, they will reduce the demand, or exaggerate man’s capacities to meet the demand. Here I do not want to lay out the naturalistic possibilities for responding to the moral demand. But I will just suggest that broadly speaking there are some major difficulties for the naturalist. One we must keep in mind is that whatever we say about man’s capacities or the possible aids, these must be explicated with some serious limitations. Namely, the limitations of the causal closure of the universe and at least the determination of human actions on a macro-level.  We will be as moral we are determined to be, with or without some material aid or greater capacity. And unless we are willing to deny either that humans are intrinsically valuable in a robust sense or lower the expectation of what counts as the good life (which is itself determined by our view of human dignity and worth) then we cannot lower the demand.

But what does Christian theism say about this problem we face in light of the moral demand? One important thing is that the Christian view affirms that the moral demand I have sketched is actually correct. Jesus told us to love one another as we love ourselves. God also commands us to be holy as he is holy. That is a very high standard, indeed. In addition, the Bible also gives an incredible vision for the good life for humans. The biblical view is that humans are meant for a life of satisfaction and happiness lived out in relationship to God, each other, and creation itself. We see this vision glimpsed in the Garden and in the vision of the messianic kingdom which is to come. So the Bible teaches that humans ought to always do the right thing and that they are meant to live in a world characterized fully by shalom. This is certainly no reduction of the moral demand.

How then does Christianity meet the moral demand? By providing divine aid to meet it. Since Christians are not (or at least should not be) committed to causal closure, real, transcendent help for humans is available. And God has made a dramatic step toward humans in sending his Son as part of the process of transforming the human heart, and creation itself. God also sends his Spirit to enable Christians to act according to the moral law. The Spirit also is at work in the transformation of the character of the believer so that through the process of sanctification, a person is able to be made like Christ.

In addition to that, the Kingdom of God provides the right context for human flourishing to occur. When God’s Kingdom is fully realized, all those who live within it will also be transformed by the power of God. This makes Aristotle’s vision of the good society something for which we can hope and do so not in vain. So not only does Christianity provide the resources for individuals to live up to the moral demand with God’s help, it also makes it possible for humans to attain the good life.

This is such a dramatic and beautiful answer to the problem that the moral demand raises that even if naturalists could say how, on their view, they could both live as they ought and obtain the good life, it is unlikely they could ever match the aesthetic quality of the Christian vision.


Photo: “Green Hopes Growing Up” by P. Crosetto. CC license. 

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