A constant regard to God in all our actions and enjoyments, will give a new beauty to every virtue, by making it an act of gratitude and love to him; and increase our pleasure in every enjoyment, as it will appear an evidence of his goodness; it will give a diviner purity and simplicity of heart, to conceive all our virtuous dispositions as implanted by God in our hearts, and all our beneficent offices as our proper work, and the natural duties of that station we hold in our universe, and the services that we owe.
[Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Hildesheim, 1969), 216]
In this sentiment articulated by a leading member of the Scottish Enlightenment, we remember that the Enlightenment itself was not essentially inimical to deism and indeed to theistically grounded systems of morality. However, nowadays when the Enlightenment is evoked, it is the radical Enlightenment with its pronounced atheism and Promethean vision of humanity that is at the forefront of the ethical debate; the moral self is an autonomous self, a concept attributed to Immanuel Kant. It is for humans to develop a system of morals through agreement that be rationally justified and universalised.
Teaching religious ethics, or any aspect of religion and spirituality, in the disenchanted and de-sacralised sphere of the contemporary metropolitan university is a difficult and frustrating task. One cannot assume the basic contours and narratives of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that once informed European and American societies. Nor can one assume that students have the slightest conception of the belief systems, phenomenal practice and meaning of religious faith and ritual. One cannot even assume that one’s students have a clear, historically contextualised notion of morality, the moral self and moral agency. The ‘now’ culture is which we live affects academia as well: it is rare indeed to find a philosophy department that takes the history of philosophy seriously as an intellectual pursuit that is central to informing the framework of their contemporary concerns.
In this paper, I will investigate (quite critically) one strategy for presenting religious ethics to students of philosophy and the humanities as part of the pursuit of a liberal education, namely, a recent robust and fairly ambitious defence of realist and foundationalist ethics and moral agency articulated by John Rist, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Toronto. By way of some comparison, I will juxtapose his thought with the historically contextualised vision of narrating the moral self through a critique of the ‘Enlightenment project’ proffered by Alasdair MacIntyre, an Aristotelian Thomistic quest for the vibrancy of moral foundationalism, and Robert Adams’ Christian Platonic defence of the concept of the Good and the moral quest for being and doing good. Although they all engage with the contemporary discourse on ethics (Adams most successfully from a philosophical perspective), they deliberately place their ideas beyond the standard fourfold division of ethics: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and ‘anti-ethics’. But they remain committed to an account for the rational justification for morality. The rehabilitation of a metaphysical moral realism may well be worth considering as it has been so neglected by the ethical academic mainstream. For the purposes of this paper, I will assume that religious ethics are foundationalist and based on transcendent moral realism; the possibilities of a non-transcendent moral realism, therefore, lies beyond the scope of my discussion here.
In these anti-foundationalist and post-Christian (and even post-secular) times, it is a brave (perhaps foolhardy?) person who will defend a moral realism founded upon transcendent principles, rules even, of morality based upon a theistic modification of Platonic realism. The naturalistic fallacy known as the derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ lies at the heart of this study. The shift away from foundationalism and ontology was arguably initiated by Kant in his systematic critique of the mediaeval principles of metaphysics and epistemology. But the twentieth century really brought about the death knell of foundationalism, first through the rise of the Vienna circle and logical positivism and later through the linguistic turn and the rejection of ‘philosophy as we know it’ by Derrida in his oeuvre and Rorty in his hugely influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The desire to return metaphysics to its original place as the mistress of the sciences remained the priority of Catholic philosophers dissatisfied with the shift in our academic understanding of philosophy and its branches. John Rist, as a Christian Platonist, has much in common with this latter tendency. Along with Catholic philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Rist offers a bleak diagnosis of contemporary humans and the inability of societies to function morally and effectively divorced from metaphysical foundations of value. We are in moral and spiritual crisis because professional philosophy fails to address ethical issues in a clear and robust manner that can be communicated to the ‘man in the street’. The academic crisis over the theoretical foundations of moral agency has translated into the public sphere:
The perception in many academic and professional circles of the seriousness and ramifications of the theoretical crisis, combined with the ignorance of ordinary people, makes way for deception, equivocations, and outright lying and humbug in public debates.
MacIntyre’s diagnosis is somewhat bleaker and based on an interesting parallel with the exact sciences:
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successful abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single page from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are re-embodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
MacIntyre believes that the loss of the conceptual scheme of morality and the oblivion of the tradition(s) of morality requires us to re-assess and re-acquire our familiarity with that history. Forms of postmodern Nietzschean irrationalism should be eschewed in favour of a narrative and historical understanding of traditions and their interpretive communities. The real challenge is emotivism which MacIntyre defines as:
the doctrine that all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.
Rist believes that we should return to Plato’s conception of rational ethics as a moral system that is only justifiable if it is predicated upon metaphysical foundations; only with such a base can morality be more than ‘enlightened self-interest’. He blames, much like MacIntyre, Nietzsche and his followers, for the assault on ‘enlightenment values’ and morality such that one finds a contemporary philosopher like Derek Parfit articulating the modern ‘consensus’ that rejects religious ethics in favour of seeking a consensual morality through ‘principled agreement’. Rist quotes him:
Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.
The desire to axiomatize ethics is odd indeed coming from a (post-)analytical philosopher. Nevertheless, it reflects a somewhat Kantian need to achieve an understanding of the qualifications of a moral agent. As Onora O’Neill, perhaps one of the most eminent of Kantians, says:
Without a more explicit vindication of some background perfectionism, or more generally of the necessary metaphysics, it may quite simply be impossible to establish necessary and sufficient conditions for qualifying as an agent (or person), or as a subject (or holder of rights). Yet most contemporary universalists are uninclined to argue for this type of background position.
The present moral chaos, for Rist, is because ‘Western philosophers and their opinion-forming disciples have come to resemble midwives – to borrow Plato’s metaphor – to the birth of a class of intellectual lager-louts’. He argues for a return to foundationalism in ethics. As an analytical (and ill-tempered, even intemperate) polemic and an argument that eliminates alternative moralities (often willy-nilly and rather unfairly) without really offering a positive account of transcendent moral realism, Real Ethics is reminiscent of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a work that is equally concerned with showing up the failures of the ‘Enlightenment project’ not least in its inability to establish a vigorous and robust moral theory devoid of transcendent principles, of God and of metaphysics. It is a work that is indicative of one analytical, post-Thomist trend in contemporary Catholic philosophy. Those Catholic philosophers who retain an interest in philosophical theology either attempt to reconcile the demands of revelation and reason and offer an analytical ‘recovery’ and justification of transcendent principles in metaphysics and ethics (as MacIntyre and Rist do), or deconstruct the very notion of metaphysics and ethical theory, even of the ‘supra-category’ of being when talking about God, and permit a hermeneutics of revelation devoid of standard ‘reason’, ethical realism and metaphysics. A good example of the former is the work of the late Norman Kretzmann and Marilyn Adams. The latter trend is well represented by Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Marion and John Caputo. Rist remains an analytical philosopher profoundly alienated by the main preoccupations and interests of analytical philosophy, and wishes to use analytical tools to criticise and condemn postmodern shifts against foundationalism and Kantian contractualism.
Rist’s argument begins with the Republic and the moral choice in that work between Socrates’ transcendent moral realism founded upon the metaphysical theory of the Forms and variations on what he describes as ‘Thrasymachian’ alternatives that are all versions of moral perspectivism or even nihilism; it culminates with the recovery of moral realism through theistic Platonism as exemplified in Augustine and Aquinas. There are three steps to his negative argument to which I now turn in detail.
The first step is rather tendentious. Rist argues that the central point of the Republic is to demonstrate that there are only two options for the first principles of morality: Socratic realist values, and Thrasymachian arbitrary values. He expresses surprise that generations of scholars in ancient philosophy have not discerned this obvious choice (including most recently Julia Annas). But this is precisely because his claim is so debatable. A corollary of this step is to argue that the core of the Republic is the theory of Forms that provides the metaphysical foundations for moral theory and inspiration for ‘how to live the good life’. Rist is not prepared (quite rightly) to justify this theory because it has become so discredited. Instead, he attempts to defend theistic Platonic realism through a via negativa consideration and rejection of some major alternatives. Adams, on the other hand, provides a more nuanced and critical examination of Platonic realism: theism and real ethics is more significant for him than a slavish adherence to a particular vision of Plato; if Plato and Platonism are indefensible and violate the need to save the appearances of theism, then Adams is more than happy to jettison Platonism. Further, instead of focusing on the Republic, he begins with the Symposium which is a more explicit meditation upon love and beauty, love defined as the attraction and orientation towards Beauty as a manifestation of the Good. Adams has no desire to defend the theory of Forms; his intention is to provide a structure for a theory of values and personhood, not of universals. Unlike Rist, he believes that we can differentiate between the language and semantics of value on the one hand and the metaphysics of value on the other. His pursuit is to ward the plausibility of objectivity, not objectivity itself. A central motif to this argument, and arguably the central concern of Platonic ethics, is the notion of godlikeness: theistic moral realism implies the existence of a God, but the pursuit of the good as a resemblance of the divine is even more pronounced. This is what the Platonic tradition calls theosis. Unfortunately, Rist’s argument fails to link to this critical feature and is more restrictive.
Rist’s metaphysically grounded theory has the following characteristics: first, metaphysical realism is the only answer to Thrasymachus; second, pseudo-moralities based on pleasure and subjective preferences will prevail if we do not accept foundations (akin to MacIntyre’s point against emotivism); third, conventional societies need true beliefs and not deception (what is a conventional society?); fourth, metaphysical realities must reveal beauty and inspire love, a critical element of they theory to which we will return; fifth, men (not the gendered language as most critics would put it) are unequal in their abilities to justify their moral beliefs; sixth, a moral society is only intelligible with the existence of a metaphysically defensible God. Nowhere in the book is a demonstration or a positive proof provided for any of these points.
The Thrasymachian alternatives that Rist criticises all engage in ‘free-floating’ moral language and take in a range of positions from Epicurean pursuit of hedonism, Humean constructivism, Hobbesian contractualism, Straussian comunitarianism and Nietzschean nihilism. Moral language, according to Rist, must be ‘more or less stable’ and have transcendent referents which can be inferred and which inspire moral agency. However, his critique fails to deal adequately with those ethical theories that include an account of human nature that constrains choice of agency (as does Hobbes). Another consistent problem, as he admits is deception, both of the self and by those entities that one assumes are transcendent beings, namely forms. He does not explain satisfactorily how his model of ethics circumvents this problem.
The second step in the argument is to present a Platonic theory of the soul that explains how humans acquire moral unity and extract values from the transcendent principles. The pursuit of the good life entails the possession and unification of the soul since we wrong ourselves and become embroiled in immoral activity once our souls acquire extraneous layers and become ‘pluralized selves’. On this point, he actually cites MacIntyre: irrationality and moral turpitude follow from our disintegrated souls. Critical for his argument is the suggestion that humans cannot achieve psychological unity without some external pull factor, whether that be the pull of love (or self-love, or the love of transcendent principles that inspire us such as the Good), or communal filial friendship or even God himself. Thus we cannot construct a robust form of moral unity within ourselves. He criticises political forms and attempts at moral unity that are devoid of ethics such as Marxism and liberal democratic values. However, nowhere does Rist provide a convincing argument to show that we need an extrinsic metaphysical form for moral unity in our selves and many political and theorists and moral philosophers would argue, especially if they are within the Kantian rationalist tradition, that the extrinsic recourse for unity is unnecessary. The concept of love is central to his argument and demonstrates his debt to Augustine. It also reveals the way in which Rist disregards Plato for Christian Platonism as soon as possible. Once again, we see that Adams provides a more satisfactory account of the need for love as the key instrument for identifying the property and nature of excellence and for recognising the Good. Ethics is thus revealed as the means for loving and pursuing the Good. As Adams’ work is aimed at both philosophers and theologians, he allows himself the latitude to discuss in this context notions of grace and idolatry.
Thus far, Rist has completed two steps of his negative argument: first, the need for metaphysical foundations and principles for morality; second, the psychology of the soul that requires unity for moral agency and factors extrinsic to the soul to effect unity. Thus two sides of the moral equation are complete: an account of the moral agent and of moral principles. The third step in the argument is to reintroduce the need for rules and principles and articulate the drawbacks of theories that bypass rules. In this part of the argument, he discusses the ‘principled’ person and the avoidance of hypocrisy. He completes the shift to theistic ethics and continues to cast aspersions upon the misconceptions and lacunae of thought prevalent in the contemporary Anglo-American analytical tradition.
At times, his polemic overcomes the argument and he lapses into a weak position and even admits the inherent weakness of a positive argument for his case:
The epistemological difficulties confronting the Platonic moral realist should not be underestimated. If there are metaphysical or religious truths which validate certain systems of morality and invalidate others (because they give the best answers to questions about what we are and therefore what we ought to be), these truths cannot be demonstrated by ordinary methods of philosophical enquiry. That may seem surprising but it is not fatal: there is no reason why there should not be truths which we cannot even know or discover for ourselves, let alone demonstrate either to ourselves or to others. Our minds may be inadequate to them or the date necessary for understanding them may not be available to us…
Of course, to recognize that a Platonic foundationalism cannot be demonstrated is not to allow that it is implausible, let alone necessarily to open the doors to crude irrationalism; it may still be the most plausible, even the only intelligible, explanation of what we are and of the nature of moral experience.
This rather bizarre apologetic begs at least two questions: what standard of plausibility for moral realism is being advocated, and what are the extraordinary means of philosophical inquiry that might demonstrate the truths of moral realism? At the end of the book, the apologetics give way to utopianism and in an interesting chapter on God and ethics he concludes that moral obligation remains a utopian dream in a non-theistic world.
While Real Ethics may be a disappointing but ambitious work, it merits engagement. His attacks on neo-Nietzscheanism (much like MacIntyre) might conform to the prejudices of many. But he fails to engage properly and adequately with the Kantian tradition that dominates the discourse of ethics and is not entirely opposed to foundationalism. He is also palpably unfair in his dismissal of alternatives to transcendent theistic moral realism. The persistent claim that there are only two options in moral theory, between Socrates and Thrasymachus, between Good and bad, is an unfair, ‘fixed’ choice. Rist may be accused of a basic double standard: he applies a rigorous critique to moral alternatives but never subjects his own theory of realism to the standard critical analysis. Furthermore, he never makes a positive argument in its favour, contenting himself with ‘counter-punching’ and bemoaning the moral crisis of our times. More problematic is his avoidance of a key critical problem: formulating an epistemological theory for explaining the rational distinction between knowledge and mere belief. Whilst many may agree with his diagnosis, few will probably adhere to his prescription. The market of moral ideas deserves a morally rigorous and balanced assessment of positions and a defence of theistic moral realism really ought to engage more critically and fairly with both its opponents and its self.
Teaching and understanding religious ethics requires an engagement with good and bad arguments. There is much in Rist’s negative argument that resonates, informs and renders the moral confusion of a believer in the contemporary world and this may well be the best contribution that he provides. It is now left to others to produce a positive argument in favour of a theistic moral realism and to engage especially with the mainstream of debates on ethics, led as they are by Kantianism. One final point: one need not insist that the pursuit of moral realism should only engage with a narrowly defined set of philosophical problems. Adams’ contribution is precisely more effective because he does not pretend that religious ethics is merely ethics in the way in which, for example, Hare presents his theory. We should not be embarrassed by religion or religious thinkers and it can often be counter-productive to reduce a religious thinker to a mere philosopher. Critical honesty is far better than slavish apologetics.