Maybe WWJD is the Wrong Question

I’m spending the Christmas holidays with my in-laws and there is a lot of discussion about how different the values between the parents and the kids seems to be. The topic of these debates ranges from food (organic and local vs. economical), pastimes (urban activities like yoga vs. suburban activities like golf), alcohol consumption (enthusiastic vs. opposed), and attitudes (young professional cool-shoulder vs. Southern chattiness). Additionally, I am reading a collection of essays discussing Alasdair MacIntyre’s take on intractable moral disputes. All of this has me thinking about whether or not there is an objective universal morality, and if there is, how do we figure out what it is?

During the 17th-19th centuries, people assumed that there was some sort of objective universal standard of morality that transcended history and culture that was accessible to reason alone. This is what MacIntyre calls the “Enlightenment Project,” which he has, I think, correctly identified as a failure. Rational people simply do not agree on what sort of life towards what sort of goals is worth living, and due not, as it appears, to some failure in reason.

The goal of the twentieth century, advanced most notably by John Rawls and still supported by many modern liberal thinkers, was to argue that societies could agree on basic political, social, and economic institutions and procedures independently from any comprehensive agreement about what constituted a good life. Rather than argue rationally about metaphysics, argues Rawls et. al., we should just agree to disagree and focus rather on using reason to construct a basically just society, wherein people of all mindsets and metaphysical assumptions can flourish.

Let me explain this a little. When I talk about “metaphysical assumptions,” I am not just talking about an arcane topic that pertains only to scholars. Metaphysical speculations includes questions like “what is the good,” “what is my conception of God,” “how if at all is God actively involved in human affairs,” and “what goal is my life is ultimately oriented towards?” These are not trivial matters at all, and it is the answers to these questions that ultimately provide the basis for our morality.

Say, for example, you think there is a God, and that the world is corrupt and unjust, but that ultimately God will prevail and rectify what human beings are themselves unable to do. This metaphysical assumption may lead you to support more lenient penalties for convicted criminals, for example, because you believe that a human criminal justice system can only imperfectly mete out punishments, and ultimately, God’s judgment will prevail in the assignation of eternal punishments and rewards. Or, with such metaphysical assumptions, you may be less likely to concern yourself with human-caused global warming, because you believe that the fate of the earth is ultimately in God’s hands. You may also be willing to forgo pleasure, to live a simpler and more ascetic life in hope of maximizing pleasure in the next life.

Say another person does not believe in God or an afterlife, but rather believes that this life is all that we humans have. This person may support idealistic social program oriented towards constructing the most ideal society possible. This person may be very concerned with the impact human beings have on the environment, based on the assumption that if human beings don’t fix it, nobody else will. This person may believe in experiencing as many pleasurable situations as possible in order to “suck the marrow out of life,” since it is the only life we have.

You see where I am going. Each of my hypothetical individuals can be very rational and very intelligent and nevertheless disagree on almost everything. And so we end up with a bunch of shrill debates like the ones we have about politics in this country where liberals accuse conservatives of being unenlightened and uneducated and conservatives accuse liberals of being idealistic hedonists. If you’ve experienced a holiday gathering with a significant generation gap in values and political orientations, you know first-hand what I mean.

Rawls and others say that we will never reach an agreement on those big, over-arching metaphysical questions, but we can agree on such things like that goods should be allocated in such a way as to not unduly favor a privileged minority or that everyone in a given society should have enough freedom to pursue their basic goals (i.e. no slavery). The thing is, we don’t actually agree on such procedural claims.

MacIntyre argues, contra Rawls, that individual traditions with their own individual narratives can come to a rational agreement about metaphysical claims so that subsequently, they can agree about more specific moral questions and procedural claims. In MacIntyre’s own words, he offers “a conception of rational enquiry as embodied in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated by the way in which they transcend the limitations of and provide remedies for the defects of their predecessors within the history of that same tradition.”

But in a pluralistic world, what happens when two conflicting traditions clash? This question takes on immediate significance for me when I listen to my brother and sister-in-law arguing with their parents. My brother and sister-in-law argue that where they live, everybody has their values, their political leanings, their tastes, and their lifestyle (they live in Washington DC and live a young urban professional life). They could never come and live the suburban life in Dallas where their parents live because everybody is so different from them—they just wouldn’t fit in. Fine, but during the holidays, there is a week and a half of clashing values in practically every discussion they have with their parents, from very basic food choices to very weighty political questions like healthcare reform and abortion. Can they ever come to an agreement, or are they doomed to simply “throw up their hands” in futility and frustration at the end of each argument?

MacIntyre says that opposing groups like my in-laws can come to some broad agreements on questions of morality by adopting the standpoint of the opposing tradition to the extent possible (methodologically this is highly questionable but bear with him) and identifying irresolvable problems within the opposing tradition that could be solved by their own. MacIntyre uses the example of the clash between utilitarians and Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theorists, arguing that utilitarians cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes happiness (physical or intellectual pleasure based on individualistic or communal assumptions), on which the principle of utility is based, but that natural law theorists who know and can apply the concept of a natural end (telos) to human existence can solve this problem. Thus, he claims, the natural law tradition is rationally superior.

Here’s a simpler and more concrete example. My sister-in-law believes that everybody should ultimately do what is in their own best interest (rational egoism) but arguably, it is such rational egoism that has led to mortgage crisis and widespread recession we the United States is now in the midst of. As a political liberal, she is forced to support financial policies based on the widespread redistribution of wealth based on self dis-interest, such as corporate executives forgoing bonuses or credit card companies voluntarily lowering interest rates (and subsequently lowering their profit margin). Now, she could try to make these political arguments based on a more far-sighted rational egoism, that ultimately, eliminating corporate bonuses and lowering interest rates on credit card debt is in the best-interest of the parties in question, because it is in their best interest to have a stable and functional economy, but it is not clear this is the case. It seems that even now, the “smartest guys in the room” are able to figure out how to make a lot of money at the expense of a lot of people and the economy as a whole, simply by acting rationally in their own self-interest.

You could argue then that rational egoism is rationally inferior to a system like, for example, Christianity’s “love your neighbor as yourself.” If everybody tried to serve their neighbor’s interest before their own, and lived more ascetically, forgoing unnecessary pleasures like wine, exotic travel, fashion, and fine cuisine, our country’s economy would not be in the mess it was in now.

The problem is that my sister-in-law may agree on the rational foundation of this point and yet still adhere to rational egoism in her own life. This leaves an opponent with the option of either claiming her position is irrational or that she has not actually been convinced of the rational superiority of the opposing system. Practically, the way this shakes out is that she ends up criticizing my father-in-law’s way of life for insufficiently appreciating the finer pleasures in life like wine and gourmet meals and he ends up criticizing her way of life for its excessiveness.

In order to come to some sort of rational agreement, they would need to step back and ask themselves what it is that they mean by a good life, not accidentally, but essentially. That is, they need to ask themselves not what sort of ideal contingents they desire for their life, but essentially, what is constitutive of flourishing in this life. So they don’t need to debate whether it is better to live in a city or in the suburbs, or whether it is better to eat diverse and exotic cuisines or the same Caesar salad every day. These are accidental qualities of a good life. Rather, they need to ask themselves what, in every conceivable setting (city or suburb, rich or poor, educated or not) is essential to a good life. Even debating the merits of rational self-interest vs. altruism misses the point—we need to ask what both of these systems are oriented towards. What is the goal of self-interest or altruism? What is the good that both systems are implicitly working towards?

It is the answer to this foundational question that answers the question I poised at the beginning of this blog regarding the existence of an objective and universal standard of morality. If we can agree on this foundational, metaphysical question, then I think we can come to some sort of basic universal agreement on some foundational moral claims.

But I don’t think we can. I think that we might be able to agree that there is some ultimate good which we are all striving for, but I think that based on rational speculation alone, we cannot ascribe any content to this good. MacIntyre says that the good derives its thicker substantive claims within a tradition, but even that I feel is too idealistic. I think our true and substantive knowledge of the good rests on the elevation of the rational apprehensive power by the infused virtue of faith. It is faith that gives us eyes to see what we human beings are really meant to do on this earth (and consequently, it is hope and charity that give us the will and hearts to do what we are made to).

And this brings me to the title of my post. WHAT Jesus would do in any given situation doesn’t really tell us anything. The real question is WHO Jesus is. If Jesus truly is God incarnate, perfect in every way, the ultimate good, then He consumes our vision such that all other goods must be subordinated to Him. In Scripture, once people know who Jesus is (think Peter and Paul, for example), what they need to do becomes clear. Disagreements may exist, but they get worked out. This is why, I think, Paul goes out not to proclaim Jesus’ life, but rather, Jesus’ identity (see Colossians 3, for example).

Problem is, this knowledge only comes through faith. No rational arguments can convince somebody that Jesus is God. Faith is a gift. And so I think, so long as some of us have such a gift, and others are without, the disagreements will remain intractable. Reason cannot resolve our most deep-seated disputes, and maybe that’s ultimately okay. Maybe it is good that we have to be dependent on God’s grace to ultimately resolve what we cannot.

So for Christians, maybe we need to spend less time getting bogged down in intractable disputes and more time doing what Paul did—proclaiming who Jesus is: God incarnate, crucified and risen. We’ll leave the convincing to faith.

*Although I used my in-laws as examples throughout this post, my conclusion in no way reflects on them or their faith.


4 comments so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    Less than twenty-four hours after writing this post, I heard Grady King at the South MacArthur Church of Christ in South Irving, TX give a sermon on almost this very same topic, based on the text of Colossians 3. Grady pointed out the intractable disagreement between corroded cynicism and irrelevant idealism on issues like health care, the environment, global poverty, etc. and argued that the person of Jesus ultimately reconciles these two opposing viewpoints. When we receive through faith the person of Jesus inside of us, the virtues necessary to live a moral life necessarily follow: “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” And it is the person of Jesus who give us new life so that we can live out the virtues Paul espouses: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience so that we may “bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, [we can] forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven [us].”

    Great sermon, Grady. It was good to be back out at South Mac.

  2. Grady King on

    Thanks Beth for articulating the core issue so well–the identity of Christ. Christ’s identity is the foundation of any WWJD rhetoric. I am grateful to Parker Palmer for his thoughts on corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism. Both extremes make faith sterile and pragmatically cut the heart out of hope, which I believe is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Virtues are best learned and practiced in community (an assumption of the Apostle Paul) in all his letters to churches.

    There is an excellent and thoughtful article related to human progress and the flawed Enlightenment posture of rationalism which you address well in your simple example. The article is “The idea of progress. Onwards and Upwards: Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished? THE ECONOMIST (

    Thanks for writing with honesty and clarity.

  3. Jeff Jetton on

    What Would Richard Branson Do? I think that both Jason and I can finally agree that this is a mantra where opposing sides of a political, economic or social spectrum can meet. He’s even got the long hair and Jesus-like goatee.

  4. nohiddenmagenta on

    Why do you think intra-Christian discourse is sometimes MORE difficult than public discourse? All of us claim to ‘know’ who Jesus is…and yet it simply doesn’t follow that we know what to do. And its been this way since the beginning: Peter and Paul didn’t ‘work it out’…they had a huge blow up which resulted in a compromise that didn’t fully incorporate the point of view on either side of the argument.

    This was a great post, btw…and that reader is a GREAT book. I’m using it for my doctoral class this spring.

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