The Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics

This past weekend I was in San Jose, CA for the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE). As with any conference, you have to be discriminating about which of the concurrent sessions you attend, and this year’s meeting had some great ones.

Bill Mattison, editor of New Wine, New Wineskins and author of the introductory textbook Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues presented a paper that is part of a forthcoming book entitled “The Beatitudes and Christian Ethics: A Virtue Perspective.” The paper argued that the beatitudes be understood in the context of classical (meaning largely Greco-Roman) notions of happiness (eudaimonia) and virtue. Mattison argued that the relationship between the two parts of each beatitude in Matthew’s gospel can be understood as a relationship between “qualifying conditions” and a fulfillment or intensification of the qualifying condition as reward. As such, the beatitudes are not meant to be understood as a simple reversal of the unpleasant situation Christians find themselves on earth, but rather that the virtuous activities Jesus calls his disciples to offers a foretaste of what they will enjoy fully in eternity. In other words, both the qualifying condition and reward are activities which are intrinsically related.

For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the Kingdom of God,” according to Mattison is not just a simple reversal of the condition which those who are poor in spirit find themselves in. Rather, being poor in spirit is an activity, namely, the activity of not clinging to material possessions, an activity which finds its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” identifies an activity, namely desiring justice, which continues and is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.

Mattison had to stretch at times to show how the qualifying condition is a continuation, rather than a reversal, in the reward state, but once you work out the kinks, the point, I think, is a sound one: Jesus does not offer an otherworldly ethic in Matthew’s beatitudes. Rather, he calls his disciples to be the people that they will most fully be in the Kingdom of God. Discipleship offers us a foretaste of what in heaven we will possess completely. And so, in this sense, Jesus really is calling his disciples to be “happy” in the beatitudes.

One of the largest criticisms Mattison’s paper received in the discussion was that he relies too heavily on Greco-Roman, and mostly Aristotelian, ideas of happiness in his interpretation of the beatitudes. Mattison has good reason to do so, and he can cite a litany of early church theologians who interpreted the beatitudes in such a way. But Mattison also has a good precedent for his understanding of happiness in the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, all of which was written about three hundred years before the time of Christ, in a Hellenistic culture. Mattison’s argument would gain more of a hearing among more biblically-oriented theologians and ethicists (i.e. Protestants) if he took the effort to show the solid Hebrew scriptural foundation for his interpretation.

There was a great panel on “The Neurosciences and Theological Anthropology” featuring the Hastings Center Sidney Callahan, Marilyn Martone from St. John’s, and Maryann Martone from UCSD. This interdisciplinary discussion incorporated biomedicine, psychology, and theology regarding issues like the adaptive unconscious, the role of interpersonal relationships in brain development, and the moral status of the severely mentally handicapped.

Marilyn Martone gave a very moving personal reflection on caring for her daughter, who, following a car accident, was in a falsely-diagnosed irreversible vegetative state. Martone’s daughter, Michelle, now lives at home, and though she has made significant, though unpredicted progress, she is still dependent on round-the-clock care from her parents. Martone reflected on how she used to place lemon-flavored glucose sticks on her daughter’s tongue and rub her hands with aromatherapy lotion, despite the fact that doctors told her that Michelle was unaware of these efforts. “I didn’t know if she knew what I was doing,” noted Martone tearfully, “but I treated her like she did.” Martone’s lesson is this: Science and medicine cannot give us the full scope of what it means to be human. Much of humanity is an acceptance of the other in love and in faith. We do not know if the unborn, if those in a persistent vegetative state, or if the severely handicapped are fully human, but, as Martone argues, we should treat them as if they are.

Martone’s presentation was a healthy antidote to our empirically-minded society which is increasingly turning to science to answer the question about what it means to be human. Works like Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Hauser’s The Moral Mind, and Haidt’s The Happiness Project are assuming an increasingly more significant status in our societal discussions on the deepest questions of human behavior, values, and meaning. Martone reminds us that these materialist pursuits are an asset in our study, but cannot take the place of philosophical and theological reflection, and above all, personal experience in human relationships.

Another panel featuring Stanley Hauerwas, Cathleen Kaveny, and Michael Sherwin, discussed the 2009 document released by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission entitled “In Search of a Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law.” Among the panelists, there was widespread consensus that the Vatican has moved past a wholehearted of the “new natural law,” pace Finnis, Grisez, and George, but as for what continuing significance the natural law will have in providing the basis for a universal foundational morality in a pluralistic society, the conclusions were less certain. Hauerwas, in his typical Hauerwasian fashion, insisted that natural law should not provide the basis for a universal ethic, but rather articulates what Christians already know to be the case. On MacIntyre’s point (see the new collection of essays just released from Notre Dame) that the ten commandments can be derived with only a minimal amount of practical reflection, Hauerwas was adamant: “Do you think, with only a minimal amount of reflection apart from a theological ethic, we can conclude that ‘Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy’ refers to Jesus’ resurrection?”

By far the best two sessions I attended, however, were on untraditional topics in Catholic ethics. Dan Scheid, a former colleague of mine, gave a marvelous paper putting the eco-ethics of Jim Nash in dialogue with the Catholic moral tradition. Unfortunately, Dan was part of a panel of friends and colleagues of the late Jim Nash who wanted to do more anecdote-sharing than scholarly reflection, but Dan’s paper was bright spot in an otherwise dull and internecine session.

Dan used as a jumping-off point Nash’s idea that human beings are “altruistic, creative predators” to articulate four significant points of divergence between Nash’s eco-ethics and the Catholic moral tradition. First, creation has an intrinsic goodness which should demand of Christians to extend the love of neighbor to the love of creation. However, nature is a realm of violence with which human beings can never be in complete harmony with. The biophysical reality of the created world is such that creatures kill other creatures, but humans in their privileged position in creation (this is Dan’s second point) can do so creatively and responsibly, minimizing the harm we cause by subjecting our predatory powers to the power of reason. This is a good Thomist argument.

Third, the well-being of the poor, what might be called the preferential option, deserves a privileged place in any Catholic eco-ethic, and consequently demands of us an ethic of frugality, Dan’s fourth point. Dan recommends inculcating a sense of sacrifice in every death (an idea with wide support in the Hebrew scriptures—think about it . . . when do the Hebrews eat meat apart from the ritual sacrifice time), a forgoing of human self-exceptionalism in order to extend moral concern to all creation, and a sense of subversiveness in a society in which over-consumption is the norm.

Dan’s paper helps us reflect on how virtue ethics might gain a more universal scope, how we might, for example, conceive of temperance as an environmental virtue, or justice (giving to others their due) may be extended to non-rational creatures. I think his paper foreshadows the future direction of virtue ethics, and his commendable effort to put the 13th century virtue ethics of Aquinas in dialogue with the twentieth-century Protestant ethics of Nash indicates the widespread agreement that Christians can reach on even the most controversial matters like a sustainable eco-ethic.

Finally, and in great continuity with Dan’s paper, David Clough gave a paper entitled “The Future of the Animal in Christian Ethics: Beyond a Politically Motivated Silence.” Clough spent the first part of his paper systematically and quite convincingly arguing against a theological basis within the Christian tradition used to support the exploitation of animals (think Genesis 9). Clough argues that this theological argument for the supremacy of humans at the expense of all the rest of creation has its origin in Stoicism, with its emphasis on the preeminence of the rational powers in the order of creation, not in Judaism. Clough reads Genesis 9 not as a de-emphasis of the importance of non-rational humans, but rather as an emphasis on God’s graciousness towards human beings in light of the fallen state of the natural order. Clough draws on the relevant passages from the Hebrew prophetic literature in addition to Romans 8 and the opening of Ephesians and Colossians to argue that Scripture provides a sound basis for the belief that God’s redemption will extend to all of creation, not merely those with a rational soul.

Although a Barthian, Clough redeems Aquinas from those who would use him to support the exploitation of non-rational animals through such practices as animal research, intensive farming, and inhumane slaughtering. In Thomas’ cosmology, there exists a three-fold hierarchy, whereby first, all created things exist as an end in themselves (and are loved by God accordingly); second, lesser creatures are subject to greater creatures in that plants which have only a vegetative soul are subordinate to animals who have a sensitive soul, and non-rational animals are subject to rational animals; and third, all creation is subordinate to God and exists not just in and for itself, and for the sake of the greater in the hierarchy, but predominantly for the glory of God.

As such, Clough argues that we need to reclaim this first point in the Thomistic hierarchy and, in contemplating the moral treatment of non-rational animals, determine how it is that God created them to exist in and for themselves. This helps us to avoid the naïve tendency to idealize the wild and argue for the release of all domesticated creatures to the untamed woods from whence they came. But it also helps us to critically evaluate how we may unjustly subject the ends of non-human creatures to our own desires, thus thwarting the intrinsic teleology to the natural order. Intensively-raised animals are perhaps the most compelling example, in that such animals are raised and slaughtered in conditions of extreme suffering only to satisfy the enormous demand of the developing world for cheap meat. However, Clough does not shy away from the “fringe” cases. For example, we may assume that our pet German Shepherd is happy in his predator-free urban apartment where we feed him the finest organic dog chow and let him frolic on an extended leash twice a day on the sidewalk below, but Clough pushes us to examine how that dog’s telos is being fulfilled in our relationship with it. More often than not, we are willing to justify the unnatural status of the animals with which we relate merely to fulfill our own pleasure.

Clough’s talk was perhaps the most thought-provoking of all the talks I heard because it was on a subject that Christian ethicists are not really paying all that much attention to. “Look around at a conference like this,” noted Clough, “and see how many ethicists are choosing to eat vegetarian.” Indeed, the status of non-human animals will need to receive more systematic treatment in upcoming years as Christian ethics moves towards more environmental and social justice concerns. Unfortunately, both Dan and Clough’s talk were the two poorest-attended sessions which I attended. Which means, I take it, that the “new wine” still has some progress to make.


3 comments so far

  1. Jan Fredericks, LPC, MA on

    Our treatment of animals (and there are billions in factory farms) is an ethical and moral issue. Animals belong to God who put them in our care (as the Bible says), yet we have neglected our responsibility towards them and allowed and even support the cruelty done to them with what we purchase for our food, entertainment, clothing, and even research. It’s long overdue to start teaching actively in our churches God’s compassion for them. Someday we will be held accountable for each one as Hebrews 4:13 states.
    God’s Creatures Ministry
    Catholic Concern for Animals-USA

    • everydaythomist on

      I could not agree more, but I would include, along with Clough, pets in your litany of ways in which we abuse and exploit animals. One of the things I really loved about Clough’s presentation is that he argued not so much for one specific conclusion about the right way to be in relationship with animals, i.e. vegetarianism or veganism, but rather, at the very least, for more attention among ethicists regarding the importance of this issue. I like this approach because it aligns more with a virtue-based approach to ethics in which I would argue that the development of rules like the total abstinence from meat are not as important as developing habitual dispositions for the care and respect of non-human animals.

      The Bible is a rich resource for a scripturally-based ethic of non-vegetarianianism. But the Bible, I think, does not support practices like factory farming from which the majority of our meat comes. I would be curious in your thoughts (and it looks like your organization is doing a fine job getting the word out), on how virtuous dispositions like care, respect, and responsibility can be cultivated towards animals in such a way that people stop desiring meat obtained from intensively raised and inhumanely slaughtered animals. I have heard people who have seen Food, Inc., for example, and felt horrified at the ways animals are treated on factory farms but not resolve upon leaving the film to abstain from intensively-raised meat products. It’s the desire to avoid factory farms that I think most important to cultivate, not so much the rational knowledge of how bad they are. Lots of people know rationally that something is wrong and still do it (think of smoking); it’s only when they change their desires that their actions can subsequently change. Thoughts?

  2. nohiddenmagenta on

    One reason why Clough’s talk was poorly attended was because of how many people left on Sunday. I would have certainly attended if I had still been around, for instance. But I take your point…SCE needs to rethink at least the kind of meat it serves. Whatsay we stay a protest movement?

    Oh, and the Cowboys suck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: