The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics

Despite the fact I hail from Boston College, I have not yet had the opportunity to immerse myself in the study of Lonergan. Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian famous for addressing methodological foundations in philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, and in particular for developing an ethical method of the mind. Lonergan wanted to know what the mind was doing when it made a moral judgment. Because of my interest in connatural knowledge and practical reasoning, I am beginning to turn to Lonergan for insights (no pun intended).

I just finished an excellent book by Mark J. Doorley called The Place of the Heart in Lonergan’s Ethics: The Role of Feelings in the Ethical Intentionality Analysis of Bernard Lonergan. Doorley begins by reflecting on how “uneducated” people often were able to teach him more about an existential and moral commitment to God than any of his intense philosophical and theological studies had done. “How did they arrive at such a profound knowledge of God?” he writes in the Introduction. “Each spoke from the ‘heart,’ as they said. It was in their ‘guts'” (xiii). The question of how one could know “in the heart” or “in the gut” is the driving question of this book, to which Doorley turns to Lonergan for answers. He writes,

“Lonergan was interested in the human good and the way in which that good is to be realized through the cooperative efforts of human beings under the sway of the grace of God. His reflections on such a cooperative effort led him to wonder about human feelings. Moral effort is not merely a rational exercise. Feelings are involved as well” (xv).

Lonergan, in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition, adopts a middle ground between emotivism and rationalism, rejecting that the emotions are either separate from or superior to reason, while also acknowledging that the emotions play a massive role in practical reasoning. However, this balance is a difficult one to strike (Thomas himself often does not achieve it, leaning more toward rationalism), and Doorley notes how Lonergan’s earlier work also reflects a tendency toward rationalism. In Insight (1957), Lonergan’s study of the conscious operations that function in human knowing, Doorley argues that Lonergan more often than not identifies the feelings “as obstacles to the operation of the unrestricted desire to know.” However, he holds this position with a certain level of ambivalence, recognizing the importance of feelings in decision-making. This ambivalence, as well as the influence of Max Scheler and Dietrich Von Hildebrand, allows him to develop a typology of feelings and an examination of their role in intentional decisions in Method in Theology (1972).

Borrowing directly from the work of von Hildebrand, Lonergan distinguishes between feelings as non-intentional states or trends like fatigue, hunger and anxiety, all of which occur independently of perception and/or apprehension, and intentional states or trends which occur in “answer to what is intended, apprehended, represented” (52, MT 30). Intentional feelings are ones which relate the human subject to an object like an apple, rather than a goal like relieving hunger (as with non-intentional feelings). His list, by no means inclusive, of intentional feelings include

our desires and our fears, our hope or despair, our joys and sorrows, our enthusiasm and indignation, our esteem and contempt, our trust and distrust, our love and hatred, our tenderness and wrath, our admiration, veneration, reverence, our dread, horror, terror . . .(52, MT 31)

The important thing to note about these feelings is that they arise in the subject following the apprehension of some object, either real or imagined. I may wake up experiencing a non-intentional dread which becomes real intentional fear when I open my computer and apprehend my dissertation I am preparing to defend. I may experience non-intentional hunger, but I may also experience intentional desire for piece or rare seared tuna. Intentional responses respond to the specific content of the apprehension. This means that these responses follow knowledge. Citing von Hildebrand, Doorley writes that “one cannot respond with joy at the arrival of a friend unless one first has knowledge of the friend’s arrival” (53).

In order to better understand intentional responses, Doorley compares them to insights.

An insight is a supervening act. It adds to the data what is not intrinsic to the data as data, namely intelligibility. . . As with insights, intentional responses operate in relation to a presentation or an image. They operate, as well, in relation to an apprehended object or a possible course of action. Once these feelings occur, they are capable of directing the flow of consciousness. such direction influences the further images, further questions and further insights that might occur. Rather than becoming moments in the formation of a viewpoint, as insights do, intentional responses have the capacity to become vectors in the flow of consciousness (54).

Intentional responses, like insights, go beyond the empirically apprehended data (the empirical residue) and add something to the object, something that goes beyond a merely biological response. Such intentional responses move the subject from mere experience and response to a state of self-transcendence. A dog may desire a steak, and this is a kind of intentional response. But a human may desire a steak, and have that desire “sublated” to a higher level of consciousness which allows her to decide about the goodness of the steak, to transcend the mere empirical data to the immaterial round of goodness.

This brings us to Doorley’s argument that in Lonergan, there are two types of intentional responses, one to pleasure and one to value. The latter orient the subject to that which is valuable independent of the subject. According to the former, the farthest I get in emotionally responding to the steak is whether it is good for me. This is self-oriented response. An intentional response to value allows me to transcend myself and respond to the steak apart from my own subjective pleasure. This self-transcendence is made possible by my unrestricted desire to choose the good. Doorley writes,

The subject who allows this unrestricted desire, in both its cognitional and moral manifestations, to be the primary force in consciousness is one who is able to achieve cognitional and moral self-transcendence with some degree of regularity. Authenticity, then, is achieved when, and insofar as, the unrestricted desire to know and choose the good is the central dynamism of one’s existence. (75)

How does one allow the unrestricted desire to choose the good become part of one’s existence? By practice, by “painful yet persistent, practice” (77). This is the important part. If one does something, say, eats a steak, that action is grounded in a judgment that this action is good. Now, eating a steak could be good for myself in that it is tasty and juicy. But if I just restrict my judgment of value to what is good for me, I never really achieve that truly self-transcendent state where the unrestricted desire to choose the good is completely operative in my existence. To get there, I have to go beyond myself, to ask whether or not eating the steak is good for the cow, good for the environment, good for the economy. And if I decide that it is not, and I choose not to eat the steak out of concerns that go beyond my own pleasure, I am forming the habits necessary for moral self-transcendence:

The judgment of value, then, on the fourth level of consciousness plays a pivotal role between the intentional activity of the subject and his moral activity. A judgment of value presupposes the activities of experiencing, understanding and judging. It presupposes the process of deliberation which allows further questions to arise, discerns the movement of one’s feelings, and grasps the sufficiency of evidence for a judgment of value. The judgment of value is presupposed by a further process of practical reflection which issues a number of alternatives for action. These alternatives are then met by the deliberative question which seeks the best possible option. A comparative judgment of value, different from the simple judgment already mentioned, pronounces which alternative is the best. A decision chooses which alternative will be followed in accord with the prior judgment comparative judgment of value. And action realizes the value in question. The action itself is conditioned by a disposition in the subject to act in accord with the evaluations of conscious intentionality. (77)

Lest this seem too intellectualistic or rationalistic, the role of the feelings play a dynamic role here. The feelings help establish the horizon of a person, that is, the limit of her concern. A horizon is determined by past insights, judgments, decisions, and actions. If I decide to act out of concern for the cow who made my steak, this concern for animal life becomes part of my horizon. This forms the basis of future concerns for animal life. This means that it is possible for such an intentional response to value to arise in the future. We can compare this process with being in love. When a person is in love, their whole being is directed outward towards the beloved. The state of “being in love” provides the basis for all of her actions. This feeling establishes her horizon, expands it beyond herself, so that she acts in a way that is good for the beloved. To return to Doorley question at the beginning regarding the knowledge of God possessed by uneducated people, the reason is that their horizon is constituted by the love of God. As such, their judgments of value or at the height of self-transcendence. What they know, and what they are able to do, is established by an almost-limitless horizon.

It’s complicated stuff but we can break it down to a basic need to be attentive to one’s feelings, because one’s feelings reveal one’s values and the limit of one’s horizon (or sphere of concern). When one discovers that one’s values are self-centered, one can use the activity of reason to direct one’s concern outward, and to act in such ways as to expand one’s horizon and transcend mere self-regard. The feelings and the mind are mutually interdependent in satisfying the human desire to know and to choose the good. As Doorley concludes, the task of integrating one’s feelings into activities of consciousness reveals to a person that “she is the source of the person that she has become and that she is the source of the person that she might want to become. This is the beginning of moral conversion” (99).

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2 comments so far

  1. Everyday Thomist on

    […] to Lonergan’s cognitive theory is the concept of insight. Insight, mentioned in the last post, is the grasping of some content, the coming to comprehend or understand some reality. It is the […]

  2. […] to Lonergan’s cognitive theory is the concept of insight. Insight, mentioned in the last post, is the grasping of some content, the coming to comprehend or understand some reality. It is the […]


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