Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Post-modern Therapy? Balancing Between Appreciation and Critique

I have a respected friend who calls himself a “postmodern therapist.” When I first heard this term, I was intrigued and disturbed (okay, I was more disturbed than intrigued). As you can imagine, everdaythomist is no fan of postmodernism in general, for very Thomistic reasons, but in terms of therapeutic professions (medicine, psychology), it seemed even more of a stretch to label oneself a post-modernist. “Don’t post-modernists reject the existence of a knowable external reality?” I asked him. “How does that philosophical assumption allow you to help a person who clearly has anorexia, for example, or who thinks your coffee table is a monster? Or what about a person who is actually hurting herself, through, say, cutting. Don’t you think a cutter would disagree about this whole non-knowable external reality?” Everydaythomist must also admit that in her head she was also shouting, “Clearly you are wrong! Admit you are a realist, preferably with an Aristotelian-Thomistic bend, and let’s move onto more interesting matters!

Turns out, my friend calls himself a post-modern therapist, at least in part, to help him avoid doing in a therapeutic setting precisely what everydaythomist did in our conversation: declare himself right, declare the patient wrong, and then proceed to define reality for the patient according to a rigid line of truth reasoning. In a therapeutic setting, this narrow perception of “truth” may both assume more about the patient than may be justified, and may actually do the patient harm therapeutically by talking past her. To understand where he comes from in his therapeutic approach, my friend recommended I read Harlene Anderson’s Conversation, Language and Possibilities: A Postmodern Approach to Therapy. I dutifully did so, and I humbly offer my rather naive reflections in response to my friend. Why not just respond in person, you might ask? Because I am taking Anderson’s post-modern approach and recognizing that our debate does not exist in a vacuum, thus I am expanding the concentric circles of our dialogue to include other “voices” that may be at play (that’s you readers. I encourage you post-modern readers especially to jump in and tell me where I may have erred).

Harlene Anderson offers this book as a response to the many bad ways therapy can be and has been done, and she offers an introductory story of a Swedish family with two anorexic daughters to illustrate her point. The daughters both suffered at the hands of their therapists because they were not listened to, they were not cooperative, they were not flexible. In reaction to such hierarchical and over-confident therapists, Anderson offers her own approach as a “collaborative approach” which she conceptualizes as “a language system and a linguistic event in which people are engaged in a collaborative relationship and conversation—a mutual endeavor toward possibility.”

Anderson may be a therapist and may have written a book to help other therapists, but her therapeutic methods are solidly grounded in post-modern philosophical claims which she pretty thoroughly buys into. Post-modern, to Anderson, means embracing social construction, hermeneutics, and narrative. It means recognizing human systems as “language and meaning-generating systems,” reality as language, meaning as something created through language, and truth . . . well, truth is just the meaning one ascribes to an experience and believes (206) (the index does not include an entry for “truth”). Words do not have essential meanings, but meaning is generated through the use of words. She summarizes near the beginning,

Postmodern thought moves toward knowledge as a discursive practice, toward a plurality of narratives that are more local, contextual, and fluid; it moves toward a multiplicity of approaches to the analysis of subjects such as knowledge, truth, language, history, self, and power. It emphasizes the relational nature of knowledge and the generative nature of language. Postmodernism views knowledge as socially constructed, knowledge and the knower as interdependent-presupposing the interrelationship of context, culture, language, experience, and understanding. We cannot have direct knowledge of the world; we can only know it through our experiences. We continually interpret our experiences and interpret our interpretations.

Anderson buys into the post-modern critique of natural and scientific explanations of human systems. As such, she is also an advocate of social construction theories that reject any claim that knowledge reflects an ontological reality but is rather a construction. Anderson does distinguish between social constructivism and constructionism in that the former regards reality as a construction of the individual mind, emphasizing both autonomy and individualism. Anderson aligns better with the latter which de-emphasizes autonomy in favor of “the interactional and communal context of the meaning maker” (44).

Anderson sees broad implications for this philosophical basis in a therapeutic setting. First, the therapist is removed from the pedestal as the “knower” and is instead placed in collaborative dialogue/conversation with the patient (henceforth called “client” since “patient” assumes the person is sick or needs to be treated, which Anderson does not assume). The therapist, rather than diagnosing, is called to take a perspective of “not-knowing,” to suspend all pre-knowledge and judgment in order to properly hear what the client is saying. Attention is given to the client as a story-teller, and the therapist is called to be fully engrossed in the individual before them and the unique narrative they offer (no note-taking, but lots of questions). The therapeutic session is “public” in the sense that the therapist is frank about her own thoughts, prejudices, and biases, and is also willing to share information about herself. Moreover, to the extent that other voices need to be brought into the conversation, they are invited (family, friends). Finally, therapists are called to honor a client’s story, to take them seriously, and to validate them. She tells the story of Lars, a Norwegian seaman who thought he had a chronic disease and was infecting others. The therapist, Harry asks him

How long have you had this disease? . . . As Harry showed interest in Lars’s dilemma and let him tell his story the way he wanted to, Lars began visibly to relax, even to become somewhat animated, and he began to share in Harry’s curiosity. Harry’s intent was not to challenge Lars’s reality or story, or to talk or manipulate him out of his delusion. Harry wanted to learn about it, be sensitive to it, to maintain coherence with it. Colleagues observing the interview were critical of Harry’s question ‘How long have you had this disease?’ They feared the question reinforced the man’s ‘’hypochondriacal delusion.’ A safer, more neutral question, they suggested, would have been ‘How long have you thought you’ve had this disease?’ The not-knowing position, however, precluded the stance that Lars’s story was delusional (138).

Six months later, Lars’s life is back on track and weather he was infected or not was no longer an issue.

This compelling story reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of Anderson’s approach. Methodologically, it is good to take patients seriously, at least in practice, to give them a chance to speak, to hear their stories, and to be attentive to the particularities of their needs. It is also good to be humble in psychiatric diagnosis. I am reminded of a Mad Men episode from the first season where Betty, Don Draper’s wife, has been seeing a psychoanalyst for some time who says virtually nothing during their sessions until one day he announces “you have a problem with your mother.” In the episode, Betty is upset, and rightfully so. It may be that the doctor is right, but his answer is not only imprudent in its delivery, it is also likely reductionistic. Betty’s problems are much deeper than her mother, and the therapist need only listen to hear that.

But why do we need a post-modern philosophical foundation to encourage prudence in the therapeutic environment? Why must we deny the existence of an objective, identifiable reality independent of human representations? Anderson is not even completely consistent in her application of her post-modern principle. Lars, she thinks, is delusional. He does not have a disease, and his delusion is disrupting his life. She recommends prudence (though she does not use this word) in dealing with a person like Lars, but if he were to jump out of the chair and start assaulting her, claiming that he heard voices in his head telling him to infect her with the disease, I suspect she would not be so enthusiastic about entering into a stance of “non-knowing for the pursuit of collaborative dialogue.” Moreover, Anderson is convinced that her therapeutic stance towards Lars is right, and his previous therapists were wrong. Sounds like a truth claim to me.

The reality and the truth is that Lars really is delusional and his delusions are hurting the people around him. He needs help, and the therapist is the one to provide that help. I can buy that the most effective help a therapist can give is humble and prudent, but I cannot buy the claim that meaning and truth is just a linguistic construct. Surely, there must be a middle ground.

Realism, and the more recent critical realism, tries to forge this middle ground by recognizing that as human beings, we need truth, we have access to reality, and that language indeed communicates meaning but also points to things that really exist (when I say “ow” and point to the paper cut I got from reading the Summa, I am pointing to something that really exists and that I know, namely, my bloody finger). As a result, statements can be true or false depending on the degree to which they correspond with reality, and reality limits the relative meaning that statements can have. As such, we have a criteria for judging the merit of statements and formulating an appropriate response.

I suspect that Anderson’s post-modern therapy is also a reaction to realism, which has been taken to an extreme in our contemporary world by reducing everything to matter, or to biology. Thus, all psychiatric problems have a biological (or a genetic) origin, leaving little room for the dynamic way in which human behavior is shaped in non-material (i.e. linguistic) ways (this relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on metaphysical naturalism. Anderson would critique such naturalism from the opposite perspective in which I have done). But in her reaction, Anderson throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (both of which I am still positing exist, as I bet Anderson does to) and lapses into a metaphysical relativism which is just as problematic as metaphysical realism.

In short, I think my friend is a methodological post-modern therapist, not a philosophical one. Everydaythomist is in no position to tell therapists what to do, but she is in a relative position to judge therapeutic philosophies and ethics. I think my friend likes the idea of listening to clients’ narratives, to deconstructing, at least in part, the extreme therapeutic hierarchy, and to recognizing the individuality and particularity of his clients. But I would encourage my friend to also recognize philosophically and ethically that the client in front of him is real, with real problems and real needs, and the therapeutic task (indeed, the human task in general), is dealing with the real. Just as a person is real, so too can a problem be. Anderson tacitly recognizes the former (hence her emphasis on conversation and collaboration), but not the latter. I see the two as more interconnected.

Part of dealing with the “real,” everydaythomist would also encourage, is recognizing the need for at least some degree of teleology, which even Anderson makes room for in some of her anecdotal accounts. This means recognizing that real things have real purposes (teloi) and that the therapist can be more or less helpful in helping a client achieve these purposes. At one point, Anderson asks a client, “what does it mean to you to be a good mother?” In asking this, she is asking a teleological question, pointing a client to her telos, her end or purpose qua mother. Now, asking the question in itself is teleological—it points the client towards the telos that exists by virtue of the nature of the thing, in this case, the mother. If there are mothers, a teleological position posits, there are good ones and bad ones, and we know the difference by nature if something is not hindering us from this knowledge (like disease). Not that there are not different ways of being a good mother, but there are also clearly bad ways of being a bad mother as well. In many cases, the question itself will suffice for the teleological task (as it does in Anderson’s example, for reasons I would suggest pertain to natural law, but that is a tangent we don’t have time for in this post). But at times, it may require the therapist to softly redirect, as when a client answers something like “It means killing my children that I don’t think are good enough.” A therapist can try and find a prudent response, but prudence demands that the client be pushed a little towards a true telos (or at least restrained for straying too far from her telos).

In conclusion, everydaythomist is still a realist but hopefully has gained a more sensitive appreciation for the way in which post-modern philosophical critiques have contributed both to metaphysical theory and social and ethical praxis. I know that Anderson’s book has at least committed me to the importance of listening and the critical need for conversational humility. And to my friend, I am grateful for these lessons.

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).

The Philosophy of HBO’s Rome

My husband and I, always a few years behind on the television front, are watching the HBO series “Rome.” Set in the 1st century BC, the show imaginatively documents the decline of the Roman Republic and rise of the empire beginning with Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon and invade Rome. The main characters, however, are not Caesar, Pompey, and Antony, but rather, two Roman soldiers briefly mentioned in Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo fictionally raised to prominence as witnesses and sometimes influential factors in major historical events.

What is interesting about Vorenus and Pullo for the purposes of this blog is not their historicity, but rather the way in which they both embody different philosophical viewpoints prevalent in Rome at this time. For the Romans, much like the Greeks, philosophy was not a discipline reserved for scholars, but rather, a way of life. Although different philosophical positions maintained their Greek labels, by the time the show is set at the turn of the millennium, enough Greek philosophy had trickled down to the masses that the distinctions were becoming increasingly blurry. Thus, the way in which an average citizen like Vorenus of Pullo would manifest a philosophical position would not match the ideal set by the school’s Greek founders but would be a sort of combination of different philosophies. Nevertheless, there were important differences between individuals, mainly in the areas of ethics and theology, and we see some of those differences played out in the two characters of Vorenus and Pullo.

Vorenus we might say embodies more Stoic ideals. Stoics are known for their suspicion of emotions, especially in so far as emotions influence reason. We see this especially in Vorenus. His character is constantly striving to keep him emotions in check and to not get carried away by passion. A particularly powerful example of this is when Cleopatra tries to seduce him. He clearly wants to sleep with her, but just as passion is about to get the best of him, he restrains. Virtue for the Stoics is about living rationally, which meant living in accord with nature and maintaining harmony. For Vorenus, this means loyalty to his wife, maintenance of family honor, strict obedience to those in authority, and a careful avoidance of opportunities for passion to get the best of him (he rarely drinks, for example, nor does he make small talk or tell jokes, lest his reason be overcome by jocularity).

One of the distinctive marks of a more Stoic philosophical outlook is piety or devotion to the gods. The Stoics believed that the universe is like a giant living body in which all the parts are connected. What influences one part, influences all, thus they believed strongly in the power of divination, oracles, and providence. This belief was also the basis of the Stoic pantheist theology–all things form a unity which may be called “God” or “Nature” or “Reason” and harmony (and hence virtue) consisted in cooperation and conformation to this unity. Although Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, denied the gods as depicted by popular religion, mythology was nevertheless viewed as a crude and popular expression of the truth. The gods were not like people eating and drinking and carousing, but were rather various parts of nature (e.g. Poseidon was the depiction of what the see naturally did). Still, because of the view of the universe as a body, whatever happened with the “gods” influenced what happened with everything else. Thus, popular forms of Stoicism tended toward superstition and a strong belief in the power of prayer and sacrifice which we again see reflected in Vorenus’ character who is constantly praying to household gods and puts great stock in the value of sacrifice and offerings to the gods.

(We see a purer form of Stoic theology in the character of young Octavian who tells his sister that the gods do not exist, and then clarifies in response to her horror that what he means is that “there may be some unifying force behind nature which we call God” but there were not petty deities caught up in the midst of ordinary human affairs. Of course, Octavian is said to always be reading the Greek philosophers so presumably, he would have a better idea of what Stoics like Zeno thought.)

In contrast to Verenus, we have Titus Pullo who embodies many of the same ideals as the Epicurean philosophers. Epicureans are known as being hedonists, that is, pleasure-seekers, and to an extent, this is accurate. Eupicurus did see the goal (telos) of ethics as pleasure (hedone) but pleasure was not the same as self-indulgence as we understand it today. For Epicurus, pleasure was the avoidance of pain, including the pain that came as a result of self-indulgence (e.g. bloated bellies and hangovers). Still, the reputation of the Epicureans more popularly was as pleasure-seekers with a sort of “carep diem” mentality which we see reflected in the carefree, fun-loving Pullo. The greatest pleasure, however, came from friendship, and this is reflected in the relationship between Pullo and Servenus. Epicurus advocated withdrawing from public life and joining a society of friends; in the show, Pullo actually does live with Servenus and his family. Even when he isn’t sleeping in their home, he is always there (and frequently sleeping on the porch).

The Epicureans did put great value on sense perception or feelings as the basis of all reason, and in this sense, they are quite opposite the Stoics. To perceive something was sufficient for knowledge. However, they were not superstitious. Epicurus wanted to save humanity from the darkness of religion, and thus he rejected oracles, divination, and magic. If the gods did exist, they were not involved in human affairs and could thus be largely forgotten about. Pullo does not pray, nor does he have any devotion to a particular god. We see the difference between him and Servenus when the two are in a ship in the middle of a powerful storm. Servenus assures the crew they will be fine because “a very generous offering was made to Poseidon. Pullo responds, “If Poseidon can’t keep me dry, he can suck my c***.” In fact, Pullo’s whole philosophy can be summarized in the same way Diogenes summarized Epicurean philosophy in around 200 A.D.

Nothing to fear in God;
Nothing to feel in Death
Good pleasure can be attianed;
Evil pain can be endured.

What is fascinating for scholars of ancient philosophy is the way in which philosophy was a discipline for the masses and not just for scholars. We see the ancient idea of philosophy as a way of life played out very well in “Rome.” Individuals like Servenus and Pullo were not reading the writings of Zeno and Epicurus; nevertheless, the ideas of these scholars trickled down and influenced the everyday life of the Romans, including Romans like the apostle Paul, many of whose ideas were undoubtedly influenced by the Greco-Roman philosophy he was enmeshed in. Thus, in order to understand the history and culture and theology of ancient Rome, one must understand its philosophy.

Facebook and Friendship: A Ciceronian Analysis

Charles Blow of the NYTimes has a brief op-ed analyzing how Facebook and other social networking sites are changing the nature of human relationships:

A report issued Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that only 43 percent of Americans know all or most of their neighbors by name. Twenty-nine percent know only some, and 28 percent know none. (Oh, my God! When Roger (Cohen) dashes off to Paris this summer, I’ll become a “none.”)

Yet I have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on the social-networking sites in which I vigorously participate. (In real life, I maintain a circle of friends so small that I could barely arrange a circle.) Something is wrong with this picture.

But is there really something wrong? Let us turn to Cicero’s De Amicitia for a classical characterization of friendship. First of all, what is a friend? Laelius, the main speaker in De Amicitia writes that “In the face of a true friend a man sees as it were a second self. So that where his friend is he is; if his friend be rich, he is not poor; though he be weak, his friend’s strength is his; and in his friend’s life he enjoys a second life after his own is finished.”

Blow would likely agree with this, and bemoans the fact that we seek for such friendships on social networking sites, rather than in our neighbors. In fact, he seems to associate neighbors and friends quite closely, and sees a general link between the decline in neighborliness and true friendship. But Cicero would be wary in thinking that our friends should necessarily be our neighbors:

The Latin word for friendship (amicitia) is derived from that for love (amor); and love is certainly the prime mover in contracting mutual affection. . . Therefore I gather that friendship springs from a natural impulse rather than a wish for help: from an inclination of the heart, combined with a certain instinctive feeling of love, rather than from a deliberate calculation of the material advantage it was likely to confer. For nothing inspires love, nothing conciliates affection, like virtue. Why, in a certain sense we may be said to feel affection even for men we have never seen, owing to their honesty and virtue.

What attracts us to a friend is not necessarily proximity, but virtue. Proximity is important, however, but it may lead only to relationships, and not true friendship:

. . . [N]ature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but that this tie becomes stronger from proximity. So it is that fellow-citizens are preferred in our affections to foreigners, relations to strangers; for in their case Nature herself has caused a kind of friendship to exist, though it is one which lacks some of the elements of permanence.

The difference between friendship and relationship is the bond of affection that exists in friendship, the true love that exists between friends that allows them to bear one another’s burdens, anxieties, cares, pleasures, and joys. The prerequisite for such love is virtue, for a selfish person cannot selflessly share in the joys of a friend, nor can an intemperate person share is the simple pleasure of conversation. The true problem with the “frienships” that we see on Facebook is not the lack of proximity between us and our 500 or so friends; rather, it is the lack of a shared pursuit of virtue which makes mutual affection possible. Facebook friends take on the nature of property, a collection which provide us some amusement but not the true solace of friendship. We are utterly un-discriminating when choosing our Facebook friends, as if the larger the quantity, the more happiness we will accrue. This isn’t a new problem, as Cicero reminds us:

He [Scipio] used to complain that there was nothing on which men bestowed so little pains: that every one could tell exactly how many goats or sheep he had, but not how many friends; and while they took pains in procuring the former, they were utterly careless in selecting friends, and possessed no particular marks, so to speak, or tokens by which they might judge of their suitability for friendship.

Blow is definitely onto something in his wariness towards social networking sites as the new venue for friendship, but he shouldn’t think it a problem that his actual circle of friends is small (Cicero maintains we can have only a few true friends) or that his friends are not among his neighbors (except for Roger Cohen, his NYTimes colleague). He should only be wary of his friendships if he finds that his “friends” are not men and women of exemplary character and virtue, that they do not share his interests, and that the bond of affection is woefully absent.

how can life be worth living, to use the words of Ennius, which lacks that repose which is to be found in the mutual good-will of a friend? What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy? On the other hand, misfortunes would be hard to bear if there were not some one to feel them even more acutely than yourself. . . .

Facebook gives us fast “friends,” people who share some context or some interest that we find amusing. But such relationships are not true friendships, as Cicero prophesied: “As a general rule, we must wait to make up our mind about friendships till men’s characters and years have arrived at their full strength and development. People must not, for instance, regard as fast friends all whom in their youthful enthusiasm for hunting or football they liked for having the same tastes.”

If we want true friendships, Cicero tells us, we must work on cultivating not more acquaintances, but rather, more virtue:

Nature has given us friendship as the handmaid of virtue, not as a partner in guilt: to the end that virtue, being powerless when isolated to reach the highest objects, might succeed in doing so in union and partnership with another. . . .This is the partnership, I say, which combines moral rectitude, fame, peace of mind, serenity: all that men think desirable because with them life is happy, but without them cannot be so. This being our best and highest object, we must, if we desire to attain it, devote ourselves to virtue; for without virtue we can obtain neither friendship nor anything else desirable. In fact, if virtue be neglected, those who imagine themselves to possess friends will find out their error as soon as some grave disaster forces them to make trial of them.

In conclusion, Facebook is only a problem if we find all of our friends through the site, and if we fail to cultivate those real relationships which are so essential to life. And we can only cultivate those relationships by first cultivating virtue. Facebook can help us in this task. We can use social networking sites to spread information about injustices in the world, about politics, about philosophical doubts and opinions. Using social networking sites to learn more about the world around us can incite the kind of moral awareness that can lead to virtue. Facebook can provide us with certain moral exemplars to follow (I, for example, am Facebook friends with Thomas Aquinas!). Facebook can help us develop virtue, if it helps us to involve ourselves more in the world and in the lives of those whose character we find excellent and worthy of imitation. So we conclude with the words of Laelius:

It is virtue, virtue, which both creates and preserves friendship. On it depends harmony of interest, permanence, fidelity. When Virtue has reared her head and shewn the light of her countenance, and seen and recognised the same light in another, she gravitates towards it, and in her turn welcomes that which the other has to shew; and from it springs up a flame which you may call love or friendship as you please. Both words are from the same root in Latin; and love is just the cleaving to him whom you love without the prompting of need or any view to advantage-though this latter blossoms spontaneously on friendship.

Now excuse me while I go post this on Facebook.

The Problem With Democracy

Nicholas Kristoff has an op-ed out today in which he jokingly argues that America needs a monarch:

If we can just get over George III, our new constitutional monarchs could serve as National Hand-Holders, Morale-Boosters-in-Chief and Founts of American Indignation.

Our king and queen could spend days traipsing along tar-ball-infested beaches, while bathing oil-soaked pelicans and thrusting strong chins defiantly at BP rigs.

All that would give President Obama time to devise actual clean-up policies. He might then also be able to concentrate on eliminating absurd government policies that make these disasters more likely (such as the $75 million cap on economic damages when an oil rig is responsible for a spill). . .

. . . As Stephen Colbert observed about the oil spill: “We know if this was Reagan, he would have stripped to his skivvies, put a knife in his teeth, gone down there and punched that oil well shut!”

But let’s be realistic. Most presidents just won’t look that good in their skivvies. And some may accidentally swallow the knives. Thus, the need for a handsome king and queen to lead photo-ops.

But perhaps the need for a monarch is not so much due to America’s love for drama, or Obama’s love of the spotlight, or the the general tendency to think of the head of state as a Hollywood star. Rather, the problems Kristoff sees in our current democracy (the inability to deal with the oil spill, for example) might be rooted in a problem with democracy itself.

When Aristotle was writing his political treatise, he said that the function of a government was to help its members life a good life. He saw three main ways a government could be constructed: rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. All three forms of government have good manifestations and bad ones. A good rule by one is a monarchy; a bad rule by one is a tyranny. In like manner, a good rule a few is an aristocracy; a bad one is an oligarchy. The difference between good forms of governments and bad ones is that in the latter, the end (telos) of government is to help the citizens live a good life, whereas in a bad form of government, the telos is to help its governors live a good life.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle knows that any ideal form of government (like the idealist society delineated by Plato in the Republic in which all property is common and happiness results from common simple pursuits) was bound to fail since such an ideal was contrary to human nature. He also knows that every form of government has a tendency to become corrupt because people naturally want to assume more power for themselves at the expense of others. As such, Aristotle tends towards supporting democracy (what he calls a polity) as the best form of government since, by dividing up power to rule, it makes it difficult for any one group or individual to assume exclusive power and direct the activities of state away from the common good and towards their own individual good.

Democracy too has good and bad forms. Its good form is what Aristotle calls a polity whereby citizens take turns ruling and different activities are allocated to different rulers. Ideally, both the rich and the poor should be involved in ruling a state with a proper balance of powers so that one individual or group does not become too powerful (what Aristotle refers to as uniting the freedom of the poor with the wealth of the rich). Its bad form is when the masses act out of their own self-interest, the government stagnates, and nothing gets done. This is why Aristotle prefers democracy—its bad form is simply stagnation.

But Aristotle does not do a great job defending his democracy against the critique of Plato. Plato argued that the act of governing required certain expertise, and in democracy, only those who are experts at appealing to the sentiments of the masses and winning elections will be selected by the people to rule. As a result, the people that are elected to rule will only be able to affect change by using mass appeal and manipulation, not practical wisdom.

Aristotle thinks that a division of labor will solve this. That is, the people best suited to certain tasks will be selected to oversee those tasks. But if such people are democratically selected, in other words, if they are selected by the people, we must assume that the majority of people know what type of person would be best suited for what task. However, most people (which Aristotle recognizes) do not have such knowledge. Hence, democracy turns into a game of rhetoric in which the most appealing, not the most competent individual is selected to rule.

The problem will not be solved, as Kristoff seems to think, by allotting a figurehead to play the role of looking pretty and providing entertainment for the American people while the real leader does all the work. As long as the people are selecting the “real leader,” he or she will always be a figurehead, and in the meantime, the masses will be acting out their own self-interest and nothing will get done.

Why Study the Humanities?

David Brooks has a new op-ed defending the humanities as a worthy pursuit, despite the overall lack of economic utility. He writes that with the recent instability in the economy, the humanities have become less and less popular, a trend which will likely continue:

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

Brooks wants to say that the humanities may not have immediate economic utility, but they do contribute to increased social utility: studying the humanities helps you read and write better (a clear advantage for any developed society), helps you conceptualize the world in terms of analogies and metaphors, and helps you understand and predict human behavior better (what Brooks calls the “Big Shaggy”).

But in light of Brooks’ general tendency in his op-eds, I am surprised he did not mention the biggest reason to study the humanities—it makes you happy. For the ancients, the happy life was the contemplative life. The contemplative life is the examined life, the life that is thoughtful, the life that is critical of prevailing social norms, the life that enjoys created things with depth and awareness. The contemplative life has historically been the goal of a liberal arts education. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, writes: “Every art is called liberal which is ordered to knowing; those which are ordered to some utility to be attained through action are called servile arts.“ John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of the University: “[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression.” Josep Pieper, in his marvelous essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” writes:

“Liberal arts,” therefore, are ways of human action, which have their justification in themselves; “servile arts” are ways of human action that have a purpose outside of themselves, a purpose, to be more exact, which consists in a useful effect that can be realized through praxis. The “liberality” or “freedom” of the liberal arts consists in their not being disposable for purposes, that they do not need to be legitimized by a social function, by being “work.”

Professional education is a means to an end. It gives one the skills needed for practical pursuits in life like law, medicine, and engineering. But in the end, all of these pursuits are for the sake of something else. Why is it that you go to work each morning? It is probably not for the sake of going to work. Rather, it is for the sake of earning money, of supporting one’s family, and supporting society.

A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. The liberal arts teaches a person to inquire about critical questions like “who am I?” or “what is truth?” or “what is the nature of the good?” These are questions that have an inherent value. They are not means to an end, but rather, they are constitutive to what it means to live a good human life. The humanities, the liberal arts, therefore teach us how we human beings are meant to flourish, or as the ancients described it, achieve eudaimonia.

David Brooks hints at this at the end of his op-ed:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

But he still seems to want to find another end to the humanities, the end of understanding the “Big Shaggy” or figuring out why people do what they do. This is definitely part of the humanities, but in the end, the humanities are an end in themselves, not a means to something else. A person trained in the humanities may very well understand the “Big Shaggy,” but that isn’t why they study the humanities. They study the humanities, because in doing so, in the very act of inquiry taught by the humanities, they become happy and fully human.

Leisure: The Basis of Philosophy

In 1947, Josef Pieper argued in his extended essay “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” that leisure, contrary to popular sentiment, is not equivalent with idleness or inactivity, but is rather a state of “recreation” and receptivity to God and to the surrounding world. Learning, or schooling, is a state of leisure because knowledge is gained not through toil but by openness to the truth. He writes,

“The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees. The ancients regarded intellectus as being already beyond the sphere allotted to man. And yet it belonged to man, though in one sense superhuman; the pure ly human by itself could not satiate man’s powers of comprehension, for man, of his very nature, reaches out beyond the sphere of the human. “Although the knowledge which is most characteristic of the human soul occurs in the mode of ratio, nevertheless there is in it a sort of participation in the simple knowledge which is proper to higher beings, of whom it is therefore said that they possess the faculty of spiritual vision.”

Work, or toil, according to Pieper, is a means to gaining leisure, or as he says in his rephrasing of Aristotle, “We are unleisurely in order to have leisure.”

In what is perhaps an implicit recovery of the importance of Pieper’s essay, Simon Critchley introduces the new NYTimes Online Commentary “The Stone” with the question “What is a Philosopher?”

the philosopher is the person who has time or who takes time. Theodorus, Socrates’ interlocutor, introduces the “digression” with the words, “Aren’t we at leisure, Socrates?” The latter’s response is interesting. He says, “It appears we are.” As we know, in philosophy appearances can be deceptive. But the basic contrast here is that between the lawyer, who has no time, or for whom time is money, and the philosopher, who takes time. The freedom of the philosopher consists in either moving freely from topic to topic or simply spending years returning to the same topic out of perplexity, fascination and curiosity.

Pushing this a little further, we might say that to philosophize is to take your time, even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back. The busy readers of The New York Times will doubtless understand this sentiment. It is our hope that some of them will make the time to read The Stone. As Wittgenstein says, “This is how philosophers should salute each other: ‘Take your time.’ ” Indeed, it might tell you something about the nature of philosophical dialogue to confess that my attention was recently drawn to this passage from Theaetetus in leisurely discussions with a doctoral student at the New School, Charles Snyder.

He goes on to say that this willingness to take time is not a dreamy, ideal existence but is one which endangers a person’s very life:

Nurtured in freedom and taking their time, there is something dreadfully uncanny about the philosopher, something either monstrous or god-like or indeed both at once. This is why many sensible people continue to think the Athenians had a point in condemning Socrates to death.

Philosopher Children Make for Better Politics

This article in the New York Times brings up an under-discussed topic: teaching children philosophy:

“The world is a puzzling place and when you’re young it doesn’t make sense,” Professor Wartenberg says. “What you’re giving them is the sort of skills to learn how to think about these things.”

Professor Wartenberg has written a book, “Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), to spread his experiment to more elementary schools. His focus is on teaching undergraduate philosophy students how to work with children, and his decade-old course at Mount Holyoke, “Teaching Children Philosophy,” has led many of his students to pursue careers in early-childhood education.

“A lot of them don’t know what to do after college,” he says. “If they want to do something with philosophy, this opens up an avenue.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

The view that children can do philosophy and engage in conversations on metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and epistemology challenges the view of child psychologist Jean Piaget who claimed that children under the age of 12 were not capable of the sort of abstract thinking required for philosophical analysis. Matthew Lipman, however, founder of Philosophy for Children, disagrees, claiming that the insatiable curiosity of children makes them ripe for engaging in philosophical dialogues. According to Lipman’s approach, the teacher acts as a sort of “midwife to the thoughts of the students” (to use an expression from Plato). The idea is not to teach students what Plato or Descartes thought, but rather to teach them how to think.

Literature turns out to be a wonderful place to begin, as the following exchange over The Giving Tree illustrates:

Ms. Runquist’s students managed to fit philosophy in between writing and science. This was their sixth lesson of the year, and by now they knew the drill: deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said.

Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat.

“It’s only a tree,” Justin said with a shrug.

“The tree has feelings!” Keyshawn replied.

Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences.

“If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,” said Nyasia.

Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.

“Say me and a rock was a friend,” he said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”

This gave his classmates pause.

In book VII of The Politics, Aristotle addresses the question of how people should be educated in an ideal city according to both the end and means of education. The end of education is eudaimonia, a life of flourishing or as we say, happiness. Whereas practical reason makes important contributions to eudaimonia in terms of making decisions conducive to health and financial success, ultimately, it is the speculative intellect which contributes most directly to the ultimate end of education and the achievement of eudaimonia. While Aristotle definitely thinks that children are not born in command of their reason, but must rather be trained, he clearly thinks that by the age of seven, children should be engaged in the most basic and foundational forms of philosophical inquiry, and should be learning the intellectual habits (counsel, understanding, wisdom) which are integral to the philosophical life. Active, creative, and democratic conversation among children creates adults who can engage in active, creative, and democratic conversation. Young philosophers, according to both Aristotle and Lipman, turn into good citizens.

Opponents claim that children need to be taught “useful” subjects like math, science, and reading, all of which are conveniently-suited to standardized tests, and that philosophy is a luxury which our already-undereducated children cannot afford. Lipman, however, started working on developing philosophical tools for children during the Vietnam era, during which he claimed “many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.”

It seems to me that with all the unproductive back and forths between liberals and tea-party conservatives, the gross misunderstandings on both sides in the debates on health care reform, the vitriol we see in coverage of the Roman Catholic Church in recent weeks, and countless other examples point to the fact that even the best brains among us do not know how to have a conversation, to reason about ideas, and to listen and compromise with those who hold divergent views. Perhaps teaching kids philosophy isn’t such a worthless idea after all.

Using Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball to Understand Alasdair MacIntyre

At the most basic level, what is Alasdair MacIntyre arguing in the foundational essay of Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law? He says in the conclusion of his opening essay that he is not arguing that “Thomists have resources that should enable them to refute their opponents in way that are or should be compelling to any rational individual, whatever her or his standpoint” (51). But he goes on to say

I do indeed believe that Thomistic Aristotelionism provides us all a well-founded and rationally justified moral philosophy, but I also believe that in the forums of rational public debate, by the best standards available for such debate, it will often be unable to defeat its critics and opponent.

In short, MacIntyre thinks that his Thomistic rendition of the natural law can be rationally defended even if it isn’t persuasive to people who disagree.

To illuminate this concept, we might turn to the great sage Bill Simmons. In The Book of Basketball’s “Most Valuable Chapter,” Simmons outlines a theory for picking the MVP that includes four criteria. The fourth, Simmons explains thusly:

If you’re explaining your MVP pick to someone who has a favorite player in the race—a player that you didn’t pick—will he at least say something like, ‘Yeah, I don’t like it, but I can see how you arrived at that choice’?

Simmons goes on to explain that he added this fourth criterion after his ’08 MVP column in which he picked Garnett for the MVP according his original three criteria (KG transformed the Celtics defensively in a way no other player in the league could do, added new leadership and revived a floundering franchise, and spawned a 42-win turnaround), but was still criticized for favoring the hometeam over more objectively-qualified picks, i.e. CP3. Simmons concludes that in retrospect, Chris Paul was a more rational choice for MVP because he could be defended to a prejudiced party: “any Lakers fan would disagree with Paul over Kobe, but at the very least they would have understood the logic. They wouldn’t have agreed with it, but they would have understood it” (227).

And this, I take it, is what MacIntyre is saying the Aristotelian-Thomist natural law tradition provides us. It gives us rationally-defensible moral arguments that may not convince those in deep disagreement, like utilitarians, but at least they will be able to understand the logic. Don’t you love how basketball helps us understand philosophy better?

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.