Prospectus of Lectures 2021

The Disappearance of Ethics

Oliver O’Donovan

The missing object: the good

Tuesday 26th October 2021

Ethics “disappears” from among the fields of study when its important points of reference are lost sight of. In these lectures we explore three elements that have tended to disappear, and make some theological proposals for their re-appearance.

First, the disappearance of the real good. Aristotle: “all action, practice and aspiration…aim at some good”. Western tradition spoke of a unity of being and the good: “every nature is good, insofar as it is a nature,” (Augustine). This implies what is confusedly referred to as the “non-being” of evil. To be evil is to realise one’s being imperfectly and insufficiently. Evil is understood not as a way of being, but as a way of happening.

But in the dominant modern traditions of Ethics the real good disappeared. Moral idealism (Kant), derived from the negative theology of Neo-Platonism, conceived of practical reason as founded on obligation alone. This denies us direct moral engagement with the goods of art and friendship, and a moral agency recognisably human in relation to time. Varieties of moral hedonism disposed of the good as a function of satisfaction of desire.

A realist account of the good was reasserted a century ago, most ambitiously by Max Scheler. Ethics was “axiology”, a doctrine of real values really “given” to experience by “intuition”. Three major questions confronted this programme:- (i) how to conceive the “order” of lower and higher values and the judgments made in moral decision; (ii) how to relate value-bearing states of affairs, which we “enjoy”, to value-bearing actions, which we “perform”; (iii) how to allow for temporal extension in the act of value-recognition.

A real good must be a unitary order of goods, a final good and a good of personal agency.

The unity of the real good is a perception embodied in the practices of religious worship, a disciplined exercise of convergent and unifying views of the good. In the Hebrew Psalms dramatic experiences of good and evil are recounted, and confronted with the unitary good of the divine agency, in order to re-frame the living of life as a practical possibility.

The missing frontier: time

Thursday 28th October 2021

The second point of reference that tends to disappear from moral thought is time.

Knowledge of the good commands “existence”, and existence is oriented to temporal projection. Time may be imagined reductively as a mere lens through which unchanging regularities of being are displayed, but in conceiving of time as “history” we invert the relation of being to time. History does not repeat, and therefore presents an increment of being in time.

“History” is known only through narrative. And yet it includes the unknown and unnarated as well as the known and narrated, because it extends into the future. A practical disposition involves attention to the future, of different kinds:- (i) Deliberation engages a near future by claiming a limited power to decide on it. (ii) We also deliberate on life as a whole, caring for what we are to become, and this involves anticipations of possible longer-term futures over which we have no power to decide. (iii) Beyond this, we need confidence in an ultimate future that cannot be anticipated, requiring a moral faith that the course of events will ultimately prove hospitable to the efforts of life and action. Freedom encounters the future as open and receptive to our determination of it, not yet “known”. Yet it is not simply “unknown”. We may cultivate prudence in anticipation,

But prudence is approximative and has diminishing security in more remote futures. A system of Ethics that rests everything on foresight of future outcomes, near and far, must therefore distort prudence by attributing too great a power to it. Our concern for the future reaches beyond the range of anticipation. We persist in aspiring to contribute to conditions we cannot foresee. Moral reasoning cannot proceed without a faith in a further future. The ground for such faith cannot be regularity of experience. Stipulatively, we name it “promise”.

Promise can only appear in a supremely meaning-bearing event, a pointer within history to the end of history. Though nothing general can be said about such an event, there are pointers to it in comonplace moral experiences. Special attention has been paid to the phenomenon of desire, a feeling directed to possible future goods that are absent and yet promised by implication.

The missing agent: the person

Tuesday 2nd November 2021

Scheler objected that Kant’s idealism ignored the person, “the concrete, essential and real unity of acts of different kinds”. Personality is not a function of an agent’s capacities, nor an attribute confirmed by inspection or introspection, and persons are not apriori limited to the human species. We simply encounter them, equally in ourselves and in others, as we encounter purposive actions.

The original personal act is Gesinnung – “commitment” – a moral self-positioning that is prior to deliberation and action. While Kant identified this with the sense of duty, Scheler objected that this left the agent wholly self-enclosed, out of touch with real values. There can be a variety of commitments and change of commitment, i.e. conversion.

If persons are “individual substances” (Boethius), we recognise them only if we are ready to recognise them, since the recognition of a particular is “underived”. Robert Spaemann: the only external indicator that could rationally support us in recognising a person would belong to the natural species of which the putative person is a member.

To identify a person adequately we require a personal name, but these names are used not to refer, but to address. Persons exist, essentially, in community, and to speak of a person is already to engage in interpersonal communication. Personal recognition thus belongs within practical reason. But what ground does practical reason afford for the theoretical claims about the person? It appears that the person as the supreme value could only be grasped from an eschatological point of view. Might knowledge of ourselves and other persons be warranted as an aspect of moral faith in the end of history?

Confession of sin is a discipline that seeks recovery of personal agency through its misdirected exercise. It forces us to confront the difficulty of owning our own histories, and preserving self-unity. Religious instruction encourages us to pray that self-knowledge may be given us as a grace and confirmed in final judgment.

Creation and the Recovery of Reality

Thursday 4th November 2021

The broken connection between being and the good arose from the early-modern idea of Nature as regularity. Philosophy was driven to find a stance beyond nature, “freedom”, and an irreversible logic of unique events, “history”. The theology of creation addresses the problem of nature by putting action at the root of being. The “good deed” (Barth) is the conferral of being on what is not by the one who is. In original action there is an original co-involvement of being, good and time.

(a) The unity of being and time: the being of the world conferred by the dynamic of God’s act, the “beginning” spoken of narratively, which makes time co-foundational of experience with being and the good. Beginnings do not appear in experience, but are intuited as horizons that set other things in temporal order. Belief in a beginning is a posit we are invited to make to reap the conceptual benefits of thinking about the time of human action.

(b) The unity of good and being. The creation-narrative brings the enactment of being in time to rest in a reflection on its inherent good, and the good appears as the inner meaning of being in time. The idea of the good is bound up with that of a communicative act, and enjoyment of goods implies a self-positioning: we understand ourselves as beneficiaries of a gracious communication.

Creation forges a link between reality and moral existence in a world fitted to agency. The experience of being acted on is accompanied by that of being made active. Normative representations of the good, as ideals, laws, goals etc., are derived from our sense of the good as a gift.

(c) The unity of time and the good. The possibility of human action arises between the two poles of beginning and fulfilling. Barth: “the covenant” (i.e. the history of the relations of God and man) is the “inner meaning” of creation, and creation the “outer basis” of the covenant. When we speak of time as history, we speak of time as created and directed to an ontological and axiological plenitude. Our grasp of the coherence of history is always proleptic, reaching beyond evidences.

Law and the Recovery of History

Tuesday 9th November 2021

Deuteronomy: legal authority is given in a historical past and history is shaped and purposed by law. As the normative form, law is also the historical form of God’s gift to mankind. It appears in the world as an instrument of culture, a vocation to civilisation. It is thus itself the ground on which a critique of law-governed practices is constantly required.

Law presents recognised goods and evils as demands on action, prescriptive and prohibitive, organised in recurrent and intelligible forms. It presents demand as command, socially mediated and implicating agents in the moral thinking of one another.

Law anchors the discernment of the promise, frames our questions about history in faithfulness to goods experienced. An evangelical proclamation sharpens the self-generated critique of law by pointing to the promise. Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged!” Paul’s allegory on Moses’ veil: legal forms are mediating placeholders for the “radiance” of the divine.

The Western Christian idea of Natural Law attempted to secure the critique of law in creation, overlooking the promise. In reaction, the promise was given prominence in Luther’s principle of Unterscheidung, “distinction”, which interpreted the fulfilment of history as freedom from law, so reducing the law to the status of a preliminary.

“History” implies the before-and-after of time, and a “fulfilment” in which the end satisfies the beginning. History as the form of time is necessarily also the redemption of time. There is no form of history which is not an ultimate form, and there is no form of history that is not a moral form. We are agents essentially, and in purposeful action we stand before a temporal horizon that will ultimately confirm or bring to nothing what we are. History is a conception of time as directed to vindicate the significance of our living and acting.

Recognising the possibility of a disclosure at which the direction of history becomes clear, and of a person as the supreme locus of value, Natural Theology may approach Christology. But an actual Christology requires a narrative. Christ is “the concrete categorical imperative” (Balthasar), affirming the Kantian conviction that the good in action is formally coherent, but finding that coherence validated in a once-and-for-all personal reality. Law has a spirit that must animate it, and that spirit is historical anticipation and faith.

Spirit and the justification of agency

Thursday 11th November 2021

The end of history is the justification of agency, divine and human. Action is by definition determinate, which is to say, finite. Language about the action of God speaks of infinite being engaged in finite ways with a finite world, the same space-time framework as human action is engaged in. God gives himself “time, space and opportunity” to act (Barth).

The doctrine of divine “grace” sometimes ran into a false alternative: either God acts or the creature acts. At the root of this false conception lay a mechanical model of agency. But co-operation is the most familiar of human experiences. We act together in a common agency without loss of mutual freedom. We may speak by analogy of a co-operative agency of divine and human agents in shaping history, theologically named “the Spirit”. Cooperation does not imply an equality of power or function, but a co-presence of free agents. There may be degrees of authority in cooperative relations. Divine agency “indwells” creaturely agency, without absorbing or being absorbed by it.

The divine Spirit is “the life-giver”, but is also contrasted with “the letter”. The Spirit represents the unity of life and understanding, conferring on world history the form of a promise centred on the Christological event. Within the framework of divine action life is lived as a meaningful communication.

Human agency in the Spirit is grounded on faith, by which the practical function of reason is suspended on the cognitive. Agency is itself subject to historical fulfilment through faith in Christ as the “form” of agency (Bonhoeffer). “Conformed” and “transformed”, the individual agent is brought into harmony with the acting community, and the present self with the future self in a complete pattern of life.

The rite of baptism is the moral act by which the agent embraces personal identity as identification-with, and a new beginning of life that promises the fulfilment of moral agency. It supplies a foundation of moral consistency through inevitable change, natural and moral. Kierkegaard’s Repetition: how can the life of an individual achieve self-sameness? Faith repeats itself, and in repetition acquires the form of “faithfulness”.

Conclusion: “Natural Theology”, if not conceived as a purely revisionist deconstruction of theology, is an apologetic enterprise on theology’s behalf. Ethics may supply a valid apologetic basis for theology (Kant). But the connection may also run the other way. Ethics cannot make do without a basis in existential wonder, and theology anchors us in grateful wonder at our existence, guards us from loss of moral reflection in disillusionment. Theology comes to the aid of human practical reason, assures it of its validity in a world where time can deprive it of its perspicuous meaning.