Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I smell a rat



The Lead tells us that The Telegraph is reporting:
The Vatican said last night that the time has come for the Anglican Church to choose between Protestantism and the ancient sacramental Churches of Rome and Orthodoxy. Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, told the Catholic Herald that the Anglican Communion must “clarify its identity” and stop hovering between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. He said: “Ultimately, it is a question of the identity of the Anglican Church. Where does it belong? Does it belong more to the Churches of the first millennium – Catholic and Orthodox – or does it belong more to the Protestant churches of the 16th century?
Add this bit of news to the following perspective from Alasdair MacIntyre. As you may recall, McIntyre was the author whose premise Archbishop Rowan Willliams addressed in his recent lecture on "Religious Faith and Human Rights" (excerpt here at "You can't make this stuff up"). McIntyre is a British philosopher, former Marxist, now Roman Catholic, who has taught at U.S. universities since 1969.

I recently picked up McIntyre's book Whose Justice, Which Rationality?, which addresses some of the questions that Archbishop Williams talks about in his lecture. Basically, both men agree that some kind of academic (well, they would call it "rational") formulation of morality and justice is necessary and that religion and philosophy should endeavor to do this. Rowan, however, speculates how some basic universal human rights might be formulated across cultures based on his notion of human "embodiment."

I am not interested now in the substance of their philosophy but rather the posture from which they begin to speculate. Take this from McIntyre, for example:
Private citizens are thus for the most part left to their own devices in these matters. Those of them who do not, very understandably, abandon any attempt to think through such issues systematically are generally able to discover only two major types of resource: those provided by the enquiries and discussions of modern academic philosophy and those provided by more or less organized communities of shared belief, such as churches or sects, religious and nonreligious, or certain kinds of political association.

* * * *
We thus inhabit a culture in which an inability to arrive at agreed rationally justifiable conclusions on the nature of justice and practical rationality coexists with appeals by contending social groups to sets of rival and conflicting convictions unsupported by rational justification. Neither the voices of academic philosophy, nor for that matter, any other academic discipline, nor those of the partisan subcultures, have been able to provide for ordinary citizens a way of uniting conviction on such matters with rational justification. Disputed questions concerning justice and practical rationality are thus treated in the public realm, not as a matter for rational enquiry, but rather for the assertion and counterassertion of alternative and incompatible sets of premises.
Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (U. Of Notre Dame Press: 2003) at p. 3 and p. 5-6.

Now I'm all for looking for ways people can better understand themselves and each other and to guide public policymaking and the law. Reason certainly has a role to play (and the absence of it is often a lamentable fact of public life -- as anyone in the U.S. surely knows after watching CNN and Fox News last night). But these gentlemen seem to really believe that top-down thinking is what is needed, and if they could only somehow reassemble and/or rework the historical (mostly religious, notwithstanding Rowan's foray into "embodied" states) bases of Western ethics and morality AND (this is key) have the results handed down and imposed by the ruling elites (church and/or state, both apparently informed by the academicians), to us poor "private" citizens who do not have the time and the talent to work it all out for ourselves, then, well, things would be much better. The suggestion from the Vatican that what is needed is an alliance and maybe someday a single hierarchy of the "orthodox" to fully articulate and impose such rules only adds further insult, but seems to be along the same line of thinking as that of McIntyre and Williams.

Aside from the high-on-the-distant-academic-hill posture both seem to take, there is something fundamentally at odds with what contemporary science (neuroscience, development psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc. ) tells us about how most healthy human beings develop a sense of morality and act upon it. There is great controversy within and across these fields, but I suspect that today most everyone scientifically informed would agree that humans do not simply "learn" morality from a set of rules expressly given to them (at least not in terms of conventional moral instruction in the classroom or similar settings). In other words, the notion of a "tabla rasa" mind on which any rules can be written by those who choose to teach them is inaccurate, at best. However it is that we acquire some sense of morality, it seems to come very early in life, and is only later developed and expanded upon by experience and the social environment. Even then, what we learn as social conventions can be overridden by our deeper, perhaps unconscious notions and feelings about what is moral, what is right or wrong, which we have even when there are no specific rules to follow or some authority to strictly enforce them. Writing or rewriting social rules does not necessarily change our behavior, nor does making them more logical or consistent necessarily make them more attractive or persuasive.

While it still may be useful to rationally sort out and better articulate what we think we know is right and to consider, to the extent we can, altering our belief systems when our ideas, communications , or behaviors are illogical, it is doubtful that most people think or act based on the kind of reasoning supposed by McIntyre -- even those, like himself, who have the time and grey matter to ponder various questions. What I find particularly interesting are those studies among children that suggest that healthy children can distinguish between morality and social conventions (i.e. notions of what is right and wrong without any authority to back them up or enforce them as distinct from those that are authority-dependent), but children with psychopathic tendencies have great difficulty drawing the distinction. In other words,
[Psychopaths] identify both kinds of transgressions as transgressions, as infringements of the rules, but they are unable to say which are wrong only because of the rules. Because they cannot make this distinction, they seem to be missing the ability to make moral judgments at all. Hence their emotional deficit explains and underlies a deficit at moral cognition, and not merely moral action.
[From Moral Minds" by Neil Levy at Neuroethics]. Some have speculated that it has something to do with the lack of empathy among the latter group, and that empathy has something to do with the development of moral faculties. [All this from various sources, inspired by Dan's read of Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser, including the post " the article "Do the Right Thing" by Rebecca Saxe at the Boston Review, and an interview with Hauser, "Is Morality Innate and Universal?" at Discover magazine.]

All this makes me wonder at those who truly believe that a well-articulated and detailed set of moral rules -- especially those supposedly immutably set in scripture, or even those crafted by a Magisterium and/or academic philosophers and theologicans -- is necessary for the purpose of teaching people so that they will simply follow what they are told (as if we were all psychopaths and had no internal sense of right or wrong and thus needed the rules laid out in front of us at all times). I can understand why reflection, consideration, and discussion of moral issues, the history and rationale behind our rules and principles, may be both good and helpful for some purposes, but the implication that "private citizens" will not and cannot ever be "moral" in any but incoherent (and, therefore, presumably undesirable) ways by simply living in and growing up in human society, rather than "learning" morality from a closed, entirely logically consistent philosophical system, seems rather astonishing to me.

It at least gives me pause reading about Marc Hauser's research. which suggests that one's religious beliefs (different religions or lack of any) make no difference in how one makes moral judgments. While these results are not unassailable, one wonders if some kind of innate moral sense (or at least one developed very early in life) works together with what parents and others in the social environment model in their behaviors to make us "moral." While the rules of social convention and later the rationalization of both one's moral sense and the rules may enforce certain moral values, I wonder if they are not more after-the-fact understandings of what we already think we know and feel. That does not mean that they are immutable for a lifetime, but the notion that if everyone only understood and agreed to abide by and strictly enforce certain rules (even assuming God's grace is factored in for the Christians), and that if we had REALLY smart and wise people articulating the rules (whether from their own systems of thought and/or based on how they interpret holy texts), we'd all be better off seems to lose sight of the complexity of human thought, emotions, and behaviors, and the physical bodies in which they originate and act.

At a later date, I want to work through some of this and consider what I think, as a layperson, that science can tell us about the contexts in which we both act and try to rationalize moral sensibility, ethical principles, and the laws and social conventions that may be formulated based, at least in part, on reason. The whole "Nature and/or Nurture Debate" at Jake's the other week has got me thinking about these matters a great deal. But for now all I can suggest is that the McIntyre/Williams approach from academic philosophy needs to be compared to various ideas from both social and physical sciences (and all the cross-disciplinary thinking going on in and beyond the margins), and all of it needs considerable scrutiny in the light of commonsense and experience.

[P.S. I apologize for my repetition, dense language, and tortured sentences. This did not help my blog-readability score -- or attract readers -- I'm sure. But it's the best I can do for now. ]

4 comments:

clumber said...

Where'd the rat go?

klady said...

Just playing with the visuals. There, is this better?

If only I could brush up on the text. Does it make ANY sense to a normal old dog, like you?

I'm not against teaching, preaching, or philosophizing, let alone enacting and enforcing laws. It's just that I wonder if more harm is done trying to articulate a perfectly logical, consistent system of thought as a solution to social and moral problems.

Humans have been working at it since ancient times, but it was the incarnate Word that only really moves people. The Word may be manifest in all sorts of places -- Jesus, first and foremost for us Christians -- but also friends, family, neighbors, preachers, strangers, and texts of all sorts, including the Bible. But the idea of the Word incarnate means God in flesh, in the real world, and that seems to be more in accord with what we know and see through science than the way many people interpret or reassemble it from books.

Oh well.

Woof to you and the grandpups!

o-mom said...

Got lost in this one. Does seem like the issue is more that the Vatican simply believes it can dictate that now is the time for the Episcopals to fish or cut bait as it were. Typical. Never occurs to them that they don't have the power or the authority. In previous centuries they'd have made a war of this you know.

BooCat said...

Cardinal Walter Kasper should just butt out and mind his own kitting. If I wanted to be RC I would be RC. If I wanted to go back to the Baptist Church of my childhood, there are many to choose from in our neighborhood. The Episcopal-Anglican, best of both worlds, is exactly what I like about where I am. I certainly don't need the Vatican's advice nor their counsel on the subject. If I ever do, I will place a call.
Did that sound hostile?