In my last column I wrote about how the distinguished Catholic philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, set modern moral philosophers off on a quest to validate virtue ethics. This week I want to explore how this approach can release us from the grip of neurobiology and at the same time reduce our preoccupation with moral casuistry.
The great physicist Erwin Schrödinger is famous for his “cat” paradox, which illustrates a difficult aspect of quantum mechanics. But he was also responsible for another paradox which is far more important to us. He wrote, as I have mentioned in an earlier column: “My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature. Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions… in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.”
We do not need to be physicists to share his difficulty. A moment’s introspection shows us that our moral decisions are products of our pasts: our genes, our experiences, our temperaments and our memories. Of course we believe in free will, but, on analysis, it is very hard to discern which, if any, part of our decisions is free. Indeed, a recent study suggests that we are able to discern the motives of other people’s behaviour more accurately than we discern our own. Nevertheless, we continue to hold ultimate personal responsibility for what we do. Or perhaps, as I suggest here, for what we are.
Does a look at modern psychology help us? Some interesting new studies look at temptation and how we respond to it. I think it gives us a useful clue. People experience temptation of various kinds several times a day. And for many this causes an internal conflict. That is, the “self-control” part of the brain is measurably in conflict with the “appetite” part of the brain. Sometimes self-control will win, but more often it is appetite.
This is vividly described by St Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” And he claims that this outcome is the action of sin within him. He didn’t need an fMRI brain scan to tell him that.
But this was not so for an identifiable group. These encountered tempting circumstances but there was little or no conflict. They dismissed the temptation out of hand. Significantly, the scientists describe their state as being one of “moral grace” – a phrase, for scientists, with surprising religious overtones. But not surprising for us. In the story of the temptations in the desert we saw no hint of internal conflict when Christ met Satan. His fundamental goodness was impermeable. His reply, a curt: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
From this, I invite you to infer with me that our first and basic step to deal with our sinfulness is to develop our virtuousness. Indeed, were we to approach the virtuousness of Christ we too would spurn temptation. If we love him we do keep his commandments. If you feel rather far from that state, join the gang – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
But virtue ethics goes beyond this to suggest that, through virtue, we are able to see with greater clarity the moral (or Christ-like) choice in any given circumstances. I do not welcome this outcome. Readers may have noticed that I rather enjoy moral dispute and that I have a fair amount of philosophical and theological investment in its nuances. No doubt I shall remain vulnerable to this temptation in future but in reality it is largely an intellectual exercise.
Virtue ethics present, I would claim, three ways of discerning moral truth. The first is that through reason man is able to discern the main demands of the natural law. That he often fails to do so is a fault of virtue, in that is he is not ready to open himself to his fundamental perceptions of what love requires, no matter where it leads.
The second is Aquinas’s claim that through virtue the “light of faith” enables us to see which actions are consistent with virtue and which are not. This is why the teaching Church is obliged to discern the beliefs of the body of the faithful since these are a proper guide to the truth of what the whole Church believes.
Thirdly, the virtues of humility and obedience oblige us to give proper attention to the Church’s moral teaching as set out, say, in the Catechism. Simple prudence requires us to respect moral teachings given by an organisation which, in contemplating Revelation, has had the cure of souls for two millennia. Obedience requires us to recognise the God-given authority to teach the moral law.
While I believe that other philosophies of moral behaviour, such as the analysis of physical structure or the often misunderstood proportionalism – which is sometimes lazily criticised as utilitarianism, undoubtedly have their analytic uses, I find myself coming back ever more strongly to the concept of virtue ethics as being the foundation, and indeed the object, of the moral life.
I would argue that, at the point of moral decision, our freedom to choose is often reduced or absent. But we are free, through grace, to choose over time the sort of person we become. And it is that sort of person which dictates our choices.
In a future column, in which I will be looking at some aspects of the harmony between faith and science, we will find that one point at which they clearly meet is in the development of virtue.
Meanwhile you may like to think about a final question. Who do you think has more merit: the person who struggles against temptation and succeeds, or the person to whom overcoming temptation comes naturally and, so, easily?