Training to be good

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?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy, virtue ethics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Training to be good

  1. ionzone says:

    Unfortunately, a fundamental problem with modern scientists, or at least, the guys who report in New Scientist, is that they have decided that since we have the ability to be moral, and come pre-packaged with a sense of personal fairness, that means that the entirety of morality is entirely genetic. This is wishful pseudo-science that a quick glance at any moral disagreement or historic document should wipe away. It doesn’t, though, simply because it suits them to bury their heads when their world-view is challanged.

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Quentin – I’m intrigued by the group who in tempting circumstances suffered “little or no conflict”. That suggests to me that for these people the circumstances were not really tempting at all (so that, to answer the question in your covering e-mail, resistance would confer no merit worth mentioning). Does your source indicate whether the “temptation” was to an activity in which, but for moral objections, the particular individuals would be seriously anxious to indulge? And perhaps more importantly, whether they could have had any inkling that it was a test?

  3. Nektarios says:

    I find the limits Quentin places on this discussion is both limiting and pseudo.
    Limiting in the idea that the scientists are the only ones able to, from a scientiic view give definitition to what is moral and what is not.
    Failing that some turn to the psychologists who think by seeing some elementary repetitve workings of the brain, can determine virtue or morality. This is too silly for words and some are a littly short on the awful works of scientists and psychologists in the political aspects of power
    to control, to kill, to influence, to give apearances they are doing good when in fact they are doing that which is evil, actually robbing, poisioning, producing division and wars all over the place.
    No, I would not be in a great a rush at all to turn to a scientist or psychologist for answers.
    But one needs more than the descriptives, the picture, the illusions about virtue and morality,one needs actual virtue and actual goodness without which one has an imagined virtue and an imagined morality that will dull ones brain, making one pawns in some power-mongering politicians or religious group, or indeed a Chuch.
    We have seen how all this has played out in the past, and our past is our present and our present will become our future. If we carry on in this way,the end is not far off.

    Let me put this in another way, the limits on this discussion posed by Quentin, are not essentialy his own, but comes out of a secular, post-modernist and liberal thinking.
    Try as you may, you won’t find virtue or moral compass there.

  4. ionzone says:

    Quentin – I was just musing on a common trend in the scientific presses. I’m sorry if I have annoyed you in some way but I am not sure how I have done so as what I said wasn’t aimed at you.

    • Quentin says:

      Ionzone, I am by no means offended. The generalisation you make about scientists often proves to be true. Yours was the first contribution of two or three in the same general area, so I pegged my reply to it. (By the way, it is useful to peg by using the reply tag — it keeps exchanges together.)
      Incidentally, I am very happy to have my views challenged. And even happier when I am forced by evidence or argument to change my mind — it means that I have learned something!
      A recent good example of this was when John Nolan chided me — saying that the facts did not support all my criticisms of the Magdalene nuns. (Rotten apples? Rotten barrel?) He was right as I discovered later, and I have much moderated my tune on this as a result.

  5. johnbunting says:

    “Who do you think has more merit”,etc.:
    As Pilate might have said, “What is merit?”.
    Do you assess it by effort, or by results? Or is there another way? I’m probably missing the point.
    As for those to whom overcoming temptation comes naturally and easily, Blake had an angle on it: “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained”.

  6. Singalong says:

    I remember hearing that if we develop a good habit, we acquire just as much merit every time, even if it has become fairly automatic, as we did the first time, when it was much more of an effort. The converse was held to operate as well, just as much penance needed for bad habits each time, because we have allowed them to become second nature.
    Does God measure each action quite so precisely?

    I am still finding the concept of virtue ethics difficult. Is the acquiring of good habits a characteristic of the virtuous person? Does it follow that everything he does is to be considered good? Don`t most people act out of character sometimes, a “good” person can do something wrong, and a “bad” person something very good and noble? Aren`t most of us a mixture of good and bad? It would be very difficult for anybody except Almighty God to say truly that one individual is virtuous, and another is not. No one else knows the level of temptation, or the personal capability that we each have.

    I think also that it is considered that Christ did have experience of the difficulties of temptation Himself, as part of a fully human life, illustrated in the desert, even though His “fundamental goodness was impermeable”. He would not succumb, but He must have had some sort of human struggle with 40 days of fasting and prayer in the wilderness, some sort of internal conflict.

  7. John Candido says:

    Clearly, the person who struggles with temptation and succeeds is more virtuous than someone who finds it easy to resist most of their temptations. This is just common-sense. If one were to look at various passages in the New Testament, these would easily buttress and confirm the preceding point. The defining features of these passages are a realisation of your own poverty of spirit, and the effort needed to do good for the Kingdom of God.

    All scripture quotes are taken from the ‘Good News Bible, Today’s English Version’, Catholic Edition.

    ‘Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them.’ (Matthew 5:3)

    ‘Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the Tax Collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that!’ (Matthew 5: 46-47)

    ‘As Jesus sat near the Temple treasury, he watched the people as they dropped in their money. Many rich men dropped in a lot of money; then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a cent. He called his disciples together and said to them,

    ‘I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12: 41-44)

    • tim says:

      Yes. To which you could add:
      “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just men that need no repentance”.
      But is Quentin’s last question one that we should spend much time on? ‘Acquiring merit’ (like Tesco points?) is surely not what it’s about. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom, in which (I suppose) we shall all love God perfectly and do His will. Meanwhile we have a duty both to resist current and immediate temptations and to build up our capacity to resist those temptations in the longer term (should we be led into them). How God marks our efforts may not be beyond all conjecture, but need not concern us unduly: at least we can be confident He will get it right. Meanwhile, all questions must be attempted.

      • John Candido says:

        Tim,
        If you are concerned that I have missed a question or two, could you answer them yourself?

      • Quentin says:

        Tim: ‘Acquiring merit’ (like Tesco points?). You are of course right. As Lord Melbourne said of the Order of the Garter, ‘there is no damn merit in it.’ The only thing we are asked to do is to take on the cloak of St Paul who said: ‘I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.’
        Indeed there are other questions which need attention. For example, what is the balance between our ability to discern moral truth, and the obedience owed to the Church’s teaching?
        Is it possible to acquire virtue by setting out, with the right intention of course, to cultivate habits? As I read what Vincent has to say about his cousin, it looks as if he set out to do his duty in a pedestrian way — only to discover the leaven of grace.

  8. Vincent says:

    Can I put my three ha’pence into this interesting discussion? When I read the New Testament I find very little about the importance of actions taken on their own. What I do find are emphases like these: if you love me keep my commandments, and that on the two commandments – love of God and love of neighbour – hang all the law and the prophets. It sounds rather as if we were being told that what God demands of us is the virtue of love. This will be expressed in loving action. Anyone, it seems, who values good actions on their own is not wrong but is a child of the Old Testament not of the New.

    My cousin provided me with a marvellous example. When his wife became seriously disabled, he realised that he had a job on his hands. Never really domesticated, he now had to clear things up, go up and down stairs continually, rush to answer the telephone and assist his wife directly with matters of hygiene. He told me that he realised that he had to conceal any resentment in this substantial change in the conduct of his life. But quite quickly he discovered that these chores not only became easy to him, they give him great joy. And that was related to a new surge of love for his wife and of hers for him.

    Now, if I am to believe some of the comments here I should accept that the ease with which my cousin now performs his duties removes the merit he would have had if the job had turned out to be as difficult as he had expected.

    Of course what has happened flies in the face of common sense – but then the sense behind what Jesus taught is not common.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Vincent,
      What you say regarding your cousin is a wonderful example of someone who carries out their duties as a husband or wife when circumstances require it.
      Promise’s we make when we take our marriage vows..
      His love shows Gods love flowing through him to his wife and back to God.
      A gift from the Lord in difficult times.
      There are plenty of unknown Saints and we all can learn from their example.
      It can make one feel very humble.

    • John Candido says:

      There is no doubt that your cousin is to be lauded for his dutiful care of his afflicted wife. I am really happy that he found a growing natural acceptance of his ‘cross’, which he found to be easier than expected, due to the grace that was given to him. Of course we do not know if his case is exceptional or not; I would guess that it probably is the exception rather than the norm. I hope to be proven wrong of course! Can anybody enlighten me?

      I do think that your cousin’s experience of grace is the exception rather than the norm, for some unknown reason. A hunch of mine, I suppose. I most certainly wish it were otherwise. However, if your cousin’s experience is matched with another person with similar circumstances, who had a much harder time of it, who would have greater merit? I agree with Tim. Nobody need answer such questions. These sorts of judgements should be left to God, who can see through people in an instant.

    • Singalong says:

      Very inspiring, Vincent, and although it certainly does not always happen like this, it is encouraging to all of us, when we have hard difficulties and responsibilities to undertake, to know that love can overcome them, or considerably alleviate the pain. This must be how martyrs approach their ordeal.

      It may be an extension of the natural fortitude we have sometimes, for instance, when we summon up the courage to jump into a cold sea, because we desire the benefits and exhilaration of a bracing swim, like St. Paul`s analogy of those training for the Olympic Games, to win a perishable crown.

  9. Brian Hamill says:

    In the narrative of the temptations in the desert, Jesus does indeed look impermable to the temptation but the narrative of the temptation to despair on the cross carries a different message. It is interesting to note (making use of different gospel narratives of the crucifixion), that towards the end, Jesus screams out his cry of anguish ‘My God, my God…’ but at the very end he changes his cry to peaceful resignation ‘Father, …’. Maybe it was the presence of Mary there that brought home to him that in her steadfast love his heavenly Father manifested his own eternal love. Which bring me to my second point: we never go to heaven on our own; it is a community effort, and this is what can be lacking in virtue ethics which is highly personal, all about me. What it misses is the gratuitousness of grace whereby it is not what we do that makes us ‘good’ but what God achieves in us, so often through those we love in their love for us.

    • tim says:

      Yes, indeed.
      Our Lord’s cry from the Cross is the opening of Psalm 22. That psalm – which also predicts the soldiers dicing for His clothes – ends in affirming God’s love, power and ultimate victory. So it should not be taken as a simple cry of despair.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Now that Lent is over. Have we kept to giving up those things during Lent we said we would. I know I didn’t, I gave up biscuits cakes and sweets, but eventually gave in after 2 weeks-whether it was temptation or not I don’t know or a craving for something sweet.. Of course giving extra money I spent on biscuits to charity would have served the purpose,
        I think the Church says now to do something extra like for instance attending weekly Mass or saying the Rosary more often, meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the Way of the Cross etc instead of fasting-I am unable to fast as a diabetic on insulin would have sent me into a hypo.So that would prove nothing only to be irresponsible. if I ate too much get fat and ill
        Quentins Post, his comment.
        I will say hopefully something more serious as he points out ‘Obedience and the Churches teachings requires us to recognize the God given authority to teach Moral Law and the light of faith.as Aquinas claims, which enable 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 the proper guide to the truth of what the whole church teaches.

        This takes me to the understanding of the seriousness of abortion and those catholic doctors who perform them because they believe it is right to do so because their conscience is guided to what they feel is right..Also those who ‘vote’ particularly for abortion. MP’s etc.
        Should they be tempted ‘to do so or not to do so’?.Or to receive the Blessed Sacrament?
        Which would be the most virtuous. or the most sinful?.

        .

  10. tim says:

    @John C (March 31, 2013 at 12:26 am) . Sorry, John, I left the wrong impression. I wasn’t intending to accuse you of ducking any issues. “All questions must be attempted” was meant to be an extension of the metaphor of God marking our moral exam papers. I failed to notice that it didn’t work at all well with Quentin’s post specifically asking us literal questions!

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