Troy Jollimore’s Aeon essay on ethics without god
ethics without god
describes a argumentative trajectory which culminates in a position contrary to that which he first starts out with. Is this an indication of retrocausality in action whereby a power acts from the future on a present situation? The ineluctable power of the truth that is yet to be assented to mitigates the contemporary confusion.
It begins, as American reflections often do, with a story. A student is shocked by Prof. Troy’s admission that he has no religious beliefs. This evokes his comment:
‘But Professor Jollimore,’ he stammered, ‘how can you not believe in God? You teach ethics for a living!’
The series of lectures in contemporary Ethics that was being taught made no mention of “the scaffolding of any faith or religious tradition”(T.Jo.) which in itself is a questionable choice. Leaving out the whole history of moralizing up to comparatively recent times is an example of bias and egregious leading. In any case the spontaneous reaction of a student is not a serious basis for a generalisation. I call that a ‘straw boy’. There’s nearly enough of them in the essay to make a full complement of mummers like the Straw Boys of Wexford that go out with the wren on St.Stephen’s Day.
His argument against divine rule is summarized:
Adding God would give us divine rewards and punishments, but that’s only to add self-interested reasons to be ethical, not genuinely moral reasons.
We’re not very far down the page when that hedging locution ‘worry’ comes on the pitch:
I suspect that something else is going on, and that in most cases these arguments are just rationalisations for the belief that morality depends on faith in God. The actual explanation, I believe, is something else.
This lateral thought sends him in a direction which subverts his original thesis. Religion is fixed on the personal not the theoretical. There are no impossible computations about universal felicity.
This emphasis on being attentive to concrete reality tallies with the idea that it is the emotions (compassion and sympathy in particular), rather than abstract rational principles, that are doing the motivating when it comes to ethical behaviour.
It is wisdom that enables discernment:
Wisdom, as opposed to knowledge, might seem a somewhat quaint notion in the contemporary world. (Indeed at this point even the word ‘knowledge’ sounds quaint to many people, who prefer to talk about ‘data’ or ‘information.’)
Professor Jollimore quotes that section of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics on connaturality that I have referenced a few times in posts:
‘Actions, then,’ Aristotle taught, ‘are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them.’
It would be impertinent of me to remind the professor that for Aristotle the highest form of happiness lies in contemplation. It is divine because the divine nous is absorbed in self awareness as its highest condition. It thinks itself. (cf. Lambda 9 Metaphysics) We become aligned to the divine in following that path.
It is in the summation to his essay that the strange turn occurs:
The idea that morality stems from strong character rather than from obedience to a strict set of rules, for instance, is very much in line with the moral reorientation proposed by Christ in the New Testament, from a view centered on obedience to God’s commandments to one in which love and compassion take centre stage.
We need to:
.....teach ourselves to stop looking at morality as an abstract and isolated set of requirements and demands — an external authority that stands apart from and sets limits on human existence — and see it instead as a set of commitments, enthusiasms, and passions that are woven into the very fabric of our lives.
An exemplar that generates enthusiasm (en theos - god within) is the only force that can draw us out an in-group morality based on obligation to a universal one based on love. Such are the great saints and sages of world religions.
Hey Troy, you’re nearly there.