16 September 2007

God and the Moral Philosopher

Some comments today, in accord of course with the name and originating purpose of this blog, about the philosopher William James, especially his essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life."

Toward the end of that essay he asks himself the question (I'm paraphrasing) whether a secular humanist ethics is enough, or whether a coherent sense of good and evil requires a belief in God.

The answer? A secular ethic can be logically coherent but would not ordinarily be psychologically self-sufficient, because an understanding of ethical philosophy leads naturally beyond this world, to an understanding of the divine source of the energies that make for goodness.

The secular ethic can be logically self-sufficient because, as James strove to show, goodness is an inter-subjective fact. All anyone has to acknowledge in order to get a basic grasp on the issues of right and wrong is that there are a variety of different minds in the world, and that they conflict. The goal of reconciliation will naturally suggest itself. Furthermore, in James' view at least, there is a pattern of moral progress in history, a movement toward "our civilizd society" and away from "the older savage ways." An atheist can observe that pattern in the documents as well as a theist. He can draw conclusions from it an act accordingly.

Even, James writes, in a "merely human world without a God" life can be "a genuinely ethical symphony," although in such a world the range of its octaves is narrow.

Why are they narrow? To understand that, we ought to back up and define the essence of James' moral vision. It has both a conservative and a rebellious side -- the conservative respects and defends the social equilibrium that has developed, against the savage or the fraudulent and the threats each presents. But the rebellious
says that no equilibrium is final, and puishes forward toward something more inclusive, more tolerant...higher.

A thoroughly secular view can grasp both halves of this vision, as a logical matter. But depth in contemplation of the human predicament, James says, will lead an ethical philosopher to wonder what motivates and what sustains the rebels who challenge the existing order and upon whose efforts the pattern of moral progress depends. In one passage in MPML James said that every one of "hundreds of ideals has its special champion already provided in the shape of some genius
expressly born to feel it, and to fight to death in its behalf".

Expressly born? A champion already provided? Provided by whom? The most natural hypothesis is that champions -- saints, we may call them, to recall the lectures on sainthood and its uses in VARIETIES -- they come to us and are sustained by what James near the end of "The Moral Philosopher" calls "a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands."


Henry said...

Why should we take such nonsense seriously? Where is James' evidence that every ideal has its "special champion already provided in the shape of some genius expressly born" to fight for it? Not having read the essay, I can only hope that he means it metaphorically -- that some people seem to have been born to fight for a particular ideal. If so, then their seeming that way can derive from some mix of nature and nurture that requires no supernatural being.

Christopher said...

Very briefly, Henry, because I know I won't persuade you that such ideas aren't nonsensical at all, but are within the scope of rational exercise for the will to believe, let me just address the issue of metaphor.

My own reading is that James wants to leave open to the secular reader the possibility of taking the passage I've quoted metaphorically. He believes most of his thesis in the essay can and should be persuasive whether one accepts what he sometimes called the "religious hypothesis" or not.

But after reading the final section of the essay, and then re-reading the earlier portion whence came that quote, one has to suspect he also meant it quite literally.

If you wish to decide for yourself what he meant, this is the age of the internet, when everybody can read everything.


Go to that URL and click on the third file on the list you'll see.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.