Joseph Spoerl


The American philosopher William James writes that “the radical question of life” is the question whether this is “a moral or unmoral universe.” (He says this in his essay “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in his collection The Will to Believe.) Is the universe merely material, something which just happens to be, with no mind or purpose or plan for good above it or before it? Or is there some objective standard of value either built into the universe or transcending it, so that it really, ultimately, matters how things go in the world, and how I live my life?

James points out that there is an enormous practical difference between the moral objectivist and the moral skeptic or subjectivist. The skeptic will have moral feelings and make moral judgments like the rest of us, if only because social convention and human nature require him to do so, but “when his moral feelings are at war with the facts about him, [he] is always free to seek harmony by toning down the sensitiveness of the feelings.” Since his moral feelings are mere brute data, neither good nor evil in themselves, he can lull them to sleep if doing so makes his life easier. In a society run by Nazis or slave-owners or the Mafia, toning down one’s conscience will be the surest route to a pleasant life.

The moral objectivist, however, is not free to sacrifice his moral principles when they clash with the world: “Resistance…, poverty, martyrdom if need be, tragedy in a word – such are the solemn feasts of his inward faith.”

Now let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there is no conclusive argument proving that the universe is moral or unmoral. After all, the evidence of our experience is mixed. In many ways the universe seems morally indifferent, oblivious to human suffering and injustice. And yet, our experience perhaps suggests to us the ultimate importance of values like love and justice, so that we do not feel free to abandon our commitment to such values when the going gets tough.

But here’s the rub: I have to decide how to live my life. Do I proceed on the assumption of moral objectivism (e.g. by believing in a God who is Love), or on the assumption of moral subjectivism (e.g. by believing that mindless matter is all there is)? We do not have the luxury of waiting to begin our lives after a period of indefinite reflection and investigation. Even as we reflect and investigate, we must act and choose. We are gamblers, staking our lives on an uncertain throw of the dice. Faith here is unavoidable, since “faith means belief in which something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible,” and it will always be possible to doubt both moral objectivism and moral subjectivism.

What kind of a world do you prefer? Here are your options: (1) a world in which the appearance of moral seriousness “is but a superficial glaze upon a world of fundamentally trivial import,” or (2) a world in which every choice you make is a matter of infinite seriousness, where “the nature of things is earnest infinitely.” To believe in the former is to run the risk of anaesthetizing yourself exactly when you most need to brace yourself for moral struggle: to stop Hitler and the Nazis, to end slavery, to rescue loved ones in dire straits. James is right to assert that “skepticism in moral matters is an active ally of immorality.” Since an act of faith is unavoidable no matter what, is it not most rational to believe in a moral universe? And does this not point also towards faith in a God of Love?

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the great 18th C. Scottish skeptic David Hume considers four hypotheses about the first cause (or causes) of the universe: “that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness or malice” (Part XI).

The first hypothesis is clearly false, he argues, given how much suffering and evil there is in the universe. But the second is also false, since there is also goodness in the universe alongside of all the evil. The third hypothesis is Manichaeism, the thesis that there are good and evil gods locked in eternal struggle; this Hume rejects on the grounds of the uniformity and steadiness of the laws of nature, which sometimes make us happy and at other times make us suffer. This leaves the fourth hypothesis as, in Hume’s judgment, “by far the most probable:” the causes or causes of the universe is or are completely indifferent to our happiness. It is (or they are) neither benevolent nor malicious. On Hume’s view, the most that human reason can establish is that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Part XII, penultimate paragraph).

The presence of evil in the universe is a standing challenge to the belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, as Hume never tires in pointing out. But is the notion of a morally indifferent God really all that probable? Or does it, too, face some challenges?  The cause of the universe cannot be morally indifferent in the way that the laws of physics are indifferent, since whatever caused the universe must be the author of the laws of physics. But why would a being cause the universe and its laws to exist? If this being acted freely, then it presumably acted for a reason. To act for a reason is to act for a goal that one judges to be good. A creator acting before there is a world and causing that world to be can only be acting for the sake of some good, and (before anything else is) that good can only be itself. If we conceive of the causing of the universe as a free act of an agent, then, we cannot conceive of it as being morally indifferent.

On the other hand, we might view the cause of the universe as operating by a kind of necessary emanation, not a free act of creation or initiation. The problem with this is that the universe does not seem necessary. It seems, rather, to be one of many possible universes. It seems shot through with contingency. It does not have to be the way it is. This suggests that the first cause of the universe made something like a free choice of this universe and its laws and not some other. We are back, then to the question of why it acted at all, and this leads away from the thesis that it is morally indifferent.

Hume is right to point out the difficulties in the notion of a perfect God who creates an imperfect universe, but his solution of a morally indifferent creator has its own problems.

Our society is increasingly sensitive to the ways in which hateful speech can lead to violent actions or discrimination against people based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national background. This is a good thing: we all have a moral obligation to be courteous and respectful in the way we talk to and about each other. In speech as in all other actions, we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Moreover, hateful stereotypes can indeed foment discrimination or even violence (witness the Matthew Shepard tragedy).

However, the category of impermissible speech seems to be widening all the time, and this can pose some problems for freedom of speech and inquiry. Consider some examples. The mother of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who took his own life after being secretly filmed in an intimate act with a man, has recently left her evangelical Christian church because that church teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong. She now believes that such teaching helps to create the homophobia that drove her son to suicide. In Canada, where hate speech is illegal, some Christian pastors have been prosecuted merely for condemning homosexual activity from the pulpit. Some Christian theologians, seeking to overcome centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, have called for Christian churches to stop teaching that Jews ought to convert to Christianity or that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism as a religion. Many people today who criticize Islam are attacked as Islamophobes, since a negative opinion of Islam could lead to discrimination against Muslims. Pro-life activists are sometimes blamed for attacks on abortion clinics or providers, merely because they condemn abortion.

Such thinking seems to take mere moral or religious disagreements and elevate them to the level of impermissible speech. The reasoning seems to be that certain moral or religious judgments have been associated with hateful, violent, or discriminatory actions in the past, so such judgments must now be abandoned to avoid such abuses. I see four problems with this reasoning.

First, moral and religious disagreement is an irreducible aspect of the human condition. Such disagreements are not going to end anytime soon.

Second, the problem is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way the conflicting positions are expressed. One can express a principled opposition to homosexual activity, for example, using language that is restrained, respectful, and non-abusive, or one can express it in abusive or hateful ways. The latter is wrong; the former is not. We should focus on educating people to express their differing moral and religious beliefs in language that is as fair and as respectful and as courteous as possible. But surely it is utopian to tell them to stop disagreeing at all.

Third, the range of beliefs that have been associated with violent, abusive, or intolerant behavior is huge. Atheism was part of the official ideology of Communist countries that brutally persecuted religious believers for decades. Should we tell atheists to abandon atheism because of the crimes of some other atheists? Adolf Hitler and the Nazis incorporated Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetic theory into their racist ideology. Should we tell biologists to stop teaching these theories because they have been associated with a violent and repressive political movement? The language of universal human rights was an integral part of the French Revolution, which led to the Reign of Terror and the imperialism and tyranny of Napoleon. Should we abandon any talk of universal human rights for this reason?

Fourthly and finally, there is a self-referential logical problem with telling people to abandon moral or religious positions that have been associated with violence or intolerance or discrimination. Not long ago a gay-rights-activist shot a security guard at the office of an anti-gay-marriage organization in a Washington DC suburb of Virginia. If moral opposition to gay marriage or gay sex is wrong because it has been associated with violence against gays in some times and places, must we now say that a pro-gay-rights position is wrong for the same reason? Is everyone thus morally obliged simply to stop talking about gay marriage, the moral status of gay sex, or the dangers of homophobia? This is a reductio ad absurdum of the failure to distinguish between mere moral or religious disagreement, on the one hand, and truly hateful speech, on the other.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Wolf writes, “the beauty of the world, which is soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” The experience of beauty is like that: we take joy in beauty, yet even in the midst of that joy, we are saddened by our awareness of its transience. All good things must come to an end: the colors in fall, fresh snow in winter, the innocence and spontaneity of a child, the very lives of the people we love so much.

Surely the anguish of losing the things that matter most to us and render our lives meaningful is one of the principal things motivating religious belief. William James says that at the heart of religious faith is the belief that “perfection is eternal,” that is, that the best things are the more eternal things, so that ultimately goodness has the final word in cosmic history. The atheist alternative is to say that the best things – love, goodness, beauty – are temporary and fairly recent aspects of cosmic history and will ultimately disappear without a trace, swallowed up by an indifferent universe.

Some philosophers, like William James, think that religious belief is warranted because our lives are made richer, more purposive, and more meaningful by believing that “goodness is eternal.” Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, heap scorn on this as weakness and cowardice in the face of reality. For Nietzsche, Plato emblemizes this sort of cowardice: Plato longs for the “ideal” (Goodness Itself) and devalues the “real” (life as it is here and now). In a revealing passage in his Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche tells us, “My recreation, my predilection, my cure for all Platonism has always been Thucydides” (and also Machiavelli). What Nietzsche likes about Thucydides is his brutal, uncomplaining, matter-of-fact honesty in describing and accepting the world as it is. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the Athenians responding as follows when other Greeks criticized Athenian imperialism: “It has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger… calculations of interest have made you take up the cry of justice – a consideration which no one has ever yet brought forward to hinder his ambition when he had a chance of gaining anything by might. … the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  It is surely this passage and others like it that Nietzsche has in mind when praising Thucydides. Nietzsche contrasts Plato and Thucydides as follows: “Courage in the face of reality is…the point of difference between natures such as Thucydides and Plato. Plato is a coward in the face of reality – consequently, he flees into the ideal; Thucydides has control over himself – consequently he also has control over things.”

Are Plato and William James really just cowards who can’t deal with reality? Hardly. In fact, they are careful thinkers who strive, in their very different ways, to be attentive and faithful to a central aspect of human experience. To love something or someone is to be committed to that value or that person. This attitude of commitment is logically incompatible with any attitude of indifference to, or any devaluing of, the thing or person in question, with merely shrugging one’s shoulders when that value or person is violated. Nietzsche’s contempt for Plato (and Christianity), and his glorification of Thucydides and Machiavelli, mean that he has contempt for the justice that was violated so cynically by the Athenians and for the human lives that have been destroyed in every unjust war ever waged. To love is to feel anguish at any violation of what one loves. To renounce such anguish as cowardice is to reject the commitment that is its flip side.

Of course, it is possible to reject Nietzsche’s repugnant cynicism while not embracing theism. One could be an agnostic or atheist who affirms the importance and objectivity of moral norms. Derek Parfit and Albert Camus both fall into this category. Yet I cannot help but think that such a view must leave one constantly vulnerable to despair. Indeed, for Camus the contrast between the strength of his moral commitments and the indifference of the universe was a paradigm case of absurdity. If the universe is absurd, why should we care so much about it? How can one care so much about it and avoid despair, unless one believes that “perfection is eternal,” and thus that absurdity is only the appearance of things and not the ultimate reality?

Scholars commonly divide religions into two main categories, revealed and non-
revealed. Revealed religions are those that rest on a body of writings (scriptures) that
allegedly are “revealed” to us by God: the Torah, the Gospels, the Koran, the Book of
Mormon, etc. One of the more puzzling things about revealed religion is the challenge of
discerning which (if any) of these writings really emanate from God. How can I know
that human authors alone are not responsible for them? Is not human history rife with
frauds, charlatans, gulls, and lunatics? How can I responsibly believe the claims of any
revealed religion?
The problem is exacerbated by those proponents of revealed religion who exclude
at the outset any use of natural reason as a means of testing allegedly revealed scriptures.
The dominant school of theology in Sunni Islam, the Asharite school, asserts that “the
mind is unable to know the mind of Allah … except by means of His messengers and
inspired books….The good is not what reason considers good, nor the bad what reason
considers bad….The measure of good and bad…is the Sacred Law, not reason.” The
Christian Protestant theologian John Calvin urges human beings “to renounce their
reason, their carnal desires, and themselves entirely, that they may be brought into
obedience to God alone…” These writers suggest that human reason is simply too weak
and fallible to be used to test or evaluate the infallible word of God Almighty. Calvin
also seems to suggest that relying on one’s own reason is impious, since it is
incompatible with absolute obedience to God alone.
The Asharite and Calvinist approaches strike me as very dubious and even
dangerous. To renounce our own reason because it is fallible is simply incoherent:
fallible as it is, it is all we have, and we have no choice but to use it to distinguish
plausible from implausible claims, whether those claims are allegedly revealed or not.
The Asharites and Calvinists surely use their own reason to make some initial assessment
of whether the Bible is more likely to emanate from God than the Koran, or vice-versa.
They may claim that God is doing all the work for them – illuminating their minds and
moving their wills with his grace – but this is a retrospective explanation of what seems
like a clear instance of individuals doing something, namely, inquiring, thinking,
assessing and reasoning. Moreover, it is morally dangerous and irresponsible to abandon
one’s natural sense of right and wrong on the grounds that “God knows better” and has
revealed things that seem immoral from the standpoint of natural reason. This opens the
path to the worst sorts of fanaticism, intolerance, and religious violence. If an alleged
body of revealed scripture contains teachings that your conscience tells you are
manifestly immoral, that in itself is a good reason for rejecting the claim that the writings
represent God’s will.
But now we have a new problem. If revelation must be tested by reason before it
is believed, we run the risk of making revelation superfluous. If I should only believe
what my reason can confirm independently of revelation, then why consult revelation at
all? Why not just stick with “religion within the bounds of reason alone,” to borrow a
phrase from Immanuel Kant? We seem to be caught on the horns of a dilemma: either we
abandon our reason and make a blind leap of faith, or we rely on our reason and reject the
very idea of revealed religion.
But maybe there is a third possibility. Maybe we can insist that revelation must
be rational at least in the sense of not violating what we know naturally (logic, science,
morality), while being open to the possibility of learning things from revelation that we
could not discover by unaided reason alone. After all, if God is the transcendent creator
of everything and stands outside of the created order, then God is utterly different from
the creatures within that order. It stands to reason that God is above and outside of
our concepts and categories and may have things to tell us that reason alone could not
discover. If reason and revelation flow from the same God, they must both be reliable
sources of truth about God and they cannot contradict each other. They may partly
overlap, but they may also complement each other without completely overlapping:
that is, one could tell us things that the other does not, without the two clashing in any
fundamental way. Perhaps it is reasonable to be open to the possibility of truths that
reason alone could never know.

Scholars commonly divide religions into two main categories, revealed and non-revealed. Revealed religions are those that rest on a body of writings (scriptures) that allegedly are “revealed” to us by God: the Torah, the Gospels, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc. One of the more puzzling things about revealed religion is the challenge of discerning which (if any) of these writings really emanate from God. How can I know that human authors alone are not responsible for them? Is not human history rife with frauds, charlatans, gulls, and lunatics? How can I responsibly believe the claims of any revealed religion?

The problem is exacerbated by those proponents of revealed religion who exclude at the outset any use of natural reason as a means of testing allegedly revealed scriptures. The dominant school of theology in Sunni Islam, the Asharite school, asserts that “the mind is unable to know the mind of Allah … except by means of His messengers and inspired books….The good is not what reason considers good, nor the bad what reason considers bad….The measure of good and bad…is the Sacred Law, not reason.” The Christian Protestant theologian John Calvin urges human beings “to renounce their reason, their carnal desires, and themselves entirely, that they may be brought into obedience to God alone…” These writers suggest that human reason is simply too weak and fallible to be used to test or evaluate the infallible word of God Almighty. Calvin also seems to suggest that relying on one’s own reason is impious, since it is incompatible with absolute obedience to God alone.

The Asharite and Calvinist approaches strike me as very dubious and even dangerous. To renounce our own reason because it is fallible is simply incoherent: fallible as it is, it is all we have, and we have no choice but to use it to distinguish plausible from implausible claims, whether those claims are allegedly revealed or not. The Asharites and Calvinists surely use their own reason to make some initial assessment of whether the Bible is more likely to emanate from God than the Koran, or vice-versa. They may claim that God is doing all the work for them – illuminating their minds and moving their wills with his grace – but this is a retrospective explanation of what seems like a clear instance of individuals doing something, namely, inquiring, thinking, assessing and reasoning. Moreover, it is morally dangerous and irresponsible to abandon one’s natural sense of right and wrong on the grounds that “God knows better” and has revealed things that seem immoral from the standpoint of natural reason. This opens the path to the worst sorts of fanaticism, intolerance, and religious violence. If an alleged body of revealed scripture contains teachings that your conscience tells you are manifestly immoral, that in itself is a good reason for rejecting the claim that the writings represent God’s will.

But now we have a new problem. If revelation must be tested by reason before it is believed, we run the risk of making revelation superfluous. If I should only believe what my reason can confirm independently of revelation, then why consult revelation at all? Why not just stick with “religion within the bounds of reason alone,” to borrow a phrase from Immanuel Kant? We seem to be caught on the horns of a dilemma: either we abandon our reason and make a blind leap of faith, or we rely on our reason and reject the very idea of revealed religion.

But maybe there is a third possibility. Maybe we can insist that revelation must be rational at least in the sense of not violating what we know naturally (logic, science, morality), while being open to the possibility of learning things from revelation that we could not discover by unaided reason alone. After all, if God is the transcendent creator of everything and stands outside of the created order, then God is utterly different from the creatures within that order. It stands to reason that God is above and outside of our concepts and categories and may have things to tell us that reason alone could not discover. If reason and revelation flow from the same God, they must both be reliable sources of truth about God and they cannot contradict each other. They may partly overlap, but they may also complement each other without completely overlapping: that is, one could tell us things that the other does not, without the two clashing in any fundamental way. Perhaps it is reasonable to be open to the possibility of truths that reason alone could never know.

A high priority at colleges and universities across the country is promoting awareness of and tolerance for cultural diversity. Students and faculty are urged to learn and teach about non-Western cultures and to show respect for all of the world’s cultures. Jokes, stereotypes, or derogatory language aimed at any culture are strongly discouraged and even punished. The goal is to create an atmosphere of civility and respect and to promote understanding in our diverse and interconnected world.  At a school like Saint Anselm, there is a religious motivation behind these efforts as well. The Christian gospel of love requires that we treat others as we would like to be treated, that we love our neighbor as ourselves. And as Jesus makes clear in the Gospels, everyone on earth is our neighbor.

We should all welcome these reminders of the duty to treat others with respect and charity. And yet it is also important to resist and preempt mistaken interpretations of multiculturalism and its associated virtues (tolerance, respect, charity). Some people seem to think that tolerance for cultural diversity requires denying that any culture or religion is superior to others in any way. Cultural relativists assert that one can make moral judgments only from the standpoint of one’s own culture and that one must therefore never make moral evaluations of cultures other than one’s own. Such evaluations, when negative, will often be criticized as manifestations of pernicious biases or of imperialistic designs on other lands (“demonizing the non-Western Other”).

The problem with cultural relativism is that it undermines the very case for tolerance that it wishes to strengthen. Charity and respect are moral values, after all, and if one must not “impose” one’s moral values on other cultures, then one has no grounds for condemning intolerance and imperialism when these are sanctioned by custom in other countries. To condemn oppression of religious or ethnic minorities or of women in foreign lands, for instance, is not to engage in intolerant or “imperialistic” thinking. It is, rather, to follow the logical implications of the very moral principles that lead us to condemn such practices in our own culture. Taking morality seriously means recognizing that it is more than just a set of arbitrary cultural prejudices. If the gospel of Christian love is a mere cultural prejudice, then we would be very foolish indeed to make any serious sacrifices in order to abide by it, let alone be martyred for it.

A further point is that educational institutions are devoted to the pursuit of truth. Following evidence and logic wherever they might lead is central to what teachers and students do. Pursuing the truth about culture, religion, or morality can lead one to conclusions that might make others (including the Other) uncomfortable, or even angry. Pursuing understanding (in the sense of knowledge) might undermine understanding (in the sense of sympathy or cordial relations with others). As we seek to promote understanding in the latter sense, it is important for us to remind ourselves that sometimes understanding in the former sense is the more fundamental value at an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.

Abortion is more often debated than defined. But what exactly are people disagreeing about when they disagree about abortion? A definition would seem desirable so as to avoid merely verbal disputes. If one person says abortion is always wrong, and another denies this, they may merely mean different things by “abortion” and not really have a substantive moral disagreement. So a clear definition seems desirable.


Abortion cannot be defined as the intentional, premature termination of a pregnancy, because an early induced labor or Caesarean section issuing in a healthy, viable child is also the intentional, premature termination of a pregnancy. Is abortion the intentional, premature termination of a pregnancy with the (further) intention to kill the child (fetus, embryo)? Certainly some types of abortion involve the intention to kill the fetus. For example, a saline injection abortion requires a precisely calibrated saline solution strong enough to kill the fetus before labor is induced. A partial-birth (or “dilation and extraction”) abortion of a viable (third trimester) fetus requires the puncturing of the skull and evacuation of the brain before the head leaves the womb; delivery of a living, viable fetus would entail the legal obligation to render life-saving medical care to the newborn, for it would be considered a person under the law, so clearly there is an intention to kill before completing delivery. A live-birth abortion involves the intentional inducing of labor before viability, issuing in a live but non-viable baby which is then set on a table and allowed to die. Is this an act of intentional killing? It would seem to be so, at least in most cases, since the procedure is intentionally initiated before viability to avoid the legal duty to render life-saving medical care to the born baby. The whole point is to deliver a live baby that one can then legally abandon and so cause to die. But can we imagine a woman choosing a live-birth abortion merely to get the baby out, without actually intending to cause its death? Perhaps. Imagine the victim of a rape who merely wants to get the rapist’s baby out of her body. She may foresee the death of the baby without intending it.


So there may be a problem with defining an abortion as the intentional, premature termination of a pregnancy with the further intention of causing the death of the fetus (embryo, baby). The most common abortion methods focus on evacuating the contents of the womb with suction-aspiration machines and/or loop-shaped knives or forceps, ensuring the killing of the embryo or fetus in the process; chemical abortions with RU-486 do the same without surgical intervention. In such abortions the woman’s intention may be, not to kill the child, but merely to render herself unpregnant. Again, imagine the victim of a rape thinking “I want it OUT of me!” The death of the child may be the unintended though foreseen side-effect of the only technically practical means of getting the embryo out of her at that point of the pregnancy. Even if she is not intending the death of the embryo, she still is getting an abortion. Or consider abortifacient means of birth control, like IUDs, or (sometimes) the pill or the morning-after pill. Abortifacients allow conception but prevent the implantation of a very early embryo in the womb, thus ensuring the death of the embryo. Does the woman necessarily intend the death of the embryo? She surely intends not to be pregnant. But her intention may merely be that – to end her pregnancy, accepting the death of the embryo as a foreseeable yet unintended side-effect.


Perhaps we can define abortion as the intentional, premature termination of a pregnancy by a means that foreseeably causes the death of the unborn embryo or fetus. (If we can describe a woman as pregnant from the moment conception occurs in her Fallopian tube, then we can also describe at least some abortifacients, e.g. IUDs, as terminating very early pregnancies; the pill and the morning-after pill are admittedly problematic since their effects are harder to foresee, for they can prevent either ovulation or implantation.) If this definition is a good one, then it is neither too broad nor too narrow; is ethically neutral, embodying no moral evaluation of abortion; avoids circularity; etc. Ethical neutrality is especially important here, since opponents and defenders of abortion must be able to agree at least on what they are debating. Note that in implying that some abortions may involve unintentional killing the definition does not tacitly approve of such abortions. Unintentional killing can be morally permissible or not depending on a host of additional factors. The neutrality of the definition allows us to separate the moral evaluation of abortion from the definition of the term.

The New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was given to exclaiming, “I accept the universe!” The British writer Thomas Carlyle, upon hearing this, commented: “Gad! She’d better.”

What does it mean to accept the universe? It might merely mean recognizing facts as facts. But it could also mean affirming the goodness of the universe (or at least its non-badness), and I suspect this is what Ms. Fuller meant. The goal of a good many philosophers and theologians down through the ages has been to accept the universe in the sense of affirming its goodness (or at least its indifference). The chief impediment to such acceptance has always been the inconvenient fact that we human beings are all destined to suffer and die. For example, Epicurus, the ancient Greek atomist, maintained that death is not, in fact, an evil, since all good or evil is in sensation, and death is merely the privation of sensation; pain, in turn, is easily avoided during life, by keeping our appetites few and simple, and by debunking the superstitions that make us fear the gods. Cynics, Stoics, Socratics, Pyrrhonists, Epicureans, Pythagoreans, etc. arrive at a striking consensus on the human condition: The key to happiness is that we should calmly and without passion accept whatever happens to us as either good or at least indifferent. We should accept the universe, not curse it or struggle against it. Indeed, some (e.g. Plato and Pythagoras) go so far as to tell us that death is positively good for us, as it liberates us from our imprisoning bodies.

The problem with all of this is, of course, that it is a big steaming load of horse droppings. Death is an evil, for it means the end of the person I am, the termination of all my hopes and projects and relationships. It deprives me of people I love and without whom I cannot be happy. (For what does it mean to love another, if not that that person’s happiness and presence are both essential to my own happiness?) We all dread death, not (pace Epicurus) because we are ignorant and superstitious, but because we have far more common sense than most ancient Greek philosophers (here I except Aristotle, who had lots of common sense on this very point and on many others, too).

The Second Vatican Council has the following to say about the human condition: “Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his own body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death…” (Gaudium et Spes #18). To be a Christian is to be a rebel against the universe. To affirm the resurrection of the body, the possibility of redemption, and the duty to struggle against sin, poverty and injustice is to reject the universe, not to accept it. Like so many ancient Greek philosophers before them, Margaret Fuller and Thomas Carlyle could have benefited from a dose of Christian common sense.

The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.


-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding

http://www.amazon.com/Inquiry-Concerning-Human-Understanding/dp/002353110X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103665&sr=1-3


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.



-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements

http://www.amazon.com/Euclids-Elements-T-L-Heath-Translation/dp/1888009195/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222103502&sr=8-1

Albert Camus- The Stranger

http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Albert-Camus/dp/0679720200/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222102515&sr=1-2



-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Saint Augustine’s Confessions

http://www.amazon.com/Augustine-Confessions-Oxford-Worlds-Classics/dp/0192833723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104161&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Englishconfessions.html


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations

http://www.amazon.com/Meditations-Penguin-Classics-Marcus-Aurelius/dp/0140449337/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104796&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html

Slavoj Zizek

Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books

http://www.amazon.com/Violence-Big-Ideas-Small-Books/dp/0312427182/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222283299&sr=1-1


-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-monologium.html

Proslogium

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anselm-proslogium.html



-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy

http://www.amazon.com/Problems-Philosophy-Bertrand-Russell/dp/160597899X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104969&sr=8-3

Online edition

http://books.google.com/books?id=33jP5wdnt7YC&dq=the+problems+of+philosophy&pg=PP1&ots=iYnhLWaJnI&sig=IsMx9A1hbcpsZWLGZFZ40Ihs56Y&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA3,M1


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex

http://www.amazon.com/Oedipus-Rex-Literary-Touchstone-Sophocles/dp/1580495931/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105258&sr=8-1



-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich

http://www.amazon.com/Death-Ilyich-Stories-Wordsworth-Classics/dp/1840224533/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105435&sr=1-3

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act

http://www.amazon.com/Josef-Pieper-Anthology/dp/0898702267/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222282616&sr=8-2


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”

http://www.peirce.org/writings/p107.html

Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief

http://www.amazon.com/Belief-Unbelief-Self-Knowledge-Michael-Novak/dp/1560007419


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias

http://www.amazon.com/Gorgias-Penguin-Classics-Plato/dp/0140449043/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222106429&sr=8-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/gorgias.html

Plato- The Republic

http://www.amazon.com/Republic-Plato/dp/0872207366/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222104060&sr=1-1

Online edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

Plato- The Apology

http://www.amazon.com/Euthyphro-Apology-Crito-Phaedo-Philosophy/dp/0879754966/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1222105582&sr=1-4

Online Edition

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

The Golden Rule tells us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” What exactly is the Golden Rule telling us to do? There are several possible interpretations.

It could be telling me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while keeping all of my current preferences intact. Thus, if I love loud rock music at all hours of the day and night, turning up my stereo at 3:00 a.m. would be treating my sleeping neighbors as I would wish to be treated. Hmmmm –somehow that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the Golden Rule, does it? As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you – their tastes might be different!”

Another interpretation is that it could be directing me to treat others as I would wish to be treated if I traded places with them while assuming all of their preferences. This leads to a more favorable outcome for my sleeping neighbor who really hates being woken up at 3:00 a.m. However, what if my neighbor is a masochist who loves being beaten, or a sadist who wants to beat me up? Surely I can’t be obligated to set aside my aversion to beating or being beaten just to humor a pervert living next door.

One solution here might be to weigh and compare the preferences involved. If I really hate beating or being beaten as much as my neighbor loves the opposite, then my neighbor’s application of the Golden Rule to me would cancel out my application of it to him. After all, we both ought to be following the Golden Rule. And my sleeping neighbor’s interest in sleep is much stronger than my desire to hear loud music at 3:00 a.m., so he is not violating the Golden Rule by asking me to turn down the volume. So maybe what the Golden Rule is demanding is that I view the preferences of all those affected by an action from the viewpoint of an impartial spectator who benevolently wants to maximize the satisfaction of everyone’s preferences. Think of two people in the check-out line at the grocery store, one with a full cart and one with a gallon of milk. If I have the full cart, I should let the guy with the milk go first, even if I am next in line and have to wait a bit longer as a result. A minor wait for me is better, from an impartial standpoint, than a long wait for him.

But consider a problem with this approach. Suppose I have only a moderate aversion to hurting people, while my masochistic neighbor has a passion for being beaten. If I am obliged by the Golden Rule to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, then it seems I morally ought to beat him. Surely this can’t be right. I am reminded of a line from the movie Jesus of Montreal, spoken by a female character who was having a sexual affair with a Catholic priest. When asked why she was doing this, she answered, “Because it gives him so much pleasure and me so little pain.” Was she just following the Golden Rule!??! Surely not!

What have we missed? Just this, I think: The Golden Rule cannot be applied in the absence of some other moral rules for assessing preferences. Some preferences are inherently debased and have no claim on satisfaction, as with the sadist and masochist (and the wandering priest). Some desires are for things that hurt and degrade us; others are for things that genuinely build us up and help us to flourish. Perhaps the Golden Rule is really telling us to help others and not harm them, just as we wish others to refrain from harming us and to help us when they can do so at no unreasonable cost to themselves. And an important aspect of helping and harming has to do with respecting our dignity as persons. As John Stuart Mill observes in Utilitarianism, our unwillingness to sink into “a lower grade of existence” is rooted in “a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or another.” Helping and harming must be defined in terms of some account of what it means to flourish as a human being, to lead a fulfilled human life. Thus, an account of human flourishing is necessary for us to know how to follow the Golden Rule.

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