November 2007

Philosophy Colloquium
November 27, 2007

Predrag Cicovacki

Holy Cross College

Albert Schweitzer: A Reexamination

of His Ethics

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Lecture Handout (PDF file)

(Professor Cicovacki will also be publishing a paper on a related topic (“Reverence for Life: A Moral Value or the Moral Value?”) in the next issue of the LYCEUM coming in December at http//

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A Bloggy Thought

Some of the discussion around political candidates and officials these days has centered around issues of loyalty.  What actions can be expected of supporters or subordinates if they are loyal?  What if loyalty is the sole criterion of appointing someone to a position?  This introduction of the discourse of loyalty into recent controversies has led me to recall a few salient thoughts from Josiah Royce.

Royce was a Californian who taught at Harvard from 1871 to 1916.  He sought to build an entire ethical theory around the virtue of loyalty.  I do not think that broad claim can be sustained, but he gave a normative definition of loyalty as essentially a willing, practical, loving, thorough-going commitment of a person to a cause.  I just want to focus on one aspect of this.  When Royce considers the process of reflection that develops when one contemplates which of different courses of action will be genuinely loyal, he points out that this virtue itself requires integrity.   To act without intelligence, without following one’s own best judgment, but especially in any way which risks distorting the truth, are ultimately each detrimental to the cause which one wishes to support.  The parent who lies to a child is at risk of never regaining a loyal trust.  The explanation that the reason one acted unfairly was because of a slavish devotion to a friend, only reveals a self-serving inability to challenge that friend to be his or her best self.  Pushing this submission of one’s power of will to unjustly serve the interests of one’s friend can often be seen to anticipate the descriptions someone like Sartre would assign to “Bad Faith.”  Genuine loyalty, practical and consistent, never serves merely as an excuse.  The whole point of seeing loyal actions as distinct from behavior forced by an external compulsion would be lost if this would work.  Test it out.  Some authority might force conformity of behavior from you, but cannot force your feeling and commitment of loyalty.

Perhaps some would think this is building too much external moral content into the direct experience of the virtue.   But it seems to me that “blind” loyalty is not loyalty at all.

There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. ‘This is against my principles!’ he said. . . . And he was punished for that… that is, . . . he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometres in the dark . . . Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometres, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. ‘I won’t go, I refuse on principle!’ . . . “Well, is he lying there now?” “That’s the point, that he isn’t. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on.” “What an ass!” cried Ivan, laughing nervously and still seeming to be pondering something intently. “Does it make any difference whether he lies there for ever or walks the quadrillion kilometres? It would take a billion years to walk it?” . . . “Well, well, what happened when he arrived?” “Why, the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in; before he had been there two seconds, . . . he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometres but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power.” (The Brothers Karamazov , Book XI, Chapter IX.)

What do you do when you have lost hope? Do you continue to pour water frantically onto a fire which continues to burn out of control? Do you brush your teeth on the day of your execution? Do you continue writing the 7th chapter of your 25 chapter novel as your vitality ebbs away on the last day of your life?

In some ways our age is characterized, more than anything else, by a type of despair. All of us are in despair in some respects. Most of us have despaired of escaping death; of persisting in any of our earthly activities without end; of holding onto the things we care about forever. Some of us have despaired of being the person we hope to be, of loving the people we care about as we should. Some of us have despaired of being able to transform the world; of repairing all wrongs; of helping all those in need. Much of our lives takes the form of escaping or dealing with these and other types of despair. The question of the logic of despair is the central question of our time.

Some of our actions have meaning only within the context of a completed whole in which they make sense and which constitutes their value. It would seem that a loss of faith in the possibility of the completion of the whole should destroy our ability to take these types of actions seriously. (This might appear to be the case in each of the examples above.)

It may seem that sometimes we are still capable of throwing ourselves into other activities and values that are not constituted by the whole in which we have lost faith. We can still enjoy a sandwich even after we give up on saving our house from the fire. Sometimes we view this as healthy, as when we throw ourselves into volunteer work after having lost out beloved child; and sometimes as unhealthy, as when we lose ourselves in alcohol or video games after flunking out of school.

Irrespective of how we make the distinction between these good and bad ways of escaping despair into values that are not affected by it, the story from Dostoevsky above suggests a more fundamental way of dealing with despair, even with respect to the very values that are constituted by the faith we have lost. It suggest that it is illogical to abandon these values even in the face of despair, despite the fact that it may appear paradoxical to continue to pursue them; that it is illogical to stop caring for what we love even under conditions in which our love cannot find expression.

What is the argument? Why is failing to walk in the direction of your dreams illogical even when you have lost faith in those dreams? Is it enough to be on your way, even if you have lost faith in the destination?

Why sport?  One of the great loves of my life (and many other people’s lives) is sport.  Whether it is professional football, Saint Anselm hockey, town youth soccer, pickup basketball games, or nerdy homeschoolers’ gym games, I enjoy them all.  I take great delight in playing, watching, and coaching.  But why?  I don’t think the history of philosophy is very helpful on providing insight into the value of sport.  Sport is typically viewed, from that vantage point, as the stuff of children, or as a preoccupation of the ill-bred, or a positive distraction for the rest of us.  Perhaps the Industrial Revolution was required to free human beings from their painful awareness of the mind-numbing, exhausting, endless toil that their survival theretofore required and then to reveal the positive value of sport.

In any case, I think that sport is one of the great delights in life because excellence in bodily activity simply for the sake of that excellence is one of the great values in life.  It is a value up there with friendship, knowledge, beauty, health, and life itself.  It is not for the sake of health and fitness, though it can serve those purposes.  It is not for the sake of building character traits such as courage, teamwork, and time-management skills, though it can serve those purposes too.  It is not merely to build friendships or to cement business deals.  It is not merely to amuse ourselves after more weighty affairs have worn us down and before we return to the real business of life.  Rather, it is simply worth doing, observing, and teaching for its own sake.

Why sport is worth doing is something of a puzzle.  I suspect that the solution lies in an anti-Cartesian, non-dualism.  We are not minds in bodies.  We are bodily willing minds, or willful mindful bodies, or minding bodying wills.  Thought, decision, and movement are difficult to orchestrate, and their orchestration itself can be an object of beauty, delight, and admiration.

The objections to this assessment of sport are, of course, commonly heard.  They occur to all of us.  “Not everyone likes sports.”  Oh, really?  I have never met such a person.  When people say they do not like sports, what they really mean is that they do like certain (usually team) sports.  Who does not like some form of bodily activity, whether it is skipping rocks on a pond, sledding in the snow, or shooting an arrow at a target?  “The surfer dude and ski bum are hardly worthy of our admiration.”  Insofar as he surfs or she skis and do so well, he or she is, but insofar as he is a dude and she is a bum, perhaps neither is.  “Surely many things are more important in life –feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, surviving threats to our national identity, and coping with our own mortality.”  No doubt, many things are by many measuring sticks more something or other –more urgent, or more irretrievable when lost, or more necessary, or more profitable, and so forth.  But were everyone fed, sheltered, secure, and well adjusted, what then?  What would we do?  Play sports, among other things.  Moreover, measured by other standards, sports score quite high.  They are especially accessible, for example.  The young, the old, the physically disabled, and the mentally deficient can all play.  Some open space, perhaps a ball, and the game is on.  They are also easily recognized and appreciated.  Witness the throngs and smiles at sporting complexes as opposed to the sparse crowds and blank faces at museums of fine art.  They are especially humanizing, as well.  The funny-looking person from a strange place who does not even speak my language immediately becomes my trusted teammate or worthy opponent when we play the game.

So, play the game, practice a skill, be a fan, instruct a kid, or coach a team.  Just do it.

What is charity?  In what does it consist?  When is it present?  And, what does it require from us?  We typically think of charity as a kind of superlative, a kind of virtue.  Something not present in our everyday life, but something to which all people of good will esteem.  It thus not a kind of quotidian actuality, but a kind of excellent potentiality – a goal to be striven for.  As such it is exemplified in what we call “charity work,” a kind of extraordinary exercise deliberately engaged in at times, or in those rare cases, committed to as a kind of vocation.  In both cases charity is seen as something done “en plus” to the everyday and thus praise worthy.  In line with this, charity is typically seen as flowing out of a kind of generosity or as emergent from some kind of surplus or abundance which overflows from some spiritual or material storehouse.  This, I would argue however, is a contemporary corruption of the concept of charity and not at all in keeping with what the scriptures teach or what experience testifies to.

Our word charity, of course, has its origin in the Latin caritas meaning love, which is the romantic equivalent to the Greek agape.  Charity is thus what is referred to in John 4:16 when the apostle writes that “God is Love (Deus caritas est)” as it is what the faithful are called to in Matthew 22:36-40 when Jesus teaches that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  In order to understand the nature of charity then, we must attempt to understand the nature of love – we must ask: what is love? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor and what does this kind of love demand of us?  I propose to investigate the nature of love qua caritas/agape in two ways, first scripturally and then phenomenologically.

Perhaps the clearest scriptural call to this kind of love can be found in Luke 6:27-30 when Jesus teaches that we should love our enemies.  This he proposes we do by “do[ing] good to those who hate you, bless[ing] those who curse you, [and] pray[ing] for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”  Love, it seems here, is not about giving out of one’s surplus, but giving unto one’s very deficit.  It is thus not merely to clothe the naked from out of one’s excess (giving them our cloak), but to clothe the naked from that which is our very own, that which we seemingly cannot live without (our tunic, our undergarments).  Love, it seems, requires of us a kind of sacrifice, it requires that we go beyond the seemingly reasonable request for our excesses into the demand for our very own.  It seems to consist then in a kind of substitution, we must make ourselves naked to clothe the nakedness of the neighbor, we must make ourselves hungry to feed the hunger of the poor. Love is what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called “taking the bread from out of one’s own mouth.”  This sacrifice from out of one’s very own is exemplified in the love Abraham shows for God in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22) and in the Widow who sacrifices here last mite/penny to the coffer designated, ironically, for the poor (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:2) but is a theme which is equally present throughout the scriptures.  Think for example of Cain (Genesis 4:1-8) who offended the Lord by only giving out of his excess, the “fruits of the ground,” in contrast to his brother Abel who gave from his “first fruits,” offering the “first born” of his flock, and in doing so pleased the Lord (remember that it is the result of this difference in treatment that Cain murders Abel – drawing an obvious parallel that to merely give from one’s excess is tantamount to murder of one’s neighbor).  Remember as well that this practice of sacrificing from one’s own most, from one’s first fruits, became Law to the Jews (cf. Deuteronomy 18:4, 26:1-11, Leviticus 2:12-14, 23:9-14) the idea being that the first fruits of every harvest would be set aside either to be burnt as an offering to the Lord or to be consecrated to the poor (note here that love for the Lord is a blessing to the poor/neighbor).  Throughout the scriptures love is exemplified in this way, as a sacrifice, as a demand upon us that goes beyond our reasonable self-interest.  It calls us upon us to give to the point of our suffering.

One need not look to the scriptures to understand this point however; one may simply examine his or her everyday encounters with the poor, the object of our charity and love.  When confronted by the beggar who asks of us our “spare change,” almost all of us inevitably respond in the same way: filled with a sense of shame we almost always find ourselves looking away and apologizing – “I’m sorry,” we say.  But here’s the pertinent question: why this apology?  Why this sense of shame?  You don’t owe the beggar anything.  You work just as hard for the little money you have as I do, and frankly, you think, I haven’t really got that much to spare.  Whether that is the case or not, the beggars claim strikes us as somehow unreasonable.  “Why should he have the money that I work for?”  This is especially the case for those supporting others and/or on a limited budget.  Giving to the beggar in these cases is tantamount to sacrificing bread not only from one’s own mouths, but from the mouth of our loved ones.

The beggar’s request is unreasonable of course, as is God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and yet we still feel a sense of shame, we still offer apology, we still feel as if we ought to give/sacrifice, even those who do not have enough for themselves to give; and, sometimes we even do give despite the sacrifice.  What is revealed here is that the love of the neighbor, the love to which we are called in the beggar’s request, goes deeper than self interest.  It goes beyond reason.  Love does not aim merely for our excess, a perfectly reasonable request, but aims for our very being, demanding from us a kind of unreasonable sacrifice, one that cuts right to the very marrow of our existence.  It requires that we substitute ourselves for the other, offering ourselves up in their place, exchanging our wealth for their poverty, our abundance for their lack and our clothes for their nudity.  This is love, “that one lay down his life for his neighbor,” (John 15:13).

Furthermore, what is revealed in the case of the beggar is that this love is not merely exceptional, but is always already a part of our existence, whether we choose to embrace and obey it or not.  We are always already exposed to the neighbor – he or she is always already a part of us.  The love to which we are called is not something is excess to our existence, it is our existence itself.  This does not mean that we all equally respond to it.  Many of us deny it, choosing to flee it and our very nature to the cold comfort of material objects.  Few of us give ourselves over to the love we feel pulling at our heart in the face of the poor and the suffering, the orphan and the widow – but, all of us are always already initiated into this kind of love by sheer fact that we exist.  None of us are spiritual bachelors.  None of us are closed off to the demands of the poor, unaffected by the sufferings of the downtrodden.  But not all of us are good lovers.  Very few of us are saints, most of us are accountants.

So what are we to do with this?  How are we to conduct our lives?  Can this kind of love be instantiated in the political realm?  I’m not sure.  I’m not sure there is room for this kind of excessive demand, this love, within the realm of political calculation.  In that realm the calculative reason or prudence and logic perhaps must rule; and in that rule the kind of excessive love explored here must necessarily be discounted.  Perhaps then this love is one which belongs solely to the personal realm marking one’s singularity and individual ethical responsibility.  The ethical responsibility to which one is called by the love of the neighbor does not seem then to be one which can be mediated by any corporal organization.  Instead, it is one which seems to pull us outside of the political sphere into a kind of higher sphere, the space of ethics and the Good.  Perhaps this is what is meant when Jesus reminds his followers that though they are in the world and must participate in political reason, they are not of the world and are called to something higher than it (cf. John 15:19 & 17:14-16)

But, then again, what do I know, I’m just an accountant.

Second Annual Richard L. Bready Lecture
November 8, 2007

Montague Brown 
Bready Professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good
Saint Anselm College

Freedom, Work, and Dignity:
The Challenge of a Prosperous and Just Economy

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