Philosophy Colloquium October 21, 2008-10-22
Professor Drew Dalton
Phenomenology and the Divine: Understanding the French Theological ‘Turn’
click the above link to listen, or right click to download.
The talk deals with 20th and 21st century developments in the phenomenology founded by Husserl and Heidegger that allow the discussion of the Divine within phenomenology. The Turn began with Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, but the heart of the turn includes: Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chretien, Jean-Yves Lacoste, and finally Jean-Luc Marion (you could also include Jean-Francois Courtine and Paul Ricoeur if you wanted, but these weren’t discussed in the lecture).
Suggestion for further reading: Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: the French Debate by Dominique Janicaud.
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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.
Many people think that literature (as well as movies, paintings, and other artistic works) must have as its point something or other important. Because they think this, they scoff at the notion that enjoyment or delight is its point rather than something more serious and substantive. When people are pressed on what is the supposedly serious and substantive point of literature, truth is the usual candidate proposed.
But that literature (or movies, or paintings, or other artistic works) convey truth is not very plausible. Novels and poems do not produce arguments, gather evidence, or provide first-hand experience of anything. They do not even seem to function as authoritative testimony to anything. To claim some proposition P is true because Shakespeare says in Hamlet such-and-such is plain foolishness.
Though the literature-as-truth folk seem to be mistaken, we should meet them half way and grant that literature can be a departure point for our own investigation of, reflection on, or recognition of some truth. Since literature can only be a departure point, we still have to do the work of discovering whether or not a given proposition is true.
A recent case in point is both Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement and the homonymous movie thereof. Both are artistically delightful, and both can springboard us to two powerful truths, truths which many of us only come to recognize quite late. The first is that we human beings routinely make a serious mess of things, even when we intend the opposite effect, even when we are acting according to our best lights, and even when we are confident in our decisions. In Atonement, the main character, the young teenage Briony, gives testimony to a crime, and that testimony has as an unintended consequence the destruction of her older sister’s only chance to be united with the love of her life. That the world, other people, and ourselves are complicated and imperfectly understood by all of us means that again and again our choices will cause harm.
The second truth is closely tied to the first: Often the unintended harm we do, not only cannot be remedied, but it cannot even be apologized for, forgiven, or recompensed. In Atonement, Briony struggles with the problem of how to fulfill the interpersonal obligation to atone for the harm she causes her sister and her sister’s beloved when that fulfillment is impossible because both are dead. The novel (and movie) has a pretty and artistic solution to the problem, though not one available to the rank and file of humanity. Most of us cannot write novels, much less best-selling novels, and transform the real victims of our decisions into imaginative characters who find goodness and happiness nonetheless. Thus, in many instances the mess we create is a mess that we can do nothing about.
Evidence that literature does not convey truth is that many readers and viewers of Atonement may not see the above truths. They do not see them, because the truths are not anywhere in the novel or film. Rather, they are recognized only by examining our own and others’ experience of the human situation. But even though literature does not convey truth as many people maintain, perhaps a mark of some great literature is that it is an impetus to investigation, reflection, and recognition.
We have all seen the commercials asking for donations to feed the hungry. They typically show children suffering, often visibly malnourished and diseased, in order to appeal to our empathy and move us to act. Yet, our reaction to these images is often to change the channel or otherwise divert our attention from the suffering in front of us. While our tendency may be to shy away and avoid the problem of poverty, the philosophical tradition encourages us to lead an examined life and reflect upon important questions, especially those that might make us feel uncomfortable. The tragic reality is that poverty is an enormous problem that requires our moral consideration. Over three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day, the price many of us pay for a cup of coffee.i Roughly 33,000 children under the age of five die each day from the consequences of extreme poverty.ii That is a million young lives lost every month! Clearly, an issue that causes this many preventable deaths deserves some moral consideration.
Often we think that, although donating to charitable organizations is permissible and should be praised, it is not an obligation of ours. After all, we are not responsible for the poverty of others, as unfortunate as their condition is. Nonetheless, there are many who argue that we do have some obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I want to explore here three such arguments. After discussing a utilitarian and a Kantian argument, I will ultimately claim that virtue ethics provides the best explanation of our moral obligation to the poor.
First, Peter Singer offers a well-known utilitarian argument in favor of such an obligation. On his account, donating to the poor ultimately has better consequences than if we had used that money to buy new televisions or fashionable clothes. Indeed, we would only be sacrificing some “disposable” income to save lives. Appealing to this intuition, Singer claims that, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought, morally, to do it.”iii This principle implies that we ought to sacrifice a great deal of our income to help alleviate poverty because it is otherwise being used on items that are not of “comparable moral significance.” Singer even recommends that a family making $100,000 in annual income donate $70,000.iv Failing to do so, of course, would mean that such a family has gone morally astray.
Singer illustrates his argument with a number of memorable examples, even likening our indifference toward poverty to allowing a child to drown. While Singer does well to call this enormous problem to our attention, his argument is inadequate. The failures of his argument can be traced to some of the failures of utilitarianism in general. Most notably, utilitarianism (at least in its classical form) seems to ignore the special obligations we have toward friends and family members. Certainly the mother who spends more time reading to her children than volunteering at the local soup kitchen (although she does that too) should not be blamed. Indeed, she should be praised for being both a good mother and a conscientious community member rather than blamed for not getting more involved with those less fortunate than herself. The flaw in Singer’s view is that he fails to recognize that we have more obligations to some people than others.
The second argument for an obligation to help the poor comes from Kant. In the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he distinguishes between perfect and imperfect duties. A perfect duty is one which, “permits no exception in the interest of inclination” while an imperfect duty is one which does permit of such an exception.v An example of a perfect duty would be the duty not to enslave another individual. Such a duty must be fulfilled at all times without exception. Imperfect duties, however, can have exceptions if we are inclined to partake in other (moral) activities. Kant discusses the duty to help those less fortunate than oneself and categorizes this as an imperfect duty. On his view, we ought to help. We cannot rationally will that indifference to poverty become a universal law of nature. Doing so would rob ourselves of the beneficence of others when we need it at some time in the future. Nonetheless, because the duty to help the less fortunate is an imperfect duty, it can have exceptions. The mother who volunteers and finds time to read to her children does not shirk her duty because, by occasionally volunteering, she sufficiently fulfills her obligation to help.
Kant’s approach to this issue is an improvement over Singer’s in that he allows for us to have different obligations toward our friends and family members than complete strangers. Nonetheless, his approach falls short in the following way. Imagine a morally decent man, Minimal E. Goode, who regularly donates a small amount of money to charitable organizations that help the poor. He hears of a community effort to help a neighbor whose house has burned down. All that is needed to help this effort is the donation of some small household items that are of very little value. Minimal has no interest in doing such a thing. Instead, he decides to spend the money on beer and corn chips, comforting himself with the thought that he has already fulfilled his imperfect duty to help others by sending in his small monthly check to charity. How would we evaluate the moral character of a man such as this? Is he virtuous? Clearly, our response is that Minimal is a decent individual, but he is not what we call virtuous. Although Minimal is morally decent, he fails to have the virtues of generosity, empathy, or selflessness. It is clear that Minimal falls short in his obligations. The Kantian conception of an imperfect duty, then, fails to fully explain our obligations to the poor.
The third approach, that of virtue ethics, best explains our obligations. It captures the conviction that we ought to do something to help, and yet it avoids the shortcomings of both Singer and Kant. On the virtue account, in order to determine the right thing to do in a given situation, we need to determine what a virtuous person would do. While it is admittedly difficult to make this determination, there are two things we can do to clarify our obligations. First, we do know of a number of virtues and could create a sizable list if we wanted to (for evidence of this, write a list of all of the features you would want in a good friend). Second, we can intuit quite easily what a virtuous person would not do. The case of Minimal’s indifference to his neighbor’s suffering is a case in point. This is where Kant falls short. Although Minimal may completely fulfill his imperfect duties, he may not be virtuous. The inadequacies of Singer’s account are also clear on a virtue ethics approach. If a mother gave her children only minimal attention in order to spend more time at the soup kitchen, she would fall short of virtue in a number of categories. She would lack the proper amount of love and care for her children. Clearly the virtuous mother would not neglect her own kids.
When imagining how virtuous people would act, however, we do not need to envision some “ideal human being” who always does the right thing. Virtue does not entail perfection. Most of us know some virtuous people, but very few of us know saints. Instead of wondering what a saint would do, then, we simply need to determine what a person would have to be like in order to be described as generous, selfless, empathetic, and so on. Let us imagine the following case:
An eccentric philanthropist visits a small town in the third world suffering from the grips of extreme poverty and disease. Looking to donate $1 million a year, he randomly selects twenty individuals each of whom he gives $50,000 and pledges to do the same every year. Ms. Respectable, a single, healthy 25-year old woman, is one of the lucky winners of the philanthropist’s lottery. In a few years, she is able to invest in a large home, put some of the money in savings in an offshore bank account, and purchase a television, a personal computer, some designer clothes, and an SUV. Every time she leaves her home she is faced with the thousands of lottery losers who have no access to sufficient nutrition, shelter, medical care, or education. Occasionally she is moved to pity and gives a dollar or two to the children dying in the home next door. For the most part, however, Ms. Respectable enjoys her new life and is considering leaving her hometown to join a wealthier community.
While Ms. Respectable may be a decent person (she has not committed any cold-blooded murders for instance), she certainly is not generous or selfless. She sees dying people all around her and yet does very little to stop it. Although she occasionally feels empathy, it would be a stretch to call her an empathetic person. While we may not condemn her, we certainly would not praise her. Acting as Ms. Respectable does is not virtuous; it is certainly not how we ought to act.
But, is our situation that much different than Ms. Respectable’s? Most of us living in the United States live relatively comfortable lives. We usually do not have to worry about whether we will eat today or have access to clean water. If we have children, we know they will be immunized from preventable diseases. Many of us also have a number of luxuries: computers, televisions, nice clothes, and so on. But why is it that we enjoy luxuries while others live in squalor? In a way, we have won a lottery. Although we do work for our money, we were born at a time and a place where there is the opportunity to work, where goods and services are freely traded, and basic rights are protected. Like Ms. Respectable, we are aware of the billions in poverty, and though we can provide helpful donations with a phone call or mouse click, we often ignore them.
If our situation is relatively similar to Ms. Respectable’s, then what are we obligated to do? Remember that Singer mistakenly overlooks our special obligations to friends and family. We should acknowledge that the virtuous person would spend more time and money on those closest to her (in this way, Ms. Respectable differs from us). Indeed, the virtuous person would not want to neglect the virtues associated with being a good friend, child, or parent. On the other hand, as demonstrated by the cases of Minimal E. Goode and Ms. Respectable, the virtuous person would do more than make the occasional small donation. What is required to be generous, selfless, and empathetic is to truly care for those less fortunate than ourselves and to make genuine sacrifices in order to alleviate their suffering. Although precisely what contribution we ought to make will depend largely on our unique economic circumstances and particular responsibilities, we can be assured that accumulating unnecessary luxuries while millions starve is not the virtuous thing to do.
ii Mylan Engel Jr., “9/11 and Starvation” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., eds. James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 136.
iii Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in World Hunger and Morality, 2nd ed. Eds. William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 28.
iv Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” in The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy, 4th ed., eds. James Rachels and Stuart Rachels. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 144.
v Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and What is Enlightenment, 2nd ed rev. , trans. Lewis White Beck. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 38 ff.