November 2012

Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.


Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.


But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.


The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.


Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.

Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.

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.