Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ethics and therapy of the soul

Plausibly, ethics ought to be in part a practical discipline, one teaching us just how to become virtuous and avoid vice. In fact, this desideratum seems particularly fitting in the case of virtue ethics. I wonder how far ethics, and in particular virtue ethics, fulfills this.

In part, it does. I have learned some useful things from the Nicomachean Ethics about friendship. But in general, I rarely learn much that is useful for combating vice and pursuing virtue from secular philosophers, either ancient or modern. On the other hand, I learn a lot from Christian writers, both ancient and modern. These point out subtle dangers in the moral and spiritual life which I would not otherwise have noticed, and give useful advice on how to avoid these dangers and progress in virtue.

In part this is because many of the Christian writers are people who can draw on a rich experience of helping others, such as penitents, parishioners or spiritual directees, grow morally. This is a rich fund of data about the moral life which the secular philosopher has typically been completely bereft of. It seems clear that the secular moral philosopher who wishes to take seriously the therapeutic aspect of philosophy must study this fund of data.

But I also wonder if there isn't another reason for why secular ethics is only helpful to a point, a point that does not do much for one. For, ultimately, among fallen humans, moral progress is the work of the Holy Spirit, and in the moral life we contend not merely against what is human but also against the subtle intellects of demons.


Carbondale Chasmite said...

Are you honestly claiming that people cannot use their moral imagination to consider the ends of other people without the social facilitation of religious roles? If that's the claim, I'd be very suspicious. I'd more readily be open to the fact that you've been socialized to accept the normativity built into these various roles.

What we want from a moral theory is the ability to provide action-guidance across various social and religious experiences. I've never met anyone who was so far-removed from a thought experiment that they had trouble conceiving what intuition I was aiming at.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not claiming "that people cannot use their moral imagination to consider the ends of other people without the social facilitation of religious roles".

I am claiming that secular philosophy has never been very good at teaching people how to attain moral excellence--how to avoid the gross vices of the flesh, how to shun the subtle vices of the mind, how to shut the door of one's mind on a tempting thought, how to discern the ways that selfishness masquarades as other-concern, how to bring it about that one's affections are in harmony with one's knowledge, how to revel in the good, and so on.

The difficulty of the moral life isn't typically in figuring out what one ought to do. By and large, that's pretty easy. The difficulty is with doing it, and being transformed into a virtuous person. This is the practical, therapeutic aspect of moral philosophy.

Anonymous said...


Are you talking about Aquinas or what? I'd be interested to know what philosophers, or books, you're talking about.

Alexander R Pruss said...


In the first instance, I'm thinking not of philosophers at all, but of spiritual writers like Bernard of Clairvaux, the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross, Francois de Sales, the whole of the seven deadly sins tradition, etc. Aquinas belongs on that list as does Kierkegaard, not primarily as philosophers, though.

Eli said...

I can't say as I've read as much in this area as you have, but what you say definitely seems right: the modes of reasoning that Christian (and, to be fair, other religious) ethicists use are far more driven by anecdotes and other practical examples than those used by secular ethicists, who tend towards hypothetical, highly implausible border cases. Obviously I disagree with you as to the reason for this, but it is an interesting and useful observation, and there is something to be said about the need for a more teachable secular ethic - after all, a great deal of moral instruction happens outside of any religious framework, even for religious people.

Ap said...


Luigi Giussani always said that the purpose of the Church is to educate man in his religiosity, that is, to open him to all of reality. Maybe what this shows is that the natural law may even be unintelliglbe or impossible to follow in some ways without the supernatural, that is, without the Church. Hence, the necessity of the Church. The Church, fellowship, is the concrete presence of the Spirit of the Father and the Son and it is in this way that we are educated toward the truth of our being. In other words, the Church, friendship, is necessary to bring man toward truth and goodness. I have always find that to be the case in experience, where friends make it, in some way, "easy" for me to accept the gift of reality. (morality, then, is adhering to truth-goodness)

The Church, as sacrament, points to the fact that there is no such thing as neutrality, that reality is a gift that must require a response. Hence, every fact is normative.

Heath White said...

I too have noticed this. I also have noticed that non-philosophers typically think of philosophy as a practical discipline and philosophers typically think this is hilarious. It generally strikes me as funny in a sad kind of way.

I don't agree that figuring out what to do in the moral life is typically easy. Not, however, because the moral life is fraught with tricky dilemmas, but because the level of self-deception in people is typically very high, much higher than philosophers usually assume. In fact, I think this is a significant obstacle in (analytic) philosophy becoming practical--being rationalists, we are very very slow to attribute self-deception or motivated beliefs to our interlocutors, and in moral issues this sacrifices a great deal of realism. (Perhaps our continental friends do better here.)

The Dalai Lama is one who has struck me as a very practically-oriented person with a deeply philosophical streak. I think a conversation with his works could be fruitful on this score.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It may be that it isn't clear what to do as often as I have suggested. But there are so many cases each day where it is clear what I should do and yet where I do not do it that it seems like a good start is figuring out how to do the right thing in those cases of moral clarity. Moreover, I think we have good reason to think that if we in fact gain habits of acting well in the cases where it is clear what we should do, these habits will help us see what we should do in many other cases.

Or, let's put it this way. There are two basic enemies of moral excellence: akrasia and ignorance. While I have a lot of both, I suspect, pace Socrates, that akrasia is the deeper problem. It may be that akrasia is the root cause of much of the ignorance.

Heath White said...

My view is somewhat different here. (More Augustinian?) I think there are two sources of depravity: failures of intellect and failures of will/desire. (So far, so similar.) The failures feed off one another: wrong beliefs lead to wrong desires, but also, wrong desires lead to wrong beliefs. I suspect that clear-eyed akrasia is relatively rare, and a symptom of a pretty good character, because just a little bit more failure of the will tips the intellect over into making excuses, finding a way to view the desired object as good, or other self-justifying behavior.

Another way to put it is that, in general, it is morally pretty good people who are dissatisfied with themselves, while morally worse people are typically dissatisfied with their circumstances and not with themselves (if they are dissatisfied at all).

You can take all that as a compliment.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think what you say has a lot of plausibility to it. I think you're right that ignorance is a major force in hampering moral excellence.

What affects my assessment of the importance of the two factors is that I strongly incline towards the view that one is only culpable when one does what one believes to be wrong. I do not think people are culpable for doing wrongs when they do not believe these to be wrongs, even if they are culpable for their ignorance. In such a case, they are culpable for the ignorance, but not culpable for the wrong deed that results from the ignorance.

Anyway, since it is the wrongs for which one is culpable that matter more, I take akrasia to be more important. I agree that this akrasia is not likely to be clear-eyed. But then, quite possibly, one is culpable for the obscurity one is in.

Tim O'Keefe said...

But I see a big problem here: you've read widely in works by Christians like Bernard of Clairvaux, the Desert Fathers, and bits of Aquinas that philosophers don't typically read. So to compare that to G.E. Moore on the Open Question Argument, or even dialogues by Plato or letters of Epicurus, and to conclude that Christians do a lot better than non-Christians in practical issues of the therapy of the soul, is highly dubious.

What you'd need to do is to seek out (with pointers from people in a position to know) good works by non-Christians and non-theists who have extensive experience in helping people improve themselves--e.g., folks involved in psychiatry, or self-help groups, or Independent Living Skills training and socialization for people with mental disabilities, or rehab, or whatever.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure how much of the literature on self-improvement is aimed at becoming morally good, rather than happy, successful, well-integrated into the community, etc.