Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Virtue and wasted life

The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) No life lived virtuously can have been wasted.
  2. (Premise) If God doesn't exist, a life lived virtuously can have been wasted.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Is it sound? Well, yes, if God exists. For if God exists, then (1) is true, and if God exists, then (2) is trivially true as its antecedent is false (my indicatives in arguments are material unless noted otherwise).

But of course the question is whether the argument is any good, at all useful towards giving someone reason to accept the conclusion. Well, I do find myself with a certain pull towards (1) and (2) independently of theism. Claim (1) just seems right to me. But if God doesn't exist, then it does seem quite possible for someone's central life pursuits to have been unsuccessful, despite these central life pursuits being virtuous.

However, I have the following worry. Maybe no life lived virtuously can have been wasted, because what it is to have wasted a life is to have failed at one's central pursuits or to have centrally pursued only vanities. But a virtuous person always has her own virtue as a central pursuit, and hence a virtuous person's life is never wasted, as one of her central non-vain pursuits—that of her own virtue—has been successful. Thus, even if God doesn't exist, a life lived virtuously couldn't have been wasted.

But I think that if theism were false, then a virtuous person might never centrally pursue her own virtue. For it could be that she is faced with needs more urgent than the pursuit of her own virtue—feeding a starving family, say—and so virtue could require her not to centrally pursue her own virtue. And if this is rigth, then (2) is non-trivially true. If God did not exist, there would be a possibility of a wasted virtuous life. It would be a life where one has virtue but does not pursue it as a central part of one's life, because virtue itself prohibits making the pursuit of virtue central.

If Christian theism is true, however, other duties will not be sufficient to shift the pursuit of virtue into something of secondary importance. For the Christian can have a trust in Providence that we will not go wrong by making our pursuit of union with God (which requires the pursuit of virtue) central to our lives.

This gives a second version of the argument:

  1. (Premise) If theism is false, then a virtuous human being can be in circumstances such that she should assign only secondary importance to the pursuit of virtue.
  2. (Premise) It is not possible for a human being to be in circumstances in which she should assign only secondary importance to the pursuit of virtue.
  3. Therefore, theism is true.

I do not find the two arguments in this post deeply compelling. But I think they at least should somewhat raise the probability of theism for those for whom it is neither zero nor one.

8 comments:

enigMan said...

Support for the first premise cannot really be independent of theism if you accept the second, so I wonder if you need a bit more than the first just seeming right to you, a theist. But mostly I wonder why the second premise should be true.

If virtue itself required putting feeding a family first, wouldn't putting that first be living a virtuous life? And wouldn't that make one virtuous? Or are there two sorts of virtue in play here? (If so, then my next worry is whether atheistic virtue would have such a binary structure.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

It would be a virtuous life, but it wouldn't be a life of pursuit of virtue. And so it could still be a wasted life, in the sense that one doesn't get anything one has been centrally pursuing.

David said...

I think the greater argument is one of "outstanding examples." Thomas Cahill, in his Desire of the Everlasting Hills records the story of Malcolm Muggeridge:

Malcolm Muggeridge, the supremely secular British curmudgeon, who cast a cold eye over so many contemporary efforts and enterprises, was brought up short while visiting an Indian leprosarium run by the Missionaries of Charity, the sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He had always imagined secular humanism to be the ideal worldview but realized, while strolling through this facility, built with love for those whom no one wanted, that no merely humanist vision can take account of lepers, let alone take care of them. To offer humane treatment to humanity's outcasts, to overcome their lifetime experience of petty human cruelties, requires more than mere humanity. Humanists, he realized with the force of sudden insight, do not run leprosariums.

If we understand "virtuous" in the most minimalist sense of the word, then perhaps it could be argued that such a life would not be wasted (though I think it could be argued that it was), but if we understanding "virtuous" to mean a life like that of Mother Teresa, clearly such a life would have been a wasted one.

enigMan said...

It would be a virtuous life, but it wouldn't be a life of pursuit of virtue. And so it could still be a wasted life, in the sense that one doesn't get anything one has been centrally pursuing.

But why not? Surely one would get to have been virtuous. One would be virtuous. One would have got what one would have been pursuing had one not had a family to feed. Without that, one would have been pursuing virtue. Perhaps one would have taken on responsibilities anyway, as part of that pursuit. Or perhaps that pursuit would have failed. As it is, one got to be virtuous, so any further pursuit was perhaps unnecessary.

enigMan said...

Incidentally, I wonder if God could have been satisfied with Adam and Eve just being good gardeners forever? If so then why should feeding your own family, given that you have one, rather than going off to become a saintly monk, fail to satisfy the basic pusuit of virtue? Perhaps not everyone can become a saintly monk. And perhaps it should be the case that no one should.

Mike Almeida said...

No life lived virtuously can have been wasted. If God doesn't exist, a life lived virtuously can have been wasted.

So, there can be no world in which God fails to exist and someone lives virtuously? Leaving aside tricky answers like, "well, God necessarily exists, therefore ...". It is odd to think that you cannot live virtuously unless God exists. I wonder why you think that is not possible. I guess this means, I wonder why you think it is not possible to live a virtuous life that is wasted OR I wonder why you think that a virtuous life without God might be wasted?

Alexander R Pruss said...

If (per impossibile) God doesn't exist, then it possible to live a life that is both virtuous and wasted. But it is not possible to live a life that is both virtuous and wasted. Hence, God exists.

enigMan said...

That looks like a neat argument, but I think it needs unpacking. (Clearly, neatness is not the same as clarity. And surely what we need are clear arguments.) I think that one might be agnostic and accept that thre is a sense in which it is not possible to live a life that is both virtuous and wasted. A wasted life can be one that was not useful (or one that was not satisfying, etc.) and a virtuous life can be one that was useful (or one that was lived according to certain rules, etc.). But how then can your first claim be true? (In another sense? But then your argument would be fallacious.)