Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

Response to John M. Rist, Real Ethics: Rethinking the Foundations of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Presented by Michael A. Dauphinais, Ave Maria College, MI.

July 16, 2003, "Ethics without God?" Conference, University of Notre Dame.

Professor Rist has offered us an impressive book. Its expansive scope alone would be remarkable even if it were not for the fact that Rist has accomplished an unusual feat in contemporary philosophy--namely, doing philosophy within an historical tradition without falling into the opposite problem of relegating the tradition to the history of philosophy. The book thus draws heavily upon the inquiry of Plato, yet never as though the goal was the understanding of the texts themselves, instead of the reality of man and God that they elucidate and point towards. The sustained analysis of Plato's thought, especially as expressed in the Republic, gives rise to an analysis of an impressive array of modern and contemporary moral philosophers, from Kant to Hume, from Parfit to Rawls. I would express the overall thesis of the book as follows: Contemporary moral philosophy no longer possesses the metaphysical framework, and the corresponding objective moral realism, necessary to avoid the conclusions of Neitzsche (or Foucault or Thrasymachus) such that a Platonic moral realism is the best view of human life. The answer to the impass is not to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal of such moral philosophers of liberalism, but rather to show that their project fails in offering self-justification at the same point where the project of moral realism, above all as articulated by Plato, can defend itself. In this way, Rist's own book instantiates his argument about Plato's method of proceeding in the Republic -- the only way to show convincingly the error of those who reject foundations with respect to the nature of justice is to depict the full socio-political consequences of a rejection of the objective moral demands of justice.

My response will focus on raising three questions to our author. First, what is the status of justification of moral beliefs and might not Aristotle also offer a kind of justification in a non-Cartesian fashion? Second, does Aristotle really fail in the manner that modern philosophy will later fail--namely, separating ethics from metaphysics? These first two questions include questions about the relationship between this book and the overall project of Alasdair MacIntyre, who offers an alternative way of construing the intellectual problems associated with contemporary moral philosophy by retrieving the Aristotelian/Augustinian/Thomistic tradition of moral inquiry. Third, what is the relationship between God and the community as the dual antidotes to the divided moral self?

Rist offers an intriguing, if somewhat implicit and ambiguous, stance on the question of the justification of moral beliefs. He criticizes Aristotle for assuming too much, on the one hand, (29) and Decartes for engaging in an "'epistemological' hunt for certainty" (79). He suggests that in Plato's Republic, Socrates does not answer the challenge posed by Glaucon and Adeimantus directly because no "strictly demonstrable conclusions" are possible (32). Instead, Socrates begins the elaborate description and analysis of an ideal polis that will disclose the reality of justice. If the true nature of justice--and why it is good in itself to be just and not merely to have the reputation of justice--can be seen through the city, then belief in moral realism will have been justified. Some external standard of Goodness (identified by Plato as the form of the Good and later by Augustine as the eternal God in whom all the forms subsist as identical with his divine nature) is necessary to respond to Thrasymachus' dismissal of justice as truly good and offering happiness / eudaimonia. As Rist helpfully delineates, the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus is not between two differing views of happiness, but between a view of man ordered towards happiness and a view of man in which the very conception of happiness has been undermined. This allows us to raise the question about whether Plato's overall project here differs from Aristotle's as much as Rist suggests. It seems that both Plato and Aristotle (and Rist) hold that one cannot directly refute those who deny moral realism. In the Republic, Plato claims that the only response must come through a large narrative describing the necessity of as well as the unfortunate outcomes without an objective standard of goodness for justice.

It would seem, then, that the works of Aristotle, from the Metaphyics, to the de Anima, to the Nicomachean Ethics together display a similarly grand narrative. From the prime mover, to the human intellect which can rise to universals on the basis of sense experience, to the man who by nature desires the good and ultimately to practice virtue and contemplate the divine nature--all of this comes together in a way that man could not be conceived as ordered towards happiness apart from his specific human nature as well as the existence of the divine nature. Rist may be correct in saying that Aristotle deemphasizes the divine nature as good and denies the independent existence of the form of the good. Aristotle leaves the good as simply that under which all human beings desire. This does not indicate that it lacks metaphysical existence, but simply says that the objective good cannot be separated from our desire for it. This suggests an incomplete understanding of the divine nature, but it will later be completed by Augustine and Aquinas's understanding of God.

Aristotle's overall project, particularly expressed in his Ethics, can be seen to function with some similarities to the way of Plato's argument in the Republic. Rist is correct that Aristotle does not address the specific objections of those who deny the whole character of morality and justice. But Aristotles does presuppose the moral realism of Plato in his own writings on ethics and therefore also shows by implication that without an objective moral framework even the language of the virtues and vices would collapse. Virtue causes those who possess it to be good and to function well as human beings. In a true friendship, each friend desires the good of the other for the sake of the other. In the ultimate happiness of man in contemplating the prime mover, truth itself is known for its own sake. This characteristic seen at all three aspects of the ethical life in Aristotle--or as Augustine would later put it, love of self, love of neighbor, and love of self--is an extended narrative that man would cease to be ethical or moral if there were not some objective good that made possible such desires for the good beyond what is merely useful to an individual's self-interest. So this is my first question: Does not the overall project of Aristotle work in a similar manner of justifying a moral realism? I am aware that many contemporary rational-choice moral philosophers appeal back to aspects of practical rationality of Aristotle, but if one is willing to read Plato sympathetically and through the corrective of later Augustinianism, could not one do the same with Aristotle? I would characterize this as the approach of MacIntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? How does Rist view himself as differing from the philosophical and theological account of the will developed by Augustine as characterized by MacIntyre's account?

This brings us to the heart of Rist's hesitations about Aristotle's approach to morality. Rist deems Aristotle's view of human nature flawed since Aristotle considers man from a third-person perspective and therefore fails to do justice to the moral character of the human being. His emphasis on the unity of the body and soul is variously described as an ontological, scientific, or third-person view and this is contrasted with Plato's moral, first-person, dualistic view of human nature. Rist cites in support of his criticism that Aristotle takes the definitive aspect of the human being, i.e., what separates us from other animals, is the mind. It seems that, for Rist, the emphasis on the intellect fails to appreciate the distinctiveness of the moral will. Aristotle thus hides the reality of moral obligation under the need for rationality. Rist himself elaborates on what Aristotle means by the mind as follows, "'The mind' (especially viewed in its deliberative capacity, its ability to derive means to ends)." But one may ask whether this eschews the reality of moral obligation. The ability to derive means to ends comes at the heart of the moral life since the moral life surely must evaluate obligations and goods in light of our ability to derive means in concrete situations. One specific criticism of Aristotle offered by Rist is that Aristotle "has concentrated on man as a metaphysical unity rather than as a divided moral subject" (87). This seems to be a weak criticism since if one objects that Aristotle's account of akrasia is inadequate, the lack of metaphysical unity is surely just as large of a problem for Plato. My second question concerns this seeming unsympathetic reading of Aristotle. If the overall project is to justify moral realism by showing the implications of its rejections, why not present the strengths of Aristotle combined with the strengths of Plato? More specifically, in what ways is Rist's present Plato or Nietszche actually different from MacIntyre's chapter on "Aristotle or Neitszche?" from After Virtue?

I should add incidentally that as an undergraduate I wrote a paper comparing Aristotle's Ethics to Augustine's Confessions. My question for that paper, suggested to my by professor, Stanley Hauerwas, was whether Aristotle gave an account of the ethical life that could make sense of the theme of conversion so central to the Confessions. It strikes me that the theme of conversion is similarly at the heart of this present book and the preference for a Platonic approach to the moral life is that it gives a better account of conversion than does Aristotle. Augustine improves on both, but I did not think as an undergraduate and I do not think now that Aristotle's Ethics precludes such conversions. Aristotle's comments to the contrary should be seen within his overall philosophical approach which begins with things working well before considering problems. For instance, Aristotle first considers sight perception in a well-functioning case before examining problems such as why a pole appears to be bent when placed halfway into water. Thus for the question of the good life for man, Aristotle begins with one who is well-brought up and continues to acquire the virtues more deeply with each passing year. This does not mean that moral conversions do not happen, but that the best case scenario is the more important object of analysis. Rist himself indicates that Plotinus has to reach false conclusions about a core self in order to explain moral conversion. This indicates that apart from a Christian conception of God and grace, and even with such an explanation, the fact of conversion remains mysterious whether in a Platonic or an Aristotelian approach.

As a theologian, I am particularly interested in Rist's attempt to argue for the necessity of God and the community in order for human beings to become less divided. Rist suggests a moral argument for the existence of God based on the fact of moral improvement (81). Since there is no core, non-empirical, self as Plato and Plotinus had suggested, God enables us to improve along Augustinian lines. In terms of the community, Rist argues later in the book that a divided self is in need of external correction and that this correction comes in the form of the human community that inculcates in us a moral sense of responsibility towards others (219). Moral responsibility cannot be mere habituation, but must come from without in a way that allows us to see that such responsibility is necessary for moral coherence. In these two ways, Rist has dealt a strong argument against the enlightened individualism of our age and made philosophical room for God and the Church as providing the necessary supports for human freedom. Apart from the external helps of God and the community, human beings will lack the freedom to be moral, that is, the freedom to do the good, the freedom to become less divided in one's desires so that one's desires can be fulfilled in the possession of the true good. This brings me to my final question, what is the relationship between God and the human community. Both seem to function in a similar role of correcting our divided selves. How then, on Rist's account, is one not superfluous to the other? In other words, can the contemporary anti-realist who sees the force of Rist's approach choose to embrace the human community apart from God, or as is common in our culture, embrace God apart from human community?

There are countless other intriguing aspects of this book, but I will leave those to the other respondents and to the audience to raise. My sincere thanks to Professor Rist for a book from which I have learned much about another way to tell the story of moral philosophy.