Jacques Maritain Center: Ethics Without God?

The Upward Journey of the Soul:

A Comment on John M. Rist's Real Ethics

Daniel McInerny

Liberty Fund, Inc.

Any defense of moral realism must include an account of those "strange prisoners"{1} which Plato has his Socrates describe as dwelling at the bottom of a cave, their necks and legs fettered, who are only able to see themselves, or anything else, as shadows cast against the wall in front of them, and who mistake those shadows for reality.

Any defense of moral realism, that is, demands an account, not only of what is real, but of how we are deceived by appearances of reality, deceived either by ourselves, by others, or some combination of the two (I say "we," for, as Plato says, these strange prisoners at the bottom of the cave are, in fact, "like us").{2} But a defense of moral realism also demands a narrative of our liberation from such deception, what Socrates calls "the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm" (517b). This will be an account of how, by education of all sorts, we can be led, stumbling, out of the cave of ignorance and bad habit and into the light of knowledge and virtue.

In the trenchant and eminently enjoyable defense of moral realism that we find in John M. Rist's Real Ethics, both sorts of account are made available, and the challenges they propose for mainstream academic moral philosophy -- not to mention moral theology -- are formidable. Those challenges might be summed up most neatly in the form of an opposition: not so much one between Nietzsche and Aristotle, but rather between all those modern and contemporary ethical theories that either explicitly aver or devolve into the affirmation of autonomous human choice, on the one hand, and, on the other, what Professor Rist calls a "Christianized system of Platonic realism" (139). In more marketable terms, contemporary ethics comes down to the question of "Nietzsche or Augustine?"

The aspect of Professor Rist's argument that I would like to focus on in this comment is what I just referred to as the narrative of liberation from moral deception. I want to explore, in other words, how on Professor Rist's account moral conversion and progression is possible. How do we move from appearance to reality?

Something must first be said, however, about what it means to be locked into the world of appearances. Given the Platonic influence upon Professor Rist's argument, it is not unfitting to pursue this task by way of a few, brief modifications on the allegory of the cave.

As with Plato, what for Professor Rist binds the strange prisoners at the bottom of the cave is ignorance, mistaken notions, and bad habit. In their -- our -- moral bondage, the prisoners gaze at shadows, but principally shadows of themselves. How many, and of what character, are the shadow selves they see? There at least three of them, embodied in three possible types of life: first, there is "a life in which our reasoned love of virtue governs our possessiveness"; second, "a life directed by a love of honor, status and self-respect"; and third, "a life of a Humean sort in which reason is (and ought only to be) the slave of the passions" (101).

These shadow selves are cast upon the wall by puppets paraded in front of a dying fire. The puppets correspond to the three types of life, informed mainly by caricature notions of the being and nature of God, of human nature, and of the human good -- though some of them are informed by more genuine versions of these ideas. The dying light refers to the enlightened human intellect, emancipated from all extrinsic authority, especially from the authority of God's eternal law.

The chief ill effect of their bondage is that the prisoners are unable even to know themselves adequately, and so they tend to confuse themselves with the shadow selves they see on the wall. Since the shadows are many, a prisoner has a difficult time conceiving himself and his interests as a unity. He understands his life as a series of "lives," of compartmentalized roles. In Plato's version of this allegory, the prisoners while away the time by competing in silly contests: betting on which puppet will follow which, and the like. Applied to Professor Rist's argument, the game the prisoners play is the highly destructive power-play of radical choice between alternative, and often conflicting, shadow selves.

We thus begin to see that the turning point of any prisoner's life, the being unbound and led out of the cave, corresponds to a moral conversion in which the prisoner begins to move from an existence flitting between the divided lives of his various shadow selves, toward a greater and greater unity of self-understanding. As Professor Rist provocatively puts it, moral conversion is the beginning of a progression from a self, or from our various divided selves, toward a soul -- understanding "soul" as the perfection and hence unification of all human powers; the state in which, as Plato puts it, each one of our capabilities "minds its own business," and we finally live one life (106).

The key to moral conversion and progression is self-reflection. More precisely, it is reflection upon the disharmony between the first- and second-order desires pursued by our shadow selves; upon, for example, the disharmony between our unchaste desires and our desire not to be unchaste --if only sometime, with Augustine, in the future. Without this ability of self-reflection there would be no possibility of unity; we would be mere heaps rather than bundles of shadow selves that at least have the capability of being unified (106).

The picture here is of a set of second-order desires that serve as the measure of correction for our first-order desires. But what is the "ground" of correct second-order desires, and how do we discover it?

Professor Rist is adamant that the measure of our first-order desires must be something extrinsic to any and all of our various shadow selves. The appropriate ground of second-order desires is outside of us. Which is to say, moral improvement is not something that can be explained entirely or even principally by our own efforts. He sets up the issue as a modus tollens argument: If the moral improvement that human beings manifestly achieve is to explained by our own efforts, then there must be some inner core to our humanity, untouched by sin. But since there is no such identifiable pure and inner core, then the moral improvement that human beings manifestly achieve cannot be explained by our own efforts (81). Professor Rist puts this forward as a moral argument for the existence of God.

All rides, however, on the claim that human beings fail to possess an inner core of humanity, untouched by sin, which sits underneath a casing of ignorance, mistaken belief, and bad habit like a pearl in the middle of an oyster. Clearly, there is no point in disputing that human behavior is fundamentally infected by what Professor Rist calls the "surd-factor," a radical source of division between human desires that makes possible the variety of our shadow shelves (71). And clearly, any good Christian or even pagan view should understand that only in the desire for God as our highest good, a good that subsumes, not merely replaces, other goods, can the conflicts of human nature be brought into any semblance of harmony.

But Professor Rist's argument goes farther. He argues that what is wanted for moral conversion and progression is more than a Platonic-style eros for the Good, but a purified erotic love for God consisting in a friendship initiated by God Himself (109-110). Why this must be so is twofold. First, because in order to show love one must first must be able to receive it (implying that our successful love for God is dependent upon our ability to receive it from Him); and second, following from this, because we can only receive love from God if we conceive Him as a personal entity with whom we can enter into friendship. Professor Rist concludes, "Clearly it would not be possible for any striving of ours to achieve such a friendship; it would require not only God's turning to us, but his turning as a friend -- which seems to be explicable only in terms of the Pauline theology of kenosis, of the condescension of God to our created level, enabling us to return, by a purified eros, to himself" (110).

Successful moral conversion and progression, then, to what extent it is achievable in this life, is only possible on the level of the theological virtues-a conclusion that is unimpeachable from the standpoint of supernatural truth, but one that leaves the non-believer, or even the Christian concerned with philosophical arguments, wondering what place there is in this narrative of liberation for the natural knowledge of the human good.

Professor Rist's thoughts on this question come to the fore in his discussion of Thomistic natural law theory. Here he tenaciously and rightly takes exception to the recent reconstruction of Thomistic natural law theory by Anthony Lisska, which argues that Aquinas's theory "can be defended -- and was intended to be defended -- without reference to the existence of God" (152). But in doing so he makes three distinctions the effect of which is to bring out of focus the significance of our natural knowledge of the human good.

The first distinction is that between the natural law and God's eternal law. The reason why the attempt to depict Thomistic natural law theory without its theistic dimension is futile, according to Professor Rist, is because it neglects the very definition of the natural law given by Aquinas: the natural law is, by definition, the rational creature's participation in God's eternal law (152, quoting ST I-II q. 91, a. 2). This much, of course, is true. But when it comes to the issue of moral conversion and progression, to helping someone out of the cave, one does not start with a view of the natural law in the order of being. What one needs is to locate some basic and shared truths that not even a lifelong prisoner to modern moral philosophy could dispute. The task is to highlight truths about the human good already accepted by the prisoner via what Aquinas calls his inclinationes (ST I-II q. 94, a. 2). These naturally known truths are very general, to be sure, and will often be obscured by ignorance, mistaken belief, and bad habit, but except in instances of grave depravity they remain available to all human agents, and so serve as the beginnings, already in us (not just in the future), of what Professor Rist calls our "soul," our fully-perfected and unified moral self.

There is no question here of taking God out of the picture, and this in two ways. First of all, and again, the precepts governing the inclinationes of our nature are, in the order of being, the precepts of God's eternal law. But even in the order of discovery of moral truth, with which I am interested here, the inclinationes exist in an order that tracks the hierarchical order of goods culminating in the summum bonum that is God (ST I-II q. 94, a. 2). Our first and most important inclination, in other words, is for a good that will fully satisfy our desire for goodness, for finality and self-sufficiency, for unity. This is not to say that all, or even most, will, apart from revelation and good education, identify the summum bonum with anything so edifying as Aristotle's God. But it is to say that in the desire for ultimate goodness, in the recognition of our duty to pursue truth, and above all truth about the highest things, we have the starting-point for serious philosophical reflection about the nature of the summum bonum, the kind of dialectical reflection masterfully pursued by Aquinas in questions 2 and 3 of the Prima secundae. Without such a starting-point, there is simply no place for philosophical reflection, at least, to begin.

I take it, however, not that Professor Rist would disagree with what I am saying, but that he would argue that in underscoring our initial knowledge of our natural end I am talking about what is only, in our post-lapsarian state, "a creation of analysis, not a phenomenon of human life" (153). Here he marks a second distinction, that between man's imperfect and perfect happiness. "Roughly speaking," he writes, "according to Aquinas, natural happiness, that is, the perfection of man's powers . . . is Aristotle's goal; while perfect happiness is that perfection of man's potentialities (not only of his original capabilities) which would raise him to the company of the blessed and is only available through the sacrifice of Christ and man's adoption by God" (152). Professor Rist is right to remark that one cannot approach the secularist by arguing that natural happiness "is an actual and present . . . possibility for man," and that perfect happiness "is added on to it rather than informing it" (153). In our de facto state, he concludes, our overriding end is supernatural, one that subsumes all natural goods into it, and thus it is misleading to approach Aquinas's natural law theory with any other understanding.

In his reading of Aquinas on this issue Professor Rist depends upon Benedict Ashley's article, "What is the End of the Human Person? The Vision of God and Integral Human Fulfillment," but I believe he has missed one of the key conclusions of Fr. Ashley's argument. In criticizing H. De Lubac's rejection of a natural end for human beings, Fr. Ashley remarks that such a position leads "to what for an Aristotelian, at least, is an absurdity -- a human nature that is not a nature" (80). For if nature is defined as an intrinsic principle of motion and rest, and motion implies a pre-determined goal, then a nature without a final cause is impossible (80). Thus Fr. Ashley concludes that "the human person even in our existential order has a natural finality which is ultimate in its own order, although God has graciously subordinated this finality to an infinitely higher supernatural one, so that while natural human fulfillment remains truly ultimate in its own natural order . . . it is only relatively ultimate" (81). Professor Rist does recognize the Thomistic point that man can only have two ultimate ends, a natural and a supernatural, if one is ordered to the other (153). But, contra Fr. Ashley, he chooses not to emphasize the ultimacy of our natural end within the natural order, and the importance that ultimacy has for theistic, philosophical reflection. My contention is that the understanding of this ultimacy is the starting-point, the theistic starting point, both for the moral conversion of those who do not share the Christian faith and for the philosophical justification of God as the point and purpose of human action.

A third and final distinction Professor Rist makes impacting our natural knowledge of the human good is that between being guided by prudence and being under an obligation in law. "If we are a substantial set of dispositional properties tending to a certain end or good," Professor Rist writes, "there seem in a non-theistic naturalism to be no more than prudential arguments as to why the human race should accept that good. We incidentally may not want to be 'human' or 'fully human' in the sense towards which we are pointed. . . . Of course," he adds, "if we are designed by God to go in a certain direction as towards our ultimate and individual end, and if that directedness is the plan of an ultimate goodness, the situation is quite other" (155). Insofar as we are designed by and for God, in sum, human beings are to conceive of themselves as under obligation to the good; otherwise, to pursue one's flourishing is only to follow prudential judgment. My question is whether it makes for a sufficient understanding of obligation to recognize, in Aristotelian fashion, the ordered hierarchy of the human good governed -- as Professor Rist understands Aristotle -- by God as a final cause. Or does obligation require a notion of a loving law-giver who personally utters His commands? If the latter is the case, and if, as Professor Rist also says, "the element of inspiration to do right comes from whatever capacity we have to be motivated by the good (262)," then it is a puzzle why the Aristotelian picture of the good, based upon our natural knowledge, is insufficient to ground a theory of obligation.

In this comment I have been pointing toward the need for a rather robust theistic naturalism, one necessary to reflect philosophically about how moral conversion and progression toward unity can both occur and be justified. As I read Professor Rist's book, the emphasis of his argument is upon the need for a supernatural theism if we are going to get ourselves out of the cave. To be sure, this is true from the point of view of our supernatural end. But, taking my cue again from Fr. Ashley, if the grace requisite to achieve that supernatural end is to perfect, rather than supplant, human nature, then the integrity of the natural end for human beings, relative to its own order, must be upheld. The upward journey towards God demands that we must already be in possession, albeit imperfectly, of our souls.


{1} For translations from the Republic I depend upon G. M. A. Grube's translation, revised by C. D. C. Reeve, found in John M. Cooper, ed., Plato: Complete Works (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

{2} Alasdair MacIntyre has recently stressed the importance for natural law theorists, for example, to provide with their accounts a "theory of error." See his "Theories of Natural Law in the Culture of Advanced Modernity," in Edward B. McLean, ed., Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000), pp. 91-115.