The (Virtue) Ethics of Philosophical Theology?

After Bill's response to my quick question, I feel reasonably placed to write something I've been mulling over during the discussion between meself, Alec, and Brendan; specifically, that many of our methodological differences can be explained in terms of ethics (especially virtue ethics). I think I'm right in saying that all our reflections have been circling around what it means to practise philosophy ethically; that when we speak of rigour, clarity, precision, tradition, and so on, we've been trying to identify certain philosophical virtues. It also seems to me that these philosophical virtues can be derived from the more obviously ethical virtues such as charity, humility, temperance, prudence, diligence and kindness (stolen from the Wikipedia list of the seven heavenly virtues). And insofar as we're trying to practise theology in an explicitly religious fashion, I think I'm also right in saying that we're trying to figure out how to practise philosophical theology in accordance with the virtues of faith, hope and love.

On this basis, I believe that it might be helpful to think of our methodological discussions in terms which explicitly relate to virtue. Specifically, I think it worth asking how our various stances on philosophical method attempt to reflect or live into such things as humility, temperance, and diligence etc. I also think it worth reflecting on how the way we talk about explicitly ethical virtues can inform our discussions on philosophical virtues; after all. making the ethical import of our stances explicit might help to indicate the unifying features of our approaches, unifying features which emerge within (not in spite of) our different approaches. These certainly aren't especially profound or original thoughts, but I think they might have been underemphasised up till now.

Structural Similarity?

It is, I think, more or less uncontroversially accepted that virtues are not tied to particular or specific forms of action. That is to say, there is no one set of actions which, if carried out, can in and of themselves guarantee humility or temperance. For example, even though Christ praises the tax collector praying for mercy over the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like others, we can still instantiate the pride of the Pharisee by praying for mercy in a non-humble way. Similarly, temperance can become an indulgence itself when one becomes addicted to asceticism. As such, when we consider whether or not someone is acting virtuously, we tend to consider more than just their immediately observable actions: we also tend to ask why they're doing what they're doing, what context they are acting in, and what the likely effects of their action will be. We tend to do this on a case by case basis, allowing that an action that is humble or loving in one context might not be in another.

I think a similar point can be made about those philosophical virtues of rigour and precision, and for similar reasons: that there is no one set of practises which, if followed, can in and of themselves guarantee that we are being rigorous or precise (there are, of course, practises which are more likely to be rigorous than others: to say that there is nothing that guarantees rigour is not to say that there is nothing which makes it more likely, or that there is nothing that is not rigorous!) Because of this, I would argue that the challenges of trying to evaluating whether or not we are practising philosophy virtuously are similar to the challenges of trying to figure out whether or not we are living virtuously. We can't just consider the basic features of our arguments, but also why we have written them that way, what we hope they shall achieve, and when and whether they are appropriate in a given context.

This approach can, I think, help us to avoid the blanket criticisms or affirmations of specific practises (the kind that Bill quite rightly cautions against, and the kind I myself am very prone to make). As such, it might also constitute a type of philosophical charity, as we try in our readings to figure out how different thinkers are attempting to approach virtue from different directions.

Attempts at Humility

In terms of a specific example for all this, I think humility might be a good one. I think Alec (to focus on one person's approach) is very concerned about humility in philosophy, a fact reflected by his choice of rigour and tradition as the definitive characteristics of a Oriel Theology. His rigour is a function of humility because it seeks to ensure that we take an approach which will make our arguments as vulnerable as possible, so increasing the likelihood that we will be shown to be wrong. He is also very concerned that we should make as much effort as possible to ensure that we are expressing ourselves in a way which makes it as easy as possible for people to understand what we're trying to say and why. His emphasis on tradition, meanwhile, is a function of humility as it places great emphasis on listening to the voices of those in the past in order that they might inform our thought, rather than rushing on ahead as if they had nothing to tell us. In this way, I think a sense of humility greatly informs Alec's account of rigour.

Now, strange as it might seem, much of my approach is also geared towards an attempt to practise philosophy with humility (though sometimes in a prideful way, I imagine). I have two reasons for arguing against too strong an emphasis on formal definition as the goal or starting point of philosophical argument. The first is I think it can lead us to think we have a kind of generalisable knowledge that we don't. The second is that I think it can lead us to implicitly close off certain avenues of thought or bias our arguments in our favour from the beginning. Both of these reasons relate, in my mind, to a particular type of pride which can be especially dangerous in philosophy: namely, the kind of pride which can think the human mind capable of determining the truth of the subject matter of theology according to its own standards (n.b. I'm not using 'determine' here as synonymous with 'begin to understand', or, to use a more theologically loaded term, 'discern'). My reason for arguing for a slightly less formal style, meanwhile, is that I think it can be more responsive to the world that we encounter; that it can be more open to listening than a philosophy which understands its terms as defined at the outset.

A Couple of Thoughts

Now, Alec and I also (I imagine) take the approaches we do because we think that they will help us say something true. This remains consistent, however, with the idea that we are both in some sense preoccupied with trying to practise philosophical theology in a virtuous fashion: after all, virtue may well just be that which acts in the service of truth. But whilst I think we might disagree about what is true for the foreseeable future, I think we can both recognise what we're trying to get at and why in terms of humility. And as intimated in one of my earlier posts, I think that different attitudes towards humility can be incredibly useful to each other: they can balance each other out, and remind each other that virtue tends to be more than just doing certain things in the right order. We might also be able to help each other out when we develop particularly bad cases of tunnel vision (something I know full well I am often guilty of!).

Most of all, I think that the language of virtue can engender sympathy in a way that the language of truth/ontology finds a bit harder. That is to say: I am more inclined to think Alec completely wrong-headed if he thinks that we either could or should seek to rigorously define so vague and fluid a thing as knowledge, and I imagine he's likely to think me to be needlessly obfuscating matters or clouding my arguments by not doing so. I am completely sympathetic, however, to the demand that we should try to express ourselves in a way which makes it as easy as possible for people to both understand what we are saying and see where we might be going wrong. I believe my position might be more sympathetic, moreover, if it is seen explicitly in terms of trying to ensure we are being responsive to what we encounter in the world and honest about our limitations (part of the reason for this might be that the language of virtue is prima facie more open to diversity than the language of truth or being). This is not to say that we will therefore always agree with each other; but I think it's a way of talking which can help to unify our various approaches without compromising their diversity.

Going forward in this vein, I think it might be quite interesting to explore how different disputes in philosophical theology follow from a problem analogous to the problem of the unity of the virtues; that as well as disagreeing what is true and real, we're also sometimes coming up against the fact that what counts as virtuous practise might not be immediately obvious and that there are cases where two virtues can even come into conflict with each other (whether seemingly or actually). Quite what the results would be, I'm not entirely sure (and I'm sure it's been done before); but I'm quite certain that it would be much more constructive than Searle's accusation that continental approaches to philosophy are driven by a will to power or Derrida's somewhat less than constructive (if still hilarious) writing in Limited inc.

 

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