Thursday, March 31, 2011

Substance and Imperative in the Moral Law

Every moral law has two components: substance and imperative.  The substance is the nature of the moral quality involved (i.e., goodness, nobility, courage, etc.).  The imperative is the obligation to exemplify that quality.  Even if a moral theory could explain the origin of a quality, it still falls short unless it also encompasses the imperative.  The mere existence of a quality does not obligate people to emulate it.  Therefore, an adequate moral theory must explain not only the substance of morality, but also why people are under any imperative to act in accordance with that substance.
Most theories cannot justify the imperative without begging the question and (at least implicitly) using an imperative in their reasoning. For example, evolutionary theories claim the moral action is the one that preserves society.  However, “This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved,” [1] which is circular reasoning.  Aristotelian theories argue that the moral action is found in the mean between two extremes. [2]  But again, there can be no obligation to perform the action found in the mean unless we assume an imperative that we ought to model the mean.
This is one of the advantages of divine command theories.  Properly formulated, these theories provide an explanation for both the substance and imperative of moral obligations.  Their substance is found in God’s character.  When an individual person is described as “honest” or “empathetic” those are general descriptions at best.  After all, nobody perfectly exemplifies these character traits all the time, but they may be more present in some people than in others.  These same qualities, however, exist perfectly in God.  He is always honest and empathetic.  To say that someone is honest is to say that they act in a way that is similar to the quality in God’s character that is described as “honesty.”  God’s character is the source for moral descriptions.  It provides the substance.  A description of the substance is as far as most moral theories can travel.  But divine command theory also includes a description of the imperative.  We are obligated to model our behavior after those traits in God’s character because he has commanded us to do so.  Therefore, divine command theories address both substance and imperative.
If the imperative of moral rules lies in God’s commands, a critic could justifiably ask why people should obey them.  Just because someone orders you to do something does not mean you should do it.  If Aristotelian ethics fail to explain why people should behave according to the mean between extremes, do divine command ethics have the same shortcoming?  Instead of failing to justify why people should obey the mean, they fail to explain why people should obey God.
I have begun to formulate a possible answer.  First, the very nature of a command raises an issue of obedience.  The intention of a command is for it to be obeyed.  The same cannot be said, for example, of a mean.  There is no intelligence behind a mean expecting obedience.  Therefore the mere fact that a mean exists does not raise the question of taking action in compliance with that mean.
At the very least, then, basing an ethic in commands legitimizes an imperative whereas other ethical theories do not.  However, not all commands are to be obeyed.  The command of a would-be murderer to assist in a killing is properly disregarded.  So while it is true that only a command can legitimize an imperative, the question remains of why God’s commands are of the nature that they should be obeyed.
My preliminary answer to this dilemma lies in the fall.  All humankind was made in the image of God.  The positive attributes of their character were passed on from God in a similar fashion as a parent passes on genetic qualities to biological children.  The fall, however, tore several holes in the character of the human race.  People may have only been “good” in a finite sense prior to the fall, but afterward they became dramatically less so.  Yet the image of God did not abandon humanity altogether.  Programmed into humanity’s very being is an irresistible longing to return to that original state. It is a goal that people cannot help but desire, even if they cannot adequately recognize or articulate it.  Humankind knows something is missing, although they may not know what it is.  A gap longs to be filled, and a gap in moral character is no different.  God’s commands tell people how to fill that gap as much as is possible in this fallen state and therefore satisfy this longing.  If they recognized that God’s commands pointed toward this goal for which they irresistibly strive, the conclusion that God’s commands should be followed would be equally irresistible.  In this sense, “should” is not a moral imperative, but rather a necessary presupposition based upon a fallen nature.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, ed. Joseph Rutt (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002), 477 (emphasis in original).
[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 5th ed. (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1893), 37-38.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do You Have a Hole in Your Heart?

To really understand what it means to have a hole in your heart you have to go through it, or at least watch as someone you have known for a very long time and about whom you care very deeply goes through it. You see, I am not just talking about the everyday “I don’t want to wake up this Monday morning and go into work” kind of dissatisfaction with life. The feeling I am talking about is much deeper, much more pervasive and far more debilitating.

Many people experience an existential crisis in their lives that is hard to put into words. If they were to open up to you about it (which in my experience, most will not) probably the best articulation they would come up with is “something is missing” or “something just doesn’t feel right.” It is a general profound dissatisfaction with their lives, not just for one day or surrounding one activity, but around their entire lives. There is a hole in their hearts and it becomes their top priority to find a way to fill it.

Usually, these folks try to fill that hole with something that can never do the trick. Some people use drugs. Some alcohol. Others (especially those of us that are reaching the “middle aged” category) try to recapture that feeling of youthful exuberance they had when they were younger. They may re-enter the club scene, change their hair color or wardrobe or get new tattoos or piercings. The problem is that none of these things last. Drugs and alcohol wear off, causing that heart hole to reappear and leaving you constantly looking for more until you slip into addiction and all sorts of destructive behaviors. And no matter how hard you try, the hourglass of time will always be urging you onward. Change your outward appearance as much as you like, but ultimately all you are doing to stifling your own development. Besides, we all tend to remember the past with rose-colored glasses. If we were to be honest with ourselves, things weren’t all peaches and cream in our youth either. Satisfaction isn’t to be found there for the crises we face today.

Probably the number one realization that most people going through this process need to come to is how selfish their behavior is. That is not a very politically correct thing to say. After all, many times the reason these crises began in the first place was something that was beyond the person’s control and for which they had no blame. That being said, one true measure of a person’s integrity is how they respond to adversity. We can empathize with someone who has been dealt a nasty hand. But there is a right way and a wrong way to face these struggles. Two wrongs do not make a right.

I am reminded of a story I read on the web recently (I apologize, I do not remember the source) of a woman who came to the conclusion after having two children (both of whom were around elementary/middle school age) that motherhood just wasn’t for her. So she upped and moved away, leaving her now estranged husband to handle the family. She would visit the kids occasionally, but went on and on about how much better her relationship was with her children now that they did not have to deal with each other every day. Maybe she liked it better, but I wonder what those kids would say if they really expressed the inner longings of their hearts. I don’t know what caused this woman to get to that point in her personal crisis. But I am reasonably confident that she did not take the high road in her hasty exit. At their core, her actions were selfish.

That’s a hard lesson to swallow, because when someone has been emotionally beaten down, it is often the result of them never speaking up for themselves and thinking of their own well being. But to respond to such a situation by jumping to the opposite extreme and thinking only of oneself can be just as destructive.

Most people going through this type of crisis don’t think anything is wrong. More specifically, they think plenty is wrong, but always with other people. They will surround themselves with others who are going through similar phases in their lives so that they can all affirm each other that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong. This just makes it far more difficult to break the cycle. Often we have to break with these unhealthy self-affirming relationships before we can really start to bounce back from the self-destructive path we have set for ourselves. Ultimately, relationships between two people who are both in these circumstances will fail. After all, they may think they share something in common, but ultimately each person is primarily concerned with their own well being, not that of their partners in arms. Remember, this behavior is fundamentally self-centered. How long do you think it will take before the desires of two selfish people come into conflict? It is going to happen. The only question is, “When?” How supportive do you think the relationship will be then?

One of the saddest things about someone trying to recapture their youth is how much they are missing. Each stage in our lives comes with its own blessings. I met my wife in 1991 at a fraternity party at the University of Delaware. Back in those days we used to go out to parties, late night movies, or just cruise around town. We were married in 1994 and lived in an apartment within walking distance of a Multiplex movie theater. The party scene slowly vanished and was replaced by walks to matinees (that was all we could afford) and weekly game nights with my eldest brother and his newlywed wife (they are also still together, I am happy to report). We moved to Jamestown, Virginia in 1995 when I started law school at William & Mary. Money was really tight then because I wasn’t earning an income (at least not for the first year). Date nights now were “fancy” dinners made in our own kitchen and served at our tiny kitchen table. If it was a “feast,” we might even have raised the drop down portion of the table to increase our dining space from what seemed like the size of a matchbox to a breadbox. We had taken a Shakespeare class together and Williamsburg had an excellent (and inexpensive) Shakespeare Festival that put on two plays each year. That pretty much encompassed our nights out. If we actually had saved enough cash to buy dinner, it was pizza from a small take out place called the “Jamestown Pie Company,” some of the best pizza I have had to this day.

After law school, we became a two income family again and didn’t know what to do with all this extra money. So naturally we did what any young immature couple would do…we spent it. We started going to musicals in downtown Norfolk and even occasionally shopping at MacArthur Center, the new upscale mall a few blocks from my office. We learned some valuable lessons in those days about responsible stewardship of our finances.

Then in 2002 our world was rocked. My daughter was born. All of a sudden we had a new priority in our lives. I had been taking Masters’ level classes in criminal justice at Old Dominion University but that had to stop. I couldn’t be out of the house all day and several nights each week with a newborn at home. I had to give a lot up when my daughter was born, but let me tell you, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I got far more back, from the star struck gazes when she would look at Chuck E. Cheese or Mickey Mouse to the time spent pushing her on a swing or playing the part of the prince taking my little princess to the ball. Then God did it for me all again, with a more rambunctious twist, in 2007 when my son was born. Now I am a horse to be ridden or a wrestling partner who always seems to wind up on the losing end of the match.

What is the point of this brief biography? Is it because I thought you were really all that interested in my life story? No. In fact I have often joked with my wife that even if I became incredibly famous, my biography would be one of the worst selling books ever because my life has been so dull. The point is this: When I was in college I got to go out to parties every weekend, but I didn’t get to enjoy those quiet dinners with my new wife around that tiny table in law school. I didn’t know the joys of a new marriage. But during those law school days I also thought that more money was the solution to many of my problems. It wasn’t until I entered the professional workforce that I learned proper stewardship and that true happiness cannot be bought. Now I look at my children, and if you were to ask me if I ever dream of going back to those college partying days I would respond, “What, and give up all of this?” Each stage in our lives carries its own blessings. If you insist on trying to live in a bygone era, you are going to miss all the blessings meant for the age in which you now live.

So if recapturing your youth, drugs or alcohol isn’t the answer to filling that hole, what is? In order to answer that question, we first need to know what’s wrong with all the other answers so we have an idea what the right kind of answer should look like. The main problem with all these false solutions is that they provide at best fleeting comfort and often result in sending you spiraling further down your destructive path. What do I mean that they are “fleeting?” The effects of drugs or alcohol eventually wear off. Even if you convince yourself that everything is better while you are under their influence, what do you do once the high ends? That hole reappears and you are left trying to fill it again. It is a never ending cycle. The same is true of trying to recapture your youth. Inevitably you will come face to face with a sobering reminder that you will never truly be that young again.

How are they “destructive?” The answer should be obvious with drugs and alcohol. Relying upon them for comfort leads to dependency and addiction, until you lose the ability to function. Trying to live in the past can have a very similar effect, even if it is not as obvious. Like it or not, as we get older we have responsibilities. People depend upon us, whether it be a spouse, children, co-workers or friends. Remember what I said before, this type of behavior ends up being selfish. Someone who wants to recapture the wonder of their youth through living their old lifestyle will do it at the expense of everyone around them. You will be going out to bars with your self-affirming friends rather than on dates with your spouse. You will be out so late at night that you are sleeping throughout the afternoon when you children are secretly longing to spend quality time with you. Not that they will say so to your face, but the impact on your relationship will show over time as your kids no longer believe you will be there for them when they need you and begin sharing the most important things in their lives with others, sometimes with people who start them down their own self-destructive paths. If a friend does not affirm your behavior you convince yourself that they are not a true friend. And before long the obsession with your new lifestyle costs you your focus at work. In what seems like the blink of an eye, your selfish response to something tragic in your life has led to even more tragedy. You turn around and see you have lost your spouse, children, friends or job.

Whatever the proper way is to fill the hole, it can’t be fleeting and it can’t be destructive. In my opinion the only thing that fits the bill is God. First, he is the God of all comfort. He never promises that pain will not enter our lives, but he can be the friend you need when you feel compelled to vent your frustrations. We tend to convince ourselves that if only we could know the reason why pain has entered our lives then we would find the strength to persevere. Frustration inevitably sets in when we can’t find the reason we are looking for. Job also wanted to know the reason for his suffering. But before it was done, he learned that he didn’t necessarily need to know what the reason was as long as he knew that a reason existed. He could be assured that there was a reason for his pain because he knew that God loved him and could be trusted. God wouldn’t let this happen without cause. Therefore, even though Job didn’t get the answers he thought he needed, he found comfort in trust; trust in God’s love.

But even more so, God can give meaning to every aspect of your life. His word tells us to do everything we do as if it is for the glory of God. In other words, worship is a lifestyle, not something you do for an hour or so on Sunday mornings. You wake up to face the world for the glory of God. You eat your meals for the glory of God. You go to work for the glory of God. You raise your children for the glory of God. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He never changes. He never leaves. Therefore you can always find meaning in worship. If you fill your hole with the worship of your Creator, you will never have to fill it again.

Do you have a hole in your heart? What have you tried to fill it with? How is that working for you? God bless.