On the Moral Sense
As one who usually finds Gilbert Meilaender’s contributions to First Things interesting, insightful, and provocative, I am quite surprised by his negative review of James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense (November 1993). To my lights, Wilson’s book is one of the best works of nonfiction in recent memory and may very well go down as a classic of moral philosophy.
Professor Meilaender believes that Wilson is something of a confused relativist whose view of the moral life is not that different from the understanding of Richard Rorty. However, the brilliance (or, I should say, one aspect of the brilliance) of The Moral Sense that Professor Meilaender misses is the way in which Wilson maintains an objective view of morality that answers the tired relativist cliche which Joseph Adelson writing in Commentary calls “Bongo-Bongoism”””How can you call that aspect of morality universal if the (mythical) Bongo-Bongo tribe doesn’t practice it?”
Instead of maintaining that moral rules are necessarily universal, Wilson contends that moral dispositions are. In translating moral dispositions into moral rules, the Bongo-Bongos may make a mistake somewhere along the way. As Wilson writes, “It would be astonishing if many of the rules by which men lived were everywhere the same, since almost all rules reflect the indeterminate intersection of sentiment and circumstance.” It is the universality of moral dispositions that gives us hope; because radical differences in moral outlook are not inherent,
people may eventually bring their moral rules and moral behavior in line with their moral dispositions.
The genius of The Moral Sense is the way in which the universal dispositions”sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty”are developed and proved. Wilson collects an astonishing array of psychological and sociological studies relating to nearly every facet of the moral life
from every conceivable quarter and synthesizes them to support the general ideas that he posits. This is so in every chapter; through his remarkable conceptual abilities combined with rigorous and eclectic research, Wilson is able to explore paradigms and make connections that no one has made before.
Examples of this are too numerous to state here; the only thing to do is read the book. And no one who does will be disappointed. The Moral Sense is what Adam Smith would have written instead of The Theory of Moral Sentiments if he was as good a social scientist as James Q. Wilson.
Caring for Burdens
On his deathbed Samuel Johnson thanked a friend who adjusted a pillow for him, saying, “That will do all that a pillow can do.” Nancy L. Harvey (“Wishing People Dead,” November 1993) makes the valuable point that food and water will do for a comatose patient all they can do for any of us. Indeed they will, and the fact that food and water will not restore higher mental functions must not be offered as a reason for withholding food and water from the comatose.
Regarding Nancy L. Harvey’s “Wishing People Dead,” the absence of a fuller discussion of Ms. Busalacchi’s family, her vital statistics, and medical history allow Ms. Harvey to subtly convey an “evil” impression of the entire experience and of all those involved, especially Fr. O’Rourke, thus setting the stage for her own heroic defense of the innocent. It’s a fine device, but hardly serves the cause of serious debate on these terribly difficult matters.
I’m fearful of people like Ms. Harvey, who often, I believe, lose sight of the real people involved and their suffering, willing to allow their suffering for the sake of “principled” argument, thus missing the observation of Jesus: the Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around . . . .
It is a moral failure of the worst kind to avoid the necessity of decision-making by hiding behind a “universal” principle applied willy-nilly to everyone. Life does not yield to such universal codes, and the fatal attraction drawing Ms. Harvey into the fray is the desire for some legal decision in some court, or a theological discovery in someone’s heart, that will once and for all resolve every such case and eliminate all ambiguity.
Ms. Harvey does raise important questions about those in a PVS, but I suspect that such questions ultimately can be answered only by the patient’s family in a context of care and support provided by the medical and religious communities in a counter-balancing role for one
another, thus preventing hasty or self-serving decisions.
I was particularly concerned by the end of her article, detecting there a somewhat naive reading of history, marked by a romanticized perspective wherein the past is always more glorious and more noble than the present.
In reality, people in modern Western nations are cared for on a scale impossible to imagine for anyone in the Middle Ages, and while that world was populated with the damaged and disfigured, as is many a Third World city today, it’s foolish to imagine that they were cared for by noble people willing to “wash everything by hand and spoon-feed them.” The suffering of the handicapped in the Middle Ages is hardly a norm by which to judge our current struggles. The handicapped and mentally impaired were often tortured and treated as demons . . .
I doubt if Ms. Harvey, or anyone else for that matter, would want to return to a city of the thirteenth or fourteenth century in hopes of finding a more humane treatment of the physically needy; and citing the Church’s support for the “noble” care-giver is hardly helpful, because
the church of the Middle Ages was rife with a twisted theology that found ego-gratifying glory in all kinds of suffering . . .
I am not suggesting that the decision to end Ms. Busalacchi’s life was the right one, but I am suggesting that Ms. Harvey’s argument is flawed and, as such, contributes to the pile of emotion-laden rhetoric clogging the channels of genuine moral and theological debate.
(The Rev.) Thomas P. Eggebeen
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church
Nancy L. Harvey replies:
The points of my article are simple. Is it right to allow people to get rid of those who burden them? Is this Christian teaching, supported by the traditions and practices of the Church throughout history? Is this a sound principle for our society?
Pastor Eggebeen does not address these points. Instead, he is concerned with the “real people involved and their suffering” and considers it a terrible moral failure to hide behind a “universal’ principle applied . . . to everyone.”
This is, however, a different issue. One thing is certain”whatever ethical decisions we make will involve suffering, because we live in a fallen world. Christine Busalacchi had caretakers who grieved for her, as surely as did the members of her family. I believe I am correct that
the Church has taught that suffering can be embraced and used to make one more like Christ, quite apart from inhumane practices of the middle and other ages.
How, then, do we decide whose suffering is most important? How can we avoid favoring the healthy over the sick, the articulate over the mute, the educated over the ignorant? Scripture shows God championing the “least of these.” He does not praise the strong over the weak, the
powerful over the lowly, the hungry over the well-fed. The language is all the other way. But if we do not apply this (or any other) “universal principle,” how do we avoid making our decisions based on our emotions, our desires, or whatever principles are temporarily in fashion? And
without universal principles, how can we even define, much less strive for, justice, righteousness, and mercy where it counts-in the lives of the “real people involved”?
In among the many insightful articles, one has grown used to what might be called First Things’ “Roman Follies.” A recent case is Richard John Neuhaus’ commentary on “Population and Hope for the Future” (November 1993). He notes with approval that an unnamed Vatican document “states once again the irrefutable truth . . . often denied by the population controllers, that reduced population growth is tied to social development.”
Those of us who hold that the Roman Church’s position on artificial birth control lacks scriptural or historical warrant as Christian doctrine have no need or desire to deny the correlation between
birthrate and poverty. It should not be necessary to remind our Editor-in-Chief, however, that correlation does not decide causation. A persuasive explanation of the correlation is that, in much of the world, an excessive birthrate is a key cause of poverty.
The strains on pension and medical care that Neuhaus invokes as the “big problem” of declining birthrates in the West arise primarily from the success, and cost, of medical technology in prolonging physical life. Is Neuhaus or the Vatican seriously suggesting that we can procreate our
way out of the ethical dilemmas of such technology with a sort of reproductive Reaganomics?
Well, you see why I call them follies. If only they were the folly that preoccupied the first Roman Christians (1 Corinthians 1:23)!
Ian H. Hutchinson
The Real Burke
In his review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s fascinating thematic work on Edmund Burke ( The Great Melody , November 1993) Mark Henrie regrettably chose to focus on an allegation that the liberal O’Brien tried his darndest and failed to make Burke out to be a liberal when he was actually a traditionalist conservative. I wonder how valuable such intellectual games really are. Liberals and conservatives may often resemble one another, as for example in the case of Alexis de Tocqueville. It also matters very much whether the liberalism in question is part of an aristocratic tradition of opposition to centralizing monarchy. Thus eighteenth-century Polish nobles could be
viewed as liberal while the supposedly liberal Voltaire can be faulted for having congratulated Catherine the Great on her invasion of Poland to put down anarchy and insure religious freedom!
Henrie would have done better to have focused on the inner dilemma of Burke having to support an English and Irish establishment that was driving the Irish Catholics into Jacobinism much against their nature, something the sensitive Burke appreciated and sympathized with as he
also deplored it. O’Brien’s book is obviously often more suggestive than conclusive. His discussion of the battle inside Burke’s soul between the Catholic believer and the Anglican conformist is most impressive, if necessarily undocumented. He presents a much more believable Burke than
Isaac Kramnick’s Marxo-psychological Burke torn between bourgeois and aristocratic passions and resentments. This would have made a better subject for Henrie’s book review.
Evangelicals and Catholics
In his November 1993 Public Square, Richard John Neuhaus points out that a great deal of attention is being given to the growth of sects and evangelicals in Latin America. But as Jan Harris pointed out in Christianity Today (April 5, 1993), “One of the biggest beneficiaries of Protestant evangelistic activity in Latin America is the Catholic Church itself.”
Harris quotes a poll taken after a 1992 evangelistic campaign in Costa Rica, for example, which showed that 80 percent of the 5,000 people who said they changed religions as a result of the campaign were back in the Catholic Church within five months.
Christianity Today also points out that there are far fewer evangelicals than estimated: 8.9 percent in Costa Rica, not the estimated 24 percent; 19.3 percent in Guatemala, instead of twice that many.
Reasons for Decline
“No Other Gods” (November 1993) by Robert L. Wilken offers very insightful perspective on why contemporary Western Christianity is in decline. His use of the writings of T. S. Eliot and Origen demonstrates that the issues which confront the Christian faith are not new. In fact, I’m convinced that the struggles we face both within and without the Church are the same that the ancient nation of Israel experienced and that in particular have confronted the Church since the time of the Apostles. The problem is the institutionalization of the body of Christ.
Contemporary discussions about the decline of Mainstream Protestantism have used the tools of scientific analysis to chart the demographic landscape of the church. We can know who is leaving, why they are leaving, and where they are going. But underlying these shifts is an issue we have not faced. What if the form of Christianity institutionalized in Western Protestantism is time- and culture-specific, and that its usefulness to the Gospel is running out? Criticism of such a question often assumes that there is a close enough congruence between the body of Christ and denominations to make such a discussion irrelevant. I believe we make that assumption at our peril . . .
Eliot is correct that a “new Christian culture” is our only alternative to a secular one. And yes, it will have to have some institutional form. But that form must be driven by the fellowship that Christians have with God in Christ through the Spirit. A hope for the future based on reordering institutional structures ignores the realities of change that have swept our world. We must think more broadly, more humbly, and more sensitively so that we might know where the Spirit moves us. Even in the midst of decline, the evidence of God’s continued action for the Church surrounds us. Let’s not take for granted the hopeful signs, but see these signs pointing us to our future.
Edwin R. Brenegar III
Professor Robert L. Wilken’s “No Other Gods” struck me as eminently sensible, as I had expected. Ours certainly would be a spiritually richer, happier, healthier society if his analysis were adopted by Americans generally. The problem is that the idol in need of replacement is very dear to Americans.
The central campus of the University of Virginia, where I am Prof. Wilken’s student, is laid out around a central Rotunda, which is itself supposed to be a temple to education generally (that is, to human wisdom). Thomas Jefferson, the Lawn’s architect, intended it to be the embodiment of his own Enlightenment faith in man’s unassisted reason, the opposite of which, to his mind, was “monkish superstition.” That is why he replaced worship of God with veneration of man in his design. As Dr. Wilken and I have discussed, the current American spiritual debacle owes its genesis to Jefferson himself.
Jefferson did yeoman’s service in separating Christianity from education in Virginia; only his contemporaries’ objections kept him from going farther. When Justice Hugo Black wrote Jefferson’s metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state” into federal constitutional law, the writing was on the wall: a full-scale secularization of our national
politics, at the command of the courts, was only a matter of time.
If we are to submit to Wilken’s prescription, we must first overcome certain prejudices. Foremost among these is our (generally uneducated) national love affair with Thomas Jefferson (than whom no American President has been more hostile to God); of additional importance is our
attachment to the “wall of separation between church and state,” which is actually a wall between our polity and spiritual health (the consequence of true adherence to the First Commandment). In the process of fighting these two errors, we must show our fellow citizens that, as Justice Felix Frankfurter noted long ago, it is often the Supreme Court, not the Constitution, that is speaking in our so-called “constitutional” law.
Kevin R. Gutzman
Kevin Offner’s typology of Evangelicalism referred to in The Public Square (November 1993) did indeed bring momentary cries of protest from this disenfranchised Evangelical. I could not find my label anywhere among his grocery list! But cries of protest quickly turned to chuckles as I realized that I could pigeonhole all of my Evangelical friends into his taxonomy. Furthermore, I have acquaintances that fit into all twelve categories.
I am not surprised that someone in Offner’s position could develop such a fine taxonomy. I suspect that an InterVarsity worker at Harvard would have plenty of time on his hands. Unless of course he is a (well, well, here is a thirteenth category) “Evangelistic Evangelical” who is
particularly motivated by winning converts. Of course he left that off the list; maybe he knows something I don’t.
James E. Nelson
I greatly enjoyed the analyses of Supreme Court opinions by lawyers Raul Yanes and Mary Ann Glendon (November 1993). Added to their coverage of the Lukumi Babalu case, however, might have been wary speculations as to how the Court may cope with cases where household pets will be the victims of religious practices. That such may confront the judiciary in the foreseeable future is obvious from an Associated Press story of August 9, 1993 from Pensacola, Florida which reads in its entirety:
Three men accused of killing cats in satanic rituals face animal cruelty charges.
One suspect told investigators that cult members drank cat blood after an
animal sacrifice, said police Sergeant Jerry Potts.
So, if these suspects plead Lukumi as a defense how will the judiciary”from low to high”respond? And how might it respond to a dog barbecue as a religious festivity?