Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Remarks About Christian Love

Neither politics nor human character are simple things. It's rare to find politicians whose motivations are wholly unsavory, even if one disagrees strongly with their platform. In my last post I argued that, while cloaked in explicitly Christian language, Rick Santorum’s political rhetoric targeting gays and lesbians actually violates the spirit of Christian ethics.

But it's important to stress that when I say this, I'm not saying that Santorum's character and motivations should as a whole be judged in these terms. Reflecting on the last post, I think I didn't stress this point enough. In fact, there is reason to suppose that in many respects Santorum's political platform is driven by his allegiance to Christian love as he understands it, leading some to see him as the return of compassionate conservatism. Some conservatives even take him to task for this. Santorum is less inclined to let national borders define the boundaries of our concern, and so is more willing to speak out in support of a duty to provide foreign aid.

His homophobic obsession with villifying human beings who seek to overcome marginalization based on unchosen sexualtiy is, in an important respect, an anomoly. More significantly, perhaps, it is a kind of poison at the heart of his outlook, all the more eggregious because of what it is poisoning. But if I'm going to defend these claims--both the claim that his anti-gay rhetoric violates the spirit of Christian ethics, and the claim that much of his broader view expresses that spirit--I need to offer an account of what I take to lie at the heart of Christian ethics.

To offer a full account I’d need to do two things: explain what I take the heart of Christian ethics to be, and explain why I take this to be the heart of Christian ethics. Since I can’t adequately do both tasks in a short blog post, I focus here on the first—the task of explicating my understanding of Christian ethics.

On this issue I follow in the footsteps of theologians such as Anders Nygren and Paul Ramsey and Christian moral and social leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. The tradition of ethical thought they represent is deeply rooted in New Testament interpretation as well as in early Christian beliefs about what it meant to live as Jesus lived. It is a tradition that understands Christian ethical life as being fundamentally characterized in terms of the call to consistently practice agape—that is, a distinctive kind of love, one believed to be exemplified in Jesus’ life and described in Jesus’ twin calls to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love even (perhaps especially) our enemies.

How do we love ourselves? And how in the world can we love our enemies, those who wish us ill? These questions are actually interconnected. One feature of self-love is that it involves care for our own good simply because it is good for us, apart from questions of desert. Self-love is an immediate concern for personal welfare that doesn’t spring from such things as reciprocity (what would reciprocity even mean in relation to oneself?). Furthermore, rather than being conditioned on a judgment of our worth, self-love immediately motivates an interest in warranting a positive judgment of worth. Where we perceive ourselves as not warranting such a judgment, we are motivated by self-love to act and choose so as to warrant it.

Not that this motive is always going to win out against other motives. We might despair of any capacity to change for the better, in which case the very desire that would otherwise motivate us to change might lead us to reject the values that inspire a negative judgment of self-worth. We adopt, perhaps, an attitude of disdain for these values and concern ourselves exclusively with hedonistic ones. We make ourselves "good enough" by tailoring our standards of good enough to fit our failings.

Despair over our capacity to change for the better might also lead us into a state of conflicted self-loathing in which the part of us that is moved by self-love wishes for us to be good and happy, while another part of us, gripped by the widespread idea that love should be conditioned on desert, sabotages everything that might enrich our lives. Not all of us are ruled by self-love, and Jesus' injunction to love others as we love ourselves doesn't assume that we are. Rather, it assumes that we all have some instinctive self-love, even when it is overridden or stifled by other things. And that love is one which is directed towards our own good--both our happiness and our moral worth--in a manner that isn't conditioned on whether we deserve it or have earned it.

To love others as we love ourselves is thus to care for their good--including their character and self-development--in a similar way, a manner which is unconditioned by matters of merit or reciprocity.

And this is where the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves dovetails with the injunction to love our enemies. The latter makes sense only if love is unconditioned by desert. A.J. Muste, at a Quaker meeting in 1940, put it this way: “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.”

When you think of it, that’s a pretty staggering statement. In making it, Muste was making a definitional point about what’s involved in agapic love: To love in this way is to love in a way that does not attend to matters of reciprocity or desert. And the ultimate test of whether one is actually loving in this way is whether one’s love extends to one’s bitterest, most hostile, most villainous enemies. If it doesn’t, then one isn’t loving in this distinctive way.

In short, the idea of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and the idea of loving our enemies, converge on the same idea: We are to be concerned about the neighbor’s good—including the enemy-neighbor—for the neighbor’s own sake and without regard for whether the neighbor deserves such care.

Following Simone Weil and Martin Luther and others, I am convinced that such love is first and foremost a matter of attention. We attend to the neighbor as another subject like ourselves. Instead of seeing them through the filters of our own wants and needs and beliefs, we attend to them in the same way that we ordinarily attend to ourselves: experiencing as best we can the range of their wants and needs, hopes and fears, convictions and doubts--in short, empathizing.

But this is not to say that we abandon our best understanding of the truths of the human condition, adopting those of the individial with whom we empathize. It does not mean endorsing their choices and sharing their ends. After all, a Christian call to empathize with Hitler is not a call to adopt his lack of empathy for his victims. The empathy that is an essential piece of Christian love is not the limited, truncated empathy of someone like Hitler. It is, rather, the kind of empathy that involves rising above such limits. The empathy that is the starting point of Christian love is thus an attempt to expand our discernment of truth by wearing our neighbor's shoes (including those of our enemy-neighbor), not to truncate our discernment of truth by limiting ourselves to what is seen while standing in our neighbor's shoes.

The ultimate goal here is a kind of global empathy in which decisions are made as if each and every neighbor were as much a part of me as I am. What is being described here, of course, is a God's-eye view. We are called to love as God loves, to be vessels through which divine love operates. And this is something none of us can actually do. We cannot, in fact, adopt the God's-eye view, the universal empathy, that we aspire towards; nor can we in fact make decisions from such a standpoint. We will fail to love Hitler as if he were our own child, with all the concern for Hitler's good that we have for our own children (a concern, by the way, that wouldn't merely be for Hitler's happiness, but for his moral character; a concern that wouldn't pander to his actual desires, but seek what is in his best interest; and this, I believe, means wishing for him that he satisfy the desires he would have were he to actualize his potential and be the best person he could be, as opposed to being the moral monster he became).

In a sense, then, Christian love is merely aspirational. But in another sense it is not. Because the Christian love ethic is embedded in a broader theology which affirms the existence of a God who actualizes what we aspire for--a God who is love, and whose loving will operates in accord with the kind of universal benevolence and profligate empathy we cannot attain. Within this broader theological context, there is something we can do beyond merely aspiring: We can submit ourselves to that God who realizes what we can only hope to approximate. We can make of ourselves channels of divine benevolence.

And this is what it means to love God: It means giving ourselves over to a love that isn’t limited and constrained in the way that finite human love is limited and constrained. It involves saying “Your will, not mine, be done”—and so subordinating our will, not to an arbitrary tyrant, but to the being who is love.

None of us do this—except, perhaps, in rare flashes. Most of the time we cling to our own egos, our own finite perspectives, our own wills...defined as they are by a restricted scope of love. Or we want to be universally benevolent but we want to be responsible for it--a vestige of our allegiance to the notion that good will should be merited, and hence that to be loved as we long to be loved we need to achieve moral perfection on our own terms. And, of course, we fail. And we respond to that failure either by truncating the scope of the moral demand to fit better with our limits, or by beating ourselves up. Or we flicker from one response to another--at one moment justifying our behavior as good enough, at another smacking ourselves for not being good enough. The third alternative--so tritely but accurately captured in the saying so often repeated by evangelicals, "Let go and let God"--is a rare and difficult achievement even for those who believe in God.

But this third alternative is what Christianity calls for, what is at the core of the injunction to love God with all one's heart and soul and mind. And the Christian notion of divine grace at work in the world is the conviction that this third alternative is not merely a fiction, but that "letting go and letting God" actual makes a difference. To believe in grace is to believe that it is possible for us to realize levels of love we could not achieve on our own, by become channels for a love greater than our own. It also means the possibility of escape from the twin traps of rationalization and pathological guilt.

I see in my own life the failure to love as widely as I should--and the propensity to alternately justify it or beat myself up about it. I see it in something as minor as the uncharitable messages I almost post in the comments section of this blog. This is, I think, a real failure—a “sin,” to use the language of Christianity—even when I ultimately resist the temptation. The fact is that often enough I don’t resist it, and even when I do I typically find myself indulging my animus in private. That I don’t publicize it doesn’t eliminate it.

The truth is that there’s a ubiquitous human impulse to exclude some persons from the scope of our love. We want to push some people onto the other side of a divide. On this side there are those who have value and dignity, who deserve basic respect, whose needs matter, whose good is something to be sought. And then there are the people on the other side.

Sometimes this impulse manifests itself in genocidal wars. Sometimes it manifests in verbal slights against colleagues that cause them to fume even as we smirk. Sometimes it manifests in something as small and seemingly trivial as thinking that a particular commentator on my blog has finally crossed outside the line within which human decency is called for. We call it “taking the gloves off” or “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

This is not, in my view, a trivial issue. And, unlike certain other human dispositions, it is universal in its scope. Everybody is prone not only to lashing out, verbally if not physically, against those who offend against us, but to convincing ourselves that the requirements of love do not apply to them--that lashing out is okay because they don't deserve any better, and hence that the lashing out needn't be constrained by questions such as "How would I react if someone said/did that to me? Would it motivate me to be a better person or would it be more likely to inspire retaliatory vindictiveness?"

Let’s be clear about a distinction, however. Loving someone isn’t the same as being nice. Sometimes it requires being honest in a way that’s painful to hear. Sometimes it may call for a refusal to enable self-destructive behaviors. Sometimes love means saying no.

But too often we call our behavior towards others “tough love” when it is neither tough nor love. We are following the easy path of lashing out in a way that’s purely spiteful, that’s nothing more than a desire to see the other person suffer. We feel the surge of testosterone, the fist-pumping delight in knocking down the enemy. This has nothing to do with love.

If the essence of the good is a love that knows no boundaries, then the essence of sin is any impulse that truncates the scope of love. And to affirm this is to be forced to acknowledge our own sinfulness. Far easier to focus on dispositions that other people have, and to call them sins. Far easier, for example, for the straight majority to obsess about homosexuality and to treat the disposition to be romantically attracted to the same sex as if it were a disposition to sin. Then sin is something that other people do, something in relation to which one can feel self-righteous.

Real sin isn’t like that. Real sin is found in the failure to live up to Jesus’ model of radically inclusive and sacrificial love. Expressing romantic feelings in the context of committed monogamy, and working hard to build a relationship of mutual trust and care, to overcome conflicts and build a life together—such a thing is the crucible from which virtues are built, from which admirable character traits can be cultivated. How exactly is such a thing rendered sinful, let alone perverse, simply because the person with whom one works to build such intimacy and partnership happens to be of the same sex?

To ask this question is, admittedly, to question the inerrancy of the apostle Paul. Paul clearly had no concept of committed homosexual monogamy. He seemed to think that all homosexual love sprang from an excess of lust, a lust so indiscriminate that one couldn’t limit oneself to those one was naturally attracted to, let alone to a single partner in the context of fidelity and life partnership. We know better now, at least those of us who listen to our gay and lesbian neighbors and who have witnessed the lives of fidelity that many have pursued despite the odds.

But there are those who have been steeped in a view of Scripture that makes no distinction between an example used by Paul (to exemplify a broader theoretical point) and the very word of God. And they sincerely wrestle with the tension between the implications of this view of Scripture and the seemingly admirable character of a same-sex relationship they've encountered. Their moral intuition is at odds with the moral authority to which they have been taught to defer, and so they struggle.

Many who struggle in this way are genuinely trying to live out a spirit of love. They wrestle with how to be authentically loving towards their gay and lesbian neighbors in the face of the biblical injunctions that, faithfully pursued, would seem to call for their social marginalization, their exclusion from bedrock social institutions such as marriage. They strive to figure out how to do this because they are convinced that the God who is love has, in fact, categorically condemned all homosexual acts. To my view, their struggle is rooted in a failure to see the difference between the word of God and a what their own theory about the Bible implies concerning the word of God. They confuse question the latter with questioning the former.

But there's a difference between struggling to reconcile what I take to be Paul's ignorance and prejudices with the ethic of Christian love, and treating Paul's comments about same-sex activity as an opportunity to indulge feelings that might otherwise be viewed with moral suspicion. There are those for whom "defending God's word"  opens the door, perhaps unwittingly, for guiltlessly letting loose those darker, meaner human impulses--indulging in the tribal impulse to divide and exclude while congratulating oneself for righteously defending God's will.

For many, the biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality do not merely provide an opportunity for such guiltless indulgence; they provide a way to distance oneself from sin. The serious sins, after all, are the things the perverts do. “I may have my failings, but I’m not a pervert.” Being a decent human being becomes easy. After all, it is astonishingly easy for a heterosexual to avoid having gay sex—about as easy as it is for a white person to avoid being black. Avoiding the worst sins becomes a matter of having the good fortune of being born into the right group.

This is an exercise in not taking sin seriously. And yes, paradoxical as it may sound, I am arguing that those who trumpet against the supposed sins of some group or other--some "them"--are thereby not taking sin seriously. They are making sin someone else's problem rather than a shared feature of the human predicament. We take sin seriously when we see its ubiquity…most especially when we see it in ourselves. We take sin seriously when we take the serious sins to be precisely those forces of alienation that abide in every human heart, including our own. We take sin seriously when we see it as the negation of love, and when we understand the essence of love that is captured in A.J. Muste’s words. We take sin seriously when we don't seek to truncate the demands of love to suit our limitations, but seek instead to transcend those limitations by opening ourselves up to being moved by a love that is not so limited.

This inspiration to reach for grace--to earnestly yearn to be more loving that our natures incline us to be--is what is most clearly poisoned by divisive ideology.


  1. I'm glad to see you showed some sympathy with where your more conservative brethren are coming from on the issue of same sex relationships. I have also been reminded lately that there are celibate gay Christians who also hold to the conservative viewpoint. This post is one of the more touching and eye-opening posts that I have read:

  2. C.P.O

    Thank you for that link. Deeply moving.


    A question. What are the conditions, do you think, that best facilitate an openness to one another's narratives? I believe/hope that our capacity for empathy means stories like the one C.P.O linked to, will touch us deeply, if we are exposed to them, and can avoid our defensive reflexes shutting our empathy down.

    One of the reasons I've always been reluctant to let go of agnosticism is a fear that admitting 'this just feels right to me' as a valid truth guiding mechanism provides us with an opportunity to shut down our empathy.

    Might it be that Rick Santorum's views on homosexuality are founded in exactly this type of personal certainty, which is to say might he be certain he is right for much the same reasons you are certain he is wrong - a conviction that the other's views is at odds with the true Christian narrative?

    An alternative, perhaps, is to seek, through our earthly experiences and those of others, expressions of life that most fulfill us. It might be that loving one's children in a way that is fundamentally different and deeper from the way we love our enemies is a crucial part of the human experience. At least, is there something to be said for a world where that proposition is tested through experience than revelation?


  3. Bernard,

    Some interesting questions/ remarks. On the issue of conditions of openness to empathy, I'd be inclined to say that fallibilism (recognizing the real possibility that one's beliefs might be erroneous while still having those beliefs) can do the same kind of work that agnosticism does for you--an issue we've touched on before in different contexts.

    But while I think a general fallibilism contributes to one's openness to empathetic responses, I don't want to say that being strongly convinced that someone is wrong prevents us from empathizing with them.

    Consider the case of Kurt Wise, discussed by Dawkins in The God Delusion. Wise was a promising young scientist torn between the teachings of science and religious convictions that he saw as endorsing Young Earth Creationism, who ultimately couldn't abandon the latter. As Wise tells his story, I find myself empathizing with his predicament even though I am quite firmly convinced that his beliefs are mistaken. What makes such empathy possibly, I think, is that we can imaginatively put ourselves into the shoes of someone who sincerely believes such-and-such even though we think they are dead wrong, and even though we never actually stop thinking that they are dead wrong.

    One kind of empathy involves being able to put ourselves into the subjective place of people who are experiencing motives and impulses that we find distasteful or even wicked. We're able to get where they're coming from even while we continue to take their motives to be improper. In the process, we recognize, I think, the propensity to feel these very same things within ourselves. We see that what they are doing is not the act of some alien creature utterly unlike ourselves. Even when others do horrible things, we can discern what lies behind it and see the same capacities in ourselves. We might even put ourselves in the broader context of their lives and wonder if we would have done any differently had we had the kind of life that they had. None of this requires giving up on our judgment that what they're doing is wrong. But empathy of this sort can inspire understanding and forgiveness in the face of what one judges to be wrongful behavior.

    A second question you raise has to do with my likening agapic love to parental love and asking whether I can love Hitler as my own child (as if this is a virtue to be sought within the context of Christian ethics). Your question poses a kind of challenge to such a view--and I think it is a challenge that calls for some refinement of my position. As a matter of fact, I think that allegiance to an ethic of love does not require that I try to love Hitler in exactly the same way that I love my own child. But to adequately explicate my full view here would, I think, call for another post, which I'll work on soon.

  4. Hi Eric

    Thanks for that. I suppose I want to avoid offering those who would exclude homosexuals from their in group the sort of out that says 'yes, I do empathise, and yet I still think what you do is wrong' (as per the creationist example). Maybe empathy becomes the wrong word, and what I'm getting at is tolerance, and indeed celebration, of differences which directly challenge our own value systems.

    What we ask of conservative Christians in relation to homosexuality is rather large. We ask that they take their genuinely held personal understanding of God, which tells them that homosexuality is wrong, and either dismiss this belief on the grounds that we don't share their conception of God, or make the remarkable leap of 'although I believe what you do is wrong, I will both support and celebrate your right to do it.'

    Now actually I think this is a reasonable thing to ask of conservative Christians, for exactly the same reason that it was once reasonable to challenge groups that supported segregation or slavery. My question is, is this a harder thing to ask of another if our own values are grounded in a personal belief in God? Does it then become a case of asking of others something we ourselves would not do (because our conception of God is the right one, dammit)?


  5. Hi Eric,

    I suppose that Santorum or any other evangelical Christian could stick to their view that homosexual marriage is wrong based on common interpretation of New Testament while saying that they don't want the government to enforce all evangelical church laws on the state.

    For example, when I look at ancient church history, I like Constantine's Edict of Milan because it granted religious freedom. But I despise Constantine's later political enforcement of Christianity, regardless if he was enforcing Nicene Christianity or Arian Christianity.

    Also, Must we reject Paul's rebukes of gay and lesbian sex in order to exhibit Christian love?



  6. I forgot to mention that I think Santorum and other evengelical Christians should stop opposing state discrimination against homosexual marriage.

  7. Bernard,

    Here are some of my general thoughts on empathy that bear on your most recent comment. I think that through empathy we discern truths about the human condition, in all its complexity, that we would not otherwise have access to. Among other things, we can through empathy better come to understand what contributes to human welfare and what harms human beings--both the diversity of humanity when it comes to these things (what enriches my life doesn't necessarily enrich yours, and what harms Joe deeply given his personal history doesn't have the same negative effect on Jane) AND the commonality (e.g., systematic exclusion from participation in the social life of the community in which one resides is generally damaging to personal welfare even if some are better psychologically equipped than others to weather the harm).

    At the same time that empathy increases our discernment of what contributes to human welfare, it also inspires or motivates us to pursue the welfare of those with whom we empathize. In short, empathy both gives us a sense of what is good for our neighbor that we might not otherwise have, and it awakens a "call" within us to pursue that good.

    And I also think that as we broaden the scope of our empathy, we gain insight into how best to pursue the good of others--when to let them take care of themselves, when to encourage them to look to loved ones for this or that emotional need (as opposed to trying to provide for that need oneself), etc.

    In short, I think of empathy as a tool of moral discernment: it gives us insight into the highly complex and contextual moral terrain that we seek to navigate, helping us to better answer the questions we have about how to live our lives--and how not to live them--in relation to those around us. Put another way, it increases our moral knowledge, and as such will sometimes reinforce our prior moral beliefs (strengthening our reasons for believing them), at other times refine them (leading us to qualify, perhaps, what had previously been taken to be an unconditional moral demand) and at other times overturn them (leading us, say, to conclude that a person's behavior which we had previosuly judged immoral shouldn't be judged in those terms after all).

    ---> cont.

  8. (Continued from above)

    Now let's bring this perspective I have on empathy to bear on the following:

    "I suppose I want to avoid offering those who would exclude homosexuals from their in group the sort of out that says 'yes, I do empathise, and yet I still think what you do is wrong' (as per the creationist example)."

    What I want to say is that those who think all homosexual sex is wrong will have this belief tested through the practice of genuine empathy with a diversity of gay and lesbian neighbors. If genuine empathy is not possible with people we believe are behaving immorally--and if genuine empathy with them is not possible in relation to the very things we find immoral (their motivations, their actions, the circumstances which led them to choose as they did, etc.)--then the practice of empathy would be limited in ways that would prevent it from doing the very thing that I believe empathy is most suited to do: test our prior moral beliefs. But I think it is possible to empathize with those whose behaviors and life choices we find morally unacceptable; I think the capacity for such empathy across moral divides is possible. And this is a good thing, because when people who had previously condemned someone's behaviors or life choices change their view, it is because they empathized.

    But not all acts of empathy lead us to stop condemning. An especially good writer can put us in the head of a character whose actions we find initially appalling--and after an exercise in sustained empathy, we walk away as convinced as ever that the behavior that was appalling, but full of compassion for the perpetrator. This has been my experience not only in reading fiction, but in prison work. My capacity to empathize with rapists and murderers in no way reduced my moral opposition to their acts of rape and murder--but it did fundamentally change how I thought of THEM as human beings. I found myself far less inclined to condemn, to feel retributive impulses, and far more inclined to weep over the tragedies of the human condition that can twist an innocent child at their most vulnerable formative years, creating wells of rage and self-laothing so deep they don't know what to do with them.

    This is a central aspect of my personal moral experience in relation to empathy: It sometimes leads me to radically reconceive my categories of right and wrong; but at other times it doesn't, but instead motivates a propensity for forgiveness in the face of what is still seen as grievously wrong.

    I get that this perspective is explicated in terms of an ethical objectivism (the idea that there are genuine moral truths and falsehoods, even if these might be highly contextual) that not everyone shares. But I wonder how we could be motivated to encourage others to practice tolerance of diverse values, or even celebration of them, without in some way thinking that certain values--specifically, the positive values of tolerance itself and of the existence of challenging diversity--are things that SHOULD be valued even by those who happen not to (the very people we are encouraging tolerate and even celbrate across value differences). But in order for tolerance to be something that should be valued even by those who happen not to, mustn't it have a foundation that is, at least in some sense of the word, "objective"?

  9. James,

    With regard to the following: "Also, Must we reject Paul's rebukes of gay and lesbian sex in order to exhibit Christian love?"

    That's the crucial question around which I think the entire Christian debate about homosexuality ought to turn. But I think we need to make some important distinctions. With respect to "exhibiting Christian love," one can mean different things. Speficially, one could be referring to inner motives, or one could be referring to outer actions. Someone could get some very bad advice about how to care for a child, and motivated by love for that child carry out this bad advice--doing serious damage to the child. The motive may be loving, but the action is unloving insofar as it is not the sort of act that a FULLY INFORMED person, motivated by love, would do.

    Clearly, obviously, people who are motivated by Christian love can seek to engage with their gay and lesbian neighbors in ways consistent with holding that all homosexual sex is categorically sinful. The crucial question is whether the ways of behaving towards our gay and lesbian neighbors inspired by this belief are loving acts--are they the kinds of things that FULLY INFORMED persons motivated by love would be inspired to do?

    Here is where I think empathy is utterly crucial. We are not fully informed if we do not empathize broadly and in a sustained way with our gay and lesbian neighbors--hearing their life stories and struggles in a way that involves honestly seeing the world through their eyes, and thus getting a sense of the impact of the categorical comdemnation of homosexuality on those neighbors. If nothing else, the divisive rhetoric we find in Santorum's stump speeches impedes the practice of such empathy.

  10. Thanks Eric

    As always, thought provoking and important. From a school teacher's perspective, empathy is everything really. If there was only one quality we could embed in our charges, most teachers I think would choose empathy. I think you are right, any response to our fellow humans that doesn't start with first trying to understand them is deficient.

    Is tolerance then an example of an objective moral value? I suppose I think of morality as a system by which we attempt to live together in a way we wish to live. Tolerance becomes objectively valuable to the extent it becomes universally valuable. So rather than saying 'it is good to practice tolerance' I am more likely to suggest to kids 'it is rewarding to practice tolerance' and the trick really is to get them to experience this reward.

    There seems to be, within the human condition, a great capacity for growth through understanding and indeed service. What's more, if this is not true, then I'm not sure tolerance is valuable. This capacity seems a necessary condition for moral value, in that something being both morally bad and yet good for us makes little sense to me. So, I don't think we need to see tolerance as objectively good in the sense of existing as a value independent of our response to it.

    This sits alongside my understanding of objective truths about the physical world, essentially just those models that we agree are most useful in understanding and interacting with it. I would withdraw my previous objection to the very notion of moral objectivity in that a commonly held moral belief is objective in the exact same way a commonly held physical belief is, and neither need speak to us about any underlying truth (beyond the truth that we tend to find this belief useful).


  11. Bernard,

    “I would withdraw my previous objection to the very notion of moral objectivity in that a commonly held moral belief is objective in the exact same way a commonly held physical belief is, and neither need speak to us about any underlying truth (beyond the truth that we tend to find this belief useful).”

    Whether the fact of the objectivity “needs” to speak to us or not, it does simply by its, as you recognize, existence. In fact, it raises one of the fundamental questions of all philosophy: Why are things thus and not otherwise? One of the answers to that question, as you seem to agree, is, well, it just “is” and if it works—it works. Or, we might call it the practical answer. We might say we are moral or empathetic because it “works” better than the alternative and this very “working” is what makes our morality/empathy objective.

    Where I think you run into problems though is you are presuming an (objective) agreement amongst everyone that they want to do what “works” best for everyone. Well, what does that mean? If we peel all the layers back of what “works” or is “useful” I think we finally get to a place where we either recognize an objective reason that exceeds usefulness/practicality or we are left with raw naked will-to-power or might-makes-right when it comes to areas of disagreement over what “works” is “useful” or what should trigger our empathy. Is our final appeal to the fact that we have a bigger stick?

    “So, I don't think we need to see tolerance as objectively good in the sense of existing as a value independent of our response to it.”

    But this could mean that if 51% want to be intolerant and do not want to respond to an appeal to empathy, you are left to argue… what? Also, this seems such an a-historical view. We just recently celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the States. It is highly unlikely he would have ever attempted the things he did if he believed that discrimination was evil only if people responded and saw it that way. In other words, if the response to discrimination is that “this is good,” does that make it good? Is every response, whether empathy or intolerance, on the same plane and simply different choices that mean nothing?

    After all, some might find it very “useful” and that it “works” for them as a majority to be intolerant and not empathetic toward others.

  12. Hi Darrell

    Yes, I think this is a very important objection. May it be that it is simply our nature to feel ultimately more fulfilled by behaving in ways that are cruel and thoughtless? May it be that too much empathy or tolerance become negatives in providing stability within social systems?

    I don't know, of course. All I can go on is what I experience, and what I see or hear of the experiences of others. If we look to the traditions of literature, and what constitutes the arc of an heroic character, for instance, then there is at least cause for hope.

    There is a distinction between what one wants in ignorance, and what one would hope for were they able to experience all that life can offer them. I think it is this usefulness in potential that I refer to in terms of a pragmatic view of morality. A moral life is that which allows us to live most fully, which we can only discover through living openly.

    And to the person who says, well I have dabbled with cruelty, or I have given my life over to drug altered nirvana, and really, it is the best, you're quite right. I find myself with no grounds on which to judge them wrong. And so I don't (although I may encourage them to be open to alternatives, to keep experimenting).


  13. Thank you for your reply. There is a lot involved with the subject of Christian empathy and homosexuality.