From The Peaceable Kingdom
Equally pervasive as the stress on freedom in modern ethical theory has been the concern to find a foundation for ethics. Indeed the attempt to provide a foundation for ethics is interrelated with the attempt to establish freedom as a prerequisite characteristic of human agents. As MacIntyre suggests, modern philosophers, both analytic and existentialist, have taken the essence of moral agency to be the capacity of the self to evade identification with any particular contingent state of affairs.
To be a moral agent is, on this view, precisely to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which one is involved, from any and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularly. Anyone and everyone can thus be a moral agent, since it is in the self and not in social roles or practices that moral agency has to be located.
Thus it has become the task of ethical theory to find a foundation free of historical contingencies that can guarantee the availability of such freedom for the agent.
The grand example of this project is, of course, the work of Immanuel Kant, who sought to found morality in the very necessity of freedom. It was Kant’s great enterprise to free morality from the arbitrary and the contingent, in order to secure at least minimal agreement between people of differing beliefs and societies. Moreover Kant tried valiantly to free the realm of morality from the determinism he thought characteristic of the natural world. He sought to guarantee the “autonomy” of morality by grounding morality neither in religious or metaphysical beliefs, not in any empirical account of humanity, but in rationality qua rationality.
Kant contended that the distinctive moral characteristic of the rational creature was the capacity to live by no other law than that of its own making. Thus for Kant the autonomy of reason and the autonomy or morality rested on the same basis. This law, which Kant thought to be inherent in rationality, he called the categorical imperative, which requires we do our duty for no other reason than it is our duty. His first formulation of the categorical imperative was, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” While this principle, and its relation to Kant’s other formulations of the law, has been variously interpreted and restated, it is generally accepted as the basic statement for justifying moral judgments, whether it is called the “principle of generalization” or, more existentially, “the moral point of view.” The force of the principle stays the same: It renders the contingent history of the agent irrelevant in moral judgment and evaluation; it demands that the justification for our decisions be given from the perspective of anyone.
It is not my interest here to evaluate Kant’s project or his later interpreters, but to observe how the general project or finding a foundation for morality has gone hand-in-hand with an aversion to be particular and the contingent. Why has ethics the sudden need for a “foundation” and in particular a foundation that is characterized by universality and necessity, when it seems that such a demand distorts the very nature of moral judgment? As Aristotle reminds us, ethics by its nature deals with matters which can be other – that is, particular – matters. Confronted by the fragmented character of our world, philosophers have undoubtedly tried to secure a high ground that can provide for security, certainty, and peace. It is a worthy effort, but one doomed to fail, for such ground lacks the ability to train our desires and direct our attention; to make us into moral people.
Despite enthusiasm of many religious thinkers for this search for a foundation for morality, such a foundation ironically cannot but make religious convictions morally secondary. Here we stumble on a problem at least as old as Plato’s Euthyphro, namely how do religion and morality relate? Is something right because God commands it, or because it is right? If the latter, then why do we need God to command it? I cannot here give adequate attention to this issue but only note that the discussion of it typically turns on a far too limited understanding of morality. As I will discuss later, those traditions that have emphasized natural law as one response to the problem have tended to relegate “religious” aspects of the moral life to a “higher” morality or to the motivational component of morality. As a result, not only has the moral force of Christian convictions been lost, but the very nature of moral experience has been distorted.
More significantly, when the particularity of Christian convictions is made secondary to an alleged more fundamental “morality,” we lose the means to be a peaceable people. For the attempt to secure peace through founding morality on rationality itself, or some other “inherent” human characteristic, ironically underwrites coercion. If others refuse to accept my account of “rationality,” it seems within my bounds to force them to be true to their “true” selves.
As Christians, we must maintain, day in and day out, that peace is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior – a savior who teaches us how to be peaceful in a world in rebellion against its true Lord. God’s peaceful kingdom, we learn, comes not by positing a common human morality, but by our faithfulness as a peaceful community that fears not our differences.