CHRISTIAN ETHICS: Rules And Obligations by Stanley Hauerwas

A Primer in Christian Ethics

Rules And Obligations by Stanley Hauerwas

From The Peaceable Kingdom

Of course it can be pointed out that there is nothing odd about the emphasis on the centrality of rules for morality.  Most moralities are characterized by a stress on the importance of rules, even though they may disagree about content or the scale or priority.  For example, consider the process of moral education which begins by schooling the young in rules so that they may later learn to nuance and qualify them.

It is certainly not my intention to deny the significance of rules.  Yet I wish to distinguish between the general existence of rules in a society and the marked emphasis upon them in modern morality and theory.  Not all societies emphasize rules to the extent ours does.  Aristotle seldom mentions them; and although law-like pronouncements have a prominent place in the scriptures, they are certainly never treated as an end in themselves or as capable of independent justification.  In order to properly understand the significance of rules for our conduct, I must provide a brief analysis of the many kinds and functions of rules.

Our relatively recent fascination with rules draws on the promise they seem to hold for the impersonal justification of our moral behavior.  Rules give the appearance of ensuring the objectivity we otherwise find lacking in our individual decisions and judgments.  Accordingly, moral reasoning attempts to justify any particular judgment by appeal to a more universal rule or principle to which any rational creature must adhere.  Thus morality is thought to acquire the unbiased quality associated, mistakenly perhaps, with legal process and therefore to secure the objectivity necessary for moral agreement.

Such a picture of the moral life fails to do justice to the variety of rules and their function in our actual morality.  While rules are present in many activities, their features in one area may be lacking in another.  Thus rules play a different role in games than in scientific investigation and different yet in etiquette, law, and religion.  Moreover the force of some rules is quite different from others.  Some rules restrict, others regulate, and still others grant permission.  We view them differently if enacted by a legislative body or by custom (which changes); still others seem to be so inherent in everyday practices we never think of them as rules.  Further, their scope differs.  Some, we believe, apply to all (these are not necessarily the most general), while others apply only to those performing certain functions.

Plato and Aristotle considered rules to be secondary to the virtues, which served to direct us to their true end, the human good.  In our own day, however, questions concerning our ultimate end (“telos”), or what characterizes “the good life” have been dismissed because they are not subject to rational argument.  Rules in our society, therefore, are not derived from some fundamental conception of the human good.  They are the basis of morality only insofar as they represent a consensus about what is necessary to ensure societal peace and survival.

As a result of the loss of a telos that would make certain rules intelligible it has seemed we can only choose between two quite different accounts of moral rules – those of Kant and the utilitarians.  For Kant, rules are those requirements of action which every rational creature, regardless of his or her aims, must observe.  In contrast, John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians argue that moral rules are but generalizations of our experience of what best serves to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  In spite of the significant differences between these positions, they share the common assumption that ethics, first and foremost, should embody an adequate theory of moral obligation derived from, or involving in a fundamental manner, rules, and principles.  They differ only about what single principle best supports and orders our rule-determined obligations.

It has thus seemed to many philosophers that the fundamental task of ethics, given the confusion of our age, is to develop a theory sufficient to account for our primary moral obligations.  A theory is needed, it seems, because it is assumed that convention, in and of itself, cannot be sufficient to determine which of our moral principles and rules are objective and nonarbitrary.  The primary debate in ethics has thus hinged on whether “teleological” or “deontological” theories best account for our moral experience.  Though each theory has many variations, generally the former maintains that the criteria of what is morally right or wrong is determined by consequences – that is, what produces the best balance of good over evil; the latter, on the other hand, maintains that the rightness or wrongness of certain actions are determined by the act itself – that is, the act is good or bad insofar as it is based on our duty.  Thus the teleologists generally feel we ought to keep our promises because by doing so more good than evil obtains.  The deontologists maintain we ought to keep our promises because by their very nature promises are meant to be kept.  Teleological accounts tend to give a more secondary status to rules, therefore, than deontological theories.

Though these two positions are often depicted as antithetical, in fact they share some fundamental assumptions.  Each assumes that moral philosophy gains its primary rationale from acknowledgment of some moral quandary, when, for example, there is a conflict between rules.  Little attention is paid, therefore, to how or why a “situation” came to be described as a “moral” problem in the first place.  Ethics, it seems, begins with questions such as, “Should I or should I not have an abortion?”  But then no account is given for why and how we have come to describe a certain set of circumstances as abortion, or adultery, or murder, and so on.

The concentration on “obligations” and “rules” also has the effect of distorting our moral psychology by separating our actions from our agency.  Since “obligations” must be determined from the observer’s standpoint, actions, it is assumed, can be characterized independently of agents, and their intentions; thus it appears that the agent’s intentions are inconsequential in the moral description and evaluation of the action.  To argue against this position is not to deny that communities can and do come to agree on certain prevailing descriptions of situations that school us in how we should understand our own behavior as well as that of others.  At times particular agents may claim that such a description is insufficient to account for the complexity of their own situation.  Such situations are but reminders of the significance of the agent’s intentions for all action descriptions.  Communities teach us what kind of intentions are appropriate if we are to be the kind of person appropriate to living among these people.  Thus questions of what we ought to be are necessary background for questions of what we ought to do.  The concentration on obligations and rules as morally primary ignores the fact that action descriptions gain their intelligibility from the role they play in a community’s history and therefore for individuals in that community.  When “acts” are abstracted from that history, the moral self cannot help but appear as an unconnected series of actions lacking continuity and unity.

Perhaps it is because we sense so deeply the need for unity, for integrity, that we take for granted one of the other assumptions shared by deontological and teleological theories.  Each assumes that order and coherence for morality as an institution, and thus for the individual, can only be secured by establishing a single fundamental principle as a criterion from which the various rules and obligations are derived and ranked.  Utilitarianism perhaps presents the clearest example of this because of the simplicity of the formula “the greatest good for the greatest number,” but deontological systems often seek a similar overriding principle.  Such a principle, even if it is highly formal, seems necessary since both theories assume that any apparent moral conflict must ultimately be resolved in the light of some more general principle.  As a result neither theory can countenance the idea of moral tragedy – that is, the possibility of irresolvable moral conflict.

Yet we live in a world of such conflicts and we cannot negotiate that world unless we are trained with virtues sufficient to sustain us in that endeavor.  But the attempt to develop an unqualified ethic, with the attending stress on rules and obligations, has resulted in a failure to stress exactly those virtues we need to live in such a world.  From the perspective of an unqualified ethic it is assumed that only when we can answer the question, “What ought we to do?” can we answer, “What ought we to be?”  While I have no wish to argue that an “ethics of virtue” must be prior to an “ethics of obligation,” it is nonetheless the case that concentration on the latter has left us with too few resources to face the moral dangers of a violent world.  In particular, we have failed to see that the virtues needed can only be displayed by drawing on a particular community’s account of the good, and that account necessarily takes the form of a narrative.

Moreover in our concern to develop an unqualified ethic in the hope of securing peace between people of diverse beliefs and histories, we have overlooked the most important contribution that Christian convictions make for the moral life.  For the accounts of an unqualified ethic make irrelevant for morality the essential Christian convictions about the nature of God and God’s care of us through his calling of Israel and the life of Jesus.  Our “beliefs” about such matters are relegated to some separate “religious aspects” of our lives, where they make little difference to our moral existence.

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