“What can a man do uprightly when he’s upside down in himself?”
Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 313A
“What can a man do uprightly when he’s upside down in himself?”
Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 313A
“Utilitarianism provides the wrong answer to the question “Why should I keep my promise?”” (Feldman, Introductory Ethics, p. 54).
While reading parts of this book, I was struck by this quote. If it is true, it presents a significant issue for utilitarian ethics. On the other hand, perhaps this is true if one understands Utilitarianism only in light of how it is understood by philosophers such as Mill. If one takes the word utilitarian at face value as referring to that which has practical importance, keeping one’s promise is necessary at a very fundamental level. As Feldman notes, “many moralists find this [the notion that it isn’t utile to keeps one’s promise] unacceptable” (Feldman, p. 54). I thought I’d try and explore why this is the case for at least some moral philosophers. Why ought we keep our promises?
The google dictionary definition of a promise is in keeping with what most understand the word to mean. A promise is “a declaration that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen”. As promises are “declared” they involve communication. This means that words are shared between people who understand one another, and understand the consequences of those words or actions associated with the promise. We do not utter promises to rocks, and promises uttered to even our most beloved pets are empty. Because a promise entails a firm commitment between two or more people (sentient and intelligent beings), we all know that they should not be uttered lightly. This connection of a promise with communication and one’s volitional intent to do something, it is associated with truth and reality at its deepest level.
Josef Pieper quotes Aquinas (ST I, 16, i), “And so do we call all manufactured things “true” because of their orientation toward our knowing mind. We can call a house “true” inasmuch as it conforms to the original idea in the mind of the architect. And a speech can be called “true” insofar as it reveals a true thought. And similarly are the things of nature called “true” as they mirror their primordial forms, which dwell in the mind of God” (Josef Pieper, Living the Truth, p. 42).
Consider then the utilitarian (understood in a general sense) importance of keeping a promise. If the speech of a promise is ‘true’ it discloses an actual commitment or shares certain knowledge between two or more people. If it is true in this sense it conforms and expresses what is real. If one does not keep one’s promises, it means that there has not been true disclosure conveyed through the language, or the knowledge is not accurate or true, and thus that communication is on a basic level ‘unreal’. If it were to become common that it isn’t practical or beneficial for uttered promises to convey actual volitional intent or true knowledge this would result in ever-expanding falsehood and lack of trust in human speech. This degradation of human speech away from what is real and true is nested within broader reality as the quote from Aquinas indicates.
Human society cannot function much less thrive unless the speech we utter discloses what we actually think, know, or intend to do. In this sense, promise-keeping is of extraordinary utilitarian importance.
In light of J.I. Packer’s passing I thought I’d write an article expressing the closeness of my relationship with him. There are many social media posts now that he has passed, so I thought I’d join the general outpouring of somewhat self-referential gratitude for the man.
Packer was the loveliest and most intelligent theologian of our age whom I’ve never met. I would see him smile and lecture from afar. He would gaze upon me as part of the crowd, and I’m certain that he had no idea who I was. In hindsight I think I think Packer missed the opportunity of close and lasting friendship with me because I never took any of his classes. I’ve gained much from his books. I long for the day when his theological principles have an actual impact upon late modern organised Anglicanism. Most of all, I’m grateful for the uncluttered utter simplicity of Packer’s personal relationship with me.
I’ve never read anyone so difficult to understand as Kant, but his importance serves as a goad to persist… If anyone reading this is a Kantian or a Kant scholar, please feel free to correct me if what I’m saying here is either inaccurate or contested. Anyway, as I quoted in a previous post, Etienne Gilson writes, “Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy p. 114). In §32 of the Prolegomena, Kant refers to “special beings of the understanding (noumena), which are supposed to constitute an intelligible world.” He grants the possibility of the existence of such beings “but only with the enforcement of this rule that admits of no exception: that we neither know nor can know anything at all determinate about these pure beings of the understanding, because our pure concepts of the understanding as well as our pure intuitions extend to nothing but objects of possible experience” (i.e., extend to the realms of Newtonian physics). Here is Kant’s agnosticism regarding intellectual beings. Kant’s interest is not that we be conformed to the totality of what is real as much as we are able (in conduct and thought) but that we ourselves process our intuitions rendering them into experience which is in accordance with the laws of Newtonian physics (the principles of which reside in us a priori). I would like to contrast what Kant regards as being our own a priori understanding which is able to order our intuitions as coherent experience with Aquinas’ notion (h/t Aristotle) of the “agent intellect” (i.e., the proper active principle). The agent intellect renders intelligible all sensory experience received by the “possible intellect” (i.e., the passive principle). Aquinas’ cognitive theory has the interaction between active and passive principles as foundational to all reality. In Kant there is also an interaction between active and passive principles, but where the natural theology of Aquinas gives us the ability to say something “positive” about the objects external to us, in Kant we have external to us something real but we know not what (“we are not discussing the origin of experience, but what lies in experience” §21a). Kant’s agnosticism regarding “special beings” extends to the very origins of our intuition. While they are ‘real’ we can’t know them. So, there is an activity of some sort, as without it our intuitions receive nothing whatsoever, but his philosophical commitments don’t allow him to express anything confident or positive about what constitutes that activity.
Hume pushes philosophical skepticism to the utmost limits, and in so doing serves to illustrate perhaps what Locke anticipated in his caution regarding total skepticism. Hume does recognize that he must make an effort to safeguard his humanity–his participation in human community—while exercising his philosophical skepticism. He knows that man is a sociable no less than a reasonable being [and] man is also an active being (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I). There is an intentionality to his words when he says, Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy, be still a man (Enquiry, I). His own remarks underline that his philosophical method if embraced tends to fragment how humans engage with and think about, the world. He makes a distinction between approaching life as an agent and as a philosopher (Enquiry, IV, 2). One area where this fragmentation is acute is in his understanding regarding the nature of belief. He states in philosophy we can go no further than assert that belief is something felt by the mind which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination (Enquiry, V, 2). However, this understanding of belief excludes the key component of relationship which most people, if given a chance to consider what they mean when they say they believe in something, implicitly recognize. Josef Pieper speaks philosophically from within the perennial stream when he states that the reason for believing “something” is that one believes “someone” (Faith, Hope, Love, p. 30). Hume’s philosophical skepticism often excludes “the other”. For example, he says, suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection be brought on a sudden into this world… He would not be able to reach the idea of cause and effect (Enquiry V, 1). But, of course, this is not how people ever enter into the world, and we cannot come to learn anything about this world unless we first “believe” someone who “knows” something about it and communicates that knowledge to us. I think Hume’s definition of belief, his philosophical skepticism which excludes this notion of a relationship of trust with a knower, and his comprehensive denial regarding the legitimacy of the testimony of others in gaining knowledge (Enquiry X, 1), have a corrosive effect on our understanding of what it means to be a human in community.
Oswald Sanders (Director of OMF in the 1950s and 1960s) knew D. E Hoste (a missionary to China who knew Hudson Taylor personally)… D.E. Hoste spoke these words to Sanders.
“I more and more see that as we go on in the Christian life, the Lord very often does not want to give us the sense of His presence, or the consciousness of His help. There again Mr. Hudson Taylor helped me very much. We were talking about guidance. He said how in his younger days, things used to come so clearly, so quickly to him. “But,” he said. “now as I have gone on, and God has used me more and more, I seem often to be like a man going along in a fog. I do not know what to do.”
According to Etienne Gilson anyway…
“Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy, p. 114).
Locke states, “There is not so contemptible a plant or animal that does not confound the most enlarged understanding” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk III, VI, 9). Later he says, “how, vain… it is to expect demonstration and certainty in things not capable of it, and refuse assent to very rational propositions… because they cannot be made out so evident as to surmount every… pretense of doubting” (Essay Bk IV, XI, 10). Locke then establishes belief as a way to “supply our want of knowledge.” The grounds for believing which Locke gives, especially the second being “the testimony of others…” has implications regarding the intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith.
Aquinas wrote something regarding how the limits of our powers of perception and understanding ought to not result in skepticism of anything that cannot be demonstrated, especially in relation to the Christian faith. In the Prologue of his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Creed.htm) he answers the question “what is faith?” Aquinas says, “But someone will say that it is foolish to believe what is not seen, and that one should not believe in things that he cannot see. I answer by saying that the imperfect nature of our intellect takes away the basis of this difficulty. For if man of himself could in a perfect manner know all things visible and invisible, it would indeed be foolish to believe what he does not see. But our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Given our limited experience and understanding we must often “partake” in the knowledge of a knower. This involves a humble recognition of the limits of our experience and knowledge, and a willingness to be in a relationship of trust with our fellow human beings who have experience and knowledge which we have not. Ultimately, according to Aquinas and Locke, it must direct us to trust in God and his revelation.
“If we introduce the element of patience into non-acceptance we at once come very much nearer to hope. It seems then that there exists a secret and rarely discovered connection between the way in which the ego is either centred or not centred in itself, and its reaction to the duration of time, or more precisely to the temporal order, that is to say to the fact that change is possible in reality. A simple expression borrowed from everyday language is a help here: to take one’s time. He who stiffens and rebels does not know how to take his time. What exactly do these words, so foreign to the vocabulary of technical philosophy, mean? “Take your time”, an examiner would say, for example, to a flurried candidate. That means, do not force the personal rhythm, the proper cadence of your reflection, or even of your memory, for if you do you will spoil your chances, you will be likely to say at random the first words which come into your head. It may seem that we have wandered very far from hope in the strict sense of the word. I do not think so, and this how I am going to try to explain the analogy, or more exactly, perhaps, the secret affinity between hope and relaxation. Does not he who hopes, and, as we have seen, has to contend with a certain trail comparable to a form of captivity, tend to treat this trial and to proceed in regard to it as he who is patient towards himself treats his inexperience young ego, the ego which needs educating and controlling. Above all he never lets it contract but, on the other hand, he does not allow it to kick over the traces* or take control prematurely or unwarrantably. From this point of view, hope means first accepting the trial as an integral part of the self, but while so doing it considers it as destined to be absorbed and transmuted by the inner works of a certain creative process.
Further back I spoke of patience with oneself; perhaps it is still more instructive now to consider patience with others. This most certainly consists in never hustling or being rough with another person, more exactly, in never trying to substitute our won rhythm for his by violence. Neither should the other person be treated as though he lacked an autonomous rhythm, and could accordingly be force or bent to suit us. Let us say positively this time that it consists in placing our confidence in a certain process of growth and development. To give one’s confidence does not merely mean that one makes an act of theoretical acceptance with no idea of intervention, for that would, in fact, be to abandon the other purely and simply to himself. No, to have confidence here seems to mean to embrace this process, in a sense, so that we promote it from within. Patience seems, then, to suggest a certain temporal pluralism, a certain pluralisation of the self in time. It is radically opposed to the act by which I despair of the other person, declaring that he is good for nothing, or that he will never understand anything, or that he is incurable. That is, of course, the same despair which makes me proclaim that I shall never be cured, that I shall never see the end of my captivity, etc. It seems, strangely enough, that in hoping, I develop in connection with the event, and perhaps above all through what it makes of me, a type of relationship, a kind of intimacy comparable to that which I have with the other person when I am patient with him. Perhaps we might go so far as to speak here of a certain domesticating of circumstances, which might otherwise, if we allowed them to get the better of us, fright us into accepting them as a fatum. If we look no further than its etymological meaning, patience appears to be just a simple letting things alone, or allowing them to take their course, but if we take the analysis a little further we find that such non-interference is of a higher order than indifference and implies a subtle respect for the other person’s need of time to preserve his vital rhythm, so that it tends to exercises a transforming influence upon him which is comparable to that which sometimes rewards love. It should moreover be shown how here and there pure causality is utterly left behind. Of course patience can easily be degraded; it can become mere weakness, or mere complacency, precisely in so far as it betrays the principle of charity which should animate it.”
* “The idiom ‘kick over the traces’ goes back at least to the 1800s and refers to the straps that attach a horse, oxen or other draft animal to the wagon it is pulling, known as traces. If an animal kicks over the traces, it steps over these leather straps. This makes it impossible for the driver to control the animal” – h/t http://www.grammarist.com
Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope. USA: Harper Torch Book, 1965, pgs 39-40.
“The personality is only realized in the act by which it tends to become incarnate (in a book, for instance, or an action or in a complete life), but at the same time it is of its very essence never to fix itself or crystallize itself finally in this particular incarnation. Why? Because it participates in the inexhaustible fulness of the being from which it emanates. There lies the deep reason for which it is impossible to think of personality or the personal order without at the same time thinking of that which reaches beyond them both, a supra-personal reality, presiding over all their initiative, which is both are beginning in their end”
Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope. USA: Harper Torch Book, 1965, p. 26.