O’Donovan’s Self, World, Time: Chapter 1 (Moral Awareness)

(See below for an explanation of what I’m doing here).

I always begin my Introduction to Political Philosophy course here at Wheaton by noting to my students that there are plenty of political science departments around the country that do not employ a political theorist and do not offer my classes.  That, they suppose, is better left to philosophy proper.  So we start off the semester by talking about why it is that Wheaton teaches political philosophy in a politics department, and the answer I give them is that it reflects a judgment on our part that moral reflection about politics is intrinsic to understanding politics.  And why is that?  Because human beings–the very stuff of politics–are moral creatures, indelibly oriented around asking questions of right and wrong, justice/injustice, and so on.  To think of politics absent those considerations or, with Hobbes, thinking of them as posterior to politics (things constructed by politics) is, to my mind, to make a deep mistake about the nature of politics on account of making a deep mistake about the nature of human beings.

In this first chapter, O’Donovan seems to press in this direction (happily) by reflecting in a loose way on Paul’s admonition in Romans 8:12, “So then we are debtors.”  When we think about morality, we are thinking about how “we act” (3).  That is, in deliberating about moral matters, inherent in our reflections is the data, as it were, of our own self already acting.  The attempts to get “beyond” ourselves or to “reduce” our moral lives to some set of deterministic influences (biology being the latest effort in this direction) are not so much wrong–we are, of course, quite strongly shaped by our biology as by any number of other external forces–as radically incomplete.  For in our ability to reflect on our actions and recognize that we could, can and do choose to act differently, we are inevitably drawn intro moral reflection, into questions of ethics.

But what happens when we reflect on our actions?  O’Donovan suggests we recognize (or perhaps better should recognize) that we are caught up in a world not of our own making, that “we” are agents, and that we are agents with a responsibility to act in the proper sorts of ways in the here and now.  Of course, this reflection can go entirely wrong.  We can fool ourselves into thinking that the world is but our own construction, that there’s nothing “real” out there.  Or we can come to the belief that we aren’t really agents at all, that we’re merely carried along in the currents of biological necessity or dialectical materialism or whatever new deterministic fad emerging of late from the academy.  Or we can view ourselves as only abstractly responsible, oriented only toward a “perpetual peace” and never stoop to bounce around in the “unsocial sociability” (to borrow Kant’s phrase) of human societies.  But all of those are misapprehensions of the human condition and it is here that theology comes into play:

A wider wisdom is required if we are to hold this wisdom, the wisdom of morality, in its place: Christ the center of the world, the bridegroom of the self, the turning-point of past and future…Ethics opens up towards theology. (19)

It is theology, it seems, that both best accounts for our capacity for moral reflection and best serves to “wake us up” to the dangers of missing a leg of O’Donovan’s three-legged stool.  I like the set-up.  We’ll see what comes next.

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