O’Donovan’s SWT Ch 2: Ethics as Prayer

Is it possible to be good without God?  Well, in one sense, it obviously is.  Unbelievers treat others justly, show kindness and mercy, love their families, and so on all the time.  It would be silly to pretend otherwise.  In another sense, of course, it’s just as obvious that it isn’t.  All of us, as Scripture attests unwaveringly, are sinners, our very selves bent away from the source and embodiment of true Goodness, God.  No one can be good “without” God since God is the source of all goodness and we are, absent his mercy, cut off from him.


Of course, when we ask that question, what we’re really asking is whether it is possible for human beings to recognize the substance of and act in accordance with what is morally right if we do not also “believe in” the true God?  O’Donovan’s answer here in chapter 2 is no, it’s not ultimately possible (though he does not deny the truism that unbelievers can act morally in many respects – as I noted above). 

Chapter 2 is a intertwined set of reflections (aren’t O’Donovan’s discussions always “intertwined”?) about the correlative relationships between theoretical and practical reason, fact and value, and the right and the good that leads to the claim, “Developed and self-conscious moral thinking beings and ends by calling on God.”(38)  Why think that?

My evening pleasure reading this summer has been several of Iain Banks’ sci-fi novels centered around the highly advanced civilization called “The Culture.”  Among many interesting things about The Culture is its radical libertarianism, which, combined with the end of scarcity made possible by equally radical technological progress, has, at first blush, produced a civilization that is peaceful, poverty and disease-free, prosperous, and so on.  It is a kind of Utopia made possible precisely by the laissez-faire social world in which practically nothing is forbidden and practically no one does wrong.  The surface lesson here is one that O’Donovan points out Hume had suggested: namely, that our desires run ahead of our reason and so to think morally was really just to think about how to achieve our desires, with the rather optimistic thought that our desires, properly understood, actually correlated with an attractive and indeed progressive kind of moral social order.  In his Culture series, Banks seems to offer a sort of de-monetized version of the Scottish Enlightenment (he was a Scottish writer, so maybe that makes sense) whereby freeing individuals up to do what they want to do actually produces the most benefit for all.

But underneath that happy exterior, I think Banks means to leave the reader a bit disquieted, as The Culture is happy (even if it denies this) to go to war (with devastating effect), interfere in other civilizations (think here of Mill’s admonition about “barbarians” in On Liberty), and manipulate its citizens in its own interest.  Things aren’t quite as happy and easygoingly natural as first appears.  And as O’Donovan points out, neither is the Scottish Enlightenment framework, since we all recognize that people are “blameworthy” when they make certain sorts of “mistakes,” mistakes involving proper recognition of what is true about the world.  And since we are all wont to make mistakes, both of the ordinary and morally maleficent kind, to “trust” in our desires leaves, well, a great deal to be desired. The Culture obviates this problem to some degree with its postulate of nearly omniscient computer “Minds.”  We have no such omniscience and there are no “facts” (aside from the most banal) that are not contested.  (See page 30 – this I took to be a subtle dig at the New Natural Law folks).

The point, I guess, is to emphasize that thinking morally is a kind of practical reason and that a properly functioning practical reason is indelibly tied to getting what “is” right.  To defend the innocent, you must know who is actually innocent.  But focusing on what “is” puts us in danger of falling victim to a kind of determinism, a view that our choices are not really our own but merely a product of History (or, more commonly now, Biology – with a capital “B”).  History didn’t turn out so well (at least in the 20th century) and I doubt that Biology will fare better, except as a narcotic to lull us to moral sleepiness. 

O’Donovan’s point is that it is only through recognizing and placing oneself in God’s hands – via prayer – that we can both recognize our indebtedness to our situatedness and hope for something “new.” The alternatives are to merely trust in history (as Kant and the host of 19th century German philosophers did) or to rebel against history and be the agent of “new” (as some other Germany philosophers and their heirs did).  Or, I guess, be like Marx and do both.  To act morally is to act properly in accordance with one’s best understanding of what “is” (both universally and in the particular circumstances) and in the “hope” that things will turn out well in the end.  And that’s why prayer matters for ethics.


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