O’Donovan’s SWT, Ch 3: “Moral Communication”

(Explanation of this series here)

PhD programs (at least in political science) typically require a set of comprehensive exams in which candidates are offered a ridiculously long reading list of the most important 200 or so works in their chosen sub-field and then examined on their ability to answer questions central to that sub-field.  Such exams mostly serve to (a) occupy a full year of reading; (b) expose you to your sub-field; (c) convince you that you don’t really know nearly as much as you had believed; and (d) train you to talk intelligibly about things/books with which you are only scantily acquainted.  It’s actually a crucial bit of training for being a professor, though don’t tell students that.

My program had two days of written exams and then a two-hour oral exam.  I’d cranked out 50 or so pages of responses in the my writtens and sat down with some anxiety for my orals.  Imagine writing 50 pages in approximately 12 hours and then having four senior faculty members sit down to ask you about them – you can imagine the argumentative holes-you-could-drive-a-mack-truck-through.  Almost like a blog post.  Well, I didn’t expect at all the first question, which came from my advisor.  She asked me who I considered an authority.  An authority?  For what?  For my thinking about politics?  What?  I had never considered the question before.  Authority?  I’m an American – I don’t have any authorities.   I’m my own authority, right?  Well, Jesus is an authority.  But I can’t say that.  So I began to think quickly about who I could say I thought of as an authority: someone who was plausible but whom they wouldn’t know anything about so that we could dispense with this rather scary line of questioning and move on to my exquisitely mediocre written exams.  After dispensing with a few of the authors from the classical canon, I alighted upon and said, “Augustine.”  At the time, I hardly knew anything about Augustine, but I knew more than they did and that was enough.  They all nodded their heads sagely and we moved on.   Whew. 

That incident came to mind as I was reading this third chapter where O’Donovan (I’ll start using OOD as shorthand, mostly because I’m lazy but also because it makes me seem all insidery) ostensibly ruminates on what it means to communicate moral knowledge or wisdom.  But really, I think, he’s interested in the question of moral authority – that is, what does it mean to have moral authority, how do we communicate it, how do we receive it, and how does that authority relate to human freedom?  The commonplace way of thinking about authority is to put it in conflict with freedom: freedom just is the absence of authority.  Or, as Hobbes might think about it, freedom just is the absence of an obstacle to the exercise of my will.  A moment’s reflection shows, I think, why that view doesn’t really make any sense: if our actions are, as Hobbes (and our sociobiologists today) suggests merely the product of the intersection of external (or internal) stimuli and our bio-physical selves, then even those desires or exercises of will are themselves determined.  Freedom is just a word for when we are not obviously coerced into doing something.  (Hence you eventually get Rousseau’s view that submission to the General Will is really freedom since you’re no longer dependent on any particular person but dependent on all and, thus, on none). 

Freedom, alternatively, might better be conceived as the capacity to act “truly”, or in accordance what “is”. (See my previous post for OOD’s reflections on this.  See how insidery this makes me sound?)  On Plato’s account, true freedom is only possible for the philosopher, whose “knowledge” comes out of highly specialized training and an acquaintance with “The Good.”  It’s possible to read Plato’s dialogues in The Republic to suggest the necessity of a kind of gnostic knowledge, available only to the select and isolated, ultimately, from any kind of experience.  And, indeed, knowledge of the Good is just simply knowledge of the Good itself without any presuppositions (which is why mathematics is the nearest thing to it).  But there’s something like 35 years of training that go on before the philosopher can even plausibly get to that sort of knowledge (if even then) – moral reflection, we might say, starts from somewhere and builds on traditions, expectations, etc.  If those traditions are bad, moreover, you’ll never get to knowledge of the Good.  Let your kids watch reality tv and they’ll be doomed.  Doomed. 

So how, then, do we discern what (or who) has the proper sort of moral authority?  Well, of course, it helps if the moral authority dispenses advice or communication that is true, but that seems obvious.  What’s more interesting here is how OOD suggests that proper  authorities communicate morally in ways that alert us to our proper selves, to our selves as agents in the proper sense.  That is, true moral authorities (and not just those that threaten us with the sword or the dollar) are those that teach us (whatever else they may say) that we are indeed responsible agents indelibly tied to communities of understanding which are capable of deliberating together about the proper actions to take.  No, I’m not sure what I think about this, either.  More later, perhaps…


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