Thursday, April 21, 2016

Another hope essay

Personal Hope

            My mother-in-law is dying.  Nearly ninety, she has congestive heart failure and diabetes.  Her kidneys aren’t working properly.  She cannot stand; she cannot sit up in bed without assistance.  The doctors have recommended hospice care and pain management; there is no medical intervention that can restore her to health.  Betty and her daughters, including my wife, must decide whether to accept the doctors’ advice.  They know that the hospice decision probably means Betty will die very soon (perhaps with less pain and psychological distress).  They also know that Betty will probably die very soon with or without hospice care.
            Betty’s situation—and that of her family—is not unusual.  Today, and every day, thousands of American families face the imminent death of a loved one.  Someday I will die.  Unless death comes suddenly by accident, criminal act, or natural disaster (the sort of thing that might garner a headline), the people who love me may have to make hard decisions about my care.  Like Betty’s daughters, they will decide while experiencing grief.
            What hope is there in the face of death?  Specifically, what hope is there for the person who is dying? 
            Death puts stop to our ordinary projects.  The “hope theory” and “hope therapy” promulgated by C.R. Snyder and his fellow psychologists are silent here.  I intend no criticism of hope theory/therapy; I simply point out that Snyder’s theory focuses on ordinary projects in this life.  There is no “pathway” around death; it puts a final block to all of one’s goals.
            Tough minded naturalism tells us to take heed of the finality of death.  There is no hope for those who die.  The best one can “hope” for is to come to the end of one’s days without regret.  Naturalism advises: live life as best you can now.  It hardly needs saying that naturalists do not agree on what living well now entails.  Epicureans and Stoics—and their philosophical descendants many centuries later—have opposing and plausible doctrines to preach.  But they agree that personal hope does not reach further than the grave.  An individual may hope that humanity or some portion of humanity might achieve some long term good, but she will never know if her hope is fulfilled or frustrated.
            Certain religious and philosophical worldviews offer a kind of hope to the dying person.  These views emphasize the solidarity of the human race.  The dying person may believe, on these views, that she is one aspect of universal consciousness; after death she will be free of individual consciousness.  On some accounts individual consciousness is an illusion anyway; we will be glad to abandon it.  The dying person can hope for unity with the universal spirit.  Of course, “universal spirit” will mean different things for different religions and different philosophers.
            The monotheistic religions offer a more robust hope for the individual.  The God of Abraham is a personal being (three persons according to Christianity) who knows each of us intimately.  These religions teach that by the power of God a person may live after her death in some form or fashion.
            (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also agree that God is just.  What will God do with the wicked in an afterlife?  Who are the wicked?  How can a human being be justified before God?  There are at least a dozen significantly different doctrines relating to divine judgment.  I will ignore these questions and focus on the believer who hopes for an afterlife.  I will assume that the believer has met whatever qualifications there are for a good afterlife.)
            Betty is a Christian.  Christian hope centers on the idea of resurrection.  Every Easter we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and we believe that Jesus will raise from the dead those who believe in him.  Betty can hope that some day she will have a new body.  The New Testament somewhat mysteriously calls this a “spiritual body.”  Paul uses a metaphor: just as the seed we sow in a field gives rise to a plant that seems very different from the seed, the body we “sow” in death gives rise to a body that will seem very different from the ones we are now.  “The dead shall be raised and we shall be changed.”
            There are at least three aspects to Christian hope.  First, Betty hopes for a life after death in which she will still be Betty.  That is, resurrection offers a personal hope, not an impersonal blending into the universal spirit.  Second, Betty hopes to be changed.  The resurrection body will not only be better than Betty’s worn-out body of the last few months; she hopes it will be better than her most active and healthy body (the body she had as a young mother, perhaps).  Third, Christians also hope that we will be changed; that is, we hope for a changed community, the kingdom of God.  Betty does not merely hope that the kingdom will come; she hopes to participate in it. 
In Romans 14, Paul says that the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  He meant his words as a description of how life should be in a Christian fellowship here and now.  Too often, we know, our churches are not exemplars of righteousness, peace, and joy.  In hoping for the resurrection, we hope to live in a perfected community under God’s rule.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Some Thomistic Thoughts

Hope as Passion and Virtue

            Charles Pinches approvingly quotes Josef Pieper, who wrote: “It would never occur to a philosopher, unless he were a Christian theologian, to describe hope as a virtue.  For hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all.”[1]
            Now, in one sense, this is simply false.  Jonathan Lear and Adrienne Martin, to take two examples, are contemporary philosophers who have written insightfully about hope.  They are not Christian theologians.  Why would Pieper make such an obvious mistake?  Why would Pinches agree with him?
            Pinches and Pieper are Thomistic philosophers; that’s why.  Thomas Aquinas distinguished between what he called a natural “passion” of hope and the true “virtue” of hope.  Pinches and Pieper are cleaving to their teacher’s doctrine.  On this account, real hope focuses on God and is engendered in us by God.  The thing that Jonathan Lear and Adrienne Martin write about is properly the passion of hope, not the virtue of hope.
            A central idea in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is his claim, which seems manifestly true, that the virtue tradition developed over time.  Some traits that were regarded as human excellences (arête) in the Homeric literature, such as physical strength, ceased to be regarded as virtues later on.  Later stages in the virtue tradition introduced new virtues.  Crucially, from Thomas Aquinas’s point of view, the New Testament identifies faith, hope, and love as virtues.
            Aristotle did write about hope, but not as a virtue.  On Aristotle’s account, hope is a characteristic of young men who look forward to accomplishing great things.  Old men no longer hope; instead their lives are marked by memory of deeds attempted and perhaps accomplished.
            So Aquinas had a problem.  The great philosopher (often Aquinas does not name Aristotle, merely saying “the philosopher”) did not list as virtues those traits the New Testament identifies as the most important virtues.  Aquinas solved this problem by classifying faith, hope, and love as “theological virtues.”  The theological virtues are actually the highest and most important.  Aristotle, as a pagan philosopher, was ignorant of Christ.  Aristotle’s insights into ethics were limited to natural life and the goods of this world.  Faith, hope, and love direct us to our supernatural life and the goods of the world to come.  Aristotle’s remarks about hope only refer to the natural passion, not the theological virtue.
            Can we learn something from this dispute about words?  Perhaps there are different kinds of hope.  By comparing and contrasting different kinds of hope we may better see how hope may function in our lives.  Pinches would agree; he points to connections between the natural passion we call hope and the virtue of hope.  One kind of hope can build on another kind of hope.
            Whether as passion or virtue, hope exhibits certain features.  Hope looks to the future, with desire for a certain outcome.  Hope judges that the desired outcome is possible (neither certain nor impossible).  And hope sees that attaining the desired outcome is arduous.  Hope, experienced as hopefulness, can sustain us through challenges as we pursue a difficult goal.  So there are similarities between hope as passion and hope as virtue.
            On Aquinas’s view, there is also a crucial difference.  The passion of hope is directed toward something we desire, and there is no guarantee that human beings will desire the right things.  Sometimes we hope for trivial things: I confess that I hope much for a Mariner pennant; someone else might hope for high scores on the latest computer game.  Such hopes seem innocent enough, though we recoil from scenes of soccer fans rioting after matches.  More importantly, human beings sometimes desire objectively evil things.  It is reported that Hitler hoped for war when he invaded Poland; victories via threat and diplomacy were no longer enough for him.  A fraudster may hope to escape detection or conviction.  Don Juan may hope to bed his neighbor’s wife.  So there is nothing in natural hope, hope as a passion, to count it a virtue.  For Aquinas, a virtue ought to “perfect” us, that is, help make us what we truly ought to be.
            The virtue of hope cannot go wrong in these ways, thought Aquinas.  The virtue of hope focuses on God, our true end.  Hope sustains pilgrims; we journey through opposition and difficulties toward a very great good.  We cannot truly hope for something that is opposed to that goal.
            Aquinas described a movement among the theological virtues.  By faith a person comes to believe that God is and rewards those who seek God; the soul becomes aware of the highest good.  In hope a person desires that great good and moves toward it; since our journey toward God lasts throughout this life, hope is a virtue for all stages of life.  (In contrast to Aristotle’s observation, Christian hope makes us all young.)  Love is the culmination of faith and hope; in love we are joined to God in friendship now and forever.
            Aquinas’s distinction between the natural passion of hope and the virtue of hope presents a challenge to secular philosophers who see that hope is a virtue.  Clearly, people can hope for evil things.  The secular philosopher’s analysis of hope needs a codicil: at a minimum, hope must focus on morally permissible objects.  Don Juan’s hope to bed his neighbor is a vice, not a virtue.  Further, truly praiseworthy hope ought to focus on genuinely good things.  My hopes for a Mariner pennant are innocent, but they don’t seem to link up with objective good in the way praiseworthy hope should. 
            These amendments to secular analyses of hope introduce controversy.  How do we know which objects of hope are morally permissible and/or objectively good.  But moral philosophers deal with those questions all the time.  Different ethical theories will answer in different ways.

[1] Pinches, Charles, “On Hope,” in Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd, Eds. Virtues and Their Vices, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Love & Hope

Love and Hope

            Iris Murdoch and Diogenes Allen, philosophers of the 20th century, believed that love lies at the center of ethics.  But they interpret love in a way that surprises some readers, at least at first.  Love is not, at root, what you feel or do, though of course it encompasses emotion and action.  Murdoch and Allen say that love consists first in the way we perceive other people and the world in general.
            People naturally view other people as objects.  There are many possible reasons for this, rooted in human nature as explained by psychology, evolution, or theology.  Murdoch leaned toward Freudian ideas according to which human conscious experience is often shaped by unconscious forces having to do with instinctual desires and/or very early psychological development.  The explanation isn’t as important as the fact.  Most of the time we perceive other people as “things”: objects we want to have, or use, or flee.  We feel attracted to some people for companionship, or profit, or sexual fulfillment.  About others we feel repulsion or fear.  And often we simply ignore people as useless and uninteresting.
            Murdoch and Allen say this is a natural and nearly ubiquitous experience.  Given human nature as it is, we almost always see other people as planets in orbit around the sun—and the self, what Murdoch called the “fat, relentless ego,” is the center of the solar system.
           Almost always—on rare occasions we sometimes break out of the egocentric view of the world.  Sometimes something happens—an illness, perhaps, or a brush with death, or a sudden realization that one has irretrievably harmed another—and an agent is freed to see another person (or the whole world) as existing independently of the agent.  Besides writing philosophy, Murdoch wrote many novels, and some of her characters experience surprising interruptions in their egoism.  For a moment they see the world and its inhabitants without them in it.  And seeing it thusly, they love.
            That other person that I encounter is not merely a threat or promise.  She is an independent center of the world.  She experiences hopes, fears, desires, and vulnerabilities just as much as I do.  The interior world of that soul is real, whether I ever notice it or not.  Murdoch thought that if and when we see another person this way we almost automatically feel compassion for her.
            (Side comment: personally, I doubt the ubiquity of compassion following on accurate vision.  Human psychology admits wide variation.  Some people may be capable of clear vision without giving a damn about their neighbors.)
            Whether or not we agree with Murdoch and Allen that perceiving other people this way is the foundational component of love, we must agree that such experiences do happen.  Most of us will admit that we have, rarely, seen the other not as an attractive, useful, scary, boring, repulsive, or disgusting thing, but as a center of experience, a person.  Allen says that such experiences of love are clues we must heed to build a satisfactory philosophy of life.
            Again: whether we agree with Murdoch and Allen about the significance of such perception, we have to agree that it is truthful.  Human beings are not essentially objects in orbit around me.  Whenever I perceive persons as objects I misperceive them.  When I see another person as an independent center of willing, feeling, and meaning, my sense of that person is far closer to the truth than my normal egocentric view.  The great problem in the moral life, Murdoch says, is that most of the time we live in a fantasy world created by our misperception of other people. 
            No matter how disagreeable a person is, she is not essentially an irritant to be avoided.  No matter how desirable a person is, she is not an object to be owned and enjoyed.  No matter how much threat a person projects against my plans, she is not merely an obstacle. 
            If we want to live morally better lives, Murdoch says, we need to learn how to see people more accurately.  Against moral theories that make choice the key term in morality, Murdoch says, “I can only choose within the world I can see, in a moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort.” (Sovereignty of Good, 37)  In real life, she says, moral choices are often compelled by what we can see—and by what we fail to see.
            Allen agrees with Murdoch about the importance of accurate vision in ethics, going so far as to call it “perfect love.”  Then he goes further than Murdoch, saying that love as clear vision can be central not just to ethics, but to our understanding of ultimate reality.  It directs us to God.
Precisely because egocentricity is natural to us, we experience perfect love fleetingly.  The fact that we are embodied beings means that the world impinges on us, forcing us to respond to challenges, pushing us back into an egocentric stance.  We may recognize the importance of accurate vision, and we may make some limited progress toward love.  But then we die.  And if death is the end, it erases whatever gains we made.
Murdoch made peace with that thought.  It is crucially important, she believed, to strive to see others clearly, though we will probably fail often.  We strive to be good “for nothing”—that is, without any hope of afterlife or reward.
Allen objects.  If real love is something we experience only fleetingly, such that all our efforts to learn to love dissipate with our last breath, it hardly seems all that important.  Some people might make an existential choice to try to see the face of the neighbor, but that would be the end of it.  If other people chose differently—well, who is to say what is trivial in life and what is important?
Christian doctrine says that God is a Trinity.  Ultimate reality consists of three persons who love each other so fully that it is correct to say they are one substance.  In the Trinity there is no egocentricity, rather perfect yielding.  The Son only does what he sees the Father doing.  There is no struggle to accurately perceive the other; the members of the Trinity know each other “from the inside out,” as we might say.
Now if the doctrine of Trinity is true, Allen says, then our intuitions about love are right.  Love really is the most important thing in life.  More than that: the steps we take toward love in this life, however small, point to a “consummation of love” that can come in the next life.  The doctrine of resurrection offers hope, hope that we can in the end become what we ought to be.