Quotable: Aristotle

“Actions, then, are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do; but it is not the man who does these that is just and temperate, but the man who also does them as just and temperate men do them. It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.

“But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy.”

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b5-17

Telescopic Philanthropy Covers a Multitude of Sins

Looking a Long Way Off

I’m only a little way into Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by his Mrs. Jellyby. The reader gets a first impression of her from the “biography” given by Mr. Kenge.

“Mrs. Jellyby,” he says, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—AND the natives—and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.”

In typical fashion Dickens mixes irony with description. Her “remarkable strength of character” is directed “entirely to the public.” Her “extensive variety of public subjects” is qualified by “until something else attracts her.” And we find she has interest in the “coffee berry”, but also the natives, he quickly adds (assuming that this interest in the coffee berry and the settlement of “our superabundant home population” is entirely consistent with a sincere interest in the natives).

We are left with a picture of a woman who is entirely and singly preoccupied with her own “quest” for social action, wherever that quest may currently be directed. We also guess that this singleness of mind may stem from misguided sense of moral earnestness which is driven by her fancy and lacks a thorough consideration of other relevant factors. This picture is only confirmed by later character development.

Our first encounter with the JELLYBY House is portentous; a small confused crowd of mostly children is gathered. We are told “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!” and that the “young Jellybys are always up to something.” From the very beginning the contrast between Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Summerson is apparent in that the former’s attention is elsewhere, and the latter takes responsibility.

The first actual description we are given of Mrs. Jellyby is that she is a “pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” She has “very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”

She asks excuse for the state of the house, saying, “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time.”

When Peepy falls down the stairs and comes to his mother for comfort, it is again Miss Summerson who comforts him as his sobs slowly subside. But ironically it is Miss Summerson who is made to feel shame as Mrs. Jellyby expresses her gratification at her work. “It IS gratifying,” said Mrs. Jellyby. “It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that YOU never turned your thoughts to Africa.”

Mrs. Jellyby is not at this point a well developed character, but seems to be another emblem of a point that Dickens is trying to make, namely that difficult, earnest, and respectable effort is no guarantee of moral aptness. Dickens makes the lesson very clear in the mouth of Miss Summerson later when she says, “We thought that, perhaps, it is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.”

Looking Nearer

I suspect, however, that the vice of Mrs. Jellyby cannot be summarized simply by saying she picked the wrong thing to do. I suspect that there is a deeper issue that we too deal with. Mrs. Jellyby embodies a sort of moral myopia that Rebecca DeYoung characterizes as sloth. DeYoung objects to the view that sloth is simple laziness. To the contrary, sloth can be characterized by vigorous activity. Citing the desert fathers, she claims that sloth is not a sheer lack of inertia, but rather “a failure of effort…linked to a lack of love.” The old term for it was akedeia (acedia), literally “lack of care.” Fundamentally, this is a inner condition, a resistance to the demands of love.

It is worth noting that Mrs. Jellyby’s “love” operated in the abstract, for “coffee berries,” for “the natives,” for “the population.” Peepy’s actual bleeding knees and sobs did not command her attention. This is why I called it a “moral myopia,” echoing Dickens’ allusion to her eyes. This vice is about that to which we attend, what we see.

What seems to be driving this acedia or sloth in the case of Mrs. Jellyby is also familiar to us. Her efforts were gratifying. The first word we hear about her is a word of commendation. She sees what is far off because when she does, she receives mountains of correspondence and encouragement. Soothing Peepy’s sobs, on the other hand would be thankless. So this is a moral myopia which is driven by common social sentiment.

What’s also worth noting is that its unlikely Mrs. Jellyby ever made a conscious decision to put “the natives” over Peepy. What’s more likely is that she finds herself caught up into this moral inattention. This might give us pause to ask, are we morally shortsighted? Where are we resisting the demands of love for “the natives”? 

Quotable: Mark Johnson on Selfhood

“Human beings are not at all like this [the Enlightenment picture]. We are far more socially constituted, far more historically situated, and far more changeable than objectivism allows. The self is defined not only be its biological makeup as a physical organism, but also by its ends, its interpersonal relationships, its cultural traditions, its institutional commitments, and its historical context. Within this evolving context it must work out its identity.”

Mark Johnson, The Moral Imagination, 150.

Concerning Modesty and Responsibility

Nate Pyle has a good article on the issue of men objectifying women. It’s certainly worth reading and makes a few points in particular that I think are worthwhile, namely that men have responsibility for seeing and treating women as valued human persons, that to fail to do so is to forfeit humanity (since, presumably, being human involves treating other humans as ends and possessing the ability to do this), and that there exists a culture of fear between women and men within the church. He says, “a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you.”

Clearly, Pyle is concerned for placing the burden of responsibility here on men. He says, “The moment you play the victim you fall into the lie that you are simply embodied reaction to external stimuli unable to determine right from wrong, human from flesh.” And again, “You need to be in control of you.” And finally, “If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things.”

My concern is that he puts forward a false dichotomy between a human as “embodied reaction to external stimuli” and an autonomous free “chooser.” Perhaps if Pyle had specified a bit better what this choice looks like and in what circumstances choice occurs, the situation would be clearer. Certainly, men who are engaged in a long term struggle with lust don’t feel like free choosers. It remains an open question which word to assign to their struggle (Kent Dunnington has opted for the word “habit” in this case). But my point is, there are a great many restrictors to “free choice” that make the situation a bit more complex. I’ll just say a few words about habit.

With regard to habit, there are so many choices that I make every day that I put almost no reflective thought into. Not all of these are overtly moral choices, i.e. how to put my clothes on, how long to brush my teeth, which route to take to work, etc. But some of them are. For instance, if I regularly drive-through McDonalds for breakfast I might be culpably damaging my body. This is an interesting case because there has actually been a lot of moral backlash against McDonalds for the quality of food they offer, particularly following the Supersize Me” documentary. Or to take the matter a step further, what if I regularly have a morning smoke on my way to the office.

Now, not all habits are created equal. It’s easier to break the McDonalds habit than the smoking one. And easier to break the smoking habit than the meth habit. But Kent Dunnington suggests that the differences are a matter of degrees, not kind. Our bodies are always involved in our habits. What’s more, there is good evidence to suggest that tolerance and withdrawal are not decisive factors in the continuance of a habit (Johann Hari cites some of the same sources Dunnington does and a few more).

So what breaks habit? Well, clearly humans have responsibility here. If we don’t seem to have either/or freedom about any particular action in the day, we at least of the freedom to plan the development of our identities. If I’m trying to break the McDonalds habit, for instance, I might decide to take an alternate route to work and by some protein bars to bring with me in the morning. The situation is not hopeless.

But the larger point that I’m trying to make is that not all choosers are equal at any given moment. Nor are all choices equally appealing to choosers at any given moment. If I place meth within the hands of a meth addict, I’m an enabler. If I erect a McDonalds near someone who is overweight, my moral responsibility seems softer.

All this is to say, it’s probably wrong to say that the women of Christ’s church have no moral responsibility to dress appropriately. But certainly Pyle is correct to say that men need to worry about themselves. It’s certainly easier to look on a woman dressed immodestly as a person in need of grace like myself when I have been habitually trained and Spiritually enabled to be a servant to righteousness.

In Romans 6, Paul makes the point that we are slaves either to righteousness or unrighteousness. Unrestrained contingent freedom about every choice is not our situation. But we can reckon ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ and allow our imaginations to be formed by this alternate reality we find ourselves in.

A Provocative Pair of Paragraphs (and a footnote)

“To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being a bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) — that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of ‘obligation,’ it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

“It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by ‘criminal,’ which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the notion ‘ought’ was invested with that peculiar for having which it has said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.(2) The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.”

2 They did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man’s incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied merely to the ramified prescriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of ‘natural divine law.’ Cf. in this connection the decree of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator.”

Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy, 5.

CommentHer comments confirm a long held suspicion on my part that the notion of something being “obligated” implies stipulation of punishments. I used to consider, what are the punishments for forgoing “obligation” in the New Testament? Furthermore, her observation about Protestants functionally rejecting the law is fascinating to me, not least because I am from a tradition which explicitly rejects the third use of the law. I suppose I could simply conclude that my Reformation heritage is all the more reason for me to be happy Aristotelian (non-law conception) and reject moral grounding in “divine law.” The question really presses me, is God’s law in the Old Testament really timeless and universally valid? Or was it a construal of his will directed to that time and context–a vehicle of soul-making?

Quotable: Cavanaugh on imagination

“We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshaled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders.”

William T. Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 1.

Quotable: Hume, on ancient morality

“You seem to take pleasure in this topic: and are indeed the only man I ever knew, who was well acquainted with the ancients, and did not extremely admire them. But instead of attacking their philosophy, their eloquence, or poetry, the usual subjects of controversy between us, you now seem to impeach their morals, and accuse them of ignorance in a science, which is the only one, in my opinion, in which they are not surpassed by the moderns.”

David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, 330.