Wednesday, April 29, 2020

On Desire and Ethics

To Samuel on Desire and ethics

Dear Samuel,

I will try to answer briefly... You have, though, focused on a long tradition about this issue.  It's as old pre-Socratic Greek philosophers and as current as Postmoderns.

I will answer between your questions.

I tried to formulate some of my thoughts into questions (basically they are about desires and moral values): what is desire? 

What is desire? is a very good question.

Some pre-Socratic Greeks thought that desire was a problem.

The Stoics tried to master it through discipline (both intellectual and ascetic) and reason.  They believed that everyone was a part of a pantheistic whole.  We were all "seeds of the Logos" (the Whole, reason).  We have to put our baser nature (desire) down and live as rational beings. Stoicism was popularised by Cleanthes and some like Pythagoras.  It was later revived in Roman times by Epictetus, a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, an emperor. The Stoics were cosmopolitans which means against nationalism, since all were "children of one father."

The Skeptics (Diogenes the "dog" philosopher) tried to free people from desire by using "Zen" like questions, showing people that they could not answer ethical questions from reason.  Alternating, opposing arguments led to a state of equipollence, balance (equal value) between the arguments, i.e. being unable to decide.  They called that state "epoche."  Reaching epoche allowed one to give up arguments and find peace or ataraksia (the state of not being bothered by such questions).  Once you knew, for instance, that nationalism was stupid you could stop fighting.  This tradition continued to Sextus Empiricus in Rome and on to David Hume in the 18th century.

Epicurus taught that we should use ascetic practices and mental exercises to overcome desire.  He was not so much a philosopher in the sense of leaving behind a body of knowledge, but he used asceticism and some thought to encourage his followers to be moderate in their desires.  Too much desire leads to unpleasantness.  If you eat too much, your stomach hurts. Therefore, you should be moderate in satisfying your urges.

Plato taught that epithumia, the passions, were bad.  Epithumia (which lodged down in groin) led to stupidity and unbridled behavior.  He also taught that thumos was bad. Thumos or anger was located in the heart and the lungs drew off the heat from the anger.  

The neck was small to prevent the influence of the passions and anger from affecting the reason.  Plato's view is similar to Pythagoras' views.  Reason is divine.

Socrates had a "demon," who guided him to good. At the same time he taught moral virtue as opposed to wanton sexual desire.  He rejected paedophilia and decried it in other, like the Athenian elders.  For this reason he was sentenced to death for "corrupting the morals of minors," telling them not to be engaged in such behavior.  Plato's dialogues the Phaedo and the Phaedrus deal with this. At the same time his dialogue the Philebus, deals with desire from a different stance.

Eros was not specifically or only sexual desire.  It wasn't either a base desire necessarily.  All things have eros, which includes the desire to survive and grow, to reach the goal for which they exist or were created.

Aristotle developed the idea of desire further and this led to the idea of virtue.  Desire must be controlled by moderation and reason. The Golden Mean was to be sought.  However, each being has a telos or goal within towards which desire carries it.

Later Thomas Aquinas would use Aristotle's idea of virtue to develop moral theory further.  A modern Thomist, Alsdair Macintyre, has furthered this view.  Aquinas' view is that virtue is inbuilt in creation.  He has a sort of teleology which guides each being.

What do we find underneath our desires that govern them? 

This is as we say, the million-dollar question.  Is sexual desire or epithumia behind our behavior?  Sigmund Freud thought so.  His diagnosis of our problems is trenchant, while his plan for overcoming them is unsuccessful.

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and philosopher, followed Freud and gave him a postmodern twist.  For Lacan all desire is sexual and all urges are pointless.  We cannot control our urges.  We are controlled by them, but we don't even know what we seek.

Can desire fully be explained in a naturalistic way using only matter, space and time? 

Of course, humanists would say yes.  Freud would say yes. In antiquity Epicurus was an atheist, as was the Roman thinker, Lucretius.

I think, though, that this is not quite right.  Our bodies do drive us, for instance, to sexual procreation, but the love between a woman and a man transcends this mere physical drive.  Tenderness and faithfulness show it is false to say that physical desire is all that is involved in love.  At the same time the amount of sexual immorality and unfaithfulness shows that sexual drive can be out of control.

How did people explain desire in human history, both in ancient and contemporary times? 

I have mentioned the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, as well as some more recent thinkers, Freud and Lacan.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that Augustine saw desire as good, one could desire God, for instance.  Medieval mystics and Thomas Aquinas saw desire for God as a sort of teleological ascent to one's Beloved.

Where do we get our moral values from? 

I have mentioned the Greeks and Romans, but your question now concerns types of ethical theories.

Consequentialists say that what is "right" is what results in the consequence we seek.  So, what is good is what gets me to a certain goal.  This is somewhat like Pragmatism.  If I want to seduce a girl, lying would be ok by this view.  

However, some philosophers feel that there is no other way to explain our behavior in the face of no moral commands from a deity.

One of the other main views is called Deontological.  The Deontological view says that certain things are duties.  Immanuel Kant says that we must act in such a way that our action can be made universal law. (His so-called "Categorical Imperative." He says this maxim (or law) is a thing we know intuitively.  We seek in ourselves and we find this law. It is autonomous.  It is not from without, from nature (as Aquinas and Aristotle try to ground it, so-called Natural Law) or from a deity (Divine Command ethics).  We don't need God or even a knowledge of the external world to be moral. We are, according to Kant, involved in a project of moral self-perfection and don't need God or outside help to achieve it (though we may need all of eternity; his proof for "heaven").

The other main theory is the Divine Command Theory.  It says that we are creatures and God is our creator.  He gives us laws, instructions for moral behavior (e.g. "Thou shalt not murder.").  This god could be Jehovah or Allah.  Christian moralists tend to be committed to the Divine Command Theory.  On the other hand, many Roman Catholic moral theorists, like Alsdair Macintyre, follow Aristotle and Aquinas and appeal to Natural Law.

What are the best naturalistic explanations for the ground of moral values? 

This is hard to say.  Best... What is it you want to do or defend?  If you are a Pragmatism, the Consequentialism probably seems best: what gets me to my goal is best.  But at the same time some Christians say that our actions have consequences so even a Divine Command Theory has a component of consequentialism. (See John & Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World.  See my ppt which is attached for a brief summary.)

There are those like Herbert Spencer who believe that our behavior can be explained by a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest.  Religion and ethics allow humankind to flourish and survive.  If we band together, we can overcome many obstacles and flourish.  Marriage as an institution is not divine. However, it is the best way to procreate and for the human species to survive.

NeoKantians, like Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, would appeal to the Moral Law Within, a Universal Maxim (law), the Categorical Imperative (which is found within one's consciousness without religion). Here the appeal is to an autonomous ethic.

Why do human beings have desires conflicting with their own moral values? 

In my view this is the easier question.  Genesis 2 & 3 - the Fall into sin.  Adam and Eve brought death and disease onto humankind.  We suffer death, disease and morally repugnant desires as a result of our inherited sinful nature due to their misdeeds. 

Blaise Pascal, a 17th c. French philosopher, said without keeping two things in mind you could not understand humankind: the glory of humanity and the ignominy of humanity.  We can create almost like gods, but we do things to each other (for instance, torture), which animals do not do to each other.  He argues we are demiurges, creators similar to God, but limited.  At the same time we are fallen and slaves to our passions.

I come across these questions when I try to challenge the naturalistic worldview in my mind. I want to understand how these questions have been dealt with in history and what the major views are in our time regarding these questions. I wanted to share this with you if maybe you have a book in mind or any kind of resource for me, but if I can find enough time in the future, I may be able to take it as an independent course. Thanks.

A beginning point is to read the Feinbergs' discussion of Moral Theory, chapter 1 of Ethics for a Brave New World.

You could read Colin Brown's Christianity and Western Thought Volume 1.  You could leaf through his discussions of moral theories.

A big fat book on the pre-Socratics, which is quite good in many respects, is Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire. It is a more technical and academic book.

I have found Alsdair Macintyre's After virtue interesting, but both books are somewhat difficult.

More recent Evangelical appraisals of moral theory vary a lot.  Dr. Ron Michener and Dr. Patrick Nullens at the ETF in Belgium have written a book called The Matrix of Christian Ethics.  It has been ordered, but is not in the Tyndale library yet.  They are informed by Postmodern thinkers.

Glen Stassen and David Gushee discuss these things in their Kingdom Ethics as well. Their discussion of value and moral behavior is written throughout their treatment of the Sermon on the Mount.

I must confess I haven't read either yet.

My mentor, William Desmond, wrote an interesting book on this topic called Ethics and the Between.  He wrote a trilogy of books: Being and the Between, Ethics and the Between and God and the Between.

His view is an interaction with Hegel's panentheistic teleology and his own reactions.  He is hard to read at first, but once you get the hang of his style and system he is quite illuminating.

I hope this helps.  If you want to do an independent study I would be happy to help guide you.

Warmly in Christ,
Dr. Phil

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