Friday, October 30, 2009

Adams on Virtue for the Sinner, 10/30/09

Today I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Robert Adams of UNC Chapel Hill give a lecture entitled "Virtue for the Sinner." He responded to two objections to virtue theory, one articulated by Karl Barth questioning the value of virtue, and the other being the empirical evidence of psychology against the existence of real virtues.

It is important to understand, Adams implies, the viewpoint of Barth in rejecting the value of intrinsic goodness of virtue. Barth asserts that God the Son is concerned only with obedience to the Father and that his actions all align with this one overarching goal. So perhaps the virtues would only suffice to describe dispositions tending to produce the sort of actions which, ultimately, are valuable in that they defer to God's commands. But Adams wants to argue here that Christian ethics is not simply an account of good actions, but rather of good agents-- what kind of people we are, what kind of precursors to action our intentions and desires and thoughts are. "God cares about obedience for the sake of love, and not the other way around," he says, citing the commandments which Jesus states as of chief importance. Perhaps virtue produces obligation; perhaps being the kind of person which God would have us be, a person who "images" his Son, Adams might say, will result in our feeling a self-obligation of the Korsgaardian strand to act in accordance with certain moral laws. Just a thought. Anyway, Adams also refers to the passage in which Jesus says, "I have no longer called you slaves but I have called you friends" as one which supports that thesis that God is not concerned with our being useful, that is, producing actions which are beneficial, but rather with our relation to Him and the sort of men and women we are. I think this is a pretty biblical account of virtue.

However, a point which Dr. Pruss raised after the lecture got me thinking: Is love a virtue or an action? I am inclined to call it an action rather than a disposition, because while we certainly have dispositions that make us apt to care about people, the caring for them is a reality only when it is in action. And maybe that action can be as slight as considering their interests broadly; for instance, at this very moment I am doing nothing to love my mother, but I also am taking into account my relationship with her in a broad way by not posting examples in ethical dilemmas which draw on her personal life or even in my refraining from using foul language at which she might be embarrassed if she read this. And in a sense, because I care about her, I am doing the kind of work I think she would be proud of, and in so doing maybe caring for her in some small way. In any case, the caring for her is wrapped up in practical realms of action.

Then, in Adams' reply to the second prong of the arguments against virtue, he grants that the kind of virtue we have is clearly fragile. It falters in cases of social pressure to act in ways adverse to our virtues. So, he says, we may not have the virtue perfectly but we can still be virtuous in that way. A trait does not have to be so robust to be excellent that it never fails in any circumstance. We cannot learn to live well simply by learning to live under general ethical rules, he says, for our virtues are just not permanent. But we can try and persist in certain virtues, extend them over ourselves and our future selves (to put it in terms of Parfit's view of identity which I think is a relevant one here). So in conclusion, there is a chance of virtue even for the sinner.

P.S. I started reading a book called Intellectual Appetites by Griffiths that I highly recommend to any Christian seeking understanding and knowledge. :)

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