Friday, October 03, 2003

As a professional philosopher, I am continually surprised


by the stupidity that can be found in published philosophical writing. I am currently reading The Ethical Method of John Duns Scotus by Thomas Shannon and Mary Beth Ingham, C.S.J., and the preface is filled with such blatant special pleading that I actually laughed as I read it.

In the preface, Marietta Culhane sets the tone, the reason she and the authors think that we should study Scotus: "Is there a "timidity" among contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians which is causing them to search only in safe, frozen theories of the past for solutions to today's questions?" Scotism will supposedly save us from a rigid and cowardly reliance on natural law theory. I take issue with the characterization of the theories of the past as "safe." It is in fact very difficult to respect life in all aspects of one's behavior. Loving each other as God has loved us is no more safe than walking a tightrope with two bags of groceries. It would be safer to go along with conventional wisdom and adjust our moral compass to fit the spirit of the age.

But there's more: Culhane proposes the puzzle of nasogastric feeding. She proposes the case of a 74 year-old man who, she says, "has no cognitive or volitional functioning." Should we pull out the feeding tube? She notes not two sentences later that "He has resisted the tube and in the past tried to pull it out." How could he resist the tube if he has no cognitive or volitional functioning? Resistance is a function of volition! Such a blunder is something I expect from an undergraduate paper.

The book continues (with Shannon as author) giving a sketch of natural law theory, arguing that "to maintain the objectivity of moral norms, nature must be static and fixed." This is true in a sense: moral precepts are what they are because we are the sorts of creatures that we are. But an absolute static nature is not needed. After all, Aquinas can speak of the condition of man before the fall, after the fall, and after the resurrection, with each state having a particular mode of the nature of human being: undamaged, damaged, sanctified by the grace of God. But let's grant Shannon's point and see what happens.

It is modernity, says Shannon, which has necessitated the turn from natural law. He quotes Dilthey saying "the develoment of historical consciousness destroys faith in the universal validity of any philosophy which attempts to express world order cogently through a system of concepts." Because of the historical nature of human activities (that they are all situated in and get their meaning from the time and place where they happen), truth doesn't really exist, or at least a system of concepts can't get to it. So, concepts are bad. But in the next paragraph, Shannon says "the new historical consciousness requires a new conceptual framework and vocabulary." But why should we bother? Why make a new conceptual framework if conceptual frameworks can't express world order cogently?

Shannon proposes some form of proportionalism to solve the problem. If only we consider the totality of the person in his or her situation, we could make proper moral judgments. (Never mind that proportionalism can make no moral judgments--see John Finnis, Moral Absolutes.) But why should we do it? "The reality of the situation is that the fierce debates about moral thory and the destroyed or damaged careers of our best moral theologians [Charles Curran, perhaps? -Ath.] are poignant testimony to the fact that the traditional framework of natural law coupled with classical consciousness is unable to respond adequately to the challenges of contemporary insights into the nature of reality." Let me interpret that: Conventional morality is wrong because it doesn't reach the conclusions (on abortion, contraception, sexuality, and end-of-life issues) that we want it to reach.

See if you can read the following line without laughing: "We must accept the fact that the traditional understanding of natural law and classical consciousness simply does not hold in the face of evolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, and historical consciousness." So because of evolution and quantum mechanics, we now see that moral norms are not absolute, since human beings are not beings at all, but a Heraclitean flux of change. Heck, I'm probably not even the same species as my daughter.

I resent all of this because I think it attempts to suborn Blessed John Duns Scotus. But I think their characterization of him is incorrect. I am no Scotist, but see if this makes sense to you: Scotus is looked to because he acknowledges that moral norms are contingent, in that God could have willed them to be otherwise. This seems true, as far as it goes. From this fact of Scotus's ethical theory, Shannon leaps to the non-sequitur that "In the absence of any teleological goal [end] which typically constitued objective moral goodness, Scotus locates moral goodness with the intention of the agent and not a real aspect of the act as such." The fact that moral norms are contingent for God is taken as a reason to reject teleology.

But, just a few pages later, Shannon describes how Scotus analyzes moral situations. One first considers the type of action something is (the object). But once we know the object, Shannon says "nonetheless one must situate the act with respect to the end, manner, time, and place for it to be a truly moral act." [emphasis mine] Wait a minute! He just said that there was no teleology in Scotist moral theory, but now there is! Which is it?

In fact, the book gives a moral argument for the possible liceity of bigamy from John Duns Scotus, where the whole argument turns on the primary end of marriage, which is the procreation of offspring.

When one has a conclusion one wants to reach, the mind will skip over inconvenient gaps in the argument. I would give this book a C.

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