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The heart of holiness is protecting the innocent and the weak

An ethic of justice should place greater emphasis on care of infants and the elderly who cannot care for themselves.
Tue Apr 7, 2020 - 6:24 pm EST
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Stephen R.L. Clark showcases his new book.

April 7, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — An Anglican philosopher, Stephen R.L. Clark, just published an interesting book, titled Can We Believe in People? Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020). Clark is an expert in ancient Greek philosophy — Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, Plotinus, and the Neoplatonists; in questions concerning animal rights and ethics; and in the thought of G.K. Chesterton. Clark has published many books and articles in a long and distinguished career, and this book appears in some ways to be a culmination of his varied interests.

As a philosopher, I found much to enjoy and much to disagree with in the book. On the negative side, some of the assumptions concerning the evolution of mankind did not seem well supported; he takes too much for granted from the Darwinian paradigm without giving due credit to its critics. He too readily, in my opinion, attributes quasi-human intelligence and motivation to subrational animals and dismisses traditional accounts of human distinctiveness. Seemingly unaware of Marie George’s substantial body of work against the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Clark also seems to assume, or at least to consider it highly probable, that there are other species of rational animal in the universe.

However, it is in the book’s defense of moral absolutism that Clark shines brightest. His third chapter, on moral realism, shreds atheism to pulp by arguing that atheists should have no absolute moral convictions whatsoever, should not indeed acknowledge justice, rights, fairness, conscience, freedom, or any other ethical concept that cannot be reduced to atoms and void. He argues that they cannot rationally object to God’s existence on the basis of the evil in the world or the unfairness of life or whatever it might be that they consider somehow inexplicable if a God were to exist, since without a God — or, to put it more loosely, without an objective order of being that culminates in an absolute good — there could be no good to love or evil to hate at all.

His chapter 5, on human dignity, is valuable for its consistent and well argued defense of human life at all stages. He probes and finds wanting the assumption made by secular philosophers that adult-centered utilitarianism is the only form of reasoning possible:

One of the oddest features of much secular moral philosophy, as well as more theologically inspired enquiry, is the assumption that our primary obligations can only be to actually “rational” people: that is, to those with whom we could be expected to have made bargains, and who can themselves acknowledge congruent obligations. This is explicit in most post-Kantian moralizing, drawing on ancient Stoic notions: we can be obliged to do only what all other rational beings can also be obliged to do. Even those who have adopted a more “consequentialist” outlook, for whom our primary duty is to do as much good as possible (sometimes interpreted as ensuring as much pleasure, for as little pain, as possible), think chiefly of their effect on adult, rational beings. Utilitarians may insist, in Bentham’s familiar words, that creatures are morally significant because they can suffer, and that we should minimize their suffering — but even those who emphasize the “moral considerability” of animals will usually add that most biologically “animal” organisms have no conception of their own continued being, and that their pains and pleasures are therefore transient, and easily to be ignored in favor of the conscious enjoyments and torments of the adult human. (p. 110)

When I read this, I thought with a groan: we can’t even get fetal pain bills passed. Even the minimalist idea that we should at least not cause suffering has been thrown out; we have fallen below even Bentham’s utilitarianism. Modern Westerners would sooner give “rights” to pigs than protect unborn children from pain or distress or lethal violence.

In chapter 1, Clark had noted that the image and likeness of God in man does not concern solely man’s rationality; after all, reason is also the power by which we subjugate, torment, and destroy in a manner and to a degree that no subrational being can equal. Reason is therefore ambivalent. It may be truer that we should search for man’s likeness to God in the realm of moral qualities, and strive to live according to it:

But what is the likeness that we lost? And what is it that we are required to seek again? The answer to both questions lies in the declaration that God is “holy,” and that we are to seek that “holiness,” qadosh (1 Pet 1:15). It is not wrong to see that the term has associations also with “purity”: God’s people are to separate themselves from iniquity, from all forms of self-indulgent greed and cruelty, and adopt strict dietary and other rules to help them (see Lev 11:44). But the principal association of the term qadosh in the Hebrew texts is with compassion: we are to seek to imitate and express God’s generosity, to orphans, widows, strangers and the wild things in our country (that is, the country we are given to help guard and garden). We are not to seize all things for ourselves alone, but leave resources—or more actively provide resources—for all those in need (see Lev 19:9–10; 23:22; 25:6–7). Conversely, our failure to do this deserves deep condemnation. We are not to steal or cheat or keep back an employee’s wages, nor deprive the poor and the stranger of the chance to glean the harvest, nor “treat the deaf with contempt nor put an obstruction in the way of the blind” (Lev 19:13–14). “This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched” (Ezek 16:49). (p. 7–8)

We are to avoid greed and cruelty, and to imitate God’s generosity. What does that say for our modern Western ethic (or anti-ethic), which is based on hoarding pleasure for oneself and destroying any beings that interfere with one’s egoistic project, however dependent on us they may be, pleading for our mercy? Orphans, widows, strangers, and wild things do not fare well under cancer-phase capitalism.

In a particularly beautiful passage, Clark notes again the serious narrowing of vision required to think and to live as if the only worthy object of moral concern or virtuous behavior were another fully functional, reasoning and speaking adult against whom one could stand as an equal:

Infants, the very ill, the elderly may all be unable to speak or even “reason” (in the sense of calculating outcomes and possibilities), but they are all the proper objects of love and reverence. They are made “in the image of God,” and so to be reckoned sacred: any disrespect or injury to them is to be taken as disrespect or injury to God (Mt 25:40; see also Mt 18:6). (p. 111)

For this reason, Clark argues, an ethic of justice should place greater emphasis on care of infants and the elderly who cannot care for themselves, since the tiny and the frail call forth our mysterious gift of compassion and show that we are not merely sophisticated brutes, ready to hurl a rock at the next cousin who interferes with our bananas, but really “gods” as Jesus said (Jn. 10:34; cf. Ps. 82:6), who can go out of ourselves in affection. The author notes that in fact we love our babies not just because of their probability of someday being adults, or because they have a potency to be adults; we love them right now for who and what they are: little humans, dependent on us. It is part of our nature (yes, we do have a nature) that we long for our own offspring and we consider ourselves obliged and beholden to our elders. We feel the pull of care and the pull of reverence:

It should be obvious that any moral theory which explains our concern for babies, infants, toddlers and so on solely because these creatures are potentially adult, rational beings, is missing the point. It should also be obvious that any obligation we may have to obey or to revere authority cannot depend either on our having agreed to such obedience, or to our current calculation of the eventual consequences of obedience or disobedience. There are, in short, at least two sources of obligation: the pull to care for the young and the defenseless, and the pull to revere those placed “above” us, by their age, experience or obvious virtue (even if they are no longer what they were). (ibid.)

An ethical theory that fails to explain this dual pull or explains it away as a byproduct of evolutionary biology is simply bad philosophy, Clark suggests — like sloppy chemistry or imprecise mathematics or rigged sociology.

The failure to take seriously the insights that come from a religious tradition now many thousands of years old is symptomatic of the self-inflicted blindness of modern ethics. Clark implies that the image of Christ in the bosom of His Mother and Christ in agony on the Cross tell us more about what it means to be in the image and likeness of God than a legacy of Cartesian rationalism, Baconian mastery of nature, Benthamite utilitarianism, and self-interest magnified into the social contract:

The most familiar pictures of Jesus, whom Christians identify as the very Word of God, are of his infancy in Mary’s arms, or on the cross. And yet it is this Jesus who is exalted (Acts 2:22–36; Eph 1:20–23; Phil 2:9). There is a fairly easy reading of the story that has no metaphysical implications: whenever a clear innocent is condemned, especially to death, by the powers and principalities of this world, it is those powers and principalities which are themselves condemned, and lose the moral authority they abused. We owe, or feel we owe, a primary obedience to authority—but that authority is borrowed from a higher source, and can be lost. Those who observe the event can feel themselves released, if not from reasonable fear of what the abusers can do, at least from any sense that the abusers have a right to do it.

But the more strongly metaphysical sense of the Christian gospel should not be simply ignored, or allegorized away. The serious claim is being made that it is in the defenceless, the overtly powerless, the pitiable whose only power lies in the love they somehow evoke, that we see what God is like. Deane-Drummond, while offering some support to the traditionally Thomist view that it is only human beings, in virtue of their intellectual potential, that can be considered “images of God,” adds that “we might want to push the idea [that human image-bearing applies even in those who have, in different circumstances, lost their use of reasoning powers] even further than Aquinas does and suggest that it is when human beings are at their most vulnerable that the veiled grace of God in image-bearing becomes most visible.” (p. 113)

Is it true that we “see God” in the powerless who have only the power of evoking love? I do not know how to analyze or defend this claim philosophically, but it seems true to life, irrefutable, and strangely appealing. Throughout the frightful history of human evils, and in the life of most if not all human beings, there are moments when it is our own powerlessness or that of another that triumphs over the normal (fallen) self-interest that drives us to our misery and, for a blessed moment, or perhaps even for the rest of a lifetime, renders us capable not only of eating and sleeping, but also of communing with another, and for the other’s good.


  atheism, christianity, morality, philosophy

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