Sunday, September 09, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness IIIa: Resolving

Resolving
This is a summary of the third and final lecture of the 2007 New College lectures, Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith, delivered last week by Professor Oliver O'Donovan. The first was called Waking, the second Admiring (and part two) and this one is Resolving.

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Each area of the good world has its own ethics: bioethics, political ethics, economic ethics, and so on. Yet despite the great variety and complexity of the world (and hence of the descriptive task), all such description is of types and so stays general. But when we ask about our decisions, we deal in and focus upon particulars: ought I do this action, now and under these circumstances? The object of our practical thinking is a future action and is thus, by definition, undetermined. It cannot be described, only resolved upon. In the second lecture, we considered the moral import of the descriptive task. The moral act begins here, but it doesn't end with description. 'Is' must become 'ought'.

Schleiermacher, the great nineteenth century German theologian, was a typical Romantic in that he desired to describe the moral life in terms of innate intuitive duties without reference to rational reflection. This was a stubborn mistake of Romanticism, yet he was onto something more important in his desire to scrutinise moral 'conflict' in order to show that no conflict existed in the final analysis. There are no real dilemmas, simply conceptual confusions or temporal coincidences. For example, I may be asked by my boss to lie and face an apparent conflict between my boss's authority and my duty to be truthful. But I need to realise that my boss's authority doesn't extend to requiring my falsehood.

His concerns have been echoed in the late twentieth century by those ethicists opposed to what they call "decisionism", the tendency to characterise the moral life in terms of decisions, as though the soul's main characteristic was to be divided against itself. But they go too far in denying a place for "decisions"; to cut the soul off from decisions is to cut it off from action. Decision is the soul coming to the point of action. Decision is (literally) the "cutting short" of the natural indeterminacy of thought, closing the question for the sake of practical action. It is not the choice between two options, but the point of resolution (see the end of the first lecture for an illustration of this). Decision does not occur in a vaccuum of thought. Nor is "deliberation" a better term, as it relies on the metaphor of weighing and so places too much emphasis on comparing alternatives and on proportional reasoning.

O'Donovan then spent some time exegeting Romans 12.1-8 as a summons to engage in action. The initial call in verse 1 (present your bodies as a living sacrifice) is far-reaching and requires further specification, which begins with how to think (verse 2). The role of thought doesn't end when admiration ends. Thought has to make the journey from is to ought. We are to distinguish what God wills for us now. Indeed, verse 3 tells us that we need to think about how to think (it is not about how to think about ourselves, as many translations imply, but how to think about thinking). When discussing the act of thinking, Paul uses the Greek verb phronein throughout this passage, which, as in Aristotle, is the verb for practical reason - the ability to reach specific and concrete determinations, judgements about behaviour that will be particular for each of us. This differentiation across the various members of the body of Christ and their differentiated faith leading to different ways of service occupies the rest of the passage (verses 4-8). Each is to follow a practical course of their own, not fitting a general pattern of the age, but a specific one for each, discerning God's will. The renewing of the mind in verse 2 is towards (Greek: eis) the discernment of God's will. The warning in verse 3 is not so much about pride (thinking too highly of oneself), but against overthinking, an inflated view of the self's practical task. We must neither accept the general pattern of the age, nor an inflated estimation of one's own import.

Faith has two sides: faith as belief (linked to the loving knowledge of the world discussed in the previous lecture); and faith as trust, which looks forward in hope. Hope requires imagination, which can be either too dull, or too 'overthought' (having great ambitions but without practicality, mere airy ideals).

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I will finish this lecture (and the whole series) tomorrow. Still to come is a discussion of the relationship between ideals and compromise and then some concluding reflections upon communal action and unity.
Twelve points for correcltly naming the Sydney suburb in which the photo was taken.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

17 comments:

Moffitt the Prophet said...

The Royal National Park vis a vis Bundeena

byron smith said...

Keep guessing... :-)

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Kurnell

byron smith said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Malabar

byron smith said...

Nup.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Palm Beach.

Sorry for all the guesses.

byron smith said...

No need to apologise: you're doing well, helping to clear out or revitalise some old or neglected competitions, and finally someone, however distantly, is giving Anthony a run for his money.

But it is not Palm Beach.

This is not intended as a particularly tricky question. It's not some tiny place no one has heard of.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

South Head?

byron smith said...

No. It was taken on the same (and in the same suburb) as this and this and this and... - oh, better not include that one as the suburb was mentioned.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Gordon Bay, next to Clovelly?

byron smith said...

No.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Coogee?

byron smith said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Manly?

byron smith said...

Bingo! Twelve points.

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