Wednesday, September 05, 2007

O'Donovan on wakefulness I: Waking

Waking
Last night I went to hear Oliver O'Donovan give the first of three lectures on Morally Awake? Admiration and resolution in the light of Christian faith.

This first lecture was entitled Waking and he took as his starting point the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume's famous paragraph questioning the route from 'is' to 'ought': how do we engage in successful moral reasoning such that our descriptions of the world (what 'is')and ourselves lead us to practical outcomes (what we 'ought' to do)?

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprized to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part I, section I.

This, he argued, was not an attempt to articulate what later became known as the fact/value distinction (between bare public facts and private selections of values), but was the first attempt to discuss the difference between the good and the right. What is good is something real about the world that we appreciate or admire; what is right is what we do as a result. We admire the good and resolve to do the right (hence the subtitle of the series; lecture 2 will be on Admiring and lecture 3 on Resolving).

Yet in order to trace a path from the good to the right, it is necessary to employ various metaphors or images: construction, insight, weighing up, making choices (O'Donovan, in keeping with his consistent anti-voluntarist agenda, was very critical of this last option). Although we may usually and casually switch images as suits the moment, at points, the metaphor we use is crucial. O'Donovan suggested that a key scriptural metaphor in this regard is wakefulness. Although in the Old Testament, the image is often used of God waking up and taking action, in the New, it is assumed that God is awake, he has acted. And so Jesus and the apostles frequently encourage believers to watch out or be alert (e.g. Matthew 24:42-43; Mark 13:37; 14:37-38; Luke 12:15, 38; 17:3; 21:36; Acts 20:28; Galatians 6:1; Philippians 3:1-3; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 John 1:8). Although in Ephesians 5.14 waking is used of conversion, usually the image speaks of staying awake. We can't presume to be awake; we must be attentive to staying attentive.

And this attention is oriented in three directions: the world, the self and time.

First, we must be awake to the world, to the contextual framework that surrounds our existence, which precedes (and presumably postdates) our existence. It is possible to drift through the world inattentively, thinking it is a screen for my projections, and so fail to notice, or notice in only a fragmentary and fleeting manner. How we describe objects in our experience is itself part of moral deliberation: is a foetus a human being or a collection of tissue? To attend to the world responsibly means to avoid imposing our desires, assuming that how we want things to be is actually the way they are. This attention is not easy or straightforward. But failure to attend to how things are, to 'mistake' one thing for another (I thought you were an economic unit; little did I know that you were a human being with dignity and worth) is not innocent. Such inattention is culpable, and according to Augustine, is the basic human sin (the basic angelic sin is pride). Thus, the line between moral and theoretical reason does not lie between prescriptive versus descriptive language. To describe is already a moral act.

Second, we must be awake to ourselves. Although experimental disciplines practice a form of self-abnegation, this only makes sense within a larger self-awareness, a desire to avoid having myself as observer interfere with the object under observation. Attention is active, we need to look. And so to be aware of oneself as attentive is to be aware of oneself as active, as a force in the world, to find oneself as an agent in the world with distinct, albeit limited, responsibility. The failure to attend to ourselves as actors is the sin of sloth, the temptation to withdraw from the agentive self. This may arise from despair, or simply from a carelessness in which we sense ourselves as the suffer of the impositions of others: "Look what you made me do!"

Third, we must be aware of time, as well as the world and the self. I act now. I can reflect on the past and I can imagine the future, but I can only deliberate on the present. Of course memory and foresight are morally significant, but only as they impinge on the present. Moral thinking does not mean making predictions about the future; the moralist has no business with crystal balls. Even the Son doesn't know the day or the hour of that absolute future when the kingdom will come in fullness.

These three orientations help diagnose typical failures in moral deliberation. Attention to the world without attention to the self leads to the observational mode, in which ethics is replaced with social science. Attention to my own powers of agency without attention to the world leads to the technological imperative in which the ends serve the means. Attention to the self and to the world without attention to time leads to idealism, missing the good deeds for this time and place.

This trifold structure can also be related to a more familiar one. Love renews our consciousness of the world; faith renews our knowledge of the self; hope renews our awareness of time and possibility.

In question time O'Donovan was asked about the relationship between wakefulness and the past, prayer, conversion, decision-making, secular moral reasoning and sin. Perhaps the most interesting discussion was about decision-making. Often we understand moral deliberation as if we have an apple in one hand and a pear in the other and it's a toss up as to which we might bite into. Not so. According to O'Donovan, moral deliberation is a process of refining and clarifying in which we realise we have no other choice. The 'decision' is simply to recognise the outstanding candidate, not tossing a coin between two equal options.

The lectures will be are generously available for download in a few weeks now from the New College website.
Eight points for guessing the European city in the pic.
Series: I; IIa; IIb; IIIa; IIIb.

23 comments:

linden said...

Thanks Byron for this.

I missed the first lecture. Ironically, I was writing an essay on social ethics for a Pressy College subject.

Please keep posting your summaries.

Stuart said...

Thanks for this, Byron. I do look forward to reading your summary of tonight's talk!

craig said...

Byron - this is an excellent post -superbly written thanks!

Ali said...

Thanks for your very nice and succinct summary Byron. I was hoping that someone (other than me) would do this.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

London?

byron smith said...

Sorry - not much to go on in this photo. It's not London, but I guess you can narrow it down to a city with water that I've been to.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Paris?

byron smith said...

Mmm, "city with water"... guess that doesn't really help...

Not Paris.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Venice?

byron smith said...

Sorry, not Venice. There's only so many left...

Anthony Douglas said...

It reminds me of a scene from Before Sunrise, which I think was set in Vienna.

byron smith said...

Sorry, not Vienna.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Are there any cities in Europe that don't have water or some sort of water feature?

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Rome?

byron smith said...

As I said,
Mmm, "city with water"... guess that doesn't really help...

Not Rome.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Amsterdam

byron smith said...

Nope.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Since it is Hume, let us try something Scottish - Edinburgh?

byron smith said...

That would have been logical, but no. I suspect that it would be a rare day in Edinburgh (during winter) for a local to be sitting enjoying the sunshine right next to the water...

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Cadiz?

byron smith said...

Getting warmer (actually, you've become a little too warm).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Barcelona?

byron smith said...

Yes! Once again, trial and error wins the day. Eight points.