Words and Weapons: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#2)

“Discussion of theology is not for everyone,” warned Gregory of Nazianzus in the heat of the late 4th century controversy over the Trinity. It is for serious minded and thoughtful people. It’s “not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are those who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements” (Oration 27, Chapter 3).

Basil the Great describes the controversy of his day (late 4th century) as like a great naval battle:

“Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by the raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish friend from foe…Think of the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard…they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss” (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 30).

In a very different setting, Matthew Arnold spoke of his age as dwelling on “a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night” (Dover Beach, 1867).

As I look out on the moral crisis that has engulfed our culture, I see the trivialization of the serious of which Gregory complained, the explosion of violent passion Basil describes and the ignorant, nocturnal clash that so troubled Matthew Arnold. My first inclination is to stay out of it and let the enemies vent their passions on each other. Recoiling from the combatant’s sword and the referee’s flag, I prefer to carry the medic’s bag. And yet, perhaps, there is something I can do even during the heat of the battle. For not everyone is enraged all the time. Some have not yet joined the fray, others are resting on the sidelines, and still others wish to stay neutral. And some, only a few perhaps, long to understand what is happening and why and what to do in response.

In riots participants use sticks, broken bottles and bricks as weapons. In moral controversy combatants use words. Words can convey information or express feelings. They can illuminate the mind or evoke emotion. And the emotions they instill can be positive or negative. Many—too many—contemporary discussions of moral issues consist primarily in expressions of emotion, approval or disapproval, in the absence of conceptual clarity and precision.

The Good

In this series I want to address this lack of conceptual clarity. I’d like to begin by reflecting on the concepts of the good and the right, two of the most basic categories necessary for conducting reasonable discussions of moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general and bland, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of esthetic pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or pronounce moral judgment. It can be (mis)used as synonym for the “right” or it can mean the “pleasant”. Given the wide range of meanings for the word good, it would seem important to be clear and specific in one’s use of the term in serious moral discussions.

Examination of all the ways the word good is used shows that in every case, except in reference to God or its misuse to mean the right, it is used in a relative sense; that is to say, something is declared to be “good for” something else. Apart from God, who is absolutely good, any finite good can be “good for” one thing but bad for something else: Salt is good for preserving meat but bad for snails.

A thing can be “good for” someone in two senses: it can give pleasure or promote well-being. Likewise it can be bad for someone in two senses: it can cause unpleasant feelings or reduce well-being. To say that something is good in the first sense is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, a good experience.

But an experience can give momentary pleasure and not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting one’s well-being: “Overeating is not good for you.” And an experience can be “good for” your well-being but not be especially pleasant. We can readily offer examples: “Eat your vegetables because they are “good for” you,” “Moderate exercise is “good for” you,” and “Honesty is the best policy.” These assertions declare that possessing these goods, regardless of whether or not they give immediate pleasure, advances your well-being. We can distinguish these two meanings of the word good by naming one “the pleasant” and the other “the productive”.

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good”, the pleasant and the productive. If one party uses the word good to mean the immediately pleasant and the other party uses it to mean that which is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being, the discussion will be futile.

We can hardly dispute a claim that someone finds something pleasant or unpleasant. The claim is the proof! Hence this type of assertion about goodness is not subject to rational debate—although feelings of pleasure or displeasure can still be expressed in reaction to such claims. (Example, “I find disgusting what you find pleasant.)  But a claim that something is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is subject to discussion and dispute.

What is the difference? The difference is this: the assertion that X is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is a claim about what our physical, psychological, moral or spiritual natures require for proper and optimum functioning. This can be true only if within these dimensions of human existence there are objective structures and inherent ends, subject to rational analysis; additionally, these structures and ends must remain constant regardless of our subjective feelings.

Analysis of the concept of the good has led us to the concept of human nature, its proper functioning and its ultimate end. Is there such a thing as human nature, and, if so, how can we discover what is “good for” it? Do human beings have a natural (and perhaps a supernatural) end, and do we know what it is? These questions lead us to our most basic beliefs about God and creation.

To be continued…


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