Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Does being good involve a measure of good fortune?

Do we require 'moral luck' or good fortune if we are to be good? I've never really thought of this kind of connection, and I do not think that it has been reflected upon in any of the courses of ethics or moral theology that I have attended, or, for that matter, in the history of philosophy courses and readings - the idea seems to be Greek in its provenance.

John Milbank engages in a sustained reflection on this idea in the first part of his essay, "The Midwinter Sacrifice."

First of all, something that still might need to be debated or at least discussed, chewed, and appropriated: Morality for the Greeks concerned the attainment of the truly happy life. (108) Here we define one imponderable with the help of another, 'morality' by means of 'happiness.'

So what is happiness? "True happiness was regarded as secure, abiding happiness, impregnable to assault." (108-9) Happiness here is, or at least involves, self-possession and 'autarchy' or self-government, whether of the city or of the self, and increasingly of the immaterial soul, deemed to be free of need. (109)

The dominant notion here is happiness as the security of self-possessed good.

But, Milbank points out, there is an inherent and perhaps hidden tension. Since happiness "usually concerns reception of gifts from without," a total immunity would lock a person within a tower where neither sorrow nor joy would be able to enter. So Aristotle works out a compromise: the ethical life is to be found in the relative security of the city, and within the city, in the relative security of the well-born, good-looking man, owning a sufficient store of goods to allow him to exercise a virtuous generosity, and through this to sustain his relative power and independence.

So while the Greeks defined the ethical in opposition to fortune or luck, they were prepared to admit a degree of fortune or luck as a necessary precondition for the ethical. (Martha Nussbaum called this the 'fragility of goodness'.) For Aristotle, we need good fortune to begin to be good; we also need continued good fortune if we are to remain good.

At this point, Milbank mentions the radicalization of the above kind of thinking in Stoicism (in times of greater political turmoil, which means the inability to take the security of the polis for granted, and hence greater dependence on fortune): the Stoics and others sought a more absolute total security in the inner citadel of the soul. Such security, in fact, precludes both joy and sorrow; so the goal of happiness was redefined as 'passionless tranquillity.'

So how does Christianity stand w.r.t. this? Here Milbank outlines a position which is not his own, and then goes on to demolish it. First, the position. Christianity does not exalt Stoic security, nor does it regard an utterly passionless emotion-less life as desirable. Instead, 'to be good' is clearly dependent on 'fortune' in the guise of grace. Not only is such grace externally mediated in part, it also affects the inner citadel of the soul. The element of uncertainty here is excluded by the consideration that every person in every situation can respond [to grace? by grace?] in a moral fashion. But, it might be asked, does one not need the initial fortune to belong to the community of grace? This requirement also can be obviated by the consideration that "the church through typology and prolepsis is a universal reality." (109-10)

Milbank's demolition of this stance involves pointing out that it retains and even maximizes the requirement of security, yet wrenches it away from its original foundation in the pursuit of happiness, to the point of logical collapse. On a superficial level it seems to exalt pure altruism, to the point of self-surrender unto death. But this stance is really a maximization of the requirement of security, immunity to moral luck or good fortune: in order to be itself, such an ethical stance does not really require the other, or anything outside of oneself.

The problem, Milbank points out, is that if this is the Christian stance par excellence, it can be readily secularized, as Patocka seems to have argued: for the omission of any hope for resurrection will only purify the other-regarding motive. [I recall Sartre saying somewhere - in Existentialism is a Humanism? - that the true heroes and saints are the atheists, because they do good without hope for any reward.]

So Milbank's question: "Should one read Christian ethics as abandoning the antique concern with happiness, and yet sustaining its requirement for secure self-possession (even if this is now reduced to the will to the gesture of absolute non self-possession)?"

Milbank's response is to argue that Christianity retains the goal of happiness "through a novel abandonment of the goal of self-possession, even in its mode of ethical reduction," and that, along with self-possession, it abandons also self-achievement, self-control, and above all self-government. This, he says, will challenge "nearly all our inherited ideas of what is ethical." (111) 

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