Thursday, April 8, 2004

John E. Hare on Ethics and Christianity

Writing from the perspective of traditional Christianity will already make [my] project suspect to much of the audience I would like to reach. I intend the book for two groups and their intersection: both for those who call themselves Christians, or at least take the claims of Christianity seriously, and for those interested in the academic study of ethics. This makes the project problematic, since many of those who fall into the second group find the attitudes and commitments of the first group incomprehensible or, if comprehensible, entirely unattractive. From the perspective of the academic study of ethics, it can seem that belief in traditional Christianity is possible for the uneducated, perhaps even desirable; but that for those who are fully alive to the movement of thought over the last two hundred years, it is no longer a serious option. I believe, however, that a strong case can be made that this attitude within academic philosophy has led to a bad misreading of the great philosophical texts on which academic philosophy depends. I have an advantage here from an accident of my education. I did Greats at Oxford, in which the syllabus took a leap from Aristotle to Frege; and then a Ph.D. in the Classical Philosophy programme at Princeton, in which I read nothing between Aristotle’s medieval commentators and Bradley. ‘Modern’ philosophy is therefore something I have read on my own, directly from the primary sources. I have been constantly struck by how often the Christian content of these sources has been ignored by the standard interpretations in the secondary literature. This is notably true of Kant, as I shall try to show. His system does not work unless he is seen as genuinely trying to ‘make room for faith’. Failure to see this has led to heroic measures, either excising portions of text as not properly ‘critical’, or attributing his views to a desire to appease the pious sentiments of his faithful manservant. What is true of Kant is also true of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Leibniz, and even Hume. We are given a reading of modern philosophy that leads from its birth in the new science of the sixteenth century to its maturation in the death of God and the death of metaphysics. Descartes is seen as an incipient atheist, bringing in God not because of personal faith but to appease the Church. Large sections of Leviathan, where Hobbes talks about the will of God, are ignored as though they were inessential to the project of the whole. In Bertrand Russell’s critical exposition of the philosophy of Leibniz, God appears in none of the five original axioms. Hume is seen at the end of the Dialogues as insincere in portraying Philo’s change of heart. It is no doubt tempting, if you cannot take Christianity seriously yourself, to interpret your favourite philosophers as sharing this distaste; but it leads to a distortion of the texts. Those engaged in the academic study of ethics ought to try the experiment of seeing what the world looks like from the perspective of traditional Christianity, even if merely to understand their own tradition. This book can be seen as such an experiment. (John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance, Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996], 2-3)

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