08 November 2010

Two Cheers for Anonymous

An anonymous blog entry at the ISI website, Christ-haunted Modern Morality, makes for an excellent short but meaty explanation for the failure of the modern ethical project.  The unmet challenge for modern theories of ethics--secular ones, anyway--is to account for moral obligation.  In ancient philosophy Nature itself and in Christian accounts God provide for the intuitive "oughtness" that constitutes at least the formal nature of morality.  Not that secular accounts of ethics--Kantian or utilitarian--don't reach ethical conclusions of great value.  And not that secularists don't in fact behave morally.  But that apart from a transcendent ground, there is no rational force for an obligation to follow the conclusions of ethics or justification for rightness of the actions we strain to implement.  See my Principled Pluralism and Contract Remedies for another take on the topic.

Yet I have a bone to pick.  Quoting Elizabeth Anscombe, our writer adopts a Catholic canard that "belief in divine law had long been abandoned [by the end of the 18th century]: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation."  I'm not entirely sure what Anscombe meant for even a casual reading of the magisterial Reformers and their successors demonstrates a strong if not fervent commitment to implementing divine law.  I rather suspect that what is meant is that Protestants gave up belief in a rationally discoverable divine law in favor of a divine-command theory of Christian ethics.

Two comments.  First, this is wrong as a matter of history.  Orthodox Protestants didn't give up on natural law (i.e., divine law discoverable from observation of the created order and the deliverances of conscience) until the twentieth century.  I believe my God's Bridle piece substantiates this point in the case of John Calvin.  It is also true that natural law is making a comeback among conservative Reformed folks in the 21st century.  Take a look at David VanDrunen's Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms for lots of details on all such among the Reformed.  I remarked on this at a presentation at the recent annual meeting of the Christian Legal Society (and a recording of these remarks should be posted on the CLS website in the not-too-distant future). 

Second, as Charles Taylor hammers home in "A Secular Age" (see some earlier remarks here), the historical roots of the secular turn, understood as the increasing plausibility of an exclusive humanism, can be traced well back into Medieval times.  The Reformation, for what part it did play in the rise of secularism, was the continuation of a process that had begun hundreds of years before.

You won't find a better pithy explanation of why modern secular ethics are working with the borrowed capital of Christianity than Christ-haunted Modern Morality.  But you can safely ignore the final two paragraphs if you want to know how we got to the secular slough in which we find ourselves.

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