the springs of mercy

In a recent paper in Philosophy John Cottingham writes beautifully about the significance, for our ethical relations with others, of our animal responsivity to their suffering. We may be tempted by disengaged rationalistic schemas - of maximising our ethical utility by 'targeted altruism', and so on. But what such approaches ignore is that, whilst our ethical life cannot be reduced to our visceral compassion, it's also not extrinsic or merely externally related to it. What it is to be a good person is in part to be open to being moved by true pity in the face of another's suffering. Such emotionally alive pity isn't just some unfortunate, all-too-human, bias to be ironed out by some more rational goodness-maximising strategy; it's the very stuff of morality itself.

Having drawn our attention to the significance of such facts about human nature for the very meaning of a truly ethical response, Cottingham goes on, whilst discussing a passage of Simone Weil, to say that "it seems absurd to talk of grounding the requirement to be merciful in the way the world actually is... For it seems very doubtful that an appeal to our biologically and culturally evolved nature can generate the right kind of what today’s philosophers call normativity. In other words the question is whether human nature can imbue the value of loving kindness and mercy with the requisite moral authority to serve as an overriding principle of action." Since our nature is a congerie of good and selfish elements, "there seems nothing to entitle one particular set of instincts or desires to take normative precedence [... to have a "supreme normative force"... ] over the others". And, in discussing what's wrong with a Kantian approach, he writes "that there seems no contradiction, whether conceptually or in the will, in someone’s refusing to allow that the need or suffering of others is a reason to reach out to them in love and compassion."

The Good Samaritan - Hodler
In place of the naturalistic and Kantian schemes he rejects, Cottingham offers a Christian alternative: moral normativity derives from or is grounded in God's command to love our neighbour. He acknowledges that the truth of the Christian vision is not something which can be assessed by means of "‘spectator evidence’ – i.e. not with evidence of a kind that is accessible to any rational and impartial observer." Instead it's in "our deep responses of mercy, in our intuitive acknowledgement of the normative requirement to love our fellow humans – however much we may fall short, and however defiantly we may try to turn in the other direction – [that] we sense something beyond ourselves that commands our allegiance whether we like it or not (unless of course, we manage, to find a way of deflating these responses, as mere illusions). So our picture of the cosmos, or of ultimate reality, if it is to be a vision we can embrace with integrity, must be such as to support those intuitions."

I've a vast amount of sympathy for Cottingham's Christian vision of the centrality of love in its conception of the ethical life, and am also persuaded by his rejection of Kantian and utilitarian ethics. But I find myself dissatisfied by his question - the question which he answers by invoking the Christian God's commandment. The question is something like: "Why should we do the right thing?" "Why should we be guided by these rather than those instincts?" "Why should "the need or suffering of others" be "reason to reach out to them in love and compassion"?" And what I think is that the asking of such questions involves 'forgetting', in the way that only philosophers can 'forget', what it means to play an ethical language game and to live an ethical life. For the 'answer', I suggest, to the above questions, if we are even to allow them, is simply: "Because it's the right thing", "Because those are the morally good instincts", "The suffering of others just is what counts as reason here to reach out to them in love and compassion".

It's easy for me to imagine someone's exasperated reply to my 'answer': "But what I'm trying to inquire into is what makes this the right thing! You, sir, are simply refusing to play the philosophical game. Which is perhaps fine, but it's not ok to mistake your refusal to play for a move within the game!" But here I want to remind us of Wittgenstein's discussions of rule following and necessity. Many of the questions Wittgenstein looks at are ones he wants to reply to with a 'nothing' or a 'this is simply what we do' or a 'well, that's just what's called...'. For example, the philosopher wants to know what makes it the case that it's right to say '2+2=4' and not '2+2=5'. Wittgenstein rejects those Platonist and Conventionalist answers which say that 'the superstructure of the world' or 'how people tend to go on in practice' give the answer to the question. Instead he says simply "well, this just is how we do here go on; 4 just is what it is to add 2 to 2; 4 just is what we call 'the product of 2 and 2'. These are the rules..." It's precisely because the relations tracked here are internal that the 'what makes it the case that...?' question is out of line. Nothing 'makes it the case'. Just as when Bernard Williams, asked whether he was right to save the life of his wife or that of a stranger who had fallen off a boat, replied that to even attempt to justify the former would be to have 'one thought too many', so too do we have 'one thought too many' if we attempt justification where instead (depending on the context) either action or a reminder of what we mean by 'good' is required.

'These natural inclinations are the ones we call 'moral''. Which is to say: here there's no question as to whether we're right to call these and not those ones morally good. That just is what they're called.

At the end of all of this - and moving now away from Cottingham's paper - do we still have a place or need for talk of God in relation to our ethical life? Well, if you thought that the reason to believe in God was to make sense of our moral life, then you probably shouldn't believe. But, as I see it, such a form of theism which primarily invokes God to help us make sense of what we can apprehend non-theologically, this particular attempted invocation of 'reasons to believe', is itself another instance of the 'one thought too many' problem. "Why believe (what's the point of believing) in God?" ... There are plenty of good reasons internal to the Christian faith: 'Because he loves you, gave life to you, etc!'  But 'how does believing serve your own other projects of comprehension?' - well, that's just not going to cut the theological mustard.


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