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Last Updated: May 16, 2005

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Vita, Dulcedo et Spes

Consumer Responsibility in the Marketplace of Moral Ideas
J. Clayton Shoppa, St. Edward's University

Just as there is a marketplace for goods and services, there is a marketplace for ideas. Modernity makes available innumerable and, in some cases, incompatible views of the good life. Persons may initially subscribe to a set of political, religious and moral viewpoints, but, given the plurality of the viewpoints on the market, they may change their minds. My hopeful interjection in the debate about moral realism and rationality is that too often we conflate our knowing with the objects known, sorely neglecting the mental operations by which objects are known. This goal is accomplished by contrasting the moral philosophies of Bernard Lonergan and H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. I argue that careful attention to the historical conditions and the acts of understanding and judging occurring in human decision-making provides considerable insight into answering questions about historically describable diversity, whether moral or political. The possibility of axiological development, not only in individuals but also in groups and their social orders, becomes probable when (1) the historical conditions are understood; (2) decision-makers recognize their ineluctable capacity to reason; and (3) ethics is recognized as more than the mores of a particular moral community, but instead is viewed as the reflective pursuit of an understanding of what is true for all places and times.

Just as there is a marketplace for goods and services, there is a marketplace for ideas. Modernity makes available innumerable and, in some cases, incompatible views of the good life. Persons may initially subscribe to a set of political, religious and moral viewpoints, but, given the plurality of the viewpoints on the market, they may change their minds. Democrats become Republicans; Orthodox Jews become Protestants; carnivores become vegetarians. Because the marketplace of ideas is so densely populated, some may easily conclude that all claims and consumer choices are equally defensible. But if this is not a sustainable position, perhaps isolating ourselves into free and consenting communities of moral friends and moral strangers provides another alternative.[1] Colonists migrated to America in part to escape religious persecution, relying on geographic distance and separation to ensure their own success.[2] In H. Tristram Engelhardt's Foundations of Bioethics, the author backs into a similar alternative after arguing that it is the only tenable option left as coercion and rationality fail. In light of this, he moves to a set of moral and political questions: If some or many of the available moral viewpoints are incompatible, what are we to do when “consumers” make incompatible choices? What are our political responsibilities to the choosers? If our answer is not to be “different strokes for different folks,” can we make any further rational judgments regarding modernity's moral landscape? Unlike Engelhardt, who argues that reason cannot provide us with a canonical morality with any plausibility outside a community of moral friends, my response is cautiously affirmative.

The historical conditions that give rise to moral and political diversity have themselves yielded a multiplicity of theoretical, political and philosophical positions, each attempting to account for this diversity. Engelhardt's account is here treated as one example among many such responses. In this paper I first argue that, by examining and evaluating some of the assumptions on which much of Engelhardt's argument[3] is based, we can detect some significant deficiencies. At the same time, I am also trying to dispel some common misunderstandings of his axiology. So I will both criticize and defend parts of his position; however, my primary purpose will be to defend my own strategy for navigating this moral-political marketplace, a strategy which takes seriously Engelhardt's central concerns though it arrives at a different set of conclusions.

By way of introduction, this paper is occasioned by two quotes from very different philosophers. First, Theodor Adorno writes in the introduction to his Negative Dialectics that “no theory escapes the marketplace. Each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions; all are put up for choice; all are swallowed.”[4] Second, Alasdair MacIntyre in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? prescribes a systematic inquiry into what reason is, and in a subsequent book concerns himself with this difficulty when he writes:

[D]isputes about the nature of rationality in general and about practical rationality in particular are apparently as manifold and as intractable as disputes about justice. To be practically rational, so one contending party holds, is to act on the basis of calculations of the costs and benefits to oneself of each possible alternative course of action and its consequences. To be practically rational, affirms a rival party, is to act under those constraints which any rational person, capable of an impartiality which accords no particular privileges to one's own interests, would agree should be imposed. To be practically rational, so a third party contends, is to act in such a way as to achieve the ultimate and true good of human beings.[5]

My hopeful interjection in this debate is that too often we conflate our knowing with the objects known, sorely neglecting the mental operations by which objects are known. Though this paper treats moral occurrences, definitions and theories, the mistakes I cite are applicable in other disciplines such as economics. I argue that careful attention to the historical conditions and the acts of understanding and judging occurring in human decision-making provides considerable insight into answering questions about historically describable diversity, whether moral or political. The possibility of axiological development, not only in individuals but also in groups and their social orders, becomes probable when (1) the historical conditions are understood; (2) decision-makers recognize their ineluctable capacity to reason; and (3) ethics is recognized as more than the mores of a particular moral community,[6] but instead is viewed as the reflective pursuit of an understanding of what is true for all places and times.[7] Here I will treat ethics as distinct from morality, in that ethics provides subjects with a theory or system of morality. Further, if Engelhardt's skepticism is exemplary of modernity's thoroughgoing inability to qualify and justify knowledge claims, admitting that sound rational argument seems to have provided no canonical, or at least forthright, moral theory, I tactically employ throughout this paper the philosophy of Bernard Lonergan, whose work in many ways speaks to this problem: when the chronicling of past events covers a past of sufficient duration, “it reaches the level of a succession of philosophies, all claiming different things, [and then] one meets the objective manifestation and expression of the polymorphism of the human subject — not merely of his capacity and need to develop but also of the possibility and fact that he develops in quite different ways.”[8]

If the history of a subject is the history of its development, that development occurs under variable and complicated conditions yielding equally complicated and variable results. Shifting our attention from the fact of moral diversity to the underlying conditions that engender the diversity itself will, I propose, afford us considerable insight, transforming unintelligible matters of fact into explainable history.[9] However, this is part of a larger project implicit in my arguments about Engelhardt's text.

Engelhardt's text begins by acknowledging the reality of moral diversity.[10] Though not controversial, this matter-of-fact starting point requires some further questioning, as it has some implications for the remainder of his argument. For now the starting point seems obvious: the modern condition is replete with examples of different and, in some cases, incompatible moral viewpoints. The political landscape of the Western democracies at the beginning of the 21st century is evidence enough to support such a claim. Socialist, neofascist and anarcho-capitalist parties, though lacking the clout of more mainstream institutions, compete against more conventional views of political order. More broadly, in the marketplace of ideas different claimants offer competing and diverse viewpoints on a range of religious, secularly moral, economic and political subjects. Engelhardt's text urges us to take this diversity seriously by recognizing the matter-of-fact plurality of the claims. However, the degree to which one takes seriously these varied positions may adversely affect the plausibility of one's own position, or at least one's loyalty to a single moral community. For example, ecumenical efforts among traditional religions may pose a “threat” to more conservative believers in particular denominations.

A fanciful example of this diversity may be helpful. Imagine a feminist, atheistic, lesbian socialist arguing for the morality of abortion with a conservative Southern Baptist. The example is conveniently diametric and extreme and perhaps is indicative of the sorts of debates that occur often enough on popular talk shows. The debate surely promises to be entertainingly heated. The former demands respect for her lifestyle choices while the latter is quick to condemn her actions as immoral, citing Bible verses in support of her own judgments. The incommensurability of the two views becomes evident when the latter's arguments become explicitly religious. If this atheist attaches no moral weight to the Bible verses, it is unlikely that such appeals will have any effect. The moral distance between the parties is too great: the atheist does not recognize the grounds of the Baptist's moral decision-making and certainly does not understand or affirm her efforts to live sola scriptura.[11] The two are at a potentially intractable impasse.

Against relativism
Moral relativism is one way to respond to such impasses.[12] Strong moral relativism is the claim that, because all moral claims are constrained by cultural horizons and because there are multiple cultures into which one might be born, different moral claims can be equally defensible within their different cultural horizons.[13] If it is a matter of mere coincidence or historical-cultural contingency that I believe what I believe, and it is also a matter of mere coincidence or contingency that you believe what you believe, then we should come to the conclusion summarily contained in the saying “different strokes for different folks.”[14] But this is not Engelhardt's position for two reasons. First, it undermines the coherence of his admitted religious belief in an omniscient God. His belief that this world is the work of a Creator, not to mention any of the other doctrinal views of his Antiochian Orthodox Church, precludes any strong moral relativism.[15] The second reason Engelhardt cannot be a strong moral relativist is that any claim regarding the possibility of moral knowledge necessarily excludes this strong relativism. One moral position is not necessarily as valid as any other position, because, and this is central to the remainder of my argument, “human knowing is not merely theory about the given; there are also facts; and the relativist has not and cannot establish that there are no facts, for the absence of any other fact would itself be a fact.”[16] Therefore additional conclusions about the moral landscape must be possible.[17] Engelhardt may distinguish between epistemological and metaphysical relativism in an attempt to recast his contentions about rationality, that reason cannot provide us with a canonical morality, such that being is preserved while the way to come to being is not through our rational faculties. However, this distinction is neither trivial nor sound and will be treated as a counterargument at this paper's conclusion.

Despite this possibility, consensus about moral questions is still not achieved, and so, for Engelhardt, bioethics and even ethics more generally are plural. To the naive realist who equates the real with the immediately visible or sensible, moral diversity must be real for these competing views to be describable and available to us. But in another sense moral diversity cannot be tenable because only a minority of these claims can be true. That is, absent any strong relativism, morality is not diverse. Because Engelhardt is not a strong relativist, he is under no obligation to affirm the soundness or validity of claims made by moral strangers.[18] From this tension between his own canonical moral views and the political tolerance of other views which are, in his view, untrue, it becomes clear how Engelhardt sees no contradiction in his politically plural bioethics and his own claims about the rightness or wrongness of others' claims.

Political toleration[19] and peaceable disagreement, two requisite preconditions for secular dialogue, do not presuppose a strong relativistic epistemological position. Instead, one can firmly disagree epistemologically with competing moral positions and also grant the political autonomy of these thoroughly wrongheaded individuals to think and act as they will with free and consenting others. This political stance on toleration is distinct from the strong relativist's epistemic despair (“different strokes for different folks”), and the subtleties of this tension are often not apparent in contemporary policy-making. For example, citizens of some nations such as Canada are coerced into paying taxes for state-financed abortions. Regardless of one's opinion regarding abortion, it becomes easy to see how this pro-choice policy makes some forms of opposition to abortion impossible.[20]

To be sure, Engelhardt's Foundations does not argue for the soundness of all moral-knowledge claims. Nonetheless, there are empirically available cases, relevantly similar to the fanciful example of the atheist and the Baptist arguing over the morality of abortion, that seem to contradict prima facie any possibility of rationally persuasive moral discourse between communities. If neither party in our imaginary argument budges with regard to his or her position, the impasse will persist. The hypothetical arguers' contentions become more important when we admit no strong moral relativism because either one or the other is right, or both could be wrong. The presence of varied claims and the fragmented moral landscape, coupled with an epistemic position that asserts the possibility of correct answers to moral questions, allow us to distinguish between political and epistemological claims within Engelhardt's argument. Epistemologically, right answers to moral questions are available. Further, there are limited possibilities for the assignment of truth to the two viewpoints. Either the feminist is correct in arguing for the morality of abortion[21] or the Baptist is correct in arguing the opposite, but both cannot be right. If some intermediate position were made explicit, there is the chance that both could be wrong. However, the usual assumption for such an assignment of truth is that, of course, abortion cannot be both right and wrong.[22] Since people, like the two in our earlier example, differ in their knowledge claims, political tolerance, i.e., the state's allowing a range of more or less conflicting views, may be a necessary political virtue. The axiological crisis[23] so apparent in modern living is preceded and informed by a cultural diversity that has become embedded in and defended by political practicality.

Not only does Engelhardt never fall into a strong moral relativism, but such a moral “theory” is altogether unsustainable for the following reason: The relativist's position is often described as subjective. For, if moral claims are valid only between members of some homogeneous group and irreconcilable when this homogeneity is lost and the claims are subsequently questioned, the claims themselves persist only in and through the highly personal mentality of individual subjects. The relativist argues that all ethics is subjective. But here lies a problem. Is not their argument, that all ethics is subjective, claiming a non-variable truth value or a level of objectivity which the relativist concomitantly, and so contradictorily, denies?[24] To assert that something is inevitably subjective is to claim the objectivity of this subjectivity, which seems nonsensical.

On rationality
Given the plurality of moral views on the marketplace, Engelhardt concludes that “one must appreciate the enormity of the failure of the Enlightenment project of discovering a canonical content-full morality.”[25] The blind faith in human perfectibility which some Enlightenment thinkers exhibited, and with which I too find fault, was eventually frustrated by the horrific bloodshed of the twentieth century. The Enlightenment project began as a political discrediting of “myth,”[26] promising an incremental advance toward increasingly sophisticated inquiry, scientific development and further solutions to the problems of practical living. But here the discrediting of one myth engendered the genesis of another. Unlike our past superstitions, this new myth was designed and defended through the discoveries of something purported to be human “reason.” The Enlightenment's initial attempt at debunking human oversight and error was replaced with a naive, Promethean faith in man's inevitable progress, perfectibility, and the impossibility of decline. What I am proposing is not so one-dimensional. History, for all its examples of human failures, also contains evidence of progress. But progress may refer either to a universal process, or to limited fields, such as developments in medicine or astronomy.

After granting the failure of the Enlightenment project, Engelhardt believes all that is politically possible is a general, secular moral authority based on assumptions that take seriously modernity's multiplicity. For him, this is the only tenable, nonarbitrary option in a world where the “polytheism of postmodernity [recognizes] the radical plurality of moral and metaphysical visions."[27] So, as a matter of fact, there will be other answers and contentious positions. Any political authority must reflect this decentered heterogeneity. Because of the apparent “failure” and “collapse of [the] intellectual project that developed with Western Christianity” and the Enlightenment pursuit of human perfectibility through human reason, Engelhardt argues that we are forced to retreat into a secular moral framework guaranteeing little else than an agreement “to collaborate” peaceably. This potential for “collaborative undertakings” is made possible by the capacity of individuals to contract and consent through the principle of permission.[28] The principle is required because Engelhardt expects agreement on neither procedural nor substantiative goods among moral communities, but rightly foresees some need for interaction.[29] However, this collaboration may not arise only from material necessity, as when one tribe requires grain or water from another. It may also arise from peaceable agreement, as when one party contracts with another, and so forth.

To continue, given a clear lack of moral consensus today, Engelhardt outlines four ways in which moral disputes are settled. Absent consensus, moral disagreements are settled via conversion, argument, force, or agreement.[30] Conversion occurs when one party comes to an understanding that is no longer conflicting with that of another party. Rational persuasion sometimes prompts conversion and compromise.[31] Force solves moral disagreements by de facto ending deliberation, even if only temporarily. Peaceable agreement occurs when two parties simply agree to disagree. Engelhardt claims that these last two methods of solving disputes are not really effective means of settling anything. The use of force silences debate without consent; peaceable agreement involves only a stalemate, a withdrawal from active discourse or disagreement. Engelhardt goes on to argue that, because the inherited moral landscape is so replete with disunity, conversion attempts have failed.[32] If force does not resolve anything with moral authority, then the only option left to us is peaceable agreement or rational persuasion.[33] Rational persuasion does not seem to work given the historical situation inherited by the 21st century, so Engelhardt chooses peaceable agreement as superior to the other options, not because it is itself declared valuable but merely because it is the only option left.[34]

There is a more common criticism of Engelhardt's Foundations that merits some discussion here. Engelhardt is often criticized for smuggling the content of his principles of beneficence and justice into what is supposed to remain a content-less argument.[35] I am not convinced that such a charge is valid at all. Some critics fail to take seriously the reductive character of Engelhardt's argument: beneficence and justice are never pronounced as valuable per se, but instead are merely included as the only tenable political solutions left as we encroach upon the “brink of nihilism.”[36] For Engelhardt, that ‘bioethics' must be plural indicates an empirical reality. Populations have varied and sometimes incompatible conceptions of good health care. For example, some advocate that health care be universally accessible through the state while others argue it be left a private matter to be contracted and negotiated only by interested parties. Thus, bioethics must be a plural noun. For Engelhardt, outside the context of particular moral communities, moral discourse between communities has proven fruitless.[37] The context of individuals[38] as situated in communities of moral friends provides shared meanings and vocabulary that determine and allow for any conclusions regarding the moral dimension of human living. If not all moral knowledge claims are equally defensible — and this is key to my argument — they are not necessarily constrained by a cultural horizon. So then right answers to moral questions might be available.[39]

Engelhardt then argues that all moral knowledge claims either beg the question of moral content or appeal to unjustifiable moral standards[40]:

“If one cannot establish by sound rational argument a particular concrete moral viewpoint as canonically decisive (and one cannot, because the establishment of such a viewpoint itself presupposes a moral viewpoint, and that is exactly what is at stake), then the only source of general secular authority for moral content and moral direction is agreement. To rephrase the point, because there are no decisive secular arguments to establish one concrete view of the moral life is better morally than its rivals, and since all have not converted to a single moral viewpoint, secular moral authority is the authority of consent.”[41]

Engelhardt moves to transform the matter-of-fact diversity into a form of political realism. Every strategy for moral justification “presupposes exactly what it seeks to justify: a particular moral content.”[42] For example, one reading of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice is that the author frontloads the criteria available to decision-makers under his veil of ignorance to ensure a redistributive political scheme that reflects his principle of equality.[43] Engelhardt charges that Rawls assumes what he means to prove when he does not argue for, but merely asserts, justice as fairness. Similarly, for Engelhardt any attempt to justify moral content through appeals to moral standards from outside a moral community is flawed. He notes that such appeals hinge on arbitrary appeals. Individual actors may make decisions deduced from moral premises but still fail to defend adequately their selection of one set of premises over and against other sets. One attempt at a solution might be some questioning about standards, but insofar as these metastandards can be shown to be equally arbitrary, the appeal continues ad infinitum . Given that such appeals are in fact problematical, at stake here is a distinction between formal argumentation and Lonergan's intentionality analysis, by which I mean attending to what we do when we (1) experience the sensibly given via our functionally extroverted senses; (2) raise questions and form hypotheses; and (3) judge hypotheses to be correct, in relation to what is real.[44]

Critique of conflation
To avoid conflating ethical theories with the cognitive operations that produce them, I invite a shift of attention from assertions to the operations that produce assertions.[45] A relevant example will clarify the basis for my argument, especially as it relates to the second prerequisite for moral development.[46] Imagine someone asks, “Are you a knower?” Besides the obvious strangeness of the question (I have heard that outside my own academic discipline of philosophy such questions are rarely asked), careful attention to the range of possible responses yields some insight into one's own spontaneous desire for knowledge. Any answer to the question, whether positive, negative, or modal, is itself a knowledge claim. That is, only the affirmative and definitive response makes sense because to answer “only after my morning coffee” is itself a knowledge claim and so is utterly nonsensical. Now, theories of morality and political order must take man's spontaneous reach for intelligibility seriously. Ultimately Engelhardt argues that classical reason cannot provide us with a canonical, content-full morality.[47] But his argument is presented as intelligent and reasonable, and so entails a performative contradiction. Engelhardt's oversight is relevantly similar to answering “no” to the question about being a knower. The contradiction arises because what Engelhardt rightly points to as the Enlightenment project's failure, “reason 1 ,” is not the same reason he is using when he is pointing out the failure, “reason 2 .”[48]

One potential counterargument is that the cited performative contradiction is only problematical for a person steeped in the Western rationalistic tradition which Engelhardt calls a failure. However, such a counterargument only amounts to a retreat further into the contradiction. For the complaint that the initial argument is steeped in rationalism is itself presented as intelligent and reasonable, and so too is subject to the criticism leveled here. Moreover, it becomes more apparent that we are arguing from two different conceptions of reason itself, which I previously termed reason 1 and reason 2 . I will return to this distinction after first exploring more fully the sources of moral diversity and after evaluating the flawed epistemology — the reason for the performative contradiction — motivating the move into content-full, though isolated, moral communities. Engelhardt recognizes the importance of discovering the sources of diversity, the importance of distinguishing “among three issues: (1) the genesis of a moral viewpoint, (2) the justification of a moral viewpoint, and (3) the grounds for being rationally motivated to act morally.”[49], [50]

As an aside, I suspect some readers may worry that this discussion of moral viewpoints is excluding personal affects and deeply held feelings. However, feelings are not excluded at all. Human subjects experience a range of intricate emotions in response to given situations but then move to reflect and attend to themselves as feeling drowsy, inspired, alarmed, curious or loved. To argue that one's feelings should govern one's actions is to reflect on oneself as feeling, and to overlook this step is not possible in the development of an ethics without overlooking the ethical subject as caring about and actively responding to a given situation. Caring about understanding what is true and doing what is good is basic to moral reflections.

There are several sources of moral diversity, and so several sources for the disagreement between any imaginary debaters. First, human living may be the accumulation of both good sense and nonsense. Modern or postmodern conceptions of history often portray human living as a haphazard, historically contingent collection of moral opinions, wherein the chronicling of past events amounts to a stumbling forward in time from one problem to the next with little or no hope of the disparate narrative summing neatly into a coherent universal history.[51] For example, contrast either Hegel's historical dialectic or Toynbee's challenge-response theory with a postmodern history in which the past only arbitrarily brings us to the present.[52] Furthermore, commitments to particular moral communities are, for Engelhardt, indefensible from outside[53] that community. That is, without the content-full morality communities provide, commitments to one group or another are seen as arbitrary. Now, while I am not sympathetic to this postmodern conception of history, I do hold individual evaluations and ethical decisions to be culturally conditioned. What I argue is that their historical conditioning is not a sufficient condition to retreat into moral relativism. My position is captured and articulated in neither the modern nor the postmodern view, and not even in Engelhardt's view.

A second source of moral diversity is that moral beliefs and practices, like political or economic theories and practices, differ at different places and times as matters of fact. Moses' commandments did not concern themselves with America 's so-called Patriot Act. Neither America nor the political climate under which the Act was written was available to Moses. Different people in different times made different decisions about right and wrong. Again, I argue that this cultural and historical diversity does not necessarily entail a strong moral relativism because, despite the historicity of moral claims, a right answer is a right answer.[54] Furthermore, something central about an answer's rightness may be illuminated further by analogically examining conclusions reached in the natural sciences. Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration,[55] not merely in certain geographic locales or after the initial act of understanding the relationship of these variables. But the understanding of a relationship between force and acceleration has a history, from Aristotle to Newton . Similarly, the racist institution of slavery was always morally wrong even though it was not always understood to be so. While Engelhardt understands that moral views have a history, the justification of those views hinges on the moral community to which one chooses to belong. Engelhardt would condemn racist slavery to the degree that the slave did not consent to be enslaved.

The third and most complicated source of moral diversity is different levels of development in moral subjects. Not only is multiplicity due to variable historical, cultural and “material” manifolds, subjects are more or less open to further development and have more or less developed understandings of the structure of the good and the responsible means for its achievement. Lonergan writes of three conversions relevant to moral decision-making: intellectual, moral, and religious conversion. Intellectual conversion occurs when the subject understands the real as being, the verifiable, and not the world as immediately given, as already out there to be sensed. Such a conversion is perhaps more common in the natural sciences. Though fire is hypnotic, beautiful, and hot, it also is the rapid oxidation of hydrocarbons. The descriptors are partially untrue to the explanatory account. The way in which the explanation is exempt from the criticism of either dogmatic rationalism or scientism is the topic for another paper. Moral conversion describes the transformative revaluation of human living, a move from valuing fleeting pleasures[56] to taking seriously the good of all places and times. Religious conversion is, I grant, highly controversial at least in nomenclature, as it seems to indicate that the irreligious are less moral than the religious. Religious conviction and expression can change the way persons make decisions, informing a subordination of worldly desires to a love of transcendent being. These levels of conversion are not exclusively matters of successful argumentation. The flexibility of our own minds allows us to act rightly, wrongly, or with little concern for any moral dimension to our actions whatsoever. Actions may follow from true judgments[57] about a given state of affairs, but even absent these judgments the action might still occur. Acts of trust and caring are rarely due to argumentation alone. However, instruction in the strategies to improve one's rational decision-making, from “within” these levels of conversion, is helpful. If the conversions do not occur only through argumentation, it is because each conversion requires attention to one's spontaneous moral agency as operative. Argumentation that is somehow out there to be discerned insists that the criteria for moral decision-making are likewise somehow outside the subject, which is mistaken from the view of the intellectually converted subject.

Again, Engelhardt surely believes he has answers to tough moral questions, but others are not likely to affirm the truth of his answers without converting to his Orthodox Christian religion. If not all conversions are of the radical sort, as in Paul's experience on the road to Damascus , it is possible to inquire about the conditions for the possibility of conversion. For example, the lower-level conditions of openness to questioning and dialogue are surely requisite. If one asks what makes conversion possible, part of an answer is simply “yes.” That is, the raising of questions amounts to a self-transcendent move, a reaching beyond what one is to what one might become.

Recall the preconditions for individual and cultural development: (1) varied historical conditions are understood; (2) decision-makers recognize their ineluctable capacity for reasoning; and (3) ethics is recognized as more than the mores of a particular moral community, but instead as the reflective pursuit of an understanding of what is true for all places and times. As the first of these three preconditions has already been treated, I will spend some time elaborating the final two. My elaboration of the second point especially should clarify the performative contradiction I find in Engelhardt's work.

Any ethics that expects normative criteria to be discovered outside the moral subject,[58] as do most appeals to moral standards, is arguably defective. My suggestion is that moral content is not out there to be discovered, but is instead comprehended and rationally affirmed through careful attention, intelligent inquiry, reasonable reflection, and responsible action[59] on the part of the subject. This is what Engelhardt denies. However, the view of rationality he may be opposing is one fundamentally characterized by the deductive, axiomatic efforts that Enlightenment thinkers envisaged, as when he writes of moral views begging the question of moral views.[60] A classical, deductivist conception of human reason denies the already discussed flexibility of the human mind because it cannot account for deviations from what is deduced. Recall the quote from Alasdair MacIntyre with which I began, in which he bemoans the apparent malleability of the term reason. How could he know that practical reason is understood differently? My suggestion in this paper is that because MacIntyre knows (1) that people reach different conclusions about what is reasonable, and (2) that these claims are not identical, then (3) there must be a more fundamental method by which the theories of reason are produced. If we proceeded transparently from valid, sound premises to conclusions, history would not be littered with examples of our failings. (I use the word even though Engelhardt's skeptical move is to inquire as to the standards by which I judge some events to be failings and others to be evidence of progress.) Furthermore, such a classical conception of reason fails any attempt at verification. The reader is invited to inquire: What am I doing when I am knowing? Outside logic classes I doubt one commonly moves from fixed premises to deduced conclusions. My argument here is not that formal logic is useless or irrelevant to a theory of morality, but only that there are more fundamental, intelligent acts that precede and produce both logic and theories.[61] Further, moral diversity is similarly preceded by the cognitive operations in a moral decision-maker's performance, just as questions precede answers.

But as we have seen, Engelhardt presents his carefully reasoned arguments to move against the possibility of carefully reasoned arguments, against the effectiveness of rational persuasion itself. But how can he know that reason has failed except through the employment of his legislative, rational faculties? To summarize, the performative contradiction cited in Engelhardt's text involves (1) man's spontaneous drive to understand, (2) the describable presence of moral diversity, and from here into (3) morally homogeneous communities. Because of (1) we need not retreat into (3), i.e. closed cultural boxes shared only with moral friends. Nonetheless, understanding moral diversity is no trivial task. Also, diversity is not to be overcome entirely, as only some beliefs and practices are morally incompatible. Political toleration is indeed a requisite virtue at every step along the way.

I will briefly treat three counterarguments to my criticism of Engelhardt's view. The first objection is that arguing reasonably for the limits of reason is not a performative contradiction because, if rational judgments presuppose experiences, then the unexperienced remains unknown; if it remains unknown, then reason has a limit. For example, Engelhardt may attempt to distinguish between metaphysical and epistemological relativism to preserve being while divorcing being from reason. I respond that, since being consists of what is known and what remains to be known, noting that some questions remain unanswered implies neither that being is unintelligible nor that reason in principle cannot know something about being. There is no sense in which we can know something outside of existence, for anything known is within being. What is outside of being is nothing. Further, as I have shown, the claim that being is not known through reason either (1) employs a flawed understanding of reason itself or (2) involves a performative contradiction as it rationally affirms the impossibility of rational affirmation.

The second counterargument is that some things are in principle unknowable, so reason must have a limit. The advocate of such a view may point to p, the symbol denoting the nonrepeating, infinite number that is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. But this and similar examples do not detract from my claims about knowing as performance because the ratio is indeterminate, not unintelligible. Third, among certain religious communities morality is not known through reason but is instead revealed, compelling and authoritative by virtue of its source, God. However, such contentions do not undermine my argument. If in prayer or ritual God's “voice” is heard, how do we know it is God? Revelation is not in contradiction to reason because it is in reason that we recognize revelation qua revelation. To repeat an earlier example, Moses knew that burning bushes do not speak and that a particular bush did speak; he judged that something supernatural was occurring. Again, the reason to which these statements refer is not the reason that Engelhardt criticizes but is the ineluctable capacity that is more or less operative in human subjects.[62]

If the reader accepts my responses, I can conclude with an alternative strategy. I have already mentioned the desire to know[63], the affective demand on the side of the subject for correct answers to questions. Though it is only one among many other desires, such as the biological desire for food or the psychosexual desire, the object of its desire is potentially unrestricted. Phrased otherwise, we may raise questions about anything: What color is a unicorn's horn? What is the nature of the triune God? What am I to do about my dysfunctional roommate? Rational self-consciousness demands consonance between knowing and acting, but this dynamic exigency is susceptible to frustration.[64] Rational self-consciousness humbly accepts responsibility for judgments while it remains authentically open to improvement without intransigence. Now the fundamental criteria for moral action lie in the moral subject's own spontaneous intentional operations, through which questions are raised: Is it good? What is there to improve? Should I act? Did I act properly? Failure to raise and correctly answer such questions results in flawed judgments and actions, a condition Lonergan calls “very human, but incompletely human.”[65] So questions of political theory are indeed very complex,[66] requiring command of a philosophically critical anthropology which takes seriously the human desire for authenticity, and a social climate to handle intelligently wide dissent, and so forth. Furthermore, because general secular morality is, for Engelhardt, devoid of moral content except for what was permitted through his logical reduction, some economic relations are, I think, problematical. For example, if contracts and consent depend on acts of promising and trusting, these acts in turn depend on dimensions of meaning Engelhardt's proposed libertarian retreat into atomized groups cannot explain or adequately treat because the acts are made meaningful only from within communities of moral friends.

After this critical diagnosis of the moral marketplace, we may anticipate not only different answers, but more intelligently designed questions arising from ever higher levels of integration. Algebra answers questions that arithmetic cannot; pure arithmeticians often do not even realize the range of algebraic questions to be answered. Each successive viewpoint (analogically from arithmetic, algebra and calculus through to number theory and topology) integrates and answers questions unnoticed at lower levels. As the algebraist's point of view is not purely reducible to the arithmetician's, so I can only hazard educated guesses about the higher levels of integration and systematization from which more intelligible political orders follow. I have no positive list of prescriptions to offer, only this cursory account of what rational self-consciousness might allow.[67]

Arriving at correct answers to moral questions requires us to take seriously our own spontaneous desire to understand. In this paper I do not answer whether or not anyone knows, only that if you know, then you know being. There is nothing else to know but being. I have attempted to replace reason as formulation with reason as a set of operations with which, I think, subjects are already at least somewhat familiar. Furthermore, if we desire to know, then we desire to know correctly. Questioners pronounce judgment upon ranges of potential answers. Answers lead to further secondary and tertiary questions. From this affective demand for right understanding comes a spontaneous intention toward particular goods. The spontaneity in both reaching for understanding and intending the good are relevantly similar, as acts of trust and caring are equiprimordial functions of human living. If the goods of human living are to be achieved, they are to be achieved intelligently; insofar as they are intelligently achieved, individuals move not merely to value the good ends they pursue but also spontaneously desire and value the ordered systems that engender and preserve these goods. Such a pursuit demands a consonance between knowing and doing. However, even if we take seriously our role as questioners, Engelhardt is right to cite the diversity of answers, for the challenge of integration is in many ways daunting. Furthermore, political tolerance seems to be a precondition for arriving at true judgments, especially if entire social groups are to progress. If progress is anything, it is the development not of a single subject but of whole cultures. Understanding is not a closed process, and so no valuation of goods and the orders, political or otherwise, that engender them is compatible with an axiological system that denies the possibility of right-making decisions or the probability of development in human understanding, however slow.


[1] Moral friends share “a content-full morality [that] is to be contrasted with a purely procedural morality in which persons convey to common endeavors the moral authority of their consent. Moral strangers are persons who do not share sufficient moral premises or rules of evidence and inference to resolve moral controversies by sound rational argument, or who do not have a common commitment to individuals or institutions in authority to resolve moral controversies” (Engelhardt 7).
[2] “When an entire society serves as the plausibility structure for a religiously legitimated world, all the important social processes within it serve to confirm and reconfirm the reality of the world” (Berger 48). (Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 1967.) Religious experience is objectivated via a wide range of social-religious meanings, that, when fractured, yield a merely private religiosity, a personal inclination instead of a required participation in the social fabric (134). “Religious toleration could not take hold until government could be organized on some principle other than one king, one faith” (Hunt 517). “The movement of people globally was massive in the last third of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Uneven economic development, political persecution, and warfare (which has claimed as many as 100 million victims worldwide since 1945) sent tens of millions in search of safety and opportunity” (1055). (Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, A Concise History. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.)
[3] Though he has written further on the topic in other books and articles, I will limit the scope of this paper to his Foundations of Bioethics.
[4] Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York : Seabury Press, 1979. p. 4.
[5] MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Ratinality? Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 1988. p. 2.
[6] For a provocative feminist critique of Engelhardt's conception of community see Christine Overall's review of the first edition of the Foundations , especially p. 182. (Overall, Christine. “The Politics of Communities: A Review of H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr.'s The Foundations of Bioethics.” Hypatia. 4.2 (1989): 179-185.)
[7] Consider MacCormick: “. . . in some way or another the validity and the content of the law depend upon social practices or usages. The transformation of practice and usage into normative law may indeed require the mediation of some methodological or epistemological principles; but, if so, these are themselves independent of moral judgment” (107). (MacCormick, Neil. “Natural Law and the Separation of Law and Morals.” Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays. Ed. Robert P. George. Oxford UP: New York, 1994. 105-133.) Chiefly, Lonergan's project is to provide us with just such a methodology.
[8] Lonergan, Bernard. Understanding and Being. Eds. Elizabeth A. Morelli and Mark D. Morelli. University of Toronto Press, 1990. p. 220.
[9] Human acts of understanding leave behind empirical residues which are nonproblematical for God. That is, matters of fact are intelligible for God, as omniscient and utterly transcendent, though not for us. As the existence of an omniscient God remains the subject of some controversy, at least we should acknowledge that our acts of explanatory understanding are not of particulars, but of particulars comprehensively understood. This assertion requires some additional differentiation. A judgment answers questions like “Is it so?” That is, in judgment one grasps the conditions for some x, and judges whether the conditions are satisfied. Rational self-consciousness finds its end not in judgment alone: “the final enlargement and transformation of consciousness consists in the empirically, intelligently, and rationally conscious subject (1) demanding conformity of his doing to his knowing, and (2) acceding to that demand by deciding rationally” (Insight 637).
[10] Engelhardt, H. Tristram. The Foundations of Bioethics. 2nd ed. New York : Oxford UP, 1996. p. 3.
[11] To the degree that meaning exists in the mind, the truth or falsity of any text lies not in the text itself. The mind makes texts meaningful, that is, full of meaning. This is not a minor point, and it will become more centrally significant later in this paper. Note how the criteria for decision-making, like relevant Bible verses, are assumed to be “external” to the subject.
[12] Importantly, relativists do not really solve any moral disputes at all. Instead what occurs is more like complacent, peaceable tolerance. The relativist who argues female genital mutilation among the indigenous populations of Africa is permissible because it is just their decision--who are we to judge?--but does not condone such behavior for his own culture forces himself to tolerate a whole host of, at the very least, distasteful activities.
[13] Strong relativism is different from weak relativism. By the latter I mean the view that moral culpability may vary. Moral responsibility varies with age, level of prior understanding, and material resources. Economist Robert Fogel writes of technophysio evolution, referring to anthropometric and biodemographic improvements in productive schemes and human physiology. When conceived normatively, such developments afford us the leisure time Aristotle knew to be a requisite precondition for moral development, a condition almost totally unknown to the majority of human beings until recently. For example, philosophical reflection has as one precondition a full stomach, a difficult feat as chronic malnutrition has been the norm for most of human history. (Fogel, Robert William. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America , and the Third World. Cambridge UP: New York, 2004.)
[14] In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puzzles over the relationship between different notions of justice in different locales, also drawing an analogy between justice and natural science: “Now some think that all justice. . . is unchangeable and has everywhere the same force (as fire burns both here and in Persia), while they see change in the things recognized as just” (124). (Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford UP: New York, 1980.)
[15] That is, there is no contradiction between political toleration and moral certitude. I will develop this idea further in this paper.
[16] Lonergan, Bernard. Insight: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Fredrick Crowe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. p. 366.
[17] The supposition thus far, and it is only a supposition, is that a retreat into segregated moral communities is not the only option. Establishing only the possibility of answering further questions is a first step, and here I do not concern myself with the content of these answers.
[18] Again, Engelhardt uses the terms “moral friends and strangers” to separate those inside and outside particular moral communities, respectively. The two debaters from our earlier example are moral strangers because they use different criteria to make moral decisions. Insofar as our imaginary debate continues on its trajectory, the likelihood of any resolution whatever is low.
[19] It seems that tolerance has two sources. First, one might tolerate another's views out of a general respect for persons, as when the classical liberal argues one lacks the authority to intervene in the life of another. Second, one might tolerate other's views out of simply pragmatic consideration, as when one has no time or effort to raise objections. Regardless, liberty is a precondition to growth and development, a conclusion with which I think Engelhardt would agree.
[20] Opposition to abortion where sponsorship is coerced is impossible save through some employment of the doctrine of double effect. Here I might pay my taxes only intending to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, without otherwise intending or condoning the moral evil of abortion. A policy of political tolerance might instead allow opponents to opt out of such payments. That is, a forcibly pro-choice stance on the issue of abortion allows for no choice at all, but is instead merely pro-abortion. Any political system that fails to allow dissent or conscientious objections is decidedly incomplete. Additionally, I use abortion here only as a timely example.
[21] The legality of abortion is only a matter of fact. Is it legal (i.e., “on the books”) or not?
[22] Recall my earlier comments about moral relativism. The assumption above is exactly what the moral relativist wishes to reject.
[23] In some sense, it would be easier if we all knew the right answers to moral questions, and these answers were sufficiently compelling to justify movement from right answers to right action.
[24] Rorty's effort to confine philosophical inquiry to the merely edifying may be conceived similarly. For much like Engelhardt, his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature moves from an accurate genealogy of the Enlightenment's “failure,” to declare the impossibility of objectivity. He conceives of a brand of pragmatism that denies philosophy can ever successfully “mirror” nature, but to do so he claims to know what his position would make impossible, namely, nature (the apparent standard, the really real). On my account, even Hilary Putnam's statement that Rorty's “relativism” is only “rhetoric” is still problematical (71). (Putnam, Hilary. “Materialism and Relativism.” Renewing Philosophy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 60-80.) Might there still be something wrong with “mirroring”? (Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.)
[25] Engelhardt, 65.
[26] Here the use of “myth” belongs to the 19 th century, namely, as synonymous with superstition.
[27] Engelhardt, 37.
[28] Ibid., 73.
[29] “Need” is a muddled term, as its source ranges widely. There are economic needs such as the division of labor and the need to trade; but there are also needs like proselytizing, as when a group follows a divine mandate of expansionism.
[30] Engelhardt, 67.
[31] See footnote 47 for one occasion when rational persuasion is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for conversion. The desire to know does not immediately translate into a decision to act on what is known.
[32] Engelhardt, 68.
[33] The meaning of this sort of persuasion is exactly the problem of this paper. Rational persuasion is not identical to formal argument.
[34] But for the emergence of his principles of beneficence and justice, Engelhardt's text would necessarily end here. Also, choosing peaceable agreement for any other set of reasons (not through this eliminative process) would seem to presuppose a content-full morality inaccessible without a moral community. If peaceable agreement is to govern those in diverse and sometimes incompatible moral communities, its value must be discerned through such a reduction of alternatives (i.e., one backs into the sole remaining position).
[35] Mark Aulisio defends Engelhardt from similar criticism, citing several examples from the Reading Engelhardt collection. (Aulisio, Mark P. “The Foundations of Bioethics: Contingency and Relevance.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 23.4 (1998): 428-438; Minogue, Brendan P, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, and James E. Reagan. Reading Engelhardt. Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, 1997.)
[36] Engelhardt, 65.
[37] Midgley writes of moral isolationism: “we [cannot] ever understand any culture except our own well enough to make judgments about it. Those who recommend this hold that the world is sharply divided into separate societies, sealed units, each with its own system of thought. They feel that the respect and tolerance due from one system to another forbids us ever to take up a critical position to any other culture. Moral judgment, they suggest, is a kind of coinage valid only in its country of origin” or, in Engelhardt's language, within a community of moral friends (69). (Midgley, Mary. Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1981.)
[38] Engelhardt asks, “How can particular de facto sympathies or sensibilities or inclinations to recognize an obligation achieve a de jure moral status?” (41). Here he conflates questions of pragmatic implementation and questions of moral-political justification.
[39] The assumption here is not that right answers to moral questions are known, but only that they are knowable.
[40] Engelhardt, 41.
[41] Ibid., 68.
[42] Ibid., 42.
[43] Rawls writes, “[The mutually disinterested decision-makers] do this by attempting to win for themselves the highest index of primary social goods, since this enables them to promote their conception of the good most effectively whatever it turns out to be,” and so makes all decision-makers risk averse. An even slightly risk affirming decision-maker would, if the veil permitted it, decide differently (125). See also p. 118. (Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1999.)
[44] Dunne, Tad. “Moral Objectivity.” Journal of Macrodynamic Analysis 3 (2003). p. 143.
[45] This is necessary to avoid what Hegel terms formalism or what Lonergan terms conceptualism.
[46] My working thesis is that moral development becomes probable when (1) the historical conditions are understood, (2) decision-makers recognize their ineluctable capacity to reason, and (3) ethics is recognized as more than the mores of a particular moral community, and instead as the reflective pursuit of an understanding of what is true for all places and times.
[47] I admit wide agreement about moral issues is not achieved. But that it has not been achieved does not mean it cannot be achieved.
[48] Byrne argues from a different context, in a treatment of statistical canons and procedures, “the broader meaning of rationality derives from asking and answering questions in quest of invulnerable insights grounding judgments of fact and value. This includes but goes beyond mere logical operations. Hence rationality . . . includes but goes beyond formal logic. Decisions and judgments of value need not be ‘beyond rational argument' in this more profound sense” (73). (Byrne, Patrick H. “Statistics as Science: Lonergan, McShane, and Popper.” Journal of Macrodynamic Analysis 3 (2003): 55-75.)
[49] Engelhardt, 38.
[50] The remainder of my paper follows roughly this argument's order.
[51] I intend universal history to connote the works by such thinkers as Hegel, Schiller, Spengler, and so forth, all of whom took positions on the question of order in historical process.
[52] Richard Rorty writes, in describing his notion of philosophy as merely edifying, of his “suggestion” that “edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth” (377).
[53] Engelhardt's view is that on the side of the political, questions for justification — why this community and why not another? — all appeal to an axiology that the political point of view purposefully excludes.
[54] Engelhardt, 38.
[55] I should append the qualifier ceteris paribus to the claim, for it applies at the macroscopic level to pool balls rather than to subatomic particles. “Inquiry is guided by antecedent theoretical value commitments and ceteris paribus clauses (i.e., this will obtain, all else being equal)” (Engelhardt 39).
[56] “On an elementary level, the good is the object of desire, and when it is attained it is experienced as pleasant, enjoyable, satisfying” (Lonergan 619).
[57] The thesis of Lonergan's chapter on ethics is that there is a “parallel and interpenetration of metaphysics and ethics” (626). If being is intelligible, then the desire to know intends and is satisfied by knowing being: being is the good.
[58] My comments here are meant to recall my earlier example of the fundamentalist's sola scriptura exegetical method. I do not think this point, that there is no meaning without minds, is controversial, as the history of philosophy is replete with examples of figures maintaining such positions. For example, the philosopher and historian Friedrich Schelling concisely acknowledges that “all experiencing, feeling, intuiting, merely as such, is mute and needs a mediating organ in order to attain expression. If the one having vision lacks the mediating organ, or if he intentionally thrusts it from himself in order to talk immediately from vision, then he loses the criterion that he needs, he is united with the object, and is like the object itself for a third person” (78). (Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Josef. “The Ages of the World.” Trans. Frederick de Wolfe Bolman, Jr. German Essays on History. Ed. Rolf Sältzer. Continuum: New York, 1991. 73-81.)
[59] Insofar as ethics is a skill to be honed, attention to our own failings or the failings of others may also provide insight into the possibility of progress.
[60] Engelhardt, 68.
[61] I contend Byrne was referring to these more fundamental steps when he writes of rationality including but “[going] beyond mere logical operations” (73).
[62] These refutations of counterarguments are indeed brief, as I think each could be the subject of its own paper. The third argument, that morality is revealed rather than known, most clearly involves theology rather than philosophy, and so cannot receive the treatment here it might well deserve.
[63] As is well known, this “desire to know” is the phrase with which Aristotle begins his Metaphysics (1552). (Aristotle. Metaphysics. In: The Complete Works of Aristotle. Vol. 2. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.)
[64] Recall Ovid's remark on the human capacity for evil: “Video meliora proboque / deteriora autem sequor” (59). (Ovid. Metamorphoses, Books 6-10. Ed. William Scovil Anderson. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1972. netLibrary. Scarborough-Philips Lib., Austin, Texas. 10 Oct. 2004. <,19973,21356,25484,41422>.) John Finnis also writes of a “harmony between one's choices and judgments and one's behavior” as one of his basic human goods (135). (Finnis, John. “Natural Law and Legal Reasoning.” Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays. Ed. Robert P. George. Oxford UP: New York, 1994. 134-157.)
[65] Lonergan, Insight 623.
[66] I believe questions of political order are some of the most difficult questions to answer.
[67] Here I explore the possibility of an ethics that takes seriously Engelhardt's criticism of the discipline without offering lists of political prescriptions. My concern in this paper is the beginning of a critical method, and I think the methodologist is different from the policy-maker. The critical methodologist understands what it is to understand anything, so that specialists might more easily understand something.

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