Saturday, 7 December 2013

Milbank's rejection of unilateral gift

So: Milbank rejects ethics as unilateral gift and sacrifice, in favour of ethics as gift-exchange and openness to divine grace. He will make more explicit the grounds for this rejection by dealing with each of the four notions:

1. Unilateral gift. Such an idea, by making absolute one's inalienable self-possession of a will to sacrifice, preserves the Hellenic notion of the ethical as the overcoming of moral luck. This is true even if, or especially if, as for Derrida, this belonging or identity is secured only when one is dead. [Milbank also takes issue here with Marion, but I cannot make sense of what he says.] The point is that there is no true respect for the other here. The gesture which allows the other to persist outside of his communication with you is seen as more defnitive of the good than living communication. [This also is not clear, unless it takes off from the remark about Marion.] It is not surprising, says Milbank, that Levinas sees the other as only genuinely present in 'trace,' not in present image [why image?]. (122)

Milbank instead insists that if we truly value the other, we must value meeting him in his specificity, [and therefore in living interaction]. He admits / that such encounter might require, in certain circumstances, the sacrifice of oneself, even to death. We can even say that in a fallen world the path to the recovery of mutual giving will always pass through an element of apparently unredeemed sacrifice and apparently unilateral gift. [This is - good!] But the point is that this gesture is not in itself the good. It is not good at all outside the hope for a redemptive return of the self [= resurrection] - even though this is an eschatological hope "which never permits us to expect a return at any particular place or specific moment of time, or to elicit any specific mode of return." [Again, perfect.] (122-3)

To speak of such a return is not to fall from gift to contract: actual life is not a mode of self-possession that we then surrender in the sacrifice unto death. [The argument about the fall from gift to contract presupposes the understanding of life as self-possession. M rejects that presupposition] Rather, when we give, sometimes with sacrificial pain, we receive ourselves back as true abundant life. The resurrection preserves this logic at its limit: it is not an extrinsic super-added reward for the giving up of an (illusory) self-possessed life. It is the final surrender of an isolated life which issues in a better more abundant life. (123)

What distinguishes gift from contract is not the absolute freedom and non-binding character of the gift, but the surprisingness and unpredictability of gift and counter-gift, their character as asymmetrical reciprocity, and as non-identical repetition. Gift as absolute freedom and as non-binding is the Western counterpart to the reduction of exchange to contract. Mauss seems to have criticized this; according to Milbank, Derrida and Marion have not assimilated this critique. [More probably in Milbank's ... See n22 here.] Derrida of course regards the free unilateral gift as an impossibility: short of death, one always cancel's one's giving in receiving something back, be it only the consciousness that one is a giver. Thus only the dead person [who has sacrificed himself] can be a true giver. So also the only disinterested gift is to an absolutely anonymous other - the enemy, at the limit, as Marion says. And such a gift cannot possess any content beyond the gesture of giving, because, on this construal, there is nothing in an object that makes it in itself a gift. [It is the intention or else the gesture of giving that makes it gift.] Milbank instead argues that it is the content alone that determines whether a gift is appropriate, and therefore gift at all. (123)

So for Derrida, the gift is only ever a promise of a gift, perpetual postponement. And Marion's attempt will not work. A reduced gift which is no identifiable object, derives from no known source, and passes to no known / recipient can only be recognized in a way that makes no difference to actual ethical life. Such recognition involves only the idol of an abstract God. and where there is no intimation whatsoever of the source, gift is simply an impersonal intrusion. Its lack of content makes it arbitrary on our part to interpret it as gift. And where there is no knowledge of a recipient, and one assumes even that he is hostile, there cannot be a gift. A true gift must be appropriate to a donee; one must have already entered into an exchange with her. Gift-giving is a mode of social being. Ignoring this, both Derrida and Marion remain trapped in Cartesian subjectivity. At least Derrida, against Marion, deconstructs his Cartesian starting point when he insists that such a pure unilateral gift can never occur. "If there is a gift that can truly be, then this mut be the event of reciprocal, but asymmetrical and non-identically repeated exchange." (123-4)

2. Death as the necessary condition of the ethical. This celebrates something negative as the precondition of something positive in a way that is self-contradictory. [he says he has already shown how this is so.] A self-surrender without hope of self-return gives up on hope for ecstatic communication, for feasting and marriage, which is the only viable paradigm of the good. [again, already shown].

This paradigm is fully articulated only by Christianity, but is anticipated by Plato in the Phaedo. Socrates rejects the idea of warriors dying out of fear for loss of honour: this virtue as coinage, an exchange which is exemplified in the market economy, which is a sacrificial economy. The philosopher, instead, begins with absolute confidence, with the vision of the Forms, with positivity, without fear. The philosopher is good as first merely knowing, as receiving the vision of the Forms, not as acting or sacrificing in the sense of giving up something. Only in a secondary moment, out of plenitude of vision, if there is need, does he offer himself entirely, as it happened to Socrates. Nothing is lost here; instead, there is passage from lesser to greater, from weak participations to the fuller reality. / The Christian martyrs similarly begin from plenitude of paradisal vision in their acceptance of suffering. (124-5)

3. The reduction of God, lest his reward damage the purity of the gift

4. The gift as unilateral can only be realized in a secular sphere. This notion tries to occlude from our view the role of the city or state intervening to maintain civic order. This role can be seen in the way 'sacrifice' transmuted from practice to metaphor. Two moments in this shift:

4.1 Greek sacrifice involved a 'giving up,' offering, or sacrifice of material passion in favour of its sublimation. This is seen in the way the same scents and spices were involved in both erotic play and in religious sacrifice. After Pythagoras, e.g. among the Neoplatonists, we have not so much the offering of passion as the transmutation of passion into a higher passion. Sacrifice here is initiatory passage rather than gift or offering. It is only perhaps with Paul that we get the language of 'sacrifice of passions' in the sense of internalization of sacrifice. Here there is no vertical deviation of horizontal scents and spices. Rather, Paul is talking about an offering of self to a personal God, implicitly trusting in the return of self in a more abundant way. (125)

4.2 The death of the hero for the city was considered by Greeks and Romans as equivalent to sacrifice. (125)

In both these instances, there is the subsumption of something real into a greater whole, be it the city or the cosmos. There is loss without return, though there is the possibility of posthumous glory [see Achilles]. (125)

Modern / secularity gets rid even of such shadowy intimations of after-life, and so perfects pagan logic. Nineteenth century positivism spoke of altruism or self-surrender for the future, for science, for the state. 'Postmodern' or else Levinasian thinkers speak of the good, the moral act, or self-giving sacrifice as perpetual postponement. (See this notion as involved in the death of the hero, or in dying for the city, or for future generations: since every generation is subject to the same imperative, the consummation is perpetually postponed. [But: isn't there some betterment that we all experience, precisely because someone was brave enough to sacrifice himself?]) (126)

Milbank finds a surprising counterpoint to the above in John Buchan's novel Midwinter, where the hero puts the salvation of a young girl whom he loves before his political cause. He sacrifices (an idolatrous and finally merely nominal) all to the singular, "and so affirmed the resurrection hope for the return of each and every one, beyond the aporia of sacrificial options." [Hence the title of Milbank's essay: "The Midwinter Sacrifice". Not Shakespearean, as I assumed, despite the fact that M does make use of Shakespeare.] (126)

Milbank's claim: "the idea of self-sacrifice unto death without return for the sake of 'the whole,' even if that be the rule of moral duty to an unspecified other, is not at all the true moral kernel of the Jewish and Christian legacy." (126) He acknowledges a tension even in the NT. Derrida, he says, chooses to favour tedts like not inviting to feasts those who can invite you back (Lk 6:32-5) as the Christian essence. But Milbank stresses John's gospel, where there is no mention of loving enemies, where love circulates among friends, where there are erotic gestures, where the disciples are described as the Father's gift to the Son, just as the Son is his gift to the disciples. [The stress on mutuality, exchange, even if asymmetrical.] (127)

Someone might argue that Christianity has combined both perspectives on giving [non-reciprocal, and exchangist]. Milbank says it might have, but the higher perspective is that of reciprocity, "even though the eschatological character of this goal requires a 'quasi-unilaterial' moment for the gift in our fallen present time." The gift from the divine is to be returned from below, as the return of humanity to the Father. The gift of the Holy Spirit results from and manifests the mutuality of Father and Son. The Son offers himself not for the earthly city, not as giving up something for a greater something else, but 'for his friends.' Even this giving / dying is not so that they might live their self-possessed lives while he has lost his - as if he were saving them from drowning. It is rather in defence of the truth he has taught, the absolute creative power of the Father, maintained and fully taught in his resurrected return. (127)

This return is commemorated in the eucharist: we offer bread and wine, and immediately receive them back as God's flesh and blood. In the eucharist we enter in advance into the eschatological banquet and nuptials, "into the realm where once again we can entirely trust our every act as good precisely because we know that it will not merely follow our intention but be transformed and given back to us in a different and surprising mode." (127)

In the eucharist we see the only possible paradigm for gift and therefore for ethics, "not as one-way sacrifice but as total surrender for rereception." (128) Within this paradigm we can realize that, to the degree we are involved in some sense at some time in feast and marriage, we already participate in the resurrection. Here we give up everything, not for the earthly city, not even primarily for others, but 'absurdly' to God, in order to confess our inherent nothingness and to receive life as created anew. "Here we hold on to nothing, here we possess nothing securely, in contrast with exclusively ethical models which are also sacrificial. here instead we render ourselves entirely prey to the mere good fortune that it might turn out that we have been ethical. But the name of this fortune is secretly grace, the gift or the Good...." (128)


Friday, 6 December 2013

Unilateral gift as unethical

The unredeemed, unilateral gift, according to Milbank, is not in itself the good, and, indeed, not good at all outside the hope for resurrection, for a redemptive return of the self. (123) Why, I need to ask. Because perhaps "there is no true respect for the other involved here" (122). Because in the end it makes absolute "one's inalienable self-possession of a will to sacrifice and so preserves the Hellenic notion of the ethical as the overcoming of moral luck." (122)


Reading Milbank on gift, the ethical, and so on, I feel quite excited, but also choked: there is so much to get into here, such complexity, so many things I have never quite entered into, not mastered at all. The ethical and what it might truly be. The ethical and the religious. The ethical and the Christian. And then so much to master also in Lonergan. The ethical certainly; but also the realm of cognitive interiority, especially the early notions of operation, perhaps in Gratia Operans. The whole area of the Latin theology. the Trinity. Essential and notional love. Causality. Meaning. 

This is one of the roots of my dis-ease with Milbank: that he has chosen to take issue with Lonergan in his book on Aquinas. So either he has misunderstood Lonergan, or he is right. Either way, the dis-ease. Or perhaps, the dis-ease is because of not having got to the bottom of this question. 

Milbank excites me like the complex of ideas brewing in the Gregorian and in Rome in the early 1990s did. A complex that excited my imagination, but which I never did get to the bottom of. A complex involving somehow Henrici, and perhaps von Balthasar, and certainly Blondel; and John Paul II; and somehow suspecting Lonergan as cognate. Action - being - the primacy of the existential - love - Trinity - unity - marriage - eschatology - feast - resurrection. There was a book there, and there is a book here. And what if all this is set into motion against the background of Sankara, for example. 

What excited me about Plascencia was the way he was able to turn upside down received notions, one of them being that of disinterested love: God's love is a love that looks for and longs for return. Don Bosco intuited that. And so our model cannot be disinterested love. Even if love does not stop being love for lack of (immediate) response. Milbank intuits these complexities well on his p. 123. 

The ethical, grace and resurrection

Milbank's own summary of his argument:

1. The ethical "is only genuinely imaginable as a mutual and unending gift-exchange, construed as an absolute surrender to moral luck or absolute faith in the arrival of the divine gift, which is grace."
2. The sustaining of such an exchange "requires a notion of resurrection and faith in the reality of participation in resurrection." (121)

The complex of ideas: the ethical as gift-exchange, feast, marriage, resurrection. The first element, gift-exchange is figured by the feast or by marriage. It is appropriately combined with the second, resurrection, in terms of the heavenly banquet or the eschatological marriage of God and humanity. [And here, all the echoes of John Paul II's Theology of the Body.]

[I suspect that Milbank is doing a phenomenology of the notion of the ethical, and he finds that this notion collapses without 'total exposure' to grace and the notion resurrection and participation in resurrection. If this be true, I would think that morality would still be possible for atheists and in general for people who do not have proper and consistent notions of the ethical and who do not believe in grace and resurrection. Simply because, whatever the explicit pole of the horizon, what matters ultimately is the reality of grace given.]

Milbank is seeking to deliberately oppose a recent consensus "which would try to understand the ethical as primarily self-sacrifice for the other, without any necessary 'return' issuing from the other back to oneself." [Note the idea of return or response: Benedict XVI surprisingly stressed response as a constitutive element in love, in Deus Caritas Est and then in his Message for Lent 2007, noting that, in the bible, even God ardently desires our response, 'like a bridegroom that of his bride.' Jose' Luis Plascencia had picked up and highlighted this idea in his retreat talks to the 26th General Chapter of the Salesians of Don Bosco in 2008.] [Note also that Milbank does not discount self-sacrifice completely. What he is setting aside is the idea of the ethical as primarily or purely self-sacrifice.]

[The way Milbank is proceeding reminds me of I.M. Crombie's response to Flew, the way he invoked central ideas in Christianity, including resurrection, if I recall right. - The point is that I am trying to sort out the methodological question. Perhaps: what is philosophy and what theology? Milbank is certainly blowing up received ideas of the distinction. In a manner analogous to that of Lonergan? Or radically different?]

This consensus itself involves a complex of ideas:

1. That only an entirely self-sacrificial giving without expectation of a counter-gift distinguishes the gift from a form of self-interested contract. [I.e., gift does not involve response; such a response, or expectation of response, would destroy it as gift and turn it into a contract or exchange.] [Milbank is blowing up the idea of gift as completely disinterested, and, probably, of love and of the ethical as completely disinterested.]

2. That death, "far from being complicit with evil, is the necessary condition for the event of the ethical as such." The reasons for this are two:

2.1 Only our vulnerability, the possibility that we might die, allows us to make an appeal as needy people to our neighbour. Our vulnerability is therefore the condition for the ethical demand.

2.2 Only the capacity of the ethical subject "to respond to the needy person if necessary with his own death, guarantees his deed as truly ethical, as truly disinterested gift." (122)

3. 'God' must be reduced to "a shadowy hypostatized other," because any God who interfered to reward the disinterested giver would be damaging the purity of this disinterest and of the ethical.

4. The true nobility and purity of religious self-sacrifice [and of the ethical] is only realized in a secular realm.

This consensus involves Patocka, Derrida, and probably Levinas. The first point [pure disinterested gift] is espoused by Marion though he does not see that it leads logically to the other three. [Ciglia described Marion yesterday as a Catholic 'a modo suo.']

Francesco Paolo Ciglia

I met Francesco Paolo Ciglia yesterday, at Beit Jala, at the Interseminary Meeting there. Ciglia is professor of philosophy at Pescara, and is currently teaching at the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Galilee. He specializes in twentieth century Jewish thought, I believe, especially that of Levinas. He is on the editorial board of Archivio di Filosofia, the review founded by Enrico Castelli and continued by Olivetti. He has been in contact with people like Ricoeur, Panikkar, Henrici, and now Jean-Luc Marion, who seems to be the current president of the association that runs the Castelli conferences. He said he had met Giovanni Sala, SJ, who had once presented something on Kant (and Lonergan). 

Milbank, Christianity and the ethical

If ethics were conceived as not possessing something - not even one's good deed - but receiving the gift of the other "as something that diverts one's life," and offering one's life "in such a way that you do not know in advance what it is you will give but reclaim it retrospectively," then ethics becomes "a total exposure to fortune, or rather to grace." (116)

If it were simply a total exposure to fortune, then one heads to nihilism. All aporias of the ethical sketched by Milbank would still stand [would they?], "but one would simply embrace the impossibility of the ethical and yet the necessity of temporary ethical conventions." [An ethnocentric ethics, borrowing from Rorty?] With Derrida and perhaps Levinas, one might qualify this "with a mysticism of infinitely postponed hope for the arrival of the good." (116)

"However, the Christian construal of the total sway of moral luck is to understand fortune, as always, however disguisedly, the personal gift of grace: to believe therefore that only utter exposure constitutes the ethical." (116) [This is the complete opposite of ethics as autonomy and self-governance.]

No secularization of Christian ethics along the lines proposed by Patocka is therefore possible. The mere attitudes of patience, humility, etc. as things we ourselves can perform can turn out to the not ethical at all. They only assume an ethical complexion as a waiting on God: as a "meta-ethical trust that it will (beyond perpetual postponement) be given to us to be ethical, given to us again to receive and again to give in such a way that a certain 'asymmetrical reciprocity' or genuine community, will ceaselessly arrive (for now in part and eschatologically without interruption)." (116)

[The arguments seem seamless, but I am finding it difficult to accept the basic thesis here: no true ethical without Christianity, or at least the hope of resurrection.]

Original sin and death together prevent the ethical from coming to pass. We are all either wounded [original sin] or complacent or both, "capable only of valuing what is lost, obliged therefore to take measures to prevent future loss, congratulating ourselves on these measures (law) and so secretly celebrating loss as the occasion for our greatness, and instead of festively enjoying present loved ones, subject to boredom with them tending always to suspicion." (117) [Leontes King of Sicily is wounded, is faced with loss, and begins to love only in the face of this loss. Others may be complacent, and so incapable of truly enjoying loved ones.]

Loss is ineradicable. Milbank says he has shown that so long as there is loss, there cannot be any ethical, not even in any degree. (117) [Recapitulate this argument. I have forgotten what it was.] And concludes: "Hence hope, hope that it may be given to me in the next moment to act well, is inseparable from hope that there may be universal acting well, and at last a non-futile mourning: to be ethical is therefore to believe in the resurrection, and somehow to participate in it. And outside this belief and participation there is, quite simply, no 'ethical' whatsoever." (117) [The belief, if Milbank is right, is constitutive of the notion of the ethical: without it, no ethical. But is belief a necessary precondition to practice, to acting well? Is it, in other words, not sufficient "to somehow participate in it"?]

Thus there are three aspects to ethics:

1. The mundane, everyday hope that community is possible. Community: that people and objects "can analogically blend beyond identity and difference." [This is good! This is Trinitarian, and non-dual.] Both the living out and the search for community is neither simply eudaemonistic nor 'other-regarding', but 'ecstatic' (Spaemann). Such ecstasy is neither self-sacrificial nor sado-machochistic (both these are courses unto death), but rather passes through death, in hope of our return along with the return of others. "Thus to look for our collective participation in divine fullness of being is to transcend in an 'objective' and self-less manner either egotistic or self-sacrificial concerns." This ecstasy is epitomized by the feast, where we eat only because and when others eat, and yet we do not renounce ourselves, for we eat also. Thus the everyday ethical hope naturally leads to hope for resurrection.

2. The fall as suspicion rather than misdeed, as refusal of the field of action defined as giving with joyful uncertainty in faith. Christianity recognizes the fall - the universal tragic condition - but refuses to ontologize it, making the extraordinary move "of seeing the universal itself as but a contingent narrative upshot." Original sin is not necessarily deed, or misdeed. In Leontes' case, it is first suspicion of misdeed on the part of the other (his wife Hermione). "Here the fall is not an act, but rather a first mistrusting of the joyfully confident 'risk' and uncertainty constitutive of the field of action." Original sin is "refusal of the field of action itself, defined as giving with joyful uncertainty in faith, a refusal which commences in the suspicion that one does not, after all, receive a good gift from the other." (118) Original blessedness here is understood, not as deliberately 'doing good,' but as a state of good moral luck or reception of grace. (119)

3. The hope of resurrection.

Mercantile reality does reveal the raw truth of life in fallen time, but, unlike Derrida, Milbank refuses to ontologize this truth. He insists instead on the possibility "of imagining the counter-reality of resurrection, and the possibility that this world already mysteriously participates in that reality." (121) "Embracing this possibility leads us to hope, even now, after the fall and before the end, for the gracious arrival of something better and to act within this hope." (121)

Should our polity be restored by grace, the anxiety about our necessary preference for some not others, and our apparent sacrifice of some for others, would be eased "in the knowledge that we are to love our neighbors, because we know that others are loving theirs". (121) This means that even agape can only be fulfilled within a polis [community] where each of us has a particular role. Further, "if we lived in an economy of gift we would not be indifferent to the consequences of our acts... but we would 'go' with our gifts, and others in receiving them creatively would continue to care for us in this employment. Joyfully estranged from ourselves, we should sometimes find in this loss our gain, and always know that it would finally be so." (121)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Milbank's critiques of eudaemonism and altruistic ethics

According to Milbank, our two inherited notions of the ethical (he is of course speaking of the West) are both linked to the supremacy of self-possession and self-government. The first is classical eudaemonism, the other is 'other-regarding ethics'. Drawing on Spaemann, Derrida and Williams, he shows that both are subject to inner dialectical collapse or deconstruction, precisely in their attempts to manage and control fortune. (111)

1. Classical eudaemonism (111-2)

One cannot secure happiness in an abiding way. At most we have only 'virtual happiness.' Four reasons:
1. To open ourselves to the most happiness involves risk and so sorrow. For self-protection we must remain to a degree self-enclosed; and we are never free from the anxiety of what balance of adventure and security we must espouse. [And this is true.]
2. Happiness is not punctual. / It is rather the course of a whole life (Aristotle). [This, on the other hand, is a defining of the meaning of happiness. Perhaps in the East one might choose to regard happiness precisely as punctual. But that needs probing. I am thinking of the man being chased by a tiger: he falls off a cliff; manages to catch the branch of a bush; sees two mice gnawing at the roots; knows he must soon fall; and in this situation, reaches out and enjoys the berries on the bush.] Yet we never get to the end of our lives; we die 'before our time'; and only others will read our lives as a whole [and so determine whether or not we have been happy?]. (111-2)
3. Happiness is comparative. [This argument seems specious to me.] The shepherd in Arcadia does not know he is happy [but is that not his charm, as Vernet would say, quoting the spanish poet: the charm of a bowl full of beautiful roses is that they do not know they are beautiful]. His happiness is known only by another, and that knowledge in itself is not happiness. So happiness is nowhere in space.
4. Happiness is nowhere in time. The past is always contaminated by loss and mourning; the future by fear and anxiety.
In these ways, not only ordinary joys remain illusive, but also our enjoyment and realization of a consistent ethical excellence. (112)
Antiquity therefore underrated the contamination of morality by luck or fortune.

2. Other-regarding ethics (Kant - Bentham - Levinas - Parfitt)

2.1 As soon as we act with patience, humility, forgiveness, suffering unto death, we are liable to misinterpretation and abuse (Hegel's critique of Kant). It is no use considering such derelict, abandoned acts as 'perfect gifts' with Marion, who takes the content of a gift as a mere sign of the real ethereal gift of intention, or the self-giving itself. Milbank holds that intentions and passages have always instantiated in signs and gestures and are therefore always somewhat particular, content-specific. A duty that fails to make the other happy ceases to be a moral act. Milbank's point: "Other-regarding ethics cannot ignore happiness, [i.e., it has to take into account its content, and the result] yet happiness is often the child of whim and circumstance." (112) There other-regarding ethics is also undermined "by the self-implosion of the notion of pure duty."

2.2 Following this loss of duty comes loss of self. We cannot possess ourselves as ethical through a sacrificial self-offering in death, because this would mean that we need the misfortunes of others to demonstrate our worth. [This again seems specious to me - though perhaps I must not ignore the qualification "if this alone proves the good".] But this destroys the morality of the ethical self.  (113)

2.21 And again, till we are martyrs, we can never be sure of possessing ourselves as ethical; and there is always the uncertainty, the possibility that in the last gasp we may despair and recant. The uncertainty - luck - continues having a part in being ethical. (113)

2.22 If the dying self is subject to uncertainty, much more so is the living self. The contingencies here are the needs of others. We are subject to "limitless persecution by the needs of others" who are regarded as somehow enjoying themselves. Such a 'bad infinite' haunts the ethics of both Kant and Levinas. "Modern ethics, just because it enthrones altruism, is pathological in its degree of obliteration of the possibility of consummation" - or at least of the beginning of beatitude. (113)

2.3 [Loss of the other.] Insofar as the other is alive, I will tend to take her for granted. Her otherness will emerge in her absence, especially in her death. (113)

Those who are wounded see (or learn to love) too late, and only through loss of the other - like Leontes of Sicily after the death of his wife, his heir, and the loss of his daughter. Those who are apparently innocent, on the other hand, are always infected by complacency, the non-realization of the fragility of the gift (of love that they have received and are in some way able to pass on) in its passage through time. "And since all are either wounded and complacent, or rather all are relative mixtures of both, since this is an exhaustive human typology, there exist no potential moral subjects at all." Neither the living beloved nor the dead can adequately fulfill the role of the other. (115)

3. There are no criteria to prioritize either the pursuit of self-fulfilling happiness or regard of the other. So when to live and when to give? (115)

A further dimension of luck enters the picture. (The example Spaemann gives of Gauguin, who chose his painting over his family.) / The giving of ourselves to one person or purpose frequently involves sacrificing other goods or people, and often without reason. There are no "publicly stateable reasons for lavishing devotion on one person rather than another  - to the public gaze this will always appear excessively aesthetic or erotic." 

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) 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Lonergan in India

Lonergan people in India:

  • Valentine Ekka, SJ, PhD, Boston College. 
  • Thomas Chacko, SVD. PhD, Dharmaram, Bangalore. 
  • Thomas Naickamparambil, Through Self-Discovery to Self-Transcendence: A Study of Cognitional Self-Appropriation in B. Lonergan
  • Robert Pen, SDB. PhD, Universita Pontificia Salesiana, Rome. 
  • Maria Arul Anthuvan, SDB. PhD (ongoing), Universita Pontificia Salesiana, Rome. 
  • A number of students who have done Master's Theses, esp. at Divyadaan, Nashik.

Lonergan events in India:

  • The Fred Lawrence Confernce on Hermeneutics, Divyadaan, Nashik.
  • The Conference on Economics, with Philip McShane, Divyadaan, Nashik.

Articles and books:

  • See Divyadaan: Journal of Philosophy and Education
  • Ivo Coelho, Hermeneutics and Method
  • Robert Pen, Communication as Mutual Self-Mediation


From the 'dialogue' (not only interreligious) panel at the recent Gregorian International Lonergan Workshop in Rome: one of the questions, if I remember right, was: here we are, elites, speaking about high minded matters; but does all this affect the simple people in the bush? - And my response was: no, but yes. In a sense, no, because most people live in the world of undifferentiated consciousness (which is not to assume that we, just because we are 'scholarly', live in the world of theory). But in other ways, yes, because, first of all, even simple people do not live in a world of pure immediacy, but rather always in a world mediated by and constituted by meanings and values; and, secondly, because we just cannot assume that this world in which they live is 'innocent.' There is no first innocence anymore. Everyone, even the people in the bush, are somehow 'contaminated' - think of dominant cultures, the Selbstverstaendlichkeiten that seep down to every level, the influence of the media, and so on. There came to mind the Nicholas who I knew in Bosco Boys Home of long ago: so simply he told me, as he was going to see Ganpati: But brother, all religions are equal. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Being ethical

A byte-sized reflection on Milbank's "The Midwinter Sacrifice": I am recalled to Azzopardi's observation, the only reason for doing good is that it is good to do good; or to reading Sartre somewhere to the effect that the true heroes are the atheists, who do good without hope of any reward. Milbank counters this kind of thinking - or at least certainly Sartre - vigorously. To quote Milbank:
"This complex of ideas, or characterization of the ethical as gift-exchange, feast, marriage, and resurrection, I am seeking to set in deliberate opposition to a recent consensus which would try to understand the ethical as primarily self-sacrifice for the other, without any necessary 'return' issuing from the other back to oneself." (122)
Not even a reflection, really, but merely an observation, that Milbank vigorously contradicts what I have taken so far as - a piece of wisdom. Undigested, fully, certainly. But then - I do recall having found texts in the gospels that echo this piece. Which I do not now recall.

Milbank, in fact, extends the ideas he is opposing to arrive explicitly at the position of Sartre. The consensus (mentioned above), he says, involved a complex of ideas:

  1. The notion that only an entirely sacrificial giving without any expectation of counter-gift distinguishes the gift from a form of self-interested contract.
  2. Death, far from being complicit with evil (as Milbank would understand it to be), is the necessary condition for the event of the ethical as such.
  3. God must be reduced to a shadowy hypostatized other lurking behind the human other, because any God who interfered to 'reward' the disinterested giver would undo the purity of this disinterest and the purity of the ethical realm.
  4. Hence the paradoxical conclusion: the true nobility and purity of religious self-sacrifice is only realized in a secular sphere. 
These positions, observes Milbank, are common to Patocka, Derrida, and probably Levinas, while the first point is espoused by Marion without seeing that they logically lead to the other three.