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viewpoint

On philosophy and morality

| Thursday, March 5, 2020

Coming of age as a Catholic in the beginning of this millennium has been a fraught experience, as I’m sure many Notre Dame students can attest. The young Church has been rocked by scandal upon scandal and coverup upon coverup. Years of accumulating headlines detailing the full extent of the clerical sexual abuse scandal were further sensationalized this past week when an internal report emerged citing credible allegations of repeated sexual abuse by Jean Vanier, a man who prior had been lauded as ‘a living saint’ for his work founding L’Arche International.  

There’s a different kind of sting that cuts through this generalized numbness and weariness when the scandal strikes home. For me, this personal reckoning came from my secular life when it was announced earlier this week that a lecturer of ethics and philosophy of religion at one of my university’s constituent colleges has pled guilty to possession of indecent images of children. The depth of betrayal I felt surprised me; I had not been his student nor had had much interaction with him in my time at Oxford prior. As a graduate student — and a humanities student to boot — I did as I was trained and took to writing both to explore and express why I felt so affected.  Beyond the obvious, the reason I was most appalled was I felt this professor had betrayed his responsibility to the public, and by extension, his profession.

Philosophy is notoriously difficult to define, and even more difficult to justify in today’s world. As an aspiring academic philosopher, I have had to contend with the usual bout of questions over what I do and how exactly philosophy will translate into a meaningful career. In addition to these, I’ve had a lot of questions that can be distilled down to a request for justification: to provide an account of the relevance of my work. Why, in other words, should universities carve out a place for people whose job it is to reflect on, and at times dismantle, the seemingly obvious truths about the world? Friends and family point out that bickering about whether we exist physically or if homicide is ever justified ignores solid, widely held intuitions, and more concretely, ignores the ways in which we actually conduct ourselves. Even if we have no extramental reality, for example, we will still act as if our bodies and physical interactions with the universe matter and exist, and otherwise structure our lives accordingly.  Similarly, stylized utilitarian arguments will fail to commit all but the most dedicated among us of the limited acceptability of murder in spite of personal aversion.  

Philosophers have never claimed a monopoly on morality, but they have claimed a role in transmitting it to the public sphere. Since Plato’s “Republic,’’ philosophers have been concerned with pursuing the truth of matters, even when that task requires delving into the deepest parts of our humanity and our most closely held intuitions and prejudices. There’s a certain intellectual courage exhibited in choosing to question not just the status quo, but the assumed limitations of human nature. This work is difficult and fraught with mistakes, since it requires an unflinching examination of one’s own position and a willingness to admit and attempt to rectify personal error. The rigor of reasoning and critical reflection are perhaps the most important tools in the philosopher’s kit. These, combined with the tenacity to push beyond and look through preconception to novel discoveries about ourselves, are what set professional philosophers in a unique position to safeguard the moral consciousness of the public.  Their vocation is not to legislate morality, but like a mirror to reflect back the implications and understandings of our pretheoretical convictions to us. In other words, philosophy is anchored in the transcendent, but aims to equilibrate with the here and now. Philosophy is a public dialogue that in its best form is action guiding; it shores up and develops further support for many of our keenly felt intuitions while also allowing ample space to challenge those which might be prejudicial, irrational or detrimental.

In spite of this, philosophers, like priests or so many of our other political and cultural leaders, are flawed. The lives of many moral philosophers rarely read out so measured and principled as the literature they produce. In fact, some philosophers in both work and private life may rightly be said to have had what Bernard Williams would call “one thought too many.” This tragedy of the oh-so-human shortcomings is more evident than ever to me today. Immediately, a certain verse from the Gospel of Luke springs to mind: “For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required” (Luke 12:48). To those who have been given every benefit in terms of education, formal and informal moral tuition and, indeed, ready access to the wisdom of the ages, it would seem right to expect more. If not more, then at least an equivalent moral standing with “the man on the street,’’ as philosophers occasionally refer to the general public.  

In the face of purported moral expertise, such failings are especially egregious, if regrettably unsurprising in our world. It is this supposition that someone whose life’s work is meant to advance or maintain morality in our world and who has dedicated their professional development to deep and systematic analysis of the same can go so radically astray. The scandal of it all lies in the fact that this person, above all others, ought to have known better, and was equipped with an abundance of knowledge to know to do better. 

Rather than risk concluding having merely treated “philosophy as lamentation,’’ let me end on an exhortation in two parts. A large portion of the dignity of intellectual — indeed, primarily theoretical — work lies in that its aim is never merely theoretical. Philosophy, like other academic pursuits, is powerful precisely because it can be used to motivate actions, to catalyze revolutions, to give meaning, to connect people to the ineffable, to change lives for the better or the worse. Often times, we philosophers can be lost in the beauty and occasional terror of abstraction, but I would like to urge those who aim to make intellectual work their life’s labor (or are already doing so) to recall and apply a humanizing force to their work, if only by remembering the practical ramifications of theory. Secondly, I want to remind us all that the human element is inescapable; it is at play in our relationships, our University, our places of worship. Recognizing the truth and inevitability of this, however, does not excuse or mitigate the responsibility we must uphold for those who lead and guide us. The best safeguard of our morality, then, is to foster a public who cares, who does not become numb to abuse and failings and can, when required, reflect back our own humanness to those tasked with that job primarily.

Abigail Whalen

Class of 2019

Feb. 24

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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