Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Neuhaus on 'Moral progress'

"Recall the concluding passage of After Virtue. [Alasdair] MacIntyre draws the parallel between our time and the collapse of the Roman Empire when St. Benedict's monastic movement provided a refuge for civilization. “What matters [now] is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

We may think that picture somewhat overdrawn. After all, those who are called barbarians are not primitives, they are not neanderthals; they are frequently those thought to be the “brightest and best” among us. But that is to miss the point. The new barbarians are barbarians not because they are unsophisticated but precisely because of the hyper-sophistication with which they have removed themselves from what I have called the civilizational circle of moral conversation. In simpler terms, that is called “traditional values.” The barbarians refuse to be limited by what we know, by the wisdom we have received, about good and evil, right and wrong. For them, the past is merely prelude.
What, then, can we say about the future of moral progress? Within the civilizational circle, there is moral progress (and regress!) in how we live, but there is no progress in the sense of moving beyond the moral truths that constitute the circle itself. We can develop the further implications of those truths, or we can step outside the circle by denying that there is such a thing as moral truth. It has become the mark of hyper-sophistication in our time to echo the question of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, an urbane Roman ever so much more sophisticated by worldly standards than the prisoner who stood before him, was a forerunner of the barbarians now in power.

Those permanent truths are sometimes called natural law. In the Declaration of Independence they are called the laws of nature and nature's God. Or they are called the first principles of ethics. First principles are, by definition, always first. Moral analysis cannot go beyond or behind them any more than human consciousness can go beyond or behind human consciousness. Fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis, borrowing from Confucianism, called these first principles the Tao. In The Abolition of Man, he anticipated with great prescience today's debates in biomedical ethics about reproductive technologies, genetic engineering, and eugenic progress. The Tao, Lewis said, draws support from all religious and moral traditions in inculcating certain rules such as: general beneficence toward others, special beneficence toward one's own community, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, the laws of justice, honesty, mercy, and magnanimity. Whether drawn from the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, ChineseAnalects, Cicero, or the Bhagavad Gita, these are the truths that constitute the civilizational circle.

......The answer to the question of whether the barbarians will rule us in the future depends upon parents, religious leaders, educators, scientists, politicians, artists, and writers who are not embarrassed to give public expression to what they know about right and wrong, good and evil. The first proponents of the idea of progress, including moral progress, were right to believe that knowledge and progress are inseparable. There can be no progress beyond but only within the civilizational circle of the moral truths into which we were born, by which we are tested, and to which we are duty bound, in the hope of sustaining the circle for those who come after us. The alternative is the willed ignorance of nihilism..."

Fr Richard John Neuhaus  (1999)

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