Among moral philosophers there is a certain anxiety about making sure that their morality is grounded. That is, that it rests on unshakable metaphysical—or scientific—or pragmatic—foundations. The type of foundations is less important than the fact that they are sturdy rather than flimsy. In a largely unreligious era, this anxiety is especially pronounced.
This holiday season I learned something new about my family. I learned that I am fourth generation unreligious—coming from a set of chains that are unbroken all the way up to my great-grandparents on every side of my family. This is truly strange, given the very different backgrounds involved—Russian Jewish on one side and Cuban on the other. Lack of proper religion is a well-worn way of life that I was born into.
And yet my morality is grounded entirely in faith.
Ten years ago I went through something, and I came out on the other side changed. My friend and fellow Sweet Talker Sam Hammond introduced me to the notion of construal, from social psychology. This notion matched my experience perfectly, though my awareness of the theory is very recent. I saw a situation one way—a way that conveniently absolved me of taking responsibility or doing anything uncomfortable. Then I was confronted by a clear contradiction to that way of construing the situation, one that I couldn’t avoid or explain away. And so I began very uncomfortably to reconstrue things, including my role in them.
The situation did not exist in isolation; it was deeply tied to a great deal of my life in a number of subtle ways that weren’t immediately obvious to me. So once the reconstruing began, suddenly huge swaths of my life that I had taken for granted were looked at in a new light.
I won’t bore you with the details of what seemed important and dramatic to a 19-year-old kid. What I will tell you is that I had what you might call an epiphany without religious revelation.
I knew I had been a coward, and a liar, and derelict in my duty to the people in my life. At best I had been loyal, but it had been a worthless loyalty; it didn’t help the people who needed it and it stuck me to people who didn’t deserve it.
But more importantly, I knew that courage, and honesty, and justice, and loyalty of the right sort, were right. I knew they were real. I knew in my bones that I should be the sort of person who could be said to have those things. I knew, and I know, that we all ought to strive to be such a person.
I know that this faith of mine is grounded, in the sense that it is sturdy and won’t be blown over by sophistry or comfortable lies. I know, too, that it is sturdy, because when I connect with someone one on one and speak from the heart about it, I almost always see it resonate.
I also know that simply arguing from what I take as given isn’t persuasive beyond very contingent, very circumstance-specific conversations.
The reason that virtue ethics, as Deirdre McCloskey introduced it to me, is so appealing is that it seems to capture what it is I know better than anything else. Moreover, it is part of an enormous tradition, that has stood the test of time and been examined by a large body of brilliant thinkers. Some, like MacIntyre, ground it in tradition, as I am inclined to. Others, like Russell or Annas, are more cagey about what it is that grounds it, preferring to leave that work for others or possibly for later works. But all seem to capture something of what it is that I’ve found connects with other people, when I’m able to get them in a situation where I can really talk to them about this.
I am in a strange position. I am a moral realist, by faith. Yet I have no faith in the divine. I peruse the writings of, and writings on, Catholic church fathers in the virtue tradition, yet I am not Catholic, Christian, or a theist of any sort. I read Aristotle and read up on the Greek and Roman eudaimonic philosophers, rationalists to a man, yet I am not a rationalist. But I see wisdom in all of them, and from my strange little corner still feel they have a lot to teach me.
If anything stands in the place of a deity for me, it is Heraclitus’ river. At the time of my epiphany I, like most 19-year-olds and especially most 19-year-old boys, thought myself capable of greatness. That this was hilariously at odds with my boring, typical life is besides the point—after my epiphany, I came to see that there is great meaning in participating and contributing to the much greater whole of humanity and human history. When my grandfather had died earlier that same year, my father said that families are like an ongoing story; every new generation ensures that the story will continue for now. I see our lives as being that way in general—we’re all part of the ongoing story of our family, our communities, our nations; of human history itself. This is not only good enough, it is good; participating and contributing to this ongoing story just is what makes our lives meaningful.
Explaining this part of my beliefs, which I have no less faith in, is what I am the worst at. When I took my first ever stab at writing about it back in February, the general reaction could be summarized as: “what the hell are you talking about?”
And that’s fine. The big picture part, the process behind and in front of us, is in many ways the least important part. What matters most is striving to be a good person, and that is the part that I know I can get to resonate with people from when I have talked with them. People with a rather diverse set of metaphysical commitments seem to converge, or grasp towards, a very similar idea of what being a good person is like. MacIntyre thinks it’s because of an old way of thinking that is still alive in our minds. I’m not so sure it’s as contingent as that.
April of next year will mark ten years since my epiphany occurred. I was only a kid when it happened. In many ways, I am still too unread, too ignorant in the huge traditions of thought that have explored these questions, too inexperienced at life to be going around making grand pronouncements.
So I seek conversation, and beg your patience when I slip up and say something foolish, and try to stay humble, and appreciate every bit of feedback that I can get from people willing to give it in good faith.
But I do not doubt the core of my beliefs. And I have faith in the ground on which I stand.