The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: An Interview with the Editors (Part One)
August 17, 2018
Routledge recently released the posthumously completed volume by Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (DMK), which was edited and finalized by former students of Dallas’: Steve Porter (Biola), Aaron Preston (Valparaiso), and Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola). Below is Part 1 of a 3-part interview with Steve, Aaron and Gregg. This first park unpacks some of the background for the book, the process for finalizing the manuscript, and how this book relates to Willard’s ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ writings.
Update: To learn more about the DMK, visit DWillard.org. In 2019, Dallas Willard Ministries also launched a Moral Knowledge Initiative that is worth considering and supporting. In light of the launch of the book, Steve, Aaron, and Gregg spoke at Westmont College about the book at a conference honoring the work of Dallas and other leaders in the spiritual formation movement. The video presentation on DMK is now available here:
What was it like for you to wrestle with the editing and completing of this text in light of Dallas’ absence?
Aaron: Daunting, frustrating, fascinating, illuminating, and rewarding. Dallas was a truly exceptional thinker and writer, and we really wanted to do justice to him in supplying the missing chapters. We wanted to write those chapters as he himself might have written them. This required a lot of reading and thinking before we were ready to write, and then a lot of fretting during the writing process itself. Dallas once told me that he spent nearly two years revising the paper that became his first publication [“A Crucial Error in Epistemology,” Mind, 76:304 (N.S.), 1967, 513-523], painstakingly considering every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph. I’m not sure we were as exacting as Dallas would have been in his writing and revising, but I think we came close.
Daunting, indeed. What was the pace and collaboration like?
Aaron: The slow pace of the work was at times frustrating, but it was also fascinating, illuminating, and rewarding, both intellectually and personally. To follow the pointers Dallas had left us into the work of Rawls and MacIntyre, for instance, made for an amazing intellectual journey. At a certain point in studying their work, you’d start to have these exhilarating moments of insight where you’d say “this must have been what Dallas was seeing!” Then later, once you’d complete your study, you’d just kind of stand back in awe and say “wow, he really saw through to the heart of things!” So that was very intellectually rewarding. And the whole project has been deeply rewarding on a personal level as well. It was quite literally a labor of love. For me, having this project to work on felt like a way of keeping Dallas with me just a little longer. It was also deeply gratifying to be able to do something significant for Dallas and his family. We are inexpressibly grateful for all that Dallas gave us as our teacher and friend. He was incredibly generous with his time, and we know this would not have been possible without support from his family. That’s something you don’t really think about when you’re a student, but now that we’re professors with families of our own, we understand it very well. So we are deeply happy at having been able to do this for him and for them.
Steve: I will simply add that the work was immeasurably easier because we did it together and not just because we could split up the responsibilities. The burden was shared in more ways than one. Dallas once took a group of his graduate students out to dinner at the faculty dining facility at USC. Amongst the things he said that evening, he spoke of how it was the case that many philosophical movements came out of a group of philosophers working together on a common vision (e.g., the Vienna Circle). Dallas was recommending to us that sort of approach to philosophical work: working together. Not only was there a joy in doing this work together, it was also an exercise in intellectual humility. We each had to reassess our thinking in response to the challenges from the others and concessions were often made based on these reassessments.
Give us some background context. How did “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge” – as a project and a manuscript – come to be?
Steve: I will offer a bit about the inception of the project and also how the three of us became involved. In 1998 Dallas gave a talk at Biola University entitled “The Redemption of Reason” in which he argued that the reliability of reason needed to be reestablished in order for knowledge of reality (including moral reality) to be comprehensible. Both Dallas and Jane (Dallas’ wife) had a keen sense that that talk contained the seeds of Dallas’ next book. Soon after the talk Dallas began working on the book, which became DMK. By 2011 Dallas had written a preface and five chapters of what he had planned to be a seven chapter book. That preface and those first five chapters appear in the book as Dallas had them. But that same year Dallas fell ill with what would eventually be diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Worked slowed for Dallas on all fronts as he dealt with surgery and treatment. Over the next several months, Becky (Dallas’ daughter) and Jane provided email updates on Dallas’ health and more than once it was mentioned that Dallas was burdened by not having the energy to get back to the writing of DMK.
Did Dallas know of your guy’s involvement before his death?
Steve: In the early days of May 2013, we received news that Dallas’ health had once again worsened. With the idea in mind that Dallas still had many years of life ahead but was becoming increasingly worn down by his cancer, I contacted Gregg and Aaron to see if they would join me in offering our assistance to help Dallas complete the book. It was our sense that the manuscript was almost complete and so we were offering ourselves to help with proofreading, tightening up footnotes, and the like. We decided over email that I would email Becky and offer our assistance if needed. I was on a research leave at the time and had traveled to England to participate in a fellowship program. I was jet-lagged and couldn’t sleep. So, tossing and turning in bed in the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 7, I felt compelled to send off the email to Becky. Quite honestly, I felt a deep sense of urgency about it. Again, no real thought that Dallas was nearing death, just the thought that I needed to send the email immediately. And so I got out of bed and drafted an email to Becky cc’ing Gregg and Aaron. Becky retrieved my email sometime on May 7th and was able to mention it to Dallas that night while visiting him in the hospital. At 10:30pm, the night of May 7th, Becky emailed us to let us know that Dallas had expressed confidence in the three of us being the ones who could help him complete the book. As it turned out, Dallas passed away just before 6am the next day. The email was sent, received, and communicated to Dallas within a very small window of time prior to his passing. All of us involved took this as a kind of providential commissioning.
Providential, indeed. Compared to the broader Willard corpus, including Dallas’ work in philosophy and Christian spiritual formation, how do you see the stature of DMK, and perhaps more importantly, how might it be read and valued in light of his other contributions?
Aaron: I agree with Bill Heatley, in his EPS interview in June 2013, that Dallas would not have characterized DMK as his magnum opus. As Bill says, Dallas didn’t really see it as a culmination of all his other work but rather as just another work addressing a very important topic. That said, I do think that DMK occupies a special place in the Willard corpus. It is natural to see Dallas’ writings as falling into two main divisions: ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’. Although there are deep connections between the two, Dallas rarely made them explicit; but it seems to me that they are closer to the surface in DMK (and its non-academic counterpart, Knowing Christ Today) than in most of Dallas’ other writings. The connections are still not explicit, but they are easier to see if one knows what to look for. On the academic side, Dallas is best known for his work on Edmund Husserl and realist epistemology, and it is no accident that both of his academic monographs contain the word “knowledge” in the title. Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge explains how Husserl developed a realist epistemology capable of reclaiming objective knowledge in an intellectual milieu which had long rejected that possibility.
DMK is about the broad, cultural implications of this rejection in the moral domain. It traces the main ways in which 20th century moral philosophers failed to develop adequate moral epistemologies, and so left moral claims unanchored in the turbulent seas of cultural change. And Dallas’ ideas about how to reclaim moral knowledge point us right back in the direction of phenomenologically-grounded realist epistemology focused on knowledge of the good person.
What helps link Dallas’ ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ work?
Aaron: The emphasis on the good person as the central subject-matter for ethics links DMK to Dallas’ non-academic work on spiritual formation. Dallas saw Christian spiritual formation as a version of the universal human project of character-formation. Of course he saw it as the best version of that project; mainly, I think, because he thought Christianity does the best job of putting us in touch with the realities relevant to proper character-formation. It does this, first and foremost, by giving us a clear vision of the fundamental moral reality – God and His Kingdom. This vision both inspires moral effort in a way that other visions of reality (think materialism, or even Plato’s Forms) usually don’t, and, because the vision is accurate – it is knowledge – it facilitates successful interactions with reality. This in turn facilitates greater success in the project of formation. So Christian character-formation has some important advantages over other approaches. Nonetheless, on Dallas’ view, it is generically the same sort of activity that Plato discusses in the Republic – the activity of rightly shaping the inner self, the soul, the spirit.
With that fact in view, one can begin to see how both DMK and his writings on spiritual formation are aimed at supporting the project of character-formation. DMK does not talk about character-formation as directly as his works on spiritual formation do, but one who knows what to look for can see that he is aiming to lay a foundation in knowledge for Character formation.
What is Dallas’ view of character-formation?
Aaron: On Dallas’ view, proper character-formation requires the right combination of vision, intention, and means (his VIM model for spiritual formation). One might think that, with his emphasis on spiritual disciplines, Dallas was most concerned with reconnecting Christians with effective means of formation. But in fact Dallas was most concerned with vision. His writings on spiritual formation are all exercises in vision-correction in the service of character-formation. They all address wrong ideas, frequently found among Christians, which get in the way of character-formation. And they seek to replace these with right ideas, with a clear and correct vision – constituting knowledge – of God and “how He changes lives” (that’s an allusion to the subtitle of The Spirit of the Disciplines).
How does DMK figure in this mix?
Aaron: DMK too is an exercise in vision-correction in the service of character-formation, but for a secular and academic audience. Dallas thought that successful character-formation is possible apart from Christianity, but only because Jesus, as the eternal Logos of God, is “the true light that gives light to every person” (John 1:9). In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas quotes this verse in the context of explaining that humans are generally able to recognize moral truth – about what is right, wrong, good, bad, admirable, praiseworthy, etc. – in particular cases, apart from any special revelation.
This power of “moral perception,” we might call it, is central to the moral epistemology that Dallas sketches in the final chapter of DMK. We use it to identify clear cases of good people, and from examining clear cases we derive a general understanding of the nature of a good person. This clear and correct understanding of the good person, Dallas believed, would provide an at-least minimally adequate vision for character formation. Having Jesus as your model for the good person would be better, but for those not ready to take that step for whatever reason, a clear, general vision of the good person, grounded in actual moral experience, can serve the purpose well-enough to make a good start on the project.
But before Dallas could pitch this idea, he had to establish that “the disappearance of moral knowledge” is a reality, that it is a serious problem, and that other prominent approaches to reclaiming moral knowledge have not worked. Most of the book is given to establishing these other points. So again we see the pattern of addressing wrong ideas which get in the way of character-formation, and replacing them with right ideas, with knowledge constituting an adequate vision for character formation. It’s just that, in DMK, the wrong ideas are ones that have been popular among philosophers rather than Christians, and the right ideas are ones that might seem plausible even to philosophers who are not Christians. In these ways, then, DMK can be seen as a kind-of bridge, or maybe a keystone, subtly linking Dallas’ academic and non-academic work in a number of ways.
Steve: I agree with what Aaron has said here (not that he needed my endorsement!). Dallas once said that anything worth saying in the field of Christian formation is ultimately grounded in philosophical claims. That is not to say that Scripture isn’t essential but that the claims of Scripture about formation just won’t make sense against a theoretical backdrop of, for example, materialism or moral relativism. Or, more germane to our discussion, Christian formation would not make sense given a non-realist epistemology. In DMK Dallas was attempting to establish the realist foundations of moral knowledge, and doing that in large part by providing a historical argument as to how the possibility and actuality of moral realism, and therefore knowledge, fell out of favor. DMK should be read in that light.
The ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge might be an elusive way of speaking for some. Specifically, what does Dallas mean [or does not mean] by this descriptor, and why did this concern matter greatly to him?
Gregg: Dallas did not mean to suggest that moral knowledge had gone out of existence – that people used to, but no longer, have it. In fact, he was confident that the average person knows quite a bit about what is good and evil, right and wrong. Rather, he used the language of ‘disappearance’ to describe a particular and dramatic shift in social facts over the course of one hundred years or so. Here is how he describes the shift in Knowing Christ Today (page 73):
…over a period of time, less than a century, the knowledge institutions of our society ceased, for various causes and reasons, to represent traditionally recognized moral values and principles as constituting a body of knowledge. They took it to be an area in which knowledge was not possible or not possible to the extent it could be taught as knowledge. This is the disappearance of moral knowledge that has actually occurred in our recent past.
Dallas thought this disappearance to be a disaster for society. Moral judgments, once grounded in a socially and institutionally endorsed body of knowledge and supportable (at least, in principle) by means of argument and reason have fallen to the purview of feeling or, perhaps, public policy. And as a result, reason, rationality, and argument, once thought ineliminable in the guidance of moral judgment, have been replaced with charisma, the capacity to affect the way people feel, or perhaps just the raw exercise of power. With the loss of a publicly recognizable body of moral knowledge is also lost the possibility of public debate over good and evil, right and wrong — or, at any rate, public debate governed by traditional rules of inference and rationality. All that is left to guide public moral discourse is strength of feeling and (for those who have it) power to enforce the dictates of those feelings
To account for such ‘disappearance’, Dallas engages in a form of intellectual history, where he is not merely assessing the flow of ideas and their analysis but also the role of institutions. Why does Dallas care about institutions? Couldn’t he just do what many professional philosophers tend to do, especially in the so-called analytic tradition, and just analyze ideas, concepts, language, arguments, etc., as if they are merely ahistorical?
Aaron: The main reason Dallas took this approach is that the phenomenon that he calls “the disappearance of moral knowledge” is an intrinsically historical and institutional phenomenon. It is fundamentally a shift in social norms of belief and attitude pertaining to moral knowledge, a movement from widespread belief of the availability of moral knowledge to widespread rejection of that belief. For Dallas, social institutions, such as the professions and, above all, the university, are at the heart of this shift, because they bear primary responsibility for making moral knowledge available to society. It is important to understand that Dallas was concerned with the availability of moral knowledge not in the abstract, but as a concrete public resource for living, on par with knowledge of medicine or of engineering. Without institutions like professions and schools, such knowledge cannot be made so widely available that it begins to color public life. In general, without institutions for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, knowledge might be possessed by a small number of individual geniuses, but it would not be so widely available that it could be considered a public resource. The disappearance of knowledge – moral or otherwise – as a public resource will thus take the form of a breakdown in the institutional structures responsible for making that knowledge available to the public. Consequently, the “disappearance of moral knowledge” is not something that can be understood in terms of ideas and arguments shorn from their socio-historical embodiments in institutional settings.
A second reason is that Dallas thought philosophical analysis and argument could do very little on its own to either secure or to lose moral knowledge. Both its appearance and its disappearance in the West, Dallas says, were not driven by rational demonstrations, but by largely arational changes in the Zeitgeist. Such shifts are due more to causes than to reasons, he says, although reasons do play some role. Consequently, to focus only on the rational factors involved would be to miss the larger part of the explanation for the shift in attitudes toward moral knowledge (Even so, most of the book is in fact devoted to painstaking analyses of the arguments of key moral philosophers in the analytic tradition.)