Dallas Willard Ministries (DWM) recently released some interesting video presentations at a Center for Christian Thought hosted symposium on Dallas Willard’s Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, which we are also happy to promote here. The symposium is part of DWM’s recently launched Moral Knowledge Initiative. Introductory papers were presented by Gregg Ten Elshof on an “Overview of the Issues Presented in the Book” (see the Westmont 2018 presentation) and by Steve Porter “The Primacy of the Individual in Reclaiming Moral Knowledge.”
Jonathan Haidt published The Happiness Hypothesis in 2006, and has become a leading public intellectual addressing matters of morality and ethics. Dr. Preston chose to present an overview of Haidt’s work because, “As far as the project of making moral knowledge available as a public resource is concerned, Haidt is the one who is making an impact.” Haidt observes that we have lost “a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values,” and shares many of Willard’s concerns. But he desires to restore virtue because of its importance to human happiness, and it is happiness itself, or more broadly emotion, that is the goal. While Haidt needs better philosophical grounding to sort out his own understanding of reason, intuition and emotion, Preston sees him as a potential ally for the Moral Knowledge Initiative.
Kheriaty affirms much of Haidt’s work, but puts it in the category of “sociology of knowledge” which Willard says “deals with the causal conditions that bring about the general acceptance of certain thoughts and beliefs as representations of reality—moral or otherwise” (DMK 12). Any such knowledge generated by the social sciences is only knowledge by general consensus and can therefore easily disappear when this consensus changes. Studies of the human soul have fallen into this category (DMK 10). In response to Haidt’s heavy emphasis on emotivism in his moral psychology and philosophy, Kheriaty prescribes a regrounding in the part of classical platonic tradition “which we could roughly describe as the doctrine of participation: all normally functioning human beings participate by a kind of intuition in the logos – in a universal reason or ordering principle. This participation allows us both to know the world, which is rationally ordered and intelligible, and to reason and deliberate together in the pursuit of truth and goodness.” Accounts based on evolutionary psychology or the sociology of knowledge are incapable by themselves of recovering moral knowledge as a publicly available resource.
by Mary Poplin
Following the exclusion of Christianity and any organized moral knowledge in the academy, the focus in teacher education became stages of development (e.g., cognitive, social and moral), all deeply embedded in scientific method. There is a loss of meaning that comes with an attachment to physical sciences because they cannot deal with the big issues of life. This has created a culture of despair on college campuses. Student health centers are being overwhelmed by students struggling with anxiety and depression, as suicide statistics in young people continue to rise. In the classroom, courses that address moral knowledge and goodness are in high demand because they offer hope for students examining their lives and looking to their future. But teacher training in the last several decades barely touches issues of morality or character. Today the emphasis is largely on culture, gender, and class seen through the lens of critical theory. This is the case in K-12 as well, which is a crucial time for character formation. With this educational trend, defining “the good person” becomes a significant challenge, but one of utmost importance so that students can know how to become good people.
by Mike Austin
The university as we know it is in trouble. It is no longer a “uni”-versity because it’s not united. It is shifting from a marketplace of ideas to a platform for social change, and the understanding of who counts as a “good person” is weak. But our secular colleagues do have some access to moral knowledge that is grounded in the character of God, though it is perhaps indirect, which Austin encouraged us to make use of as we do our work. We can find common ground, insofar as there is knowledge about morality, human selves, and human flourishing, that is available outside of special revelation. This includes using the empirical work available to us via positive psychology to make our case. As Poplin points out, “scientific findings that relate to human flourishing reveal the advantages of living Christianly”: physical and mental health, longevity, the family, education, and more. We need more of this kind of work on Christian virtues, such as faith, hope, and love, at the academic and popular levels.
by Steven Smith
Smith’s central concern regarding moral knowledge is found in his reframing of the issue as the “very real, non-academic question that all of us constantly face: How should I live? Or, in a communal version: How should we live together?” This allows him to write about the good person from a normative legal and moral perspective and articulate a possible way forward. He acknowledges we live in a world of “rampant normative pluralism” and identifies the challenge it presents for “modern legal and political theorizing, and in many respects for modern law.” He doesn’t hold out much hope for a “recovery through greater philosophical attention to ‘the good person’” as a merely human remedy, but recommends that ministry, rather than either law or philosophy, “is the best prospect for a recovery– if not of ‘moral knowledge,’ exactly– at least of a sensible, grounded normativity in our current society.”
Cochran described the ways in which moral knowledge has been disappearing from legal theory over the last two centuries, and how these changes are manifested in legal ethics, lawyer counseling, law school and law practice. His paper particularly emphasized the influence of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s philosophy that there is no “higher law,” but that law is merely the assertion of power here on earth. While not very optimistic about the prospects of the return of moral knowledge in the legal field, Cochran pointed to the possibilities present in the New Natural Law theory being championed by John Finnis (emphasizing “the good person” as Dallas does), and noted that the newest member of the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, was Finnis’s graduate student at Oxford. Cochran’s presentation ended on a hopeful note with a white board comparison of Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights (2011) with Willard’s DMK and the similarities in what both authors are promoting.
by Scott Rae
In his response to Cochran and Smith, Scott Rae provided the following analysis of law and morality: “The authority of the law depends on the moral attitudes that undergird it, giving it the competence to order society that it claims to have.” He gave an example of the loss of moral knowledge as applied to physician assisted suicide, indicating a trend toward its wholesale adoption due to the prevailing attitude around the question of who is being harmed, along with the societal position expressed by Genontologist Joanne Lynn that, “there is nothing cheaper than dead.” Rae closed his paper with a quote from James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character: “We want character, but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality, but without the emotional burden of guilt and shame; we want virtue, but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist on it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.” And his own personal assessment, “It strikes me that the death of character and the disappearance of moral knowledge go together, which lends urgency to the recovery of moral knowledge.”