Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Expedient Ethics

I first encountered the work of sociologist Peter Berger a while back by randomly picking up his book Heretical Imperative in the BBC library. The only thing I remember from it is that Berger confessed to being from the Schleirmacherian school of liberal theology, to which the Barthian inside me yelled "Nein!" But in the interests of exercising the value of tolerance, I continued to read and found myself very interested in what he had to say. (Not interested enough to remember what it was he said, evidently.)

His most recent blog post outlines the same problem that Kevin faces with regards water charges: Now that I'm going to be charged for water usage, how can I pack even more dishes into our dishwasher while still retaining the impeccable order to which I've grown accustomed?

Or, more accurately, it's the problem of whether good ends justify bad motives. Kevin got no solution, and Berger offers none. But the problem has deep historical roots and continues to cast its shadow over us today:

Opponents of capital punishment might wish that similar moral arguments, rather than economic calculations, would lead to the end of capital punishment in the United States. However, it is results rather than purity of motive that finally matter in what Max Weber called the ”ethic of responsibility”. Quite frequently in history morally desirable changes occurred for reasons that had nothing to do with morality: How important in the abolition of slavery was the insight that keeping slaves was more expensive than employing free labor? How many South African businessmen turned against apartheid because it was ruining the economy, rather than because they were impressed by sermons on racial equality? And must one deplore if some east European states are improving their treatment of minorities in accordance with European Union law, not because they are sorry about past atrocities, but because that is a condition of obtaining EU subsidies? History is not an ongoing seminar in moral philosophy. This does not mean that moral considerations play no role; it does mean that, much of the time, it is more effective to appeal to interests rather than conscience.

The situations are wildly different, but is Paul's commentary on the impure preaching of Christ still instructive? Some people are preaching Christ out of jealousy and rivalry rather than out of truth and love. Paul does not condone their motives, but it is he who has the last laugh, because, ultimately, Christ is being preached "and in that I rejoice".

Is this a case of proleptic Christian realism, and the solution to Kevin's problem? The one from the Hauerwasian school of theological ethics is surely saying "Hell no!" right about now.

1 comment:

  1. I indeed came to a Hauerwasian conclusion but I appreciate the collaboration!