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April 09, 2009


Thanks, Dr. Song. Your response reminded me of Robert George's response to Jeffrey Goldsworthy, "A Defense of the New Natural Law Theory." Goldsworthy, according to George, critiqued the new natural law on the basis that feelings and desires motivate people to the exclusion of rationally comprehended ends. "Reason's role is limited to identifying efficient means to those ends" supplied by the passions. George goes on to argue for the existence of at least some "non-instrumental reasons for action" in keeping with the new natural law theory. Pretty neat.

You mentioned how not even serious cognitivists or rationalists totally exclude emotions or passions (as George notes, as well). My question is how you, as a Christian philosopher, understand the role of the feelings and desires we have as human beings when we're deciding to act. How do we know when our feelings are getting in the way and how do we know when they're helping us on to the right choice? Perhaps this is too complex a question.


And yet, isn't it true, that although right reason supplies the justification, passion supplies the motivation? Does not the Spirit's conforming us to Christ consist not only in illumining our minds, but in inflaming our passions, so that our heart's truest instinct is ready obedience? Without that, I have only a head full of knowledge; a lifetime of experience has shown me how powerless that is when it comes to acting on what I know is right! I once asked Professor Haidt if he had read any C. S. Lewis. He hadn't. I gave him a copy of "The Abolition of Man" suggesting he read the chapter, "Men Without Chests." He said that was the book others had recommended! Lewis writes, "Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe 'a gentleman does not cheat.' than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers." Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Thank you both for the thoughtful responses. Barrett, I know much of George's work, (coincidentally, he was at LSU just last week and I had dinner with him) but not that particular essay. There is a lot of really interesting work being done on this point, especially by TM Scanlon. He argues that desire-based/instrumental accounts of reason for action get things backwards. Desires aren't reasons for actions because they are desires; rather, desires are reasons for action because they are reasons or proto-reasons. He tries to argue that desires are actually complex psychological phenomenon that are proto-evaluative. To desire something is to see oneself, at least prima facie as having a reason to do it. THis is different from having an urge or compulsion which lacks this evaluative component. Interesting stuff.

But this doesn't answer either question. I don't know if I believe, Lois, Lewis's pithy maxim. I wouldn't trust a moral philosopher brought up among sharpers much, but I don't think I would trust him or her less than I trust a moral skeptic. It is hard to believe that the skeptic's beliefs wouldn't at some point erode the reliability of his training. Again, I don't doubt at all the importance of the emotions and the importance of trying to inculcate moral dispositions and virtues (In fact, I think such inculcation is necessary to "see" the point of certain kinds of moral demands--I am a virtue theorist through and through when it comes to thinking about moral education). But neither do I think that reason is wholly impotent to motivate us to action. It's the 'powerless' bit that seems a bit much to me. And maybe more important, I think all of this talk obscures certain important connections between reason and the emotions. This is related to the point above, many emotions at least, seem to have a proto-evaluative component.


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  • Welcome to Common Grounds Online. Readers of Common Grounds have suggested a website to continue the explorations they began in the book. In keeping with the interactions of Professor MacGregor, Brad, Lauren and Jarrod, the theme of this site is ‘learning and living the Christian story.’

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