When I began my graduate studies my intent was to study moral theology. Over time my interests shifted from the theoretical to the applicative. For this reason, I moved from theology to psychology and eventually to studying Christian spirituality and spiritual formation.
As I have gotten older, if not necessarily wiser, I find myself again being concerned with questions of moral theology. Somewhat to my surprise, I also find myself coming to appreciate in a new and deeper way the importance of considering moral question first objectively and only then subjectively or pastorally. In this and the next post I want to offer an informal defense of objective moral norms as an essential, if insufficient, part of Orthodox moral theology.
Methodologically at least, an objective approach to moral questions is one that is at odds with how moral theology is taken up in an Orthodox Christian context. I’m thinking here especially of the work of the Greek Orthodox ethicist and political theologian, Christos Yannaras (that’s a picture of him on the left) who takes great pains in his text The Freedom of Morality to distance himself–and so Orthodox moral reflection–from what he characterizes as the contemporary tendency to think of morality as “an objective yardstick for evaluating the individual character or individual behavior” (p. 13).
He is right of course when he say that such an objective approach to morality “has become bound up in our thoughts with the social categories of good and evil, and represent the extent to which the individual in society corresponds to an objective duty, a ‘moral obligation’ graded into particular ‘virtues.'” But is it also true that each “man’s morality or ethos is his objective valuation on a scale of values accepted by society as a whole” (p. 13)? Here I’m not so sure.
Yannaras reduces ethical reflection outside the Church to one of two modes. We might favor some form of authoritarianism and so seek to ground morality in “a supreme and infallible, and therefore divine, authority. On the other hand “we reject authority” we will instead seek to ground our ethics in a social “agreement or convention” based on mutual agreement (i.e., contractually) or “dictated by custom” (p. 14).
Authoritarian ethics allows God (or presumably those who speak for God, be that a priest or a divinely appointed king) to “decide and impose a general code of human behavior beyond any possible dispute.” For those who embrace a conventional approach, ethics are “utilitarian” and morality is open-ended as “we constantly seek to improve” our understanding of morality “using philosophy or science to study the manifestations of social behavior” (p. 14).
For Yannaras any form of objective ethics–of which there seem to be only two kinds, authoritarian or utilitarian–necessarily leave unexamined “the ontological questions of the truth and reality of human existence, the question of what man really is as distinct from what he ought to be and whether he corresponds to this ‘ought.'” With varying degrees of sophistication, and I would guess for Yannaras more or less obfuscation, objective moral analysis fails to consider the uniqueness and freedom of the person and instead grounds itself in an anthropology that sees the human person as merely “a transient by-product of biological, psychological and historical conditions by which [the person] is necessarily determined” (p. 14).
All of this is implicit, Yannaras argues, on our acceptance of an objective morality. He even goes so far as to say that objective morality “hides the tragedy of [man’s] mortal, biological existence behind idealized and fabulous objective aims.” The moral life, the life of virtue, becomes mere a “mask of behavior borrowed from ideological or party authorities.” Why does the person borrow this mask? Why does the individual take part in this act of existential bad faith? So that I can “be safe from his own self and the questions with which it confronts him” (p. 15).
More on Monday.
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