11am Holy Communion 4th July 2021
Intuition and Calculation
I had a nostalgic moment not long ago reading an article (in the London Review of Books for 3rd June 2021) on Intuitive Morality by Thomas Nagel, an American philosopher who was already quite a big cheese in philosophy when I was a Baby Bel undergraduate. He starts by recounting a story which has continued to haunt me. It was told him by Stuart Hampshire, another then more famous English philosopher, who had been an intelligence officer in Normandy. The Resistance had captured an important collaborator who was known to have information which would be of great use to the Allies. Hampshire was sent to interview him. The Resistance leaders said that was OK, but they were going to shoot the collaborator afterwards anyway, as they always did. The collaborator told Hampshire he would only talk if assured that he would be handed over to the British. Hampshire said he could give no such guarantee; the collaborator told him nothing.
Was Hampshire right to feel it impossible to tell a lie to someone in those circumstances? Was it just moral squeamishness? Should he have considered more compelling the likelihood that the collaborator (not, we can assume a very nice man) could have given information which might have saved many lives?
The argument is about how we do make moral decisions and how we should make them. Should we rely on intuition, the gut reaction that face to face with an unpalatable act- telling a lie in this case, and a lie about life and death- we simply can’t do it. Or should we rationalise and consider the wider consequences, or the utility, of our action, which however immediately abhorrent, would bring about a greater good, measured at least in terms of lives lost?
In part, it is just a question of squeamishness and proximity; it is easier to be coolly rational about moral problems which are not in our face or on our doorstep. But considering the question less personally, we may think that our intuitive reactions must be the basis of moral reasoning; without a foundation in intuitive kindness, consequentialist morality can have some hideous results. The Bolsheviks thought their system would bring the greatest good, but it came at a terrible price. Utilitarianism, the most common form of consequentialism is often bad news for minorities. (There are much more sophisticated versions of utilitarianism, but no room in this sermon to begin to explain them). Stuart Hampshire must have wondered- and did; that is why he told the story- whether his comrades in arms wouldn’t have rather he did lie and give a false guarantee to a man who was going to die anyway.
What bearing does any of this have on Christian Ethics? Does Christian moral teaching throw light on the dilemma or do these apparently secular questions help our Christian understanding? I fear the answer in both cases is probably not much, but there are one or two points to be made.
The essential and overt ethics of the Old Testament writers is consequentialist in that it is based on a covenant. Covenants and contracts are agreements creating mutual expectations. The consequence of accepting God as the only God and doing His will was happiness in the Promised land. The Ten Commandments are framed as injunctions, but they too have an underlying (and sometimes overt) contract implied; “Honour your father and your mother that you may live long in the Land …”.With a few exceptions, however, even when the covenant is broken, God is usually persuaded to relent; he can’t bring himself to destroy his creation, not altogether, anyway. He has, it sems, an intuitive kindness and love for what he has created.
That intuition is itself rationalised and explained by creation. All things are created by God and are therefore part of God and to be respected. Most specifically, all life is holy. The respect that we are to have for our fellow creatures, and most of all for our fellow human creatures, seems to me close to the natural intuition that we have to help them and not to hurt them. It is surely the only basis on which we can believe in Human Rights and it is still the basis if we prefer to turn those rights round and believe in basic human obligations – how we ought to behave towards our fellow human beings (and I would say all creatures and creation too), however hard we feel it to respect them. Isn’t that why Stuart Hampshire couldn’t lie, even to pretty a despicable collaborator; lie, and be complicit in his summary execution?
Grace, is not as I have hinted, unique to the Gospel, but it is in the New Testament that it is worked out, and it too would seem to be a matter of intuition, or at least not a matter of consequences. Luckily for us, we do not receive our just desserts; we are let off the consequences of our actions.
Yet there is something consequentialist about the Gospel notion of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a state to which all our actions should be directed, and it will come about like the enjoyment of, the Promised Land, where and when our behaviour is aligned with God’s wishes. It is a promise and as such a consequence. That is not however how it appears in the Parables; rather it is something which will occur by God’s Grace, helped in part by human endeavour but essentially by men and women just allowing God’s will to be done, and that is surely not calculating consequentialism but entirely natural intuition; it is us recognising, and responding to Grace. It is what happens in most of the Miracles, and it can happen to us too.
So, you will probably not be astonished that conclusion seems to be that we need the example of the miracles, unreasoning recognition and response to kindness and Grace, but that having accepted it our reaction needs thought and calculation. This reasoning will be based on our own capacity for kindness, and we are justified in believing that the consequence of that calculation and action will, to some small extent, mean that God’s will is indeed done on earth as it is in Heaven. You will not perhaps be surprised to hear that Thomas Nagel’s conclusion, although wholly unreligious, was much the same. AmenPrint This Page