The West’s Christ-haunted Morality

Flannery O’Connor famously wrote that the American South, while not necessarily Christian by the mid-20th century, was still “Christ-haunted.” In other words, reminders of Christianity abounded there, and people were continually confronted by a Christian heritage even if they rejected it.

I just finished reading an interesting piece on the ISI website titled “Christ-haunted Modern Morality.” Much of the essay is a commentary on the “sentimental” content of the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. What really grabbed me, though, was the problem for Western atheists illustrated at the beginning of the essay: Are they really entitled to appeal to traditional Western standards of aesthetics, given the classical and Christian foundations of those standards? More generally, how can conceptions of the good, true, and beautiful be structured and defined in a secular context? Obviously, many have attempted to answer these questions, but so many have borrowed from Christian antecedents that they open themselves to the accusation that they are “taking a loan out on Christian teaching, which [they refuse] to pay in belief or in deed.”

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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7 Responses to The West’s Christ-haunted Morality

  1. Preston says:

    When the foundations are destroyed, what will the righteous do? I’m beginning to take this to mean that when the foundations of morals are destroyed, what will those who wish to continue to be rIghteous without them do? After all, the truly righteous will continue to maintain a foundation in their own lives. People wish to have the freedom to speak against Christ (and the Holy Spirit, Lord have mercy on them), but even freedom of speech, I believe, is a product of Christian culture, which, I believe, was established by a Spirit-filled Church. Socrates did not have freedom of speech in the modern sense.

  2. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, this is an excellent article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! The author points well to the critical issue of Rawlsian liberalism–the motive of justice (i.e. why should one be willing to place herself into the original position?). I appreciate the breadth of the article and the lucid way that the author captures the status of current conversations about the foundations of liberal morality.

    • Dr. J says:

      Yes, it’s too bad the author posted anonymously . . .

      I could never figure out why Rawls bases motivation in the original position on self-interest, but then thinks self-interested people would give up knowledge about their station in society to enter the original position in the first place. I guess I am not the only person who wondered about that.

  3. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, Rawls isn’t claiming that humans are inherently egoistic when he begins with self-interest as the principle motivation in the OP (in part 3 of theory he describes human nature as “mixed,” including both elements of egoism and altruism). I see this as a rhetorical device in a way; Rawls is wanting to show how even if we begin with the assumption that humans are motivated by self-interest (certainly a premise that many utilitarians, his principles opponents in Theory, would agree with) we can arrive at a theory of justice that is decidedly non-egoistic. Still, the article does point to an important criticism of modern liberalism’s propensity to eschew metaphysical claims. There are parallel conversations in current debates about human rights, with critics pointing to secular liberalism’s inability to account for the foundations of human rights (is this simply a useful “fiction,” or is there something substantive upon which to base the claim that humans have natural rights?). I find Rawls compelling in large part because his Theory does make sense of certain notions that Christians should find compelling–our commitment to selfhood, liberty, and (I would add) the equal worth of liberty.

    FYI, Sam Harris has a new book entitled _The Moral Landscape_ in which he is trying to resurrect natural ethics and moral realism within a purely naturalistic frame. In my view his efforts are doomed to failure.

    • Dr. J says:

      My comment was not a denial that Rawls allowed for some degree of altruism in human nature, but I think you’re splitting hairs to some degree. If Rawls emphasizes self-interest from the get-go and waits around until Part 3 to state that we have some altruistic impulses as well, altruism doesn’t seem to occupy an important place in the framework of his theory. Do you know of any quotes by Rawls where he says he was really trying to bring altruism in by the back door with his formulation of the original position? Either way, as you say, he offers us no compelling reason why we should be willing to enter it in the first place.

      I’ve seen the Harris book but have not read it. Even so, I’ll bet you’re right about it.

  4. Vic McCracken says:

    The issue of whether or not humans are altruistic is inconsequential, and irrelevant, really, to the Christian roots of western morality. There are a variety of Christian notions of the self, some (most?) emphasizing self-interest as an intractable motivating force for fallen humanity. Rawls would make his own case for Justice as Fairness much more difficult by imposing a controversial norm in the OP requiring that we be altruistic (indeed, one of the criticisms of utilitarianism is that it suggests a vision of justice that is too demanding for the individual, not psychologically plausible). Justice as fairness does not assume that we are inherently egoistic or altruistic.

    Besides, I doubt you would want self-sacrificing altruism as a functional feature of any theory of justice yourself. Libertarians don’t call individuals to sacrifice their wellbeing as a matter of justice (charity, perhaps, but not justice). Or at least I haven’t seen a libertarian theory that would require altruism. Minimal decency and goodness are not synonymous.

    • Dr. J says:

      Vic, I think we’re talking about two different things here. I was not implying any connection or lack thereof between altruism in human nature and Christian/Western morality, nor was I offering my own views on what a theory of justice needs. I was only talking about Rawls and how in my view his presentation of the original presentation has problems on its own terms.

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