In “The most sinful man in the room” I quoted Harry Blamires’ observation that from a Christian perspective the person with the most admirable public persona may be the most evil or wicked person based on the interior condition of his heart.
“I’m trying to think of a reason to care about a man’s “cancerous inner self-centredness” or “sin” or “ministering to the desires and vanities of his own inflated self” if these things did not make a measurable difference in anything else I care about. My caring will always be directed according to how the difference affects things I value, such as the freedom and feelings of others or whether the local grocery store has chocolate milk. If I placed a high enough probably on God’s existence and I thought I could correctly predict how things make him feel, my caring would be influenced by that too.
“The passage above seems to treat virtue as a thing to care about equally or more than the states of affairs that manifest as a result of someone’s virtue. This seems backwards to me.”
As I see it, Blamires’ passage is a faithful representation of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and thus I take it that R0c1’s complaint is a complaint against the ethics of Jesus. Is R0c1 right?
Hmmm, Roc1 on one side of the scale, Jesus and Blamires on the other.
Okay, I’m going with Jesus and Blamires on this one. And when I say that I’m not simply confessing a fideism that says “I agree, this picture of the ethical life doesn’t make much sense but I’ll take Jesus’ word for it.” Rather, I think that careful reflection on the matter at hand will vindicate the words of Jesus as mediated through Blamires.
Roc1 thinks we ought to care more about what a person does than the kind of internal virtues, thoughts and dispositions a person has.
I remember hearing somebody else share a similar view: Dr. Laura, the once mighty conservative radio talk show host. As a psychologist and endless fountain of moral and practical advice, Dr. Laura was at one time syndicated on hundreds of radio stations across North America. The structure of the program was simple: callers would dial in and request advice for one or another moral dilemma and the good doctor would direct them accordingly.
So I once heard a call on Dr. Laura about a decade ago. A man called in to confess to Dr. Laura that he was fantasizing about the neighbor every time he had, ahem, “relations” with his wife. He was feeling guilty about it and wanted to know whether it was okay to keep fantasizing. Dr. Laura’s answer was immediate and unequivocal. She told him that in her opinion he could fantasize all he wanted so long as he never acted on the fantasy.
It was at that moment that I saw a yawning chasm open up between the ethics of the conservative-Jewish Dr. Laura and the ethics of Jesus. If that gentleman had called in to Jesus for advice the good rabbi would have replied like this:
“You have heard Dr. Laura say ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (compare: Matthew 5:27-28)
Here’s the question before us: what is a good person? And in this case the more specific question is: what is a good spouse?
If you’re following Dr. Laura you could say that a good spouse is one who acts in all external behaviors like a loving consort. And that certainly is a piece of the puzzle. But is it the only piece? Is it at least the biggest piece?
I don’t think so. After all, it is possible that one act in all external behaviors like a loving consort even as one hates one’s spouse and reserves the life of fantasy for any number of illicit trysts with others.
Think about it like this. Imagine that you’re looking for a spouse and you have two candidates, both of which you know will be “good” spouses in all externals. But only one of them will be faithful and loving to you internally. The other will act the part but all his/her affections will truly be reseved for another. Upon knowing the difference would you say “Meh, a distinction without a difference!”? Hardly! On the contrary, you’d find in that distinction a yawning gap between a truly good spouse and one who merely acts good.
Indeed, just to drive the point home, I suspect we’d all prefer a spouse who occasionally acts like a jerk but who loves us in the core of his/her being over one who never acts like a jerk but whose heart to us is cold.
If our intuitions are so strongly in support of Jesus and Blamires, then why are we apt to maintain some degree of skepticism about this analysis of a good person? Let me suggest two reasons.
To begin with, I think Roc1’s response to the case of the judge conflates two different issues: whether the judge is a good person, and whether one should care that the judge is a good person. Let’s say that R0c1 is a lawyer or a defendent or a juror in the courtroom. If the judge acts indistinguishably from a good person then the lawyer or defendent or juror would never know the difference. Thus, they wouldn’t care that the judge wasn’t really a good person. But it wouldn’t follow that the interior life of the judge was ethically indifferent. And so consider how quickly those intuitions about the importance of interior goodness shift when our investment in the person is itself personal (as in a spouse or parent or child) rather than perfunctory (as in a judge we encounter in passing).
Now for the second point. Despite the strength of my analysis (such as it may be) some may remain skeptical about the wisdom of Jesus’ characterization of the good person. What can I say about that skepticism? From the Christian perspective there is a simple if disconcerting answer: we don’t like the analysis because we all fail miserably to attain the lofty goal of a truly good person so defined. Since we want to think of ourselves as good people, we’re liable to marginalize the analysis.
But the answer to this dilemma isn’t to throw out the definition of a good person. Rather, it is to recognize the undeniable fact that we fail to attain it.