Pascal’s ethics?

I find Eugene McCarraher, the Christian socialist professor at Villanova, an intriguing writer, since his intellectually rigorous left-wing theism isn’t too common these days, so I was interested what he had to say about Hannah Arendt. He makes a somewhat predictable charge, that her mostly suitable (to him) soft-socialist morality is not tenable without being grounded in doctrinal theology. Leaving aside the question as to whether the criticism is applicable to Arendt, the pertinent question in my mind is as to whether religious belief can ever really arise on the basis that is implicitly suggested here. Granted, what McCarraher proposes is less nakedly self-interested than Pascal’s wager, but it is still essentially predicated on a similar idea. Pascal held that it is better to believe in God than not in terms of self-interest, and McCarraher seems to be saying that it is necessary to believe in God in the interest of abiding by an adequate ethical system. But in both cases the question is, can anyone really hold a belief in God for instrumental purposes? I’ve certainly never met anyone who did, although my Russian TA was baptized on explicitly Pascalian grounds. To be fair, I misrepresent somewhat, in that McCarraher never actually holds that religious beliefs should be founded on ethical considerations. But a criticism of Arendt for divorcing ethics from religious belief is only relevant if she could freely adopt an adherance to religion to buttress her ethics.

As I say, I am dubious that it can be done, and I am rather dubious as to the validity of the premise as well. In my mind it is a historical fact that the increasing prosperity of Western societies and attention to alleviating misfortune in this life correspond almost exactly to the recession of dogmatic religion from public life. From what I know of modern Christianity theological dogma has evaporated whole-sale from even the fundamentalist Churches, and it seems to me that this is both a creation of modern liberal society (i.e. the end of enforced conformity to ecclesiastical thought) and the very thing which allows people like McCarraher to equate religion itself with a metaphysical rationalization of ethics. I certainly would not claim that religious belief cannot be beneficial in enforcing moral conduct when people are impressed with the gravity of their actions, by consequences for themselves that transcend death. But it can equally make some people conclude that the world is corrupt and worthless and should be destroyed for their unrighteousness. I agree that Arendt seems to conceive of totalitarianism as too unitary of a phenomenon, paying insufficient attention to the particular features of the particular systems that exemplify it (she thought that anti-Semitism, for example, was a fundamental postulate of totalitarianism, which would probably be news to the Chinese or Cambodians). But it would be equally simplistic to ascribe such unity to the effects of religion, or even Christianity, on ethics and the public sphere. And besides, people believe what they think to be true, and even if this is often a rationalization of that which is in their pereceived interest, I have yet to see an instance in which this can be consciously done, when someone can really take on a belief not because they really believe it to be true but because it will have positive secondary effects. In other words, even if you believed that belief in God would make you better off or more virtuous if God exists, what difference would that make if you don’t believe that it exists?

2 Responses to “Pascal’s ethics?”

  1. Dave Says:

    “In my mind it is a historical fact that the increasing prosperity of Western societies and attention to alleviating misfortune in this life correspond almost exactly to the recession of dogmatic religion from public life.? Curt

    Yea, I read the article. It was like watching Ping-Pong balls inside the plastic container they use to pick lotto numbers, about as coherent as Brownian movement. What are the real connections between the random verbal discharges coming from this man? As far as I can see the man entirely dances around what tactics are permissible or nonpermissible in order to achieve his vision of a just society. Oh, I guess he must be an intellectual. As Penn and Teller would ask, “Is it BS??

    Toward the end he articulates the usual leftist dogmas without recognizing the paradox the left never is willing to face. Call it fascism, socialism or communism or fundamentalism, whenever collectivists get power in the name of helping the poor or not, they fail to help the poor but do eventually make everyone equally miserable, except themselves as they become kings and saviors.

    I ran across some quotes by Eric Hoffer, whom McCarraher implies is a creator of bogeymen such as the “true believer.” I suppose he thinks these are not an undesirable personality types but like freedom fighters and patriots are interchangeable depending upon whose side they fight.

    “People unfit for freedom – who cannot do much with it – are hungry for power. The desire for freedom is an attribute of a “have” type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of a “have not” type of self. “

    “The monstrous evils of the twentieth century have shown us that the greediest money grubbers are gentle doves compared with money-hating wolves like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler,—- “

    “Every era has a currency that buys souls. In some the currency is pride, in others it is hope, in still others it is a holy cause. There are of course times when hard cash will buy souls, and the remarkable thing is that such times are marked by civility, tolerance, and the smooth working of everyday life.?

    Or as Samuel Johnson said “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.?

  2. Curt Says:

    I think, and I have tried to suggest, that it is a muddled perspective as well, though not the specifically left-wing component. I think that that element is wrong and somewhat disingenuous, but not incoherent. It is coherent if one assumes, as I do, that such dislike of liberal society is largely motivated by a visceral loathing of some people having more than others, as well as an often not unjustified concern that those with less are genuinely deprived. What I do find incoherent is the apparent belief that such a standard set of leftist ethical and political beliefs is not just compatible with but in fact dependent on dogmatic theism. Say what one will about the various “progressive” political movements in our society, they tend to be actuated by a sort of utilitarian ethical framework that coexists uneasily at best with the a priori moral rules that Christianity among other religions tends to favor. As for the metaphysics, I could see, as I said before, how believing, as Christians do, that eternal rewards or punishment await us based on our actions might tend to foster moral behavior, but on the other hand I don’t see much evidence in the world that Christians are on the whole a more generous or virtuous lot than any other social or religious group.

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