Post last updated on January 22, 2024
Image credit: Rijksmuseum, Netherlands
The following selection is taken from Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013). The selection appears here by courtesy of the publisher, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, and is posted to provide the English text to a Nepalese translation that appears here.
Oliver O’Donovan begins the first chapter of his book under a heading Moral Awareness:
Unfamiliar trains of thought and specialized patterns of inquiry may be provided with an introduction, which show the student their grounds and scope. But what of trains of thought and patterns of inquiry, communications, and practices which have been with us since before were even conscious of thinking? No introduction can be imagined for what we can never meet for the first time: conscious experience itself, in all its forms. And a very great part of conscious experience is our sense of ourselves as agents. Practical reasoning has been our native element. Yet we can, and may, feel the need to grow more aware of that element; we can learn to ask sharper questions about it and to open ourselves up to the logic of what we have always simply counted on. And we can ask about what it tells us of more ultimate things: of God, especially, who stands behind and before our agency, and our position in his world and time. If we cannot pursue these questions, we cannot be at rest with ourselves; but if we can pursue them, we can be helped and encouraged to do them. It is with that in view that we propose this induction into Ethics as Theology, to be followed in due time, if God permits, by a further exploration of it.
‘So then we are debtors,’ says Saint Paul write suddenly in the middle of everything (Rom. 8:12). Certainly, we are debtors! We know it as soon as we are told it. We swim in a sea of moral obligations, tangled in seaweed on every side, acknowledging claims here, asserting responsibilities there. It is our native element. Yet we have no idea how it become so. What led Saint Paul to his ‘so then’ was a long account of what God had done for us: justification by free grace, one righteous act that gave life to many, delivery from the power of law. But at every moment it assumes that we were debtors already: debtors when we suppressed the truth in ungodliness, debtors when we were reconciled to God, debtors when we could not continue in sin that grace might abound. Of this or that concrete debt we can plan how it came about: we signed a rental contract, agreed terms of employment, made a confession of love. But these acts were not the start of our indebtedness. We rented the flat because we had a job we have to get to each morning; we took the job because we needed to be near our girlfriend; even the confession of love was shaped by a complex of obligations shaped by emotional exchanges that gained ground on us and closed us in. Obligations formed us, and we formed obligations, for as long as we ever knew ourselves. They governed our behavior and shaped our character before we knew how to think of them. We did not reach our thoughts of obligation by inference from other thoughts, abstract ideas like those of mathematics or aesthetics or immediate perception of the senses. What other thoughts could there have been that could have immersed us in the sea of obligations for the very first time?
Let us say, we awake to our moral experience in the beginning. What seems like the beginning is not really a beginning at all. We wake to find things going on, and ourselves going on in the midst of them. The beginning is simply the dawning of our consciousness, our coming-to to what is already happening and to how we are already placed. For some thinkers about Ethics, both academic and popular, this has proved and embarrassment. They would like to find a safe ground for knowledge of ourselves or our situation, some truth drawn from a scheme of objective knowledge—theology, sociology, evolutionary biology, or whatever— and to work from that point to discover whether there is such a thing as a morality, and what it is. “Morality should be governed by science!” is the familiar hunting-halloo of the revisionary theorist. It would be nice to test the ground of morality before we step on it. But to all such proposals there is one inevitable reply: they come too late. Already we are asking questions about our actions and obligations. Already we are contesting the reasons for acting this way or in that way. The scientific starting-point, whatever it may have been, is far behind us and beyond our field of vision. It is a reasonable ambition, of course, to situate moral awareness withing the wider scheme of things, to identify its presuppositions and its function in the world, but one must begin with it where it is to be found, which is where we find ourselves, active subjects caught up in the middle of things. Here is the element of truth in the ancient and recurrent claim that values cannot be derived from fact. The medieval mystics held that love, the employment of the will, arises “without previous knowledge”; twentieth-century philosophers denied that “is” could imply “ought.”1O’Donovan’s footnote: John Gerson, Opusculum 1: “Stat amorem naturalem causari sine prevoa cognittious in re que diligit, mat vel appetit.” A great deal of confusion has surrounded this claim, which is frequently mistaken for a license for voluntarism and intuitionisms that reduce moral reasoning to nonsense. But we must grant the starting-point: moral experience is not constructed or achieved of non-moral experience; it is woken up to the experience that has accompanied other experience, present from the beginning and distinct in kind.
And what is this distinct kind? If we follow Paul’s exposition further, we find that the indebtedness accompanies phronēma, which is to say, practical thought, thought about what we are to do. Practical thought is the most commonplace of human rational exercises, for action is the first and elementary horizon of human existence. At home in our minds like fauna in their native habitat, reasons for acting need no introduction to us but occupy their mental environment with assured right of possession. We can hardly think of thinking without thinking first of them. The moment of pure observation, when our practical impulses come to rest in sheer wonder at our object, when we stand right back behind the line of sight: that is the rare and acquired moment of thought, the one that we need some kind of introduction to.Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time, vol. vol. 1, Ethics as Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 1-3.
Notes & References
|O’Donovan’s footnote: John Gerson, Opusculum 1: “Stat amorem naturalem causari sine prevoa cognittious in re que diligit, mat vel appetit.”