Moral Philosophy beyond the Textbook
In the early nineteenth century, “Moral Philosophy” was the name of a capstone college course required of all students and usually taught by the president of the college. Today, a philosophy course in “Ethics” is generally merely an elective, although Marx’s Communism, Mill’s Utilitarianism, and Sartre’s Existentialism subtly shape the rest of the curriculum in ways few students will ever suspect. The minority of students who both enroll for an ethics course and receive a traditional curriculum will gain insight into whence those prophets of Modernism and Postmodernism came and whither they have led, while also rediscovering alternatives—especially the Natural Law tradition—from Classical and Medieval periods of Western Civilization.
In “How to Teach Objective Morality to a Postmodern Audience,” I identified a helpful survey text of Western moral philosophy that my students have appreciated over the years: The Story of Ethics, by Kelly James Clark and Anne Poortenga. These authors provide concise biographies of some of the most influential contributors to the enterprise of moral philosophy, from Homer and Plato up to John Rawls and Richard Rorty, with some Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche in between. The editors also give due attention to Christian intellectuals, including St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
I paired their brief text (150 pages) with a collection of primary source documents so that my students could read samples in the philosophers’ own words. It was a great exploration. Students’ reviews consistently hailed The Story of Ethics as one of the favorite textbooks of their academic career: brief, clear, interesting, and relevant—even while being antiquated, profound, and challenging.
Unfortunately, the book went out of print and unless I wanted my students to hunt down copies on e-Bay and Craig’s List (the asking price was $80 and up!), I knew I needed to find something else. This was more difficult than I had expected. Eleven years passed since I had last taught the course, and in those eleven years the intellectual landscape of introductory philosophy courses changed greatly. Gone are the traditional surveys of influential people and their ideas. Gone, too, are the Christian contributions to the history of human thought. The books flooding the market today come in two basic kinds: postmodern smörgåsbords of diverse perspectives, or starter kits for launching students into debates concerning contemporary moral controversies.
To a limited extent, each of those approaches has a proper place. It can be valuable to compare the myriad perspectives that color the globe. It also is useful to learn to engage in contemporary debates. However, I am increasingly convinced that what students need more than anything is a foundation, a grounding, a firm place to start. Before comparing this with that, they need a standard for making comparisons at all. Before arguing for or against, they need to listen patiently to people who long ago argued over similar issues better than any of us presently knows how to do.
A Classical Approach to Philosophy
Yes, I’m old school. I was, after all, a teaching assistant in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame—a “Great Books” program in which students read and digested the classics, learning to refine their own thinking by emulating great minds of the past. I’m also a Christian. I love the Bible. The Bible is old. Maybe even old-fashioned. But it’s tried and true, and that’s the sort of thing I seek after also among documents that are not divinely inspired.
When some of those human writings contradict the divine writ, I’m ready for it. I don’t bury my head in the sand and I don’t want my students to do so, either; but, I do know that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). Everyone must start somewhere. I’m not ashamed to start with Scripture. As a community of learners who also attend daily chapel services, my students and I read our Aristotle, we read our Kant, we read our Darwin, we read our Nietzsche. We don’t take cheap shots at any of them, but rather we let them speak for themselves as we scrutinize their texts. But we also don’t end the day saying, “It’s all so nice that each person has his or her own perspective.” No, we aim for something less narcissistic and more enduring: we share a quest for truth in which some ideas don’t make the cut, other ideas last for a time, but only a few ideas are worth keeping and passing on. Discernment, not diversity, is our watchword. And, yes, I truly do think we are better because of it.
Some people may think of us as arrogant if we are willing, in a philosophy class of all places, to suggest there could be such a thing as a wrong answer. I flip the issue around the other way. It would be more arrogant to say that my opinion must matter simply because it is my opinion. Instead, I humbly acknowledge that my opinion may not be worth anyone’s time. In our quest we seek more than opinions; we seek objective truths.
And so I challenge my students to put each text to the test and also to put me to the test, to scrutinize my ideas—but not because I value their alternative perspectives for the sake of valuing their alternative perspectives. Get real. I’m an educator, not a therapist. No, it’s rather because I value God’s ideas and I admire His creation. He created my students’ minds and He has a plan for them to put their minds to good use. Learning to think carefully by reading others who thought carefully is a worthwhile task. Discerning which of these thinkers latched onto natural law and which ones turned aside to moral skepticism also is worthwhile. Thank you, Clark and Poortenga, for serving as our tour guides in years past.
A Different Kind of Supplementary Text
For the Fall 2016 semester, with the Story of Ethics out of print, I finally gave up on seeking a traditional replacement. Maybe such a book is still out there, but the catalogs I perused kept steering me toward the aforementioned postmodern free-for-alls and applied case studies. Unfortunately, the examples trotted out in these books tend to serve the editor’s own ideological proclivities, rather than provide a comprehensive background in moral philosophy. Still not finding an adequate survey text, I started to “think outside the box.”
At the suggestion of my wife, I read Randy Alcorn’s If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. I was impressed in several ways:
- Alcorn makes the Problem of Evil accessible to a broad audience. (The famous “Problem” is this: If God exists, and God is almighty, and God is loving, then how can evil exists?)
- Alcorn explores a wide variety of attempted solutions to the Problem of Evil, and analyzes them both philosophically and theologically.
- Although Alcorn is a Christian, he provides a fair representation of the views of atheists and agnostics. The fact that he is a Christian convert who previously was in their camp perhaps makes him more sensitive to their point of view.
- Although Alcorn leans toward Calvinism, he provides a fair-minded assessment of Arminianism and also acknowledges criticisms of Calvinism. In fact, he suggests a nuanced spectrum, distinguishing how Calvinists define their own position versus how their position appears from the vantage point of Arminians, and vice versa. Aside from helpfully analyzing this particular topic (divine sovereignty vs. human freedom), Alcorn’s framework provides a model for fostering a balanced discussion of other topics as well.
- In the end, Alcorn lets Scripture speak for itself, and does not attempt to over-explain the paradox of God’s sovereignty and human freedom, or the implications of this paradox for the philosophical issues involving free will and moral responsibility.
Throughout the book, Alcorn also cites major philosophers and theologians from the past and present, including many of the philosophers whom my students are studying. Although his book is by no means a survey text for an introductory course in philosophy, it did serve as a pedagogical complement to the primary texts I assigned to my students and the classroom discussions that we had concerning those texts.
Two Bonus Benefits
In addition to serving well as a supplementary text for a moral philosophy course, Alcorn’s If God Is Good also provided two other advantages that confirmed my decision to assign his book rather than following the latest trends in the textbook industry.
First, he wove together numerous people and concepts that constitute “cultural literacy.” In other words, he helped my students to navigate their world. He expanded their horizons. And isn’t that what any college course should accomplish? If my students did not already know the following people, they do now.
Second, If God Is Good reinforces the chief mission of Christian education. As much as I appreciate the personal attention that I can provide to students because I teach at a small college, and as exciting as it is that about nine out of every ten graduates become employed in their preferred field soon after graduation, or else get admitted to their first choice among graduate schools, none of these “success statistics” matters as much as the main reason why Christian education should be treasured. Put frankly, Christian education matters because people die. It happens every semester. Usually someone’s grandparent. Sometimes a parent or a sibling. Sometimes even a classmate. Most recently, it was my faculty colleague. And so the question arises: If God is good, then why does He permit evil and suffering? Why death? Why this person’s death today, why now?
Philosophers have vexed over these questions. Second-rate theologians have side-stepped the real issues. Alcorn’s If God Is Good takes seriously the confusion and doubts that people have about God’s existence, about His love, and about a whole host of other issues centering around God’s nature, man’s nature, and the relationship between the two. Ultimately, Alcorn guides his readers back to Scripture, where the mystery is revealed in part even while some paradoxes remain. “Those without a biblically grounded theology of suffering are always just one accident, disease, natural disaster, or combat fatality away from losing their faith,” warns Alcorn. On the other hand, those who understand from Scripture that God works all things for the good of His children (Romans 8:28) will experience hardships differently—rather than losing their faith, they will grow in their trust that God is almighty, that God is gracious, that God is in control, and that even when the evils and tragedies of this world do not make sense to us—why would a loving God permit such suffering?—God and His saints ultimately will overcome and obtain the victory.
Alcorn connects a wealth of Scripture passages, wisdom from the great theologians of the ages, and the raw experiences of people who have suffered greatly in order to provide comfort, courage, and above all Christ to readers who are struggling with hardships and temptations. That alone makes the book worth reading. The fact that he interweaves major themes from influential philosophers, past and present, makes the book also suitable as a supplemental text for a philosophy course in ethics. (For those desiring to continue the discussion, I’d also recommend his books entitled Happiness and Heaven.)
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of Into Your Hands LLC and the author of several books, including Rediscovering the American Republic (2 vols.) and Debating Evolution before Darwinism. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschooled children in Mankato, Minnesota, where he teaches American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College. He also serves as President of the Hausvater Project, which mentors Christian parents. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.
TAGS: Worldview, Liberal Arts, Education, Book Review