The Moral Gap

This issue’s guest piece is an excerpt from a lecture given by Professor John Hare of Yale Divinity School at Dartmouth on April 11, 2009. The remarks have been edited and updated by the author.

The moral demand is the first part of the structure of the moral gap. The second part is our natural capacities, those we were born with, and those capacities are not adequate to the demand. What I am presenting here is a version of the traditional doctrine of original sin, which is still to be found in Kant. His version goes back into the history of the pietist Lutheranism that he grew up in. It comes to Luther through Ockham and Scotus and behind Scotus, Anselm, and behind Anselm, Augustine. Duns Scotus was a Franciscan monk who lived at the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth. He said that there are two basic affections of the will, if you like two pulls. There is the pull towards one’s own advantage, and the pull towards what is good in itself, independently of our happiness. We humans are born with, and will always experience both affections, even in heaven. But the key moral question is which we put first. For example, as I lecture here, I can be thinking first of the material and of you, my audience. Or I can be thinking first of myself, and my anxieties or satisfactions. I am in fact thinking of both, and there is nothing wrong with this; but the key question is the ranking. When I am doing public presentations like this, my prayer beforehand is always that I focus less on myself and more on my subject matter and my audience. Do we put the good in itself first, and do what will make us happy only if it is consistent with this? Or do we put happiness first, and do what is good in itself only to the extent that it will make us happy? To think this second way is to be under the evil principle, which subordinates duty to happiness. And we are all born this way. Here I think the Ancient Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, were right. What is natural to us is to pursue our own happiness. This means we cannot be impartially benevolent, for we put ourselves first. And this also means that we cannot make ourselves impartial. For the evil principle is our root principle, and if the root is corrupt the plant cannot mend itself.

My experience in talking about this view to people is that some of them think it is too pessimistic. They think, for example, that we are born basically good, and we do such horrible things to each other mostly because we do not understand what we are doing. But people can know perfectly well how much they are hurting each other, and do it anyway. My wife Terry used to volunteer at recess in an elementary school. She noticed that these children, who had been together for several years, had established a pecking order, like chickens in a coop; and those at the bottom of this hierarchy were bullied into a state of misery which, she thought, might leave serious psychological damage. My point is that the kids doing this damage knew precisely how to torment those beneath them. Or consider a dysfunctional marriage, in which the two partners have refined to an art form the techniques of wounding each other. In a perverse way, it is their ability to torment each other that keeps them together.

Even if we discount what you might think are extreme cases, think again about the movie, where the ticket costs enough to keep a child alive for a week. There are some initial responses to this dilemma. Movies are an art form, and art has its own deep value. But suppose it is Terminator VI? I need some relaxation, I might say, otherwise I will grow weary with well-doing, and burn out. But am I really on the verge of burnout when I go, and what about a walk in the woods? I need to spend time with my family, I may say, and indeed I think I can justify spending more resources on my own children. But is the movie really the best way to spend time with them? I think that after we have given all these sorts of reasons, we will realize that there is something unjust about the way we are spending our money. And this is not just the movie, but the new couch, the nice vacation, the down jacket. Impartial benevolence turns out to make a demand on us that we limit our standard of living. And I think the demand is too high for us by our natural capacities. I was debating last week with Peter Singer at MIT. He and I agree both about the strenuousness of the moral demand, and about the tension with our natural inclinations. Singer is a utilitarian, believing that the right action is the one that promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He accepts the argument from the greatest of the utilitarians, Henry Sidgwick, that rationality gives us both aims, the egoist aim to be happy ourselves, and the moral aim to make other people happy from an impartial point of view, what he calls ‘the point of view of the universe’; and he accepts that these two aims are in tension with each other. You might think you could remove the tension by bringing in our sympathetic pleasures, the pleasures we get from seeing other people happy, and so from making other people happy. But the trouble is that our sympathies are limited in their scope. We feel them much more readily towards those close to us, and our caring gets all used up in our relations to friends and family. The net result is to widen the gap with morality, not to reduce it. Sidgwick concluded that the only way to make our moral lives consistent with our pursuit of happiness was to bring in a god who desires the greatest total good of all sentient beings, and holds us accountable to this standard. Sidgwick recognized this as a return to the views of the original founders of utilitarianism, and he acknowledged this solution was both necessary and sufficient to remove the contradiction within ethics, and was ‘indispensable to the systematic coherence of out beliefs,’ but he did not commit himself one way or the other about whether this was good enough reason to believe it.

The most we can justify by enlightened self-interest is an ambivalent moral commitment, to be fairly good, at least when other people are looking. But morality requires, on the Kantian reading which I endorse, an unconditional commitment to an impartial point of view. But, to speak just for myself, I find myself switching off when the pictures of starving children come on, because I just cannot face it. Moreover our culture is full of devices to weaken any inclination we originally had. The retailers in the mall and the advertisers do not want us to think about justice while we are shopping. In West Michigan, where I used to teach, the largest mall decided not to allow the Salvation Army to collect in their traditional way at Christmas time.

These two features of the gap-picture, namely the demand and our defective capacities, are present in Kant and have been repeated by most of the theorists of morality who followed Kant. A remarkable fact is that they have also repeated a third feature. They construct the picture of a person who is without our limitations of information and good will, and who tells us how to live. This imaginary being is given many different names and descriptions: an ideal observer, an archangel, a person ‘behind the veil of ignorance.’ What is typical of all these imaginary beings, however, is that they are without the usual human limitations. This pattern needs explanation. Why should morality be presented as having this shape, rather than what we might otherwise have expected – a purely human institution, tied to our human conditions of limitation? I think the overwhelmingly plausible answer is that these imaginary beings are a remnant, a relic. They are the remains of a traditional view, according to which human beings are subordinate to a divine being, who is without our limitations and whose prescriptions about our lives we are supposed to obey.

I do not want to limit the picture of the moral gap to Christianity, or even to the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is already in Aristotle the description of a gap-shaped morality. The best life, he tells us, would be superior to the human level, but we ought not to follow the proverb writers, and ‘think human, since (we) are human, or think mortal, since (we) are mortal.’ Rather, as far as we can, we ought to be immortal, i.e. like the immortal gods. The gap picture, I think, goes beyond Western culture. I have taught three times now in China. On one visit I went to visit the monastery where Chu Hsi lived and taught, a neo-Confucian of the twelfth century. He held that for most of us our good nature ‘is like a pearl lying in muddy water’, which means that we cannot see through to the right principles, whose source is heaven.

Now the description of life in this moral gap, without anything added to it, is incoherent. This is because of another feature of morality that can be expressed succinctly as the view that ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ The best way to put this is that the question whether you ought to do something does not arise unless you can do it. To see the appeal of this principle, consider this example. When I was working for the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, I took my infant daughter with me to visit the congressman who was head of the committee. She was too young to control her bladder, and had an accident that left a mark on the congressman’s blue carpet, sometimes I think the only lasting mark I and my family made in Washington. Now if I blamed her for this, it would not merely be stupid; it would go against the whole point of blaming. It is a cardinal principle of child-rearing that you should only hold children accountable to standards that they are able to reach. And another way to put that is to say that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. But then if our capacities are really inadequate to the moral demand, it is not the case that we ought to live by it. It is incoherent to put us under a demand we cannot reach. Yet surely we are under the moral demand. How are we to explain this paradox?

Christianity has a particular reading of the gap-picture of morality to help with this difficulty. The gap-picture has three components: first, the demand, second our capacities, and third the person without our limitations who gives us the demand. What Christianity adds is that the third part of this picture (the person without our limitations, namely God) intervenes in human affairs so as to change the second part of this picture (namely our capacities) so that they become adequate to the first part of the picture (namely the moral demand). There is some evidence that belief in God does in fact change people’s lives. It has the power to reduce the rate of recidivism, or the likelihood of prisoners going back to prison after their release. It has the power over addiction in twelve-step programs. There is a significant inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by performance of religious acts and presence of religious networks) and criminal activity, and a significant positive correlation with generosity in giving. You may say, less religious countries like some in Western Europe, let’s say Sweden, have lower rates of murder or teenage pregnancy than more-religious countries like the U.S. But there may be all sorts of reasons for this peculiar to each country. The more telling statistic is whether within each country those who are more religious live differently than those who are less. I think there is a growing consensus that the data tend to confirm a positive impact. But I should add that on the view I am defending, God’s assistance is provided not only to believers, though it may be easier for them to receive it, but to anyone trying to lead a morally good life.

It is true that religious motivation has also produced evil, for example flying airplanes into skyscrapers, or crusades. I do not want to minimize this. The desire to please God has produced in the last hundred years both great good and great evil. Perhaps the greatest evils have been produced by regimes like Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s, that were outside the world’s great religions. But I do not have much confidence that we could calculate this correctly. Surely the truth of the matter is that human regimes bent on their own power can use any ideology for evil purposes. In general, the corruption of the best is the worst, and this corruption should not be held to the account of what has been corrupted. What we need is ethical constraint on the use of ideology, whether this is religious or not. If you wake up in the middle of the night with the thought that God is asking you to kill your roommate, you should say, ‘That is not God telling me to do that’. I think the main point of the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac is that God reveals through the story that it is not the divine will that we should demonstrate our devotion to God by killing our children. You may say, ‘Using ethical principle as a constraint in this way shows that the appeal to religious motivation is redundant; we can simply operate with the ethical constraint.’ But this is a mistake. Constraints do not, in general, produce original motivation, but they function to limit its exercise. In the case of ethical constraints like the Golden Rule for example, they are internal to the faith which they constrain.


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