An Abductive Moral Argument (Part 4, Moral Transformation)

Previous posts have touched on metaphysical and epistemic matters. Those are the real heart of the abductive moral argument, so far as I can see. But the nature of abductive inferences is that they should be subjected to further tests, and a fertile additional investigation can involve what Immanuel Kant called “moral faith,” which has two parts. The first is moral transformation, which will be discussed here, and the next is moral rationality, which will be discussed in the next entry.

Moral Transformation

Doctors cannot fix certain chronic problems; the best they can do is provide medicines that help alleviate and manage certain symptoms and make life more comfortable for the patient, even while the affliction persists. Although medical practitioners are rather limited in what they are able to do, the body is remarkably resilient in its ability to ward off diseases, recover from various injuries, and heal itself. This is why proper nutrition and exercise are so important, because they enable the body to do what it does best. Chronically undernourished or sedentary bodies eventually become impaired in their ability to perform their proper functions. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other, however much a blessing the latter can be.

A similar distinction holds in the arena of morality. One option is merely to deal with symptoms, settling for marginal moral improvements, avoiding hurtful consequences by our actions. True achievement of integrity, virtue, and holiness, though, requires considerably more. In light of what seem to be some deeply entrenched patterns of selfishness and moral weakness endemic to the human condition, however, we need profound resources to meet the moral demand and effect the needed change in our character.

Inevitable Moral Failure

Benjamin Franklin once tried to do this on his own, setting himself to the formidable task of achieving moral perfection. In “Arriving at Perfection,” an excerpt from his Autobiography, he wrote about his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into, but “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.”

C. S. Lewis once wrote that there are two facts [that] are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in: First, human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the law of Nature; they break it.

Immanuel Kant, similarly, recognized an exacting moral demand and a correlative inability on the part of human beings to meet such a demand, at least without some sort of outside assistance. Is radical moral transformation possible after all? Can we be transformed? Perhaps because of his Lutheran upbringing, Kant was quite sure that human beings have a deep moral problem, a tendency to be curved inward on themselves, an intractable ethical taint, a deeply flawed moral disposition in need of a revolution. Kant saw clearly that the moral demand on us is very high, while also recognizing that we have a natural propensity not to follow it.

In both Kant and Lewis, the suggestion seems to be not just that we happen to fail to meet the moral demand, but that our failure is inevitable. We have a problem, one too deep for us to solve on our own. Scotus wrote of an “affection for justice” and an “affection for advantage,” arguing that we’re born with both inclinations. The former is concerned with doing the right thing for its own sake, the latter with doing that which benefits ourselves. Both are legitimate motivations, but we’re also born, he argued, with a tendency to privilege advantage over justice, which needs to be reversed.

The Best Remedy

But there’s hope this can happen, and, if Christianity is true, a hope that won’t disappoint. Christianity says the needed resources for transformation are available. Although we can’t meet the moral demand on our own, God himself has made it possible, if we but submit and allow him to do it through us. It will require a painful process, but it is possible.

Having started his book Mere Christianity with talk of the moral gap (to borrow a phrase from the title of John Hare’s excellent book on this topic) between what we are and what ought to be, Lewis then explained his reason for doing so, and his explanation is a telling one. The passage is his concluding paragraph of Book 1:

My reason was that Christianity simply does not make sense until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing. Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness…. It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power—it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk. When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor. When you have realized that our position is nearly desperate you will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about. They offer an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness and loving it. They offer an explanation of how God can be this impersonal mind at the back of the Moral Law and yet also a Person. They tell you how the demands of this law, which you and I cannot meet, have been met on our behalf, how God Himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of God.

God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better men, but new men, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”

Part 1  |  Part  2Part 3  |  Part 4  |  Part 5  |  Part 6

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Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

Moral transformation is not a good argument for the truth of a belief. Muslims, Hindus and other religious cultures also claim their morality can transform your life. It doesn’t make it true.