Friday, August 31, 2018

History 001: Augustine: On Christian Doctrine

I probably would not have taken a history of philosophy class if it was not a core requirement for getting my degree.

However, I do see the value in it.

There is, of course, the classic claim that we may be able to "mine" the ancient material for insights that may be useful today. That could be true. It is also possible to mine other contemporary cultures or sources such as works of fiction or nature itself.

However, it has a more direct benefit. It provides information on how people think - how the human brain works. It is, in this sense, actual data.

It is all too easy to think that the ways in which our brains work today - the ways we put things together and conceive of them - is "the way" that the human brain thinks of things. An examination of other cultures - past and present - tell us that this is not the case. It provides data that a theory on how the brain works must take into consideration.

And a moral theory is a theory about how the brain works. At least, I hold, that any worthwhile moral theory cannot be divorced from this subject.

Our first reading from the course is St. Augustine, "On Christian Doctrine." Or, at least, the first two parts of it.

The first interesting thing to note is that this book reads like a modern, contemporary, "Introduction to Philosophy" text book with smatterings of theology put in for flavoring. One can ignore the smatterings of philosophy and see a teacher guiding his students through the preliminary lessons in the philosophy of language (signs), logic (premises, conclusions, and the relationships between them), and ethics (means/ends distinctions).

Of course, I am interested in the ethics . . . which shows up in Augustine in a discussion on the distinction between means and ends.

Augustine first divides the worlds into things and signs.

Signs, he says, are those things that signify other things. Smoke signifies a fire in that if one sees a smoke one can infer that there is a fire. Words make signs out of things that are seen (read) and heard.

But we are going to talk about things.

Things, according to Augustine, are further divided up into "things that are meant to be enjoyed" and "things that are meant to be used".

This is the classic means-ends distinction, which is very important in desirism. When talking about a desire that P, P is that which is enjoyed, and anything that can contribute to bringing about or maintaining P has use value.

Another difference is that, in desirism, P has value in virtue for its own sake, not for "being enjoyed". In fact, to talk about something as something "to be enjoyed", this seems to describe it as something that has value as a means to bringing about an experience of enjoyment, not truly as an end.

Plus, this "meant to be" phrase has some ambiguity. Exactly how is something "meant to be" used or enjoyed. And this must be taken seriously, and not just as some loose way of speaking about means and ends.

So if we wish to enjoy things that are meant to be used, we are impeding our own progress, and sometimes are also deflected from our course, because we are thereby delayed in obtaining what we should be enjoying, or turned back from it altogether, blocked by our love for inferior things.

We can make sense of this, in part, in recognizing that something can have a use value that somebody is not aware of. That is to say, it may be the case that Q is useful in bringing about P, even though the agent with the desire that P does not know this and, as a result, is hindered in his ability to bring about P. So, all seems fine so far.

Now, about this "enjoyment".

The first note that I want to make is that Augustine seems to make a claim very much like one later found in John Stuart Mill. This concerns the relationship between things having value for their own sake and happiness being the only end. Mill resolves this conflict by saying that these things that are valued for their own sake are "a part of happiness". Augustine states that enjoyment consists in valuing something for its own sake. "Enjoyment, after all, consists in clinging to something lovingly for its own sake."

And, second, while we can express valuing something for its own sake in terms of a desire that P, Augustine also states that there are some things that deserve to be valued and some that do not. He uses this distinction to make a related distinction between real happiness and what we might call fake happiness. Real happiness is the valuing of something - a desire that P - where that something (P) is something that one ought to be enjoying. Valuing as an end that which should serve only as a means is a perversion. Enjoying the journey, and thus failing to reach a destination efficiently, is wrong.

Of course, the only thing that ought to be enjoyed is God. Only the enjoyment of God can bring real happiness. I suppose that God is the one and only "P" for a legitimate desire that P. It is the one legitimate end - all else being just means.

Now, what about all of these other things people desire? What about . . . other people? Are other people just to be used?

Well, Augustine tells us that God alone is to be enjoyed. This suggests that everything that is not God - including people - is there only to be used.

We have been commanded, after all, to love one another; but the question is whether human beings are to be loved by human beings for their own sake, or for the sake of something else. If it is for their own sake, then they are things for us to enjoy; if for the sake of something else, they are for us to use. Now it seems to me that they are to be loved for the sake of something else.

However, we also must note Augustine's claim that there is a proper use and an improper use to be made of all things, and that an improper use will hinder us in obtaining what we ultimately desire - what deserves to be desired.

So, even though other people are to be used, we still must answer the question, "what is the proper way to use of other people?"

There is no special reason to focus on how we ought to properly use "other people". If the only proper end is God, then this claim that all other things are to be used applies to oneself as well.

So if you ought not to love yourself for your own sake, but for the sake of the one to whom your love is most rightly directed as its end, other people must not take offense if you also love them for God’s sake and not their own.

The place to start is to look at how we ought to properly use ourself. Because, according to Christian doctrine, we should love others as ourselves. So, we should use others as we would use ourselves in obtaining that which has ultimate value.

So, even though other people are to be used, the proper use of other people is not to cause them harm, to enslave them, or to visit misery and suffering upon them. The proper way to use them is the same as the proper way to use oneself.

Though, actually, even this is not entirely accurate. One is not to use others as one would use oneself, but to use others as one should use oneself - because there are also proper and improper ways to use oneself.

The proper way to love oneself is in a way that is conducive to devoting all of one's thoughts and whole life focused on God. So, the proper way to love others is in a way that is conducive to them devoting the whole of their thoughts and their life to God.

At this point, we come to a fork in the road. Though this is a matter of controversy, I hold that no god exists. The two prongs of this fork, then, are to (1) continue with the analysis of Augustine's beliefs that will determine the relevance of the love of God as the sole proper end, or (2) look for a substitute for God that does exist and continue the analysis in light of that substitute.

I wish to pursue option (2).

Augustine provides an alternative in that he has divided things into things to be used and things to be enjoyed. We may see how far we can go taking enjoyment as the proper end, rather than God. Enjoyment itself may be equated with something like pleasure and the absence of pain, happiness, or eudaimonia - either way, it seems to be something real and something that it seems at least initially plausible can serve as a proper end.

If we make this adjustment, then the proper way to use oneself - and to use others - is in a way that is conducive to enjoyment. The proper way to use others is in a way conducive to their enjoyment. Though this does raise a question. Should it be that my own enjoyment is my proper end, which means that I should use others in a way that is conducive to my own enjoyment? Or is "enjoyment" a proper end, which means that I should use myself and others in ways that are conducive to enjoyment over all?

We could have asked this question about love of God. Should it be the case that I use myself and others in a way conducive to my own love of God? Or should I use myself and others in a way conducive to the love of God generally? Augustine would have used the commandment to love others as oneself to block the first option and aim for the second. Unfortunately, when we got rid of God to take this fork, we also got rid of the foundation for Augustine's argument for treating other people's enjoyment as equivalent to our own. That, now, will also require a different justification.

There is still another move available - a principle of equality.

So now, as there are four kinds of things to be loved: one which is above us, the second which we are ourselves, the third which is on a level with us, the fourth which is beneath us, about the second and the fourth there was no need to give any commandments.

To use others as a means to our own enjoyment would, then, amount to treating that which is equal to us as if it were below us. That may be thought to be objectionable. In fact, it is not. If we look at these enjoyments objectively, there is no reason why the enjoyment of one person shall have more value than the enjoyment of another. There is no reason why another person shall be sacrificed for one's own enjoyment, any more than the enjoyment of that person shall be sacrificed for another. This, then, gives us a reason to use self and others for the sake of all enjoyment equally, and not just for one's own enjoyment.

Yet, this still leaves open the question of what to do about special relationships - the relationships that one has with friends and family. Augustine has an answer for this:

All people are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of service to everyone, you have to take greater care of those who are more closely joined to you by a turn, so to say, of fortune’s wheel, whether by occasion of place or time, or any other such circumstance.

This, then, leads to the fact that there is nobody closer to me than me. It would seem that this permission to take give a priority to those who are near to me ultimately has to imply that I make myself the first among equals. Augustine says nothing about this. There is nothing on the surface that suggests whether this is right or wrong - but it is an implication of his account as we have followed it so far.

Alternatively, Augustine provided us with an argument that states, even if we are to use somebody else, and we are not to use them for sake of a God that does not exist, using them properly involves using them for the sake of the good.

We may be able to draw this from what Augustine says about the way in which God uses us, and apply this to a theory about how we ought to use each other. God does use us, according to Augustine, for only God is the proper object of love for its own sake, and all other things are to loved as a means. However, God uses us in service to His goodness. To use us in service to His goodness is to benefit us. And so it may be said (though clearly this falls short of an implication), for us to use another person in Augustine sense is for us to use them in the service of goodness as well, which we do by benefiting them.

The only change we are making here is changing the use of something from being for the sake of His goodness but for the sake of goodness itself. To use somebody for the sake of goodness is to benefit that person.

Even without this, we still have the issue, mentioned earlier, that to use another person properly is to use them in service to the good, and to use another person in service to the good is to benefit them. So, even though other people are not an end, behavior towards them in service to the proper end is to benefit them.

At this point, I would have an objection that there is no intrinsic value - no "proper end" that has this property in virtue of its intrinsic properties. There is nothing that is "good in itself", but only good insofar as it can serve a desire. But, then, the purpose of this exercise is not to derive something true in ethics. It is to understand how other people might view things - putting their positions in the best possible light. This is a fairly strong view of ethics.

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