Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 81 (March 1998): 48-51.
The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. By John E. Hare. Oxford University Press. 292 pp. $45.
Reviewed by Mark R. Talbot
At its heart, the biblical heritage involves a proclamation: It announces what God has done to help weary and overburdened human beings. "The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue," Isaiah’s Servant of the Lord proclaims, "to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught." "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened," Jesus urges, "and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Yet this proclamation resonates only for those who feel weary and overburdened. Promises of help and mercy are heeded only by those who know they are helpless or guilty or weary or sick. For anyone else, they fall on deaf ears. The biblical message has virtually no chance of really being heard, then, if its apologists cannot convince its intended hearers that they are indeed part of the audience to whom this Good News is being proclaimed.
Until quite recently, most professional philosophers have been among the deafest of the deaf. John Hare’s new book attempts to give them—and especially the moral philosophers among them—reasons to listen again. But he is also writing for Christians who are not professional philosophers. For he wants them to be able to take advantage of the opportunities now open for academic philosophy and traditional Christianity to engage in constructive dialogue, and he hopes to help them to see how even their understanding of the moral life has been influenced by moral philosophy.
Those interested in the intersection between religion and public life have particular reason to the thankful for Hare’s book. For he argues that much contemporary moral thinking is incoherent because it has abandoned its Christian roots.
Hare’s thesis is this: most contemporary moral philosophers, no matter where they stand religiously, take the human moral situation to involve three essential elements. First, there is the overriding demand of morality upon each of us to think and to act in a particular way. (For Hare, this essentially means that each of us should be as concerned for others as we are for ourselves.) Second, there is the fact that we are unable on our own to think and to act this way. And, third, there is the inevitable postulation of some "at least possible being" who makes and meets the moral demand, and who is thus the ultimate source of its authority.
The "moral gap" is the inevitable distance we find between what we can and what we should think and do. So the effect of moral philosophy’s typical view of morality "is that it makes the feeling of guilt and the desire to avoid its pain into a primary motivator of the moral life." And, consequently, if we take morality as seriously as moral philosophers think we should, we grow weary of the objective demand that it puts upon us and of the subjective burden of always feeling guilty about what we have improperly thought or done.
Now this way of construing the human moral situation, Hare says, should strike us as odd. Why should morality be something other than "a paradigmatically human institution"? Why should it prescribe a way of life that is too hard for us? Why don’t most contemporary moral theorists construct theories that fit the actual capacities of human beings?
Hare thinks it is because most contemporary moral thinking is still influenced by traditional Christian doctrine and involves the partial survival of a moral viewpoint that clearly made sense when most people actually believed "in a perfect and infinite moral being," whom human beings imperfectly resembled, and "who created us to resemble him more than we do." In Christianity, our weariness in the face of the moral demand, as well as our burden of feeling guilty about failing to meet it, are addressed by the Good News that God in Christ has done what is necessary for us to begin to live lives pleasing to Him. The Christian proclamation, in other words, declares that the Being assumed by morality’s third element actually exists and that, for those who believe in Him, He actively intervenes to change the moral incapacity recognized by the second element so that their capacities, with His assistance, become adequate to the demand expressed by the first. Contemporary three-element moral theories that abandon traditional Christianity, and then put nothing comparable in its place, make no clear sense.
Because Hare is himself a very careful moral philosopher, he bites off only what he can chew. Consequently, he neither assumes nor claims to show that moral philosophers are right when they construe morality in the way most of them do, nor does he attempt to show that traditional Christianity is the only way to bridge the moral gap. Rather, he takes his task to be merely to show that the secular alternatives to the Christian solution are implausible as they now stand.
On his way to establishing that, Hare does several other good things. He stresses, for instance, how much of modern philosophy (and especially of Kant’s philosophy) is unintelligible unless the Christian commitments of its writers are taken seriously. He gives us an illuminating reading of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or which emphasizes that the weariness of the aesthete’s pleasure-seeking life can be overcome only by embracing the principledness of the ethical life, and, following that, that the burden of the principled ethical life can be overcome only by embracing the freedom of the Christian life.
That freedom depends on seeing our salvation and sanctification as accomplished through our ongoing incorporation into Christ and the Church which is His Bride. It is this incorporation, Hare argues, that gives us the power to think and to act as we ought. In Christian doctrine, "the life into which we are incorporated is stronger, . . . ‘abler,’ than our lives on their own. . . . What God intends is for us to be vessels of his grace to each other; and this grace of his coming through each other helps us to live in a way that pleases him." There is also a fine chapter on forgiveness that helps us to understand how we may overcome the burden of our pasts and thus begin and sustain this life together.
All told, this book can give anyone who works through it a better grasp of what it means to be moral and of how Christianity addresses the gap that even most secular philosophers find to yawn between what we are and what we ought to be.
Mark R. Talbot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College.