A One-Act Play/Socratic Tetralog
Donald T. Williams (B.A., Taylor University, MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of English and Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. A past president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, he is the author of The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Broadman, 1994), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996), and The Disciple’s Prayer (Christian Publications, 1999), as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Christian Scholar’s Review, Christianity and Literature, Christianity Today, etc. His most recent book is Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006).
Author’s Note: I have argued in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls, Ga.: Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996) that reading is a conversation in which the writers of the past and present conduct an ongoing dialog about the Great Questions, a dialog in which the Reader is enabled to participate. I offer the following as an example of what might happen in the kind of dialog (or tetralog, in this case) that can result in the Reader’s mind. Lest it be thought that I have created a Straw Man, I should say that I have actually had contemporary scholars say to me (with a straight face!) many the things that I have put into the mouth of Post Modernicus. If he is a Straw Man, it is because he fulfills T. S. Eliot’s prophecy: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”
Socrates of Athens
Erasmus of Rotterdam Novus Criticus Post Modernicus Three men occupy comfortable chairs in what seems to be the Senior Common Room of a well-endowed university. The first, wearing a threadbare black robe and a skull cap, is meticulously copying passages in Greek and Latin from large codexes into a smaller notebook. The second, clad in a somewhat outdated suit, the thin lapels of which seem to place him in the 1950’s, clenches a pipe between his teeth. He is going over the pages of a book of lyric poetry with a fine-toothed comb, aided by a magnifying glass. The third gentleman wears proudly an almost new suit of clothes recently purchased second hand from a slightly disreputable Emperor. He is, in plain terms, buck naked, but the first two are either too polite–or too absorbed in their own work–to notice. He is slowly dripping acid onto the pages of his book with a medicine dropper. They are joined by a fourth figure: a scruffy-looking geezer in a tunic and short cloak. He has no book, but wears a quizzical expression on his face and tends to stare at people.
Fourth Figure: Gentlemen, I perceive that, each in your own way, you are altogether absorbed in books. What wisdom do you find in them? Does it bring you true happiness?
Second Figure (looking up suddenly): Did you say something?
Third Figure: Your question seems to be rooted in outmoded categories which presuppose the existence of a viable distinction between wisdom and folly.
First Figure: Well, I find it a pertinent question indeed. But I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure?
Fourth Figure: Oh, sorry. You may call me Socrates–Socrates of Athens.
First Figure (rising and bowing low from the waist): A great honor, Master! I am Erasmus of Rotterdam. May I present my colleagues? This is Professor Novus Criticus.
Second Figure (extending his hand): How do you do?
Socrates: How do I do what?
Erasmus (knowingly tapping his head): And this is . . . er . . . Professor Post. Post Modernicus, to be precise.
Socrates (trying to make sense of this): One of the students of one of my students wrote a book called Posterior Analytics . . .
Post Modernicus (shaking his head dismissively): You’re one of those DWEMS, aren’t you?
Socrates (aside to Erasmus): I do not wish to appear rude . . . but what means he by this barbarous term?
Erasmus (rolling his eyes): Dead White European Males. The cause of all the evil in the universe. Welcome to the club.
Socrates (opens his mouth, then pauses as if resisting temptation, and then returns to his original question): But about books: You have all dedicated your lives completely to them. This means you must believe that they–or something they give you access to–is the Greatest Good. Have you found it to be so?
Post Modernicus: The whole concept of a Summum Bonum implies a totalizing, centering discourse whose only effect can be to destroy the freedom of the individual to choose his own values and fashion himself in accordance with his own impulses, defined only by his social environment.
Socrates: Is he serious?
Erasmus: You remember the Sophists?
Post Modernicus (striking a pose as if lecturing): The text in itself is nothing: a series of arbitrary signs, which refer only to other arbitrary signs. But they hang together with just enough of an illusion of structure to cause the unsophisticated to think they are a narrative, a discourse maybe even describing some external reality. But of course they describe nothing, not even the mind of their author at the time of text construction; they constitute a completely self-contained world of their own. But this gives us the opportunity to construct our own discourse, a meta-narrative which can expose the inner sexual politics of the original discourse. Thereby our students can be liberated from the false, hegemonic language of Authority which exists only to advance the interests of the oppressive white, male, bourgeois, Western power structure. They can then enjoy the free play of the mind in the text untrammeled by its falsely privileged status as a repository of some supposed objective “truth” or “meaning.”
Socrates (opens his mouth as if to ask a question but never gets the chance).
Novus Criticus: Now, I really must object to that! I spent my whole career trying to establish that literature is worth studying as literature, not as disguised history or politics or philosophy or biography. We introduced the concept of the Intentional Fallacy to keep people from reading it as autobiography so we could divert attention from the author (whose life is not strictly relevant) to the text where it belongs. We rescued literary study from the false superiority of Science by showing that it gives its own kind of pleasure and knowledge, expanding our sympathies by exposing us to vicarious imaginative experiences of different kinds. And we gave close readings of text after text to substantiate those gains. Now, to have literature reduced to politics and philosophy again, as if we had never even written—it’s almost more than a person can stand!
Post Modernicus (quietly): We learned our way of reading from you, you know.
Novus Criticus (incredulously): You what?
Post Modernicus: You liberated the Text from the tyranny of the Author and made it autonomous. We have to honor you for that. It was really what got the whole process started. You thought the Text could still have a meaning on its own. That was naive; but after all, your discourse was still situated in the false hopes of late modernity.
Socrates (grins impishly and mutters under his breath): This is going to be more fun than I thought!
Novus Criticus: O.K., admittedly the whole concept of meaning is highly problematic. But we still want to maintain a specifically literary value for literary study. If you are really interested in politics, why not study politics?
Post Modernicus: But don’t you see? The problem isn’t just in the relationship of the Author to the Text but in the very nature of language itself. We now know that language is an arbitrary system of signs that are never univocally or simply related to the “signified”; that it is a historical phenomenon situated in particular contexts; that it creates our perceptions, and doesn’t simply express them. It follows that any kind of centering discourse–whether of author or text–is illegitimate. Since we are disabused of the illusory notion that language expresses some kind of universally accessible “truth” or “meaning,” we are able to see it for what it really is: an instrument of power or control. Hence, any criticism that is intellectually respectable and socially responsible inevitably ends in politics.
Novus Criticus: But . . . that seems so limited.
Socrates: Yet you can think of no way to justify a different conclusion?
Novus Criticus: No, I can’t. But this can’t be right. It feels . . . inhumane. And that sentiment has to count for something.
Post Modernicus: It feels uncomfortable to you because it deconstructs the bourgeois power structure that inevitably defines your discourse.
Socrates: I wonder: what power structure defines yours?
Post Modernicus: Uh . . . uh . . .
Socrates: Never mind. I don’t think we have heard from Erasmus yet. Why do you read?
Erasmus: That’s simple: to understand the wisdom of the Ancients, and learn from them. To have contact with great minds that would otherwise be inaccessible through distance in time or space.
Post Modernicus: But they lived in a wholly different world from you, inhabited a wholly different universe of discourse. To think you can just take their thoughts like bricks and plug them into your own intellectual structures without fundamental distortion! You don’t even begin to understand the way in which all truth claims must be radically historicized. That is so naive!
Erasmus: Naive? Historically? I hardly think so. Didn’t Lorenzo Valla expose the Donation of Constantine as a forgery? Didn’t I realize that poenitentiam agere doesn’t mean “do penance?” That In principio erat verbum should have been translated erat sermo?
Post Modernicus: You just don’t even begin to get the point, do you?
Erasmus: Are you saying that poenitentiam agere does mean “do penance?”
Post Modernicus: No! The very idea that either meaning can simplistically be called “correct” is what is simply no longer thinkable.
Socrates: So, you are contending that there is no such thing as an “objective” meaning of a text, external to any individual interpreter, which interpretation must try to approximate as closely as possible?
Post Modernicus: Exactly!
Socrates: On the other hand, if what you have just said is true, you also contend that meaning is an objective reality inherent in the text itself, to which an interpreter must submit.
Post Modernicus: No! That is exactly what I deny.
Socrates: My point exactly. Do you not see that by denying the validity of my deliberate misconstrual of your statement, you deny the validity of your own position? For you attribute to your own discourse precisely all the properties you deny to every other.
Post Modernicus: Come again?
Socrates: For example: when you order one of your modern foods–say, a large pizza with double pepperoni–do you send it back if it comes small with green peppers and anchovies instead?
Post Modernicus: Of course. What kind of question is that?
Erasmus (aside): One you obviously haven’t “digested” yet!
Socrates: In your opinion, ought a philosopher and instructor of youth to live in accordance with his own teachings?
Post Modernicus: That is undeniably so. Hypocrisy is perhaps the only clear and unequivocal evil. But I would add that the whole concept of “accordance” is highly problematic.
Socrates: In your case especially. If you say that meaning and truth are purely subjective phenomena, determined by the social and historical position of the interpreter so that there is no absolute or universal “right” or “wrong,” yet you send back the incorrectly prepared pizza, why then should any of your pupils ever again take seriously any word that proceeds from your mouth?
Post Modernicus: That’s entirely different.
Socrates: Can you explain precisely wherein lies the difference? Your teaching is that language relates only to other language and does not correspond to any objective external reality; but your action is that you expect it to correspond with your pizza.
Post Modernicus (patronizingly): As I have already explained, language is not the repository of some kind of objective “meaning,” but it is an instrument of power. It allows you to do things, to perform illocutionary acts like ordering pizza. And one does expect the waiter to get one’s order right.
Socrates: I’m afraid I do not understand your use of the word “right.”
Post Modernicus: One expects the waiter to be a member of an interpretive community that defines certain parameters of competence in the use of the system of signs that forms its discourse. We can crudely say that the order is “rightly” or “wrongly” interpreted; but these are not simple objective absolutes. Their meaning is relative to the constantly changing dynamics of the community of discourse.
Socrates: I see. But if the waiter spoke English as a second language, would you still expect him to be competent enough to get the order right?
Post Modernicus: This kind of thing has obviously happened.
Socrates: If you wrote the order down, would you still expect it to be filled correctly?
Post Modernicus: Well, they are in fact frequently written down–by the one who takes the order if you phone it in.
Socrates: Fascinating. The number of intermediate steps keeps increasing, yet you would still expect to get the pizza you requested. If the message was read the following day, by a third party, would the reader know what kind of pizza had been ordered–say, as a day-old historical fact?
Post Modernicus: Well yes, but . . .
Socrates: And if a week had passed? A year?
Post Modernicus (reluctantly): Yes, I suppose.
Socrates: And if it were after the death of the one who had ordered the pizza?
Post Modernicus (with irritation): Yes! But it is not the same. Literary interpretation is much more complex.
Socrates: Yet we have already begun to introduce complexities without altering the situation in the least. Suppose that hundreds of years had passed, the language was no longer intelligible except to scholars, and the message had been much more complex than our example. Are not these only differences of degree?
Post Modernicus: No, of kind. A fictional discourse is not the same as a seemingly straightforward specification of a pizza order.
Socrates: Granted, the genre matters. But do not writers have means at their disposal for indicating that they are writing a fictional story rather than a factual account or an order? And would not these cues be part of the message? On the issue of whether the utterance has a meaning capable of objective determination, then, the differences are still only differences of degree, are they not?
Post Modernicus: Let us grant that they are. What then?
Socrates: Then in principle, there is no reason why, given sufficient care, we should not be able to know with moral certainty what was in the mind of the one who composed the message. Is there?
Post Modernicus: Very clever. But the validity of such linear reasoning is one of the things we have learned to question as a tool of the oppressor. And when the complexity reaches a certain critical mass–which happens much more quickly than you seem to realize–how can you ever be sure without being intellectually irresponsible–sure enough to privilege your reading as superior to any other?
Erasmus: I just do it.
Post Modernicus: I beg your pardon?
Erasmus: I just do it. The fact is that human beings do have the capacity to imaginatively enter into the world of another mind–even one as convoluted as yours–and understand it through the miracle of language.
Post Modernicus (incredulously): Miracle?
Erasmus: If you were a modernist, your objection to the concept of miracle would be understandable, if illogical, since language does indeed have a divine origin. But you claim to have outgrown modernism. I wonder if you really have. I myself find the miraculous completely intelligible.
Post Modernicus: You have got to be kidding.
Erasmus: Not at the moment; there is not a single bi-lingual pun in my mind. For look you: everybody communicates successfully all the time–or I should say most of the time. You are doing it right now, even in (and in spite of) your very efforts to deny it. And we used to do it quite well in my day. My contemporary Machiavelli (not one whose thinking I would generally recommend, by the way) put it very nicely: “In the evening I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off the clothes I have worn all day, mud-spotted and dirty, and put on regal and courtly garments. Thus appropriately clothed, I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men, where, being lovingly received, I feed on that food which alone is mine, and which I was born for; for I am not ashamed to ask the reasons for their actions, and they courteously answer me.” Now, I would accept his testimony over yours, for, while he did recommend lying in certain situations, he at least knew what a lie was; and based on my own experience, I believe that he did as he said, and that the Ancients did what he says they did.
Post Modernicus: Haven’t you heard anything I said about the nature of language?
Erasmus: I heard you indeed very well, and understood you well enough also. You say that it does not enable us to know or communicate the truth. But like the Schoolmen you have woven a net of abstract theory in which you are yourself ensnared; for your distracted reasonings about language have nothing to do with the way any human being other than those whose minds are corrupted and unhinged by the Schools actually talks, writes, or reads. For I tell you that language can sometimes actually bring you closer to the truth even than unmediated experience. I wrote that the Scriptures can render Christ “so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon him with your very eyes.” And this is quite true, as untold numbers of His followers throughout history would be prepared to testify. Yet because false words can blind us, as even your unreal abstractions have blinded you, you would have it that all must be blinded by all words at all times. And this is nothing but sophistry.
Post Modernicus: But you are yourself a walking example of the situatedness of all discourse. You don’t understand the conditions of modern thought, and your friend Socrates started off by misconstruing Novus Criticus’ greeting. You simply can’t jump across culture like that, and we now know that each individual is a cultural and linguistic system unto himself.
Erasmus: Aha! You said he misconstrued it–and so he did. I never said accurate interpretation was always easy–just that it is possible. And if there were no objective meaning to our statements, you could not even point out this misconstrual as evidence for the radical subjectivity of meaning.
Novus Criticus: But wait a minute. It’s like you never even heard of the Intentional Fallacy!
Erasmus: I had not, of course. But now that I have, I recognize its usefulness but also think it is a fallacy to press it too strongly.
Novus Criticus: But once a text has been created, it becomes an artifact with its own independent existence.
Erasmus: Quite right.
Novus Criticus: And it then means what the words mean when interpreted in the total context of their recorded usage and the structures they create.
Erasmus: I fully agree.
Novus Criticus: And our only access to that meaning is through a close reading of the words themselves.
Erasmus: If you include the historical context, I would agree most heartily.
Novus Criticus: And because only the words themselves can tell us this, the Author’s alleged or purported “intention” can be a misleading distraction in that process. People sometimes fail to express the meaning they intended.
Erasmus: I would not even dispute that this is a potential danger. But it remains true that when we applied this process to our example, we knew what kind of pizza Post Modernicus wanted. We knew the kind he intended to get, in other words, and that intention was precisely the meaning of his utterance. Hence, it follows that Authorial Intention is necessarily foundational to a true understanding of the meaning of the text. I do not claim that it necessarily exhausts that meaning, but I do insist that it is necessarily foundational to it.
Socrates: You have reasoned well, my friend.
Post Modernicus: I don’t follow that at all. The only evidence you two have offered for your alleged objective meaning is a bunch of logical slight of hand.
Erasmus (looking concerned): If there is a fallacy in my reasoning, I would gladly have it pointed out.
Novus Criticus (beginning to understand): I think he simply means that you used logic.
Socrates: Well, to clarify, how do you prove your assertions?
Erasmus: I don’t need to. That real communication happens every day is an inescapable fact of human experience which Post Modernicus, with all his sophistication, has been unable to avoid.
Socrates: In other words, you mean it is what we used to call a First Principle–what I believe today’s philosophers call “something properly basic.”
Erasmus: Exactly. We take the existence of an objective meaning of an utterance–which corresponds to a real subjective state that existed in its author and to which the subjective state of the interpreter can arrive, or at least approximate–and which the interpreter can therefore get either right or wrong–as our starting point. There simply is no other way to proceed without giving up our sanity, because to deny this is simultaneously to deny our right to deny it. And the job of the philosopher or literary critic is, by starting from first principles, to build up our ability to receive the Author’s message in its fullness and richness, with precision–not to rip out from under us through his sophistry the very foundations that make such building possible. That is to betray the whole enterprise of good learning and to lead our culture on the short route to madness, irrelevance, barbarism, and chaos.
Post Modernicus (desperately): But didn’t you hear yourself? You just used the word “approximate.” My subjective state can never be known to be identical to anyone else’s. So your precious “objective meaning” is still a complete chimera.
Erasmus: Not at all. Analogy is quite sufficient, as even the Schoolmen recognized, even with their insufferably barbarous Latin. But let me ask you this: Is the semantic cup half empty . . . or half full? Actually, it is frequently almost completely full (as even you would be if you had ever gotten the right pizza). So I do not understand why you insist on concentrating on the twentieth part that is empty to the point that you are unwilling to allow anyone to drink the rich wine that is so abundantly and deliciously there! If you do not like wine, that is your own business–but why then seek work as a wine taster? Go perform honest labor with your hands and bring benefit to your fellow citizens.
Post Modernicus: You make everything sound so simple. If it is all so cut and dried, why bother to read–or teach–at all?
Socrates: Why do you teach?
Post Modernicus: Our role is to problematize the Text so that our students will see past its pretensions of meaning to realize that it unavoidably radically undermines its own purported message.
Novus Criticus: Hmmm . . . Is it possible that you are projecting the conflict in you own mind onto other writers who may not have shared it?
Post Modernicus (looks offended).
Socrates: What then is the end of instruction?
Novus Criticus: To help students understand and appreciate as fully as possible the text that was actually written–not to encourage them to impose their own biases on it.
Post Modernicus (rolls his eyes).
Erasmus: To guide them in the quest for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
Post Modernicus (buries his head in his hands).
Novus Criticus: To teach critical methodology.
Socrates: To ask the right questions.
Erasmus: Yes, all of this: as the servant of the Text and its Author–not their enemy!
Post Modernicus: I find your language highly offensive.
Socrates: If the sandal fits . . .
Novus Criticus (looking up suddenly as if seeing Post Modernicus clearly for the first time): Er . . . excuse me . . . but aren’t you a bit . . . er . . . underdressed?
Post Modernicus (shaking his head sadly): I see that you are not really committed to being part of the academic community. As head of the English Department and chair of the Tenure Committee, I am afraid I must inform you that your contracts will not be renewed. Regrettable–but we simply cannot tolerate such offensive attitudes and the hate speech they promote on our campus.
Socrates, Erasmus, and Novus Criticus (in unison): What!?
Lights go down. When they come back up, Socrates, Erasmus, and Novus Criticus are out in the street, with an ivy-covered brick wall in the background.
Novus Criticus: What the . . . ?
Erasmus (sighs): In my day, I had to contend with the intransigent ignorance of the monks and the empty speculations of the Schoolmen.
Socrates: And I with the Sophists.
Erasmus: But even in their wrongheadedness, they believed that Truth existed, and in their way they loved it. I called them enemies of good letters and sound learning, and so they were. But now: who would ever have thought that I could feel nostalgic for Scotus and Aquinas!
Socrates: The sophists did not love truth, or wisdom. They loved sophistication for its own sake . . . and money.
Novus Criticus: And I’ve been listening rather closely (pardon me—it’s an old habit, but a good one). And Post Modernicus, by his own admission, seems to love only . . . power.
Socrates: In my day, we had a precise, technical word for people like that. We called them Tyrants.
Novus Criticus: So, what do we do now?
Erasmus: At least our books are still in the Library.
Socrates: For now.
Novus Criticus: But the way they’re being taught to read them . . .
Erasmus: Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis! Holy Socrates, pray for us!
Socrates: Why do you call me sanctus? Pius, maybe (though I was accused of the opposite). And I don’t even have a cock to sacrifice. But if I did, what grounds have you for believing that I could alter the will of Zeus?
Erasmus: Never mind. Or, ask me again sometime. I would love to tell you about the Philosophy of Christ.
Novus Criticus: In the meantime, what are we going to do?
Socrates (grinning wickedly): You know, I never even held a professorship. All I did was ask questions. Yet I managed to garner a rather killing reputation for corrupting the youth!
Erasmus (almost doubles over with laughter): Post Modernicus actually means to say that meaning is meaningless! He’s trying to communicate that texts can’t communicate–in a text!
Novus Criticus: You are right. No matter how trendy–and powerful–and entrenched Post Modernicus seems now, his castle really is built on sand. He cannot beat us in the long run. Shall we pop over to the Student Center for a beer? And maybe a little conversation with some students?
Erasmus: A little red wine for me . . .
Socrates (rubbing his hands with glee): Yes, let’s. . . . as long as they don’t serve hemlock!
They link arms and head off stage right. As they disappear, Socrates is heard to say
Socrates: I wonder if Asclepius ever got that chicken . . .
Donald T. Williams, Ph.D.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
The human mind has no more power of inventing
a new value than of imagining a new primary colour,
or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for
it to move in.
C. S. Lewis
This, I trowe, be Treuthe; who can teche the bettere,
Loke thou suffre hym to seyn, and siththe lere it aftir.
The importance of the relationship between legal and ethical reasoning and objective morality makes Stephen Toulmin’s The Place of Reason in Ethics one of the more important treatments of philosophical ethics to be published in recent years. The book tries to answer the question, “what is a good reason in ethics?” or more specifically, “What is it that makes a particular set of facts, R, a good reason for a particular ethical conclusion, E?” How, in other words, may ethical decisions be justified? In spite of some penetrating analysis, it fails to provide an adequate answer, and the reasons for that failure make Toulmin’s work an excellent point of departure for a fresh look at the real nature of values and how they relate to the ethical decisions we face.
Toulmin begins by surveying three ‘classical’ approaches to the problems of ethical decision. They are: (1) The ‘objective’ approach, which views the good as a property which an act may intrinsically possess, (2) The ‘subjective’ approach, which views the good as a projection of human feeling, and (3) The ‘imperative’ approach, which views the good as a pseudo-concept used for persuasion. These ‘classic’ approaches are united by the fact that their aim is to pin down, or characterize, ethical concepts by defining them. Toulmin finds each of them inadequate as a basis for ethics. His own approach is to “discover what reasons and arguments should be accepted in support of ethical decisions.”
Toulmin takes what might be called a “functional” approach to ethics. If we are to reason correctly about ethical problems, we must know what ethics are for. The function of ethics is “to correlate our feelings and behaviour in such a way as to make the fulfillment of everyone’s aims and desires as far as possible compatible.”
The above statement sounds on the surface like a classic expression of the utilitarian principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But in reality, Toulmin’s new approach claims to be neither deontological nor utilitarian, neither objectivistic nor subjectivistic, as those words are normally understood. By isolating “good” reasons for actions, he hopes to be able to assert that some actions are “right,” without having to admit that they are intrinsically so.
“Duty” is that which is expected of a man by virtue of his membership in an ongoing community. This is a truism, for without rules for the harmonization of desire, community cannot exist. Thus, every community begins with a basic code, which operates deontologically. But as society grows more complex and new problems arise, the propriety of the original code may be questioned. Men may realize that the harmony of desires and aims in the community may, in the new circumstances, be better realized by a modification of the old code. Thus, teleological ethics arises as an extension of the deontological core.
But Toulmin does not wish to allow his ethic to become wholly teleological. The end does not always justify the means. His example is that of a man driving on a torturous mountain road, who takes all the turns on the left side (i.e., the right side–he writes from a British point of view). In a blind turn, he meets a car on the wrong side of the road, and they collide head on. Though the results were bad, we may still say that the man who was driving on the legal side had done the “right” thing. Given that he could not have foreseen the other vehicle, he had done the right thing, i.e., his duty, what was expected of him as a member of that society.
Thus, in normal circumstances, deontological ethics may remain in force. The only reason one needs for doing one’s duty is that it is what you are supposed to do. If a policeman asks the driver who was on the legal side of the road why he was where he was when the accident occurred, the only justification he needs is to simply to refer to the rule. In this simple case, “there is no more general ‘reason’ to be given beyond one which relates the action in question to an accepted social practice.”
When two rules conflict, however, one has to suspend the deontological in favor of the teleological.
Given two conflicting claims, that is to say, one has to weigh up, as well as one can, the risks involved in ignoring either, and choose ‘the lesser of two evils.’ Appeal to a single current principle, though the primary test of the rightness of an action, cannot therefore be relied on as a universal test: where this fails, we are driven back on our estimate of the probable consequences.
It is not so much that the principles are invalidated by this recourse to teleology, but simply that life is so complex that no set of principles can adequately cover every case.
A more difficult kind of moral conflict occurs when the mores of two different communities are compared. In such a case one might ask a question like, “Which is it really right to do–to have only one wife like a Christian or anything up to four like a Muslim?” For Toulmin, this question is wrongly asked. It is like the question, “Is a light ray going past the sun really straight as the non-Euclidean theorist declares, or deflected, as the Euclidean theorist says?” Since the community is the source of duty, one can only criticize an action or an institution ethically from within that community. Muslim marriage is not the same thing as Christian marriage, and their rightness may not be compared as if they fit under the same code. Christian marriage is right in a Christian society, and Muslim marriage is right in a Muslim society, period.
One cannot make a choice between two institutions belonging to the ethical codes of two different communities, because one must live in one community or the other. Therefore, when a question like the one above is asked, one is really calling for a choice between two ethical systems, i.e., two different ways of life. And, since the community is the source of duty, there is no standard outside of community whereby two differing communities may be judged. The choice is simply the personal one of which system would I rather live under?
When someone asked of two superficially similar institutions from different ways of life, ‘Which is the better?’ one may have to say that, by themselves, they are not comparable: all that can be compared are the ways of life as wholes. And this comparison is, if anything, a private one: which is to say, not that it cannot be reasoned about, but that, reason as you may, the final decision is personal.
At this point, the reader may begin to feel somewhat uneasy about the whole fabric of Toulmin’s system. The one positive contribution that Hitler’s Germany made to the world was that it provided a test case fatal to all humanistic ethics, whether they be subjectivistic, imperitival, utilitarian, or “rational.” If ethical judgments can only be made from within a given community, and choices between “ways of life” are purely personal, what is to prevent any given community from deciding that genocide of certain elements is the best way to fulfill the “function of ethics”: to harmonize as far as possible the aims and desires of everyone in the community? If the community decides that the elimination of an otherwise innocent group such as the Jews (or a helpless group such as the “unwanted” unborn) would best fulfill that function for the rest, what is to prevent them from committing the murder of six million (or more) human beings?
The answer is that nothing would prevent it except either a change of heart on their part or the forceful intervention of other communities. But if choices between ‘ways of life’ are to be reduced to personal preference, where is the moral justification for such intervention? There is none. We are reduced to an ethic of ‘might makes right.’ The absurdity of saying that actions or institutions may only be ethically judged from within the communal code of which they are a part, and that judgments between codes are only personal, becomes obvious when these things are seen in the light of the harsh realities of history.
Toulmin is not unaware that such a charge can be leveled against his approach.
. . . I recall a conversation with Bertrand Russell in which he remarked as an objection to the present account of ethics, that it would not have convinced Hitler. But whoever supposed that it should? We do not prescribe logic as a treatment for lunatics or expect philosophers to produce a panacea for psychopaths.
But Toulmin has entirely missed the point of the objection. Hitler may or may not have been a lunatic or a psychopath–that is unimportant. What is important is the fact that here a community had as part of its code–at least it acquiesced in and condoned, which amounts to the same thing–an immoral practice. It saw as congruent with the harmonization of its aims and desires the extinction of an entire race. And Toulmin’s calling the leader of that community a lunatic and psychopath does not remove the fact that his own account of ethics finally makes opposition to such genocide from outside that community not a moral duty but an act of personal preference.
This absurdity is the necessary end result of every ethical system that refuses to recognize that there are some acts which are intrinsically right and others which are intrinsically wrong regardless of either the consequences or a man’s or community’s ability to perceive them. It will not help to appeal to the “code” of the human community at large as over against that of a smaller community. This simply means that some men decide what is right for other men, which reduces rapidly again to the principle that might makes right. The only ethic that is adequate to deal with man’s real ethical dilemmas must therefore be one which is derived from outside of ‘community’ altogether.
We have not yet begun to talk about a ‘revealed’ ethic (though if it turned out that there were one, it would certainly be helpful). That will come later. At present it will be sufficient if we recognize that, as C. S. Lewis put it, “degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. In other words, wrongness is as much a property of the act of cruelty to the innocent and helpless as redness is the property of an apple; and the man who persists in denying the former is just as obviously culpable as the man who perversely insists on saying that an apple is blue.
But Toulmin has argued very cogently earlier in his book that values may not be logically classed as properties, and it is partially because of his conclusions at that point that he works out his system in the way that he does, trying futilely to shun ‘objectivism’ without embracing a sheer relativism. Therefore, before we can proceed to develop an ethic based on the objectivity of value, we must deal with the objections which Toulmin raises at that point.
According to Toulmin’s helpful analysis, there are three basic types of properties. First are what he calls ‘simple qualities.’ These are ‘unanalyzable’ properties such as primary colors, which cannot be defined in terms of simpler qualities, or in terms of an operation. The only way to explain what you mean by ‘red’ for example, is to point to a red object.
Secondly, there are what we may call ‘complex qualities.’ Like simple qualities, they are discoverable through observation; but unlike simple qualities, they are not discoverable through direct observation. An example is a 259-sided polygon. In order to tell whether a given polygon has the property of 259 sidedness, one must go through the operation or routine of counting the sides.
Thirdly, there are what may be called ‘scientific qualities.’ These are properties which are not observable in the strict sense at all. They can only be understood with reference to a scientific theory. An example of a scientific quality would be the straightness of a stick half submerged in water. The stick does not look straight at all; but we can understand that, with reference to the theories of optics, it really is still straight. These three categories of properties are not mutually exclusive; the straightness of the stick, for example, may be a simple quality when it is out of the water, and become a scientific property when it is partially submerged.
With this scheme as a background, then, Toulmin goes on to ask whether there is not a difference between the way in which people disagree about properties and the way in which they disagree about ethical values. If a man will not agree that an apple is red, he is either color-blind or he simply does not understand the English language, and must be taught the meaning the word ‘red’ through example. If two men disagree about the number of sides in a given polygon, they may both repeat the routine of counting them. If they disagree about a scientific quality, the theory may need to be explained or clarified. In any of these cases there is something that can be done to settle the disagreement, and, if the proper routine is carried through, we may expect agreement to be reached unless one of the parties is mentally defective or jesting.
But in disagreements about values, Toulmin insists, the case is entirely different.
If I am confident that both men are candid and in full possession of their faculties, and that both employ the same language, dialect, and usage. . . If, in addition, I know that they have counted together the sides of a given polygon, it will be . . .pointless to ask them whether they agree about its 259 sidedness. But , though I know all this, it will still not be silly to wonder, for example, whether they will agree that meekness is good, or that such-and-such is the right decision.
We feel that disagreement concerning properties, given sincerity and the sufficiently rigorous application of the needed routines, ought to follow; we feel that agreement on values need not follow, and indeed that there are no routines to apply. Therefore, concludes Toulmin, values are not properties.
Translated into simple layman’s language, Toulmin’s argument comes out something like this. “It is more difficult to get people to agree on questions of value than on what I call questions of property. Therefore, there is a difference between values and properties.” I submit that there is a much simpler explanation for this difficulty than the disjunction of values from properties. It is simply that people generally have a higher personal stake in what we call values than they do in other properties. That is what makes them values: the fact that they are statements of what people, positively or negatively, value. But in every other important respect, they function in exactly the same way as other properties do.
When we ascribe the property ‘badness’ to acts of wanton cruelty directed against the innocent, for example, we are saying that such acts are always characterized by a certain quality, regardless of the response of any observer: they are worthy of condemnation. In a case such as this–what Lewis called “axioms of practical reason” –badness is in fact a ‘simple quality.’ To deny that such acts are bad is precisely to be either ignorant of the meaning of plain English, or to be morally perverse. It is the downfall of humanistic ethical systems that they refuse to take moral perversity into account.
Though he fails in his attempt to formulate a workable, non-objectivist basis for ethical decision, there are some positive insights for Christian ethics that we can gain from professor Toulmin’s analysis of the nature of properties. If basic ethical concepts are indeed simple qualities, then we can see something of how ethical concepts are learned. Simple qualities like ‘red’ can only be learned by being shown many examples of objects which possess the property. Our concepts of good and evil are learned in much the same way: our parents and then our peers react with praise or condemnation to various things that we do, and thus we build up a composite picture of what ‘good’ is, which we may apply to questions such as “What kinds of things are characterized by the predicate ‘good’?” “Ought I to do A?” “Should B be permitted to do C?” Etc.
The objectivity of value built into the world by its Creator is sufficient to ensure that by this process man will normally be able to gain a workable, if imperfect, concept of good and evil (Romans 2:14-15), though the moral perversity he inherits from Adam keeps him from following, indeed sometimes affirming, even that basic concept (Romans 1:18-32). This working concept may be reinforced and refined by reference to the full and accurate explication of the hierarchy of objective value which we believe is vouchsafed in Special Revelation. Thus, we may in this sense look at the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., as the Divinely sanctioned object lessons given to help us build up the most accurate possible concept of rightness and wrongness. On the most basic level, “Look: this apple is what I mean by red,” and “Look: stealing–adultery–idolatry–etc.–is what I mean by wrong,” may be very parallel statements. The Ten Commandments give us the basic colors of the spectrum. Then the various case laws of the Old Testament, the detailed instructions for “walking worthily of our calling” in the New, and numerous case studies of historical actions, motives, responses to situations, etc, in both, along with the recorded Divine approval or condemnation, are there to help us distinguish the finer shades and subtler hues in various lights. They are, in other words. “profitable” for “training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). They do not necessarily give us casuistry, a moral calculus to cover every conceivable situation. But they do teach us moral discernment based on an objective foundation of values which comes with Divine authority and does not change. Moses and Jesus, in effect, may both be saying, “These are the kinds of acts which possess the property of ‘rightness.’ Think of them until you get the flavor of the thing. Then apply those concepts to the ethical problems face in Christian liberty.”
**********footnotes********** Stephen Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics (Cambridge: The University Press, 1968), p. 4.  Ibid., p. 5.  Ibid.  Ibid.,p. 137.  See the discussion on the “objective” approach, pp. 9-28. We shall have occasion to treat this question in detail at a later point in this paper.  Ibid., p. 141.  Ibid., p. 145.  Ibid.  Ibid., p. 147.  Ibid., p. 149.  Ibid., p. 153  Ibid., p. 165n.  C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: The Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 73.  Toulmin, op. cit., pp. 10-12.  Ibid., p. 20.  See Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (New York: MacMillan, 1965) for a classic discussion of the doctrine of objective value