He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Fulfillment of the Law: A Personal Morality

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about why God would choose to send his son to the Jews at a particular historical moment, about why the law of the Torah preceded the Messiah.  My response to the question was essentially that (as he phrased it later) they needed to "marinate in the law" before they could even begin to understand their need for a Messiah.

This is the second part of my answer to the question, and it would be very helpful to read the first part before reading this post.  In the first part, I examined how the Tanakh provides a developmental path for morality that responds to how we humans grow into sometimes altruistic adults from mostly amoral children.  Specifically, I examined how an external standard such as the Law of the Mosaic age teaches us that the world outside of our internal experience as persons has rules that must be considered when we act and that there are consequences for action that impinge on other persons as well as our relationships with other persons.

Obedience to the law forces us to remember that there are external constraints on our behavior and that there are consequences for our decisions.  This is a valuable and necessary lesson for children who do not yet have an adult awareness of ethical obligations to others. If this was all the law was intended to teach us, then any set of laws would suffice to help us develop into altruistic adults.  But obedience to a law comprised of a mere random assortment of capricious rules has limited utility; while it does teach us to remember that there are external constraints on our behavior, it does not lead us to a principled way of keeping to those rules.

As adults, we often want a principled way of understanding why we obey the rules, but we do not often want an abstract rational moral standard like that of the utilitarianism provided by Mill.  This is not because abstract rational standards have no appeal, but because we are concrete human beings who are inherently personal.  We are whole persons who have rational faculties; we are not rational minds with clumsy bodies attached to them who merely need a rational standard and caloric intake to function as moral agents.

It may help to consider how we first learn morality, as well as to consider why so many of Kohlberg's stages of moral development center around our relationships with other persons (stages 2, 3, 4, and 5).  And by the time we reach the sixth stage, our regard for other persons is a fundamental part of our universal principles.  Even in Mill's abstract and rational utilitarian morality, the harm principle exists to keep our desire for happiness in balance with our regard for the autonomy of other persons.  Even the most extreme example of abstract rational hedonism, the ethics of the Cyrenaic school, have some limited regard for what is necessary to maintain our relationship with other persons, albeit out of a childish aversion to pain.  The personal dimension of morality seems inescapable, even for those who have tried to use the tools of philosophy to make it impersonal.

Our first encounter with the notion that there are constraints on our behavior beyond the mere sensations of pleasure and pain is fundamentally an encounter with other persons.  This may begin with a loving mother, a loving father, or a loving guardian who adopted us.  They taught us to respect moral boundaries in how we treated them and others.  If we have survived and been integrated into a community of persons, as most of us have, that very survival and integration required us to first learn moral behavior from a person and then a group of persons.  Most of us have never known a morality not learned directly from a person, and those of us who have learned of other moral frameworks have learned about them because other persons have introduced us to those ideas.

For us human persons, morality is inseparable from our experience of other persons.  Being persons, we need a moral law which is coherent with our nature as persons, a law which is directed toward our treatment of  persons and reveals to us the path for personal development, a law which responds to our need for personal growth by providing us with ways to habituate ourselves to behaving toward others as persons rather than as mere objects for our utility, and a law which strives to help us build and protect personal relationships between members of the community of persons.

The ideal way for us to learn that the law exists for the benefit of forming us in such a way that we can treat other persons as persons rather than objects is to recognize that the law is ordered toward the personal, specifically to the benefit of our relationship to a person.  In the case of the Tanakh, the law is explicitly ultimately ordered toward the benefit of our relationship to the divine person, the God who lead the people Israel out of Egypt.

In this way, the Tanakh leads us to a fully personal morality; it is a morality directed toward building a relationship with a divine person that requires of us a personal commitment to stepping outside of our personal experience so that we can treat other human persons as whole persons of the kind we know ourselves to be.

For Christians who view the Tanakh as the Old Testament, it makes a great deal of sense that we understand the Law as modeling for us and leading us to a personal encounter and relationship with God.  The Law of the Tanakh is not a random assortment of culturally-specific rules that no longer make sense (though there are certainly culturally-specific rules within it); it is a holistic morality that shows us how grow into fully developed moral persons and live as persons in relationship with other persons while requiring a high personal commitment from us.

In my next piece, I will examine how we might understand Christ's claim that he came to fulfill the Law.

A Holistic Morality - A Personal Morality - A Transcendent Morality

Note: The above is a picture of an icon I purchased from bostonmonks.com, the online store for the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

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