Dietrich von Hildebrand: Ethics

Ethics Book Cover Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introductory study by John F. Crosby
Hildebrand Press
Paperback $26.99

Reviewed by: Steven Nemes (Grand Canyon University)

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ethics is a rigorously argued treatment of many important problems in the philosophy of morals. He puts forth a coherent and insightful realist perspective which strives to be founded in lived moral experience. And this realist aspect is in fact most important to him. As will become evident, in every way he tries to emphasize and secure the utter objectivity and autonomy of the sphere of values from all possible reductions to something else. But his treatment lacks a certain critical awareness of the transcendental-hermeneutical structure of experience. Hildebrand seems to consider that because the experience of value has an intentional character, it is therefore a direct and immediate “contact” with an objective reality that gives itself as it is. Intentionality is taken as securing realism straightaway. This is how he tries to offer a phenomenological argument from the intentionality of consciousness against various forms of value-relativism. Hildebrand wishes to understand the human being as by nature open to an ontologically independent sphere of value. But the counterargument to be given below is that the experience of the world is both of the world (intentional) and inevitably mediated (transcendental-hermeneutical). What one experiences is not simply an “in itself” but rather an “in itself for us.” This lack of transcendental awareness fatally undermines his attempt to demonstrate the pure objectivity of values. The only possible solution to this problem would be that of adopting an “anthropocentric ontology” in which the meaning of everything is its possible meaning for human beings. The “in itself” would thus correspond totally with the “in itself for us,” and the hermeneutical structure of human experience would be revelatory of things as they are. But this would be contrary to the purposes of Hildebrand, who wishes to situate human beings within the greater context of a non-anthropocentric reality. The goal in the following review is to summarize the substance of Hildebrand’s work and to pursue this line of critique in greater detail.

In the chapter titled “Prolegomena,” Hildebrand announces the method he is to adopt in the present work in addition to making certain requests of the reader. Although he does not use these terms, one could say that Hildebrand’s method attempts to be simultaneously phenomenological and realist. It attempts to be phenomenological because he desires that we be “on our guard against all constructions and explanations that are incompatible with the nature of moral data as presented in experience or that in any way fail to do full justice to them” (2). He wishes to engage in an inquiry into the moral by way of starting from “‘the immediately given,’ that is, from the data of experience” (2). And he calls upon his readers to perform along with him a kind of epoché, in which one “hold[s] in abeyance for a while all theories that are familiar to him, and that provide him with a set of terms that he is accustomed to use in sizing up that which is immediately given” (2). The reader is called to “listen to the voice of being” (3) and to pay close attention, in as unbiased and unprejudiced manner as possible, to the real given of experience. But what is this “given” of experience, and how does one arrive at it? Hildebrand is emphatic that his intended sense of the “given” is not a reference to what is experienced naïvely in everyday life, nor does it reduce to what “everyone knows,” i.e. what is taken as a matter of course in some community. Rather, the given is “the object that imposes itself on our intellect, that reveals and validates itself fully when we focus on it in an intellectual intuition” (10). The “given” in this sense would therefore seem to amount to a genuine “in itself” that has become transparent and visible to the inquiring intellect. And Hildebrand also proposes a method for attaining to it. More precisely, he proposes that one return to naïve prephilosophical experience and purify it of the distortions and malformations imposed upon it unthinkingly and perhaps “inauthentically” by conforming it to the reigning doxa of the thought-world a person happens to inhabit. This means not only refusing to deny the reality of something given in experience simply because it cannot be reduced to the categories dominating the time and place in which the experience happens, as when a modern person takes great offense at a crime but then goes on later to say that morals are a matter of subjective preference, but also rejecting the pragmatic obsession with usefulness which blinds a person to any other aspect of a thing than that which is useful. This is the substance of Hildebrand’s suggestion for what amounts to a preparation of oneself so as to attain to knowledge of a given, i.e. of a true “in itself” which has become transparent to the inquiring intellect. The method is thus phenomenological insofar as it turns to experience as the source of knowledge rather than to speculation or theorizing or hypothesizing, and it is realist insofar as Hildebrand emphasizes that knowledge is essentially a passive reception of the self-disclosure of an external “in itself.” Finally, Hildebrand cautions against the temptation to premature systematizing for a variety of reasons, the most fundamental of which seems to be that excessive zeal for the development of a system inevitably translates into an aprioristic method which can only ever disconfirmed by experience. As he says, “as soon as we believe that from certain general principles we can deduce the rest of the universe, we are bound to build up a system that is not in conformity with reality” (13). One must always prefer the truly given to the desire for a system, always prefer honesty and faithfulness to the given rather than faithfulness to a system (16-19). One could therefore summarize these points by noting that Hildebrand’s method strives to be phenomenological, realist, and non-systematizing out of a concern to be properly “empirical” or experientially founded.

Hildebrand’s ethics begins with the notion of “importance” (ch. 1). A thing presents itself as important, rather than as neutral or indifferent, when it gives itself as possessing the power to motivate a specific response on the part of the person to whom it shows itself. Its motivating power may be either positive – as when it motivates desire, or joy, or enthusiasm, etc. – or negative – as when it motivates aversion or some other such response. The positively important is designated “good” (bonum), whereas the negatively important is designated “bad” (malum).

The motivational power of things can be different from case to case (ch. 2). Some things are good in the sense that they are desirable. But desire is not the only way in which a person can relate to the good. Some good things are desired for the sake of being possessed, whereas others are good as sources of joy and to be desired even when they cannot be personally appropriated (e.g., the conversion of a sinner). And some good things are desired insofar as the formal object of the desire is its coming into existence, whereas other good things are venerated and esteemed as already existing.

Hildebrand distinguishes between three different categories of importance (ch. 3). First, there is the distinction between value and the subjectively satisfying. Value is importance-in-itself. The value imposes itself in experience as being good independently of the way in which it happens to affect a person, e.g. an act of moral heroism. The morally heroic act imposes itself as something whose positive importance is independent of the effect it happens to have upon those who are witness to it. On the other hand, the subjectively satisfying is only important because of the way it happens to affect a person in some circumstances, e.g. a warm bath or an enjoyable party. But in addition to value and the subjectively satisfying, there is also that which is objectively good for a person. This category is presupposed by the Socratic maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, which would be unintelligible if the only way for a thing to be good for a person would be for it to be subjectively satisfying. It is better to suffer the subjectively unsatisfying than to commit an injustice, and this is because to be just is objectively good for a person, to be unjust – objectively bad. Hildebrand also emphasizes that the sphere of value is incommensurate with the sphere of the subjectively satisfying. It is not merely that one happens to be more valuable than another. A person forced to choose between caring for a friend in grave moral need and attending a social gathering is not choosing between two values on the same scale, but rather between two incommensurate forms of importance which appeal to different aspects of a person in order to move her to action. Value, mere subjective satisfaction, and the objective good for the person thus suggest themselves as the three fundamental categories of importance. And Hildebrand notes against Aristotle (63) that human freedom extends not merely to the means one chooses for the pursuit of any of these categories of importance, but also to which category of importance for which one opts in the course of life.

Although the useful is a genuine ethical category, it does not represent a category of importance on its own (ch. 4). A thing can be useful or not only relative to some important thing, whether this be value or mere subjective satisfaction or the objective good for the person. And Hildebrand is emphatic that of the three categories of importance, value — the important-in-itself — is primary (ch. 5). In fact, the primacy of value is so evidently a part of a meaningful human life that it often goes unnoticed and even obscured by theories which measure everything by the standard of the merely subjectively satisfying.

The values of things are properties which belong to beings independently of our motivations (ch. 7). These values reveal themselves in contemplation if a person is appropriately disposed, e.g. not beset by concupiscence and vice. The notion of an objective good for the person presupposes value, whether it be the value of the being the possession of which is an objective good or else the value of the human person whose enjoyment of various agreeable things is itself a value. Moreover, value is irreducible to the satisfiability of some relation to an urge or impulse of the human person (ch. 8). On the one hand, value imposes itself in experience independently of the disposition of those witnessing it, as when even a selfish person can be moved by a display of generosity. On the other hand, attempts at reducing value to a relation to some human disposition (e.g., an impulse toward admiration) all implicitly presuppose the value of the fulfillment of that disposition. These considerations lead to a refutation of relativism (ch. 9). Hildebrand responds to the argument from the diversity of moral opinions that such a diversity does not entail that there is no truth of the matter in morality and that the reality of an objective truth is in any case presupposed by the very act of taking up a moral opinion. In response to the claim of the “French sociological school” that morality is an invention and illusion owing to social pressures and cultural tradition, he responds that the moral sphere is in fact characterized by a certain essential intelligibility and necessity which puts it closer to mathematics than to mythology. Furthermore, these same relativists nevertheless inconsistently take up moral stances in response to evils such as Nazism. And Hildebrand has no patience for the view that says that the alleged value of things is in fact a feeling produced in us by the object, rather than a property of being itself, because this is contrary to the intentional nature of the experience of value itself. This is a point to which it will be important to return later.

There is a distinction to be made between ontological and qualitative value (ch. 10). Qualitative value is the value that characterizes qualities which may be possessed by different persons and is as such indifferent to each of them, e.g. the value of humility or charm or whatever. Ontological value is the value that a thing possesses simply in virtue of the fact that it is what it is, e.g. the value and intrinsic dignity of the human being as such. Hildebrand notes that the qualitative values (and disvalues) are related to each other in a way characterized by what he calls “polarity” (ch. 11). For example, thing cannot simultaneously be grand and delicate, menacing and boring, charming and imposing. Hildebrand also distinguishes various forms of polarity, some of which involve a kind of fruitful antagonism or opposition while others involve complementarity. And with respect to the relation between value and being (ch. 12), Hildebrand argues that these are distinct notions such that the grasp of one does not entail the grasp of the other. He grants that there is a formal value which belongs to every being simply qua being, but this must be distinguished from the ontological value of that being qua something as well as its qualitative values, i.e. the various valuable qualities it might possess. And it is possible for a thing to possess such ontological and qualitative disvalue that it would be better if it did not exist at all.

Speaking more generally of the connection between being and value, it is evident that the world in which human beings live is full of both good and evil, value and disvalue (ch. 13). But the presence of value alongside disvalue and indifference itself suggests that at the foundation of created being lies God who is Absolute Value. The ultimate reality could not be disvalue insofar as this would empty value of its meaning and turn it into a lie. This shows something of the relationship between God and value (ch. 14). Hildebrand compares it to the relationship between God as necessary and the creature as contingent: although it is possible to grasp a thing as contingent or valuable apart from the recognition of God, nevertheless the contingent or valuable thing depends upon God as its precondition. And the various values of things are in different ways reflections of the supreme unity of value in God.

Leaving aside questions of the relation between value and being, Hildebrand turns to the matter of moral values in particular (ch. 15). These are first and foremost values of a person, whereas nothing impersonal could be said to possess a moral value such as wisdom or temperance or the rest. And yet they are distinguished from other qualitative values of persons by the fact that it is demanded of every person as such to possess them, thus presupposing freedom of the will and in which regard the success or failure to possess them leaves one deserving either of reward or punishment. The distinctly Christian values of the saint include but also go beyond the values of “natural” morality available to all people whatsoever. With respect to the matter of moral value and its relation to nature (ch. 16), Hildebrand is firmly committed to the notion that the sphere of value cannot be subordinated to that of the human, as if value were merely a human phenomenon. This means that the morally valuable is not simply whatever is in accordance with human nature. Rather, human being is itself ordered toward the autonomous sphere of value, including the distinct sphere of moral value to which the human being has access as a result of its capacity for reason.

Hildebrand puts forth an extended discussion of the nature of value-response which is so fundamental to ethics (ch. 17). He begins by distinguishing intentional acts of consciousness, which imply a relation between a person and an object, from those nonintentional states such as exhaustion or cheerfulness. Among intentional acts, a distinction is to be made between the cognitive acts such as perception, through which an object is made present to a person, the direction of intentionality being principally from object to subject, and responses from the subject to the object which presuppose these prior cognitive acts. Responses may be of different sorts. Theoretical responses have to do with believing or disbelieving, accepting or doubting, and are aimed at the state of affairs as such. Volitional responses have to do with willing or not willing, which are principally aimed at state of affairs recognized not presently to be real, but which at least are possibly so. And there are also affective responses such as joy or sorrow, love or contempt. Some of these are principally characterized by the cognition of a value in their object, such as the admiration one feels for a saint or virtuous person. These are called value-responses. They are distinguished from other affective responses principally through the fact that they express themselves through a form of self-abandonment and self-transcendence, as when one worships God or commits oneself to the cause of justice. Some value responses such as love may manifest themselves in a manner similar to urges and impulses like thirst or strong desire, but they must nevertheless be distinguished from these in virtue of the fact that they are responses to an independently possessed value of some object. And the intentionality and object-directedness of the value response is not compromised by the thought that the human being is naturally disposed toward or benefited by certain values. The value of a thing is grasped in a special form of intentional cognition which Hildebrand calls value-perception. Hildebrand notably differs with Socrates in that he does not believe that mere indubitable value perception is sufficient to result in moral action; it is also necessary to be affected by them and to will in conformity with them.

It is essential to respond and relate appropriately to the values in things (ch. 18). There is an evident disharmony in dismissing Plato as vapid or thinking of St. Francis as “merely a lovely religious troubadour” (257). Similar considerations apply in the case of a person who responds with admiration and veneration to her robbers. And it is not merely a person or a valuable thing but rather the value itself that demands a proportionate response. Among these value-responses is the will to be good (ch. 19). One might also call this the fundamental option for moral value. Hildebrand is clear that the choice to be moral is first and foremost a response to the importance-in-itself of moral value and only secondarily a pursuit of what is objectively good for the human person. The difference between morally conscious person and morally unconscious person is that the former has considered and made this fundamental option for goodness whereas the latter has not. The morally unconscious person conforms to the moral order only accidentally, to the extent that it is natural or normal for her to do so. The morally unconscious person may also be strictly indifferent to the question of moral value while finding herself contingently inclined toward certain values which are genuinely morally good. The appropriate response to moral value in general requires moral consciousness.

Hildebrand also considers the role of the will in the response to value (ch. 21). On the one hand, the freedom of the will makes it possible for the human being to respond to the disclosure of value either positively or negatively, appropriately or inappropriately. On the other hand, the will is also what makes it possible for human beings to initiate causal sequences and to intervene in the flow of events in the world. Freedom implies the consciousness that some state of affairs both should and will obtain as a result (at least in part) of one’s own agency. Moreover, freedom is the presupposition of all moral evaluation and social action. It is distinct from the forms of voluntariness which are found even among animals (ch. 22). Contrary to the assertion of Aristotle, human freedom extends not only to the means but also to the end (ch. 23). Humans are free to choose between the merely subjectively satisfying or the important-in-itself as ends for their actions and not merely as means for the procurement of happiness. Insofar as human responsibility is coextensive with human freedom, it must be recognized that there is a distinction between things for which humans are directly responsible and those for which humans are only indirectly responsible (ch. 24). The existence of the former can be assured by an act of the will, whereas for the existence of the latter all one can do is prepare the way by means of free choices. One may not be capable of bringing about a virtue in oneself directly, but one can nevertheless be blamed for a failure of virtue if one does not at least prepare the way by willing to do the virtuous thing.

Human freedom also plays a role in the response to one’s being affected or affective responses to other things (ch. 25). It is not a matter of human freedom that one be affected or respond affectively to things, nor would it be right for it to be so, since the affective response is precisely a response to quality perceived in the object and not a matter of choice. But it is nevertheless a matter of freedom whether one “cooperates” with how one has been affected by something, e.g. whether one pursues a joy or submits to a felt offense. The morally conscious person is distinguished by the fact that she exercises her capacity to sanction or disavow her spontaneous attitudes. The morally unconscious person simply takes these affective responses for granted, whatever they might be. But this capacity can also be exercised by the morally conscious immoralist or enemy of God who specifically identifies with immoral attitudes and suppresses any noble affections that may arise within her. In general, the zone of affective responses is an area in which the human being can exercise indirect influence by either sanctioning or disavowing certain responses for the sake of preparing a ground for the advent of the appropriate ones. And in general, the factors which influence the development of a person’s character are numerous and vary with respect to the freedom a person has over them (ch. 26). One’s natural endowment with respect to temperament and body is one thing, whereas the way in which a person internalizes her own experiences and understands her own life is another. These analyses therefore yield the fundamental elements composing a moral act: it must be a free value-response to some relevant moral value perceived and pursued precisely as such, i.e. as a moral value (361).

Hildebrand posits three spheres of morality: the sphere of action; the sphere of concrete responses to things, whether volitional or affective; and the sphere of the lasting qualities of a person’s character (ch. 27). These spheres are not reducible or subordinated to each other. For example, it is possible for a morally noble person to fall into some sin as a result of temptation, in which case a distinction is to be made from the evaluation of character (she is noble), the evaluation of concrete responses (she is tempted by something), and the evaluation of action (she performs an evil action). An action is the intentional realization of a state of affairs perceived both as realizable and as valuable in a certain way. Affective responses to things can become the subject of moral evaluation when they are sanctioned or disavowed, i.e. when volition is brought into the equation. Virtues are deeply embedded qualities of a person’s character which are founded upon certain basic value-responses. This raises the question of moral “rigorism” (ch. 28). Although for Hildebrand the true drama of morality is the choice between the merely subjectively satisfying and the important-in-itself, it is nevertheless true that one should prefer the more valuable to the less. But it is also possible that in various situations it be morally required to give preference to something which otherwise would be considered a lesser value. And a distinction must be posited between what is morally praiseworthy and what is morally obligatory. “Rigorism” collapses this distinction and in this way erases the category of the merely permissible. Hildebrand also considers the question of the objective good for the person (ch. 29). There are four categories of the objective good: to be endowed with values; to possess something that makes happy because it is valuable; to have things which are indispensable for life; and to enjoy things which are legitimately agreeable.

The final chapters address the sources of moral evil. These are identified as pride and concupiscence (ch. 30). In fact, Hildebrand identifies three moral “centers” in the human being (ch. 31). These “centers” are not ontological constituents of the human person, but rather “a kind of fundamental approach to the universe and to God, a qualitatively unified ‘ego’ that is always more or less actualized when the person accomplishes a morally good act” (437). These centers are identified on the basis of certain qualitative affinities between various virtues and vices. The virtues — love, humility, reverence, justice, generosity, and so on — are united around what Hildebrand calls the “loving, reverent, value-responding center,” whereas there are two centers of evil: pride, which is the source of vices such as revengefulness, hard-heartedness, envy; and concupiscence, which is the source of covetousness, impurity, laziness, and other such. Hildebrand proposes an analysis of five possible manifestations of the coexistence of the good and evil centers in the typical human being (ch. 32). The merely subjectively satisfying can be a legitimate pursuit, but only if it is done in a recognition of the precedence and priority of value (ch. 33). Otherwise, one falls victim to pride and concupiscence. The discussions terminate with analyses of concupiscence (ch. 34) and pride (ch. 35) as distinct yet related ways of failing in the matter of value-response, concupiscence consisting in a loss of self in the pursuit of the satisfying, pride consisting in a preoccupation with self to the negation of value.

The book terminates with reflections on distinctly Christian ethics (ch. 36). Christian morality includes but also goes beyond and fulfills “natural” morality, understood as that moral knowledge which is available apart from revelation. This Christian ethics is distinguished in at least a few ways: its principal manifestation is humility; it brings together values which in natural morality are often thought exclusive (e.g., zeal for justice and meekness); it is principally founded upon the core of charity; and it conceives of the ethical life as a response to God in Jesus Christ.

Hildebrand’s discussion spanning some nearly five hundred pages is coherent, detailed, and in many places compelling without being aprioristic or unduly systematizing. His analyses of the different ways in which virtues and vices, moral battles and weaknesses manifest themselves in distinct types of persons are very astute and insightful. He demonstrates a profound and nuanced vision of the details of the moral landscape, for example in appreciation of the irreducibility of value even to the sphere of human entelechy as in some species of natural law ethics. At the same time, his writing lacks a certain transcendental awareness of his own hermeneutical situatedness. Sometimes the result is quaint, as when he takes for granted the obviousness of certain moral intuitions and attitudes typical of a faithful Roman Catholic writing decades before the Second Vatican Council. On other occasions, however, it serves to undermine the cogency of his arguments and compromises the genuinely phenomenological character of his work. Consider his discussion of the intentional character of value-response and its phenomenal quality as a perception of a value in the object itself.

Hildebrand distinguishes between cognitive acts and responses as two forms of intentional consciousness. The cognitive act is fundamentally receptive insofar as it consists in the grasping of the self-presentation of an object given to consciousness. The response is fundamentally active in that it consists in the adoption of a particular attitude toward the object grasped in the cognitive act (206-207). Although Hildebrand does not formulate it in precisely these terms, one could say that the cognitive act is a form of categorial intuition in which one grasps a state of affairs of such a nature as to motivate the adoption of some attitude in response to the grasped object. The quality which the object is grasped to possess is the motivation for the response. Insofar as some responses clearly have to do with the supposed value or disvalue of a thing to which one is responding, it therefore would seem to follow that these responses presuppose the prior cognitive grasp of a thing as possessing some value or disvalue relevant for motivating the response in question. For example, one feels admiration for a person in whom one perceives admirable qualities, e.g. moral values. The value-response is thus founded upon a form of value-perception in the way that responses more generally are founded upon cognitive acts such as perception or categorial intuition.

By way of response, one should note that Hildebrand seems to disregard the essentially hermeneutical nature of world-experience. One does not simply experience world-objects and grasp their properties directly. The external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and thought-life of the individual. A door looks blurry from a distance, not because it is blurry, but because one has bad eyesight. So also, a skyscraper may appear massive, not because it is in itself massive, but because it is much larger than one’s own body. Likewise, the fact that a man does not experience his wife and his sister-in-law in the same way does not owe to a difference in the two women, nor to a difference in his body, but to a difference in his thought-life: he understands the one to be his wife and not the other. So also, a woman might experience her parents differently after learning that she was adopted, not because something is different in them or in her body but because she now understands them differently. This is what is meant by the assertion that the external world-object is grasped through the dual hermeneutical filter of the lived body and the thought-life. One does not only experience the object but rather the object as related to oneself.

Hildebrand’s arguments for the objectivity of value therefore seem unsuccessful. It is true that one experiences an object as possessing some value which motivates a particular form of response to it. But it is another matter whether one has grasped a value in the object on its own or in the object as it is related to oneself in experience. Food is experienced as delicious, but there is no property of gustatory value inhering objectively in chicken tikka masala. It can be appetizing to one but not to another. Or consider that human beings love fruit, but dogs and cats generally do not. Similarly, a purported moral value can be “noble” in the eyes of the “virtuous” but repellent to the “profligate.” It could well be that the difference in perception is accounted for merely in terms of the different structures of the persons involved. Hildebrand thus does not succeed in demonstrating the pure objectivity of value because he does not show a critical awareness of the hermeneutical contribution of the lived body and thought-life to every world-experience. This seems to be the greatest shortcoming of an otherwise quite valuable treatment of the philosophy of morals. It remains a possibility that the perception of value is accounted for by the human body and thought-life rather than in the world-objects themselves. Value could be just like food, where tastes differ.

Hildebrand could escape this conclusion if he were to opt for an “anthropocentric ontology.” Such a perspective maintains that the meaning of things is their possible meaning for human life and purposes. On this view, the hermeneutical structure of human experience would not supply merely one more possible perspective among others but would rather constitute the total framework within which every possible perspective is included. The human being is not related to a prior world which could exist independently of him, but rather the being and meaning of the world its precisely its being and meaning for the human being. Reality is subordinated to the human rather than the other way around. Adopting this perspective would be a way of admitting the fundamentally anthropo-hermeneutical character of the experience of value without compromising the reality of values, since reality is precisely reality-for-humans. This also undermines the argument for relativism, which apparently presupposes a “realist” ontological stance within which human beings are merely one more kind of beings within a greater non-anthropocentric reality that is strictly indifferent to them. But it would also be incompatible with Hildebrand’s greater project of conceiving the human being as intrinsically open to a sphere of objective values which transcends him and exists independently of him. One must therefore choose between “anthropocentric ontology” or an uncertain realism and the specter of value-relativism.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: Ethics, Hildebrand Project, 2020

Ethics Book Cover Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introductory study by John F. Crosby
Hildebrand Project
Paperback $26.99

Dietrich von Hildebrand: Morality and Situation Ethics

Morality and Situation Ethics Book Cover Morality and Situation Ethics
Dietrich von Hildebrand. With a new foreword by John Finnis
Hildebrand Project
Paperback $ 16.99

Reviewed by: Norman Lillegard (The University of Tennessee at Martin)

This is an inquiry into a specifically Christian ethics, one that at first sight looks multiply parochial. It is an extended argument for quite traditional Roman Catholic positions on moral matters.  Moreover, it instances a more or less Augustinian approach to ethics and may thus represent a (large) minority position even within the Roman Catholic community, which has been dominated philosophically by Aquinas. And, its original polemical targets were particularly prominent a half century ago, and arguably reflected a zeitgeist that has withered on its own.  Nonetheless it still has some bearings on persisting issues germane to any Christian ethic, protestant or Catholic, as well as on some more or less secular ethical views, and applications to current culture are readily available.

The principal aim is to lay out some of those features of a Christian ethic that distinguish it from “situation ethics.” Hildebrand insists that Christian ethics requires moral commands or general moral principles that are non-negotiable, that must be observed in every case without any modification in the light of possible consequences, or in light of the peculiarities of a situation, or of the person in the situation, or some combination of these.  The prominence of “absolutism” or anti-consequentialism in specifically traditional Roman Catholic teaching is brought out in John Finnis’ introduction to this edition, where citations from papal encyclicals, most notably Veritatis Splendor, with its stress on intrinsically evil acts, figure prominently.  Moreover, this edition includes as an appendix an address by Pope Pius XII on “moral law and the new morality” dating from 1952. The notions of law and of intrinsic wrongness thus figure prominently throughout, but there is no attempt to argue for the superiority of a distinctly deontological ethics over more teleological approaches to ethics and natural law.  In fact there is no sharp distinction drawn in these terms; nonetheless the principal concern is with the idea that certain actions (or less commonly omissions) are always and everywhere impermissible. Although clearly wedded to Roman Catholic traditions and emphases, the analysis is deployed against a trend, againstthe creeping influence of situation ethics both in the culture at large and also among some Roman Catholic scholars and Catholic institutions.

That trend may have been particularly noticeable in the latter half of the last century, and it appeared to some as a capitulation to a more general spirit or trend, particularly prominent in the late 50’s and ‘60s, which opposed what was perceived to be a kind of legalism, a morally rigid stress on the letter of the law (the rule, the command, the principle), in favor of the idea that one should simply love or do what love, or some similarly strong pro attitude, required.    One important source of situation ethics was the wildly popular Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1956) by the protestant theologian Joseph Fletcher.  Many of that book’s readers, both devotees and critics, shared the sense that it summed up the antinomian sensibilities of the 60’s counterculture. Nonetheless it is not difficult to find applications of Hildebrand’s critique to the less optimistic and more ironical culture of today.

The notion of “situation ethics” is vague and some versions arguably contain inconsistent elements. Versions of relativism, non-cognitivism, and emotivism reside uneasily, not always with explicit acknowledgement, with act and rule utilitarianism in Fletcher’s work, to take one example. But clearly utilitarianism is cognitivist and rules out cultural or individual relativism.

However, Hildebrand is less interested in a direct analysis and critique of some version of situation ethics, than in an analysis of what it rules out, and why. There are I think no strawmen in his argument.  He attempts to show how some of the motivations of the situation ethicist deserve careful attention and respect.  In fact, he holds that by doing justice to some of the “valuable contributions” (p. 9) of situation ethics a clearer elaboration of Christian ethics becomes possible. Here the details are of general interest; Catholics, protestants, secularists, whether philosophers, theologians, or even novelists (sic!) may find in his detailed discussion of pharisaism,  self-righteous zealotry, self-righteous mediocrity, the self-righteous timorous person,  and the tragic sinner, significant distinctions and contrasts that are often mischaracterized or overlooked.

Situation ethics is sometimes motivated by an aversion to pharisaism, which may be construed as a thoughtless application of rules or principles to every morally fraught situation. But Hildebrand argues that the most essential ingredient in pharisaism is not a spiritless devotion to the letter of the law, but rather pride, the urge to judge others, the complete rejection of charity or mercy, and the use of moral principles as a means to self-glorification. The Pharisee is thus opposed to the spirit of the law, the spirit of repentance and self-abasement. The true pharisee (obviously an ideal type in Hildebrand’s taxonomy) is thus opposed to God as God, as infinitely above his creatures.   It is, arguably, those features of pharisaism, rather than reliance on rules or principles per se, that accounts for the negative connotations of “pharisee” which the situation ethicist responds to.

The pharisaism of “the pharisee” can be usefully contrasted with the mitigated pharisaism of the self-righteous zealot or the self-righteous mediocre individual. The self-righteous zealot does not oppose the spirit of the law, but she is primarily concerned with the violations of other persons.  She is a moralizer who focuses on moral wrong, the violation of a law, principle or code, rather than on the complexities of the situations within which all people choose, and regularly fail, when measured only by that law.  The law is a blunt instrument in her undiscerning hands, and its being so serves her purpose, since use of the law as a tool in sensitive self-evaluation would disable her focus on the violations of others.  Hildebrand mentions the main character in Mauriac’s Woman of the Pharisees as an instance of this type.  She tends to mix social improprieties with moral failings; moral rules are just further specifications of “what is commonly done.”  Thus she may even be suspicious of saints, since they seem to stand outside common norms. To the extent that the situation ethicist detects and rejects this banality and bluntness, he must get positive credit.

The self-righteous mediocre person, on the other hand, lacks the perverse focus on morality instanced by the self-righteous zealot. His principle concern is that he be morally secure, and his attempts to abide by the letter of the law enable the desired sense of security.  Once secure, he can get along with the ordinary business of life, business, politics, family etc. in a favorable state of mind. He is not overly focused on others or heedless of his own failings, but his attempts at external conformity suffice for him. He does not attempt to edit away any of the demands of the letter of law, but he does not heed its penitential function.  The important thing is to be correct, and he is, like the zealot or the true pharisee, intolerant of the failures of others with respect to the letter, and also tends, like the zealot, to mix moral with merely social correctness.

Both of these types of self-righteousness can be contrasted with what we find in a morally timorous man.  He uses conformity to the letter of the law to avoid risk taking. His primary concern is with safety. He does not have the pride of the Pharisee, or the hardness of the zealot or the mediocre man in judging others.  But the letter of the law shields him against any deep and sometimes risky investment in morally difficult circumstances.  Typical proponents of situation ethics are particularly likely to contrast this feature of the timorous man with the kind of risk taking and deep responsibility of the truly moral man who on their view must dare to act for the best without guidance or guarantee.

The situation ethicist contrasts the “tragic sinner” with all of the types mentioned so far; although the tragic sinner does not deny the relevance or importance of principles or laws, she does not advert to them to establish moral superiority, or retreat to them to avoid risk and conflict.  In fact she holds them in such high regard that a violation causes her great pain.  But we can imagine a situation in which she can only achieve a great life good (for example the fulfillment of a great love) by violating a moral requirement. Her capacity for love, her earnestness in the face of her situation and the impossibility of achieving a life of deep fulfillment and even nobility without the violation makes her a “tragic” figure. It is easy to sympathize with the claim that she is morally superior to the self-righteous or the timid, and to infer that “rule worship” would constitute a personal failure in her situation.

It is even possible to have a kind of moral admiration for those who feel no pressure from rules or moral laws, and thus are anything but tragic, but who act spontaneously from motives of kindness, generosity, or fellow feeling.  Tom Jones in Fielding’s novel may rightly get more admiration than the grim and judgmental legalists who surround him at church.

Finally, the situation ethicist may go so far as to accord some positive value to sin itself. There is a kind of sinning that expresses spiritual energy, a concerted rejection of self-righteousness, and may lead to various goods.  On the one hand it may lead to a deeper recognition of unworthiness, of the sort unknown to the “correct” but self-righteous person.  Or it may seem to function as a felix culpa, understood as calling forth of greater “soul benefits” than would otherwise have been possible. It is in relation to these ideas about the tragic sinner and the “happy fault” that Hildebrand’s discussion of situation ethics intersects with his account of “sin mysticism.” The two are logically distinct, but Hildebrand notes their confluence in the thinking of many, due to a shared detestadon of pharisaism in all its modalities and of spiritual sloth or merely conventional observance of moral principles, which figure prominently in both.

The foregoing summary does not, of course, do more than touch upon a few of the features of the detailed moral phenomenology explored by Hildebrand in his effort to credit the “valuable contributions” of situation ethics. It is easier to say briefly how situation ethics nonetheless fails to escape justified criticism from the absolutist.  The principal criticism is simple; none of the praiseworthy elements in human moral struggle highlighted by the situation ethicist depend for their existence on the exclusion from full ethical life and deliberation of fundamental laws, principles, divine commands or any other deontological elements. This point is quite clear; none of the positive traits of the tragic sinner (to take the case most favorable to the situation ethicist’s position), her passion and multiform depth of character, would necessarily be absent from a person who flatly refuses to contravene a moral rule. Arguably such a person exhibits even greater depth of character. The ability to sacrifice a kind of self-fulfillment in obedience to moral law can bespeak a remarkable personal development and energy that logically requires the hardness of the rule.  Variations in this basic critique are spread throughout the first nine chapters; though the basic critique here is worth emphasizing, and varies somewhat in sundry applications, this book ends up being somewhat repetitious .

There are other criticisms of situation ethics worth mentioning here. Consider Hildebrand’s attack on the relativism of situation ethics. Situation ethics is relativistic since it denies that there are any “values” that govern more than one case at a time. It thus endorses the most extreme form of relativism, individual relativism. A consistent statement of this view is very difficult to formulate, as the writings of Montaigne attest. It implies the claims that ideas of moral progress and moral advice are empty, and that there can be no moral exemplars or moral education (142). These claims arguably entail some version of non-cognitivism, but the situation ethicist does not endorse non-cognitivism.  He may insist that one can know some such general principle as “always follow conscience” but this principle is empty, or in Hildebrand’s terms, merely “formal.”

The individual relativism of situation ethics also requires a denial of common experiences of the differences between cruelty and kindness, generosity and selfish hoarding and the like, which Hildebrand regards as pre-theoretical “givens” (cf. Charles Taylor’s notion of “thick description”). In fact, Hildebrand argues that despite the situation ethicist’s emphasis on the contingent multiplicity of ethically charged “situations” he in fact fails to appreciate the full complexity of ethical life. He may miss the way judgement on evil is ideally, at least in the Christian vision, combined with an appreciation for the complexities of human lives and the universality of moral weakness. The Christian is well situated to assert, with St. Augustine, that “man’s heart [is] an abyss” (quoted on  118). The dominical admonitions to refrain from judging (in the sense of assuming a Godlike ability to see everything that is in a person) respect that abyss, and are combined with the sense that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Thus situation ethics may itself be subject to a kind of simple mindedness, when it is not simply confused.  These are not parochial criticisms.

Hildebrand also employs a tu quoque that has some force against the situation ethicist. A fundamental motive of situation ethics appears to be the desire to avoid judgementalism.  But the situation ethicist often seems eager to dismiss as legalists, slaves to convention, hypocrites, cowards, or insensitive to context those who take seriously rules or principles (understood as more than rules of thumb) or who believe that there are real distinctions among virtues and vices. Thus, he exhibits thoroughly judgmental attitudes towards much of humanity, perhaps especially those who take moral matters seriously.

In ch. 10 Hildebrand sets out what he considers to be three “basic errors” of situation ethics, at least in its more extreme forms.

First, the situation ethicist ignores or tends to discount the force of the moral “ought,” which he may view as a mistaken importation of juridical notions into ethics. He tends to contrast the person acting under obligation with the person (much to be preferred on his view) who spontaneously does what is right or good. This contrast, between duty and sentiment or inclination, so prominent in arguments between Kantians and “sentimentalists,” is irrelevant on Hildebrand’s view. He contends that each and every “moral value response” including those in which a person acts with passion and enthusiasm, is experienced as “something that should be;” each “contains an element of obedience” (128).

Hildebrand’s language here is (as is often the case in this book) vague or slippery. Is loving ones enemies “obedience” to a command or law, or not? At first sight Hildebrand seems to discount any contrast between the deontic and the axiological, as we might now put it. We might expect the result to be anti-supererogationism, a view characteristic of the protestant reformers.  Compare that to the contrast, found in Aquinas, between acting from principle or under a law, and acting for the good. Aquinas distinguished precepts, which are universal in their scope (like laws), from counsels, which are addressed to the few who have the capacity and inclination to pursue the life of perfection. For Thomas, the open-texture character of the counsels makes the morality of love superior to mere obedience to or conformity with divine law or commands. But Thomas does not draw a clear borderline between duty and supererogation. It is, for example, not clear whether “love thy enemy” is a precept or a supererogatory counsel. It is similarly unclear whether acts of charity (such as almsgiving) are duties or lie beyond duty, and so on for other cases. In view of the evident difficulty here we can appreciate Hildebrand’s apparent conflation of precepts and counsels and his treatment of the love commands (Mk 12: 29-31) as foundational for the entire “moral” (unexplained) domain. But there is a further related difficulty in this neighborhood.

The first edition of this book preceded the groundbreaking essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) by Gertrude Anscombe, who argued that the idea of a “moral ought” was a leftover from a time when divine law and divine commands were essential to ethics (metaethics).  She argued that since the belief in the divine has largely disappeared, the notion of a “moral” ought, which elicits so much philosophical puzzlement, should be abandoned. The notion of the moral, with its lingering hint of something demanded (and thus perhaps of “obedience”) is now meaningless. That being the case she advocates a return to a more or less Aristotelian virtue ethics for the purposes of contemporary debates on ethics. Hildebrand makes unexamined uses of “moral” quite central to his discussion; such expressions as “moral demand,” “moral value response,” “morally relevant values,” positively clutter this book. It is of course true that he has not abandoned theism. It does not follow that he is entitled to a continued use of these expressions, since he refuses to make a clear distinction between obedience to divine commands or divine law and any other “moral” (unexplained) responses (cf. the discussion on p. 132 of “general morally relevant” values vis a vis “general principles and laws” and “positive commandments of God.”) Some such distinction is back of Anscombe’s critique.  Otherwise put, he does not account for “moral obligation” by grounding it in a command issued by God or a standing obligation in natural law, but neither does he account for it some other way. Given his very heavy reliance on unexamined uses of “moral,” Hildebrand’s failure, in later (post 1958) editions, to respond in at least some minimal way to Anscombe’s critique will be considered a serious defect by many, including those who dissent from Anscombe’s view.

Secondly, situation ethics is criticized for eliminating the general (general principles or rules) from ethics.  The situation ethicist’s motivation for doing so resides in his belief, which is surely widely shared, that it is obvious that there are situations which not only permit, but require (“morally”), violation of such rules as “promises are to be kept” or “one must not swear falsely.” Hildebrand considers the case of swearing falsely to a tyrant, perhaps in order to save a life. Rather than insist (as Kant might have) that even in such a situation one must not swear falsely,  Hildebrand suggests that in some such situation the “oath” might lack “the intrinsic presuppositions” (131) for authenticity (and thus would not be a real oath) so that “swearing” falsely might be permissible or even required. Nowhere, however, does he say exactly what those presuppositions might be. This looks like mere evasion, and not just to a situation ethicist.

It of course does not follow that there can be no account of those “presuppositions.”  Nicholas Wolterstorff argues (in Justice: rights and wrongs, 2008) that commands, standing orders or laws obligate if and only if they are issued by agents who have standing and its associated potestas. A sergeant’s order obligates only where he has standing in relation to those he commands. He has no such standing in relation to those not in his platoon, so his production of the locutionary act of uttering an imperative sentence does not constitute the illocutionary act of issuing a command, when directed upon, say, the army’s commander-in-chief (or the writer of this review). There are very plausible arguments for the claim that tyrants lack standing to issue some commands, extract oaths, et al, so those commands are not real commands, those oaths not real oaths (Hildebrand: not “authentic”).  Hildebrand’s failure to respond to a quite compelling objection with little more than flat assertion will look serious to those seeking some philosophical illumination of the fundamental concepts in play here (obligation, command, duty, etc.).  Wolterstorff shows just one way to respond.

Hildebrand looks to be on firmer ground when he criticizes the situation ethicist’s use of “conscience” to do all the moral work.  The ability of conscience to warrant the very opposite of what morality requires is too well known (cf. Huck Finn’s misguided conscience, and “the Corsican Matteo Falconi” mentioned on p. 136). Conscience, Hildebrand rightly insists, only gets content by a struggle with precepts of some kind or other. But as already suggested, he does not give us an account of divine commands or natural law that shows how to sort the good precepts from the bad. Rather he alludes to features of a Christian life and Christian formation (the “imitation of Christ”, 142).  Practically that might suffice.  Philosophically it does not.

Thirdly, Hildebrand argues that the situation ethicist has a wrong conception of the relation of natural law to revealed law; he seems to assume that the latter invalidates the former. Hildebrand denies that natural law precepts can ever be invalidated.  But there are special cases where a revealed call supersedes natural law. St. Francis disobeyed his father.  His doing so was in response to a “call” which superseded, but did not invalidate, principles requiring filial obedience.  The specifically Christian sources of Hildebrand’s ethics become particularly evident here.  Once again someone who seeks philosophical illumination rather than Christian edification may feel shortchanged; are such natural law precepts as “parents are to be obeyed” binding always and everywhere, or not? If not, what considerations favor disobedience? Or are there cases of non-compliance that don’t amount to disobedience? Utilitarian or consequentalist reasonings would not be countenanced by Hildebrand. What then? Individual directives from the Holy Spirit? Is there some scale of higher and lower “moral values” that can in principle be accessed by any morally responsive person, or would specifically Christian formation be necessary to discern any exceptions or overriding factors?

In this book Hildebrand does not, so far as I can see, do what many Christian philosophers have tried to do, namely show in what ways an ethics devoid of theological reference must be defective, for example through failure to square with some widely shared ethical intuitions or beliefs. Hildebrand remarks that separation of morality from God causes it to lose the “breath of the eternal” (147). This idea from Kierkegaard challenges heart and mind when surrounded with the profound rhetoric and dialectic of his authorship. In Hildebrand it has only a faint appeal if any.

Thus the lingering parochialism of this work. Nevertheless, the detailed dissection of the moral simulacra that motivate some people to adopt situation ethics, or even attempt to abandon moral concerns altogether, will no doubt prove useful to many readers, and add to the substantial burden under which situation ethics already labors.

Dietrich von Hildebrand: La filosofía y la personalidad de Max Scheler, Ediciones Encuentro, 2019

La filosofía y la personalidad de Max Scheler Book Cover La filosofía y la personalidad de Max Scheler
Opuscula philosophica
Dietrich von Hildebrand
Ediciones Encuentro