Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part III)

Photo by  Jack Anstey  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

It’s a memorable moment, but again, Neville—like Hermione—has been prepared for such a time as this; the courage he displays here has been built through earlier decisions and courageous acts. Even if the stakes were smaller then, they were nonetheless challenges to be overcome. A memorable training ground for Neville’s stand against Voldemort, for example, was his earlier stand against his friends stopping them from leaving the common room in order to prevent punishment to the whole house. For this act, he is rewarded with ten points for Gryffindore, as Dumbledore announces, “There are all kinds of courage. . . . It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your friends.” Crucially, Neville challenges his friends out of a pure heart, not for selfish reasons. Courage is not to be confused with rash and dangerous action; it is instead principled action in the face of fear. For this reason, C. S. Lewis elevates courage above other virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Neville stands up to his friends because he loves them. Love being the motivating virtue for all the others and the most important of all the virtues practiced by the characters and taught by the series.

I think, in fact, that what most attracts readers, what accounts for the Harry Potter phenomenon is this simple yet profound truth: that love will, in fact, save the world. But, and here’s the kicker, love costs. Love is no insubstantial, sentimental thing; it is tough as nails and powerful—it requires force and a humble, courageous act of will. For, as Plato has argued, the virtues truly are unified—they support and reinforce one another to enable us to become the people we ought to be. The education Harry Potter offers is to recognize the value of humility, courage, and most importantly love and to steel us to embrace the cost and to impress deeply upon us that that cost is worth the reward. This pattern—of a desperate situation, a dramatic self-sacrifice, and a hope affirmed through that sacrifice—runs throughout the book and appears both in the overarching narrative and the smaller stories that make up the whole. Through these depictions, Rowling is training her readers to see beyond the immediate and to recognize the even deeper reality of a world ruled by justice and redeemed by love. Individual enactments of humility, courage, and love are inseparable from justice and love’s ultimate triumph. In the soil of Rowling’s books the reader’s moral imagination can grow alongside those of the central characters. Not only is love what is being taught to these characters (and readers) as they grow up; it’s the catalyst for their learning.

In this summer’s popular documentary, Fred Rogers reminds us that “love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” The arc of Harry’s story highlights this deep truth. As powerful as the series’ climax is—where Harry surrenders himself to Voldemort to save his beloved friends and professors—it could never have happened if it weren’t for his mother’s sacrificial act to protect him from Voldemort as a child. And I don’t mean this in the obvious way—that Harry would not have lived were it not for his mother’s protection. I mean it in the way the book makes clear—Lily Potter denies herself in favor of her son, finds courage to stand up against an implacable enemy despite the overwhelming odds that he will prevail, and plants deep within her son a knowledge of love’s power that cannot be shaken; Harry loves well because his mother first loved him. As Dumbledore explains to Harry: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”

Even still, Harry must grow into that love, step by step and choice by choice. He does so with the encouragement of loving mentors and pseudo-parents. Dumbledore, especially. As a precursor to Harry’s self-sacrifice in Deathly Hollows, Dumbledore allows Snape to kill him. That Dumbledore took this step gave force to the encouragement and support he offers Harry at King’s Cross Station. Pottermore elaborates on this important scene in the following commentary that’s helpful for underscoring how Dumbledore’s character is simultaneously formed and revealed through his actions:

[D]espite the faults, despite Dumbledore perhaps not being the perfect wizard Harry thought he was, never before has Dumbledore seemed more heroic. For men and women are not born great. They learn greatness over time – from experience, from mistakes. Dumbledore looked at his deeds, at his flaws, and he had the wisdom to confront and overcome them; he fought the greatest nemesis there was: himself. . . . Who better to teach the next generation of wizards? Who better to face Lord Voldemort? Who better to send Harry on his way from King’s Cross station, with one last piece of wisdom: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

The wisdom Dumbledore offers Harry is wedded to his practice; more importantly, it has grown out of that practice. And Harry has learned well, as he goes out to surrender to Voldemort. It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has embraced and embodied the moral education of these many years. It’s one that resonates with readers, as sales and the popularity of the books and its ancillary products shows. But what readers do with that story matters just as much as the story itself. Have we embraced our own moral education inspired by these books? William James reminds us that without putting what we learned through literature into practice, the experience is the opposite of educative; it is utterly self-indulgent:

The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. . . . One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place.

Rightly read, good literature—the enchanted and non-enchanted varieties alike—habituates our hearts and minds outwardly, to practice humility, bolster our courage, and embrace love. We can—and I think should—lament our current state of affairs, how the worst of times are at present being instantiated: the bitter rivalries, the no-holds barred angry rhetoric, and the general sense of despair. We also can—and dare I say must—fasten our present hopes to the eternal verities that will not disappoint. Good stories can show us the way.

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part II)

Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”

Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.

We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron:  "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”

And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.

Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.

Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”

That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.1 “Maimonides”

In Chapter 7, Hare explores the tensions between divine command theory and Jewish thinkers. Hare suggests that though there are important differences between the Abrahamic faiths, they nevertheless all “wrestle with the question of how divine command relates to human nature.”

In the first of three sections, Hare concerns himself with the thought of Maimonides, especially as he has been interpreted by Marvin Fox. One of the difficulties with understanding Maimonides is due to the esoteric nature of his work. On the surface, it seems that Maimonides presents and affirms many contradictory positions. Maimonides’ approach can sometimes obfuscate or confuse his meaning, so the first step to understanding his insights about the connection between natural law and divine command will be to determine how to interpret his The Guide for the Perplexed.

Hare considers three different hermeneutical approaches. The first approach comes from Leo Strauss. Strauss suggests that the seeming contradictions can be untangled by taking whatever position is least frequently mentioned as Maimonides’ actual view. But Hare thinks this approach is not well supported and leads to some awkward interpretations. Second, Fox argues that Maimonides wants his readers to hold the opposing views at the same time, but that these views are not actually contradictions. Fox thinks that this strategy is didactic; it is meant to ease the reader into deeper and deeper truths about God. Hare, however, thinks that such a practice will leave Maimonides’ thought forever in a fog and is uncharitable; therefore, Hare thinks we should adopt a third way. Hare thinks we should Maimonides as presenting opposing statements as only appearing to be contradictory and the right set of qualifications and context will dissolve the tension.

With a principled method for interpreting Maimonides in hand, Hare applies it Maimonides’ doctrine of the mean and account of the virtues. Hare takes Fox and his interpretation of Maimonides as a foil as he provides his own account. Fox thinks of Maimonides’ understanding of the virtues as deeply influenced by Aristotle. Even though Maimonides and Aristotle disagree, they both have a “doctrine of the mean.” Fox tries to show that Aristotle’s account of the virtues was established by appeal to nature. Supposedly, Aristotle determined what the virtues were and their character by grounding them in facts about human nature.

Hare thinks Fox’s analysis of Aristotle goes wrong in two ways. First, the doctrine of the mean does not only seek to find the balance between human activities, like courage being between foolhardiness and cowardice. Often, virtue is correlated with a “peak” which might vary depending on context instead of a balance. The best number of calories to eat, for example, will depend on the activity and physiology of a particular person. There is no set number of calories that is exactly in the middle of two extremes which all people should eat. Secondly, Hare says that Aristotle never makes the connection between nature and the specific character of the virtues. Aristotle does, broadly, ground happiness in human nature and its proper function. But his specific characterization of proper function is primarily influenced by his own tradition, especially as it comes from Homer. Thus, Aristotle does not ground the specific requirements of the moral life in facts about nature and, therefore, Fox’s understanding of the disagreement between Maimonides and Aristotle is mistaken.

Hare thinks there are two fundamental differences between Aristotle and Maimonides. First, Maimonides is conscious of his use of sources outside his own tradition and argues for their legitimacy. This is important because it helps to demonstrate that Maimonides recognizes the cognitive value of philosophy in thinking about ethics. Aristotle, on the other hand, has his own sources but they come from within his tradition and he offers no argument for their use. The second difference has to do with the sources internal to their tradition. Aristotle says that God does not give commands, but that he serves the role of grounding what reason can determine. Maimonides, on the other hand, thinks God has given commands and that these commands have ontological and epistemic priority, but they can be shown to be consistent with proper human reason and nature. However, moral obligations are only obligatory because they are command by God. Man can see often that they are good, but their rightness supervenes on the divine command.

Hare’s final aim in his discussion of Maimonides is to correct the idea that he was a moral non-cognitivist. One motivation for the non-cognitivist view comes from Maimonides’ comments on the effects of the Fall. Prior to the Fall, Maimonides say that Adam could make “true judgments” and afterwards, he could only make judgments about what is “beautiful or ugly.” Fox argues, on the assumption that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive, plus Maimonides’ relative pessimism about human ability to discern the moral law, that this makes Maimonides a non-cognitivist.

Hare disagrees for two reasons. First, he thinks it is anachronistic to apply the label to Maimonides. Second, he argues that it is simply not true that aesthetic judgments are non-cognitive. But then what did Maimonides mean in his comments about the Fall? Hare suggests that possibly Maimonides was merely indicating that human epistemic capacity is limited by the effects of the Fall. Maimonides intends for the move from truth to beauty to be a deterioration and Hare thinks that this deterioration has to do with man’s capacity to discern rightly objective truths. Without the proper relation to God, man can only judge from his perspective. These judgments will be based on convention and be provisional. However, God in his revelation of himself in the Torah, makes accommodation to man’s position while also providing them with moral truth. An example of this accommodation and restoration is the animal sacrifices. The moral truth is that God should be worshiped, but God accommodates this truth to man by allowing them to continue their “natural” practice of worship through sacrifice, but only when it is directed to him.

In this section, Hare wants to emphasize that Maimonides did not think that morality and reason are totally isolated; they are complementary. But this does not mean that the moral law can be discovered by reason, even if it can be shown to be rational after it is revealed.

Image: "Maimonides" By Unknown - Psychiatric News, Public Domain,

TThere Ain’t Nothin’ Like Love

The title above reflects a sentiment that has for centuries been ubiquitously expressed in the popular songs and literature of Western societies.  But the "love" referred to is associated much more with Cupid than with God.  Love as the world defines it has to do overwhelmingly with the exhilarating whirlwinds of sexual attraction and desire, whereas God's love, magnificently presented in I Cor. 13, addresses the totality of human experience.  After 1 Cor. 12, on the misuse of God's gifts of the Spirit, Paul launches into a concise, almost poetic meditation on Transcendent Love (agape), saying, "I will show you a more excellent way" than the petty competition to prove who is most spiritual (1 Cor. 12:31).

He begins his beautiful poetic-prose meditation on Divine Love with a comprehensive catalogue of spectacular spiritual gifts that are of no profit without the enabling grace of that Love.

If I speak in the tongues of me and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (I Cor. 13:1-3)

No humanly willed virtue, nor even the exercise of a divinely granted gift has significance within itself, but can draw its value only from being grounded in the Love of God.  The carnal Corinthians have been emphasizing uses of their gifts that draw attention to themselves, but Paul wants to show that no matter how spectacularly "successful" they are in the exercise of their gifts, that success is empty unless its purpose is to be a transmitter of the transcendent Love that Jesus showed supremely in His death on the cross.

How are we to recognize this love that trumps the most notable good deeds that can be imagined?   Paul follows up on his astounding statement by (1) giving a down-to-earth picture of what Love does and does not do and (2) showing that of all virtues, only Love endures past this world into eternity.  The characteristics of Love are catalogued in verses 4-7.  The first two items are overarching, comprehensive qualities (patience and kindness) that rule out six specific negative behaviors and cultivate a vital positive one.  The six negative behaviors are all self-centered and injurious to others: arrogance, rudeness, selfish insistence, irritability, resentment, and fault-finding. The vital positive behavior generated by patience and kindness is rejoicing in truth.  This might not seem at first to be so very important, but it springs from a key attitude of the Christian mind, that is, seeking and embracing truth even when it is painful to know and accept, in contrast to cherishing falseness and error when it is to our advantage.

The statement in verse 8 that “love never ends” begins Paul’s assertion that the day will come when all of our experience of God, even faith and hope, will be folded into His Love, just as the Son will one day, at the end of God’s work with this world, yield back to the Father the authority given Him through the Incarnation, so that “God may be all in all”  (I Cor. 15:28).  Faith and hope in that day will find all that they looked forward to has become eternal reality and they will no longer be necessary.  But Divine Love, which is the very nature of God, will never find its limits, for it will continue forever to be the quality that binds all beings together in a fellowship that will never be broken.  All purposes since the Creation of the world have been leading toward the participation of God’s children in that state of Eternal Love.  We will then know truly that “There ain’t nothin’ like love.”




Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Summary of Part 2 of Robert Adams’ “Moral Faith” chapter of Finite and Infinite Goods: Faith in Moral Ends.

Finite and Infinite Goods

The second kind of moral faith we need pertains to the value and attainability of what we might call “moral ends.” Kant saw that moral commitment must set itself a certain end for whose attainment it aspires or hopes, yet that this end is only to a very limited extent within our power, so the possibility of the result for which the moral agent must hope depends on there being a moral order in the universe, which can only be reasonably supposed to exist through the action of a God, in whom we are therefore rationally obliged to believe, if we seriously aim at the end that morality sets as the comprehensive goal of our striving.

One place to begin thinking about faith in moral ends is with the question of whether human life is worth living. Whether your life is worth living. It’s morally important for morality to believe that other people’s lives are worth living. If your friends are going through hard times, they may or may not be tempted to despair. Either way it’s likely to be important to them to have your support as a person who believes in them and in the value of their lives. Having that faith might be essential to being a good friend, and not having it might be letting the other person down in a particularly hurtful way.

What does it take to have faith that a friend’s life, or one’s own, is worth living? It’s closely connected with caring about the person’s good, the friend’s or one’s own. It’s caring the person should be spared suffering pain. Caring more constructively about a person’s good involves taking that person’s life as a project that one prizes. If I care about your good, I add myself as a sponsor of the project. And this I can hardly do without believing that your life is worth living. To have faith that a person’s life is worth living will involve a certain resistance to reasons for doubting the value of that person’s life. Few judgments are more dangerous morally than the judgment that another person’s life is not worth living, or not worth living any more.

It’s also important to believe that distant lives, such as those that are lost to famine in Somalia, or to genocide in Bosnia, are worth living, or would be if they could be preserved.

Other instances of a need for faith in moral ends may be sought in connection with the question of whether the moral life is worth living. It’s hard to deny the moral importance of believing that the moral life will be good, or is apt to be good, for other people. For it is part of moral virtue to care both about the other person’s good and about the other person’s virtue. Morality requires that we encourage each other to live morally. But while few doubt that it is generally advantageous to have the rudiments of honesty and neighborliness, it is notoriously easier to doubt that some of the finer fruits of morality are good for their possessors, when all the consequences they may have are taken into account.

Another question about the value of the moral life is whether it is better for the world, or at least not bad for the world, and not too irrelevant to be worth living—that devotion to justice won’t result in futility. This trust is severely tested by both the failures and unforeseen consequences of moral efforts. Yet it does seem important for morality to believe that living morally is good for the world, or if not, then to believe that the moral life is of such intrinsic value that it is worth living for its own sake.

In these questions Adams has assumed that we can at least live moral lives. But that too can be doubted. Who, after all, emerges unscathed from a morally rigorous examination of conscience? We all have real moral faults, and yet it’s crucial for morality that we believe that moral effort can be successful enough to be worth making. For one can’t live morally without intending to do so, and one can’t exactly intend to do what one believes is totally impossible. Moral philosophers, with the notable exception of Kant, have paid less attention to this problem than they ought.

Adams mentions one more item of faith in a moral end. We might call it faith in the common good. It’s a matter of believing that the good of different persons is not so irreconcilably competitive as to make it incoherent to have the good of all persons as an end. If we can manage to view the problems of fairness and conflicting interests within the framework of a conception of human good that is predominantly cooperative, then we may still be able to take a stance that is fundamentally for everyone and against no one. What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else. With such a view it would be impossible to include the good of all persons among one’s ends. It’s probably more tempting to endorse such a view more with nations or groups than with individuals.

Much of the temptation to doubt or abandon our beliefs in moral ends arises from the fact that these beliefs are concerned not only with ideals but also with the relation of ideals to actuality, the possibility of finding sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are. Even if there’s a good philosophical answer to evil, it’s unlikely to silence the doubts.

This is the point at which Kant connected morality with religious belief. A belief in a moral order helps, but Adams rests content to have argued just that we have a moral need to believe in more particular possibilities of moral ends, as proximate objects of moral faith.

Adams then mentions a few objections to his argument, just one of which I’ll summarize here. It’s this: that the beliefs Adams demands are more high-flown than morality needs. It may be suggested that our beliefs about actuality will provide sufficient support for morality as long as we believe we’re doing pretty well within the moral system, that honesty is the best policy, that laws will be enforced against us, and so forth.

Adams responds like this: such low-flown beliefs may sustain minimal moral compliance, but won’t sustain moral virtue. Adams’ concern is with moral faith as a part of moral virtue. The attitudes of mind that morality demands are surely not limited to those involved in minimal moral compliance. Morality could hardly exist, indeed, if all or most people had no more than the attitudes of minimal moral compliance. There must be many people who have more virtue than that, for the morality of the merely compliant is largely responsive to the more deeply rooted morality of others. True virtue requires resources that will sustain it when society is supporting evil rather than good, and when there is considerable reason to doubt that honesty is the best policy from a self-interested point of view. Thus virtue requires more moral faith than mere compliance may.


Image: The Portals of Paradise by L. OP. CC License. 

"Good Persons, Good Aims, and the Problem of Evil," A Lecture by Linda Zagzebski

Photo by  Joe Gardner  on  Unsplash

Photo by Joe Gardner on Unsplash

Philosopher of  religion, Dr. Linda Zagzebski, gave a lecture at the Contemporary Moral Theory and the Problem of Evil Conference held at the University of Notre Dame. In this lecture, Dr. Zagzebski analyzes the nature of the problem of evil and how it is usually framed. She discusses what makes some state of affairs intrinsically evil and suggests that perhaps we should use a virtue theory to explicate goodness and badness instead of considering states of affairs in isolation from the agents that bring them about. It's a very creative and insightful lecture; well worth your time if you're interested in the problem of evil or the application of virtue ethics.  


Humility, Naturalism, and Virtue

Can we make sense of the virtues in a world without God? Let’s consider the virtue of humility as a way of addressing this question. In his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Erik Wielenberg develops a naturalized account of humility.[i] This account is worth considering given Wielenberg’s explicit aim of constructing a naturalized version of a virtue that is commonly thought to be uniquely Christian. Wielenberg constructs an account of humility grounded in the assumption that we know that naturalism is true. In order to do this, he first discusses a Christian account of humility. He then explores some of the similarities and differences of such an account with a naturalistic version of this virtue. After discussing these points, I offer several criticisms of Wielenberg’s view.

On a Christian analysis, according to Wielenberg, the humble person neither underestimates nor overestimates her own value or abilities, but instead recognizes that these are gifts from God. She also acknowledges her dependence on God, and knows that much of what contributes to her flourishing is not within her control, but God’s. Hence, the humble theist is grateful for her flourishing in light of this dependence, and gives credit to God. On naturalism, however, Wielenberg claims that there is also room for an acknowledgment of dependence on something outside of ourselves, because so much of what contributes to our success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when we are born, and economic factors—is outside of our control. On naturalism, these factors are not under God’s control; they are under no one’s control. Given this, no one gets the credit. Sheer chance and good fortune should receive the majority of the credit. As Wielenberg puts it, “It is the dependence of human beings and their actions on factors beyond their control—dependence that is present whether God exists or not—that makes humility in some form an appropriate attitude to have.”[ii]  In either kind of universe, naturalistic or theistic, “...taking the balance of credit for one’s accomplishments is foolish.”[iii] Like the humble theist, the humble naturalist can and should acknowledge her dependence on something outside of herself, substituting good fortune for God.

Wielenberg may be right that there is space within a naturalistic view of the universe for an attitude of humility. Perhaps we should generally expect that there will be somewhat plausible naturalistic versions of many particular virtues if Christianity is true. This is because according to Christianity, the structure of reality reflects aspects of God’s nature. Given this, even if one seeks to remove God from the picture, as it were, there will still be latent theistic features of reality which can make sense of the virtues. However, if Christianity is true then a Christian account of the virtues will be superior to any account available to naturalists, and the virtues themselves will ultimately possess better metaphysical fit with our understanding of the rest of reality, both of which we should expect if Christian theism is true.

For example, and as a way to compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the relationship between humility and gratitude. Of course the Christian can be humbly grateful to God and other people, for what he and they have done on her behalf. But the naturalist, given that dumb luck and blind chance are the ultimate causes of most of the factors contributing to his success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when he was born, and economic factors—has no good reason to be grateful for these things because there is no one to be grateful towards. Even the other human beings who have benefitted our fortunate naturalist only do so primarily and perhaps solely because of dumb luck and blind chance. On naturalism, no person, human (or, of course, divine), is ultimately responsible for anything, and so it becomes very difficult to see what reasons exist for gratitude towards persons, at least. Moreover, what it means for one to be grateful towards dumb luck or blind chance is at best quite mysterious, and at worst incoherent.

As a second way to critically compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you have suffered from a serious illness for many years. The treatments are quite expensive, and your insurance company will no longer cover the treatments because the policy’s coverage has been exhausted. Consider two distinct scenarios:

Scenario 1:  You are desperate to come up with the money to pay for continued treatment, and by sheer luck you find a large diamond buried in your back yard, worth enough to pay for your treatment indefinitely.

Scenario 2:  A wealthy benefactor gives you the money you need to pay for your treatments indefinitely. You know this benefactor because you cheated her in a business deal many years ago.

Which scenario is more conducive to humility?

In the first scenario you are very happy and feel very fortunate at such a stroke of luck. And of course you would have no reason to be proud of what occurred, because you would deserve none of the credit for finding the diamond or for being able to pay your medical bills. Perhaps the whole situation engenders some humility, because you realize you are receiving a great benefit that you did nothing to earn. On scenario 2 you again have no reason to be proud of being able to pay for your treatment, nor do you deserve the credit for being able to pay your bills. On this scenario, however, there are reasons to be more—and more deeply—humbled. First, not only is it the case that you did nothing to deserve the money given to you, but you actually deserve not to receive the money, given the fact that you wronged your benefactor in the past and owe her money because of your own wrongdoing. Second, the action of your benefactor is magnanimous, and simply witnessing and benefiting from the act should foster humility. Third, there is the presence of rational gratitude in scenario 2, but not in scenario 1. In scenario 1, there is no one to direct gratitude towards, because no one gets the credit for your newfound wealth. However, in the second scenario you should feel deep gratitude towards your benefactor, because of what she has done for you in spite of the debt you owe her. Gratitude seems to both deepen the humility you have and provides more reason to be humble.

It will be helpful to make explicit the lessons from the above thought experiment. On theism, humans rely on a personal being who provides constant and intentional support in all aspects of our existence. In contrast to this, on naturalism we rely on mere chance and the laws of nature (or perhaps just the latter). Many of the contributing factors to individual success that are outside of our control are present because of mere good fortune. It might seem that this fact should engender humility, because we realize that we are mere recipients of good luck, so to speak. Granting this to the naturalist, the theist still has reason for a deeper appreciation of her dependence and so for a deeper humility, given her belief that we do not deserve the assistance that God gives to us. This makes the humility deeper and more profound, because while both the naturalist and the theist can accept that there are many factors that contribute to our success in life that lie outside of our control, only the theist can say that she is undeserving of this aid and deserves not to receive it because of her rebellion against God. The upshot is that while the naturalist may be able to give an account of humility, the theistic account is superior because everything that we accomplish is done with God’s active assistance. This assistance is not only undeserved, but is given even though we deserve something quite different. This in turn gives the theist a reason to be more deeply humble, even if the need and justification for this humility too often go unrecognized.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that in a universe where the majority of the credit for any human accomplishment goes to “blind chance,”[iv] it becomes more difficult to give a sound and comprehensive analysis of any virtue and its connections to human accomplishments. It is not clear to me that any sense can be made of attributing credit to chance in this way.[v] What does it actually mean to ascribe credit to blind chance? In contrast to this, we have a clear understanding of ascribing credit to God, and there are several theistic accounts of moral development that are both coherent and cogent.

[i] Erik Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 102-116.

[ii] Wielenberg, p. 112.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wielenberg, p. 110.

[v] I owe this point to Doug Geivett.



Michael Austin is professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. His research focuses on applied ethics, the virtues, and philosophy of religion. He has published numerous journal articles and ten books, including Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, with Doug Geivett (Eerdmans 2012) and Wise Stewards: Philosophical Foundations of Christian Parenting (Kregel Academic, 2009). He is currently working on a book dealing with the virtue of humility. He also blogs at and is on Twitter @michaelwaustin. You can see more from Dr. Austin at his website: