Sacrificing Self for Other: A Re-examination of the Christian Ideal
The Christian theological tradition encourages various kinds of self-sacrifice. Christians are told, for example, to replace an old self with a new self, to abandon their lives for Christ’s sake, and to put others above themselves. My project is a book-length examination of this call to self-sacrifice. I aim to identify the most basic kind of self-sacrifice advocated in this tradition, and to investigate whether this kind of self-sacrifice provides an appealing moral ideal regardless of whether one accepts a Christian moral perspective.
I argue that the most basic kind of self-sacrifice advocated in the Christian tradition is a character trait I call “others-centeredness.” This trait is a tendency to promote the goods of others rather than one’s own goods, when the goods in question are either equal in value of incommensurable in value. For example, when confronted with a situation in which she could either work on her own theological writing project or help a peer work on his, where the writing projects are equally valuable, an others-centered person will have a tendency to help her peer. I argue that from a variety of distinct ethical perspectives, this trait should be regarded as morally exemplary. This is because others-centeredness enables its possessor to bring about the best outcomes, and is not in any other way morally objectionable.
My project concludes by examining the broader functional role of others-centeredness in the moral life of individuals and in the life of the moral community. I explain how others-centeredness roots out vices such as hate and envy and promotes additional virtues such as forgivingness and liberality. Examining relevant empirical literature, I propose that others-centeredness is closely associated with subjective happiness and being well-regarded by others, and that its display by some encourages its display by others.
Presentations and Publications:
- Byerly, R. “Others-Centeredness in Christian and Secular Spiritualities” will be published in the proceedings of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion.
- Byerly, R. “Putting Others First: Does it Make Sense.” Talk at Sheffield Cathedral, March 2017. Recorded and is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRRBsNG44KQ, and on the University of Sheffield’s page for the God and the Good project at https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/philosophy/research/god-and-good#tab01
Ethical Ambitions and Their Formation of Character
Buddhist moral thought is governed by an extraordinarily high ideal: a perfect understanding of the nature of reality, which so transforms the categories in which we experience life that no suffering arises for us, and we spontaneously care wisely for the suffering of all living beings, without qualification. It may seem incredible to ask such a thing of a human being, or to suppose that aiming at it could be anything other than futile. Yet Buddhist moral thought insists that this is a suitable ideal – is indeed the ultimate goal for each of us.
Buddhist ethics is thus structurally unlike Aristotelianism, and more closely resembles Plato’s metaphysical ethics, which hangs everything on the Good Itself. Both are ambitious and comprehensive, using an impersonal standard to organize our understanding ourselves and our particular situations. Aiming to understand reality from an impersonal perspective shapes our character. But the effects of contemplating reality vary according to the picture of reality endorsed, as the contrast between Platonism and Buddhism shows.
But Buddhist moral education does not purport to work by arguing one into a belief about the nature of reality. Rather, folk tales engender the Buddha’s extraordinary character in others, enabling us to bring this supra-human ideal into our lived experience. Contemplating manifold situations in the Buddha’s lives enables us to see the world – and our own situation in particular – from the perspective constitutive of the Buddha’s exemplary virtue. These recollections of the Buddha form us into exemplary persons by shaping our understanding of reality indirectly – by showing us how the world looks from that perspective.
While analytic moral philosophers are keen to ‘naturalise’ ethics, the supposed secular consensus in modern society at large is slipping away. Outstanding exemplars and ambitious moral ideals are a need of the soul, and it is human need which we ignore at our peril. Yet many such ideals seem fraught with danger when pursued in practice. We could learn from Buddhism’s canny conjunction a supra-human ethical ideal of exemplary understanding with a this-worldly concern for the suffering that is right here around us, and will not go away unless we, too, make ourselves exemplary.
The Hero and the Saint: A Theological Differentiation between Two Common Conceptions of the Morally Exceptional
This project seeks a more adequate conceptual differentiation between the theological paradigm of “sanctity” and the ancient yet pervasive category of “heroism.” My hypothesis is that a critical comparison of these two conceptions of the morally exceptional will both reveal many points of divergence between theological and non-theological approaches to the morally exceptional, and also suggest a deep congruence between Christian ethical premises and an emerging model of moral theory known as “exemplarism” or “exemplarist virtue theory” developed by philosopher Linda Zagzebski. The study begins with a genealogical account of the concept of heroism, critically analyzing it in light of contemporary philosophical and theological discourse. It then critically contrasts the heroic and saintly conceptions of the morally exceptional, arguing for the priority of the latter on theological grounds. It defends the view that only the saintly model of moral exemplarity can adequately accommodate the central normative role played by the person of Christ in the Christian moral life. In support of this conclusion, the study will draw upon the moral philosophy of Raimond Gaita, who similarly regards saintly exemplarity as foundational for moral reflection and practice. The project ultimately aims to show that unlike heroic actions, which draw attention primarily to the superlative qualities of the agent herself, the extraordinary quality of saints’ actions derives from their power to reveal what is extraordinary in others. Thus the revelatory power of saints’ actions has a transitive quality that heroic actions do not. The study goes on to apply this perspective on the morally exceptional to current debates surrounding supererogatory acts, as well as to an examination of three contemporary social contexts in which the notion of heroism retains significant ethical force. Drawing upon prior theoretical conclusions, the project will conclude by proposing several practical strategies for how Christians might rethink the ways they and speak of the morally exceptional in the contemporary world.
Is Charisma Moral? Pneumatology, Social Theory, and Moral Exemplars
The term charisma is used loosely and broadly. John F. Kennedy is described as charismatic, but so is Adolf Hitler. The Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa have charisma, but so do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Charisma in popular usage certainly suggests exemplarity, but from these figures it is clear that such exemplarity is not necessarily moral – indeed, it may be immoral. Is this detachment of charisma from morality new? Has charisma in our secular age, in our age of media-driven celebrity, lost its association with the true, the beautiful, and, especially, the good? Is there any way to understand charisma that restores its connection with morality? My project addresses the question of charisma and morality by drawing on, and creating a dialogue between, two distinct and usually distant scholarly conversations about charisma. Social theorists, following Max Weber, theorize charisma in a value-neutral manner, noting the way that charisma functions to legitimate authority in a society. Theologians interested in pneumatology associate charisma with gifts of the Holy Spirit, described in the Bible and, in some Christian traditions, integral to worship experience. If we bring together scholarship in social theory and in theology, might there be a way to sort through the varied ordinary language usages of the term charisma in a way that picks out a type of charisma that is essentially moral?
- Lloyd, V. In Defense of Charisma. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
- Lloyd, Vincent. (Forthcoming.) “Is Charisma Moral?” Columbia University Press.
- Lloyd, Vincent. (November 2016). Invited lecture at Brown University, “Charisma as a Democratic Virtue”
- Lloyd, Vincent. (October 2016). Invited lecture [via Skype] at Rice University, “How Religious is Black Lives Matter?”
- Lloyd, Vincent. (October 2016). Invited lecture at Hofstra University, “Does #BlackLivesMatter Need Religion?”
Temptation and Virtue: Insights from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology
Temptation and virtue have a paradoxical relationship. On the one hand, being susceptible to the pull and struggle of temptation seems to be contrary to the purity of virtue; yet, in at least some cases it seems to be morally praiseworthy and even exemplary of virtue to do the morally right thing, not in the absence of temptation, but rather in spite of the pull of temptation to do otherwise. I call this the temptation-virtue paradox. For Christians and others who look to Jesus as an ideal moral exemplar, the temptation-virtue paradox is complicated by the biblical texts that recount Jesus being tempted, yet without sin.
In order to resolve the temptation-virtue paradox, one must start with a clear conception of temptation. Unfortunately, as one team of psychologists observed, “Despite considerable research suggesting the importance of temptations and the challenges people face in overcoming them, the exact definition of a temptation remains elusive” (Leander, Shah, and Chartrand, 2009). The present research project is an attempt to fill this lacuna in the literature. My working view is that temptation, in its primary sense, is desiderative perception of an opportunity to act contrary to virtue and that the full experience of temptation is a kind of failure of moral vision inconsistent with perfected virtue. Yet, as exemplified by Jesus, temptation is consistent with another kind of moral perfection – namely, sinlessness. There might, then, be at least two different notions of moral perfection that should inform theological, philosophical, and psychological research on the morally exceptional.
Presentations & Publications:
- Pelser, A. “The Temptations, Virtues, and Moral Exemplarity of Jesus,” presented at the Society of Christian Philosophers Pacific Regional Meeting at Biola University on March 31, 2017.
- Pelser, A. “Cultivating Christian Love in Community,” presented at the Society of Christian Philosophers Eastern Regional Meeting at Asbury University on September 30, 2017.
- Pelser, A. “Emotions, Character, and Associationist Psychology,” with co-author Robert C. Roberts, for a special issue of Journal of Moral Philosophy, guest ed. Christian Miller, vol. 14 (2017).
- Pelser, A. “Heavenly Sadness: On the Value of Negative Emotions in Heaven,” presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Baptist Association of Philosophy Teachers, October, 2016.
- Pelser, A. Review of Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd, eds., Virtues and Their Vices (Oxford University Press, 2014), Faith and Philosophy 33, 3 (2016): 13–17.
Moral Exemplarity and Transformation in Ordinary Life: A Protestant Theological Perspective on the Cultivation of the Virtues
This project focuses on moral exemplarity in ordinary life from a Protestant theological perspective. No matter how exceptional the moral exemplar may be, his or her exemplarity is only meaningful if ordinary people succeed in ‘applying’ the example in the daily complexity of ordinary life. Moreover, moral exemplars are not only provided by exceptional characters but also by those excellent characters who represent the struggles of everyday life. The project’s aim is to provide a theological understanding of how moral exemplarity and exceptionality function in the cultivation of virtues and in character education, by exploring four related key concepts concerning the good life in the Protestant tradition, in dialogue with relevant research into character education. The first concept is participation, which points to a double relationship to Christ, including both receptivity (redemption) and activity (living a life of active gratitude). Participation may offer an illuminating perspective on the issue of morally excellent people showing moral flaws. Secondly, the ‘how’ of character formation will be approached from the concept of imitation of Christ as moral (exceptional) exemplar. Third, from the concept of sanctification character formation and the cultivation of virtues are understood as related to the ordinary and as extending to all domains of life. Finally, from a Protestant perspective virtue is not just characterized by formation but also by transformation, i.e. by personal and communal reform, and as committed to social justice. How may this provide a valuable additional contribution to (Christian) virtue ethics?
Presentations & Publications:
- Vos, P. ‘Hollands Next rolmodel: Seminar over morele voorbeelden’ [Holland’s Next Role Model: Seminar on Moral Exemplars] September 19, 2017. Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam. Dr Pieter Vos held the opening speech and a workshop on a Protestant account of moral exemplarity, in particular Kierkegaard.
- Vos, P. ‘Tien deugden onder de loep [Ten Virtues Explored]’, in: Wouter Sanderse (ed.), Lezen voor het leven. Deugden in de wereldliteratuur [Reading for Life. Virtues in World Literature], Leusden: ISVW uitgevers 2017, 169-194 (co-author Maartje Janssens).
- Vos, P. “Neither Hypocrisy Nor Replication. A Protestant Account of Imitating Christ as Moral Exemplar,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 19/3 (2017), 271-286, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ijst.12223/abstract
- Vos, P. H. (2017). Learning from exemplars: emulation, character formation and the complexities of ordinary life. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 1-12.http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/gZJ2wiMwIP935W89Ctmg/full