Truthfulness And Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics

Stanley Hauerwas

Book cover

Having finished this book, I’m including Stanley Hauerwas among the top echelon of thinkers who have influenced my outlook on morality and life since graduating college. (He joins Wendell Berry and Jane Addams.)

There are many things for me to say about “Truthfulness and Tragedy.” As a lapsed Christian, I have found reading SH to be the strongest source of motivation that I’ve encountered to make me want to re-join a church. The reason for this is perhaps not quite what you would expect. While SH is himself a Christian theologian and often notes a particularly Christian perspective in these essays, his most substantive claims about virtue and morality stand independently of any Christian theology (or really any theology at all). Rather, the motivating factor for me is his strong contention that moral development necessarily occurs in relation to a community and tradition. SH argues that the modern American emphasis on rationality and personal liberty does not constitute a meaningful tradition to provide the basis of moral development, and I am inclined to agree. While I don’t believe in the literal truth (or even necessarily the truth more broadly interpreted) of the tenets of Christianity, the fact is that it is the moral tradition in which I was raised and thus provides maybe the only tradition with which I could authentically engage on a regular basis to practice morality. Both my dad and my sister have undergone what I would call religious revivals in their lives, and I believe that both of them felt some similar motives (I borrowed this book from my dad, not incidentally).

The phrase “practice morality” in the previous paragraph hinted at another of the major themes of this book that I found compelling. SH argues strongly for a virtue-based (or “aretaic”) conception of ethics. He contrasts this with the alternatives of a duty-based (“deontic”) or utilitarian/outcome-based (“teleological”) conception. I realize that I have encountered this conception of ethics before because I read Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”, which is the foundational text of the idea, in college. It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, though there are any number of reasons I can think of why that might have been. At any rate, I now see it as the most insightful approach to ethics I have encountered. Summing up SH’s conception of aretaic ethics necessarily glosses over a lot, since a number of the essays in this volume are devoted to describing it. Here is a quote that comes close to summing it up for me: “The sense of how virtues determine and guide moral behavior is transformed as soon as it is seen that virtues are not simply emotions, but skills of perception, articulation and action.” SH is deeply critical of what he calls the “standard account” of ethics, which phrase encompasses both deontic and teleological conceptions. This account, according to SH, focuses excessively on isolated quandaries such as the classic “trolley problem.” Such quandaries may be interesting, says SH, but they bear little relation to the types of issues that in fact constitute people’s ethical lives. They force us to consider only how people ought to relate to one another as strangers, where in reality the majority of our ethical judgments involve people’s actions in the contexts of their social roles.

I had an experience while reading this book that I consider to be a very relevant illustration of the strength of SH’s position. Elise started talking to me one night about some stresses and uncertainties she has been experiencing in relation to her work. Trying to figure out how best to respond to her was, to me (and I think it would be to SH as well), a good example of the important ethical challenges that people face in reality. Both my duty in regards to the situation and the character of my response were substantively formed by my relationship to her. The question, “How should I respond to Elise’s worries?” could not be answered in any sort of satisfactory way by the “standard account” approaches to ethics. At best one might be able to arrive at an answer such as “comfort her, show sympathy, and help her think about solutions.” This seems to me a severe sort of begging the question, since those characterizations are obvious and the difficulty is how to accomplish each of those things (and others) in practice. That situation required me to embody virtues such as kindness and honesty, but more importantly required me have a practical sense of how to instantiate those virtues with respect to this particular person and situation (“phronesis” from Aristotle).

SH uses the standpoint of aretaic ethics to talk about some applied issues, primarily euthanasia, abortion, and the way parents respond to having mentally handicapped children. His basic argument on these topics, which seems eminently correct to me, is that to understand how to approach such issues morally, it is necessary that we first have a conception of much more fundamental ethical questions underlying each, such as: Why do we have children? or In what ways do we value life? SH himself answers these questions from a particularly Christian point of view, and while I do not necessarily agree with his answers to the fundamental questions, I think he makes a very important point and engages with the questions in an authentic way that I am not sure I have seen from anyone before. (Incidentally, I feel very compelled to articulate a response to the question of why people, and I specifically, should want to have children. I don’t have a good answer for it yet and I don’t necessarily buy SH’s answer.)

There are many other things I found very compelling in this book, and I am starting to feel like I don’t really have space for them all here. I just want to give brief mention to two others. One is the importance of narrative as a way of understanding morality, and particularly the sort of logic that stories entail, which falls between syllogism and randomness. The second is the importance of our (narrative) conceptions of ourselves in determining our actions. This leads to extremely interesting discussions of self-deception and of the ordering and maintenance of our roles in life.

The entire book is very much worth reading, but my favorite essays were: “From System to Story”, “Obligation and Virtue Once More”, “Self-Deception and Autobiography”, and “The Politics of Charity.”

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars