Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Faithlessness and Faithfulness

I am now halfway through a month-long separation from my wife and children, and I find myself thinking about what it means to be "faithful", especially for someone who, as a skeptic, might be described as "faithless".

As an aside, that's one of the things that amused me most about the Universists. They proudly take on a label - "the faithless" - that could easily be construed as pejorative: "those who do not keep faith, and who are thus unworthy of trust."

So what's the deal? I find myself living alone for the first time in my life. No, really. Even in college, the year I had a single room, I lived in a residence hall and ate in a dining hall, so I could hardly be described as alone. In graduate school, I shared rental houses with other graduate students until Andrea and I moved in together; we married soon after that. Since then, we've only been apart briefly, when I fly off to conferences, and once when she went to a family reunion.

Now, Andrea is visiting and helping her mother, who is between rounds of medical treatment, while I finish teaching my summer course and work on a grant proposal. So, here I am, more profoundly alone than I have ever been, at loose ends, wondering what it means to be faithful.

This is not any deep crisis or anything. I'm devoted to Andrea and to our daughters, and I can't wait to be with them again. But thoughts wander, and alternate futures present themselves; depression and idleness beckon; loneliness and boredom do their work . . .

I'm not just talking about marital fidelity, in the usual sense, though that's certainly part of it. I could easily have a little fling, and I could probably get away with it if I was really careful. But I also mean faithfulness to our household and to our life together. For example, I set out in the early days of this strange hiatus to clean and organize the entire house, one room at a time, so that everything would be in order when they return. I've lost enthusiasm for the project, though, and there are still toys strewn across the family room, and the children's bedding has not yet been washed. I ran the dishwasher two days ago, and haven't emptied it yet.

Wendell Berry, whose writings had a profound influence on me earlier in my career, would be horrified. I recall from some of his novels or short stories - maybe it was even in Fidelity - the idea of someone "keeping the place" in the absence of a spouse. He portrayed this as a profoundly moral act, a sign of great virtue.

So, again, why be faithful?

I keep being haunted by a quotation I've heard, attributed to C.S. Peirce: "The surest way to become a scoundrel is by the prolonged study of philosophy." We can think our way out of anything! This is supposed to be especially true of skeptics. Also, as Hume said about the irrelevance of reason to ethics (I'm working from memory here): there is no reason for me not to prefer the destruction of the universe to the pricking of my thumb.

This is worrisome.

Citing Hume brings up a fundamental tension in ethics that has puzzled me lately. Hume might say that I'm faithful because of some set of moral sentiments that I have, which arise independently from any reasons I might offer. If I want to get all sophisticated about it, I could talk about my fear of disapproval, my desire for approval, my desire to be virtuous in my own eyes, and so on. No doubt, I could offer a perfectly adequate empirical account of my behavior in social, psychological, and even neurochemical terms. Combine that with my ability to foresee the likely consequences of particular lines of action (having that little fling, for example) and the unhappiness and self-disapproval they would cause in the long run, and Hume would say that there is no mystery about it. Adam Smith would offer a similar account, as would Mill, the whole project backed up and given scientific credibility by Darwin, Wilson, Dennett, and so on. (Those empiricists are all in it together).

I can offer such an account, and from the empirical standpoint it would be a perfectly adequate account, but it would fail to explain precisely that which needs explaining. As Kant would say, empirical descriptions of behavior and the impulses that produce it aren't really about ethics at all; they add up to nothing more than anthropology. Besides, psychologizing ethics just opens the door to excuses of all kinds: you're depressed, you're lonely, you're a male mammal, so what do you expect?

No, Kant would insist, ethics has to be about reasons, courses of action freely chosen by a free rational being. A Kantian humanist would insist that I give a justification for my behavior in terms of maxims, their putative universalizability, and so on. And, of course, a Kantian would promise that once I've adopted maxims that can be universialized, I'll be on the right track. At the most basic level, I ought to keep faith because to do other wise would be to treat humanity (in myself, my spouse, my children, miscellaneous others) as a mere means and not at the same time as an end in itself.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and I keep coming back to it. The short version goes like this: Don't use people.

But then, along comes Sartre, radicalizing freedom and making any choice the right choice just because it is the choice I make.

And then, of course, the empiricists pipe up to point out that there can be no such thing as transcendent freedom in this sense. When's the last time you saw freedom?

So, I can only conclude that my motives are inevitably mixed, and the principles of action always in doubt. Viewed one way, I can describe and explain my behavior in empirical terms, but that doesn't really offer any sort of justification. Viewed another way, I can explain and justify my behavior in terms of my autonomy as a moral agent, though there is good reason to doubt that I can come up with the one, unique reason why this course of action is absolutely correct, and that one absolutely incorrect. These two standpoints seem to get tangled up together in deep and abiding empathy for others, my love for my wife and children, my respect for people in general and in particular, a pragmatic sense of protecting all that I've invested in this life and this household, the narrative arc of my life and our marriage, and so on, and so on.

So, again, why be faithful? All sorts of reasons; none of them fully, philosophically adequate in themselves. All I can say right now is that they've been working pretty well for me so far, and they'll have to do.

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