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September 12, 2004

Jonathan Edwards on True Virtue

Last Spring I posted a couple of times from Perry Miller's book, Jonathan Edwards: "Making God in Our Own Image; God's Morality versus Ours; The Mystery of Suffering and Predestination" and "Perceiving God's Excellency" I've read more, and find that Edwards's ethics is really very much like an economist would think. Miller is talking about Edwards's book, The Nature of True Virtue. My thoughts are in italics.....


Edwards' conclusion is that what Hutcheson and the rationalists conceive as a natural possession of all mankind, the criterion of disinterested benevolence, is actually only a compounding of pleasure against pain, nothing more than an extension of the principle of uniformity through wider and wider variety, a long-term instead of a short-term calculus. (p. 286)

I think Adam Smith has a similar notion later in The Theory of Moral Sentiments-- that we are grieved by oppression because of sympathy that makes us wince, for example.

... the old Puritan disposition to expect the worst from mankind while demanding the best... (p. 287)

Just the sentiments of an economist asking for efficiency when it is not in self interest!

... the greater part of this concentrated essay is a tracing out, with no rancor, as from an incalculable height of observation, of the manifold masquerades that self-love can resort to in the endless effort to simulate benevolence.

I wonder if there is a category to match Dan Rather's self righteousness?

What the natural man calls virtuous and beautiful-- social justice, the mother's love for her child, the happiness of those he happens to love, a regard for the public good which includes himself even when it calls upon him to sacrifice himself, ultimately even the approbation of an inward conscience that gives him invincible pleasure despite the censure of his fellows ... -- all these, analyzed into elementary terms, are no more than "the order and proportion generally observed in the laws of nature." They are reactions, like the cry of the anvil hit by the hammer... (p. 289)

This is the economist's tautology: if I choose A over B, it is because A give me greater utility. Knowing my utility function, you can perfectly predict what I will do. I don't have the free will to do what I don't want to do.

[of "virtuous" human actions] They can be formulated into rules as objectively beautiful, but as utterly irrelevant to moral worth, as incommensurate with the dignity of suffering and the agony of decision, as the insensate laws of motion.

For me to be cruel to my children would be as hard as for a stone to drop up instead of down; it just doesn't come naturally. So is my kindness virtue, or just the ordinary course of nature?

The book is not so clear on what Edwards *does* think is virture. It is something along these lines: that true virtue is to depart from our natural inclinations to do what God desires, because that is beauty of a higher order than the laws of nature (though those laws in themselves do have *some* beauty). We cannot depart from our natural inclinations without God's grace, however, which shows us this higher beauty, upon which sight we begin to yearn for it.

This is a neat way to address the question of The Damnation of the Virtuous Heathen. How could God burn the benevolent Hindu in Hell forever? --Because his benevolence is just the natural result of a benevolent disposition, no more deserving of reward than the gentleness of a sheep or the loyalty of a dog. And if that natural benevolence is put aside, why should he not be burned, as being just as selfish as a violent lecher, just with more neighborly tastes in recreation?

Posted by erasmuse at September 12, 2004 09:06 PM

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