Barth in Meta-ethical Terms, part III: Problems with Non-naturalism

In the last post in sequence, we set up the non-naturalist approach to moral realism. (And then we did it a bit more justice in its own right, as well.) Now, there are problems with this approach when it comes to Barth! So, before we move to the discussion of moral anti-realism, and to smooth the transition in that direction, I want to note an interesting feature of Barth, made possible by the restricted scope of his ethical concern.

Barth is not setting up a system that claims to compete with these various theories of moral norms in an absolute sense. He doesn't deny that people do ethics on these various bases. He doesn't attempt to deny that there are moral values that functionally supervene upon natural states. He doesn't deny that there are intuitive moral values that may be determined by observation. He does not deny that a wide variety of moral theories produce arguable and even useful moral values. What he denies is that any of these are relevantly normative moral values for Christian communities. These are not considerations in the fact that there is always time for the people of God to act like it. They are, in fact, distractions. It is simply the case that, for the Christian, to do ethics on any normative basis other than the relationship with God is sin.

Given that, here is the question that makes non-naturalist moral realism problematic: what do we mean by moral values? What kinds of things are these in our various practices of ethics?

This is the defeater, generally, for Barth being a moral realist. And perhaps the operational definition ought to have been set out more clearly earlier, but then I couldn't have shown the possible virtues of moral realism here. Generally, moral values in the discussion of ethics are described in propositional statements about what is good and right. They are generalizable, which is to say that moral values have a sort of universal validity. X is good, and actions that effectively pursue X are right.

Inevitably, even if we have a robust moral realism, in which we qualify ourselves in terms of approximate truth value, limit the number of necessarily true propositions, and drastically enhance the situational subjectivity of their application, we have a complex system of independent moral truth. Even if they are only true in some places, even if they are only true in some senses, even if action toward such a good must be modified for the situation, good and right remain defined on correspondence to external objective reality.

We do this in interreligious apologetics all the time! The "correspondence theory of truth." Even Lindbeck, for whom doctrinal propositions are linguistically validatable only within communities that speak that doctrinal language, comes back to a correspondence theory of truth. This may be why his interreligious dialogues occur with Judaism. The objective reality of this god means that only a religion that attempts to describe this god has a claim to truth. And in the end, those claims to truth may be adjudicated with respect to the reality of God. As in Nostra Aetate, we will grant that other religions may unknowingly reflect the truth of our god, without having comprehensively accurate language to describe the reality they have stumbled upon. We won't grant that it does anything for them; their speech remains wrong. Call this a form of theological non-natural realism, if you like.

No matter how brilliantly casuistic we get, when we apply this to ethics, it is not a framework in which a theistic system can live for long. This is the trap of moral realism. If the values exist outside of the deity, they may be set up alongside the deity, or even in place of it. (Islam knows this full well—witness the grammatical precision of the discussion of the Names as divine attributes.) If obedience to a god is reducible to moral values outside of the god, and these values may be captured adequately in moral propositions, a suitable set of moral propositions will make actually paying attention to the god or relating to the god redundant. Piety that can be reduced to duties known in advance is an odd sort of piety. At that point, we only need the god to forgive us our failures and enable us to comply with the code. The god is otherwise simply a justification for the system. Once the good and the right become separable from the god, being a Christian begins to mean following a specific way of life. In Barthian terms, this too is ethics as sin. The real ground of our ethics is not reducible to propositions or obedience to them; our ethos is constituted by right relationships and responsibility within them.

And yet we see this sort of thing happen to religious moral systems on a quite regular basis. The reduction to "legalism" of whatever sort is a basic problem of this answer to what grounds ethics. Some things just are right, some things just are wrong, and we desire a god who says so. That god is inevitably us, writ large.

Even for non-theistic virtue ethics, the reduction to codification is a pervasive danger. Aristotle's dialectical mean is a difficult path to walk. Any system that requires us to maintain constant attentiveness, constant attention, we are going to fail at in the end because our neurology encodes patterns of what worked last time. And the more often a thing works, the more strongly the pathway that makes us automatically do that gets written in. Habits are the enemy of habitus, even if they may carefully be trained to work for it. They don't work on the basis of ideal goals. Habits are appetitive. Which is part of why habituation simply doesn't do dynamic tension. It is a tool to keep our brains from spending that much energy all the time. And laws are simply someone's desirable habits writ large—or someone's undesirable habits writ equally large, in the negative.

Now, this will be an obstacle all the way through; it takes a certain sort of natural realism to accept it as good. But all this means for Barth is that we have one of the mechanisms by which his system, like many others, generally fails—and we know he has to work against it. This isn't really a point against Barth, any more than it is a point against Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas. It is simply a possible tool that defaults to being an obstacle in the way of actually being moral.

Next up: Moral anti-realism at last!