Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Hope and compromise, or, On not making a better world (2)

... There are, as we have seen, two types of question a moral doctrine may answer: what are the goods we may know within the world? And, what goods are appropriate to forming the right ends-of-action here and now? The kingdom of God is among the answers to the first of these questions. God has shown us his ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ, and will bring in the Kingdom of his Son. But what I have to discern is the concrete thing that is given to me to do in the light of that hope. And when somebody invites me to join in creating a new world free of misunderstanding and suspicion – just sign the petition here! – I know that he or she is bleary-eyed with moral hyperventilation. “Not everything that should be done, should by us be done,” said Paul Ramsey, articulating a basic principle of discriminating action.

That remark, made back in the nineteen sixties, was originally addressed to the need for a responsible foreign policy on the part of the United States. This reminds us that the bad idealist is not always a dreamy and ineffective poet, but can be dangerous. If my bewitchment with an ideal is combined with a great deal of practical energy, the negativity of the ideal will be the hallmark all that I do. Of such mental stuff is ideological tyranny constructed. Ideals must be focussed into practical and concrete conceptions of how we may do good. If a sense of the negative is a precondition for imagination, a sense of the positive reality of God’s good providence is a precondition for turning imagination into action. I ought not to linger among the yawning absences, but press on to the reality of what God does, and makes available to me to do.

This raises in its turn the question of “compromise”. Compromises are the decisions, explicit or implicit, that render ideals practicable. We compromise when we discard certain aspirations as unrealisable – either absolutely or simply in the circumstances... As a model of good compromise we may take lawgiving, which is the fashioning of a community norm that enables a multitude to live together in a disciplined manner to the fullest extent it is collectively capable of... An idealistic law is a vicious law, that requires too much; it has not compromised sufficiently with the practicalities of conformity and enforcement. A demoralised law, on the other hand, has required too little; it has not exploited the ways in which law can help the multitude live better. The well-framed law follows the very difficult line on which sustained attempts to hold one another to what we ought to do are fruitful and effective.

But there can be bad compromises as well as bad ideals, and not every difficulty ought to put us off...
So Oliver O'Donovan, in the third of his 2007 New College Lectures titled “Morally awake? Admiration & resolution in the light of Christian faith.” All three of the lectures were excellent, and very much in O'Donovan's signature style: dense, thoughtful, eirenic, and grounded.

[This material is reprinted with permission from New College: the college at all times retains ownership of the intellectual property rights to all New College lectures material (in printed or electronic form). The lectures are available in PDF and MP3 form at the College website for personal review and study, but may not be retransmitted without express permission.]

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