Posts tagged with: perfection

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 16, 2007
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Stanley Cohen, the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that “good intentions become bad practices.”

In his critique of rather lame attempts to realize justice in the world (related to faulty definitions of justice), Herman Bianchi writes, “Even more dubious is another frame in which the formula is often couched: ‘Justice is the constant intention to give everyone his due.’ Never is it said, ‘See to it that everyone really gets his due!’ No, the constant intention apparently suffices; the result of the action is not worth mentioning. As Ovid suggests, ‘though strength may fail, intention should be praised.'” Bianchi concludes that there are many such examples of this kind of thinking in the modern world.

In searching out the source for the disconnect between intentions and consequences, Bianchi has provided us with one classical source (Ovid). I’d like to point to some others, particularly within the Christian tradition, as possible sources for this phenomenon.

One place to look, I think, for a source of the contemporary (typically liberal) valuation of intentions over outcomes is the perfectionist doctrine of John Wesley. One strategy for those who teach that perfect moral action or sinlessness is possible in this life is to restrict the notion of sin into some smaller category than it is generally taken. So, for instance, a literal interpretation of the Decalogue could allow the rich young ruler to claim that he had kept the law from his youth.

Jesus’ presentation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes these commandments, to include not only the external aspects of the commandment, but the internal spiritual condition and intention as well. This is where Wesley’s strategy is the precise mirror of that of the legalistic ruler. Where the ruler focused only on the literal commandments, Wesley is concerned with interior intent.

So for Wesley, “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” Sin is narrowly defined here to only include those acts of the will that spring from “envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” There is a separation here between the intellect and the will, however, so that a defect of the intellect is not to be considered sin, properly speaking. That is, perfect sinlessness consists in the Christian’s “one intention at all times and in all places…not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth.”

But of course if there is an error in the intellect, but no defect in the will, it is still an evil, and Wesley acknowledges this: “Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood.” So there are deeds that are not considered sins but still need to be atoned for.

Clearly the great emphasis here is on the purity of intentions and the valuation of motives over consequences. In an extreme version, intention is completely disconnected with effect and consequence. This is what I’m calling Wesley’s ditch, although Wesley is not alone in the Christian tradition on this score. Compare, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except good will.”

You do not need to be a consequentialist in order to care about consequences. I submit that Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, in radicalizing the nature of sin to include intentions, motives, and will, do not abandon concern with the intellect, consequences, or external effects. So, says Augustine, “there are two reasons why we sin, either because we do not see what we ought to do, or because we do not do what we know we ought to be done: the first of these evils comes from ignorance, the second from weakness.”

This is why the Heidelberg Catechism, in its description of what meets the qualification for Christian good, includes not only considerations of intentions or motives, but the external norm of God’s law. In answer to the question, “What do we do that is good?”, the Catechism answers: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”

Good intentions are not enough.

Readings in Social Ethics: Bonaventure, A Defence of the Mendicants (selections), in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, pp. 312-19. The references below are to section number.

  • Bonaventure cites a number of authorities in his exposition, including Augustine, Jerome, Bede, Rabanus Maurus, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux.

  • The apostolic way of life is described as consisting in “models of perfection,” and therefore imposing “no obligation on those who have not freely professed this pattern of life and taken vows.” [7]
  • There are four kinds of “community of goods,” corresponding to four different sources of right [10].
    1. The right of natural necessity: “anything capable of sustaining natural existence, though it be somebody’s private property, may belong to someone who is in the most urgent need of it. This kind of community of goods cannot be renounced. It derives from the right that naturally belongs to man as God’s image and noblest creature, on whose behalf all other things on earth were made.” This right functions at the personal level, and is the basis for the moral judgment that in certain extreme circumstances, what would otherwise be theft of necessary life-sustaining goods may be morally justified.

    2. The right of brotherly love: “everything belongs to the righteous, and the private property of individuals is common to all by virtue of sharing which is natural to love…. This kind of community of goods absolutely may not be renounced. It derives from a right poured into us by God, the right by which ‘the dove’ (i.e., the universal church) is assured its unity, a unity of sharing, from which no one can depart without defiance of the law of God which enfolds all things in love.” This right functions at the level of social responsibility to care for those who belong to the universal church. See Paul’s command to do good to everyone, “especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
    3. The right of worldly civil society: “there is a common political identity within a single empire, kingdom, or city-state; there is a common profit and loss within a single association, e.g., of merchants or wrestlers; there is a common inheritance within a single family that has not split up. This kind of community of goods must be renounced to attain evangelical perfection, because this kind of community implies individual property. It is derived from a humanly instituted right which contains provisions that may incidentally prove an obstacle to good or an encouragement to evil, and is therefore incompatible with evangelical perfection.” This right functions on the level of political society. The right to private property may be given up voluntarily in pursuit of the model of apostolic perfection. The emphasis here is on the temptation to covetousness that private property occasions.
    4. The right of ecclesiastical endowment: “All goods bestowed upon the churches are dedicated to the Lord to provide for the ministry and for the poor. This kind of community of goods, which is found in all collegial churches with possessions, need not be renounced to attain perfection since it can be maintained without prejudice to perfection, as is clear in the case of bishops and religious who are holy and perfect…. Yet this kind of community may be renounced without prejudice to perfection – in pursuit of it, rather – since it springs not only from divine right but human, it is not only spiritual but temporal, too; and since, though it excludes individual property, collegial property is allowed, and the share of every member of the college must be understood not merely as use but as ownership.” This right functions at the bridge between the second and third types of right. The administration and use of goods falls to those who are in places of responsibility in the church. Insofar as these goods are defined as “ecclesiastical” and not of more common worldly ownership, there is a distinction at the level of “worldly civil society.” The individual Christian may pursue the model of apostolic perfection in renouncing this sort of collegial ownership, but since the apostles themselves administered the property of the church, this responsibility need not be renounced to be perfect.
  • “There are four possible relations to temporal goods: property, possession, usufruct, and simple use. The life of mortals may be sustained without the first three, but the last is a necessity. There can, then, be no profession of renunciation of temporal things which extends to their use.” [11]

Next week: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59; Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15.