Micheál Martin’s trip to the United States wasn’t exactly the valedictory lap he would have wanted on his last St Patrick’s Day as Taoiseach. As well as getting Covid, he found himself being doorstepped in Washington on whether or not he would be willing to put up a family of Ukrainian refugees in his home. It was, he replied, “a personal decision” he would make with his family.
But does it matter if politicians “lead by example” in this regard? And is there a specific moral duty on Ministers to sign up to the Irish Red Cross drive to house Ukrainian war refugees in their own homes?
One can be forgiven for being confused about the ethical principles at stake here. There are a limited number of things about which one can be morally indignant without contradicting oneself. And if each member of Government has an obligation to take in refugees then there is nothing particularly praiseworthy about the decision of, for example, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and his partner to do so.
In grappling with this and other dilemmas, it is easy to fall prey to a category error: an action understood as virtuous – like volunteering one’s home for a good cause – is misconstrued as a moral duty. It is an error we commit all the time, and some believe our inability to address it is a central cause of moral confusion and polarised political thinking today.
Philosopher Linda Zagzebski believes a bit of perspective can help – and by “perspective” she means looking back a few thousand years to how morality was originally understood by humans. In her book, The Two Greatest Ideas: How Our Grasp of the Universe and Our Minds Changed Everything, she asks just why mathematics, science and virtually all the major world religions emerged around the same time in history.
She puts it down to what she calls “the first great idea” which gained a cultural foothold in the first millennium BC. This was “not just the idea that there is a universe with a unified rational structure; it was the idea that the human mind thinks that it can grasp such a universe”.
The idea “led to morality”, she argues, and it took a very specific shape. The moral goal in this early period was to live in harmony with the universe or to achieve what Aristotle called “eudaimonia, or human flourishing”.
Contemporary people are used to thinking of the structure of the universe as neither good nor bad. But that was not the view from antiquity
In order to flourish you need to cultivate virtues, “and the virtues are defined by the distinctive place of human beings in nature. What is good is not determined by human preference, but by the structure of the universe,” Zagzebski explains.
"Contemporary people are used to thinking of the structure of the universe as evaluatively neutral. It is neither good nor bad; it just is. But that was not the view almost universally accepted from antiquity until the modern era – the idea that goodness is a fulfilment of the nature of a being, whether human or non-human. We are fulfilled by adapting to the way the universe is, not by making the world adapt to us."
This all changed when what she calls “the second great idea” arrived. This was “the idea that the human mind can grasp itself”. René Descartes arguably kicked off this revolution in the 17th century with his “I think, therefore I am” lark. Once you start seriously exploring the nature of human consciousness you start to realise how much of our thinking is subjective, and you start to doubt that there can be any objective understanding of the universe. The second great idea, therefore, pulled the rug from under the first.
Aristotle’s advice to find some kind of cosmic balance in your life made no sense through the prism of the second great idea. Morality was “reconceptualised in the modern period”, according to Zagzebski, with the following features:
1. Morality has the force of necessity;
2. The basic moral concept is not flourishing or virtue, but obligation;
3. Obligations come from the consciousness of the individual and get their authority from the individual whose agreement with others is the basis of civil society.
So when faced with a question such as “should a particular individual take a refugee into their home?” the modern way of responding is, first, to give an absolute yes or no (the force of necessity); second, to present the answer as a moral duty (whether hosting a family would be “nice” or virtuous is immaterial); and third, to arrive at the answer from your own mental workings – there is no overriding authority to appeal to.
The rise of the second great idea has brought huge benefits, Zagzebski points out. It has contributed to the emergence of the concept of human rights – moral claims justified solely by human reasoning. But an exclusively modern worldview seems unable to cope with moral inquiries outside of a very limited sphere. It appears, for example, to be silent on the question of how to be a good friend (one of Aristotle’s central concerns), or how to be a good family member (something Confucius closely examined). This gap has ensured that the first great idea has not died off completely.
According to Aristotle, virtue is its own reward
A virtue-based approach to the question of taking a Ukrainian refugee into your home would not mention the word “duty”. Rather it would ask how might this enable you to better flourish or to be in harmony with nature – something that encompasses our fractured humanity.
According to Aristotle (from whom all the major world religious heavily borrowed), virtue is its own reward. What’s more, boasting about, or even publicising, one’s virtue negates it. So any individual who is thinking about taking a refugee into their home should be allowed to keep that decision private.
“The virtues are the qualities that persons need in order to live harmoniously in well-functioning communities; they are not public demands,” Zagzebski points out.
A professor of philosophy at University of Oklahoma, Zagzebski is on an enthusiastic mission to put moral philosophy on a sound footing. Reminiscent of Alasdair MacIntyre’s influential 1981 treatise After Virtue, though more conciliatory in tone, The Two Greatest Ideas locates hope in the promotion of a third idea: “that the human mind can grasp another mind”.
She imagines a “new science” that explores how our “subjective worlds” interact, as this “has the potential to help us overcome our many interpersonal and political conflicts”. The ultimate goal would be, not objectivity (as Aristotle would wish) nor subjectivity (in the modern sense of grasping how one’s mind works), but rather “omnisubjectivity”. This Zagzebski defines as “the perfect grasp of every conscious state of every conscious being who ever lived or ever will live from the first-person perspective of that being”.
A rather ambitious project, I think you’ll agree. So maybe just for now we should all cut ourselves a little slack and perhaps not be so judgmental.