Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 3: Love and Normativity

After his discussions of freedom and volition, later in Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right Frankfurt turns to issues of love and normativity (Jargon alert! Normativity = what we "should" or "ought" to do = ethics/morality).

First, Frankfurt emphasizes how foundational our volitional investments, our "carings," are. They ground and define the Self. Volitional unanimity (see prior posts) unifies the Self in the moment. My carings also create a coherent Self across time. Caring connects my goals and desires of yesterday with my goals today and my aspirations for tomorrow. Without these investments the self disintegrates. We are, at root, a bundle of carings:

"Willing freely means that the self is at that time harmoniously integrated. There is, within it, a synchronic coherence. Caring about something implies a diachronic coherence, which integrates the self across time. Like free will, then, caring has an important structural bearing upon the character of our lives. By our caring, we maintain various thematic continuities in our volitions. We engage ourselves in guiding the course of our desires. If we cared about nothing, we would play no active role in designing the successive configurations of our will." (p .19)

But beyond the mere (!) integration of the self, our caring, our investments, ground our practical and normative reasonings in what we deem important. Caring is the bedrock. Things are only important to us insofar as we care about them. Thus, reasons--motives for action--only persuade if we care. If we do not care about X, no reasons will convince us that X is important:

"If it were possible for attributions of inherent importance to be rationally
grounded, they would have to be grounded in something besides other attributions of inherent importance. The truth is, I believe, that it is possible to ground judgments of importance only in judgments concerning what people care about. Nothing is truly important to a person unless it makes a difference that he actually cares about. Importance is never inherent. It is always dependent upon the attitudes and dispositions of the individual. Unless a person knows what he already cares about, therefore, he cannot determine what he has reason to care about."
(p. 23)

Soon, the normative question will emerge in these discussions of importance and caring. What should we care about? Regardless, we must realize that even our normative judgments are rooted in our volitional character. We cannot convince people to follow ethical standard X unless they care beforehand:

"The most fundamental question for anyone to raise concerning importance cannot be the normative question of what he should care about. That question can be answered only on the basis of a prior answer to a question that is not normative at all, but straightforwardly factual: namely, the question of what he actually does care about. If he attempts to suspend all of his convictions, and to adopt a stance that is conscientiously neutral and uncommitted, he cannot even begin to inquire methodically into what it would be reasonable for him to care about. No one can pull himself up by his own bootstraps." (p. 24)

The deepest of all our volitional investments, the things we care most deeply about, are those things we love. But, again, love is a volitional constraint. It is not a choice:

"Among the things that we cannot help caring about are the things that we love. Love is not a voluntary matter. It may at times be possible to contrive arrangements that make love more likely or that make it less likely. Still, we cannot bring ourselves to love, or to stop loving, by an act of will alone—that is, merely by choosing to do so. And sometimes we cannot affect it by any means whatsoever." (p. 24,25)

Given that love is our fundamental concern and that love is our deepest volitional commitment, it seems clear that love is the main source of practical and normative reasonings:

"As I understand the nature of love, the lover does not depend for his loving upon reasons of any kind. Love is not a conclusion. It is not an outcome of reasoning, or a consequence of reasons. It creates reasons." (p. 25)

Some observations...

I'm trying to create a psychologically coherent foundation for a post-Cartesian soteriology, ecclesiology, and theodicy. I'm building this foundation on Frankfurt's work concerning freedom, love, and normativity. In the last few posts I have been simply deploying Frankfurt's ideas. The theological implications are still to come. However, during these last few posts on Frankfurt (with one more to come)I have also pointed out some intriguing hints I've seen in Frankfurt for a positive theological project. Today, I encourage you to dwell on these things:

1. Frankfurt's model unites three things theologians are extraordinarily interested in: Freedom, love, and normativity. Frankfurt provides an way to unite these three things in a really interesting way. For example, think of the implications for soteriology. What does it mean to be saved? How are we saved? Frankfurt shows linkages among all three of these things:

Normativity: Being saved is about goodness/holiness.
Freedom/Volitional Unanimity: Being saved is about becoming free from sin.
Love: Being saved is about coming to love as God loves (God is love.)

Think about this list. Frankfurt shows how all three are linked in a coherent psychological model of the person.

2. In Frankfurt's model, love is the bedrock. Clearly, this is a VERY hospitable place to start a theological project.

3. However, Frankfurt's model is weak-volitional (see Part 1). As Frankfurt says, "Love is not a voluntary matter." And this is the piece that will need to be accommodated by theological systems.

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4 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 3: Love and Normativity”

  1. Hi Jason,
    I think Frankfurt would say something like this:

    Loving your enemies is only actionable insofar as you care about loving your enemies (e.g., you are a Christian who wants to follow the Sermon on the Mount). If you don't care about loving your enemies, no amount of rhetoric will move you. At least in the moment. And I think that is the key: Frankfurt is speaking of you in the moment.

    Now, you and I are probably interested in a different question: Moral transformation. Can we instill caring in a group of people? Nothing Frankfurt says prohibits our acquiring care. He is just pointing out that you can't, in the moment, will any will you want. In the moment, it is what it is. But if we take the longer view, I think it is possible to instill caring. Particularly if we start with our children.

    For me, the take home point is the weak-volitional perspective. Love of enemies is not produced by choice but through hard won character, slowly built up over time. As I said in other posts, it replaces trying with training. Instead of trying to love our enemies, we train to do so. Trying cannot change the will (caring). Training can.

  2. This all sounds very Calvinistic to me.

    We are free only in the sense that we can act on our strongest desires, yet are not in control of these desires themselves. This is the bedrock of Calvinistic predestinationalism. If God wills our salvation he gives us salvific strongest desires and if he wills our damnation he gives us damndable (is that a word?) strongest desires.

    Yet your quote “Trying cannot change the will. Training can.” introduces something Calvinism does not, the opportunity to change.

    But I have two questions.

    One, in order to change mustn’t one have the desire to do so? If I lack he desire to change my desires aren’t I stuck in a never-ending loop? Of course this never-ending loop ends (oxymoronically) at God’s feet where all blame is his for not giving me the desire to change my desires.

    Two, can we assume the presence of a universal strongest desire that would allow for moral transformation in all humanity?

    In previous posts you have spoken of fighting the tide of entropy as a universal desire of all living beings. Could such a basic and seemingly universal desires provide humanity with the ability to be morally transformed? Something like: When we all work together we fight entropy better and moral transformation is required to work together?

    I feel I am talking in circles. I hope this is a coherent thought.

    On a complete side note, why is there a rose with “CAUTE” written under it on your blog? I hope it is a recognition of the wonderful content of you blog.


  3. JHR,
    I see how it sounds Calvinistic. But it really isn't. Two observations:

    1. Unlike Calvinism, we can transform each other. You and I can help transform each other's desires. It is not all up to God and his election. However, it is true that God has intervened in the world and pointed the way.

    2. Really all I'm saying is that we all have characterological inertia. That is, once we get pointed in a direction in life it takes some time and effort to change course. All theological systems have at their root a vision of the person, assumptions about the capacities and attributes of the agent. My goal is to rethink theological categories if the persons in our models possess characterological inertia.

    About the rose/caute seal...
    This is kinda weird and idiosyncratic but here's the explanation/story. The seal is from Spinoza. He used it on all his correspondence. Given that Spinoza was the greatest heretic of his age, he marked his letters with the rose (sub rosa = under the rose = "be discrete with this") and the additional warning: Caute (Caution/Be careful).

    So, I've borrowed the seal for the blog for a few reasons. First, I'm known as a bit of a heretic around ACU. So I identify with Spinoza in that way. Second, my musings here push the edge, yet they are very "experimental," works in progress. So, the seal also conveys caution with the content found here. Don't take it all too seriously. Finally, although I don't espouse all of Spinoza's views (I'm not even sure I understand them), I find that my concerns parallel his concerns: Issues of free will and determinism, ethics, the nature of God, and the role of reason in faith, to name a few.

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