Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
August 27, 2017
RADICAL HOSPITALITY: BUILDING THE BELOVED COMMUNITY TOGETHER
By David Herndon
27 August 2017
First Unitarian Church
When I was in theological school, one of the courses I enjoyed the most was an introduction to ethics. We read just two books in this course, and so we had time to explore each book in some depth. One of the books we read was the Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle, written about 350 BCE. The other was the Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals by Immanuel Kant, published about twenty-one hundred years later in 1785.
I would like to invite your attention for just a moment to one of the ideas I encountered in the book by Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who lived from 1724 to 1804. People who are far more intelligent than me devote their entire professional careers to exploring and evaluating the philosophical ideas of Kant, so I do not claim any particular expertise about this. Nevertheless, in reading through the Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals, I came across one of the most remarkable ideas I have ever encountered.
I will try to explain this idea by analogy to mathematics. As you may know, my academic background prior to theological school was physics and math. When you work with mathematical entities day after day, these mathematical entities begin to take on a life of their own. Or if not a life of their own, at least an existence of their own.
One of the simpler equations we all know is that two plus two equals four. You can prove this mathematically, but you can also prove this empirically by combining two things with two other things, and observing that the result is four things. Two hymnbooks plus two hymnbooks is four hymnbooks.
But when mathematics becomes more abstract, you do not find analogies in the physical world. Consider imaginary numbers, for example.Imaginary numbers are built around the mathematical entity i, where i is the square root of minus one. In other words, i times i equals minus one.Maybe things have changed since I was in college, so perhaps you can correct me, but I don’t recall that there is anything in the physical world corresponding to the square root of minus one.
Nevertheless, although it may not exist in the physical world, the square root of minus one certainly does exist in the world of mathematics. You can write equations and work out proofs and create problem sets for undergraduate students such as myself using imaginary numbers.Imaginary numbers can be defined. They follow rules of addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. You could say that they have an existence of their own, an independent existence, an existence that is true whether or not any human being had yet discovered them, an existence that is true whether or not any human being even believed in them.
As I understand it, Immanuel Kant was trying to formulate ethical principles that would have this same independent existence – ethical principles that would be objectively true regardless of human opinion – ethical principles that would be objectively true regardless of human custom – ethical principles that would be objectively true regardless of human preference. The ethical principles that Kant was seeking would have an independent existence in the same way that mathematical entities have an independent existence. The ethical principles that Kant was seeking would transcend argument or debate or the influence of powerful people.
I already believed in imaginary numbers and many other mathematical entities, so I was quite receptive to the remarkable idea that ethics could have an objective foundation, that one could discover pre-existing ethical principles that did not depend on human opinion for their truth.
What a wonderful tool a set of objective ethical principles might be for a wannabe social reformer such as myself! Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.” But I could say, “Give me an objective ethical principle and I will reform the world.” An ethical principle that could exist the way mathematical entities existed would take the guesswork out of the quest for a just world. The scared writings of the various world religions provided ethical guidance, but how does one really know they are true? Some say they must be accepted on faith, and some say they were revealed by God, and some say they are self-authenticating. But none of these are public or objective standards of truth. And even if all the sacred writings of the various world religions were in agreement, they might all be wrong. And legal systems around the world do not even claim to be objectively true; they are the accumulation of legal principles that may sometimes guide us toward fair judgments, but, on the other hand, may simply reflect and reinforce the privilege of the wealthy and powerful.
Just imagine how one could use a set of objectively true ethical principles as a superpower! Evildoers, cheaters, those who perpetuate systems of oppression, those who perpetuate systems of exclusion or tribalism or hierarchy or supremacy, those who perpetuate systems of unjust accumulation of wealth, those who violate the human rights of others – all would have to straighten up and fly right because of the indisputable existence of ethical principles that are true in all places at all times for all people, just like mathematics!
This remarkable idea haunted me for several days in theological school. I spoke with a classmate. I visited the professor of the class and took way more than my share of his time.I made diagrams that set forth different modes of existence and which entities could be said to exist in which modes and how those entities were related to one another, even when those entities had different modes of existence. A metaphysic of morals! That’s what Kant called it. What a rewarding quest, if one could follow it to the shining conclusion!
Kant had published Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals in 1785. This was almost exactly two hundred years before I became enchanted with it in the spring of 1983. During those two centuries, many keen minds had panned for ethical gold in the river of Kant’s thought. None really found what was promised. That is to say, no one has really constructed a useful system of ethics based on principles that are indisputably accepted as objectively true. Over those two centuries, mathematicians have discovered strange new mathematical entities which have an objective existence, and they have indisputably proved many theorems about those mathematical entities – not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any doubt at all. But the ethicists have not yet announced that Kant was right.
It was a disappointment to me to accept that in the absence of a set of objectively true ethical principles, one must work with the ethical guidance that comes from somewhat arbitrary sources such as sacred writings and legal systems, and to accept that justice will not be won by force of logic, but by determined and persistent persuasion.
To be sure, there are some ethical things one can say that find fairness in reciprocity. Consider these statements:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do not accept for others what you would be unwilling to accept for yourself.
Before you judge someone else, walk a mile in their shoes.
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
The dramatic presentation that we witnessed earlier this morning offers yet another way of understanding reciprocity. The characters in the story find that none of them can live well when they are all focused only on their own personal situation without reference to anyone else. This is hell, according to the story. But when they understand that they are related in reciprocal interdependence, they can all prosper. And this is heaven, according to the story. They must become their neighbor’s keeper if they are to survive at all. They must recognize their relatedness if they are to survive at all. They must look at the situation in a way that takes into account their neighbor’s perspective if they are to survive at all.
This past summer, my family had the opportunity to travel in France. Along with zillions of other sightseers, we visited the Louvre, and we visited Versailles, and we visited two of the chateaus in the valley of the Loire River. The history of these former royal residences was not lost on us. In 1789, four years after Immanuel Kant published his book about a metaphysic of morals, the common people of France rose up in revolution against the monarchy and against the Church, two powerful institutions that had concentrated so much wealth in the hands of so few people, and they took matters of justice and equity into their own hands. They did not particularly feel the need for a metaphysic of morals.France has been through a challenging history since 1789, topsy-turvy at its best, and tragic and traumatic at its worst. But at the very least one must acknowledge that the French people live in a society where wealth is much more justly and equitably distributed now than it was prior to 1789, and where, interestingly enough, the poverty rate is far lower than it is in the United States.
Today we live in a society where wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a very few people. The vast majority of Americans have seen no real gain in wages since 1979; only those in the top five percent, and particularly the top one percent, and especially the top tenth of one percent, have experienced gains over the past four decades. There may not be an objective set of ethical principles, as true as mathematics, to which we can turn for guidance about economic justice. Nevertheless, if the message of our dramatic presentation is accurate, the beloved community will remain a distant ideal when people focus only on their own accumulation of wealth without concern for the well-being of anyone else. The Parable of the Long-Handled Spoons tells us that we ignore our existential interdependence at our peril. This may not be an inescapable truth like the truths of mathematics, but it is an inescapable biological and social truth nonetheless. May we know more and more deeply that our fates are intertwined, that our destinies are interdependent.
© 2017 by David Herndon