EVENT REVIEW: Veritas Forum: Ethics and the Good Life

Photo by Zach Ho

Photo by Zach Ho

This past Monday evening, the Veritas Forum at Columbia brought together Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor, author, and Christian theologian, and Dr. Philip Kitcher, Columbia’s John Dewey Professor of Philosophy, former Chair of Contemporary Civilization, and secular humanist, to discuss what it means to live a good life. As he introduced the event, Philip Jeffery, president of the Veritas Forum at Columbia, remarked that the speakers were there to “build something together” and that through their conversation, they were going to paint a picture of the good life. Throughout the night, moderator and Columbia’s Joseph Straus Professor of Philosophy Dr. Michele Moody-Adams asked the speakers about different aspects of living the good life, from how to balance individual liberty with living in community to what roles science and technology should play. Dr. Keller and Dr. Kitcher both consistently presented very thoughtful views of what the good life should or must involve, but their answers were often strangely not directed at the other’s views. At times, it did feel as though they were painting one picture of the good life together. However, at other times, it felt as if they were trying to use niceties to paper over the differences they did have and present a forced concordance. After a while, their attempts to be considerate ended up sounding as if they were trying to avoid seriously addressing the other’s thoughts, even as each voiced meaningful objections to the other’s beliefs.

Dr. Keller started the conversation by introducing himself as a working-class ethicist, one who thinks about ethics not through the formalized constructs of academic philosophers but through trying to help people make ethical decisions in their everyday lives. He explained that through thinking through ethical dilemmas, he had compiled six “headings,” things without which one cannot live a good life: meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, community, and hope. He acknowledged that while some of these terms may have Christian undertones, all could be defined in a completely secular manner, without any reference to Christianity at all.

At this point, Dr. Keller started to bring in his Christian worldview. “You need to be a good person in order to live a good life,” he stated, but being a good person requires believing in God. If you try to do good deeds without doing them for God, you will end up “kind of doing them for yourself.” For example, if you try to serve the poor but you don’t do so for God, you end up using the poor to try to get a sense of meaning in life. The calmness with which he explained this view belied exactly how confrontational it is. If one does not believe in God, can one perform only exploitative acts and never be altruistic? The only thing differentiating Dr. Keller’s views from psychological egoism, which claims that humans are always motivated by self-interest, is his belief that there is exactly one person that anybody could love selflessly and that one person is God. Dr. Kitcher almost pushed back on this during his own opening remarks by mentioning that he thought that one can perform genuinely selfless actions if one does them out of finding other people valuable. Unfortunately, neither returned to discuss this point further that evening.

After Dr. Keller finished, Dr. Kitcher began his remarks by agreeing with what Dr. Keller had to say about his “headings,” saying that he, too, found many of those goods necessary to living a good life. However, he also expressed his belief that while religion can be a part of living a good life, it is not necessary. Instead, so long as towards the end of their life one can say, “I’m glad I did things this way. It may not have been the best way, but it was a way that was worth doing,” then that person has lived a good life. Though that criterion alone seemed a little too vague and subjective to provide any real guidance for living a good life, Dr. Kitcher stressed again that he agreed with Dr. Keller that there are some things one needs in order to live a good life, such as community and individual autonomy. He closed by illustrating how lives have meaning with an analogy of a stone dropped into a pool. When the stone is first cast into the pool, it causes ripples to spread through the water. After a while, the ripples eventually cease, but “it is enough that they’ve been.” When thinking about the universe on the scale of eons, like the ripples, people’s contributions in the world are not infinite. But just as the ripples’ having been is enough, so, too, is it enough that our lives have worth because they affect other people.

Dr. Kitcher’s thoughts regarding how our lives have meaning should be familiar to anyone who has taken Contemporary Civilization or heard about moral theories which define the good in terms of the consequences of actions, such as utilitarianism. Initially, the idea of judging whether an act is moral based on how it affects others, whether with regard to utility or some other standard, sounds appealing because it seems to offer a rational way to judge lives. However, when cast into the context of an effectively infinite span of time, it begins to sound less reasonable and more absurd. If existence is finite and the effect anybody has on the world is finite, why does it matter how one acts now? Dr. Kitcher would likely say that treating others morally matters because people’s lives are intrinsically valuable. But why should one commit to a morality built upon something as fragile and ephemeral as a human life? As long as humans have been around, they have tried to find lasting meaning, whether through a philosophical concept such as the Form of the Good or through a religious belief such as the Christian God. At the end of the moderated section of the forum, Dr. Kitcher addressed this longing for the eternal again, but he ended his opening statement without further explaining why one should believe in and be content with a life of finite meaning.

After the opening statements, Dr. Moody-Adams initiated a time of moderated conversation, or perhaps one of the most cordial debates ever to be held on campus. In the speakers’ answers to many of the questions, one could hear that Dr. Keller and Dr. Kitcher were coming to their conclusions from deep understandings of the good life, but wildly different ones.

For the first question, Dr. Moody-Adams asked: “How do you balance respect for the choices and the principles that ground other people’s conceptions of the good life with a sense of commitment to your own understanding of the good life?” Dr. Keller answered first, jumping straight into Christian doctrine to explain that he is able to find that balance through his understanding of the life of Jesus. While Jesus was alive, he did not respond to evil with evil or to violence with violence, but he died to forgive his enemies, not forcing what he believed as truth on others. Therefore, a strong commitment to Christianity also demands respecting that people may hold various beliefs, even as one may believe those beliefs to be false, or even evil. Dr. Kitcher followed by giving a strongly academic criterion for determining how much respect one should accord other people’s beliefs: “Do they allow for full, free, autonomous development of individuals?” He voiced his discomfort with some world religions and denominations in which “particular classes have their lives thrust upon them and their freedom denied.” That is, if any beliefs compromise people’s ability to enjoy any fundamental human goods, then those beliefs are denying those people the opportunity to live a good life.

Though Dr. Kitcher did explain how he would gauge whether another person’s conception of the good life could work with his own, he did not discuss how one should react to those who hold “troubling” beliefs. At this point in the conversation, that omission left a noticeable gap in the dialogue, especially as he specifically singled out religious beliefs as examples of ones that may wrongly curtail people’s freedom. If a Christian, say, believes that a marriage should involve exactly one man and one woman, how should one respond? Where does one draw the line between being culturally sensitive and being just? Though Dr. Kitcher left a lot unanswered, neither did Dr. Keller press Dr. Kitcher on this view. The speakers shared two completely different views that were clearly in tension, but neither immediately addressed the friction between the beliefs. They later discussed this potential point of disagreement again in the context of discussing individual liberty. However, Dr. Keller skirted any confrontation then, only mentioning that he had recently read an article by philosopher Charles Taylor regarding human rights and explaining Taylor’s views. Even though referring to the work of a well-respected philosopher may have grounded his views well, Dr. Keller did not follow through and address either Dr. Kitcher or his beliefs directly. There could hardly have been a more indirect way for him to express his qualms about Dr. Kitcher finding the Western, secular idea of individual equality so supremely important.

One part of the conversation during which Dr. Keller and Dr. Kitcher had views that appeared to overlap genuinely was when they discussed where the resources for forgiveness are most likely to come from. Dr. Moody-Adams introduced the question by mentioning that some of the most powerful examples of forgiveness have come out of deeply religious communities, bringing up the case of the Amish in Nickel Mines forgiving the gunman who killed five schoolgirls in a shooting spree in 2006. Dr. Kitcher affirmed that some religions may have greater resources than secular humanism, and then he commented that forgiveness can unfortunately seem out of place in contemporary American society, where materialistic, competitive, and neoliberal values emphasize individual rights and needs over fostering community. To that thought, Dr. Keller added his support by referencing a book titled Amish Grace. The authors of that book proposed that the Amish were capable of radical forgiveness because non-violence, non-retaliation, and self-renunciation are at the center of their community. In contrast, self-assertion is highly valued in the general American society. Therefore, since forgiveness is an act of self-renunciation, giving up one’s right to exact revenge instead of asserting it, American society is less likely to produce people who respond with forgiveness instead of vengeance. It was interesting to hear both the speakers discuss very matter-of-factly the flaws of American society because it demonstrated that each was perfectly capable of criticizing values they disagreed with. In turn, though, that also highlighted how tenuous some of their purported agreements were, given that they left so much of their potential disagreements over other topics unvoiced.

Toward the end of the moderated conversation, Dr. Moody-Adams asked both the speakers to share their thoughts about failure and what role it has in a good life. Dr. Kitcher took a fairly straightforward approach, separating failures into two kinds: colossal failures and manageable failures. Colossal failures are ones that people should try to do everything to prevent, such as human-life-threatening levels of global warming. Manageable failures are ones that don’t cripple people. If they lead to people to becoming more deeply involved in projects, more compassionate, and more able to realize their own ideas of a good life, then manageable failures can even be valuable. Dr. Keller took a completely different take on the question and cast the idea of failure into a theological light. According to St. Augustine, failure, or sin, is a consequence of having disordered love. “I find that when I fail, it’s usually because I have over-invested in something I shouldn’t have invested so much in. I need to invest in something higher,” Dr. Keller explained. In the Christian viewpoint, any failure that causes one to recognize the disorder of their love and brings one to invest more in God rather than anything else is good. If one invests in God, they are investing in something that will make a difference forever.

To the idea of investing in eternity, Dr. Kitcher reacted in a way that characterized very well the overall tone of the conversation, saying, “I would suggest that the yearning to make a difference that is eternal, that lasts permanently, is something that we can actually overcome.” That comment conveys the sense that the longing for eternal meaning that leads Christians to believe in an eternal God is merely a psychological quirk of being a human animal that can be overcome with rational thought. As strong and as relevant as those implications were, because Dr. Kitcher addressed the audience instead of Dr. Keller; because Dr. Kitcher tempered the deliverance of his belief, saying that he would just “suggest” a thought; and because Dr. Keller never responded to this comment, it felt as though Dr. Kitcher were only talking past Dr. Keller.

Overall, this Veritas Forum was a successful event, sparking conversation about how to live a good life and about humankind’s place in the universe. After the event, there were people who stayed behind to continue to ask the speakers questions or talk with their friends about whose views they found more compelling. Because the speakers offered such rich views and thought-provoking remarks, there was a lot to discuss. However, the one disappointing part of this forum was how little Dr. Keller and Dr. Kitcher actually talked about the differences in their beliefs. As a UWriting preceptor might put it, though the speakers were physically situated in a dialogue, oftentimes, they did not put their beliefs into conversation. Both offered their views on how to live a good life, but neither discussed at length why his was more compelling than the other’s. Nevertheless, with regard to how Dr. Keller and Dr. Kitcher were able to prompt exploration of people’s core beliefs, this forum did achieve what it set out to do.