In my previous discussion of Christine Korsgaard’s prologue to The Sources of Normativity, I left out one significant feature of the story she tells of Western philosophy. This is the reason – related to the basic account of excellence of obligation – why Christianity proved philosophically more powerful than Greek thought.
On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.
But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already? We normally think of theodicy – the problem of suffering and responses to it – as primarily a problem for Abrahamic traditions. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil). But broaden the question a bit – make it “the problem of bad” – and it appears elsewhere too. For Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.
And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation. The ethics of excellence, in Plato and Aristotle, remains teleological: things naturally tend toward perfection. But if this is so, how do we account for people’s all too evident imperfection? Aristotle tells us that a person who is well brought up will tend toward excellence; but what of those of us who aren’t? Korsgaard claims that Aristotle doesn’t say very much about them, but notes that he does say they require law – thus possibly laying the seeds for the fusion of Greek thought with Jewish law in Christianity. Alasdair MacIntyre, I think, would suggest that Aristotle’s teleology as it stood was rooted in the Greek polis, where standards of excellence were largely agreed on and socially embedded; in such a situation, most people would be well brought up. But as the polis fragmented into empire, the well-brought-up began to seem like exceptions rather than rules. And so with Greek and Roman empire we enter a world where law and obligation, rather than excellence, are the fundamental moral concepts – to the point where even a committed Aristotelian like Thomas Aquinas will express ethics above all in terms of natural law. (This story of the transition from Greece to Christianity, I think, parallels the one I have attributed to James Doull.)
Korsgaard, as I noted last time, comes out of this story noting that the modern world is more like the Christian than the Greek in a most fundamental respect. Since we see matter and not form as the most fundamental reality, we no longer see goodness and value at the heart of things. And so we can no longer accept an Aristotelian account on which things (including people) tend naturally toward their perfection; people, on a modern scientific metaphysics as well as a Christian one, are fundamentally fallen, flawed, imperfect.
Still, the Christian world, like the Greek, remains laden with value, with God’s goodness at its very heart. And so the problem of badness and imperfection – already a problem in Plato and Aristotle, at least on Korsgaard’s account – becomes even bigger in Christianity than it did with the Greeks. I really don’t think monotheists ever successfully resolved the problem of suffering, to the point that if an omnipotent God or creator God existed I still wouldn’t think we should put our faith in him.
A world without value at its core is the world generally suggested by modern natural science, with the hypothesis of God the creator refuted by the evidence. But as I noted before, it is also the world suggested by Buddhism, at least before the doctrine of Buddha-nature complicates the picture. The world just is; it is indifferent to our suffering, and it’s up to us to do something about that suffering. Still, the Buddhist view does raise questions about how value comes to exist in the first place. Why is suffering bad, or why is it experienced as bad? How can that badness, that fact that something is wrong with suffering and we should do something about it, come to be, if goodness and badness are not somehow fundamental to the nature of reality? One might go so far as to say that Buddhists and scientists face a problem of good.