On Failures of Agency

Some Varieties of Failures of Agency

A. Paul Holmer on Weakness of Will (or lack of desire)

… when I can no longer decide between opposing options, or when I completely lack wants and wishes, then much of daily life loses its challenge, and I begin to think there is little sense left. The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that many persons suffer from a weakness of the will.

But a tragedy is in the making when a person does not learn what every person finally must learn: that is, some powerful and persistent wants. For unlike the animals whose wants are given with their very birth and nature, persons have to spend time learning what their proper wants are. And if one does not want what is essential and needful – for example, to be morally sound, to be intelligent and informed rather than stupid, or even to be healthy rather than sick – then a good part of being a person is missing. [29]

If a person is always restless and anxious, there can be no resoluteness of will. With little or no will, there is nothing clear or definitive about such a person. Sometimes it is hard to know whether the lack of volition comes first and the restless anxiety follows, or the reverse. However, we need not decide such questions in order to say that surely the two go together. A sign of being weak-willed is to shift from one thing to another. Having a will for this, then for that, in endless succession, is really to have no conclusiveness and no character at all. Such a mode of life spells chaos after a while. Soon one does not know what will satisfy, and a lifetime can be spent in meaningless pursuits. … Something like this happens to us when we spend ourselves in preoccupation with pleasure. [86-87]

from Making Christian Sense (The Westminster Press, 1984).

B. Oliver O’Donovan on Indecision

The peculiar moral weakness we call “indecision” is not a weakness of love; it cannot be countered by a relentless ratcheting up of the affections. It is a weakness in discerning and hearing a call to act, a weakness in observing a practical possibility given in the shape of the moment, and that is a weakness of hope, for hope discerns in the light of God’s promise what is given to us to do. Where love attends to the “today” that has come to be out of the past, the “today” of the world around us, hope attends to the “today” that has not yet come to be, but opens out in front of us, the “today” of opportunity. Hope presides over the venture of action and focuses deliberation on its possibility.

from “Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, edited by Kelly Kapic, (IVP Academic, 2014), 159.

C. Daniel A. Westberg on Inaction

1. Distraction from purpose

[There are] cases where there is a lack of harmony between the judgments of our practical reasoning and the actual things that we do. … [For instance,] we may simply not “feel like” doing something. The laundry is postponed in favor of reading a magazine; we omit the exercise that we had decided to do; we eat more at dinner than we had originally planned; we curtail or omit our prayer time. We do not get around to writing the letter that we had planned, and we find that we had spent unplanned time on video games, or internet surfing or a number of other things not wrong in themselves but that in reference to our plans and prior decisions amount to a deflection from our aims. This is part of the human condition, of course, and part of the material for our reflection that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” [145]

2.  Imprudence

If you do not carry out in action your brilliant insights and decisions, you lack the virtue of prudence. … Your good intentions, your “to-do lists” and plans for the future, are all very good (and may exhibit a certain insight, practicality and wisdom), but if they are not translated into actions, there is no true virtue of practical wisdom in action/actuality. [162]

3. Lack of initiative

Aristotle included in his understanding of courage the kind of person with noble ambition, capable of major achievements worthy of respect and honor. … [In Thomas’ treatment] this is the virtue of our great heroes and saints, those like Francis Xavier and Ignatius, John Wesley and the missionaries Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson, those who achieved something on a grand scale and inspired many others. … The characteristic of this virtue that makes it part of fortitude is that it has to do with achieving something good and of value on a large scale, and therefore involves challenge and difficulty. It is the ability to pursue a vision successfully in spite of hardship and discouragement that gives Thomistic magnificence, better understood as enterprise or initiative, its place and character as a virtue. [205-6]

from Renewing Moral Theology (IVP Academic, 2015).

Oliver O’Donovan on the practical character of Ethics

Oliver O’Donovan on the practical character of Ethics

Ethics is not distinguished from other disciplines by an “object” or “subject-matter” which defines its territory over against those of other studies of other objects. What kind of thing is this morality, of which Ethics undertakes to speak? Clearly not a thing among other things, a segmented object of inquiry standing in relation to other objects as the locus of a certain body of evidence. Ancient Greek History may point to its archaeological monuments, its epigraphical inscriptions, its historiographical texts, which distinguish it from, while making it comparable to, Medieval Islamic History. For Ethics, there is no such determinate body of evidence; everything is grist for its mill. Nor can it treat its material with the same spirit of observational detachment, for what is involved in speech about living, acting, and doing is simply the very stuff of our actve engagements. Ethics is distinct by being a practical discipline. That is to say, it is concerned with good and bad reasons for acting.

[…] The new sciences reported on how humans behaved as individuals and communities in response to circumstantial pressures, and proposed explanations for their responses, but always from the observer’s, not the actor’s point of view – a subtle nuance conveyed in the word “behavior.” That meant that they never ventured upon the ground of moral reason, with its determinations of good and bad reasons for acting. The distinction may seem unimportant […] But all the observation and explanation in the world for behavior patterns, individual and social, for desires, feelings, aspirations, values, norms, and so on, may include not a single word about why something should be done, or what is to be valued above what. The discourse of Ethics concerns ourselves, the life we are living, the action we have in hand. Even when pursued at a high level of reflection, it is of a different order from a discourse about patterns of behavior demonstrated in the past or probable in the future. “Ethics is not practical merely by having as its subject matter human action,” wrote John Finnis shrewdly. Something similar may be said about the newly recovered fashion for evolutionary accounts of moral thinking, such as those, based on comparative neuroendocrinology which emphasize the role of the hormone oxytocin. Some “why?” is being asked and answered, to be sure. Some account is being given for ways in which we habitually feel and rule our feelings. But it is not the internal “why?” of the moral thinker; it does not inhabit the categories constitutive for moral thought. That means that such accounts have the effect of “knowing better,” of describing moral thought away by situating it within explanatory sequences which bypass the questions and propositions that those who practice moral thinking for themselves might recognize.

from Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 1, (Eerdmans, 2013), 69-71.

Oliver O’Donovan on the sources of moral teaching

Oliver O’Donovan on the modes of scripture’s moral teaching

Moral teaching is given in exhortation, parables, lists of virtues, and so on. Narrative, command, prediction, and invocation (i.e., prayer and praise) all teach us how to direct our ways pleasingly to God. We can learn of the wrong of adultery from the story of David and Bathsheba, not only from the seventh commandment of the Decalogue.

from “The Moral Authority of Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, (Baker, 2008), 174.

Oliver O’Donovan: Six Theses on Scripture

Oliver O’Donovan: Six Theses on scripture

1. Scripture is set apart from every other literary corpus simply by its function in the saving purposes of God; it is a literary corpus that is, to use John Webster’s term, “sanctified” to its task. But that is of a piece with the saving purposes of God to call out Israel and to anoint Christ for the salvation of the world. The specialness of Scripture belongs to its connection with Israel and Christ.

2. Holy Scripture is a part of God’s own self-attestation in deed and word. It is not a secondary reflection on it, which, had it not occurred, would have left God’s message about himself intact. In speaking of Scripture, then, we properly speak of the voice of God as well as of the voice of its human authors.

3. The authors of the books of Scripture were called to perform human tasks in God’s service, just as Israel was. There specialness does not consist in some unique superhuman activity, as though writing a Gospel was different from writing anything else. They are special because of their place in the redeeming work of God. Nothing in the humanity of the authors implies an imperfection in their work; nothing in their election to divine service authorizes us to attribute to them any other perfection than the one relevant perfection: God attests himself through them.

4. The faith demanded of the reader of Scripture is faith in the saving work of God attested there, which is therefore a faith in Scripture too. It implies willingness to accept the testimony of Scripture without presuming to improve upon it—by excision, by correction, or by privileging a canon within the canon—but instead simply seeking to understand in fidelity and obedience, without presuppositions or conditions.

5. Every element of Scripture contributes to the testimony of the whole, but the different contributions are not uniform. The right understanding of any given element of Scripture is determined by its relation to the whole; but that means by its relation to the historical shape of the event that Scripture attests, the calling of Israel fulfilled in the coming of Christ.

6. The church’s role in determining the canon was in the first place an act of recognition, discerning and acknowledging the unity and authority that belonged to this literature by virtue of its sanctification by God. At the same time, secondarily, it was, like the framing of the creeds themselves, an exercise of its authority to teach. the ARCIC report The Gift of Authority said well, “It was at the same time an act of obedience and authority.”

from “The Moral Authority of Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, (Baker, 2008), 166-167.

Oliver O’Donovan on theoretical and practical reason

Oliver O’Donovan on theoretical and practical reason

We know only as we love. Knowledge, which participates in the eternal Word of God, is consubstantial and coeternal with the Love that is God’s eternal Spirit. All knowledge, then, has an affective aspect, just as all love has a cognitive aspect. Our experience of knowing is that of discerning good and welcoming it as good. To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good; but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it; and, in grasping it; to cling to it in love.

from Common Objects of Love, (Eerdmans, 2002), 11.