The means of the good life

Philosopher, logician and Catholic, Peter Geach takes up the question of the dispositions necessary to try to lead a good life. Between irony and argument, his line of virtues offers a discourse that is both philosophical and religious.

A book whose title is The virtues risks arousing distrust in the face of what could turn out to be yet another moral lesson. In reality, in his work, Peter Geach (1916-2013), professor of logic in Birmingham and then Leeds, presents the provisions that every human being would need to have a good life. But he does not claim to speak from the point of view of nowhere: his lively and precise argument defends a Catholic response to this question of the virtues necessary to achieve our ends.

Philosophize while believing

A question therefore immediately arises: in matters of religion, what type of philosophical discourse do we need in the public space?? The neutralization of religious powers does not imply that all discourse based at least in part on religious premises should be excluded. The most important thing is that the discourse presented publicly is compatible with the requirements of common life, particularly in pluralist societies. However, France is not particularly well off. Secularism serves as the standard bearer of identity and nationalist discourses, and philosophy is often divided between a history sanctifying works and a thought which rejects as too simplistic and bland the rationalist demands for clarity, precision and rigor of arguments. A book written by a professor of logic convincingly defending, on the basis of his faith in a god whom he says is love, the decisive importance of the seven virtues of faith, hope, charity, practical wisdom, justice, temperance and courage, however, is not so incongruous.

Of course, Christians, Catholic or not, will find there an in-depth reflection on their beliefs and on the life they can and must lead. For others, including the author of this review, the interest is to be able to read a proposed response to one of the most haunting ethical and metaphysical questions throughout the history of philosophy and humanity in general: what can make a good life??

In the name of good management of public space, a separation between the discourse for the Christian people and that for public life in a pluralist society could be demanded. As Rawls said, public reason allows us to think about the justice of the basic structure of society and, for the good life, each person is given their own conception of the good. However, Rawls also specified that an overlapping consensus between reasonable conceptions of the good exists and can lead people with different life projects to agree on common principles of justice. Although he would certainly not have appreciated being associated with the theory of Rawlsian justice, Geach presents the four cardinal virtues justice, temperance, courage and practical wisdom as needs for all human beings for whom the good life involves projects of long-term with precarious conditions for success (p. 64). But he specifies that the theological virtues of faith, charity, hope are just as important, if not more, and that they are linked to the cardinal virtues: as a lasting disposition, faith thus needs courage which itself is strengthened by hope, etc. Thus, the links between the virtues show that a purely secular discourse on them would not expose what is required by the good life.

Geach practices philosophical theology which addresses religious issues by treating them partly from a religious point of view and always according to strict philosophical requirements. This quasi-rationalism – reason is authoritative, but is not the ultimate authority – means that the work has an interest beyond the Christian community space. Indeed, Geach explicitly declares that he does everything to present his ideas in such a way that anyone understands them and can judge them lucidly and, when this is not possible, he indicates that he relies on his faith and that he will only expose its content and challenge possible objections. The point is essential: Geach does not proclaim his faith at the beginning of the work and then unfold his argument. He indicates each time whether his argument must be able to be accepted conditionally if God is such and such or if you believe this or that, then it follows this point or whether his argument must be able to convince anyone, whatever their faith or lack of faith. .

The need for the cardinal virtues

Chapter 1 allows us to understand Geach's project which associates a metaphysics opposed to naturalism and an ethics. Ethics is not just an analysis of moral discourse as some analytical philosophers may have believed for a time (Geach gave these lectures and published the work in the 1970s). Nor is it a call to a sense of duty from which the different virtues would be deduced allowing us to better respect it. Ethics examines, as Aristotle understood well, the end and the means, and the virtues are the dispositions to act that we need to achieve our ultimate end. Geach recognizes that the identification of the ultimate end is not decided simply by rational means. The cardinal virtues can be recognized by any human being with a minimum of moral sense, while the theological virtues such as the virtue of faith in a Trinitarian, incarnate god of love, etc., will only appear necessary to those who aspire to salvation.

By exposing the cardinal virtues (chapters 5 to 8), Geach addresses various major philosophical problems. Thus, practical wisdom or prudence gives rise to a discussion of legalism according to which certain moral laws must be respected absolutely, whatever the circumstances. In this, Geach opposes consequentialism, particularly in its best-known version: utilitarianism. He challenges the utilitarian formula requiring that the greatest happiness of the greatest number be promoted (p. 146-149), because the double requirement contained in the formula leads to absurdities. As for consequentialism, it assumes that it is possible to represent all the consequences of an action. However, in an indeterminist framework, any choice will produce unpredictable choices of other people and therefore impossible to anticipate consequences and, in a determinist framework, the subtlety of the determining causes making them partly inaccessible, the choice cannot take into account the consequences of the action chosen.

Regarding courage, Geach insists on the lasting relevance of this virtue. Often associated with military models, it has a much broader value. As he reminds us, without the courage of mothers who have given birth, we would not be here and more generally, courage remains a virtue that we need every day. But a disposition to act is only courageous if it has a just cause. Perseverance in doing evil even in the face of danger is not worthy of being called courageous. We must therefore be clear about the ends that deserve to be desired, which leads us to the theological virtues.

Before studying them, let us note an important point. The cardinal virtues are a need that anyone can recognize. However, even if he shows as much as possible their value for anyone, Geach gives a presentation which borrows above all from the Christian tradition, we will return to this below in relation to the virtues of justice and temperance.

The need for theological virtues

The first of the theological virtues is charity. This love of God and of others to love God supposes that God exists, otherwise it would be absurd. But original sin as well as individual sins separated humans from God. The dogma of original sin is central to the work. Geach does not claim to give a perfectly clear explanation of this mystery. However, the need for virtues is that of humans who are caught in a tendency to do evil to which they give in too easily, which separates them from God. Hence the importance of free choices which may or may not favor the achievement of the ultimate end: salvation. According to Geach, God has given each and everyone sufficient means to clarify their choices for the good and, according to these choices, God will respond by offering his grace or not. Sinners faced with ethical choices crucial for their good life therefore need not only to love, but also to believe and despair.

Faith, the second theological virtue, reveals the ultimate end and presupposes an assent to the fundamental propositions, those of the Creed. Faith to be one to believe in God must therefore also be a belief that God exists, that he is creator, etc., but one does not need to be a theologian to sufficiently understand these mysteries. faith must be added the hope of a new life without sin. Without it, given the magnitude of evil, it is probably impossible to lead an authentic ethical life since one must constantly fight evil, particularly within oneself.

To develop his reflections on the theological virtues, Geach does not simply rely on the authority of the Catholic Church. He presents rational defenses of the importance, for those who believe in a loving god, of an assent to the truth on these questions and of the possibility of reaching the final end of humanity.

An almost omnipresent irony or Pascal's problem

According to Geach, if all humans are created free and rational, they can all, provided they make good choices, be saved. But it is unlikely and nothing ethical dictates that many will be saved. Salvation is an individual and rare affair, although one can hope and wish that many others will be saved. In chapter 6, Geach presents divine justice as a model for human justice which must be his image, but he immediately limits divine justice by specifying that it only applies to the last judgment and that this divine attribute in no way explains creation. The latter is the place of a lottery (p. 188-189) where evil and good are distributed independently of any merit. Geach goes further to argue that even the chances of salvation are not necessarily distributed equitably. We have the impression that this absence of divine distributive justice serves as a model for the absence of political reflection on equity in human societies.

In parallel with this absence of reflection on political virtues, the virtue of temperance is highlighted. Certainly, Geach does not play pre-virtue as shown by his measured and rather tolerant opinion on bookishness and the use of drugs. Nevertheless, sexual ethics and the ethics of suicide, private and non-public practices, and in general, interest him much more than civic life. After confessing that he had wrongly defended Catholic ethics with reference to the natural purpose of the organism and organs, Geach regains confidence in the Christian tradition which cannot have erred on such important questions. He thus falls into what could be called Pascal's problem.

The latter uses all his intellectual power to show the vices of the world and, like Pascal, Geach does not lack irony with regard to all human vices. However, he sometimes loses all irony with regard to the authority of his church, like Pascal who exempts Catholicism from all the faults of human nature. Confidence in the authority of the Catholic Church in matters of sexual ethics and suicide contrasts with welcome irony against political and social vices. The ethics of the most intimate life are thus fixed by tradition, because, so to speak, both reason and irony have abandoned the part in the face of sex and death.

The work is rich and we have only given a very limited overview. Playing the game of reasoned public discussion without renouncing its Christian and Catholic roots, Geach offers us a great opportunity to reflect on the good life, a gift which will be counted on the day of judgment, that of philosophers most certainly; as for that of God, we will see.