Voices September 14, 2020
A journey to the heart of ethics with Dietrich von Hildebrand
One of the greatest challenges of moral philosophy is to help us improve our lives.
Rather than dwell among abstract theories, we want to achieve the preeminent practical aim: to become a good person and to be happy.
Dietrich von Hildebrand has been, for me at least, one of those rare philosophers who actually serves that aim.
A new and definitive edition of Hildebrand’s Ethics has just been published this year by the Hildebrand Project. The book’s philosophical content is of interest to anyone seeking to live their best life.
Emotional experiences give the colour to our daily routines. But many philosophers treat human emotions inadequately. Hildebrand trenchantly criticizes the failure of moral philosophers to take emotions as seriously as they do the human intellect and will.
In Ethics, we find Hildebrand to be a great philosopher of the heart who helps us connect our emotional life with the ethical task of right action.
In Chapter 24, we find Hildebrand making a key distinction between our direct freedom (which we experience in the use of our intellect and will) and our indirect freedom (which is displayed in our spontaneous emotional reactions).
The concept of freedom is obviously important for moral philosophy: without freedom we would not be held responsible for our actions.
We don’t put a bear on trial for raiding a refrigerator, because bears don’t have moral freedom. Therefore, bears cannot be held accountable for acts of theft in the same way that humans are. We ask humans to give the reasons for their actions and to explain their choices.
However, unlike most philosophers, Hildebrand realizes that moral philosophy has to focus on more than just the intellect (which can discern reasons) and on the will (which can make free choices).
Hildebrand is so exciting to read and such a great pleasure to study because he typically will notice what most other thinkers fail to notice. On freedom and responsibility, he notices that we are held responsible for more than just our free choices.
There are things we can directly command with our will. For example, when we visit someone’s house, we are morally accountable if we walk over to the refrigerator and start emptying it.
To plead that we forgot to go grocery shopping and so we are helping ourselves to their supplies would strike our host as a bizarre justification for our unusual act of theft. Unlike the bear, we have learned that the right thing to do is to explain our needs and to ask for permission first. In that way we respect the free will and intellectual dignity of our fellow being.
Hildebrand points out that some things cannot be directly commanded in this way. We can directly choose to brazenly steal from a host, or to ask permission to borrow an item. But we cannot directly command ourselves to possess a virtue, for example, to be humble or to be just.
We are not held morally responsible for the orbit of Mars around the sun or for the direction of the wind today because our will has no direct control over such things.
And yet Hildebrand realizes that there are some things for which, although our will cannot directly control them, we are still held morally responsible. For example, we are held morally accountable for our failures to be humble or to be just, even though we cannot directly will such states of our soul into existence.
If we fail to rejoice in the good fortune of another, for example, that says something about us for which we are morally accountable. Perhaps we are possessed by envy or hatred, which thereby gives shape to our deformed emotional response.
Hildebrand rightly says we are not directly responsible for our emotions because we are not able to control them by direct free influence. And yet we are morally responsible for our spontaneous emotional responses because we do have indirect freedom over them.
Indirect freedom means that we can at least stop and take note of our spontaneous emotions. Do we approve or disavow the emotional response? Was it an appropriate or inappropriate emotional response? Was it healthy and fulfilling, or unhealthy and destructive?
Hildebrand realizes that the moral life asks us to pay attention to the spontaneous emotional responses from our heart. Our greatest moral challenge is to listen to our emotions, to use our indirect freedom to better shape the responses of our heart.
We cannot think or will ourselves to be happy, but Hildebrand’s Ethics explains how we can work on our feelings, so that our heart can be empowered to do what it was meant to do: to take us there.