The Retrieval of Ethics: a Review

Introduction

From 2008-2011, I studied at the University of Virginia. I majored in philosophy with a minor in bioethics. I fell in love with the discipline of philosophy. I loved asking deep questions. One summer, I drove my mom crazy. I had been reading these deep philosophical books. I desperately wanted someone to discuss these big ideas. For example, I read, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book tackles deep issues such as cloning, organ donation, and the meaning of life. I never considered myself a good philosopher. Thus, I was completely shocked when I was nominated Most Outstanding Philosophy student. The award comes with a prize. The prize was a book titled The Retrieval of Ethics, by Talbot Brewer. I had promised to read his book. Yet life got in the way. The summer of my graduation I had neck surgery. Reading in a neck brace is no easy task. After my surgery, I entered law school and divinity school at Regent University. Needless to say, the heavy course work left little time for leisure reading. In 2018, I dusted off the book from my bookshelf and began to read. Admittedly, I struggled to understand the deeper philosophical arguments. Often I would re-read pages over and over underlining what I thought were the key points. In the end, Talbot Brewer says something interesting about our desires.

Three Dogmas of Desire

Brewer argues that modern philosophy needs to reconsider the nature of human agency. Brewer shows that the below argument is insufficient to explain human behavior.

  1. Desires are attitudes towards propositions
  2. Desires are distinguished from other propositional attitudes by the proper direction of fit between the world and mind
  3. Can formulate a rational explanation of any action by tracing it to it a belief/desire pair consisting in a belief that action will bring the world into conformity with some proposition and a desire takes the same proposition as an object[^1].

Brewer calls these three statements The Dogmas of Desire. He denies that statement 3 is true. Belief/desire pairs are not necessary or sufficient to provide a rational explanation. Belief/desire pairs are insufficient. There may be some object in which it may be impossible to determine how it could be good or worthwhile[^2]. Likewise, desires are not necessary. It is possible for an object to be intrinsically good and not desired by the actor.

Dialectical activities

Propositionalism is the idea that all action is a species of production. Thus it cannot explain why an action might be chosen for its own stake[^3]. According to the third dogma of desire, all desire action is calculated. This calculation produces some state of affairs in accordance with the idea in the actor’s mind. For example, I desire a pumpkin pie. Thus my actions would be calculated to make pumpkin pie come into existence. Yet according to Brewer, there is a certain type of actives that do not fit this model.

Brewer coins the term dialectical activities. This term describes the type of activity propositionalism cannot easily explain. He defines dialectical activities as all those activities whose point lies in any intrinsic goodness that is opaque to those who lack experience[^4]. His first example is our desire for God or a divine entity

Desire for God

Brewer argues that desires are not merely a set of movements towards different goals. Rather there exists a unifying principle. Brewer states that “The most comprehensive dialectical activity is the activity of living a good life.”[ ^5]. He turns to Augustine’s Confessions. in order to support this statement. Brewer describes how Augustine’s earlier desires were not substituted by his longing for God. Rather all of his earlier desires were a futile attempt to fulfill the longing he already had. Thus Brewer concludes that dialectic desires exceed a desirer’s articulation of it[^6]. Yet a desirer may arrive at a fuller articulation after experience[^7]. Brewer coins this attribute as perfectibility.

Brewer furthers his argument with references to Gregory of Nyssa and Plotinus. The former described the desire for God as a memorizing attraction to a good wholly present[^8]. This cannot fit the propositional framework since the desire is directed at a person, not an object[^9]. Plotinus described the human encounter with the Good. It was not as an intellectual exercise, but rather the response to an attraction. Furthermore, Plotinus thought that goodness comes not from striving. Rather it comes from “a loving desire oriented towards a divine mind”[^10]. Brewer uses these examples to make a philosophical statement on human agency. Yet philosophy is not the only area which needs to reclaim dialectical activities. Religion also needs to emphasize the dialectical nature of a desire for God

Impact on Religion

If Brewer is correct, then our desire for God is best oriented towards encountering a person. We cannot desire God out of a desire to be good or a desire to be one with God. This has implications for religious formation. The church has emphasized programs and parish’s renewals. These help to stem the tide of those leaving the church. Yet these programs and renewals aim at education or community building. Very few programs offer opportunities to encounter God.

I volunteer with the youth. I can get bogged down with teaching the information. I forget that encounters with God are really important. Youth encounter God through the Bible, sacraments, and adult leaders. Faith formation programs need to show how God satisfies our the longing. They need to show why other desires will be futile attempts. Philosophically speaking, humans need an overarching desire to unify their life. If they cannot find it in the sacred, they will turn to the secular.

[^1]: Brewer, Talbot. The Retrieval of Ethics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 16.

[^2]: Brewer, 35.

[^3]: Brewer, 37.

[^4]: Brewer, 39.

[^5]:Brewer, 49.

[^6]: Brewer, 51.

[^7]: Brewer, 51.

[^8]:Brewer, 57.

[^9]: Brewer, 58.

[^10]: Brewer 59.

Three Ways to Restore Joy This Christmas

Introduction

I remember December as a kid. It felt like a time of peace, love, and joy. A time for watching holiday classics and eating cookies. The anticipation of gift giving filled me with joy. Now as an adult I know about all the work that made the magic happen. I know how hectic the holidays can be for people. I believe the west has lost sight of the true joy and wonder of the holidays. Let us restore joy by forgoing the commercialized Christmas.

3 ways to restore joy this Christmas

1. Embrace Advent

Advent is a time in which we prepare ourselves to remember the birth of Jesus Christ and in that remembering, we look forward to the second coming of Christ1. The proper attitude is anticipatory joy1. High liturgical churches emphasize advent. You don’t have to be a member to adopt this attitude. Traditionally a person will give up something. Instead, a person will do a spiritual reading and prayer. A lot of different Advent devotionals exist. I like and use Reedemed online.

Some people may object that waiting until December 25th takes away from the fun of the holiday. If we spend December fasting and doing good works while everyone else is partying then when we miss out. This leads me to my second point.

2. Embrace the 12 days of Christmas

We have all heard the silly song, The 12 Days of Christmas. What we think of as a silly song actually teaches truths about how we are to celebrate Christmas. Church tradition tells us that Christmas is not just one day, but a whole season. Over the years the numbering has gotten off, but the twelve days run from December 25th until January 6th. Some European children receive their gifts from the three wise men on Epiphany Sunday. Rather than enjoying all things Christmas for one day, you can enjoy it for twelve.

3. Nix Santa and embrace Saint Nick

I know this is controversial for some parents. They worry that their kid will be left out or spoil it for other kids. I grew up with Santa and don’t regret it. Santa is not bad. However, inventing a lie to capitalize on childlike wonder is not necessary when the original story is full of the miraculous. His first miracle was to heal a woman of a withered hand.

As Nicholas was growing up, he regularly went to study and learn with his teacher. One day as he was on his way he came upon a woman with a withered hand. Stopping, he approached her, laid his hand on her, prayed to God, and made the sign of the cross. The hand miraculously became whole. 2

St. Nicholas is known as the patron saint of children. He models the values of love and generosity. In some cultures, St. Nicholas brings candy and sweets on December 6th, his feast day 2. We can honor St. Nicholas by baking cookies and sweets on his feast day. We can also give to the poor.

Conclusion

The holidays don’t have to be hectic. We can have wonder, peace, and joy. However, we must be intentional in how we celebrate. We must set aside time to pray, and love others. The commercialized world will tell you that you most do and buy everything. However, the reality is that we are to love those closest to us. By loving others, we restore joy to the holiday season.


  1. Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar 
  2. From St. Nicholas Center, where there is more information about the saint, customs from around the world, stories and activities for children, recipes, crafts, and much more to help families, churches and schools learn about and celebrate St. Nicholas. Used by permission.