John Hacker-Wright, University of Guelph
In this paper I intend to argue for the moral gravity of blasphemy from the perspective of virtue ethics. I do not intend to provide any argument for virtue ethics itself.
‘Blasphemy’, as I understand it, applies to actions and derivatively to the utterances, writings, visual depictions, and other works that are the product of blasphemous actions. I will argue that blasphemy is wrong because it is the action of a vicious agent. Someone who blasphemes exhibits a certain vice. Specifically, blasphemous actions are characteristic of vicious agents’ responses to matters of great importance, our highest ends. Someone blasphemes when they treat ends and matters related to our ends as trivial, which often occurs by attributing demeaning falsehoods to them. I follow Thomas Aquinas in naming the vice that disposes an agent to blaspheme ‘infidelity’ or ‘disbelief’.
In my view, following Aquinas, infidelity is an intellectual vice that disposes us to believe falsehoods about ends. My view, however, differs considerably from Aquinas’s. Most significantly, I depart from Aquinas in that my analysis of infidelity is not predicated on the truth of Christianity. Also, the virtue corresponding to the vice of infidelity, faith or fidelity, is not for me a theological virtue. On my view, the intellectual fidelity required to avoid blasphemy does not exhibit the characteristics of a theological virtue. That is, fidelity does not require us to transcend our human nature, and so does not require grace, and it is not oriented toward bringing about the beatific vision of God.
Although not a theological virtue, intellectual fidelity is distinct from the moral virtues. As I shall use the term, ‘fidelity’ requires that a person be intellectually true to what is properly cared about, a morally permissible end. Unlike the moral virtues, fidelity does not directly dispose us to morally good actions. Instead, intellectual fidelity to our ends enables us to ‘have a life’. By ‘having a life’ I mean having a coherent structured story about the actions and happenings that compose an account of one’s life. Taking up an end or ends that are capable of structuring a course of action through time is essential to having a plan, and having a plan is crucial to making sense of one’s life, both prospectively and retrospectively. One cannot believe whatever one wishes about matters pertaining to ends and still be said to have an end. Thus, intellectual fidelity is essential to making sense of one’s life. To have reflective awareness of one’s life is essential to being human. So, making sense of one’s life is crucial to living a characteristically human life. The virtues enable us to live a characteristically human life. Thus, intellectual fidelity is a virtue, and it is distinct from the moral virtues, since it is not directly involved in disposing us to morally good actions.
Moreover, articulating falsehoods about ends to each other has a similar effect on others, undermining their ability to hold on to true beliefs about their ends. So, we must refrain from articulating falsehoods about the ends of others. Still, it is crucial that our ends are compatible with exercising the moral virtues, because the general observance of morality is essential to our having any ends at all. Intellectual fidelity requires us only to be concerned with truth regarding morally permissible ends. So, intellectual fidelity is a virtue that disposes us to truth in matters concerning morally permissible ends.
Intellectual fidelity is a cognitive virtue in that it disposes us to the truth, but it is also distinct from other cognitive virtues in that its importance lies not exclusively in its epistemic role; that is, it does not just function to get us at the truth. Although it involves a disposition to the truth, its role in human life is distinctive in that it enables us to have ends. Thus, I want to create a distinct category for intellectual fidelity and one other virtue that I will discuss later. It is what I will call an orienting virtue, because it enables us to be directed toward ends.
With this conception of intellectual fidelity in hand, I can return to blasphemy. To preview my argument, blasphemous actions are wrong because they are characteristic of an agent who lacks fidelity; that is, blasphemous actions are typical of an agent with a disposition that undermines our having morally permissible ends. Blasphemous actions attribute demeaning and trivializing falsehoods about something one reasonably takes to be of great importance because it is a morally permissible end or it is closely connected with one. Note two features of this conception. First, it need not involve demeaning a divine being. Trivializing the tragedy of the attacks of September 11, 2001, would count on my view, as blasphemy, and is characteristic of an infidel. On my view, that is because recognizing the importance of human lives is a crucial component of all morally permissible ends, and so all virtuous people will recognize this event as a tragedy that deserves sanctimonious remembrance. The wrong done is worse than mere disrespect, because someone disposed to make such claims has a false vision of the value of a human life that evinces a disposition undermining to the ability to have a morally permissible end. Second, many works that have been considered blasphemous on more distinctly religious conceptions of blasphemy would still count as blasphemous under this conception. Derogating Mohammed by depicting him as a violent warlord, for instance, would be attributing something false that demeans a morally permissible end, the pursuit of a good Muslim life, which depends on upholding the moral character of Mohammed. Even for a non-Muslim, creating such a work is blasphemous and not merely, as some would have it, disrespectful. Trivializing others’ ends through falsehoods is still blasphemy, since it is an outgrowth of a disposition to undermine others’ true beliefs about morally permissible ends.
I will continue to set out my conception of blasphemy as follows. First, in order to set out points of continuity and contrast, I will set out Aquinas’s view of blasphemy. I call this ‘the classical view’ of blasphemy. I will then proceed to detail out my own conception over against the classical view .
The Classical View
I hope to accomplish two tasks by reviewing Aquinas’s view of blasphemy. First, I hope to bring out more fully why I am urging the continued use of the notion of infidelity in describing blasphemy. Second, I hope to disentangle my notion of infidelity precisely from Aquinas’s notion.
To understand Aquinas on blasphemy, it is essential to grasp his conceptions of faith and infidelity. Faith, for Aquinas, is a cognitive virtue. All cognitive virtues, for Aquinas, relate to the truth (2a2ae 1, 3).1 That is, they are deemed virtues precisely in that they lead us to the truth. Fidelity as a cognitive virtue is specified by its object, which is the first truth, God (1, 1). Faith generates knowledge, but it is unlike science in two ways. First, faith is concerned exclusively with God, whereas science is concerned with God as well as with creatures. Also, unlike science, faith involves the will. Assent to the conclusions of a scientific syllogism involves no choice; as the conclusion follows from the premises with necessity, so too does our assent to the conclusion. To have faith, by contrast, involves deciding to believe that which is presented for belief by miracles, evangelists, or scripture (1, 4 and 6, 1).
Faith is coupled with charity in that it is not a virtue without charity (4, 5). That is because faith is a readiness in the mind to assent to the will in the matter of belief in God and believing God’s promises. Charity is the disposition of the will to love God. The readiness of the mind to believe comes to nothing without the will being disposed to love God; Aquinas terms such an empty faith ‘formless faith’ and thinks it is what is described in James 2:20: “faith without works is dead.” One who has formless faith believes that God exists, but does not act through the consequences of this belief and therefore does not in the fullest sense grasp the truth. Because what is known through faith is not known in the same way as what is known through science – that is, it is not known through a conclusive demonstration – Aquinas believes that what is known through faith is obscure. Yet the will, when it has charity, makes up for this obscurity in firm adherence to the object of faith; because of charity, faith is in a sense no less certain for Aquinas than scientific knowledge that stems from certitude regarding the premises of a valid syllogism. One who loves God will not waver from that belief because of charity. Yet charity cannot operate without faith, because the will must have an end in view, which is presented to it by the intellect (4, 7). Whereas the will has an essential conceptual dependence on the intellect to furnish it with an end, the intellect does not depend on the will in this way. That is, although the intellect would not believe in God with certitude in the absence of charity, it could still grasp God, and so does not have the same dependence on the will. So, although faith is not fulfilled without charity, it is conceivable independently from the will. Thus, for Aquinas, faith has primacy over charity, and the intellect primacy over the will.
For Aquinas, disbelief or infidelity can arise in two ways, one of which is not blameworthy. Anyone who has not heard the call cannot be held accountable for failing to respond. Disbelief as a vice is the willed disposition not to believe. In the case of vicious disbelief, the truth is presented to the intellect, but the will turns the mind away from the truth (10, 3). For Aquinas, the most fundamental disposition behind such a refusal to believe is, of course, pride. Among the seven deadly sins, pride is, as Sirach 10:15 has it, the origin of all sin, for it is the intention to excel above God. Since this attempt implies at least one false belief about the nature and value of creatures, it leads to inordinate desires for temporal goods, namely, those goods whereby I would excel above God (1a2ae 84, 2). Pride leads to contempt for God, whose greatness one wishes impossibly to surpass.
Now, blasphemy is associated with disbelief in that it consists of deliberately holding a false belief about God. The will and the intellect work together perversely in generating blasphemy. The will of the infidel who blasphemes is pridefully contemptuous of God. The infidel, because of this contempt, rejects the truth and embraces falsehoods about God. Even inwardly holding falsehoods about God is sufficient for blasphemy on Aquinas’s view (13, 1). Inwardly and intentionally forming a false proposition about God reveals a disbelieving disposition; it starts one out on a course that, if continued, will render one utterly insensitive to the truth, and thus, irretrievably separated from God. Blasphemy is therefore a major sin for Aquinas because it undermines an individual’s movement toward his chief end, the beatific vision. Of course, blasphemous thoughts that are published in any manner, whether through speech, writing, or artworks also perpetrate harm against others, on the assumption that the beatific vision is indeed their chief end and that their faith may be undermined in however small a way by the lies of the blasphemer.
In sum, for Aquinas, blasphemy is wrong because it is disorienting, both to the person who articulates it (whether inwardly or outwardly) and potentially to others who come into contact with the blasphemy. The disorientation works like this: I start with a true apprehension of God, including his ultimate value, but I begin to want things, temporal goods such as money. If I sinfully give in to such desires, I gradually want to become the richest and perhaps the most famous; these ideals affect my beliefs about what is good in life. My choices have affected my intellect by giving me a false view of what is good. I am now disoriented. Gradually, I am won over by an ideal that involves wanting to be the best, but in my own manner as a creature; that is, I cannot, as a creature, be the greatest in the way that God is, but I can be the greatest creature, and I want that way of being the greatest to be the greatest, period. The will enters here to sway the intellect to disbelief. I want to believe, and choose to believe that God either does not exist or is not good in the way that he is presented in the scriptures. I make him out to be susceptible to the flaws of creatures. I will no doubt want others to share my false view of God, which I may eventually come to believe, in order that they might at least come to share my inflated vision of myself. I have come to base my life on a false vision of what is good. My will and my beliefs are oriented toward a hollow, illusory, and indeed, an impossible goal, and I strive to bring others to share these views and desires in order to shore up my own moral mirage. I have, in this case, made of my life a worthless sham, through rejecting a genuine end, and, worse yet, I may not even realize it.
A Contemporary Analysis
Now, it might seem that in throwing out Aquinas’s most basic assumptions, especially the truth of Catholic Christianity, one must throw out his accounts of faith, infidelity, and blasphemy. Of course, there is much that must go. Yet there is enough that can be retained to justify, I think, retaining a conception of fidelity as a virtue.
The most obvious problem with Aquinas’s account is that it is no longer evident that the purpose of human beings is the beatific vision of God. It is a well-documented predicament that we inhabitants of modernity have lost a sense of purpose; we have no obvious end. Many moderns believe that reason cannot point to a single end that we must rationally strive to attain. There is also not a single end that is prescribed by morality; still, having some end compatible with morality is necessary for all persons in order to have a characteristic human life. Morality can be applied to the evaluation of an end, and is thus independent from our ends. An end is something we choose to care about and that thereby becomes important to us.2 With Harry Frankfurt, and against Aquinas, I hold that no end is intrinsically important.3 Ends take on importance through our willed investment in them. Frankfurt calls this investment love and Aquinas calls it charity (at least, when it is our investment in God, the contemplation of whom he believes to be our only true end). Frankfurt, to my knowledge, does not deem love to be a virtue; it is simply for him an unavoidable fact of human life that we care about some things. Yet our chosen ends will have various moral, aesthetic, and social consequences; what ends we select will have dramatic consequences on the overall shape of our lives, including the dimensions and stability of our communities. We can chose ends that do not require us to care about those consequences, but then we sacrifice rationality, morality, and we lead, I would argue, a deformed life. Love of self or one’s country to the point of discounting others is possible, but clearly not admirable. Thus, I will speak of ‘appropriate love’ as a virtue, and it is another of what I have termed orienting virtues. Virtuous agents will not choose some ends, and in choosing some ends, virtuous agents pursue them only with certain intensity.
What ends will a virtuous person select, then? As Frankfurt points out, some ends are simply unintelligible; we would not understand someone who loved death, disability, or isolation, though there is nothing conceptually impossible about taking those as ends. To serve as the basis of diachronically organizing one’s life, ends must as well be something other than one’s own momentary enjoyment. Otherwise put, ends must then feature sufficient ‘depth’ to serve as a basis of structuring one’s life. Also, as Bernard Williams has pointed out, happiness in general probably cannot serve as an end, because it is too abstract.4 One aims at happiness only via more specific ends. Further, if Bernard Williams is right, the utilitarian ideal of maximizing the happiness of all cannot serve as an end, because pursuing this ideal would not allow us to have any projects that would endure over time.5 We would instead be constantly shifting to whatever action at any given time would maximize happiness, and this persistent shifting would be incompatible with the psychological imperative to invest ourselves in something over time.
To serve as an end for a virtuous person, a goal must be what Philippa Foot calls “a possible object of deep happiness.”6 About these Foot points out: “it does not make sense, without a very special background, to suggest that someone found deep happiness in, say, a running victory in a dispute with a neighbor over a morning newspaper or a milk bottle… Whereas deep happiness and joy over the birth of a child? That is a different matter!”7 In other words, there are some goals that are viable as ends and others that simply are not. Some possible ends are rather mundane, such as family, work, and friendship; others are more exotic, such as exploration, the pursuit of truth, or artistic creativity. Religion no doubt also provides deep ends; the imitation of Jesus or the Eightfold Path of Buddhism seems to feature the requisite depth.
Now let me return to what I earlier called the orienting virtues. Fidelity follows from appropriate love, on my understanding of the orienting virtues. On my view, a concern to appreciate the nature of our ends follows from our love of them, but our love does not generally follow from understanding. Love, as Frankfurt points out, is very often unreasoned. We love our children simply because they are ours, not because of their qualities or achievements and often in spite of them. In this case, love should motivate understanding of our children, so that our actions toward them will be appropriate.8 Similarly with ends: we choose ends, which thereby become important to us, and that importance motivates our attempt better to appreciate our ends or whatever is essentially involved in them and to plan our lives around them. This is fidelity. Fidelity, as I am using it, following Aquinas, is a disposition of the mind to respond to our investment of care in an end with the intellectual discernment necessary to form true beliefs.
One might wonder whether there really is a problem with believing falsehoods about ends. Why, one might ask, is there a particular difficulty here? Aquinas thought that people are especially prone willfully to hold and promote the acceptance of false beliefs about matters of supreme importance, and to do so is to do something seriously wrong. Yet, Aquinas’s belief here was grounded in the doctrine of original sin. We want to hold and promote false beliefs because we are prideful creatures. I think Aquinas has something to teach us here, even if we dismiss his notions of original sin and our final ends. It is precisely because we care about our ends that we may have a tendency to belittle them. Because anything ‘deep’ enough, in the sense described above, to qualify as an end is going to be difficult to achieve, we readily despair of achieving them, and we are thereby tempted to infidelity, that is, to belittle ends via falsehoods.
Now, I want to emphasize that, although I am taking a voluntarist model of love, following Frankfurt, it does not follow that ‘anything goes’. We are required to have some end or ends, and our ends must be compatible with exercising the moral virtues. There are also beliefs that follow from any end that is compatible with exercising the moral virtues. Intellectual fidelity therefore requires us to have certain beliefs. For example, we must hold persons to have intrinsic value. Anscombe speaks of the ‘mystical value’ of persons, because she recognizes that the value of persons does not have a fully reasoned basis.9 On my view, we are morally required, through benevolence, to invest ourselves in at least some ends that involve recognizing the value of persons. While we need not have ends that involve promoting the good of humanity, we must avoid projects that essentially involve, for example, manipulation, deceit, subjugation or that require us to view others as mere instruments to our ends. Intellectual fidelity disposes us to recognize that truth steadfastly.
Here is an example that ties back to blasphemy: to say something that minimizes the significance of another’s death is blasphemous for anyone. We expect everyone to care about strangers even to the extent of not trivializing their deaths. The value of the person is parallel to what Aquinas called an ‘article of faith’; it is a belief that is a component of any morally permissible end. Note that it is reasonable to be horrified by someone trivializing another’s death even if the person whose death is trivialized is someone unknown to us. No harm need be done to us or to anyone else to see this act as wrong. It is simply characteristic of a vicious agent who has a light- minded view of life. For the same reason, Ward Churchill’s claim that the occupants of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were “little Eichmanns” was blasphemous. It is a falsehood that is evidently intended to efface the tragedy of that event by supporting the idea that justice was somehow meted out through the terrorist act.
Cases involving religious differences seem to raise much greater difficulties. It might seem on my view that an atheist would not be required not to blaspheme against God, however conceived. For an atheist, God is unimportant and he is not obviously required to care about God; therefore, it might seem, the virtue of appropriate love does not require him to care about God, and he is not unfaithful to his ends through taking up and promoting whatever beliefs about God he wishes. Yet I think that fidelity does require an atheist not to defame God. An atheist may justifiably think that the believer is making a massive intellectual blunder through saddling himself with an unsupportable belief and even committing himself to mistaken moral judgments via his commitment to God, and yet still have an obligation not to belittle God. That is because of the way that, for the believer, the belief in God is knit together with ends that are required by appropriate love. A believer might not want to put it this way, but it does not matter. From an external view superficial knowledge of what most believers care about via their belief in God suffices to make clear that belittling God would be tantamount to blasphemy, since it would entail belittling ends that are shared by anyone who has appropriate love and fidelity. As I see it, the belief in God may take up optional extras, such as belief in supernatural entities and the sanctity of all human life, which the atheist may rightly see as making some intellectual and moral mistakes. Yet it is a component of most believers’ ends that they take as important the promoting of family, community, and worthwhile endeavors that make a contribution to those around them, whether believers or not. In fact, it seems that in large part ‘God’ serves as a symbol of such commitments, often to the extent that believers take the absence of adherence to such symbol in the atheist as an absence of appropriate love and fidelity. But of course that is a mistake as well. Everything I have said applies also, mutatis mutandis, to the behavior of adherents of different religions toward each other.
Another potential objection could be that I have made too much of blasphemy, because everything that I have said about blasphemy could be covered under disrespect and ridicule, which are ordinary moral problems. Yet I hold there are important moral differences between disrespect and ridicule, on the one hand, and blasphemy on the other. Insults against my person might minimize my abilities or accomplishments or even attack my moral character. These attacks evince disrespect, and they are vicious. Yet, it is much graver, I think, to attack my ends, to dismiss the point of my life as worthless or trivial. Further, insofar as morality requires that there be a significant shared component to our ends, it is nearly impossible to be faithful to my own ends while blaspheming. I may not take Mohammed as a symbol of my own ultimate concern, to use Tillich’s language, but it should be evident to me that in trivializing Mohammed I am dismissing the efforts of a huge number of people to live serious lives committed to their families and communities, and this is wrong. Virtuous agents will value these efforts. I am suggesting that blaspheming creates a disposition to be insensitive to the truths that are essential to living with a commitment to a morally permissible end. Blasphemy is therefore distinct from and graver than disrespect.
I have argued that blasphemy is a distinct, grave wrong that is characteristic of a vicious agent. The blasphemer exhibits the trait of intellectual infidelity to morally permissible ends. Intellectual fidelity and appropriate love are crucial virtues that I have labeled orienting virtues, since they enable us to take up ends. Someone who blasphemes shows himself to be lacking in at least one of these orienting virtues.
Anscombe, G.E.M. “Chastity and Contraception.” The Human World 7 (1972): 9-30.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.
Benhabib, Seyla. Situating the Self. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Foot, Philippa. Natural Goodness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Frankfurt, Harry. Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.
Smart, J.J.C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973.
- All citations will be from 2a2ae of the Summa Theologiae unless otherwise noted. I have consulted the Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967).
- I am taking my inspiration from Harry Frankfurt’s essay “The Importance of What We Care About” in The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988).
- Harry Frankfurt, Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006) 33.
- J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism” in Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973) 112.
- Smart and Williams, “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” 115ff.
- Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003) 88.
- Foot, Natural Goodness, 88.
- Seyla Benhabib, “The Generalized and Concrete Other” in Situating the Self (New York: Routledge, 1992).
- G.E.M. Anscombe, “Contraception and Chastity,” The Human World 7 (1972): 25.