Friday, June 15, 2007

Anscombe on the Purpose and Value of Life

"G. E. M. Anscombe" is a near-legendary name in analytic philosophy. But unlike most analytics, she is Christian; and unlike most Christian analytics, she is Catholic. In an article on birth control titled Contraception and Chastity, she says this about the purpose of life:
What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It's this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God of such a kind as even to be sharing in his nature, which Christianity holds out to people; and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, must be treated as precious. Its potentialities in all things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it's for. We can't ever know that the time of possibility of gaining eternal life is over, however old, wretched, "useless" someone has become.
In the middle we find this claim: every life (and Anscombe of course means "every human life") is precious because of its ability to know God. Thus for Anscombe our purpose and our value are intimately linked. Our purpose is to know God, and our value lies in our ability to achieve this purpose.

Note as well what Anscombe says about the ability to know God: it is present at every moment of life. Thus at every moment life is precious; it is precious at its start, at its end and at every point in between.

This consequence is of course to be embraced. Life is in fact precious at every moment. But that the consequence is true does not imply that the view is true; false views do sometimes have true consequences.

(If you doubt this, consider this little argument:
God, though not eternal, is the creator of all things distinct from himself.
Thus God is the creator of humanity.
The conclusion is, by my lights, true; but, say I, God is eternal and thus the premise from which the conclusion is derived is false. False claims do sometimes have true consequences.)

I do worry that Anscombe's view - that the value of life lies in a certain ability of ours, an ability that is not realized at present - is false. On Anscombe's views, our life at present seems to have its value in virtue of a certain future possibility - the possibility that we will come to know God. The value that life has at present seems parasitic upon that future possibility. Does it then not follow that, if we consider only our present state and ignore that future possibility, we find little or nothing of value? I find that I can't rest content with that conclusion. As I've heard said (though I can't now remember the source), we love children not because of what they will become but because of what they are. Are they - indeed are not we - precious as we now are? Surely we are not like a plain vase whose only value lies in its ability to be filled with a substance of value? Plain we may be in comparison to God, but are we not precious as we are? God loved the world, Scripture tells us; it does not tell us that God loved what the world might become.

Some will be tempted to say that I ignore here the corrosive effects of sin. Sin, they will say, has made us plain, perhaps even ugly, and whatever value we had before the Fall has, now that live under the rule of sin, been erased. If one accepts this, it seems quite natural to say that, though we have little or no value at present, yet the possibility remains that we will come to know God and that our value at present lies solely in that possibility.

Note a consequence of this view of our present value. If at present we have little or no value, anything may be done to us so long as the possibility of the beatific vision is not thereby attenuated. I take it that this is absurd. Not anything may be done to us. We may not be mercilessly tortured, for instance. (If you say that we may, my only reply is that I part company with you. Embrace your moral absurdity if you like, but do not expect me to do likewise.)

Last point. I do not doubt that the purpose of our lives lies in the beatific vision. But I do doubt that our value at present lies, wholly or mainly, in the ability to achieve it (or have it imparted). This of course leaves us with the question of the ground of our value at present. At present I do not know what to say to this.

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