In the comments to a recent post Albert Borgmann highlights a distinction that seems quite important. As far as I can tell, it is the distinction between what’s right and what matters. I hope that Albert will correct me if I’ve misunderstood. I believe the distinction he is making is spelled out in greater detail here.
Although the distinction between what’s right and what matters seems very important to me, it is not at all obvious to me what the relation between these is. I think I can imagine, for example, someone’s knowing that it is right to do something without also feeling that it matters that he do it. And likewise, I think I can imagine a case in which it matters a lot to someone that he do something even though, in the end, it turns out not to be right to do it.
You might think that the way to bring these together is to say that the really admirable life is the one in which one manages to recognize as worthwhile and meaningful the things it is right to do. But whether this really is the best way to think about it will depend upon how one thinks about what it is right to do. Let me try to spell this out.
Let us suppose, for example, that we can take seriously and admire Jesus’s claim that he fulfills the law. That’s to say, let us suppose that we can take seriously and admire his claim that he can do things prohibited by the Hebrew law, and therefore in some important sense can do things that are not – at least as considered at the time – right. One natural way to think about this is to think that Jesus is such a special figure that what matters to him to do is just much more important and admirable than what it is (at the time considered) right to do. What matters, in other words, trumps what’s right.
But we might think about what is right in a very different way. We might think, for example, that the Hebrew law doesn’t actually codify what it’s right to do. The Hebrews thought it did, on this account, but they were wrong. On this interpretation what matters to Jesus and strikes him as worth doing is actually a better guide to what is right than the Hebrew laws that his actions contradict. On this account, what matters doesn’t trump what’s right; instead what matters to Jesus just is what’s right.
Someone like Kierkegaard seems to emphasize the first of these interpretations. On Kierkegaard’s view, in other words, what matters and is worth doing can and sometimes does trump what is right. When Kierkegaard says the Knight of Faith will sometimes be moved to a “teleological suspension of the ethical”, for example, I think he is claiming that sometimes faith requires one to do what is not right. In making this claim Kierkegaard is depending upon the idea that our conception of what it is “right” to do must satisfy several constraints. These are constraints on what is right that he interpreted Hegel as promoting. According to Kierkegaard’s reading of Hegel right actions, among other things, must be justifiable in some kind of discursive context. If your action was right, in other words, then you should be able to give the reasons that justify it. But Kierkegaard thinks that the Knight of Faith cannot always justify or explain his actions. Had Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac, for example – which he was ready to do – then there would have been no possible justification for the act. Indeed, he is the father of faith precisely because he was willing to perform this absurd and awful action despite recognizing that there was no possible justification for it. From the point of view of the right, there is no way to admire such a person. But from Kierkegaard’s point of view this was precisely what made Abraham the father of faith, and in virtue of this one of the most admirable figures there is.
The second interpretation of what is right, in which what matters can determine what is right, seems to be committed to a very different interpretation of the nature of right action. In particular, it is willing to give up Kierkegaard’s (and Hegel’s) assumption that for an action to be right it must be justifiable in some discursive context. After all, Jesus’ own actions seem, in the only discursive context in which he could have given reasons for them, to be totally unjustifiable. To say nevertheless that his actions fulfill the Law, or determine what it is right to do, therefore must be to commit oneself to a conception of what it is right to do that rests easy with the idea that right actions are sometimes not justifiable.
So it seems to me that the two going options are these: Either we stick to the idea that what is right is what is justifiable, in which case we must allow for the possibility that what matters trumps what’s right. Or else we say that what matters (to the relevant person – say, a Jesus-like figure) determines what’s right, in which case we have to give up the idea that what is right is necessarily justifiable in a discursive context.
The other option, of course, is to reject altogether the phenomena that the Jesus and Abraham figures in the Bible are meant to embody.
I’m not at all sure how it’s best to go on this issue. But I want to thank Albert (and my own student Enoch) for pressing it.