A Life of Law: Too Much Theory
Ethical theory that is devoid of practice becomes abstract and cold. Without practice, not only do our ideas lack substance, but so too will our individual relationships. For the theoretically focused individual, the other remains largely conceptual, an object of imagination rather than an independent reality.
Ethical theory alone cannot facilitate an encounter with personhood. In Changes That Heal by psychiatrist Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. Cloud shows what it looks like when we live by theory and fail to experience the other. Starting on page 58, he says:
“If I handed you a baseball bat and gave you permission to bash my face in, would you do it?” Usually, the members of the group say no.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because it is wrong to hit someone. It’s not right,” someone says.
“Because it would hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you,” another person says.
“Which person would you trust with the bat?” I ask the group.
The group quickly concludes that the person who doesn’t want to hurt me is much less likely to hit me.
Dr. Cloud goes on (pg. 184-185) to note that there are two different ethical orders at work here. One order is the order of right and wrong (of rules, law, fear, and knowledge). The other is the order of love, empathy, and wisdom. The first is self-oriented; the second is other-oriented. To put it even more radically, the order of love recognizes the other as another self.
Only through an active ethic of love is personhood (otherness) is recognized. Law alone is anti-personal. And because personhood is relationship oriented, this means that in recognizing the other, one actually enacts their own personhood; the self emerges in the context of love. Through love, which recognizes and stretches out toward the other, the structure of personhood is enacted.
This kind of ethic is one which can not simply be taught. It must be practiced, sought for, prayed for, and ultimately discovered as a gift from above. Theory alone is insufficient to produce such personal knowledge.
The absence of theory is equally problematic and equally devastating to personhood. A life of practice alone, devoid of universal knowledge (theory) produces isolation and again fails to properly discern otherness. Practice without theory leads to a kind of alienation based upon a misunderstanding of particularity.
When experimental knowledge (knowledge through practice) is improperly exalted, empathy and law loose their meaning. How can there be empathy when everyone is utterly unique and different. How can there be an ethic when each situation and individual is distinct and idiosyncratic. Practice without theory lacks the wisdom required to honor, respect, discern, and ultimately preserve personhood.
It is in this context that we might hear people say things like:
- You’re not a boy, so you can’t understand.
- You’re not a blue collar worker….
- You’re not poor, pregant, gay…
In such instances we are confronted by a paradox. On the one hand, the ability to empathize or understand is rejected; on the other, there is implicitly or explicitly a demand for sympathy. Otherness or difference is emphasized in such a manner as to reject the universal. Empathy is distorted by emptying it of content and thus denying its real possibility. This attitude helps preserve an individual’s autonomy and right to self-determination, but it also sets the self radically apart from the other, and establishes the individual as the sole arbiter of wisdom. Such practice makes a demand for a certain kind of community, while simultaneously undermining the common humanity which makes such a community truly possible.
This plays out in many of the liberal-conservative debates we experience today. For instance, the pro-choice movement often emphasizes individual self-determination and claims that only a woman, and then only the individual woman, can make such a choice. On the other side, the pro-life movement often emphasizes theory and principle.
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