The Narrative Reality of our Character

Ok, back with some thesis thoughts, following my previous discussion about Stanley Hauerwas’s character ethics.

Making the assertion that we need to recognize the relationship between our identity and actions expands our view of ethics to include the whole individual. The problem, however, is that character ethics can still be interpreted individualistically, as individuals simply strive to find their ‘true self,’ an illusive reality disconnected from everyday life. As I summarized earlier, this is problematic for Hauerwas.

One solution that Hauerwas proposes is to identify how our character as individuals is contingent upon the narrative reality of our lives, where we all have a story.

In terms of narrative, Hauerwas borrows much of his construct from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who stresses the narrative identity of individuals. Essentially, every person embodies a story – an “enacted narrative.” In the words of MacIntyre, narrative refers to the “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end.” Hauerwas takes this idea to correct the abstract nature of character by itself, as now individual identity is rooted in the unique stories that we all find ourselves. In this sense, there is no ‘true self’ apart from the contingency of our historic being.

Freedom, then, is not freedom from something, like the many outside influences that form who we are. Rather, in recognizing the narrative reality of our lives, our freedom is to be something – to be people who accept our history, and in the case of Christianity, accept our formation through the Christian narrative. As Hauerwas relates,

Our ‘freedom,’ therefore, is dependent on our being initiated into a truthful narrative, as in fact it is the resource from which we derive the power to ‘have character’ at all. Put simply, our ability to ‘have character’ does not require the positing of a transcendental freedom, rather it demands a recognition of the narrative nature of our existence.

When it comes to ethics, then, our actions can only be evaluated in relation to the entire narrative story of our character formation. Referred to as the “intelligibility of action,” behavior is understood in relation to complex narrative context from which each action arises. As a result, any attempt to assign moral value to our behavior must take into account the related factors of our particular narratives. Morality, in this manner, is never a matter of ahistorical analysis.

I find narrative ethics convincing in this regard. It acknowledges the complexities of life and morality. It chooses patient discernment of each particular context as opposed to making generic value statements about specific behavior, which often ignores the person related to that behavior. In our world where people are broken and hurting, I guess this just seems a little more realistic to me…

At the same time, narrative alone does not solve the individualistic approach to character ethics. Next post, I will discuss the focal point of Hauerwas’s Christian ethics – the necessity for community.

Cultural Commentary via Calvin and Hobbes…

In my busyness I thought I would share some wisdom from Calvin and Hobbes:

40 years ago...

40 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. This song and video is a stirring tribute. (h/t Mike)

Beginning with character – who we are and what we do

And so I continue to overview some of the ideas from Hauerwas…

In beginning to address the challenges of individualism (see last post), Hauerwas proposes that Christian ethics should be understood in relation to individual’s character. Hence the term: character ethics. Essentially, character is simply referring to individual identity. In other words, put quite bluntly, “We are our character!”

The problem, too often, is that personal identity is understood as some sort of abstract notion in reference to our ‘true self,’ where the true essence of our character is somehow disconnected from the moral choices we make. At times, this view of character has been referred to as the “onion peel view of the self,” assuming that we have many peripheral layers of ‘stuff’ we must transcend in order to finally encounter our true self. The morality of our actions, as a result, is separated from who we really are. Certain behaviors, therefore, are judged through some sort of value grid of right and wrong, depending on the context; but essentially the person is separate from the action. For example, the assertion that abortion is wrong, from this viewpoint, is forced to argue specifically based on the objective facts of whether or not the termination of a fetus is morally right or wrong. The action itself, not the person performing the action, is what determines the moral judgment.

The problem with this is that fails to acknowledge the complex relation between a person’s character – their identity – and the actions they perform. What Hauerwas suggests, then, is that ethics must focus on the relationship between our character and actions in order to navigate the complexities of the various ethical situations our lives encounter. A concept he refers to is the “moral agency” of individuals, which basically asserts that all people produce an effect in the world through their actions. The character of every person, basically, is reflected in their actions. Actions, then, are not morally objective based on their results; but rather reflect the identity of individuals – the agent. So when Hauerwas suggests that “our character is the qualification of our agency,” he is saying that actions can be evaluated only in relation to the individuals performing them. The goal of character ethics, then, is to examine the relationship between peoples’ identity and their actions as a way of understanding the multifaceted levels moral judgment always has to navigate. Back to the example of abortion, then, the implication is that to assess the morality of the action is far more than just the end result, but necessarily includes understanding the context and motives of the people involved.

What is helpful with this approach, is that in a culture of impersonal interaction where moral evaluation usually only takes place when others impinge on our personal rights and freedoms, an awareness of the impact our identity has on the morality of our actions (& others’) can be helpful. Specifically, it provides insight into the challenges that face us regarding the difficult task of seeking moral unity in whatever situation we are faced with (ie. church, family, government). The implication, it seems to me, is that we actually have to get to know people for ethical living to make sense… Yikes!

This part of the discussion only reflects on a small portion of Hauerwas’s earlier work, so as I continue in future posts, you will see how the categories of narrative and community challenge character ethics in several important ways.

(For further reading, see especially, Character and the Christian Life)