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The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human

Michael Banner
Published by Oxford University Press in 2014

Bryan C. Hollon is Professor of Theology at Malone University.

In September of 1999, an organ harvesting scandal erupted in the United Kingdom when, during an offhanded remark at a public inquiry, professor Robert Anderson praised the quality and quantity of heart specimens held at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. Although the matter seemed uncontroversial to Anderson, the revelation caused a stir with the general public and especially among parents of the thousands of babies whose organs had been harvested without consent or knowledge. Moreover, in addition to the 3,500 children whose organs were secretly removed prior to burial, it was discovered that 400 fetuses were being stored in the University of Liverpool laboratory without parental consent and that thymus glands had been surreptitiously removed from living children and sold to a pharmaceutical company.

In the midst of the scandal, administrators at Alder Hey hospital agreed to return children’s organs to parents, but they conspired to retain tissue samples of the returned organs, again without consent. It was this dimension of the scandal that piqued the interest of Cambridge scholar, Michael Banner, the author of the text currently under consideration. In his own words, “the parent’s requests for the return of their children’s body parts were deeply opaque to the official understanding of the hospital” (199). In the minds of hospital administrators and physicians, parental concern over this matter entailed little more than “confusion, error, sentimentality, or emotionalism” – a kind of pathology (199). For Banner, the inability of hospital officials to empathize with parental outrage was mirrored by incapacity in the field of bioethics to bring moral clarity to the scandal. Bioethicists, it seemed, could do little better than engage the dilemma as a contest between the rights of two opposing parties: the medical field and those who might benefit from its research on the one hand, and parents whose sentimentality over the harvesting of their children’s organs led to a lapse in reason and an inability to submit to the greater good, on the other. “Very often,” Banner tells us, the work of bioethicists justified the medical profession’s disdain for the “sentimentality” of parents.

More specifically, Banner was troubled by the tendency among philosophical ethicists (and moral theologians working in conversation with philosophical ethicists) to engage in a kind of “ethics of hard cases” (9). Ethics practiced in this way has little if anything to say about the everyday experience of humans and steps in, only on occasion, to pronounce judgment when some exceptional difficulty arises. Is abortion right or wrong? Should it be legally permitted and under what circumstances? Should euthanasia be legally practiced? Should doctors be compelled to offer assistive suicide procedures when patients request them? What about harvesting fetal tissue for research? According to Banner, “the hard cases tradition…is always in danger of effectively satisfying itself with telling us that the good is good and the bad is bad” (12). Although hard questions cannot be avoided, they can hardly be thought to entail the entire scope of moral theology. Banner argues that “the dominant conception which sees the asking and answering of difficult questions as at the very core of moral theology diminishes the subject, and specifically stands in the way of taking up the task of shaping an everyday ethics” (9).

In addition, the “difficult questions tradition” is “inherently Pelagian” in that it acts

as if the good is natural in such a way that it needs no well-developed or considered narrative context to explain its character and existence – nor as if the bad, although perhaps in some way more mysterious than the good, does not itself require or deserve such a contextual understanding. (12)

What Banner would like to see instead of the dominant, hard cases approach is a moral theology interested in and able to explicate the “deep character and logic of different forms of life” (12). Moral theology must be concerned with a sustained articulation of the notion of a “good life” as conceived from within and from without the Christian faith in order to shed light on the differences between them. Ethical decisions are not made in a vacuum, so the purpose of moral theology is “not only to judge, but to understand and characterize the lives out of which our actions, good or bad, plausibly, persuasively, or even compellingly arise” (12). Although this far more nuanced and contextualized approach to moral theology offers a greater challenge than the “hard questions tradition,” it also has greater potential to serve the Christian faith by taking on a winsome and evangelical character, proposing the Christian way of life as compelling, therapeutic, and even redemptive. Moral theology, like all theology, is simply off-track if it fails to propose the Christian way of life as a more beautiful and compelling alternative to people bound by the contemporary culture of self-interest, self-destruction, and death.

In order to get moral theology back on track, Banner contends that theologians need a new discipline to serve as partner in dialogue. As with the medical professionals involved, philosophical ethicists had demonstrated an astonishing “social incomprehension” during the Alder Hey scandal and had proven themselves essentially worthless in Banner’s mind. However, he discovered a more illuminating approach to the controversy in the literature of social anthropology, and initially in a book by Lesley Sharp titled Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies and the Transformed Self (University of California Press, 2006). Unlike philosophical ethics, the work of social anthropologists is more mindful of an entire cultural ethos, and their work tends to illumine the “moral code that guides human actions, thoughts, and language within a particular social group” (201). Banner contends that social anthropology is more likely than any other discipline to uncover the inner logic and significance of morality because it considers morality from within the context of comprehensive social narratives—various “forms of life,” which can be compared and contrasted with other social narratives or “forms of life.” Banner’s contention, incidentally, reminds me of my late mentor, James Wm. McClendon Jr. who so aptly described the work of the ethicist or moral theologian as an engagement in a “tournament of narratives.”

The work under consideration is, therefore, an attempt to articulate the narrative milieu of everyday ethics and reinvigorate moral theology through a dialogue with social anthropology so that it might reclaim its place in this tournament of narratives. The book’s chapters were originally delivered as the 2013 Bampton Lectures in the University of Oxford, which, according to the will of John Bampton who died in 1751, should deal with the “Articles of the Christian Faith, as comprehended in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds” (2). Brilliantly, Banner has honored the requests of John Bampton by framing his everyday ethics around the “paradigmatically human” moments of Christ’s life as articulated in the Creeds. Employing the methods of social anthropology, the book’s eight chapters seek to answer this question: “how does the Christian imagination of conception, birth, suffering, death, and burial bear on the human life course, and envisage and sustain a Christian form of human being” (5)? The degree to which a traditional “ethics of hard cases” tends to focus on controversies surrounding just these points in the course of life is fascinating and suggests that Banner’s approach is especially pertinent.

After chapter one’s blistering critique of moral philosophy and theology as practiced in the hard cases tradition, Banner seeks to illumine controversies surrounding conception and birth in chapters 2 and 3. He focuses on suffering in chapter 4, death and dying in chapter 5, burial and mourning in chapter 6, and remembering in chapter 7. Chapter 8 offers some concluding thoughts on “seeing Christ in the world.”

This book is dense and somewhat difficult reading since it was delivered as a series of academic lectures and has not been substantially altered for book publication. The various arguments offered in support of a distinctively Christian way of regarding conception, birth, suffering, death, burial, and remembering are complex and cannot be adequately explained in a few paragraphs. Accordingly, rather than a comprehensive review, I will address just one representative example of Banner’s overall argument with some specificity in order to show how his engagement with social anthropology places ethical “hard cases” in an illuminating context and creates a canvas on which the beauty and compelling nature of the gospel can be more clearly imagined.

Taking conception as our representative illustration, we may observe that ethicists in the hard cases tradition typically proceed as though it were their job to help potential parents sift through the various options regarding Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Should couples use in vitro fertilization or should they not? Philosophical ethicists and moral theologians working according to contemporary conventions attempt to pass judgment in order to declare the practice “good” or “bad.” Often missing from current ethical debates is a thoughtful discussion about motivations, an attempt to understand why parents turn to the practice in the first place.

Citing several studies from the field of social anthropology, Banner introduces us to a rich and complex social matrix within which “the once-born and wanted child of the modern West is especially significant as an emotional and sentimental asset, completing and creating the family, as the site of truly affective relationality” (70). For complex reasons, couples imagine a “child of their own” that will complete and fulfill them and solidify their marital union. It is this desire for biological kinship that undergirds the rising demand for various forms of reproductive technologies. Banner quotes social anthropologist Gay Becker, who writes that “a wealth of cultural phenomena coalesce to create and foster a desire for the new reproductive technologies, but it is the drive for biological parenthood that could be said to be the crucial mainstay of their use and uptake” (50).

Banner believes that moral theologians must go much further than simply pronouncing the use of reproductive technologies licit or illicit, so he excoriates the Roman Catholic document, Donum Vitae, which offers a particularly egregious example of a failure among Christian moral theologians to overcome an ethics of hard cases in relation to reproductive technologies. This document leaves couples in a “double-bind – they are forbidden to make use of technologies that might assist them in realizing their desire for parenthood, fully biological or otherwise, while that desire is left solemnly in place on its contemporary pedestal” (57).

The question, which should have guided the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as it produced Donum Vitae, is this: should a longing for biological offspring consume the imaginations and forms of life embraced by Christian couples? Or should they rather imagine other futures and cultivate other desires? Is there an alternative conception of kinship and form of life illumined by the gospel narrative? Might this alternative form of life offer the church a compelling testimony in the midst of a confused and desperate world? As you might expect, Banner believes that the Christian form of life does offer a compelling alternative grounded in the conception of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, the Christian gospel actually subverts traditional notions of kinship and especially the idea that couples should chase after a “blood tie” based on the belief that a “child of one’s own” is an “inevitable or desirable” means to marital fulfillment. Banner makes the bold and compelling claim that, from a Christian perspective, “biology does not give one a child of one’s own” anyway (58). Instead, Christianity reconfigures traditional notions of kinship entirely. Christianity “commends a kinship framed…in the light of the conception of Christ, to whom Joseph was truly a father. Christian rites intend to unkin us, only to rekin us with new bonds that dispel childlessness as much as they eliminate orphanhood” (59). Banner offers a sustained commentary on the Christian tradition of God-parenthood, which was once a powerful and subversive practice suggesting that, in baptism, persons enter into a new form of kinship – one much deeper than a “blood tie.” In baptism we obtain new brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children. Likewise, the Christian celebration of Eucharist subverts biological kinship by “making us kin to Christ, and thus to one another by sharing in his blood” (59).

Banner thus demonstrates, through an engagement with social anthropology, that preferences for biological kinship are at the heart of increasing demand for reproductive technologies. He then demonstrates, with reference to the Christian gospel and its traditional reception, that Christianity subverts preferences for biological kinship and thus offers hope to couples suffering from the culturally produced “desperation” of childlessness. Such desperation is not necessary. The church, Banner reminds us, has good news for couples facing infertility, since we can recommend different configurations of kinship such as adoption, God-parenthood, and even radical communities like L’Arche as manifestations of the “countercultural form of non-biogenetic” kinship available to all in Jesus Christ. Regarding the meaning of the rite of baptism, Banner remarks that children “are only properly received when they are received as gifts from the hands of God – which is why adoption might have some claim to model an archetype of parenthood for those who are themselves children by adoption” (80-81).

In the center of the book, beginning on page 123, there are four pages containing six full-color prints of Christian paintings depicting scenes from each of the paradigmatically human moments of Christ’s life as narrated in the creed: conception, birth, suffering, death, and burial. Banner offers commentary on each of these paintings as the book unfolds in order to illustrate important Christian re-imaginings of human personhood from the tradition. What Banner recommends in this book, Christians have always done, and artwork offers a powerful defense of his thesis. For example, in a chapter addressing human suffering and humanitarianism, Banner makes reference to a painting of the crucifixion by Grünewald. In that painting, “Christ is depicted with the characteristic marks of the disease which afflicted the patients of the hospital for which the altarpiece was painted – so we are to find these sufferers in Christ” (102). The painting suggests that Christ’s suffering provides a framework to illumine the suffering we see in the world around us and shape our responses to that suffering. His comments on paintings by Campin, Rembrandt, El Greco, and a panel from a Late Roman ivory casket offer equally compelling insight into Christian imaginings of human life. In the final pages of chapter 8, Banner’s concluding analysis of a painting by Sir Stanley Spencer titled Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, is brilliant, memorable, and supports the book’s argument perfectly. This is a painting of a dressing station witnessed by the artist during the bloodbath of World War I. The dressing station is portrayed in such a way that it recalls the nativity scene from the gospels. The doctors and nurses stand over a patient in an illumined room, as other patients pulled on stretchers by horses look in on the work being performed. At first glance, it recalls the animals and visitors looking in on the scene of Christ’s birth as we see in nativity paintings. The entire image seems to signify that the incarnation of Christ gives meaning to the work performed by the medics in that dressing station. Because Christ came into the world to heal, they labor in the most impossible of circumstances to do the same. Did they labor in vain? Was it sentimentality that inspired their pursuit of a hopeless cause? Though an ethicist focused on hard cases might answer yes, an ethics of everyday life, illumined by the gospel of Christ, will answer quite differently. Banner recommends that moral theology return to the “Christian imagination of the human in ritual, art, literature, prayer, hymns, sermons, and so on” in order to discover a “script” that can make sense of everyday ethics (204). He not only makes this recommendation; he also offers a wonderful model to be followed. This book is must-read for anyone working in ethics and moral theology, and it is highly recommended for all who care about the Church’s witness to Christ in these confused times.

Cite this article
Bryan C. Hollon, “The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human— An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 159-164

Bryan C. Hollon

Malone University
Bryan C. Hollon is Professor of Theology at Malone University.