Stanley Hauerwas rejected the Kantian foundation of ethical systems, and the concomitant scientific understanding of “rationality,” that construes the ratio of moral agency as one of choosing a discrete course of action over another in his 1977 essay, “From System to Story”:
It is our contention that the tendency of modern ethical theory to find a functional equivalent to Skinner’s “scientific analysis” has distorted the nature of practical reason. Ethical objectivity cannot be secured by retreating from narrative, but only by being anchored in those narratives that best direct us toward the good.
After all, he reasons, what lies at the base of any act of willing is not sheer choice, but a set of imaginative vistas that predetermine, or at least undergird, what the moral agent even thinks is possible, much less necessary, within a reasonable arc or plot. And, Hauerwas stipulates, this constant function of the imagination usually goes unnoticed by the moral agent anyway. Nevertheless, those imaginative moves form us prior to any decision making. And he calls this imaginative capacity of the person “character . . . as displayed by narrative.”
One way of trying to restate Hauerwas’s turn to narrative character is to say that decision making is preceded by and founded upon the story a person tells about themselves, the person’s narratival attempt to make sense of themselves. Hauerwas was not the first nor is he the last to turn to narrative, of course. Before it animated ethics, we find it in hermeneutics and metaphysics, especially French and German philosophy. And perhaps even before philosophy, at least in modernity, we find it in psychoanalysis, exemplified in Foucauldian accounts of narrative therapy. Following Freud, psychoanalytic thought speculated that healing the integrity of the person after trauma or rupture required not medical or technological intervention, but rather a talking cure, a retelling of the self to the self that uncovers the trauma and leads to understanding and restoration.
The psychoanalytic turn to narrative—and subsequent turns—raises an important question, as Hauerwas recognizes: if the storied imagination precedes moral decision making, what guarantee do we have that we are judging fairly between narratives? To put it more poignantly: How do we know that the story the self tells is the story that will heal, rather than cause further trauma or dysfunction? After all, he claims, while such a narrative account of ethics might not secure a necessary foundation, nevertheless, “these narratives are not arbitrarily acquired.” In so asking, he exposes the inability of the “standard account” to answer any such question.
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