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Spiritual Laws and the Spirit of Laws

Will, Value, and Power: A Q&A with William Schweiker

December 16, 2016 • By William Schweiker Will, Value, and Power: A Q&A with William Schweiker

One of the distinctive features of The Enhancing Life Project is its commitment to pedagogy—each of the involved scholars must teach two Enhancing Life Studies courses in relation to their research. William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics and a Principal Investigator for The Enhancing Life Project, discusses his own pedagogical philosophy and how he applied that philosophy in a recent seminar in the Divinity School. 

What was your Enhancing Life Studies course about?

It was an advanced seminar for MA and PhD students, titled “Will, Value, and Power.” It had a historical trajectory through what is called the vitalist tradition: that is, thinkers who are concerned with the vitality of living things. This tradition started in the 18th century, and while the explosion of modern biology was very involved in it, it got going philosophically and ethically with Alfred Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer saw all of reality as expression of will—but the problem is, wills compete with wills, and therefore, ethically speaking, we live in a universe of absolute conflict. Schopenhauer’s answer to this was to say, well, if you want to avoid the conflict of life with life, what you must do is quell your own will to live—retreat, as it were. This ignited a torrential rejection by Frederich Nietzsche, who wanted to say, no, the whole point of life is to affirm the will to power. Now, we then traced this up into very contemporary thinkers: how is what we think of as valuable linked or not linked to power? If you look around at our current society, and you ask what people value, what they find “worth it,” what they care about, it often runs right back to this question of power: we want bigger and better things. So in the course we tried to uncover whether or not it’s plausible to relate and yet distinguish the simple maximization of power from what has worth. Doing this would require a new appreciation of the importance of vulnerability. Jesus blesses the meek, not the powerful, so the religions have interesting ways of affirming the human power to act and to change the world while also subverting that power as what should be of ultimate value. 

Who were your students, and what did you have them do?

This was a doctoral seminar, so each week, someone comes with a short, prepared paper on the readings, and then we work through that, and then we just dig into the text. Oftentimes I will ask them to select a particular sentence, paragraph, even word that was uniquely important, interesting, or opaque for them in their reading of the text, and then we just burrow into the text and try to get the logic of the argument and its implications. I had students—not surprisingly—mainly from theology and ethics, but we also had, I think, ministry students, and a PhD student in Bible, which was very interesting.

What were your goals for the course?

Too often, people see ethics simply in terms of rights and wrongs, do’s and don’ts, virtues and sins, justice and injustice. It’s often a kind of finger-wagging, accusatory thing. I see ethics as trying to examine five different dimensions of human personal and social existence – bodily/material, social/communal, environmental/local, reflexive/cultural, moral/religious - and how these dimensions interact. That means that I’m trying to educate students to think, not in terms of, well, here we have a principle: do not lie, and then to look at cases where people might lie, but rather to give a much more complex picture of the actual moral situation we’re in. All of my courses and seminars try to move students into this more multi-dimensional framework. That was definitely part of the point of the course. 

Were there any surprises during the course, either for you or for your students?

The surprise, if there was one, was just how radical the issue is to question the value of power—most of the students had never really thought about it, so Schopenhauer was a real eye-opener. Schopenhauer was important also for 20th Century theologian and doctor Albert Schweitzer, who developed what he called “Ethics for the Reverence of Life.” If you know anything about Schweitzer, he tried not to disturb plants, worms, et cetera—which was all tied to this notion that you must decouple your power to act from what has value and worth—even a little earthworm can have worth. I think the implications of that line of thinking hit the students, and they grasped what we’re really doing when we’re looking at fundamental theological and ethical questions. This line of thought relates to God as well—most people see God as “the guy with the biggest stick”—power—so it also has implications for how we conceive of the deity. The rainbow after the flood is interesting—the flood is a great expression of absolute divine unthinking power, and the rainbow is supposedly the warrior’s bow. So the divine is giving up, and will no longer use, the power of brute destruction. That’s one of the points where I said: the religions subvert some of our normal logic. I can’t imagine our current political scene saying that it would be good to give up power. 

How has this course informed the possible direction for future courses?

I would like to do a course that would move into questions of technological enhancement more, which is a logical extension of my work. I’d like to look at technological enhancement in terms of the current debate about humanism and trans-humanism and post-humanism, because the trans-humanists and post-humanists want an unrelenting, unquestioned use of technology, to supposedly enhance life in whatever way possible. I think, for myself, both theologically and ethically, that’s an implausible, and in fact, dangerous perspective. So it’d be fun to get into some of the debates about specific technologies: genetic enhancement, implants in the brain, all these kinds of things—at what point do we become no longer human, in the very attempt to enhance human beings? That would be the kind of underlying question.

As one of the project’s Principal Investigators, can you speak to the purpose of The Enhancing Life Project’s insistence that each participant teaches courses in conjunction with their research?

For two reasons. One, it’s been said that teachers change the world one student at a time—so if we have 70 courses being taught throughout the grant by our 35 scholars, that’s hitting 1000+ students, who then hopefully will see things differently. But, more importantly, we’re committed to this because The Enhancing Life Project is actually trying to embody and enact a different way to understand the creation of knowledge and the structure of the university. It’s saying: take a topic that all divisions of the university share, and show that representatives of all those divisions have to be included in the discussion of what enhancing life means, or something is missed. In other words, this also becomes a defense for the humanities, because we can’t understand what enhancing life means if we only relegate it to biotechnology or medicine. We want to, if possible, follow this up with an ongoing enterprise called Enhancing Life Studies, which would appear in various universities, depending on faculty interest and so on. The second reason we’re so committed to this is what I noted before in terms of my own work and thinking—we’re trying to move students to see issues multi-dimensionally, and to see how the dimensions interact. If we think about genetic enhancement, we need to have all these different perspectives, and this will mean no longer settling for simple mono-perspectival accounts of something—which we’re in danger of being swamped by, actually. So, our pedagogical slant has content—we want to get people thinking about this—and it’s also deeply related to what we think needs to be the method of scholarly inquiry and the production of knowledge. I must say, the summer seminars have been fabulously successful on this score—they’ve been just electric. Scholars have talked about how much they’ve had to move out of their comfort zone. We want everyone to be an expert in their field, but we want them also to start thinking multi-dimensionally, and that’s what we want to happen in the courses as well.


For more of William Schweiker's work, see: 

Spiritual Laws and the Spirit of Laws 

Religion in the Public Sphere: A Q&A With William Schweiker

Two Perspectives on Brexit

The Origin of Marvels