The longstanding debate surrounding assisted suicide tends to evoke passionate, deeply personal responses. For Patrick H. Byrne, it prompted a decade-long exploration and meditation about the ethical teachings of renowned theologican Bernard Lonergan. Byrne shares this remarkable spiritual journey during an exchange about his new book, The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics.
How did you become involved in your area of research?
I have been interested in Bernard Lonergan’s work for many years. Even though his writings on ethics have been very limited, I found that what he did say gave me important guidance as I faced my own ethical decisions. Yet I had many questions about his ideas, and especially how to understand the proper place of feelings in ethical reflection and action. After many long efforts to make sense of these things, I finally came to some ideas that I thought were worth sharing.
What inspired you to write this book, The Ethics of Discernment?
The immediate occasion was debates about physician assisted suicide. Some of those who favor this policy have argued that every human being has the right to write the story of her or his life, and the most important chapter of our story is the last one, how we die. Therefore we should have the right to decide how we die. I found this argument quite unsatisfactory and disturbing. Yet Lonergan said repeatedly that it is that human choices and actions are “the work of the free and responsible subject producing the first and only edition” of his or her life. And yet he would have come to the complete opposite conclusion about physician assisted suicide.
I originally set out to understand how his approach to ethics, seemingly sharing a basic vision about human responsibility for the course of one’s life, could lead to so different a conclusion. While I do not explicitly address physician assisted suicide in this book, I believe I have articulated an approach to ethics that provides the basis for addressing this important issue.
How long did it take you to write your latest book?
About 10 years; in part because of administrative responsibilities during several years between inception and completion of the book.
What do you find most interesting about your research into Bernard Lonergan?
What was most interesting was what I learned about feelings, what kinds of consciousness of values and ethical options they are, how they interact with one another, what kinds of conflicts and resolutions and transformations come about through feelings, and how feelings combine with reasoning in ethical deliberation.
What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
What an important thinker Bernard Lonergan is.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of this project?
The parallels between Lonergan’s account of the scale of higher values and his account of the organization of social and cultural life.
Did you have to travel much during the research/writing of this book, The Ethics of Discernment?
I presented early drafts of some chapters of my book at various conferences and received helpful responses.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Trying to keep it shorter. I was not successful.
What did you learn from writing your book?
I learned a great deal about the Ignatian tradition of discernment, and just as importantly, I learned a great deal about myself.
What are your current/future projects?
I am currently working on the most recent developments in physics concerning the origin and evolution of the universe, and their implications for religious faith.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
What is your favourite book?
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It is one of the most engaging books I ever read. It is a novel cast as the story a dying preacher writes out of deep love for his very young son, since he will not be around to care for and guide him as he grows up. He situates his own life story and faith journey in the broader context of his extended family, and his extended family in the context of American history, especially the American struggles with slavery and race. It also narrates the special care he puts into composing his sermons, and the influences of a wide range of theological thinkers on his efforts to communicate with his parishioners.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
I have wanted to be a teacher from the time I was in elementary (grammar) school. So if I had not become a university teacher, I would hope that I would have been a teacher in some fashion. But another attractive alternative for me has been a career as a social worker.
Patrick H. Byrne is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and director of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College.