Finitude, transcendence, and ethics: Sartrean -Niebuhrian resources for understanding *difference and dominance

2003 2003

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Abstract (summary)

This dissertation explores, primarily, the implications of a properly constructed anthropology for ethics, and secondarily, the implications of ethics for properly constructing anthropology, by placing the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jean-Paul Sartre in critical dialogue. Anthropological questions—e.g., what humans, by nature, are capable of doing—often inform ethical debates. When ethicists fail to explicitly acknowledge and critically defend their anthropological assumptions, they tend to overemphasize either finitude—human determination by natural processes—or transcendence—the human freedom to interpret, judge and alter those processes—and thus to produce correspondingly unsatisfactory ethics. In theory, Niebuhr balances finitude and transcendence; as he develops his anthropology, however, especially in his doctrine of sin, he fails to maintain this tension, producing various weaknesses in his ethics. Feminists criticize him for overemphasizing finitude, and the dangers of pridefully attempting to deny it—a myopia that reflects men's, not women's, experience. Similarly, while Niebuhr's social ethic appropriately balances a love and a justice ethic, his anthropology, due to the same mid-level iv myopic emphasis on finitude, is unable to fully support that social ethic.

This dissertation specifies Niebuhr's myopia, and suggests how it can be overcome, producing benefits at several levels. Niebuhr's anthropological understanding of humans as anxious finite-freedom yields a doctrine of sin based on the denial of one half of that being—a denial of finitude, in pride, or a denial of freedom, in sensuality. Moreover, sin manifests itself both religiously, in which we sin against God through idolatry, and morally, in which we sin against humans through injustice. The dissertation argues that Niebuhr's failure to develop the moral sin of freedom-denial is the source of the aforementioned difficulties in his ethics, and that Sartre, who shares Niebuhr's anthropology but develops freedom-denial as irresponsibility for who one is and what one does, can correct Niebuhr. In addition to rendering Niebuhr's anthropology internally symmetrical, the corrected anthropology furthers wider debates in ethics producing, for example, its own analysis of gender and oppression. These debates in practical ethics, in turn, test anthropological assumptions, thus contributing to revised views of human freedom and its limits.

Indexing (details)

Womens studies
0318: Religion
0422: Philosophy
0453: Womens studies
0322: Religion
0322: Philosophy
Identifier / keyword
Philosophy, religion and theology; Social sciences; Difference; Dominance; Ethics; Finitude; Jean-Paul Sartre; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Reinhold Niebuhr; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Transcendence
Finitude, transcendence, and ethics: Sartrean -Niebuhrian resources for understanding *difference and dominance
Meyer, Michelle Nicole
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 64/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780493978017, 0493978011
Childress, James F.
University of Virginia
University location
United States -- Virginia
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
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