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Nathan BeacomNovember 11, 2022
David McPherson argues for an economy that respects the limits placed on us by the health of our environment and the integrity of our ecosystem, as well as by the health of our communities. (iStock).

The Brothers Grimm tell the tale of a fisherman and his wife who encounter a magical, wish-granting fish. The couple wish at first for a nicer home but soon become dissatisfied with the home they are given and wish, instead, for a castle. As the charm of each new wish wears off, the couple’s demands grow more and more extreme until, finally, one of them wishes to become like God. With this, the fish loses patience, and the couple are sent back to their little hut.

The Virtues of Limitsby David McPherson

Oxford University Press
208p $70

David McPherson uses this tale in his book, The Virtues of Limits, to express the open-endedness of human desire, which culminates in an effort to “play God.” For McPherson, we human beings have a choice between two fundamental attitudes toward life and the world. Are we “appreciative and accepting” or “choosing and controlling”? While both are necessary features of any human life, McPherson argues, our lives as individuals and communities change radically based on which attitude we deem primary.

This volume is slim but wide-ranging. At fewer than 160 pages, it touches on existential, political, moral and economic questions. McPherson argues that this “accepting and appreciating” stance has implications for all realms of moral thinking. This proves to be a powerful frame through which to view a host of problems.

The book begins with the distinction between “appreciating” and “controlling.” The first attitude starts with the world and the second starts with my will. The paradigmatic example of this will-based approach for McPherson is Friedrich Nietzsche, who sees the aim of human life as imposing one’s will and growing in autonomy. But the Nietszchean view, McPherson argues, is really a non-starter. If there is nothing objectively worthy of willing, why will anything at all? All that is left is to simply go with whatever I happen to desire, but to take these desires as our authentic selves is to risk becoming slaves to passions, lusts, greed, hunger for power and so on.

The task of morality is to place limits on our desires and our wills such that they accord with the given structures of the world and human nature.

The task of morality, then, is to place limits on our desires and our wills such that they accord with the given structures of the world and human nature. The master virtue in this regard, it seems, is humility, which recognizes that I did not make myself nor this world that I inhabit. I do not stand in relation to myself or to the world as lord and master, but as one receiving a gift. This leads to the second virtue: gratitude. These two virtues allow us to perceive properly the value of things; just as important, they allow us to feel at home in the world.

This posture of acceptance does not mean we should not right wrongs or cure ills, but that we should not place our desires above the world as given to us. McPherson illustrates this across a wide variety of domains. In bioethics, for instance, no one would object to a new treatment for cancer; still we should be concerned about the idea of genetically engineering our children. To dismiss any concern would lack a proper stance of humility before the dignity of human life and would invite the treatment of the human person as a consumer good.

In his section “Moral Limits,” McPherson applies his lens of limits to a selection of contemporary ethical debates. Among these is the debate over universalism and particularism, which has relevance for our concerns about globalism and nationalism. Universalism usually means that all people are to be given equal and impartial moral consideration, while particularism argues that our relationships to particular persons affect the nature of our moral obligations. A universalist might say that there is no reason why the suffering of someone in my town should receive more consideration than that of someone on the other side of the world. After all, both are human. A particularist, on the other hand, would say that naturally I have a greater moral obligation to my actual neighbor than to a random person in another country.

On the extremes, universalism neglects my concrete responsibilities to those near me for abstract humanitarianism, while particularism leads to chauvinism or nationalism. McPherson charts a middle path. He argues that the philosophy of limits recognizes that our sphere of most significant moral responsibility is limited to those who are actually “there” in our lives while still holding that in themselves, all people have equal dignity. This is part of what he terms “humane localism.”

This theme of humane localism runs through the section on “Political Limits,” where McPherson combines this idea of localism with the idea of accepting imperfection. He is especially intent on arguing against utopianism, which in his view risks injuring important human goods in its quest for perfection. An effort to radically equalize economic status, for instance, would potentially impinge on significant and non-negative forms of human freedom. Rather than obliging us to level differences, justice requires that we pursue the humbler goal of ensuring that everyone is sufficiently provided for.

Lest one think that the acceptance of imperfection and inequality makes McPherson merely a proponent of capitalism, the section “Economic Limits” reveals he is just as concerned about the lack of limiting virtues in the market economy as he is about addressing this deficiency in government. Against an ideal of unlimited economic growth and wealth accumulation, he argues for “contentment” as the counter-virtue to the vice of greed. Economic freedom, like human freedom, needs to be oriented to the common good and to a conception of a good human life.

Like Wendell Berry, McPherson wants an economy that is defined more by the flourishing of home and family life than by the profits of a handful of powerful corporations.

McPherson’s book is guided by the spirit of Wendell Berry, with an argument for an economy that respects the limits placed on us by the health of our environment and the integrity of our ecosystem, as well as by the health of our communities. McPherson suggests a need for “economic decentralization,” where dispersed ownership of resources and capital is necessary for healthy market competition. He, like Berry, wants an economy that is defined more by the flourishing of home and family life than by the profits of a handful of powerful corporations.

The book concludes by making a case for the practice of the sabbath. Just as our moral investigations, our life projects and our work must begin by properly appreciating the world and life that are given to us, they must also end with appreciation. The goal of our moral, political and economic efforts is in fact a kind of celebration of life lived fully and well. This, and not Nietzsche’s understanding, is the real “yes-saying” to the world; it is the path, as McPherson says, to “being at home in the world.”

Readers may well differ here and there with McPherson on particular questions of economics, justice or government. Still, the value of the lens of “limits” for our moral and philosophical investigations is clear throughout. The book stands as a rebuke to aspects of both the left and right of our political and cultural divides. More important, it offers an attractive alternative in the form of embracing the world as a gift with humility. Doing so, we can hope, might give us a greater respect for persons, the environment and human nature.

The Virtues of Limits is written in a way that is accessible to the non-philosopher and will be of interest to many. It will provide much food for reflection and contemplation for any reader engaged in the grander questions of our moral, economic and political life. Some of the arguments he addresses would have done well with further treatment, but, at the same time, the book’s breadth serves to give the reader a sense of the versatility of limits as a lens.

Returning to the story of the magical fish: Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, writes that the error of Adam and Eve is not that they wanted to be like God, but that they thought to be like God meant merely to become powerful—to become masters of the universe. In fact, to become like God is to be in a relationship of love and self-gift. For Christians, to become like God is even to become humble and a servant to all. This true “becoming like God” is an alternative to the “playing God” that concerns McPherson. Perhaps this is the lesson of the fairy tale.

For Christians, God is the suffering servant, the lover of humankind and the lover of the world. To become like God, then, is not unlike assuming the stance of love and appreciation that defines the sabbath. Those who are not Christian, McPherson argues, can still see the value in this idea of goodness. We might think of the author himself as a philosophical fish trying to remind us, like the couple in the story, that human happiness does not lie in the unlimited fulfillment of our desires, but in our proper relationship to the gift of life.

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