Beyond his scholarly work, Gutting also defended these commitments, and demonstrated what can be gained by following them through, in an impressive number of essays, reviews, and interviews published in popular venues, including Commonweal and the New York Times. (His most recent essay for this magazine considered whether it is possible for humans to have genuine relationships with artificially intelligent systems.) Many of these writings showcase the value of bringing a philosopher’s commitment to reason to bear on contemporary issues such as gun control, the threat posed by climate change, the limits of economic science, and the ethics of voting. Others present philosophical ideas in a manner accessible to a contemporary audience.
Gutting’s skill in writing for a general reader was surely the product of his devotion to undergraduate teaching. In the one semester when I worked as his teaching assistant, more than thirty-five years into his career at Notre Dame, Gutting was trying out an entirely new approach to teaching Introduction to Philosophy, in which a group of students was required to email him with questions before each class meeting, and he’d use these questions as the basis for his lectures. Here is what he wrote about the importance of this sort of education in a 2016 essay for Commonweal that defended the existence of philosophy requirements at Catholic colleges and universities:
[T]he point of a philosophy requirement is not to teach students Catholic doctrine. That important task falls to the theology department. The role of philosophy is to introduce students to the problems, concepts, and arguments that philosophers, from Plato to the present, have developed to think rigorously about the fundamental questions of human life.… Philosophy does not assume Catholic doctrines but rather provides the philosophical resources needed for informed and rigorous thinking about the universal human questions to which these doctrines respond.
These resources are particularly essential today for coming to terms with secular challenges to religion, which are almost without exception philosophical. This is particularly true of the strongest challenges, which are from philosophical interpretations of scientific results. My own current undergraduate course, for example, focuses on the use of evolution to question the existence of a divine creator, psychological experiments said to undermine free will, and the claims of neuroscientists to reduce consciousness to the brain. My goal is to provide students with the philosophical distinctions and argumentative strategies—via readings from philosophical classics and contemporary discussions—that they need to intelligently assess challenges to faith.
That last line could well serve as a description of Gutting’s life work. While I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, the sense I always had was that his relationship to Catholicism was “complicated”—and surely it was. But here he is in the Times in 2013, defending his faith in the church where he “was baptized as an infant, raised by Catholic parents, and educated for eight years of elementary school by Ursuline nuns and for twelve more years by Jesuits.” For Gutting as an adult, the basis of his continued faith was a commitment to “the ethics of love preached by Jesus”:
The ethics of love I revere as the inspiration for so many (Catholics and others) who have led exemplary moral lives. I don’t say that this ethics is the only exemplary way to live or that we have anything near to an adequate understanding of it. But I know that it has been a powerful force for good.… As to the theistic metaphysics, I’m agnostic about it taken literally, but see it as a superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love. The historical stories, I maintain, are best taken as parables illustrating moral and metaphysical teachings.
Traditional apologetics has started with metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, then argued from the action of God in the world to the truth of the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and finally justified the ethics of love by appealing to these teachings. I reverse this order, putting first the ethics of love as a teaching that directly captivates our moral sensibility, then taking the history and metaphysics as helpful elucidations of the ethics.
Over the years, Gutting would frequently close the final day of Introduction to Philosophy by reading, in a dramatic way that I have never been able to carry off myself, some of the most famous lines from Plato’s Apology:
As long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any of you whom I happen to meet: “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”
Plato’s dialogue concludes with the last line of Socrates’ speech to the jury that had called for his execution: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one except God.”