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1: Introduction: Our Contemporary Moral Confusion

In this book I want to consider the relationship between morality and religion—whether morality needs a religious sanction; and what difference, if any, religious belief makes to the scope, character, and content of morality. Most people would feel bound to agree that these are important questions, but many, if they are honest, would admit to finding them rather boring. And this for two reasons: they take the answers to be obvious; and they find the questions lacking in any immediate contemporary relevance.

As to obviousness, it is quite true that, if you ask people whether religion makes any difference to morality, they will generally regard the answer as obvious. But it soon becomes apparent that some take the answer to be obviously ‘yes’ and others take it to be equally obviously ‘no’. The question, once raised, turns out to be highly controversial, although comparatively little controversy actually takes place. This absence of actual controversy is due partly to the fact that intellectuals as a class (including professional philosophers) have for some time taken the total independence of morality from religion for granted, while those who think otherwise are not, as a rule, intellectuals. When they are heard at all, they are not taken seriously. But it is also due in part to the belief that there still exists a broad working consensus in ethics which makes it unnecessary, and even unwise, to raise fundamental issues of justification. No doubt past ages were never as homogeneous as they seem in retrospect, but until comparatively recently people could to some extent take for granted a continuous ethical tradition which, although it had been challenged, still enjoyed general acceptance.

We, however, can no longer do so, for that tradition is now visibly disintegrating. Nothing is more striking than our present confusion and perplexity about morality. We find ourselves in the situation in which, with Socrates and Plato, moral philosophy first came into existence. When the customary foundations of morality are sufficiently shaken, there is no alternative but to examine them carefully and then replace or restore them. It is for this reason that, of all moral philosophers, Plato speaks most directly to our present condition. The Republic, with its classical statement of the problem of the justification of morality has, within a generation, ceased to be a historical monument and become a work of disconcerting relevance. It is critics of Plato, such as H. A. Prichard, for whom the problem could not arise because moral duties are self-evident, who now appear as historical curiosities. In such a confused situation the questions that I propose to ask cannot be presumed to be irrelevant, nor the answers to them obvious.

Let me first illustrate what I have in mind in speaking of perplexity and confusion. Imagine an article in The Times deploring a decline in moral standards, and instancing the continuing rise in convictions for crimes of violence, the greater incidence of divorce and abortion, the prevalence of pornography, the growth of corruption in public life; and then imagine the character of the ensuing correspondence. There would, no doubt, be some dispute about the facts. What date is taken as the base for the comparison? Were statistics at that time compiled on the same principles or with the same degree of thoroughness as they are today? But, suppose the statistical facts to be agreed, do they represent a moral decline? We need to know, some will say, why it is that people are less prepared to refrain from the activities complained of than they used to be. To the extent that the answer is that they refrained in the past out of fear of punishment, or social condemnation, or economic insecurity, or even from unthinking acquiescence in customary attitudes, then, these people will say, there was no moral value in their restraint. In our more permissive age genuine morality is perhaps no rarer, and may even be more prevalent, than it was when other forms of social control could be relied upon with greater confidence. It will also be argued by some, and perhaps the same people, that in any case not all of these changes in behaviour are to be deplored. A distinction should be made, for example, between divorce, abortion, and pornography on the one hand and violence and corruption on the other. Questions of sexual behaviour are essentially personal and it is for individuals alone to decide what is right and wrong in these matters. A social situation which permits greater freedom of choice in this area is greatly to be welcomed. But to injure or cheat others is to offend against a public morality which we all have an interest in maintaining. Even this proposition will not, however, win general acceptance. It depends, some will say, on the credentials of the system which our public morality is being used to safeguard. If it is unjust, in that it denies satisfaction to particular individuals or classes, then these individuals or classes are under no obligation to embrace its morality. The incidence of violent crime, if not of corruption, should be seen as a natural and justifiable revolt of the relatively deprived against those who have, intentionally or unintentionally, connived at their deprivation. Yet others will be found to champion violence in itself as an authentic expression of the human spirit because it alone is able to avoid the compromises which infect all constructive effort and so attains an absolute purity of motive. Two other voices at least are likely to be raised in our imagined correspondence; one is that of those who maintain that the entire dispute is vitiated by a failure to recognize the inevitable relativity of moral claims. There has been no decline in morals because the very conception of such a decline is incoherent, since moral attitudes are either irredeemably subjective or relative to particular cultures or subcultures; and the other is that of those who insist that we are in no position to tell whether what we are experiencing constitutes a decline in morality, because the necessary scientific research which alone could provide us with an appropriate morality for our time has not yet been undertaken.

The careful reader of these imagined letters could not fail to notice the extent to which their writers are divided not only in their opinions but in their vocabulary. They inhabit different worlds of discourse, and are perpetually arguing at cross purposes—when, that is, they bother to argue at all. More often they are content to address themselves exclusively to those who share their convictions, using for the purpose the editorial ‘we’ in such a way as (quite literally) to excommunicate any who might disagree with them. Thus Lionel Trilling in Sincerity and Authenticity quotes George Eliot's famous conversation with F. W. H. Myers while walking in the Fellows' Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge in which she referred to God as inconceivable, to immortality as unbelievable, but to duty as ‘peremptory and absolute’ and comments:

We of our time do not share that need of the Victorians. We are not under the necessity of discovering in the order of the universe, in the ineluctable duty it silently lays upon us, the validation of such personal coherence and purposiveness as we claim for ourselves. We do not ask those questions which would suggest that the validation is indeed there, needing only to be discovered; to us they seem merely factitious.1

It is plain that not all of us are ‘we’.

It is not surprising that in this confused situation there is a common reluctance to use explicitly moral language or to carry a moral argument through to a conclusion, although even this generalization needs to be qualified. There may coexist, often in the same individuals, a wary scouting of moral vocabulary (or what has customarily passed for such) and an intensity of protest against prevailing attitudes and practices which has all the marks of deep moral indignation. It is as if the specifically moral impulse, denied its traditional outlets, has poured with enormous pressure into the few remaining channels that the fashion of the day allows. John Searle, in his study of the radical student movement in America in the 1960s,2 notices the importance of such ‘sacred topics’ as race and the Vietnam War. To arouse support a challenge to the university's authority had to relate some local issue to a ‘sacred topic’.

Two instances must suffice of the suspicion or repudiation of moral language. Stephen Jessel writing in The Times3 attributed a new philosophy to the young: ‘Its practitioners refuse to acknowledge the principle of moral responsibility for others; they decline to talk of the actions of other people in moral phraseology. When pressed they often reduce their own set of values to a simple pleasure-pain antithesis.’ Also in an article in The Times4 the playwright Dennis Potter asked why the television script writer should bother to challenge official complacency in the discharge of his ephemeral task: ‘I hesitate to use the word “Duty” because it has, mysteriously, coated itself with increasingly weird connotations.’ In a perceptive review of this phenomenon5 Malcolm Bradbury quoted an early example from Richard Aldington's Farewell to Arms: ‘There were many words you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity… Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene.’ The use of the word ‘obscene’ in this way, now common, represents an interesting development in itself.

As to systematic changes in vocabulary, here are two illustrations from the field of education. A note in the Schools Bulletin published by the West Riding County Council Education Committee6 called attention to the words which for the moment were ‘out’ and to others that were ‘in’ within the world of education. There followed two lists, of which I give a selection:

Outwords Inwords
Duty Anti-social
Evil Uncooperative
Bad Open-ended
Wicked Creative
Scholar Integrated
Naughty Participation
Studious Meaningful
Clever Awareness
Subject Relationships
Method Involvement
Punishment Treatment
Standards On-going
Dull Under achieving

A noticeable feature of the second list is the absence of explicitly moral words of praise or blame, although approval or disapproval is more or less clearly implied. ‘Open-ended’ and ‘on-going’ are obviously ‘pro’ words; ‘anti-social’ and ‘uncooperative’ ‘con’ words.

In a letter to The Times7 Mr Gareth Rees rebutted criticism of trends in comprehensive schools and defended the school in which he taught: ‘I believe there is as much, probably more, old-fashioned good Christianity in this egalitarian, atheistic, progressive, trendy, hard-swearing, free-loving comprehensive than in any religious, excellent, patriotic, single-sex, single caste establishment.’ This is a particularly complex example since Mr Rees not only uses his own pro-words to express approval: ‘egalitarian, progressive’, and his opponents’ pro-words to express disapproval: ‘religious, excellent, patriotic’; but also his opponents’ con-words to express approval: ‘trendy, hard-swearing, free-loving’; and his opponents’ pro-words to express approval: ‘old-fashioned, good Christianity’. I cannot forbear adding a recent American example—this time from outside the field of education. On Saturday 11 September 1976 the New York Times carried a report on the problems of Woodstock N.Y. caused by the influx of young people since the Woodstock Rock Festival of seven years ago: ‘The townspeople call the young people hippies, freaks, longhairs, countercultures or just “those people”. “I don't call them hippies” said Chief Constable William Waterous. “I call them drifters and bums because that's what they are.”’

Underlying this linguistic confusion one can, I think, discern disagreement on three basic questions. There are differences as to what is right or wrong, good or bad; and hence as to what moral concepts to employ. There are differences as to whether there is such a thing as morality. And there are differences as to what, if morality does exist, is the point or purpose of it. Disagreements as to what is right or wrong, good or bad are often not settled, or even made explicit enough to be discussed, because of disagreements on the other questions. To clarify these questions and the relations between them is preeminently a task for philosophers, but philosophers themselves are involved in the cultural dilemmas of our time. The position has been described with characteristic vigour by Alasdair MacIntyre:8

I do not doubt that in this country there is widespread agreement in condemning murder and theft, just as there is widespread disagreement on capital punishment, divorce and nuclear weapons. What I am equally certain about is that these clear agreements take place against a background of a larger confusion in our moral thinking. Few of us are able to say to what criteria we ought to appeal in making up our minds; the commonest moral sentiment in public houses and Senior Common Rooms alike is a vague goodwill. Where classical nonconformity found clearly formulated principles in its Bible, where Bentham and James Mill had the test of Utility, we have a miasma of inherited muddle.

In calling it a ‘miasma of inherited muddle’ MacIntyre implies that in order to understand our situation we need to appreciate its history. If Potter cannot now use the word ‘duty’, it must be because of the word's past associations, and the same is true of Aldington's reaction against ‘courage’, ‘honour’, and the rest. The new educational vocabulary has supplanted the old through a process of development which we should be able to trace, and Rees's highly self-conscious manoeuvres with language depend upon his knowledge of an older vocabulary of which he is severely critical but which he is unwilling wholly to repudiate.

Our examples suggest that the muddle arises out of a largely unacknowledged conflict between rival moral theories. If so, it should be possible to identify these and compare them. We should then have a set of ideal types which we could endeavour to express, each in its most defensible form. We should expect to find that each of them tried to swallow the rest, i.e. to explain how the others come to seem plausible and why they must fail nevertheless. It is obvious that the process of comparing these moral theories and, even more, of adjudicating between them will generate its own problems, because it is not clear how one could attain a neutral standpoint, or how, otherwise, one could make a rational choice between them. But let those problems wait their turn.

In the first instance I intend to restrict myself to non-religious theories of morality. I proceed in this way for three main reasons. The first is that, if religious belief does make a difference to ethics, we can discover what this difference is only by looking first at moral conceptions and theories that are not explicitly religious. Whether all of these are as independent of religious beliefs as they are supposed to be is to some extent a matter of controversy, but if any of them require theistic or Christian backing, this is something that needs to be shown. The presumption must be that, where no explicit appeal is made to religion, none is needed.

The second is that a non-religious view of the world is, at least prima facie, simpler and more economical than a religious one. Even if a religious explanation turns out in the end to be more satisfying, it must initially appear as a complication. So it is reasonable to approach the phenomenon of morality without preconceptions of a religious kind, and, when we do so, we may find that secular morality is entirely consistent and coherent and so much a matter of general agreement that there is no need to ‘bring religion into it’.

Thirdly, in any case most of our contemporaries do in fact approach the subject in this way. This remark is strictly true, of course, only if it is heavily qualified, but it is significant that many would see no need of qualifying it. The ‘contemporaries’ we have in mind are a restricted selection of those who are living at this time, or even in this country at this time. There are very many people, among them many intelligent and cultivated people, for whom religious belief is at the centre of the moral life; but, on the whole, they do not contribute much to the characteristic intellectual climate of the day. The ‘we’ of the columnist does not generally include them.

My selection of ideal types is bound to be incomplete, but not, I hope, entirely arbitrary. I shall suggest that contemporary secular humanism has three dominant modes, which I shall call rational humanism, romantic humanism, and liberal humanism. All three are, I believe, extremely potent in the modern imagination. Liberal humanism is, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, predominant; indeed it can be regarded as the characteristic philosophy of the contemporary British or American intellectual, a status which it owes to its apparent ability to reconcile the other two. I use the word ‘philosophy’ here in its extended popular sense, but all three types, not surprisingly, have their counterparts in specialist moral philosophy.

Rational humanism maintains ‘the possibility of an objective basis for moral theory in terms of an ideal of rational human development’. I take this formulation from the dust-cover of R. Osborn's Humanism and Moral Theory.9 The form and content of rational humanism have varied systematically with changing conceptions of reason, but common to these variations is the insistence that the individual should, at least minimally, discipline his desires in the interest of his own and other people's fulfilment, and that what constitutes man's fulfilment and what conduces to it can be discerned and defended by comparatively straightforward rational procedures in principle available to all and, therefore, binding upon all. Romantic humanism can be seen as a revolt against this entire conception of morality as a rational system claiming authority over the individual and, within the individual, subordinating the will and the emotions to rational control. The character of this revolt in turn has varied in relation to the prevailing type of rational humanism, to which it has been opposed. The relation could, therefore, be described as dialectical; romantics and rationalists have often shared common assumptions (particularly as to the character of ‘reason’) and differed only as to their proper implications. The romantic typically rejects the claims of reason both in its pretensions to define the ends of life and in its careful control of means; both as regulating the relations between persons and in ordering the individual's inner life; and the reason he rejects is reason as the rationalist currently conceives it.

The history of this dialectical relationship is a great part of the history of modern culture, and to do justice to it would require a full-scale history of ideas. I can only offer a sketch which, though inadequate, will not, I hope, be too misleading.

It was simply a coincidence that I happened to be reading The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre, the first volume of his novel trilogy The Roads to Freedom, when I came across in the bookshelf of a cottage in the country a battered copy of The Age of Reason, being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology by Tom Paine. I was intrigued by the circumstance that two books so strikingly different should share the same title. Was this also a coincidence or could there be some connection between them? I believe I found one: Paine was already contributing to a process of disintegration, which reaches its term in Sartre. Paine's is a naively confident rationalism; Sartre's existentialism, despite its Cartesian clarity, is an extreme romantic reaction against the claims of reason.

In Sartre's novel10 Mathieu is a professor of philosophy in early middle age. He has been living with a mistress, Marcelle, who now in the seventh year of their association has become pregnant. The plot turns on Mathieu's attempts to raise the money to procure her an abortion, which he is at last reduced to stealing. But before the book ends Marcelle has consented to marry the homosexual Daniel, who sees, as Mathieu does not, that she wants the child. He takes her not out of pity, still less from desire, nor even to embarrass Mathieu, but because ‘to do the opposite of what one wants—that is freedom!’

The romantic ambience of the story is evident enough; the characters inhabit a bohemian world in which conventional morality has no place and marriage is contemplated only by the one character who cannot, even if he wished to, give it its traditional significance. Marcelle's abortion and Mathieu's theft are taken for granted as available solutions to their personal predicaments. The power of the book lies not in the story but in Sartre's quite extraordinary psychological insight and devastating accuracy of observation, and in the perverse use he makes of them. He has the art to construct characters who are genuinely and recognizably human and then, having imagined them complete, deprives them by a deliberate act of all that might engage our sympathy.

It is some time before the reader notices what is wrong with these people of Sartre's. They never do anything because they feel they ought to, indeed they never so much as raise the question what they ought to do; they never act out of simple affection. The novel is essentially a philosophical novel and what gives it its peculiar quality is the combination in Sartre of intuitive human sympathy—or empathy—with a theoretical analysis of the nature and necessity of freedom, which, when given expression in his characters, leaves them entirely heartless.

Consider, for example, the passage in which Sartre describes the onset of Mathieu's love for the Russian girl, Ivich. He has just kissed her in a taxi:

It was love. This time it was love. And Mathieu thought: ‘What have I done?’ Five minutes ago this love didn't exist; there was between them a rare and precious feeling, without a name and not expressible in gestures. And he had, in fact, made a gesture, the only one that ought not to have been made, it had come spontaneously. A gesture, and this love had appeared before Mathieu, like some insistent and already commonplace entity. Ivich would from now on think that he loved her, she would think him like the rest: from now on Mathieu would love Ivich, like the other women he had loved— ‘That wasn't what I wanted of her’ he thought with despair. But even by this time he could no longer recall what he had wanted before. Love was there, compact and comfortable, with all its commonplace contrivings, and it was Mathieu who had brought it into being, in absolute freedom. ‘It isn't true’, he reflected vehemently: ‘I don't desire her, I never have desired her’. But he already knew that he was going to desire her. It always finishes like that, he would look at her legs and her breasts, and then, one fine day… In a flash he saw Marcelle outstretched on the bed, naked, with her eyes closed: he hated Marcelle’.11

Mathieu has by his spontaneous gesture brought ‘love’ into being, a ‘love’ which he did not desire, but to which he is now committed. Sartre is obsessively aware of the fact that the individual's thoughts or feelings, once expressed, as they must be if they are to be expressed at all, in public language or overt gesture, are no longer entirely his own. ‘Love’, once expressed, commits him to a public role and diminishes his freedom. Mathieu aspires after a pure freedom, in which he acts for no reason and from no desire; but paradoxically, just when he thinks he has achieved it, the act frustrates itself by engendering the very commitment he is anxious to avoid.

Since freedom of the Sartrean kind can be won only by disengagement from the claims and demands of others, Sartre's characters do not and cannot enter into personal relationships. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her perceptive essay on Sartre: ‘they bump into each other in an external fashion: they are never deeply involved with each other.’12 ‘The individual seen from without is a menace and seen from within is a void.’13 There is evident, in consequence, an almost complete dissociation of reason, desire and will. Thus:

On the one hand lies the empty reflexion of a reason that has lost faith in its own power to find objective truth, which knows its idea of an un-precarious liberty to be contradictory, and which finds human suffering a scandal and a mystery. On the other lies the dead world of things and conventions, covering up the mute senselessness of the irrational.14

The title of Sartre's novel, The Age of Reason, may not be entirely ironical. Reason, it suggests, come of age brings us irrevocably to the point at which we can see that life has no meaning beyond what can be given it in the momentary acte gratuit. If Sartre still acknowledges reason, it is a reason that has become vacuous and self-destructive. Thus Iris Murdoch sees Sartre as a philosopher ‘without the materials to construct a system which will hold and justify [his] values; Sartre believes neither in God nor in Nature nor in History. What he does believe in is Reason,’15 but, in the absence of any coherent metaphysic ‘there is no reason why the personage portrayed in L'Être et le Néant should prefer one thing to another or do this rather than that.’16

In this, she believes, Sartre exemplifies a characteristically modern predicament:

When purposes and values are knit comfortably into the neat and small practical activities of life, thought and emotion move together. When this is no longer so, when action involves choosing between worlds, not moving in a world, loving and valuing which were once the rhythm of our lives, become problems.17

No doubt a sociological explanation of this state of affairs is, at least up to a point, indicated. The dissociation that Sartre portrays is not a product merely of philosophical speculation, but reflects the pluralism and atomism of an industrial society, in which traditional family and other institutional patterns of the sort that formed and defined the individual's character are steadily eroded, and people become increasingly alienated from the purely contractual systems which have largely supplanted them.18 But this cannot be the whole story, if only because the cultural trends become apparent earlier than the economic ones. Thought and emotion, Iris Murdoch says, no longer move together. Her language is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's celebrated essay on the Metaphysical Poets, in which he claimed to discern in the seventeenth century a ‘dissociation of sensibility’: ‘Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility’. And then he generalizes: ‘The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience… In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.’19

If Eliot was right about this—and his claim has remained controversial—part, at least, of the explanation must lie in the growth of a philosophy which divorced the cognitive powers of men from the rest of the personality and came to define these powers with increasing narrowness. The widest possible claims were made for reason thus narrowly defined and much of what had previously been accepted on the authority of the church or on the strength of revelation was held to be luminously apparent to reason. Less and less remained of a system which could, in Iris Murdoch's phrase ‘hold and justify the values’ which were nevertheless still to a large extent maintained. An ethic which had developed under the influence of a subtle and complex vision of a natural order subject to and permeated by the supernatural was effectively deprived of its transcendent reference. Where there was still an appeal to nature, it was to a nature whose significance was believed to be written on its face. Often even this appeal was eventually discarded and moral principles were held to be self-evident. For Locke the existence and character of God, the principles of morality and natural rights could all be demonstrated or intuitively apprehended and, although ‘truths above reason’ were grudgingly admitted, the reasonableness of Christianity left no room for ‘enthusiasm’. The development of physical science accelerated this process by encouraging a dualism of mind and body, in which mind was conceived of as active only in speculative inquiry and the emotions and the will were part of man's physical endowment, which he shared with the animals.

Hence Basil Willey takes up and amplifies Eliot's critical theme:

What the cold philosophy did destroy was the union of heart and head, the synthesis of thought and feeling, out of which major poetry seem to be born.20

The cleavage began to appear, which has become so troublesomely familiar to us since, between ‘values’ and ‘facts’; between what you felt as a human being or as a poet, and what you thought as a man of sense, judgement and enlightenment.21

And so [Willey notes] by the beginning of the 18th century religion had sunk to deism, while poetry had been reduced to catering for delights—to providing embellishments which might be agreeable to the fancy, but which were recognized by the judgement as having no relation to reality.22

Of that ‘religion which had sunk to deism’ Tom Paine provides a magnificently rumbustious example in the work I mentioned earlier, The Age of Reason, being an investigation of True and Fabulous Theology.23 It was published for the first time in France (and in French) in 1793, 150 years before Sartre's novel of the same title: ‘I do not believe’, writes Paine, ‘in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church.’24 And he proceeds to formulate a religion divested of mystery, and based on reason and the moral law:

The Christian mythology has five deities: there is God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, the God Providence and the Goddess Nature. But the Christian story of God the Father putting his son to death, or employing people to do it, cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him it was done to make mankind happier and better is making the story still worse as if mankind could be improved by the example of a murder; and to tell him that all this is a mystery is only making an excuse for the incredibility of it. How different is this from the pure and simple profession of deism! The true deist has but one deity; and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavouring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical and mechanical.25

Paine presents us, in effect, with a crude and simplified version of Locke:

Religion, therefore, being the belief of a God and the practice of moral truth, cannot have any connection with mystery. The belief of God, so far from having anything of mystery in it, is of all beliefs the most easy, because it arises to us, as it is observed, out of necessity.26

Man has only to follow carefully the instructions of ‘the Almighty Lecturer’: ‘The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation.’27 Reason for Paine, and in this he is characteristic of the Enlightenment, was the faculty by which men learned the principles of science and of morals. The principle of the uniformity of nature was intuitively evident as were the precepts of the moral law. The existence of God was demonstrable. Here was a religion within the bounds of reason which justified the laws of nature and the Rights of Man, and made no concessions to mystery or enthusiasm.

Paine was a brilliant pamphleteer and propagandist, but he was not an original thinker. For this very reason he provides a lively and not altogether unjust caricature of the tenor of philosophy from Descartes by way of Locke to the French Enlightenment. What all these had done was to narrow the connotation of ‘reason’ while making the widest possible claims for its competence. Everything that mattered for human life could be comprehended by thinking and by thinking of a special kind, the kind that is done by mathematicians (or by natural scientists, thought of as applied mathematicians). The hosts of Reason had thus become a thin line stretched out to defend a vast territory over a wide front and eminently vulnerable to attack.

The attack came from David Hume, who at the time Paine wrote had already defined the limits of the sort of mathematical thinking, for which, under the name of reason, Paine had claimed so much. Matters of fact could not be demonstrated; the uniformity of nature could not be proved; that God exists can only be an article of faith; and, in matters of conduct ‘reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions’.

In his writings Hume disposed of both the forms of rational humanism that had dominated the eighteenth century, that which based morality on a rational pattern immanent in and discernible in the world of nature; and that which based it on principles intuitively evident to reason. The first task was discharged in the Dialogues of Natural Religion, the second in The Treatise of Human Nature.

Henceforward, anyone who wanted to ‘argue for the possibility of an objective basis for moral theory in terms of an ideal of rational human development’ (to use Osborn's phraseology again) would have to be thoroughly empirical and base it on science or common sense. Hence the characteristically modern type of rational humanism is the scientific humanism which has as its philosophical counterpart some kind of utilitarianism.

  • 1.

    Oxford University Press (1972), p. 118.

  • 2.

    The Campus War, Penguin (1972).

  • 3.

    The Times, 14 Aug. 1967.

  • 4.

    The Times, 5 July 1969.

  • 5.

    ‘The New Language of Morals’ in Twentieth Century, Summer 1963.

  • 6.

    January 1970.

  • 7.

    The Times, 25 July 1974.

  • 8.

    Listener, 26 June 1958.

  • 9.

    George Allen & Unwin (1950).

  • 10.

    The Age of Reason, translated by Eric Sutton, Penguin (1961).

  • 11.

    Op. cit., pp. 65–6.

  • 12.

    Sartre, Romantic Rationalist, Cambridge University Press (1953) p. 33.

  • 13.

    p. 80.

  • 14.

    p. 82.

  • 15.

    p. 77.

  • 16.

    p. 79.

  • 17.

    p. 33.

  • 18.

    Alasdair MacIntyre writes: ‘The religion of English society prior to the Industrial Revolution provided a framework within which the metaphysical questions could be asked and answered, even if different and rival answers were given. Who am I? Whence did I come? Whither shall I go? Is there a meaning to my life other than any meaning I choose to give it? What powers govern my fate?’ (Secularization and Moral Change, Oxford University Press [1967], pp. 29–30.) The Industrial Revolution he argues, brought with it new class moralities, so that ‘there remains no framework within which the metaphysical questions can be systematically asked’.

  • 19.

    T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, Faber & Faber (1932), pp. 287–8.

  • 20.

    Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, Chatto & Windus (1934), p. 294.

  • 21.

    Op. cit., p. 87.

  • 22.


  • 23.

    Thinker's Library, Watts & Co. (1938).

  • 24.

    Op. cit., p. 2.

  • 25.

    Op. cit., pp. 41 f.

  • 26.

    Op. cit., p. 51.

  • 27.

    Op. cit., p. 32.