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10: Religion, Scepticism, and the Demands of Autonomy

It has been argued in the last chapter that theism can provide a justification for demands upon the conscience that are categorical and virtually absolute, that can be overridden, as Hampshire puts it, only in ‘abnormal, painful and improbable circumstances’. The chief example used was Hampshire's own, the principle of the sanctity of human life. No principle strong enough to satisfy the traditional conscience can be yielded by utilitarian reasoning, and no form of subjectivism can give the demand the categorical character which it has for the traditional conscience.

But the further question may now be pressed: why should the individual acknowledge the authority of morality at all? A straightforward and, at first sight, uncontroversial answer can be offered along the lines of my earlier excursus into moral philosophy. In outline it would run as follows. Human life is such that people have needs which can be met and purposes which can be realized only if they recognize obligations to help one another and to refrain from harming one another in certain specifiable ways. Some of these needs are basic, belonging to all men everywhere; some are defined in terms of institutions which are not thus universal, but which represent alternative ways of satisfying basic human needs. Thus morality is not arbitrary, but is rooted in the social nature of man. It is in this context that moral reasoning finds its place. Since no man can attain maturity and become capable of making choices and forming purposes except in a society of some kind there is a palpable irrationality, amounting to a sort of pragmatic contradiction, in a man's rejecting morality altogether.

Let us suppose that the immoralist recognizes that there is such an institution as morality and that we have adequately explained its rationale, yet declines to be impressed. He does not see why he personally should embrace a system which requires him to put himself out for the sake of other people. Have we any means of convincing him? We might point out1 that, if he refuses to acknowledge moral reasons for acting in ways that will help others, he cannot invoke moral arguments for other people acting in ways that will help him. To this he may reply that he can perfectly well invoke such arguments if he wishes; we have only shown that he is not morally entitled to invoke them, which he does not deny. Since people are often moved by them he has the best possible grounds of prudence for employing them. We may then have recourse to prudential arguments ourselves. We may argue that, since society depends on mutual acceptance of obligations, a man who enjoys the advantages of society, while repudiating its obligations, is cheating his neighbours and is in grave danger of being found out and cut off from society:2 and, furthermore, that, even if he succeeds in evading detection, this policy of concealment must restrict that ‘free and unfeigned intercourse with our fellows’, which is an essential condition of human happiness.3 This argument, he may concede, has some force, but it has most force against the individual who proposes to act on the principle of never doing what the conscientious man would do. It would count comparatively little against the man who simply limits his moral liabilities to his immediate circle and, within that, to those situations which do not make inordinate demands upon him. And, as Plato saw, it would be powerless against the holder of the ring of Gyges who could be sure of appearing moral, while freely practising immorality.

The problem has been perceptively discussed by Mr G. J. Warnock in his book, The Object of Morality.4 He takes a view of morality very close to mine and then asks two questions, whether a reasonable man must acknowledge the force of moral reasons and whether a reasonable man must regard moral reasons as overriding. He answers both questions in the negative. In respect of the first he argues that the institution of morality, as he has described it, presupposes that it is a good thing to avoid the deprivations and sufferings which would result from its abandonment, for

if no help is forthcoming, success goes to those strong enough, resourceful enough, to succeed without help; ‘injustice’ denies goods to those with no ‘natural’ claim to them. Why, it may be asked, should the weak and undistinguished, the helpless and dependent, be protected from the natural consequences of their contemptible condition? Why should the formidable and strong, the self-sufficient and intelligent, be denied the fruits of their natural advantages?… It is as if, in morality, there were incorporated a kind of question-begging egalitarian democracy; we have mentioned already the idea of ‘respect for persons’ but what is there, after all, in most persons that merits respect? Or what in their ‘nature’ confers any rights upon them?5

Warnock here somewhat underestimates the damage that would be done by the universal abandonment of morality. For, as Hobbes recognizes, even the strong and resourceful would find life ‘nasty, brutish and short’ in the absence of the mutual assistance that only some kind of morality can provide. All the same, the sort and degree of morality needed to enable the strong effectively to exploit their strength could be pretty minimal; and in any case the immoralist is frankly prepared to be parasitic upon a society which is kept going to his advantage by the morality of other men.

In respect of the second question—whether a reasonable man must regard moral reasons as overriding—he suggests that someone who does not go as far as the extreme immoralist and reject morality entirely might nevertheless think other things sometimes more important than morality.

If I believe that I am capable of composing, say, magnificent music, is it irrational to think that I should, if necessary, neglect my obligations to my dependent wife, children, and aged parents in order to do so? I might, of course, in such cases believe myself morally justified; I might hold that my… music… constituted a contribution to the well-being of persons, possibly of posterity, which morally outweighed the moral claims of those more immediately detrimentally affected. But I think I need not do so. It seems to me possible to see in, say, aesthetic objects a value for themselves, not merely for their place in the lives of people in general, which, if so, may sometimes be weighed against moral values, and by some may sometimes be regarded as of greater weight.6

So he sums up the question: ‘What if I value beauty, say, more highly than justice? “Creativity”, or some such thing, more highly than moral conscientiousness? I do not see that reason rules decisively against such valuations.’7 Warnock's discussion is interesting in the way it parallels the train of thought by which, as I argued earlier, romantic humanism characteristically departed from the old enlightenment certainties, first elevating creativity above conscientiousness and then calling conscience itself entirely in question. We might pose Warnock's question as being how to deal with the romantic who takes this line. At this point he suggests, tantalizingly, that ‘we might do the trick with the aid of a deity’ but does not develop this suggestion. Instead he concludes that ‘the recognition of “the moral law” as an efficacious and predominant determinant of practical judgement and action cannot be forced, so to speak, a priori upon rational beings.’

He is then left with the question how it is that people do after all, for the most part, accept the moral point of view. ‘If, as rational beings, they do not have to do so, how is it that they do?’ And he answers, somewhat lamely, ‘the brief answer here has to be, I think, simply that it is possible for them to come to want to.… One can want to acquire and exercise the settled disposition to comply with such principles in one's judgement and conduct, to give due weight to the range of reasons that those principles generate.’8 It is interesting to notice that, when pressed, Hare comes up with essentially the same answer. Normally he does not raise the question why we should regulate our lives by universal prescriptive principles and why such principles should be overriding. He is inclined to echo Prichard's criticism of Plato and to claim that no satisfactory answer to this question is conceivable. For either the reason produced will be a prudential one (the just man will be happy) or it will be a moral one. But the man who does his duty as a means to happiness is not acting from a moral motive, so what is justified in this way is not really morality; and to appeal to moral reasons is circular. And there is no third ‘ought’ in terms of which to adjudicate between the moral and the non-moral life. A man simply has to decide, and will generally decide in accordance with his education. Hence for Hare, as for Aristotle, it is essential that children should be ‘well brought up’, so that they want to do what is right.

This is true so far as it goes, but in our present cultural situation it only takes the problem one stage further back. Educationalists cannot make up their minds what they ought to be doing. Should they be handing on a traditional morality; or encouraging the child to be critical and creative; or tempering this latter policy with insistence upon some basic social rules; or just trying to promote the child's psychological health? Even if agreement could be reached about a basic morality, some would doubt whether society ought to do more than develop in the young the capacity to reason for themselves about moral questions, even if the result of their reasoning were to be the rejection of morality altogether, as presumably it might be. Our present situation, in fact, closely resembles the one that Plato encountered when the loss of confidence in a traditional ethic made it a problem how to teach virtue and compelled him to raise fundamental problems about the justification of morality before tackling the task of moral education.

Nevertheless, as Prichard's critique of Plato shows, it is extremely difficult to deal with this question without declining into insensitivity or simple falsehood. The danger can be seen most clearly in Cicero because of his greater crudity. He faces the question in the De officiis and dissolves the problem by maintaining stoutly that whatever is morally good is expedient, and, whatever is expedient is morally good. But in attempting to establish this he oscillates continually between claiming that the good man will always have an enjoyable life in a thoroughly down to earth sense, and arguing high-mindedly that he will be rewarded in the only way appropriate to a rational being, viz. by being enabled to exhibit moral virtue; i.e., between ‘honesty pays’ and ‘virtue is its own reward’. The down to earth claim is plainly untrue and is not high-minded enough. Morality is more than prudence. But the high-minded contention that ‘virtue is its own reward’ is doubly unsatisfying. If moral virtue is what we have all along supposed it to be, a principled concern for others' needs, then those needs matter or virtue so conceived is pointless. And if other men's happiness, at which the good man ought to aim, is distinct from their virtue, the good man's own happiness cannot consist in his virtue alone. Hence for all its high-minded nobility Iris Murdoch's declaration cannot stand: ‘The humble man… sees the pointlessness of virtue and its unique value and the endless extent of its demand.’ Self-sacrifice is not pointless; it intends that other people may live and flourish. It is the supreme test of love and even the supreme expression of love, but it is not the supreme fruition of love. There is need, as Kant saw, for some connection between virtue and happiness of a down to earth kind. Something can be done to bring the two positions together, the down-to-earth and the high-minded, by insisting with Plato and Aristotle on the contentment which attends the life of moral virtue, which is the highest and purest pleasure and flows from the recognition that one is achieving excellence as a man. But Aristotle, at least, saw that there is more to happiness than this; it may be an essential element in human flourishing, but it is not the fullness of it. And it becomes apparent from the words of Christ: ‘If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him.’ No human father, if it was in his power to give his children more, would be satisfied with giving them only the opportunity to be virtuous and the contentment that flows from it. He would want them to enjoy all the happiness that life can afford.

Warnock remarks that ‘one could do the trick with the aid of a deity’. How? For the trick to be done God's purpose for men would have to be such that it cannot be achieved without the pursuit of moral virtue, but not such that it consists simply in the achievement of moral virtue. He who would save his soul must be willing to lose it, but there must be more to saving one's soul than just the willingness to lose it. And this is indeed Christian teaching. No one can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven who has not ceased to make himself the centre of his world, but the blessedness he then enjoys is at the same time the fulfilment of his own deepest longings. We have an image of this in marriage. The love which alone makes possible the fullest mutual enjoyment and fruition is the love which holds in sickness or in health, for better or for worse; but the presence of this love does not exhaust the riches of the marriage. So when Iris Murdoch writes: ‘The acceptance of death is an acceptance of our own nothingness which is an automatic spur to our concern with what is not ourselves,’9 we are aware of some slight, but significant distortion of the Christian ethic. The love of others, which the Christian ethic demands, involves an active concern for their well-being, and that in turn implies a clear conception of what is best for them, which must, in consistency, be also in essentials what is best for ourselves. It is not that we accept our own nothingness and this automatically brings concern with what is not ourselves (as a Stoic or a Buddhist might hold), but rather that in so far as we lose ourselves in the love and worship of God we are able to show a true regard both for others and for ourselves. The reluctance of the high-minded to accept this is associated with their suspicion that it reduces morality in the end, despite protestations to the contrary, to a sort of self-interested prudence. When the hymn writer declares:

My God I love thee not because

I hope for heaven thereby,

Nor yet because who love thee not

Are lost eternally,

they feel that any clear recognition of the considerations mentioned in this verse must have the effect of corrupting motives. And this is perhaps what Iris Murdoch has in mind when she writes that ‘almost everything that consoles us is a fake… In the case of the idea of a transcendent personal God the degeneration of the idea seems scarcely avoidable.’10 The possibility of such corruption cannot be denied and it is matched by a comparable temptation to the high-minded from the thought that he is superior to others in the purity of his devotion to duty for its own sake; it is hard for this ideal not to degenerate into pharisaism. But if a man longs for a heaven that is a genuine communion with God and with other men, what he hopes for is not self-interested in any objectionable sense, for he desires this for others as well as for himself; and, if he does not, then he has not yet made the required metanoia—he has not repented. He has to be born again, but what he then receives is what he most deeply wants, a bliss that cannot be enjoyed without selfless devotion to God and to others. When understood in this way—a profoundly traditional way—the emphasis in the Gospels upon heaven and hell can be seen to fulfil morality, not to distort it. Richard Robinson writes in his An Atheist's Values:

… the reasons that Jesus gave for his precepts, namely his promises and threats, are quite unacceptable. They are false, since there is no heaven or hell; and anyhow they make his precepts precepts of prudence instead of precepts of morality. To obey rules because otherwise you will go to hell is prudence, not morality. The good and moral reason for a moral precept is that its reign in a society lessens misery in that society.11

Robinson's protest is understandable but misplaced. Although ‘good and moral reasons’ are more various than he suggests, it is only in so far as a man is genuinely moved by them that he is able to enter and enjoy the blessedness of heaven, and only in so far as he consistently rejects them that he ‘loses his soul’—and discovers with Sartre that ‘hell is other people’.

So one way in which the Christian can reply to the immoralist is to claim that it is an essential part of God's purpose for man that he can fulfil his nature and achieve what will ultimately content him only if he ceases to make himself the centre of his own universe; hence the demands of morality—of principled concern for the needs of others—are both objective and categorical. This is not, of course, the whole answer. There are other strands in the Christian understanding of morality which reinforce the one I have chosen to develop. It is, above all, the love of God which serves both as a motive and as a reason for the love of neighbour. We should love him because he first loved us; and we should love others because he loves them. It is this theme preeminently which explains how it is possible for a man to turn away from anxious self-concern and identify himself with the interests of others, however uncongenial those others are, and even if it runs counter to the prevailing ethos of his society.

But Robinson's protest suggests a further and even more fundamental objection to the entire argument of this book. I have claimed that some of the dominant themes of the ethical tradition of the West are bound up with Christianity not only as a matter of history, but also as a matter of logic—that is to say that religious premisses are required for an adequate rationale of them. And I have made this part of a more general contention that, once the limits of a platitudinous morality are passed, moral systems and moral theories, both secular and religious, reflect a ‘vision of life’. In this way I have argued the need for a metaphysic of ethics. In exploring the dilemmas of the traditional conscience I have insisted that moral intuitions cannot be accepted as entirely self-authenticating but require to be given a rationale in terms of a total view of life. And I have claimed that Plato and Aristotle are to be preferred to most post-Kantian moral philosophers precisely for the reason that, although they rely upon ethical intuition, they see the need to justify their doing so. The objection I have in mind is directed against the logical possibility of any such justification.

The objection is one that is often given a cursory treatment in the opening chapter of introductory books on moral philosophy and is then taken as absolving the writers from any obligation to explore further the relation between religion and morality. I have, instead, left it till the last, because such force as the argument of this book possesses itself creates a presumption against the validity of this objection. The argument is to the effect that Christianity, or any religion, or, for that matter, any world-view can have ethical implications only if acceptance of it in the first place commits the believer to certain ethical principles. For this reason these principles are logically primary and the system as a whole cannot serve to justify them. Any proposed justification would be viciously circular. We need independent moral judgement to interpret and assess any system of religious belief which makes ethical claims.

Though presented in various forms, the essential feature of the argument is that it confronts the advocate of a religious ethic with a dilemma: either we ought to do what is right because it is right (this being why God has commanded it), or we ought to do the action just because God has commanded it. If the first alternative is accepted, what fundamentally determines our moral choice is not our religious belief, but the moral judgment, which we make independently, that the action is right. If the second, then God's command becomes a mere arbitrary fiat with no ethical significance. The most monstrous cruelty would become right if God were to command it. Either way, religion has no bearing on morals; morality is entirely independent of religion.12 There are two initial points to notice about this argument. The first is that it is designed to refute a single extreme position about the relation between religion and morality, viz. that morality is wholly derivative from and dependent upon religious belief, indeed that the moral ‘ought’ can be defined in terms of God's commands. This having been taken as refuted, it is then assumed that the argument has also demonstrated the impossibility of religious belief having any logical bearing upon the status, scope or content of morality. But it is one thing to hold that religious belief may profoundly affect a man's beliefs as to how he should live, and why he should live in that way, and another to claim that morality must be wholly based upon considerations which are specifically religious. The second point is that the argument is generally expressed, as here, in terms of the assumption that a religious morality will be exclusively a morality of divine commands. It is true that language of this sort has a part to play in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but religious morality may also be conceived in terms of copying a pattern or example—the imitation of Christ. The failure to notice this not only betrays a certain insensitivity on the part of the critics to the range and complexity of Christian ethics, but as will appear later, invites positive errors of interpretation.

However, this does not affect the logical point, which can be put equally well in terms of a religious pattern-morality as in terms of a religious law-morality. For suppose we say that Christian morality consists in the imitation of Christ. The critic can always ask: ‘Why choose this exemplar?’ and the only satisfactory answer from a moral point of view, it will be said, is ‘Because He is a good pattern to follow.’ ‘But’, the critic continues, ‘To recognize a pattern as a good one is to possess criteria which could be specified in an ethical major premiss of the form “A man is a good man to imitate if and only if he displays characteristics x, y and z.”.’ For a man who possesses these criteria the pattern may of course be of practical use, for, as Dr Johnson remarked: ‘example is always more efficacious than precept’; but from a theoretical point of view it cannot tell him more than he already knows. A man who lacks these criteria will have no good reason for choosing this pattern in preference to any other. The point is made concisely in the familiar remark of Kant's in the Grundlegung: ‘Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection, before we can recognise him as such.’13

It is important to notice that the argument is perfectly general and applies as much to Aristotle and his phronimos as to the Christian and Christ. Aristotle's advice is to copy the phronimos, the man of practical wisdom; but this presupposes that one can recognise a phronimos when one sees him; but this in turn presupposes that one already knows the sort of thing the phronimos does and says; but, if one knows that, there is no need to copy the phronimos. As Hare puts it, ‘We have first to satisfy ourselves that a man is good before we can be sure that he is phronimos… i.e. we should have to make for ourselves the sort of moral judgements we thought we were going to get made for us by the phronimos.’14

Now this has the air of a simple and conclusive argument, which is what philosophers have generally taken it to be. It is, however, highly paradoxical, for it appears to prove the logical impossibility of a process with which we are all perfectly familiar—the process by which we develop spiritually (and in every other way) by taking people we admire for models and imitating them. We do seek the advice of wise men, as we should scarcely do if we knew in advance what advice they would give. This process requires that one possess some incipient awareness of what is worth imitating; it evidently does not require that one possess a full understanding of the virtues which the model possesses and which one hopes to acquire by imitating him. It does not, fortunately, take a saint to recognize a saint, a genius to recognize a genius, the master of a trade to recognize a master, a phronimos to recognize a phronimos. If you want to become a good rugby player, it is a sound plan to choose an outstanding player and model yourself on him. Of course, in order to recognize that he is a good player you must have some rudimentary knowledge of the game. If you went to the Varsity match, without even this rudimentary knowledge, you might be forgiven for forming the idea that it was a contest of brute physical strength and that the big man who was delivering uppercuts out of sight of the referee was the man to model yourself on. But a little elementary instruction in the basic laws of the game would be enough to set you looking for the appropriate qualities. You can then choose a model and learn the game by following him. Similarly in the moral case. ‘Live like x’ is useless advice unless you have some idea in what respect you are to copy x. You must have some notion of human virtue. But here too we can recognize what is excellent without being able to determine it entirely for ourselves from scratch. In these circumstances when we choose someone for our model not only do we not in fact already know the major premiss ‘the man to copy is the man who displays such and such precise characteristics; or who behaves in such and such a determinate way in such and such a situation’; it is not clear that we ever can state precisely what these characteristics are, however much we ourselves may advance in our understanding of the relevant virtues. It may be that this is a sort of knowledge which not only the tyro, but also the expert is without because it is logically impossible to have it. If this is so, as I think it is (though I shall not try to argue it now) a given pattern—morality is not logically translatable into a set of rules or principles or commands. ‘Act like the phronimos’ cannot be rendered by ‘Do x, y… z in such and such circumstances’, and it was because Aristotle recognized this that he attached such importance to the good man as the canon and measure of virtue. Thus we do, as Hare recognizes, respect the judgement of the wise man and what we look for is, as a rule, not just some plain instructions as to what to do, but the setting of our problem in a wider context and a deeper understanding of the issues involved. It is a psychological commonplace that we often extend our horizons in just this way, and could scarcely develop otherwise. The dilemma, as originally proposed, gains its apparent force by posing false alternatives, viz. either you have already full understanding of the virtues the model exemplifies, or you know nothing and therefore cannot choose your model.

The dilemma is the same, and so is the solution, in the case of law-morality. Just as, in the case of pattern morality, it does not require the same degree of moral insight to choose a model or exemplar as the latter himself possesses; so, in the case of law-morality, it does not require the same degree of moral insight to determine that a lawgiver is worthy of obedience as it does for the lawgiver to determine the laws. It is entirely possible that Moses should recognize God (in Nowell-Smith's quaint phrase) as ‘a morally competent authority’ without being able himself to invent or discover the commandments given to him on Mt. Sinai. No doubt this suggestion, as it stands, strikes one as absurd, but the absurdity is not logical; it derives from the theological naïveté of the terms in which the problem is being discussed. It is only in the context of coherent theological doctrine that we can expect to understand how men can come to recognize the goodness of God. It is true that, if we are to say, for whatever reasons, that God is good, we must give ‘good’ some meaning not expressly derived from ‘God’; but it does not follow that the only sufficient reason for believing God to be good is our own ability, independently, to think up the divine decrees for ourselves.

Why do the critics insist upon this paradoxical contention? The reason is, I think, that they believe themselves to be committed to it by a fundamental principle which must at all costs be maintained. This is the principle of autonomy. At any stage you like to take in this process of moral and spiritual development, they want to say, when the religious man decides to obey this law of God, or to imitate Christ in this respect, he either makes a moral decision or he does not. Only if he does make a moral decision does his action have moral significance (this is a tautology). Otherwise the obedience or the imitation, as the case may be, flows from some motive of fear or prudence or affection and there is nothing moral about it. It is, in Kant's terminology ‘heteronomous’. The point is made by Nowell-Smith:

Unless we accept Hobbes' consistent but repugnant equation of God's right with his might, we must be persuaded independently of His goodness before we admit His right to command. We must judge for ourselves whether the Bible is the inspired word of a just and benevolent God or a curious amalgam of profound wisdom and gross superstition. To judge this is to make a moral decision, so that in the end far from morality being based on religion, religion is based on morality.15

There is, however, I suggest, an ambiguity in the notion of the autonomy of ethics in this connection. To assert the autonomy of morals may be to assert the independence of ethics from religion either in the sense that morality must have the sole word or in the sense that it is to have a decisive word. What I mean is this: it is one thing to say that if a practice (such as human sacrifice) is immoral, the religion that enjoins or permits it is discredited; and another to say that religion can have no part in determining whether a practice is immoral.

It is possible to maintain the autonomy of morals by insisting that the matter is settled once the moral point has been proved, and cannot be settled until it has been proved, whilst still allowing that religious considerations may be relevant to the decision on the moral point. For instance, if you believe that morality is in some way based upon the fundamental needs of men, you may concede to religion some say as to what the fundamental needs of men are. The distinction may be put differently (if very crudely) thus: someone who maintains the autonomy of ethics may be thinking of religion and morality as two distinct and entirely independent subjects, such that, once the question at issue has been identified as moral, we know without further ado that no religious considerations come into it. Or he may conceive of moral thinking as a discipline which can and must take account of any considerations, including religious ones, which can be shown to be morally relevant. The distinction (though crudely put) is vital to this discussion. The autonomy of morals, on the former interpretation, rules out any logical bearing of religion upon morals ex hypothesi; on the latter interpretation it remains an open question whether and to what extent religious evidence is admissible in a court of morals. In other words the assumption that is generally made in framing the argument from autonomy is that we already have available a complete and fully specified moral system and that by reference to this we can and should test any religious or metaphysical claims. The latter cannot, therefore, contribute to our understanding of morality. This is an assumption that comes easily to Kantians or intuitionists. But if, instead, we place morality in the context of human needs and insist that moral judgements require to be supported by reasons, and that these reasons must relate to some intelligible and defensible conception of human well-being, it becomes clear that an adequate understanding of morality is no longer attainable in total independence of our beliefs about the nature and destiny of man. There are, no doubt, as we saw in our discussion of ‘moral platitudes’, some moral virtues, such as courage, honesty and justice which are such obvious conditions of well-being that any moral system must recognize them, but once we get beyond them (and even they need specifying), what we are committed to is a process of moral reasoning rather than a determinate set of moral principles (which is not to say that the reasoning does not yield principles). A capacity for moral reasoning and for moral development is something that men must be presumed to have in virtue of being men and represents the only sort of autonomy that they require. Their possession of this capacity is not the least of those things that an adequate conception of human nature must account for.

Whatever the truth may be, it is clear, I think, that the type of argument I have been considering does not prove the autonomy of morals in the narrower sense (that morality must have the sole word) but only in the wider sense (that morality must have a decisive word); and that is so wide as to give most advocates of a religious ethic all the room they want. What the argument shows is that, in order to influence morality, religion must, so to speak, argue her case and argue it in moral terms—that is, in terms which an active intelligence and a sensitive conscience can be persuaded to recognize as morally significant. But this does not entail that they must be terms which were already clearly grasped and understood before the dialogue with religion got under way. This is why Kant's famous remark is so preposterous: ‘Even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before we can recognise him as such.’ It is absurd to suppose that the fisherman of Galilee—when he made the confession: ‘Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God’—had compared Jesus with his ideal of moral perfection (just as it was before any encounter took place) and had satisfied himself that he had, so to speak, achieved the required standard. He had, of course, judged for himself, and in judging he exercised moral insight, but he could not himself have preached the Sermon on the Mount.

It is, indeed, often misleading to talk, as I did earlier, about choosing a model for imitation; what more often happens is that the model, by its sheer impressiveness, demands our imitation and in so doing not merely develops, but radically revises, our previous notions about what is worth imitating. If such acceptance is not to be uncritical fanaticism it must be possible for us to justify it, although it is evidently not necessary, or possible, for us to justify it wholly in terms that were available to us before we encountered the new paradigm. There is an analogy here with the process by which, as Eliot maintains, a great artist creates the standards by which he is to be judged. Autonomy requires that the standards used shall be, in some sense, the judge's own standards; not, however, in the sense that he must have invented them; only in the sense that he must have rationally accepted them. The logical force of Kant's dictum is simply that recognition of Christ's moral perfection is in itself a moral act, and this we cannot and need not deny.

It may, however, be objected that, in developing this argument, I have in fact gone no further than the ‘matrix theory’ which at an earlier stage I attributed to Kant.16 Christianity has introduced ‘more definite and purer concepts than [philosophy] had been able to furnish before; but which, once they are there, are truly assented to by reason and are assumed as concepts to which it could well have come of itself and which it could and would have introduced.’ For we could in principle have thought out the moves which the great athlete discloses to us or the advice which we receive from the phronimos. And similarly we could in principle arrive unaided at whatever moral insights we derived from revealed religion.

In order to take the measure of this objection we must, I think, ask what is the force of ‘could in principle’. It might mean, I suggest:

  • (i) ‘It is logically possible that we should have arrived at these insights.’ This is undeniable but uninteresting.
  • (ii) ‘We had the capacity to arrive at these insights’ or at least ‘some men had this capacity.’
  • (iii) ‘These insights were derivable from, or implicit in, moral beliefs already held.’

It seems to me quite clear that original ideas in any field need not be derivable, and generally are not derivable, from ideas already held; also that those who come to accept them need not, although they may, be able to hit upon them themselves. Hence in relation to genuine originality of any kind whether in morality, science or the arts:

  • (a) It is not necessary, in order to recognize the answer to a problem, that one should already independently have discovered that answer;
  • (b) It is not necessary that one could have derived the answer from already accepted beliefs;
  • (c) It is not necessary, though it may be the case, that one could, unaided, have hit upon the answer;
  • (d) It is necessary that one should be able to understand how it does provide the answer to the problem, and this demands a suitable background of knowledge and an adequate understanding of the state of the question up to that point.

The critic, therefore, has not succeeded in showing that religion could not introduce genuinely original moral insights or that, if it did, the moral autonomy of those who received and recognized them as moral insights would be in one way impugned. Nevertheless, so far as this argument goes, there is no reason for supposing that religion was needed to achieve these insights. The position is the same as with Aristotle's phronimos; we could, with no loss of moral autonomy, in fact owe new moral insights to him, but we might ourselves have hit upon them quite independently of him. We might indeed; but we must recognize what this would entail. In order to do so we should ourselves have needed to be able to place our problem in the wider context in which the phronimos viewed it. For it was his appreciation of this which enabled him to advise us. Similarly, as I have been arguing, for a fuller understanding, indeed, an adequate justification, of morality a theistic metaphysic is required. In the light of this we can see that men are so made that they can fulfil their natures and achieve lasting satisfaction (‘solid joys and lasting pleasures’) only if they follow a certain way of life, respecting the principles and developing the virtues which are needed to express and maintain that way of life.17 If this is true, Kant's dictum remains correct but does not, as he thought, make the influence of religion superfluous. For ‘philosophy could and would have introduced’ the ‘more definite and purer concepts’ to which he refers only if it was a philosophy in which these concepts were at home. And a theistic philosophy might alone satisfy this requirement.

But a stronger objection than this might be intended. So far as the argument goes up to this point, it could be said, the difference that religion makes to morality remains almost entirely an external one. It provides a warrant, otherwise lacking, for viewing morality as objective; it allows the concept of human nature to have some content other than what we choose to give it; it makes it reasonable for us to take our moral intuitions seriously (though not to rely upon them uncritically); it deepens our understanding of human needs, and gives the moral ‘ought’ the force of a categorical demand. God, however, appears for the most part—or so an unsympathetic critic might allege—rather like Prospero, or the Duke in Measure for Measure, as a benevolent paternalist who, having created the world, and granted men an eternal destiny, remains himself to them creator and lawgiver, but no more. This is the impression created, for example, by Mackie's extremely fair and sympathetic attempt to demonstrate the logical coherence of a theistic ethic: ‘The picture of God as an arbitrary tyrant is replaced by the belief that he demands of his creatures only that they should live in what will be, for them, the most satisfying way.’18 This is, so far as it goes, true but it leaves out one essential feature of the Christian view of ethics. God enters into it not simply as a guarantee of the seriousness of the moral demand or of its objectivity and meaning, but as himself the goal of the entire human pilgrimage. So, as Helen Oppenheimer puts it:

God in his wisdom made the human race in such-and-such a way (here a Christian anthropology would have to be spelled out); and in finding and realizing the true pattern of our natures, complex and mysterious as it is and only distinguishable with patience, we are, in the same process, glorifying God and entering the kingdom of heaven.19

So the enjoyment of God and of his creatures through him is not simply something added as an extra to the concerns of our present life, but our present life, with all its moral demands, is an instalment and anticipation of eternal life. In the old scholastic language man's natural end depends upon his supernatural end.

This sense of the interpenetration of the natural and the supernatural, of the present life as the anticipation of eternal life, is shown by Traherne to derive from the centrality of love:

Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed: Our love to others, and others' love to us. We ought therefore above all things to get acquainted with the nature of Love. For Love is the root and foundation of nature: Love is the Soul of Life and Crown of rewards. If we cannot be satisfied in the nature of Love we can never be satisfied at all. The very end for which God made the world was that he might manifest His Love. Unless therefore we can be satisfied with his Love so manifested, we can never be satisfied. There are many glorious excellencies in the material world, but without Love they are all abortive.… Love in the fountain and love in the end is the glory of the world and the Soul of joy. Which it infinitely preferreth above all worlds, and delighteth in, and loveth to contemplate, more than all visible beings that are possible. So that you must be sure to see causes wherefore infinitely to be delighted with the love of God, if ever you would be happy.20

  • 1.

    Cf. Hare, Freedom and Reason, p. 101.

  • 2.

    Cf. Hobbes, Leviathan, Bk I, chapter 15.

  • 3.

    Cf. Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, ed. Selby-Bigge, O.U.P. (1966), p. 283.

  • 4.

    Methuen (1971).

  • 5.

    Object of Morality, p. 160.

  • 6.

    Op. cit., p. 158.

  • 7.

    Op. cit., p. 159.

  • 8.

    Op. cit., p. 165.

  • 9.

    The Sovereignty of Good, p. 59.

  • 10.


  • 11.

    Oxford University Press (1964), p. 155.

  • 12.

    A version of the argument first appears in Plato's Euthyphro, 10 a-d.

  • 13.

    Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Ethics, p. 30.

  • 14.

    In a personal communication; cf. Applications of Moral Philosophy, Macmillan (1972), p. 5.

  • 15.

    P. H. Nowell-Smith, ‘Morality: Religious and Secular’ in The Rationalist Annual 1961.

  • 16.

    Above, p. 123.

  • 17.

    Cf. Mackie, Ethics, p. 239.

  • 18.

    Mackie, op. cit., p. 231. Mackie believes that such a theological ethic is coherent, but that belief in God is not coherent.

  • 19.

    In Duty and Discernment, ed. G. R. Dunstan, S.C.M. (1975), p. 14.

  • 20.

    Centuries of Meditations, Second Century, 62.