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11: Conclusion

I have tried in this book to relate morality to certain pervasive features of the human condition, in terms of which its nature and purpose can be understood. I have not claimed that there can be no morality without religion, but I have suggested that much of the Western ethical tradition ultimately makes sense only if a religious view of the world is presupposed. Arguments of this sort are rarely coercive; and it remains open to the secular moralist to contend that a secular world-view of some kind can provide a rationale for the traditional conscience, or that Christianity cannot. I would hope to persuade him only that there is a serious case to be met. It is an important part of this case that, once the limits of a platitudinous morality have been passed, religious and other world-views inevitably affect people's judgements about the scope, character, and content of morality. They may not be aware of this and may be content to rely on their moral intuitions alone, without raising questions of justification, but our's is an age, like that of classical Greece, in which it is increasingly difficult to do so.

I am aware that in developing and illustrating this theme I have made assumptions and raised problems about which a great deal more needs to be said. That a philosophical thesis should be unproblematical is more than can reasonably be expected. Indeed there would be ground for suspicion if it were. The most that can be hoped is that the problems should be worth investigating further. Among the problems that manifestly arise are two in particular. The first is entirely general and concerns the relationship between world-views and moral intuitions. I have been concerned to argue that morality is affected by world-views, but also that it has an integrity of its own, so that one may properly reject a world-view if its moral implications are unacceptable. Morality does not have the sole word, but it does have a decisive word. The usual arguments for autonomy, of an intuitionist or Kantian kind, accord morality a greater degree of independence than, on my view, it possesses. Intuitions need checking and Kantian moral arguments hold only given certain assumptions. But, if this is so, is there any point at which moral considerations can be relied upon in criticism of a world-view? Should we not, to put it crudely, first look for a satisfactory world-view and then read off its moral implications, regardless of whether it satisfies our intuitions? There seems to be no middle way between regarding moral intuitions as entirely self-authenticating and allowing them no independent weight at all.

Part of the solution to this problem lies in recognizing that moral intuition is not an isolated faculty in the way that intuitionists have generally taken it to be. Moral judgements require to be supported by reasons, and the reasons are characteristically related to human needs. To be morally perceptive is to be aware implicitly of needs that are not immediately obvious and this requires gifts of sympathy and imagination which enable one to be more precisely aware of the true situation. When, for example, Hampshire complains of a ‘coarseness and grossness of moral feeling, a blunting of sensibility’1 as typical of utilitarian thinking, it is not only amoral lack that he remarks but a failure to notice significant facts about persons with which the moral defectiveness is associated. The psychological insight and the moral discernment are not identical, but the former is implicit in the latter. Strength and delicacy of moral feeling is an appropriate response to the needs of persons as sensitively recognized and justly assessed. The facts about persons that are relevant include some that are of deep structural importance, such as the continuity of persons over time. Failure to take adequate account of this continuity is, arguably, one of the reasons for a certain shallowness of thinking in utilitarian ethics and in some varieties of subjectivism. So there is in moral intuitions a tacit awareness of much that goes beyond the limits of the strictly moral and that requires to be taken into consideration when world-views are under discussion. It is possible, of course, to argue that we are not here dealing with facts, strictly so called, but with disputable theories about human personality or even, in some instances, with institutions that we are free to endorse or not, as we choose.2 But it is remarkable how much of the ‘experience’ that we appeal to in testing philosophies of life is of just this kind. And it is doubtful how far we can hope to arrive at facts which are entirely uninterpreted.

If an account along these lines of the relationship between moral discernment and awareness of facts about human nature (or, as we often put it, our ‘experience of human nature’) is correct, then it is evident that our moral intuitions cannot be discounted in any assessment of rival world-views. When B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity develops a philosophy of life according to which many of our most characteristically human responses are held to be irrational, with ethical consequences that are reflected in his title, we are not being unreasonable if we reject it on that very ground. It is not just that we dislike the moral implications, but that to accept the underlying account of human nature would require us to jettison too much of the entire conceptual scheme with which we need to operate in understanding and dealing with one another. Whether in this particular instance we can go further and claim not only that it is unreasonable to accept Skinner's brand of naturalism, but also that we must reject it as logically incoherent, is a matter of acute philosophical controversy.3 But, if our capacity for moral thinking is called into question by reducing mental processes to a complicated pattern of stimulus and response, it is at least arguable that the same is true of every kind of rational assessment, including that which is involved in the development and defence of Skinner's own theory.

We cannot, therefore, argue straightforwardly either: ‘Here is an accredited world-view and these are its ethical implications; hence we must accept the latter without further ado’; or: ‘This is morally inadmissible; therefore any world-view which permits it is to be rejected.’ We must look for an overall position that will do justice to both moral and other considerations. Further reflection and experience may always in principle require us to modify our philosophy of life or revise our moral intuitions. Our predicament is complicated in practice by the fact that individuals (and even historical periods) vary in their capacity to appreciate and assess the different elements that go to make up a total philosophy of life, and, in the extent to which they are able to maintain a synoptic vision at all. We (that is to say ‘we products of Western culture’) have so strong a sense of the value of the individual, for example, that it strikes us as more indubitable than any metaphysical construction; it is easy, therefore, to suppose it quite unrelated to any, and to assume that our own vision must be shared by any reasonable man. But we know from other developed societies like classical Greece in Dover's study,4 that this is not so. We have learned to see men in a certain way.

It is natural, and up to a point correct, to say that in so doing, we are simply reflecting a Christian view of man. Yet it is also somewhat misleading, because it suggests that what we find in people is not ‘really’ there but is contributed entirely by an interpretative scheme which comes, so to speak, entirely from outside. But when Helen Gardner5 discovers in Shakespeare an essentially Christian sensibility she does not deny him a profound insight into human nature. Indeed Shakespeare is pre-eminently one of those who, to use Bayley's terms,6 write about ‘Nature’ rather than about ‘the Human Condition’. From the objectivist standpoint that I have been adopting we must rather say that Shakespeare's Christian sensibility enables him to see more truly into the realities of the human predicament. If this is so, our understanding of human nature and our moral discernment, which is inextricably bound up with it, must be allowed a large measure of genuine independence, enough to justify us in relying upon them to a very considerable extent in assessing, interpreting, modifying, and even rejecting a world-view.

This is one reason why it would be a mistake to conclude from the argument of this book that religious people are necessarily, or even as a rule, morally better or more sensitive than non-religious people; or that, in disputes between the Church and her critics, the Church must always have been right. Specifically religious gifts, even when of a high order, are not invariably accompanied by equal moral sensitivity; and people of profound moral insight need not be religious. Shakespeare himself is not a religious poet, as Donne and Milton are.

Nevertheless, when due weight has been given to this consideration, there does seem reason to believe that, in a culture at large over an appreciable period of time, a moral tradition becomes ossified or disintegrates as it increasingly becomes divorced from the world-view which provides its ultimate rationale. This is why the Victorian Age, although preserving much that we are in process of losing, cannot be cited as a paradigm of Christian morality. The Victorians idolized morality, giving it that supreme importance which they were increasingly unable to accord to God.7 Hence the morality they believed in and practised was in constant danger of becoming legalistic and joyless.

If it is correct that the search for a metaphysic of morals involves looking for a world-view that is both rationally defensible and in accord with moral intuitions that have been subjected to criticism and tested in experience, the alleged circularity of the Christian scheme can be seen not to be vicious. To the critic who complains that the entire scheme puts a question-begging reliance upon certain moral values, which it then purports to justify, e.g., upon love as a virtue and gratitude as a duty, we can reply that neither is required simply and solely by divine fiat. Given the nature of human beings as God created them, the obligation to show gratitude is a platitudinous one; and love in the sense of agape, although not platitudinous, is yet found in experience to answer a fundamental human need. In order to explain how and why this is so, we need, so the argument runs, to develop some understanding of divine love as it bears upon our human condition, above all as it is shown in the life and death of Christ, but we are so made as to be receptive to such understanding. Nature is such that it can be perfected by grace. Without God as the keystone the arch is incomplete and always liable to fall apart, but the keystone finds a space shaped to receive it.

These remarks about nature and grace remind us that the entire argument has not only philosophical, but also theological implications. In trying to chart the theological frontier of ethics I have spent more time on the ethical than on the theological side, and the line I have taken fits some conceptions of theology better than others. Some contemporary Christian moralists may well complain that in undertaking a defence of the traditional conscience I have presupposed not only a broadly traditional ethic, but also an equally traditional theology. The argument does, indeed, imply that differences in theology will tend to issue in moral differences, and that, within theology, the same sort of dialectic is needed as between moral intuitions and world-views in general. There is, however, no possibility, as it seems to me, of a straightforward return to some conception of Christian ethics that has already been fully and satisfactorily formulated, associated with a theological system that has already been adequately worked out. Much work requires to be done if the Christian tradition, both in ethics and theology, is to be given appropriate expression in our contemporary situation. Nostalgia is not enough; although it is my impression that in our own day Christian moralists and theologians have often been too uncritical in their borrowings from the prevailing secular culture, taking over themes and attitudes which the more discerning secular thinkers have found increasingly untenable. This is one reason among many others why it is desirable that there should be more discussion than there has been in this century between Christian and secular thinkers, especially those of a liberal temper.

The comparative absence of such discussion has been due partly to a reluctance on the part of Christian theologians to adopt what they see as a ‘triumphalist’ position in relation to secular culture—to read off moral conclusions from theological premisses in a way that effectively denies the integrity of secular moral thought; partly to an assumption among intellectuals that no serious case can be made for theism. I have suggested that there is no generally agreed way of thinking about morality, and no generally agreed morality that is anything like complete. Beyond the platitudes there are divergences which derive from differing conceptions of what men need; and these in turn derive from differing conceptions of what men are. Christian theologians cannot, therefore, avoid being committed to certain distinctive moral notions, though there is warrant in Christianity itself for taking people's moral intuitions seriously, whether they are believers or not.

It is obvious that the argument of this book is no substitute for a reasoned case for theism and all along has had to assume that one is possible. It can, however, make some contribution to such a case; for, if our moral intuitions, together with the psychological and other insights they carry with them, can reasonably be trusted, and if they are more congruent with a Christian metaphysic than with any other, the latter is to some extent confirmed. Morality is one point of entry, and for many people a most important one, into a theistic world-view.

Nevertheless, it may be said, in the cultural circumstances of today, the most likely effect of any attempt to show a connection between religious belief and certain ways of looking at morality, is not to reinforce religious belief, or even to reawaken interest in it, but to loosen still further the hold of the traditional conscience. To the extent that the thesis is accepted, the secular thinker whose moral intuitions are still predominantly traditional will think it more reasonable to modify his conscience than to revise his opinions about Christianity.

Whatever may be thought about the general desirability of suppressing arguments whose acceptance, or even discussion, may have undesirable social consequences there is little case for doing so in the present instance. The moral confusion consequent upon the breakdown of a traditional culture is already with us and has been for several generations. As its effects become steadily more apparent, reflective individuals are increasingly aware of the need to ‘choose between worlds’, and are less and less likely to rest in inherited moral customs and attitudes through simple inertia. If they continue to hold on to them, it will be not through inertia but by a conscious act of faith, while they cast around for a view of life that can adequately sustain them. And, where so much is uncertain, it will be reasonable for them to do so. From a Christian point of view they will be exhibiting what Simone Weil called called ‘a form of the implicit love of God’,8 and there is scriptural warrant for valuing this more highly than theological profession. What matters is that the alternatives should be clearly and sympathetically presented, and that Christianity itself should be articulated and, more importantly, shown in such a way as to be a genuine option. Whether, in the long term, as the issues become clearer, there will be a movement predominantly towards Christian belief or away from our traditional ethic on the part of such reflective minds it is impossible to forecast. But Christianity has, throughout its history, displayed a regenerative power that justifies not only faith but hope.

  • 1.

    Quoted on p. 72 above.

  • 2.

    Thus Mackie suggests that personal identity functions as an institution, and that institutions require endorsement, which we are free to withhold. See Ethics, p. 78, and also p. 71.

  • 3.

    See J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will, Clarendon Press (1970), especially § 21.

  • 4.

    See above, pp. 122–3.

  • 5.

    See above, p. 71.

  • 6.

    See above, pp. 82–3.

  • 7.

    Cf. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Victorian Minds, Weidenfeld & Nicholson (1968), esp. chapter XI.

  • 8.

    ‘Forms of the Implicit Love of God’ in Waiting on God, tr. Emma Crawford, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1951).