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2: Rational Humanism

It is difficult to give an account of scientific humanism which is not open to the objection that one is setting up a man of straw. And perhaps there is no thinker, at any rate no professional philosopher, of distinction who would accept this title. Yet, as a tendency, it has been and still is enormously influential. Its general tone emerges from Dr Alec Comfort's explanation of his aims in his book Sex and Society:

The view put forward here is based on the form of rationalism and humanism which seems to the author closest to the general spirit of experimental science: that no form of sexual behaviour can be regarded as unacceptable, sinful, or deserving of censure unless it has demonstrable ill effects on the individual who practises it or on others.1

Formally speaking this is a variety of utilitarianism: what is right or wrong is to be determined by consequences. As J. J. C. Smart remarks of utilitarianism: ‘With its empirical attitude to questions of means and ends it is congenial to the scientific temper and it has flexibility to deal with a changing world.’2 It is open to a utilitarian, while regarding the nature of the consequences as the sole criterion of right action, to insist that he adopts this criterion simply from personal choice and to reserve to himself the decision as to how it shall be interpreted. But this is an uncharacteristic posture for the scientific humanist, for the whole tendency of his position is towards the substitution of scientific authority for private judgement. Comfort himself is, as it happens, an individualist who insists upon the authority of personal decision, but it is apparent from his discussion how difficult it is in practice to prevent its being continuously eroded by the claims of science. In order to fulfil the task allotted to it by the scientific humanist, research in the social sciences must concern itself with discovering the most reliable means to the achievement of certain desirable ends or the avoidance of certain undesirable ones. Who is to decide which goals are desirable and which undesirable? No doubt the layman could in principle decide what are desirable goals, but it is not he who designs and carries out experiments or other empirical investigations, but the scientists themselves. It is they who have to determine what they shall measure and what the scale of measurement shall be, and, since science can deal best with what is measurable, any desirable goal tends so far as practicable to be quantified, and initial caution against identifying the originally selected goal with what is thus quantified is almost inevitably disregarded. Thus one index of a satisfactory sexual relationship is, no doubt, the attainment of simultaneous orgasm. This, being susceptible of measurement, is intensively studied by e.g. Masters and Johnson, and the results are offered as scientifically validated studies of sexual compatibility. But when the layman wants a harmonious sexual relationship, he wants a good deal more than this.

An even more familiar example is the use of intelligence tests. The purpose of such tests is usually to help determine whether people are suitable for academic work: that is to say whether they are intelligent in the sense of being good reasoners. But to measure (as distinct from to judge or assess) good reasoning is extremely difficult. You can measure how often someone has got the right answer, but not, outside of formal logic and pure mathematics, whether he got it for the right reason. And if the candidate is intelligent enough to see that the question is ambiguous or admits of more than one right answer, he suffers a distinct handicap in this type of test. If the aim is, so far as possible, to develop intelligence, and you measure intelligence so as to discover how far you are successful, it will make a decisive difference whether what you are in fact measuring is what you really want to develop. Hence the tough-minded proposal to define intelligence as the ‘sum of what intelligent tests measure’ does not meet the case.3 Teachers in schools and universities will be familiar with examples of research into the effectiveness of teaching methods, which are subject to similar displacement.

It should, one might think, be easy to guard against these distortions but even in theory there are difficulties in doing so. Once the primacy of the scientific approach is accepted, almost every activity of any significance, however personal, falls within the domain of the appropriate expert: child-rearing, education, sex and marriage, punishment. The layman is confident indeed who feels he can afford to dispense with expert help; but when help is offered it is, naturally, what the expert regards as help in relation to what the expert sees as the problem. The layman who insists that it is for him to judge whether what the scientist conceives of as desirable is desirable has to face the charge that he is relying upon nothing more dependable than pre-scientific common sense. And it is the admitted inadequacies of such a guide that prompted the recourse to science in the first place. The layman is liable to be told that what he takes to be knowledge is not knowledge at all but mere subjective opinion.

It is, as it happens, not difficult to distinguish between what the sexologist studies, viz. such things as the attainment of simultaneous orgasm and what the layman is interested in, viz. a harmonious sexual relationship, and one is normally a component of the other; but as a branch of science becomes more developed such discriminations become harder to make. It is, for instance, far from easy to say what is the relationship between our ordinary concept of intelligence and whatever it is that intelligence tests measure. Bearing these problems in mind, let us consider Comfort's statement of the aims of the sexual sociologist:

At the present time the public turns increasingly to science for the solution of its problems, because it rightly expects that the difficulties individuals and societies encounter in ordering their relationships will prove capable of being tackled by modifications of the method that has brought such eminently successful results in practical issues, such as disease control, and in theoretical problems of ultimate practical interest, such as solar physics. Having the opportunity and the responsibility to remove the whole question of sexual behaviour, which has always proved troublesome to human societies to a greater or lesser degree, from the field of conjecture and myth into the field of observational research, we should be wrong to refuse to intervene in matters of social ethics.4

To intervene effectually, however, Comfort argues, we need to know four things: how human beings behave sexually in our own and other cultures; which patterns of behaviour are associated with abnormality or maladjustment, or have undesirable effects on the participants or on others; what patterns of conduct can be upheld with confidence as a general aim—the analogue of a balanced diet in the study of nutrition; what types of education and social facilities will make the realization of such an optimum pattern possible. Comfort does not discuss at any length the question which is of central importance for utilitarianism, viz. what effects one should be seeking to produce. Traditional answers have been pleasure, satisfaction, happiness. In this particular passage he seems to regard the avoidance of ‘abnormality’ or ‘maladjustment’ as being bad in themselves, to be distinguished from ‘undesirable effects’. Perhaps, however he would wish to avoid them only because of their tendency to produce unhappiness in those affected. Yet the analogy with a balanced diet seems to imply some criterion of what the organism needs which is not to be identified simply with what the individual happens to want or what he believes would give him pleasure or make him happy. If he presupposes such a criterion, he is in line with other humanists who tend to assimilate morality to what produces physical and mental health. It is easy to see how this view favours expert opinion.5

Generally speaking Comfort assumes that conflict of any kind is among the undesirable consequences that the sociologist will seek to remove, whether it is conflict within the individual or between the individual and society. There are problems here (which Comfort recognizes) about the best way to resolve such conflicts—especially those between the individual and society—but, quite apart from these, the layman may not agree in any particular case that absence of conflict is desirable or that it is an overriding aim; and he may not agree with the expert as to what constitutes absence of conflict. Moreover what counts as conflict is often to some extent a matter of convention, as anyone will know who has listened to a group of Greeks in a taverna amicably engaged in settling the time and place for their next meeting.

There are, then even in theory, strong tendencies in scientific humanism which inhibit the exercise of personal judgement on moral questions, and they manifest themselves even in a confessed individualist like Comfort. But there are reasons why, however strongly it is maintained that the final decision in matters of value rests with the individual, it is difficult or impossible to make that decision effective in practice. For, as a matter of fact, research in the social sciences at any given time is carried on within a particular set of assumptions about value. Hence its results are largely unavailable to anyone who does not share those values or does not wholly share them. He could, of course, in principle, unpick, so to speak, the skein of research and realign the threads in the direction of the goals he himself regards as important, but he often cannot do so in practice and he might well find, if he tried it, that research designed to answer one set of questions would give little or no help in answering others. So that unless and until he is able to undertake the massive task of shifting the entire emphasis of current research he is virtually unable to gain scientific backing for his intuitive judgements. Meanwhile these judgements, because they lack scientific backing, are liable to be dismissed as ‘subjective’. His position is not unlike that of the private objector at a planning tribunal who faces an official proposal backed by an enormous wealth of detailed investigation. He may, if lucky, be able to use some of the official figures to support his own case, but to the extent that they do so, it will be accidentally, since it was not for that purpose that they were compiled.

Although it is not, perhaps, inevitable that the social sciences should accept the value judgements which in fact do guide their operation at any particular time, nevertheless once entrenched it is difficult to dislodge them, since they are almost inextricably built into the foundations of the discipline in its existing form and share its prestige. There is, in particular, one feature which belongs to the utilitarian structure of scientific humanism and determines the questions to which research is addressed and thus the answers it is possible to give: the concentration upon desirable or undesirable consequences. This of itself tends to divert attention from considerations which the layman may well judge important, but which do not readily fit into the means-end pattern. Thus Comfort remarks in relation to monogamy:

The prevalent conception of marriage, both in the law and in the religious code, insists that any act of sexual intercourse by either party with a third is ground for censure… Without overrating the human desire for variety, which is at least partially counter-poised by a desire for stability, it seems clear that this view is not essentially a part of monogamy, and if we accept reproductive monogamy as a standard, we must base our judgements on the significance of fidelity on its effects on the stability of the home.6

As Comfort recognizes, fidelity is essential to the prevalent conception of marriage or, at least, the traditional conception. When he says that ‘it is not essentially a part of monogamy’ he means, I think, two things. First, that one could and does find monogamy without this insistence—where it is understood, for example, that either party may take a lover without disturbing the marriage. Second, that the presence or absence of this feature does not significantly affect its character as a monogamous marriage; and whether the institution of monogamous marriage is better or worse for its presence is to be decided entirely by its effects on the stability of the home. Research can, in principle, determine this question. It is possible that problems would arise at this stage, of the sort we have already noted, in deciding what is to count as stability, but, given agreement on this, there is the more fundamental difficulty that many are not content to grant fidelity a merely instrumental value in the way Comfort proposes. They have an ideal of marriage as a sacramental union in which mutual fidelity is of the essence and, for them, to fail of fidelity would be properly a ground of censure calling for forgiveness, even if the stability of the marriage was unaffected.

Faced by such an attitude, and remembering his commitment to ‘remove the whole question of sexual behaviour… from the field of conjecture and myth into the field of observational research’ and thus to ‘intervene in social ethics’, Comfort's sexual sociologist is bound to stigmatize this ideal of fidelity as irrational and to seek by education and other means to eliminate it.

At this point a further feature of this whole approach becomes apparent. Comfort's programme necessarily has to be a radical one, insasmuch as the benefits of scientific social research can often not be made available to people as they are, but only to people as they might be, if their attitudes were appropriately redirected by education. Two tendencies in scientific humanism here coalesce, the reliance on experts and the commitment to what Karl Popper has called ‘utopian social engineering’. That these tendencies are apparent in the field of education today cannot be denied. The expert educationalist knows better than the parent what is good for the child and what the child should become if he is to benefit from all that he is offered. Similarly he knows better than the teacher how to teach and how to maintain discipline, indeed how much discipline ought to be maintained. And the credentials of the expert are provided by scientific research. Professor R. S. Peters recognizes and goes some way towards explaining this state of affairs:

In England we are developing a highly differentiated society… without a common culture and shared ideals. This should not surprise us; for where are such unifying ideals to be fostered? The study of literature, history and the classics has had to be cut down to make room for the vast expansion in scientific education, and the Church is rapidly losing the authority it once had as the source of unifying ideals. We tend to treat the doctor who looks after our bodies and the psychiatrist who looks after our minds with more respect than we treat the priest who advises us about our souls—if we still think we have one. For they are scientists; and it is scientists who are now coming to be thought of as repositories of wisdom about the mysteries of life.… This general trend explains why the educationalist sometimes inclines his ear towards a new expert, the psychologist, when he is at a loss to find new unifying educational ideals to replace the old religious ones. There is thus much talk in educational circles of ‘the mental health of the child’, ‘wholeness’, ‘integration’, ‘adjustment’ and all that sort of thing.7

A manifestation of this process is the massive change in educational language which is illustrated in the Educational Bulletin quoted earlier.8 The words in the second list express a radically different conception of the aims of education from those in the first and for this reason no direct translation from one to the other is possible. It would, in principle, be possible (though in practice rather difficult) to make explicit the psychological and sociological theories underlying the new language. This language is likely to change still further for two reasons.

One is that science develops, so that what is regarded as scientific knowledge at one period is subject to more or less considerable revision later. The other is that, as we have seen, the value judgements implicit in the social sciences of a particular period may themselves subsequently alter. These reasons help to explain the striking role of fashion in the social sciences. Whatever the experts said yesterday they are emphatically repudiating today and what they will say tomorrow heaven alone knows.9 Peters made his comment in 1964 and it may well be that different language is now in vogue from that of wholeness, integration, and adjustment. The phenomenon is not confined to the social sciences, but is endemic in all academic pursuits. It is, perhaps, best (and most charitably) understood as a necessary part of the process by which alternative possibilities of development are worked out and tested. And, in a curious zig-zag pattern, genuine progress is made. But it justifies a certain reserve on the part of the layman in allowing his more important decisions to be too much influenced by expert opinion. In child-rearing, for example, consistency is to be sought above all else; hence the mother who brings up her child by the light of common sense is more likely to be successful than the one who follows the latest theory, for this will change more than once before the child reaches maturity. Dr Spock's ‘recantation’ is remarkable only in its honesty and in the public attention it received.

If the scientific humanist's programme necessarily has to be radical in this way, it is exposed to the criticism most effectively expressed by Popper, that we simply do not have, and are unlikely ever to have, the sort and degree of knowledge about the effects of our actions that would justify the radical policies proposed. We are in fact much more likely to do harm than good if we try to introduce large-scale changes based, as they would have to be, upon our very limited understanding. It is not hard to document Popper's objection. There seemed to be, at the time, sound theoretical reasons of a sociological kind for assuming that housing estates in the form of high-rise buildings would provide a healthy and attractive environment for the families of slum-dwellers. High density of occupation could be achieved while at the same time large expanses of uncluttered open space could be provided. It has taken less than a generation to discover that the experts were tragically mistaken. Similarly the construction of urban motorways on the basis of a scientific assessment of traffic needs has had unforeseen consequences for the quality of life in the adjacent areas.

Popper himself favours ‘piece-meal social engineering’, which concentrates on identifying and removing palpable evils rather than promoting large scale goods, and in this he is wise. But this concession to good sense severely limits the scope of scientific humanism by favouring short-term decisions which must largely accept men as they are with their generally unenlightened preferences and prejudices. And it is hard to see how it can be a matter for scientific judgement to determine whether and to what extent people's unreasoned preferences and prejudices should be respected.

It is only, I suggest, by reflection upon these tendencies in scientific humanism that one can appreciate the enormous and entirely unpredicted reaction that has occurred among sections of the young against the scientific elements in our culture (itself a striking example of the inability of sociologists to detect even short-term social trends). Otherwise it is hard to credit that the serious and high-minded advocates of scientific humanism could attract such apparently ill-merited abuse. This reaction is a further phase of the dialectic between romantic and rational humanism, and draws much of its strength from the earlier romantic tradition. Seen from this romantic standpoint the ideal society of scientific humanism is the ‘technocracy’ which Theodore Roszak defines as follows: ‘… that society in which those who govern justify themselves by appeal to technical experts who, in turn, justify themselves by appeal to scientific forms of knowledge. And beyond the authority of science there is no appeal.’10 What Roszak calls ‘this grand cultural imperative’ has three premisses:

  1. That the vital needs of man are purely technical in character. If a problem does not have a technical solution, it is not a real problem.
  2. That, in the technocracy, where the authorities are so well intentioned and well informed, any remaining friction must be due to a ‘breakdown in communication’. Hence ‘in all walks of life, image makers and public relations specialists assume greater and greater prominence. The regime of experts relies on a lieutenancy of counterfeiters who seek to integrate the discontent born of thwarted aspiration by way of clever falsification.’11
  3. The experts ‘who have fathomed our heart's desire and who alone can continue providing for our needs are the certified experts financed by the state or corporate structure’.

As an account of the way modern society is actually organized there is some exaggeration here, but it is scarcely a parody of the stated ideals of scientific humanism. Indeed, we have become so familiar with the warnings of Brave New World and 1984 that it is hard for us now to recapture the enthusiasm with which the prospect of a scientifically oriented society was greeted little more than a generation ago by Walter Lippman (writing in 1929):

The full realization of the place of science in modern life came slowly, and only in our generation can it be said that political rulers, captains of industry and leaders of thought have actually begun to appreciate how central is science in our civilization, and to act upon that realization. In our time governments have begun to take science seriously… Great corporations have established laboratories of their own… Money has become available in great quantities for scientific work in the universities…

The motives and habits of mind which are thus brought into play at the very heart of modern civilization are mature and disinterested. That may not be the primary intention, but it is the inevitable result… This is an original and tremendous fact in human experience: that a whole civilization should be dependent upon technology, that this technology should be dependent upon pure science, and that this pure science should be dependent upon a race of men who consciously refuse, as Mr. Bertrand Russell has said, to regard their ‘own desires, tastes and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world.12

This latest version of rational humanism shares with its predecessors (which, of course, continue to influence some minds, so that the varieties continue to coexist) the tendency to narrow the scope of reason while making ambitious claims for its competence. Reason for the scientific humanist is to be identified with scientific method and with the process by which effective means are selected for the achievement of given ends. Revolt against such conceptions could take one of two forms: refusal to limit the scope of reason in the ways proposed; or rejection of the claims of reason altogether—it being assumed that reason was being correctly defined. The romantic movement has exemplified both forms, but it is the latter which has predominated and which I propose to characterize as romantic humanism.

In this development Kant was a turning-point. He recognized and accepted the Humean critique of the metaphysical reasoning by which men had sought to prove the existence of God, freedom, and immortality and claimed this as a liberation of morality:

So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditional laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty. At least it is man's own fault if he is subject to such a need; and, if he is, this need can be relieved through nothing outside himself: for whatever does not originate in himself and in his own freedom in no way compensates for the deficiency of his morality. Hence for its own sake morality does not need religion at all (whether objectively, as regards willing, or subjectively, as regards ability [to act]); by virtue of pure practical reason it is self-sufficient.13

So far as religion was concerned, his policy was ‘to deny knowledge to make room for faith’. But he sought to provide a rational foundation for morality, which he himself regarded as so secure that he reintroduced God, freedom, and immortality as presuppositions of morality. It is evidence of the remarkable persistence of the teleological idea that Kant was not wholly consistent in his rejection of metaphysics and covertly appealed to the concept of nature in his formulation of the categorical imperative. It is only by claiming that the function of self-love is to preserve life that he can discern a ‘contradiction of the will’ in the maxim of the intending suicide: and it is only by maintaining that our talents have been ‘given us’ for self-improvement that he can stigmatize as immoral the man who proposes to allow his talents to remain undeveloped. For, as he readily concedes, we can easily conceive a situation in which everyone commits suicide or lives like the lotus-eaters. And even the refusal of help to others is, in his terms, a breach of the categorical imperative, only if the individual ‘wills’ to be helped himself. If he can refuse to be helped himself, he is not inconsistent in refusing help to others. If, however, he cannot refuse to be helped himself, it must be because, in the nature of the case, he needs help. And this involves a moral justification of a basically teleological kind.

Once Kant's system is deprived of these illicit supports it becomes evident that contrary axioms can together satisfy the requirement that the will should not contradict itself, so that reason as Kant understands it no longer suffices to justify the choice of one alternative rather than another. All that it requires is that the agent be prepared to be consistent in his choices and make the same demands upon himself as upon anyone else similarly situated. There is no longer any basis for objectivity in ethics of the kind Kant took for granted. Once this is recognized, however, a man may feel that he can still avoid ‘heteronomy’; he can still refuse to yield to ‘pathological’ desire or to defer to a tradition with which he has not freely identified himself; and, if he succeeds in this, he avoids bad faith and achieves an inner integrity or authenticity, which becomes for him the supreme value. The use of this language shows how easily post-Kantian moral reflection merges into existentialism (and, of course, the influence of Kant upon Sartre is manifest).

Kant is himself a rationalist, indeed the culmination of the Enlightenment deification of reason; for the regulative role of reason is absolute as exemplified in the categorical imperative; but it is purely regulative, since reason is now without content. Every consideration (except the appeal to nature) which might provide us with reasons for preferring one consistent course of action to another has been carefully eliminated. So here reason is at once at its least substantial and most authoritative. Kant believed that he was providing a rational basis for traditional ethics all the more secure for its openly dispensing with insecure metaphysical props. But why should one maintain this abstract framework of rational control? Or, if one maintains it, why not subordinate it to the satisfaction of desire? The Kantian system has made restraint pointless and, by its emphasis upon the freedom and autonomy of the individual, has encouraged him to create his own values. Kantian man is restrained by reason, no doubt, but he is freed from all other restraints, except in so far as he chooses to accept them. The message is plain; a man should be himself as fully and freely as he can. There are no models to imitate save those which are self-chosen and self-imposed. Once men are freed from the authority of God and the constraints of human nature it is not surprising that authenticity, spontaneity and creativity become the dominant values, and these are the values of what I am calling ‘romantic humanism’. It can be seen both as a development from and as a protest against the austere rationalism of Kant. A tidy logical coherence is not to be looked for in it, but there is an intelligible, if loose, relationship between its various manifestations.

  • 1.

    Sex and Society, Penguin (1964), p. 15.

  • 2.

    Utilitarianism For and Against, by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Cambridge University Press (1973), p. 73.

  • 3.

    Cf. John Wilson, Philosophy and Educational Research, NFER (1972), pp. 31–2 and chapter 6.

  • 4.

    Op. cit., pp. 18–19.

  • 5.

    Cf. Hector Hawton, The Humanist Revolution, Barrie & Rockliff (1963), p. 140; Walter Lippman, Preface to Morals, George Allen & Unwin (1929), p. 175.

  • 6.

    Sex and Society, p. 116.

  • 7.

    Aims in Education, ed. T. H. B. Hollins, Manchester University Press (1964), p. 71.

  • 8.

    p. 5 above.

  • 9.

    Until very recently it was commonly assumed among criminologists that the chief aim of punishment was the reformation or rehabilitation of the offender, and research was largely directed to discovering the most effective means of integrating him into society. This assumption is now being challenged under the influence of radical politics. Society, it is now being claimed, has no right to alter the offender's attitudes, even by persuasion, but only to require him to submit to penalties.

  • 10.

    The Making of a Counter Culture, Faber & Faber (1970), p. 8.

  • 11.

    Op. cit., p. 15.

  • 12.

    Preface to Morals, pp. 237–8.

  • 13.

    Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, translated by T. M. Greene and H. H. Hudson, 2nd edn., Harper (1960), p. 3.