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3: Romantic Humanism

It was characteristic of the varieties of rationalism that prevailed in the eighteenth century that they favoured universality, objectivity, clarity, order, and deliberation. The revolt against them concentrated with varying degrees of emphasis upon what is unique to the individual or to the nation, what is subjective, mysterious, spontaneous, and unrestrained. Its ideal is the free, independent, and creative individual, who is characteristically a rebel against tradition and a subverter of institutions, who spends himself and others in his search for depth of experience and authentic self expression. Not all of these attitudes are opposed to every kind of rationalism. Indeed the newer scientific form of rational humanism has lent support to the demand for creativity—to such an extent that John Weightman is prepared to trace the concept of the avant-garde to the influence of science: ‘[The avant-garde]… is basically connected with science, and with what is sometimes called the scientific revolution, the replacement of the medieval belief in a finished universe by the modern scientific view of a universe evolving in time’.1 But scientists themselves are in a position to develop a cumulative understanding of the natural world, whereas artists enjoy no such opportunity. The artist may, significantly, engage in constant ‘experiment’, but there are no accepted means of validating his results. Romantic humanism, therefore, takes over the creative, but not the critical, emphasis of science. Indeed in some recent forms it has tended to repudiate the scientific world-view altogether on the ground that it reduces man and nature to the status of mere objects.

It is characteristic of scientific humanism to maintain that it is in principle possible to solve ethical problems given enough empirical knowledge. It follows a fortiori that, for the scientific humanist, if two people disagree about a point of morals at least one of them must be mistaken—even if, in our present state of knowledge, we cannot tell which one that is. That is to say, scientific humanism is objectivist as also were the older forms of rational humanism. None of them is prepared to envisage ultimate and irreconcilable disagreement in matters of right or wrong, although of course, people may in fact continue to differ, since men are both fallible and wilful. Morality is a rational construction which can be given, in principle at least, a scientific basis. Because of this it applies to everyone, even if not everyone is prepared to recognize it.

The romantic humanist, by contrast, rejects the restraints that such an objective morality would impose upon his individual creativity and freedom. Once it is conceded that it is possible, if only in principle, to discern by some rational process what is right or wrong, the individual is, he feels, to that extent in fetters. His will is no longer sovereign and he has no alternative but to ‘nurse unacted desires’ (to use William Blake's phrase). Sincerity and spontaneity are forfeit, because there is an inevitable hypocrisy in following the demands of objective duty when, as must often happen, one's deepest inclination is to do otherwise. How can a man ‘be himself’ when required to subscribe to an ethic which does not proceed from his own soul? The romantic's model is the unattached artist who is prepared to subordinate the interests of others, even his own interest, to the development of his genius. As Weightman writes:

It has long been axiomatic in France that the artist has to be a rebel, an outcast, a demolisher of old forms, a hater of the bourgeoisie, an exceptional individual who lives according to his private anticipation of the laws of the perfect society of the future, not according to the defective rules of existing society.2

Accordingly the romantic humanist is committed to a subjectivist moral philosophy; either that or the rejection of morality altogether. By ‘subjectivism’ I mean the contradictory of objectivism’: the view that it is not the case that if two people contradict one another on a point of morals at least one of them must be mistaken.3 In using the expression ‘at least one of them must be mistaken’ I intend something stronger than ‘one cannot consistently agree with both’. To be an objectivist is to hold that whether something is or is not morally right is independent of the attitudes or inclinations of any particular speaker or set of speakers. It is to deny what Professor R. M. Hare explicitly asserts, that ‘all moral arguments are ad hominem’.4 The terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ have been used variously in the history of moral philosophy and I would not use them if I could think of better ones to mark the distinction that I have in mind. As I use them, the terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ exhaust the field; and they are, of course, mutually exclusive. The term ‘objective’ has in the past been applied to the doctrine that saying that anything is good or right we are mentioning a property which it has, the property of goodness or rightness. A typical objectivist, according to this usage, is G. E. Moore, who held that the word ‘good’ stands for a unique, unanalysable, simple property, on the analogy of ‘yellow’; though, unlike yellow, it is a ‘non-natural’ property. The term ‘subjective’ has often been applied to the doctrine that it is the sole function of moral judgements to describe or express the speaker's feelings. When ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are understood in these ways they do not, of course, exhaust the field. A theory may be neither objectivist nor subjectivist. Hare's moral philosophy, for example, is not in any sense objectivist; but equally it is not subjectivist in this sense. However, few philosophers would now advocate either objectivism or subjectivism in these narrower senses, which makes it easier to drop them quickly and continue to use the words in a way that does mark an important distinction.

The essential claim of subjectivism, so understood, is that morality is constituted by the principles or the attitudes which an individual adopts, freely and responsibly, as his answer to the question, ‘How shall I live?’ Its central contention is that moral disagreement can always be analysed into two components: (i) disagreement about the facts; (ii) disagreement in values (sometimes called ‘disagreement in attitude’). Disagreement about the facts is, in principle, resolvable. Disagreement in values may be ultimate. It follows that a moral argument may always break down, because even should the disputants come to agree about the facts, there is no guarantee of their achieving agreement in attitude or any reason, ultimately, why they should. And once the issue of fact is settled, there is no rational way of settling the moral point. As Sir Alfred Ayer once put it, crudely but concisely, ‘I lay down one rule and you lay down another and the issue between us is a subject for persuasion and finally a matter for individual choice’.5 For romantic humanism therefore, to repeat Iris Murdoch's words, it is always the case that ‘action involves choosing between worlds, not moving in a world’.

There are, as we shall see later, technical considerations of logic which influenced philosophers of the analytic tradition in arriving at this position. Nevertheless, the correspondence with the diffused romanticism of literature and the arts is striking. In his book, The Characters of Love, Professor John Bayley refers to Hume's remark that all men agree to tread on the pavement instead of upon their fellows' toes:

Does such an agreement still exist? In life obviously it does; for purposes of daily convenience we still agree not to tread on each other's toes, but is there any comparable agreement in the world of the writer? Do we and Proust tacitly agree that toe-treading is wrong? On the contrary, it is an article of faith today that nothing shall be taken for granted between reader and author; we must submit ourselves to the purity of his insight and accept or reject it in the isolation of our own responses.6

Both developments betray a cultural situation in which the ‘cleavage between fact and values’, to which Basil Willey referred is taken for granted. And this is influenced by a pervasive assumption that ‘facts’ are the preserve of science and common sense. The question for moral philosophy then becomes ‘can values be derived from facts so understood?’: the ‘naturalist’ maintains that they can; the ‘non-naturalist’ that they cannot.

The most rigorously worked out form of what I am calling ‘subjectivism’ is the ‘prescriptivism’ of Professor R. M. Hare as it was presented in The Language of Morals.7 In Freedom and Reason and his more recent work Hare has modified and developed his doctrine in such a way that it can no longer be taken as the philosophical equivalent of romantic humanism.8 But his earlier position is still, I think, that which a romantic humanist would have to adhere to if he wished to defend his position against philosophical criticism.

According to this view, when we call an action, a character or a situation of ‘good’, it is necessary to distinguish between the meaning of the word ‘good’ which is given by its use as a term of commendation, i.e. its ‘evaluative meaning’, and the criteria for the application of the word, which consist in those characteristics in virtue of which the agent resolves to commend the action, character or situation, its ‘descriptive meaning’. The criteria specified, the ‘descriptive meaning’, will vary with the moral code of the agent; the commendatory function of the word, its ‘evaluative meaning’ remains constant. A request for reasons for calling something ‘good’ is to be met by indicating the characteristics in virtue which I commend it.

Similarly with decisions. If called upon to justify a decision, I must refer to the principle upon which it was based; and, if called upon to justify that, I must indicate the consequences of the universal application of the principle (for it is these consequences which provide the principle with its content). And so, as Hare points out, we could ultimately be driven back to ‘a complete specification of the way of life of which the (original) principle is part’. And he goes on to say: ‘This complete specification it is impossible in practice to give; the nearest attempts are those given by the great religions, especially those which can point to historical persons who carried out the way of life in practice.’9 Moral vocabulary is, of course, very much richer than the discussion so far suggests. It is not restricted to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. We have only to turn to some of the examples given earlier.10 In the two lists of words in educational use there occur, on the one side, ‘duty’, ‘wicked’, ‘scholar’, ‘naughty’; on the other side ‘anti-social’, ‘uncooperative’, ‘creative’, ‘open-ended’. To the first list one could add all the words for traditional virtues and vices: ‘honesty’, ‘dishonesty’, ‘courage’, ‘benevolence’, ‘malice’, etc.

The prescriptivist regards it as a strength in his theory that he can apply it to these words also, in such a way as to explain how the transition can take place from the one list to the other. For a word's evaluative meaning may alter, while its descriptive meaning remains the same, or vice versa; in some words the evaluative meaning is primary, in others the descriptive. Potter, we may remember, was unhappy about the ‘weird associations’ that the word ‘duty’ had accumulated—to such an extent, indeed, that he was reluctant to use it.11 A word may become so polluted that it must be carefully sterilized before it is fit for circulation again. All these cases can be accommodated once it is recognized that every such word has, so to speak, its evaluative and descriptive components. Thus the word ‘duty’ tends to be associated with the performance of a role. My ‘duty’ is typically my duty as a soldier, a doctor, a member of Parliament, a father, a husband; and such duties in a stable society are comparatively fixed and unalterable. That is to say the criteria for the application of the word ‘duty’ are comparatively inflexible. Given this situation someone like Potter who, we may suppose, dislikes the social order in which the concept of duty is, (or was), embedded has two courses open to him. He may try to detach ‘duty’ from its existing criteria and talk, for example, of the individual's ‘duty’ to criticize the institutions under which he lives; or, if these criteria are too strong for him—if the ‘descriptive meaning’ remains obstinately primary—he must give up the use of this word and look for another, when he wants to be prescriptive. He may, of course, still find it convenient to use the word in what Hare calls its ‘inverted comma sense’: ‘Do your “duty” if you must, but you forfeit my respect.’ So Gareth Rees in his letter to The Times sees more ‘old-fashioned good Christianity’ in his trendy comprehensive than in ‘any religious, excellent, patriotic, single-sex, single-caste establishment’. Excellent' is used in the inverted-comma sense; for clearly Rees himself does not commend that kind of school.

The Underlying process is described by Hare:

Moral principles or standards are first established; then they get too rigid, and the words used in referring to them becomes too dominantly descriptive; their evaluative force has to be painfully revived before the standards are out of danger. In the course of revival, the standards get adapted to changed circumstances; moral reform takes place, and its instrument is the evaluative use of value-language. The remedy, in fact, for moral stagnation and decay is to learn to use our value-language for the purpose for which it is designed; and this involves not merely a lesson in talking, but a lesson in doing that which we commend; for unless we are prepared to do this we are doing no more than pay lip-service to a conventional standard.12

Morality changes, we are given to understand, through individuals or groups coming to commend or condemn different things and modifying language by the various devices we have noticed, and others, so that it is fitted to express these new valuations. And it is a corollary of this process that incompatible moral attitudes compete for our approval and acceptance. But how is the individual to adjudicate between these rival moralities? So long as each of them is internally consistent there is, apparently, no reason why he should prefer one to another. ‘Moralities’ (the plural here is natural) are invested with a sort of impermeability. Taking their origin in the individual's resolve to live in a certain way, they can find their ultimate justification only in the resolve which created them and, if other people choose to resolve otherwise, there is no way of settling the dispute. Hare makes this explicit in the passage quoted earlier. Suppose we were able (as in practice we are not) to give a complete specification of the way of life to which we are committed:

Suppose… that we can give it, if the inquirer still goes on asking ‘But why should I live like that?’ then there is no further answer to give him, because we have already ex hypothesi, said everything that could be included in this further answer. We can only ask him to make up his own mind which way he ought to live, for in the end everything rests upon such a decision of principle. He has to decide whether to accept that way of life or not; if he accepts it, then we can proceed to justify the decisions that are based upon it; if he does not accept it, then let him accept some other and try to live by it.13

This philosophical approach stresses two characteristically romantic themes, sincerity and commitment, although it does so primarily in order to solve a logical problem. If the function of moral language is to guide choices, there must, it seems, be some logical connection between my use of the word ‘good’ (or other word of moral commendation) and my actually doing, or at least choosing to do, the appropriate action. Thus, it is argued, the fundamental weakness of all objectivist theories is that, if they are correct, a man can become convinced that an action open to him would be right and still say ‘so what?’ and refuse to do it. In the prescriptivist scheme this cannot happen. For within that scheme it is a matter of definition that a man cannot be using a moral word in its evaluative (as distinct from ‘inverted comma’) sense unless he thereby commits himself to action of the kind indicated. And whenever he is asked to make a moral judgement about any matter, however remote it may seem to be from immediate action—as in judging a historical or fictitious character—the question before him always is ‘Am I prepared, in similar situations to this, to act as my judgement requires that he, being so situated, should act?’

Hence what we normally regard as ‘weakness of will’ tends in the prescriptivist system to be represented as a sort of insincerity. The individual who does not act in accordance with the moral principles he avows shows by that fact that he is not wholly sincere in his avowal of them; there is an element of mauvaise foi.

Creativity, sincerity, freedom, commitment; these, then, are romantic values that are formally incorporated within prescriptivism. Other romantic values are not. The prescriptivist need not value spontaneity or variety of experience or mystery or instinct. He need not, and generally does not, express hostility to ‘the scientific world-view’. But he does provide a philosophical rationale for those who choose these values, so long as they choose them consistently and sincerely. For his central doctrine about fact and value licenses such choices and protects them from criticism in the name of morality. For, given the doctrine, the critic has no firmer ground to stand upon than has the romantic humanist himself.

If morality consists in the individual's answer to the question, ‘how shall I live?’, it is likely that different people will give different answers and that the same individual will give different answers at different times. Not only will one man's morality have no authority for another man, unless he chooses to make it his own, but a man at any given time cannot regard himself as bound by his earlier moral choices, except in so far as he elects to be so bound. And there is, arguably, an element of insincerity, in a man's adhering to past decisions in the face of present spontaneous impulses to the contrary. Hence there is a marked tendency to disintegration in romantic humanism. Add to this the free man's unwillingness to be swayed by tradition or convention and you have the commitment to the Zeitgeist which is a familiar feature of the romantic outlook. As Weightman puts it, ‘the fashion of the moment becomes as it were a temporary absolute’.14 But the idea of creativity exercises an independent influence here and directs attention away from the present to the future. For it is plausible to regard the creative man as the one who anticipates the future; what else could his creativity consist in? To the extent that there remain vestiges of the idea of the perfectibility of man these will reinforce this tendency, as also will a certain contagion from the cumulative progress of science.

These ideas have entered very deeply into the attitudes of the contemporary intellectual and are indeed taken for granted by him. Consider, for example, Mr Oliver Whitley's defence of the BBC policy of giving creative writers their head with the minimum of editorial control:

The artist is a kind of radar. Ezra Pound called him the antenna of the race. Shelley… said that poets are ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’… The artist sees things sooner than other people, or further off, or both.… The artist probes around the outer edges of acceptance, thereby increasing the range of man's understanding of himself… So far from accepting a brief to defend the virtues of the present or the past, he claims freedom, and uses it, to indict the present by proclaiming the future.15

The notion that a man should be sincere and creative very easily becomes associated with spontaneity and avoidance of hypocrisy, and so with innocence and freedom from repression. That individual is most distinctive whose impulses are strongest and who restrains them least. So the romantic can maintain with Blake: ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’.

It is not a great distance from this to the idea, which so absorbs the modern imagination, of the holy criminal, the man who dares to use his freedom and demonstrate his uninhibited spontaneity by violating the most sacred principles of traditional morality. If he himself suffers along with his victims, this is a witness to his readiness to accept all that life has to offer as well as to do all that it permits. Hence the status of the Marquis de Sade as a romantic hero. There is, of course, nothing in subjectivism itself which positively commits a man to these excesses; there is nothing that requires him to give free rein to his impulses. He is free to opt for an austere and disciplined form of life. He may be gentle and unemphatic, or joyously exuberant.

On the other hand there is nothing, either, to require that one impulse be subordinated to another. There is no objective principle which says: ‘to be a whole man you must develop a character in which some of your inclinations are systematically restrained’ and, this being so, it will not be surprising if those impulses prevail which are ‘naturally’ stronger or which make the greater appeal to the imagination. There is, in particular, no reason why the principles which the individual chooses to make overriding (which constitute, in the prescriptivist sense, his morality) should coincide at all with those of traditional or conventional morality. The Emperor Heliogabalus (to use an example of Hare's) was so attracted by the colour of blood on grass that he was prepared to kill innocent human beings in order to achieve this aesthetic effect. His ‘morality’ was of a purely aesthetic kind but it could none the less qualify as a morality in the present sense.16 Heliogabalus is, perhaps, an example too remote and fantastic to be taken seriously. Listen, instead, to Lionel Trilling's account of the romantic insistence upon ‘the sentiment of being’:

Through the nineteenth century art has as one of its chief intentions to induce in the audience the sentiment of being, to recruit the primitive strength that a highly developed culture has diminished.… As the century advances the sentiment of being, of being strong, is increasingly subsumed under the conception of personal authenticity. The work of art is itself authentic by reason of its entire self-definition: it is understood to exist wholly by the laws of its own being, which include the right to embody painful, ignoble, or socially inacceptable subject-matters. Similarly the artist seeks his personal authenticity in his entire autonomousness—his goal is to be as self-defining as the art-object he creates. As for the audience, its expectation is that through its communication with the work of art, which may be resistant, unpleasant, even hostile, it acquires the authenticity of which the object itself is the model and the artist the personal example’.17

It is easy to see from Trilling's account how this attitude can get carried over from art into life.

The authority of conscience, on this model, is an authority which the individual sets up within himself. It would not be the authority of conscience if it did not make rules and stick to them consistently, but the content of these rules is not prescribed for it. The Sado-masochist can be a conscientious man, so long as he is consistent in his Sado-masochism; and, if this is so, how should conscience prevent him becoming a Sadomasochist, if he otherwise inclined to be one? And perhaps he is inclined to be one to the extent that he sets the highest value on intensity of feeling and finds that, in his search for ever greater intensity, more ordinary experiences disappoint him. This mood is well expressed by a schoolboy: ‘What worries me is the reluctance of people to risk insanity for the sake of experience. We all drown in the end, so why not go for the occasional deep-sea dive? My own hope is that we should all learn to gibber. My main fear is that we shall not listen to each other gibbering.’18 Morality is nothing, we are inclined to say, if it is not a protection against these excesses, but the morality of romantic humanism has no resources from which it might afford such protection.

To say that morality should be a protection against such excesses is implicitly to appeal to a more traditional conception of morality. And at this stage in our investigation it becomes apparent that two conceptions or morality are current today and that our present confusion about morality is partly due to this. On the one hand we think of morality as primarily the possession of the individual (though, or course, he may share it with others). It consists of the attitudes and principles he adopts for the ordering of his life and is prepared to recommend others to adopt; which, in the event of conflict, he regards as overriding. The characteristic idiom of this way of thinking is the use of ‘morality’ in the plural. We have become accustomed to talking of liberal morality or bourgeois morality, the protestant or even the Shakespearean ethic. ‘Moralities’ represent alternative options between which we are free to choose.

On the other hand we also continue to think and speak of ‘morality’ in the singular as a set of principles binding upon all men, whose function it is to check the individual's impulses in the interests of others. Only a minority are sophisticated enough to be quite at home with the notion of alternative moralities and even they let go of it sometimes. There is for workaday purposes amoral code which is sufficiently accepted in our society—at least we feel intuitively that there ought to be—and for the unsophisticated most of the time and the sophisticated some of the time, this it what is meant by ‘morality’.

The subjectivist gives his own account of this state of affairs. There is, no doubt, a traditional or conventional morality, which (to use Hare's expressive metaphor) has been largely ‘incapsulated’ in our language. In a society with a Christian past this conventional morality is likely to have been infected with Christian assumptions, and it is not surprising that it should often seem, even now, to be self-evident to many people who are not professing Christians. In just the same way the great Victorian agnostics found it natural to believe that the morality they accepted, which was substantially Christian, stood in no need of supernatural backing. But for the subjectivist this appearance of objectivity is, nevertheless, an illusion. It is for us to exercise our freedom in criticizing this traditional ethic and in taking over as much or as little of it as we independently decide.

But, we tend to ask, can this account do justice to our obstinate conviction that we are not entirely free to pick and choose among ‘moralities’ but are compelled to recognize at least some moral demands, whether we like them or not? Much of our traditional morality may be a legacy from the Christian centuries, but is this true of all of it? Are there not moral notions which command the allegiance of decent men and women everywhere?

This is a characteristically Anglo-Saxon appeal and the type of humanism I propose to discuss next is a typically (if not quite uniquely) Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. I shall call it ‘liberal humanism’. It is best understood as an accommodation or compromise between rational humanism and romantic humanism. It represents, I believe, the moral standpoint of the average English or American intellectual, who is attracted by the libertarian appeal of romantic humanism but cannot stomach its anarchic implications. It is, after all, hard to see how there could exist a society of solitary romantics, each legislating in sovereign autonomy for himself and others. Yet it is obvious that no individual can grow to maturity and become a human personality at all, capable of generating his own ideals, except in a society of some kind. Romantic humanism, that is to say, suffers from an ineradicable incoherence, if taken as a complete account of morality.

There must be a basic social framework if the interesting personalities so dear to the romantic are to develop, let alone flourish. To be effective this cannot be at the mercy of individual decision. It must, that is to say, be an objective morality. And in fact the broad outlines of such a morality can be discerned in societies of very diverse cultural and religious backgrounds—as emerges clearly from A. M. Macbeath's study of the anthropological evidence in his Gifford Lectures, Experiments in Living.19 It comprises what C. S. Lewis called ‘the ultimate platitudes of practical reason’.

The platitudes do not get much attention because, being platitudes, they are not particularly interesting. They are taken for granted. People who in their everyday life respect them need not be very exciting, or, if they are exciting, it is not this characteristic which makes them so. It is easy, therefore, to overlook their importance; particularly easy, perhaps, for intellectuals who have a connoisseur's interest in what differentiates people. It is, of course, true that ways of life vary-not only the ways of life that men have, in fact, practised, but the ways of life they have thought worth attempting. The modern mind, with its romantic bias, is entirely alive to the diversity and, in many respects, the incompatibility, of competing ways of life; and its tendency is to emphasize this feature and to neglect, or even to deny, the fundamental platitudes which they have in common. This tendency has been accentuated by the work of anthropologists, some of whom have uncritically assumed that their discipline presupposes a thoroughgoing cultural relativism. The anthropologist is interested primarily in explaining the content of any system of morality in terms of its function in maintaining the way of life of a particular society and everything he says about it is relative to the culture of that society. Within the framework of such an enquiry there is no room, and no need, for comparison between the standards of different societies. This methodological restriction can be uncritically erected into a philosophical principle. Ethical intuitionists, like Sir David Ross, who called attention to the widespread acceptance of the platitudes, were accordingly accused of simply manifesting a preference for the ethical norms of their own society. As A. C. Ewing remarked:

Ross's prima facie duties have most unfairly been described as just the code of the English gentleman. But it would surely be hard to find a community anywhere in which the fact that you had made a promise was not regarded as a reason for keeping it; the fact that you had harmed someone, as a reason for making reparation; the fact that someone had intentionally benefited you, as a reason for showing gratitude. Even such a perverted system as that of the Nazis, did not reject the prima facie duties as such, but gave bad reasons for breaking them in a number of cases.20

Like earlier rationalists Ross and other intuitionists thought that these prima-facie duties were self-evident. They were known by an intuition akin to that by which, in his view, the axioms of Euclidean geometry were known. We just, so to speak, ‘see’ that we ought to refrain from murder, keep promises, tell the truth, etc. and there is no further explanation to be given why we have these obligations and not others. They were, that is to say, rational humanists of an old-fashioned kind. It is not surprising that anthropologists, and social scientists generally, were dissatisfied with this position. It is obvious enough that such moral rules have a social function and it is hard to believe that their obligatory character is unrelated to it. As Macbeath points out:

Any tolerable form of social life requires that there should be rules governing the relations between persons in regard to such matters as intercommunication, return for services rendered, sex relations, respect for life and property etc., and that they should be generally obeyed. And the rules contained in lists of prima facie obligations are in general such obvious conditions of individual and social well-being that most of them are included in the moral codes of most peoples.21

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the matter is to be found in Professor Herbert Hart's The Concept of Law. He considers it under the heading, The Minimum Content of Natural Law’. What he there discusses is, he admits, ‘only a very attenuated version of Natural Law’, for the traditional doctrine based natural law on a metaphysical conception of the good for man and, as Hart says, ‘Aristotle includes in it the disinterested cultivation of the human intellect, and Aquinas the knowledge of God, and both these represent values which may be and have been challenged.’22 The truisms which he sets forth (more correctly called ‘truisms’ than ‘platitudes’) are based simply on ‘the argument that without such a content law and morals could not forward the minimum purpose of survival which men have in associating with each other’.

Hart lists five truisms:

  • (1) Human vulnerability.… If men were to lose their vulnerability to each other there would vanish one obvious reason for the most characteristic provision of law and morals: Thou shalt not kill.
  • (2) Approximate equality.… This fact of approximate equality, more than other, makes obvious the necessity for a system of mutual forbearance and compromise, which is the base of both legal and moral obligation. [In the absence of such a system life would be, in the Hobbesian phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.]…
  • (3) Limited altruism.… Men are not devils… but neither are they angels; and the fact that they are a mean between these two extremes makes a system of mutual forbearance both necessary and possible.…
  • (4) Limited resources.… Human beings need food, clothes, and shelter.… but [these] are scarce, have to be grown or won from nature, or have to be constructed from human toil. These facts alone make indispensable some minimal form of the institution of property (though not necessarily individual property) and the distinctive kind of rule that requires respect for it.…
  • (5) Limited understanding and strength of will.… The facts that make rules respecting persons, property and promises necessary in social life are simple and their mutual benefits obvious. Most men are capable of seeing them and of sacrificing the immediate short-term interest which conformity to such rules demands.… [But]… all are tempted at times to prefer their own immediate interests and, in the absence of a special organization for their detection and punishment, many would succumb to the temptation.23

Hart is concerned to draw attention to certain general features of the human situation which render necessary a basic social morality of some kind. He does not in this passage give much indication of the precise content of such a morality, but what matters at this point is less the precise content of such a list of platitudes than the principle upon which it is compiled. The obligations and virtues which occur in the list are there because their recognition and sufficient practice is held to be a necessary condition of any tolerable human existence. They are not logically necessary, as Kant thought, but, to use Strawson's phrase, ‘humanly necessary’.

If this scheme is accepted it provides, within certain limits, an objective morality that is capable of rational justification. It concedes at least some of the central claims of rational humanism without seeking the authority of science or appealing to dubious ‘intuitions’ or problematical conceptions of ‘nature’, and to that extent restricts the freedom of the romantic humanist to devise a morality which is the unrestrained expression of his own personality. For, should he object to the concept of a basic social morality as such, he could be made to recognize that it is a necessary condition of any social life, which in turn is a necessary condition of his realizing his own purposes, or indeed of his becoming a person at all. If he objected to reciprocity as a feature of morality he could be made to see that a putative moral system which lacked this feature could not perform its function of harmonizing people's interests. If he objected to the inclusion in a moral system of particular requirements, such as that he should tell the truth or keep promises or condemn cruelty or commend courage, he could be shown that these are necessary features of any system capable of furthering men's interests to the extent needed for a stable society.

But this basic morality is also strictly limited in its range and scope. It falls far short of the developed morality of any civilized society. Insistence upon this limitation is an essential feature of liberal humanism, which seeks to restrict the individual's moral choice only so far as is needed for the bare minimum of social control. The defect of rational humanism in all its forms, and more especially in the form of scientific humanism, is that it bases too much upon too little. It claims to be able, in principle at least, to devise a morality that will satisfy the needs of all men everywhere and to found it upon reason rather narrowly defined. It lacks a sense of the depth and the uniqueness of the individual. Its utilitarian structure turns all decisions into moral decisions, while at the same time depriving them of any personal colouring. Hence the romantic protest in the name of all that it excludes, the passions, the imagination, the urge to personal commitment.

But, as we have seen, romantic protest cannot of itself maintain a continuing culture. It is a fertilizer which, if sparingly applied, can help to produce a rich diversity of flowers from the firm soil of tradition, but which, if used without restriction, must become a solvent of the soil which nourishes it. There must be a basic social structure if the interesting personalities so dear to the romantic are to develop, let alone flourish. This, then, provides the starting-point for liberal humanism.

  • 1.

    The Concept of the Avant-Garde, Alcove Press (1973), p. 20.

  • 2.

    Weightman, op. cit., p. 29.

  • 3.

    In wishing to make use of this distinction I am reassured by Mr J. L. Mackie's discussion of it in his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin (1977), pp. 22–5.

  • 4.

    Freedom and Reason, Clarendon Press (1963), p. 111.

  • 5.

    Polemic, 1947, p. 30.

  • 6.

    Constable (1960), pp. 276–7.

  • 7.

    Clarendon Press (1952).

  • 8.

    In chapter 4 I shall suggest that Hare's present position has affinities with ‘liberal humanism’. Hare would not, I think, agree that the later book does more than draw out the implications of the earlier one (see Freedom and Reason, p. 200); but in The Language of Morals the account of moral reasoning developed in Parts II and III of Freedom and Reason was left incomplete. Hence it remained unclear by what rational process a choice could be made between principles, each of which was prescriptive and universalizable.

  • 9.

    The Language of Morals, Clarendon Press (1952), pp. 68f.

  • 10.

    In chapter I, pp. 4–6 above.

  • 11.

    Quoted on p. 5 above.

  • 12.

    The Language of Morals, p. 150.

  • 13.

    Ibid., p. 69.

  • 14.

    Weightman, op. cit., p. 15.

  • 15.

    In an unpublished lecture on ‘Tolerance, or Some Thoughts on some responsibilities in Broadcasting’ (1966).

  • 16.

    The example is given in Freedom and Reason, p. 161. As prescriptivism is developed in that book, Heliogabalus can be shown to be inconsistent unless prepared himself to be the victim.

  • 17.

    Trilling, op. cit., pp. 99–100.

  • 18.

    Images of Life, edd. Robin Richardson and John Chapman, S. C. M. (1973), p. 112.

  • 19.

    Macmillan (1952).

  • 20.

    Second Thoughts in Moral Philosophy, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1959), p. 40.

  • 21.

    Op. cit., p. 369.

  • 22.

    The Concept of Law, Clarendon Press (1961), p. 187.

  • 23.

    Op. cit., pp. 190–3.