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4: Liberal Humanism

This position (though he does not give it this name) has been worked out with much sensitivity and ingenuity by Sir Peter Strawson in his essay, ‘Social Morality and Individual Ideal’, and I cannot do better than discuss his formulation of it. Strawson begins by denying what rational humanists characteristically affirm, that all moral claims must have the character of universal principles holding for all men. Morality may be ‘not what is demanded of men as men but what is demanded of Spartans by other Spartans or of a King by his subjects’. There are, however, elements in morality that are universal.

What is universally demanded by the members of a moral community is something like the abstract virtue of justice; a man should not insist on a particular claim while refusing to acknowledge any reciprocal claim. But from this formally universal feature of morality no consequences follow as to the universality of application of the particular rules in the observance of which, in particular situations and societies, justice consists.1

Beyond this formal requirement there are certain substantial features which must be present in the morality of every society:

It is also important to recognize that certain human interests are so fundamental and so general that they must be universally acknowledged in some form and to some degree in any conceivable moral community.… It remains true that the recognition of certain general virtues and obligations will be a logically or humanly necessary feature of almost any conceivable moral system.2

There follows Strawson's version of the platitudes: some form of obligation to mutual aid and mutual abstention from injury and, in some form and in some degree, the virtue of honesty.

But there is a great deal in any developed morality which goes beyond these universal features. Here Strawson makes the move which distinguishes him from the pure rationalist or romantic. There is, he says, a distinction to be made between the sphere of morality and the region of the ethical. The sphere of morality has to do with the observance of such rules as are necessary for the existence of a society, which in turn is a necessary condition of the realization of any human ideals. Within this sphere, and within this sphere only, rational procedures can discover truth in matters of morality. The region of the ethical, by contrast, is ‘a region in which there are truths which are incompatible with one another’. Strawson introduces this conception as follows:

Men make for themselves pictures of ideal forms of life. Such pictures are various, and may be in sharp opposition to each other; and one and the same individual may be captivated by different and sharply conflicting pictures at different times. At one time it may seem to him that he should live—even that a man should live—in such and such a way; at another that the only truly satisfactory form of life is something totally different, incompatible with the first. In this way his outlook may vary radically not only at different periods of his life, but from day to day, even from one hour to the next.3

Related to these individual ideals are ‘profound truths’ about man and the universe:

There exist, that is to say, many profound general statements which are capable of capturing the ethical imagination in the same way… They often take the form of general descriptive statements about man and the world. They can be incorporated into a metaphysical system, or dramatized in a religious or historical myth. Or they can exist—their most persuasive form for many—as isolated statements such as, in France, there is a whole literature of, the literature of the maxim. I will not give examples, but I will mention names. One cannot read Pascal or Flaubert, Nietzsche or Goethe, Shakespeare or Tolstoy, without encountering these profound truths. It is certainly possible, in a coolly analytical frame of mind, to mock at the whole notion of the profound truth; but we are guilty of mildly bad faith if we do. For in most of us the ethical imagination succumbs again and again to these pictures of man, and it is precisely as truths that we wish to characterize them while they hold us captive.4

The ‘pictures of ideal forms of life’ and the ‘profound truths about man and the universe’ reflect one another and capture the imagination in the same way:

Hence it is as wholly futile to think that we could, without destroying their character, systematize these truths into one coherent body of truth as it is to suppose that we could, without destroying their character, form a coherent composite image from these images. This may be expressed by saying that the region of the ethical is the region where there are truths but no truth; or, in other words, that the injunction to see life steadily and see it whole is absurd, for one cannot do both.5

I think it is fair to say that Strawson here shows himself to be fundamentally a romantic who makes minimal concessions to the practically unavoidable claims of organized society. The basic notion is that we have, so to speak, an agreed moral syllabus, which is reasonable and can be shown to be reasonable. Beyond that we are offered a range of optional further subjects. What makes life interesting and exciting is the optional further subjects, but the agreed syllabus is essential, because the moral rules it enjoins and the moral virtues it encourages are the necessary conditions of any tolerable human life, a fortiori of the successful achievement by anyone of his own individual ideal or ideals.

Strawson's commitment to the romantic ideal is apparent in his appreciation of ‘evaluative diversity’. Having asserted that ‘the region of the ethical… is a region in which many… incompatible pictures may secure the imaginative, though doubtless not often the practical allegiance of a single person’ he continues:

Moreover this statement itself may be seen not merely as a description of what is the case, but as a positive evaluation of evaluative diversity. Any diminution of this variety would impoverish the human scene. The multiplicity of conflicting pictures is itself the essential element in one of one's pictures of man.6

It is this which justifies my use of the title ‘liberal humanism’ to characterize this particular standpoint. Strawson himself gives eloquent expression to his vision of a liberal society:

What will be the attitude of one who experiences sympathy with a variety of conflicting ideals of life? It seems that he will be most at home in a liberal society, in a society in which there are variant moral environments but in which no ideal endeavours to engross, and determine the character of the common morality. He will not argue in favour of such a society that it gives the best chance for the truth about life to prevail. Nor will he argue in its favour that it has the best chance of producing a harmonious kingdom of ends, for he will not think of ends as necessarily capable of being harmonized. He will simply welcome the ethical diversity which the society makes possible, and in proportion as he values that diversity he will note that he is the natural, though perhaps the sympathetic, enemy of all those whose single intense vision of the ends of life drives them to try to make the requirements of the ideal co-extensive with those of common social morality.7

This is not the classical case for liberalism, as Strawson clearly recognizes. As set out by Milton and Kant and J. S. Mill, that case was that the greatest practical enlargement of the area of personal freedom is an indispensable means to the discovery of the truth about life and so to the attainment of happiness; it being assumed that the truth about life could, in principle, be ascertained and that men can agree in recognizing happiness when they see it. Classical liberalism was founded on a thoroughly objectivist moral philosophy.

The new style of liberalism is familiar to us as the philosophy underlying the ‘permissive society’. It finds expression in a great deal of what one reads in, say, the Guardian or the Observer, or hears on the BBC. Professor H. L. A. Hart in his Law, Liberty, and Morality8 provides a clear and confident statement of it in relation to jurisprudence; and it is interesting to notice that Hare in Freedom and Reason develops his earlier views in a direction that brings them very much closer to Strawson's.9 Here too there is a broad division between the region of the strictly moral and the realm of ideals. Critics of Hare's earlier work had complained that it presented no limits to the possible content of moral principles—Heliogabalus, if prepared to be consistent, was as much a moralist as Socrates, though a more eccentric one; and that it allowed no rational means of choosing between rival moral theories—between Socrates and Heliogabalus. Hare in the later book argues that, in a situation where another's interests are affected, a man can always be pressed to say what action he would be prepared to recommend, if the roles were reversed. Thus a Nazi would be required to decide whether he would recommend that, if he were a Jew, he should be gassed. Since he does not himself wish to be gassed, he cannot sincerely recommend this and is, therefore, committed to moral condemnation of the practice of gassing Jews. These ‘golden-rule arguments’ result from combining his earlier requirements of prescriptivity and universalizability with the actual inclinations of the agent. From this sort of argument Hare envisages two ‘respectable’ ways out, as well as a number of less respectable ways. One of the respectable ways is an appeal to utilitarian considerations. If the Nazi were able to show that it was in the general interest (when equal weight has been given to the interests of each individual) that Jews should be gassed, then he could justify the gassing of Jews, even though he himself, if a Jew, would not wish to be gassed. The other respectable way is for the Nazi to adopt the extermination of the Jews as an ideal to which he is ready, if need be, to sacrifice people's interests, including his own. A man who is prepared in this way to subordinate interests to ideals Hare calls a ‘fanatic’. The fanatic puts himself beyond moral argument; but, fortunately human nature is so constituted that fanatics are few. Or so Hare believes.

But not only fanatics have ideals. What makes a man a fanatic is not his having ideals, but his being prepared to sacrifice interests to ideals. There are, Hare believes, two distinct grounds for moral condemnation or commendation, interests and ideals of human excellence; and, although tempting, it will not do to limit morality entirely to the former. ‘Golden-rule arguments’ are applicable only where interests are affected, but there are moral questions which are not concerned with interests. Hare instances the case of a pretty girl who earns her living by strip-tease: ‘Those who call such exhibitions immoral do not do so because of their effect on other people's interests; for, since everybody gets what he or she wants, nobody's interests are harmed. They are likely, rather, to use such words as “degrading”’.10 Hare does not, therefore, restrict the use of the term ‘moral’ to the cases where interests are affected, but his difference from Strawson on this point is verbal only. Both distinguish between ideals, on the one hand, and, on the other, a sort of morality based on people's interests. They do not give the same account of this sort of morality, though Strawson's emphasis upon reciprocity matches what Hare has to say about golden-rule arguments. Where they appear to differ is about the justification of the sort of morality based on interests. Strawson finds it in the fact that morality of this sort is a necessary condition of the existence of any tolerable society; Hare is content to base it on the formal properties of moral arguments taken in conjunction with the actual inclinations of individuals. Thus all moral arguments are for him ad hominem as they are not for Strawson—although Hare would claim that the appearance of arbitrariness is mitigated by the de facto similarity of people's basic inclinations.

Liberal humanism is now the very air we breathe. For this reason, and because of its all-embracing tolerance, we find it hard to notice its premisses or to find fault with them, if we do. Are not all rival ideologies given their due? Are they not indeed encouraged, subject only to a basic social morality whose necessity all reasonable men can recognize? The strength of its appeal lies in its claim to provide an entirely non-controversial system of morality which satisfies the requirement for an effective method of social control, while allowing as much scope as they can reasonably expect for the proponents of other, less hospitable, moralities. The question is whether these claims can be made good.

It is significant that Strawson does not draw any very clear distinction between ‘individual ideals’ and ‘profound general statements about man and the universe’. Yet they are very different. Christianity and Marxism are obvious examples of ‘profound general statements about man and the universe’. Here, by contrast, is Strawson's list of typical ‘ideal pictures of life’:

The ideal of self-obliterating devotion to duty or to the service of others;

of personal honour and magnanimity;

of asceticism, contemplation, retreat;

of action, dominance and power;

of the cultivation of an ‘exquisite sense of the luxurious’:

of simply human solidarity and cooperative endeavour;

of a refined complexity of social existence;

of a constantly maintained and renewed affinity with natural things;11

Any of these, he says, ‘may form the core and substance of a personal ideal’. And later he mentions as an ideal picture of life ‘that in which the command to love one another becomes the supreme value’. Ideals then, are prescriptive; they tell us how to live; the ‘profound general statements’ are descriptive; they offer an over-all interpretation of the human condition.

Not only are Strawson's ‘individual ideals’ plainly in a different category from his ‘profound general statements’; they differ markedly in kind from one another. The ideal of self-obliterating devotion to duty and of service to others, and the ideal of loving one another are both, recognizably, answers to the question, how a man should live. One could scarcely embrace them merely as a personal preference, still less as a transitory one. The remainder one could embrace without in any way regarding them as incumbent upon other people. They are answers, rather, to the question, how shall I live? The ideals which (to use Strawson's expression) ‘reflect and are reflected by’ profound general statements about men and the universe are, characteristically, of the first kind: answers to the question how a man should live; and they vary precisely because they reflect different conceptions of what it is to be a man. The others are essentially vocational. They represent the individual's sense of what he has it in him to be or do in virtue of his individual temperament or endowment. It is one of the merits of Strawson's discussion—one which it shares with romanticism—that he notices these vocational ideals, which moral philosophers are inclined to neglect. But not all ideals are in this way personal and vocational; some are general ideals of human excellence. And these latter are intimately associated with a man's entire philosophy of life, upon which depends his conception of what it is to be a man, and what is the significance of human life.

The relation between such ideals of human excellence and the corresponding philosophies of life—Strawson's ‘profound general statements’—is exemplified in Strawson's scheme. Strawson has his own ‘individual ideal’ which I think we may take as more than just a vocational one. It is the ideal of imaginative sympathy with the ideals of others, no matter how alien these may be. It reflects a view of man as a being who, within the limits of his biological constitution, is free to become what he wills, whose ‘existence precedes his essence’. If men are self-creations of this sort and if, as Strawson believes, there are no objective criteria by which to judge what they choose to make of themselves, one can help them, once their basic needs are satisfied, only by identifying oneself in imagination with their entire project of life, or their changing projects, and aiding their achievement; so long, that is, as they respect the basic social morality. It is characteristic of a being, such as man is on this view, that he expresses himself, among other ways, in the elaboration of religious and metaphysical systems which he is tempted to regard as true; and Strawson will sympathize with these, while recognizing this temptation for what it is, a delusive phantasy.

So Strawson presents us with an ideal picture of life based upon a profound general statement about man and the universe, which, on his own theory, we are at liberty to accept or reject as we choose, for it falls within the region of the ethical.

As soon as this has become apparent, it is clear that Strawson's scheme, for all its air of benevolent neutrality, cannot satisfy those who are serious adherents of any alternative ideology or philosophy of life. Neither the Christian nor the Marxist, for example, can agree that his Christianity or his Marxism should occupy the status merely of a private preference with no authority over man's social life and no claim to objective truth. Christianity and Marxism are not ‘personal ideals’ or ‘profound statements’ which can fit happily into the niche that the liberal humanist is ready to provide for them; they are rival philosophies of life.

Not only the Christian or the Marxist but the scientific humanist also will decline the role he is offered, because he believes that man is a rational animal to meet whose needs, when they are properly and scientifically understood, a reasonable morality can be devised. He will, if he is sensible, recognize that there are ideals of a purely personal, vocational kind; but he has his own universal ideal of an objective, scientifically based morality, which can be shown to be reasonable to anyone not influenced by traditional prejudice or suffering from psychological immaturity. This scientifically based ‘picture of man’, just because it is scientifically based, he is unwilling to regard as a matter for purely personal choice, as one among a number of incompatible ‘truths’.

The liberal humanist, faced by this challenge, may perhaps agree that he is not conceding to his rivals all that they wish to claim, but argue nevertheless that he grants them all that they can reasonably ask. There is a minimum social morality which can be rationally defended, based on human needs that are so fundamental and inescapable that they cannot be gainsaid; but, he will insist, it falls far short of what the scientific humanist believes he can establish, much of which cannot be derived from science or, indeed, arrived at by any other rational process. It falls within the region of the ethical, not the sphere of the moral. And the same, mutatis mutandis, is true of the others. The fundamental question, however, is whether this crucial distinction between the moral and the ethical can be maintained; and whether, if it can, it is as exhaustive and exclusive as Strawson makes out. Because of it he has to introduce a radical discontinuity into his account of the good life. He has to say that there are certain virtues such as honesty and (with certain qualifications), justice, which belong to the minimum social morality; these are firmly based in the nature of man as a social being and are, therefore, part of the agreed moral syllabus. There are other virtues, such as humility and chastity, which are optional subjects and are based only on pictures of human nature, which men are free to adopt or not as they choose. There are, it would seem, conclusive arguments in favour of honesty. There are no arguments at all in favour of chastity, only choices. A similar discontinuity is observable in Hare's Freedom and Reason, where ideals of human excellence are sharply distinguished from interests, so that we are not permitted to argue in the case of the stripper, that it is not in the girl's interest to accept degrading employment, just because it is degrading.12

This discontinuity is extremely implausible. What makes it attractive is the hope it offers of providing a basic morality which is as modest in its pretensions as it is unchallengeable in its demands. The sharpness of the contrast between it and the realm of ideals is essential to the scheme, for it is this that prevents the basic morality becoming infected with ideals or ideals claiming the categorical character of the basic morality.

But it is open to a serious objection. The ‘agreed syllabus’ does not and, I suggest, could not constitute the entire morality of any actual society; for beyond the minimum moral content which is ‘humanly necessary’, it provides only an abstract scheme into which some content has to be poured. Take, for example, sexual morality. Although there are wide variations between societies in respect of the sexual codes they have recognized, there is no society which has regarded sexual behaviour as of no social concern; and this is not surprising since sexual desire is universal, fundamental, and extremely exigent. Our own society has until recently based itself on a Christian ideal which limits sexual intercourse to marriage and regards marriage as a life-long partnership between a man and a woman. In spite of recent erosion this conception is still deeply embedded in our legal system and affects the related institutions of property and parenthood. This sexual morality with all its social ramifications is, of course, only one of the possible ways of organizing a ‘system of reciprocal demands’ having to do with sex. There can be no doubt that the desires for sexual intercourse and parenthood are among the human interests which are ‘so fundamental that they must be universally acknowledged in some form and in some degree in any conceivable moral community’. The question is, for a given society, in what form and in what degree. It is not at all clear how Strawson would answer this question. He will, of course, admit that the question could be answered (as in our society it has been so far) by reference to a particular ideal form of life which has been the focus of aspiration for the members of society, giving its sanction to the mutual obligations of husbands and wives, parents and children; encouraging and, in turn, depending upon such virtues as fidelity and chastity. But this is to ‘make the requirements of the ideal coextensive with those of the common social morality’, which he is against. Is he, perhaps, prepared to argue (as Comfort, Osborn, and other rational humanists would) that a rational choice can be made between alternative patterns of sexual ethics in terms of the human satisfaction they offer? But to admit this possibility is to abandon the characterization of ideal forms of life as reflecting ‘truths which are incompatible with one another’.

Precisely the same point could be made about the institution of property. Some form of the institution is necessary to any stable society—this much is a platitude—but it has to be some determinate form and the basic social morality docs not lay down which this is to be. And in this case, too, whatever form of the institution is adopted encourages and depends upon the appropriate moral virtues. There is thus a vast area intermediate between Strawson's sphere of the moral and region of the ethical which is of enormous social importance, but which the liberal humanist typically neglects. It also directly affects the individual and his vocational ideals to the extent that these are related to the social roles that he discharges. If he decides that by talent and temperament he is called to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scholar he is committed by that choice to the ethic of his chosen profession, which he may be able to influence to some degree but cannot vary at will. The tendency of liberal humanism with its strong romantic strain, is to weaken the authority of all such institutional claims upon the individual, which come to be regarded as a vast impersonal system threatening his creative freedom of expression. And this attitude reinforces the atomizing tendencies that are already at work in our society, so as to make it increasingly resemble this picture. Thus genuine community is doubly threatened; first by the determination of the tough-minded to eliminate all that is merely customary or in any way anomalous; second by the reluctance of the tender-minded to countenance any institutional loyalties. For illustration we need look no further than the universities whose way of life is under constant pressure both from those who think in terms of the minimum university and talk of ‘efficient use of the plant’ and ‘pupil contact hours’, and from those whose idea of a community is a temporary huddle of like-minded individuals bound by no institutional tics. The liberal humanist may reply that there is an ideal which should inform our moral system, viz. the one Strawson himself favours, that of imaginative sympathy with the ideals of others. But this is a second-order ideal which can qualify a moral system only, so to speak, adverbially. Given that in the society certain virtues are acknowledged and certain obligations recognized, the members of it can be tolerant and sympathetic in their judgement upon those who, for whatever reason, are at odds with the standards set; but tolerance and sympathy do not of themselves generate a system of moral demands, since their essence is to be morally permissive.

Faced then by the distinction which the liberal humanist draws between ideals that are not amenable to rational choice and a basic social morality that can be shown to be ‘humanly necessary’, and his insistence that the two be kept apart, we have to insist that his programme cannot be carried through as it stands. We have no alternative but to make, as a society, certain moral decisions which presuppose some ideal of human excellence and cannot be determined solely by the minimum basic morality. The attempted accommodation between rational and romantic humanism, to be achieved by parcelling out the territory between them, breaks down. Either the region of ideals must be opened up to rational argument or the sphere of the moral must be allowed to admit of controversy.

As it happens both alternatives seem, on reflection, to be demanded. More argument is possible about ideals than Strawson is prepared to admit and the basic morality is more controversial than he supposes. A man's view, Strawson tells us, may vary from day to day, even from hour to hour, as to what is the only truly satisfactory form of life; and so of course, it may. But, if a picture of life presents itself as the only truly satisfactory one, the question seems to arise, at the least, whether it is a satisfactory one. Quite simply, does it satisfy? Or would it satisfy if persevered with? Can one reasonably allow oneself to be captivated by attractive images of possible lives without raising the question whether or not their appeal is delusive? In day dreams, of course, we can do this. If, however, we are not day-dreaming, but seriously considering the question how we ought to live we must, at the very least, take notice of certain undeniable needs and inescapable facts; we must, that is, if we are trying to be reasonable; psychologically speaking we can, no doubt, avoid taking notice of them by retreating into madness or simple silliness. A picture of human life which took no account of hunger or thirst or sexual desire or the need for shelter and companionship or the inevitability of death, would not be a serious picture of human life at all.

There are pictures of human life which exist in the realm of fantasy, the world of the fairy-tale, where wishes always come true and people live happily ever after, and the weak overcome the strong and good is never worsted by evil. Such pictures may fulfil a necessary function, but we are rarely tempted to think of them as true, let alone profoundly true. Serious religious or metaphysical schemes would normally be contrasted with such fanciful pictures, and it is reckoned a fatal flaw in them if they cannot do justice to the observed facts of human life or the accepted findings of the sciences. That is to say, they present themselves, and are normally regarded, as candidates for truth.

Moreover it is hard to see how in the end ‘profound truths’ can be a serious matter if questions of truth or falsehood do not arise in connection with them. Yet, in Strawson's view, they are a serious matter, since they are the intellectual counterparts of those ideals, freedom to choose which is the essential feature of any comprehensive way of life which he is prepared to acknowledge. To choose, then, is important. But how are we to choose? Not, ex hypothesi, in terms of truth or evidence. How, then, is a man to decide whether to be a Christian or a Marxist or a liberally minded humanist?

As to the basic morality, Strawson himself recognizes that justice involves only a formal requirement of reciprocity, and this formal requirement may be exemplified by widely differing social systems. The differences are to be accounted for, presumably, by, inter alia, the varying ideals that have inspired them. The ‘social justice’, for example, which has been so influential a conception in post-war British politics, is far from platitudinous and derives from a vision of society which is emphatically repudiated by liberal theorists such as Friedman and Hayek. But other platitudinous virtues are also to some extent open to divergent interpretations. Honesty is universally prized, but there are wide differences of opinion (and even wider differences in practice) as to what honesty requires and to whom it is due. Does it demand for example, the literal truth about the details of a person's earnings to the tax authorities? There are many, and in some countries undoubtedly a majority, who would not think it ‘dishonest’ to conceal or disguise the truth about such matters. Moreover priorities may differ. Small agricultural communities tend to rate politeness more highly and honesty less highly than complex industrial societies. Hence that endearing, and infuriating, tendency to tell the stranger what it is thought that he would like to hear, rather than the unwelcome truth, about such matters as the time of buses or the distance to the next village. Presumably in a small community most people know what is going on anyway, so mere information is relatively unimportant, whereas avoiding friction matters a great deal.

Moreover the platitudes, although always regarded as important, are not always taken to be of overriding importance, and cultures and individuals differ as to what other values can override them and in what circumstances. As Ewing remarks, ‘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 great number of cases.’ Acceptance of the platitudes will not of itself guarantee wise judgement as when they may be overridden. An ethic need not be obviously perverted to illustrate this point. We need only recollect the relative importance attached in aristocratic societies to the preservation of life and the maintenance of personal honour, or, in our own society, to the prevention of injury and convenience in transport. Thus, although the platitudes can never be entirely discounted, their force and scope and relevance is always to some extent limited by the operation of other, non-platitudinous, ideals.

But there is a further consideration which affects the justification of the platitudes. A society, even a complex one, can get along with a degree of honesty or respect for human life which goes little, if at all, beyond what simple prudence would dictate. ‘There are certain rules of conduct’ says Hart ‘which any social organization must maintain if it is to be viable.’ But when is an organization ‘viable’? If to be viable is just to survive, any surviving society must by this criterion be morally satisfactory. But how can this be seriously maintained in face of the discrimination that has characterized so many societies? A community may deny the most basic rights, as Hart himself has pointed out, not only to members of other communities, but also to some of its own members. And yet, like ancient Sparta or the Hindu caste system, it may survive for centuries.

If such a community is to be open to criticism on moral grounds, it will have to be not because it neglects the conditions of its survival, but because it neglects the fundamental interests of its members. This is an intuitively far more satisfying criterion, and there is some warrant for it in Strawson's formulation. But, if this criterion is adopted, the basic morality loses much of its claim to be entirely non-controversial. The liberal humanist is confronted, in the end, with a dilemma. Either he bases his minimum social morality upon the necessary conditions for the survival of a society; in which case it is secured from controversy, but only in so far as it is stated in a very general form, which will require further specification in any given society; or he bases it upon a determinate conception of fundamental human needs which is open to some degree of controversy and liable to be influenced by ideals of human excellence.

The liberal humanist may, however, seek to resist this conclusion. He may concede that a society cannot survive on the basic morality alone and that there must be some recourse to ideals if morality is to fulfil its social function, but he may recommend as a remedy what Hart calls ‘moral pluralism’. This involves ‘divergent sub-moralities in relation to the same area of conduct’.13 Personal ideals could thus be allowed a social dimension by the encouragement of variant communities within the larger society, each complementing or specifying the basic social morality in its own way in accordance with its distinctive way of life. In addition to the agreed syllabus a selection of further subjects would be required of all candidates, but not the same selection. Should it be found necessary to have some shared values over and above the basic minimum, these could be arrived at by negotiation and compromise.

There is no need to deny that such pluralism represents a possible option, which a society may reasonably endeavour to put into effect. In order to adopt it decisions will have to be taken at a social and political level as to the over-all pattern of life in that society, decisions which are not dictated by the basic social morality and belong therefore to Strawson's region of the ethical’. As such they are not, on his view, open to rational debate.

But, as soon as this option is stated, it becomes apparent that there are serious arguments available for and against it, in which appeal is made to both practical and broadly moral considerations. People are likely to be less frustrated and readier to accept essential constraints if in important aspects of their lives they are free to do as they wish with others who are like-minded; and, as Mill so strongly believed, such an arrangement allows diverse styles of life to be developed and tested within an over-all framework that is secure and tolerant. There is a case, along these lines, for allowing a variety of forms of marriage or other sexual relationship to be regarded as morally, and perhaps even legally, acceptable. But there are also likely to be severe disadvantages. If any ideal is to have a social dimension, it requires to be supported to some extent by the ethos of society at large. For example the prevalence of divorce as a readily available and socially accepted remedy is bound to weaken the recognition and practice of marriage as a life-long covenant. To avoid this consequence in a thoroughly plural society those who wished to adhere to the latter ideal as one ‘option’ among others could well be forced eventually to insulate themselves from the rest of society in order to resist the contagion. And this tendency could militate against the mutual confidence and easy social relationships which might otherwise obtain between members of the wider society, while at the same time increasing for the individual that very burden of conformity from which the liberal hoped to free him.

The liberal humanist might well think the price worth paying for greater diversity in sexual relationships. But would he, in the case of property? Here views differ not only as to whether, and to what extent, the institution of private property should be maintained at all, but also as to how far the accumulation and protection of property should be regulated by the state. Almost all societies have been inegalitarian and, in our own society, it is a highly controversial question whether, e.g., it is just to use the state's powers of taxation to secure greater economic and social equality. Both those who favour this and those who object to what they see as ‘penal taxation’ take their stand upon considerations of justice; and dispute between them defies adjudication by appeal to purely formal tests. There are obvious practical difficulties in adopting a pluralist policy about such matters, and where it has been attempted, as in the United States, there has been continuous pressure toward uniformity. But more important than these practical considerations is the unwillingness of those who adhere seriously to an ideal to allow it to be compromised beyond a certain point. There are limits to what they will tolerate in the way of ‘divergent sub-moralities’ and in the extent to which they are prepared to sacrifice their own ideal in the attempt to arrive at a general consensus. The most striking contemporary examples are political. Few, however liberal, would be willing to countenance a sub-morality which denied fundamental human rights, notwithstanding the prevalence of world-views that challenge our conception of such rights, or to tolerate customs among tribal minorities which involve the exploitation of women or the religious indoctrination of children. And even in the sexual realm similar lines are drawn in relation to paedophilia or child marriages.14

It seems, then, that resort to pluralism does not enable the liberal humanist to avoid the fundamental criticism that his initial distinction between a (rational) basic social morality and (non-rational) individual ideals is untenable. Most of the major decisions which have to be made about our social and political arrangements, even if we opt for pluralism, have to do with ideals, but are at the same time open to rational debate. Ideals are not, as a rule, arbitrarily chosen but depend upon deeply held and broadly ramified convictions about human nature and the human predicament. It is for this reason that, as Mackie remarks: ‘… it is not possible genuinely to adhere to an ideal and at the same time to subordinate it completely to some resultant of all ideals.’15

  • 1.

    Philosophy (1961); reprinted in Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. I. T. Ramsey, S. C. M. (1966), p. 291. It is also included in P. F. Strawson, Freedom and Resentment, Methuen (1974).

  • 2.

    Op. cit., pp. 291 f.

  • 3.

    Op. cit., p. 280.

  • 4.

    Op. cit., pp. 282 f.

  • 5.

    Op. cit., p. 283.

  • 6.


  • 7.

    Op. cit., pp. 297 f.

  • 8.

    Oxford University Press, 1968.

  • 9.

    He acknowledges the affinity in Freedom and Reason, pp. 151–2.

  • 10.

    Op. cit., p. 147.

  • 11.

    Op. cit., p. 280.

  • 12.

    This is because ‘interest’ is defined in terms of wants. ‘To have an interest is, crudely speaking, for there to be something which one wants, or is likely in the future to want, or which is (or is likely to be) a means necessary or sufficient for the attainment of something which one wants (or is likely to want)’ (Freedom and Reason, p. 122).

  • 13.

    Social Solidarity and the Enforcement of Morality’, University of Chicago Law Review, xxxv (1967). Strawson's recognition that many ideals require a social dimension indicates that he favours ‘moral pluralism’ of this kind.

  • 14.

    I have discussed this question of ‘pluralism’ in greater detail in ‘Law and the Protection of Institutions’ in The Proper Study, ed. Vesey, Macmillan (1971).

  • 15.

    Ethics, p. 154.