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6: The Dilemma of the Traditional Conscience

I have noted the dissatisfaction of certain sensitive minds with prevailing patterns of secular morality. What they look for in them, and do not find, is a standard that transcends the de facto preferences of individuals and societies, by which these may be judged; the recognition of ideals or principles to which a man may be seriously and continuously committed, and upon which greater emphasis is laid than would be justifiable on utilitarian grounds alone. They have, that is to say, a conception of moral character, which is out of phase with the moral theories that are available to them.

For the utilitarian a good man can only be one who acts rightly in every situation, that is to say who makes a correct calculation as to what, in that situation, is likely to produce the best results. But a man whose sole motive is this generalized benevolence cannot develop any fundamental consistency of character, for any virtues he might achieve, any loyalties he might acknowledge, any ideals he might subscribe to, would inevitably tend to distract him from his single-minded devotion to utility. For just the same reason this attitude is a solvent of institutional ties and personal relationships. It atomizes the individual and the institutions to which he belongs and, in the guise of securing his happiness or furthering his purposes, drastically curtails the range and depth of the happiness that is open to him and the purposes that he is able to contemplate. For we normally think of our happiness as consisting in such things as being, for example, happily married or happy in our work, and our purposes include such things as marrying a particular person or achieving a particular job. And both of these presuppose a whole web of obligations and loyalties. Indeed so does ‘the situation’ in which at any time we have to act. Try describing a difficult situation in which you have need of advice and you will find yourself mentioning such things as your special relationship to A, your promise to B, the legitimate interests of C. The trouble with ‘situation ethics’ is precisely that it does not do justice to situations.

The standard utilitarian response to this line of argument is to claim that the enlightened utilitarian will, of course, recognize that certain dispositions, certain special relationships, certain institutional frameworks, with their associated obligations, will tend on balance to promote the general happiness and are to be encouraged for this reason. The trouble is, however, that they will not have this effect unless the individual takes them seriously and allows his personality to be profoundly and permanently modified by them, and it is just this that is incompatible with his at the same time subjecting them to a steady utilitarian monitoring. As Bernard Williams puts it, in a persuasive development of this theme, the effect of the utilitarian approach is ‘to alienate him in a real sense from his actions and the source of his action in his own convictions’. This is so because the man himself ‘is identified with his actions as flowing from projects and attitudes which in some cases he takes seriously at the deepest level’.1 The same sort of difficulty arises with spontaneity. On the face of it the utilitarian is constantly on duty, ready at any and every moment to shift the total balance of happiness by doing or refraining from doing some relevant action—and every action or omission may be relevant. Spontaneity seems ruled out. Of course the utilitarian will allow, indeed recommend, a certain measure of spontaneity as likely to have better results than continuous calculation. Yet, once again, the trouble is that such licensed and carefully rationed spontaneity will not meet our need; it is uncomfortably like the relaxed manner of the television personality, too ‘professional’ to be wholly convincing. Thus both the needs to which he ministers and the motives from which he acts are conceived by the utilitarian in too jejune a fashion to match the variety and the solidity of human life.

It is a sense of this impoverishment that inspires the romantic revolt against rational humanism, but in a different way it too dissolves the individual in whom it seeks to vest so much significance. If each man is to choose his values for himself in sovereign independence, he is left with no reason for the choices he makes and no need to develop a consistent policy from one moment to another. The typical romantic emphasis upon the autonomy of the will and the authenticity of the emotions militates against the imposition of any lasting pattern, even a self-imposed one. Character necessarily involves restraining immediate impulses for the sake of some long term good; and it is hard to see how character can be developed without the individual passing through a stage at which his feelings and his intentions do not yet match his principles. And this necessary process of development can scarcely occur without a background of shared and settled values with its appropriate institutional setting. But these are things that the romantic humanist sees as essentially hostile to the realization of the individual personality, seducing him towards heteronomy and mauvaise foi. In this the liberal humanist in the end concurs. The limited concession that he is prepared to make towards the requirements of social life—the basic minimum morality—is carefully circumscribed so as to prevent its influencing the individual at any deep level. For to allow it to do so would be to encroach upon the domain of ideals, which is the preserve of purely personal choice.

For illustration of the effect of this we need only consider, once again, the predicament of universities, whose traditional ethic is under continuous pressure both from government and from students. The government pressures are utilitarian, insisting on cost-effectiveness, measuring performance by the achievement of results statistically assessed, looking for more efficient means of achieving these results. The average university teacher, when confronted with this approach, is merely bewildered. His entire idea of himself as a teacher in a community of scholars, to which he has devoted his life, involves too many imponderables that cannot be caught by the official statistics or articulated in the official language. The qualities to which his obituary will pay tribute are almost wholly irrelevant to this official conception of his role. The students—or, at any rate, those who represent them—are, as a rule, romantics. The traditional institutions of the university, its conventions and its etiquette, which the don sees as embodying and helping to preserve its characteristic ethos, they regard as unacceptable constraints upon their own creative freedom, and, by challenging in its name every feature of university life, which cannot be given the plainest sort of utilitarian justification, they ally themselves, in effect, although not in intention, with the university's most philistine opponents.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the word ‘character’ itself has acquired a somewhat old-fashioned air. It presupposes that a man has, implicitly or explicitly, a conception of what he should be and of what others may rightly expect him to be; that he has principles which he will not readily betray, that he has loyalties and affections of an enduring kind; that he is subject to temptations which he is prepared to resist; that he accepts responsibility for his actions and expects other people to accept responsibility for theirs. Such a man fits uneasily into the world of the utilitarian, because he has too much psychic property for the kind of ethical mobility that world requires. And he is equally unsuited to the world of the liberal or romantic humanist for he cannot regard all this merely as a matter of personal preference.

The situation is recognized—and illuminated—in John Bayley's book, The Characters of Love. Bayley takes as his subject the decline of character in modern literature, particularly the novel. He distinguishes between ‘nature’ and ‘the human condition’. ‘The subject matter may even be the same, but those who write about Nature take it for granted, while those who write about the Human Condition take an attitude towards it’.2 One might say that writing about ‘the human condition’ is essentially a romantic activity whereas ‘nature’, as Bayley understands it in the context of literature, represents an agreed moral order, which has now disintegrated. ‘The critic's distrust of judging in terms of “character” today’, Bayley writes, ‘arises from the total absence of agreement about what people are really like and how they can be portrayed.’3 The romantic ‘could only work through the detached and “interesting” personality, since the moral order which made such a character nugatory, except in so far as he conformed or failed to conform to it, had lost all general authority… Such a full-blooded pursuit of personality… separates the relished individual from the social and moral background of the old order of nature.’4 We can see what Bayley has in mind if we take Jane Austen's judgement on Elizabeth Bridges in a letter to her sister, Cassandra: ‘We need not enter into a Panegyric on the Departed—but it is sweet to think of her great worth—of her solid principles, her true devotion, her excellence in every relation of life,’5 and compare it with some remarks of Philip Toynbee's in a review of a biography of P. G. Wodehouse:

… Wodehouse may not have had any depths to be explored. This is a heresy, of course, for we are all inclined to suspect that even the blandest of exteriors must conceal some sort of pandemonium within: indeed we believe that the blander the mask the more violent the turbulence which it is intended to conceal. We forget that there are men and women who really are what they appear to be; who have no lurid secrets to hide either from us or from themselves; who exist quite happily on the surface of things.6

It is this last phrase that is so revealing. Toynbee seems to take it entirely for granted that only a shallow personality can be what it appears to be, and that depths must be turbulent. What, in that case, we may well ask, of Jane Austen herself?

The contrast is familiar to us in television. One has only to compare the serial versions of Trollope, or Thackeray or Tolstoi with the typical ‘Play for Today’ to notice the massive solidity of the nineteenth-century character in contrast with the shapelessness of those innumerable variations upon John Osborne's Jimmy Porter. One could say about the modern playwright what Bayley says about the novelist: ‘Our communion with the usual novelist is essentially a communion of earnestness and of badness, of responding to these in him and in ourselves. But Nature always has the proportions of goodness.’7

Bayley uses the word ‘nature’ in a somewhat idiosyncratic way to stand for an accepted order of society, and one reason for the present moral confusion is no doubt the decay of such an order. Indeed Alasdair MacIntyre traces the liberal emphasis on the secondary virtues of co-operativeness, fair play, and tolerance to the existence of a number of competing class moralities which stand in the way of any agreement in our society about substantial aims.

In this soil is rooted the liberal belief that facts are neutral because facts can be impersonally and objectively established, but values are personal, values are private, values can be chosen. This liberal attitude is one which all the different, conflicting groups have needed to invoke in order to protect themselves against the overriding claims of the others, but which at the same time undermines any assertion that they might otherwise feel able to make about the overriding character of their own values.8

MacIntyre discovers the origin of this state of affairs in purely social developments which make the idea of a moral authority no longer a viable one, but his own analysis suggests that the situation is more complicated than that. The breakdown of a common morality helped to bring about a process of social disintegration, by which it was in turn accelerated. But this decline in moral authority was associated with certain changes in belief.

It has often been remarked that the Victorians, whether believers, atheists, or agnostics, possessed a massive confidence in the importance and validity of conscience; and that this, together with their emphasis on character, derived from a Christian tradition. What is less often noticed—or seen as significant—is that this tradition had incorporated certain pagan themes. Chief among these was the conception of a common human nature unified by reason. Reason, thus understood, enables a man to grasp intellectually what is the good for man, and why it is good, in relation to his place in the universe, so that he can direct his will aright and school his emotions to be appropriate to their objects.

The Stoic version of this theme, as it was revived in the eighteenth century, steadily removed the supernatural from its controlling position and tended almost to identify the order of nature itself with the divine reason. Yet the affect upon ethics was comparatively slight, since, despite the rejection of orthodoxy, it was still possible to think of human nature as having its part to play in a natural order that was purposive. The enormous authority of the idea of nature throughout this period is associated with its independence of mere human vagary and custom. Thus, for many eighteenth-century thinkers, to say, with Hampshire, that ‘reasons for the most general moral choices… must be found in philosophical reasoning, if they are found at all: that is, in considerations about the relation of men, to the natural or to the supernatural, order’, would scarcely have been to pose distinct alternatives. Human nature was securely part of the natural order, which whether or not it was created by God, had its own immanent rationality. Thus when Jefferson, in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence, refers to ‘the laws of Nature and of Nature's God’, he comes very close to identifying the two.

Hence it was possible to divest oneself of specifically Christian beliefs, or even of any very explicit theism, without appearing to disturb the broad pattern of morality, based upon a human nature thought of as firmly embedded in the natural order. It was entirely consistent with this that the task of exploring and extending man's knowledge of his own nature should devolve increasingly upon science. The orthodox could and did regard this as a way of uncovering God's purposes, while the enlightened relied upon it as an alternative to revealed religion. In either case what was being discovered was thought of as entirely objective and independent of human choices, and the relationship between moral character and moral discernment remained essentially unchanged.

Putting it very simply, the pagan philosophy to which the enlightened could appeal against Christianity, had enough in common with Christianity, to enable a substantially Christian ethic, based on a substantially Christian conception of human nature, to survive the repudiation of much, or even all, explicitly Christian doctrine. And this was assisted by the ambiguity of the term ‘nature’, which retained its reassuring suggestions of normativeness, and transcendence of merely human fashions, yet could range from the teleological to the purely descriptive, from the scientific to the mystical.

What seems to have brought about our own very different situation is that, at varying rates and in diverse ways, in England and on the continent of Europe, this confidence in a common human nature began to break down, and with it the traditional idea of moral character. To document this process would require an excursus into cultury history, for which I have neither space nor competence. Yet consideration of it cannot be entirely omitted. Although my concern is philosophical, one cannot discuss philosophical issues in a cultural vacuum. Concepts have a history and cannot be adequately understood apart from it. As it happens the theme is central to John Weightman's fascinating study, The Concept of the Avant-Garde.9 Weightman sees the Enlightenment as the chief formative episode in the modern world, and claims that by the end of the eighteenth century in France the modern evolutionary and secular view of the world had pervaded the consciousness of the intellectual elite. For the French philosophes

if history was such a record of crime and injustice, this was because it had not been conducted in accordance with the true nature of man. Once man had been defined as a natural phenomenon like other natural phenomena, without all the mystical accretions of the past, society would right itself, and the generations of the future would find themselves in a social context that would allow the full and harmonious expression of their inherent possibilities.10

The phenomenon of the avant-garde, in Weightman's view, owes its existence to the fact that the Enlightenment hope of achieving a definition of human nature has come to seem more and more illusory:

Consequently it would take a very confident man today to echo the line from Terence which was a slogan of 19th century humanism: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. In other words, as some modern thinkers—particularly French ones—like to put it, the death of God is now being followed by the death of Man.… The sheer fact of living in time becomes then an existential anguish, because history is no more than a succession of moments, all in a way equally valid or invalid, and human nature ceases to be a unifying concept and is no more than the name we give to the successive appearances of man.11

And so we have the reaction that I have been calling ‘romantic humanism’ which has, among its varied manifestations, as Weightman observes, a widespread disgust with the idea of science, the search for the sensation of mystic depth, an apparently meaningful, though incomprehensible, relationship to the transcendent.12 The predicament to which this is the response is precisely that expressed by Iris Murdoch: ‘Human life has external point or telos… There are properly many patterns or purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were generally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians used to search. We are what we seem to be, transient, mortal creatures, subject to necessity and chance.’13 In this situation Iris Murdoch makes her own heroic appeal to the idea of a transcendent good, using language strongly reminiscent of Plato, but her denial of any ‘external point or telos’ to human life involves as complete a repudiation of Plato and the entire pagan tradition to which the philosophes appealed as it does of Christianity itself.

In England the radically secular spirit took hold much more gradually than on the continent so that the more extreme reaction was long delayed. God, so to speak, was much longer dying. But one can see the same predicament as it affected one of the least insular Englishmen of his age, Matthew Arnold. And here I rely chiefly on Lionel Trilling's early study of him. Trilling comments, in language very similar to Iris Murdoch's: ‘Arnold, looking into the chasm which had once been filled by the poetry of a belief in the divine origin of man and the world, feels, no less than the romantics, the difficulty of a life in which man has no point beyond himself to which he may refer his action, thought and aspiration.’14 Like all the great Victorians, Arnold had no doubt as to what was right and wrong, nor as to the categorical demand of conscience. Morality is summed up in a very traditional way as ‘Kindness and purity, charity and chastity’. His problem was to find a satisfactory rationale for his convictions and a framework that could give meaning and purpose to his life. His solution was to reinterpret Christianity in a way that strikingly anticipates some of our contemporary theologians. Thus in St. Paul and Protestantism he asserts: ‘All that is conceptual in Paul, all that is theoretical, all that touches the realm of science, is unscientific, secondary and to be passed over. All that is emotional, all that is experiential, is primary and in conformity with science.’15 Yet this appeal to emotion and experience alone is not enough to provide a basis for morality. In order to achieve that it is necessary to characterize further what it is that is experienced, how it is the appropriate object of our religious emotions, and in what way it guarantees righteousness. So Arnold speaks of the God of the Jews as ‘the power not ourselves that makes for righteousness’16 and tells us that this power is the creative source of morality itself. He speculates about the first man to feel the stirrings of conscience, and asks:

Who first, amid the loose solicitations of [sexual] sense, obeyed (for create he did not) the mighty not ourselves which makes for moral order, the stream of tendency which was here carrying him, and our embryo race along with him, towards the fulfilment of the true law of their being, became aware of it and obeyed it?17

The ‘not ourselves that makes for righteousness’ is not, however, identified by Arnold with the God of traditional theism, which he explicitly rejects. Indeed it is scarcely more than a minimum specification for what might fill the gap left in Arnold's conception of morality by this very rejection. When he endeavours to articulate it further, he slides into incoherence:

No one will say that it is admittedly certain and verifiable, that there is a personal just cause, the moral and intelligent governor of the universe, whom we may call God if we will. But that all things seem to us to have what we call a law of their being, and to tend to fulfil it, is certain and admitted; though whether we will call this God or not is a matter of choice. Suppose, however, we called it God, we then give the name of God to a certain and admitted reality.18

Arnold is able to give this argument such semblance of plausibility as it possesses only through an equivocation upon the expression ‘law of their being’. If this refers to an immanent ‘point or telos’, which gives human life a purpose, it has some relevance to morality, and could even be identified with God as conceived in a vestigial Stoicism. But then its existence is far from being ‘certain and admitted’. If, on the other hand, Arnold is referring to scientific laws governing human nature, they do not, even if they are ‘certain and admitted’, provide any sufficient basis for ethics.

What is of interest in Arnold for our discussion is not his muddled attempts to solve the problem, but his intense awareness of the problem itself, which shows itself even more pervasively in his poetry than in his prose, as in the well-known lines from Dover Beach:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another: for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

And all the time he hears ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the sea of faith. There is an enormous sense of loss. It would not be difficult to document this sense of loss in other thinkers both English and European, the chief difference being that, among the Europeans, its expression was generally more violent. Weightman, for example, writes of Paul Valéry that ‘he was perpetually trying to define the essence of life, and since, by definition, he couldn't relate it to any transcendent absolute, his final philosophy is a sort of nihilism.’19 And even Nietzsche exclaims:

How greatly we should like to exchange the false assertions of the priests, that there is a God who desires good from us, a guardian and witness of every action, every moment, every thought, who loves us and seeks our welfare in all misfortune—how greatly we would like to exchange these ideas for truths which would be just as healing, pacifying and beneficial as these errors. But there are no such truths.20

Thus we can discern a steady decline since the Enlightenment of the once universal confidence in a common human nature, a process by which the ‘death of God’ has been succeeded by the ‘death of Man’. Whatever may have been ‘the acids of modernity’ (to use Walter Lippman's phrase) which have brought this about, they have eroded the older forms of rational humanism no less effectively, indeed, perhaps, even more effectively, than they have weakened orthodox Christianity. For the ancient pagan doctrines of man, to which the philosophes appealed in their critical assault upon Christianity, were based upon the belief that human reason was a spark of that universal Reason that was immanent in the whole of Nature. So morality was based on a purpose written in the nature of things—written so clearly that there was no need of divine assistance to decipher it, and only superstition could obscure it.

Once this belief was undermined by Darwin and those evolutionary theorists who anticipated him, it was still open to Christians to think of man as made in the image of God and as having an immortal destiny in the purposes of God, for these beliefs had never rested upon observation of the natural world alone; but the humanists had no such recourse. They had, therefore, either to look for some new way of justifying their old moral intuitions, or to modify their moral outlook to suit their revised understanding of the human predicament. The continental thinkers, whom Weightman studies, chose the latter course and frankly embraced a romantic doctrine of the individual as the creator of his own values. Matthew Arnold (and to a large extent John Stuart Mill) remained loyal to the old intuitions. Mill found it notoriously difficult to reconcile these with his official utilitarianism, and Arnold preserved a vestigial deity (‘a power not ourselves making for righteousness’) to act as a sort of ether in which his entirely traditional values could subsist in independence of his own choices. It is hard to resist the conclusion reached by A. O. G. Cockshut in his study of the Victorian agnostics,

They were not trying to discover how they ought to behave, for their conscience formed by generations of Christianity told them that clearly enough. They were trying to establish why, now the religious motive was removed, they ought to behave as their conscience told them.21

That this process has occurred as a part of cultural history can scarcely be denied. To that extent the death of God has been followed by the death of Man. But, we are bound to ask, need it be? It may be true that our civilization has been profoundly influenced by the belief that human life has a meaning beyond itself, and that to live rightly is to align oneself with the true direction of human nature as seen in the purposes of God; and that to be deprived of this belief is a severe and, in some individuals, disabling shock. But men can suffer from illusions, even very powerful and long-lasting illusions, and it may be very painful to be forced to recognise them as illusions and to have to face life without them. The point has been made succinctly by Freud: ‘A man who has for decades taken a sleeping draught is naturally unable to sleep if he is deprived of it.’

So should we not say that western man has for centuries taken a very potent sleeping draught, inducing dreams of great splendour which were able to impart a feeling of significance to his waking life? If so, must he not school himself to do without? Freud goes on:

True, man will then find himself in a difficult situation. He will have to confess his utter helplessness and his insignificant part in the working of the universe; he will have to confess that he is no longer the centre of creation, no longer the object of the tender care of a benevolent providence. He will be in the same position as the child who has left the home where he was so warm and comfortable. But, after all, is it not the destiny of childishness to be overcome? Man cannot remain a child forever; he must venture at last into the hostile world.22

Here Freud speaks in the authentic tones of rational humanism. And, of course, he may be right. If it is true that the ‘death of God’ has, among the intelligentsia, led to the ‘death of Man’ and that this has profoundly affected their conception of morality, it does not necessarily follow that this historical phenomenon represents a rational development. The intelligentsia may simply have been misled. Could it not be, in fact, a massive illustration of the danger that secular thinkers have always suspected from the association of ethics with religion, viz. that the morality tends to be abandoned along with the religion although it is not in any way logically dependent upon it? Can we not learn in the end to sleep better without the sleeping draught, to have a firmer grasp of morality without God?

In the light of our discussion the following answer suggests itself. The most characteristic contemporary forms of secular humanism resemble each other in their failure to provide a rationale for morality as traditionally conceived. In particular they have no place for the conscientious man, the man of character, the man who says ‘Ich Kann nicht anders’; or, rather, to the extent that they can find a place for him, it is on terms that he is bound to reject, such as that it is socially useful for him to become this sort of man, or that he is free, if he so chooses, to become this sort of man, although he need not. They do not, either, give the claims of other men the weight that the traditional moralist feels they ought to have; and this is in part because men are not thought of as possessing the depth and consistency of character that is needed to give their claims this weight. For if men are primarily bearers of experiences or authors of choices, and the experiences of different individuals are interchangeable and their choices arbitrary, it is hard to see why people matter as much as he feels intuitively they do. The ‘death of Man’ is the death of man as a moral being, faced by the choice of good and evil and held responsible for his choice. And what brought about his death was the growing conviction that, as Iris Murdoch, puts it ‘life has no external point or telos, a conviction which separates modern man from Christian and pagan alike. It is for this reason that, as C. S. Lewis reminded us, ‘A post-Christian man is not a pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan’23 If this argument holds good, the intelligentsia were not entirely misled. The man of traditional conscience does indeed face a dilemma. He must be prepared to choose between modifying his conscience and questioning his secular assumptions.

  • 1.

    Utilitarianism For and Against, p. 116.

  • 2.

    The Characters of Love, p. 269.

  • 3.

    Op. cit., p. 281.

  • 4.

    Op. cit., p. 282.

  • 5.

    Jane Austen's Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford University Press (1934),

  • 6.

    Observer, 24 Aug. 1975.

  • 7.

    Op. cit., p. 286.

  • 8.

    Secularization and Moral Change, p. 45.

  • 9.

    Alcove Press (1973).

  • 10.

    Op. cit., p. 26.

  • 11.

    Op. cit., p. 30.

  • 12.

    Op. cit., p. 31.

  • 13.

    The Sovereignty of Good, p. 79, quoted in chapter 5, p. 66 above.

  • 14.

    Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold, George Allen & Unwin (1955), p. 96.

  • 15.

    St. Paul and Protestantism, quoted in Trilling, op. cit., p. 350.

  • 16.

    Literature and Dogma, quoted in Trilling, p. 356.

  • 17.

    God and the Bible, quoted in Trilling, p. 355.

  • 18.

    Literature and Dogma, quoted in Trilling, p. 355.

  • 19.

    Weightman, op. cit., p. 125.

  • 20.

    Human, All-too-Human, Part one, tr. Helen Zimmern, Russell and Russell (1967), p. 112.

  • 21.

    The Unbelievers, Collins (1964), p. 157.

  • 22.

    Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott, The International Psycho-Analytical Library (1928), pp. 85–6.

  • 23.

    De Descriptione Temporum (Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge), C.U.P. (1955), p. 15.