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7: Transition to a Religious Ethic; Morality and World-views

At this point an objector might well intervene. ‘Your examples to illustrate the decline or character’, he might say, ‘are drawn very largely from imaginative literature and literary criticism. But the fact that a certain conception of character no longer stimulates the creative artist, is, so to speak, aesthetically played out, does not imply that it no longer has validity in real life. Moreover, even if it is true that certain ways of looking at morality have in our history been so involved with Christianity that many now repudiate them on that account, and those who wish to maintain them find it hard to avoid religious overtones, it does not follow that they depend logically upon Christian belief. Nor, even if they do follow logically from Christian premisses, does this mean that there are not other, non-Christian, premisses from which they equally follow. You have not taken sufficient account of Freud's comment about the effect of awakening from a long dream.’

This objection must, in principle, be accepted. All that the argument so far has done is to render plausible a suggestion. And, so far as the argument goes, there may yet be a form or forms of secular humanism which save the intuitions of the critics as well as, or better than, any form of Christianity can do. It is notoriously hard to prove a negative; and I cannot claim to have enumerated all possible forms of secular humanism. Indeed, it might be argued that no matter what the content of Christian ethics, the entirely secular thinker can always adopt it as his own, without committing himself on any point of doctrine or of metaphysics. I have spoken of ‘intuitions’. Why can he not simply trust his intuitions as such? If he is prepared to be an intuitionist in ethics he need not be troubled by problems of justification. Equally, if he rejects intuitionism in favour of a form of subjectivism, there is nothing to prevent him adopting, as a matter of fundamental ethical choice, just what principles he wishes (so long as he is consistent). In this way too he can take over as much or as little of traditional Christian ethics as he chooses.

The objection can be strengthened still further. Not only are these two alternatives open to the philosopher with a traditional conscience; it can be argued that they are his only possible options. For, if he his not an intuitionist in ethics or a subjectivist, he must be guilty of the so-called naturalistic fallacy. He must, that is, be committed to the view that moral questions can be reduced to questions of fact—either empirical fact or metaphysical fact; and this view has been agreed to be unacceptable, at least since the time of David Hume. In order to reach moral conclusions we must always have moral premisses and in our attempt to justify these we are driven back to certain ultimate moral premisses, which are themselves incapable of justification. It remains then only to ask how we get these ultimate principles, and there are only two answers possible: either we just ‘see’ that they are true, i.e. we ‘intuit’ their truth, or we adopt them by our own free choice, realizing that the responsibility for them is entirely our own.

Thus, on the logic of the matter the intuitionist and the subjectivist are agreed. Moral reasoning takes the form of deduction from first principles, which cannot themselves be justified. It is about the epistemology of morals that they differ, about how we know—indeed whether, strictly speaking, we do know—what is right or wrong.

Of the two theories intuitionism has the merit of satisfying one deep-seated demand on the part of the man of sensitive conscience, viz. that the claims of conscience should be thought of as binding upon him, whether he likes it or not. When all has been said that can be said to mitigate the apparent arbitrariness of subjectivism,1 it remains the case that, as Williams puts it, ‘moral thinking feels as though it mirrored something, as though it were constrained to follow, rather than be freely creative’.2 Nevertheless—notoriously—intuitionism suffers from a number of defects, of which two are particularly serious.

The first is that it leaves unexplained how the various elements in our morality are related to one another or to the rest of life. There just are, it appears, certain duties which we see to be incumbent upon us, and there is no way, even in principle, in which we can come to understand why we have these duties and not others, and how these duties are connected, (except, perhaps, by reference to certain ends, whose goodness is similarly intuited). Nor is it clear how we can criticize what we thus intuit, or modify our consciences in the light of fresh discoveries. In fact the systematic relationship which we have noticed between moral concepts and world-views becomes a curious and inexplicable sociological phenomenon. So does the connection, so fascinatingly explored by anthropologists, between the social structure and the ethics of primitive societies. It is not the intuitionist's insistence on the objectivity of morality that is called in question by these considerations, but the discontinuity he introduces between morality and the other aspects of human life.

The second is that it does nothing to illuminate the relationship between moral discernment and action. It is hard to see how our recognizing that an action is right or wrong should provide us with a reason or a motive for doing it, or refraining from doing it, unless we can see some connection between the rightness and wrongness of the action and a whole way of life that has meaning for us and engages our interest and concern. We need something like the ‘good reflective reasons’ for adopting a particular morality of which Hampshire writes.

If these familiar criticisms of intuitionism are valid, as I think they are, the moralist cannot rely simply on his intuitions as entirely self-authenticating; he must provide some rationale of them, or at least allow the need for one. This is not to say, as some utilitarians would, that we can ignore altogether the immediate intuitive judgements which we form when we reflect upon particular situations of difficulty. We are often, most of us, very much better at discerning what considerations are morally relevant in such cases than we are at articulating or justifying the principles upon which we then rely. I should myself, as a general rule, prefer to trust the judgement of an experienced doctor in a matter of medical ethics than that of most moral philosophers. But, if we are prepared to rely upon our own intuitions and those of other people, we must recognize the need to justify the weight we give them against utilitarians like Smart who see no reason why they should be trusted. It is not enough to maintain, as Hampshire does, that utilitarianism violates certain deeply held moral convictions. To this the utilitarian can reply that, given the transparent reasonableness of the utilitarian principle, we are simply being obscurantist in resisting its application in the disputed cases.3 We need some ground for the importance we attach to intuitions. Aristotle, who was prepared to regard the good man as the ‘rule and canon of virtue’, had such a ground. For it is, in his view, characteristic of a good man, that is to say a good specimen of a man, that he is reflectively aware, as a good horse, for instance, could not be, of what his goodness requires of him. And even the ordinary man, though not given to philosophical reflection, is as a rational being very much more likely than not to be right about fundamental questions of ethics. So it is wise to take seriously received opinions, and Aristotle does test his general theories of ethics by reference to what is commonly accepted. By contrast the Oxford intuitionists, like Ross, Caritt, and Prichard, provided no adequate reason for taking the deliverances of ‘the common moral consciousness’ as seriously as they did. Thus, if our sensitive moral critic is to retain his faith in an objective moral demand, and if he is to continue to trust his moral intuitions (including his intuition that morality is objective), he needs a more comprehensive theory of ethics than intuitionism provides, one that makes it intelligible that morality should be responsive to what we know or believe about man and the world, and which can explain how morality is related to action and choice. The appeal to intuition, though legitimate as far as it goes, cannot relieve us of the task of defending whatever conception we choose to have of the nature, scope and content of morality. The ethical discussion itself demands to be extended, if not to religion, at least to the metaphysics of ethics.

No doubt one of the reasons for the reluctance of contemporary thinkers, whose moral intuitions are of a profoundly traditional kind, to countenance any serious consideration of religion, is a residual suspicion of metaphysics. Yet, as we have seen, even Strawson, with all his careful avoidance of dogmatism, exhibits a recognizable ‘vision of life’. On examining his version of liberal humanism we found that it rested upon what he himself would call ‘a profound general statement about man and the universe’. According to it, man is a being who, once certain basic needs are satisfied, is free to create for himself ideals of excellence which make each man what he is. There are no objective criteria by which these may be judged, nor is any consistency over time demanded. Men may, and often do, devise religious and metaphysical schemes in terms of which to justify their ideals, but these too, are not capable of being strictly true or false. In order to satisfy his inescapable needs and free himself to realize his ideals, whatever they are, a man requires a society, and this in turn demands a basic minimum morality. Strawson implies, I think, that men are under an obligation to observe the rules of this basic morality, and that toleration of other people's ideals (so long as they do not endeavour to engross the common morality) is, if not actually obligatory, at least clearly indicated by his total scheme. The man who is at home in the liberal society will be the man who identifies himself in imagination with the ideals of others, even if he does not share them. Thus it is not hard to see that Strawson's moral judgements fit his ethical theory, and that his ethical theory is governed by his conception of what it is to be a man. The whole assumes a broadly empiricist theory about the limits of what can be said to be true or false; and, although this theory dictates that Strawson's ‘vision of life’ cannot be true but only ‘profoundly true’, it constitutes a metaphysic, albeit a somewhat exiguous one.

Our entire discussion suggests that this pattern is not peculiar to Strawson, but will be discernible in any coherent view of ethics. In discussing different moral viewpoints at all thoroughly we shall be led to examine the ‘visions of life’ which they reflect and the philosophical assumptions which they presuppose; and until this is done, it will not be possible to make a rational choice between them. (Whether such a rational choice is possible at all, will be itself one of the questions at issue.)

It cannot, therefore, be made a reasonable ground of complaint against a religious ethic that it involves metaphysical assumptions, for this is true of any system of ethics. It is a mistake to identify secular morality with ‘morality’ tout court, taken as entirely straightforward and unproblematic, while associating religious morality with a host of controversial assumptions of a metaphysical kind. To the extent that a non-controversial morality can be discerned—the morality of the platitudes—it falls short of the practical requirements of any civilized society, indeed of any society at all; nor does it satisfy many of our more discriminating moral intuitions, unless it is interpreted in ways that render it no longer uncontroversial. Moreover large questions remain unanswered about the extent to which its claims are binding upon us, and the reasons why we should regard ourselves as bound by them.

If morality has a metaphysical dimension in the way I have described, it is evident that awkward problems arise about the autonomy of ethics. To what extent, in choosing between world-views, should we be influenced by their ethical implications? If, on other than ethical grounds, we are inclined to accept a particular account of the nature of man and his place in the universe, how far should we be deterred from embracing it by the fact that it yields moral conclusions which we find objectionable. If we are deterred, how can this response of ours be justified?

The task before us is, therefore, one of rather alarming complexity. The confusion and controversy about morality (which I tried to document in my opening chapter) infects every level of thinking about morality, and very little can be assumed in advance to be agreed by the participants in the debate. It is like playing croquet with flamingoes.

Perhaps it may help if we make use of a very simple model which is exemplified in a number of introductions to moral philosophy. There are three storeys on which morality may be discussed. On the ground floor are ordinary people—‘plain men’—making comparatively unreflective moral judgements and decisions in the everyday business of life, of the form ‘What ought I to do now?’ ‘Was he justified in doing that?’ ‘Would it be honest to say that?’ etc. What goes on at this level provides the subject matter for moral reflection at the two higher levels. On the next storey are ‘wise men’ who seek to develop consistent and defensible moral theories through the examination and criticism of the plain man's judgements. This activity is sometimes called ‘normative ethics’. Historically it has generally been undertaken by philosophers who have operated both on this floor and on the one above. On this latter, the top storey, are philosophers regularly engaged in what is the characteristic task of philosophy (and, in the view of some analytic philosophers, its only task) that of analysing the concepts and the arguments of those who are operating on the two lower floors. They are engaged, that is to say, in ‘meta-ethical’ enquiry, raising such questions as: ‘What is the logical character of moral arguments?; Are they characteristically deductive or inductive or of some other kind?; Are moral judgements subjective or objective?; Does morality require to be justified?; Or must any attempted justification be circular?’

It has often been thought that ‘meta-ethics’ is entirely independent of what happens at the other two stages, in the sense that a particular meta-ethical theory does not entail or have any other bearing, from a logical point of view, upon particular moral theories or moral judgements. The purpose of philosophy is purely clarificatory. Hence traditional philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Butler, Kant, who embarked upon philosophical enquiry with a view to discovering how we ought to act, are thought to have made a serious blunder.

But this view of the relationship between moral philosophy and morality, or between ‘meta-ethics’ and ‘normative ethics’, this doctrine that ‘philosophy is neutral’, fits some conceptions of morality very much better than others and itself reflects a particular metaphysical position, as Iris Murdoch saw clearly in her essay on ‘Vision and Choice in Morality’. It goes well with an intuitionist theory of the sort put forward by Moore and Ross. For if there is a ‘common moral consciousness’, as they believed, the task of moral theory (at the second level) will be to systematize it, so far as possible; and the test of a moral theory will, of course, be its capacity to accommodate our moral intuitions. Moral philosophers (at the third level) may reflect upon the definition of moral words, whether they can be defined in terms of non-moral words, whether ‘right’ can be defined in terms of ‘good’ etc., but they cannot call in question the deliverances of the common moral consciousness. It also consorts well with subjectivism, for moral philosophers, on that view, can classify the various uses to which moral expressions are put in everyday usage; they can distinguish between the evaluative and descriptive use of language, but they are in no position to pronounce, qua philosophers, upon the acceptability of the moral judgements that are actually made.

It suits a utilitarian very much less, or at any rate the sort of utilitarian I have characterized as the scientific humanist. No doubt it is possible for a utilitarian to be, like Smart, a subjectivist; he just favours generalized benevolence and hopes that other people, once they understand the issues, will feel as he does. Other people may, however, feel differently and, if they do, Smart cannot show them to be wrong—or, indeed, hold them to be wrong in any strong sense. But this is an uncharacteristic posture for a utilitarian. More commonly he is a moral objectivist who believes that the entire institution of morality exists to harmonize human purposes so that people can together achieve happiness in a society. Hence he must believe that anyone who rejects utilitarianism fails to understand what morality is, because he fails to appreciate its point and purpose. The utilitarian, qua philosopher, is committed to this moral theory; and, if the common moral consciousness cannot be squared with it, ‘so much the worse for the common moral consciousness’,4 which the utilitarian philosopher suspects in any case to have been influenced by traditional ways of thought or by some philosophically suspect system of religious ethics. And these traditional theories, for their part, tend to resemble scientific humanism in basing morality upon, or at least relating it to, pervasive features of human life. So the doctrine that philosophy is neutral—that activities on the third level are logically independent of what goes on at the other two—is itself not neutral and cannot, I believe, be sustained; it begs the question against many familiar ways of thinking about morality, in which, as Iris Murdoch puts it, ‘moral concepts are regarded as deep moral configurations of the world, rather than as lines drawn round separate factual areas.’5

Nevertheless the model has its usefulness, so long as the levels are not thought of as independent. In terms of it we can distinguish the different sorts of disagreement that there are about morality. Thus (on the ground floor), people disagree about what ought to be done in particular situations and about what moral principles to appeal to; they disagree also as to the moral vocabulary to be employed; so that not only do they give different answers to the same questions, but they often insist on asking different questions. And when we inquire further we find that these differences relate to differences on the middle storey, differences as to the kind of moral system they are operating with. Thus ‘Should this boy be punished?’ might receive the answer ‘Yes’ from one teacher, ‘No’ from another, where they, nevertheless, agree as to what the boy has done and in what circumstances. They mean the same thing by ‘punishment’ and they disagree only in their judgement of the particular case. But another teacher might not want to use the term ‘punish’ at all as having undesirably retributive associations; he would prefer to ask ‘Does this boy need special treatment?’ Similarly the writer of an agony column may assure a correspondent who is unfaithful to his wife that he should not feel guilty about it, not because guilt is inappropriate in this case, although it might have been appropriate in another, but because she feels that guilt is a pathological condition which is always to be avoided. She has no use for the concept. We are now so inured to this phenomenon that I can remember the shock of surprise—and I am bound to add, pleasure—when a local psychiatrist, to whom a pupil of mine had been referred with work problems, reported: ‘I think the trouble is that this man is lazy.’ I had not expected this word to be in his vocabulary.

Still further differences may arise as to the correct interpretation or analysis of this state of affairs, differences this time on the top storey. A subjectivist philosopher will maintain that the difference is to be understood as a difference in evaluation. Although the two teachers use different words, which create the impression that they see the world differently, the truth is that one could take the words used by each and separate out the evaluative and descriptive components in them. Once this is done the argument between them can be clearly presented as being about what descriptive states of affairs each is prepared individually to commend or condemn. But another philosopher may complain that this account seriously distorts the character of morality and moral discourse, and gives an entirely misleading impression of the way morality is related to our total understanding of man and the world. These two philosophers will differ profoundly as to what morality is, and it is likely that their difference will, so to speak, make itself felt all the way down the line, at every level of discussion. It is this phenomenon which accounts for the profound unsatisfactoriness of almost all debates on television. The participants do not have the time to explore, or even to acknowledge the deeper disagreements which underlie their differing vocabularies and patterns of argument. So they consistently talk past one another. Thus the attempt, which is characteristic of liberal humanism in all its forms, to distinguish ideals from some basic type of morality and to keep them separate, while at the same time insisting that only the basic morality is open to rational discussion, makes it difficult for an opponent to state a reasoned case against it. For such a case is liable to be dismissed as the expression of an ideal and, as such, not to be reasoned about; and the proponent of it is likely to be classified as a ‘fanatic’, who is prepared to subordinate other people's interests and his own to an ideal. Many who have been impressed by the power of Hare's argument, in the fully developed form in which it appears in Freedom and Reason, and who have nevertheless failed to be wholly convinced, are acutely aware of this difficulty. To be prepared to allow ideals to override interests, one's own included, does indeed seem to merit the epithet ‘fanatical’, but it has to be kept in mind that it is only in Hare's terms that this is an appropriate description of what Hare's opponent is doing. For in Hare's terms an individual's interests are defined as what he wants, or is likely to want, etc., and the opponent is maintaining that interests in this sense should sometimes be overridden. But this is not the sense in which the opponent is himself using the word ‘interest’. He employs it in a sense which is closer to common usage, according to which it makes perfectly good sense to say that a man may want (or be likely to want etc.) what is not in his own interest. Of course he will agree that men normally want what they think is in their own interest and, indeed, very often what actually is in their own interest; and that it is normally in their interest to get what they want. But not always, and not by definition. The difference between the two standpoints is specially clear in relation to the education of children. It follows from Hare's view that parents may be said to have brought up their child in accordance with the child's interest only if the child later thanks them for it, or would thank them for it given adequate information. We may agree that this is normally a good test, but not, surely, invariably. A child may be brought up to be conventional and complacent and subsequently thank his parents for helping to make him the paragon he believes himself to be. Or he may be brought up to be restless and sceptical, and criticize his parents for having helped to make him so; how much easier life would have been if he were not! Must we be prepared to say that the first man is better off because he is more contented, or the second man worse off because he is less contented? Of course, we think it wrong to condition people or otherwise mould them into conformity with our ideal, but this is likely to be because our ideal of human excellence (or at any rate a large part of it), is one of independent, autonomous persons; and, if someone does not want to be independent and autonomous we shall, as parents or educators, feel bound to do our best to make him so, whether or not we think that he will eventually thank us for our pains.

Thus Hare is right in holding that such a conception of ‘interest’ is related to an ideal of human nature, in terms of which what the individual wants may properly be subordinated to something that is believed to matter more. But, equally, Hare's definition of ‘interest’, and the uses he puts it to, reflect a particular sort of liberal ideal, according to which what the individual wants should not be overridden in this way. To make this point is not to stigmatize Hare's moral theory as in any way improper or unfair. For the critic believes, as Hare does not, that ideals are open to rational argument. He does not deny that Hare has produced a powerful case for his type of liberalism (much of which will need to be incorporated in any adequate moral theory). He simply argues that a central feature of it, his treatment of interests and ideals and their relationship, is open to challenge and in need of further defence.

Hare anticipates this response. He supposes an opponent to say: ‘I am not going to be either a fanatic or a liberal; I am simply going to stop using your concepts’,6 and claims to have a decisive answer. For his own account is, he claims, more general than that of his opponent: ‘We can get the better of our present attacker because our language is general enough to express any dispute which he may say he is having with us.’ But precisely the same claim can be made by his opponent, as the present discussion illustrates.

This situation lands us in a familiar predicament. There seems no hope of providing a philosophical account of morality or of moral language which will be entirely neutral, which does not favour certain systems of normative morality as against others, certain conceptions of the meaning of life as against others. And it is tempting to conclude that nothing is left but for each side to develop its own total position as coherently as it can and then to hope that it will prove psychologically persuasive. For, it is tempting to suppose, all rational resources have, ex hypothesi, been exhausted. This is what Hare recommends in a well known passage, part of which I quoted earlier:

… If pressed to justify a decision completely, we have to give a complete specification of the way of life of which it is a part. 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. Suppose, however, 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. The sting is in the last clause. To describe such ultimate decisions as arbitrary, because ex hypothesi everything which could be used to justify them has already been included in the decision, would be like saying that a complete description of the universe was utterly unfounded because no further fact could be called upon in corroboration of it. This is not how we use the words ‘arbitrary’ and ‘unfounded’. Far from being arbitrary, such a decision would be the most well-founded of decisions, because it would be based upon a consideration of everything upon which it could possibly be founded.7

I am sure that Hare is right in stressing that in order to justify a decision completely we have to relate it to the way of life of which it is a part and in pointing to the great religions as the nearest approaches to this in practice, but I do not think that he entirely escapes the charge of arbitrariness. His failure to do so is associated with a way of looking at the situation which comes out clearly in this passage. A way of life, as Hare conceives it, seems to be a complex set of decisions taken in the face of a world which can be exhaustively described in terms which are metaphysically neutral. This world, which is entirely devoid of theoretical content, is confronted by agents who can freely determine the attitudes they shall adopt towards it, the choices they shall make within it. This picture of an unencumbered will confronting an unmysterious world is itself an interpretation of the human situation rather than a bare description of it. As such it represents, as Iris Murdoch clearly sees, a very particular vision of the nature of the world and the place of morality in it.

But what alternative is there to Hare's programme? I suggest that, when faced by these conflicting systems, we are not reduced to sheer confrontation. Not only can we examine their internal consistency and coherence, we can consider how well they cohere with what is scientifically supported and with our general knowledge of human nature. We can test them against our own moral insights and those of people we trust; and, if this is stigmatized as arguing in a circle, we can consider, also, what grounds there may be, in the systems under review, for paying attention to people's moral intuitions. And, finally, we can see how adequately they are able to account for one another. Serious and thoughtful men, it is reasonable to suppose, reflecting on what they hold to be of overriding importance in human life, are not likely to be wholly mistaken; and if we wish to regard them as mistaken, in any particular respect, our contention will be reinforced if we can explain intelligibly how they might have been misled. In the process we may sometimes be compelled to have recourse to psychological, sociological or even straightforwardly historical explanations of why men think as they do, but if we avail ourselves of this licence too readily or too frequently, we shall be in danger of exposing our own position to similar attack.8

I have called attention to a certain dissatisfaction among reflective persons with some of the most characteristic moral attitudes of the times, and I have been suggesting that this might be allayed by a specifically Christian ethic deriving from a specifically Christian metaphysic; and that there is much in the way that discontent is voiced which supports this view. The entire phenomenon could, perhaps, be explained as no more than a powerful nostalgia for the Christian past. Are not these thinkers hankering for a morality that can no longer be had in anything like the old form or on anything like the old terms? The answer to these questions depends on the extent to which it is possible to construct a religious ethic which can survive the kind of tests outlined above.

  • 1.

    See Bernard Williams on ‘defusing subjectivism’, in Morality, Penguin (1972) pp. 40 ff.

  • 2.

    Op. cit., p. 50.

  • 3.

    Cf. J. J. C. Smart, Utilitarianism For and Against, p. 56.

  • 4.

    As J. J. C. Smart says, Utilitarianism For and Against, p. 68.

  • 5.

    Quoted on p. 68 above.

  • 6.

    Freedom and Reason, pp. 200–2.

  • 7.

    The Language of Morals, p. 69.

  • 8.

    I have discussed the problem of rational choice between rival world-views in The Justification of Religious Belief, Macmillan (1973), especially chapter 5.