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9: The Dilemma Illustrated: The Sanctity of Life

The first question is best answered in relation to particular examples, and the obvious one to take first is the one selected by Hampshire, respect for human life. Hampshire uses the expression ‘sanctity of human life’ and asks how its use can be justified: ‘The question cannot be evaded: what is the rational basis for acting as if human life has a peculiar value, quite beyond the value of any other natural things…?’1 That it has such a peculiar value is certainly one of the clearest intuitions of all who have been reared in the cultural traditions of the West (though there is now less agreement than there used to be as to its practical implications and a general disinclination to inquire into its rationale). There are, of course, good utilitarian reasons for the existence in all societies of a general prohibition upon taking life, since a society which lacked this restriction would be unlikely to survive for long. So it finds its place in Strawson's ‘basic social morality’ and Hart's ‘minimum content of natural law’. But this sort of justification is compatible with attitudes and practices which must be abhorrent to any sensitive conscience. Societies have survived which treated the lives of foreigners as of comparatively little account, and slavery as an institution has flourished throughout the centuries. To kill the weak and the old may even promote survival. Indeed the very emphasis upon the preservation of society as a reason for respecting human life can easily result in subordinating the individual's life to the interests of society where this is thought to be necessary. Sir Kenneth Dover in his recent survey of ancient Greek popular morality notes that the Greek tendency was to think of the individual not as a moral agent but in terms of his usefulness for a function or a purpose. Hence the Greek would ask not, ‘How can we be fair to this individual?’ but, ‘What action… is likely to have the best consequences for the strength of the community?’2

By contrast, Dover remarks,

In Western Europe and America a great many people have become accustomed for a very long time to regard the law and the state as mechanisms for the protection of individual freedoms; this attitude has been reinforced by Christian emphasis on the individual's relation to God. We do not take kindly to the notion that there is no religious, moral or domestic claim on the individual which has precedence over the community's claim on his efforts to promote its security and prosperity vis à vis other communities.3

Historically speaking it can scarcely be denied that Dover is right and that our intense feeling for the value of the individual personality has a Judaeo-Christian origin and simply has not developed to the same extent in other traditions. Nor is this surprising. If every man, no matter what his personal qualities or his social situation, is in a unique relation to God and, in virtue of this relation, has an eternal destiny, it does indeed follow (though it has not always been seen to follow) that he cannot be used merely as a means to political or social ends. The language is reminiscent of Kant and reminds us that Kant himself was aware of the historical connection, and, indeed, emphasized it, while yet denying that this ideal of respect for persons required any theological backing:

But this is not the only case in which this wonderful religion with its great simplicity of statement has enriched philosophy with far more definite and purer concepts than it had been able to furnish before; but which, once they are there, are freely assented to by Reason and are assumed as concepts to which it could well have come of itself and which it could and should have introduced.4

Kant here expresses what one might call the ‘matrix theory’ of the relation between religion and ethics; that a religious metaphysic provides a matrix within which ethical conceptions develop as a matter of social and cultural history, but of which they are logically independent; so that in due time the matrix can decay leaving the ethic to live its own life. Something like this certainly seems to happen. Indeed it is rather striking how moral ideals tend to achieve their greatest definition and, in a sense, their greatest purity, when appeal is no longer made to any metaphysical justification for them. It is as if, the metaphysical crust having been eroded by the winds and rains of critical analysis, the moral strata were laid bare and stood out in lonely eminence. We see this in Kant himself, who is so sure of his moral position that he can reverse the traditional order and argue for God's existence as a presupposition of morality. We see it even in Sartre, as Iris Murdoch notices:5

The value of the person is detected by Sartre, not in any patient study of the complexity of human relations, but simply in his experience of the pain of defeat and loss. In cool moments the individual is mercilessly analyzed; his preciousness is apprehended only in the emotional obscurity of a hopeless mourning. (‘No human victory can efface this absolute of suffering.’) It is as if only one certainty remained; that human beings are irreducibly valuable, without any notion why or how they are valuable or how the value can be defended.

But by the time the process has reached Sartre we have begun to have doubts again. Surely now, not only has the metaphysical crust crumbled entirely, but the morality itself has changed. Sartre no longer means just what Kant meant by the irreducible worth of the human personality (and it may be that even what Kant meant is not quite Christian). How can a man have this sort of worth, if man is what Sartre takes him to be? There is not enough to being a man for the notion to be attached to.

In the Christian tradition to treat another man as having unconditional worth is to show him love in the sense of agape. And we have in effect been asking what men would have to be like to be appropriate objects of such love. For it is evident that there are ways of thinking of men which would render it entirely inappropriate. We have, intuitively, a conception of this kind of love, but it is extraordinarily difficult to characterize it without distorting it in one way or another. We want to say that it is because men have, as men, certain qualities and stand in certain relationships, that they are properly to be loved, yet we do not wish such love to be conditional upon the particular characteristics of individuals. Something of what we are inclined to feel about this is expressed with restrained eloquence by McTaggart. In treating of emotions in volume ii of The Nature of Existence he differentiates between love and all other emotions precisely on this ground:6

My contention is that while love may be because of qualities, it is never in respect of qualities. There are three characteristics of love, as we find it in present experience, which support this view. The first is that love is not necessarily proportional to the dignity or adequacy of the qualities which determine it. A trivial cause may determine the direction of intense love. It may be determined by birth in the same family, or by childhood in the same house. It may be determined by physical beauty, or by purely sexual desire. And yet it may be all that love can be.

Other emotions, no doubt, may be determined by causes not proportioned to them in dignity or adequacy. I may admire a man passionately because he plays football well. I may be proud of myself because of the virtues of my great-grandfather. And so also with acquiescence. I may acquiesce in a state of civil war because it makes the life of a spectator more exciting. But the difference is that, in the case of the other emotions, and the acquiescence, we condemn the result if the cause is trivial and inadequate. The admiration, the pride, and the acquiescence which we have just mentioned would all be condemned because they would be held to be unjustified. But with love, it seems to me, we judge differently. If love does arise, it justifies itself, regardless of what causes produce it. To love one person above all the world for all one's life because her eyes are beautiful when she is young is to be determined to a very great thing by a very small cause. But if what is caused is really love—and this is sometimes the case—it is not condemned on that ground. It is there, and that is enough. This would seem to indicate that the emotion is directed to the person, independently of his qualities, and that the determining qualities are not the justification of that emotion, but only the means by which it arises. If this is so, it is natural that their value should sometimes bear no greater relation to the value of the emotion than the intrinsic value of the key of a safe bears to the value of the gold to which it gives us access.

This is magnificent, and yet it does not quite ring true. As is apparent from the context McTaggart is thinking chiefly of natural human love as experienced in marriage and friendship, and this, we feel, should be more discriminating. We are uncertain in our judgement of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice because he is prepared to risk his fortune and his life for so shallow a character as Bassanio. In such a special relationship as that of friendship ought he not to have chosen more wisely and seen more clearly? Yet, even in such a case, if only we were sure that he recognized his friend's shortcomings and stood by him in spite of them, we should regard it as exemplary love. It would obviously be a mistake to draw too sharp a distinction between the love which depends upon reciprocity and affinity and the love which persists even when these have gone or are temporarily in abeyance. Friendship and marriage as we know them are based upon natural affection reinforced by agape—and what McTaggart says does correctly represent what we feel about love in this latter sense, that it does not and ought not to depend on people's distinctive attributes.

That people are not and ought not to be loved in respect of their qualities but for their own sake is not, however, a doctrine that has been universally accepted. Aristotle did not believe it; he thought that people ought to be loved on account of their virtue, and in so far as the good man loves his neighbour as himself, it is only to the extent that he and his neighbour are equally virtuous. It is, as Freud points out, in some ways an outrageous and unnatural suggestion. Freud quotes: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ and continues,

We will adopt a naive attitude towards it, as if we were meeting for the first time. Thereupon we find ourselves unable to suppress a feeling of astonishment, as at something unnatural. Why should we do this? What good is it to us? Above all, how can we do such a thing?… My love seems to me a valuable thing that I have no right to throw away without reflection… If I love someone, he must be worthy of it in some way or other… He will be worthy of it if he is so like me in important respects that I can love myself in him.… I must love him if he is the son of my friend, since the pain my friend would feel if anything untoward happened to him would by my pain—I should have to share it. But if he is a stranger to me and cannot attract me by any value he has in himself or any significance he may already have acquired in my emotional life, it will be hard for me to love him. I shall even be doing wrong if I do, for my love is valued as a privilege by all those belonging to me.… But if I am to love him (with that kind of universal love) simply because he too is a denizen of the earth, like an insect or an earthworm or a grass-snake… it would be impossible for me to give him as much as by all the laws of reason I am entitled to retain for myself. What is the point of an injunction promulgated with such solemnity, if reason does not recommend it to us?… I imagine now I hear a voice gravely adjuring me: ‘Just because thy neighbour is not worthy of thy love, is probably full of enmity toward thee, thou shouldst love him as thyself’. I then perceive the case to be like that of Credo quia absurdum.7

Here this conception of love which Kant describes as ‘freely assented to by reason—and to which it would well have come of itself and which it could and would have introduced’ is stigmatized by Freud as wholly irrational. And this is one of the puzzling features of the whole discussion. The Christian ethic of love is dismissed on the one hand by those who regard it as totally platitudinous and in no need of any theological justification; on the other by those who characterize it as irrational and so incapable of any justification.8

Freud thinks it obvious that ‘if I love someone, he must be worthy of it in some way or other’ and that I cannot love him ‘simply because he too is a denizen of the earth, like an insect or an earthworm or a grass-snake’. He is, of course, rather perverse in the way he draws the contrast. The Western tradition, which he here repudiates, holds that respect is due to man as man, no matter what the individual's qualities, and man is more than a mere denizen of the earth (though, interestingly enough, this feature in the tradition is itself currently under attack from those who blame it for man's spoliation of the non-human world and who favour what they would regard as a Buddhist rather than a Christian emphasis upon the value of all sentient being). If man were merely a denizen of the earth he would not have the unique value which the tradition ascribes to him.

Contrast Freud's conception with that of a Christian writer, Thomas Traherne:

Suppose a curious and fair woman. Some have seen the beauties of Heaven in such a person. It is a vain thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are ten thousand beauties in that creature which they have not seen. They loved it not too much but upon false causes. Nor so much upon false ones as upon some little ones. They love a creature for sparkling eyes and curled hair, lily breasts and ruddy cheeks; which they should love moreover for being God's image, Queen of the Universe, beloved by Angels, redeemed by Jesus Christ, an heiress of Heaven, and Temple of the Holy Ghost: a mine and fountain of all virtues, a treasury of graces and a child of God. But these excellencies are unknown. They love her perhaps, but do not love God more: nor men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so, being defective to other things, perish by a seeming excess to that. We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigour and Love to everything and that would poise us. I dare confidently say that every person in the whole world ought to be beloved as much as this: and she if there be any cause of difference more than she is. But God being beloved infinitely more will be infinitely more our joy, and our heart will be more with Him, so that no man can be in danger by loving others too much, that loveth God as he ought.9

Traherne is not speaking as a philosopher making careful distinctions. His is the language of poetry, but the copious profusion of images helps to identify the difference that is made by placing man in a religious frame of reference, and to appreciate how rich this frame of reference is. Traherne sees the woman not only as ‘redeemed by Jesus Christ’ and ‘Child of God’, but as ‘God's image’, ‘heiress of heaven and Temple of the Holy Ghost’, ‘a mine and fountain of all virtues’, ‘a treasury of graces’, and, however we interpret these phrases, they clearly imply that men as men possess qualities and capacities for development and response which make them appropriate objects of a divine love of a different order from that which is bestowed upon the rest of the natural world.

It is not possible, therefore, to regard the love of God as an entirely external relation which could be added to or withdrawn from the human situation, leaving everything else unchanged. In the General Thanksgiving, in The Book of Common Prayer, we thank God ‘for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’, but above all ‘for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory’. In all these ways God's love is shown and, if we should love one another because God first loved us, it is because we are what God's love has made us and is making us. If men were not constituted in such a way that they were free agents, capable of choosing between good and evil, responding to or rejecting love, they would not be creatures capable of being uniquely related to God, though they would still be creatures and worthy of concern as such; and, if they are so constituted and if their choices and responses are of supreme importance, they deserve, as Kant believed, to be treated as ends and not as means. We may, like Kant, hold that they are in fact so constituted and we may treat them with respect accordingly; or, like Sartre, we may treat them so and not believe that they are so constituted. In each case the question remains whether we have good reason to hold the beliefs about human nature which entitle men to be treated with respect or whether we can continue indefinitely to treat men with respect in the total absence of such beliefs.

There is, as mention of Kant reminds us, a humanistic counterpart to Christian teaching, based upon the respect that is due to any moral agent. For a moral agent is bound to respect himself as a being capable of making moral choices and, by the same token, to respect other moral agents and treat them as ends in themselves, having a peculiar dignity. From this point of view what is wrong with Sartre is that he does not believe that men are, in this sense, moral agents. Kant's own problem is how to provide a coherent conception of human nature which will give moral agency the significance he wishes to attach to it. He attempted to do this by drawing a sharp distinction between the phenomenal self, the self of the desires and the emotions, which belongs to the world as known by the scientist and is subject to determination by scientific laws, and the noumenal self, self as rational will, which enjoys a transcendent freedom. It is the latter which merits respect. But this solution proposes a totally artificial separation between man's intellectual and his emotional life and is thus radically incoherent. Man as moral agent is effectively cut off from everything else that makes him human. The modern secular libertarian requires some other way of vindicating human freedom and the significance of moral choices in a world ruled by chance and necessity.

This discussion has been somewhat abstract, but it is not difficult to see its bearing upon the principle of the sanctity of life, which Hampshire wants to safeguard against utilitarian pressures. The Christian conception of man's nature and destiny makes a significant difference to the status and interpretation of this principle. Consider, for example, the problem of voluntary euthanasia. A case can be made out against it on broadly utilitarian lines. The sufferer needs to be protected against his own rash or ill-considered impulses and against exploitation by others. Importance must also be attached to the interest that others may have in his survival. Moreover society at large must weigh the consequences of any general recognition that doctors may, in certain circumstances, take life or aid in taking it. But, when allowance has been made for all these things, the individual may, on this view, be justified in ending his own life or in consenting to its being ended, if it no longer seems to him worth living. And arguments of this kind, even if taken to be overriding, do not do justice to the conception of the sanctity of life which influences many opponents of euthanasia, both Christian and humanist. They feel that the value of human life is not to be measured by the satisfactions it affords, and that patient acceptance of suffering, infirmity and dependence is an important part of what makes men human. For the humanist this can be seen as belonging to man's dignity as a rational being (although this consideration is more often made to tell the other way). For the Christian it derives from his status as a creature made in the image of God, who holds his life in trust from God and who is never without occasion to serve him even in unspectacular and apparently unproductive ways. The conclusion follows not from a single argument but from a number of converging ones which affect the whole context in which the decision is to be made. Thus the Christian thinks not only of his dependence upon God as Creator but of his gratitude to him, and also of his partaking, through the Holy Spirit, of the sufferings of Christ. The purely secular appeal to human dignity, though not without weight, has, as we have seen, a slighter and less coherent metaphysical background. It is significant that Kant's treatment of suicide10 is one of those instances in which, in order to reach the desired conclusion, (that the categorical imperative forbids suicide) he appeals to an immanent teleology for which his critical philosophy provides no warrant. Self-love by its nature, he tells us, serves to maintain life.

Kant makes a similar appeal in endeavouring to show that men have a duty to cultivate their talents.11 They too are given us for a purpose. In the absence of some such consideration it is hard to see why a man should not, if he chooses, take a non-addictive drug which permanently makes the user more contented with his life and less capable of developing his talents. It can, of course, be argued, on general utilitarian grounds, that he has a duty to others not to take it; but this is an argument that could on occasion be rebutted. And he may, if he chooses, make self-improvement a Strawsonian personal ideal. But neither approach does justice to the conviction of many conscientious people that it is wrong, and against the individual's interest, to allow his capacity to make responsible decisions to be impaired, even if he wants it to be. Some people might, of course, think otherwise; they might, for example, attach more importance to pleasure and avoidance of pain than to self-determination, and this would reflect fairly fundamental differences in their philosophy of life.

Perhaps one can discern a comparable difference of approach in relation to abortion. Those who regard the foetus as entirely at the disposal of the mother seem to be committed to denying it any share in human status, and this might be because for them experiences are more important than persons. If you attach importance primarily to the person as such you will be impressed by the continuity between the foetus and the person it is to become (if, that is, you do not regard it as a person already). If you attach importance to the person chiefly as the subject of experiences, you will care less about the foetus, which as yet has no experiences and could always be replaced by another potential bearer of experiences. Thus a woman whose ethic is experience-oriented will feel justified in terminating an inconvenient pregnancy and having a child at a more convenient time, whereas one whose ethic is person-oriented will not.

What I am suggesting is that our traditional conception of the sanctity of human life is bound up with our ideas of what it is to be a man and that some of the ideas now current are inadequate to sustain it. As so often Kant is at a turning-point. He has a high estimation of the individual's value, which rests upon his possession, actual or potential, of a good will. But Kant has so dissociated morality from experienced human needs and affections, and the noumenal from the phenomenal self, that we are left wondering in the end just what it is that we are to treat with such respect and why it can exert such categorical claims upon us. What, after all, is the Kantian moral agent? He is a rational being who acts in accordance with laws which he is prepared to prescribe universally and who is not at the mercy of ‘pathological’ desire. Even if it is possible to make sense of this conception, the result would be a somewhat untypical human being. Not only children and imbeciles and, often, the aged are not, in this sense, moral agents, but the greater part of mankind, both today and in the past, have not achieved or even sought this kind of autonomy. Kant's conception of the moral agent and the dignity that attaches to him is both too individualist and too intellectualist to account for the importance we attach to persons. We are reminded of Iris Murdoch's reference to Kant's man and ‘the exiguous metaphysical background which Kant was prepared to allow him’. It is not, we feel, the rational being, let alone the potential rational being, but the entire man with all his peculiarities and imperfections, his interests and attachments that it is incumbent upon us to love. As Austin Farrer writes:

… if we sympathize with a man for failing to pursue a good which he does not value in the least, it is difficult to see what we are sympathizing with: not with the man who is, but with some shadow of a man who should be. And realities, not desirabilities, are the objects of regard. I am to love my neighbour, and not my idea of my neighbour…12

The regard we owe him is unqualified, because it is owed to God through him. And yet he is no mere channel through which regard is paid to God, for God is regarded by regard to what he regards, and what he regards is the man. The worth of the man is determined by his place in God's purposes; and it is not a worth which in any way hides or palliates his imperfections. For it is measured by the infinite cost at which God is willing to redeem him from them. His worth lies, however, in nothing else than in what he actually is, for this is the subject of divine redemption, this very man whom I know: not, indeed, as God knows him: but in so far as I have any capacity for knowing my fellow-creatures at all, what I know is what God redeems.13

It is not difficult to see how a religious frame of reference makes the concept of the sanctity of life intelligible or how some non-religious schemes fail to do so. Nevertheless it may still be objected that the irreducible value of the human person must be entirely independent of any doctrine of man's relationship to God. The objection has been well put by Professor Downie and Miss Telfer.14 If it is only in so far as God loves us that we become proper objects of love for each other; if, that is to say, our value as human persons derives from the love which God has for us, ‘we are surely not forced to conclude (although some theologians have concluded) that, if we do not presuppose the existence of God, personality thereby loses its value.’

In order to take the measure of this objection we have to make a crucial distinction. Of course, on any showing, ‘personality has value,’ on the basis of what Mackie calls ‘self-referential altruism’.15 This involves concern for others,

but for others who have some special connection with oneself; children, parents, friends, workmates, neighbours in the literal, not the metaphorically extended sense. Wider affections than these usually centre upon devotion to some special cause—religious, political, revolutionary, nationalist—not upon the welfare of human beings, let alone sentient beings, in general.

This is the sort of love which alone seemed to Freud to be rational.16 But it is not this sort of love that is now in question, nor the conception of the value of personality that goes with it. The ‘peculiar value, quite beyond the value of any other natural things’ which Hampshire seeks to defend is a value which attaches to any human life, no matter how alien that life may be, and demands respect from anyone, no matter who he is or what his relation to the individual whose life is in question. That personality has this sort of value is not by any means a truism, as Freud's discussion clearly shows. Freud himself concedes that someone might have value for him if, though not directly related to him, he was the son of his dear friend, and it is by an extension of just this kind that Christians have come to see all men as worthy of regard. For they are all children of one God who loves them equally.

Even this claim, central though it is, is not to be taken as a single compelling argument. The argument itself may take different forms and, in its various forms, is one among a number of interrelated themes. As Gene Outka points out:

Some… rely largely on political imagery. God commands the human agent to love and it is the duty of the agent as servant to obey. In others, familial imagery predominates. It is the will of the heavenly Father that His children obey Him by loving each other. Men should out of gratitude accept their status as children of God and think and act accordingly. Or again: men should love God by conforming to or imitating on their own level and with their own capacities the character of His action. A life of love is consistent with the final purpose of such action, just as non-love frustrates it.17

It cannot be God's love for man, taken by itself, that gives man his peculiar value, for God loves all his creatures. But only men, so far as we know, are capable of and destined for eternal life, that is to say, a life of loving communion with God and with other men, which may begin on earth but can be fulfilled only in heaven. This ‘cross-reference to eternity’, as Herbert Butterfield puts it, makes each man an object of God's protective care as just the individual man that he is, and forbids us to subordinate his fundamental interests to those of the state. Since it is men's capacity to love one another and to love God, rather than their powers of self-legislation, that make men proper objects of respect, and since love involves the entire person, this doctrine escapes the intellectualism which bedevils Kant, but problems still arise as to where the limits of humanity are to be drawn. Here we can only rely on the conviction that what is there to be saved God will save18 and, where there is doubt, treat with respect all who share the human form.

A further example, in addition to the sanctity of life, is that of fidelity in sexual relationships. The scientific humanist is inclined to argue that there is no need for any specifically sexual morality. Sexual relationships should be governed by the same principles as any others. Care should be taken to see that no unwanted children are born but, so long as that is done, the parties are morally free to decide their own behaviour subject only to the most general moral constraints upon exploitation and injury. Marriage becomes necessary only with the birth of children and is to be thought of primarily as a device for ensuring their maintenance and education. Hence fidelity is not demanded except in so far as it can be shown to affect the stability of the home,19 unless the parties choose to decide otherwise.

Romantic humanism, by contrast, places considerable emphasis upon the quality of the personal relationship between the partners, and upon the sexual act itself as expressing and confirming their mutual love. This ‘personalist’ approach results, in one respect, in a comparatively strict moral imperative, for it rules out a sexual relationship from which genuine love is absent. Thus it recognizes a specifically sexual morality; one which, in typically romantic fashion, stresses the spontaneity and authenticity of true erotic love. This makes it impatient of regulation and induces a certain tension between the impulse to permanence, which follows from the seriousness with which the relationship is viewed, and the conviction that it should last only as long as spontaneous love itself lasts and no longer. Hence fidelity has a value which is more than merely instrumental, but is nevertheless not unconditional.

In practice the modern secular mind seeks an accommodation between these two positions. Society requires some regulation of sexual relationships, especially where the interests of children are concerned. Although a variety of patterns of the institution of marriage might suffice for this essential function, monogamy is favoured because there are good utilitarian arguments for it, and also because it is a better vehicle for romantic love than the available alternatives. But the result is a somewhat uneasy compromise. The romantic tends to regard the restraints imposed upon him by society as an artificial restriction upon what ought ideally to be a free and unfettered relationship. And the sort and degree of fidelity between the partners which is consistent with the romantic ideal is not in any way directed to, or particularly apt for, the secure upbringing of children, which is what the rationalist is chiefly interested in.

What is missing in both these views, and therefore in the attempted accommodation between them, is the conception of fidelity as an unconditional demand, which belongs intrinsically to marriage and is neither the result simply of utilitarian contrivance nor subject to the changing attitudes of those involved; the conception to which the marriage vows in the Prayer Book service give such memorable and moving expression: ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.’ Although ‘according to God's holy ordinance’ this is not a matter simply of divine command. It answers the needs of the human heart for assurance of continuing love and care and for the opportunity to grow together in complete confidence and trust. There is, as Mr J. R. Lucas puts it, an ‘inner logic’ in favour of permanence, since without it love must be kept partly in reserve.20 And permanence cannot be made to depend on the continuance and continuity of romantic love alone; eros requires to be reinforced by agape. It follows that the secure love which children need does not, on this view, run counter to the ‘logic’ of the relationship between the parents, but flows naturally from it.

Fidelity, so understood, is an important element in the Western ethical tradition and one which is honoured and exemplified in the lives of many who are not professing Christians. They can recognize its ‘inner logic’ and verify it in their own experience. But it has come under increasing pressure from conceptions of human nature which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with it. Essential to it is a conviction that the institution of marriage has an appropriateness which is not the product simply of individual or social choice; that, in some sense of the word, it is natural rather than merely conventional. This conviction makes itself felt even in the purely romantic view of sex, for its central contention is that the sexual act is the uniquely appropriate expression of profound erotic love and therefore not to be engaged in in its absence. It is not simply that it can be given this significance, if the partners choose (for plainly it can also be made to express very different emotions), but that this is, in some sense, its true significance. It is as if it had a quasi-sacramental character. But in a modern secular world-view there is no room for such notions (though there was, perhaps, to some extent in paganism).

I have given some examples of the way in which, and the reasons for which, certain moral principles are given more weight in a Christian scheme of thought than they merit on broadly utilitarian grounds. I have not attempted to discuss the enormously difficult question whether any of them are entirely exceptionless.21 I am content to accept Hampshire's formulation when he speaks of moral prohibitions which are ‘more or less insurmountable, except in abnormal, painful and improbable circumstances’. It is sufficient for the purposes of my argument to claim that such principles, to which the man of traditional conscience is characteristically committed, are more congruous with a religious view of the world than with a modern secular one.

  • 1.

    Public and Private Morality, p. 20.

  • 2.

    Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle, Blackwell (1974), p. 158.

  • 3.

    Op. cit., p. 157.

  • 4.

    Kant, Critique of Judgement, tr. Bernard, Macmillan (1914), § 91, p. 410 n.

  • 5.

    Sartre, p. 81.

  • 6.

    The Nature of Existence, Vol. ii, Cambridge University Press (1927), p. 152.

  • 7.

    Civilization and its Discontents translated by Joan Riviere, The International Psycho-analytical Library (1930), p. 81.

  • 8.

    Cf. J. L. Mackie, Ethics, pp. 130–1.

  • 9.

    Centuries of Meditations, Betram Dobell, (1908), Second Century, 68, pp. 126 f.

  • 10.

    Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, translated by T. K. Abbott, Longmans, Green & Co. (1934), p. 47.

  • 11.

    Op. cit., p. 48.

  • 12.

    ‘A Moral Argument for the Existence of God’ in Reflective Faith, S.P.C.K. (1972), p. 123.

  • 13.

    Ibid., p. 124.

  • 14.

    R. S. Downie and Elizabeth Telfer, Respect for Persons. Allen & Unwin (1969), p. 36.

  • 15.

    Ethics, p. 132.

  • 16.

    See this chapter, p. 126 above.

  • 17.

    Gene Outka, Agape, Yale University Press (1972), p. 193.

  • 18.

    Cf. Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, Collins (1962), p. 167.

  • 19.

    See Alex Comfort, Sex in Society, p. 116, quoted on p. 22 above.

  • 20.

    J. R. Lucas, in an appendix to Marriage and the Church's Task, Report of the General Synod Marriage Commission, Church Information Office (1978), p. 125.

  • 21.

    For a thorough discussion see Donald Evans, ‘Paul Ramsey on Exceptionless Moral Rules’ in Love and Society, edd. James Johnson and David Smith, American Academy of Religion and Scholars Press (1974), and the writings of Paul Ramsey to which he refers.