John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb at Xian and Beijing, between June 13-18, 2002. Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Whitehead’s thought connects with that of “situation ethics.” In this view, obeying moral rules is not the answer. What is truly right can only be determined in the full concreteness of the situation. As useful though knowledge of past reflection can be for acting in the concreteness of the situation, ultimately we must trust our own spontaneous intuition.
For Alfred North Whitehead, value is central metaphysically as well as ethically and aesthetically. To be actual is to be a value in oneself and for oneself. It is also to be a value for others
I. Intrinsic Value as Subjectivity
For Whitehead, it would be meaningless to speak of a value apart from a subject. It is subjects that are intrinsically valuable. Only a subject can be something in and for itself. An object, qua object, exists for something else. It can have only instrumental value, and that value must be instrumental to the value of some subject.
The question, then, is where subjectivity is to be found. The most evident answer is that it is found in human experiences. These experiences provide us with our fundamental notion of subjectivity. The resulting idea of subjectivity involves both receptivity and activity. We are affected by our world and we affect our world. At least in English, “subject” has this dual meaning, and for Whitehead, both sides are important. There is no subject that is not acted on, and there is no subject that does not act.
In the Western philosophical tradition there have been those who concerned themselves with no other subjects than human beings. Some even denied that any other entity could have subjectivity. The founder of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, was quite explicit in holding that animals were in fact only objects with no feelings. The sounds a dog made that we normally interpret as expressive of pain were no different from the squeaking of a door.
Although few people really believe this, the restriction of subjectivity to human beings has been very influential. Economic theory regards human satisfaction as the only goal. The value of anything else is the price human beings will pay for it. This is as true of animals as of vegetables or minerals.
There have, of course, been philosophers who have protested this sharp distinction between human beings and other animals. Whitehead is one of these. There is every reason, Whitehead believes, to attribute subjectivity to other animals. This was true long before evolutionary theory came into being, but given that theory, the idea that human subjects emerged out of a world composed purely of objects seems absurd.
Whitehead carries this reasoning all the way. Every actual entity has a subjective character. If we identify subjectivity with conscious subjectivity, this is highly implausible. It seems very unlikely that animals without central nervous systems are conscious. But Whitehead does not limit subjectivity to conscious subjectivity. He agrees with the depth psychologists that most of our experience is not conscious. Consciousness arises, he thinks, only when experience attains to a certain complexity, a complexity that probably requires a central nervous system.
Consciousness adds greatly to the value of experience, but it does not exhaust its value. Experience or subjectivity that lacks consciousness is also a value for itself and in itself. Nonconscious subjectivity is appropriately attributed to creatures lacking in sense organs and central nervous systems. This subjectivity can best be thought of as nonconscious emotion. If we view the whole of physical reality as composed of throbs of nonconscious emotion, we can understand how, out of this, there emerged in an evolutionary process the highly complex subjectivity that constitutes our own experience. There is value in all things, but there is far more value in a moment of human experience than in a quantum-event of energy.
Many Westerners find this attribution of subjectivity to the whole of nature quite incredible. I believe it is less alien to Eastern thought. But I will spend a little time trying to make it less implausible to those who find it so.
First, Whitehead emphasizes that he is not attributing subjectivity to chairs and rocks and planets. Subjectivity occurs in unitary events. Our first example was a moment of human experience. We extended that to other animal experiences, recognizing that at the lower end of the scale these might lack consciousness altogether. We then leaped to the extension to all the unitary events that make up the world. A plant is composed of cells, and it is the cellular events, rather than the plant as a whole, that give evidence of subjectivity. A chair is composed of molecules, and it is molecular events, rather than the chair as a whole that can be understood as the unitary events that have subjectivity. Some think that, indeed, the subjectivity resides only in the subatomic events of which molecules are ultimately constituted.
The point here is that the objects of vision are composite objects that can be analyzed into parts. In most cases there is no reason to attribute subjectivity to the composite. But when we deal with the individual entities of which these are composed, the ones into which science analyzes them, these turn out to behave in ways much more suggestive of subjectivity. It is these to which Whitehead attributes subjectivity.
Second, you will have noticed that I speak of events of various kinds rather than of substances. This is central to Whitehead’s thought. In much of Western philosophy, the world is thought to be composed of substances and their attributes. A very influential view has been that, ultimately, it is composed of atoms that are changeless in themselves and produce the great variety of things by their motion relative to one another. Whitehead rejected this view radically. He was influenced by both philosophy and physics. The philosophic effort to think of substances had, in fact, collapsed before his time. Philosophers were left with phenomena or appearances. It was as if we had the attributes of substances without the substances.
Physicists continued to think in substance terms. For example, they assumed that if there were waves, there must be a substratum that waved. If light was to be understood in terms of waves, then there must be an ether whose substance could wave. Experiments, however, showed that there was no ether. Physicists have continued talking about waves even though the only intelligible meaning of a wave is based on an underlying substance.
Whitehead believed that this situation was confused and confusing. There is a better solution. Instead of assuming that the world is composed of substantial objects and their attributes and motions, why not speculate that it is composed of events. This seems to fit the subatomic world better, and it makes more sense of much else. A human experience is an event, and so is a quantum burst of energy. The enduring objects that have given rise to our thinking of substances can be understood as complex societies of such events that maintain a constant pattern over a long period of time.
I can now make clear that it is unit events that are something for themselves and something for others. In and of themselves they have intrinsic value. For others they have instrumental value. From the subjective viewpoint they can be thought of as throbs of unconscious feeling or emotion. From the objective point of view they are described as energy-events.
Third, consider the systematic implications of drawing a line at any point and asserting that below that line there is no subjectivity at all. That means that below that line there are only objects. But remember, objects exist only for some subject. That would mean that in the billions of years before the emergence of the first subject, there were only objects. But that would also mean that none of those events had any reality at all until subjects emerged capable of objectifying them. Out of what, then, did these subjects arise?
From Whitehead’s point of view, at least, evolutionary thought requires that there be continuity from the simplest subatomic event to the most complex human experience. Otherwise at some point a metaphysical divide was crossed for which evolutionary thinking can give no account whatsoever. Conscious subjectivity can emerge from nonconscious subjectivity. But subjectivity cannot “emerge” from what is purely objective. The speculation of continuity is essential to sanity.
Much more could be said, but I hope that you now understand how Whitehead attributes intrinsic value to everything. It is located in the unit events of which all things are composed. Much of it may be negligible for most purposes. But much of it is also important for many practical purposes. The metaphysical universality of value underlies consideration of which values are important in what circumstances and for what purposes.
II. Gradations of Value
Among those who attribute value to all things, some insist that all things have equal value or, at least, that we have no business trying to make distinctions. Whitehead does not agree. He speaks of gradations of value. In cosmic sweep, the events or occasions of the lowest grade are those in empty space. These are uncoordinated with one another. Those that are ordered in such a way that the characteristics of one occasion can be inherited by its successors constitute the next grade. These are the physical entities of our world. Third are the occasions in which life is present. They require a much higher degree of order. The highest grade consists in those that emerge in the context of a central nervous system, those in which some degree of consciousness is attained.
Within any one of these grades further distinctions are possible. These are most important among the highest grade. Those who oppose making such distinctions often have these primarily in mind.
Can we as human beings rightly judge that human experience is of greater value than that of sardines? Whitehead thinks we can. Obviously, we cannot prove such things, but it is clear that our brains are designed to receive far more messages from various parts of the body than are those of simple fish. Our brains are also designed to process these data in more complex ways. We know that we have very complex feelings and thoughts. There is no evidence that anything of this sort occurs in sardines.
The counter-argument is that the sardines’ experience is of ultimate value for them, just as our experience is of ultimate value to us. To judge that greater complexity increases the value of our experience is itself an anthropocentric prejudice. It may adapt us better to the role we are designed to play, but the sardine is better adapted to its role.
This kind of challenge forces the question: Is there an objective basis for judging that some values are greater than others? If so, what is it? If not, must we simply accept the relativistic consequences?
Let us consider what some of these consequences are. We can see them first in those who have emphasized the intrinsic value of life, such as Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer believed that we should reverence all life and that the attitude of reverence precluded discrimination of degrees of value. Nevertheless, he could not avoid practical decisions. To keep a bird alive he fed it fish. He certainly devoted himself to saving human life at the cost of many microbes. In other words, he could not avoid practical judgments of greater and lesser value. What he denied himself was any theoretical justification for these practical judgments. From Whitehead’s point of view, that is not a gain.
Consider, second, our normal behavior in relation to one another. Practically speaking, when we see a child in pain we are likely to try to relieve it. We believe that the child’s experience without pain is preferable to the experience with pain. If we judge that there is no difference in value among experiences, we are left with no reason to afford this kind of assistance.
Furthermore, the issue is not simply pain and pleasure. We devote a great deal of energy to the education of our children. Of course, much of this may be directed toward preparing them for a role in society, with no judgment made about improvement in their experience. But some of it is also a matter of helping them to gain the capacity to enjoy the good things of life. Our behavior suggests that aesthetic training, for example, expands the potential for value of experience. It also suggests that we believe that being able to relate in certain ways to other people enhances the possibility of enriching relationships.
Consider, third, that if we truly abandoned all judgment of greater and lesser value, our only goal would be survival. As long as we could prolong life, the quality would make no difference. Very few people behave as if they believe that. Certainly, Whitehead did not. But he recognized that stating just what constitutes an improvement of value is not a simple matter.
III. Measures of Value
In the history of Western philosophy, the terms pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction have been those most commonly used to describe what is valuable in and about human subjectivity. They allow for discrimination of more and less, and they have a certain obvious usefulness. Other things being equal, I certainly prefer pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness, and satisfaction over dissatisfaction. And I prefer more pleasure, more happiness, and more satisfaction to less. Nevertheless, most people are not content with reducing the measure of value to any of these.
I will offer just one objection. I am generally a fairly happy person, but much of the time, my experience also contains elements of deep distress and dissatisfaction occasioned by the suffering and injustice in the world. By most meanings of “happy”, I would be happier if I forgot these matters. I can live a quite sheltered life on which the suffering of most of humanity can hardly impinge if I do not open myself to it. I have not personally been unjustly treated in any important ways. Especially in my retirement, if I sought simply to be happy, I could be more successful in that enterprise than I am. Would my experience be more valuable if I largely shut out of awareness the misery of others?
The answer is clearly that it would not. In response, the proponents of “happiness” as the goal of life could point out that this term can be understood in much richer ways. The problem is that it can then be used to mean whatever on full examination we discover that people most prize. It no longer functions as an indicator of what that goal actually is. We might find that people prize very different things, some of them appalling to others. If “happiness” is purely relative to the chance interests and preferences of people, selecting it as the basis for comparative evaluation does not give us any guidance. A person who is doped so as to be content with a state of stupor would fulfill the goal of happiness as well or better than sensitive and thoughtful people engaged in creative activities. A contented infant is a delight to behold, but we would be deeply distressed if its mental and emotional life did not develop beyond that infantile stage.
IV. Whitehead’s Proposal
Whitehead worked on this question for many years. In Process and Reality he used the term “intensity” to designate the variable on the basis of which the value of experience could be judged. We aim, he thought, at intensity of experience. Subjectivity is a greater value when it is more intense. This would explain why an experience that takes account of more dimensions of what is going on, the bad as well as the good, is of greater value than the one that achieves contentment by shutting off possible awareness.
Of course, the need is not for sheer addition of stimuli. Stimuli must be processed in ways that make it possible to appropriate them. Whitehead borrowed a term from aesthetics to explain what is needed: “contrasts”. The stimuli from the past can add to the intensity of experience if they are contrasted with one another. A painting, he thought, is of greater interest if it contains diversity of content. But sheer diversity is not a good. The diverse elements have to be brought together in such a way that each contributes to the way the other is appropriated. Their joint appropriation is not simply the addition of their separate contributions but also the value of the contrast between them. The same is true of our emotional and cognitive inheritance from the past. An intense experience is one made up of contrasts and contrasts of contrasts. In this context elements of pain, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction may contribute to the intensity of the whole.
I believe that this theory is a significant contribution to the literature on value. Nevertheless, Whitehead was not satisfied with it. He returned to the subject of value in Adventures of Ideas. His full value theory is worked out in Part IV of that book under the heading of civilization. It is very complex and does not lend itself to summarization. Whitehead seems to have given up the notion that there could be some one line along which the amount of value of occasions of experience could be measured.
The closest equivalent to the role of “intensity” in Process and Reality is “strength of beauty”. This term makes it clear that intrinsic value is to be understood in aesthetic categories. Of course, “beauty” does not refer to the aesthetic properties of nature or art as such. These contribute to the beauty of experience of the beholder. But it is the beauty of the experience as such that is in question. An experience may have considerable strength of beauty even if one is in an ugly environment. The chief ingredients are emotional rather than sensory, although the sensory can certainly attribute to the emotional depths. Thought and memory can also contribute, as can even the ugly environment.
Beauty, Whitehead understands as perfection of harmony of the subjectivity of an occasion of experience. Its strength combines two elements, the diversity of ingredients and the intensity with which they are individually felt. Thus intensity still contributes to value, but only as one ingredient among others.
However, in this fuller exposition Whitehead does not reduce all value to the strength of beauty of an experience. He recognizes other dimensions of value. One is truth. An occasion with great strength of beauty might be based on a profound misapprehension of the real nature of its data. Whitehead believed that error reduced the value of an experience. Mere accuracy does not contribute greatly to value, but when combined with beauty, it adds something that is missing in beauty alone.
There is then the question of goodness understood in an ethical sense. Much value theory in the West has been primarily oriented to ethics. Moral value has been the supreme question. You will have noticed that for Whitehead this is not the case. Aesthetic value, in the sense of the beauty of experience, is the primary issue. But this does not make morality unimportant. The function of morality is to promote beauty of experience.
In Process and Reality Whitehead states that the aim of every experience is to attain intensity within itself and also in its relevant future. Morality has to do with this contribution to the future. The broader the future one takes into account, the more moral is the aim. Since “strength of beauty” plays the role in Adventures of Ideas that is played by “intensity” in Process and Reality, I will substitute that term here.
Consider a simple case. I am offered a piece of delicious cake. I am not hungry and have no need of more food. Yet the taste of that cake would add to the beauty of my experience for a few minutes. If the scope of the future that I consider is only that brief period, I will accept and eat the cake. But perhaps I am a little overweight. Eating that cake will tend to add to that weight. Being overweight detracts from the beauty of my experience over a long period of time. Alternately, to avoid adding weight, I will have to forego food I like at a later point, when, because I am hungry, the food will add more to the beauty of my experience than the cake will now. This broader consideration of the relevant future may lead me to decline. Whitehead asserts that the latter decision is the more moral because it takes into account a more extended future. Of course, I may recognize that I should decline, but eat the cake anyway. That would be immoral.
You will notice that the consideration I have proposed deals only with my personal future. I have offered only a prudential, which some exclude them from morality altogether. Whitehead does not exclude prudence from morality. For him, all reflection about future consequences belongs to the sphere morality. Nevertheless, considering only the personal future is less moral that considering others as well. If we imagine that my acceptance of the cake would deny it to someone else who is truly in need of food, then my failure to consider that person’s needs would be immoral.
Obviously, we all face far more serious moral problems than this. I am sometimes asked to subordinate my personal good to that of my family. To consider only my personal benefit and fail to take into account that of my wife and children would certainly be immoral. Sometimes we are asked to subordinate the interests of the family to that of the nation. To refuse to consider the well being of this larger community would also be immoral. Sometimes the interests of the nation are in tension with those of the community of nations. The wider the scope of our consideration, the more moral we are. Of course, those who do not perceive the wider scope as relevant, those with narrower horizons, will accuse one who subordinates the smaller to the larger group of betrayal.
These moral issues are of immense importance. There is nothing in Whitehead’s theory of value to minimize them. But it should be noticed that the good that is aimed at for others is an aesthetic good. It is the strength of beauty of their experience.
There can be a tension between the aim at strength of beauty in the moment and the aim at benefiting future occasions of experience, one’s own and others. Whitehead does not tell us how to resolve it. It is not the case that it is always best to sacrifice the present to the future. Living intensely in the present, enjoying each moment as it arises, has its advantage. On the other hand, the failure to consider consequences can be extremely dangerous both for oneself and for others. The purely aesthetic impulse and the moral one exist in a tension that cannot be totally resolved.
On the other hand, the tension is far less than this formal statement suggests. The relation is more a polarity in which each pole supports the other than an opposition in which they exclude one another. One’s own enjoyment in the present usually contributes more to the enjoyment of others than does a highly calculating morality. One generally enjoys oneself more, moment by moment, if one’s mode of enjoyment is contributing to the enjoyment of others and not harming one’s own future prospects. That is, anticipation of a favorable future for oneself and others adds to the strength of beauty of the moment.
Morality is often thought of as a matter of rules or principles. Whitehead recognized the need for these but also their danger. As general guidelines, rules and principles are highly desirable. Some are general enough to be useful in any society whatever, whereas others describe the behavior that is wanted in a particular society. We think of the former as the truly moral ones, but the line between the two is difficult to draw. In any case, one moral rule may be to observe social conventions unless these require behavior that is immoral in other ways. Also, even the most general ones have their limits. For example, although it is appropriate to have a general rule against lying and stealing, nevertheless, we can all think of circumstances in which such rules should be broken. This is true even for killing other human beings. Whitehead strongly opposes the widespread Western tendency to seek absolute rules or principles of morality.
VI. Instrumental Value
The discussion of morality offers a good transition to the discussion of instrumental value. Morality is concerned with how the present can be an instrumental value for the future. It turns out, of course, that morality also contributes to the intrinsic value of the occasion in which consideration is given to the future, but the morality as such does not have this contribution in view.
This is not the usual locus for considering instrumental value, and Whitehead’s avoidance of the term may have been wise. But when one explains his theory of value in more familiar categories, the point is important. Acting now for the sake of future events is intending to be instrumental to their well being.
Of course, there are also instrumental values that are such without any intention of being so. My computer has no intention of serving me, but it does all the same. A sunset does not intend to contribute to the beauty of my experience, but it does so. Oil does not intend to make possible a complex civilization, but it has done so. These are the kinds of things we usually consider when we think of instrumental values. They are objects for human subjects without themselves being subjects. For Whitehead it is important to note that subjects also become objects for future subjects and, in doing so, become instrumental values for them. When an occasion of experience is intentional about the role it will play as an object for later occasions of experience, we are in the sphere of morality.
Although the term “instrumental values” certainly seems to subordinate them to intrinsic ones, it is important to recognize their great importance. Sometimes they require greater attention than intrinsic values. Consider, for example, our appraisal of the other beings that make up the earth-system. From a Whiteheadian perspective, some of these other beings, such as whales, have significant intrinsic value. We judge that their experiences can be characterized by great strength of beauty. We have reason to extend to such creatures some of the kind of concern that we extend to other human beings. We should avoid causing them suffering unless the reasons for doing so are quite strong. On the other hand, in the overall scheme of things, their instrumental value is relatively slight. The ecosystem could adjust rather easily to their absence. This absence would impoverish human experience, but not drastically.
In sharp contrast, the intrinsic value of plankton is trivial. We have little reason to be concerned about what happens to it in terms of the loss of beauty in its subjective existence. But the instrumental value of plankton for the whole system of life in the ocean is enormous. Without it, the intrinsic value found in the many more complex living things that depend on it, directly or indirectly, would be ended. The whales could not survive without it. If we had to choose between the survival of whales as a species and that of plankton, we would rightly choose the plankton.
There is another distinction to be made that highlights what is distinctive of Whitehead’s view of instrumental value. He concentrates attention on what I will call direct instrumental value. For Whitehead one entity, that is, one occasion of experience, contributes to another, first and foremost, by participating in the constitution of the other. Whereas what we think of as substances must remain always external to one another, past occasions of experience enter into present ones.
This is very important for what I have said about morality. Often the main contribution I can make to other people is by my spirit or attitude. Being cheerful may contribute significantly to the general level of feeling in a small group. When others experience me as listening sympathetically, they may become free to speak in ways that allow them to express their feelings in a healing way. On the other hand, if my companions experience me as judgmental or calculating, I will contribute to a loss of strength of beauty in their experience.
Of course, there are instrumental values that do not work in this way. My computer contributes directly to my experience in the sense that I see it and touch it. But its major contribution consists in its ability to perform numerous operations that save me a great deal of time and allow me to produce a better product. There is little or no direct connection between the subjectivity of the molecular or subatomic events that make up the computer and the value it has for me.
VII. Complicating the Picture
In terms of my account thus far, one might classify Whitehead’s ethics as a modified Benthamite utilitarianism. I say “utilitarian”, since Whitehead’s ethics is certainly related to consequences. I say “Benthamite” because Jeremy Bentham was unusual among utilitarians in recognizing that the pleasures and pains of animals should be considered in the calculus. I say “modified” because strength of beauty is certainly a much more complex notion than pleasure. It is modified also in that it is set in a value theory that relativizes ethics by noting that it needs to be balanced by the aim at realization of strength of beauty in the immediate occasion. This beauty is endangered by too calculating an attitude toward future consequences.
There are other considerations as well. I have spoken of the distinctive importance of truth as an element in the value of an occasion. As noted truth contributes to strength of beauty, but its contribution to the value of the occasion is not exhausted by the contribution to its beauty. No calculus can determine just how to balance the aim at truth and the aim at beauty, although fortunately they are usually mutually supportive. Whitehead discusses two other values as well: adventure and peace.
Strength of beauty is attained by harmoniously integrating as much as possible of what the past offers while maintaining the intensity of its parts and heightening their contributions through contrasts. But Whitehead notes another contribution to the value realized in an occasion. This value lies in constituting the occasion in some contrast to the past. He calls this “adventure”.
Much of Whitehead’s discussion of adventure deals with broad historical matters. He points out that a civilization may attain a perfection that facilitates the strength of beauty of those who participate in it. However, its type of perfection is only one of many possibilities. The repetition of this perfection loses zest. There is need for change, even though at some stages of the change more is lost than is gained in strength of beauty. This adventure may contribute some day to new strength of beauty that matches or exceeds what has been lost. But the value of the adventure is not exhausted by its contribution to future strength of beauty. It is immediate and intrinsic.
The value of adventure was clearly very much on Whitehead’s mind. The book in which he discusses this value is entitled Adventures of Ideas. No doubt his own adventure with new ideas was a great source of zest in his life. More that once Whitehead states that it is more important that an idea be interesting than that it be true. Interest invites adventure. The repetition of a true statement can quickly lead to boredom. Boredom accompanies a low level of beauty. However, he adds that truth adds to interest. An idea that is simply different without being plausible soon loses its hold. The adventure consists of novel ideas that hold interest, develop, and progressively illumine dimensions of experience heretofore little noticed.
The final chapter of the book is entitled “Peace”. If we ask what Whitehead considered the supreme value, the answer would be “peace”. But this does not mean that peace encompasses all other values in such a way that they are only instrumental to it. Peace is a mode of being that may or may not come to a person. It comes unsought, rather than as a goal toward which life is oriented. Whitehead calls it a gift. We may think of it as a religious value.
Although any discussion of Whitehead’s theory of value that ignored peace would be severely truncated, a clear statement about it is difficult, as Whitehead acknowledged. I will offer you a quote, so that Whitehead may communicate his intuitions about this value more directly to you.
Peace “is a positive feeling which crowns the life and motion” of the soul. It is hard to define and difficult to speak of. It is not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus Peace carries with it a surpassing of personality. There is an inversion of relative values. It is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty. . . .
“The experience of Peace is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift. The deliberate aim at Peace very easily passes into its bastard substitute, Anæsthesia. . . . It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest. Thus peace is self-control at its widest, — at the width where the “self” has been lost, and interest has been transferred to co-ordinations wider than personality.”
It is dangerous to translate Whitehead’s statements into other words. Simplification is inevitable, and perhaps some distortion as well. Nevertheless, I shall try to reflect some of what is involved in what I have quoted and in other parts of his account. Most people most of the time are far more concerned about their personal future than about the rest of the world. Whitehead describes this as “the soul’s preoccupation with itself.” Morality calls them to broaden their horizons, and this introduces a tension. Much of the life of good people is lived in this tension. But Whitehead believes that there is also the possibility of ceasing to be preoccupied with one self, of really caring chiefly for the larger good. The overcoming of this tension by this change of the focus of desire is part of what he means by Peace.
Whitehead does not believe that the future is assured. There is nothing in his philosophy to guarantee a happy outcome to the course of events. There is no assurance that good people will be rewarded. Many of them are simply destroyed. How can one contemplate all this without being upset? The answer here is difficult to formulate. He speaks of some deep metaphysical insight. In the depths of things beauty is cherished, and in the course of events it is efficacious. Waste does not have the last word. With all of the evil of the world, we can still affirm its goodness.
I will conclude this section with another quote that makes clear that peace does not depend on any simple form of optimism. “Amid the passing of so much beauty, so much heroism, so much daring, Peace is then the intuition of permanence. It keeps vivid the sensitiveness to the tragedy; and it sees the tragedy as a living agent persuading the world to aim at fineness beyond the faded level of surrounding fact. Each tragedy is the disclosure of an ideal: — What might have been and was not: What can be. The tragedy was not in vain.”
VIII. How to Live
A value theory may be expected to provide a clear indication of what goals we are to pursue, personally and collectively. Whitehead contributes to that indication, but he offers no single answer. He emphasizes and celebrates the diversity of goals to be sought. He interprets intrinsic value as strength of beauty, but then he points out that there are other contributions to the intrinsic value of occasions. The result is somewhat frustrating.
There is, however, a deeper level at which Whitehead does point toward a certain kind of unity. There is, objectively, a best response in each situation. We cannot calculate what that is. The attempt to act in a calculating way would miss most of the needed responses. We cannot calculate how to attain peace. We cannot calculate how to relate the immediate attainment of beauty to consequences for the future. We cannot calculate how to factor truth or adventure into the balance. We do much better to respond spontaneously to the opportunities of the moment.
However, the spontaneity we need must be distinguished from acting according to habit or in terms of a narrow self-interest. It must be a genuine response to the possibilities of the moment that builds on the past without being bound to it. Whitehead believes that we have some intuition, however faint, of what this ideally creative response can be. To heighten sensitivity and willingness to take the risk of response is to grow in our ability to realize value within ourselves and to contribute to such realization in others.
At this point Whitehead’s thought connects with that of “situation ethics.” According to this view, obeying moral rules is not the answer. What is truly right can only be determined in the full concreteness of the situation. The advocates of situation ethics believe that useful though knowledge of past reflection can be for acting in the concreteness of the situation, ultimately we must trust our own spontaneous intuition.
In his discussion of peace that I quoted, Whitehead speaks of a deep metaphysical intuition. He in fact works out of some such deep intuitions. One intuition is that the nature of reality is such that these needed spontaneous intuitions are possible and do occur. They are often confused with other factors in our experience, but we can grow in our ability to recognize them.
The creative possibilities in each situation differ from every other situation. Sometimes they are very limited indeed. The best possibility may still be very bad. But often they are much more open and promising. Believing in the relevance of new possibilities can keep us from rigidity and narrowness. It can lead us toward peace.