A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John B. Cobb, Jr.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. Used by permission. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 3: Man as Responsible Being
1. Freedom as Self-Determination
Whitehead recognized that the idea of moral responsibility presupposes personal identity through time.(Imm 690) Society holds men responsible for their past acts on the assumption that they are the same persons who have performed the acts. It recognizes, of course, some limits to this identity and hence to the responsibility, but personal responsibility remains basic. Also, as individuals we accept such responsibility for our own pasts. This problem was dealt with in the preceding chapter, and the solution proposed will be assumed to be adequate despite its acknowledged limitations.
However, if we are to make sense of the notion of moral responsibility, a notion that Whitehead certainly affirms, much more must be established. First, we must show that men are free, so that the ultimate cause of their actions cannot be placed outside their own self-determination. What a man is simply compelled to do is not a morally responsible action. Second, we must show that there are objective distinctions of better and worse, such that it matters how a man exercises his freedom. If every consequence of action were intrinsically equal in value, or equally lacking in value, or if the question of better and worse were simply a matter of whim, moral responsibility would be meaningless. In the third place, we must raise the question of the distribution of value. Many of the questions normally recognized as ethical occur here. What about the relation of self-interest to altruism, of immediate enjoyment to prudential concern for the future? In the fourth place, we must ask how the discussion of values and their distribution relates to the question of obligation. On what basis do we finally settle the question as to our obligation? These four topics will constitute the first four sections of this chapter.
The question of freedom has proved to be a peculiarly perplexing one in the history of thought. The intuition of freedom has expressed itself so deeply in the language and customs of mankind that its outright denial seems self-contradictory. If the denial of freedom is itself the expression of a metaphysical necessity, why should we take it more seriously than the equally necessary affirmation of freedom? Paradoxes of this sort abound.
On the other hand, the affirmation of freedom proves peculiarly difficult to sustain. If we do not employ the doctrine of causality at all, then we have only descriptions of various patterns of feeling and behavior. Freedom is rendered meaningless. If we include the idea of cause, then we must seek the cause of the free act. That cause we will presumably find in the decision. Then by what is the decision caused? By the attractiveness of the good it wishes to attain? And is not that attractiveness, in turn, caused by the psychological state of the decider, the condition of his organism, and the structures and relations present in his environment? And if we deny this and say that the decision is caused by the man himself, does this not mean by the state of the man in the moment preceding the decision? And was not that, in turn, caused by its predecessors, and so on? If we take still another tack and say that by a free decision we mean one that is not caused at all but is purely spontaneous, it would seem that we are speaking of a purely chance event rather than of any kind of responsible human freedom. Freedom must mean self-determination, and self-determination must be in a single moment, for otherwise the self that determines is not the self that is determined, and the vicious regress begins again. But how can a self determine itself in a durationless instant? Does decision occur in such an instant?
So rarely have men faced the full range of questions demanding answer if human freedom is to be affirmed, that in our day philosophers and their critics alike have declared that the idea of freedom is not capable of being expressed in philosophic terms.(Cf. My article, "The Philosophical Grounds of Moral Responsibility: A Comment on Matson and Niebuhr," The Journal of Philosophy, July 2, 1959, pp. 619-621.) Whitehead, however, does not agree. For him, freedom is one of the fundamental metaphysical categories, and its character is such as to warrant man s sense of moral responsibility.(PR 74, 339, 342, 390.) It is essential, therefore, to pay close attention to his argument.
If we are to understand human freedom in Whitehead’s terms, we must begin by considering the kind of freedom that human experience shares with all the other occasions of experience. Whitehead believes that freedom is a universal or categorical feature of all actual entities whatsoever; (PR 41, 75, 130, 135.) so human freedom must be viewed as a special case in this wide context.
Once again, if we are to have any imaginative grasp of what is being said, we must shift our attention away from the tables and stones and books that we so often employ as illustrative of the things in the world. The point is not at all that objects of that sort have freedom. They are corpuscular societies, and such freedom as can in any sense be attributed to them is, in fact, the property of the individual entities of which they are composed. These entities are very different in kind from the corpuscular societies as a whole and, Whitehead is convinced, have much more kinship to the actual occasions of human experience.
When freedom is affirmed of these microscopic entities, it must be understood that this is freedom within limits -- ordinarily very narrow limits. The notion of freedom as such, unqualified freedom, is nonsensical. Freedom must always be freedom within some settled conditions. These settled conditions are the totality of the world as it has been down to the moment of the becoming of the new occasion. The new occasion must occur in just that world and it must take some account of all that has occurred in that world. The causal efficacy of the past for the new occasion is just as important for Whitehead’s view as is the freedom of the new occasion. The new occasion must take account of every occasion in its past.(PR 66, 366.) Its freedom lies in its own self-determination as to just how it will take account of all these occasions.
It is not sufficient simply to declare that every occasion is free to determine how it will take account of the universe. We quite properly want to know by what criteria it will decide this. The apparent orderliness of the universe indicates that each occasion is not simply random in its decision. How could a molecule endure for centuries if each molecular occasion were radically indeterminate as to how it would take account of its predecessors?
Whitehead’s answer is that each occasion determines how it will take account of its predecessors according to its subjective aim.(PR 41.) This aim is given to the occasion in its initial phase along with its "initial data" which are the occasions in its past.(PR 230, 261. The source of the aim is discussed later in this document.) These occasions are objectified, alternative possibilities are entertained, and a new synthesis is reached according to the subjective aim of that occasion. This aim is always in accord with what is possible in that situation and with what will enable that occasion not only to enjoy its own satisfaction but also to contribute to the narrower and wider societies of which it is a part.(PR 130.)
But now in order to explain the order in the universe, we seem to have lost the freedom. If the subjective aim in terms of which the occasion selects from its past for fresh synthesis is given to the occasion in its origin, then the decision seems in fact to be made for the occasion rather than by the occasion. Freedom seems, after all, to be a fraud.
Whitehead’s reply is that we must distinguish between the initial phase of the subjective aim (also called simply the "initial aim" [PR 372]) of the occasion and the later phases of the subjective aim. The initial aim is given to the occasion. It points that occasion toward an ideal possibility for its satisfaction. But it does so in terms of gradations of possible realization. The actual occasion is not compelled to actualize some one of these possibilities. In their close connection with each other they already provide a principle of selection for the actual occasion in terms of its relation to its past. But during the successive phases of the occasion’s self-actualization, as it compares and harmonizes the data it has received from the world, it also modifies and adapts its subjective aim.(PR 74, 342-343, 375.) This self -determination of its own aim is the final locus of freedom within the limits of causal force as determined by the settled past and the principle of order inherent in its initial aim.
Freedom in the human occasion of experience is not ontologically different from that in any other occasion. Nevertheless, the great differences between human and other occasions in all other respects also have their importance in the area of freedom. Man’s actions, insofar as they are genuinely his actions, are determined by his purposes. His purposes are given for him to a large degree by his situation. Yet they are not simply given. A man may freely modify his own goals. He may refuse to actualize the highest possibilities he confronts. Indeed, men seem widely to experience a difference between themselves and some ideal for their lives, an ideal partly participated in but also partly missed.(RM 60-61, 66.)If we ask how this difference arises, and if we press our question fully, we find that the answer is that in each occasion of human experience there is a decision determining the subjective aim of the occasion which may deviate from the full ideal offered the occasion in its initial phase.
In most occasions, the universally present element of self-determination has nothing to do with morality as ordinarily understood. Decisions are normally regarded as moral and immoral only where consciousness is present. Even the decisions made in conscious occasions are not generally of any moral significance inasmuch as the consciousness is usually focused upon the objective world and not upon the process of decision-making. Only where consciousness eventuates in self-awareness and self-awareness comes to include awareness of a choosing among alternatives do we arrive at clear instances of moral choice. Whitehead thinks such instances may occur at times among the higher animals, but for practical purposes we may consider man to be the distinctively moral animal.(Previously discussed.)
One may object that men rarely or never achieve consciousness of the process of decision occurring in a single occasion of experience. If these occur, as Whitehead suggests, perhaps ten times in a single second, (AI 49, 233.) rare indeed are the occasions when we fasten upon them in their individuality. This is certainly correct. Our consciousness blurs the lines separating the occasions of experience as it obliterates the lines separating the molecules of paint on the surface of a wall. But we are aware of a process of making decisions in terms of seconds and even fractions of seconds. Our awareness of this process in turn affects the process, heightens the range of freedom in the successive occasions, and intensifies consciousness. All these dimensions of complexity, dimensions that raise the moral question to crucial significance, are distinctively human potentialities.
2. Intrinsic Value as Beauty
Freedom would be entirely meaningless unless there were some good at which to aim. It could at best be mere randomness, mere chance. There would be no responsible conduct because there would be no better and worse. All sense of purpose would evaporate. There are those in our time who believe that this is indeed the situation in which modern man finds himself. Whitehead is not one of their number.
In Whitehead’s view, there is a definite oughtness in life. We may speak of this oughtness in terms of moral obligation. (This is not a characteristic term for Whitehead.) The fulfillment of such obligation is of essential importance, and to this topic we will return. However, obligation in its turn would be meaningless apart from some good which ought to be aimed at. If all states of affairs were intrinsically at the same level, there would be no valid reason for aiming at the achievement of one rather than another. Morality presupposes the objectivity of values. Until we know what is valuable in itself, apart from all considerations of further consequences, we have no basis for morality and no meaning for life.
In dealing with this question, we must recognize its double character. We must distinguish between the question as to what kinds of things possess value in themselves and what features of these things constitute them as valuable. We can then go on to an analysis of the basis on which comparisons of alternative values can be carried out.
Value theorists have suggested a variety of answers to the question as to what kinds of things can possess values in themselves. Some attribute value to objects or to qualities. However, objects can be valuable only in some relation to subjects, and qualities in abstraction from the things qualified by them are nonexistent. We may state, therefore, with little fear of dispute, that the kinds of things that are valuable are states of affairs.
At this point ontology enters in. What are states of affairs? In Whitehead’s terms they may be either "events" or "actual occasions." "Event" is a general term for a happening of any degree of complexity or extension through space and time. My striking a key on my typewriter is an event. So is a Presidential campaign. There are certainly values involved in such events, but one cannot speak of the event as such as having a certain determinate value in itself. Consider the simpler of the two events suggested, the event of my striking the typewriter key. This apparently unified occurrence is actually extremely vague, and when rendered precise, turns out to be either quite abstract or quite complex.
The event in question may refer to that which an observer sees as he looks in my direction at an appropriate moment. It may include also what he hears and even involve other organs of sense. It may further include his experience in the mode of causal efficacy. But in none of these cases would the event actually constitute the totality of his experience during the moments involved. Necessarily it would abstract from that totality some fragment bearing a more or less important role in his consciousness. Furthermore, the value of the event for him would depend upon other aspects of his experience at that time. The sound might jar him out of a train of thought he had found very satisfying, or it might indicate to him his success in finally getting me down to work on a project in which he took great interest.
The event may refer to an aspect of the experience of any number of observers. It may refer to the possibility of such experience even in the absence of such observers, that is, it may refer to what would be seen by a favorably situated observer. It may refer to my own experience of striking the key. It may refer to the physical occurrences in my body, in the typewriter, and in the paper on which I am typing. It may refer to a very complex nexus of occasions somehow involved in my striking the key, a nexus with indeterminate limits fading off toward infinity.
In this analysis, I have employed the term "event" in the loosest way to refer to any conceivable kind of happening or occurrence with or without clear boundaries. Whitehead himself used the term in this looser way in some of his earlier writings. However, in Process and Reality he clearly defined event in relation to actual occasion. "An event is a nexus of actual occasions inter-related in some determinate fashion in some extensive quantum: it is either a nexus in its formal completeness, or it is an objectified nexus. One actual occasion is a limiting type of event. (PR 124.)
Once the distinction between event as nexus and actual occasion as individual entity is clearly grasped, it is evident that the locus of value must lie ultimately in the latter. A nexus in its formal completeness has no other value for itself than the values of the occasions that compose it. An objectified nexus is always objectified by some actual occasion and has its value for and in that occasion. Intrinsic value is the value of individual occasions of experience.
Furthermore it must be in the subjective immediacy of the individual occasion that intrinsic value is to be found. Once the occasion has perished, it becomes an influence upon the future and has value for that future, but it is no longer a value in itself. Its value is instrumental to the values of later occasions, but it is those occasions in their subjective immediacy that are the bearers of intrinsic value.
We are now ready for the second question. What factor in an actual occasion constitutes its value? A common answer to this question has been that the pleasure-pain continuum is the basis for the comparative values of experiences. The problems with this view, however, are notorious If we take pleasure and pain as highly specific aspects of experience, we find that, in fact, we often view the value of experiences in ways that do not conform to the calculus of pleasures. An old example is that many of us would prefer to share with Socrates an experience of pain than to share with a pig the experience of contentment. To be told that we ought to prefer the experience of the pig is sheer dogmatism. Values must be correlated with reflective preferences, or assertions about them are meaningless and arbitrary. If, in view of this problem, we define pleasure broadly as equivalent to preferred modes of experience, we solve the problem at the expense of speaking tautologically. Such a definition illumines nothing and functions only as an obstacle to further clarification.
Whitehead uses the term "beauty" to refer to that which gives value to actual occasions of experience.(AI Ch. XVII.) This too can be confusing, but Whitehead is quite clear as to his meaning. In most of our minds, beauty first suggests a property of objects such as paintings and sunsets. Whitehead says that these objects are "beautiful." (AI 328-329.) That means that they have the potentiality of contributing a particular character to actual occasions of experience that are affected by them. This character is "beauty" which is then a property of the experience and not as such, directly, of the things experienced.(AI 324.) It is this character that Whitehead generalizes.
When we describe objects as beautiful, we usually mean that they participate in a certain harmony of proportions and relations. Colors and shapes or sounds are so related with each other that each contributes to the whole in such a way that the whole in turn accentuates its parts. Of course, we know that if we are, in fact, speaking of the painting or the sunset as a mere object, we cannot attribute any such harmony to it. The molecules of paint or of moisture are incapable of this kind of prehension of each other or of the whole nexus of which they are parts. The harmony is one that is contributed to the human observer. As he views the painting or the sunset, a certain important part of his experience enjoys harmony or beauty.
At the same time, his total experience may be quite disharmonious. He may be worried or a toothache may make it very difficult for him to attend to the beautiful object. The total value of his experience may, therefore, be trivial or even negative. But if we ask by what the value of the experience as a whole is to be judged, we must answer, by its comprehensive harmony or beauty. This harmony or beauty can be facilitated by beautiful objects, but it may also obtain quite independently of them. Beauty may be achieved just as well in experiences dominated by thought or love as in those dominated by sensory elements.
Every occasion achieves some measure of harmony out of the data provided it for its synthesis. In this sense, every occasion has some positive value. However, in some occasions discord may be more prominent than harmony. The occasion may feel elements that it is not able to harmonize and then feel also their mutual destructiveness. This discordant feeling is intrinsically evil, and to the extent that it is predominant, we may speak of the occasion as a negative value. Physical pain and mental suffering are alike positive evils of this sort.(RM 95-96; AI 330)
However, when we compare the values of occasions, we find that they do not correlate simply with the scale running from harmony to discord. Against such a view we would have to raise the same objections as noted above against the pleasure calculus. The pig may enjoy more harmony than does Socrates in pain! Harmony may be achieved by the elimination of incompatible feelings in such a way that a very low level of harmonious feeling is attained. It may be perfectly harmonious, but its beauty is trivial.(AI 331-332.)
Compare, for example, the beauty of a wall painted entirely in one pleasant color and a great painting. There is no discord in the wall. It is perfectly harmonious. But we hesitate to describe it as beautiful because this trivializes a powerful idea. The painting, on the other hand, works into its final harmony a multiplicity of elements potentially capable of discord, but in this case effectively harmonized. The painting is far more beautiful than the wall because it incorporates into itself a far larger number of discrete elements. It is capable of a powerful effect upon its viewers.
We must compare occasions, therefore, not only according to the degree of discord and harmony they attain but also according to the force or strength of their beauty. This complicates the judgment of comparative values. An experience of great strength is certainly preferable to a trivial one even if it is considerably less harmonious. On the other hand, a slight gain in strength may not counterbalance a loss of harmony, and great strength accompanied by serious discord may be inferior to a simple and placid harmony.
Whitehead tells us that there are two aspects constitutive of the "strength" of beauty.(AI 325.) One is the breadth or complexity of the elements that are brought into unity. Whitehead calls this "massiveness." The other is "intensity proper," which is "comparative magnitude without reference to qualitative variety." (AI 325.) We must reckon, then, with more massive harmonies with lesser intensity and more intense harmonies with lesser massiveness. Neither factor in itself determines the strength of the beauty, and hence no single scale for the evaluation of beauty is possible.
This complexity in the process of evaluation does not mean that such evaluation is impossible. Many comparative evaluations present themselves as obvious and universally relevant. Furthermore, a single ideal hovers over all, in which the several factors relevant to evaluation are themselves harmonized. This is the ideal of maximum strength of beauty. This maximum depends upon a harmonious balance of maximum massiveness and maximum intensity. On the other hand, the complexity of evaluation does point to the plurality of relevant ideals that may be legitimately espoused and to the inevitable conflict between those who cling to the simpler harmonies and those who would risk their sacrifice for the sake of greater massiveness. In such a conflict, there are no universal rights and wrongs.(AI 346.) Both are right in their ideals, and in our finitude we should not hope to escape from such tensions.
Even more important, there are many different forms of beauty of more or less equal strength. Each great civilization expresses some ideal of harmony which it succeeds in approximating to a considerable extent.(AI 357.)It may be possible to compare some civilizations according to the strength of the beauty attained, but on the whole we should simply recognize the plurality of achievement. Once the harmonious form has been attained and successfully repeated, the intensity of the beauty begins to wane unless some new ideal of harmony supervenes.(AI 332.) Change is required to sustain a maximum of beauty even if the new ideal is in itself no better than the old. Yet change must also entail disharmonies in transition. Again there are no simple answers.
Of the three traditional ultimate values, Whitehead has chosen beauty as the clue to what is finally worthwhile in itself. The presence of beauty constitutes an occasion of experience as valuable, quite apart from its relation to any future beyond itself. In other terminology, beauty is the only intrinsic value. However, Whitehead is also interested in goodness and truth. Goodness we will consider in the following section, where moral considerations are paramount, but truth must be treated here.
Truth is the conformity of appearance to reality.(AI 309.) Here again we come to that fundamental distinction in White-head between the two modes of perception. Appearance is the world given to us in presentational immediacy. It is composed of the sensa we project upon our environment as if they occupied regions in the contemporary space about us. It includes language as well, both heard and seen. Reality is the total nexus of occasions constituting ourselves and the actual world that is causally efficacious for us. It is the source of all our knowledge of the contemporary regions and is presupposed in all presentational immediacy. It forms the background of all our conscious experience in which presentational immediacy provides the foreground.
A truth relation exists between appearance and reality when they have some characteristic in common. That means that when some quality given to us in presentational immediacy actually derives from the region with which it is associated, to that degree the appearance is true. For example, if I feel an ache in my foot, and there really are some cells in my foot the suffering of which is responsible for my feeling, then my feeling sustains to reality a relation of truth. If, on the other hand, the source of the ache is in fact at some other point of my body (as in the case when a leg has been amputated) then the truth relation does not obtain. Also, even if some damage to my foot is responsible for the ache, if the subjective experiences of the cells in my foot in fact bear no relation to the experience I feel as an ache, then there is no truth relation. Whitehead’s judgment is that within the body there is considerable conformity of the percipient or dominant occasion to the feelings of the other actual occasions it prehends, but that when we go beyond the body, as in our visual experience of colors, any such element of conformity becomes much more doubtful.(PR 182-183; AI 275, 378.) There is some conformity of my experience of green to the experience in the eye, but there can be little assurance of any further conformity with the paint molecules or the occasions of experience in the blade of grass.(See, however, the discussion of peace in Ch. VII.)
In a broader sense, however, appearance can and usually does sustain a relation of truth to the world beyond the body. Appearance gives us individual things located in a certain geometric relation to our bodies. It peoples our world with individual entities. When our bodies are functioning healthily and no unusual medium intervenes (such as water or a mirror) , appearance in this respect has a relation of truth to reality. These individuals turn out to be societies of actual occasions, usually corpuscular societies of special importance in relation to human purposes.
Truth also has special importance in relation to propositions. By a proposition Whitehead does not mean a sentence with a certain grammatical structure.(AI 312.) In his view, sentences are incurably vague, and the same sentence may express many different meanings according to who is speaking and the total situation in which he speaks. (PR 297; Imm 699-700.) Each of these meanings is a proposition. The proposition is a connection of some actual occasion or nexus of actual occasions with some ideal possibility for its realization. In the simplest case the idea of the possibility arises out of the experience of the nexus itself. In that case the proposition simply associates the nexus and the possibility it already realizes. For example, if my foot is aching, I may entertain the idea of my foot as aching. In Whitehead’s terms I would be entertaining a proposition whether or not I verbalized it in a sentence.
Now I might entertain this proposition in a variety of ways. I might feel surprise or anger, for example. It might also be an occasion for making a judgment. Normally in this case my judgment would be simply that my foot is aching. However, I might be one who believes in the unreality of pain or that the feeling of pain is always purely mental. I might then judge that my foot does not ache.
Every proposition is either true or false. It is true if the actual occasion or nexus that is the logical subject of the proposition in fact sustains that relation to the eternal object that the proposition attributes to it. It is false if this relationship does not obtain. But Whitehead emphasizes that this property is by no means the major one.(PR 281; AI 313.) Many propositions are entertained without reference to their truth or falsity. For example, the propositions expressed in the individual sentences of a novel do not cry out for judgment as to their truth or falsity. Likewise, when we consider redecorating a room we entertain the idea of a wall as being colored a particular shade of green without any interest in the fact that it is not now so colored. Whitehead tells us repeatedly that it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true. There are innumerable true propositions that are so trivial as not to be worth entertaining. There are many false propositions that alter the course of history, sometimes for the better.
This same de-emphasis on the importance of truth can be applied to appearance in the form of sense experience. Appearance can be beautiful and thereby contribute to the beauty of occasions of experience quite apart from any truth relation to reality. The most valuable aspects of appearance may often have the least truth. Hence, we see that truth in both of these instances, the truth of propositions and the truth of sense experience, can be neutral with respect to value.
However, Whitehead does not leave the discussion here. Although truth has no intrinsic importance and can even be harmful on occasion, nevertheless truth usually contributes to beauty and apart from it beauty is incomplete and in danger of triviality.(AI 342-345.) The whole of the experience that requires harmonization includes reality as well as appearance. If the appearance alone is harmonized and the reality is excluded from important contribution, the beauty that can be attained is trivial. Experience in the mode of causal efficacy, the experience that relates us to the reality of other entities, contributes indispensably to the massiveness of the total experience. But if this reality is to be harmonized with the appearance, there must be some inner unity between the two. Such a unity is truth.
So important is truth for the attainment and preservation of the higher forms of beauty that truth quite properly comes to be sought as an end in itself. Whitehead almost seems in the end to assign it an intrinsic value distinguishable from beauty,(AI 343.) but he can be consistently understood to mean that there is a certain element of harmony inherent in truth itself such that to some degree any experience has beauty when it has truth. Far more important, however, is the indirect contribution of truth to the attainment of all strength of beauty.
3. Goodness as Moral Value
Whitehead was far more interested in propositions about beauty than in propositions about goodness.(Whitehead stresses that "morals constitute only one aspect of The Good, as aspect often overstressed" [MT 104]) Nevertheless, he recognized the need for the latter as well. An understanding of the characteristics that make for intrinsic value is an absolute prerequisite for any judgment about the goodness of conduct, for right conduct must be directed toward the realization of high values. But an exhaustive understanding of beauty as intrinsic value still leaves many questions unsettled, and Whitehead’s own account of beauty emphasizes this.
For example, we noted that the direct quest for the maximum of beauty immediately possible may lead to endless repetitions that lose their intensity. The very success of a culture in its quest for beauty leads eventually to its decay. The only hope is that it will be grasped by some new ideal of beauty that can spark new " adventure" toward new attainment.(AI 354, 357-361.See later comments on this.) In this situation the direct attainment of available beauty must be sacrificed for the sake of a greater beauty to be attained in the future.(AI 309. Whitehead writes that "the effect of the present on the future is the business of morals" [AI 346])
But how much sacrifice of the present for the future is justified? Certainly it is not always best to sacrifice present enjoyment for a greater future enjoyment. This would be nonsensical, for it would postpone enjoyment forever.’7 We must find some balance between present enjoyment and a concern to contribute to the future. But further, we find that a part of our enjoyment of the present arises from our sense of its contribution to that future.(AI 346. Whitehead writes, "Wide purpose is in its own nature beautiful,"[AI 342])
This situation in which moral perplexity and reflection arises is rooted in fundamental metaphysical categories. Every occasion aims at intensity of feeling both in its own subjective immediacy and in the relevant occasions beyond itself (PR 41.) This means that absolute self-interest is metaphysically excluded! Every occasion’s self-actualization has a view to its impact upon future occasions and this sense of relevance for the future is essential to its satisfaction.
The ethical importance of this metaphysical analysis is well worth elaboration. Many thinkers have held that all our decisions are made in terms of what will satisfy our own desires or what we believe to be in our own interest. If we make a decision that seems to be beneficial to others and to entail some sacrifice of ourselves, we are told that this is because of our desire to enjoy the admiration of others or to enhance our own self-approval. According to this view, our subjective aim is always at our own beauty.
Proponents of this position, however, generally fail to consider the question of the relation of the present self to the future self. Is this absolutely and self-identically the same self? Then do we always give equal weight to our distant future experiences and to our present ones in terms of this calculus of self-interest? It is fairly clear that we do not, since we seem, at times, to grasp an immediate opportunity for pleasure at the expense of recognized future disadvantages of considerable seriousness. Is it, then, the momentary self that seeks its own satisfaction without regard to consequences? But clearly, that is also false, since we frequently work for future gratification. The fact is that we sometimes seize opportunities for present gratification without counting the cost, and sometimes make great sacrifices for the future.
The self-interest theorist may agree that in fact we are not wholly consistent as to the degree to which we take our own future into account, but he will insist that we take no other future into account except as it may be instrumental to our own. My point here is that although it may be impossible strictly to disprove this doctrine, it can be stripped of all its apparent plausibility. Is it in fact the case that I may sacrifice my present interest, genuinely sacrifice it, for the sake of a future ten or twenty years from now, and that it is impossible that I sacrifice my interest, just as genuinely, for the sake of my child’s happiness a moment hence? This would be understandable if I had total imaginative identification with that future self and none at all with my child, but this is not my experience. And Whitehead shows that, despite the importance of personal identity through long spans of time, the relationship of my present occasion of experience to future occasions of my experience is not entirely unlike its relation to future occasions of other persons such as my child. The self-interest theory of ethics fits neither the facts of experience nor the metaphysical view of Whitehead.
Whitehead stresses that every occasion aims at intensity of feeling not only for itself but for the relevant future. The whole question hinges on what is relevant. I have argued that to suppose all my own future experiences relevant and no other future experiences relevant is to be guilty of a highly nonempirical dogmatism. The factual situation seems to be that we differ widely as to what future appears relevant to us. In some moments we may actualize ourselves with reference only to a very limited future, quite possibly limited to future occasions of our own experience. At other times, we may reckon with a very extensive future involving many persons besides ourselves.
Whitehead suggests that morality always has to do with taking into account the larger rather than the more limited future.(AI 346, 371, 375-376.) The tendency of the moralist is always to insist upon the wider horizons where individuals tend to relapse into narrower ones. There is a real tension here, comparable in some respects to the tension between the achievement of a simple harmony immediately and the adventurous acceptance of disharmony now for stronger beauty later. However, we are now focusing attention upon the question of who shall enjoy the stronger beauty. Do we adventure only for our own sakes, for the sake of those closest to us, or can humanity as a whole enter into our vision? A typical passage from Whitehead will show how he deals with these questions.
"Morality of outlook is inseparably conjoined with generality of outlook. The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can be abolished only when the individual is such that its interest is the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of the minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest." (PR 23.)
This quotation is typical because it shows us Whitehead pointing to that ideal which transcends tensions otherwise irresolvable. Just as in the discussion of beauty we say that the tension between the ideals of perfect harmony and strength might war with one another except as they attain synthesis in the ideal, so here the aim at immediate intensity of feeling and the aim at intensity limitlessly beyond itself can attain synthesis only in an occasion with such concern for the general good that it finds its greatest beauty in its enjoyment of its contribution to that good. At every point short of this ideal, there will be some inevitable tension between immediate enjoyment, a proximate future, and the vaster reaches of the future beyond our vivid imagination.
This tension, however, does not amount to a simple opposition. Only an occasion that enjoys considerable strength can make a valuable contribution to the future. (AI 377.) Further, the sense of making a contribution beyond itself belongs to the satisfaction of the occasion and adds to its strength of beauty.(AI 346.) The attempt to serve the future by negating the present is self-defeating, just as is the effort to ignore the future in order to achieve fuller beauty in the present.
The proper and necessary concern to encourage behavior in terms of the wider generality of outlook leads to the formulation of concrete principles of behavior in codes. These codes have great social importance, but unfortunately they are typically treated as if they possess authority beyond that of their utility.(AI 374.) They are presented as if in their detailed formulations they place an ethical demand upon all persons in all situations. For this reason, progress and enlightenment inevitably discredit them.
There are many appropriate ideals of beauty at which cultures may strive; hence, concrete codes of behavior designed to facilitate the attainment of such beauty vary widely.(AI 374-377.) Each has its value in its season, but no particular moral principles at this level of specificity can transcend the relativity of historical circumstance. Hence, morals as generally conceived are irremediably relative. (MT 20.)
At a much more abstract level, it is possible to formulate universal principles. Whitehead proposes two. "These are the principles of the generality of harmony, and of the importance of the individual." (AI 376.) Once again, even here, we find a tension, for Whitehead sees that the first leads to the impersonal pursuit of order and the second to the love of individual persons. But again he has a solution in the ideal. "The antithesis is solved by rating types of order in relative importance according to their success in magnifying the individual actualities, that is to say, in promoting strength of experience." (AI 376.)
Here we have Whitehead’s culminating suggestion for the evaluation of moral codes. That code is best which promotes that kind of order which promotes maximum attainment in the strength of beauty enjoyed by individuals. Presumably these individuals include subhuman individuals as well, but the overwhelmingly important individuals are human persons. Each man finds ideal intensity of experience for himself as he makes his aim the attainment of just such an order. Meanwhile, at the finite and imperfect level at which life is lived, tensions remain.
4. An Ethical Theory
I find Whitehead’s discussion of value, including moral value, eminently satisfying. However, there is a range of ethical questions on which he throws only indirect light. In this section, therefore, I will present the outline of an ethical theory, formulated in terms that are harmonious with Whitehead’s expressed views, reaching conclusions similar to his, but supplementing his work by treating questions neglected by him.
Whitehead’s genuine concern for morality causes him to give attention to moral values and ultimate ideals. But human decision-making, despite its concern for such questions, must focus concretely on the choice between present alternatives in the particular moment. That this is so is sharply emphasized by Whitehead’s philosophy in which all decision and all reality is focused in the individual occasion of experience,(PR 254.) but he does not approach ethical inquiry from the perspective of the individual faced by such choices and asking the ethical question: "What ought I to do?"
In our day, reflection on this question has peculiar urgency because of the widespread charge that no answer to the question can have cognitive meaning. According to this view, the answer, "You ought so to act as to maximize strength of beauty," would be without cognitive import even if there were prior acceptance of Whitehead’s theory of value. The question could still be asked, "Why should one seek to maximize such value, if at the moment he prefers to act in some other way?" Indeed, it is objected that the word "ought" can have only an expressive force such that sentences containing it in a prescriptive way are not statements at all.
I believe the noncognitivists are correct at this level. Distinctively ethical assertions do not directly communicate factual information, and where such communication is taken as the essential characteristic of statements, ethical assertions are not, as such, statements. This, however, in no way detracts from their importance or from their status as correct or incorrect. The threat to their seriousness arises only when the noncognitivist makes a further charge, namely, that ethical assertions are not uniquely warranted by statements. This would mean that, given any total state of affairs, mutually contradictory ethical assertions might have equal warrant. If that be so, ethical assertions must ultimately be arbitrary expressions of irrational feeling rather than the highly reflective and uniquely prescriptive assertions they claim to be.
Our first question is, then, whether there is or can be any particular kind of factual statement that tends uniquely to warrant ethical assertions. Light will be thrown upon this question if we consider what the word "ought" expresses. For this purpose we turn to Whitehead.
The word "ought" seems to express a sense of obligation. In Whiteheadian terms a sense of obligation must be a subjective form. A subjective form always clothes the prehension of some entity. In this case the entity must be some imagined conduct or act. If I feel that I ought to do something, that means that my sense of obligation attaches to my idea of myself as performing that act. This "idea" is in Whitehead’s terminology a proposition. (See previous comments.) The prehension of this kind of proposition is an "imaginative feeling." (PR 399 ff.) The sense of obligation is the subjective form of an imaginative feeling of a proposition of which one’s future self is the logical subject and a possible mode of behavior is the predicate.
That this subjective form of imaginative feelings occurs in most normal adults in our culture is not widely disputed. There can certainly be meaningful discourse about it. I may affirm that I entertain a particular imaginative proposition with the subjective form of obligation. This would itself be a statement, that is, the affirmation of a proposition, and it would be either true or false. If the truth of this statement warrants the further assertion, "I ought to actualize that proposition," then we have found the solution of the problem. Ethical assertions would be uniquely warranted by factual statements about the subjective form of the prehensions of imaginative propositions.
But this is not the case. It is not self-evident that the fact that my sense of obligation is the subjective form of the feeling of a proposition warrants the assertion that I ought to actualize that proposition. On the contrary, I may decide that the reason I feel I ought to act in that way is that I was conditioned in childhood to have such feelings and that in fact quite a different kind of act is called for. For example, I may find that my feeling of obligation attaches to the maintenance of segregation because I was brought up to feel that way, and I may now believe that I ought to act contrary to that feeling.
We may note repeatedly in our own experience that with regard to many of our ethical feelings, intellectual understanding as to how we came to have them weakens their hold on us. We see, perhaps, that our society has conditioned us to view an act as abhorrent which we now realize need not appear objectionable at all. The feeling does not disappear at once. We continue to find that our sense of obligation tends to attach to the avoidance of this kind of act, but the attachment weakens, and we regard it as objectively erroneous because adventitious.
However, the fact that many of our moral feelings are weakened by increasing self-understanding does not prove that this is the case with all. There may be some, the strength of which is unaffected by critical analysis of their sources. If there are such, we speak of them as inescapable. If in any given situation there is some mode of behavior that I believe to be inescapably qualified, in my imaginative feeling of it, by the sense of obligation, then the judgment that I ought to act in the manner in question is undeniable. My judgment that I ought to act that way would be warranted by the correctness of my belief that the sense of obligation inescapably functions in the subjective form of that imaginative feeling. It is unwarranted if my sense of obligation actually attaches to that mode of behavior only adventitiously.
The decisive questions for personal ethics are, then, as follows. First, are there any possible modes of behavior the subjective form of the imaginative feeling of which inescapably includes the sense of obligation? Second, if so, what are they? If the answer to the first question is no, then we may say that no judgment of the form, "I ought to act in a certain way," is warranted. Insofar as men are persuaded that this is the case, we may safely predict that the sense of obligation will play a role of decreasing importance.
Before attempting to determine any point at which I personally find an inescapability of attachment of my sense of obligation to possible modes of behavior, we must recognize that most ethical assertions are more pretentious than those thus far discussed. Often I assert that everyone ought to act in a certain way, or simply that that way of acting is right without qualification. Indeed, my conviction that I ought to act in a certain way often seems dependent on my view that it is right without qualification. The fact that others seem sincerely to disagree with my judgment poses a problem for me.
If the assertion that a certain act is right, or that everyone ought to act in that way, is warranted with regard to any type of act, then clearly the assertion, "I ought to act in that way," is also warranted. However, the converse is not the case. Hence, we will begin by considering candidates for universal normative principles. Such principles are assertions about what is right for men generally. They are warranted by statements about the inescapable inclusion of the sense of obligation in the subjective forms of their imaginative feelings of certain possible modes of behavior.
When we pose the question in these terms, we find that among all those who have written on the subject of ethics, there seems to be agreement that in some sense men ought to be rational or reasonable. This agreement cannot be dismissed as the mere bias of philosophers for it is certainly reflected in common morality as well. Even the apparent exceptions, such as Nietzsche, are not really such, for despite the glorification of an immorality which, in some respects, is regarded as irrationality, his call for the superman is an appeal to true reason against the false reasoning of the philosophic schools and the churches. Kierkegaard and other religious thinkers may point to life that is beyond moral obligation, but they do not dispute the reality of moral obligation. Still more obviously, the noncognitivists who deny the meaningfulness of ethical assertions seem continuously to presuppose that we ought to be reasonable in our treatment of their suggestions. Whenever a person is fully convinced that his moral judgment is thoroughly reasonable, we may assume that he is unlikely to feel the need of further justification. Indeed, morality is virtually synonymous with rationality of action.
The question is whether any univocal meaning can be assigned to "rational" or "reasonable" when applied to action. Clearly, it has meant many different things. For some, it has been identical with calculating prudence; for some, with calculating benevolence; for some, with uncalculating acceptance of intrinsically rational principles; for some, with a method of solving problems of conduct. All these positions and others have profound appeal which should not be minimized or ignored simply because of their apparent conflict.
The most elementary level of rationality in conduct seems to be suggested by the idea of prudence. If I am contemplating an immediately pleasant action which will have extremely deleterious results for me in the future, I feel that I ought not to perform that action. If I ask myself whether, on fuller reflection about my reason for feeling this way, my sense of obligation may cease to attach itself to the nonperformance of the action in question, I incline strongly to the negative view, and I find it difficult to believe that at this point other rational beings differ from me.
It may be objected that my sense of obligation has nothing to do with the matter. I deny this, but it is true that probably upon reflection I would prefer to avoid doing my future self harm, quite apart from my moral scruples. The sense of obligation is not clearly operative except when it conflicts with preference or is determined apart from it. But let us suppose that the appeal of the pleasure is very great indeed, that I want to shut my eyes to the consequences and plunge blindly in, that I do not want to reflect, since reflection might weaken desires that I do not want to have weakened. Surely temptation does present itself in that form not infrequently. In such circumstances, is it not clear that my sense of obligation continues to attach itself to the path that would be dictated by reflection, whether or not its doing so determines the final decision? When I willfully refuse to reflect or to be influenced by the fruits of reflection, I am surely aware that I do wrong, that is, my sense of obligation inescapably attaches to the course of action that I am not pursuing.
A second objection may be that there are persons who do not recognize any obligation to consider consequences. Some, of exceedingly low intellectual capacity, lack both adequate imagination with respect to the future and a clear sense of cause and effect. Others, of highest sophistication, reject all evaluation or determine to live only for the moment. To all such persons, future consequences appear irrelevant to present decision, and there is no purely ethical basis on which we can say they ought to consider them.
This objection would have force if we wished to affirm that everyone should consider a given range of consequences in reaching a decision, for the specification of that range would inevitably be arbitrary. However, this is not the present intention. We wish only to affirm that everyone ought to consider whatever seems to him to be relevant to his decision. In the extreme case in which nothing seems relevant, one is not required to consider anything. This objection, therefore, clarifies, but does not conflict with, the principle, which may now be formulated.
In reaching a decision, one ought to give full consideration to whatever available knowledge and experience appears to him to be relevant. This universal normative judgment is warranted by the following statement formulated in Whiteheadian terms. When one endeavors to reach a decision, the sense of obligation is inescapably included in the subjective form of the imaginative feeling of oneself giving full consideration to whatever knowledge and experience appear relevant. Negatively, the principle means that one should never willfully exclude consideration of available knowledge or experience that he sees as relevant.
The application of this principle is extremely flexible, depending upon all sorts of opinions about the world, man, and God. If one believes, for example, that an ever-watchful God severely punishes violation of laws he has arbitrarily proclaimed, one may avoid many actions that others would regard as harmless or even morally desirable. In addition, the application of the principle depends upon personal temperament. A warmhearted, tender nature will consider consequences to others, whether man or beast, far more fully than a person whose sympathies are extremely limited. Thus, both intellectual and emotional development will affect the application of this principle. Moral growth is understandable even at this level, therefore, not only in terms of improving obedience to the principle but also in terms of superior maturity in its application.
However, it seems that moral growth or maturity also tends to introduce a new principle. I have argued that the principle stated above is universal, recognizing its irrelevance to those who regard no knowledge or experience as relevant to reaching decisions. From this point on, however, a selective process must be acknowledged to be at work. These more advanced principles are probably incipiently present from an early stage in development, but it may be that ordinary social life can exist in which they are not clearly operative. Yet there does seem to be some ability to recognize their legitimacy when they are propounded to those at lower levels of development, and once they have been understood and appropriated, the process can be reversed only by a tour de force.
The first important jump is to the view that relevant data should be considered impartially or disinterestedly. The difference between this and the first principle is greater than might at first appear. The first principle asserted only that consequences should be considered. Presumably they are considered in the light of existing interests. If I hate a person and further knowledge gained about him is not likely to change my attitude toward him, the first principle provides no ground for avoiding his injury so long as it will not adversely affect other interests of mine. I am here taking myself as the point from which everything is to be viewed. Bad consequences to those toward whom I am indifferent remain irrelevant to me.
Now, however, I am asserting as a second-level ethical principle that there is a higher point of view than my own, and that when I have reached a certain level of development, I inescapably recognize it as more "rational" and therefore also more moral. I recognize that I ought to consider consequences to others in the same way as I consider consequences to myself.
The third level in the hierarchy of moral principles is also the last. In a sense, it completes our circle and opens again the question of what ought we to do. The first two principles only specify that we ought to use our reason in certain ways in arriving at a decision. The third tells us that having used our reason comprehensively and disinterestedly, we still must not fall back upon our preference, but must act according to our duty. What we finally ought to do on full disinterested consideration is not necessarily what we will in fact do. It is finally what full disinterested consideration leads us to recognize that we ought to do.
The third principle may be stated as follows: Every morally developed person ought always to act as he inescapably sees he ought to act on full disinterested consideration of all available knowledge and experience which appear to him to be relevant. This normative judgment is warranted by the following statement: In a morally developed person, the sense of obligation is inescapably included in the subjective form of the imaginative feeling of himself acting as he inescapably sees he ought to act on full disinterested consideration of all available knowledge and experience which appear to him to be relevant.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that despite the apparent redundancy or circularity of this formulation, a new element of utmost importance is here introduced. Previously, we have only noted, first, that willful refusal to consider matters recognized as relevant to a decision is inescapably felt as wrong, and, second, that at a more advanced level of moral development, the refusal to acknowledge any higher point of view from which to consider such matters is felt as wrong. But if one does consider all these matters, then what? Then one acts as such consideration leads him to desire to act. This may be quite differently from the way he would have acted if he had remained willfully ignorant. But is it possible still to raise the question of moral rightness?
My desire to injure another person may be overcome by considering impartially his interests as well as mine. But it may not. Having thought quite disinterestedly about all that is involved, I may yet decide to hurt him. Clearly, there is a separate question involved when we say, "Ought I to hurt the person?" Hence, clearly it is possible to ask the question, "To what formal principles of action does our sense of obligation inescapably attach when we think disinterestedly, except, reflexively, to disinterested thinking?"
Once the principle of disinterestedness is accepted, this extension is not likely to meet much resistance. It is fairly obvious that although disinterestedness of thought is morally important, it should lead to disinterestedness of act. Hence, we must again ask the question "To what principle of action does our sense of obligation attach on full disinterested consideration of all relevant factors?" I believe there are two answers.
First, the sense of obligation is brought by full disinterested consideration of all relevant factors to support that action which will increase intrinsic value. We will assume here the understanding of intrinsic value as strength of beauty developed above.(See sec.2.) We can now define intrinsic value as that which is, in fact, preferred on full disinterested consideration, thus providing a clearer basis for evaluation of the theory of value there developed.
But second, the sense of obligation is influenced by factors other than the anticipated consequences of the action. It is affected by appropriateness to the past as well as by future results. For example, the sense of obligation does not unquestioningly attach to the breaking of a solemn promise simply because the results of breaking the promise would appear to be slightly better than the results of keeping it. On the contrary, our prior acts place us in a position of responsibility, a position in which others have rightful claims upon us. Whatever acts we have given others the right to expect of us, we are under some obligation to carry out.
It seems impossible to subsume either of these answers under the other. Yet in view of the tensions between them, some resolution is required. In seeking such a resolution, we may turn for help to the ethics of Kant. He introduces the principle of disinterestedness at still another point which is important for our analysis of ethics. He says that we should so act that we can will that the maxim by which we act become a universal rule. That is, we should not make an exception in our case to a rule we want others to follow.
Kant tries to argue that our inability to will the universality of a maxim is formal, that is, dependent upon some logical self-contradiction. However, this is not necessarily implied by the principle itself. We may be unable to will that this maxim be followed by all because such action would lead to consequences we cannot approve. Thus, we are told that even if the particular consequences likely to follow from our act (let us say, breaking a promise) are consequences that we disinterestedly prefer, we must consider also what the consequences would be if everyone broke promises whenever they judged the consequences preferable. This would give us pause, for such behavior would disrupt the fabric of society.
Kant’s application of his principle was so extreme that he has had few followers. He interprets the maxim of acts in such a general way as to prohibit many that seem quite justifiable to ordinary moral consciousness. For example, he forbids lying even under the most extreme circumstances because we cannot will that everyone lie when it is to his advantage to do so. But can we not will that everyone lie when lying would protect the lives of innocent friends from an insane criminal? Surely nothing in the categorical imperative as such forbids this.
Chiefly the categorical imperative in Kant’s examples forbids action directed toward one’s own advantage over against obedience to principles. Our first rule above already rejected purely selfish action. Action ought to be directed according to its contribution toward the greatest good. We have turned to Kant because our ethic of consequences did not seem to account for some of our inescapable moral judgments. Hence, we may interpret Kant’s principle quite differently. The point is that we may judge according to it whether we ought to achieve a better consequence by breaking a promise, by asking whether we would regard it as desirable that regularly when the scales are balanced in a certain way all persons should break a promise of a certain solemnity in order to achieve an advantage of a certain magnitude. Clearly in this way of viewing the situation, the promise-breaking must weigh much more heavily than in a pure ethic of consequences, for the ideal to which I look forward will not include easy promise-breaking as a part. Yet it will not preclude promise-breaking if the advantage is quite great, for example, if a child’s life is at stake. Indeed, I believe that this principle will explain the characteristic judgments of the morally sensitive person.
The final ethical principle may then be formulated as follows: An ethically developed man ought to act in that way in which he would will, on full consideration of all relevant factors, that all men should act, given just these relevant factors. Once again we can see that this principle is warranted by the factual statement that in ethically developed men the sense of obligation is inescapably included in the subjective form of the imaginative feeling of that mode of behavior.
By a circuitous route we have returned to a point very close to that to which a consideration of Whitehead’s discussion of moral values also brought us. There we concluded that "that [moral] code is best which promotes that kind of order which promotes maximum attainment in the strength of beauty enjoyed by individuals.(See previous comments on this subject.) Conformity to that moral code and obedience to the ethical principle at which the analysis in this section arrives should coincide.
5. Duty, Love, and the Initial Aim
Probably one reason Whitehead did not carry out the kind of analysis I have offered in the preceding section is that he felt some distaste for the overrigorous pursuit of righteousness. There is a profound paradox in man’s ethical experience. Man ought always to do the right. Yet the life lived in the constant effort to achieve this ideal, even to the extent of its success, ends in failure. It is right to live in terms of that kind of order the generalization of which will produce the greatest strength of beauty in individual lives. Yet the strenuous effort to live in just that way leads to a certain rigidity, insensitivity, and pride that militate against the achievement of beauty both in oneself and in others. We can never rightly reject the ethical principle of disinterestedness in reflection and action, for it is the very essence of rightness of conduct. Yet we must look for some way of transcending it, or of including it in a higher synthesis.
In this connection Whitehead points us to love, which is, he says, "a little oblivious to morals." Unlike morality, "it does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present." (PR 521.) Beyond suggestive hints such as this, Whitehead does not elaborate the fascinating and difficult question of the relation of love and ethics. We must pursue the discussion a little further, guided only indirectly by his statements.
Love and ethics are in real tension with each other, but they cannot be regarded as contradictory. Love is of utmost importance for ethics. Only as there is love of one’s own future self and love also for other persons, and finally, for humanity as a whole, can there be any meaning to the ethical imperatives. Yet the ethical imperatives always transcend the actual love felt, demanding a recognition of the appropriateness of love, and hence, of action appropriate to love, far beyond the existing capacities of personal and imaginative concern. To reject ethics in the name of love, meaning by that, love actualized and not love owed, will in almost every case narrow the horizons of action and dismiss from relevance the enemy, the stranger, and even the long-absent friend.
Furthermore, love is unjust. We love, and always will love, some more than others. We constantly, and rightly, must check our love in the interest of fairness. If love as normal human concern dominates our lives, all too often it will be ourselves who are its object, and the long and tortuous process, whereby ethical thought and feeling have led us beyond preoccupation with ourselves, may be undone.
Furthermore, many of the decisions we make in life, and must make, are far too impersonal to be facilitated or motivated by love. Whitehead points out that the beauty of the idealism of the New Testament ethic depended in part upon the fact that those who affirmed it originally had no responsibility for the stability and preservation of the society to which they belonged. They could propound demands expressive of pure love and even in some measure embody them, whereas if the responsible leaders of that society had followed them, all order would have collapsed.(AI 19-21.)
We cannot solve the tensions between righteousness and love simply by subordinating the former to the latter. But at the same time, we cannot solve them by subordinating love to righteousness. We cannot advance beauty in the world by loving only when we ought to love and because we ought to do so. Perhaps we can increase love by dutifully nurturing it, but the finest flowering of love depends upon spontaneity as well. We do not want people to love us only out of a sense of duty.
Without the spontaneity of love, beauty loses its strength. We can become brittle, resentful of the spontaneities of others, self-righteous. We can become incapable of genuinely contributing to the beauty of other lives, no matter how hard and dutifully we try. We will be compelled by our very sense of duty to seek to cultivate the spontaneity our dutifulness has caused to wither.
Duty and love, then, require each other and yet exist in tension with each other. In this respect, they are like the aim at immediate intensity and at intensities beyond oneself, or like the achievement of a simpler harmony and the adventure toward another ideal. We cannot do without either, yet they seem constantly to threaten each other. As in the other cases, I suggest that Whitehead would have us accept this situation as that in which we must live while viewing an ideal beyond us in which the tensions are resolved. That ideal’must be a limitless love for man as man, or even for life as life, personalized to every individual, yet impartial among all. In such a love, duty would be fulfilled.
There is another direction in which Whiteheadian philosophy allows us to look for the resolution of the tension between duty and love. Freedom, we have noted, lies in the individual occasion’s modification of its own subjective aim.(See previous remarks on this matter.) All the discussion of value, duty, and love as directive of human behavior must finally focus on how we can and should reflectively modify our aims or purposes. As conscious persons we can alter the balance between the aim at immediate intensity and the aim at the relevant future; we can broaden or narrow that future; we can introduce principles and codes of conduct to which we commit ourselves.
Much of this discussion has been taken from Whitehead, and I believe that none of it is contradictory to his intention. Yet Whitehead might tell us that we try too hard, that we are too insistent on lifting our purposes into consciousness and examining them, that such tensions as those between love and duty reflect the frustrations of a life that strives for too much autonomy. This is a speculation, but it is a speculation justified and required by Whitehead’s metaphysics.
The subjective aim originates at the outset of each new occasion. Indeed, it determines the perspective from which that occasion will prehend the past. In this originative stage it is called the initial aim. In this form the aim is given to the occasion, it is not created or chosen by it. The initial aim of subsequent occasions in the living person will be affected in part by the way in which earlier occasions have modified their aims, but it includes also an element of autonomy.
The initial aim is always the aim at that ideal harmony possible for that occasion.(PR 128, 381.) It is an aim at a balance between the intensity of that occasion’s experience and its contribution beyond itself. When we are dealing with occasions in societies, such as a vegetable, it is clear that the aim is far more directed to the health of the society as a whole than to any immediate realization of intensity in the individual occasion. Occasions in "empty space" may have little aim beyond their own trivial enjoyment. In both these occasions, the capacity for modification of the aim by the decision of the occasion in question, though real, would be negligible.
In the human occasion the range of freedom is far greater. Also the balance between immediate intensity and the effect upon the future must be far more flexible. Yet according to the metaphysical principle, every human occasion is initiated by an aim at that harmony that is the ideal possibility for that occasion. Sometimes the situation may be such that the best possibility is still evil.(PR 373.) But there can be no better choice.
If this is so, then there must be open to man an attitude quite different from the drive for rational self-determination which we have been considering so far. There must also be open to man a way of life in which each moment is taken as it comes, in terms of the new possibilities it affords, and in which something given to man, something over which he has no control, is trusted for guidance in the realization of these possibilities. Now immediate enjoyment, now sacrifice for the future; now duty, now love; such alternations might characterize roughly the quality of self-actualization in successive moments. But the tensions between these alternatives might be resolved at a level beyond man’s power of decision.
In other words, there may, after all, be some reason to trust conscience, intuition, or instinct. Each of these terms has its dangerous connotations. We know that interiorized parental commands or fear of consequences may be called conscience. Ideas may be intuited as true, purely on the basis of the pleasure they provide or their satisfaction of some compulsive need. Instinct may be the wisdom of the body rather than of the soul. Even in these senses conscience, intuition, and instinct often prove good guides, but these should not be confused with the initial aim. The initial aim is not received from society or other persons, from one’s own past or from the body. It is that new thing which in conjunction with the whole force of the past initiates the process in which a new occasion comes to be. Since we are speaking of a new occasion of human experience, the initial aim is proper to that. It determines fundamentally the direction in which that occasion of human experience will actualize itself. And within that direction it constitutes an urge toward the highest available ideal.(There is a fuller discussion of this thought later in Ch. IV.)
One could draw from this doctrine the conclusion that man should adopt in his volitional life a maximally passive attitude. Since the initial aim is at the best possible fulfillment beyond man’s powers to understand, and since man’s exercise of freedom seems only to lead to a deviation away from this ideal possibility, there is some prima facie support for this view. However, it does not express White-head’s own attitude toward life, and it does not follow from more careful reflection on the metaphysical situation.
The initial aim is always at some intensity of feeling. The higher intensities of feeling require consciousness. Beyond consciousness there is self-awareness, and with self-awareness there comes the awareness of freedom. The movement of man in this direction, long before he could exercise control over his own development, is the effect of the initial aim of his own occasion of experience combined with those in all the occasions making up his body. In a still wider context, we see that it has taken billions of years for this kind of consciousness to come into existence.
If this is so, then the initial aim must often be at that kind of self-actualization which accepts responsibility for itself and for its world. The exercise of those dimensions of freedom at which the initial aim aims cannot be contrary to that aim. The greatest intensity of experience may often be dependent upon the greatest efforts at self-modification.
But the fact that we may be called to such heroic self-determination in some occasions of our life does not mean that we may not at other times be called to a more relaxed acceptance of circumstances as they develop or to a spontaneous love arising quite unforeseen and beyond the bounds of duty. Perhaps it is possible to achieve such sensitivity, unconscious though it must certainly be, that we can hear and heed these changing dictates by which the direction of our lives is given to us.
Just as within the context of Whitehead’s philosophy one can and must go beyond righteousness as the ultimate norm for conduct, so also one can and must go beyond beauty and strength of beauty as the ultimate value. On this subject Whitehead himself leads the way and we will only follow. The supreme value that transcends beauty without setting it aside, he calls "peace." (AI 367.) Inevitably in his discussion of peace he points beyond the readily conceptualizable and gropes to express dimmer but more powerful feelings and needs of the human soul. For this reason, here more than elsewhere, I urge the reader to turn to Whitehead’s own formulation.(AI Ch. XX.)
Whitehead gives no single clear definition of peace. Instead, by describing it in many ways, he tries to evoke in the reader the sense of that to which he refers. Peace is "that Harmony of Harmonies which calms destructive turbulence and completes civilization." "It is a positive feeling which crowns the ‘life and motion’ of the soul." It "carries with it a surpassing of personality." "It is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty." (AI 367.)
Perhaps we can best grasp what Whitehead is saying if we ask ourselves what need we have to go beyond beauty. In answering this question, I will not follow Whitehead closely, but I believe that I will be expressing at least one side of his concern and sensitivity.
The problem with beauty is that it fades. Consider the most intense of harmonious experiences. It occurs, and it passes. To some degree it can be remembered and memory gives poignant pleasure. But in time it will be beyond any conscious recall. Yet such moments are the supreme goal of life; there can be nothing beyond them, more valuable or more ultimate.
In this situation the quest for beauty and its preservation must be intense. Beauty must be achieved again and again. Otherwise, its past achievement is worthless. A certain ruthlessness seems to become inevitable, a need for experience after experience, each of which in turn passes into oblivion. Perhaps a certain cynicism may arise, the sense that, after all, such achievements are not worth the effort. Since beauty and discord alike fade away, it does not seem to matter which occurs. One may alternate between a harsh quest for more and better beauty and a resigned indifference leading to nihilism.
If beauty is to be sought without ruthlessness, and if it is to be enjoyed without the poignant doubt of its worth, there must be an intuition that the worth of beauty exceeds its momentary enjoyment, that its attainment is self-justifying beyond the ability of reason to grasp its value.(AI 367-368.) But this must mean that our private experience has value beyond itself and beyond our subsequent memories of it, that it contributes something to the whole of things, that it participates in some wider totality and shares in some larger harmony.
Whitehead’s deepest sensitivity here is that purely personal enjoyment, his own or someone else’s, closed in upon itself, cannot satisfy the ultimate hungers of the human soul. The value one seeks must finally be more than the passing sum of human attainments. Otherwise, the restlessness of the soul is not quenched. Peace is the sense that indeed there are aims in the universe beyond our own and that our aims can be harmonious with them and contribute to them. It is the sense that what we attain is taken up into that larger whole and preserved in harmony with all the other achievements of value.
"The experience of Peace," Whitehead tells us, "is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift. The deliberate aim at Peace very easily passes into its bastard substitute, Anaesthesia." (The aim at peace leads to anaesthesia, because it leads to the curtailing of experience in the avoidance of disruption. But peace is not at all a limitation but rather an openness of experience. Interest is "transferred to coordinations wider than personality" and thereby "self" is lost.(AI 368.)
The truth of what is known in the gift of peace cannot be proved. Philosophy in general must limit itself to an account of what is given in ordinary human experience. There is no logical process by which we can move from this common experience to the demonstration of the ultimate harmony of the universe. But there are exceptional experiences which stand out from ordinary experience.(AI 379. See also RM 29-32; PR 521.) From these experiences arise those direct intuitions which give us peace.
Here, we are on the threshold of religion, or more accurately, well across the threshold. The discussion of peace cannot finally be separated from the discussion of God, and that discussion I have systematically omitted from these chapters on man. We can note here, however, that what is altogether beyond evidence from ordinary modes of experience is not the reality of God in general but that particular mode of relatedness to him which gives rise to peace. Peace is not a function of particular cognitive beliefs more or less intensely held; it is a direct apprehension of one’s relatedness with that factor in the universe which is divine. It is for this reason, and not because of a general introduction of the doctrine of God, that Whitehead appeals in these passages to the special and privileged experience.
It is time now to turn directly to a consideration of Whitehead’s doctrine of God. It arises out of philosophical necessity and is only slightly affected, as in the discussion of peace, by special religious insight or need. Hence, in the subsequent chapters it will be discussed chiefly in philosophical terms, that is, in terms of what is given to us in ordinary experience and its rational interpretation. Only afterward (See Ch. VI, sec. 2.) will we return to the discussion of religious experience to see what light the understanding of man and God throws upon the religiously important relations between them. In these discussions it will become clearer what Whitehead means by peace and especially what metaphysical beliefs support it and are in turn sustained by it.(See later discussion of this point.)
Key to References
Footnote references to books by or about Whitehead use the following abbreviations. Numbers after the abbreviations in the footnotes refer to pages unless otherwise indicated.
AI Adventures of Ideas. The Macmillan Company, 1933.
CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1920.
Dial… Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price. Little, Brown and Company, 1954.
ESP…Essays in Science and Philosophy. Philosophical Library, Inc., 1,947.
FR…The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929.
Imm "Immortality," in Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. See "Schilpp" below.
MT Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Company, 1938.
PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1919; second ed., 1925.
PR Process and Reality. The Macmillan Company, 1929.
RM Religion in the Making. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
SMW Science and the Modern World. The Macmillan Company, 1926.
Works about Whitehead are listed in the first footnote entry by author and title. Subsequent entries are usually by author only.
Blyth John W. Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. (Brown University Studies, Vol. VII.) Brown University Press, 1941.
Christian William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Yale University Press, 1959.
Ely Stephen Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.
Hammerschmidt William W. Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. King’s Crown Press, 1947
Johnson A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Beacon Press, Inc. 1952.
Kline George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Lawrence Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development University of California Press, 1956.
Leclerc Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. The Macmillan Company, 1958.
Leclerc (Ed.) Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. The Macmillan Company, 1961.
Lowe Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.
Palter Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Schilpp Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.
Sherburne Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press, 1961.