A Whiteheadian Account of Value and Identity

by Lynne Belaief

Lynne Belaief is Associate Professor of Philosophy at City University of New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 31-46, Vol. 5, Number 1, Spring 1975. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead seems to find what he calls the “intuition of peace.” And he would hold that the experience of the love of man achieved in this intuition supports the belief that any individual can change from an evil to a virtuous propensity, for perhaps unaccountably complex reasons.

I. Values as Ideas

In developing a Whiteheadian theory of moral responsibility as derived from his complex metaphysics and his particular notion of the self (its identity, function etc.), it is necessary first to discuss the meaning of value in that metaphysics. In this effort I shall be obliged to refer both to the infinite world of possible values (named "eternal objects") and to the finite world (composed of "actual entities")’ for it is Whitehead’s conviction that any description of the finite actualized world requires reference to both worlds, there being a relational activity between them. Explaining the relevance of the two worlds to each other is a major task and obligation for Whitehead for the stated and important reason that "each World is futile except in its function of embodying the other" (ESP 90). Interestingly, Whitehead holds that this claim is a summary of his endeavor "to avoid the feeble Platonic doctrine of ‘imitation’ and the feebler modern pragmatic dismissal of ‘immortality"’ (ESP 89).

The importance of this novel recommendation for ethics lies in its characteristic ability to moderate between extreme positions: although, against the pragmatists, values are held as eternal, they are not, against the Platonists, degraded by their relation with the finite world. And on the higher levels of experience eternal objects can provide this world with ideal exemplars: "The vagueness of practice is energized by the clarity of ideal experience" (ESP 112).

To support the notion that the actual world of process in fact requires a reference to ideals, Whitehead would appeal to the only evidence that is philosophically compelling to him, namely individual human experience. To critics such as John Goheen, such an appeal suggests that Whitehead’s ethics would be similar to the sort that Hume endorses, wherein the meanings of "good" and "evil" are determined, respectively, by the likes and dislikes of men (PANW 437-59). This is, however, not true. Goheen ignores the fact that an acceptance of experience as evidence does not in itself determine the type of ethics the philosopher will develop. Every philosopher believes, and attempts to prove, that his evidence derives from experience -- whether that of God, of common sense, of Socrates, or his own; thus Plato, for example, grounds his Theory of Forms in his doctrine of recollection, a universal experience, universally forgotten (except perhaps by Socrates). In short, the important parameter that is obscured in Goheen’s suggestion is the critical necessity of attending to the content of what a philosopher believes men can, and do, experience.

And against Hume as well as Dewey, Whitehead insists that human experience includes the intuition of eternal ideals functioning as objective, yet individualized, standards for action: "There are experiences of ideals . . . entertained, of ideals aimed at, of ideals achieved, of ideals defaced. . . . We are essentially measuring ourselves in respect to what we are not . . . [as] an external standard" (MT 141f). Thus ideals have relevance to moral experience and to the development of identity exactly because they have not yet been fully realized and are here realizable by individuals in the process of self-formation. In Whitehead’s statement

If there were a necessary conformation of Appearance [the world expressed from a finite, limited perspective] to Reality [the totality of the world, with all ideals actualized] then Morality would vanish. There is no morality about the multiplication table, whose items are necessarily linked, . . . [morality] presupposes the efficacy of purpose. (AI 292)

Whitehead does hold that there are factors in the universe constituting a general drive towards the conformation of Appearance to Reality" (AI 292). The progress, however, is not specifically predictable or univocal. It requires the introduction of novelty and the actualization of new patterns of ideals, and these activities depend on the will of finite individuals.

Although moral progress is not obvious in history in all dimensions, and never will be, this is not taken by Whitehead to signify that no progress, however partial, is possible. The serious and tragic nature of its lack can emotionally lead one to pessimism, but pessimism is a sentiment and has no necessary or obvious ontological justification. To achieve a belief in the possibility of creative evolution in ethical life as directed by human beings, one requires, according to Whitehead, a love or respect for men -- a minimal requirement, without which it is not possible to evoke the requisite faith needed in the face of the perennial confrontation with evil.

Here one must conceive that men can be ethically respected and morally improved, for the opposite is monstrous, involving a type of ethical nihilism. Such an attitude can obtain even within a religious perspective, darkly exemplified for all history in the scornful cruelty of a type of Medieval Christian absolutism which condemned men as sinful and unable to improve by their own powers. This misuse of religious trust notwithstanding, Whitehead seems to find what he calls the "intuition of peace." And Whitehead would hold that the experience of the love of man achieved in this intuition supports the belief that any individual can change from an evil to a virtuous propensity, for perhaps unaccountably complex reasons. Here it can be recalled as a lesson that Plato never explained how or why certain individuals do rise from the Cave-world and others do not.

As elaborated in part II, it may be that certain examples of human greatness, historical or contemporary, can evoke an urge toward growth -- if one is already the sort of individual who chooses to attend to and can recognize greatness. I think Whitehead also knew this, suggesting a radical reversal of the Western philosophical and religious tradition’s insistence that virtue, there meant as obedience to law, can be externally taught. Among other reasons for this inference one might note that the intuition of peace cannot be consciously willed, and that the experience of love cannot be commanded, and both are necessary in Whitehead’s view of moral identity.

The intuition discloses that a second general principle underlies all moral aims and actions, what Whitehead calls "order" ("the principle of the generality of harmony"). The value of order, however, is subordinate to love; types of order are to be rated in importance (value) "according to their success in magnifying the individual actualities, that is to say, in promoting strength of experience [the task of love]" (AI291). That a radical novelty is here present in both the assignment of ultimate values and their definitions is no doubt apparent to philosophers, and perhaps somewhat alienating. Some psychologists, notably in interpersonal theory, are more familiar with these important ideas:

The most active contribution one . . . can make to the loving quality of the interaction with the other is his commitment to his own growth. If the individual and [therefore] mutual growth process does not take precedence over the maintenance of continuity [order], the relationship is... thwarted. . . . He never discovers that individuals matter. (CHG 223, 108).

Here love is clearly experienced and expressed as a commitment to growth, one’s own included, whereas the continuity of a static order is a hindrance if it thwarts the process, as Whitehead also insisted. Other mutually held notions voiced in the above quotation, particularly the very significant fashion in which the alleged dualism of egoism versus altruism is dissolved, will concern us later on.

As the intuition of peace evokes the desire to act creatively, it also promotes one to increase his sphere of concern beyond narrow self-interest. As Whitehead put it: "Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision" (SMW 192). The evil of "people of narrow sympathies, purely self-regarding" is the evil that arises when there is a "loss of the higher experience in favor of the lower experience" (RM 92). There is produced a consequent loss to the social environment since evil is unstable and does not have important or lasting positive effectiveness in the creative advance. Because one’s own "strength of experience" has been reduced, the relational influence of that experience is consequently reduced in moral importance and represents a failure to achieve genuine moral responsibility. This is what Whitehead has named "the evil of triviality," "a sketch in place of a full picture" (ESP 119), produced by "good people of narrow sympathies who are apt to be unfeeling and unprogressive. enjoying their egotistical goodness . . . a state of stable goodness so far as their own interior life is concerned. This type of moral correctitude is, on a larger view, very like evil" (RM 95).

It is of the greatest importance here to realize that for Whitehead habitual narrowness is not only ethically evil but is also self-defeating, denying self-realization and satisfaction. This complex conviction is directly reminiscent of Spinoza’s identification of virtue and power and his similar additional claim that virtuous activity is the only genuinely satisfying activity. To substitute conformity to habit for intensity and openness of experience is, to Whitehead, destructive of the obvious metaphysical truth that all actuality is essentially relational. When an entity ceases to relate entirely, it ceases to be actual; when it is curtailed in its relations, it is to that extent deprived of development, and of satisfaction. According to a brilliant analysis by Rollo May, "Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is. The opposite of will is not indecision but being uninvolved, detached, unrelated to significant events. . . . It leads to emptiness, and makes one less able . . . to survive" (LW 29, 33). The withdrawal of love and of will and commitment are the "chief casualties" of apathy, says May; in Whitehead’s analysis, "In Discord there is always a frustration. But even Discord may be preferable to a feeling of slow relapse into general anesthesia, or into tameness which is its prelude" (AI 263). At every stage in psychological and (therefore) ethical development, much depends upon the weight one gives to growth and to security (in Whitehead’s language, love and order) when the two conflict -- and they will.

That the narrowness of the "lower experience" has been often considered the meaning of happiness by common sense while security and order in life are extolled as virtue is itself a tragic testimony to the folly of human timidity, as analyzed below. The view has been a remarkably successful self-fulfilling prophecy -- as Whitehead recognized, and as novelists never cease reminding us. The mistaken estimate that happiness can exclude growth or that survival itself can obtain by negating creative change is itself based on a mistaken definition of the self as analogous to a substance that reaches identity and survival through exclusion, rather than through relational expansion. To Whitehead, such expansion would ultimately include a relation of concern with the entire universe of values, ideal and actual. This choice is the meaning of love, freely willed; its moral significance is eternal and objective. To be sure, the desire for its realization, as for the realization of the subordinate value of order or harmony, is subjective. But all desires are inevitably subjective in their psychological origin, and the fact is beside the point.

It is necessary to clarify briefly the relation between these two foundational Whiteheadian values of order and love to establish firmly their priority, for contrary to some critics, I do not agree that order is meant by Whitehead to be the highest value, as argued above, or indeed, that it is identical with goodness. Although the selected importance of this claim is ethical, its basis is metaphysical. Whitehead has stated in apparently, but only apparently, unusual ethical language that "Morality consists in the control of process so as to maximize importance. (MT 19) and, further, that "importance depends on endurance, . . . the retention through time of an achievement of value" (SMW 193). In thus aiming not only at the creation of value but at its endurance, morality avoids becoming the rather self-indulgent experience of (merely) immediate, fleeting creativity, however genuine at that moment. And it is the achievement of harmony, the stability of order, that provides the endurance. However, like all realities in Whitehead’s universe of process, nothing actual can retain a static identity. Situations either advance into novelty or degenerate and decay, for there is no other alternative, metaphysically. Thus endurance through order is not enough, because it is not permanent. It is then the obligation of love to save the process from issuing into decay through introducing novelty which is additionally creative and alone can advance the value of experience. This obligation is, in one aspect, a recognition of tragedy. All life requires interplay with its ever-changing environment and "in the case of living societies this interplay takes the form of robbery . . . life is robbery. It is at this point . . . that morals become acute." And, Whitehead insists, "The robber requires justification" (PR 160).

Since no achieved stability can be taken as final, the decision to introduce novelty that advances progress is paramount, and everlasting. The inexhaustible possibility inherent in the world through ingression of an indeterminate number of eternal objects in combination substantiates the latter conclusion. But it is not necessary also to conclude that any possibility is equally possible in every concrete situation. It is surely the case that past events combine to enforce the greater probability of certain developments which are, so-to-speak, more potential than other (simply abstract) possibilities. To deny this would imply the belief that creativity is tantamount to non-causality or chaos, which is grotesque and certainly mistaken. Indeed Whitehead insists that there is always inheritance from the past which induces formation and that establishes identity.

But to return to my original point, Whitehead also insists that "the form of process is not wholly dependent upon derivation from the past. As epochs decay amid futility and frustration, the form of process derives other ideals involving novel forms of order" (MT 142). Thus although there is inheritance from the past, this nonetheless allows for the introduction of creative novelty. Exclusion to either extreme as if it were the sole interpretation of the universe would commit a philosopher to further doctrines which are, I believe, unintelligible. At any rate it is certain that Whitehead, as is methodologically characteristic, attempts to synthesize the two extremes. The balance issues in his fundamental doctrine of creative process or evolution, which modulates between the notion of mere possibility (lacking directional influence or aim) and the notion of a rigorous directional determinism. Because of this creative evolution, to a real degree it is not possible to predict the future qualitatively, although there is certainly causation which can be discovered after the fact. And this is all that one could expect.

The latter conclusion has important, and tragic, consequences from the perspective of a Whiteheadian ethics. Every act becomes to some degree a moral risk so that despite the possible (but also largely unknowable) purity of one’s intentions, human guilt will often arise because of unexpected and evil results of one’s acts. To Whitehead, as against Kant, if one is interested only in the morality of his motives, he has not accepted the full ethical responsibility of being an individual related to others with the total commitment of love. As Whitehead so magnificently said it, "The book of Job is the revolt against the facile solution, so esteemed by fortunate people, that the sufferer is the evil person" (RM 49).

Several of the above ideas, among others, force Whitehead’s well-known conviction that the claim to the existence of static, unchangeable moral codes is a dogmatic and dangerous error. By contrast, societies should carefully expand and qualify standards as the particular social realities change since what was omitted as irrelevant, or was unknowable, can become relevant and important. In short, "the moral code is the behavior-patterns which in the environment for which it is designed will promote the evolution of that environment toward its proper perfection" (AI 291; italics mine). Whitehead’s typical location of importance as referent to the particular rather than the general is here directive in his insistence that it is the needs of the particular society that require attention. Universal homogeneity, if such were possible, would be of secondary interest, if meaningful at all. These implications further suggest that for Whitehead both temporality and situation would necessarily be moral parameters in judging the rightness of social codes or constitutions, past or contemporary. In this position Whitehead is repudiating any theory that claims knowledge of absolute values and (therefore) duties, while, I think rightly, implying that this repudiation does not also deny the possibility of ethics itself. Skepticism is not legitimate here. For one cannot logically conclude that ethical theory is impossible if what was demanded of it, namely absolute values, was not in fact necessary as a minimal condition.

Thus although the perspectival determination and the relational nature of moral codes is recognized by Whitehead, this need not lead to the further notion, a nonsequitur, that moral standards are merely relative in the mistaken sense of being irrevocably private. Since the age of Socrates and the Sophists, many philosophers have recognized that these two op-posed positions are not exhaustive of what can be intellectually validated. Relationally defined standards can be accepted as having the same degree of objectivity in those circumstances to which the standards apply as absolute standards are alleged to have in all circumstances. The differentia does not reside in the existence or nonexistence of objectivity but simply in the claims made concerning the extension of applicability. The absolute code claims objective and universal relevance for all time; the particular code, for that time and place in which the relevant circumstances still obtain, and not beyond. But that is enough.

If this recognition cannot be commonly agreed to, ethical subjectivism will pervade any society that has become aware of each individual’s equal right to judge moral codes, as is inherent in the Western liberal or democratic notion of civil justice. Such a privilege can be turned either toward creative communal progress or toward individual, and therefore social, anarchy. No one can ignore the grim fact that the latter event has begun increasingly to prevail, and against it develops the solemn conservative request for stability and order. Professor Rubinoff states this dilemma forcefully:

to reject . . . the ideology of a closed system of values in the name of creative anarchy is simply to substitute one ideology for another -- the ideology of private virtue, the absolutization of one’s own personal goals. The latter gives rise to a tyranny of subjectivity as recalcitrant to the healthy dynamics of change as any tyranny hitherto conceived. (PP 185f)

Whitehead similarly warns: "We are at the threshold of a democratic age, and it remains to be determined whether the equality of man is to be realized on a high level or a low level" (AE 77).

To Whitehead moral codes originate in individual decisions as determined by the present location of importance. However, to conclude therefore that the decisions must remain private, and thus potentially anarchic, is by no means necessary. In Whitehead’s succinct statement:

If we could obtain a complete analysis of meaning, the notion of pure privacy would be seen to be self-contradictory. Emotional feeling is still subject to the third metaphysical principle, that to be ‘something’ is ‘to have the potentiality for acquiring real unity with other entities.’ (PR 324)

Because all actualities are thus in relational communication, objectivity obtains as a necessary metaphysical aspect of activity. Although all decisions are subjectively originated, any can be communicated publicly so that charges of ethical subjectivism, or indeed of epistemological skepticism, do not hold. Such skepticism can arise only in a doctrine that claims the further notion that what is privately originated cannot be subsequently shared or communicated. This amazing dogma, however, is clearly refuted by Whitehead, among notable others. It is ultimately dependent upon an analysis of the self as some sort of self-enclosed independently existing entity and produces precisely the difficulty for ethics that has been erroneously attributed to Whitehead, namely that his ethics would be a private-interest theory, at best.1 But Whitehead clearly repudiates the contributing analysis of the self, which would be "no more original than a stone" (PR 159), and repudiates its consequences for ethics: "The doctrine of minds, as independent substances, leads directly not merely to private worlds of experience, but also to private worlds of morals. The moral intuitions can be held to apply only to the strictly private world of psychical experience" (SMW 195) -- which is precisely what was to be disproved.

Elsewhere, and with direct implications for his own possible ethical theory, Whitehead states that "what is known in secret must be . . . verified in common. The immediate conviction of the moment in this way justifies itself as a rational principle enlightening the objective world" (RM 133; italics mine). In short, Whitehead is insisting that not only can something subjectively originated become, in his metaphysics, objectively real and communally known, but that, ethically, it must become so, since the willfulness of "immediate conviction" is not self-justifying. The general conclusion as regards claims to moral seriousness of any original view is assumed to be obvious.

A final issue regarding the analysis of moral standards in a Whiteheadian ethics remains. Even when a valid moral code or constitution is accepted as relevant and binding by a society, it cannot direct individual moral choices in any univocal fashion. The familiar philosophical awareness that ethical theories can make general recommendations but cannot claim to advise individuals regarding concrete situations would be a necessary view for Whitehead. No code can successfully reduce all possible duties arising in a world of creative process to its own clarity and manageable finitude. Moreover, because the criteria are general while the reality of each situation is ultimately particular, contextual interpretation is always necessary, although, to be sure, difficult. Everybody knows this, and men argue against its necessity and legitimacy only if certain decisions offend them morally and/or politically, as occurred for example in the attack on the Warren Court by the Conservative Right. Attention to the concrete satisfies further the positive moral requirement of concern with the different needs of this or that man as an individual rather than as an instance of a generalized group. The latter approach is familiarly, and all too often, described as "justice" in democratic societies. By contrast, individual attention is the claim of love, and is paramount in an ethics based on concern for the importance of individuals, as a Whiteheadian theory undeniably is. Interpretation of codes is necessary since how its central values can be actualized must differ as the society itself changes. In addition, the actual meanings of value terms change since the sense of ethical concepts is vastly dependent upon what is learned from their enactment in experience. "A precise language must await a completed metaphysical knowledge" (PR 18).

The denial that absolute and unchanging moral codes can be concretely formulated implies numerous other conclusions in ethical theory as given from a Whiteheadian perspective. Against dogmatic suppression of the freedom of individual conscience that was a consequence of absolutistic claims to final certainty, Whitehead stresses the necessity for tolerance towards the novel opinions of individuals; this is his emphasis on the social value of what he calls "adventure." "The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future. . ." (AI 59). Again, the future, including its ethical dimension, cannot be totally known, not only because men are finite and thus partially ignorant, as Locke suggests, but essentially because ultimate novelty cannot be mechanically predicted. Tolerance of adventurous novelty is the single rational response possible. It is a necessary response if civilized society is to remain civilized, for, as Whitehead suggests, freedom to tolerate novelty "haunts the higher civilizations" (AI 280). This tolerance is nowhere more significant, or difficult, than in ethical or political codes, because nowhere more dangerous when ignored.

With Dewey, Whitehead would appear to recognize that education to the tolerance of change and ambiguity is a serious social need if freedom is not to forever remain fearful and largely illusory (as Fromm suggests, it still generally remains so). Believing rigidity, clarity, and homogeneity to be prerequisites for psychological and social peace "the middle class pessimism over the future of SMW 208).

Oddly, and unfortunately, in various discussions Whitehead seems to suggest that any novelty is in itself desirable, as if, from the point of view of value, novelty were self-validating (whatever that may mean). Nonetheless, although novelty is a necessary condition to achieve value, it can also produce evil should it introduce a chaos that cannot be creatively formed into a higher order, for as Whitehead did clearly state: "The novelty may promote or destroy order; it may be good or bad" (PR 284). Thus it must be part of my work here to discover how Whitehead would have us tell the difference. This task of differentiation is particularly important today since, whether cynically or accidentally, all too many otherwise sensible scholars (and amateur politicians) appear to scorn it.

II Ethical Identity

In the "creative ethics" that I here attribute to Whitehead, freedom is clearly a central value since enactment of all goods and satisfaction is obviously conditional on freedom of pursuit, and "life in its essence is the gain of intensity through freedom . . ." (PR 164). And it will be recalled that although "God’s purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities" (PR 161), men, as free, are alone able to create this advance. Thus one may conclude that to Whitehead freedom is not so much a right as it is a duty and an obligation; these derive from the religious level and apply to the level of ethical life. And it is clear that a radical and unfamiliar notion of God is being suggested, producing unfamiliar results for ethics. Whitehead’s God does not claim obedience as the highest relational value of man to himself, nor does he claim passive worship to be such. Rather, God wills man’s freedom and creativity as completing His own purpose. To Whitehead, God is dependent on the world as well as the world on God. "The worship of God is not a rule of safety" (SMW 192).

By contrast, in an authoritarian religion obedience stands as the ultimate moral duty wherein creative moral freedom could be only the freedom to sin. Nor are creative efforts individually to advance value considered necessary (albeit also unavailable to men due to original sin), for such absolutistic attitudes produce an astonishing complacency regarding human suffering in this world. This complacency must be clearly distinguished from tolerance of change, being quite the opposite. However disguised, the ideology of this view hides at its heart the essence of intolerance and prejudice and is, from a Whiteheadian perspective, a moral and metaphysical nightmare. In the extreme, one recalls Sartre’s Anti-Semite:

Underneath the bitterness of the anti-Semite is concealed the optimistic belief that harmony will be re-established of itself, once Evil [the Jew] is eliminated. . . . If all he has to do is to remove Evil, that means that the Good is already given. He has no need to seek it in anguish, to invent it . . . to shoulder the responsibilities of the moral choice he has made. (ASJ 43f)

And, as everybody knows, racism can be a full-time job. All of it is, of course, magicalism, as Sartre exquisitely showed. But the racist, as full-time immoralist, has no need for reason. As Whitehead often warns, this is the lure of imagined absolutes and, of course, the danger.

The alternative response of cynicism regarding the possibility of any sort of ethical life whatsoever, once the absolutist’s naive (and opportunistic) optimism is rejected, is similarly mistaken and not acceptable. As noted above, Whitehead’s doctrines imply that a narrowing pessimistic attitude, a lack of faith in the possibility of creative advance, is evil, particularly by its obvious tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, again, cynicism is a sentiment, not a conclusion. When it purports to present a "realistic" assessment of history, it robs men of the courage and urge (eros) to go on creating value for the future. In short, cynicism robs moral life of its "zest for adventure" by its inability to transcend a narrow interest in hopelessness. The affirmation of possibility, by contrast to both dogmatic optimism and pessimism, has as "one of its fruits . . . that passion whose existence Hume denied, the love of mankind as such" (AI 284).

Although the complex moral ability called courage, highly honored by the ancients and ignored by most non-existentialist modern philosophers, is not directly named by Whitehead, it is directly implicated throughout his works in discussions of tragedy and heroism. And in his discussions of wisdom Whitehead would seem to be endorsing the moral value of understanding the existence of greatness in human aims, thought and act wherever illustrated in history, however fitfully. Such recognition avoids the grim but fashionable conclusion that human reality must mean the trivial experience of individuals, leveled by a homogeneous majority complacently satisfied with the "unholy" given. For Whitehead, civilization is not like this and never has been like this. To judge that it is and will be would suggest to Whitehead that a misguided decision and wish is operating here, since all judgment is guided by interest, and interest is, at ground, an emotional choice. But what the actual causality operating in this attitude may be is not here important courage is not among the causes. For courage cannot reside in a man’s passive, pessimistic submission to reality as it is -- in a world of possibility and tragedy -- any more than it resides in the dogmatic absolutist’s applause for that reality as allegedly containing "the Good." In their own manner, both engage in systematic and elaborate shadow-boxing: Whitehead’s narrow self-regarding people" mistaking sentiment for morality. "Tolstoy tells of the Russian ladies who cry at the drama but are oblivious to their own coachman sitting outside in the freezing cold. Sentimentality glories in the fact that I have this emotion; it begins subjectively and ends there" (LW 291). It does not seem necessary to reiterate Whitehead’s agreement with these splendid statements by Rollo May. And although we need not agree fully with Heidegger that the origin or source of willing and acting is care, or that the source of conscience is care, we can agree for Whitehead that care and ethical life are correlated in a way they need not be in an authoritarian ethics based on obedience and fear.

Courage, Whitehead implies, is the ability to aim adventurously toward creative improvement, of one’s self and of the society, with no particular shackles of evil being accepted as necessarily final. Despite the overwhelming testimony of particular tragic epochs, such as our own, there is a moral order in the world to be actualized by individuals. And one does not create in spite of the tragedy but, so-to-speak, by recognizing it in order thereby to transcend the situation should any action be possible. To ignore the possibility of, for example, nuclear disaster in order to preserve temporary "sanity of mind" is to become a co-participant of its inevitably growing probability. For, and this is very important, in a Whiteheadian ethics one may be considered morally guilty for what one rejected from consciousness and action as well as for what one has done.

Courage therefore implies a certain refusal to accept what is not humanly acceptable, in order to change it, however apparently quixotic: contemporary examples include Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whose goals and methods express care as well as courage. Such action requires the decision to renounce one’s secure position in the prevailing social structure and to risk ostracism and isolation, the risk of being forsaken by one’s social world. In the extreme, Whitehead notes that courage accepts the final risk, for according to Whitehead "It belongs to the depth of the religious spirit to have felt forsaken, even by God" (RM 19). Here Jesus is the historically permanent example.

The alternative is pseudo-heroism: an agreement to accept a goal of passive adaptation to life as it is presently structured, thereby helping both to perpetuate that structure and the myth of its permanence. There is neither metaphysical nor moral justification for this attitude in the world as Whitehead sees it. In process there is continual introduction of novelty, which in the interest of survival can be responded to in one of two manners: one may reduce the event to irrelevance by "blocking out unwelcome detail" (negative prehension) or "by an initiative in conceptual prehensions, i.e., in appetition its subjective aim originates novelty to match the novelty of the environment . . . through thinking." And, according to Whitehead, "the primary meaning of ‘life’ is the origination of conceptual novelty -- novelty of appetition" (PR 154-56). That the former, non-originative choice corresponds to what Whitehead would condemn as leading to the evil of the "lower experience," pursued by the "good people of narrow sympathies [who] are apt to be unfeeling and unprogressive. having reached a state of stable goodness so far as their own interior life is concerned" (RM 95) is, to me, an inescapable conclusion. In Berdyaev’s statement, "Egoism and cowardice are inwardly related" (MCA 245).

A point of further importance for ethics is included in the above quotations from Whitehead. If originative novelty is a defining characteristic of life, to the degree that entities respond in the first, nonappetitive mode, they become to that degree nonliving or inorganic. It begins to appear that a human being who habitually chose such a mode of behavior would, in a psychoanalytic translation of Whitehead’s ideas, progressively undergo a pathological dehumanization of the self, by the self. There results a gradual destruction of the self as a living integrated being, first in imagination and then in behavior, such as in the psychotic’s withdrawal. The narrowing of interest (care) and relation would result as the individual became increasingly unprepared to cope with environmental novelty. Seen alternately from the conceptual perspective of existentialism, this mode of being in the world is what is called "bad faith" or "inauthenticity": the attempt, often profoundly successful, to act as if one were a thing, an impenetrable object -- the self that "need be no more original than a stone" (PR 159). In a Whiteheadian universe where novelty is continuously arising and demanding response, such an illusion of static, atomistic identity would be difficult indeed to sustain. It would be, in fact (as is racism, with which it is often intimately related), a full-time preoccupation, robbing the self of all energy and desire for spontaneous, free response. To Whitehead, any destruction of the energy of life is a primary evil, including self-destruction.

It is, however, as a social force that such individuals, while still more or less sane, can be remarkably destructive. In fact, if I am correct in connecting Whitehead’s ideas here with Erich Fromm’s portrait of the necrophile, this individual "loves all that does not grow, all that is mechanical. [He] is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic . . . as if all living persons were things" (HM 41). And, in absolute contrast to Whitehead’s moral man, the biophile committed to "the love of mankind as such," the necrophile, as immoral man, is fascinated by all that is destructive or destroyed.

It must be clear that this orientation toward hate and fear of life and all that is living, uncertain, and creative, characterizes the individual who, on a less pathological level, is committed to the type of ethics I have called "authoritarian," rather than to the "creative ethics" I have attributed to Whitehead. That such individuals are, tragically, not rare in the Western post-industrial world cannot be news to intellectuals; that Whitehead’s process metaphysics implies an ethics remarkably relevant to this contemporary moral perversion may be.

Now for some time the sociality of man has been recognized as being natural and necessary. Some amount of individual social consciousness and willingness to perform certain social acts is necessary for a society, even the society of Eichmann, to obtain at all and to persist. This must be an obvious point. We may not approve the particular rules, but we cannot repudiate the necessity that some rules prevail, and we cannot try to destroy all the rules at once unless we are prepared to defend the ideology of anarchy. Whitehead would not be so prepared, for, as before discussed, creative freedom does not, to him, mean chaos or whim. Rather it must include order and "unflinching rationality" without which there is no creativity, nor surely any social environment to support and judge it. It may thus appear that arguments to the contrary are essentially rhetorical, because existentially solipsistic. Moreover to dispute authoritarian ethics is not also thereby to commit oneself to a repudiation of every authorized social order and thus embrace anarchy. The alternatives are false and surely foolish, the two "horns" and, therefore, the entire dilemma is unnecessary. Thus it is not as important that Whitehead’s metaphysics affords an exceptionally lucid explanation of the reality and necessity of society, and therefore social consciousness, as that it enables him to go on to stress the unique value that such community can have for an individual.

Even this last statement is, until qualified, morally ambiguous for -- and this is the essential point that has been long overlooked -- everything depends upon what it is in social relationships that is considered valuable. Are people seen as being necessary for mutual exploitation as serviceable "things" or are they related to, and needed, as persons, available for mutual care, growth, and love? The important recognition that men are social animals who need, and therefore value, each other cannot alone prevent attitudes that confuse men with property, sometimes indeed identify them, or sometimes, as in "shoot to kill" orders during ghetto looting riots, assign priority to property. That the recognition of sociality is not enough, and that this is not humanism, need not be labored further.

The moral issue to be decided here is not therefore that of egoism versus altruism, or private versus social concern, but rather of what one means by "egoism" or, indeed, by "social concern." If one has misidentified the meaning of his own self and thus his "enlightened self-interest," then neither his egoism nor his altruism will be successful. Regarding the former, he will not recognize wherein genuine satisfaction resides or what therefore to pursue -- he is the anti-hero of much contemporary drama, in and out of books. Regarding his effort at altruism, we may be convinced by the genuineness of his moral and social intentions even while his acts are largely unacceptable in their results. The failure is ultimately not attributable to egoistic motives due to "narrowly self-regarding" interests when relating to others but when relating to his own self.

It is this psychological error that has serious and unfortunate moral and intellectual results, for, as Whitehead well knew, feelings direct thought. The central failure here, more familiar in its moral than psychological interpretation, is the individual’s inability to recognize emotionally the meaning of human satisfaction and need, his own as well as those of others. It is here claimed that Whitehead provides important concepts by which one can overcome this classical but superficial dualism that is alleged in the construct of egoism versus altruism.

According to Whitehead all life aims at satisfaction, albeit the varying contents of the particular satisfaction are determined by the subjective aim of the unique creative desire of each entity. This is Whitehead’s analysis of "self-causation" which arises from feelings aimed at the subject’s satisfaction and which at the same time also further defines the subject. Everything here depends upon how the goal, the satisfaction, is understood, for though this the incompatible feelings will be disregarded and through this process the self is formed, continuously. From the point of initiation, all novelty and diversity will be subject to the defining unity of the self as formed from feelings. Now if the self’s identity is narrow, lacking intensity and scope of feelings, the result of the exposure to varying data available for inclusion will be to deny habitually that which is novel. This will curtail self-actualization or growth, and therefore satisfaction, so that the selfishness of those who are "purely self-regarding" is also largely self-destructive. Whitehead has provided us with a metaphysical paradigm of the individual who is both immoral and unhappy. This individual has long occupied psycho-analysts but too often confused moralists, who notice only the immorality. But it is perhaps even more difficult to imagine Eichmann happy than it was to imagine Sisyphus so, as Camus requested. As a final point here, it is important to challenge those critics of Whitehead who suspect that because his metaphysics is based in a theory of feelings it cannot provide an adequate (i.e., nonsubjectivistic) ethics. For it would rather seem that because of Whitehead’s recognition of the thoroughgoing importance of feelings as the initiation of all judgment and action that he is in a uniquely perceptive position to discuss ethics, if and once, the critic recognizes the centrality of feelings for ethical life.

I must now claim that Whitehead is offering a radically novel version of evil in human life. If it is true that life aims at satisfaction, and, as already discussed, evil, narrow, self-regarding attitudes cannot produce genuine happiness for oneself or for others, it would seem that egoism is a self-destructive identity based on a false view of the self and its needs. To say this is also to imply that the tendency of philosophy, religion, and common sense to ascribe evil acts to the moral inferiority of the individual -- summed up for all time in the extraordinary metaphor of "original sin" -- is not a fundamental explanation. Rather it would seem that egoism, being a thoroughgoing failure, is rooted not in moral depravity but psychological ignorance concerning one’s own needs and feelings, including the experience of happiness. Such an individual is fundamentally self-alienated before he will become alienated from others. Only the latter, however, will be visible to the nonpsychologist, which is perhaps a partial explanation of why what is actually an effect of an inner and primary failure has long been considered its cause.

Or perhaps for unaccountably complex reasons men find it somehow less disastrous to ascribe the origin of evil to an inherent moral depravity than to an ignorance of our feelings and emotional needs, what Whitehead calls "conceptual prehension." Thus we declare that it is because of certain experiences of guilt that an evil act may at times evoke unhappiness in the individual, rather than noticing that evil is in fact unsuccessful in producing genuine happiness. Self-actualization, and therefore satisfaction, cannot be achieved if the self is mislocated though the original destruction of feelings, what Whitehead calls "negative prehension." And what must be now also obvious, although it was not and could not be to J. S. Mill, is that asking the individual what in fact makes him happy is not a source of information at all. To the degree that he is alienated from feelings aimed at satisfaction of his actual self’s growth, his response will be largely inaccurate. He will, of course, respond nonetheless, for men need to think they know what happiness is. Rather perversely, such "necessary illusions" combine to lead us away from any real discovery. One could speculate that the emotional ground of this type of complex illusion has been man’s apparent need to believe he is motivated by self-interest, (which is later to be called the cause of the "egoist’s" evil), whereas all the above suggests that, where men are evil, the "original" sin has been self-hate, leading to self-alienation and self-destruction. The negativity will, of course, then pervade social relations as well.

The agony of such speculation does not seem unknown to White-head, who discusses the tragedy inherent in the loss of what "might have been and is not" (AI 275), a loss primarily to the individual and secondarily to the world. If psychologists combine to teach us that the achievement of genuine self-love (which is an achievement and not a given) is rare, this is not surprising -- although far too many of us will be surprised. If philosophers, including Whitehead, suggest a metaphysics of the self which can insist and explain why self-love is the very opposite of egoism, and happiness not in conflict with social relation, it is perhaps more comprehensible why evil may arise from psychological ignorance rather than some original moral depravity.

As a final note: because of Whitehead’s well-known rationalism it is perhaps useful to remark that although rationality, as above variously remarked, is indeed a necessary aspect of moral life-- "where attainable knowledge [including self-knowledge] could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice" (AE 26) -- I doubt that a Whiteheadian ethics could recommend that the level of moral and social virtue be transcended to an allegedly superior level of isolated intellectual virtue. In this sense the naturalistic aspects of Whitehead’s metaphysics would prevail more thoroughly than did Aristotle’s. One’s highest virtue and the happiness of actualized self-identity will be realized in some society, if realized at all. Since human individuals are essentially and naturally relational, the recommendation is clearly to expand and intensify relations, as above shown, and not, against Aristotle, to transcend the need for relation by means of some supposed individual and self-sufficient activity. There is no such activity.



ASJ -- Jean-Paul Sartre. Anti-Semite and Jew. New York: Schoken Books, 1965.

CHG -- Saul Newton and Jane Pearce. The Conditions of Human Growth. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

HM -- Erich Fromm. The Heart of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

LW -- Rollo May. Love and Will. New York: Norton, 1969.

MCA -- Nicholas Berdyaev. The Meaning of the Creative Act. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

PANW -- John Goheen. "Whitehead’s Theory of Value" in P. A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, 2nd ed., New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1961.

PP -- Lionel Rubinoff. The Pornography of Power. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967.



1 See P. A. Schilpp, "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy" (PANW 561-618) and John Goheen, op. cit. (PANW 435-59); for a refutation of the private-interest attribution, see L. Belaief, "Whitehead and Private-Interest Theories," in Ethics, 56/4 (July, 1966) 277-86.