Does Whitehead’s God Possess a Moral Will?

by David Platt

David Platt is Professor of Philosophy and chairman of the department at Wilson College, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 114-122, Vol. 5, Number 2, Summer, 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.


In the profoundest sense it would be strange to consider God amoral if the moral dimension in human experience is itself derived from God.

Kant maintained that the only thing which was good without qualification was a good will -- one that acted Out of pure duty. Thus, the only perfect will for him was the divine will, for in all finite wills duty and inclination would be bound to fall apart at certain points. At first reading, Kant’s deontological ethics contrasts markedly with Whitehead’s aesthetic approach where all actual occasions seek to achieve maximum value experience. Depending on which sense of the word "moral" one chooses, it can be argued that Whitehead’s God is moral, immoral or amoral. Since it has always been a main contention of orthodox religion that God represents the very standard and meaning of morality, it comes as a shock to confront a view in which God and morals seem to fail apart and to be separate. If one accepts anything like a Kantian approach to ethics, Whitehead’s God would seem, at first, amoral in the sense that moral predicates simply do not apply -- at least if one takes morality in a Kantian sense. Indeed this is a major criticism which has been made of Whitehead’s philosophy. We must examine the extent to which this criticism of Whitehead is just.

From a Kantian perspective a difficulty centers around Whitehead’s aesthetic model of value. The object of creative activity lies in the enhancement of value experience. God, in the Whiteheadian view, intends that all occasions and societies of occasions achieve maximum value; Whitehead sees clearly that in the achieving of value much sacrifice, tragedy, and loss occur. Not all values can be actualized at the same time; value in one area is frequently purchased at the expense of value somewhere else. Eating destroys life, and the value experience of what is being eaten (cf. PR 160). In human relations satisfaction is frequently derived by the denial of satisfaction to others. For Kant this is precisely where the moral issue arises -- inclination often decrees that I achieve maximum enjoyment for myself, yet duty at times stresses the need to curb inclination. Whereas Whitehead gives primary importance to the maximum aesthetic achievement, Kant regards morality as best illustrated in those situations in which duty may judge such aesthetic values to be immoral. Whitehead does recognize that there are tragic conflicts of value, but in his concern for the metaphysics of creation he does not seem sufficiently "under the weight" of the moral issue of duty which Kant pointed up so clearly. In fact, some critics have argued that White-head has no moral philosophy at all and that the problems of ethics were not of great interest to him (RAWG).

Whitehead, however, does argue that the higher morality is to aim at the enhancement of value for the larger community. More intensity of experience is involved in the enjoyment of the community at large than can be derived from the enjoyment of a single occasion or particular society of occasions. Hence, Whitehead seems to have a moral argument against excessive private pleasure at the expense of others. It would indeed seem strange if one of the major religious philosophers of our time were insensitive to moral issues or were. unaware or unappreciative of the Kantian thrust. While there are major differences between the two approaches which cannot be overlooked, these two points of view can be brought closer together than they appear to be at first glance.

Ethics primarily involves the relations of human beings to each other. The key Kantian notion is ,respect for persons as persons embodied in the form of the categoreal imperative which commands us to treat men as ends in themselves. The essence of personhood comes from according others dignity and respect and demanding it for ourselves. In addition we would also like to have pleasurable experiences, but, if a choice must be made, respect seems the more crucial to human person-hood. Many have sacrificed dignity and respect for happiness, but then begin to destroy themselves as persons. History is replete with examples to illustrate this situation.

Kant’s ethic has often been viewed as unduly severe, as purely formal and lacking emotional warmth, but to see it in these terms is to miss his main point. It is not that happiness and realized value are bad; any rational person would naturally pursue such inclinations, but they are irrelevant for Kant in estimating the moral worth of an action. It is in the pursuit of dignity and respect that we most truly exercise our personhood and that morality manifests itself. The twentieth century has brought this lesson home to us in ways never dreamed of in the optimistic eighteenth century. The whole current awakening to the evils of war and racism is a dramatic illustration of the profundity of Kant’s insight. Nothing in this view implies that happiness and the pursuit of satisfaction are evil per se -- on the contrary, they are major contributory factors to the good life. There are times and places, however, in which the moral concern requires that enjoyable experiences must, temporarily at least, give way to duty. It is hard to see anything unduly cold or formalistic about this.

The concept of duty is crucial in indicating situations where one ought to inhibit a potential enriching experience in the interest of doing the right thing. Here Kant differs most noticeably from Whitehead. A rational and, one might add, moral being, cannot accept as his categorical imperative that all possible value be experienced without some qualification as to the kinds of values involved. What about the pleasure derived from sadism and brutality? Are these to be maximized as much as possible? Indeed, even if they are, it does not follow that they ought to be. Kant’s divorce of the "ought" from the "is" stands as one of the most profound insights in moral philosophy.

A crucial issue for Whitehead’s philosophy is the apparent amorality of God. If God seeks maximum enhancement of value within the realm of finite occasions, then he would not seem to favor some value realizations over others. Furthermore, as the "lure" for feeling in presenting possibilities to occasions, God would seem to be indirectly implicated in the choices these occasions and societies of occasions make. Although Whitehead has successfully avoided the traditional problem of evil by his dipolar doctrine of God, he seems to have presented us with another problem of evil in the sense that God is not only unavoidably implicated in the actions of finite occasions, but to the extent that pleasure is realized by occasions God derives enjoyment in his consequent nature also. God seems beyond moral categories in the sense that he derives pleasure from the enjoyment felt by Hitler in the mass extermination of Jews as well as from the enjoyment found in the performance of a string quartet.

Some critics argue that God’s apparent desire to maximize both values is not only amoral but immoral as well. But God does not simply desire to maximize these values in isolation; he seeks the maximization of the conjoint value for all concerned. To answer the critic we must hold that God values for me things that I may not value for myself. God experiences any value that I may experience, but it does not follow that he would not prefer a greater experience for me than the one I chose and thus derivatively a greater experience for himself. What remains intuitively implausible to some critics is that God could experience any value from an immoral situation in which finite creatures found some value.

I have stated the criticism in its starkest form because it indicates a real weakness in the position and shows that more needs to be done on a Whiteheadian moral philosophy. In short, the primary emphasis on the aesthetic factor needs to be balanced with the moral. Moral experience is such a crucial part of human experience that it would seem very strange if God were insensitive to its distinctions. Many see man’s finest hour in the surmounting of moral obstacles and in the triumph of obligation over inclination.

We must combine the moral insight of Kant with the metaphysical insights of Whitehead. Good and bad often do reflect human prejudices and inclinations, and we must beware of attributing our own particular moral judgments to God. As Kierkegaard showed so dramatically, we are only too prone to assume that God’s moral judgments must be the same as ours. Given the prideful and finite nature of human judgment it would be gross to attribute any particular human moral judgment to God. It need not follow, however, that God is above and beyond all forms of moral predication. The particular decision that a finite creature makes may turn out to be erroneous or unwise, but what is to prevent God from presenting lures towards decisions which will enhance human dignity and respect? God may gently lure all men to treat others as ends, though we may accept or reject this lure in making our particular decisions. Since God is the lure for all choices, he is the lure for a moral choice as well.

The critic might point out that such a God is still implicated in evil, for although he presents a possibility for moral choice, he also presents the possibilities for immoral choice. God does more than provide only one opportunity from which to choose; he presents as lures all the real options that the human being has before him. The possibility to torture as well as the possibility to rescue both come equally from God.

Thus, we must go further in our analysis if we are to free a Whiteheadian God from implication in evil. God’s approach to moral choice has a number of unique aspects about it. God has a moral nature, but its manifestation will be markedly different from man’s moral nature. Morality for us is primarily, if not exclusively, a matter of dealing with other persons. This may be a shortsighted error on our part, but, with the exception of a few saintly souls, human beings generally have not thought of themselves as having any obligations to nonhuman nature. Following the biblical injunction, we have felt that we have dominion over all other creatures and indeed that the whole created universe exists simply to serve our own needs. It is only in the present day that the full implications of this view are coming home to us. Deeper religious insight makes it doubtful that God simply intended us to "lord it" over the whole creation. If we can say anything at all about God with any degree of assurance, it surely would be that he is lovingly concerned with the totality of his creation, no matter how different and opposed the other parts may be to us and to our interests.

Whitehead’s statement that God seeks the maximization of values need not be taken as a blanket moral endorsement of everything that occurs. What does follow is that in some sense God relishes the realization of value by all finite occasions and societies of occasions and the maximization of value for the whole world community. I do not think one can avoid the implication in Whitehead’s aesthetic metaphysics that any realization of value is in some sense desirable and coherent with the nature of God. If sadism provides pleasure, and surely it provides some to the sadist, in some way it enhances the nature of God and increases the divine enjoyment as well. This implication of Whitehead’s view must be fully faced and accepted, and it is this kind of situation which poses the moral dilemma for God. It must be kept in mind, however, that if the sadist is pleased and God receives this pleasure as objectified in his consequent nature, God also experiences, in the same way, the suffering of the sadist’s victim. All is contributed to God -- both suffering and enjoyment.

Whitehead diverges from orthodoxy on certain crucial points -- one of these being that any realization of value at any level is, in some sense, a source of enjoyment to God. But we must remember that this enjoyment does not automatically imply moral approval.

While God may derive value from the pleasure of the sadist, God also experiences the pain of the sadist’s victim and in Whitehead’s View, God would derive greater enjoyment if the sadist and the victim both had their own value experiences enhanced rather than that the sadist achieve his pleasure at the expense of the victim. Thus while God derives value from all finite sources of pleasure, it would seem as though God could still "morally disapprove" in situations where sacrifice of value is involved. Whitehead would speak about this more on the level of feeling than in terms of rational morality, but the result might well be the same. In Whiteheadian terms, God suffers by the sadist’s acts even as he receives the enjoyment of the sadist. God presumably undergoes suffering whenever a sacrifice of value occurs, and as Whitehead was well aware, God feels tragedy all the time. In the conflict of values much suffering is unavoidable, and much of it has no moral significance in Kant’s sense. However, where persons perpetrate suffering on other persons immorally in Kant’s sense (treating others as means rather than as ends), then presumably God’s suffering is increased by his awareness that moral "wickedness" has been perpetrated. Thus one can say that in a Whiteheadian view God must be morally sensitive too. When a sadist commits an immoral act, God suffers from an awareness that the sadist presumably has potentially much greater sources of pleasure which would enhance him, his victim, and the entire community. Hence God could morally disapprove of the sadist’s act while deriving limited value from it.

At the human level we frequently enjoy things of which we do not approve. We cannot help feeling many of the things we feel, but we do have a choice as to whether to give this feeling our moral approbation or not. Given the metaphysical situation which Whitehead depicts, God would not be God if he did not seek the enhancement of value at all levels and did not feel in his consequent nature the values prehended at all levels. It does not follow that God would not desire greater moral sensitivity in his creatures and by the method of persuasive possibilities present moral possibilities to creatures who through time could slowly become more morally aware. Greater moral sensitivity would eventually enhance value in the community and thus enhance God’s enjoyment too. In our cosmic epoch, as far as we know, human beings are the only creatures aware of a moral dimension to reality.

Hartshorne never tires of pointing out that God is infinitely open and responsive to all creatures. At the level of feeling God must enter sympathetically into the experience of all occasions and societies of occasions. Finite creatures are simply unable to do this -- all of which makes it easier for us to make dogmatic moral pronouncements about others. It is much easier to become morally incensed about another’s apparent wrongdoing if one has no feeling for the other person’s suffering. Moral maturity, at the human level, arises when one can emotionally sympathize, perhaps even suffer, with another and still make an independent moral judgment of him. This suggests that what exceptionally mature persons can accomplish on a limited level is possibly fully realized on the divine level. God may be open and sympathetic to all without thereby morally endorsing all. This lack of moral endorsement is easier to understand if one were to maintain Kant’s distinction that morality is a matter of reason rather than of feeling even for God. Just how this might occur in the divine nature remains incredibly obscure -- God’s ways are in many respects not our ways. All I want to suggest is how a Whiteheadian God might be absolved of the charge of immorality or of implication in evil.

On the human level, morality is a matter of reason rather than feeling, but this need not apply to God. Human beings, because they are partial and limited, are unable to embrace the feelings and concerns of others adequately. Thus, for us, a rational concept of duty must fill the gap where our feelings for others breaks down, as it always does sooner or later. Thus duty is necessary for man. But for God, no such necessity for duty exists, since God’s interests are not partial. God is infinitely open to all creatures with tender feeling and concern. Thus the moral dimension can never arise as an abstract requirement of reason for God since it is immediately embraced in God’s feeling. However, at the human level the moral law must intervene because we are incapable of impartial feeling and concern (DR 125-32).

It is clear that moral judgment and censure come easier to us if we do not have great breadth of feeling. People with broad human sympathies and deep feelings are often reluctant to make moral judgments about others and often feel that morality is a cold and heartless business. It is unfortunate and erroneous that morality should become associated with lack of feeling and warmth. Kant has often been unjustly criticized on this score; but Kant himself maintains that in the aesthetic dimension the beautiful is a symbol of the morally good (CJ §59). Morality does not rule out feeling -- on a human level moral judgment is simply logically in a different category than ordinary feeling. Morally I have obligations to other human beings regardless of how I may feel about them. Even if I hate another person, I am not relieved of my moral obligations to him. I cannot be commanded to love him, but I can be commanded to respect him and accord him dignity as a human being. This is why Kant indicates that the true perception of the moral dimension occurs where duty and inclination fall apart. When they converge one may be a saint, but it is difficult to distinguish the moral component just as it is difficult to see the stars when the sun is out. It is precisely this complete convergence in the divine nature which may make it appear that God is amoral; consequently, God is never confronted with a moral problem. In the broader sense God’s moral outreach is pervasive of all, for, according to Whitehead, he wants and encourages creative realization of value everywhere.

We might say that two different senses of "moral" are involved -- one when the predicate is applied to man and another when applied to God. In any sophisticated concept of divinity it would be nonsense to find a discrepancy between duty and inclination in God, but for humans duty and inclination frequently conflict. Morality at the human level arises through a sensitivity of a lack. The sense of ought arises in the discrepancy between what we want to do and what we feel we should do. The notion of ought never applies to God because he has sympathy for all creatures and therefore does not have to make up for the lack of it by doing his duty.

Let us look for a moment at clear cases of mass genocide such as Hitler carried out or cases of mass bombings which were carried out by both sides in the second world war and by the Americans in Vietnam. In the Whiteheadian view, God’s experience would be radically distinct from ours in two crucial ways. To the extent that someone found value in these situations, then God finds value in these situations no matter how strange this may sound. Any enjoyment that Hitler experienced in genocide was experienced by God too, but it does not follow from this that God wills genocide. Hitler willed it. Of course God presents it as one of a number of possible choices, but the choice was Hitler’s and partially made on the basis of Hitler’s earlier choices. It would be more appropriate to say that God wills the maximization of values for all his creatures, and this would certainly not include genocide. But God experiences any value at all that arises out of human choices. God presumably wills much that we do not will, but he cannot force our will and hence must enjoy and suffer what we enjoy and suffer on the basis of our limited and faulty willing. God’s frustrating and tragic task is to lure us to will better than we do, so that his enjoyment and ours may be more greatly enhanced. To the extent that we receive value God receives value. To the extent that suffering occurs there is disvalue, and this too is passed on to God’s consequent nature through the mode of objective immortality.

In a human being such schizoid experiences would destroy the personality completely. The mass of suffering alone experienced by God derivatively appalls and staggers the human imagination. The integration of human personality is saved because we can experience so little. If we experienced too much of other’s suffering, even derivatively, we would be driven mad as many are. From our perspective the welter of God’s conflicting experiences is inconceivable. If Whitehead and orthodox religious thinkers are right, God can absorb all of this experience into the unity of his own personality. Because God enters sympathetically into the experience of all his creatures, it does not follow that he would not prefer and indeed entice his creatures to richer kinds of experiences, including an awareness of the moral dimension. It must be remembered that Whitehead’s God is limited in certain crucial respects. He cannot force creatures to do anything -- creation at all levels is genuine and free. God can and does gently persuade, and his persuasion operates on all creatures. He cannot force the mass murderer to seek value in other ways, but he can and may lead mankind to come gradually to abhor such behavior and to condemn it as immoral. Literal human ownership of other human beings in the form of slavery used to be widely accepted and practiced in the civilized world. Now it is not, but its demise did not come suddenly or without great cost and bloodshed.

What might have been the origin of human sensitivity to the evils of slavery? For Whitehead, and indeed for many others, it might well have come from God -- as a possibility gently presented. God could not eliminate slavery -- only human beings could -- but the idea that it was monstrous to own persons arose, if Whitehead is correct in his general metaphysical position, as a possibility presented by God. In our own times the increasing revulsion against war is also presented as a lure by God. Unfortunately, people must be ready to follow these lures, and this takes time; in the interim fantastic suffering occurs. This is God’s tragedy as well as ours, and the symbolism of God’s suffering on the cross makes this only too clear. In the profoundest sense it would be strange to consider God amoral if the moral dimension in human experience is itself derived from God. Its implementation, however, must be by finite human creatures. To change the example for a moment, to be Socrates dissatisfied may be preferable to being a pig satisfied. The pig’s satisfaction is perfectly genuine and real as far as it goes, but the Socratic dissatisfaction may be a stepping stone toward a much more profound kind of satisfaction. Thus, moral sensitivity, though primarily a rational insight for man, may lead gradually to a more profound overall satisfaction at both the human and divine level.

Given the aesthetic "root metaphor" of Whitehead’s metaphysics, the main thrust of his position is teleological rather than deontological with respect to ethics. May we not say, however, that moral insight and sensitivity are also intrinsically valuable though valuable in a very special and peculiar way? Here we might push the Kantian approach one step further. While moral insight is primarily a rational insight into the rightness and wrongness of things, the dignity and respect that persons receive from moral behavior produces an especially sublime kind of enjoyment at the level of feeling. Feelings and enjoyments are not all of one cloth as Mill, Dewey, and others have indicated. The moral dimension adds a qualitative character to the life of feeling that cannot be met m any other way. At the same time this moral dimension is essential to human personhood; it comes from God as "lure" and thus enhances our life of feeling. Surely this approach is preferable to regarding God as having specific moral judgments completely congruent with our own. There is, as Kierkegaard pointed out, a teleological suspension of the ethical at the divine level, but maybe it is simply a suspension of what we take the ethical to be in specific situations -- for the moral dimension itself is, as we have seen, presented by God. There is much that is unclear and mysterious here, but who ever claimed that we don’t see through a glass darkly in these matters? It would seem that a reasonably coherent moral philosophy could be developed along Whiteheadian lines.

Although Kant did make an important distinction between duty and inclination, he overstressed a dualism at the psychological level. Kant makes it clear that one cannot logically derive what one ought to do from what is the case. Logically he is also correct in maintaining that we have obligations to others that hold independently of how we happen to feel. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to make too rigid a separation between the moral will and feeling, as though at the psychological level moral choice is exclusively a decision of the pure practical reason. Kant himself softens this dualism somewhat in the third Critique where he draws the moral and the aesthetic dimensions closer together.

Obviously, at the psychological level feelings are as much involved in moral choice as in any other kind of choice; one derives a peculiar type of satisfaction from moral behavior just as one feels a peculiar kind of guilt from immoral behavior. Psychologically we may never act out of pure reason, and we would be something less than human if we did. At the psychological level we may basically be talking about feelings -- moral and nonmoral feelings. What makes moral feelings peculiar is the logical point behind Kant’s thrust -- we owe dignity and respect to other persons as persons regardless of our other feelings about them, and in a moral crisis we may feel urgently the not always so gentle persuasion of God in the form of conscience. This would certainly be consistent with the divine persuasion of Whitehead’s metaphysics. Thus God would not seem to be devoid of deep moral concern as a source of satisfaction in human development.

Kant saw that we are bound in a human moral community with each other. Whitehead saw that we are bound together in a larger community and his metaphysics is a description of such a community. What he did not stress as clearly, but what is implied by his metaphysics, is that this community is also a moral community in a larger sense, and although this dimension is only apprehended by human beings, it still binds them morally into community with the nonhuman as well as the human.



CJ -- I. Kant, Critique of Judgment. Hafner Library of Classics, 1951

DR -- Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

RAWG -- Stephen Lee Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. Madison, Wisconsin, 1942.