Happiness and the Public World: Beyond Political Liberalism

by Franklin I. Gamwell

Franklin I. Gamwell is professor of religious ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 21-36, Vol. 8, Number 1, Spring, 1978. 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’s metaphysical system offers a political vision beyond liberalism and its assumptions of economic success.

In recent years, many political thinkers have argued that political liberalism is impoverished, so that our political future is better served by efforts to transcend that tradition. Frequently, the titles of their books express this general claim, e.g., Theodore J. Lowi’s The End of Liberalism (EL), Robert Paul Wolfe’s The Poverty of Liberalism (PL), and Henry S. Kariel’s Beyond Liberalism, Where Relations Grow (BL). Because I find considerable merit in this claim, this paper intends to suggest that Whitehead’s thought provides a perspective within which to fashion a more adequate political vision.

As a kind of political thought, "liberalism" has many meanings. In its more common contemporary use, it contrasts with political "conservatism," such that contemporary American political discussion is often largely understood as a debate between the two. But the case against liberalism offered by recent thinkers indicts commitments held by both parties to that debate. In other words, "liberalism" is used by these thinkers with a more inclusive meaning, according to which the tradition of political Liberalism dates back at least to the philosophy of John Locke and numbers Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Milton Friedman, and Reinhold Niebuhr among its spokesmen. In this light, the common contemporary senses of "liberal" and "conservative" refer to contentious members of the same political family. This essay also uses liberalism in the broad sense.

Although it is clear that Whitehead thought and wrote about politics, it is debatable whether he formulated an explicit political philosophy. My intent here is not to examine his specifically political writings but to pursue some of the political implications of his metaphysical system. There are important respects in which these implications might themselves be called liberal, many of which have been identified by Samuel H. Beer (CR). But to seek a political vision more adequate than liberalism is not necessarily to repudiate liberalism entirely, and I will also discuss how the basic liberal affirmation of freedom and individuality is appropriated in Whitehead’s thought. Nonetheless, the burden of this essay is to identify a certain respect in which Whitehead’s thought departs from liberal commitments. Specifically, I will argue that Whitehead’s perspective yields an understanding of happiness sufficiently different from the liberal view that Whitehead’s thought can be the basis for a transcendence of the liberal tradition.

I. The Poverty of Liberalism

Fundamental to liberal political theory is what I call liberalism’s "private view of happiness." This view is, I hold, more or less pervasively affirmed, explicitly or implicitly, throughout the liberal tradition, so that its absence would provide good reason to doubt whether the theory in question is a part of that tradition. Subsequent to the utilitarians, the term "happiness" has not enjoyed widespread currency in political theory. The terms "interest" and "self-interest" are more familiar, and I will use these as synonyms for "happiness." Each of the three will denote the good for a human individual.1 Because of its long association with the liberal tradition, "interest" is so often used to mean an individual’s private happiness that the phrase "private view of interest" may seem redundant. Principally because of its utilitarian usage, "happiness" has something of the same problem, although it also has classical associations that make it more easily disengaged from liberalism. In any case, I wish to make clear that both terms are used here in a broader sense, such that the liberal view of interest (or self-interest, or happiness) is simply one of the alternatives.2 In speaking of a private view of self-interest, I mean that human community is thought to be solely instrumental to, i.e., not constitutive of, happiness. What is privative about self-interest in liberal theory is its exclusion of human community. Consequently, freedom as a political principle has generally received from liberals a negative definition. Since political principles identify the proper relations between humans, and since these relations are not constitutive of happiness, freedom has meant the absence of authority or coercion, i.e., the liberty to pursue happiness without human interference.

This reading of the liberal tradition is in accord with Wolfe’s claim that liberalism is "methodologically individualist." In Wolfe’s usage, this term means precisely that human interaction is not constitutive of interests (PL, chapters i and v, esp. 74). Other students of liberalism have held that its view of happiness is not only private but also preferential, i.e., that the nature of one’s self-interest is solely a matter of preference, so that one’s happiness is defined in whatever way one pleases. Thus Sheldin Wolin says that, for liberalism, "what was important was not any supposed ‘objective’ status of interest but what each individual believed to be his interest" (PV 339). Similarly, Roberto Mangabeira Unger says that for liberal psychology "desires are arbitrary from the perspective of the understanding" and that for liberal political theory "value is the social face of desire" (KP 44, 67). Kenneth and Patricia Dolbeare claim that "the goals of liberalism can be succinctly stated. In general, they are that as many individuals as possible realize as many of their private preferences as possible" (AmI 6).

There is room to argue that the preferential view of self-interest is not completely generic to liberal theory. Some liberals have held that there are certain private needs, notably biological ones, the fulfillment of which is essential to happiness. Thus Locke, for whom human life was God’s creation, insisted that "every one is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully" (TG II, section 6), i.e., that the conditions necessary to a responsible maintenance of God’s workmanship are a part of one’s interest. Generally, however, even those liberals who recognize certain essential private needs do not assert that self-interest as such can be objectively defined. Happiness is understood as the fulfillment of needs and wants, such that meeting certain needs is a precondition for the pursuit of wants, and the wants are whatever one believes or prefers them to be. Thus, the liberal view of happiness is untenable unless the preferential view can be defended, and there is at least rough justice in saying that the liberal understanding of self-interest is not only private but also preferential.

In any case, an equation of private with preferential was historically effected by the alliance between liberal thought and modern economics. Wolin has described how the liberal discontent with all forms of political authority led to a fascination with the idea that economic society could be a "self-adjusting order," a "network of activities carried on by actors who knew no principle of authority." As a consequence, Wolin continues, the study of economics tended to escalate into a study of society as a whole (PV 301, 299-305). "Political Economy" -- or, better perhaps, "Economic Polity" -- was born. Economics, at least in the classical and neoclassical forms that have dominated its modern development, is a science that analyzes interactions as exchanges relevant to ends determined by consumer preferences, such that the ends lie beyond the domain of the inquiry. "The economist . . . considers how the distribution of human activities affects the satisfaction of human wants, the wants being taken for granted" (MDS 103). The development of liberal theory based upon a preferential view- of happiness has had momentous consequences in the modern west, including complicity in the general subordination of political affairs to economic goals. Also, the increasing discontent with the dominance of economic institutions in this country is one of the principal reasons for the belief that liberalism is impoverished (see BL, KP, PL).

Because it has appropriated the preferential view of happiness, much academic political science has become a territory within liberalism’s sphere of influence. In his widely persuasive attempt to apply "systems theory" to political analysis, for instance, David Easton writes that "what distinguishes political interactions . . . is that they are predominantly oriented toward the authoritative allocation of values for a society" (EPA 50; see also PcS, chapter v). We need not pause to be precise about the terms "authoritative" and "society," since these serve in Easton’s definition to distinguish political from other kinds of human interaction. What is relevant here is Easton’s understanding of the values that politics (and other kinds of human interaction) allocates, and it is clear throughout his work that these are assumed to be "expressions of our preferences," i.e., "can ultimately be reduced to emotional responses conditioned by the individual’s total life experience" (PcS 22, 221). Easton is a significant example. In his recent analysis of contemporary social and political theory, David J. Bernstein argues that "when we concentrate on . . . mainstream social science, we detect . . . the constant suggestion that in the final analysis ‘values’ are only individual emotional responses" (RSPT 53).

Mainstream political science has not deliberately sought to be an advocate for liberalism. As Bernstein discusses, the dominant intent of Easton and others has been to develop a study of politics "modeled after the methodological assumptions of the natural sciences" (EPA 8; see RSPT, part I). Since natural science seeks to explain events independently of any final causation (i.e., of purpose or value), Easton distinguishes categorically between explanatory theories of political science and normative theories designed to provide principles for political choice (see PcS, chapter 9). In other words, mainstream political science has insisted upon the logical independence of fact and value, such that only propositions about facts can be properly called true or false, and the study of political facts is "value-neutral" or "value-free." The liberal tradition, then, is one of the normative perspectives from which this approach to political science means to be independent. For liberal theorists have never embraced the thoroughgoing "emotivist" understanding of ethics implied in "value-free" science. If they have held to a preferential view of self-interest, these theorists have also affirmed one or more political principles having to do with the proper distribution of interest-fulfillment (principles such as equal liberty, equal opportunity, the greatest happiness of the greatest number) and asserted that these principles are in some sense objective and true.

Nonetheless, precisely the scientific intent to be "value-free" opened common ground for political science and political liberalism. Seeking a conception of politics that is logically independent of values, political science found attractive the view that human community is solely instrumental to preferences. As long as politics is solely a means to decide which among competing and complementary preferential interests will be honored and denied, political activity is defined independently of any particular preference. I have already indicated how liberalism has been implicated in the subordination of politics to economic purposes and institutions. Because it appropriated the preferential view of self-interest, "value-free" political science has become a servant of the same master.

The conclusion just reached suggests that supposedly value-free political science has had value commitments in spite of itself, at least to the extent that it affirms happiness to be a private matter.5 In addition, I am persuaded that political science explicitly based upon a preferential view of self-interest always implicitly invokes an objective criterion of happiness. If the interaction of politics is interpreted in terms of its service to various preferences, the interests of various individuals must be compared. Thus, to describe the deliberations of a political body in light of its "allocation of values," i.e., in terms of conflicting and complementary interests that are honored and denied, is to imply that the similarities and differences between those interests can be determined. Were this not the case, one could never know that the honoring of some was the denial of others. But comparison requires some principle of measurement, i.e., the various interests must be "values" of a common variable, and this variable is the tacit criterion of happiness invoked. In contemporary discussions, the common variable used is frequently the measure of money, i.e., interests are compared on the basis of what satisfaction costs in monetary terms, and this reflects the extent to which economic presuppositions have influenced our understanding of politics.

This argument simply rephrases Aristotle. Since all human activity aims at some good, Aristotle claimed, a science of action requires a knowledge of the chief good (NE 1094a 1-1094b 11). His point was that human action is purposive, such that each action is defined by the putative good that it pursues. (Whether this good is thought to be preferential or objective is, at the moment, irrelevant.) Consequently, a science of the relations between human actions (e.g., an interpretation of political interaction) inescapably involves an ordering of human purposes, i.e., an evaluation of the supposed goods. The same point can be made in terms more familiar to the Whiteheadian tradition. Since all human activity is constituted in some measure by choice, a theory of human interaction cannot be based upon a principle of efficient causation. Consequently, a theory of politics requires an ordering principle of final causation, i.e., a principle of value, which alone allows one to describe the relations among choices.6 Perhaps enough has been said, then, to indicate a line of argument through which the liberal view of happiness may be challenged and attention to an alternative provoked. Therefore, I now turn to the thought of Whitehead.

II. A Whiteheadian View of Happiness

With Aristotle, I have claimed that political affairs cannot be understood independently of a principle of value. Whitehead concurs. Indeed, for Whitehead, nothing can be fully understood independently of its importance, for reality as such is value-realization.

As an enterprise in metaphysics, Whitehead’s thought seeks to identify those "universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact" (PR 31), i.e., those highest generalities exemplified in all concrete things. The final appeal in this endeavor, he contends, is to "the self-evidence of experience" (MT 158), although it should be emphasized that our experience of metaphysical generalities is neither immediately obvious to consciousness nor readily expressible. Also, the appeal to experience is, in Whitehead, wedded with rationalism. The expression of metaphysical apprehensions should be clear and coherent and, because those generalities are strictly universal, should permit of no alternative. A metaphysically irrational world, in other words, could never be experienced.

"Our primary experience," says Whitehead, is a "sense of worth" (MT 149). "Primary" here does not mean chronologically prior but rather primordial, such that the experience of specific objects is always a discrimination within what is given to experience primordially. "The details are a reaction to the totality" (MT 148f). In saying that this original experience is a "sense of worth," Whitehead means that we experience reality as such to be the realization of importance. "The dim meaning of fact -- or actuality -- is intrinsic importance for itself, for others, and for the whole" (MT 159). This last citation introduces "the primitive stage of discrimination" in our experience of totality. "The value-experience differentiates itself in the sense of many existences with value-experience; and this sense of the multiplicity of value-experiences again differentiates itself] into the totality of value-experience, and the many other value-experiences, and the egoistic value-experience" (MT 150).

That each distinguished value-experience has importance for others as well as itself is another way of saying that they are differentiations within an originative sense of worth. Each value-experience is self-determined unification of its relations to other value-experiences. It is, we might say, an evaluation of other evaluations. "The many become one and are increased by one" (PR 32). The relations between these occasions of experience are temporally asymmetrical; past occasions have value for the present, but not vice-versa. Each "arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future" (AI 194). In between lies the exercise of freedom, without which the occasion could not be unified, i.e., could not be one value-experience (see AI 255). Since Whitehead, with Aristotle, holds that the exercise of freedom aims at some good (i.e., unification is a value-experience), he also says that "in between [the past from which things arise and the future toward which they end] lies the teleology of the universe" (AI 194).

The teleology of the universe is defined by the totality. Whitehead insists that totality itself is differentiated as a value-experience, i.e., that our experience discloses an individual completely inclusive of all others, so that value for self and others is also value for the whole. As the term "totality" implies, the distinction between the whole and all others (or, as Whitehead also says, between God and the world) is one of inclusiveness. The others are fragmentary, inclusive of the multiplicity only in some degree (and, in the case of most of the multiplicity, only in a trivial degree). The whole, on the contrary, loses nothing. Thus, without importance for the whole, there would be no measure of an actuality’s value. Neither the self, because it has importance for others, nor any of the others, because they are fragmentary, can provide this measure. "Importance is primarily monistic in its reference to the Universe. . . . In some sense or other, Importance is derived from the immanence of infinitude in the finite" (MT 28). Here lies the basis in Whitehead’s thought for the relation of philosophical theology to questions of values and ethics -- and, therefore, of religion to politics.

Because totality is constituted by its completely adequate relativity, i.e., its inclusiveness of all things, it is in essence a unity-in-diversity, an aesthetic composition. This composition can be greater or less only insofar as what it includes is greater or less, so that the value for the whole depends upon the unity-in-diversity realized in the fragmentary occasions of the world. The principle of value is aesthetic, and this is another way of saying that importance is the measure of the metaphysical fact that the many become one and are increased by one. "Beauty . . . is the one aim which by its very nature is self-justifying," because "the teleology of the universe is directed to the production of beauty" (AI 266, 265).

The aesthetic character of reality means that every worldly value-experience contributes to the divine totality partly through the beauty that it actualizes and partly through its contribution to the beauty of subsequent occasions. Moreover, I believe that present beauty is maximized when the occasion’s aim is to maximize the future. There are some passages where, to all appearances, Whitehead denies this. An occasion exercises its freedom, he says, toward "intensity of feeling (a) in the immediate subject and (/3) in the relevant future." Because the anticipation of the future is a part of the present, he continues, "this double aim . . . is less divided than appears on the surface" (PR 23). But this seems to imply that the two are divided in some measure. Thus, he also writes: "Of course, the present can be sacrificed for the future, so that Truth or Beauty in the future can be the reason for the immediate attenuation of either" (AI 241).

But consider the consequence if the pursuit of maximal beauty for all is not coincident with maximal beauty for self. It follows that the divine telos is not the production of beauty but the production of the pursuit of beauty, and the two are not identical. Every future creation, when it arrives, is present. If the best decision does not maximize beauty in the present, maximal beauty cannot be the good. But maximal beauty must be the telos of the universe, otherwise there is no point in pursuing it. In short, the result is absurd.7 I am persuaded, therefore, that the passages cited above introduce inconsistency into Whitehead’s formulation. In contrast, the following citation suggests the more coherent position: "The antithesis between the general good and the individual interest can only be abolished when the individual is such that its interest is in the general good, thus exemplifying the loss of minor intensities in order to find them again with finer composition in a wider sweep of interest" (PR 23). In any case, I conclude that the present cannot be sacrificed in the pursuit of maximal future beauty. Rather that pursuit is maximal present beauty.

The aesthetic character of reality also means that the importance which an occasion can have for itself and the future depends upon the importance that the past has for it. Where the latter is greater, the possibilities of the present occasion are increased. This in no way implies that the worth of an occasion is completely determined by others. Unification, as we have seen, is a free creation. The value of an occasion depends in part upon what it does with the world presented to it. Again, however, the two are correlated. The measure of freedom that an occasion may exercise depends upon its inheritance. Thus, for instance, the self-conscious freedom of human activity is made possible by the extremely complex order that it is privileged to appropriate, including the conditions which support life on this earth and the complexity of the human body. Indeed, to say that a more important order offers greater freedom and to say that it offers greater possibilities of value are two ways of saying the same thing.

With respect to human life, it is important to note that individuals or persons are not single value-experiences. Rather, specifically human existence is, in Whitehead’s term, a "personal society," i.e., a temporal sequence of occasions which share, by virtue of inheritance from the earlier to the later, a defining characteristic that makes the man or woman in question just this individual and not some other. Thus, when speaking of persons, the appropriate reference of "self" and "others" alters. Importance for self now refers not simply to the immediate experience but also to future experiences in the personal society of which the present occasion is a part. Importance for others refers to the contributions made to occasions beyond the individual in question, occasions sometimes within other human individuals.

Whitehead further holds that a human occasion contributes far more completely to self than to others in the world, so that a human individual’s dialogue with itself is highly coordinated. "The life of a man is an historic route of actual occasions which in a marked degree . . . inherit from each other" (PR 137). For the most part, this extensive coordination permits one to discuss the life of an individual as if it were an aesthetic whole. The relations of an individual to the wider world are, generally speaking, analogous to those of an occasion to other value-experiences. On the one hand, value for self is maximized insofar as one pursues the maximal contribution to others. This is not to say that an individual should ignore the effect of his or her present upon his or her future. But one’s life is so coordinated that each present decision implies a larger decision, witting or unwitting, about the purpose of one s life as a whole, at least insofar as one’s future can be anticipated. Present human activity, in other words, reflects a decision about one’s place as an individual in the wider world. On the other hand, one’s possibilities as a coordinated individual are greater insofar as the accumulated importance appropriated from the wider world is greater. This is not to deny that one inherits value from one’s own past. On the contrary, the notion of accumulated importance implies it. But the importance of one’s past in its turn depended upon its relations to the wider world.

I am now in a position to formulate an understanding of happiness consistent with Whitehead’s thought. Since happiness is the good for a human individual, it can only be human value for self. Happiness, in other words, is a human individual’s enjoyment of beauty. This definition implies a coincidence between happiness and virtue. Human action is virtuous insofar as it conforms to the telos of the universe. But I have just said that a human’s pursuit of the general good also maximizes the value for self. Thus, the maximally virtuous person is the maximally happy person.8 To some, this conclusion may be suspect, because it may seem apparent that virtue sometimes requires a sacrifice of the self. It is true that an individual may be called upon to forego certain enjoyments in order to enhance the possibilities of others. But Whitehead’s perspective implies that this sacrifice is, in a profound sense, only apparent, i.e., is a sacrifice of the lesser for the greater self. For commitment to the divine purpose brings one into fundamental harmony with "the way things are," and this harmony means a profound strengthening of the individual’s aesthetic experience. There is, in the phrase of Reinhold Niebuhr, a "tangent toward transcendence" in the definition of happiness (NDM II 82). Whitehead calls it "peace," a "satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow." "Peace is a quality of mind steady in its reliance that fine action is treasured in the nature of things" (AI 172, 274).

In contrast to that of liberalism, this understanding of happiness is evidently non-preferential. Happiness is a person’s enjoyment of beauty, and this is so notwithstanding that one thinks or prefers otherwise. It should also be clear that happiness in a Whiteheadian perspective is non-private. Other human individuals are a part of the world which the self inherits and to which it contributes. Since human beauty is constituted by all of one’s relations, human community is constitutive of happiness.9 I will now seek to be more precise regarding the connection between happiness and human community and, in the process, to provide the basis for a political theory that transcends liberalism.

III. Beyond Political Liberalism

On its way to a view of happiness, the last section outlined a perspective in which reality as such cannot be fully understood independently of its importance. With respect to politics, Whitehead and Aristotle agree at least in this: political theory is inescapably normative. The basis for a Whiteheadian political theory, then, is ethical.

Aristotle insisted that discussion should seek only "as much clearness as the subject matter admits of." With respect to "fine and just actions," he continued, "we must be content . . . to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true . . . to reach conclusions that are no better" (NE 1094b 15, 19-23). There is a significant sense in which Whitehead agrees again. This agreement does not extend to the metaphysical obligation to which human decision is ethically bound, namely, conformity with the divine telos. For metaphysical matters are true in a strict sense. But metaphysical truths are supremely general, and human choice is involved with particulars. Moreover, the fragmentary character of human existence limits its power to discern the particulars with which it is involved. In order to inform human deliberation and choice, therefore, ethical theory must abstract from the supreme particularities of occasions in some measure. Human action is discussed in terms of the relations of human individuals to other human individuals and to subhuman aggregates or societies of occasions. This inevitable abstraction makes ethical theory true only "for the most part," a consequence illustrated above when I noted that a human individual is, for the most part, analogous to a single value-experience. It is in that Aristotelian spirit that my discussion of ethical and political theory proceeds.

I now wish to argue that conformity with the divine telos may, for purposes of ethical deliberation, be translated into what I call the maximal happiness principle: so act as to maximize happiness -- and, by implication, in the long run. I emphasize that this translation is effected simply in order to facilitate ethical reflection and choice. Consequently, it does not imply that happiness alone is intrinsically good. On the contrary, the divine telos implies that beauty, wherever produced, is self-justifying. The translation does imply that maximal beauty is pursued insofar as one seeks to maximize happiness. What reason is there to believe that this is the case?

Recall that higher possibilities of value are dependent upon greater importance in the world that is inherited. "The dominance of societies, harmoniously requiring each other, is the essential condition for depth of satisfaction" (PR 142). Conversely, the importance of lower forms of existence is greater when they are so ordered as to increase the higher possibilities. "The Universe achieves its values by reason of its coordination into societies of societies, and into societies of societies of societies" (AI 206). This is one way to express the aesthetic character of existence and value. Whitehead further holds that, so far as we know, specifically human existence enjoys the highest possibilities of freedom and importance. He distinguishes four grades of value-experiences. Freedom in the lower two, the inorganic and the vegetable, is severely limited. Such occasions are far more creatures of "the average" than experiences permitted sufficient unity-in-diversity to exhibit significant individuality. Their dominating purpose is the survival of the society (e.g., the stone, the organism) of which they are a part. Nonhuman animal experience, the third grade, is sometimes conscious and thus rises to real, although faint, individual expression. But self-conscious or human existence, the fourth grade, "immensely extends this concept, ‘permitting purposes far transcending survival and, therefore, exhibiting marked individuality that results from pursuit of the better and the best. "When we come to mankind, nature seems to have burst through another of its boundaries. . . . Outrageous novelty is introduced." "The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed" (MT 36, 38, 39).

Given the distinctiveness of human existence and the aesthetic character of reality, it follows that greater beauty is served insofar as subhuman existence is so ordered as to maximize the possibilities of happiness. The crossing of the Rubicon is critical to this conclusion. Only because human existence is a broad grade of existence embodying immensely higher possibilities can a conclusion be drawn about subhuman existence as such. If, to the contrary, the difference between humans and some sub-humans were slight (if, for instance, humans were only slightly superior to nonhuman primates, so that human existence were a species belonging to what we now call the nonhuman animal world), it would not be clear that the appearance of humans represents the maximal importance of subhuman existence as such. Instead, the human species might then be the result of some more particular fortuitous coordination.

In short, extreme and enduring inequality of potential is the essential condition for assuming the aesthetic subordination of one kind of existence to another. For this reason alone, I believe, there is no general justification for aristocratic principles, i.e., for subordination of one society of humans to the happiness of another, whether the basis be that of birth, education, technological achievement, or whatever. Granting that inequalities of potential exist in human individuals, these inequalities are too slight and too subject to change (i.e., neither extreme nor enduring) to conclude that the maximal happiness of one group is coincident with the maximal importance of the rest. Human inequality is due to circumstances more particular than aristocratic principles assume. With respect to the teleology of the universe, humans are in principle equals, and the proper principle for ethical deliberation is maximal happiness as such.10

I should stress that the aesthetic character of reality justifies the sacrifice of nature (i.e., subhuman existence) for happiness only when this maximizes happiness. Far from condoning every destruction of nature that is executed in the name of human purposes, the maximal happiness principle prescribes such sacrifice only when the human possibilities are thereby greater than they would otherwise be. Self-conscious freedom has permitted intentional exploitation of the earth in vast measure for the sake of human settlement. But the extent to which human existence depends upon a natural order of "societies, harmoniously requiring each other" has recently become all the more apparent as the accumulated effects of industry, technology, and population growth have presented major "environmental" problems (see CC). Moreover, the capacity to destroy vast natural aggregates is also the capacity to appreciate vast natural beauty. If a species of whales becomes extinct while whalers become prosperous, the potential loss to human happiness is great, and only if greater human possibilities are created is the deed justified. Because of its abstract character, this discussion cannot settle any specific conflict between natural preservation and economic production. But much that pretends to be human progress and against which "conservationists" protest may well be proscribed by the maximal happiness principle.

Assume, then, that the maximal happiness principle is the basis for ethical theory. I now wish to argue that ethical deliberation may translate this principle into what I call the maximal public principle: so act as to maximize the public world -- and, by implication, in the long run. I use "public world" to mean the world that is constituted by human communication, i.e., the world shared by virtue of the relation (s) of one or more human individuals to one or more other human individuals. To maximize the public world is to maximize this sharing, where "maximize" refers to the only Whiteheadian way in which human sharing as such can be greater or less, namely, in the beauty achieved. What reason is there to believe that maximal happiness is pursued insofar as one seeks to maximize the public world?

This question may be answered by recurring to the considerations that support the maximal happiness principle, i.e., the aesthetic character of reality (higher possibilities are dependent upon greater importance in the inherited world) and the distinctiveness of human existence (human possibilities are immensely higher than those of other worldly existence). Given these premises, I have concluded that nature is better ordered insofar as it increases the possibilities of happiness. But it also follows that human individuals themselves have the greatest potential for increasing the possibilities of other human individuals. Since human existence is most important, it can add most to the importance of the inherited world. Indeed, if human existence could be isolated from the effects of the human community, the contribution from subhuman existence alone would permit human individuality only in some minimal measure. The higher possibilities of human purpose emerge only because of the importance that previous human achievements have left to be appropriated. Nor is this conclusion altered by the fact that some individuals have greater innate capacities than others. Significant development of those capacities is possible only because other humans contribute to their exercise. The potential in Aristotle’s mind was unusual. But his achievements would not have been noteworthy in the absence of Plato and the academy.

The matter may be put more precisely. We have seen that the inherited world is more important insofar as it increases human possibilities. But, then, the inherited world is also more important insofar as it includes human achievements. The present always becomes past, and, with respect to the measure of importance, what is true of relations between present and past is true of relations within the past. Thus, human possibilities are increased in the measure that human individuality is a part of the inherited world. The universe achieves its happiness by reason of coordination into societies of subhuman societies that contribute to human communication that contributes to happiness. Alternatively stated, maximal happiness is pursued insofar as one seeks to maximize human communication, i.e., seeks to maximize the public world. Whitehead’s gloss on the story of creation is apt: "The account of the sixth day should be written, He gave them speech, and they became souls" (MT 57).

Some may object that this discussion of happiness and the public world has been one-sided. Happiness has been explored in terms of the relations between humans and their past, the objection goes, while the relation of human action to the future has been ignored. What about the joy of knowing that one’s experience will be shared, the satisfaction in anticipating that one’s action will make a difference? Happiness is constituted not only by appropriating the public world from which activity arises but also by contributing to the public world toward which activity ends. But the point this objection seeks to protect has been implicit throughout. I have argued that greater importance in the past means greater possibilities in the present. I have not argued that the present is constituted solely by its relations to the past. On the contrary, I have said that a more important inheritance means greater freedom, and that happiness is maximized when this freedom is exercised for the general good. Thus, increased human possibility always means increased opportunity to make a difference. If a greater public world inherited means greater happiness, so does a greater public world pursued.

Clarity will be served by repeating that the maximal happiness principle is translated into the maximal public principle only for purposes of ethical deliberation. The discussion does not assert that happiness is constituted solely by human communication, i.e., the Whiteheadian understanding is not a simple reversal of the private view of liberalism. On the contrary, private constituents of happiness have been implied above. Included in these (at least on the whole) are the sustaining relations of human existence to the human body and, through it, to the rest of the subhuman world. Moreover, the suffering that can be inflicted through disturbance within the human body indicates the extent to which general biological health and "material" security constitute happiness, although the fact that these ends dominate the lives of most people in the contemporary world indicates how far short of its possibilities the human race remains. A Whiteheadian political theory, then, should have due regard for the biological and "material" conditions of human existence, recognizing that these yield their own measure of self-enjoyment.11 Also included in private happiness are the nonshared aspects of the individual’s dialogue with himself or herself. As we have noted, relations to self are far more complete than relations to other humans. In substantial measure, then, we alone enjoy the individuality that we achieve. Moreover, some of the dialogue with self should not be shared. The public world is better served if individuals have times of preparation for the public and a realm of privacy protected from the sight of other people. A Whiteheadian political theory, then, will prescribe the pursuit and enjoyment of a private dialogue with oneself in the measure that this is essential to maximizing the happiness created by communication among humans.

But the reality of private happiness does not compromise the teleological priority of the public world. What the maximal public principle does assert is that private happiness is ethically understood as a precondition for, or teleologically subservient to, the happiness created by the public world. Maximizing happiness is maximizing the public world. As one consequence, the Whiteheadian perspective stands in fundamental opposition to what has sometimes been called "metaphysical individualism," i.e., the theory that human individuals are self-contained in the sense that communities are created by them but not vice-versa. In contrast, a Whiteheadian political theory insists that communities create the possibilities of creating communities. The relationship is thoroughly reciprocal, and human individuality is the consequence as well as the cause of human relations. Although "metaphysical individualism" is far from synonymous with the liberal tradition, something like it has frequently appeared as the basis for the instrumental theory of human community, i.e., human community is said to be solely instrumental to happiness because it does not constitute human existence. Whatever the basis for the instrumental theory, however, the Whiteheadian perspective implies that politics is fundamentally misunderstood when its end is thought to be diverse private interests. To the contrary, the maximal public principle asserts that the end of politics is to maximize the world that humans have in common.

Some may counter that a political theory in this mode must also reject the liberal affirmation of maximal freedom. In politics, this objection holds, a substantive end such as the maximal public world is always purchased at some cost to the self-determination of individuals. Thus, only when self-interests are assumed to be preferential, so that liberty itself is the only goal of politics, can freedom be uncompromisingly pursued. However, the Whiteheadian understanding outlined here takes issue with both the premise and the conclusion of this objection. Take first the premise, namely, that a substantive telos compromises freedom. The public world is to be maximized, it will be recalled, because human existence offers the highest possibilities of value, and, for Whitehead, higher possibilities of value are always higher possibilities of freedom. Far from compromising human freedom, then, the substantive goal of a maximal public world calls for maximal human self-determination.

For the same reason, a Whiteheadian politics denies the conclusion of the liberal objection, namely, that freedom can be maximized only if self-interest is viewed as preferential. In the present perspective, the range of freedom enjoyed depends upon the human community that one inherits, so that a more important public world not only waits upon but is a condition for greater self-conscious freedom. What is suggested to the liberal, in other words, is a redefinition of freedom. Instead of being the absence of interference by other humans, human freedom is the capacity for individuality. In its concern to prevent interference, liberalism has been blind to the way in which a community devoted to private interests prevents the higher ranges of freedom and individuality from appearing.12 What is also suggested, therefore, is a new understanding of the relation between freedom and order, in which they are, ideally at least, complementary rather than opposed.

Earlier, I asserted that the social and political order in America has been defined in large part by the priority given to economic goals and economic institutions, and that the poverty of liberalism is revealed partly through its complicity in supporting this priority. The judgment was implicit that the continuing reign of economic goals constitutes a fundamental problem in contemporary America. I believe that the maximal public principle provides an alternative to liberalism in the context of which a thorough statement of this problem may be formulated and a renewed social and political order advanced. Clearly, this would not be an order in which economic institutions are unimportant. As has been noted, a certain level of biological and material welfare is a precondition for substantial human sharing. Indeed, this suggests another way in which a Whiteheadian politics might affirm the liberal past. Instead of praising economic success because it satisfies more and more consumer preferences, one may appreciate the development of western industry and technology because it offers release from material concerns in a measure that permits widespread and substantial attention to the public world. This implies, then, that the renewed social and political order would be one in which economic goals are made subservient to another priority. That change reflects the fundamental sense in which Whiteheadian thought offers a political vision beyond liberalism.



AmI -- Kenneth M. Dolbeare and Patricia Dolbeare. American Ideologies. Chicago: Markham Publishing Company, 1971.

BL -- Kenry S. Kariel. Beyond Liberalism, Where Relations Grow. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

CC -- Barry Commoner. The Closing Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

CR -- Samuel H. Beer. The City of Reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.

EL -- Theodore J. Lowi. The End Of Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969.

FPA -- David Easton. A Framework for Political Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

KP -- Roberto Mangabeira Unger. Knowledge and Politics. New York: The Free Press, 1975.

MDS -- A. D. Lindsay. The Modern Democratic State. London: Oxford University Press, 1943.

NDM -- Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941.

NE -- Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.

PcS -- David Easton. The Political System. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967.

PL -- Robert Paul Wolfe. The Poverty of Liberalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

PV -- Sheldin S. Wolin. Politics and Vision. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

RSPT -- Richard J. Bernstein. The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

TG II -- John Locke. The Second Treatise of Government.



1 The good for an individual is not necessarily the same as the good individual. There is a long-standing discussion in philosophical ethics regarding the relationship between happiness and virtue. I will suggest later in this essay that the two are, in a Whiteheadian perspective, coincident, i.e., the maximally virtuous person is the maximally happy person.

2 There is an ancient debate regarding whether all human action (and, therefore, all political action) is solely in pursuit of self-interest. That question is not my present concern. This essay focuses on the nature of self-interest, and that is a different question than whether self-interest is the only possible end of human action.

3 This conclusion is based not only upon the explicit premise that political principles have to do with human relations but also the implicit assumption that human happiness is the telos of politics. That liberal theory has generally affirmed the latter requires, I think, no documentation. A clear presentation of this understanding of freedom as a political principle is found in Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

4 I use the term "matter of preference" to mean a situation of human choice in which there is finally no rational basis for an ethical distinction between the alternatives. Thus, my use of the term is ethical and is quite different from the psychological use according to which "preference" is limited to more or less unreflective matters of want or taste, e.g., a preference for chocolate ice cream.

5 It is an interesting point that preferences need not be private, in the sense of "private" used here. After all, one or more individuals may prefer political participation, in which case human community becomes constitutive of happiness, until those preferences change. Consequently it may be questioned whether a theory such as Easton’s, which clearly affirms the preferential character of happiness, necessarily affirms the private character of happiness. But there is a systematic reason why political theories with a preferential view of self-interest have taken politics to be wholly an instrumental activity. Preferences are irrational in the sense that "statements" about what constitutes happiness are neither true nor false. Since a theory or definition of politics makes a claim to truth, it must be divorced from any specific preference. Consequently, politics must be defined in a way neutral to any specific end but relevant to ends in general, i.e., must be defined instrumentally. If it is said that an instrumental view of politics still permits other kinds of human interaction to be constitutive of self-interest, the reply is that the considerations just reviewed also apply to a theory or definition of human interaction generally.

6 Proponents of mainstream political science might respond that their theories deny the presumption of choice. Action aims at some good only if purpose is real. If, to the contrary, human activity is completely a part of the past, a science of politics can be modeled after natural science and interaction rightly interpreted through a principle of efficient causation. In that event, all talk of preference as well as purpose is massively deceptive. I will not discuss here the thesis that human existence is completely determined, although I think that its problems are considerable. That it prohibits any mention of freedom or purpose in the discussion of political activity is, in my judgment, sufficient to make it suspect.

7 The argument may be rephrased in terms of human action. Suppose that the most general imperative for human action is to maximize beauty and that conformity with this imperative is not necessarily maximal beauty in the present. The latter can be true only because the agent’s contribution to the future waits upon decisions other than his or hers, i.e., the decisions of contemporaries and subsequents. (Insofar as the present has a necessary effect upon the future, those relations are a part of the present.) If these other decisions are unfavorable, it may turn out that an action which sought to maximize beauty is not in fact the choice which would have maximized beauty. The best action, in other words, does not turn out to have been the best action, which is absurd. This is a problem generic to ethical theories in which good action is defined by its consequences. The consequences are, in relevant respects, beyond the control of the agent, but "ought implies can."

8 For the sake of clarity, I should point out that "maximally happy" refers to greatest possible happiness, and the happiness that is possible depends upon the importance of the world inherited. Thus, to say that the maximally virtuous person is the maximally happy person is not to deny that this person could have enjoyed greater happiness if the circumstances of his or her life had been different, e.g., if some of the people to which he or she related had been more virtuous.

9 For another discussion leading to this conclusion, see Lynne Belaief, "Whitehead and Private-Interest Theories," Ethics 76 (1965-66) 277-86.

10 This observation does not settle the issue of whether "temporary aristocracy" might be justified because it maximizes human happiness in the long run. Whether, for instance, the present theory condemns the aristocracy of ancient Athens is a longer discussion.

11 Subhuman existence not only sustains human life, it also enriches human happiness. Nature offers a world to be understood in human science, a world to be used in human construction and art, and a world to be explored, cultivated, and appreciated for its own concrete forms of beauty. Consequently, a Whiteheadian political theory will require the measure of attention to subhuman existence that is consistent with these contributions. In large measure, however, these relations are not preconditions for but properly a part of the public world, i.e., they yield happiness beyond some minimal degree because nature is, as it were, taken into the human community. The use of nature is enhanced by the community of craftsmen and technicians, the understanding of nature by the scientific community, the appreciation of nature by communication among poets and naturalists.

12 Many have commented upon the boredom or "spiritual malaise" experienced by those who most enjoy the economic benefits of liberal society. In large part, I suspect, such boredom is the consequence of the restriction of human freedom. In large part, I suspect such boredom is the consequence of the restriction of human freedom. In recent political thought, the most considered and provocative discussion I know of the freedom which waits upon public participation is found in the work of Hannah Arendt. See, especially, "What is Freedom in Between Past and Future (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956-61), pp. 143-172. See also The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958) and On Revolution (New York, The Viking Press, 1963). In citing Arendt, I do not mean to suggest that her thought is in all respects consistent with that of Whitehead. On the contrary, there are, by my reading, profound disagreements, both philosophical and political.