Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy

by Richard S. Davis

Richard S. Davis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee 37916.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 75-90, Vol. 3, Number 2, Summer, 1973. 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 sees moral theory as inseparable from social philosophy and the self-transcendence involved in the external life of the individual. To the contrary, it is religion that is ultimately concerned with the internal relevance of past and future to present self-realization.

Lynne Belaief’s discussion, "Whitehead and Private Interest Theories," in the July 1966 Ethics purports to present the foundational elements of a Whiteheadian ethical theory. In the course of so doing, Belalef offers refutations of the complementary charges that Whitehead reduces ethics to aesthetics and adheres to a private-interest theory of morality. Here I contend that Belaief’s defense of Whitehead on the latter point fails due to an apparent inconsistency in her discussion.1 I then suggest that this inconsistency derives from three sources: a popular but inadequate handling of the concept of "satisfaction," the failure to abandon completely a non-Whiteheadian conception of the self, and the further failure to distinguish adequately her notions of moral and religious phenomena. Indeed, these shortcomings seem to underlie most discussions of Whitehead’s moral thought -- particularly those which depict it as either egoistically or altruistically self-realizational.

While some points in this initial polemic have independent interest, I present it only by way of introducing some of the overlooked but essential elements of Whitehead’s moral thought. In particular, I contend that Whitehead sees moral theory as inseparable from social philosophy and the self-transcendence involved in the external life of the individual. To the contrary, it is religion that is ultimately concerned with the internal relevance of past and future to present self-realization.


Belaief depicts Whitehead’s view as a self-realizational ethics which reconciles the conflict between the individual interest and the general interest by appeal to morally preferable "true self-interest." The latter is found in recognition of internal relatedness and self-identification with the broad environment out of which the individual arises. The apparent inconsistency in Belaief’s treatment is to be found in her claims that "one always acts according to his purposes and self-interest" (WPI 283) and that all desires are "desires for happiness" while denying that "such deeds are accomplished only for the sake of his happiness and would not have been done otherwise" (WPI 284). The latter suggests a motivational alternative to happiness and seems incompatible with the former two claims as well as Belaief’s basic position that it is only the "content of that which makes a man happy" (WPI 279) which determines whether he is egoistic or not.

The inconsistency seems further demonstrated in Belaief’s claim that one discovers his "true self-interest" in realizing a "concern for others as conducive to one’s own well-being and purpose" (WPI 283; italics added). Yet somehow this is held to account for altruistic interests motivating "actions wherein acting for another’s well-being would in actual fact decrease one’s own welfare" (WPI 283). Belaief concludes that Whitehead would endorse such altruistic actions and that recognition of the inescapable moral tragedy implicit in such situations is a major Whiteheadian contribution to moral philosophy.


Perhaps the issue may be clarified by pointing out what Belaief seems not to be saying. Obviously, a teleologist who contends that all men aim at their own happiness in addition to other interests is not a psychological egoist. Further, if he allows that some of these other interests take precedence over the aim at my own happiness then he is not an ethical egoist. But this is not the view attributed to Whitehead, for if it were there would be no point in developing the solution in terms of the internal content of true self-interest. To the contrary, we are told all desires are "desires for happiness" with their morality or immorality depending upon their object.

One such object seems to be the narrow self-interest which Belaief condemns as selfishly immoral when preferred to the interests of others. But why is it immoral? Surely a naturalist would not want to claim that its constitutive elements were inherently evil. Indeed, Belaief indicates that the evil is the loss of a "higher experience," embracing concern for others, while the altruistic act is a moral object of aim. In the conflict of interests which Belaief considers in Whitehead’s example of moral tragedy, I assume that she intends the issue to be: choice of my own "narrow interests" or another’s "narrow interests" with other factors being considered equal. Otherwise, she would surely not advocate the choice of a lesser good over a greater. But even in such a circumstance, why should the individual choose the other’s interest over his own? Belaief’s answer would seem to be that "the other’s happiness is conducive to my own. If this is true, then where is the sacrifice and tragedy? Presumably I would now have a "higher experience" of my true interests" (and "true happiness") to compensate the loss. But notice, for "other factors to be equal," I must presuppose mutual concern. Thus not only has my supposed sacrifice not been of ultimate personal cost, it has actually been a loss to my "beneficiary" by depriving him of the opportunity to achieve the "higher experience" for himself. Further, his loss is far greater in that he realizes his "illusory" and "narrow" self at the price of his "true" self-interest and happiness.

Thus, the question becomes: how is it possible to make the better choice of internally conflicting interests and not be better off for it? On this analysis, I am not choosing between the interest of another individual and my own interest but between my own interest in another individual and other interests of my own. Thus I wish to suggest that this attempt to account for moral interest in terms of "true" self-interest does not explain how moral tragedy can be possible. For in each case, if desires be understood as "desires for happiness" and true self-interest to be deeper in some sense, then action in accord with it ought to lead to greater happiness. Yet as Belaief stresses, such tragedy does occur. The teleologist must meet Kant’s point that we do occasionally seem morally compelled to act in a manner that conflicts with personal inclination -- even where happiness is not restricted to the limiting conceptions of Kant’s psychology.


If the apparent conflict between duty and interest is to be resolved m terms of the inner conflict between apparent self-interest and true self-interest, then the failure of felicity and virtue to coincide can only be left to miscarriage of intent or ignorance of true interest. Neither ignorance of consequences nor ignorance of aim are directly pertinent to the issue of conscious intentions in moral decisions. In general, I believe that the perplexities in Belaief’s discussion may well stem from the attempt to understand Whitehead’s moral philosophy in classical terms which have only a limited applicability to it.

Belaief starts from the presupposition that all desires are "desires for happiness" but later introduces the objections that the presence of subjective satisfaction, as accompanying the fulfillment of all aims, does not imply that the action is done for the satisfaction. Comparing Whitehead with the subjectivists, Belaief claims: "Whitehead . . . does not accept their identification of good with what is satisfying, which inference is productive of a private-interest theory" (WPI 284). To claim that the desire is carried out for the sake of the object and not the satisfaction which its fulfillment affords is to speak as if the satisfaction were something over against the fulfillment itself. Further, there is the clear implication that the satisfaction is a result of the achievement which is enjoyed by the same individual whose aims are realized.

Initially it should be pointed out that Whitehead would agree that all aims are "desires for happiness," if this be understood as synonymous with "aims at satisfaction." However, to make this claim is only to assert that satisfaction is a generic term for the fulfillment of aim, in which case each individual interest terminates in the achievement which comprises its partial or complete satisfaction. In this case, it is simply self-contradictory to deny that the satisfaction of an aim is its own proper object. While this whole viewpoint might be paradoxical in an ontology which ultimately opposed experience to the world, it is perfectly appropriate to Whitehead’s wherein each occasion of experience literally includes its given world within itself.

To oppose experience to its object and to speak of what a subject must do in order "to endure and to achieve satisfaction" seems to be a reintroduction of the substantialistic conceptions, the absence of which Belaief correctly regards as a significant moral contribution of Whitehead’s thought. But for Whitehead:

No actual entity can be conscious of its own satisfaction; for such knowledge would be a component in the process, and would thereby alter the satisfaction. In respect to the entity in question the satisfaction can only be considered as a creative determination, by which the objectifications of the entity beyond itself are settled. In other words, the ‘satisfaction’ of an entity can only be discussed in terms of the usefulness of that entity. (PR 130)

By "creative determination," Whitehead means the effort toward realization which is the agency of the present. It is the aim of composition and not the individual unity of a subjective "agent" acting upon a plurality of data. It becomes the objectified expression of the value of the individual for a new plurality, but as such it is for enjoyment by new individuals. Only in this sense can satisfaction be distinguished from aim, and this sense does not serve Belaief’s purpose. Whitehead’s concept of the "self," as he frequently remarks, is most similar to Hume’s "bundle theory." From the standpoint of subjective immediacy experience is a plurality of interests, each with its proper object, moving toward mutual adjustment. It is emphatically not a vacuous subjectivity entertaining interests like guests of the spirit.

That Belaief does not seem fully to understand Whitehead on this point is clearly indicated by her claim that:

Complete satisfaction could be achieved only if the individual could acquire a determinate attitude of positive or negative valuation toward every item in its environment. However, because the environment is in continuous process, such completely determinate bonds could arise only by ignoring the ethical obligation to keep the self continuously open to the possibility of revision or moral judgment in the occurrence of such novel situations. (WPI 283)

However, actual individuals "are what they are." They do in fact realize a wholly determinate set of relations to their given universes. But when such determinacy has been achieved there is no longer any active valuation for that occasion. That the perspective of active valuation is perpetually open-ended cannot be the distinguishing characteristic of the moral viewpoint, for it is an ontological limitation imposed upon all valuation. Were valuation wholly determinate, there would simply be no novel occasion and thus no present moment.

It is true that, for Whitehead, the self as a social structure may be changed, both as novel individuals are added to the "nexus" and as novel characteristics are incorporated into the inherited order. However, to attribute the enjoyment of self-forming agency to either this order or the nexus apart from its role in some individual actual occasion would be to commit a fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Only in the immediate becoming of individual experience can there be a seeking of fulfillment and enjoyment of (antecedent) satisfaction. From this viewpoint, each interest is an interest in its specific object -- the sense of its own "importance." The "feelings aim at the feeler" but the "feeler" is a novel organic composition of the things felt, not a distinct individuality over against them.


To approach the moral situation in terms of justifying an interest in others to the individual aiming at his own happiness is to take a step which has proved very sterile for classical moral debate. It leads only to recognition of valuation of the "other" in respect of the contribution of his well-being to my own well-being rather than a recognition of the valuation of his well-being for its own sake. It is the latter which is requisite to the altruistic interests sought by Belaief.

If the interest in an other for his own sake were discovered as an internal component of experience, the further appeal to "my own" happiness would be superfluous. It would involve an attempt to justify to me "externally" that which I already accept "internally" -- as if the happiness of the other were not recognized as a value in itself. Further, it seems to presuppose the primacy of enduring subjects as sources of valuation rather than recognizing that values are specific experiences achieved, identified by their objects. This approach has always left moralists presupposing a basic egoism and either struggling to overcome it or rationalizing it into a moral theory.

To the contrary, we must reject the notion that "all desires are desires for happiness" implies that "each man desires his own happiness." To value an object as my own satisfaction, rather than simply as satisfactory, is to engage in a highly complex and reflective evaluation -- one that is by no means primitive. For Whitehead, the perspective within which I may question my own valuations as an integral "person" in relation to other "persons" is a derivative achievement of social consciousness. It is no more fundamental morally than that perspective from within which I relate present moments of interest to "my own future interests. Each involves a common structure which can only be re-constructed through a more detailed examination of moral experience.


To attempt a thorough reconstruction of Whitehead’s moral thought here would be folly, due to its complexity. However, I have attempted to indicate some of its facets not brought out by Belaief. The primary implication is that traditional axiologists have mistakenly presupposed that the concrete condition of valuation is one of subjective unity whether realizing its inherent potentials, modifying its scope of interest, or subordinating its individuality to general principles. Rather, the situation is closer to James’s "blooming, buzzing confusion."

In terms of human life, the soul is a society. Care for the future of personal existence, regret or pride in its past, are alike feelings which leap beyond the bounds of the sheer actuality of the present. It is in the nature of the present that it should thus transcend itself by reason of the immanence in it of the ‘other.’ (AI 290)

Practical morality is a concern with the future, but more particularly with the usefulness of the present to the future. Thus while the recognition of the internal value of the past to the present may well be one origin of moral consciousness, conscious moral aim requires a recognition of the external value of immediate activity to subsequent experience -- conjoined with the valuation of that experience to which the service is rendered. As such, moral interests are self -transcending. To the contrary. self-realization is primarily an aesthetic process, lacking this element of self-detachment and focusing upon the satisfaction which the world offers (and can be made to offer) directly.

The moral value of Whitehead’s thought stems from his insistence that the present literally perishes and yet holds an interest in the future and determines an achievement for it. Moral consciousness is "social consciousness" and its analysis requires study of the manner in which the individual nature is derivative from human society and, in turn, is capable of modifying that structure. Here, "human society" must be understood to include the environment which it utilizes -- as utilized by it. I am suggesting that the absence of an ethics written by Whitehead is to be explained by the fact that he does not distinguish "ethics" from "social philosophy." Adventures of Ideas must be understood to be an ethical work in the same sense as Plato’s Republic. Here Whitehead remarks:

In any human society, one fundamental idea tingeing every detail of activity is the general conception of the status of the individual members of that group, considered apart from any special pre-eminence. In such societies, as they emerge into civilization, the members recognize each other as individuals exercising the enjoyment of emotions, passions, comforts, and discomforts, perceptions, hopes, fears, and purposes. (AI 17)

Whitehead is not saying that in a "civilized" society, the members confuse each other with themselves. He is saying that they recognize each other as realizing an intrinsic value in their own right and not as mere objects of use. The distinguishing trait of a social consciousness is precisely the recognition of the external dependence of other individuals upon myself. The recognition that my own immediate satisfaction internally depends upon others may be only an aesthetic appreciation. However, when this "appreciation" becomes "gratitude" I have already achieved an emotion which takes the form of a response externally relating the present to other individualities.

Moral recognition may begin with a concern for future moments in our "personal" career (or it may not), but it is unlikely that this realization proceeds very far before involving some conscious recognition of a valuation of other subjects. Long before we acquire a sense of ourselves as whole "persons," for whose extensive careers we are concerned, we exhibit an interest in our fellows that may involve a broad community. Simply put, once one abandons a classical psychology in favor of a Whiteheadian one, he should recognize that what we call "egoism" is no less an "acquired" pattern of valuation than "altruism." Nor is it any less "other-oriented." If either is more "natural," it can only be determined by a genetic analysis of the biological basis for social consciousness and a similar analysis of differing social environments with respect to determining the conceptions of the individual that they afford, together with the modes of relationship and experience which are determined thereby.

A significant portion of Adventures of Ideas is taken up by Whitehead’s arguments that there is in fact a structure of social "instinct" which constitutes a biological foundation for the subsequent development of "fellow-feelings" in conscious socialization. "These emotions are at the basis of all social groups. As relatively blind emotions they must pervade animal society, namely, the urge to cooperate, to help, to feed, to cherish, to play together, to express affection" (AI 4-4). But such emotions alone are not "morality"; they are routines of experience: "All these feelings can exist with the minimum of intellectuality. Their basis is emotional, and humanity acquired these emotions by reason of its unthinking activities amid the course of nature" (AI 106).

Whitehead’s genetic account involves an analysis of the survival value of systems of order established as successful routines of cooperative function between organic elements of individual organisms and individual members of social, symbiotic complexes. The importance and nature of moral values requires an analysis of how: "The biological ends pass into ideals of standards, and the formation of standards affects the biological facts. The individual is formative of the society, the society is formative of the individual" (RM 85). However much men (or other complex organisms) may have in common biologically, when one ventures into the contents of moral consciousness there is a bewildering array of diversity. One need only consider the differences between being an individual in a Hopi community or our own. Of course our own culture offers an enormously wide diversity of conceptions of individuals, their relations, and careers in differing contexts.

Whitehead holds that human societies differ from the more stable and enduring insect societies with regard to their diversifying "progressiveness." Further, this great fact of progressiveness, be it from worse to better, or from better to worse, has become of greater and greater importance in Western Civilization as we come to modern times" (AI 98); Here Whitehead is stressing his familiar theme of the "coincidence of practical and theoretic reason" in recent history to afford enormous control over natural and social processes. However, he is also speaking of the preparation of a social environment for gradual entertainment of the "humanitarian ideal." Technology, like consciousness itself, can decrease the valuation of interdependent functions by increasing the possibility and intensity of gratifying independent interests. If man functioned in accord with mere instinct, he might exhibit the same species-cooperativeness and lack of infra-species aggression as other mammals. "Indeed the ferocity may have been the later development, due to the increase of intelligent self-interest" (AI 76). But at the same time, developments in communication, transportation, commerce, and education give concrete significance to abstract conceptions of world and species community.

Whitehead’s concept of "social instinct," which can be suppressed or transformed by individual social and moral development, poses no conflict with geneticists who hold that instinctive behavior patterns are significant but decrease in direct proportion to the complexity of the central nervous system. To the contrary, this conclusion offers empirical support for his analysis of experience. Complex organizations of blind "valuation" (or "instinct") can be partially submerged by consciousness which is ". . . the growth of emphasis. The totality is characterized by a selection from its details" (MT 168). As a result, "each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality" (PR 22).


Morality is not a matter of man triumphing over his animal instincts. Rather it involves the realization of intellectual and social structures capable of overcoming the selectiveness of consciousness through the introduction of cooperative patterns of valuation. If successful, these derive reinforcement from social instinct and sublimate individual interests in complex systems of mutual satisfaction. Here "individual interests" means "specific interests. Personalities are only one complex subset of these, comprising such a social system themselves.

Creative compromises of diverse interest are not simply discovered amid the given past, which comprises the "world of fact," except insofar as they are facts of past imagination. They are ideal conceptions for novel forms of social order which -- if they were given -- would no longer be needed. From a purely moral viewpoint, the "truth" is important as revealing given potentials for value and the relevance of the present to their future achievement. But it is important primarily in respect of the limits which present facts impose on the possible and the deficiencies of these conditions in the light of the same.

The selectiveness of individual experience is moral so far as it conforms to the balance of importance disclosed in the rational vision; and conversely the conversion of the intellectual insight into an emotional force corrects the sensitive experience in the direction of morality. (PR 22-23)

The "rational vision," for Whitehead, is not merely a conscious grasp of "the true origins of present value," as Belaief would have it (or Leibniz and other rationalistic self-realizationists). Rather, it is the urge to "live better" and a more or less workable image of the reformation. Morality is "the control of process so as to maximize importance. It is the aim at greatness of experience in the various dimensions belonging to it" (MT 19).

Moral activity and moral vision are creative; and it is in his concept of "creativity" that Whitehead breaks with the Platonic as well as the Aristotelian traditions. Moral creativity is the attempt to transform reality for the better. In small and large issues its progress (and sometimes its loss) is a function of striving to enhance the potentialities which the world offers for individual fulfillment -- not their mere discovery and enactment. In its pursuit of the conceptually possible, moral idealism often leads to a self-defeating romanticism. It is here that the concern with fact must temper it. "Moral authority is limited by competence to attain those ends whose immediate dominance is evident to enlightened wisdom" (AI 69). But he stresses that:

the final introduction of a reform does not necessarily prove the moral superiority of the reforming generation. It certainly does require that that generation exhibit reforming energy. But conditions may have changed, so that what is possible now may not have been possible then. A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good men to carry it into practical effect. . . . The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification. (AI 29)

The growth of individual moral character within a community can best be understood, in Whiteheadian terms, by analogy with the above conception -- provided that the concept of "communal custom" be replaced with the account of the growth of subordinate nexuses as a background to individual experience.

It is worth stressing that both the adaptation of social structures and personal structures to tolerate modes of valuation and achievement not previously possible is a genuinely creative process in Whitehead’s ontology. If we correlate Whitehead’s ideas of "pure" and "real" potentiality with the familiar notions of "logical" and "empirical possibility" (the latter being defined as "what is in conformity with the laws of nature"), then he is saying that what enters experience as a mere logical possibility may in fact transform what is empirically possible. Again, it is in Adventures of Ideas that he presents his concept of the laws of nature as descriptions of the mutual influence which actual occasions have upon each other. Technological ingenuity is not merely a matter of discovering nature’s secrets and utilizing them. Rather, it involves creation of the subordinate structures which render possible the impossible. Applied to moral contexts, the idea of "reformation" is far more accurate than that of "self-realization" which suggests a non-creative conception of "given" potentialities.


There are two poles to a Whiteheadian account of moral experience: the concrete sentiments which are highly limited to particular communities and the abstract ideals which may embrace the widest sense of community. The former has great motivational intensity. The latter is weak and can derive force only from the unification it achieves in experience as a whole -- as a "way of life." The fusion of these extremes in diverse connection affords the variable experience of daily existence.

Among mankind these fundamental feelings reign with great strength within limited societies. But the range of human intelligence -- its very foresight as to dangers and opportunities, the power of the imaginative entertaining of differences between group and group, of their divergencies of habit and sentiment -- this range of intelligence has produced a ferocity of inversion of this very sentiment of interracial benevolence. Mankind is distinguished by its strength of tribal feeling, and conversely it is also distinguished by far-reaching malign exploitation and inter-tribal warfare. Also the tribal feeling is apt to be chequered by limitations of benevolence to special sections within the boundary of the same community. (AI 44)

In his moral philosophy, Whitehead does not present a pat system of decision making, resolving individual differences -- because such notions have only the limited utility of vast oversimplifications. Such systems themselves are among the data which moral philosophy must study in order to determine their limits and practical contributions. A philosophic moral theory and moral (or social) science must study human beings as organisms capable of moral experience and as capable of self-fulfillment. They must study the complex ways in which differing social systems define, relate, and fulfill individual roles as structures affording fulfilling experience. Indeed, in Process and Reality, Whitehead suggests that we need a wholly new science of "Psychological Physiology" to explain bow there can be "originality of response to stimulus" (PR 159). Differing ideals have differing effects in various situations. Subsystems of value vary not only in their mutual compatibility and conflict but in their degree of these same when entertained with varying degrees of emphasis. Morality can hardly be reduced to balancing the interests of Richard Davis against his fellows when the very nature and conception of these interests is a varying function of an internally complex social structure involving subordinate and partially autonomous social structures.

If we are to accept the implications of the social conception of the self, then we ought to take them seriously. It avails little to complain of the complexity of the subject matter as indicated above. Moral experience is itself a most subtle dimension of human nature and society. Given the complexity of the studies requisite to understanding an ideally isolated atomic system, it is astonishing that we should expect a non-isolated organism of the highest sophistication to be simpler. On the other hand, we do have a more or less successful tradition of moral methodologies to aid us and the occasional freedom from practical exigencies which enables us to reflect upon the details of what we do.


Democritus dreamed of atoms and today we use and misuse their hidden resources. Plato dreamed of a harmonious social order in which each individual element was given the justice of its own appropriate merit. In the latter instance our approximations to practical significance are rather more crude. Like Plato’s, Whitehead’s moral philosophy bears a resemblance to utilitarianism. Also, like Plato’s and Mill’s, if the emphasis is misplaced in Whitehead’s thought, it might give rise to a misconceived social idealism that resembles a fascist horror. After all if morality involves a subordination of the present to the future, where is the safeguard against puritan self-denial to the point of destruction? Such misemphasis seems present in Schilpp’s accusation that Whitehead identifies the "good life" with the patterned life while offering no criterion of Pattern.2 Further, Belaief’s analysis seems to identify the individual, as moral subject, with an ego-object in the social order defining personal identity.

Whitehead himself criticized utilitarianism in terms of the vagueness of the ontology which it presupposed in explication of its basic terms. I think Whitehead does indeed offer somewhat more definite axiological notions than might be concluded from the literature, though they can hardly be developed here. However, there is one point central to his moral philosophy, missed by both Schilpp and Belaif, which does have practical importance for "muddling through" social reality in the lack of a more detailed moral science. In drawing Adventures of ideas to its conclusion, Whitehead asserts that the search for social perfection must be qualified by the recognition that moral codes reflect the special circumstances of the societies within which they emerge. However, this does not preclude the attempt to grasp generalities underlying all such codes:

Such generalities should reflect the very notions of the harmonizing of harmonies, and of particular individual actualities as the sole authentic reality. These are the principles of the generality of harmony, and of the importance of the individual. The first means ‘order,’ and the second means ‘love.’ Between the two there is a suggestion of opposition. For ‘order’ is impersonal: and love, above all things, is personal. The antithesis is solved by rating types of order in relative importance according to their success in magnifying the individual actualities, that is to say, in promoting strength of experience. Also in rating the individual on the double basis, partly on the intrinsic strength of its own experience, and partly on its influence in the promotion of a high-grade type of order. These two grounds in part coalesce. For a weak individual exerts a weak influence. (AI 290-291

The point to be noted here is that from the standpoint of communal consciousness, from within which the individual evaluates his role, a sacrifice of peculiarly "personal" interest is possible since judgment can be rendered from the impersonal perspective of viewing these values as elements in a wider communal order. He sees himself as one among a many, with each element to be judged according to merit. Of course, in practice, such judgment will also be qualified to a greater or lesser degree by particular moral loyalties. Moreover, it is concrete moral sentiments which always provide the testing ground of moral abstractions. For though the individual is to be rated both in terms of his intrinsic and extrinsic values, the latter contribution can itself be judged only in terms of actual experience. Though he is judged for his contribution to a "high grade type of order," the system of order is so rated in behalf of its contribution to "magnifying the individual actualities."

Thus Whitehead is saving that individuals must be judged both in behalf of the quality of their own experience and their contribution to the experience of others. However, the estimation of this latter quality can only be carried out by means of the ideally conceived social system. The ultimate moral values of Whitehead’s system are individual moments of value experience -- actual occasions. The systems of social order in terms of which moral judgments are rendered must always be judged first in respect of concrete individual experiences. Here the empirical ground lies in the quality of experience afforded by existent systems regarded as partial exemplifications of the ideal and by the actual effect of ideal elements upon the experience of adherents. Only then can individuals, and their particular dominant systems of interest, be judged in terms of the order. The actual individuals of Whitehead’s system are the occasions of creative experience which determine a world for themselves and their successors. Morality is not simply a matter of judging the individual or his actions in behalf of a social, or formal, or axiological order. It is more a matter of judging these latter -- whether in the particular form of a "personal order" or the wider form of a civilization -- in behalf of the individual experiences which they afford. Ascetic self-sacrifice and the evaluation of the individual only in behalf of his contribution to "the state" or "a cause" are direct inversions of this conception.

Beyond the claim that extrinsic value depends in part upon the strength of the intrinsic satisfaction of the individual, and the claim that the "personal" characters afforded by a social order must include nonmoral fulfillments, there is a final self-rewarding dimension of moral interest which reconciles these opposing factors: "The function of being a means is not disjoined from the function of being an end. The sense of worth beyond itself is immediately enjoyed as an overpowering element in the individual self-attainment" (PR 531). Through anticipation, moral experience affords its own satisfaction. But note: when this fulfillment is taken as the value of moral interest, the latter is reduced to an object of aesthetic interest. As a result, morality may degenerate into passive self-righteousness.

In the end, Whitehead’s moral reality is a kingdom of ends. His ends are subjects, like Kant’s, but valued in behalf of their creativity as self-determining centers of valuation rather than as rational determining grounds of practical law. It is a kingdom in which every end is the intrinsic value of the experience which it realizes for itself, which includes the enjoyment of the contribution it makes to others and of the contribution that the enjoyments of others have made to it. But it is a kingdom in constant revolution, one whose citizens are moments of experience rendering constant judgment on the kingdom itself. For the kingdom has no value beyond its citizens, who perish at every moment yet demand that every moment count for what it can. It is a kingdom we enter in moral consciousness, to a greater or lesser degree, on varying occasions.


If the sovereignty of Whitehead’s kingdom, its moral agency, be understood to reside in the immediacy of a present moment, then it is a kingdom which lies outside its sovereign and into which he enters only objectively. Judgments of intra-personal and inter-personal relations of interest are alike evaluations of systems of order in respect of the value experience which they may afford in the future (or might have afforded in an imaginative reenactment of the past). The tools of judgment are high abstractions and immediate sentiments, considered as revelatory of what is felt rather than as immediate impulses to action. The latter are the safeguard of individual relevance, while the former are the means of ever-broadening this sense of importance and overcoming its provincial limitations. Moral deliberation is "reflective" and "objective" insofar as it involves the entrance of values as recognized "prospects" rather than immediate "interests." Its conclusions are "theoretic" in the Whiteheadian sense of a "lure for feeling." It is in this manner that they stand as external impositions upon immediate and more limited (or overly ambitious) inclinations.

One of the more distinctive implications of Whitehead’s moral philosophy is the notion, derived from his theory of motivations, that individual moral decisions must primarily be carried out in the detachment of the "quiet hour" -- when it is possible to achieve freedom in abstraction from practical exigencies. In the immediacy of moments dominated by the latter, our impulses and behavior will follow almost entirely in accord with habitual response. Approached from the standpoint of an individual "personal order," it is the preparatory reformation of these dispositions that is the basic task of personal morality. Of course, as Plato clearly saw, such self-reformation is a very limited substitute for the determination of moral character by moral education in a suitable environment. Whitehead is certainly not a strict social determinist, though he would hold that the problem of morality is a matter of achieving moral "character" and that such achievements are first a function of social environment. Indeed, where the subsystems of a "personal order," within an interpersonal society, include a high capacity for self-reformation, it will be largely a function of fortunate circumstances enhancing the importance of individual creativity. When Whitehead speaks of "moral beauty" as an ultimate aim of existence it is the Platonic notion of beauty of character. The creation of moral character is a function of education. Here as elsewhere, self-educated men may be a model to us all but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Plato thought to achieve this end by having all his citizens use "mine" in the same manner, suggesting that like Belaief he found the moment of moral consciousness in an experience of a "true self" or a supra-individuality. Whitehead is closer to Royce in that morality is a communal loyalty but unlike Royce in that the loyalty is to the community only in behalf of its individual members and not in behalf of an abstraction like "the loyalty to loyalty itself." Royce seems to suggest that loyalty is a value, the exemplification of which comprises the value of his subjects. To the contrary, the formal elements in Whitehead’s system are themselves only values in behalf of the role that they play in individual experience.

As I suggested at the outset, Belaief seems to have confused the religious and moral perspective in Whitehead’s thought. Whitehead, himself, stresses:

the distinction of a world-consciousness as contrasted with a social consciousness is the change of emphasis in the concept of rightness. A social consciousness concerns people whom you know and love. . . . But a world consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things. (RM 39-40)

Moral consciousness is by nature limited and preferential. Ambition for reform presupposes a commitment to that which is sought above that which is incompatible with it. It involves "moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action -- that it should embody the adventure of hope" (PR 67). To the contrary, religious consciousness is "not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values" (AI 283). The "disengagement" of religion is not the detachment of moral reflection. The latter may broaden limited sentiments but is itself always restricted by its vision of potential values to be realized and its conceptions of the individuals in whom this value is to be achieved. Moreover, religions have been at least as potent a source of moral interests (constructive and destructive) as political movements. However, the. moral "sense of rightness" finds its locus in the transcendent individualities that it envisions. A distinctively religious "sense of rightness" finds its good in the fulfillment of a given natural teleology. "Morality emphasizes the detailed occasion; while religion emphasizes the unity of ideal inherent in the universe" (MT 39).

In essence Whitehead is holding that religious consciousness -- in its widest scope -- accepts the universe itself as a self-determining system in which every element expresses a realization of value. Secular morality is the law of a beloved community imposed upon the world, while religious morality subordinates all communal interests to the fulfillment of a natural law. Of course, in a creative religious perspective, that law may itself embrace movements toward reform as exemplifying instances. But while secular morality looks to the future for justice in reaction against present injustice, religion seeks justification in the present for what it already offers -- including morality itself.

The limitations of moral loyalty raise opposition by their nature and thus pose a threat. It is the "halfway house" upon the road to "Peace" which Whitehead discusses at the end of Adventures of Ideas. Hope deepens the significance of life but brings fear for its objects of concern. Religion, rather than concentrating upon the limited society of subjects to be served, deals with "the formation of the experiencing subject" (PR 24). It is "directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity" (PR 23) through "the sub-limitation of the egoistic aim by its inclusion of the transcendent whole" (AI 293). For Whitehead, the religious perspective is not a "social consciousness"; it is a "solitary" consciousness. The awareness of personal identity (and egoism) as "subjective" continuity is primarily of religious rather than moral significance.

The moment of religious consciousness starts from self-valuation, but it broadens into the concept of the world. . .

In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. . . .

The spirit at once surrenders itself to this universal claim and appropriates it for itself. (RM 58-59)

Religious consciousness could be characterized as a cosmic egoism, one which has lost its sting by broadening subjective interests to embrace the world rather than subordinating the world to itself. It can achieve the Peace sought by morality through achieving the sense that the kingdom is here and now and each detail within it does count -- even as a component in tragedy.

The point to be made is that religion replaces the moral sense of communal unity, realized within a plurality of subjects, with a sense of subjective unity -- sheer cosmic individuality. As such it is a return from objective self-transcendence in the moral sense to the internal achievement of a wider self-realization.

Life is an internal fact for its own sake before it is an external fact relating itself to others. . . . it receives its final quality, on which its worth depends, from the internal life which is the self-realization of existence. Religion is the ai-t and the theory of the internal life of man so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things.

This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact. (RM 15-16)

On the other hand, morality is the art and theory of the external significance of the individual and of his internal life so far as it depends upon social order. It is also concerned with what is changeable in the nature of things as externally contrasted with appealing alternatives.

Religion is a return to aesthetic fulfillment with a cosmic sense of perspective, a search for identity in the "true self." From such a viewpoint, all conflicts of interest are indeed internal and there can be no personal sacrifice. However, there must still be recognition of aesthetic loss and the constant effort to insure that it merits what is preserved and served. Otherwise, Whitehead would be the first to insist that "Peace" as the "Harmony of Harmonies" has been confused with insensitivity" in its diverse forms of "anæsthesia," "complacency," and "dogmatism." The "noble discontent" of secular morality may clash with the religious sense of justification found in identification with a given order. It does so whenever the latter is prematurely narrow (and especially when it is the state that is deified) - It is this narrowness which breeds "defensive moralists" whom Whitehead holds to be:

unprogressive, enjoying their egotistical goodness. . . . They have reached a state of stable goodness, so far as their own interior life is concerned. This type of moral correctitude is, on a larger view, so like evil that the distinction is trivial. (RM 95)

In the end, it is a religious appeal which poses "my own" satisfaction as the justification for accepting a recognized order of value -- whether it is the intellectual satisfaction of the rational theologian or the concrete satisfaction of the mystic in his cosmic identification. Each in his own manner accepts a subjective interest in what is given -- a continuity of self-interest in the world.

Religion ranges from defense of provincial interests to insistence that everything matters, however small. Its relation to morality varies with its scope.

Religion is by no means necessarily good. . . . This is a dangerous delusion. (RM 17)



WPI -- Lynne Belaief. "Whitehead and Private-Interest Theories," Ethics, 76 (1966), 277-86.



1 Here, I have not considered the question of whether Whitehead reduces ethics to aesthetics because Belaief’s defense of Whitehead on this point is adequate. Belaief contends that Whitehead’s use of aesthetic terminology in other areas of axiology must be understood in terms of his theory of philosophic metaphor. This contention is explicitly supported by a passage which Belaief omits: "But intellectual beauty, however capable of being hymned in terms relevant to sensible beauty, is yet beautiful by stretch of metaphor. The same consideration applies to moral beauty" (AI 18-19; italics added).

2 This charge and others, which seem equally to depend upon an inadequate reading of Whitehead, may be found in Paul Arthur Schilpp, "Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy," in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1951), pp. 561-618.