Chapter 10: Morality

What Is Process Theology?
by Robert B. Mellert

Chapter 10: Morality

The new morality has been around for quite a while now, but it still manages to generate plenty of heated discussion, especially when the participants are parents and their adolescent children. No changes in our society have caused more fear and anxiety to the older generation than the numerous challenges to traditional moral standards. Contrary to what they had formerly been taught, moral standards do seem to change, and in fact have changed radically in one generation. Or, in the interests of precision, we might say that what has changed is the understanding of morality. While it is evidently not true to say that young people are less moral than their parents, it is quite true to say that what they understand morality to include or exclude is often very different.

The so-called new morality is quite simple in the minds of most young people. They hold two fundamental principles: (1) nothing can be decided unless you are in a concrete situation, and (2) it’s O.K. as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. By this standard Vietnam was wrong because it was a concrete situation where people were being hurt and killed, and no abstract strategies of American foreign policy could justify it. Likewise, extra-marital sex cannot be condemned in itself; when both parties agree, there is no wrong because it is a pleasure that does not hurt anybody. In such a perspective the just-war theory of Augustine and the sexual restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church are equally unpersuasive, and, indeed, are themselves immoral!

In contrast, we generally hear the older generation arguing in the traditional way. Morality comes ultimately from God, according to his eternal law. When that law is revealed to us, or when it has been deduced by reason, we are constrained to obey its prescriptions. To live morally, one is not so much concerned with the situation as with the law. The situation is important only insofar as it enables one to know which law is applicable. The task of teaching us the law and helping us to apply it is the function of the state and the Church, and one can expect his reward or punishment in this life or in eternity, according to his obedience to civil and divine law respectively.

While these two descriptions may be oversimplified, they are detailed enough to illustrate the major strengths and weaknesses of each approach to morality. The new morality is more flexible and less confining. It permits one to reach reasonable decisions even where the law indicates otherwise. Responsibility rests upon the person who makes the decision; he cannot blame the law or the authorities for making him do what he did.

There are also weaknesses in the new morality. If no decision is valid outside of the concrete situation, what is it about the concreteness of the situation that suddenly enables one to choose wisely? It is precisely in moments of crisis where a decision is demanded that one often is unable to mobilize his powers of reflection to make a prudent choice. What his personal values are prior to the crisis and what previous reflection he can draw upon are always important determinative components in any decision. But if we admit the importance of pre-determined personal values in making a critical decision, does not this imply that one has some aim or purpose that gives meaning to those values and that directs his moral behavior? For what makes something a value is that it is seen to have more worth than something else, which is judged to have a lesser value, according to the overall aim or purpose one has chosen to pursue. So "leaving it up to the concrete situation" really doesn’t suffice. Some guidelines are necessary for dealing with the situation, and these guidelines are precisely the abstract values, ideals, aims and purposes that are not, and can never be situational. Some kind of ethical standard will be at work in deciding how to handle a particular situation. To refuse to reflect seriously about that ethical standard until one finds himself in the concrete situation does not lead to purity of decision; it merely means that impulse will have a greater share than reason in the final outcome.

The other problem with the new morality is the principle that one must not hurt anybody. It sounds innocent enough, but as ethical principle it is too minimal to be of much use. For one thing, it is stated negatively and doesn’t suggest any positive aims or directions one ought to strive for. Secondly, "anybody" presumably means "any human being." But an ethic that is limited to human beings is going to be somewhat inadequate in this age of ecological crisis. There has to be a way of judging the hurt we inflict on other things. This is a difficult problem, because we must continue to eat, to build homes, and to warm our bodies. Since every action ultimately affects and often hurts something, we cannot extend this principle to say, "as long as it doesn’t hurt anything." Some more sophisticated way of determining what kinds of hurts are tolerable, and what kinds are not tolerable must be found. Some of the hurts will be to man, at least in the form of fewer conveniences or luxuries. But we have passed the age where humanism can be the sole ethical criterion. We are too intertwined with nature as a whole, and too dependent upon it. New ethical theories must be sensitive to that fact.

On the other hand, the old morality is just as defective, and perhaps even more so. Its weaknesses have been so frequently subjected to the scrutiny of the new moralists that it will not be necessary to repeat them here, except in summary form. The new moralists argue that the old morality is too rigid and inflexible. It tends to enslave man to the law, rather than liberate him to act creatively in society. In the name of stability it often causes stagnation and immobility. Because it is centered on law, it has become the refuge of traditionalists seeking to preserve the status quo. Observance of the law is the final justification for conformity. As Whitehead once put it, "The defense of morals is the battle-cry which best rallies stupidity against change."1

However, the old morality cannot be discarded out of hand. Any system that has served for so many centuries must have something to say for itself. ‘What it teaches is that we cannot get along without some ethical guidelines. Perhaps, in a quickly changing world where law always loiters behind the moral conscience of people, it is no longer right to judge the morality of actions exclusively according to the prescriptions of the law. But if the moral laws of the past can be understood in a new way, not as prescriptions to be followed but as values that the wisdom of history provides, then perhaps the old moralists can still teach the new moralists some important things.

The point of convergence between traditional morality and situational morality is in their attempts to articulate a set of values that can offer guidance in the task of building the future. Laws, when interpreted as principles or guidelines, can warn us about what we ought to avoid. The concrete situation can focus upon the immediate facts. But something more is needed. Our projections of the future demand some assessment regarding what kinds of things -- given the new possibilities for science and technology -- we really want to promote for the ages ahead. A philosophy of values, enriched by a dialogue among diverse ethical theorists, is thus indispensable for any ethics in the twentieth century. Process thought, because it is both metaphysical and flexible, can make an important contribution to this discussion.

"Value," says Whitehead, "is the outcome of limitation."2 Limitation is the result of the selection by which an actual occasion is ultimately shaped. Only as a result of how it prehends its relevant past and gives it new focus does a new concrete occasion come into existence. Value is the intrinsic reality of the occasion, insofar as its own synthesis is unique and will have an impact upon further process.

Value, therefore, is always concrete and never realized except in individual actual occasions. It is the consequence of the particularity that emerges and then contributes itself as new data to the world. We can, of course, abstract from concrete values to speak of value systems and value hierarchies. These are simply ways in which the human mind operates to understand and coordinate what is happening in reality and to decide what is truly important.

Morality is "the control of process so as to maximize importance."3 "Importance" is another technical word in the Whiteheadian vocabulary. Briefly, it occurs when the intensity of feeling leads to publicity of expression.4 In the context of morality, it means that there must be a constant transcending of the present moment toward public novelty and interest. It is the greatness of experience that goes beyond itself. Occasions that contribute greatness of experience to the on-going process of the universe achieve greatness of value. That is, each occasion should aim at new and interesting possibilities, unique harmonies and contrasts. An occasion’s contribution to the future consists in how it makes new data available. The future is the final judge of whether it achieved success. In the words of Whitehead, "The effect of the present on the future is the business of morals."5

There is no question that the major impetus of Whitehead’s ideas on morality are future-oriented. A less obvious but equally important dimension to his ethical thinking arises from the inter-relational character of reality. Morality is inseparably linked with our position in the whole. It is never a private affair, done in isolation from the rest of reality. Every moral decision has some impact on the whole and bears the weight of that responsibility. Therefore, the general good and the individual good can never be in conflict, because both share a common world and a common future. Individual interests must always be harmonized with the more general interests. This is a significant implication to his statement that morality consists in maximizing importance. Importance is always determined by the individual occasion’s impact upon the future taken as a whole. For in the literal sense, an occasion has no future except insofar as it is integrated into wider perspectives and newer horizons.

Where process thought goes beyond the humanistic ethics that have been so popular in our time is in its concern not only for the unity of mankind, but for the integration of all reality. There is an essential inter-relatedness about all of nature that transcends the needs of the human species, and there can be no separation of the latter from the former at any step of ethical deliberation. The concern of morality is reality, not merely man. For man is not his own end. He dies, and his civilizations die. Were man the ultimate purpose of the universe, creation would have to be judged woefully inefficient. Clearly, something more is at stake, even in this age of environmental pollution, than the survival of man. In the final analysis, the survival of the universe is a value of greater importance, because from it the processes at work in reality can continue to create a history.

In light of this ethical perspective, what can we abstract from the concrete values we are given in each emerging occasion of reality? Can we suggest some abstract values and aims that are truly worthy of human efforts?

Whitehead suggests that the aims of a civilized society are a "fineness of feeling" and a "generality of understanding."6 We might note that these aims are intrinsic to the process and do not define values apart from the process itself. Both are expressions of what process, as process, is about. The first aim of morality, then, is the continuance of process in its maximal effect. This occurs at the level both of individuality and of society. Each individual occasion contributes its fineness of feeling, and the whole achieves a generality of understanding. For process thought, the individual and the totality are equally of value. Therefore, morality is compromised when there is the totalitarianism of the whole over the parts or when there is the anarchy of the parts with respect to the whole. Morality never chooses between the welfare of the particular or of the communal. It must always strive toward their integration in a way that values both the uniqueness of individuality and the harmony of generality.

While the first business of morals is to safeguard experience and to continue the process, Whitehead does make some suggestions about the qualities that ought to be furthered by process, and here we see especially the Platonic character of his thought. In his book Adventures of Ideas he lists five eternal objects: truth, beauty, adventure, art and peace. Curiously, good and right are not included in his list. The main reason is simply that these terms are so overworked that their meanings have become quite imprecise. Instead he chooses these five as qualities which do have meaning, and which are sufficiently clear and comprehensive so as to include in a general way what man actually finds valuable in process.

Whitehead defines truth much like Thomas Aquinas. It is the conformation of appearance to reality.7 A truth relation is constituted when the content of two connected facts participate in the same general pattern. There can be many kinds of truth relations, thus justifying the use of the term both for art and mathematics, as well as for concrete impressions and abstract speculations. Sense perception is the primary way of attaining truth, because from it appearances are usually derived clearly and distinctly, despite occasional failures or interferences. Thus the things we perceive provide steady values, and these are incorporated into the subjective form of the prehending occasion and become part of the data out of which new occasions emerge.

Beauty goes beyond truth in the spontaneous adaptations of some of the factors prehended by an occasion of experience. The adaptations arise in pursuit of a certain aim, in which intensity of feeling and conformity to a common pattern combine for the attainment of harmony. That is, there is the perfection of the subjective form arising out of the variety of prehensions in such a way that the component feelings do not inhibit each other from achieving their ideal inter-relation. Beauty is thus wider and more fundamental than truth, because it deals not only with the conformation of appearance to reality, but also with the perfection of the subjective forms that are shaped by their interrelation.

Art is the purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality. The achievement of art thus depends upon the perfection of man, as he has been shaped by beauty. But perfection is not a static concept. Like civilization itself, it must always promote novelty and originality. When these cease to be important, civilization dies. Thus, Whitehead includes adventure as a necessary quality, lest inspiration yield to mere repetition. Finally, peace, the harmony of harmonies, is a call to go beyond limitations and beyond the self, without denying the self. Peace thus seeks to achieve the integration of order and love. It is the positive quality that crowns the "life and motion" of the soul.8

The final question we must ask is whether there is in the universe any general drive toward the realization and perfection of these five qualities. Is there a greater and more perfect conformity of appearance and reality revealed in the movement of history? In other words, is a constant progress inherent in the nature of process? For process thinkers of a Whiteheadian bent, the answer to these questions is less optimistic than it is for the disciples of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Process is a metaphysical principle of reality, but there is no corresponding principle of progress. Thus, there is no guarantee of improvement in history.

Whiteheadians generally eschew the claim of inherent progress. First, it would be difficult to establish absolute norms of progress, and norms that might seem sufficient for the best self-interests of man may not necessarily serve the best interests of reality as a whole. To absolutize human norms simply because they are human seems rather presumptuous in the wider perspective of things. Another reason is that our experience does not indicate that even on the human level process has resulted in progress. By human standards, scientific and technological advances can probably be called progress, and yet there do not seem to be any similar advances in moral living. Man is just as likely to occasion discord as harmony, selfishness as love.

What our experience tells us is that change is not necessarily improvement, and that in the moral order every new possibility for good is simultaneously a possibility for evil. The size of good and evil grow apace. Scientists and technologists have enabled us to understand the finitude of our world and our essential interdependence with the forces that constitute it. But they have not -- and cannot -- provide us with the resolve to integrate ourselves into it. This is the domain of morals. It is today a frightening domain because of our knowledge. In our individual occasions of experience we are collectively deciding the very fate of process on this planet, and the size of this moral predicament is truly overwhelming. It is perhaps so overwhelming that it is beyond the scope of any one of us to comprehend.

That is why the new morality and the old morality, taken individually or together, are inadequate. More is at stake than can be answered by a situational analysis and an appeal to past wisdom. What is also needed is a vision of the future as an integrated totality and a sensitivity for the values that will get us there. This will not come from a commitment to seek out the evil and overcome it. Perhaps now more than ever, the Don Quixotes are irrelevant because of the magnitude of evil and the increasing number of evil possibilities. Nor will it come from an attempt to isolate evil and reject it, situation by situation, as one threads his way through the choices of life. No corporate good of any size can be achieved by such piecemeal, individualized efforts. Instead we must ask the question: How can we collectively look evil in the eye, accept its reality, and undertake to incorporate it into a larger good? Process is made up of everything in the past, however it is judged morally. If quality and size are to be squeezed from the relentless cadence of process, we must harness evil into our service. This is possible only when the good toward which we strive is truly large enough, important enough, and holy enough to lure us enthusiastically into the enterprise.



1. Adventures of Ideas. op. cit., p.268.

2. Science and the Modern World, op. cit.. p. 94.

3. Modes of Thought, op. cit., pp. 13-14.

4. Ibid., p. 8.

5. Adventures of Ideas. op. cit., p. 269.

6. Ibid.. p. 282.

7. Ibid., p. 241.

8. Ibid., p. 285.