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Rational American

The main preoccupation of the last twenty years of Lewis’s philosophical career was ethics, in a wide sense of the term that embraces prudence as well as morality, indeed, the whole range of principles by which conduct can be rationally guided. This width of scope, in which prudence, as the reflective pursuit of private advantage in the long run, as well as morality with its impersonal ends, is contrasted with the solicitations of immediate desire, marks him off from the majority of recent ethical philosophers by whom morality is considered in an unearthly isolation while all other action-guiding factors, whether rational or not, are indiscriminately lumped together. Lewis’s approach draws attention, to the fact that morality is not the only or most representative way in which conduct may be rationally guided. The conflicts with which it abounds tend to suggest that evaluation in general is an altogether more chaotic and emotional affair than it is.

Lewis’s first publication on ethics was Book III of his Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. Eighty-thousand words long, it could have been a substantive work on its own. In it he treated valuation in general, without distorting concentration on moral valuation, in a way that should have been exemplary, but unfortunately was not. In 1955 he published his Woodbridge lectures, The Ground and Nature of the Right, in which morality proper is approached more closely but still in a fairly gingerly way. Now John Lange has edited a collection of Lewis’s pieces on ethics written between 1948 and 1959 under the title Values and Imperatives.

It is an attractively produced and altogether useful volume, understandably a bit repetitive, rendered delightful for connoisseurs of the idiosyncrasies of Lewis’s style by a fine array of characteristic touches. As the years went by Lewis’s manner of utterance became ever more gnarled and stilted. But although it became an increasingly graceless vehicle of thought, it remained entirely serviceable. A consistent peculiarity is abstention from articles: “a” and “the” are rigidly excluded from many places where they might have been expected. “Solution of this problem is hard to find,” he will say, or “this doctrine must be subjected to critique of cogency.” Much of his vocabulary is heavily upholstered: words like “purview,” “pertinent,” “perchance,” “venture,” “gratifying,” “cognize,” to offer a random sample, remains of the language of late nineteenth-century protestant edification. Finally, he had a fondness for the subjunctive: “if it be that…” and “it were well that….”

That this rather elaborate diction only grew on Lewis with time is made clear by the magnificent and magnificent looking assemblage of the Collected Papers of C. I. Lewis which has been brought together under the editorship of John Goheen and John Mothershead of Stanford University. This noble volume contains thirty-five of Lewis’s essays, written between 1912 and 1957, divided up into groups of criticism, ethics, epistemology, and logic. A number have not been published before but also here are some of the most influential and best known philosophical pieces of the last half-century (a fact attested to by the frequency with which they have appeared in anthologies) such as “Experience and Meaning,” “Logic and the Mental,” and “The Modes of Meaning.”

Some excellent published pieces of earlier date have been rescued from comparative neglect, such as his fine “Facts, Systems and the Unity of the World,” a logician’s critique of idealist metaphysics. The style of the earlier pieces is much more straightforward than that of his later works. A splendidly cool and authoritative dismissal, written in 1917, of the popular thesis that German idealism was responsible for the 1914 war makes its point with none of the cumbrousness and grandiloquence of his better known prose.

Lewis’s chief concern in ethics was to resist what he saw as the destructively sophistical agreement among up-to-date philosophers that judgments of value are neither true nor false and that they express not knowledge but only emotion. His positive view was that there are objective values and that they are unmysteriously empirical. We have a personal, subjective awareness of value in the satisfyingness or displeasingness that we find to be as much a feature of our immediate experience as shape or color. He saw the relation of objective value to experienced satisfaction as paralleling that between the real shape or color of things and the shape or color they appear to have. For a thing or situation to have objective value is for it to have the capacity to yield satisfaction for people in general in ordinary circumstances. There can be illusions of valuation, just as there can be illusions of perception, but they can be identified, as illusions of perception are, by their incongruity with the general testimony of individual experience.

Rightness and wrongness, for Lewis, are properties of actions that are within our control and they are determined by the value of the consequences to which those actions lead. It is important for the critical side of his argument that the terms “right” and “wrong” should be widely applicable, not merely to actions being morally appraised, nor just to actions involving bodily movements, but also to “internal actions” of believing and inferring. For it confronts those who would deny objective validity to judgments of moral rightness with the possibility that the same denial should be extended to the assumptions of logical rightness on which their arguments depend.

He distinguishes four main fields in which judgments of rightness and wrongness are made: prudence, where the end is a comprehensively satisfactory life for the agent; morality, where the end is justly distributed satisfaction for all; logic, where it is the consistency without which there can be no rational thought or significant speech; and epistemology, where it is cogency or a reasonable prospect of truth. In each of these domains there is a generally valued end, conduciveness to which sets the standard of right for that domain. If ethics, in the widest sense, is the theory of right action, including thought, then, he argued, it disastrously undermines itself if it holds judgments of rightness to be subjective. This for Lewis is an aberration which philosophers have been led into by concentrating on moral rightness alone to the neglect of other kinds of rightness.

The liveliest aspect of the essays in Values and Imperatives is Lewis’s vigorous development of this theme against the prevailing “non-cognitivist” orthodoxy in moral philosophy: the idea that value, or moral value at any rate, is not a possible topic of knowledge. He thought it absurd to suppose that the dictates of prudence are not rationally discoverable matters of empirical fact and, since that is so, why should not the same be true of morality? Against the idea that principles of obligation are matters of arbitrary choice he argued that this makes subjective nonsense of the imperatives of logic and epistemology. He often recurs to the pragmatically selfcontradictory character of the Cyrenaic’s rejection of prudence. The resolution to take no thought for tomorrow is self-refuting since it is itself a thought for tomorrow as well as for today.

In broad outline Lewis’s position is close to that of Bentham’s utilitarianism, for which the ultimate standard of value is the greatest possible pleasure for all, but it is wider in scope. Lewis did not deny the affinity but laid stress on some points of disagreement. He rejected “pleasure” as an adequate description of the positively valuable and expressed doubts about Bentham’s notion of a calculus of value with its suggestion that problems about the comparison and balancing-off of the pleasures and pains of different people could be settled in a simple, mechanical way.

In the best essay on Lewis’s ethics in the Schilpp volume, Mary Mothershill points out that he makes rather too much of this disagreement with Bentham’s idea of a calculus. He certainly allows for the comparison and over-all estimation of the values and disvalues realized for different people in the consequences of a particular action. But, as she goes on to show, there is a substantive difference with Bentham in the special emphasis Lewis lays on the satisfactions that come from activity as constitutive of a good life, in contrast to merely passive enjoyment.

For all its elaboration there are several loose ends in Lewis’s theory of value. Robert W. Browning points out in a perceptive essay that Lewis does not really address himself to the fact that the value experiences that things give rise to vary much more from one person to another than do the sense experiences they produce. A more homogeneous conception of human nature than the facts warrant seems to be presupposed by the idea that an objective, social, impersonal value can be ascribed to things in the way that perceptible qualities like color can be ascribed to them. Our tastes are more various than our sensory equipment. In particular, the expert or connoisseur has a place in evaluation that the does not have in ordinary perception. No expert is needed to tell us that The Golden Bowl is long and written in English, nor is there any persisting doubt about these judgments. But this is not obviously true of the book’s value. It is not hard to think of the sort of modifications Lewis’s theory would need to meet this kind of objection, but the modifications are needed.

Another important weakness is the very tentative nature of Lewis’s engagement with morality proper. To start with he offers two definitions of the domain of the moral that do not coincide. On the one hand, it is tied up with justice or consideration for others; on the other, it is identified with the resultant or over-all value of an act or state of affairs when all particular value-claims have been taken into account. To regard these as the same is to make altruistic self-suppression the ultimate rule of conduct by implying that in every situation of choice consideration for others must override all other claims.

In general there is something of a gap between the well-worked-out view that values are matters of empirical knowledge and the conception of the morally right as that which contributes most to the satisfaction of all. We all may agree that it is right to change out of wet clothes and come to this agreement by the same train of reasoning and in the light of a universally shared hostility to pneumonia. There is no such community of reasoning or of attitude toward the taking of human life to sustain an objective judgment about the moral acceptability of euthanasia.

Lewis shows an awareness of this gap by endorsing a description once given of him as a naturalist with respect to the good but a rationalist with respect to the right. This is a somewhat confusing way of recognizing his need to connect the idea that each man’s satisfaction is a good to him with the idea that the general satisfaction is a good to all. What he offers as a connecting link is the fact that we are social beings. “The ground of our obligation to another person,” he writes, “is that we know him to be as real as we are, and his joys and sorrows to have the same quality as our own.” As it stands this goes no further than, if it goes as far as, Hume’s grounding of benevolence in instinctive sympathy, an interest in social peace, and the convenience of having the same rules for all.

It is a measure of Lewis’s influence that, despite the somewhat old-fashioned quality of his style and approach, he is very much a background presence in two ambitious and resolutely up-to-date books by young American philosophers. In Arthur Danto’s Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge, indeed, he is very much in the foreground, being, along with Austin, the most frequently mentioned twentieth-century philosopher in the book. There is only one explicit mention of him in Thomas Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism. But Nagel’s project, which is to show that morality, the consideration of the welfare of others, can be shown to be rational in just the same way as prudence, the consideration of the welfare of one’s future self, is entirely Lewisian.

Danto’s book has been unfavorably criticized for its convoluted and ornamental style. It is written with the kind of showy and nervous volubility that suggests a lack of self-confidence. Danto insistently applies the symptomatic word “banal” to positions from which he is anxious to dissociate himself, as if in terror of the raised eyebrows of some group of arbiters of philosophical chic. I said earlier that Lewis’s style was quaint and clumsy, but its peculiarities do not obstruct understanding or slow up the argument. This cannot be said of Danto’s. Where Lewis advances on his readers in dun-colored verbal garments of complex and antiquated cut, which nevertheless do not impede his movements, Danto keeps falling over the elaborately unfunctional folds and hanging of his stylistic fancy dress. (Nagel, however, appears in a tight-fitting scuba-diving rig, in which he moves so rapidly that it is often hard to keep up with him.)

Danto’s main thesis is that epistemology is concerned with “the space between language and the world,” that is to say with a group of semantic concepts the chief of which are knowledge, truth, and existence. These concepts do not describe ordinary empirical properties of the thoughts and things to which they are ascribed but, rather, the semantic relations of thoughts, sentences, and the names of things to the world. The type of very general and far-reaching skepticism that has always provoked epistemological reflection dramatizes the gap between our thoughts and the world they refer to by insisting that we are irrevocably stuck on one side of the gap.

Danto holds that the gap is necessary and so is not a ground for skeptical anxiety. His all-purpose cure for doubt is the principle that in order to understand a sentence one must be able to experience whatever it is in the world that makes it true. The possibility of knowledge necessarily follows from the fact of understanding. Without understanding there is nothing about which the question of knowledge can be raised.

On the way to this conclusion Danto disposes, to more or less effect, of various competing accounts of the nature of knowledge; of the idea that true knowledge must be infallible (making very heavy weather of what is at most a partial diagnosis of this assumption); and, more convincingly, of the idea that to know something is to know that one knows it. He accepts the traditional distinction between direct knowledge based on experience and indirect knowledge that is derived from other knowledge already possessed. By laying down the very strong condition that indirect knowledge must be logically entailed by the evidence for it (the usual view is that the evidence for it should be good or sufficient, not logically conclusive) he avoids consideration of the whole topic of justified, as contrasted with absolutely certified, belief which ordinarily forms a main part of epistemological discussion.

His main point, perhaps, is that experience has been traditionally misrepresented as the object of knowledge, when it is in fact the relation between the knower and the world he knows. Traditional theories (Lewis’s as much as Descartes’s) maintain that the only direct objects of knowledge are experiences themselves, namely private ideas or sense impressions. Danto concludes from the fact that sentences about public, extra-mental objects are intelligible that such things can be experienced directly. The traditional view that public, material things can be known only indirectly is nowhere, as far as I can see, refuted, although I agree with Danto that it is in fact false.

Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism is an extremely tough, polished, and altogether stimulating piece of work. Most recent ethical theorists, by their monocular concentration on the issue of the precise logical status of moral judgments (are they really statements, true or false; are they implicitly universal?) have taken it as a simple brute fact that people are disposed to make such judgments and to guide their conduct by them. Nagel, adopting the sensible but recently much blown-upon position that the core of morality is concern for the welfare of others, raises the grand old question: why should I be moral, how can it be shown to be rational to pay any attention to the welfare of others except to the extent that doing so can be seen to conduce to my own well-being?

His basic strategy is much the same as Lewis’s. If men are conceived as always choosing simply between what morality dictates and the satisfaction of their own desires, their choice of the former is made to look irrationally self-immolating. But such a view, he holds, misrepresents the nature of our situations of choice. In the many situations where no moral considerations are relevant we still have to choose ordinarily between what our present desires suggest and the requirements of prudence, which takes into account the desires we have good reason to think we shall have in the future.

The heart of his argument is that the desires relating to the future which prudence takes into account are not desires we currently possess. To cater for them by taking out insurance, giving up smoking, stifling rude remarks is only rational in the light of the fact that we are beings that endure or persist through time. For most people most of the time it is true that they have a future in which chickens will come home to roost and the displeasing consequences of present gratifications will materialize. One attitude toward conduct that everyone would admit to be irrational is that it is the kind of impulsive living in the present that is uninfluenced by the fact, that we are temporally continuing beings.

The next step Nagel takes is to argue that there is another fact, parallel to that of our having futures, which makes a measure of altruism rational (he is not arguing for major self-sacrifice, only for consideration for others) in the way that our futures rationalize prudence. Just as the desires we actually have, rather than have reason to think we shall have, are insufficient to justify prudent conduct, he says, so our natural benevolence and our personal interest in being members of a peaceful and not vengefully disposed society are too weak to justify the kind of consistent and principled concern for others which constitutes the minimum demand of morality. The elementary fact which, according to Nagel, makes it rational to be concerned with the satisfactions and sufferings of others is that they really exist and do rejoice and suffer in just the same way as we do.

Many ethical theorists have been dissatisfied with the attempt to base morality on its connection to our private, personal interests. Our natural benevolence, as Hume observed, is fairly confined in its operations, largely to the small circle of people whom we love or are fond of. It is, of course, personally convenient to each of us that morality should be maintained as a general institution, but we can easily argue that a few tempting deviations from its requirements can be indulged without damaging it perceptibly, provided that they are carefully concealed and so do not evoke vengeance or inspire imitation. Something more seems needed to justify a fixed and settled practice of altruism, and Nagel finds it in recognition of the fact of the real existence of others.

If I found the parallel argument that our really current desires are too weak to justify prudence both cryptic and elusive it may be because it is a genuinely new and original idea. He does seem to me to have overstated the case in saying that we have in fact very few desires for anything but the immediate future. I now strongly desire many things which I should like to have now if it were possible but which I know I shall have to plan and work for in a protracted way. He could still say, however, that I do not currently desire to be solvent and healthy in twenty years’ time (and much of my prudent behavior is directed toward that end) but only know that I shall desire it when the time comes.

There is a more fundamental weakness, I think, in the parallel he draws between the fact of my future existence and the real existence of others. He says that the concern for others that expresses our recognition of their equal reality with ourselves does not need to be understood as any kind of “mystic identification” with them. The recognition that there are other people is, after all, a recognition that they are other people. But although in conceding the reality of other people I am certainly not taking myself to be in some way actually identical with them, as contrasted with being more or less like them in certain respects. I surely am the very same person as my future self, I am numerically identical with that future being for all our differences with regard to teeth, hair, posture, and general vivacity. The desires for whose satisfaction I cater in my prudent conduct are still my desires, even if they are not my desires yet. The desires of others that I aim to satisfy with my moral conduct are not, and never will be.

But despite these doubts Nagel’s attempt to strengthen a weak link in Lewis’s ethics seems to me more successful, at least to the extent of deserving a good deal of further and serious examination, than Danto’s attempt to circumvent the main problems of his epistemology altogether.

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