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A Special Supplement: Morality & Pessimism

To others, and particularly to many of the young in America and in Europe, who would not quote Burke, it now seems obvious that the large-scale computations in modern politics and social planning bring with them a coarseness and grossness of moral feeling, a blunting of sensibility, and a suppression of individual discrimination and gentleness, which are a price that they will not pay for the benefits of clear calculation. Their point is worth considering: perhaps it can be given a philosophical basis.


Allow me to go back to the beginnings of moral theory. As a noncommittal starting point, it may be agreed that we all assess ourselves, and other people, as having behaved well or badly on a particular occasion, or for a tract of time, or taking a lifetime as a whole. We similarly assess courses of action, and even whole ways of life, that are open to us before we make a decision. The more fundamental and overriding assessments, in relation to which all other assessments of persons are subsidiary and conditional, we call moral assessments, just because we count them as unconditional and overriding. The goodness or badness imputed may be imputed as a characteristic of persons, or of their actions, their decisions and their policies, or of their characters and their dispositions, or of their lives and ways of life.

Let me take the assessment of persons as the starting point. When we assess ourselves or others in some limited role or capacity, as performing well or ill in that role or capacity, the assessment is not fundamental and unconditional; the assessment gives guidance only to someone who wants to have that role or to act in that capacity, or who wants to make use of someone who does. But if we assess persons as good or bad without further qualification or limitation, merely as human beings, and similarly also their decisions, policies, characters, dispositions, ways of life, as being good or bad without qualification, then our assessments have unconditional implications in respect of what should and should not be done, and of what people should and should not be like, of their characters, dispositions, and ways of life. A human being has the power to reflect on what kind of person he wants to be, and to try to act accordingly, within the limits of his circumstances. His more considered practical choices, and the conflicts that accompany them, will show what he holds to be intrinsically worth pursuing, and will therefore reveal his fundamental moral beliefs.

I believe that all I have so far said about this starting point of moral philosophy does not commit me to any one of the competing theories and begs no questions, and will be, or ought to be, accepted by moral philosophers of quite different persuasions, including the utilitarians. I believe this because the various classical moral philosophies can all be formulated within this noncommittal framework. Each moral philosophy singles out some ultimate ground or grounds for unconditional praise of persons and prescribes the ultimate grounds for preferring one way of life to another.

This is no less true of a utilitarian ethics than of any other. The effectively beneficent and happy man is accounted by a utilitarian more praiseworthy and admirable than any other type of man, and his useful life is thought the best kind of life that anyone could have, merely in virtue of its usefulness, and apart from any other characteristics it may have. The utilitarian philosophy picks out its own essential virtues, very clearly, and the duties of a utilitarian are not hard to discern, even though they may on occasion involve difficult computations.

But there is one feature of familiar moralities which utilitarian ethics famously repudiates, or at least makes little of. There are a number of different moral prohibitions, apparent barriers to action, which a man acknowledges and which he thinks of as more or less insurmountable, except in abnormal, painful, and improbable circumstances. One expects to meet these prohibitions, barriers to action, in certain quite distinct and clearly marked areas of action; these are the taking of human life, sexual relations, family duties and obligations, and the administration of justice according to the laws and customs of a given society.

There are other areas in which strong barriers are to be expected; but these are, I think, the central and obvious ones. A morality is, at the very least, the regulation of the taking of life and the regulation of sexual relations, and it also includes rules of distributive and corrective justice, family duties, almost always duties of friendship, also rights and duties in respect of money and property. When specific prohibitions in these areas are probed and challenged by reflection, and the rational grounds for them looked for, the questioner will think that he is questioning a particular morality specified by particular prohibitions. But if he were to question the validity of any prohibitions in these areas, he would think of himself as challenging the claims of morality itself; for the notion of morality requires that there be some strong barriers against the taking of life, against some varieties of sexual and family relations, against some forms of trial and punishment, some taking of property, and against some distributions of rewards and benefits.

Moral theories of the philosophical kind are differentiated in part by the different accounts that they give of these prohibitions: whether the prohibitions are to be thought of as systematically connected or not, whether they are absolute prohibitions or to be thought of as conditional. Utilitarians always had, and still have, very definite answers. First, they are systematically connected, and, second, they are to be thought of as not absolute, but conditional, being dependent for their validity as prohibitions upon the beneficial consequences of observing them. Plainly there is no possibility of proof here, since this is a question in ethics, and not in logic or in the experimental sciences. But various reasons for rejecting the utilitarian position can be given.

All of us sometimes speak of things that cannot be done, or that must not be done, and that are ruled out as impossible by the nature of the case; also there are things that one must do, that one cannot not do, because of the nature of the case. The signs of necessity in such contexts mark the unqualified, unweakened barrier to action, while the word “ought,” too much discussed in philosophical writing, conveys a weakened prohibition or instruction. The same contrast appears in the context of empirical statements, as in the judgments, “The inflation ought to stop soon” and “The inflation must stop soon.”

The modal words “must” and “ought” preserve a constant relation in a number of different types of discourse, of which moral discourse is only one, not particularly conspicuous, example. He who in a shop says to the salesman, “The coat must cover my knees,” alternatively, “The coat ought to cover my knees,” speaks of a need or requirement and of something less. He who, looking at a mathematical puzzle, says, “This must be the way to solve it,” alternatively, “This ought to be the way to solve it,” speaks of a kind of rational necessity, and of something less. Examples of “ought” as the weaker variant of “must” could be indefinitely prolonged into other types of contexts. “He must help him” is the basic, unmodified judgment in the context of moral discussion or reflection, and “He ought to help him” is the weakened variant, as it is in other contexts. To learn what a man’s moral beliefs are entails learning what he thinks that he must do, at any cost or at almost any cost.

The range of the utterly forbidden types of conduct among Mill’s or Sidgwick’s friends would differ significantly, but not greatly, from the range of the forbidden and the impossible that would be acknowledged by most of us now. Social anthropologists may record fairly wide variations in the range of the morally impossible, and also, I believe, some barriers that are very general, though not quite universal; and historians similarly. For example, in addition to certain fairly specific types of killing, certain fairly specific types of sexual promiscuity, certain takings of property, there are also types of disloyalty and of cowardice, particularly disloyalty to friends, which are very generally, almost universally, forbidden and forbidden absolutely. They are forbidden as being intrinsically disgraceful and unworthy, and as being, just for these reasons, ruled out: ruled out because they would be disgusting, or disgraceful, or shameful, or brutal, or inhuman, or base, or an outrage.

In arguing against utilitarians I must dwell a little on these epithets usually associated with morally impossible action—on a sense of disgrace, of outrage, of horror, of baseness, of brutality, and, most important, a sense that a barrier, assumed to be firm and almost insurmountable, has been knocked over, and a feeling that, if this horrible, or outrageous, or squalid, or brutal action is possible, then anything is possible and nothing is forbidden, and all restraints are threatened.

Evidently these ideas have often been associated with impiety, and with a belief that God, or the gods, have been defied, and with a fear of divine anger. But they need not have these associations with the supernatural, and they may have, and often have had, a secular setting. In the face of the doing of something that must not be done and that is categorically excluded and forbidden morally, the fear that one may feel is fear of human nature. A relapse into a state of nature seems a real possibility, or perhaps seems actually to have occurred, unless an alternative morality with new restraints is clearly implied when the old barrier is crossed. This fear of human nature, and sense of outrage, when a barrier is broken down, is an aspect of respect for morality itself rather than for any particular morality and for any particular set of prohibitions.

The notion of the morally impossible—“I cannot leave him now; it would be quite impossible.” “Surely you understand that I must help him”—is distinct. A course of conduct is ruled out (“You cannot do that”) because it would be inexcusably unjust, or dishonest, or humiliating, or treacherous, or cruel, or ungenerous, or harsh. These epithets, specifying why the conduct is impossible, mark the vices characteristically recognized in a particular morality. In other societies, at other places and times, other specific epithets might be more usually associated with outrage and with morally impossible conduct; but the outrage or shock, and the recognition of impossibility, will be the same in cases where the type of conduct rejected, and the reasons for the rejection, are rather different.

The utilitarian will not deny these facts, but he will interpret them differently. Shock, he will say, is the primitive, prerational reaction; after rational reflection the strength of feeling associated with a prohibition can be, and ought to be, proportional to the estimated harm of the immediate and remote consequences; and he will find no more in the signs of necessity and impossibility than an emphasis on the moral rules which have proved to be necessary protections against evil effects. The signs of necessity are signs that there is a rule. But the rational justification of there being a rule is to be found in the full consequences of its observance, and not in nonrational reactions of horror, disgust, shame, and other emotional repugnances.

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