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A Special Supplement: Morality & Pessimism


There are currents of moral ideas which are partly philosophical and partly something less precise, changes in public consciousness. The honorable, even glorious, school of British utilitarianism, as represented by Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Sidgwick, was a school of moral thought, and a school also of general philosophy, that set out to do good in the world, even though it was only a philosophy; and it may even be judged to have succeeded in large part over many years in this aim.

It is certainly not easy, and perhaps it is not possible, to calculate the real effect upon men’s lives of any new system of moral ideas and of any new philosophy. But the utilitarian philosophy brought new interests into the study of political economy; into the theory and practice of public administration; into the rhetoric, and into the programs, of movements of political and social reform in Britain. Indeed the utilitarian philosophy became part of the ordinary furniture of the minds of those enlightened persons who would criticize institutions, not from the standpoint of one of the Christian churches, but from a secular point of view. In the minds of liberal and radical social reformers everywhere, the utilitarian philosophy was until quite recently a constant support for progressive social policies. Even the rare and strange adaptation of utilitarianism that appeared in the last chapter of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica pointed toward liberal and improving policies: at least it did in the minds of Keynes, of Leonard Woolf, and of others whose lives were seriously influenced by Moore.

Moore himself wrote of his own moral conclusions as prescribing the aims of social policy, and, like Mill, he was marking the target of social improvements. The utilitarian philosophy, before the First World War and for many years after it—perhaps even until 1939—was still a bold, innovative, even a subversive doctrine, with a record of successful social criticism behind it. I believe that it is losing this role, and that it is now an obstruction.

Utilitarianism has always been a comparatively clear moral theory, with a simple core and central notion, easily grasped and easily translated into practical terms. Its essential instruction goes like this: when assessing the value of institutions, habits, conventions, manners, rules, and laws, and also when considering the merits of individual actions or policies, turn your attention to the actual or probable states of mind of the persons who are, or will be, affected by them. That is all you need to consider in your assessments. In a final analysis, nothing counts but the states of mind, and perhaps, more narrowly, the states of feeling, of persons; or, more generously in Bentham and G. E. Moore, of sentient creatures. Anything else that one might consider, in the indefinite range of natural and man-made things, is to be reckoned as mere machinery, as only a possible instrument for producing the all-important—literally all-important—states of feeling. From this moral standpoint the whole machinery of the natural order, other than states of mind, is just machinery, useful or harmful in proportion as it promotes or prevents desired states of feeling.

For a utilitarian, the moral standpoint, which is to govern all our actions, places men at the very center of the universe, with their states of feeling as the source of all value in the world. If the species perished, to the last man, or if the last men became impassible and devoid of feeling, things would become cold and indifferent and neutral, from the moral point of view; whether this or that other unfeeling species survived or perished, plants, stars and galaxies, would then be of no consequence. Destruction of things is evil only in so far as it is, or will be, felt as a loss by sentient beings; and the creation of things, and the preservation of species, are to be aimed at and commended only in so far as human beings are, or will be, emotionally and sentimentally interested in the things created and preserved.

This doctrine may reasonably be criticized in two contrary ways. First, as involving a kind of arrogance in the face of nature, an arrogance that is intelligible only if the doctrine is seen as a residue of the Christian account of this species’ peculiar relation to the Creator. Without the Christian story it seems to entail a strangely arbitrary narrowing of moral interest. Is the destruction, for instance, of a species of animal to be avoided, as a great evil, only or principally because of the loss of the pleasure that human beings may derive from the species? May the natural order be farmed by human beings for their comfort and pleasure without any restriction other than the comfort and pleasure of future human beings? Perhaps there is no rational procedure for answering these questions. But it is strange to answer them with a confident “yes.”

On the other hand, the doctrine that only human feelings are morally significant may be thought to belittle men; for it makes morality, the system of rights, duties, and obligations, a kind of psychical engineering, which shows the way to induce desired or valued states of mind. This suggests, as a corollary, that men might be trained, molded, even bred, with a view to their experiencing the kinds of feeling that alone lend value to their morally neutral surroundings. With advancing knowledge, states of the soul might be controlled by chemical means, and the valuable experiences of the inner life may be best prolonged and protected by a medical technique. So the original sense of the sovereign importance of human beings, and of their feelings, has been converted by exaggeration into its opposite: a sense that these original ends of action are, or may soon become, comparatively manageable problems in applied science.

From the standpoint of philosophy, in a full, old-fashioned sense of that word, we have moved, slowly, stage by stage, in the years since 1914, into a different world of thought from that which most of Sidgwick’s contemporaries inhabited; and by a “world of thought” here I mean the set of conditioning assumptions which any European who thought in a philosophical way about morality would have in mind before he started to think, assumptions that he probably would not examine one by one, and that he would with difficulty make explicit to himself. One such assumption was that, even if the transcendental claims of Christianity have been denied, any serious thought about morality must acknowledge the absolute exceptionalness of men, the unique dignity and worth of this species among otherwise speechless, inattentive things, and their uniquely open future. How otherwise can morality have its overriding claims?

A second assumption, explicit in J. S. Mill, and unchallenged by his utilitarian successors, was that both emotional sensitiveness and intelligence in the calculation of consequences can be expected to multiply and increase, as moral enlightenment spreads and as standards of education improve, into an indefinite and open future. In this open future there will be less avoidable waste of human happiness, less unconsidered destruction of positive and valued feelings, as the human sciences develop and superstitions become weaker and softer. The story of the past—this is the assumption—is essentially the story of moral waste, of a lack of clear planning and contrivance, of always repeated losses of happiness because no one methodically added the emotional gains and losses with a clear head and undistracted by moral prejudices. The modern utilitarian policy makers will be careful social economists, and their planning mistakes will be progressively corrigible ones; so there is no reason why there should not be a steadily rising balance of positive over negative feelings in all societies that have a rational computational morality. A new era of development is possible, the equivalent in morality of high technology in production.

This implicit optimism has been lost, not so much because of philosophical arguments but perhaps rather because of the hideous face of political events. Persecutions, massacres, and wars have been coolly justified by calculations of long-range benefit to mankind; and political pragmatists in the advanced countries, using cost benefit analyses prepared for them by gifted professors, continue to burn and destroy. The utilitarian habit of mind has brought with it a new abstract cruelty in politics, a dull, destructive political righteousness: mechanical, quantitative thinking, leaden academic minds setting out their moral calculations in leaden abstract prose, and more civilized and more superstitious people destroyed because of enlightened calculations that have proved wrong.

Suppose a typical situation of political decision, typical, that is, of the present, and likely to be typical of the immediate future: an expert adviser has to present a set of possible policies among which a final choice has to be made; advantages and disadvantages of various outcomes are to be calculated, and a balance is to be struck. The methods of calculation may be quite sophisticated, and very disparate items may appear in the columns of gain and loss. The death of groups of persons may, for example, be balanced as a loss against a very considerable gain in amenity to be handed down to posterity; or a loss of liberty among one group may be balanced against a very great relief from poverty for another. Such calculations are the everyday stuff of political decision, and they seem to require a common measure that enables qualitatively unrelated effects to be held in balance. The need to calculate in this manner, and to do so convincingly, plainly becomes greater as the area of government decision is widened, and as the applied social sciences render remote effects more computable.

Given that the vast new powers of government are in any case going to be used, and given that remote and collateral effects of policies are no longer utterly incalculable, and therefore to be neglected, a common measure to strike a balance is certain to be asked for and to be used; and apparently incommensurable interests will be brought together under this common measure. The utilitarian doctrine, insisting that there is a common measure of those gains and losses, which superficially seem incommensurable, is in any case called into being by the new conditions of political calculation. Any of the original defects in the doctrine will now be blown up, as a photograph is blown up, and made clearly visible in action.

For Machiavelli and his contemporaries, a political calculation was still a fairly simple computation of intended consequences, not unlike the strategems of private intrigue. He and his contemporaries had no thought that a political calculation might issue in a plan for the future of a whole society or nation, with all kinds of dissimilar side effects allowed for and fed into the computation. Computation by a common measure now seems the most orthodox way to think in politics, although this kind of computation had originally been almost scandalous. At first the scandal and surprise lingered around the notion that moral requirements, and moral outrages, could be represented as commensurable gains and losses along a single scale. Yet now those who talk about being responsible in political decision believe that the moral issues must be represented on a common scale, if they are to be counted at all. How can the future of an advanced society be reasonably discussed and planned, if not on this assumption?

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.

But I believe that critical reflection may leave the notion of absolutely forbidden, because absolutely repugnant, conduct untouched. There may in many cases be good reflective reasons why doing such things, assuming such a character, may be abhorrent, and excluded from the range of possible conduct; there may be reflective reasons, in the sense that one is able to say why the conduct is impossible as destroying the ideal of a way of life that one aspires to and respects, as being, for example, utterly unjust or cruel or treacherous or corruptly dishonest. To show that these vices are vices, and unconditionally to be avoided, would take one back to the criteria for the assessment of persons as persons, and therefore to the whole way of life that one aspires to as the best way of life. A reflective, critical scrutiny of moral claims is compatible, both logically and psychologically, with an overriding concern for a record of unmonstrous and respectworthy conduct, and of action that has never been mean or inhuman; and it may follow an assessment of the worth of persons which is not to be identified only with a computation of consequences and effects.

There is a model of rational reflection which depends upon a contrast between the primitive moral response of an uneducated man, and of an uneducated society, and the comparatively detached arguments of the sophisticated moralist, who discounts his intuitive responses as being prejudices inherited from an uncritical past. Conspicuous in the philosophical radicals, in John Stuart Mill, and in the Victorian freethinkers generally, this model in turn depended upon the idea that primitive, prescientific men are usually governed by strict moral taboos, and that in future intellectually evolved and scientifically trained men will be emancipated from these bonds, and will start again with clear reasoning about consequences. The word “taboo,” so often used in these contexts, shows the assumption of moral progress from primitive beginnings, and suggests a rather naïve contrast between older moralities and the open morality of the future; empirical calculation succeeds a priori prejudice, and the calculation of consequences is reason.

But reflection may discover a plurality of clear and definite moral injunctions; injunctions about the taking of life, about sexual relations, about the conduct of parents toward children and of children toward parents, about one’s duties in times of war, about the conditions under which truth must be told and under which it may be concealed, about rights to property, about duties of friendship, and so on over the various aspects and phases of a normal span of life. Such injunctions need not be inferrable from a few basic principles, corresponding to the axioms of a theory. The pattern that they form can have a different type of unity.

Taken together, a full set of such injunctions, prohibiting types of conduct in types of circumstance, describes in rough and indeterminate outline an attainable and recognizable way of life, aspired to, respected, and admired—or at least the minimum general features of a respectworthy way of life. And a way of life is not identified and characterized by one distinct purpose, such as the increase of general happiness, or even by a set of such distinct purposes. The connection between the injunctions, the connection upon which a reasonable man reflects, is to be found in the coherence of a single way of life, distinguished by the characteristic virtues and vices recognized within it.


A way of life is a complicated thing, marked out by many details of style and of manner, and also by particular activities and interests, which a group of people of similar dispositions in a similar social situation may share; consequently the group may become an imitable human type who transmits many of its habits and ideals to its descendants, provided that social change is not too rapid.

In rational reflection one may justify an intuitively accepted and unconditional prohibition as a common, expected feature of a recognizable way of life that on other grounds one values and finds admirable, or as a necessary preliminary condition of this way of life. There are rather precise grounds in experience and in history for the reasonable man to expect that certain virtues, which he admires and values, can only be attained at the cost of certain others, and that the virtues typical of several different ways of life cannot be freely combined, as he might wish. Therefore a reasonable and reflective person will review the separate moral injunctions, which intuitively present themselves as having force and authority, as making a skeleton of an attainable, respectworthy, and preferred way of life. He will reject those that seem likely in practice to conflict with others that seem more closely part of, or conditions of, the way of life that he values and admires, or that seem irrelevant to this way of life.

One must not exaggerate the degree of connectedness that can be claimed for the set of injunctions that constitute the skeleton of a man’s morality. For example, it is a loose, empirical connection that reasonably associates certain sexual customs with the observation of certain family duties, and certain loyalties to the state or country with the recognition of certain duties in respect of property, and in time of war.

The phrase “way of life” is vague and is chosen for its vagueness. The unity of a single way of life, and the compatibility in practice of different habits and dispositions, are learned from observation, direct experience, and from psychology and history. We know that human nature naturally varies, and is deliberately variable, only within limits, and that not all theoretically compatible achievements and enjoyments are compatible in normal circumstances. A reasonable man may envisage a way of life, which excludes various kinds of conduct as impossible, without excluding a great variety of morally tolerable ways of life within this minimum framework. The moral prohibitions constitute a kind of grammar of conduct, showing the elements out of which any fully respectworthy conduct, as one conceives it, must be built.

The plurality of absolute prohibitions, and the looseness of their association with any one way of life that stresses a certain set of virtues, is to be contrasted with the unity and simplicity of utilitarian ethics. One might interpret the contrast in this way: to the utilitarian it is certain that all reasonable purposes are parts of a single purpose in a creature known to be governed by the pleasure principle or by a variant of it. The anti-utilitarian replies: nothing is certain in the theory of morality, but, at a pretheoretical level, some human virtues fit together as virtues to form a way of life aspired to, and some monstrous and brutal acts are certainly vicious in the sense that they undermine and corrupt this way of life; and we can explain why they are, and what makes them so, provided that we do not insist upon either precision or certainty or simplicity in the explanation.

The absolute moral prohibitions, which I am defending, are not to be identified with Kant’s categorical moral injunctions; for they are not to be picked out by the logical feature of being universal in form. Nor are they prescriptions that must be affirmed, and that cannot be questioned or denied, just because they are principles of rationality and because any contrary principles would involve a form of contradiction. They are indeed judgments of unconditional necessity, in the sense that they imply that what must be done is not necessary because it is a means to some independently valued end, but because the action is a necessary part of a way of life and ideal of conduct. The necessity resides in the nature of the action itself, as specified in the fully explicit moral judgment. The principal and proximate grounds for claiming that the action must, or must not, be performed are to be found in the characterization of the action offered within the prescription; and if the argument is pressed further, first a virtue or vice and then a whole way of life will have to be described.

But still a number of distinctions are needed to avoid misunderstandings. First, he who says, for example, “You must not give a judgment about this until you have heard the evidence,” or, “I must stand by my friend in this crisis,” claiming an absolute, and unconditional, necessity to act just so on this occasion, is not claiming an overriding necessity to act in this way in all circumstances. He has so far not generalized at all, as he would have generalized if he were to add “always” or “in all circumstances.” The immediate grounds for the necessity of the action or abstention are indicated in the judgment itself. These particular actions, which are cases of the general type “respecting evidence” and “standing by friends,” are said to be necessary on this occasion in virtue of having just this character, and in virtue of their being this type of action. In other painful circumstances, and on other occasions, other unconditional necessities, with other grounds, might be judged to have overriding claims.

In a situation of conflict, the necessities may be felt to be stringent, and even generally inescapable, and the agent’s further reflection may confirm his first feeling of their stringency. Yet in the circumstances of conflict he has to make a choice, and to bring himself to do one of the normally forbidden things in order to avoid doing the other. He may finally recognize one overriding necessity, even though he would not be ready to generalize it to other circumstances. The necessity that is associated with such types of action—e.g., not to betray one’s friends—is absolute and unconditional, in the sense that it is not relative to, or conditional upon, some desirable external end; but it is liable occasionally to conflict with other necessities.

A second distinction must be drawn. From the fact that a man thinks that there is nothing other than X that he can do in a particular situation, it does not follow that it is intuitively obvious to him that he must do X. Certainly he may have reached the conclusion immediately and without reflection; but he might also have reached the very same conclusion after weighing a number of arguments for and against. A person’s belief that so-and-so must be done, and that he must not act in any other way, may be the outcome of the calculation of the consequences of not doing the necessary thing, always provided that he sees the avoidance of bringing about these consequences as something that is imposed on him as a necessity in virtue of the character of the action. The reason for the necessity of the action sometimes is to be found in its later consequences rather than in the nature and quality of the action evident at the time of action. In every case there will be a description of the action that shows the immediate ground for the necessity, usually by indicating the virtue or vice involved.

Different men, and different social groups, recognize rather different moral necessities in the same essential areas of moral concern. This is no more surprising, or philosophically disquieting, than the fact that different men, and different social groups, will order the primary virtues of men, and the features of an admirable way of life, differently. That the poverty-stricken and the destitute must be helped, just because they suffer, and that a great wrong does not demand a great punishment as retribution, are typical modern opinions about what must be done. Reasoning is associated with these opinions, as it is also with the different orderings of essential virtues; there are no conclusive proofs, or infallible intuitions, which put a stop to the adducing of new considerations. One does not expect that everyone should recognize the same moral necessities; but rather that everyone should recognize some moral necessities, and similar and overlapping ones, in the same, or almost the same, areas of moral concern.

A man’s morality, and the morality of a social group, can properly be seen as falling into two parts: first, a picture of the activities necessary to an ideal way of life which is aspired to, and, second, the unavoidable duties and necessities without which even the elements of human worth, and of a respectworthy way of life, are lacking. The two parts are not rationally unconnected. To take the obvious classical examples: a betrayal of friends in a moment of danger, and for the sake of one’s own safety, is excluded from the calculation of possibilities; one may lose perhaps everything else, but this cannot be done; the stain would be too great. And one may take public examples: an outrage of cruelty perpetrated upon undefended civilians in war would constitute a stain that would not be erased and would not be balanced against political success.


How would a philosophical friend of the utilitarians respond to these suggestions? Among other objections he would certainly say that I was turning the clock back, suggesting a return to the moral philosophies of the past: absolute prohibitions, elementary decencies, the recognition of a plurality of prohibitions which do not all serve a single purpose—and with nothing more definite behind them than a form of life aspired to. This is the outline of an Aristotelian ethics: ancient doctrine. Modern utilitarians thought that men have the possibility of indefinite improvement in their moral thinking, and that they were confined and confused by their innate endowments of moral repugnances and emotional admirations. There was a sense of the open future in all their writing.

But hope of continuing improvement, if it survives at all, is now largely without evidence. Lowering the barriers of prohibition and making rational calculation of consequences the sole foundation of public policies have so far favored, and are still favoring, a new callousness in policy, a dullness of sensibility, and sometimes moral despair, at least in respect of public affairs. When the generally respected barriers of impermissible conduct are once crossed, and when no different unconditional barriers, within the same areas of conduct, are put in their place, then the special, apparently superstitious, value attached to the preservation of human life will be questioned. This particular value will no longer be distinguished by an exceptionally solemn prohibition; rather it will be assessed on a common scale alongside other desirable things. Yet it is not clear that the taking of lives can be marked and evaluated on a common scale on which increases of pleasure and diminutions of suffering are also measured. This is the suggested discontinuity which a utilitarian must deny.

Moral prohibitions in general, and particularly those that govern the taking of life, the celebration of the dead, and that govern sexual relations and family relations, are artifices that give human lives some distinctive, peculiar, even arbitrary human shape and pattern. They make human the natural phases of experience and lend them a distinguishing sense and direction, one among many possible ones. It is normal for men to expect these artificialities, without which their lives would seem to them inhuman. Largely for this reason a purely naturalistic and utilitarian interpretation of duties and obligations, permissions and prohibitions, in these areas, and particularly in the taking of human life, leaves uneasiness. The idea of morality is connected with the idea that taking human life is a terrible act, one which has to be regulated by some set of overriding constraints that constitute a morality; and the connection of ideas alleged here is not a vague one.

If there were a people who did not recoil from killing, and, what is a distinguishable matter, who seemed to attach no exceptional value to human life, they would be accounted a community of the subhuman; or, more probably, we would doubt whether their words and practices had been rightly interpreted and whether their way of life had been understood.

Yet the taking of life does not have any exceptional importance in utilitarian ethics, that is, in an ethics that is founded exclusively on the actual, ascertained desires and sentiments of men (unlike J. S. Mill’s); the taking of life is morally significant in so far as it brings other losses with it. For a strict utilitarian (which J. S. Mill was not) the horror of killing is only the horror of causing other losses, principally of possible happiness; in cases where there are evidently no such losses, the horror of killing becomes superstition. And such a conclusion of naturalism, pressed to its limits, does produce a certain vertigo after reflection. It seems that the mainspring of morality has been taken away.

This vertigo is not principally the result of looking across a century of cool political massacres, undertaken with rational aims; it is also a sentiment with a philosophical thought behind it. A consistent naturalism displaces the prereflective moral emphasis upon respect for life, and for the preservation of life, on to an exclusive concern for one or other of the expected future products of being alive—happiness, pleasure, the satisfaction of desires. Respect for human life, independent of the use made of it, may seem to utilitarians a survival of a sacramental consciousness, or at least a survival of a doctrine of the soul’s destiny, or of the unique relation between God and man. It had been natural to speak of the moral prohibitions against the taking of life as being respect for the sacredness of an individual life; and this phrase has no proper place, it is very reasonably assumed, in the thought of anyone who has rejected belief in supernatural sanctions.

But the situation may be more complicated. The sacredness of life, so called, and the absolute prohibitions against the taking of life, except under strictly defined conditions, may be admitted to be human inventions. Once the human origin of the prohibitions has been recognized, the prohibition against the taking of life, and respect for human life as such, may still be reaffirmed as absolute. They are reaffirmed as complementary to a set of customs, habits, and observances, which are understood by reference to their function, and which are sustained, partly because of, partly in spite of, this understanding: I mean sexual customs; family observances; ceremonial treatment of the dead; gentle treatment of those who are diseased and useless, and of the old and senile; customs of war and treatment of convicted criminals; political and legal safeguards for the rights of individuals; and some customary rituals of respect and gentleness in personal dealings.

This complex of habits, and the rituals associated with them, are carried over into a secular morality which makes no existential claims that a naturalist would dispute, and which still rejects the utilitarian morality associated with naturalism. The error of the optimistic utilitarian is that he carries the deritualization of transactions between men to a point at which men not only can, but ought to, use and exploit each other as they use and exploit any other natural objects, as far as this is compatible with general happiness. And at this point, when the mere existence of an individual person by itself has no value, apart from the by-products and uses of the individual in producing and enjoying desirable states of mind, there is no theoretical barrier against social surgery of all kinds. Not only is there no such barrier in theory, but, more important, the nonexistence of the barriers is explicitly recognized.

The draining of moral significance from ceremonies, rituals, manners, and observances that imaginatively express moral attitudes and prohibitions leaves morality incorporated only in a set of propositions and computations: thin and uninteresting propositions, when so isolated from their base in the observances, and manners, which govern ordinary relations with people, and which always manifest implicit moral attitudes and opinions. The computational morality, on which optimists rely, dismisses the nonpropositional and unprogrammed elements in morality altogether, falsely confident that these elements can all be ticketed and brought into the computations.

One may object that I now seem to be arguing for the truth of a doctrine by pointing to the evil consequences of its being disbelieved. This is not my meaning. I have been assuming that prohibitions against killing are primary moral prohibitions; secondly, that the customs and rituals that govern, in different societies, relations between the sexes, marriage, property rights, family relationships, and the celebration of the dead are primary moral customs; they always disclose the peculiar kind of respect for human life, and occasions for disrespect, that a particular people or society recognizes, and therefore their more fundamental moral beliefs and attitudes.

Ordinarily a cosmology, or metaphysics, is associated with morality, and, for Europeans, it has usually been a supernatural cosmology. When the supernatural cosmology is generally rejected, or no longer is taken seriously, the idea that human life has a unique value has to be recognized as a human invention. But it is not an invention from nothing at all. The rituals and manners that govern behavior and respect for persons already express a complex set of moral beliefs and attitudes, and embody a particular way of life. Affirmations of particular rights, duties, and obligations, the propositions of a morality, are a development and a correction of this inexplicit morality of ritual and manners.

Each society, each generation within it, and, in the last resort, each reflective individual, accepts and amends an established morality expressed in rituals and manners, and in explicit prohibitions; and an individual will do this in determining what kind of person he aspires to be and what are the necessary features of a desirable and admirable way of life as he conceives it. If these prohibitions, whatever they are, were no longer observed, and the particular way of life that depends on them was lost, and not just amended or replaced, no particular reason would be left to protect human life more than any other natural phenomenon.

The different manners of different societies provide, as an element in good manners, for the recognition of differences; so among the more serious moral constraints—serious in the sense that they regulate killing and sexuality and family relationships, and so the conditions of survival of the species—may be the requirement to respect moral differences, at least in certain cases. Provided that there are absolute prohibitions in the same domains with the same function, and provided that their congruence with a desired way of life is grasped, we may without irrationality accept the differences; and there may sometimes be a duty to avoid conflict or to look for compromise in cases of conflict.

Consider the intermediate case between manners in the restricted sense and absolute moral principles: a code of honor of a traditional kind. The different prohibitions of different codes are still recognized as codes of honor; and dishonor incurred in the breach of different disciplines is in each case recognizably dishonor, in virtue of the type of ideal behavior, and the way of life, that has been betrayed. Prohibitions in other moralities, very different from the moralities of honor, may be similarly diverse in content.

The question cannot be evaded: what is the rational basis for acting as if human life has a peculiar value, quite beyond the value of any other natural things, when one can understand so clearly how different people, for quite different reasons, have come to believe that it has a particular value and to affirm this in their different moralities? Is one not rationally compelled to follow the utilitarians in denying the autonomy of ethics, and the absoluteness of moral prohibitions, if one once comes to understand the social, psychological, and other functions which the prohibitions serve? If one reflectively adopts and reaffirms one or other of these moralities, together with its prohibitions, then it may seem that one must be accepting the morality for the sake of its uses and function, rather than for the reasoning associated with it; and this concedes the utilitarian’s case.

The conclusion is not necessary. A morality, with its ordering of virtues and its prohibitions, provides a particular ideal of humanity in an ideal way of life; and this moral ideal explains where and why killing is allowed and also for what purposes a man might reasonably give his life; and in this sense it sets its own peculiar value on human life. One cannot doubt that there are causes, largely unknown, that would explain why one particular ideal has a hold upon men at a particular time and place, apart from the reasoning that they would use to defend it. And it seems certain that the repugnances and horror surrounding some moral prohibitions are sentiments that have both a biological and a social function.

But the attitude of a reflective man to these repugnances and prohibitions does not for this reason have to be a utilitarian one. One may on reflection respect and reaffirm the prohibitions, and the way of life that they protect, for reasons unconnected with their known or presumed functions—just as one may respect and adopt a code of manners, or a legal system, for reasons that are unconnected with the known functions of such codes and systems in general; and for reasons unconnected also with the known causes that brought these particular codes and systems into existence.

The reasons that lead a reflective man to prefer one code of manners, and one legal system, to another must be moral reasons; that is, he must find his reasons in some order of priority of interests and activities in the kind of life that he praises and admires and that he aspires to have, and in the kind of person that he wants to become. Reasons for the most general moral choices, which may sometimes be choices among competing moralities, must be found in philosophical reasoning, if they are found at all: that is, in considerations about the relation of men to the natural, or to the supernatural, order.


I will mention one inclining philosophical reason, which has in the past been prominent in moral theories, particularly in those of Aristotle and of Spinoza, and which influences me. One may on reflection find a particular set of prohibitions and injunctions, and a particular way of life protected by them, acceptable and respectworthy partly because this specifically conceived way of life, with its accompanying prohibitions, has in history appeared natural, and on the whole still feels natural, both to oneself and to others. If there are no countervailing reasons for rejecting this way of life, or for rejecting some distinguishing features of it, its felt and proven naturalness is one reason among others for accepting it.

This reason is likely to influence particularly those who, unlike utilitarians, cannot for other reasons believe that specific states of mind of human beings are the only elements of value in the universe: who, on the contrary, believe that the natural order as a whole is the fitting object of that kind of unconditional interest and respect that is called moral; that the peculiar value to be attached to human life, and the prohibitions against the taking of life, are not dependent on regarding and treating human beings as radically different from other species in some respects that cannot be specified in plain, empirical statements; that the exceptional value attached both to individual lives, and to the survival of the species as a whole, resides in the power of the human mind to begin to understand, and to enjoy, the natural order as a whole, and to reflect upon this understanding and enjoyment; and that, apart from this exceptional power, the uncompensated destruction of any species is always a loss to be avoided.

George Eliot and George Henry Lewes accepted a variant of Spinozistic naturalism close to the doctrine that I have been suggesting. But they still believed in the probability of future moral improvements, once superstitions had gone. Their ethics was still imbued with an optimism that was certainly not shared by Spinoza, and with a sense of an open and unconfined future for the species.

Spinoza’s own naturalism was quite free from optimism about the historical future. He does not suggest that advanced, highly educated societies will for the first time be governed largely by the dictates of reason, and that human nature will radically change, and that the conflict between reason and the incapacitating emotions will be largely resolved. Rather he suggests an opposing view of history and of the future: that moral progress, in the proper sense of the increasing dominance of gentleness and of reason, is not to be expected except within very narrow limits. He thought he knew that as psycho-physical organisms people are so constructed that there must always in most men be recurrences of unreason alongside reason, and that in this respect social and historical change would be superficial in their consequences.

This pessimism, or at least lack of optimism, is compatible with a secular doctrine, akin to that of natural law, that represents many of the seemingly natural prohibitions of noncomputational morality as more likely to be endorsed than to be superseded by reflection. A moralist of this persuasion does not foresee a future in which rational computation will by itself replace the various imaginations, unconscious memories and habits, rituals and manners, which have lent substance and content to men’s moral ideas, and which have partly formed their various ways of life.

Some of these ways of life, and certainly their complexity and variety, may be respected as an aspect of natural variety; and, like other natural phenomena, they may over the years be studied and explained, at least to some degree explained. From this point of view, that of natural knowledge, the species, if it survives, may perhaps make interesting advances. But this was not the utilitarians’ hope; they looked for an historical transformation of human nature through new moral reasoning, and this has not occurred and is now not to be reasonably expected.


On Morality & Pessimism September 20, 1973

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