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On Morality & Pessimism

In response to:

A Special Supplement: Morality & Pessimism from the January 25, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Readers of Stuart Hampshire’s “Morality and Pessimism” [NYR, January 25] might be interested in the following passage written by Jeremy Bentham. It does not appear to support Professor Hampshire’s criticism of Utilitarianism (or at least Bentham’s Utilitarianism), as, “involving a kind of arrogance in the face of nature.”

You, and all human beings besides: these are the beings whose happiness is here in question, whose happiness it is the object of these pages to promote. Say, rather, all sensitive beings besides. For why should any part of the sensitive creation be passed over with neglect? Not by any means unintitled to your care are the animals styled by you “inferior” with reference to the human. For, were they not entitled to it, on what footing stands the least title that could be made for the human?

[Bentham Manuscripts, Box 14, p. 310, University College, London]

This passage will be reproduced in my edition of Bentham’s Deontology. It will be published in the near future under the auspices of the Bentham Committee, University College, London.

I would not want to defend Utilitarianism against Professor Hampshire’s charge, since it, like other influential doctrines, has come to mean different things to different people. But, if Professor Hampshire had Bentham in mind in so criticizing Utilitarianism, it is hoped that the quoted passage will serve to modify his view.

Amnon Goldworth

California State University,

San Jose, California

To the Editors:

Stuart Hampshire’s basic concern (in “Morality and Pessimism”) is to support and justify the absolute respect for human life. He sees in Utilitarianism a sure path to corruption of such respect. For to justify all moral injunctions (including the injunction to preserve life) by reference to the one principle of Utility means that all obligations are commensurable; and if they are all commensurable, then the preservation of life can be traded off against other obligations.

To escape such a tradeoff, therefore, it seems we must justify moral injunctions in some other way than showing them to follow from the principle of Utility. Hampshire proposes justification by reference to their being coherent with, and necessary to, some overall way of living.

Granted that we agree with his basic concern to insure that human life be respected, the central question is whether the proposed method of moral justification serves that concern. I submit that it fails, and invites the some cruelty, destructive righteousness, and lack of sensibility with which Hampshire taxes Utilitarianism.

His rationale, evidently, is that any tenable way of living represents some particular mode of absolute respect for human life, from which it would follow that only life-respecting injunctions can be justified on the basis of coherence with a tenable way of living. This claim can appear to be sound only because of its ambiguity. On the one hand, Hampshire may mean that any way of living implies absolute respect for the lives of some persons. In this sense, the claim is true but trivial, because it allows for ways of living which interweave a respect for the lives of some with an absolute disregard, even contempt, for the lives of others. The Nazi way is one example.

On the other hand, Hampshire may mean to claim that any way of living involves an absolute respect for all human life. In this sense, his claim is significant but false, as shown by the example.

There remains the alternative view that a moral injunction is to be justified not by reference to its coherence with any kind of life, but only by reference to some kinds of life, the best kinds. But which kinds are these? If the proper life is defined by its embodying prohibitions against killing, Hampshire begs the question; and when he begins to define the kind of life he prefers, the reasons he gives are no help. His reference to what “feels natural” gives no promise of respect for humanity. (After all, Nazism must have felt exceedingly natural.) And the view ascribing basic value to “the power of the human mind to begin to understand‌the natural order as a whole, and to reflect upon this understanding and enjoyment,” is compatible with, and historically has been used to justify, squandering the lives of many for the cultivation of the few.

Not only does Hampshire fail to offer anything more life-sustaining than Utilitarianism, but in addition his criticism of that theory is ill-founded. It rests ultimately on the allegation that “persecutions, massacres and wars” have issued from Utilitarian doctrine. His reference seems clear until one tries specifically to interpret the savageries of our times in terms of Utilitarianism, and then the reference evaporates. Nazis and Fascists clearly were not, and are not, Utilitarians. The rulers of the Soviet Union may have followed Utilitarianism as he describes it, but only as qualified by a distinct and separable social analysis and theory of history. It may well be that he refers to Vietnam; in speaking of “political pragmatists” Hampshire is using the same terms some American war leaders like to use in speaking of themselves. But this does not mean they are Utilitarians; for “Pragmatism,” as applied to American government, refers not to a philosophy or theory, but rather to the absence of any philosophy or theory. It refers to the unexamined conviction that one’s ends are correct and that one therefore need only consider questions of effectiveness in reaching those ends. Nothing could be further removed from the spirit of Utilitarianism, which bids us examine all ends. In any case, no Utilitarian calculus could ever justify the war on Vietnam.

Gordon Brumm

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Stuart Hampshire replies:
  1. On at least one point criticisms received from readers of NYR have convinced me that I was wrong on a point of historical fact: particularly Professor Goldworth’s quotation from the Bentham manuscripts is decisive. For Bentham “the sensitive creation” is the section of nature to which moral injunctions should exclusively refer. Mere sensitiveness is both necessary and sufficient to give occasion for the distinction between good and evil and to call for moral consideration. So much is true for Bentham: he did not restrict himself to sensitiveness to pain and pleasure as an object of reflection, or as something that is valued in some way by the subject, or that is made explicitly the target of his interests and plans.

Bentham apparently drew the line that divides the morally insignificant from the morally relevant at the precise point where anatomical and behavioral evidence, in the setting of theory, allows us to attribute sensation to a creature. In other moralities at other times, the line of division has been drawn either higher or lower in the natural scale of creatures. Theorists have argued, or they have asserted, that all and only thinking beings are of original moral interest, or they have asserted or assumed that all and only living things are objects of moral concern. Many different reasons, and different kinds of reasons, have been given for making the cut in nature at one level rather than another: reasons from religious cosmology, from pre-Christian or Christian doctrines of the soul, from various religious teachings about the immortality of the soul, or about the destiny of all living things: from reverence for reason or reverence for life.

Bentham’s position is distinct and surprising. In several passages he repeats that we cannot consistently be morally concerned about the sufferings of men, unless we are equally concerned about the sufferings of all other sentient beings, and specifically of animals. * We may make allowances for their presumed lesser degree of sensitiveness; but the evil of their suffering, and also the value of their pleasure, are in no way affected by their status as animals and not persons. The questions of how we can know about the degrees of animal suffering, and of how we can compare the experiences of different creatures, did not trouble or detain Bentham. Nor was he detained by the truly philosophical question of the status and origin of his intuitive certainty, as it appears, that the distinction between good and evil is identical with the distinction between pleasure and pain.

Limitations of the scope of moral concern should be considered as disputable features of a particular morality, just as the stress on one range of duties or obligations rather than another is a feature of a particular morality; there is no logic, or “logic of moral discourse,” that tells one where the limits of moral concern are to be drawn, and where the cut in nature is to be made. I particularly wish to stress this point, which I believe most philosophers would now accept, because the relation between the natural order as a whole and the human species within it is a crucial part of the approach to morality that I was sketching in “Morality and Pessimism.” Not only that: but I would argue that different moralities, and different moral outlooks, are in part to be discriminated by how they construe this relation between one species and nature as a whole. Bentham’s naturalism was absolutely uncompromising: there is no peculiar feature of human beings, among all other natural kinds, that makes them exclusively interesting from the moral point of view.

It was therefore unjust to represent classical utilitarians as anthropocentric. One cannot use animals for their pleasure without consideration of the suffering of animals, discussed recently in The New York Review by Peter Singer [April 5]. Sentient creatures can only use the unfeeling natural environment for their pleasure without limits.

  1. The other principal criticisms seem to me either misunderstandings, or they call for a full statement of the moral foundations of the moral position that I was advocating: perhaps I may answer both together. The foundations are as stated in a paper of mine, “Ethics: A Defense of Aristotle,” which was republished in a volume of my essays entitled Freedom of Mind. Thinking about a moral question entails thinking about what way of life is the best way of life and about what dispositions and character the best men must have. The distinctive powers of human beings, and the complex of their known interests and desires, set a limit to what can be counted as intelligible answers to this question. But within limits there have always been differences of opinion, to be argued for and against, about the relative priorities to be given to different, and sometimes conflicting, human interests and activities. Different orderings of interests and activities, and of the matching dispositions, produce different ways of life.

Plainly it is only a pardonable philosopher’s pretense that individuals, in most places and at most times, have a very wide choice of different ways of life, of different orderings of virtues and vices. One is born into, educated in, and formed for a certain way of life, or for a certain range of ways, and the range of later choice is usually narrow, and the opportunities for re-ordering are for most people not great. But both political decisions and the upbringing of children do raise the issues, at least for the more fortunate. Secondly, decisions made in difficult situations, and in situations of conflict, do unavoidably raise questions about the priority of one duty, and of one virtue, and of one valued part of a way of life relative to another.

So much for a way of life; it is a notion that is no more and no less vague than that of the character and dispositions of a man, which are manifested in his way of life, in the socially recognized pattern of his activities. Any way of life has a basic grammar of strict injunctions and prohibitions which regulate basic interests: some basic areas of regulation are the taking of life, the risking of one’s life, sexuality, family relationships, justice in distribution of advantages and disadvantages, local loyalties and so on. The strict injunctions and prohibitions vary with the way of life, and the way of life varies as they are varied.

The common core is that some injunctions and prohibitions in these areas are always solemn and strict: these interests are always untrivial, unless practical reasoning is abandoned altogether and everything is possible and nothing is necessary. The strictest injunctions sometimes conflict, and an ordering is necessary, a decision about priorities. I was arguing that calculation, as the utilitarians imagine it, does not invariably resolve such a conflict, unless nothing in the world counts except pleasure and pain, or some clearly identifiable states of mind. But reasoning about human nature, and about the limits of our knowledge of it, and about the compatibility and incompatibility of different virtues and valued activities does have a place, and always has had, in situations of conflict.

  1. Critics ask what is the relevance of “nature” and “natural” to moral questions. What does the naturalness of a way of life prove? Did not the Nazis feel their slaughtering and lying and injustice to be natural, while they lasted? Two points have to be made in reply: First, it was not suggested that naturalness was a sufficient condition of a way of life being desirable, but only that it was prominent among the necessary conditions. Second, the intended sense of the notoriously slippery word “natural” needs to be fixed: the word is to be understood as qualifying patterns of behavior and activities which human beings generally tend to prefer and to strive after, unless prevented, and the absence of which generally causes frustration and suffering: and both the striving and the frustration can be explained by causes in the deep-seated physical or psychological structure of human beings. The statement that something is natural to men is a highly theoretical statement, as I used it, implying not only that there are known or presumed causes for an activity being strongly desired, but also causes of an internal, structural kind.

The space of a separate essay would be needed to explain why a way of life will not be in the long run desirable unless it is also to a high degree also natural, and unless it feels natural. The references to Spinoza, on which I relied, perhaps condensed the reasons to the point of unintelligibility. The underpinning of morality by the conception of some reality external to it is usually dismissed when the super-natural is dismissed: or the qualification of the autonomy of morality, which underpinning implies, is considered as a betrayal of the moral point of view. But I doubt that we do justice either to our own institutions, or to the evidence of anthropology and of history, if the incompleteness of morality, and the need of an underpinning, are not acknowledged, together with the sense of a gap, and of arbitrariness, when a system of prohibitions and prescriptions stands alone, unexplained.

Why particularly this way of life, these conventions and restraints, rather than the many others that have been known?” is a question that is ordinarily asked and is thought to have an answer. The answer is expected to specify a reality external to the species which justifies or requires a certain way of life among men because of their crucial relation to this reality. Spinoza was self-consciously and deliberately substituting a conception of this reality as God or Nature for the conception of it as transcendent God; the crucial relation became for him one of understanding and dependence in place of the old relation of obedience and dependence. This was the ground of his prescription of a way of life, characterized as that of the free man who cultivates understanding of the whole of reality and of his place within it.

There was another over-condensed reference in the paragraphs about naturalness and nature in “Morality and Pessimism”: to the fact that artificiality and naturalness are equal and contrary aspects of morality as they are of manners; and to the fact that the theory of ethics, from Greek writing onward, has usually alternated between a too exclusive stress on one of them at the expense of the other. It is natural to men to devise artificial restraints upon their impulses, particularly sexual and aggressive impulses, and to invent a great variety of systems of restraint. The diversity of these restraints and of the ways of life of which they are part suggest their artificiality, because the natural is usually associated with the universal. But it is still natural that some conventions of an artificial kind should operate, more or less universally, upon certain kinds of natural impulse. The artificiality is natural in the sense that the specific moral injunctions and prohibitions, parts of a way of life, seem to reflective men one of an open set of possibilities; and it is necessary only that some selection of them should be recognized, and recognized in certain determinate areas of action and of feeling.

Lastly, the Nazis, and the criticism that this outline account of the nature of morality provides no hard proof that evil is evil, and no unanswerable reason why evil should be counted as such. In an article published in 1949 called “Fallacies in Moral Philosophy” (republished in Freedom of Mind and Other Essays), I argued that Aristotle was right in his claim that moral conclusions are not proved conclusions, and that no moral theory brings valid proofs to strengthen our intuitions. A moral theory suggests a way of unifying and explaining our moral intuitions by exhibiting some very unspecific principle, or principles, of which they seem to be specifications; then one can see, in place of an apparently unrelated heap of moral intuitions, an intelligible structure behind them.

The fit between general structure and specific intuitions will probably not be complete and perfect, and each is liable to be amended by reference to the other; a man thinks about his moral beliefs as he lives and applies them. Therefore the degradation of men who were Nazis, their brutality and evilness, the contempt and disgust that they evoke, might in principle be made the matter of argument and debate; there is no logical barrier to admiring and imitating the Nazis, and to adopting their moral attitudes, any more than there is a logical barrier to thinking Mickey Spillane a better writer than Shakespeare. The part of moral theory, as opposed to pretheoretical intuitions, is to explain our judgments of good and evil by revealing the connections between them.

My essay was not a systematic treatise on ethics, like Rawls’s “Theory of Justice.” But judgments of priority in viciousness and in the degradation and perversion of humanity can be as well, and in some respects better, explained within the modified form of Aristotelianism that I was advocating as within any comparable theory. The purpose of bringing historical pessimism into the discussion of moral theory was to suggest that the morality of strict prohibitions, protecting a specific way of life with a specific ideal of character, allows for the expected recurrence of vileness, injustice, and degradation in the natural history of the species. Such a morality does not presuppose some special law of development for men, governing the succession of social forms and of ways of life.

Specific replies to Mr. Brumm: about respect for life, my meaning was that any morality worthy of the name implies a generally overwhelming respect for human life; but most moralities prescribe very precisely the various conditions (as in war) when the taking of life is licensed, and when the general prohibition is overridden: different moralities, different conditions. Utilitarianism does not give a plausible account of this generally overwhelming respect and of this general prohibition: nor does Mr. Brumm.

Secondly, the connection between recognizing understanding as a supreme virtue and also justice, and not “squandering the lives of many for the cultivation of the few”: the classical case for the incompatibility between injustice and understanding has been made on a priori grounds by Aristotle, Spinoza, and many other philosophers; but Mr. Brumm is apparently saying that the facts are against them, because squandering lives has been justified by appeals to the cultivation of the few. But justifications prove nothing to the point: men may say anything in defense of their actions. He needs to show that a man aiming at the way of life, and the ordering of activities, skills, and virtues, and also the social arrangements that a high priority given to intelligence requires might reasonably also permit or encourage the squandering of lives; he needs to show that a man who aims at a certain kind of understanding as the most desirable, though of course not the only desirable, disposition to have might also rationally dismiss prohibitions against squandering lives and might suppress any sentiments about injustice.

  1. *

    Passages from Bentham quoted to me by Professor H. L. A. Hart.

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