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Voice of Experience

Innocence and Experience

by Stuart Hampshire
Harvard University Press, 195 pp., $20.00

It is not surprising that exasperated laymen should wonder about the point of moral philosophy; the self-confident often can’t see why intellectuals should struggle to reach conclusions that any decent citizen learned in childhood, while the unconfident may not care for the corrosive effects of all inquiry. It’s rather more surprising that philosophers themselves have often doubted whether moral philosophy was a branch of philosophy at all. Whatever Hume meant when he observed that “reason is and always must be the slave of the passions,” it certainly sounded deflationary, a reminder that moral judgment was less well-founded than our views about mathematics or natural science. John Stuart Mill is best known as a social and political theorist of a utilitarian bent; yet his System of Logic runs to two stout volumes of his collected works, while his essay Utilitarianism runs to barely sixty pages.

Keynes described G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica as the Bible of Bloomsbury. Yet its philosophical content mostly amounted to attacks on philosophers who supposed that there could be arguments in ethics at all. Its impact was an emotional one, and derived from Moore’s scrupulous description of his unargued intuitions of what was, as a matter of fact, good—friendship and beauty. None of this is reassuring. If philosophy is supposed to provide us with good reasons for our beliefs, it is disappointing to learn that in this most important area, it has so little to tell us.

Recent writers have reacted very differently to the thought that philosophy can do little to ground our moral convictions in anything beyond themselves. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?1 marks the end of a roundabout journey from 1950s Anglicanism to 1990s Catholicism, which has been sustained throughout by the conviction that moral reasoning can only take place within a particular way of life, and absolutely not outside a traditional setting of some sort. Negatively Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature2 has followed the same course in denying that philosophy can of itself provide foundations for a form of belief. For Rorty, all beliefs are justifiable only within some particular society’s habits of belief. In recent essays he says that he wishes us to read this claim optimistically, as saying that our belief in toleration, democracy, the sanctity of private life, and the other liberal pieties is as solidly founded as nuclear physics or computer science, though he rather spoils the effect by insisting that all are only “ways of talking” popular in our liberal capitalist society.3

Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy4 denies that relativism makes any sense when applied to scientific reasoning. Nonetheless, Williams also doubts that a particular set of moral principles could be shown to be literally the “dictates of reason.” Instead of calling on his readers to subscribe to Thomism with Alasdair MacIntyre, or to settle for the virtues of liberal capitalism with Richard Rorty, Williams calls for a less rationalistic and less ambitious ethical inquest into the nature of the good life. “Morality,” thought of as a set of ideal rules that Reason or Conscience legislate upon their adherents, is beyond philosophical rescue, in Williams’s view; but the search for answers to questions of the good life is neither vain nor intellectually disreputable. We must abandon Kant to find better sense in Aristotle.

Innocence and Experience is part of the same conversation, but speaks in a very different (and very engaging) voice. It is, for one thing, an extremely personal voice. Philosophers often pay lip service to the banality that what any of us cares about, writes about, and thinks about will reflect his or her personal experience. Having acknowledged it, they generally carry on writing as if they represent what Henry Sidgwick seriously thought they should represent—“the point of view of the universe.” Stuart Hampshire takes seriously both the need for a personal voice in philosophical argument and the failure of most philosophers to speak in their own voices. In many ways, Innocence and Experience is an argument against the idea that philosophy is best treated from the point of view of the universe, but the book and the argument begin as autobiography, with an engrossing account of Hampshire’s own youth and early career.

He presents it modestly enough as a few “fragments of biographical information” that will enable readers “to understand why one particular set of themes has been pursued and neglected others.” That decidedly understates what emerges—Hampshire’s unwavering support of social and economic justice, his fascination with the gulf between the morality of public life and the morality of private life, his recognition of ambivalence and uncertainty as central rather than peripheral features of moral reflection, and an acute sense of evil as a positive force in social and political life.

As with many other middle-class Englishmen, Hampshire’s politics were indelibly marked by the Depression and the war. As a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, he saw the effects of the slump in the silent shipyards of Merseyside. He reached Oxford in 1933 as Hitler came to power, and was part of an undergraduate generation that could hardly help thinking that capitalism was in terminal decline:

It was difficult for undergraduates then not to think about the worldwide recession, of the throwing of coffee into the sea and of the destruction of food while there was hunger among the unemployed and their children in industrial cities everywhere. Children without shoes in the winter streets were not an unusual sight, and the shoe manufacturers were dismissing their workers because they could not sell their shoes.

With Hitler curing unemployment by rearmament, it seemed that capitalism had gone mad, that it could only sustain full employment by the production of the means of total war, and that it would therefore end in universal destruction.

Though this was a climate which turned many young men into Marxists, Hampshire was not tempted. As an undergraduate philosopher, he encountered the Vienna Circle, whose intellectual program involved a ruthless scrutiny of traditional systems of metaphysics, almost all of which were dismissed as nonsense. Having drunk deeply at this logical positivist spring, writes Hampshire, “I was able to see all those political programmes which are founded on a theory of history as founded on a consoling illusion, whether it was Hegelianism, Marxism, Comtean positivism, or liberal doctrines of progress.” What the Depression did do was turn him into a lifelong anti-Conservative.

Like many students at the time I knew that I was not on the side of the British Conservatives and I also knew that I never would be. For most Conservatives love of property, and of the secure possession of wealth, easily outweighed all other moral commitments.

If their selfish indifference to the poor and unemployed was one ground for Hampshire’s dislike of 1930s conservatism, an equally strong reason was the “sordid” and “servile” behavior of Conservative British governments in the face of the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships of mainland Europe. As a young fellow of All Souls’ College, Hampshire was a colleague of some leading advocates of the policy of appeasement.5 It seemed to him that there was no injustice these Conservative appeasers would not tolerate, no boot they would leave unlicked in the interests of doing down socialism and protecting private property. Though he had no time for the pacifists of the left who hoped to stop fascism without preparing for war, their crime was gullibility. His Conservative colleagues were simply indecent. All this made Hampshire readier than he has been since to answer “the fatally over-simple question,” Which side are you on? with a “not the Conservatives’.”

During the war, Stuart Hampshire served in intelligence, and after the Allied victory, had to interrogate a number of leading Nazis, including Eric Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Gestapo and all of the SS other than the Waffen SS. This was an experience as decisive for him as any during the Depression. The moral lesson it taught was not a pleasant one:

I learnt how easy it had been to organise the vast enterprises of torture and murder, and to enroll willing workers in this field, once all moral barriers had been removed by the authorities. Unmitigated evil and nastiness are as natural, it seemed, in educated human beings as generosity and sympathy: no more, and no less, natural, a fact that was obvious to Shakespeare but not previously evident to me. It became clear that high culture and good education are not significantly correlated with elementary moral decency.

If this experience seemed to show that a debased and brutal Machiavellianism had become the political style of the twentieth century, another event characteristic of the times raised questions about the selective vision and the tendency to self-deception of friends on the left. Among the members of British intelligence who turned out to have been working for the Soviet Union as much as for their own country, several were friends of Hampshire’s, and he was duly interrogated about their motives. He was, and remains, puzzled about their intellectual commitments as much as their political ones. It seemed that they had felt that they could not just react against the obvious misery and injustice they saw around them. Before they could take their own feelings of indignation seriously, they had to swallow the pseudoscience of Marxism–Leninism–Stalinism, as it used to be called, and turn their indignation at the injustice of capitalism into a colder, scientific sort of understanding. The moral effect on them was obvious enough, however. Having converted their indignation into the allegedly scientific conviction that the right side would inevitably win, they could overlook the fact that the right side was sustained by prison camps, torture, mass murder, and lies.

Hampshire thinks that one reason why “perceptions of injustice had to be disguised and deformed by philosophical theory before they were thought to be respectable” is to be found in the view of the appropriate objects of knowledge to which most Anglo-American philosophers have subscribed during the twentieth century. Most of them have endorsed a version of empiricism, and it has almost always been associated with the idea that only statements of hard fact deserve to be called objectively true, while moral judgments are merely subjective, expressive of the utterer’s feelings, but not true or false. This may well be right, but it poses a difficulty that Hampshire doesn’t raise—why should people whose view of scientific virtue is Humean and empiricist turn into Marxists, committed to the dialectic and similar items from the lumber room of Hegelian metaphysics? One answer, no doubt, is that 1930s’ Marxism played down its Hegelian origins. But another might be that some of us are attracted to seemingly hard-boiled doctrines just because they are hard-boiled; we want to be tough-minded, not tender-hearted. Bravado, rather than empiricism, is at fault.

The questions that the events I have mentioned raised in Hampshire’s mind are the ones that dominate Innocence and Experience, and they are not the usual subjects of academic philosophy. Seeing friends unmasked as double agents sharpened a self-conscious interest in duplicity that had already been fueled by wartime work in espionage.

  1. 1

    Reviewed by Martha Nussbaum, The New York Review, December 7, 1989.

  2. 2

    Reviewed by Quentin Skinner, The New York Review, March 19, 1981.

  3. 3

    In his Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), and even more markedly in his recent Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  4. 4

    Reviewed by H.L.A. Hart, The New York Review, July 17, 1985.

  5. 5

    The role of All Souls in this disastrous business is the theme of A. L. Rowse’s vivid, if melodramatic and self-advertising, Appeasement: A Study in Political Decline, 1933–1939 (Norton, 1963).

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