Reflections in Practical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion 1527544435, 9781527544437

This book is the result of an extended series of musings, analysis and theorizing over a period of several years. Its ce

167 51 1MB

English Pages [126] Year 2020

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Reflections in Practical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion
 1527544435, 9781527544437

Table of contents :
1. Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion
2. Morality from a Humean Perspective
3. The Evolution and Rise of Morality
4. The Best Society
5. Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order
6. Comte: The ‘Catholic’ Hegel

Citation preview

Reflections in Practical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion

Reflections in Practical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion By

Peter Loptson

Reflections in Practical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Religion By Peter Loptson This book first published 2020 Cambridge Scholars Publishing Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Copyright © 2020 by Peter Loptson All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. ISBN (10): 1-5275-4443-5 ISBN (13): 978-1-5275-4443-7

To one who graced a special morning, reminding me of love and touch; and to one who graces all my memories everyday


Acknowledgements ................................................................................... ix Introduction ................................................................................................ 1 Chapter One ................................................................................................ 3 Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion Chapter Two ............................................................................................. 29 Morality from a Humean Perspective Chapter Three ........................................................................................... 31 The Evolution and Rise of Morality Chapter Four ............................................................................................. 51 The Best Society Chapter Five ............................................................................................. 63 Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order Chapter Six ............................................................................................... 85 Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel Conclusion .............................................................................................. 115


I would like to acknowledge helpful input from discussions and writings of various colleagues, friends, and former students over many years. Specifically Andrew Bailey, David Crossley, Steven Davis, Kenneth Dorter, Niels Feuerhahn, Tove Finnestad, Daniel Garber, Daniel Goldstick, the late Jean Harvey, Joseph Heath, Derrek Hines, Joanna Hines Hodgkin, Thomas Hurka, Mikael M. Karlsson, my daughter Kristjana Loptson, my brother Jon Loptson, my son Matthew Loptson, Duncan MacIntosh, Jack MacIntosh, Matthew Martinuk, Storrs McCall, Patrick McHugh, Peter Millican, the late Jay Newman, Pauline Phemister, Michael Ruse, Krister Segerberg, Wayne Sumner and the late Michelle Swenarchuk, Catherine Wilson, John Wright and Julian Young. Let me add the influence of significant teachers from whose writings and conversations I learned a great deal in the past: Joseph L. Camp Jr., Marilyn Frye, Iris Murdoch, Nicholas Rescher, Wilfrid Sellars, Charles Taylor, and J. W. Yolton. Apart from some I may have already named, I will mention that among the great historical philosophers and thinkers whose ideas and arguments have had significant influence on my own, are the following: Aristotle, Roderick Chisholm, Carnap, Auguste Comte, Darwin, Freud, Hegel, Hume, William James, Kant, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Locke, John Stuart Mill, G.E. Moore, Pascal, Josiah Royce, Russell, Schopenhauer, Seneca, Shafesbury, and of course, Plato. I would also like to thank Bryan Richard for the help with preparations of this work.


This is a book written in retirement and also in the state of relative invalidity. It is based on years of teaching, writing on other themes, and reflection. Like most, or all philosophical books, it is meant to persuade and convince, chiefly the philosophical reader, and the general reader who has an interest in ethics, society, politics and fundamental questions concerned with how to live. I make reference from time to time to other philosophers whose work has influenced mine and sometimes with whom I disagree. The overall perspective is naturalist, liberal, modernist, and human centred. I also discuss some particular topics in the philosophy of religion, which have interested me and some of which have interested a great many others. The book is relatively short and most of the distinct chapters can be read and responded to on their own. I write within the framework of what it still seems useful to call, western civilization, which like others, I conceived to have begun within the epoch of Alexander the Great and which may be on the verge of coming to its conclusion. Although, it appears to still have at least a few quarter centuries of life left in it. I invite the reader to join with me in pondering and reflecting on the normative issues that follow. The book that follows aims to address fundamental and central issues in moral philosophy, both theoretical and in some cases practical and applied. I will be setting out what I think is a unique and original ethical theory. Those who are well acquainted with contemporary work in ethics will recognize obvious similarities with positions both contemporary and historical. Historically, the closest relationships are broadly Epicurean, chiefly to Hume. Other ethical giants on whose shoulders I think I stand are Kant, Ross, and Moore; also, though in different respects, Plato and Aristotle. The broad stance is naturalistic of Epicurean stamp. Many particular issues are not addressed. On others I make dogmatic pronouncements which the reader is invited to share or dismiss according to taste.


Religion is certainly a great deal more difficult to identify than theism. Even if there may be all sorts of perplexities about what a god might be like, what kind and variety of nature and powers a deity might have, whether a deity would indeed need even to be a person, of any sort, and if so with what sorts of resemblances to human persons, still: theism is the view that there are gods, one or more. And presumably there is an actual fact of the matter. There are, or are not, such beings. Further, even if many of the world’s cultures have been polytheistic, and some still are, multiple convergences of thought, and philosophical argumentation, make for a primary idea, for a serious modern intelligence contemplating the universe and its mysteries—and its patent certitudes as well—of a unique supreme power and supreme mind, a God—that is, whether that inquirer believes, disbelieves, or isn’t sure. Clever arguments of Hume, and Russell, notwithstanding, polytheism can’t hold a candle to monotheism. Interestingly, many polytheistic systems—the ancient Greek system among them— involve also the idea of a unique highest power, the ‘lesser’ gods being spirits with a variety of powers and roles, that explain something or other, or that one must propitiate, but all of whom give way to a central unique god. (Puzzlingly for readers of several of the ancient authors, the writer— sometimes a philosopher, sometimes not—often goes back and forth in his text between ‘god’ (or ‘God’) and gods, sometimes indeed in the same paragraph.) But religion is, it seems, a more complex idea. Some of that complexity stems just from the item’s being a cultural phenomenon, something people practice or engage in. There is usually something systematic, or institutional, about the matter. There is no religion, it seems, without religious practice—things people, in a cultural setting, in time, do. Religion seems always to involve both communities, and individuals within them. If someone could have a private religion, it would always be


Chapter One

able to be shared. And religion cannot be only a group phenomenon; it must, and means to, make claim on an individual. Religion also invariably, or essentially, involves reference to supposed realities (those realities involving some sort of intelligence or personhood) beyond a publicly experienced, observed world. This in turn means that there is no religion without some element of faith. If there were a God, or gods, and they were directly interacted with in an undisguised way on a daily basis, and their plans and intentions were disclosed immediately, upon request or unasked, it seems doubtful that there could be such a thing as religion in that setting. Perhaps in some truncated form there might be. But what we regularly conceive and take seriously, many of us, at least, is an idea of something that includes elements that matter to us, and for us, that are beyond any direct certain knowing, at least on the mundane plane. Both faith and its primary (religious) objects are actually very accurately, as well as poetically, conceptualized in a well-known Biblical assertion, which says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1). William James (and others) draw a distinction between religion as something personal, and inward, and a matter of private individual experience and commitment, and exterior practices that typically are ritualized and certainly involve groups, often, indeed, socially mandating enforcements. For James (and, again, many other thinkers, independently of him) this is a contrast between religion—the real thing, that is—and ‘church’, understood pejoratively. It is not my purpose in these pages to adopt or assume this contrast, certainly not prescriptively. I want to address the ‘religion side of life’, without requiring that those who want to consider that aspect or component of being human need to conceive, for those who adopt and affirm some variety of religious life, or allegiance, or for those who reject it, only, or even primarily, Jamesian ‘personal religion’ as their target of interest or attention. I think that it would be wrong to insist that there is no genuine, or valid, interest in art, music, literature, science, or any other significant component of culture, or experience, unless that interest is passional, personal, and accorded lifeprimacy. Focus, and an angle of approach and concern, can legitimately be upon something that one sees that many others make much of, with a query as simple as: I want to know what these people are going on about, and whether I too should embrace it—or take a stance that is emphatically otherwise. And one does see, rather quickly and clearly, that religion is individual (and personal), and (James notwithstanding) communal, and that it involves ideas of realities not discernible or able to be clearly apprehended and validated in everyday life and experience, personal or

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


interpersonal. That somewhat diffuse or anodyne conception affirmed, I want to go on to argue that the ‘religion side of life’ idea is ineluctably tied up with another idea—a very personally self-interested idea—without which religion, and theism, cannot have significant or substantive claim on the earnest searcher. There is only one fundamental question in the philosophy of religion, I want even to go so far as to claim. All others, with whatever degree of interest, and significance, they may have, are very much secondary. So, at least, I will argue here. It is not the question whether there is a God, or what, if there were, His nature might most plausibly be held to be, or what destiny or plan or overall guiding purpose there might be for the universe. It is the question whether there is a life after death. Human interest in, sometimes extreme preoccupation with, the idea and the possibility of an existence beyond this life has sometimes been positive and enthusiastic, sometimes fearful and apprehensive, and sometimes it has involved a glum anticipation of a dull shadowland, or a purgatory of mixed pains and pleasures. Quick reflection should make it clear that a formal conviction of the last of these, at least all by itself, would not be sufficient to ground religious commitments, or a serious life-modifying existential theism. Although some such notion as this seems to have been fundamental theology among the Homeric Greeks, it is difficult to see it as having stable or continuing purchase for a modern mind, or, perhaps, for any culture for very long (including the Homeric, which also involved belief in respective bliss and torments, at any rate for a few, then, in historical succession, more diffused models of what an afterlife would offer). Further, although very great, even obsessive, concern about horrors and punishments in an afterlife seems prominent very widely, even up to quite recent time, and undoubtedly continues for some religious believers—and is unquestionably a destiny fervently wished upon their enemies by very many more—it does not seem persuasive as something seriously to engage focused inner reflection, as what I should have care and concern for. Apart from whether it is a rationally tenable belief, conviction as to the reality of hell, as an enduring condition following death, for oneself, seems somehow, now, a childish stance, not something that can accompany maturity and adulthood. (By which I do not want in any way to minimize or deny the very real ethical and philosophical issues posed by the ideas of evil, and of punishment, and possibilities of redemption or atonement; even for them, conceptions of unending torture do not seem serious or plausible participants in the relevant debates and investigations.) It appears, at least to very many (and independently of


Chapter One

whether it is regarded as fact, or even as possibility), quite otherwise with respect to a positive afterlife of some sort. The fundamental question of theism, and religion—the one that is, by far, the one that really matters (if any do)—is whether there is a life after death, and one that would be of a certain minimum level of quality. Mere continued existence, minimally some very short time, after the individual’s biological terminus, would not, it seems clear, do, in this regard. Whether literal immortality would be necessary—it may indeed not be altogether coherent a possibility for human individuals—or whether, if possible, it would be sufficient—for life after death, of whatever duration, could be vegetable-like, or involve subsistence in a supine fog of unknowing if not actual unpleasantness— some plausibly satisfactory condition of personal, self-preserving, postmortem being is a sine qua non of any other theistic or religious question having genuinely deep weight or existential import. This claim may seem at first selfish, egoist, speciesist, or individualist. Perhaps at some level it is some or all of these. That it nonetheless is the pre-eminent theistic question seems demonstrable. For if there is no afterlife—none at all—and the life that we each of us individually have is all that there is, for us, then the fact that there was a God, if there were one, would be essentially a fact about the origins and governance of the world, and have only such interest, and claim, as facts of physics, and metaphysics, may have for us. Only some of us care about such facts, and even for almost all who do, such facts have just a place, a component part, in the existential economy of our lives. To know that there was a God would be to know that the world was a sort of monarchy, rather than a sort of republic. It could also be, to be sure, with the right sort of theology, to know that the world was somehow a kinder (or a grimmer) place, that one had, or might have, a special sort of friend, or never-absent observer and judge of one’s deeds and thoughts. It could also be that there are spiritual realities, which the right sorts of attitudes or dispositions, might make accessible, and these be capable of enriching the lives of those who attain them, and, anyway, be additional, and important, facts of the matter. It might also be that even if none of these were true—there was no God, nor anything other than natural facts—still, it might be that a most existentially rewarding or fulfilling life, even one with the maximal or optimal degree of inner knowledge, might be to be had within the framework of an ideology of religious commitment. Nonetheless, even if any of these alternatives were the case, and my life, your life, and each and all of our lives, was known to be precisely this—this span, on this terrestrial scene, thus and so and as we find it—the claims, and interest, of religion, religiosity, and theistic creed, would pale, and amount to something only

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


for those with a taste for it, the right temperament or inclination-set, and even then something with the ineliminable mantle of illusion. As Kant knew, something would inevitably ring false, ring hollow, for any religiosity without a sort of completion beyond this life. As we have said, not just any life after death would suffice for the appropriate completion. It might or might not need literally to be unending. It would need to preserve the conscious identity of the survivor. It seems also evident that it would, in some manner, need to include a coming to knowledge, a lifting of veils or removal of scales from the eyes, whereby the survivor learned with some certitude that the world was the sort of place, with the sort of governance, spiritual content, and directedness, that it had. But could not that very knowledge, could one but come to have it, in this life and this world, suffice to ground religion and theism, even if there was to be no after-life for any of us? Why might it not be—the spiritual quester might ask—that the world was a good place, God its maker, and He had seen fit not to accord any other life than this to us? And if that were so, though it might seem a hard fact, could we yet know that He was there, ruled, and cared, might that not be enough to ground and invest religion and theism seriously, for a serious person, one who would live meaningfully, deeply, and inwardly? Should we really believe—does this not become a reductio of our initial claim—that it is all about us, in the end; that it has got to involve an exchange, where I will get something good, something I want, for the whole matter to matter? Again, Kant seems to be a sound and sure guide to the conclusion that we did not err. We might be a merely created and ruled category and constituency of being. But then we will not matter; our innerness would not matter, our conscious agency merely a fancy sort of superfluous machinery which the world, through whichever instrumentality, produced. We would be epiphenomenal in ways that would make the world absurd. If it is not absurd—and if there is a God it cannot be absurd—then we are persons, selves, members of the community of selves. And if we are members of that community, and that community has a prince, with powers sufficient to preserve us in being, and He were not to do so, then we have been betrayed. Then, too, would the world be unjust, and absurd. Schopenhauer puts the general claim advanced here in a particularly forceful and emphatic way; rather more cynically, at any rate more darkly, than is urged in the present context. But, as always, his voice is worth


Chapter One

hearing, and heeding. He tells us (The World as Will and Representation (Payne trans.), vol. II, p. 161f.) “that the interest inspired by philosophical and also religious systems has its strongest and essential point absolutely in the dogma of some future existence after death. Although the latter systems seem to make the existence of their gods the main point, and to defend this most strenuously, at bottom this is only because they have tied up their teaching on immortality therewith, and regard the one as inseparable from the other; this alone is really of importance to them. For if we could guarantee their dogma of immortality to them in some other way, the lively ardour for their gods would at once cool; and it would make way for almost complete indifference if, conversely, the absolute impossibility of any immortality were demonstrated to them. For interest in the existence of the gods would vanish with the hope of a closer acquaintance with them, down to what residue might be bound up with their possible influence on the events of the present life. But if continued existence after death could also be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods, because, let us say, it presupposed originality of mode of existence, they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be eager for atheism.” Curiously, James makes essentially the same point, in The Varieties of Religious Experience: “The difference in natural ‘fact’ which most of us would assign as the first difference which the existence of a God ought to make would, I imagine, be personal immortality. Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race means immortality, and nothing else. God is the producer of immortality; and whoever has doubts of immortality is written down as an atheist without farther trial…” (p. 406) This fact notwithstanding, James immediately goes on to say that “I have said nothing in my lectures about immortality or the belief therein, for to me it seems a secondary point”; secondary, that is to say, to the personal religion, and mystical experience, which is the central focus of James’s classic study. Our attention, here, is upon the ideas and concerns of what James acknowledges to be the great majority of us. There are, to be sure, those who are content that this life be all that we would have, who see a certain logic or coherence in the rhythms of a welllived human life, and who would shun, view as folly, having or aspiring to have more. Sometimes this is put, we may say, merely, in existentially applied form—Frank Sinatra is said to have said, “You only live once, and the way I live, once is enough”. It is expressed also more theoretically, or conceptually, for example with the more assertive, ball-to-the-other-court, Heideggerian conviction that a human life is not a serious, an authentic life

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


unless it, Viking-like, knows that it comes to an end, and finds identity and value in that knowledge. There are, then, conceptions, of our condition and estate, that see what we are, including necessary and just telos, for us, as of, in, and for, this earth, these bodies, this life, and naturally and appropriately coming to the terminus this involves. It is important that one distinguish between views of this kind and views which (merely) assert that one should accept what one cannot change, not merely desist from fighting or resisting, but accommodate oneself to what is inevitable, (even) if the universe has given one lemons make lemonade of it, etc. No doubt some version of the latter is wise counsel, indeed, in the condition, which we are actually in, either of not knowing whether there is more or other than this life or in fact knowing that there is no other, the beginning and the heart of what we should think and what we should do. This is not, though, the view assigned here to Sinatra or to Heidegger. For that view, the cup of immortality—or even of a few more millennia, or centuries—if it could be, and were, offered to us, would or should be disdained, as vain illusion, or denial of what it is to be us, in the universe. For this view, to accept such a cup, even to aspire to or wish for it, is to be less than we can be, and sometimes are. Still, though, the dialectic relentlessly continues, if these things were so, there will be no place, at any rate no important or significant place, for God. Dasein does not need deity. If something resembling this model were correct, there could even be a God; it would not matter. God would be the king, or the mayor, of the cosmic town where we lived, and, even if He saw all that I thought and did, and would be my friend if I would have Him, this would be wholly external to what I am and what seriously, inwardly engages me and gives me focus. It will remain true, then, that without some version of life beyond this life theism can have no important purchase for us. (If Heidegger, or a similar philosophy, were right, it will have no such purchase anyway. Immortality—or a suitable variant—is a necessary, though not a sufficient condition, of any part of a theistic package mattering for the serious inquirer.) Yet, still, there is a response to the Kantian stance implicit in the (arguably) most philosophical version of our claim, which must be considered. To see it we will proceed by a somewhat roundabout route, addressing another theme which has sometimes entered explorations of the relations between God, if He exists, and humanity. It is sometimes argued by opponents of standard versions of theism that the model that theism incorporates for the intended and valorized relationship between God and humanity is actually rather close to the one found (sometimes valued,


Chapter One

sometimes scorned, in this case) between humanity and the dog. “Man’s best friend” is found to be, and sometimes is valued for being, loyal, faithful, trusting, and essentially servile. The dog does not know what “Master” knows and may have in store, but loves and obeys, without question, confident that Master will act for dog’s good, and licking the hand that sometimes wounds as well as feeds, that ignores as much as (typically, more than) it rewards. Proud freethinkers have viewed the proposed God-man relationship with contempt, as essentially that of mandog, and unworthy of the allegiance of a human being (even, for some such rebels—admiring, as they sometimes have, Milton’s Lucifer—if there really were an omnipotent king of the universe). Darwin, in fact, appears to see the dog/man relationship as not merely a suggestive analogy or model for the relationship conceived to hold between man and God, but as pointing to the origins of religion itself. “The feeling of religious devotion is a highly complex one, consisting of love, complete submission to an exalted and mysterious superior, a strong sense of dependence, fear, reverence, gratitude, hope for the future, and perhaps other elements. No being could experience so complex an emotion until advanced in his intellectual and moral faculties to at least a moderately high level. Nevertheless, we see some distant approach to this state of mind, in the deep love of a dog for his master, associated with complete submission, some fear, and perhaps other feelings.” (The Descent of Man (1871), p. 816.) Interestingly, or complicatingly, Darwin himself had a very great esteem for dogs, by no means merely that of the contented owner of a ‘slave’. At any rate: surely, it may be argued, there is a modus ponens which may be turned into a modus tollens in this area, as with so many philosophical arguments which may at first seem so compelling. Is it self-evident that humans might not be at a relatively comparable degree of distance from comparable ‘higher powers’ than dogs are to humans, and that the mindset of such conceivable higher beings might not include not just faster computational skills, a greater degree of practical rationality more consistently applied, but also higher moral, affective, aesthetic, and inwardness quotients? Who says (i.e., with what defensible justification do Kant or others say) that we are members of a cosmic club of persons, whose president is (if He exists) God? (And is not the demand for or expectation of immortality (or its existential equivalent), in relation to a supposed deity who can confer it, rather like that of a petulant junior relative or scion awaiting an inheritance which might possibly be denied— “come on, would it cost You so much, I just want my modest little share of

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


what You have, do not be so stingy…”). An anticipation of a line of thought somewhat of this kind seems implicit in fact in the Biblical Book of Job. Although humans have, quite often, deeply loved their dogs, and sometimes shed bitter tears when they have died, and mourned and missed them, it has only quite rarely, and never (it seems) with thinkers of philosophical discernment, seemed other than that the dog’s existence does or should coincide with its biological existence. Some sentimental songs imagine an afterlife for a favoured dog, and pagan kings and nobles had esteemed dogs killed and buried with them, to keep them company in the post-mortem world, but the usual view, even (perhaps especially) among those with a most deeply felt, internal, and sensitively imaginative conception of the dog and his/her condition, appears definitely to be that no wrong is done in or to the world, that there is nothing existentially problematic or challenging, with the idea or the reality of the individual dog’s death being also that being’s extinction. Rather, it seems, there is felt to be a fitness to things, even if a fitness partly or briefly hard to take, that the two should coincide. Why should it not also be so with humans, even if—in a sense, arguably, especially if—there is a master Huntsman, a keeper of the cosmic hearth, by whose side we may hope, while we live, to find our deepest fulfillment and our peace? However: the issue at hand is, what does or should really matter to us, in the theism territory, specifically, what counts for most, what comes first, in this area? We are not assuming that theism, in any form, is true, not assuming, indeed, that there is the slightest good evidence or indication in its favour. We are (at least at this point) on the outside of evidentiary issues. As in ethics, the issue poses itself, even for Kant, why should I be moral? why should I care as to whether to consider a claim or case for morality—even if there were objective ethical facts? so we are seeking to identify the fundamental basis of what makes for mattering with regard to religious and theistic questions or dimensions to life. So, even if a God, like Job’s divine master, would owe nothing to its human creation, in the sustaining-in-being line, and a universe with its conscious bits in it is not amiss, absurd, or tragic, if significant clusters of those bits have their consciousness and their being permanently extinguished, still: were that our case, why should we, or indeed (if we knew that this was the fact of the matter) why would we care about, or have a deep interest in, whatever salient facts of origin and governance there may be (particularly when they are largely if not entirely beyond our ken anyway) for the world as a whole? There are wild dogs as well as domestic ones. Apart from some


Chapter One

case for a greater security, comfort, or prosperity—which might or might not be a fully convincing case—what will be an existentially compelling reason not to be a wild dog, to prefer domestication? (The relevant parallel is acute, and apt, particularly because we have to conceive a case for the wild dog’s preferring “domestication” with invisible humans, imagined as or believed by faith to be real, but not known to be so.) “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John xiv. 2-3) What can there be to religion, or a claim made by theism, that can (deserve to, or in psychological fact) catch our existential attention, much less our allegiance, if it does not offer at least the hope of some such thing as what Jesus here claims? It is to be noted that the hope or faith in an afterlife need not be held or felt as completely certain and confident, in order to be able to ground religious life. The nineteenth-century painting of the young woman by the countryparish cemetery, with her meditative and by no means sure query “Can these dry bones live?” points to a very reasonable basis, or component, of what may be an arguably authentic version of a coherent existential theism. (The painting—“The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live?”—is by Henry Bowler, and hangs in the Tate Gallery, in London; the question posed is from Ezekiel xxxvii.2-3.) One does not know for sure, and may acknowledge that one d oes not, and sometimes indeed waver, and doubt; the matter may be felt as unclear, obscure, veiled. And indeed a genuine religiosity may be centrally focused, have its centre of gravity, on this, the terrestrial world, and conceptions of place, vocation, destiny, commitment, among one’s human community—the whole of humanity, or a more local and specific group—with somewhat muted attention to a supposed world to come. Some Christian conceptions of life in its most important and meaningful forms as pilgrimage give attractive expression to this idea. Yet, still, the larger imaginative picture must include the idea of a continuation and some species of fulfillment in a life beyond this one, if a theistic conception is to be both one that will make coherent existential sense and be one about which one can care. Some will think of another possible claim of religious commitment to attention and concern, and this may be the juncture at which to address it. Humans have wanted other things from their God, or gods, besides a life that will continue after death. They have also wanted things in and for this life, which they have hoped that God might provide for them, or grant

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


them. They have hoped as well that God, or gods, would not visit calamities, or pains, upon them which they have felt sure He would be capable of inflicting. In many religions, and for many practitioners and believers to this day, a central part of religion has been entreaty, or prayer, that a wish might be granted, or a fear or pain be eliminated, or its object be prevented from coming to pass. These respective positive and negative facets have not been the only components of prayer. There has also been, for many, an idea of simple and direct communication, messages sent (typically, by being uttered aloud) to the deity without, necessarily, any favours being asked or sought. In principle someone might believe that God exists, that there is no afterlife for humans, and that (nonetheless) God intervenes and obtrudes in human lives, sometimes invited and welcomed, in other circumstances unasked and even, perhaps, dreaded. Interestingly, sophisticated philosophical theology has almost invariably rejected any idea that so-called petitionary prayer is ever literally causally efficacious—i.e., that God had been going to do such-and-such, and He was deflected from doing so because of the character or earnestness of the praying individual, or the content of the prayer the individual produced. Part of the reason for such rejections has been that God, being omniscient, will know in advance what entreaties will be presented to Him, and know as well what action He will take regardless of what prayer may have been presented. His foreknowledge may include awareness that prayers are going to be presented, and that relevant action will be taken because those prayers, with their degree of seriousness and earnestness, will have been produced (and not otherwise). Prayer as reflective meditation, or as a would-be component of conversation, may be given a reasonable, even a sensitive, and sympathetic, interpretation. Prayer intended to cause God to do otherwise than as He had wanted and planned (or would have wanted and planned) to do is conceptually problematic (as Kant, who viewed petitionary prayer with contempt, saw). As mentioned, most intelligently articulated versions of theism have sought to understand prayer otherwise than as prompted by desires to alter the intended course of action of the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler of the universe. Nonetheless, there might be identified, and defended, a theistic position which took seriously the idea of outcomes that were, not just in fact but in principle, not deterministic functions of immediately prior states—that is, which were such that even a Being possessed of all the knowledge that it is possible to have, wouldn’t have. If some such cases involved determinations of outcomes producing pleasant or unpleasant, or at any rate, preferred or not preferred, developments for


Chapter One

human beings, we could possibly articulate a sort of “Epicurean” or “quantum” version of prayer, that would seek to cause a God to effect one outcome rather than another, which hadn’t (yet) been known even by Him, prior to His intervention (or non-intervention), and the outcome effected occurring possibly as a function of entreaty. At any rate, sophisticated rational theology need not be deterministic (or compatibilist). All of the preceding skeletal reflections noted, it seems nonetheless clear that it will not be a central or serious part of the inner life of a serious and authentically inward person to proceed as their life advances in a condition of hoping to secure goods or avoid ills through prayer, or otherwise to expend energies in an optative condition vis à vis the deity (or a deity). There is nearly overwhelmingly abundant evidence of a nomologically reliable and uniform world. Even if the believer might manage to believe that miraculous interventions might occur as cases of causal overdetermination, or in some other ways consonant with the ongoing continuity of a reliable causal order, there seems no place of secure purchase for a theology with God at hand to reward or thwart, but with no prospect whatever of a life beyond this life. I will take it a theology of such a sort may be discounted and ignored, as neither psychologically nor existentially credible options. I pass on to considerations, challenges, questions of a different kind— metaphysical, and physical ones, but meant here primarily in respect of existential dimensions they present. Were there an afterlife, of whatever stamp and duration, it would have to be of me, continued from this life. There are, of course, conceptions which many regard as philosophically more arresting, even, some might say, more “mature”, according to which post-mortem existence is not individualistic; for models along these lines, Buddhist and other, self dissolves into something wider, I in some manner continue, but not as me. The best basis for evaluating the comparative claims of individualist and non-individualist survival is, I think, consideration of what one would prefer if one had the option of choosing between them. We need to note, before turning to that consideration, that “individualist” need by no means connote or imply narrowly (so-called) “atomic” individualist assumptions; maybe a self cannot exist except within a formative and sustaining context of other selves, a community, culture, etc. Considering, then, these alternatives: if you could choose, would you rather, at death, “flow into the ocean of being” (so to speak), or continue as a self, as you—where, perhaps, you might be able to find out what Byron had written in those memoirs before his supposed friends destroyed them, what the fundamental postulates of physics actually are,

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


or have youth restored, interesting sexual or other experiences which you may have cherished in this life? Not that an individualist option would necessarily include such components as those just named; but some developments that would realize hopes or goals from life on this side of the boundary would seem very plausibly attainable were there to be an individualist option. There might not of course be any such choice, and maybe, were that the case, flowing into the ocean of being might be an acceptable second best. But it is hard to believe that it really would be preferable, if one could have the option, to some imaginable forms of continuing as me. If this is granted, we go on to need to acknowledge that, in actual fact, in the real world, later, above all latest stages, of, by no means all, but most lives are shrunken, diminished, typically pathetically lessened versions of what that life had once been. Enfeebled, perhaps long-drugged, demented, stupid, husks and shadows of—not one, but many earlier stages and phases—is it this life and this being who is to be continued? And if not, when does the clock stop, to what point on the life-dial does the revived self leap? Can it be other than capricious, too existentially leapfrogged, even for omniscience? That earlier self, before those brain cells had died, before I had realized that, is it that that I (must) return to? It is me, to be sure, just as an eleven-year-old of long years past is; yet also in some specially existential sense, not. So much is learned, so much forgotten, angles of launch and trajectory are so altered, as life races along and goes by. A common denominator of all these selves, then, divinely engineered, a selection of best and most, or peaks and valleys identifiable as typical? It is only metaphor that old age can be seen as an illness, which divine medicine can cure, or erase. The subject of that time also is me, navigating, coming to new gains and losses, with stumbles primarily but not only physiological. Can these be thought of as merely engineering conundra, safely and not unreasonably able to be left to divinity to solve? For what it may be worth, Aristotle argued that this is essentially an engineering issue; his case is worth considering: “…if [thought] could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence of old age. What really happens is, however, exactly parallel to what happens in the case of the sense organs; if the old man could recover the proper kind of eye, he would see just as well as the young man. The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus, it is that thinking and reflecting decline through the decay of some other inward part and are themselves impassable.” (De Anima bk. I) Even if entirely deterministically, what happens to us—more or less whatever does—is serendipitous, as undergone from within: it


Chapter One

arrives, a new bend in the river of our life. Presumably new bends could involve and disclose a shedding of states of decline, and recovered power and health. Perhaps Aristotle is right, in respect of our modal options, of what omnipotence could do. At any rate a coherent afterlife, if such a thing can be conceived, will necessarily be a continuing from here, wherever here has gotten that self to—Alzheimered, comatose, injury-assailed and modified, whatever history has brought, and wrought; not a return to any status quo ante. From there, perhaps, a still flickering thread-ember of life if not consciousness could be conceived to continue, gradually to revive, resume, be healed, come to new occasions and experiences. All of the foregoing noted, including Aristotle’s not unreasonable analysis, the facts seem to be rather as Epicurus, and his follower Lucretius, affirmed. There is no serious good evidence for an afterlife; rather, indeed, the situation is very much the contrary. As asked by more than one musing inquirer, if we were to have an afterlife, why bother to have us die? Whence death? Further, our mental powers do seem to follow a trajectory that is in line with our bodily ones. Even if various processes could be revised or reversed, the profile of our respective bodily and mental enfeeblements are at least more or less in tandem. So it is indeed probable that when the one system breaks down and ceases, so too does the other. The matter is not decidable a priori. The supposedly sophisticated quasior explicitly verificationist thought experiments, and attendant conceptual rhetoric, notwithstanding, it would be possible (as Kant acutely, discerningly saw) for a divine engineer of sufficient power, through instrumentalities even if they were to be beyond our imagining or computing, to preserve us in being even where our bodies might have been destroyed. Only, there is not the slightest good reason to suppose that a divine engineer does do that; or for that matter to suppose that there is any such divine engineer. There are two other sorts of bases from which religion, or theism, has been argued to make serious existential claim, or to be something which deservedly commands reflective pause. The first is an idea that religion is a central and integral part of culture; that my culture’s practices and institutions include religious ones, which are thereby, if I am integrated with, properly grounded in, my culture, are also mine. This idea can be expanded upon, and wrapped in a mantle of rhetorically appealing gauze, and argumentation. But there is no reason to bother. The idea can be seen, quickly and decisively, to be defective. It flies in the face of fact. Our own

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


culture is pluralist, and too significantly secular, for this notion to have genuine purchase. What is genuinely there, and ours, mine, in our culture, at any rate when it is viewed as a comprehensive whole, does not include (a) religion (just as it does not include irreligion, or secularism). Moreover, for cultures with a religious identity-component, that component is, all too frequently, oppression; at any rate, the serious individual must be able to stand apart from whatever religious constituent of their culture there may be, even if loving and drawn to it, with an individualist stance of brooding critique, battered by their god it may be. It cannot be a smooth and comfortable matter, relaxingly enveloping, mine because it is ours. The second further alleged base for an existential claim for religion is that the latter is one of the fundamental and autonomous “islands” of human experience. One has left something out if there has not become a developed place in one’s life for ethical understanding, for sexuality, emotional intimacy, art, humour, hard analytical thought, participation in community, some form or other of athletic activity, and perhaps other spheres. And—this argument goes—religion, or religiosity, is another of these spheres or zones. Obviously enough, some people lack it altogether; in others it is present only in minimal or stunted form. But it is like that also with many or most of the others. Some people, it seems, are more or less humourless, or asexual, or almost completely without affective interconnection with others; some are tone deaf, with no interest in or response to great art, in any form, at all. What a pity—most of us will say. Some will view these sphere-deprived individuals as actually pathological. Others will view them merely as unfortunate (their misfortunes sometimes, alas, having harsh and undesirable consequences for others). In any case, most of us, whether or not we adhere to any theoretically developed teleological view of human well-being, will view many life-sectors as deeply important, and life sadly, axiologically incomplete if it lacks them. The point acknowledged in general, the question then becomes whether religion or religiosity are among these necessary components of a life that is worthwhile or complete. The answer to this question seems on careful reflection to be negative. It may be acknowledged, affirmed emphatically, in fact, that a human life that can be complete, and existentially serious, will involve deep reflection on large issues of self, and world. This is the very impulse to philosophy, of course. The unexamined life is indeed not worth living, nor is life that doesn’t probe, and ponder, the largest and profoundest questions of origin, nature, and significance, of the world as a whole, to whatever extent these issues can be intelligibly pondered and probed. Further, it may reasonably


Chapter One

be held that more specific questions as to whether there might be larger or higher minds, and purposes, at work in the origin or sustaining of the world, will come to engage at some time or times the serious mind; and, arguably, at least, that that serious mind will arrive in due course at some measure of tranquility, and respect, with regard to ideas and positions that come to positive, affirming answers to these questions. If one ever was, one will not remain a “village atheist”; one may perhaps affirm, with G. A. Cohen, an “anti-antireligious” stance. (I note tangentially, and parenthetically, the sociological fact that it seems to be not rare for reflective engagement with life and world eventually, very widely, to arrive at just the sort of pondering I am here remarking on. According to some, this is very much something which aging male philosophers are particularly prone to. It will not take rocket science for the reader to connect this sociological fact with the motivations for and the occasion of the present body of reflections. Yet, even if each stage of life’s journey may have its distinctive preoccupations, they are not thereby rendered nugatory.) Two ideas, which some will see as cognate, others not, will naturally present themselves along the pathway of this line of reflection. One is the idea of “the spiritual”, or of “spirituality”. This is a currently much favoured conception. It is exceedingly common, and exceedingly popular, now, in our culture, to affirm that one is not religious, but, rather, spiritual. But what exactly does this mean? That one feels attunement with a sunset, a summer’s day, a forest one walks in, the human family, or is conscious of feelings of broad connectedness occasioned by nature, art, or human relationships, specific or general, is no doubt a fine and good thing. One may find it meaningful, or useful, to call such attunements, or feelings, spiritual. It seems to be a mistake, though, an intellectual error, but one with existential import, to see such matters as these as other than rather distant cousins of religion, or religiosity. The latter essentially involves some sort of idea of a veil, with facts, realities, being, including some dimension or other of mind, and meaning, on the other side of that veil (this side containing the sunsets, forests, works of art, and human beings and other animals and bits of nature). Religion essentially involves some sort or other of metaphysics. It may be held to be metaphysics that is discernible reasonably clearly, and determinately, at least in outline, as in Thomistic theology, and other theistic theoretical schemes; or it may be held to be ineluctably beyond clear resolution or determinate grasping or accessing, even in part, by us. With convictions of the latter kind there may be some reluctance to call this a matter of metaphysics. This is not the context to argue, or even bother much, about a word. The idea of the veil, and realities, and being, on both sides of it, may possibly do, in this

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


setting; it does not seem that the ‘spirituality’ of at least very many of our current fellow-travelers accommodates or includes something like that. This deficiency does not seem to attach to the second of the two ideas we meet on the path signified above. This is the idea of the sacred. This idea finds effective, at any rate very vivid, expression in Kenneth Grahame’s very popular Edwardian children’s novel The Wind in the Willows, with one of its animal characters’ encounter with the great god Pan. It also appears to be at the heart of Heidegger’s later philosophy, and such claims as it may make for reflective allegiance. For some inquirers, and some in their personal lives and convictions, the very idea of religion is ineluctably bound up with the idea of the sacred—the idea, that is, of something veiled and opaque, but sensed powerfully as something important, and meaningful, involving mind, and purpose, before which the appropriate attitude is one of awe; usually, also, the sacred is sensed as involving beauty, and power. It will be clear that the idea of the sacred is an idea of an apprehended or apprehensible reality, an idea of something known, or knowable (by some minds or other, even if not necessarily by ours); not, that is to say, merely of a state in the subject with apprehension of that idea—although important dimensions of feeling will be involved too. There are many dimensions, of course, to religion, religiosity, and theism, and many forms that cluster has taken, in the lives and belief systems of individuals and cultures. I think that there is no doubt that some element of an idea of the sacred is indeed an inseparable component of many of these dimensions. Religion could not consist just of theology, even with attention confined to its allegedly purely doxastic components. Another way to put this would be to say that if there were nothing missing in the full stock of answers to questions-as-to-divinity, there would be something missing. The sacred is in part that which one does not know. It is (a species of) mystery; mystery, indeed, that one (humans, anyway) cannot penetrate or decode. There can be mystery in an object of our attention. There can be mystery also in the attending. That is, there can be (are) areas of life and thought where knowledge is beyond us, where our best bet will be belief—or, if we refuse to believe (if we can), fence-sitting. If Kierkegaard, and some other religionists, are right, then the idea of the sacred attaches not just to objects of religious attention, but also to the attending as well. We do not have, for Kierkegaard, an existentially serious religious state of consciousness except where we are in rational or objective terms uncertain, more precisely, without even rationally probable locations and grounds of belief. This theme becomes philosophical in more directions than one: it becomes the territory of Locke and Clifford-


Chapter One

style ethics of belief, and Jamesian riposte; it leads also to explorations of the very idea of truth as subjectivity, in areas additional to the religious. Our issue, though, is whether an existentially serious life will—must— have a sector in it for the sacred. For if it must, then, it seems, there can be authentic religion without immortality, without even a “faint hope” of immortality. It will be important to be clear that we mean to be referring to a concept of sacredness that will involve something like the “other side of the veil” notion, vague as it may be, discussed above. A mere valuing of, or reverence for, the world, life, or special places, objects, or moments, will not suffice. That re-affirmed, it does seem that some thinkers and others do have some such notion of the sacred. And, as we have noted, that some, even many, humans lack a fundamental existential component, does not suffice to preclude its being an essential part of authentic or serious life. However, there are, at least, “problematicities” with the idea of the sacred, and they will be enough to diminish if not cancel its claims to an ineliminable or basic place among human goods, or existential desiderata. “To understand all is to forgive all,” Voltaire is said to have said (apparently, he didn’t, actually; Mme. de Staël said something close to the oft-cited aphorism). Whether or not fully understanding all of the facets, aspects, all of the etiology and content of something would lead to an inability not to forgive the something (whatever it might have been), there seems little doubt that that degree of understanding would make it very difficult, or impossible, at least for human beings, to enjoy many things that human beings enjoy, to feel and know them in their special experiential character. Humour, and eroticism, seem obvious candidates for these claims. Few, if any, humans, could sustain mirth, or arousal, were too full a floodlight of knowledge of every dimension of the intended object of humour or sexual desire, and of what was involved, general and particular, in the experiencing going on, on the individual occasion, to be present in the consciousness of the human subject concerned. Just as too much memory would render us incapable of action, we seem clearly to need to have the lights dimmed, so to speak, for many of the kinds of things which we do, including many that are enjoyable, or meaningful, or important for us, to be able to happen, and to be able to have the special savour, colour, and flavour by which we know and prize them. The same is no doubt true as well of thrills, and pangs, with experiences—like scary films, and stories—which only some of us enjoy. There are also somewhat “secular” versions of the sacred, which appear to invite the same variety of reflection. Bagehot, referring in the mid-Victorian era to the need to surround the British monarchy with trappings of ceremonial and mystery,

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


said, memorably, that “it is important not to cast daylight upon magic”. Can such facts, and reflections on them, point to the deepest levels of fundamental existential reality, and seriousness? Can they be anything other than facts of anthropology, and of human psychology? Put otherwise: could the sacred be sacred if it lacked mystery, and opacity? And will it not, necessarily, be a kind of trick, game, or show, if this is its case? Possibly a necessary sham, or illusion, and even a desirable one, for creatures equipped as we are equipped. Enjoying sex, a good laugh, the thrill of a horror movie, and the sacred, as we do, or may, who would want it otherwise? But this will nonetheless land us somewhere at very considerable distance from anything inherently valuable, or at the deepest plane of being, as such. Further: we are here in phenomenological territory, in the domain of how things are felt, and found, the what-it-is-likeness of things. If there are gods, or spirits, of any sort, there will be—presumably—what it is like to be a god or spirit of that sort; there will be what it is like to be God. Can we expect, would we suppose, that the sacred would be sacred also for God? Presumably not, if He is the supreme, the paradigmatic case of the One who will understand everything. But, it may be said, goods will be no less good if they are specially confined to humans, or to any other sentient creatures. Thrills, of various kinds, can surely be good things if they are of the right sort, if they go authentically with the telos of one’s tribe, or kind, and provide connection with the world of which one is a part, in the right, sometimes cognitively (or otherwise) enlarging or enhancing way. It may, of course, seem even provocatively inappropriate, and certainly irreverent, to call the emotional tonality of an occasion on which someone has what they (and others) may call an experience of the sacred, a matter of a thrill. Let that term be withdrawn; there will, in any case, be an emotional tonality such occasions will have, a what-it-is-likeness of experiences of the sacred, just as for experiences of cognitive insight, human relationship, sexual joy, humour, and other deeply and unproblematically human things. The difficulty with the sacred is that it seems that it rather easily retreats into the zone of the “merely spiritual”—that is, into being a matter of states of attitude and feeling which do not require, even for their seriousness or validity, that there be anything on the other side of a sensed ‘veil’, any more than, say, an experience of reverence or humility, or the investing of importance, with regard to such items as life, or the human community, does. There may perhaps be added to such “merely spiritual” states a cultural awareness of one sort or other. Thus, there may be found,


Chapter One

and purchased, books on ‘the sacred places of humankind’—coffee-table books, some of them, which provide, often with beautiful photographs, accounts of places on the earth’s surface which cultural communities of one sort or other have regarded as sacred, and whose special character the reader of the book is invited vicariously to participate in. There is more also to be said about the mystery that the sacred essentially involves. In addition to the apparent need of shadow or concealment that the experience of the sacred requires, its specially religious character may easily, and plausibly, invite speculations of a Freudian kind. The sacred beings disguised or concealed in experiences of the sacred, in ways which enhance the special character, and importance, of those beings, can seem like parental figures, whose nakedness it is important the prostrate or awefilled subject of sacred emotion not witness. Some will have a specially marked antipathy to views of this kind. Just as there is a stance or attitude that is very reasonably decried, and dismissed, as that of the “village atheist”, so there can be identified a comparable “village Freudian” perspective. Both should be viewed with suspicion. Yet there are questions which the hidden and mysterious aspects or components of the sacred should reasonably raise. To use bald psychological language, it seems right that the hiddenness and mystery in what is discerned as the being(s) encountered in the experience of the sacred is not merely a hiddenness or mystery that is there in order to keep the subject’s experience intact, i.e., to not “spoil” the experience for me (the subject); rather, where I encounter a sacred being in an experience of the sacred, that being ought not to be fully exposed to me, my eyes (or other sense modalities) should not fully or clearly perceive what may be there, what, but for what is mystery and concealment in the experience, I would, or might, perceive. Again, it is difficult not to think of this as parallel or comparable to what is supposed to be kept concealed from direct view or experience in the person, or the bedroom, of the parent. Parallels and analogies will, of course, have their limitations, and sometimes leave out what may be especially important in just one of the cases. At any rate, it is difficult to believe that a satisfactory independent case is made for religion, for religiosity’s deserving to matter in the life and priorities of a serious, authentic, existentially focused human being, wholly independent, that is to say, of whether there were an afterlife, or even a merely possible fideistically grounded idea of such a condition beyond death, by the idea or any supposed experience of the sacred. If we knew, somehow, with finality, that there was no such condition as an afterlife, it is difficult to believe that a sense of the sacred which was more

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


than mere spirituality (or than culturally enriched, or informed, mere spirituality), involving conviction that one encountered there, in such experiences, awareness of realities beyond a veil that would never be lifted, or known otherwise than in concealment, could ever genuinely lead to a primary grounding of religion in anyone’s life. That some—many—people are of a “religious” temperament or perspective cannot be denied. It seems to be psychologically and existentially false, though, that that is a temperament or perspective which all serious, fulfilled, or authentic people would share or participate in, even to some (meaningful) degree. Comparisons with the political and other spheres of life suggest themselves. It is an error—and it is important to grasp that it is an error—that all would have the ‘souls’ of socialists (or, for that matter, conservatives) if human life and personality were simply sufficiently developed. These are territories where perspectival pluralism really does seem sound. Perhaps the world needs, and thrives from, a range of dissimilar temperaments and attitudinal perspectives. If so, one may welcome, even celebrate, the presence in the world of people with a ‘religious’ outlook, people who look out upon the world, and experience it, in religious terms. But, again, it will be a fundamental mistake to think that all ‘should’ know the world in these terms. The religious need to have room in their lived world for brothers and sisters whose outlook is not like that. A final possibility may be considered for a grounding of religion, or religiosity, that will enlarge upon the reflections just articulated. It might be argued (though, in this case, few have actually argued) that a religious temperament and at least a certain kind of anti-religious temperament, or outlook, should be viewed as species of a very important and fundamental genus. Investing parts of the world with a sacred character, and seeing all of it in connected religious or spiritual colours, may be brought into comparison, then conjunction, with the outlook of the ideological humanist—he, and she, who decries all slavery to superstition, and who refuses to bow in submission or abasement to supposed mysteries, or a supposed master of mystery. Epicurus, Hume, Paine, Shelley, Russell, in their own ways Marx and some of his followers, and numerous others, of valorizing scientific temperament—are they not, importantly, brothers and sisters (cousins German, at least, surely) of those of passionate religious persuasion? In all these cases there is at the centre of the stance a profound caring about the world, and about thought and feeling as parts of the world. Russell, indeed, expresses his version of the humanist outlook (he elsewhere famously calls it “A Free Man’s Worship”) in terms that have


Chapter One

particular relevance to the larger argument advanced in these pages: “…I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanising myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.” (“What I Believe”, in Why I Am Not a Christian (Unwin, 1975), p. 47.) We can of course choose to take words as we may prefer; and there are clearly commonalities in kinds of profound caring about the world and its conscious denizens. But it really does seem also importantly wrong to call Russell’s or similar valuational stances religious, even in a stretched sense. Religion seems to require reverence, and the Russell stance appears wholly to lack it. Reverence, submission, humility, abasement, awe in the presence of the divine or the sacred—these appear to be at the core of the religious outlook. At their polar opposite is pride, which not for nothing Hume, knowingly, insouciantly, makes to be the first and the very model of the human passions, archetypal of what is defining, and valuable, about us; realizing as of course he does that it is for the Christianity he detests one of the seven deadly sins, the sin of Lucifer. Still another line of thought which may be thought capable of motivating or sustaining religion without an afterlife component should be addressed. What about the idea that God is necessary to ground mattering, that without a God, or at least belief in a God (whether or not that belief was true), nothing would matter to anyone (or to people in general, even if a small number of aberrant souls might be able to manage); or matter in a deep, coherent, or whole-of-life way? If this idea had purchase, one could argue that a serious adult individual could achieve and sustain a serious religious outlook and practice, even if it were accompanied by a conviction that there was no afterlife. We need there to be things that matter to us, indeed, things that matter inherently, not just to us. We need this psychologically, but more than that, also for our conception of the world with us located and active in it, to be coherent, to make sense. And—the argument goes—mattering needs a grounding, and that grounding cannot consist just of abstract formulations, bodies of supposed synthetic a priori necessities of value, the right, and the good. A grounding

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


that could serve to make mattering coherent and life-operative for us, needs a grounder, a conscious intelligence who frames and oversees. And, should push come to shove, and there just wasn’t going to be an afterlife for us—whatever the reason—we would, and could, tough it out, take it on the chin, for we would still have a world, and our individual lives, with a content, structure, and direction of meaning and mattering. Complicating, but also compromising, this line of argument, is the already-affirmed fact that there are people who do have a ‘religious temperament’ (perhaps of more than one kind), and the fact alongside it that quite sizeable numbers of others (many among them with formally avowed religious commitments) do not—really do not—have those temperaments. Maybe those, or most of those, with religious temperaments, need their mattering to be grounded in a grounder—a God (at least of some sort). This will not show, or perhaps even suggest, that those of other temperament will have the same ‘spirit’-based grounding needs. But it may seriously be doubted in any case whether, even for most of those of religious temperament, the push-come-to-shove scenario sketched would have the indicated outcome. Even if we do need, in general, to have a sense of priorities of importance and value, relative and absolute, for our lives and (perhaps also) the overall scheme of things, it does not seem at all clear that were we to know that there was a king in charge, and He had definitely and permanently denied us lives beyond these ones, that we would nonetheless persevere in conditions of allegiance and integration in a web of community of praise, prayer, and practice focused on that king. It is difficult not to believe that we would come to think of God, in this case, as not merely not of our tribe or kind, but as a force (merely) of alien governance. If so, this in turn would lead to our housing, or grounding, the mattering that we wanted—and needed—in a scheme of things not really requiring a king. There may be point, in this regard, to Nietzsche’s proclamation of anti-theism with the formula that God is dead—as though He (and not just what He symbolizes, or represents) had once been alive, but was no longer. Just as we may mourn, and regret, the demise of our fathers, we can go on with him gone, and find bases of meaning in the world to which he may have contributed, but which do not depend on his being (or being regarded as) literally still there. There is also the philosophers’ point, made repeatedly in the lineage from Plato through Kant to almost the whole of post-Kantian moral theory, that the concepts of the ethical and the inherently valuable really are distinct— importantly distinct—from theological theses or considerations. The


Chapter One

philosophers are right about this, and the non-philosophers (those who don’t already) can get it, can see that they are, in ways that make differences in how lives, and the world, are conceived and occupied. I do not mean this to imply, what so many philosophers and humanist ideologues also affirm, namely, that humanity really can comfortably, smoothly, and unproblematically, move into widespread states of consciousness and a culture of purely humanistic type, horizons of value entirely bounded by principles and values we think we create (or see to be laws of reason). Maybe something along such lines is possible for us (as Enlightenment liberals, Marxists, neo-pragmatists, and others, have held); the matter seems obscurer, at least to me. I have been exploring, and reflecting on, religious topics and themes in a way which I hope may be seen to be not primarily or exactingly evidentiary, with, indeed, a candid acknowledgement that there is very much which we do not know, including much which would matter a great deal to us could we but know it. Although I have also some difficulties with the full Jamesian conception, or project, of a will to believe, and its defensibility or, as James argues, its rational warrant, I mean this undertaking to be within a broad framework one of whose most illustrious flowers is James, as another, also, is Kant. It nonetheless emerges, I think, that, with all the will in the world, there is no grounded purchase for theism, or a religious mode with or without careful or concrete credo, if it does not involve at least hope of life that is more than this life. Then, finally, we really must return to and confront matters of evidentiary warrant. Granting that there is so much of which we are ignorant, and that much of it will include things we would care about, things that would affect us deeply, “where we live”, and granting also Kant’s very wise and perceptive point that, notwithstanding verificationist and empiricist sorts of stances (and worries about re-identification and tracking problems, in strange but conceivable possible worlds), a sufficiently powerful and caring being really could pull off the individual and personal survival of death of each one of us; granting all of this, and endeavouring as honourably and as sensitively as we can not to be narrowly positivistic, reductionist, or scientistic in our epistemic requirements or expectations, there really is no good reason at all, from anything we know or experience, to believe that there is, for us, any other life than this life.

Reflections on Theism, Religion, and the Philosophy of Religion


Postscript A number of philosophers, some of them extremely influential, have argued that our individual death is necessary for our individual life to meaningfully matter or have significance in some other existential way. This is a key part of some existentialist and phenomenological positions, as well as views held by other philosophers, especially in ethics. While many of these decisions and arguments given for them are arresting and extremely interesting, none is ultimately compelling. We could survive death, even if not indefinitely, nonetheless there is no good reason to think that we actually will. Samuel Scheffler argues quite powerfully for a distinction he draws between what he calls life after death and personal survival after death. The latter is the well-known idea of individual personal continuity in existence after biological death has occurred. The former is the continuity of the human species after a given person, oneself for example, has died. Scheffler believes in the second but not in the first, indeed, believes that the second is extremely important for ethics. With significant ethical implications. This seems in fact not convincing. Ethics including a strongly moral realist position in ethics seems wholly independent of whether there are human beings. And the personal issue of survival of death appears to be addressable, empirical and decidable on its own regardless of the fate of humanity as such. I will have more to say about this issue in the next chapter.


The most distinctive and important perspective on morality may be attributed to Adam Smith and David Hume and others who followed their lead. This perspective sees morality as grounded in the ability to place oneself in the position or “shoes” of another person or a community of which that person is a member. This ability likely has biological origins or genetic roots and will have been naturally selected in the human species or some of its primate forebears. This ability can take a dark or negative form as well as positive. A sadist or a torturer must be able to imagine the suffering or pain he or she may seek to inflict, i.e. what it will feel like for the intended sufferer just as a good person needs to be able to imaginatively place himself in the circumstances of someone committing a good or desirable action. As well as Smith and Hume, Schopenhauer and Darwin saw this capacity for sympathy as basis and core for morality and human life. Future empirical research may expand our knowledge of the origins and the relevance of this fundamental human capacity. For Hume himself, morality is a social or community phenomenon. The capacity for it is grounded in the sense of sympathy and develops as a reflected consciousness of the social utility or disutility of projected actions of individuals or groups. He understands utility as a net ratio of pleasures over pains which would be experienced were the action contemplated to be implemented. In this regard, Hume is clearly a forerunner of later utilitarian views as we find them in Bentham and Mill. The entire perspective is seen by Hume as wholly naturalistic, resting first and last on fundamental features of human nature which in turn we may think of as biologically grounded. Although Hume does not anticipate Darwin except in respect to the aboriginal capacity for sympathy itself, we may be certain that Hume would have endorsed and approved of the Darwinian theory of natural selection, and held that all of the elemental features of human nature will have developed over a long period of time in parallel with other species of animals in nature.


Chapter Two

What many would take to be missing from a Humean account is what is usually called the transcendental or self-conscious inner awareness. It is not clear how successfully a purely naturalistic analysis of human nature can incorporate or include this further evident human capacity, the capacity to reflect on oneself and one’s psychological circumstances, and to know that one is doing this. Like most intelligent writers, Hume shows in his prose and in his letters that he has the transcendental awareness of which we speak. It is unclear whether other animals, even other primates, share this capacity for self-awareness with us. Chimpanzees and other higher mammals have been shown to have a skill for self-recognition in the mirror. But this is not seen to be the same thing, even if it may perhaps be genetically ancestral to self-awareness. It would not seem possible to put oneself in the shoes of another, unless one had a developed way of self-awareness. So we may be sympathetic to this modest piece of genealogical proto-biology.


About three million years ago a primate now called “CHLCA” (no skeletal remains of this creatures have so far been found) lived in central Africa and was to become the common ancestor to chimpanzees and human beings. Around two and half million years ago a significant evolutionary change occurred when one group of the species moved and became isolated on the west side of the Great Rift Valley and another found itself isolated on the east side. We might call them west-enders and east-enders respectively. The west-enders were the ancestors of all living chimpanzees and bonobos, the east-enders evolved by stages into hominids and hominins. Some groups of them lived in what is now Ethiopia, others much further south in South Africa. All modern-day human beings descend from one or the other populations by about one million years before the present. All but one of the species of hominids and hominins has gone extinct. The surviving species homo erectus carried on in east Africa, gradually multiplying and moving northwards. Human beings were a highly gregarious, highly sexualized primate species, which have preserved many of the traits which had been shared with their bonobo cousins. The study of early humans and the nature they possessed from earliest times is one of the most exciting ongoing branches of paleoontology and paleoprimatology. Every year or two a new chapter or part of an older chapter is added to this story as new skeletal findings are made in east or south Africa. It seems reasonable to claim that one day the story will be more or less completed. And when it is, new work will be required to come up with a proto-cultural account to accompany it. For our purposes we will assume that that work has been done and proceed from there. Even if a final position will be naturalist or anti-rationalist, one should write as a moral realist with modifications or qualifications to come later. In that voice we will proceed as if some act or states of affairs or people are good, bad, right, wrong tout court. In negative valence acts of cruelty


Chapter Three

or extreme unkindness will be so. While in positive valance acts of exceptional generosity or kindness will be so. As with Aristotle, there will be no human relationship of higher moral worth than friendship. And a moral law will imply that similar or identical circumstances will have the same ethical merit or demerit. There will be important but difficult categorical questions as well, as to what the proper bearers of moral properties are, e.g. acts, states of affairs, or sometimes people or other sentient beings. Provisionally I will say that any or all of the preceding can qualify, but differences, at least some of them, should be expected to make differences. Another difficult category is evil. An adequate moral theory should imply what it is and why it is so. Provisionally I will say that evil is a state of character in a sentient being. Would that mean that a dog or a dolphin or a chimpanzee might be evil? I think not. But a plausible theory of evil would have to indicate why such outcomes would be impossible. Presumably a rational being from another planet could be evil. Again, one wonders why that would be so. And clearly, a persuasive account of evil should give us good reasons. We should always expect that there might or there would be a completely naturalistic, indeed Darwinian account of all facets of morality, of why we are moral beings or creatures with morality, and why anything in the universe that was in those respects like us would be moral likewise. It is easy to understand how some particular characteristics of human beings would easily and nicely lead to morality. First, that we are large-brained. Second, that we have language. Third, that we are a gregarious species. Fourth, that we are highly sexed, and/or highly libidinous. A combination of these traits would lead to concerns about status and possession, and ideas of romantic attachment. Evidently, modern psychological research justifies the idea that being surprised, being impressed and/or wanting to impress our fellows are among our most basic traits. Again, the melange of all of these attributes make it natural that a species, namely our species, would come up with notions and practices that register and monitor that behaviour has been appropriate or acceptable or otherwise, with sanctions against the cases deemed otherwise. Concerns for the identity and wellbeing of offspring would further enlarge the hotpotch already specified. Elements of proto-morality have been identified in chimpanzees, bonobos, and other primates who are our biological cousins. Presumably like every other trait which human beings have, some set of natural prior conditions must have brought it into the world that human beings assign or ascribe moral properties and make moral judgments. There will have been a time in evolutionary history when people did not do this and then later after the supposed developments occurred, they did do this. And presumably there

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


will be better and worse explanatory theories as to how these things came about. We will have to confront and have something to say about Moore's so-called “naturalistic fallacy” in the course of considering alternatives and options and most plausible conclusions in these areas. This is just part of why a fundamentally Kantian ethical perspective seems so intuitively sound. Kant was a moral realist and this seems basically right. Some things are good, bad, right, wrong, without exception or qualification. Something must make them so if they are so. Kant held that it was the possibility of the intrinsically ethically sound being the equivalent of a law of nature that would govern all rational beings in similar or comparable circumstances. This seems fundamentally correct. Also, that there is a supreme or highest good that may be said to illuminate the world and which we can identify and respect whenever we think about it. Kant thought as well that the only thing without qualification is what he called a 'good will'. Evidently an un-revisable wish or intention that the good be practised and pursued. This too seems correct. Among philosophers who have recognized these facts are in addition to Kant; W.D. Ross, G. E. Moore, Iris Murdoch, Catherine Wilson and Charles Taylor. There will also be questions as to how ethics intersects with the philosophy of religion, if it does in any fundamental ways. Here I am inclined to think that the relationship is a rather distant one. Although I agree with Kant that if there were a god, he would be subject to ethical considerations just like any other rational being. But these are issues that we will defer to a later part of our journey. Ross's distinction between the right and the good remains valuable and viable. The right is concerned with issues of justice; the good with what is inherently or supremely of value. For the latter Plato comes onto the field as an important player, just as Murdoch held. It is worth thinking about the idea of a highest good and considering alternative options for that role. For Kant of course it is a good will. Just as for Epicurus and the tradition from Epicurus to Mill it is the greatest sum of happiness amongst sentient beings. For Plato, it is inevitable, a supreme brightly shining light like the sun. It may be apprehended only with the kind of mystical illumination. My view is this: Even while there is a case for all of these positions, none is quite right, though perhaps Plato comes closest. That is just part of why everyone who is interested in morality or ethics should read and ponder about Iris Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. A truly valuable and important philosophical work.1 For the right, no philosopher is more 1

Iris Murdoch's moral philosophy bears interesting and mutually illuminating resemblance to the moral philosophy of Charles Taylor as set out in his classic


Chapter Three

important than Kant. Starting of course with the Grundlagen. Although A Theory of Justice made a significant splash when it appeared, John Rawls in my opinion is not as important a moral philosopher as are Plato, Kant, Ross and some others. Doubtless many of the conclusions we will reach and defend will bear similarities to Rawlsian positions. That may be inevitable. Nevertheless, Rawls is overrated both as a political philosopher and as a moral theorist. The first datum of moral theory to register is the idea of the good, just as Plato declared so long ago. The idea and the ideal of something being utterly and absolutely good in itself, as itself, and for itself, inherently and intrinsically. One line that could be pursued is the subordination of ethics to value theory. In its terms the absolute and supreme good would be the thing of highest value. Nothing would have greater value than it. What is the highest good? Many of course have answered with a single term or concept: happiness. But as Ross and others have argued, that cannot be right. Some things produce happiness, but should not. And some things are better than happiness. There are things worth sacrificing happiness for; just as there are things worth sacrificing a life for, including the happiness or safety of some others. Plato's answer to our question, his question, seems to have been things being in their proportions relative to each other. This appears to have been a Pythagorean view and is just part of the considerable evidence that Plato was a Pythagorean in metaphysics as well as in morals. But this answer too doesn't seem like it can be correct. The world might be worth losing even at a cost of some proportionality that otherwise seemed unsurpassable. We have said that the bearers of moral qualities appear to include people as well as acts or states of affairs. It may be easier to say what makes for being a good person than what makes a state of affairs be good. We seem to have in mind that a good person is someone who is fair in his or her dealings with others and is kind, generous, at least mostly tolerant. A good person will also be thoughtful, philosophical in at least one sense of the term; courageous, that is to say endowed with that remarkable quality we work Sources of the Self and its successor volume A Secular Age. I would like to acknowledge helpful discussions with my former student Matthew Martinuk who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Guelph on this historical theme. Both Murdoch and Taylor argue that it is only possible for there to be an intelligible modernist view of the world under the assumption of ethical objectivity and some theory or other of a moral realist character. This view seems quite persuasive.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


call moral courage. Some, including some moral theorists, e.g. G.E. Moore, would say that goodness is a primitive and unanalyzable property, maybe having in mind such things as that one knows it when one sees it. Goodness in a person appears to be a disposition of character, rather like a virtue, if not indeed virtue tout court. Virtue ethics is a leading contemporary variety of ethical theory. I don't myself think that it is correct, but I do think that some account and appropriately detailed assessment of it needs to be made. The idea that all or most of the major moral philosophers were actually virtue ethicists, appearances to the contrary, is especially unpersuasive. Nonetheless, saying that a good person is a virtuous person seems right. According to virtue ethicists, virtue and human goodness are fundamentally matters of character. Patterns of action and behaviour that require a span of time, possibly even a complete lifetime, to manifest themselves and issue in evaluation by this measure. It seems clear, perhaps, even obvious, that someone could be virtuous or good for one period of time, even a significant portion of their life and dramatically otherwise–even vicious–for another portion of their life. Character, like other behavioural patterns, it would seem, can change and sometimes does. It also seems clear that character might well not be the only thing or even the only pattern of behaviour that might be good or bad. We shall probably have more to say along that line subsequently. As well as identifying and providing analysis of what it is to be a good person, Aristotle had the notion of a magnificent person, that is, a superlatively good person who is especially good or good in a paramount way [megaloprepes: magnificence/ great-souled man—chiefly in the Nicomachean Ethics]. Another prominent contemporary variety of moral theory may be called 'moral rationalism'. It holds that there are basic ethical principles which are necessarily true and able to be recognized as such on reflection by the discerning mind. These will include principles of conduct and principles expressing what it is to be a good person. One historically prominent species of moral rationalism which still has weight and influence is called 'natural law theory'. It has especially appeared among Christian philosophers though also among others. Kant, G.E. Moore, and W.D. Ross were prominent moral rationalists, though none of them would seem to have been natural law theorists, though at least one interpreter would see one or more of them as such. Unquestionably all were moral realists and moral objectivists.


Chapter Three

A special variety of natural law theory is religious natural law theory, especially Christian natural law theory. The Christian precept called the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12) is a clear antecedent of Kant's categorical imperative. Versions of the golden rule are also found in many other religions, among others, Judaism. There is a psychological trait important to identify in the present context which will also be significant for other instances of moral analysis. This is the psychological disposition of endeavouring to bring something about. One will endeavour to bring something about if and only if one intends to do it, and if the opportunity to do it presents itself one will perform the act concerned. Endeavouring then is acting on a resolve or intention where it was possible to do so. Whenever someone does something deliberately and freely there will have been an endeavour to do so. If we are responsible and accountable for our actions, there will have been an endeavour to perform those actions. Another concept important to utilize is one due to W.D. Ross. Ross was a classical scholar as well as a philosopher and made rich and productive use of the Latin phrase “prima facie”, that is, “in the first stance” or “apparent”. So, writing of a “prima facie duty” or prima facie good. Something that seems to be a duty or a good, but whose really being so could be overruled or nullified by factors in the circumstance or situation. One might have a prima facie duty or obligation to carry out some act, e.g. fulfil a promise, but that act need not be one's real duty or duty tout court, because something in the circumstances took precedence or had greater weight. Kant famously said that the only thing good without qualification is a good will [ein guter Wille]. I cannot agree that this is correct. Nonetheless there is something deeply interesting and plausible about Kant's idea. We may frame it in the following questions: Is a good will good without qualification? What Kant seems to have been thinking about is the idea of a mind intending and wanting and perhaps endeavouring that there should be good, i.e. that good obtain. This does seem right. The conception of a mind bent on the existence and the obtaining of good or that good is richly imaginative and deeply ethically plausible and promising. Even if not the only state of affairs that is or could be good without qualification or intrinsically, it is surely one of them. It is surely one of the things that is so. Just like Kant's starry heavens above, the conception of a genuinely good will in his sense is enlightening and enriching.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


Another major question that is asked of a moral theory very reasonably is what actual and practical implications it has. If that theory is correct, what are my duties? Are acts of killing in war, in self-defence, for food, or as capital punishment morally justified, and if so when and why? What justification is there ever for acts of punishment or sanction of any kind? It seemed clear to Kant and later to Ross that a moral theory, if adequate, must raise and answer all such questions. The correct moral theory, the one I want to defend, I will call a broadly Humean moral theory, and will want to assertably, a natural moralistic theory in the sense in which all of Hume's positive theories and analyses were naturalistic. Another moral philosopher whose ideas should be discussed at some point is Nietzsche. I don't myself think that he is as important a thinker as many clearly think he is. But his influence and currency are undeniable and should and will at some stage be taken account of. Part of Nietzsche's importance for ethics is that he was an ethical historicist, that is he held that a proper understanding of morality needs to take account of its place in the history of thought and action. This idea is particularly to be found in the philosophy of Hegel. Hume's thought is in a different category of significance. Hume believed that human beings are equipped with a moral sense, a sense of sympathy whereby we can and do imaginatively project ourselves into the shoes and circumstances of others whom we observe. He thought that this sympathetic power was the primary root and basis of moral thought and behaviour. He also thought that general utility is the primary component of situations we regard as morally correct. Sympathetic projection and broad utility are the fundamentals of what we regard as ethically sound. Sympathy and considerations of utility then are what comprise what is good and what is right and wrong. We can add to them the fundamental Kantian notion of justice as fairness. It makes sense to suppose that even at a fairly early and primitive stage of human development, these three vectors will have displayed themselves and determined projections, judgements and behavioural outcomes. The terms “good”, “right”, “fair” and others of their ilk will have followed shortly thereafter as parts of linguistic and behavioural life. As with many other aspects of his philosophy, there is considerable disagreement about the interpretation of Hume's moral philosophy, which has been quite acute among Hume scholars in recent years. Some interpret him as a moral sceptic, some as an emotivist or a proto-emotivist. Other


Chapter Three

views take him to have been a utilitarian or Epicurean. Many take him to have been a moral realist; some even think that he was a virtue ethicist. My own interpretive view is that as in most other areas of Hume's philosophy he means to be a psychological naturalist with analyses and theories that will give rise to and rest upon exceptionless general principles, laws of nature. Still another moral realist position to identify and comment on may be called common-sense moral realism, or possibly, pragmatist moral realism. This position holds that there are moral facts and it is a matter of experience and discussion to discover what they are. Some things are good, bad, right, wrong, etc. and we can observe and in some cases debate what falls under these headings. In some circumstances we can change our minds about particular instances. A key part of this position is the idea of moral education whereby moral facts of the matter are transmitted to children and others like other facts are. You teach your kids how to tie their shoes, what some basic facts of arithmetic are, and some of science or history as well. And you teach them what is right and wrong, when and as appropriate circumstances for their doing so arise. Little Johnny slugs his sister Brenda and we say that that is not a good thing to do, is bad, etc. We may give reasons for these judgments. How would you like it if someone did that to you? etc. Objections will suggest themselves. Why couldn't different ethical injunctions be taught variant, say, by culture or historical epoch? Why couldn't mistaken and immoral values be transmitted and reinforced? In response, the same might be said with regard to any common-sense 'truths' and matters of fact. That's how it is with a common-sense lore and wisdom as it is transmitted over time, generation by generation. Parallel responses would seem to be available for any variety of moral realism and be found persuasive or not. I have called the true moral system approximately or broadly Humean. Let me enlarge upon that idea. It is part of human nature imaginatively to project oneself into the shoes of observed others. And we do assess the desirability of proposed courses of action in terms of net-utility for those concerned. Utility being understood in fundamentally hedonic terms. Hume belongs in a family of Epicurists, Bentham, Hobbes, Mill and Catherine Wilson; and in that family, somewhere, is where ethical truth lies. Blazing overhead as well is the idea of supreme and sovereign good, simple, primitive, absolutely basic. This is not intended to make either Plato or Kant a sort of Epicurean or Humean, even though some have

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


argued along such lines. Each is irreducibly other, unique, sui generis, and imperishably significant and illuminating. I am arguing then that the ethical truth that is to be found in Hume unites also, in addition ethical ancient forerunners, elements of Kant, Mill, Moore and Ross. I hope though that this may be seen as a moral realist position, rooting the ethical in human nature. What of evil? And what also of non-human animals? Are there good and bad dogs, gibbons, dolphins? Why not? Suggested and perhaps related to the preceding will be issues as to whether things other than humans or persons can have moral status or significance. Among such proposed items have been environments, ecological systems and entities, planets, species and trees or other plants, taken individually as well as by species. Still again, great works of art and religious or cultural optics and artifacts are held by some to have inherent ethical value or worth. According to such modes of thought, if someone were to destroy the Mona Lisa, that would be an offence not just against French law but against morality. These questions raise a larger or wider one, viz., whether ethics should possibly be regarded as one of the sectors of axiology, the theory of value. We should affirm some conclusions for views on some of these issues even if their defence may need to be deferred. The idea that axiology is a more basic science than ethics has much to commend it, and yet the idea that some things are simply right or wrong and that there is inherent good and perhaps bad seems impossible to deny or dismiss. Is the theory of value, i.e. axiology, a proper part of ethics and if so then ethics might need to be divided into the right, the good, and the valuable. If that is persuasive, then a great deal more work remains to be done, specifically as to what is involved in having inherent or intrinsic value. If we could tell that, then arguably the intrinsically valuable could be identified with the intrinsically good. In either case the good and the valuable would appear to be dependent on a community of one sort or other. Communities as such are not necessary beings. There are possible worlds totally lacking communities. And yet the claim that if something is intrinsically good or valuable, then at least one community exists, seems undeniable or practically certain. It need not be a community of more than one individual. Perhaps the world is my representation, as Schopenhauer claimed. Evil is definitely a tough one. The so-called problem of evil is usually thought of in more or less theological terms. That is not our intent here. It does seem persuasive that if there were an absolute and supreme good, a highest good, there should also be something that is its polar antithesis,


Chapter Three

utter and irreducible bad and wrong. Evil is most commonly thought of as a trait of human beings, their characters or their actions, and it is usually thought to involve certain kinds of intentions, specifically that particular others suffer or be injured. If there can be a good will, one would suppose that there also can be an evil will, one bent on the obtaining of irredeemably bad outcomes. Particular kinds of social or political aims or their leading protagonists will be thought of as evil. Again, the idea is one of a polar antithesis to good. It will be a moral subjectivist perspective on all these matters. If good can be in the eye of the beholder, so then presumably bad could be so also. Humean projectivism will find these stances continual. We have aligned our Platonic sovereign good position with Moore and Murdoch. Should we adopt the same view with regard to evil? I think not. Here if anywhere is a place where a perspectivist approach finds a foothold. So, what are some the of things that are good in themselves, good beyond price or cost, of intrinsic value and worth? The famous final chapter of Moore's Principia Ethica itemizes and characterizes Moore's account of intrinsic goods and evils.2 The perspective here is closely similar to Moore's. So, we will want to measure and assess relationships between our account and that of G.E. Moore. Undoubtedly friendship is one, just as Aristotle held. Some effective and reasonably functioning public institutions and services are another. Among them are a universally accessible health care system and the system of public libraries. Disinterested love – the Christian agape – is another. Beauty in almost all its forms and manifestations is yet another. I think that Moore was right: good is primitive and unanalyzable, and it is moral good to which this claim attaches. And as Moore also held, those who think otherwise are committing a fallacy, which we may as well call as he did a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Like Moore, I think some things can be good, i.e. good in themselves, without being good for anyone. As well, I think that something can be good in itself without anyone being conscious that it is so. So if the good isn't experienced, the person whose experience it is may well not be conscious of it and aware that it is a good thing. Such consciousness might be sufficient for its goodness even if it were not necessary for it. Further like Moore, I would argue that at least some art objects are goods in themselves–outstanding pieces of music for example, or Greek paintings–and that the goodness of such objects does not require 2

Moore, George Edward., and Thomas Baldwin. Principia Ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


or depend on anyone's experience of them; that something can be good without being good for anyone. Some of these items might be artifacts, possibly made by someone bad; that won't materially affect the issue. Gibbon (see Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) argued that the age of the Antonines was the best and most successful period of human history up to and including his own late 18th century. While I wouldn't agree with him about the philosophical supremacy of the Antonine period, I would agree that some periods of history have been better than others, and possibly of some we might justifiably assert that that is as good as it gets, in at least some respects, without qualification. Perhaps we need to be art critics of philosophical historians to have intelligent or defensible views in such areas, but that wouldn't be the only cases where philosophy requires some non-philosophy. Is our account a version of hedonism, that is, is goodness a function of how much pleasure or absence of pain is involved in what occurs or is proposed? I think not. Hedonism incurs many objections posed by critics from Plato to Kant to Moore and Ross. Someone's pleasure might involve the pain or suffering of others and we will not want to regard such a case as good. Also, pleasure or happiness even if good, even intrinsically good, would surely not be the only thing that's so. Our own critics will still say that any moral system, and therefore ours among them, which accords utility a fundamental place cannot but be in some sense hedonistic or eudaimonistic. To this charge we should and do plead guilty. What else can degrees of utility be but degrees of advantage, benefit, pleasure or happiness? Let it be so, it is so. In our system we will be sympathetic to the idea that there will be principles that are moral principles that are necessarily true, synthetic a priori truths in the moral sphere that is. One such principle that we may see as plausible will be what will be called the Mill principle, the central principle of On Liberty: Anything is morally permissible that does not involve harm, hurt or injury to consenting adult others. We will probably reject this principle as precluding the possibility of so-called paternalistic actions or laws. Actions or laws intended to prevent people from unjustifiably harming or injuring themselves, whether or not harm to others is also involved; compulsory seat belts when driving, for example. Another such putative principle is the 'ought implies can' principle, viz. That if there is a moral obligation to do something, there must be naturally possible that the action be done. The latter should be understood as implying that if agents are concerned in the action, that those agents have the power or capacity to perform the action in the circumstances in which the agent is placed. This one we will accept as a necessary truths of ethics. Ought does imply can.


Chapter Three

In general, we need and want to distinguish between the moral and the legal. Something can be legally permitted but nonetheless immoral or wrong, just as something can be legally required but immoral. A famous example is the case of runaway slave laws in the United States before its civil war. These laws required ordinary citizens to assist in the recapture and return to their owners escaped or runaway slaves. It seems self-evident that some law or legal principle could be ethically wrong and that in general there is an important conceptual distinction between something's being legal or legally correct and something's being morally right or ethically correct. We have in a similar context referred to parallels or important analogies between ethics and metaphysics. I here give expression to another. Let me here share with the reader another biographical disclosure: Like numerous others in the world who are similarly afflicted, I am a compulsive listmaker. My cupboards are filled with lists and lists of all manner of trivial or unimportant things. Facts and items that can be distinguished, one from another. One of these lists is of titles of books or book chapters that are, more or less, insignificant in themselves, but nonetheless express something significant or important. One of these is the title of a book on psychiatry and psychotherapy called tellingly Psychotherapy: The Purchase of Friendship.3 Another of these items is the title of one of the chapters of F.H. Bradley's book in moral philosophy Ethical Studies it is called 'My Station and its Duties'. In metaphysics it seems right to differentiate a perspective on the world, that is to say on reality, that is grounded in one's own location and conceptual and ontological priorities: the world as it seems from where I am; how the world seems or appears to present itself to me or to the individual ego or self. This may be called the ego-centric or subjective or memic take on reality. It will contrast with a supposedly objective or person-irrelevant or metic account of the world. Similarly, in ethics there will be the self-focused point of view that does indeed ask what my station in the world is, and what duties and moral responsibilities are implied by that station. This will contrast with the issue of what are the absolute rights and wrongs of the world, the intrinsic goods and the highest or supreme good. Not that one should be any of these things, but the option remains that one could choose to do so. Another question which any moral system and therefore ours among them must confront is whether and how it can handle moral dispute and 3

William Schofield, Psychotherapy: The Purchase of Friendship, Prentice-Hall, 1964.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


dissension. People disagree over the rightness or wrongness of particular actions or policies even if we are able to explain why they hold what they do to be the case morally. It will nonetheless remain the case that some hold on to an ethical view they hold regardless of our theory, in some cases even where they may share our theory. For example, some people think that abortion is morally permissible, others that it never is. Likewise, with many other vexed moral questions that present themselves in the public arena. How will these disputes and disagreements even be possible according to our theory and our system? The same applies to any and every moral theory and system. One possible answer to this question will be that some moral issues are undecidable such that at the end of the day all we can say is that some say yes and some say no, giving reasons often for what they do, say what they say. The undecidability of some moral issues seems definitely right and that is the position of the moral theory that we'll defend and affirm. But there are ever so many moral issues and moral questions that can be raised and which we haven't yet addressed. Many have to do with the centrally important concept of a right. Can a right be conferred? Could one be lost, for example by certain kinds of ongoing trends? Can there be new rights, rights which did not formerly exist and now do? (A particularly absurd commercial, promoting its product, affirms that if you're 50 or older, with a good driving record you earn the right to save [sc. money] hundreds of dollars on your car insurance through Grey Power Insurance.) Equally supercilious is a TV commercial trying to sell a home phone line urging viewers to call Comwave and fight for the right to save. As though in addition to a right to freedom of conscience and a right to freedom to assemble, there is a right to save money on a home phone line. Although obviously absurd, the latter commercial does raise a significant question bearing on rights, namely the idea that some genuine rights might have to be struggled or fought for. While in the framework of identifying and lambasting silly commercials, I will mention one more, which also disgraces a TV screen: the ad is for a hotel chain to which the viewer is urged to give their custom. “You do your thing. Leave the rest to us.” Evidently the idea is that one hadn't had a certain right and by an appropriate pattern of behaviour one acquires that right. You earn the right to save by buying the insurance that the ad is selling, presumably by having attained some level of virtue in the pattern of one's driving. Is such a view refutable and dismissible as well as being absurd? Presumably it is. Though it seems plausible that there are cases, for example, running for elected office and winning, where there are rights, privileges and prerogatives attached to that office whose exercise has been acquired through winning.) How


Chapter Three

would such matters as these be decided? The weight that it should be assigned to our intuitions in these areas appears as problematic, as in any other area in philosophy. We do and must rely on intuition, that is on what on reflection seems clearly and overwhelmingly correct and indubitable; and doing so in moral philosophy seems no more problematic than doing so in metaphysics or epistemology. Among pressing or significant practical or real-life moral issues are the determination of when the death of the human being should be held to occur. This is important for dilemmas like a possible right of assisted suicide and related problems. Two distinct criteria have been defended: the cessation of heart-activity, and the cessation of brain-activity. In both cases, irreversibly. Some argue that it may be arbitrary which of these is preferred, or that context may favour one or the other in particular cases. Potentially linked to that challenge is the issue of whether and in what circumstances a legal judgment of not criminally responsible (NCR) can be warranted, where someone is known to have killed another human being deliberately. Presumably there will be undeniable instances of someone mentally ill committing homicide or a comparable act, where they should not be held liable for the full weight of criminal law and its violation. Part of the difficulty such cases pose is the issue of whether the wrongdoer might claim but unjustifiably to be not criminally responsible for what they did. Questions of justice should but will not detain us for long. Justice is fairness, fundamental equity and satisfaction of claims of right. Deciding what the just or fair thing to do in particular situations is not always easy or straight-forward but should always be decidable. It is very reasonable to think that such decidability will typically involve thought experiments, which might point to a Rawlsian or otherwise Kantian decision procedure. Such thought experiments may well also involve consequentialist considerations. Another important ethical issue is the question of what the good life involves. As in many other areas of inquiry the data from antiquity is very useful and valuable here. The several ancient schools of philosophy offered prescriptions for how to achieve serenity or tranquillity in this world. The most popular and successful of these schools were the Stoics and the Epicureans and both still offer valuable lessons for today. The Stoic ideal of completely controlling one's emotional life and living in accordance with reason and nature seems both interesting and impossible.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


The Epicurean option seems more plausible. It too involves living in accordance with reason and nature, though they are differently conceived than in Stoicsim. Epicureanism is a species of eudaimonism, the thesis that the aim of life is to seek happiness. For Epicureanism that happiness consists in pleasure and the absence of pain and suffering. The purest or clearest articulation of eudaimonism in antiquity was that of Aristotle, especially as articulated in the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle, the happiest of lives was one devoted to philosophy. Or more broadly the cultivation and pursuit of rational curiosity about the nature of the world and of the place of humanity within it. Here too, reason and nature were key to the elements or forces which should guide us in the pursuit of our happiness. In the ethical position I defend, the truths of and about morality must all of them be compatible with the basis truths of natural selection in biology. I also hold to a moral realist position according to which the basic truths of morality are, all of them, objective and imply the reality of moral facts and properties. I owe to Catherine Wilson the view that morality developed among humankind to a significant degree to protect and defend the weakest and most vulnerable sectors of human community or society, including children, women, and the frail and elderly. Mounting ethological indications appear convincingly to show that many non-human animal species— especially but not exclusively primates, above all chimpanzees—exhibit what is called 'proto culture' and 'proto morality'—perhaps coincident with the appearance and evolution of language. I affirm a version of the idea of a supreme good, a sovereignty of good in Iris Murdoch's phrase, and should make an attempt to explain or expand on what is to be meant by this so far as possible. I will draw upon text in song and prose to help motivate this central concept. This is cognate with G. E. Moore's notion of the primitiveness and indefinability of absolute moral good, the idea expressed well in the central text of the Englishspeaking world, the so-called King James translation of the Bible, informally known frequently as “the good book”: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. / And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. / And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. ... And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:1-30) The original translators appointed by King James and countless generations of English readers from 1611 to nearly the present will have known very clearly and very well what “good” means in the

Chapter Three


above famous passage. Another passage from near the end of the Old Testament will also illustrate and exemplify this deep and fundamental conception. It is from the Book of Micah: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8) Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on. (Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on. I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps: His day is marching on. (Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His day is marching on. I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel: "As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal"; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on. (Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since God is marching on. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat; Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on. (Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah!

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Our God is marching on. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free While God is marching on. (Chorus) Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! 4 While God is marching on. ( #Lyrics) Anybody here, seen my old friend Abraham Can you tell me where he's gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young But I just looked around and he's gone.5 “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason)

As many readers will note, two of the songs quoted make reference to famous assassinated presidents. It will also be observed that there is a religious, specifically Christian-religious tone or content in some of these passages. Jesus has always been one of the strongest selling points for Christianity, as the icon of an innocent man wrongly charged, convicted, and executed for what was claimed to be political activity; he is almost a poster boy for Amnesty International. It seems clear that there is a strong affinity between the idea of a supreme good and the sovereignty of good, and fundamental religious ideology, both Christian and non-Christian. Some of this view seems to be anticipated in Plato’s Timaeus (47c7-d7): “However much of music in sound is useful for hearing is given for the sake of harmony. And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions within us of our soul, was given by the Muses to him who makes use of it 4 The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic 5,_Martin_and_John


Chapter Three

with intelligence, not for irrational pleasures, such as now appears to be its use, but as a co-fighter against the disharmoniousness of the revolution of the soul which has come about in us, to bring it into order and concordance with itself.” It is also in accord with Schopenhauer's conviction that aesthetic experience is the dearest thing achievable for us short of mystical apprehension; and Schopenhauer ranked music as the highest of the arts. One of the areas of contemporary ethics that has become increasingly important is what is called “applied ethics”: the consideration of actual, current moral issues or questions. A moral theory ought to address itself to some of these. One of these issues, which has had lively currency in contemporary Canada has been the issue of physician-assisted death, or assisted suicide, in cases of irreversible terminal illness. Almost all parties have agreed that this ought to be mandated in law. Complexities have been raised with regard to what constitutes competence to judge; whether a physician could decline to carry out the lethal termination of a life on grounds of principle; whether the supposed right could be extended reasonably to minors; and whether improved palliative care could adequately and ethically address all concerns. At least one prominent philosopher, John Hardwig, has argued that there is actually a duty to terminate one's life after it has been sufficiently full. I do not share Hardwig's view. I think that someone afflicted with a terminal illness could not unreasonably hold out hope that some remedy or cure for what ails them and is killing them might still be found, even if death in fact arises before this hope is realized. Remaining in Canadian mode, I will quote one of the most distinguished of Canada's prime ministers in a remark he made before he was prime minister, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” Pierre Trudeau may be seen as a disciple of John Stuart Mill and his remark typifies the views expressed in Mill's classic On Liberty. One may generalize the issues concerned as the matter of so-called “victimless crimes:” actions which even if they might be formerly illegal, harm at most the person or persons who enact them. These will include the use of so-called recreational drugs and consenting participants in any and every form of sexual activity. In this I fully subscribe to the views of Mill and Trudeau. As Mill argued, the case for this position requires subscribing to at least a limited version of utilitarianism. As at least in part what the moral law implies.

The Evolution and Rise of Morality


The issue of recreational drugs in turn raises the question of how the state will control and distribute them, if they are held to be legal or treated as legal. This too is a complex and difficult question the solution to which would seem to be essentially logistical. The state might quite reasonably adopt a monopolistic position and gather tax revenue as it does with the sale and distribution of alcohol. There can be few matters more important for a decent society than the rule of law, and more particularly laws that protect the citizenry from wrongful arrest or conviction. A charter of rights and freedoms like the Canadian one is the best way to secure these rights and to ensure that no one will be convicted of crime without proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I will pause here for an interlude of a Joycean or Proustian character. It might properly or ideally belong in a chapter on human nature, social philosophy, philosophical anthropology or philosophy of sex. It will be based on observations or experiences I have had of two distinctive individuals. The first is an observation on elderly homosexual males. They are not particularly different from elderly heterosexual males, except possibly somewhat more garrulous, cantankerous and demanding. In other ways, they are once again the males they were originally. They even seem to have a renewed interest in females. At the same time, they cultivate friendship with other elderly males, not always very successfully. The phenomenon of the dirty old man is well known and well justified, especially as an interest in younger women and any possibilities of contact; above all this is an interest in the private or sexual parts of younger women. Less well known there is also the phenomenon of the dirty old woman, manifested above all in interest in the private parts of admired elderly men, even if that interest is not welcome. While in the same mood or under the same aegis, I want to articulate, and advocate, a position or theory I will call platonic bisexualism, according to which one is attracted both to individuals of one's own or the opposite sex commonly but not necessarily sexually or romantically. With many exceptions these attractions are not consummated, except with members of the opposite sex, and then; standardly with a view to producing offspring, either for the nation or one's tribe or one's lineage. These relationships are better called friendships than affairs. There have been a great many instances of the pattern described. Well-known historical examples include Lord Byron and Vita Sackville-West.


Chapter Three

Meta-ethically I think the position developed by Catherine Wilson in her excellent book; Metaethics from a First-Person Standpoint, is substantially correct. Like her I think that moral sentences are true or false, corresponding to facts in the world. Those facts are actually subjective states of groups of human minds expressing their approval or disapproval of what has been characterized morally. The groups in question are societies or cultures situated in history.6


Wilson, Catherine. Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2016.


The best human society is one that achieves the greatest happiness for the majority of the people living in it, very much as John Stuart Mill argues. It will be governed by a legislature consisting of one or more chambers enacting laws to achieve the utilitarian end. The greatest challenge for such a legislature will be ensuring that the human rights of individuals and groups are always secured or protected by its laws. A liberal democratic regime is best calculated to be the most effective in these regards. The most significant rival to liberal democracy is a society based on the social philosophy of Auguste Comte, as typified by the model of the republic of Brazil–“Order and progress”. If democratically elected, a Comtean regime could undertake to achieve the overall utilitarian end - the greatest good of the greatest number by different pathways than liberal democrats would advance. Small 'c' conservative political parties and programmes may fit this model. I don't think there is any third alternative to Mill – or Comte – style general schemes for producing optimal social and political outcomes. At the present time, several national societies on the earth are reasonable candidates for satisfying this normative outcome, even if all can meet with improvement in one respect or another. The Mill variant of the two models discussed finds its expression in so called left-liberal political parties and ideologies and as I have indicated is the one to which I adhere. It is a truism that, among those subjects addressed at sometime, every philosopher should write on politics. The Master of all those that know, did. And he with Kant and the best of others demanded it. So this will purport to be my reflections and conclusions on political philosophy. I'm not quite sure not only what I shall say, but what I shall want to say. That is, in general terms, what themes and subjects I shall want to address. Apart from the concerns with how human beings ought to aggregate and what is the best way for people to live. As Aristotle said, “All men as well as being curious want to live together.” Humans are naturally social, i.e., gregarious. In this we resemble very many of our primate cousins. My aim


Chapter Four

is to deduce the soundest constitution, and this is not my solitary aim, although it is one of them. So many have had that goal or aim. It is not obvious that liberal democracy is the soundest constitution for human beings, even if some version of it will end up being the most valid or valuable. There is also a case for different versions of oligarchy, probably in the form of different forms of meritocracy. But all of these matters require investigation and reflection. Our theme is of course a normative one, that, how people ought to live. One of the tasks of whatever results are reached is a Darwinian task. Other criteria and modes of evaluation are also appropriate to any ethical theory. Socially and collectively, I have myself at different times been some sort of socialist, then a social democrat and most recently a liberal democrat, and a straightforward out-and-out liberal. Even now I wouldn't altogether renounce all of these labels, or perhaps any of them. As with all subjects, one must begin somewhere. In this case, the natural and appropriate beginning is the simple fact that human beings are social. We love getting together with each other. We can't help it. The function of how successfully we manage to do it is part of our well-being. As may be true of most areas of philosophy, to find foundational issues in political philosophy, either conceptual or ethical or some combination of the two requires careful and intense work. It is not so easy to see that this generalization would be accurate for the foundations of mathematics and for some other highly specialized parts of philosophy, but on the whole it seems correct. For political philosophy there are also significant empirical issues and questions. In the mix thus: How did the state or political society originate in human populations? And what makes for an ethically satisfactory state or political society? Also, how does altruism arise and what justification can be given for it? And, what is the best account of political authority governing the relations between the individual and the society or community of which he or she is a member? This may be called the problem of authority and the individual, to borrow a title of one of Russell's books. The question of the origin of the state seems to have been solved and answered successfully by Aristotle. The state is an enlargement of the family, ultimately of the nuclear family. That is of parents of individual men and women with resulting children all of whom require food, shelter, and protection against external forces or individuals with malicious or predatory aims. A big enough enlarged family becomes a modest political

The Best Society


community with needs of decision procedures as to who will decide what it will do and when and how. Typically, the result is rule by the strongest, physically and psychologically. As numerous studies have shown, that is usually a most powerful male. A ruler/leader/commander will in due course confront a problem of succession: who is to rule next. Usually the nod goes to a biological son, though coups d'etat, takeovers, assimilations by foreign enemies are never rare. As well as the succession problem, a ruler needs to figure out how to keep himself in power. Machiavelli’s Il Principe remains an important articulation of one significant answer to this question. At the same time the ongoing needs of providing food, shelter, and defense for the whole community remain and need resolution. These are clearly empirical and logistical issues which we will not try to address at this stage. Questions and problems are important to identify and formulate. So are answers to them that have been historically or currently prominent. We have already identified a socialist position, and a social democratic position. Social democrats, it sometimes used to be said, are pinkos – that is, too yellow to be red. Another prominent stance is liberalism, which has meant different things to different theorists. Still another is conservatism. There are importantly distinct varieties of conservatism. A familiar variety of analysis which dates to the French Revolution, speaks of a left-right spectrum or continuum. More genuine socialism, the position which advocates public ownership and management of the economy and all material transactions and procedures, is identified as at the extreme left in this continuum. Social democracy is identified as a next neighbour on this continuum, with liberalism next neighbour to social democracy. A liberal does not mind and may actively advocate that some parts of the economy be publicly or socially owned and controlled. Conservatism tends to hold that older ways of doing things are best, that ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it’, and similar principles. Some forms of conservatism place special value on the particular community that is concerned. It is our ways of doing things that shouldn't be fixed, revised or reformulated. Obviously, who the 'us' is will make a difference. We may call this form of conservatism, nationalist conservatism. The extreme right of the political continuum, very pronounced nationalist conservatism, is sometimes called fascism. This reflects historical particularities, particularly in the twentieth century in Europe and perhaps Latin America. (Sometimes the term 'fascism' seems just to be used as a term of abuse by people on the left for some of the opponents on the right.)


Chapter Four

Every community lives within a physical environment. As a result, there are material and ethical environmental issues and questions with which a political society must deal. For some there is an environmental continuum which parallels the left-right continuum just discussed. For others nature is just nature and operates independently of our wishes or goals. This is still another issue which we will defer to a later place. Though, particularly because the planet and the living individual’s subsistence on it seem currently to be at some risk, these environmental or environmentalist themes may demand an unavoidable place in our investigations. Among other things political philosophy should point towards actual programs and policies at the local or municipal, at the regional and at the national levels. That is, political philosophy should lead to a politics. It must have principles to do so and arguments. These are not easy or obvious. That is evidently part of the point. An overarching question of principles which this invites is the following: Should a politics aim at the flourishing of the community that is concerned, or should it have some other purpose or goal? Another purpose or goal might be making the majority of the community concerned better in some desired way, for example more virtuous or more religious in a desired way. A community of the virtuous or a community of saints. Still another goal might simply be that the majority of the relevant community be able to get along with each other and achieve goals or results that they commonly want. It certainly wouldn't be easy, and it might not be possible to arbitrate among these or possibly other candidate aims. In fact, in many ways local or municipal government and the political issues it poses are the most important political concerns the individual faces. No one has more direct control or influence on the issues of your daily life than your mayor and city council. Just as local rule or rulers are of vital significance in the life of the individual, so too are the agencies which guard and protect the community at the local level, notably in the first instance, the police. A virtuous person is undoubtedly to be desired, but a virtuous police force is an essential, that is a police force which is efficient and principled. Another principle of political philosophy important to avow is the significance of local politics. In many ways municipal policies and determinations have a larger and more direct effect on how one lives or what one is subjected to, than to regional or national jurisdictions. It may not in the end matter so much who you vote for to be provincial premier or state governor but it sure matters who you vote to be mayor or a local alderman or councillor.

The Best Society


Another prominent and important question of political philosophy is the issue of distributive justice. How should the social product be distributed or allocated among a community. Who shall get what portion or share and according to what justifying principles, quantitative and conceptual. Along the lines of degree of creative activity and labour involved in producing the social product, perhaps? That might be arguably the principle of distributive justice operative in many, perhaps most, western societies. Degree of need? This is another issue deferred until a later place. Still another query: Should a special place or role be allocated to the community's elders, senior minds and voices who might be regarded as having something unique to contribute by virtue of their longevity in the community or life experience. Something like such ideas as those are regularly held to justify a second or higher chamber in societies with bicameral legislatures – a senate, house of lords, or upper chamber, or some other title or description. In simple societies the views and judgments of the elders can be held to be absolutely decisive and determinative of what should be done in particular cases. Still another ingredient in an adequate political philosophy will be an account of law–its nature, structure and perhaps some of its actual content –at each of the three levels of the local, the regional and the national, which we have differentiated. There may in fact be a fourth or possible level of government, namely the international. Some have advocated a world government. And this too is something we should address or take positions on, which will imply the stance on the matter. Law is indescribably important. So a political philosophy must include somewhere a philosophy of law. And as night follows day, a philosophy of law will have to include an account of what happens when law is not complied with, that is an account of sanction or punishment. What is it and what would justify it? Another topic for a bit later, a very large and complex one. Another question which we should be prepared to confront and answer is whether the account we are aiming to produce and defend will not be aiming at a description of utopia, that is of a supposedly ideal society. I think the answer to this one is no. Any way the question cake is cut, people find themselves aggregated into communities of one sort or other and faced with practical and theoretical demands of what to do. So there is no avoiding political philosophy even if one wanted to. Always, inescapably, there will be the 'what's to be done, and why' matter. In this way, political philosophy resembles metaphysics, which is also


Chapter Four

unavoidable and ubiquitous. One can't avoid adopting views or making commitments to how the world is, and one can't avoid having ideas about what ought to be done on the social and political plains on which one finds oneself. Both these fundamental areas of philosophy seem different from pure theoretical ethics in this regard. One can be a moral nihilist or antirealist or subjectivist, and still need to find a way to address and resolve these matters. Time to affirm some conclusions: It will probably not come as a surprise but I defend the quasi-Hegelian view associated with Fukuyama's End of History analysis, viz. that an open market democratic society with liberal institutions, insuring equal rights for all members of the community is best. Unlike Hegel perhaps, and Fukuyama, we will not affirm that history came to an end at the Battle of Jena 1806, but rather that it ends whenever and wherever a liberal democratic open economic order is achieved on all levels and plains of social organization, local, regional, national and international. We have unequivocally endorsed the Hegel-Fukuyama 'end of history' thesis that the optimal social and political system is some kind of conjunction of a so-called free market with liberal democracy. There have been different instantiations of that triad in empirical historical fact and in what can be and has been imagined and described in outline or blueprint. Can we get more precise about which version, actual or possible, we will prefer? Also, why is it so evident that a free market society is optimal? The best answer to that one seems to be that any alternative would need to be some kind of command economy with a government or committee making decisions about allocations of particular goods and services in detailed quantitative terms, and that seems difficult or impossible to square with a liberal rights-guaranteeing order. The latter may certainly involve commitments to a finite set of ineluctable and inalienable rights, one of which might be a right to seek to gain advantage of profit by producing goods that fellow citizens wanted in exchange for things that the society concerned held to have value, like quantities of precious metals or money. How could it be acceptable or persuasive that a small group of people sitting together in a room, still less a majority of a group of legislators, decide how much sugar or water an individual or a household is to receive each day or each week, even if there were some minimum level of economic or other expertise the committee members or legislators were required to have? Among inalienable rights we have already signalled that a minimal level of healthcare will be understood and included. Others will be rights of conscience and free speech and assembly, the sort of thing

The Best Society


guaranteed in fundamental constitutional documents and covenants, national and international. We will have to decide whether any version of anarchism or anarchical syndicalism is defensible, and given that it isn't, why it isn't. A regime of guaranteed income or negative income amounts to the same thing. The reason appears to be that there must be decidable issues in social and political life even if they don't supply direct and straight-forward rules of distributive justice. Accordingly, a social order in which things are allowed just to happen as they do or as they might cannot be a normatively acceptable social order, and there must be other and better methods of wealth and prosperity creation than giving anyone some minimum level of income or resource. Another important matter to have something to say about is an issue of logistics. We raised the question whether the political philosophy we seemed to be gesturing towards wouldn't just be a proposed formula for utopia and decided that one in the negative. That being the case, even so, where there are desired or endorsed goals it is necessary to give attention to the practical issue of how to it is supposed one is to get there from present structures and institutions. One of the pieces of lore or wisdom from the 1960s, which I continue to think has an important inner validity, was a directive aimed at revolutionaries or would-be revolutionaries. It held that whatever tactics or stratagems advanced with the argument that they furthered or help further some revolutionary goal, one should expect would be found operating in the regime after the revolution was successfully realized. This was implicitly an instance of modus ponens from which by denying a key premise one was producing a modus tollens, i.e., if you wouldn't want to see that being done in the post-revolutionary order, then don't do or advocate it now as something necessary or something justified to make the revolution take place (this was articulated well in remarks and songs by Joan Baez). In other words, if something is seen as a first-order desideratum, careful attention with details would be desirable, even a blueprint to how it might be realistically possible to get there from here, i.e. from what are recognized as the realities, good and bad, of the present circumstances and institutions. And recognize in turn that logistical or other perceptible obstacles will constitute at least prima facie objections to the proposed or supposed desideratum. More than once in the preceding narrative and elsewhere we have endorsed or reaffirmed key views of Aristotle's. Probably as central a conviction of Aristotle as any is the view that desirable ethical and political outcomes either of conviction or of conduct are a direct function of socialization. In the long-standing nature-nurture issues and debates,


Chapter Four

Aristotle is the original nurturist. Everything for him is a matter of education by example, precept and careful reinforcement. We will certainly not share this view tout court. But it will be a significant question for us whether we won't want to endorse some variant or version. This will in turn pose the question for us whether just as political philosophy seems ineluctably to lead to and to encompass philosophy of law, whether it doesn't just as well lead by inevitable steps to a need for a philosophy of education. Another of the views that we will defend is that what is sometimes called 'modernity' is an inherently desirable end place for a social or political order. Modernity implies liberal democracy, but the converse need not be the case. Modernity also implies general equality of the sexes and of distinct life modes provided that there is no agenda of forcing them on others. It is hard to believe that there could be a genuinely modernist society without bars and cafes where people could meet and mingle as well as indulge in favoured beverages. Likewise, a modernist society will be diverse and pluralistic in other respects. Typically, a modernist society will accord a central place to the individual household, characteristically one based on a nuclear family. Examples of modernist nation states include the membership role of the OECD. Modernism also implies individuals and households taking holidays, vacations and a diversity of locales. A modernist society can be expected to have diversity of cultural media, information sources and the like. One would expect a plurality of art galleries, cinemas, book shops and public libraries. How will all of this be affordable? We have not sufficiently investigated issues of public economy, apart from affirming allegiance to free markets; the third pillar of the Hegel-Kojève-Fukuyama triad. Modernism also implies the rejection of anti-modernism, affirmations of implementing or sustaining institutions or structures valued simply because they are old. Accordingly, it will be difficult to be a conservative and a modernist. One might have religious or other private philosophical commitments. One might favour hereditary monarchy (U.K., the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden are all modernist states). None of this is incompatible with modernism. One would expect as well that sports and athleticism would be well represented in a modernist society. Such a society would presumably identify and involve itself in the Olympic movement. What about proposals for dramatic modification of existing structures and institutions? Surely a liberal-democratic free-market society of the sort we are endorsing would have room for a Rousseau and a Marx and a Kropotkin, should one arise, someone advocating the wholesale repudiation

The Best Society


and displacement of the existing order. Our answer to this question will be an emphatic yes. Though the critic may still more strongly want to ask how this will be possible and/or affordable. One answer may be that the market will provide.1 Whether that or some other would provide the best case, we can assume that there is such a case and that it can be inserted here. There may be no free lunch, but ideas are free, including ideas of radical revolutionary transformation. Ideas are not only free, there's an inalienable right to think them. That will imply a right to seek to implement them. There might be several good reasons to prohibit many such would-be implementations. Another fundamental issue for political philosophy is a traditional one, namely, how various power roles are to be allocated, specifically the functions traditionally designated executive, legislative and judicial. All three structures seem essential for any community that is to endure for any period of time. In an absolute monarchy or dictatorship, the three functions are united in one person. L'etat c'est moi – I am the state – said Louis XIV. In most other kinds of societies, including all democracies, the three functions are separated usually into distinct institutions. The legislative function is exercised by a body which decides what the laws and policies will be. The judicial interprets law and policy. And the executive implements it or puts it into operation. In the liberal democratic freemarket society that we favour, the three functions are kept absolutely distinct. The nominal executive is exercised by a monarch or their representative. The legislative function is exercised by a bi-cameral parliament or congress, and the judicial function is exercised by a supreme court. There may or may not be a written constitution which specifies explicitly the respective roles and powers of the three institutions. It is probably preferable if there is such a constitutional document, possibly more than one. Yet another not yet addressed issue is as much ethical as social-political. That is the normative role of nationalism and national theorem. It seems quite reasonable that someone should have a special interest in and concern for the well-being of their own society and its successes and challenges. For some, nationalism is always bad, but that is not the view defended here. Is some degree of nationalism obligatory as well as permissible? I would say no. A thoroughly anti-nationalist stance is always reasonable, just as a nationalist one is. 1

c.f. Later Marxists claimed and attributed it Marx himself the view that capitalists will provide the tools for their own executions.


Chapter Four

We will do well to try to identify features and institutions of an optimal society that, if lost, would be deplorable losses, forever lamentable whatever shape the future took. Among these, I would say, is the bar or cafe, a possible gathering place for two or more individuals to talk, court each other, or otherwise engage in shared activity of mutual interest. Another is the institution of legally, officially, and publicly recognized pair-bonding, characteristically of individuals between opposite sex, even if sometimes not. Whether it be called marriage or by some other name. This institution or its equivalent carrying with it the possibility of producing and raising to adulthood a new generation is an essential component of the good life. Bars, cafes and possibly marriages as well require the possibility of legally available, sharable substances, containing alcohol, caffeine or something of the kind. Genuine liberalism traces back to Locke and those he influenced in France, Britain, and America. A more genuine heir of Hobbes in social and political terms is Auguste Comte, whose ideal of order and progress is encapsulated in the state motto of Brazil. Like Hobbes, Comte grounded the possibility of a state order worth having in a framework of law and order, aiming, as Locke and his heirs also did, at human progress and advancement thought the pursuit of scientific knowledge and its institutions. In addition to a liberal-democratic and a Comtian social order it is appropriate to name two other candidates for social and political allegiance. One is social democracy; the other is Marxian socialism. Both are state command economy systems, and both have had historical instantiations. Social democracy has affinities to liberalism, and may even be called its near cousin. Marxian socialism, on the other hand, has some reasonable affinities to a Comtian conception of a social-political and economic order. All forms of socialism have difficulty with respect to their democratic credentials, and for this reason I reject them in favour of liberal democracy. Socialism also fails on economic grounds since in all forms it requires a command economy, where decisions about consumer goods are made by a select few. This is clearly unsatisfactory. The origins of the conception of democracy has an interesting history. We tend to think of ancient Athenian democracy as the prototype of democracy. There is reason to speculate that it may go back to an earlier proto-Indo-European conception that survived in different Indo-European societies as the notion of a 'thing' or 'assembly', where all members of a community had a say on matters of importance.

The Best Society


Modern versions of democracy developed independently in England, France, and the United States. In England in 1688/89, France in 1789, and America in 1783. All of these, then, are outgrowths of the European Enlightenment. With the 2016 American federal election, America has endured for 240 years, and some see 2016 as its demise. Many nation states who are members of the British Commonwealth of Nations have adopted and continued the British, i.e., originally English, conception of democracy. Among the fundamentals of social and political philosophy is a philosophy of history. By this I mean more accurately what is sometimes called philosophical history, a tolerably detailed account of human history leading to the present which aims to discern patterns whereby the historical process has advanced. For me, as for major philosophical historians who have gone before, like Vico, Herder, Hegel, Comte, and Spengler, philosophical history is essentially the history of the West. The history which begins with Charlemagne and advances through the 21st century. It has included periods of world historical centres, like Athens, Alexandria, Rome, Paris, and New York City. And world historical individuals who have changed the course of historical development, like Alexander, Jesus, Charlemagne himself, Luther, Leibniz and Lincoln. Social and technological occurrences have also been key, among them the steam engine, the discovery of birth control, and successive stages of liberation and inclusion in the human family, like the abolition of slavery and the development of women's rights.


In Homer’s Iliad the Greek warrior-hero Achilles is given, the character himself tells us, a choice between two destinies, two life-profiles. His mother is an immortal goddess, so he can have some confidence that the option he prefers will really be what will happen, and the shape his life will take. He can have a life that will involve imperishable glory, triumph and success in the areas that matter to Achilles, above all the battlefield, with undying fame–dóxa stous ándres, as it is put in Greekʊglory among men–but where his life will be short, and he will be cut off in the midst of achieving that glory. Or he can have a long life of basic prosperity, but which will involve dying in obscurity, his mark upon the scene, human and otherwise, negligible and his memory soon forgotten. Achilles opts for glory. The thematic idea Homer presents is picturesque, and vivid. The comment on it I will make, and moral from it I wish to draw, is that Achilles’ choice is not an irrational one. It might or might not be the one which you or I would make, were we in the same situation, but it is not a choice forbidden by practical reason. Famous or obscure, death will eventually come to Achilles, as to all of us, and he prefers a short life of glory to a long life of satisfactory non-celebrity ordinariness, and it is reasonable, and also not obviously immoral, that he should do so. As well as being rational, reasonable, and not (certainly, not obviously) immoral, Achilles’ choice, I want to argue, is not contrary to Achilles’s self-interest. It is important also to be considering this dimension to the choice. There are circumstances where it may be argued that it is rational, reasonable, and not immoral, to seek or prefer one’s own death. A case of heroic self-sacrifice might be held to be one such case. Moral views have


Chapter Five

differed about suicide, but certainly from some ethical perspectives, in circumstances of irreversible and worsening disease, involving extreme and un-ameliorable pain, for example, suicide (or, possibly, so-called assisted suicide) may be morally acceptable. It seems obvious that altruistic self-sacrifice–falling on a grenade to prevent the deaths of comrades, placing oneself in the line of fire of weapons aimed at one’s children, that sort of thing–is contrary to the individual’s self-interest. And while terminating a painful terminal illness through direct or assisted suicide may not obviously be contrary to one’s self-interest, it seems not clearly a matter of seeking one’s self-interest either. Perhaps in a no-win situation of that sort there is no longer a self-interest. The concept of selfinterest, I would argue, is a good deal more complicated than many suppose. At any rate, Achilles’, and others’, conceptions of their selfinterest should be taken to include and involve the kinds of life they prefer. Even if it might not be in someone else’s self-interest to have a short glorious life, given Achilles‘s temperament, and values, the choice he makes is not only not contrary to his self-interest, it serves that interest– even if it involves depriving himself of many years of life and the pleasures and benefits they might be calculated probably to have included. I know of no story with this pair of alternative choices, but we can imagine someone, not the offspring of a divinity, but given, on a unique occasion, a god’s kind of choice, and determinative power, entrusted with deciding what the fate of the human species is going to be. This individual is to decide whether humanity is to–in the time remaining to it–carry on for several million more years at something like current global average levels of well-being or a little worse than them, or, instead, know a period of blazing creative success, stunning breakthroughs in knowledge and artistic expression, with in addition positive material impacts very widely if not literally universally diffused among the human family–but at a cost of human demise, in a conflagration bringing all higher life on the planet to an end, mere thousands of years at most, in the future.1 In those brief centuries the answer to every significant empirical and theoretical question human inquirers have had will be reached, astonishing and immensely creatively gratifying artistic flowering will have occurred, and–perhaps in some way because of the energies of unnamed kinds these developments will have required–all will come to a cold and silent end, reasonably soon. The alternative, again, is at best current human patterns–never beyond them–or worse, for a quite protracted time. 1

Cf. Samuel Schefflers’ ‘doomsday scenario’ in his Death & the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, 2013), p.21

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 65

One of the ways in which my second scenario differs from the first– Achilles’ choice–is that the second involves someone’s deciding the fate of others than themselves (most critically, the last generation of humans), whereas Achilles is choosing just what his own destiny will be; and many– most–will regard this as a difference which makes a moral difference. (To be sure, Achilles’ opting for glory will certainly affect the fates of the many he will kill in battle as part of the amassing of his warrior fame; but logically, conceptually, imperishable fame may be said not to need to require the deaths or suffering of others.) The second chooser is ‘playing God’; and no one, we may well say, morally should have a right to do that. For my purposes this is not a dimension of the second-choice context which will have primary significance. That context could be reformulated impersonally, as a consideration of whether one option rather than another is an inherently rationally less desirable one, whether or not someone wills, successfully, that it happen. Otherwise put, the second chooser can be viewed as simply giving expression to a preference, what they would wish for humanity, with no presumption of having the power to implement the wish. I want to keep the imaginary case as one of individual choice nonetheless, for parity with Achilles and the individual choosings we are shortly to encounter. (They too will involve choosing features of the fates– even if not the life or death–of others.) Now, some might think of my second scenario–possibly even the first, Achilles’ choice–as at least in principle, if enough and the right sorts of further input were provided them, lending itself–or themselves–to possibilities of utilitarian analysis, and better-bet–more rational–resolution. One might aspire to ask more questions about the inputs, and the constituent aims, goals, and values, and tote up the relevant quantities and weightings of the relevant parameters, and come to a conclusion that one rather than the other of the options confronting the deciders of Achilles’ fate, or that of the human species, was what reason dictates–the other, then, presumably, at least relatively irrational. In fact, though, I want in both cases to conceive of the choices the choosers confront as not supplied further with additional helpful data–to think rather of both as needing to be made from behind a sort of ‘veil of ignorance’ of the kind which real world choices and determinations typically involve. Thus, in the second case, we don’t get to know the amounts, intensities, or per capita diffusions among the general population, of hedons that one choice rather than the other would comprise. The choice–in both cases–is between a blazing glory of achievement, and knowledge, but relatively briefly had, and a long, slow, dull light of same-old or a little below its threshold. And, just as Achilles is not irrational, or immoral, if he goes for brief glory, so, I


Chapter Five

claim, the (as one might call him or her) Faustian chooser in the second scenario is not irrational–or (at least obviously) immoral–if he or she opts for a relatively short remaining term for humanity, with sublime achievement in the midst of that short term.2 I said that the second choice involves at most a few thousand more years for homo sapiens. The chooser isn’t to know just how few those thousands may be, and indeed, whether human demise might come during the chooser’s own lifetime. (With spectacular medicotechnological breakthroughs, of course, the chooser’s lifetime might well be well beyond any currently known human span.) At any rate, this might then be even more an Achilles-like choice. Not just humanity at large, but I, may have opted for a considerably briefer life than I might have had. The choice, if that were the one made, indeed even if it were known that this would be consequent upon it, would be no less rational. It is important for my purposes as well that the choices we are thinking of are not, at least in any clear or obvious way, altruistic ones, cases not even of indirect sorts of self-sacrifice for some supposed higher or greater good. They do of course involve and express valuations–this is preferred to that, and with a strong sense of the alternatives mattering–but the more quickly arrived demise (in the case of that choice being made) is not something which either supererogatory or morally mandated principle has dictated or prompted. John Stuart Mill provides a very general backgrounding perspective which may give these choices, and the implications–the moral, anyway–I want to draw from them, clearer valence. Mill tells us that there are two primary or fundamental constituents of happiness, namely, excitement and tranquillity.3 2

One might formulate the common structure of my two scenarios and their outcomes–Achilles‘s, and the human socio-cultural situation–in the following schematic way: S prefers that, were exclusive alternatives for individual or community X to be a relatively short span of significantly higher achievement or a relatively long span of not-impressively higher achievement than anything hitherto experienced, the first occur and not the second. (In the Achilles case, of course, S=X.) 3 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Hackett, 1979), p. 13. (ʊThe main constituents of a satisfied life appear to be two, either of which by itself is often found sufficient for the purpose: tranquillity and excitement.) Although not of course strictly equivalent, it is natural and appropriate, in translating these conceptions to the public and political spheres, to take excitement to be equivalent to liberty, and tranquillity to security, and in what follows I will so construe Mills’ happiness

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 67

We need generous measures of both for our well-being. Particular individuals may require, or think that they require, more of one than the other. And perhaps, at different stages of life, or in different circumstances, functions, no doubt, of our own individual state of being, and of what is going on exterior to us, we may want, and need, differing aggregations of these two essential commodities. Mill surely is right. Our well-being, our fundamental happiness, involves at the deepest, widest, and most basic levels, liberty, or freedom, being able to attain, or aim for, what we want (or think we want); and security, safety, protections of our lives and conditions of what is ours (and which we think is; but certainly including our bodies, and peace of mind) that will enable us not to hurt, to sleep peacefully, not to need to worry about the aggressions or inroads of others, of nature, of fortune. In the case of liberty there are subtleties drawn by the distinction between (so-called) positive and negative liberty, and in the case of security by notions, and the boundaries, of so-called rights and entitlements. These undoubtedly complicate the picture; the full story of Millian well-being will be conceptually richer, and more contestable (and contested) than the initial contrast, and conjunction, of liberty and security, and the psychological drives towards excitement and tranquillity which prompt or significantly comprise them, will indicate. There nonetheless remains something deeply intuitive, and persuasive, in Mill’s basic blueprint of human happiness.

doctrine. Later in Utilitarianism (p. 53) Mill explicitly makes it clear that he sees security, under that name, as an absolutely fundamental ingredient of human wellbeing. ʊ[S]ecurity [is] to every one’s feelings the most vital of all interests. Nearly all other earthly benefits are needed by one person, not needed by another; and many of them can, if necessary, be cheerfully foregone or replaced by something else; but security no human being can possibly do without; on it we depend for all our immunity from evil and for the whole value of all and every good, beyond the passing moment, since nothing but the gratification of the instant could be of any worth to us if we could be deprived of everything the next instant by whoever was momentarily stronger than ourselves. The central thrust of On Liberty is intended to make the same claim for liberty. Apart from merely ʊanimal excitements, it will be clear that liberty, in a more than simply metaphysical sense, i.e., in the sense that Mill intends in On Liberty, will be a necessary condition of excitement; and truths about human nature may plausibly be held to show that it is also (at least normally or usually) a sufficient condition. In fact, for many of the purposes argued here, excitement is actually the better name for what I am conceiving of as what we may call the Achilles impulse in human (rational) motivation.


Chapter Five

John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) is commonly regarded as the most important and original contribution to ethics, and perhaps also to social and political philosophy, and theory, of the second half of the twentieth century, and an enduring, perceptive and persuasive classic.4 Rawls famously devises a conceptual apparatus which is supposed to yield the fundamental principles for, and not just those but the basic institutional structures of, a just human society. The theoretical framework he assembles and deploys is an interesting amalgam of ideas, postulates, and methodology, derived from Kant, Mill, and social contract theory, with discernible significant input as well from Hobbes, and decision theory. The ensemble purports to show how fundamental self-interested practical rationality will lead, if appropriately set up, and motivated, to a particular sort of state society, which will, alone, be defensible as morally just. We are to take ourselves–any aggregate of normal human beings–to be charged with determining the basic institutions of a social and political order which we are to design from behind a so-called ‘veil of ignorance’. In that imagined hypothetical condition, which Rawls calls ‘the original position’, we are to regard ourselves as ignorant of our individual distinctive characteristics–our age, sex, level of intelligence, creativity, energy, material condition, health, beauty, bodily strength, and any other traits that might confer on us advantage or disadvantage in a human order. We are then to make calculations and determinations based entirely on our own individual interest, as rationally as we could determine that interest behind the veil of ignorance.5

4 A recent review article of three new books on Rawls will exemplify the point lucidly. Its author speaks only of political philosophy; many other commentators would make no less unqualified an assessment with respect to contributions to ethics and social philosophy more broadly. ʊThe question of who was the secondgreatest political philosopher of the twentieth century is a worthy topic of debate. The question of who was the greatest is not. Offering any name other than John Rawls (1921-2002) could only be an attempt to be deliberately provocative. Rawls‘s masterpiece is the massive A Theory of Justice (1971), and for many readers its most important contribution is the ‘difference principle’: the idea that economic inequalities within a society are justified only if they are to the advantage of the worst off. (Jonathan Wolff, ʊIn front of the curtain, Times Literary Supplement, No. 5475, March 7, 2008, p. 10.) 5 In a subsequent work, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press, 2001), Rawls sets out the fundamental principles and argument of A Theory of Justice anew, sometimes rephrasing or giving a new emphasis to ideas of the earlier work that he sees as inaccurately conveyed or received. One footnote in the

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 69

The result, Rawls argues, is that we would discern and formulate two principles which we would be able to see to be what our own best interest would imply. These two principles will both express what a human being in the original position will want, and provide the fundamental basis of justice–of what a just society will be guided by, and implement. It is not clear that Rawls intends these claims to be, or to be sufficient to furnish, empirical predictions about what actual human choices would be; since the conception of the original condition is highly abstract, the idea is better taken to be, it seems, an idealization of what, upon careful reflection, the human being conceived as being in this condition should, or if rational would opt for. At any rate, Rawls provides successive refinements and reformulations of these two principles, and very extensive commentary on these articulations and the idea which he advances that the reformulations are, for each of the two, essentially equivalent to each other, or at any rate that the motivating rationale for each formulation will provide a comparable rationale for the others. The first of the principles is (as Rawls puts it) that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. The second principle is a principle of distribution, specifically of inequalities that may be allowed to obtain. It is initially formulated as the principle that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. The second principle, styled the ‘difference principle’, becomes, more precisely and substantively, the principle that only such inequalities of allocations of goods are to be allowed as would tend to the advantage of the least well-off, or least advantaged, of the society, and indeed, apparently, to the degree and extent that and in proportion as they do this. As Rawls puts it: “Assuming later work may merit quotation: ʊHere I correct a remark in Theory, §3:15 and §9:47 (1st ed.), where it is said that the theory of justice is a part of the theory of rational choice. From what we have just said, this is simply a mistake, and would imply that justice as fairness is at bottom Hobbesian (as Hobbes is often interpreted) rather than Kantian. What should have been said is that the account of the parties, and of their reasoning, uses the theory of rational choice (decision), but that this theory is itself part of a political conception of justice, one that tries to give an account of reasonable principles of justice. There is no thought of deriving those principles from the concept of rationality as the sole normative concept. (Justice as Fairness, p. 82) The presentation, and argument, given in the present paper means to convey the unrevised Rawls, and, indeed, to take the model of the original position as essentially Hobbesian. I also neglect to draw the distinction Rawls makes, but does not define, between the reasonable and the rational. The former is evidently intended to include a moral component, the latter not.


Chapter Five

the framework of institutions required by equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity, the higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society. The intuitive idea is that the social order is not to establish and secure the more attractive prospects of those better off unless doing so is to the advantage of those less fortunate.”6 Presumably this means that the social order is not to establish and secure these more attractive prospects even indirectly, by (for example) allowing them to occur through possibilities of propertyownership which may happen to have become significantly more materially valuable, and which may also happen to have been transmitted to favoured heirs. It quickly becomes evident that Rawls’ just society is one with imposed or sustained material equalities, only departures from absolute material equality being allowed, and presumably only for so long as, those departures contribute to achieving any full and entire material equality not already in place, and evidently in direct proportion to their so contributing.7 Advantages which will be compensated for by egalitarian redistributions will include gifts of nature–talent, looks, energy–as well as those due to external life circumstance. As Rawls puts this, in still another context in his book: “Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.”8 Rawls has had many critics, as well as many celebrants of the theory of justice he develops. Rawls’ work is long, and the details of the ramifications and the rationale of his two central principles are intricate. It is not my purpose to enter the study of those details, or of the extensive Rawls secondary literature, in any thorough or systematic way. Among 6 John

Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 75. There is a somewhat surprising degree of imprecision, or actual inaccuracy, in the formulations of the difference principle which are encountered even in some of Rawls’ most sympathetic and putatively most careful and intelligent expositors. Thus, for example, Michael RosenʊProfessor of Government at Harvard, and Rawls’ former colleagueʊsays that the Difference Principle claims or implies ʊthat justice requires that, in the distribution of benefits and burdens in society, the worst off are to be made as well off as it is possible to make them. (Times Literary Supplement, no. 5551/5552, August 21 & 28 2009, p. 29.) But, of course, it would be possible to make the worst off very well off indeedʊand far better off than Rawls actually would aim to make them. All of the rest of the wealth of those other than the worst off could be taken from them and given to the worst off, for example. 8 A Theory of Justice, p. 101. 7

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 71

this literature is a sizeable body of response to critics from Rawls himself, seeking to clarify views, distinctions, and their rationale, which may have been misunderstood, as well as to defend views about which there has been little doubt. My own primary purpose is not in fact a concern with Rawls at all, but with outcomes in social and political theory that reflection on central aspects of his theory, as adumbrated in its original classic articulation, may occasion. I am particularly interested in what I want to be able to call the idea of liberalism. In their institutions and practices, most developed states in the modern world embody or represent varieties of the liberal idea, across a reasonably broad spectrum of difference, to be sure. Oddlyʊso it seems to meʊthere is no philosophically formulated articulation of that idea, and ideal, which expresses either the common denominator of the liberalisms of (say) the OECD national societies, or any particular, actually advocated and actually practised, liberal social theory. As I see it, Rawls’ theory of justice is widely taken to be such an expression, at any rate as the fundamental or foundational articulation of a liberal idea, departure from which will locate the dissenter on the right (or on the left), politically and ideologically, in a more or less definitional way. As critic of Rawls, I write to challenge this anchorage. But I am more interested in seeking to gesture towards, and sketch features of, the genuine articleʊreal liberalism itself. Its many advocates notwithstanding, the idea of the original position may plausibly be held to be only doubtfully coherent. Seeking imaginatively to strip away even non-basic aspects of what one knows as one’s temperament, life experiences, culture, psycho-physical proclivities, and values, much less core data of the kinds of which one is an instance, seems deeply problematic, and perhaps an illusion whatever success an individual engaging in it may think that they have had. Adding to the exercise that the individual so pared down and minimalized is now to devise principles reflecting and expressing purely self-focused self-interest (as Rawls indicates is the idea–the aim is explicitly not that the individual in the original position is supposed to be coming up with principles intended to be just ones, or designed for a just social order, even if–Rawls argues–those will be the characteristics that result) seems only to augment the psychological implausibility of the endeavour, or its being able to serve as a model for rational choice. Strictly, in the original position one is conceived as not taking others’ interests into account. So taking it, it is not at all clear that the Rawlsian original chooser must or will proceed as Rawls argues that he or she will. Otherwise put–and this is at the heart of my concern, and the argument it leads to–there will be other


Chapter Five

entirely rational–and, at least for some choosers, self-interested (or not obviously not self-interested)–options that the Rawlsian human will have for society-building. Rawls’ two principles may be seen as giving expression to something like Mill’s two components of human wellbeing–liberty and security. And Rawls does formally prioritize the first, conceptually and normatively. Nothing is to abridge or qualify an equal and commensurate share of mutually accorded and respected freedom in the members of the just society. Few of Rawls’ critics have contested this component of the theory, and I too shall have no objections to it to bring forward. Although liberty trumps security for Rawls formally, nonetheless, if we think of Mill’s two happiness-components in the template of a desired human good, and social order, it seems altogether clear that the security component of those ends is being given far the greater weight. I am not to know my talents or material location. So placed, I am to worry–to need to worry–that I might turn out to be at the bottom, to be of a not-favoured sex, age, social class, that I might be without conspicuous beauty, intelligence, or energy. I had better opt for arrangements that will insure me against such negative and dolorous possibilities. A person cannot be too careful. Better to get all the life insurance you can get. This, I suggest, is the expression of a temperamental self-protective conservatism, that only some need or will feel rationally compelled by. I will not claim that it is itself irrational (though given some of what we know to be the facts of our circumstances, it may be). But, I will argue, there are grounds for holding that this is not the only option which reflections of practical rationality, and considerations of possible preference-sets, may point to. Contrary to what Rawls argues (or supposes), someone might come to think that a world of enforced uniformity of material condition, or even a world where nature’s provisions have, on their own, afforded an egalitarian set of material allocations without societal enforcements, would not be worth living in, or, if worth living in, not as good as what could be aspired to. One might judge that even if it is not to be me, one would prefer a world where some at least will know beauty and life’s best, and even (for some rational choosers, at least) an éclat or celebrity status necessarily differentiating some from–elevating them above–others, rather than one of meagre (if it were to need to be meagre, and perhaps even if it were not) sameness. Among the things the ignorance of the original position must include is knowledge of the extent of nature’s bounty, or of

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 73

what human ingenuity and effort may be able to wrest from it. We cannot know, in that position, whether it is going to be thin gruel for all, if all are to have an equal share, or finer fare. It is not irrational to prefer that some at least shall have champagne rather than that none shall have it unless all can, and it is not irrational to prefer this even if one can have no particular advance reason to suppose that one will be one of the partakers of bubbly. Nor is it irrational to prefer that there shall be heights, even if it is not going to be me who scales them, rather than mere hillocks for all. A world of colour, dash, achievement, great pleasures, even if not widely distributed, much less evenly and equally distributed, and even if not coming particularly to me, may rationally be preferred to one where I am guaranteed at least not to be worse off than anyone else (or where, if I were, the system would be working on it, to ensure by energetic redistributive efforts that, as soon as possible, I would no longer be). I have of course depicted the alternatives in chromatic, even rhetorically non-neutral, ways. A misfortune, in my view, is that Rawls’ allegedly liberal social democracy is typically set out in contrapuntal apposition with the libertarian social and moral theory of his Harvard colleague Robert Nozick. Political libertarianism seems only to be taken even seriously enough to think about, much less refute, in the United States. (To be sure, another libertarian of some prominence, Jan Narveson, is in Canada).9 Whatever the merits of these geopolitical facts may be, one is given what I think is a specious and misleading sense of the relevant logical space–the conceptual space of societal arrangements, and what may be appropriate or best normative rationales for them–by conceiving only, or even primarily, of the duality of a supposed Rawlsian liberalism and a Nozickian nightwatchman minimalist state. Rawls gets to be the Democrat, the Labour or Liberal Party icon (at least in academic and legal-theoretic circles), and Nozick the Republican, or Conservative; even though neither one is plausibly nor convincingly representative of real philosophies of either constituency. Nozick disputes the state entitlement to make distributive allocations of a social product at all, since they will take from some what is their justly held property. Because almost all of us find dubious the idea that we could determine and assign with any real confidence strictly just ownership–acquisition through labour of not previously owned sectors of nature, or through inheritance chains none of the parts of which involved unjust possession–to more than a tiny portion of the world’s holdings (if, 9 The United Kingdom has, as well, it may be noted, the Freedom Association (formerly the National Association for Freedom), an active libertarian body.


Chapter Five

indeed, to any),10 we find Nozick‘s basis of dissent from Rawls to be a non-starter, and Rawls is taken to be, more or less, anyway, the voice and embodiment of the liberal democratic state. I am arguing that there are entirely non-Nozickian arguments for dislodging Rawls from that location and role. Rawls’ difference principle, even prior to its elaboration as the near-aspossible-to-material-egalitarian formulation, says, again, that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone‘s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. Even without Nozickian libertarian sanctification of rights of private property, if there is going to be private property at all, which might in particular cases come to have disproportionate material value, and if there are to be rights of transmissions of property to heirs, there will inevitably be moral possibilities of social and economic inequalities that are not attached to positions and offices open to all (since not everyone can fill the office of property-holder’s heir). And for the latter reason, and also because of the moral permissibility of creations of new wealth, at least some of which might not be to everyone’s advantage, or even most people’s advantage, there will be social and economic inequalities which might not reasonably be expected to be to everyone’s advantage. Institutions or practices enabling the creation of such wealth might be argued to be to everyone’s, or most people’s advantage, but the wealth itself–the social and economic inequality–need not (and quite often will not) be. It is important to stress that the difference principle implies much more than seeking to allocate social resources to improve or elevate the condition of the least advantaged or favoured. Policies of the latter kind will be advocated by many varieties of welfare liberal or social democratic view, Rawls’ among them. Rawls’ difference principle implies not just that attention and fiscal resource will be applied to benefiting the least favoured, even seeking to do so until they are in conditions of security and well-being. Rawls’ principle implies also that conditions of marked or very advantaged condition will only be permitted where that relatively 10

This fundamental objection is stated succinctly in Hume’s Of the Original Contract (1748): ʊreason tells us, that there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice. (David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (Eugene F. Miller (rev.) ed. (Liberty Fund, 1985), p. 482.)

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 75

much more thriving material estate will itself conduce to elevating the lowly. To put the matter more concretely, it is very difficult to see that a Rawlsian utopia or just society could have billionaires. The latter category of persons are not simply comfortably placed and well-off individuals. They are individuals whom fortune has favoured vastly beyond their fellow citizens. The latest of the annual rankings of the world’s billionaires done by Forbes magazine sheds some statistical light on current patterns among this category of individual. I will confine attention to individuals Forbes lists who are both citizens and residents of a single country, and only reckon cases where the country concerned is identified (in the most recent–2015–list done by Freedom House) of the (fully) ‘free’ countries. There are 1,826 billionaires currently by this reckoning. It is to be noted as well that Forbes explicitly excludes heads of state or of government from its tallies. All of these persons are private citizens, private individuals, in democratic societies. The United States has the largest group of these individuals–535 of them. It is widely supposed that the tax system in the U.S. is grossly unfair, and favours the rich, enabling them to avoid much or most of what might otherwise be their share of taxation. Perhaps it does. But it is to be noted that Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands–all widely regarded as the fairest, most progressive and socially-advanced countries in the world–all have their own billionaires (i.e., resident billionaires, who are also citizens). So do almost all of the rest of the OECD countries. No one tax system, it is clear, precludes being a billionaire. This is the world’s way, currently. Our systems–those of the developed, advantaged, favoured, democratic countries–leave plenty of room for billionaires. We don’t, apparently, see it as shocking, needing remedy, that they should exist, i.e., with that advantaged status. Some, of course, do. At any rate, my point and purpose here is to note that Rawlsians should, fairly clearly, be among the billionaire-abolitionist constituency. Their being so ought to be a central, highlighted, part of their analysis, and practical political initiatives they should imply. It is quite clear that these will be consequences of Rawls’ theory of justice (which is not, of course, by itself an objection to that theory). Rawls’ interpreter Samuel Freeman brings the point out lucidly. Freeman differentiates, on Rawls’ behalf, a set of alternative schemes of social economy, with the principles of distributive allocation of social product they will embody, and implement–laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state


Chapter Five

capitalism, property-owning democracy, syndicalism, liberal or market socialism, Marxian communism. Welfare-state capitalism is the system in place in all current western democracies, with, of course, considerable variations in specifics of benefits and entitlements, both with respect to welfare allocations and the claims of private property. Rawls clearly rejects capitalism when traditionally understood as the doctrine of laissezfaire, Freeman comments. What is surprising is that he also rejects capitalism even when it is moderated by the modern welfare state. This is surprising since A Theory of Justice is often described as the major philosophical justification for the welfare state.11 Freeman goes on to detail how welfare-state capitalism will clash with the difference principle, along precisely the lines which we have indicated above. One may see the point particularly succinctly by noting that, even if it were true that a society in which some may become billionaires conduces to the overall prosperity of that society (a claim which itself seems dubiousʊit is difficult to believe that motivation-sets would necessarily dramatically alter if every dollar of individual net worth above, say, $900 million, were extracted by the state), those fortunes contribute to elevating the material well-being of the very bottom rung of the socio-economic order. It seems persuasive to hold that Rawls errs in the assumptions his view makes about human nature, or at any rate, about widely extant human characteristics and proclivities. Some of these errors are the same ones that Marx, and Marxism, make; and in the case of neither theoretical position is it convincing to view these traits as cases of so-called false consciousness. People widely and generally really don’t mind that there are lotteries, and that someone, winning one, might acquire very considerable wealth, making the winner hugely better off materially than their fellow citizens. That they don’t mind this happening is confirmed by the very large numbers of people who buy lottery tickets. Of course, they hope that they themselves will be winners. But if–when–they are not, the reaction to news that someone else has been is not a stirring of impulses towards proletarian revolution, or 100% unearned-increment taxation. It is typically, rather, a sense–often expressed–of ‘lucky them’, ‘fantastic, wonder what they’ll do with the winnings’, etc. Formally, Rawls will have no problem with individual inequalities, including ‘windfalls’ of one sort or other; it will be the tendency of overall patterns that will matter for his scheme. But there can be no guarantee or certainty that enough individual cases won’t comprise patterns, or that they will conform or otherwise conduce to an intended big picture, ethically. 11 Samuel

Freeman, Rawls (Routledge, 2007), p. 224.

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 77

It seems even clearer that people do not object, ethically, to the successes which beautiful, glamorous, and otherwise aesthetically favoured individuals may have in life–both in their careers, at least in certain cases, and in their personal and social lives. There may, quite appropriately, be resentment and moral censure if it is thought that aesthetic factors have played a role in contexts, and competitions, in which they are supposed to be irrelevant. But in many contexts and competitions, including some that produce careers–e.g., a career as a fashion model, or a professional singer, such factors (in the singer case, a beautiful voice) are not irrelevant. And that nature’s gifts improve options for attracting romantic and sexual partners is both evident and not something many, if any, would advocate be a basis for requiring compensatory input to the unfavoured from those who have been nature’s beneficiaries. One of Rawls’ formulations, quoted earlier, “Those who have been favored by nature...may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.” might actually be interpreted as implying such compensations– those who have found romantic or sexual partners being obliged, on pain of deprivation of those partners, to play a role in helping those who have wanted but not had such personal success, say; but this might be held to be an unsympathetic or uncharitable reading of Rawls which might be resisted. I think that most of us, generally, don’t mind that some are disproportionately wealthy, particularly when their wealth has been acquired legally, and not by someone who is already wealthy–pop musicians, athletes, and other celebrities are particularly not-resented cases, in addition to lottery winners, and big winners at casinos or in poker games. But most of us also don’t mind that there are cases of inherited wealth. That is to say, most of us believe that inherited wealth is not unjust. We think that if we had bought that winning lottery ticket, or had had that golden voice that earned us millions, we should be entitled to pass on at least some of our earnings to favoured heirs, normally spouses, or our children. Some even value socalled aristocratic virtues, held sometimes to be met with preponderantly, or more frequently than in other kinds of people, in people whose lives have been from infancy surrounded by items of beauty or taste, including art collections, and magnificent or ancient houses. It is reasonable to say that we view some of the foregoing as social bonuses or luxuries, or as requiring social surpluses, which sufficiently straitened circumstances, for the majority, might–or definitely would– legitimately curtail or even, in sufficiently straitened circumstances, eliminate altogether. With sufficient social material surplus, it appears,


Chapter Five

inegalitarian possession of material wealth, or other social goods (e.g., knowledge, access to beauty), where there is not even in principle an ideal of reducing or eliminating them in favour of as-near-to-strict-parity as possible, even gradually, is held to be morally acceptable, or even, as some will argue, with a sufficient (but still less than utopian) surplus, morally mandated. Rawlsian (or Marxist) egalitarianism may have a better case where life is extremely hard, for most; as it is, certainly, in some human societies. But even so, as my first two imagined scenarios were intended to show, someone might, rationally, and, I think, ethically, view some goods, e.g., goods of knowledge, and culture, as so great that their realization would justify, if that had been their cost, a significantly shorter span for the species. I am not claiming that those goods do have that relatively greater value; rather, that it is neither irrational nor immoral to suppose that they do, and further, that ordinary liberal-society moral consciousness includes conceptual space–conceptual elbow-room–for fellow-citizens who would take just that view. One view that might be urged in reaction to these claims is that one needs to differentiate between responses that individuals living within a specified socio-economic order may have to particular and individual circumstances, and assessments that might be made by those individuals of how they think that socio-economic order or an optimal one ought to function. Even in a prison or a concentration camp, and certainly in most extremely imperfect societies, there will be cases of better and worse, favoured and disfavoured options and outcomes, some of the favoured ones viewed or accepted even with great enthusiasm if that institutional or socioeconomic order is accepted as a secure framework of being, at any rate not one which the individual evincing the assessment sees prospect of changing. Maybe then a majority might cheer for the lottery winner, or view with smiling equanimity the disproportionate material successes of others in life’s lotteries; but this would not give ground for transferring that kind of evaluative response to a more theoretical or even a general prescriptive stance for how things ought to be. While the distinction indicated can and should of course be granted, it seems to me to be a cousin of the false consciousness view to suppose that it has persuasive relevance in this context. There looks to be no good evidence at all that a majority of the citizens of OECD countries (say) would really prefer that their countries be Marxist-Leninist, genuinely socialist egalitarian, or Rawlsian (almost) egalitarian ones, and that they only acquiesce in their marked material inequalities–i.e., in patterns that permit or encourage any not-speciallyjustified marked material inequalities–faute de mieux. (To which what I would see as the honourable and theoretically more adequately grounded

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 79

addition from these constituencies would be to sayʊtant pis–ʊtoo badʊalas! would that it were otherwise!) I want very clearly, and emphatically, to state that none of the arguments or remarks given here are intended to be apologiae for great material wealth or its holders, or for academic or cultural aristocracies or elites. Far from it. Considerable recent study shows that the past few decades have seen huge, indeed, extraordinary rises in concentrations of wealth–very great wealth–in relatively few hands, throughout the developed world. As the Forbes lists, and other research, show, there are more and more billionaires, their fortunes grow by staggering sums, and they, and the also-large number of mere multimillionaires, remain a very small minority of the general population. We seem to be witnessing returns of private patronage on scales not seen since before the first World War. It is a worrisome phenomenon; not at all a good thing. I would be among the first to advocate taxation and other redistributive policies that would make very extensive advances in reversing this pattern. I am a classical small-‘l’ liberal. (I don’t claim in any way to justify being one, at least in this setting. I simply enunciate the fact.) But it is wrong, ethically as well as conceptually, I believe, to adopt a camouflage of Rawlsian piety, where extreme material egalitarianism is the official ideological stance, but, like, Christians preaching turning the other cheek but meeting aggressions with counter-force, sometimes military force, this piety is ignored in practice. Contrary to what Rawlsian theory seems to suggest, we don‘t appear to mind some measures and degrees and kinds of cases of not-socially-beneficial inequality of significant goods, material and cultural; let us have the courage, and develop theory, to say so. It is not in fact clear that Rawls’ theory of justice will have revisionary resources to supply that theory. Rawls does claim (p. 278) that the unequal inheritance of wealth is no more inherently unjust than the unequal inheritance of intelligence. It is true, he goes on, that the former is presumably more easily subject to social control; but the essential thing is that as far as possible inequalities founded on either should satisfy the difference principle. Thus inheritance is permissible provided that the resulting inequalities are to the advantage of the least fortunate. He seems, in sum, not to get it, i.e., not to see the plain consequences of his claims. It would presumably be not at all beyond the means of sociometric analysis and calculation to determine whether, and to what degrees, unequal wealth will have failed to diminish the less favourable circumstances of the least favoured, and to deduct from that wealth precisely such proportion of it as would favour the latter group, to the appropriate degree, on either or both systematic and regularized or individual and ad hoc bases.


Chapter Five

There is an accompanying more individualized, or personal, ethical claim which may seem reasonable to affirm not just for Rawls’ but for any putative theory of justice. This will be the two-part principle that the advocate of a theory of justice has the moral obligation to try to determine, to whatever extent that they can, what their own individual life circumstances would be like in a world which would be a just world according to their theory, and secondly, to try to live so far as possible as they would according to those determinations, i.e., as they would be living were the just order they advocate implemented. Presumably very many of the features and circumstances of a life would be not discernibly different in their justice valence, or entirely indeterminable. But some would probably be determinable. Someone whose theory of justice, for example, implied an absolute equality of material circumstance should, according to the two-part principle just affirmed, find out what the gross world product per capita was (or some similar determinable income or relevantly similar material allocation figure, with suitable adjustments for purchasing powers, age group, or other parameters, where those were judged ethically or conceptually appropriate), and give away any sums or benefits they had above that level. The Rawlsian, I suggest, will, if ethical, do something comparable. No doubt the relevant formula will be more complex than for the strict material egalitarian; but it shouldn’t–won’t–be beyond calculative ingenuity. One might find, for example, that travelling by air to academic conferences in distant cities where one stayed in comfortable hotels, or living in a very pleasing and secure neighbourhood in an expensive house made possible by one’s high academic salary, conferred a level of material reward and well-being that would be higher than one would enjoy were the theory of justice one favoured implemented. For the Rawlsian, this would confer a level of material advantage which a reasonable attention to the empirical facts of one’s world and a pro-active application of the difference principle would show to be unjustifiable. If one were a principled advocate of Rawlsian justice theory, then, one would give away a healthy portion of that academic salary, and perhaps limit oneself to one academic conference per decade, travelled to by bus or train, and residence in the university dormitory or an equivalent form of housing during the period of the conference. One may well wonder how many academic Rawlsians will have conformed to the considerations just indicated in the decades since A Theory of Justice was published, or indeed to how many it will have occurred, for a moment, that they should. Rawls’ theory is in a striking way an amalgam of Kant and Mill: its theoretical and motivational underpinnings are utilitarian, appealing to the individual’s determinations of their best bets, then aggregating them, but

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 81

with a deontological rationale of outcome–justice as fairness. Rather than asking the social designer to try to step behind a veil of ignorance in an ‘original position’, it would arguably be better to allow him or her– ourselves–to be ourselves, and to know what we know, and to craft and seek to defend provisions of a just social order that take account of the varieties in human nature and aspiration, as well as of the claims of liberty and security. I myself think–though this will not be the context to seek to develop its details–that, in so far as reflective consensus may be viewed as achievable, the result will be a liberal society; but not a Rawlsian one. I have, it may be said, run rather quickly and with relatively little argument, through Rawls’, or potential Rawlsian, grounds for rejection of welfare-state capitalism, or of a world kept safe for billionaires. Many philosophers will see the latter category of person disappear from the social economy with a shrug. Perhaps they are right to do so. At any rate, my purpose here is to appeal to what I claim are folk ethical intuitions, which express themselves, actively or passively, through the institutions, political processes, and more informal body of practices and public pronouncements, of which citizens in democratic societies avail themselves. To adapt a Strawsonian distinction, from metaphysics, ethical analysis, and theory, can be descriptive or revisionary. Both terms, in this case, will of course include normative ideas, analyses, and arguments. A descriptive moral theory will aim to capture primary or majoritarian ethical conceptions and convictions, and the bases on which they are held, upon careful and serious consideration (and reconsideration)–even if those bases have not been fully grasped until the resources of the moral theory have been brought forward and brought to bear on cases and principles, general and specific. In those terms Rawls’ theory of justice means, I think, to be descriptive. In fact, if I am right, it is revisionary. Rawls is telling us what we ought to hold to be just, even if, as I am claiming is fact, we don‘t, in general and for the most part (many individual academics and political agents, and doubtless others, will be exceptions) agree with him that precisely what he says or implies is just is just (in all of its ramifications and details) in fact.12

12 This central criticism of Rawlsian liberalism was succinctly stated, in a 1985 publication, by Gilbert Harman, as the advocacy, by Rawls, of “principles of social justice that appear to be considerably more egalitarian than those most people accept.” (Gilbert Harman, Is There a Single True Morality?, in D. Copp and D. Zimmerman, Morality, Reason and Truth: New Essays in the Foundations of Ethics (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1985), p. 31.)


Chapter Five

Majoritarian ethical intuition that greater material inequality than Rawls would find morally acceptable, and where that inequality need have no particular relationship to satisfying the difference principle, rests, I have suggested, on convictions of property rights–rights to acquire, hold, and transmit property–and, as well, on implicit concerns about or objections to social engineering or social management schemes or projects, beyond some unclear, perhaps in principle, indeterminable level. The latter pair are liberty concerns, and Rawls himself of course prioritizes liberties over the difference principle, at least formally. Implicit in this assessment, then, will be a suggestion, which it is not the purpose of this chapter to develop in detail, of a clash between Rawls’ two fundamental principles of justice; at any rate, where the first is understood in terms corresponding to deepest and most widely felt intuition. I will conclude by taking advantage of this occasion and opportunity to air two further mistakes about, or misunderstandings, of what I take to be (and believe that many thousands of others also take to be) the central or defining Idea of liberalism. Both errors are widely met with in the academic literature; neither is much if at all to be found on the ground, of live flesh-and-blood public political discourse, and advocacy, electoral and otherwise. This won’t be surprising in the first instance, since the error is a (merely) historical one. This is the mistake of seeing Hobbes as a liberal thinker, or as significantly in the conceptual ancestry of liberalism. Hobbes is, I think, making above all the case for the need, and because it is consequent upon the need, the justification of the state and its monopoly of coercive power. That case will provide a rationale for the liberal state, but so it will for any other. Beyond that, Hobbes’ assumptions, I believe, are of a permanent life-boat condition for humanity as socially organized, where we simply sometimes get lulled into thinking (quite mistakenly, according to Hobbes) that our security, and a state’s resulting writ, are sufficient that we can afford options like what we will conceive as liberal ones. This is in no meaningful sense a liberal analysis of, or rationale for, a society, just or otherwise. The second error is the view that liberalism is a philosophy of merely procedural or instrumental rationality, that either does really (and successfully) altogether eschew normative commitments–and thereby admits possibilities of liberally sanctioned moral atrocity and abomination–or that purports to do this, but inconsistently and not self-knowingly, with actual normative goals and commitments that are disguised, withheld, or not discerned by liberals and liberal advocates (though they are by conservative, socialist, or other critics and observers). Again, this seems to

Rawls, the Difference Principle, and the Shape of a Desirable Social Order 83

me a complete mistake. Liberalism–as Rawls does certainly, correctly, acknowledge and affirm–is a strongly normative position of social and political philosophy. It seeks to foster a society of adult, mature, autonomous (‘self-legislating’, indeed, as Kant meant it), knowledgeable citizens, who will take interested concern in each other’s well-being, and in the shape and destiny of the society of which they are a part, affirming Rawls’ first–the liberty–principle, and a set of rights the boundaries of which are conceived as permanently subject to re-visitation, while a core of them is not. But another occasion must await further engagement with this much-visited theme.


It has been argued...that [Comte’s] own final contribution to the study of society emerges as a curiously unscientific mixture of vague historical generalizations, misplaced biological analogies, and a quasi-mystical belief in the necessity of intellectual progress. Yet there can be no doubt that Comte put forward certain methodological suggestions which exerted a powerful influence over the minds of subsequent social theorists and historians: his view, for example, that human society is a subject for objective scientific investigation like anything else, to be understood in the light of discoverable laws correlating “observed facts”; andʊconnected with thisʊhis demand that so-called “psychical” or mental phenomena should be interpreted in physiological terms. Also worth emphasizing are his collectivist approach, in which the social “whole” or group is treated as the primary datum of sociological theory; and his belief in the operation of fundamental social and intellectual forces as the real determinants of historical change, the effectiveness of political initiative and legislation being thought to depend upon the degree to which they are adapted to these. The similarities between some of Comte’s doctrines and those of Marx are obvious; more startlingʊin view of their very different general standpointsʊare the resemblances to certain of Hegel's ideas. —Patrick Gardiner

Auguste Comte has a place, not a pre-eminent one but nonetheless significant, among the ranks of so-called philosophical historians (or speculative philosophers of history)ʊthose philosophical writers who developed more or less detailed analyses of world history as embodiments of a rational or an evolutionary idea which gives it meaning and shape. Accordingly, in the anthology in which the quotation above from Patrick Gardiner appears, Gardiner includes Comte, and excerpts from his work, along with Vico, Kant, Herder, Condorcet, Hegel, Mill, Buckle, Marx, Plekhanov, Tolstoy, Spengler, and Toynbeeʊmost of whom may be said to be famous (for some, of course, infamous) practitioners of this particular variety of philosophical work.


Chapter Six

Gardiner’s alignment of Comte specially with Hegel is I think acute.20 The philosophical histories of both thinkers involve conceptions of an inherent ‘reason’ in the scheme of things which, only very partially understood by the human participants before the advent of the master theorist himself, works itself out in the lived historical experience of human communities, finding central determinative significance in key world-historical and progress advancing civilizations. Most important among the latter is ‘the West’: the civilization founded from bases in Greco-Roman antiquity, the Judeo-Christian religious heritage, and Germanic tribal culture. The three converge in what is, explicitly for Comte, implicitly for Hegel, the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, by Charlemagne, in 800.21 Although Hegel’s focus is more clearly or purely on the emergence of high philosophical consciousness, discerned through the religious, metaphysical, ethical, and juridical systems of the past, and Comte’s is on the emergence of scientific knowledge, culture, and practice, they have a shared conception of ‘reason in history’, and rational and cognitive achievement requiring, and serving, profoundly normative and profoundly social purposes. For both, philosophical analysis of the world is quintessentially historical.22 The present chapter will explore and expand some additional 20 Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History (The Free Press: Glencoe, Illinois, 1959), p. 74. Other scholars have also seen this similarity. Arthur Herman, for example, in The Idea of Decline in Western History (The Free Press, 1997) refers (p. 30) to “the great nineteenth-century prophets of progress such as Hegel, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer,” and goes on (p. 35) to say that “Comte’s ‘positive’ philosophy delivered a redemptive message very similar to Hegel’s.” Well before Herman, F. A. Hayek explored affinities between Hegel and Comte in considerable detail, showing that a good many still earlier writers, including R. Flint, J. T. Merz, Alfred Fouillé, Émile Meyerson, Thomas Wittaker, Ernst Troeltsch, Eduard Spranger, and, above all, Friedrich Dittmann, had discerned and discussed commonalities between Hegel’s and Comte’s philosophies of history. See F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science (The Free Press of Glencoe, 1955), pp. 189-206, and passim. Hayek is of course anything but a neutral commentator on the content or merits of either Hegel’s or Comte’s thought. 21 The subtitle of Comte’s A General View of Positivism refers grandiloquently to “the Great Western Republic, formed of the five advanced nations, the French, Italian, Spanish, British, and German, which, since the time of Charlemagne, have always constituted a political whole”. 22 This is obvious and well-understood in Hegel. One sees the same view explicitly in Comte. Thus, e.g.: “The same theory then which explains the mental evolution of Humanity, lays down the true method by which our abstract conceptions should be classified; thus reconciling the conditions of Order and Movement, hitherto more or less at variance. Its historical clearness and its philosophical force strengthen each other, for we cannot understand the connection of our conceptions

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


similarities and parallels between the two, with special focus on what I will argue is a particularly arresting idea, the idea of the two philosophers as essentially secular, or this-worldly, theorists, whose normative and teleological analyses of world-historical development nonetheless place specially centred value not merely on religious consciousness as such, but on the particular denominational variety of Christianity which had been culturally formative for the philosopher. Thus, the highest achievement of religious sensibility and ideology, for Hegel, is Protestant Lutheranism, and the highest, in entirely parallel fashion, for Comte, is Roman Catholicism. Hegel’s, we may say, a little provocatively or pejoratively, is the atheist Lutheran philosophical history,23 and Comte's is the atheist Catholic’s. One rightly discerns both a philosophical anthropology as well as a philosophical history in Hegel and Comte (as well as in other practitioners of speculative philosophy of history), and the two are conceptually distinct enterprises. An analysis or theoretical model of human nature, individual or societal, and its development or realization in an allegedly optimal condition of being, does not require a teleological blueprint or model of human history, still less a conception of final progress, or convergence on an ‘end of history’ or ideal rational order (either actually completed or in the course of realization as an ideal limit). Both are to be met with in Hegel and Comte; ultimately, the higher philosophical purpose of the present inquiry may involve more the anthropology than the history. I note as well that Hegel and Comte are by no means unique in attaching great positive value to religion even while denying or discounting the except by studying the succession of the phases through which they pass. And on the other hand, but for the existence of such a connection, it would be impossible to explain the historical phases. So we see that for all sound thinkers, History and Philosophy are inseparable.” (A General View of Positivism, p. 47). 23 It is a matter of considerable scholarly dispute precisely what Hegel’s religious or theistic commitments were, some interpreters taking him to be, from a literal or metaphysical point of view, an atheist or agnostic, others defending the view that he is actually a reasonably orthodox Christian. Some, attending particularly to his writings, hold that, whatever the private individual’s beliefs may have been at different stages of his career, the works point to a more or less naturalistic thisworldly view, denying literal truth to any theological system, in the Phenomenology of Spirit and other publications from the first decade of his published work, then, possibly, showing a more orthodox stance at later stages. For purposes of the present paper, I am assuming that the philosophical historian and anthropologist is not a literal metaphysical theist.


Chapter Six

literal truth or validity of religious claims. It may be more usual for secular rationalists to be opponents, indeed, often, missionary combatants against the role or roles which religion has played in human life and human history. Hegel and Comte strike the contrary note; but so do some other philosophers. I will briefly discuss Santayana, another such thinker, below; another interesting member of this constituency is Iris Murdoch, whose articulation of the value for an integrated ethical life of ‘demythologized’ versions both of (especially Anglican Protestant) Christianity and Buddhism, under an attractively Platonic aegis, is very striking.24 My purpose in this chapter is not exclusively to disclose and evaluate themes of intellectual history for their own sake. Hegel has had a recurrent impact on philosophers in the generations since he was alive, that goes beyond issues of scholarship and textual interpretation, and beyond doctrinal commitment to his “school,” to Hegelianism as such. Many philosophical readers have developed a strong, broad sympathy with what they have regarded as widely or approximately Hegelian understandings of the primaryʊthe philosophically most interesting, and most importantʊaspects of human history, and of the essential conceptual ingredients of workable state societies, and of the place of the individual in relation to the state, and of the conceptually optimalʊhighestʊselfunderstanding of the individual in relation to history, state society, and, in fact, the universe. This wide, or loose, “Hegelianism,” has doubtless departed sometimes from, or has paid insufficiently close and scholarly attention to, the fine details of key textual passages, or, even more, the instrument Hegel himself thought he had brought so creatively and successfully forward for philosophical advance, his very special variety of dialectical analysis and argument. I will have relatively little to say about the supposed ‘historicism’ in the theories of social or historical analysis of either Hegel or Comte, or projects of social engineering on the bases of those theories, above all in Comte and in the Hegel-derived Marxism, which so ignited the ire and condemnation of F. A. Hayek, Karl Popper, and their followers. Both Hegel and Comte overstate the certainty, and claim a necessity (at least of some kind), of ‘laws’ of reason and of history which they believe they discovered. Unlike Hayek and Popper, I think that possibilities of generalizations about human behaviour, in groups, with the potential of having law-like status, are not in principle beyond the attainment of social or historical analysis. The ideal of rational or empirical sciences of human 24

See Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Penguin, 1992).

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


nature developed, and achieved its first full flowering, in the Enlightenment, well before either Hegel or Comte. (As Hayek shows, much of the content of Comte’s philosophical historyʊsome of this acknowledged by Comteʊstems from Vico, Turgot, and Condorcet.) The social utopians and would-be social engineers of the later eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth century, from Bentham to SaintSimon, Fourier, and of course Comte and Marx and many others, may or may not have a lot to answer for, for the blueprints they developed of supposed better worlds and the dreams they dreamedʊincluding, of course, in Marx’s case, the dream which became reality, of armed social revolutionʊof implementing those blueprints. I expect that they do, some of them, at least. At any rate, it is not to the present purpose to take a position, one way or the other, with respect to schemes of social improvement as such.25 Doubtless some of the impetus to some of the forms such schemes have taken is pathological. Doubtless also some of the 25

A very interesting ideological analysis of primary currents in these territories will be found in Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas (1933). Whitehead provides the general contours of his own philosophical history, likewise focused on the West, and with special attention to patterns of the century and a half preceding the time of writing. For Whitehead, the two most important social thinkers of this period, whose ideas have had the most significant impress on normative thinking and practice, both in profoundly valuable ways, are Bentham and Comte. “Most of what has been practically effective, in morals, in religion, or in political theory, from their day to this has derived strength from one or other of these men.” (Adventures of Ideas, p. 46) Whitehead, like Comte (and Hegel), sees enormous creative value in religion and its role in human cultural and historical development. It will be less obvious that Bentham has stature in this mode. At any rate, as Whitehead sees things, the distinctly negative force in modern social and political development which has also been powerful, and which Whitehead sees Bentham and Comte as its primary opponents, is a ‘Social Darwinist’ scientizing and inegalitarian current, which Whitehead aligns (perhaps unjustifiably) with Hume. “I am certainly in greater sympathy with Bentham and Comte than with this deduction from Hume and modern Zoology”, Whitehead says, though he makes it clear, unsurprisingly, that he will not endorse the projects of Bentham and Comte to formulate foundational schemes for human equality without metaphysicsʊ “Bentham and Comte were mistaken in thinking that they had found a clear foundation for morals, religion, and legislation, to the exclusion of all ultimate cosmological principles.” (Adventures of Ideas, p. 48) In 1933 the world’s only Marxist society was the Soviet Union, its dictator, Stalin, soon to implement the notorious ‘show trials’; there will be no surprise in Whitehead’s declining to accord Marx a role, good or bad, for ‘the world of the West’, and its patterns and prospects, which he assigns, affirmingly, to Bentham and Comte, and, oppositionally, to Social Darwinism and its twentieth-century progeny.


Chapter Six

impetus to understand and explain the human world, and some of the impetus to better it, is anything but pathological. I note that all of the original blueprints (1750-1860) were developed by individuals without social or political power. I note also that, in the cases of Hegel and Comte certainly, although one finds sometimes in their writings the rhetorical presence of an historical inevitability of the world unfolding as described, and prescribed, and a diminution of the role of free rational agency in the production of individual-life or historical outcomes, clear and undeniable affirmations of real freedom.26 The ethical views of both Hegel and Comte are more complex than the shallow relativism discerned by Hayek; both take some variety of contextualist or more or less naturalist stanceʊComte’s certainly enables him to make emphatically moral realist claims.27 Much (though certainly not all) of what is repeatedly discovered as sound, and permanent, in the legacy of Hegel is due to recognition of Hegelian 26

“…[H]owever great the value of Positive doctrine in pointing out the unchangeable aspects of the universal Order, what we have principally to consider are the numerous departments in which that order admits of artificial modifications. Here lies the important sphere of human activity…” (Auguste Comte, A General View of Positivism, trans. J. H. Bridges; London, 1865), p. 30. The subsequent passage enlarges on this theme; many other passages can be cited which make it clear that Comte sees the natural order, including its human and social components, as law-governed, in ways allowing human interventions and modifications. “These modifications become more numerous and extensive as the phenomena are complex. The reason of this is, that the causes from a combination of which the effects proceed being more varied and more accessible, offer greater facilities to our feeble powers to interfere with advantage. But all this has been fully explained in my ‘System of Positive Philosophy.’ The tendency of that work was to show that our intervention became more efficacious in proportion as the phenomena upon which we acted had a closer relation to the life of man or society.” (ibid, p. 31) 27 “…[T]he increasing imperfection of the economy of nature becomes a powerful stimulus to all our faculties, whether moral, intellectual, or practical. Here we find sufferings which can really be alleviated to a large extent by wise and wellsustained combination of efforts. This consideration should give a firmness and dignity of bearing, to which Humanity could never attain during her period of infancy. Those who look wisely into the future of society will feel that the conception of man becoming, without fear or boast, the arbiter, within certain limits, of his own destiny, has in it something far more satisfying than the old belief in Providence, which implied our remaining passive. Social union will be strengthened by the conception, because everyone will see that union forms our principal resource against the miseries of human life.” (ibid, p. 31f.)

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


philosophy as understanding, incorporating, and augmenting, central insights of the philosophy of Kant. It would over-simplify to suggest that Hegel is Kant rendered diachronic, and this-worldly; but that does convey a part of the idea, of the basis, that is to say, for the continuing claim of Hegel, in the broad sense intended, to our philosophical allegiance. And Kant, in turn, commands continued attention, and respect which readily turns to assent and allegiance, centrally because of the compelling idea of the transcendent self-monitoring and self-regulating subject, the subject who is both part of nature and yet which transcends nature; the free rational agent, who, made of base clay, that never ceases to permeate and modulate his and her concrete doings in the world, participates also in, expresses, (at least a simulacrum of) divinity, and eternity. The road beyond Kant, as Hegel certainly knew and affirmed, leads to Luther. It is in Luther’s conception of the citadel of the self, the place where the challenge of rational judgment, and action, comes to its ontological and moral beginning, and where the full and transcendent inwardness of understanding and volition has its complete grounding. This is what makes Luther, for Hegel, a world-historical individual, one of the giants of our story; and one of the key germinators of what reaches full philosophical unfolding in Hegel himself. Luther embodies “the Protestant idea,” and through him the philosophies of Kant and Hegel are in an important and singular way Protestant philosophies; and even those who are secular, humanist, agnostic or atheist Kantians or Hegelians are ideologically Protestants. Part of why it will be interesting and important, and may prove fruitful and illuminating, to explore Comtean philosophical history as “Catholic” (the quotation marks are of course necessary because Comte was an atheist, and the religious system he developed in his late years was a “religion of humanity”) is to try to discover whether there is formulable and defensible a Catholiccoded philosophical understanding that may significantly contrast with the Protestant coded one, and possibly contribute something that the Protestant philosophies miss. There have been sociological, or social historical, studies of contrasting Catholic and Protestant mindsets, and cultural formations, in modern European, and more broadly, culturally ‘Western’, life. Some of these have in fact given special attention to the perspective of “the intellectual,” including the philosopher.28 No doubt one does see the world, including 28

One interesting such study is André J. Bélanger’s The Ethics of Catholicism and the Consecration of the Intellectual (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997),


Chapter Six

the human and social world, somewhat, even considerably, differently if one has had a classically traditional Catholic upbringing than if one has had a classically traditional Protestant background; and no doubt, also, the power of these ideological prototypes can and does extend at least a generation or two beyond its full primal vigour, in sons and daughters, even grandchildren, who have become secularists. And these differing perspectives and bodies of assumptions undoubtedly also lead to different patterns of action in public space.29 My aim here though is philosophical, not sociological, or even, in the end, primarily historical. I want to pose the question whether the Lutheran-Kantian conception of the autonomous moral self (albeit housed, as for Hegel, within the web of a historically developing community) is the synthetic a priori cluster that so many philosophers explicitly or implicitly take it to be; and if it arguably is not, whether there is an interesting and plausible alternative to be found in a Catholic model, no doubt with important features shared with the Lutheran-Kantian-Hegelian blueprint, but nonetheless importantly distinctive, and some of which we may discern in Comte. Accordingly, this aim will not have been successfully realized were it to turn out that a distinctively Catholic note, or perspective, was merely sociological, or cultural; nor for that matter could it succeed if the Catholic perspective were tied to a specifically ‘Mediterranean’ cultural setting (for example). Catholicism has declared itself historically to be a ‘universal’ scheme of thought, and has had substantive demographic provenance widely beyond Italian and Iberian cultures, and those evolved from them through colonial or imperial transmissions; Austria, Poland, Ireland, Belgium, and Lithuania are just some of the obvious national societies that may be cited that are of overwhelmingly Catholic composition. The aim just identified will have a conceptual independence of analyses or projects of philosophical history (or speculative philosophy of history). which accords Comte a prominent place in its analysis of the role and model of the intellectual in public life in a Catholic (and subsequently, Catholic-grounded or post-Catholic) society, namely, France contrasted with that role in Englishspeaking societies. 29 Such differing dimensions have had not merely intellectual, or sociological, character. In an anecdote involving the theme of the present paper in a definitely unintellectual mode, the journalist Christopher Hitchens relates the following from Northern Ireland: “There is an old Belfast joke about the man stopped at a roadblock and asked his religion. When he replies that he is an atheist he is asked, ‘Protestant or Catholic atheist’…[T]his did actually happen to a friend of mine and the experience was decidedly not an amusing one.” (Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, McClelland and Stewart, 2007, p. 18).

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


Whether sympathetic to such analyses and projects, or not, many philosophers address, and take seriously, the idea of the cognitive and ethical estate of human personhood, and the question whether a fundamentally Kantian conception of that estate (perhaps conceived as significantly anticipated in some anterior Christian models; and possibly also importantly extended by Hegel) is the final word on that subject. Many philosophers do in fact believe that it is. A principal goal of the present inquiry is to probe, in a particular way, that conviction. Many philosophers (and non-philosophers) will hold that there is no final word in this territory, at all; that all normative models or conceptions of human personhood and human good are culturally or historically relative. A full investigation of my theme would need of course to engage this larger view. Advocates of a relativist view seem to me typically to fail to see consequences or implications of their relativism which they themselves would find unacceptable, particularly when they have concerns with human rights on an international plane, or in adjudication of particular parts of the world’s relatively recent history; likewise, I think, with reference to what is seen as desirable or acceptable in goals and practices in public education, or the desiderata of character formation for one’s own children. But these and cognate larger themes will mostly be ignored in the present context. I will assume that we are prepared to hold, indeed, that careful reflection usually leads us to think that we are compelled to hold that a normative model or conception of human personhood, and good, has content, indeed, something like a ‘synthetic a priori’ character. Perhaps the Kantian conception will emerge from that probing with its claims of primacy intact. At any rate, a significantly alternative “Catholic” conception, modelled for this world and for possible atheist adherence, may provide useful contours of contrast, and perhaps a genuine rival, to the Kantian autonomist understanding. And while conceptually independent of, and more philosophically fundamental than goals in philosophy of history, this higher purpose will have subsidiary ends in philosophical history as well. If Luther-Kant-Hegel, secularized, provide the last word on the ontological and ethical condition of the human person, or if an also secularized Catholic model provides an equally good (or even a better) blueprint, there is an analytical and interpretive need to grasp the place of one or both models within the canvas, or the kinetic articulation, of human history. To this aim also we may find in Comte some useful contribution. It will be evident that Hegel and Comte might have parallel philosophical histories (and anthropologies), closely similar in many central respects, and contrasting at key junctures along lines that may be seen as Lutheran Protestant, and Catholic, in character, respectivelyʊas I am arguing in this


Chapter Six

chapterʊand neither one of these philosophies be attractive, persuasive, or other, essentially, than nineteenth-century fossils, dead ends. Or, even if conceived to have the mutual relations indicated, and one or both have a certain enduring interest or substance, neither might be a candidate for final truth in the conceptual territories they mean to occupy. In quite different ways, it is very candidly to be affirmed, neither Hegel nor Comte are very appealing embodiments of their philosophies. Hegel is deeply obscure, requiring what is sometimes painful scholarship to decode. In Comte’s case we meet with something like the opposite. He is straightforward, and is easily read as superficial; indeed, as a shallow triumphalist dogmatist, trumpeting the march of science, which he often misunderstands, and claims to have made brilliant original contributions to, which posterity has chiefly viewed as doubtful. To be sure, he coined three terms, which have retained much of their significance from his launching them for inquiry: sociology, altruism, and of course positivism. I believe that in the cases of both Hegel and Comte it is possible, and desirable, to separate (sometimes admittedly charitably rendered versions of) the philosophical content of their analyses, and theories, from the packagings which those analyses and theories received in the body of attitudes, and the prose style, and, to a degree, the methodology, with which they were presented. To the extent that this can be achieved, the results, I think, are much more striking, and persuasive, than first responses might have yielded. In addition to seeking to avoid merely ‘cultural’, historical, or sociological results, and acknowledging the nuanced character of the project vis à vis both ethics and the philosophy of history, there is a further challenge for the philosophical substance of the present inquiry. Protestantism, apart from evangelical Protestantism, has in the course of the quarter-centuries since the inception of full modernity, ca. 1690, essentially accepted that even its most fundamental theological claims are outside the boundaries of public knowledge.30 Catholicism has not. Catholicism has in fact continued, to the present hour, to ‘bet the farm’ (so to speak) that among ‘the things that we know’ are that God exists, and that the world is guided by providential purpose, including ascertainable facts of divine intervention in the world. There are, to be sure, categories of fact which are licensed and validated as ‘things that we know’, even though public science does not certify them. Intellectual Catholicism continues to insist 30

I do not mean by this that non-Evangelical Protestants are insincere in their theism, or indeed that they do not view their Christian beliefs and commitments as richly justified by argument and evidence they find compelling.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


(sometimes, just to insinuate) that first theological principles are among them; but it is alone in this.31 It is then in a sense easier to be an ‘atheist Lutheran’ than an ‘atheist Catholic’; otherwise put, it is easier to be a contextualizing or ‘demythologizing’ Lutheran than Catholic. Still otherwise put, it will be more difficult for the serious reflective contemporary Catholic thinker to embrace Comte as philosophical ‘brother’ than it is for the believing Lutheran Protestant thinker to feel affinity with, even to adopt as a congener, Hegel. Comte will in fact induce multiple layers of unsympathetic response from the Catholic philosopher, who will, accordingly, evince a wincing reluctance to accord him stature as a representative, still less, the very best, and archetypal representative, of a Catholic contribution to philosophical history, or to what Luther, Kant, and Hegel may be held diachronically to encapsulate for the serious, existential mode of human inwardness and agency. Comte dismisses the very project of metaphysics, that is, of a possibility of absolute knowledge of the world in itself. Further, he elevates science to a pedestal signifying the highest progressive achievement of human thought, and the only knowledge worthy of the name. And, of course, he is an atheist (and was anti-clerical in French political life). With these counts in the indictment, what may it matter if the man preserved certain romantic attachments to what he thought he knew about Catholic civilization in the middle ages? Well, the case will need to be made. It is not obvious that it will be a successful one. Catholicism has had aesthetic or cultural appeal, at various stages in modern western life, sometimes very strikingly to non-Catholics (whether otherwise Christian, or not) dissatisfied with what may have seemed to 31

I do not mean to contrast Catholics only with liberal Protestants. NonEvangelical Protestants, liberal or conservative (ethically or politically) are, we may say, the Dionysians in this territory, as Catholics are the Apolloniansʊto use the familiar Nietzschean terminology. Protestants welcome, and cherish, mystery, where Catholics hold that if one just thinks in a sufficiently disciplined and thoroughgoing manner one will see that there isn’t any (mystery, that is), at least as far as the essentials are concerned. For Protestants all sorts of issues that matter, ethically and religiously, are beyond our powers to disentangle or fathom; and this is a vital part of why one believes in the first place; for Catholics nothing that is key, at least, to grasping the ethical and theological basics that will ensure the possibilities of getting things right, and of our salvation, is beyond our reach (even if we may, to be sure, sometimes require some assistance to navigate successfully in these waters, from priests or right-thinking philosophers). Atheist ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ can unite Apollo and Dionysus (though they too may need some helpʊfrom the writings of Comte and Hegel!).


Chapter Six

them drab or colourless features of their lived alternative. In some instances this has led to conversions, in others only to expressions of feeling for forms and styles regarded as Catholic. (Others, of more decidedly Protestant, or humanist, ideological orientation have, of course, had reactions of utter horror to the Catholic mode.) As remarked above, the aim in the present investigation is to hope to identify, plausibly, I will argue, through Comte, a secular Catholic “philosophy” that will be more than merely aesthetic or cultural. Two twentieth-century thinkers may deserve brief comment as interesting and serious philosophical writers, both well-educated in the western literary and intellectual canon, and in whose work one finds, not centrally but in passing yet significant asides, the affirmation of a secular Catholic philosophical note. They are George Santayana and Camille Paglia. Both of Latin (Mediterranean) Catholic cultural background, and formulating their intellectual perspectives, reactively, within the predominantly Protestant United States, they are also both writers whose analyses present themselves typically in explicitly or implicitly autobiographical dress. That is, like Descartes (and some other philosophers), though more passionally, Santayana and Paglia mean their first-person utterances to represent stances of the inquiring mind and socio-historical commentator broadly and globally. Paglia will be, for many, a thinker somewhat outside the pale of serious or primary intellectual, or at any rate, philosophical, engagement. Her writings express nonetheless a singular note of philosophical Catholicism which deserves acknowledgment. Hers is a specifically Mediterranean Catholicism, which will contrast with the more austere Catholicism more typically found in Irish and Germanic contextsʊand in Comte. Paglia affirms, and affirms as (Mediterranean) Catholic, florid, body-focused, emphatically this-world imaginative conceptions of the human condition, equally emphatically declared to be missing from Protestant conceptions. “The polychrome images of tortured saints that are a staple of Italian and Spanish Catholicism contain brutal truths about the pagan realities of the body…”32 As intimated, she sees the Catholic model of human life as a reaffirmation of ancient paganʊpre-Christianʊmodels that are essentially visual and embodied (and which, as she sees it, contrast with Judaism, whose defining spirit reappears in Protestantism). “Mediterranean culture is honest about death, which it does not sentimentalize or conceal from children. The skull over the cradle: Italian funerals feature open caskets 32

Camille Paglia, Vamps & Tramps (Vintage, 1994), p. 199.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


and corpse-kissing, just as rural Italian families rear their young with useful life lessons of rough play…”.33 “The pure Protestant style is a bare white church with plain windows. Italian Catholicism…retains the most florid pictorialism, the bequest of a pagan past that was never lost… Paganism is eye-intense. It is based on cultic exhibitionism, in which sex and sadomasochism are joined…Waxed saints’ corpses under glass. Tattered arm-bones in gold reliquaries. Half-nude St. Sebastian pierced by arrows. St. Lucy holding her eyeballs out on a platter. Blood, torture, ecstasy, and tears. Its lurid sensationalism makes Italian Catholicism the emotionally most complete cosmology in religious history…”.34 Santayana’s philosophical Catholicism is more moderately stated, but not wholly dissimilar. Though his reputation, even attention of any kind to him, philosophically, has diminished considerably in, the decades since his death in 1952, Santayana has had major stature among philosophers. Although primary attention has been to his contributions to aesthetics, some focus has also attached to Santayana’s work as a (self-described) naturalist and materialist. Santayana was an extremely prolific writer. A leading early work was the five-volume The Life of Reason: or the Phases of Human Progress, published in 1905. As the title will indicate, Santayana develops, in a relatively unsystematic manner, his own approximatelyHegelian account of human normative rationality, in the spheres of common sense, society, religion, art, and science. The third volume (Reason in Religion) has special interest for the present purpose. Santayana makes clear that he is an atheist, and that for him religious claims about the world are entirely untrue. They are nonetheless of great, indeed, inestimable value. Like Hegel, then, Santayana sees religion as a mode of experience, and thought, of immense, and largely positive significance. And, as with Comte, this value, and significance, is located above all in Roman Catholic Christianity. (One encounters as wellʊagain, just as in Comteʊa marked antipathy, sometimes real animosity, to Protestantism.) Had Comte not preceded him, and were the treatment more developed as a philosophical history, Santayana would himself merit detailed study as an ‘atheist Catholic Hegel’. Santayana was well and widely read in the history of philosophy. References to Hegel are not infrequent, and occasional comments about positivism appear (usually negative ones). No references explicitly to Comte seem to appear at all (there certainly are none in The Life of Reason).

33 34

Ibid. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (Vintage, 1991), p. 33.


Chapter Six

Comte is, it is quite clear, not a writer with the literary panache or allure of Santayana or Paglia. He shared with Hegel the conviction that he was a philosophical genius, of sublime originality and world-historical significance. Posterity has been kinder in this regard to Hegel than to Comte. Because he was eccentric, creating at the later stage of his life and career a wouldbe religion, a “religion of humanity,” and because his own work in the philosophy of science is largely superficial, Comte has failed even very enthusiastically to be endorsed or claimed by the twentieth-century philosophical movement which took its name from the movement he founded.35 Logical positivism certainly does bear more than merely superficial similarity to Comtean positivism. Both are philosophies which repudiate metaphysics, and theology, as conceptually primitive and wholly superseded by the modern sciences, philosophy’s surviving role being philosophy of science, and to provide a pragmatic framework (or set of frameworks) within which the sciences (the sole intellectual endeavours with genuine cognitive content) can do their work. Both varieties of positivism had, interestingly, philosophies of history, at any rate, analyses of history, especially insofar as it presents profiles of the emergence and progressive advance of the sciences, and of a “scientific” mode of thought. Our attention will be on Comte’s philosophical history; but it bears remark that the founders of the Vienna Circle looked back consciously, and balefully, at what they regarded as the intellectual disasters of Germanic philosophy in the 130 years or so preceding their own formation, and which they regarded not only as conceptually bankrupt, indeed, fraudulent, 35 Although

there has been a recent degree of revived scholarly interest in his ideas, Comte has received, in general, only very occasional, and rarely sympathetic, discussion, in post-nineteenth century philosophy. Most of the more recent secondary literature is in French, its authors above all concerned to locate and evaluate Comte as a figure in the historical canon of French philosophy. The most extensive, and substantive, recent work on Comte in English is due to Mary Pickering. See Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, Vol. I (Cambridge University Press, 1993); Mary Pickering, “New Evidence of the Link between Comte and German Philosophy”, Journal of the History of Ideas 50 (JulySept. 1989), 443-63. In the nineteenth century Comte’s impress was considerably wider, particularly in Great Britain. J. S. Mill and G. H. Lewes were prominent sympathizers, the former more adversarially than the latter. Comte was no more attractive a writer than human being. He is dogmatic, making claims about history, and the significance and personalities of its agents, and theories, with sweeping finality. Evenʊas, quite oftenʊhe is agreed to be right, or more right than wrong, in his claims and judgments, the reader is easily inclined to begrudge him his correctness, because of the uncompromisingly dogmatic tone in which it is rendered, or the implausible extensions he so often makes of these insights.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


but as having had a significant historical role in fostering German militarism and hyper-nationalism, culminating in the first World War. A particularly significant account of the appearance and evolution of the philosophical work which the logical positivist school, by contrast, valorized, will be found in Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1948), a volume which itself, in its own special way, deserves a place on the shelves of signal contributions to speculative philosophy of history. The general contours of Comte’s own philosophical history are well-known, and readily given. Human history, conceived as a progression, divides itself into three large, broad phases: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive (or scientific). This triadic structure naturally suggests comparison with Hegel’s plain and abundantly manifested love of that number. One of the questions Comte’s philosophical history will pose is how much it may owe to Hegel. Comte certainly knew Hegel’s work; it is unclear how deeply or well. But we note that in the positivist calendar which Comte devised, and which was intended for the “religion of humanity,” and for the new age, inaugurated by the triumph of science, in which it was to figure, Hegel appears as one of the 559 positivist “saints” – the people Comte conceives as important contributors to human progress, and who are to be celebrated in the positivist calendar, and rite, by having either a whole month named in their honour, or one of the days of the year specially consecrated to them.36 Hegel is the honoree for the last Saturday in the month of Descartes (the eleventh month in Comte’s calendar, dedicated to modern philosophy)ʊexcept for leap years, when he must give place to Sophie Germain. In spite of Hegel’s place in Comte’s calendar, and a considerable number of similarities and parallels between their respective philosophical histories and the architectonics they display, and which we will be illustrating more extensively presently, it would be inaccurate to describe Comte as significantly influenced by, still less as a disciple, even a renegade disciple, of Hegel. He was in fact a disciple of Saint-Simon, the 36

On the whole, and noting the exclusions Comte makes of individuals whose contributions to the world Comte sees as significant but only malign in character, Comte’s gallery of ‘greats’ is interesting, and impressively well-informed, especially in the history of science and technology. Some of the ‘saints’ he includesʊlike some of the saints of the Catholic canonʊhave the singular trait of never having existed; they evidently serve, for Comte, roles as icons of cultural or civilizational stages in the past. A great many actual Catholic saints (all of them really existing ones!) also appear in Comte’s tabulation.


Chapter Six

independent philosophical historian and proto-Marx of early nineteenthcentury France; and then his strong opponent.37 Another primary influence for Comte’s philosophy of history, acknowledged and never repudiated, was Condorcet (who finds his place in the positivist calendar, like Hegel does, as tutelary figure for one of the days of the year). We more properly see parallel development between Hegel and Comte, Comte, the chronologically junior, also reading, but taking his own set of stances on Hegelian themes. Both Hegel and Comte attach immense world-historical significance to the French Revolutionary period. This is more evident in Hegel than in Comte. For Hegel the French Revolution itself is a kind of logical culmination of the atomic individualism of the Enlightenment. Apparently, it receives for him its positive outcome—for some interpreters this is the very end of history, the inauguration of the rational state—in the settled international state system, enshrining both state-sanctioned Christianity and the Rights of Man–of Napoleon, “the world-spirit on horseback.” No one in the nineteenth century was neutral about Napoleon, and Comte, for his part, was one of the Napoleon-haters. His summary indictment of the revolutionary regime, and its Napoleonic successor: “The thoroughly subversive tendencies inevitably brought to light by the political triumph of this negative doctrine [the “metaphysical philosophy” of the creators of the first French Republic] soon led to a retrograde reaction. Begun by the ephemeral ascendency of a bloodthirsty deism, it took its largest proportions on the official restoration of Catholicism under the military tyranny. But the basic tendencies of modern civilisation repelled from it alike theologism and war.”38 So much for the Concordat with the Church, 37

Comte was very definite about who he thought had made positive contributions to world civilization, and who had not. Among those signally not appearing in the positivist calendar are, in addition to Comte’s one-time mentor Saint-Simon, both Luther and Calvin, the great founders of Protestantism, whichʊunlike Hegel, of courseʊComte saw as a pernicious and mostly destructive development in lateRenaissance history. Once Protestantism was in place, though, a number of its central religious figures are honoured and valorized among the positivist ‘saints’. Curiously, Jesus, himself, does not appear among the positivist saints. It is unclear whether this would reflect a Comtean view that, though beneficent in its final effects, the initial impulse or input of Jesus to civilization was, for Comte, retrograde; or, more probably, an unexamined survival of Comte’s own Catholic upbringing, and an accompanying, though unstated, conviction that it would be impious to number Christ among mere mortals (even if some of the positivist saints are in fact divine mythological figures, like BelusʊBaalʊand Prometheus). 38 See Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, p. 291

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


and its architect, the embodiment of “the military spirit,” Napoleon. Needless to say, the latter does not appear in the calendar of positivist saints, not even to share a leap-year’s day (the humblest of the saintly statures). (On the other hand, perhaps oddly, Cromwell, whom Comte much admired, does.) Nonetheless, the Revolutionary period matters, for Comte, just as for Hegel. Revealingly, Year One of the positivist epoch is 1789,39 and, as for Hegel, it is the Revolutionary period which ushers in the full realization of human rationality, in a sublime order inaugurated in western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. They differ only in the precise timing, and in some of the details. If for Hegel it is the Battle of Jena, and 1806, for Comte it is just rather later, perhaps the political transformation of July 1830, in Paris.40 But we are of course very much ahead of ourselves, for it is in the much earlier background that we need to look to find the “Catholic” Comte, and an ideological analysis in philosophical historiography which valorizes the Catholic note, and the Catholic contribution to world civilization, and the evolution of human rationality, in a manner largely missing from Hegel. The relevant historical node, in whose terms Comte sees key creative Catholic advance, is in the originative Christian conceptual and ethical cluster of ideas, which for Comte is due primarily to St. Paul, and then, dramatically and significantly augmenting it, the high Middle Ages. Hegel of course shares the strong valorization of Christianity as such. What is strikingly different in Comte’s philosophical historiography is the conception of medieval West-European civilization as constituting a high 39

The French Revolutionary legislators of 1793, concerned to revise the calendar, debated whether the first year of the new epoch should be taken to be 1789ʊdubbed, then, ‘the year of liberty’ (the year in which the Bastille fell)ʊor 1792, ‘the year of the republic’ (the year in which the French Republic was proclaimed). They opted for the latter. Comte’s calendar, then, represents a revisitation of that debate, and his doing the matter over in accordance with what he takes to be sounder (and historically conciliatory) principles. 40 The six volumes of Comte’s Cours De Philosophie Positive appeared over the course of the years 1830-42. Throughout his writings Comte expresses a conviction that his own period is one of crisis and transformation. As with Marx, and many European liberal nationalists of the day, this widespread conviction of world-changing tumult came to special focused convergence on the year 1848. Comte seems to have viewed with special hope the possibilities inherent in the overthrow of the July Monarchy, in France, in that year, and the foundation of the (as it was to prove, rather short-lived) Second Republic.


Chapter Six

plane of cultural, ethical, and cognitive realization, one of the primary “moments” in the articulation of the human story and of human progress; from which, indeed, for Comte, there has been, since, devastating decline, and loss, even if accompanied by the seeds of what is in the course of ushering in the new age, the “positive” age of science. Comte’s analysis of medieval (i.e., West-European medieval) civilization sees two primary roots to what is distinctive and specially valuable in that civilization. One is Christianity; the other is feudalism. For Comte these are historically quite distinct; in their fusion the special flower that is medieval emerges. Let us try to articulate what a ‘Catholic’ conception of human authenticity may affirm, in contrast to a ‘Lutheran’ one. For the Catholic model, the Lutheran one is too individualist. Even if the Hegelian affirms our necessary situatedness in community and in culture as well as in history, Hegelian ‘man’s’ position is finally precariously, and implausibly, lonely, solitary, even morally solipsistic. It also commits the sin of pride. That sin, for Christians, is the first and deepest sin, and the one to which we may too readily be too prone to return. The Catholic model includes also a place for our individuality, and certainly for our free agency. But it is Aristotelian in a way in which the Lutheran model is Augustinianʊ Platonistic. For the Catholic picture we are more fully a part of animal nature, even if and as we are a distinctive and special part of animal nature, the only truly free part, the part in which a nature which would be the divine nature (if there were a God) would find expression. We must not forget of course Kant’s ‘crooked timber of humanity’ image. For him too we are dark, and bestial, redeemable in our freedom but only in a transcendence of our dark bestiality. For the Catholic image we stay always the floridly colourful beastʊthough the free and accountable one. But it is the propensity to anarchic pride, with a claim of final deciding judgment on fundamental issues of commitment, which above all renders Lutheran humanity suspect for the Catholic view.41 We need each other, and we need sometimes to submit to each other, as well as to God, and to nature. We need the voice, the input, of a priestly or sagacious other; not merely contingently, some of the time, as a reflection of the relative stage of advance, progress, or sophistication we may have attained. That priestly 41 “As stated in Ecclus. X. 15, pride is the beginning of all sin, because thereby man clings to his own judgment, and strays from the Divine commandments. Consequently that which destroys sin must needs make man give up his own judgment.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol. III, Suppl., q. 1,a.1; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province).

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


or sagacious other may also be a shrewd or perceptive fellow human being, from whose insight or counsel we may gain, but he, or she, is primarily a vehicle, an instrument, bringing us to earth, to humility, and thereby to heaven, enabling us to obtain absolution. Too much that we doʊor would do if we could; some of our circumstances are misleadingly self-immunizing from depths of depravity we think, mistakenly, in our infatuated pride, we (unlike the many sordid others) would not be prone toʊcarries a load of grief, or merited guilt, that would be beyond bearing. We regularly, systematically need absolution, that we could not give ourselves, and which we require from a regularized source that is concrete, perceptible, also-human. We need also input that includes a framework of dataʊconceptually organized information, that means to make sense for us of the world in which we find ourselves. It is not that that framework, in its generalities or its specifics, is beyond challenge. Philosophy, and science, are human goods as well as achievements. They might lead us, justifiably, to reject something that had been part of the legacy within which the special system of a priestly other, and the necessary absolution that other can offer, had presented itself. Linked to the preceding, including its focus on the sin of pride, is the notion that Protestantism encourages the idea of a moral aristocracyʊan elect differentiated from the rest of humanity by their rectitude and compliance with moral code and moral law (as well of course as doctrinal correctness). Historically, and sociologically, in societies with large populations of both varieties of Christian, a standard Catholic complaint of Protestants is that the latter, especially those of abstemious straight-andnarrow lifestyle, think that they are better than they (i.e., they themselves) actually are. Not formally, of course. For orthodox Christians, Catholic or Protestant, all are sinners; for Calvinist Protestants, rather infamously, our darkness is especially dark. But the Weber/Tawney theses of (Calvinist) Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, whatever their precise final merits or defensibility, do not come from nothing. The Protestant thought-mode, including its psychological progeny, Kantian ‘moral man’, does seem to encourage options of attaining membership in a markedly differentiating moral elite. For the Catholic model, all of us are ineluctably badʊand goodʊour choices and deeds creating the character, and the tally, by which we have the moral heft which we do; there is no moral ‘club’, of which some of us get to be members, the rest, not. (There are of course the saved, and the damned, for all versions of orthodox Christianity; but that differentiation is made in the next world.)


Chapter Six

The Catholic/Comtean model of human moral and ontological estate may be seen as an exemplification of a ‘lineage’ of conceptions which are identifiable in Aristotle, and, arguably, in empiricist analyses and assumptions, just as the Lutheran/Kantian/Hegelian alternative may be traced to Plato. For the latter, we are ‘special’; persons comprise a category of beings which, as Kant says, are without price or axiological equivalency. We require recognition, that acknowledgment of our thymos that asserts a body of moral entitlements. It is from this root that conceptions, and detailed bodies of doctrines, of human rights derive. For the Aristotelian and empiricist scheme we are parts of nature, even if, to significant degrees and in special ways, elevated above it. A further part of the Comtean human portrait which, while certainly not absent in Hegel’s philosophical anthropology, is arguably understated there, and given only an inessential role in the conceptions in Luther and Kant which lie behind it, is the central significance of the (nuclear) family unit. Comte sees the family as having been accorded a morally foundational significance in the Catholic Christianity inaugurated by St. Paul, and sustained in Catholic Christianity ever since, that primal significance not of course negated but, Comte thinks, diminished in the Protestant variety of Christianity which appeared in and after the Renaissance. Only in Pauline Christianity is a set of roles and relationships delineated for the family, according to Comte, which assigns and guarantees the moral identity and autonomy of its several members as well as providing an optimal structural foundation for the social order. Families of course are produced by sexual activities involving two of their members. Independent of those activities, humans are not just persons; they are sexed persons. Another part of the indictment against Lutheran ‘man’ which the Catholic model or image makes is that Lutheran humanity is sexless. Great care must be taken in articulating the ideaʊinsight, if that is what it isʊin this part of the Catholic conception. For the Catholic image we are not merely parts of beastly nature, members of a living species, further, that nature is sexed. We are erotic and eroticized beings, and we are male and female, and those are different things to be in the world. Not wholly or radically different, but powerful and important parts of what we each of us are. An adequate understanding of our identities, and our situatedness in the world, involves our sex and our sexuality. Both of the latter may be inaccurately grasped, ontologically and ethically. Both may also be over-rated; and for historical Catholic philosophy they have probably both been over-rated and seen as forces and facts more negative than positive. But in the Lutheran scheme they are

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


not there at all; they are invisible, if not absent. For the Lutheran image I am just I, a rational and moral subject, an agent, finding myself in a world, which I may come gradually to know, that knowledge including selfknowledge, and in which I choose, and act. For the Catholic model there is a necessary, ineluctable place, and role, for the Male and the Female (just as there is, also, for the Human Being, and the Curious Inquirer, and the Tool-Maker, and each of the many other very basic and important things that we are). Comte specially prided himself for recognizing, as he thought that he had, the significance of Male and Female principles, more specifically, the profoundly important role of the Female in the advance of civilization, and (as he supposed) a distinctive and signal contribution made in this regard by medieval Catholic European civilization. He thought that the latter contribution was due both to religious and secular sourcesʊthe first, through the cult of the Virgin Mary and the elevation of a great many active women to sainthood, and the second, through the romantic elevation of woman as object of valorized attention in the poetry and culture of the troubadour and knightly chivalry. It will be easy now to scoff at these Comtean examples; and to take them to reflect simplistic, historically inaccurate, and ultimately demeaning conceptions of women. Save us from the pedestals, is a widespread, and surely reasonable, emphatic articulation of feminist discourse. It may be submitted though that Comte’s deeper idea is the idea of the importance of sex, and the importance, and the (at least alleged) fact, of there being something different about being male than being female, and (of course) vice versa; and further that these matter to what happens in the social order, and in history, and that broad human good will require affirmation of the great, high value of both components of humanity. He asserts, of course, more than just this; and matters will quickly become contestable. France has sometimes been claimed (sometimes not only by some of her own citizens), to the great annoyance, it has to be said, of many, to have had a special and distinctive mission civilatrice (civilizing mission) in the world. The same thing has sometimes been claimed for the female sexʊalso, to be sure, with negative reactions in various quarters. Comte is one of those with this view (he may also have the same opinion about France, though he at least tries to be even-handed in this regard). Woman, he thinks, makes-gentle, pacifies, softensʊand inspires. The latter conception, for him, is not merely one of muse, for male creators. Inspiration, for Comte, is spiritual as well as scientific, artistic, and social, and it infuses women as well as men. Maybe it required the cult of the


Chapter Six

Virgin Mary, and options of sainthoodʊthe highest achievable estate in the medieval worldʊand monastic segregation (female as well as male), for these realizations to occur, and to find concrete embodiment in a world emergent from a very dark age. At any rate, that is a central part of what affords that time and place its great glory. Protestantism has nothing comparable, is, in fact, a falling away, from these realizations and achievementsʊeven if, in Protestantism, the clergy can marry, and even can be (at least in very recent Protestantism) of either sex. For Protestantism we are, all of us, ultimately, only persons. Is Comte a “gender essentialist”? Whatever exactly it is supposed to be to be that, it is not clear that the Comtean position with regard to sex and gender needs to be understood in any particularly metaphysical or scientific way. Evidently, that we are male or female, are ways in which we have been natured, just as that we are human is also. Nature produces also hermaphrodites. In any case, that we are male and female will be compatible with most of what it is to be either being the same, and certainly compatible with equalities of rights, and of broad aptitudes. There is no denying that Comte himself has a very conventional, sentimental, socially and politically conservative body of attitudes about men and women. In his conversations with the woman, the priest is a (sometimes very annoyingly condescending) man, and the woman involved is an eager and humble learner, very keen to take instruction from her wise mentor. Comte’s model of the enlightened treatment of women is a troubadour, or a knight, viewing some particular woman, or women in general, through obfuscating if allegedly valorizing gauze. But it may not be unreasonable to see these as limitationsʊimaginative failings, and failings of other kindsʊof Comte the man, and not necessarily of the analysis, and the theory, which he advances. At any rate, it may be worth exploring further whether there is identifiable a Comteanʊa secular Catholicʊconception of the human condition, which does not mute our sexed nature, and other facets of our nature, in ways in which Lutheran Protestantism, arguably, does. As well as being sexed, we are sexual beings, and this is not quite, of course, the same thing. While Comte, a not atypical nineteenth-century European of conservative, prudish, and sentimental disposition, does not bring this out, nor would the laicised Catholicism from which so much of his thinking stems, it may seem plausible to conceive a natural augmentation of the atheist Catholic human model, in contrast to its Protestant rival, in sexualized directions. This is the tack which Camille Paglia takes, with her notion of pagan Mediterranean eroticism, wearing a

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


veneer of Catholic dress. Lutheran-Hegelian man, at any rate in most fully ‘mature’ mode, does not easily or comfortably seem identifiable as able to be imbued with lust. Lust-occasioned guilt is, to be sure, common territory for both varieties of Christianity. Still another component or element of the sexed model of humanity in history, and under the eyes of some sort of eternity, charts into still more troubled and contested watersʊand has, arguably, nonetheless a case, even a secular or more-or-less naturalist/atheist one, in its behalf. One view of the Catholic fierce antipathy to abortion is to see that antipathy as essentially Aristotelian in character and motivation, coupled with the conviction of human moral singularity. All things and processes, morally, have telea; and each individual human launching, at any and every stage, is the launching of a unique new individual human life, with the astonishing and singular value that that has. A second conception, not incompatible with the first, but distinct, not requiring or required by it, sees special horror in abortion as posed by the fact that it is the womanʊconceived here very specially, and literally, as in the image of the mother of Godʊwho must, if it occurs, pursue and consent to it. For this line of thinking, in its literal version, Catholic, in its metaphorical or ‘mythic’ construal, ‘Comtean’, the female sexed human being is quintessentially and perennially, a new instantiation of Mary. Even if childless, barren, in fact, as circumstance determines, she is, in every instance, daughter and renewed avatar of Mary. Put otherwise, she is, qua moral sexed female human agent, not just someone who is or could have been a mother, she is embodiment of the Idea of maternal relation to helpless young, helpless nurturance-requiring successive new generations of humanity. The Idea is, though, concurrently both universal and particular, for it is an Idea that is particularized and individualized, as it in fact invariably and necessarily is, as interested focused nurturative maternal love of this individual newly-created child, and that one (if there are more), and that one. So the special horror attached to abortion, from this point of view, is that it is (allegedly) a denial and a reversal of what female humanity is, in the world. The attention here, though, is not intended to be on moral issues posed by abortion, but rather on a sexed conception of humanity which plays a role in giving rise to particular stances on those issues, and which, it is being suggested, may also be seen as playing a role in the impetus to and rationale for the Comtean philosophy of history we are exploring. Women of course are other things besides mothers, just as men are other things besides fathers; actually, or forever potentially, in both cases. The


Chapter Six

Comtean/Catholic imaginative model need not and does not deny any of this. It holdsʊagainʊthat it is existentially a different thing to be a woman than to be a manʊjust as it would be to be of some third or fourth other possible sex. And, it holds, part of what is central, essential, to being female, is being a mother or a potential mother (the latter obtaining even after, long after, menopause). Part of the relevant being-in-the-world is being, at least potentially, in agapetic relationship to new infant humans, especially (though not necessarily exclusively) as issuing, issue, from that body, that self’s woman’s body, flesh of that flesh; and loved, adored, nurtured, as flesh of that flesh. This imaginative model is absent from Protestant conceptions. The model also permits other female instantiations and roles; including the Krishna one, of the god (goddess, mother of God) as child herself. It is true that in the Catholic schemeʊComte’s in its trainʊa veil is drawn over woman as sexual being. If Mary managed it otherwise (and the in vitro fertilized), all other human mothers produce their offspring through acts of ‘dirty’, sexually-charged couplings, which they often enjoy just as much as the males with whom they copulate. Woman, like man, is versatile; able to wear more hats than one, able to be this, then later that, differently conflected, configured, without challenge or problem. Why then can’t she abort this time, then not, and be the epitome of blessed loving maternal force next time? Well (the argument will be), because she too is a person, with ineluctable joined continuities between all stages and phases. If she loved this bit of helpless tissue/issue, how then could she kill that other one, except inauthentically, falsely to the integrity of a whole person under cosmic currents and skies? She will also have been ‘playing God’ʊsuccumbed to the sin of pride, the technocratic interference with nature condemned also by Heidegger as by other secular ecological perspectivesʊin determining, deciding, case by case, that this one shall live, that one, not. So the argument will go. As indicated, this is contestable, and contested, territory. It easily, also, slides into Aristotelian teleological zones of the ‘natural’, even if we have sought, for Comtean Catholicism, that it not do so. The idea is supposed to be that it is existentially inauthentic, lacking in and denying of the integrityʊthe connected wholenessʊof the embodied personhood with which one has come into and travelled in the world, if one is female, if one wilfully aborts a pregnancy that has come one’s way, because the human person is sexed, and relations, actual or potential, with infant others issuing from one’s body is (an essential) part of what goes with being of that sex.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


I do not think that this position, or argument, is defensible, certainly not in its full exceptionless Catholic abortion-as-murder form. Life really does have its accidental featuresʊpregnancies resulting from rape, incest, or late marital couplings following many previous ones the latest of them itself economically or psychologically unaffordable, are just obvious or extreme cases of this. A weaker, more plausibly Comtean, version of the idea may still have something to be said for it; one that might insist only that abortion can never be a casual choice, and that it is one which belongs in a conceptually somewhat loose but meaningfully unitary bundle comprising issues of maternity and potential maternity which female lives confront, and which ‘choice’ only partly, and significantly inaccurately and distortingly, characterizes. This Comtean Catholic position, it is important to see, is not one which focuses (unlike the Aristotelian teleological anti-abortion one) exclusively on the woman, and her estate, prospects, projects, and choices (or, for that matter, on the unborn, and their supposed ‘rights’). Rather, this position sees women as ineluctably relational.42 (There might in principle be other, independent arguments which might claim men also to be essentially relational.) Although sometimes alone in statuary art, in paintings the Madonna is almost invariably accompanied by the divine child. This is an idea then of what one might call an existential corporeal intentionality. It is not an idea of mandatory motherhood. In the Catholic scheme many women are ‘brides of Christ’; or with other destinies, have not had, or sought, pregnancies. Intentional objects in some cases do not exist; nor, in some of those, is it desired that they exist. There is nonetheless this idea of a central component of an identity that is bodily, and is potentially, and quite often, quite regularly, actually, frequently actively, new-self-directed. The iconic identity and role of Mary is not, it is important to add, limited to relations to new, i.e., infant selves. Mary is also, in Catholic thought, and Catholic art, mater dolorosa, the sorrowing mother of the crucified, then the dead, Christ. Here too she is essentially relational, and the relationship stems from having been mother and nurturer of that now-adult child.43 Enough on this line of thought, which will undoubtedly win for 42 In fact, Comte identifies three ‘identities’ for Woman, all of them relational: mother, spouse, daughter. 43 It is interesting to note the appearance of still a further ‘demythologized’ manifestation of the essentially-Catholic philosophical anthropology we are adumbrating, in the Lennon-McCartney popular song ‘Let It Be’. Its authors, themselves unbelievers (one of them, at least, emphatically anti-religious), of Irish


Chapter Six

Comte, or a Comtean existential philosophical history, few further friends, or little more than angry or derisory dismissal in many quarters. As I have indicated, the present chapter has had two primary aims: to draw attention to Comte as a philosophical historian whose central teleological conception displays arresting parallel, importantly convergent and divergent, to Hegel; and to raise the philosophical issue of whether there are alternativesʊthat is, serious, inwardly and existentially compelling alternativesʊto the liberal autonomist Kant-Hegel model of humanity in the nexnjs of interpersonal relation, the community and the state, and history. Given, as we have noted, that both models have Christian roots, and both valorize the rise and flowering of scientific rationality, broadly conceived, it will be clear that there will be only some features of contrast between the models. Our aim has been to give highlighted attention to such as there are, and to consider what case there may be for the Comtean rather than the Hegelian alternative, either as ‘valid’ in its own right, or as conceptually, empirically, or morally superior. To some degree complicating the comparison is the fact that, as historical thinkers, neither Hegel nor Comte were political democrats. The KantHegel model now received and enjoying an iconic status in contemporary philosophical ideological culture is a sanitized one, the founding figures viewed through democratizing (and otherʊe.g., gender-egalitarian) prisms, or gauze. It seems at least relatively easy to produce democratic and gender-egalitarian extensions or versions of Kant-Hegel. It can seem less readily done in the case of Comte. The Catholic tradition is a hierarchical one, and that is patently part of what Comte values in that tradition. The Comtean hierarchy, in the utopian social order he envisaged, was to be meritocratic; certainly not democratic. Nonetheless, I would argue, both Hegelian and Comtean conceptions of a ‘rational state’ can be seen as finding expression, at least of a sort, in the several Christian Democratic parties of the European Union, some of the member countries of which are Catholic majoritarian, just as others are of Protestant Catholic cultural heritage, evoke the protective support, when in distress, of ‘Mother Mary’, who provides not only comfort and a serene calming but ‘words of wisdom’. The Mary of the song is not quite the full Madonna of Catholic theology, or culture; but she also clearly does not signify (merely) the introjected presence of the individual’s mother, even in idealized version. She is the Virgin Mary, demythologized. It is doubtful that she could figure, iconically or imaginatively, in a Protestant psychological or anthropological scheme, even a Hegelian or otherwise demythologized one.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


demographic heritage.44 A more democratic ideological affirmation than either Hegel or Comte would have endorsed is required to move from their blueprints (such as they are) to contemporary Christian Democratic programmatic models. Moreover, while the Hegelian rational state will evidently have a Protestant established church, the Comtean one is to displace Christianity altogether with Comte’s new religion of humanity. The latter is, though, as we have seen, a kind of secularized version of Roman Catholicism, which will at the same time, as in Hegel’s model of the church’s political role, have no political power. Both versions of rational state will celebrate and aim to cultivate and advance ever higher goals of scientific and philosophical culture, and achievement, through public education systems buttressed by a public ethical system of religious coloration. Comte’s ethical system is utilitarian. But he is convinced, rather, again, as is Hegel, that humans require promptings of sentiment to behave altruistically, both in their interpersonal affairs and on the public stage. We will not reliably do the right thing, or seek social or public good without engaged applications of feeling. Part of what will secure that engagement is the psychological propensity of sympathy. Comte, like his prominent 44 Comte’s utopian scheme, and the positivist ideology on which it rested, did in fact have an instantiation, at least of a sort, in the political world. Leading figures among the founders of the Brazilian republic, after the overthrow of the monarchical regime in Brazil, in 1889, were Comtean positivists. Their convictions left their impress on the Brazilian flag, whose motto “Order and Progress” derives directly from Comte, and expresses the central values which his ‘social physics’, and the human advance he intended it to implement and promote, was dedicated. Brazil is of course, interestingly, the largest predominantly Catholic country in the world, in both population and area. The very considerable influence, and significance, which Comte, and the positivist movement, had for Latin American (and above all, Brazilian) political thought, and practice, in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is not explored here. (Some interesting comments in this regard may be seen in Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Penguin, 1993; trans. R. Mayne), pp. 14, 454f.) Another study than the present one would usefully address itself to the partly parallel careers of (Hegelian) Marxism and Comtean positivism, empirically and ideologically, in Latin America and more widely in the modern world. (See also, in this regard, Braudel, op. cit., pp. 390-393.) As the decades following 1989 accumulate and advance, it is not clear that Marxism will be perceived to have had so relatively greater a world-historical imprint in the human story. No actual human society has been other than an extremely imperfect embodiment of the visions of either Comte or Marx. Though, perhaps, none could be, it is by no means clear that the Marxian dream was any more humanityadvancing, still less, more scientific, than the Comtean one.


Chapter Six

British predecessors Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, is a sympathy theorist. But, unlike at least the last two named, Comte thinksʊlike Hegelʊthat sympathy alone cannot guide us to good, or ground a social order which can have hope of being an enduring selfsustaining scientifically advancing polity. Only religion can effect the latter. Thus Comte’s ‘religion of humanity’. But the latter is no mere ‘secular humanism philosophy’. It is crucial, as Comte sees it, that there be a replete system of ceremonies and symbolism, and a priesthood formally assigned public roles of a religious character. A fond if not delusional hope, affirmed by even many of Comte’s nineteenth-century admirers, as well, of course, as his numerous critics. ‘Catholicism without Christianity’ was one contemporary jibe.45 There are at least two kinds of difficulties Comte’s scheme poses, one more general than the other. The first is the challenge posed for every socially transformative revolutionary schemeʊhow to get from here to there? How, especially, if the armed violence of revolution is rejected as a path? The second addresses the scheme itself. Would, or could, humans worship (a personalized) ‘Humanity’? Even if they might make a start of doing so, is it plausible that this would be able to be self-sustaining? In an age of animal rights, a ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, and a very widespread scepticismʊfor many, justified by the historical record, as well as by empirical research in the social and biological sciencesʊabout the inherent, and the exclusive, ethical merit of human beings, it can seem particularly unpersuasive that a deified Humanity could, or should, assume the altar from which, had Comte his way, the traditional God would have been dethroned. Butʊwhat are we to do? Where, if anywhere, can hope, with even a portion of justification, be found? Though philosophers like MacIntyre, Taylor, and Elshtain would have us go back, embrace reconfigured but still orthodox versions of traditional theism, too few of us can do so; not inwardly or sincerely. Eighteenth-century secularism let a genie out of a bottle, and it cannot be restored. If we really do need something like religion, it must be a version of it permitting its demythologizingʊfor those who will choose so to receive it. And whether a purely secular condition of being, personal, interpersonal, and public, can be a sufficient ground of an enduring social order remains to be seen. A purely instrumentalist, and historical materialist utilitarian social order seems definitely not sustainable, as Comte had the acuity to see. One finds an interesting contemporary instance of something like Comte’s perception, 45

Its author was T. H. Huxley.

Comte: The 'Catholic' Hegel


and part of the conclusion he reaches, in G. A. Cohen’s If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?ʊCohen’s Gifford Lectures. Like other Marxists, Cohen lost his faith in the historical probability, much less the historical inevitability, of an egalitarian socialist order coming to social and political power, largely in the aftermath of the events of 1989. He can no longer share the Marxian historical materialist analysis of historical process and its outcomes. What he finds in its stead, though, is not an acquiescent stance of a more diffuse cultural materialist character, or a merely public-spirited advocacy of Benthamite social rationality. Rather, Cohen explicitly embraces an ethical version of Christianity, clearly conceiving it as a matter of heartʊchange of heartʊand the best, perhaps only, hope for meaningful social transformation. Cohen remains an atheist. He says that his stance is one of being “anti-anti-religious”. The same, with its only partly different inflections, may be said of Comte. Our central or ultimate philosophical aim has remained elusive. Is there identifiable a Comtean ‘atheist Catholic’ cluster of principles and content which might make claim to the ‘synthetic a priori’ status widely accorded the cluster accorded to Kant, or Kant-and-Hegel? If there were, it would seem, neither would deserve the ‘a priori’ laurel affirmed or proposed for it, sinceʊit seemsʊthey would be mutually inconsistent. That is of less significance, I think, than whether a Comtean Catholic atheist structure can be assembled and motivated, andʊmore vitallyʊjustified. If this were achievable, one could find a way to unite the clusters, and claim the synthetic a priori status for that union; many Hegelians will in any case see much or most of what I have been claiming for a Comtean or ‘Catholic’ model as already in place somewhere in the pages of Hegel. I at least have not discerned the sexed, sexual, anti-pride, nuclear-family structured, female-valorizing complex affirmed in Comtean ‘Catholicism’, in Hegel, at any rate with the same centrality or to the same degree. I will content myself with affirming, in conclusion, that wherever their first or bestarticulated textual homes may be, these dominant notes both of Hegel and of Comte make very powerful claim on our allegiance. It may also be worth noting in a final remark, that the great love of Comte’s late years, Clotilde deVeaux, was a devout Catholic, and an important influence on the religion of humanity which Comte developed.


Our relatively brief journey has addressed a number of issues and come to a number of conclusions which I hope will commend themselves to the reader. As will have been seen, I embrace a naturalistic moral realist position, broadly speaking. With occasional excursions into an autobiographical Joycean mode, I accept the world as we find it and may hope for its improvement on both personal and community levels. With another respect to what is called Hitchen’s razor— “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”—I acknowledge and affirm that religion and the religious impulse are human universals which will never go away. They primarily respond to the consciousness of the inevitability of each of our individual mortality, and the desire that, somehow, we may live beyond it. While an understandable human impulse, it seems also an unnatural one. Let us then live as well as we can under these eternal verities.