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Preamble: This is a very slight introduction to a very large subject. It begins by saying something slightly contentious about Mill’s metaethics. This is a subject on which little has been written, but which bears some discussion. I then move very swiftly through Sidgwick’s view of ethical judgment onto the pragmatist conception of ethics as it appears in the work of Dewey, ending with a short coda on Dewey’s ambivalence about religion.

Mill. Because Mill’s account of ethics in Utilitarianism is brief, lucid, and full of dangerous and contentious claims – especially, the famous identification of the desired and the desirable – most commentators have focussed on that account as though it contains all that Mill intended to say about ethics. That tendency is reinforced by the ease with which we can assimilate Mill’s anxieties about the nature of happiness or pleasure to subsequent anxieties in economics, whether about deriving social optima from individual optima or giving a coherent account of such issues as the rationality (or not) of pure time-discounting. In many ways, Bentham is an even better foil, because he did, as Mill did not, seriously set out to provide a guide to the estimation of the value of a pleasure in terms of duration, propinquity, fertility and so on. Mill, indeed, when commenting on Bentham’s inadequacies, attacks Bentham’s “table of the springs of action”, but does not tackle the felicific calculus more directly. Given Mill’s hostility to so much of what was most characteristic of Bentham during the early 1830s, it seems likely that Mill thought it was beneath discussion.

Nonetheless, it is in those early essays that Mill sketches a metaethics, that one wishes he had spent more time developing later. He distinguishes, as he did in VI, xiii of the Logic between the science of psychology and the “art of life”, which is to say between the scientific analysis of the mind, including the formation of desires as well as beliefs, and the corresponding practical arts built upon them. Just as science endeavours, according to Mill, to rationalise our understanding of the world by developing deductive theories that allow us to predict new phenomena and to assess our predictions against future experience, so “the art of life” should rationalise our practical mastery of the world and ourselves by organising our practices in a similarly deductive fashion. The obvious disanalogy between the is and the ought is partially acknowledged by Mill inasmuch as it is one thing to try to unify our understanding of the world and quite another to claim that we shall act more rationally only if we try to show that all our actions aim at one goal. There are many differences between the way in which the claim – say – that the Newtonian laws of motion rationalise physics and the claim that all actions at a goal and that goal is happiness rationalise ethics, prudence and aesthetics, the three branches of the art of life as Mill describes them. Nonetheless, Mill’s view is plainly that deductivity, if I may call it that, is an essential aid to rationality: we can see unnoticed contradictions and unnoticed implications of our principles (of action and explanation alike) only if we endeavour to structure our knowledge and our goals in a hierarchy where higher level principles will, in conjunction with the facts of a particular situation, yield a prediction in the one case and a prescription for action in the other.

The question then arises of what the components of the art of life are and how they relate to one another. Mill gestures somewhat loosely at prudence, aesthetics and morality, but the general idea is persuasive enough; that is, particular practical arts such as agriculture, building, sailing, and so on teach the means to achieve such ends as the production of healthy and nutritious crops, stable and comfortable buildings, safely reaching our destination and the like; the ends are validated as (prudently) required for our welfare, or, as when we build for beauty for satisfying our standards of beauty. Prudence, in effect, takes the goal of our individual welfare for granted and teaches us how to promote it, not in the sense of being itself a practical skill but in the sense of rationalising the skills that we would do well, prudently speaking, to acquire and employ. Aesthetics – the pursuit of the fine and the noble in Mill’s usage – similarly rationalises the doing of those things that are fine and noble: achieving our ends heroically rather than shiftily, telling the truth because we hold lying in contempt not because we fear to be found out, and so on. The question is where morality belongs in all this. It cannot be that it is in competition with aesthetics, since one may behave in the morally required fashion, e.g. in keeping a promise but with motives that arouse contempt rather than admiration. It can be in competition with prudence, however. The obvious thought is that Mill has it in mind that prudent behaviour aims at our own welfare alone, while moral behaviour aims at the welfare of everyone or that of all persons concerned.

But, there is one more thing to it than that. Mill has, fundamentally, a sociological attitude to morality. He sees morality as a form of informal or unofficial law, enforced by psychological sanctions including those of the agent’s own conscience. This is, as it were, the external or positive account of morality; if asked what a given society’s morality is, what we are looking for is the unofficial rules enforced by psychological sanctions. They are collective not only in the sense that they are widely followed and enforced by widespread approval and disapproval, but in the sense that everyone takes the lead from everyone else, and feels obliged to go along with these rules. It is, in this sense, perfectly possible to agree that some rule or other is part of the morality of a given society and still think it ought not to be. The point of utilitarianism, however, is to allow us to criticise the positive morality of the society in which we live, and indeed to criticise the positive morality of any other society. The standpoint of criticism – according to Mill – is that of asking what informal system of psychologically coercive rules would promote the greatest wellbeing of the people concerned. One can see what Mill is up to: in essence, he wants, first to demystify morality by arguing that it is not the dictates of God, nor the deliverances of a moral sense, nor the insights provided by an infallible intuition of some kind, and second, to allow for the possibility of moral progress by offering a critical perspective on the actual morality of any society – particularly, of course, our own.

There is, of course, a certain amount of reconstruction in this account; one of the many things one might regret about Mill was his unwillingness in later life to revisit the ideas he had put forward in such dazzling profusion in his youth and early manhood. I have always wished that he had returned to moral philosophy and confirmed my conjecture that the distinction between morality as a system of socially-enforced rules and aesthetics as the search for the fine and noble in human existence underlies the argument of On Liberty; but I am none too certain that he would have done so, since he also needed an account of whether that distinction lined up exactly with his view that morality [or perhaps only the morality of rights] covered the “business” aspects of life, leaving the ideal for something else – on my view, of course, for aesthetic appraisal.

The naturalism of Mill’s account is impressive. His target was not specifically religious forms of anti-naturalism, but all forms of metaethics that relied on appeals to something other than the evidence of the ordinary senses, whether our ordinary understanding of the world or our ordinary desires for our own welfare and that of others to whom we are attached. His anxiety to provide genetic accounts of how we might come to have the various deep convictions about what was morally right and wrong that most of us have can lead to the same difficulties as his genetic account of how we come to have the fixed convictions we do about mathematics. That is, there seems always to be the possibility of asking, “but are these intuitions right?” Frege’s accusation of “psychologism” levelled against Mill’s account of mathematical truth could equally well be levelled against Mill’s account of “truth” in ethics. Mill, of course, was anxious to undermine the belief that the truths of mathematics were intuited as necessary, irresistible truths of some “non-natural” kind in order to undermine the belief that moral truths were irresistible, necessary truths of the same sort.

Religion, then, is irrelevant to determining the requirements of morality. Does it have any relevance to morality at all? Mill tackles the issue in “The Utility of Religion” and the line he takes is exactly what one would expect. The issue is one of motivation; religion can fortify our intention to act well, and it does so by presenting us with inspiring examples of the behaviour that we wish to emulate. This, however, does not require any belief in a supernatural power; we might reinforce our wish to behave well by reflection on the life of Socrates as readily as on the life of Jesus. Indeed, Mill plainly thought Socrates a better moral example than Jesus. The question of what beliefs assist us in doing what we should is not easy to answer. Given the rather mixed history of Christianity and other major world religions in terms of encouraging wars, massacres, and assorted forms of brutality towards heretics and infidels, one might wonder whether religious conviction has on the whole fostered better behaviour or worse. Mill thinks that reflecting on the example of the benefactors of humanity will strengthen our moral convictions; and he is emphatic that there is no problem about having these benefits without having what most of us would think of as the accompanying metaphysical, ontological and epistemological commitments. This allows him to say that such 19th Century substitutes for traditional religion as Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity will “work” perfectly well. Indeed, he says as he always did, that the fear should not be that Comtism will have too little hold over us but that it may have too great a hold over us. Anyone who is sceptical of this claim might reflect on the eagerness with which millions have embraced the quasi-religions of Stalinism and Maoism.

Since I want to say something about Dewey’s ethics and his sense of the ways in which religion was and was not helpful in coming to moral judgments, I should finish what I have to say about Mill with a few critical remarks, say a very little about Sidgwick – since so many other people can do better than I – and then move on. Mill was entirely robust about his lack of religious faith. He did not suffer any of the familiar 19th Century agonies over his faith. He was brought up in no faith and lived and died an agnostic. Even when he argued in “Theism” that an argument from intelligent design made it more likely than not that some sort of god existed, he did it in the lowest of keys, and ends where he starts in “The Utility of Religion” by returning to the question of the value of “supernatural hopes” – to the extent that “rational scepticism” permits them – in strengthening our commitment to the religion of Duty. What that suggests is that Mill treated religion in a particularly matter of fact way; there is, for example, nothing of Matthew Arnold’s notion that religion is “morality tinged with emotion”, itself a pretty implausible suggestion, but at least pointing in the right direction by emphasizing the affective element in religious conviction. One might – I would – treat religion in the familiar Christian forms as a kind of “social poetry”, to borrow Sorel’s characterisation of Marxism, and then ask oneself how essential to religion so conceived any particular ontological claims might be. Mill, oddly enough, had all the resources he needed to give a much more sensitive account of the nature of religion. He had been rescued from his youthful breakdown by reading Wordsworth, and the concept of “natural piety” which matters so much to Wordsworth must have been wholly familiar to him. Moreover, his sense of the value of the natural world was very acute. In the Principles of Political Economy he argued that we should embrace the so-called stationary state and should eschew a world in which everything that was not a food crop had been extirpated as a weed. He was an early advocate of national parks. One would have thought that this would have enabled him to see the religious conception of the world not as a psychological prop to a sense of duty derived from essentially utilitarian considerations but as an integral part of a world-view that began with the thought that the world was “friendly” to humanity, that it was our home in some deeply reassuring sense, and that ethics could not begin with the raw data of our desires.

The one thing that Mill never budged on was the insistence that immortality was not the most important promise held out by religion. Somewhat in the same way as Bernard Williams a century later, he saw that immortality might well be a curse rather than a blessing. Most aspects of life lose their charm by repetition, and it was not surprising that many faiths saw the ultimate goal as Nirvana: release from the repetition of earthly life into simple oblivion. The Greeks had no very high opinion of immortality either; Achilles’s insistence that he would rather be the servant of a hard-up master than exist as the King of the Underworld was familiar in the literature. In this he was quite unlike Sidgwick. In some ways, Sidgwick got the worst of all possible worlds; having had not very marked religious beliefs to begin with, he lost all confidence in the truths supposedly enshrined in the 29 Articles of the Church of England, and resigned his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. But so far from regarding himself as released from a professional obligation to affirm what he did not believe and free to believe whatever seemed most plausible to him, he looked for comfort in psychical research, and intellectually he remained attached to the intuitionism defended by William Whewell in the first half of the C19. Because he was a utilitarian, Sidgwick is always treated as though he was in some sense a descendant of Mill. It is unclear whether this is especially illuminating. Sidgwick certainly began his intellectual development by the closest possible engagement with Mill’s work; and this extended further than merely reading Mill, since he wrote to Mill during the period of his deepest doubts about whether he could properly hold his fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge in the face of his doubts about the literal truth of Christianity. He sent Mill the draft of his pamphlet on the subject, and asked Mill’s advice about the extent to which it was one’s duty to spell out one’s doubts about religion, even if one felt that other people should not have their faith undermined.

He drifted away from Mill’s view of the world, however. In part, this was because he had a greater sympathy for the theistic intuitionism of his Cambridge teachers than Mill could ever muster: Mill thought it the great prop of bad arguments and worse politics. In part, it was because he was much less of a propagandist than Mill. It is characteristic of Sidgwick that his great book was called The Methods of Ethics. Unlike Mill, who had a clear idea of the direction in which he wished to drag his countrymen, Sidgwick seems always to have uncertain not only about the conclusions he hoped to reach but also about the ways in which one might hope to reach them. Although he went much further than Mill in endeavouring to show that when the morality of commonsense was examined it usually turned out to be a slightly confused utilitarianism, his more striking achievement was the blunt admission that in the eye of reason, egoism and utilitarianism were equally appealing, and that there was therefore a real incoherence within practical reason. That was not the disciple of Mill speaking but the baffled disciple of Kant. It was perhaps one aspect of the fact that Sidgwick was one of the first professional philosophers in Britain while Mill was one of the last gifted amateurs, or to put it less dismissively, one of the last in a sequence that ran from Hobbes through Locke and Hume. Even when Sidgwick had declared himself no longer a disciple of Mill, he retained a considerable respect for Mill, but for Mill as so to speak a hero of liberalism and the campaign for the equality of women with men: Sidgwick was so to speak a co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge – he helped to found it, and his wife was the second Principal – although among the other co-founders the Fawcetts were probably more devoted to Mill than was Sidgwick. But Sidgwick was intrinsically far more conservative than Mill; when Sidgwick reminds us that we cannot reconstruct our morality ab initio, he is not, thus far, very different from Mill. But, whereas Mill treats the point as a truism, worth making only in passing, and immediately goes on to claim that morality like any other area of human knowledge can be improved by reflection and new evidence, Sidgwick treats it as a deep truth.

What I want to move swiftly onto is what happens to all this within pragmatism. The first thing I should say is that by “pragmatism” here, I mean Dewey’s “pragmatism” and no other. C. S. Pierce was deeply hostile to moral and political philosophy, which he thought amounted to nothing better than journalism. He had not taken to Dewey when he taught him at Johns Hopkins, and Dewey had not taken to Pierce’s conception of philosophy, which he said, amounted to formal logic and not much else. On this I need not and do not take sides. James is a more interesting matter, but here, too I think we can decently evade him – though I in fact think he is a more interesting thinker about religion than was Dewey. But James’s views on moral philosophy are in a manner of speaking too much of a piece with his views on everything else to be explicable without exploring just about theentire pragmatist world view. Because he treated ethics as something like a branch of psychology, he could not but argue as he in fact did that our moral commitments were part of our personalities – the projection onto the world of all our hopes for ourselves and everything else that we cared about. This did not entail irrationalism, as though our hopes and their expression simply wafted through us like gales across the empty prairies; it was rather that the starting point could only be whatever we found ourselves committed to when we reflected on what it might be. Thereafter, rationality could be brought to bear in the sense of attempting to secure the fulfilment of as many of everyone’s commitments as possible. It may be that this is where Russell derived the idea of maximising the compossibility of desires as a moral test. James does not leave the matter there, however, because he acknowledged very readily that his view of the nature of practical judgment was faintly scandalous even by his own standards. For one thing, he thought that whoever we made a moral judgment, or perhaps a moral judgment of a certain level of seriousness and conviction, we took the judgment seriously only because we thought it was in some sense or other right. Not just any commitment would count as a moral judgment; we needed to believe or at least to feel that the universe was somehow with us in our judgments. Moreover, he did not think that these commitments were raw, unshiftable data; we can and do constantly change our minds about whether desires are worth pursuing. What this process involves is problematic. That is, our immediate experience of changing our minds is that of thinking that some desires are not worth pursuing, by standards drawn from outside the desires themselves. But we may think that upon analysis, we were mistaken to desire what we did, but think that the explanation was that the desire was the wrong desire to have in a sense that we think we can further explicate in terms of the compossibilty of desires. We abandon old-fashioned, pre-pragmatist ideas about right and wrong, evil and good, and think more in terms of the fruitfulness of possessing some desires and the self-frustrating character of other desires. Equipped with that sort of understanding, we can then distinguish between the phenomenological sense of guilt and the reflective understanding of what it reflects.

This way of looking at things in fact begins to make James a rather Deweyan figure, and I will end with a few observations on the ways in which pragmatism of a Deweyan variety can resolve some of Mill’s – or Sidgwick’s – anxieties. The great difference between Dewey and both Mill and Sidgwick is Dewey’s hostility to what he called “apart thinking”. The paradigm case of apart thinking was the Christianity practised by the Congregationalists of Dewey’s native Burlington, Vermont. Between God and man was a great gulf, bridgeable only by divine grace. His mother’s constant question, “Are you right with Jesus, John?” produced in him what he afterwards described as a “laceration of the spirit”. The philosophy into which he was inducted as an undergraduate, a version of the intuitionism practised by Sir William Hamilton and exported to the United States by James McCosh when he became President of Princeton, struck him – eventually – as another variation on “apart thinking”, because it contrasted earthly knowledge and aspiration with the insight available only when we had become one with the Absolute. Initially, he accepted something very like it, then rejected it in favour of a somewhat diluted Hegelianism, and emancipated himself properly only in 1894 with his essay on “The Reflex Arc Concept”. William James, who had been very unimpressed with Dewey’s earlier writings – not all of which deserve dismissal – immediately realised that American philosophy had come of age, and said so.

What was it that Dewey did, and how does it bear on our interest in the relationship between religion and ethics? To cut a very long and complicated story short, Dewey decided that everything had to be understood in terms of human beings trying to make the most of themselves and their environment individually and as a species. As Rorty has it, “one more species doing its best”. This was not a wholesale escape from Hegel; as he complained at his 70th birthday celebrations, everyone kept telling him that there were vestigial remains of Hegelianism in his thinking, and he knew it perfectly well. What it was the naturalization of Hegel; the search for the Absolute was abandoned as a mistake. No transcendental guarantees of human knowledge and morality could be had and none were needed; the “quest for certainty”, to take the title of one of his best known books written later in life was futile; it was bound to lead to misery and frustration and an under-valuation of all the good that we can achieve in life. One way of reading that claim was, of course, “God is dead; get over it”. But in spite of Rorty’s taste for pairing Dewey with Nietzsche and Heidegger, Dewey was given neither to Nietzschean aggression nor to Heideggerian lamentation. In many respects, he was, as I have said elsewhere “a naturalized left-Hegelian”. To be one of those is not really possible, because a fully naturalized philosophy throws away the Hegelian view that there is or can be some form of guarantee the “whole” is rationally endorsable by human beings who have worked their way through the Hegelian system. Dewey took it for granted that the most we can have is good reasons for supposing that what looks very like progress is, ceteris paribus progress.

From that, much else flowed. One important thing was that ethics became something very unlike what it had been either for Mill or for Sidgwick. There was no room for the dictates of duty or the solemn voice of conscience, other than in those – very extended – passages of the Ethics that either tackled other writers’ theories of ethics or provided a narrative account of what Dewey supposed the relations between moral attitudes to be in ordinary life; what there was room for was an exploration of Dewey’s notions of growth and the essentially social nature of the human good. It was typical of Dewey that he devoted so little attention to the kind of conceptual analysis of notions such as the good and the right that other C20 moral philosophers have done, and so much to a rather tendentious history of ethical ideas, and then to applied ethics in the sense of an extensive account of the ethical shortcomings of American capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s.

Thus far, then, this is a wholly secular, free-standing conception of the ethical life; we find within experience all the supports we need for a satisfactory life. As with Hegel, this offers no guarantees that individual accidents and disasters will not happen; we may be struck by a car or an illness, abandoned by a loved one, fail in a project. What we know, however, is that these are simple contingencies; the world is not “against us”. There is no Heideggerian anxiety about the loss of contact with a deep reality, because reality has no depth. It is simply experience.

However, Dewey was unwilling to present himself merely as an agnostic; there was after all religious experience, even if most religions were ossified constructions that fostered the “apart thinking” that he deplored. So in A Common Faith, he did his best to provide what one might unkindly describe as “religion-lite”. That is, he wanted to find a place for “the religious”, without finding room for anything one could baptise as “a religion”. It has always struck readers as one of the least satisfactory things he wrote. The difficulty is simple enough; what most people wanted to know whether was whether Dewey did or did not think that there was as a matter of fact a God in any traditional sense. His response was that if they felt like calling the things they most minded about “God”, he had no objection. That, however, did not meet their concerns, nor indeed those of most readers. They wanted to know whether he thought there was a God or not. The answer, of course, was that he did not. His hostility to dichotomies extended to a complete disbelief in the supernatural. What there is all part of one natural world. Whatever else the religious wanted to know, one thing was whether Dewey thought that there was something that so to speak held it all together; and the answer to that had to be that he did not.

For friendly critics, the greater objection to A Common Faith is that Dewey did a much better job of explaining, or if not explaining, at any rate illuminating the religious experience in his other works. By the time he wrote A Common Faith he had really transcended pragmatism, at least as he understood it. Pragmatism was, he claimed, a theory of truth, and works such as Art and Experience and Experience and Nature were not concerned with truth, but with experience, not with propositions about the world but our experience of it. So, much of what he
wrote from The Quest for Certainty onwards was concerned to show the many ways in which we can enhance our experience of the world; this is not quite as self-centred as it sounds, because he was always convinced that only a satisfactory world can be experienced wholly satisfactorily – only a society with a rich culture can develop the receptive capacities of its members so that they can experience what the world has to offer in the ways it offers it. This is not “the point of view of the universe”, but it was a principled way of explaining why we ought not to concern ourselves with the universe’s point of view. The interesting aspect, however, is the sharpness of the contrast between Sidgwick’s thought that we should think of ethics from the point of the view of the universe and Dewey’s view that the natural path of growth was from our own individual concerns and out to embracing all that the universe has to offer. Breaking with the previous two centuries in which philosophers had gently drifted away from orthodox Christianity but had done their best to subscribe to some form of theism, Dewey essentially abandoned the idea that a personal deity was essential to individual happiness or moral rectitude, and offered as a “common faith” the reassurance that happy individuals living in a sensibly organised society would find the universe sufficiently friendly to get out of the habit of asking what it thought of them.


Published with the author's consent

Il punto di vista dell'universo: da Mill a Dewey (stesso articolo in italiano)

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