Richard Robinson, An Atheist's Values, 1964.
- 2.1. Principles of Choice 48
- 2.2. Life 54
- 2.3. Beauty 57
- 2.4. Truth 65
- 2.5. Reason 70
- 2.6. Love 105
- 2.7. Conscientiousness 108
- 2.8. Religion 113
2.1. PRINCIPLES OF CHOICE
Misery is an evil and happiness is a good. If anyone denies this, there is nothing to say to him. If he contemplates happy children without any satisfaction, if he calls to mind the vast array of miseries in the world such as wounded stags eaten alive by ants, oiled birds battered on the rocks, men and women with arthritis or insane depression, and feels no pity or disturbance, there is nothing to say to him. We choose to lessen misery and he does not. We choose to promote happiness and he does not.
Some men, while not denying that misery is an evil and happiness is a good, doubt whether this is a significant proposition, or whether the words 'happy' and 'miserable' convey clear and applicable notions. But this doubt is an intellectual's selfobfuscation, produced by too much thinking and too little observation. Let anyone take to observing children, in the school yard or elsewhere, and try to recognize those who are miserable and those who are happy. He will find himself doubtful about some of the children, naturally; but he will find himself certain about others. We can usually know when Jack and Jill are miserable and when they are not.
Some men have thought that misery was the only evil, and happiness the only good. But this is clearly false. It is utterly obvious that vice as well as misery is an evil, and that knowledge as well as happiness is a good. The world is full of a great many sorts of bad thing and a great many sorts of good thing.
The notion that happiness is the only good is in part a bad result of the intellectual desire to simplify and summarize. But it is also in part the result of a dim perception of a great truth, namely that happiness and misery provide the most important test of all goodness and badness, as follows.
Any kind of thing is bad if it, or the pursuit of it, increases the misery of living things upon the whole. Nothing is good if it, or the pursuit of it, leads on the whole to very much more misery than contentment. Unease is a criterion. Inquietum est cor nostrum donec....
These sentences express an enormously general choice which I find myself strongly inclined to make. If I ask myself about anything considered good, Would you still call it good if you were convinced that the pursuit of it probably increased misery?, I think I find myself determined to answer: 'No, I should call it bad.'
This principle provides a negative test of goods. It does not determine that anything is good; but it determines that some things are not good, namely those whose pursuit probably increases misery. It is not a standard, by adopting which we can decide in every case whether a thing is good or bad or indifferent; but it is a criterion that applies to any choice or kind of choice, and either condemns the choice or does not condemn it.
The adoption of this principle is a supreme or ultimate choice, not in the strong sense that it entails every other choice, but in the weak sense that it tests all other choices and condemns some of them. It is also ultimate, in me, in the sense that I have no higher choice under which for me it falls, and I defend it only by referring to its consequences, not at all by referring to higher principles. Its consequences concern all that part of the misery of living things which can be caused or prevented by the action of man. This is not the whole of misery; but it is a great ocean of misery nevertheless.
This 'principle of counter-misery', as it might be called, is often rejected, sometimes explicitly but more often by implication. In these days of rabid nationalism it is often rejected on behalf of some State. One can easily imagine Hitler saying: 'I prefer the misery of every living thing, including every German, to the humiliation of the German State.' Resistance movements look like an affirmation that the sovereignty of some State, say France or Greece or Cyprus, is worth any amount of misery. Most of us cherish at least one good which we are strongly inclined to pursue no matter what the consequences in misery to the human race. With many people this reckless good is the reign of certain moral laws which they have adopted. (That is the spirit of 'let justice be done though the heavens fall'.) With me it is the spread of knowledge and truth.
On the other hand, the principle of counter-misery is a hard one to reject when you are explicitly faced with it. Probably very few people feel quite easy about subordinating n to their favourite good. It seems likely that the more it is brought to people's attention the more widely and effectively it will be adopted. Thus it seems to be a principle on which there is some faint hope that the human race may some day agree; and that will recommend it to people who want agreement on practical principles.
This principle of counter-misery has some resemblance to utilitarianism; and people who like 'ism' words may wish to label it 'utilitarianism'. But we should avoid label-thought; and anyhow this principle differs from Mill's in at least four important ways.
In the first place, J. S. Mill regarded his principle as determining all rightness and wrongness. This principle, however, merely determines that certain things are bad. It is a principle for the rejection of goods, not for the adoption of them. It says where we should not lay our treasure up, not where we should. It leaves us free to adopt and proclaim any goods we choose; and it gives us no orders or guidance in doing so, except only that our goods must not increase misery.
In the second place, Mill regarded happiness or pleasure as in an important sense the only good, and may therefore fairly well be called a 'hedonist'. But this principle does not say, or entail, that happiness is any kind of a good at all. It only says that misery or unhappiness is a negative test of goods. Happiness is a good and misery is an evil; but this principle does not say so.
Thirdly and very importantly, this principle substitutes the conception of misery for Mill's conception of pleasure. Instead of setting up pleasure as the sole end, it sets up the non-increase of misery as a requisite of all ends. Instead of saying that the only thing worth aiming at is happiness, it says that nothing is worth aiming at if its pursuit increases unhappiness. It is 'antilypism' rather than 'hedonism'! This is a profound difference, as Dr. Popper points out when he writes:There is, from the ethical point of view, no symmetry between suffering and happiness, or between pleasure and pain.... Human suffering makes a direct moral appeal, namely, the appeal for help, while there is no similar call to increase the happiness of a man who is doing well anyway.... Pain cannot be outweighed by pleasure, and especially not one man's pain by another man's pleasure. Instead of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one should demand, more modestly, the least amount of avoidable suffering for all; and further, that unavoidable suffering ... should be distributed as equally as possible. (K. R. Popper, The Open Society, U.S. edition, p. 571.)
Fourthly and lastly, I put forward this principle as a choice to be made; but Mill was not clear whether he was putting forward utilitarianism as a choice or as a fact, as a proposal or as a proposition. He often seems to be on the brink of saying that it is a proposal, for example when he disputes the Kantian view of morality. His queer chapter on the possible 'sanctions' of the doctrine is really there to avoid the reproach that he is wasting our time by proposing that we should adopt a decision which there is no hope of our adopting. It would be irrelevant if utilitarianism were an assertion of fact; for whether people will believe an assertion of fact is not evidence whether it is true. Yet Mill never becomes quite clear that what he is giving us is really not a proposition but a proposal; and that is the main cause of the unfortunate illogicality of the essay, which has often been gloated over.
To adopt the principle of counter-misery is not to love the human race. Most of us find it impossible to love the human race after we are forty; but we can still adopt this principle.
I am inclined to go further and adopt a second principle concerning misery as follows: No kind of act may be forbidden unless its discontinuance would lessen misery upon the whole.
This is a principle of right and wrong, whereas the other was a principle of good and bad. It is a principle concerning laws, their making, enforcement, and unmaking, whether laws of the State or laws of morality or custom. It entails that every State law is unjustifiable unless its enforcement lessens misery upon the whole, and that nothing is a true moral law unless general obedience to it would lessen misery upon the whole. These consequences are acceptable to me. All laws are limitations of freedom and to that extent bad. What can justify us in imposing limits on freedom? Only, it seems, an important decrease in misery obtainable in that way and that way only. I reject all legislators who claim to impose on us a law for any reason but that it decreases our misery. I reject all preachers who lay down moral laws for any reason but that their reign would decrease our misery.
We have now two very general principles for the guidance of evaluation and legislation, and hence for the guidance of action; (1) Any kind of thing is bad if it, or the pursuit of it, increases the misery of living things upon the whole, and (2) no kind of act may be forbidden unless its discontinuance would lessen misery upon the whole. From the point of view of a search for great goods, each of these principles is negative. The first indicates that certain kinds of thing are not good to pursue, and the second indicates that certain kinds of law are not good to have. Neither indicates that any kind of thing is positively good. Can we find any positive principle for telling what kinds of thing are good?
A positive principle is liable to say or imply that only one kind of thing is good; and any principle that does that must be rejected. It would be foolish to forbid ourselves to value any new kind of thing in the future. In the past we have sometimes come to value a new kind of thing. For example, mountain scenery was not valued before the eighteenth century. It is an obvious point of prudence to leave ourselves free to do the same again. That is why we must not say of pleasure, or of happiness, or of anything else, that it is the only good.
There is, however, a way of introducing pleasure into a positive principle of choice which does not restrict the number of good things, but on the contrary makes it indefinitely large. That is to say that (3) Anything is good if the pursuit of it pleases somebody and does not increase misery; or, in A. E. Housman's words, that 'whatever is pleasant is good, unless it can be shown that in the long run it is harmful, or, in other words, not pleasant but unpleasant' (Introductory Lecture 1892, p. 33); or, in the words of Plato defending nakedness (Rp. 457 B, cf. 608 E), that 'the useful is fair and the harmful is foul; and this is a most fair saying both now and for ever'.
To adopt this is to acknowledge as so far good whatever anyone values or enjoys, or enjoys the pursuit of, because he does so, provided only that people's valuing it does not on the whole increase misery.
In favour of adopting this principle we may say that it expresses a generous instinct which we wish to realize. Of course a thing is good, we feel inclined to say, if it pleases more than it harms. To be against pleasure is to be against life itself, because successful life is necessarily pleasant, as Aristotle nearly said (N.E. x. 4, §§ 10-11). We may also argue that it is by following this principle that a man becomes an objective critic of beauty, as opposed to an expresser of private feelings. The good critic will sometimes pronounce good a work that never gives him any pleasure; and this will not be insincerity; it will be his declaration that the work does give pleasure to some people, which is what we want to know from him as critic.
Yet there is also something to be said against the principle. We distinguish between good and bad novels, and among the bad ones we include many that have given pleasure to many people and done no harm. We wish to affirm aspirations towards something great and high, and this seems to involve denying the goodness of many commonplace pleasures, at least in matters of art and beauty. 'The best is the enemy of the good', as Voltaire expressed it (Philosophical Dictionary, article on dramatic art).
But, after all, in saying that the best is the enemy of the good, we admit that the good is good. And that is all that this principle claims. It does not say that anything that pleases anyone is a great good. It does not command us to put the novels of Charles Garvice on the same level as those of Tolstoy. It only commands us to recognize that the novels of Charles Garvice are humble goods of a kind. I conclude that the principle is to be adopted.
We need to have room in our hearts for both the best and the merely good. We need both to approve of everybody's petty goods and to seek great goods. The doctrine that the best is the enemy of the good is to be taken as an exhortation to press on from the good to the best. It is not to be taken as a licence to condemn everything but the best. On the contrary, we must allow our fellows to be pleased in their own ways.
I have no fourth general principle of choice to propose as even worth consideration. Quite likely, three such principles are three too many. In the question What things are good? it may be better to proceed like the law, refusing to answer any new question until it becomes practical, and then answering as specifically as possible, though certainly each evaluation should be made in the light of all one's other evaluations.
The word 'life' is often put forward as one of those slogan-words that indicate great goods to which our hearts may thrill.How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!
Let us consider this.
It may be said that nothing is good unless life itself is good, for goods exist only for living things, not for the inanimate or the dead. 'There is nothing either good or bad, but (living) makes it so!' This reflection, however, is a mistake; for it rests on the false principle that every condition of a good is a good. Not every condition of a good is a good. Suffering is an evil although it is a condition of pity and pity is a good. Life does not have to be itself good because it is a condition of there being any good. It is consistent to say that something is good and yet life is not a good.
On the other hand, it has been believed that, by the test of misery which I have adopted, life is very much more miserable than happy upon the whole, and therefore not a good but an evil. Life involves death, and death is felt to be a very great evil. Some life lives by killing, and all life dies. To give birth to a child is to prepare another death. Some feel that this cancels all the value of life and makes everything futile. A few feel that it makes life intolerable; these find themselves in the absurd position of seeking death because life is intolerable because it ends in death.
We can, however, reasonably urge that at least the fact of death is not a good argument against life. The ending of an individual life, if we distinguish it from the pain and fear that may accompany it, no more a bad thing than the ending of a good play. W. P. Ker died in a moment, on a mountain where he was walking gaily with companions, at the end of a great and happy life. In such a death the only evil is the loss to those who remain. But it would have been far worse never to have had the man they lost. This objection about death seems less likely to be valid than the objection that life is essentially miserable on the whole, a blind willing which by its nature must be unsatisfied, as Schopenhauer thought.
It may be said that the proposition, 'Life is a great good' is too vague or general to be argued about, for some individual lives are predominantly good and others predominantly bad. Some men are, alas!, born to trouble as the sparks fly upward; but others find their lives very happy and good.
Or it may be said that the proposition, 'Life is a great good', is to be disregarded for another sort of reason, namely that it professes to give a principle of action but does not. Every proposition of the form 'x is a great good', where x is a general term, claims to provide a very general and important principle of action. But, it may be thought, the only question that could be decided by this proposition is whether to stay alive or to kill oneself. Nearly everyone, however, avoids suicide for a reason quite independent of the question whether life is a great good.
Or it may be thought that life as a great good can only be the sum of the various great goods, if any, that may be realized in living, so that the decision that life is (or is not) a great good must come after the examination of all other proposed goods, and will then be merely the sum of our decisions about them. If it seems to be other than this, it may be thought, that must be because we are really referring by the word 'life' not to all life or to life as a whole, but to some aspect of life, some nameless residue left when we have abstracted from life all those goods that have a name. For instance, perhaps we here mean by 'life' just all the less noticeable and less nameable forms of physical well-being and spiritual contentment, just all indefinite 'feeling good'. There are, indeed, wonderful joys to be had on the purely animal side of life, in feelings and satisfactions accompanying moving and resting, working and playing, eating, drinking, making, doing, and congregating. (John Skeaping was probably referring largely to these when he wrote that 'the purpose of life as I see it is to enjoy being alive'.)
We may combine these last two lines of thought, and say that life is a great good in that it realizes many nameable and well known goods, such as beauty and truth, and also in that it realizes many nameless satisfactions and pleasures.
But does not life realize more evils than goods? Is it not on the whole a bad thing? Must we not, when we contemplate the vast array of sorrows, agonies, losses, brutalities, lonelinesses, terrors, hates, envies, frustrations, and dyings, as Schopenhauer, for instance, invites us to do, conclude that it would be better for us all not to be?
This is not a practical question to most people. In some sense no doubt it is true that, once the possibility of suicide has occurred to a living thing, its ultimate choice is to be for or against life. But most people are determined anyhow to go on living as long as they can.
Whether the question is practical or not, I think that we cannot sum and balance all the goods and evils of life so as to come out with any probable answer to it. I think that reason commands us to suspend judgement permanently on the question what has been, or will be, the balance of advantage between goods and evils in life. And this view deprives the proposition that life is a great good of its last chance of representing an important practical choice. Life, then, let us say, is indeed a great good; but to say this is not to commit oneself as, for instance, to say that knowledge is a great good is to commit oneself. It is rather to summarize commitments already made.
To affirm life is not to say that birth-control is always wrong, or that the best population policy is that we should aim at having ever more persons living ever longer.
To affirm life is not to say that killing is always wrong. That simple universal statement leads to the absurdity of Jainism, of hiring a poor man to sleep in your bed and feed the bugs which you are unwilling to have killed. Every time a man eats, his stomach juices kill living things that have come down in his food. We are confronted with many difficult and doubtful choices about when and what to kill and when and what to make live; and this difficulty increases as our knowledge and power increase concerning the conditions of life and death. For instance, it has recently increased through our acquiring the power of artificial insemination. We are coming more and more to have to choose about the survival not merely of individuals but also of species. We know that we have destroyed whole species in the last 400 years, and we are wondering whether we can stop ourselves from doing so in future.
To affirm life is not to say that suicide is always wrong. I will make a digression on suicide. There is such a strong taboo against it in our society that it is very difficult to think well on the matter. Foolish opinions flourish, and frequent among them is the opinion that suicide is wrong because the suicide is a great nuisance to others. Every death is a great nuisance to others; but we all die, and those of us who die by long distressing illnesses are much more of a nuisance to others than those who die quickly by their own hand.
In Kant's statement, that a system of nature could not subsist if it had the principle that 'I shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure', the odd phrase 'a system of nature' means, I suppose, a community of human beings. But, if it means this, we have here another statement so foolish that only where there was a strong taboo on suicide could it be believed. Whether such a community continues will depend on what proportion of its members kill themselves before they have reared children. The ancient Romans' suicides in old age had no effect on the continuance of the community.
The chief argument for the legitimacy of suicide is that life is a trap. We have not asked for it, and it can be terrible.
But, since I am speaking to an audience of undergraduates, it is important for me to add that the suicide rate is far too high among undergraduates, and that nearly all undergraduate suicides are thoroughly injudicious and undesirable. They arise through the young person's terror or horror at finding himself alone and facing some unimagined and very miserable situation, such as a nervous breakdown, an inability to obtain the honours expected of him, a grave depression, the commission of a shameful crime or what he thinks a shameful crime. None of these justifies suicide in youth. The emotional illnesses can be cured. The imaginary crimes can be disproved. The real crimes can be expiated and forgiven. A long, happy, and useful life can be lived in spite of them. The thing to do, if you are ever inclined to kill yourself during your youth, is at once to communicate your miseries to some discreet and sympathetic elder person and to put yourself in his hands. Here at Oxford you are very lucky in this respect, because each of you lives in a community headed by a score of superior elder persons well disposed towards you. You can certainly find among them someone absolutely safe and unshockable, competent, and determined to help you. Here ends my digression on suicide.
2.31. The word 'Beauty'
I wish to celebrate two great contemplative goods, namely Beauty and Truth. And first Beauty.
By the word 'Beauty' I mean that which is good in its sensuous aspects, that which is good to the eye or ear or nose or tongue or skin, that which gives us pleasure of sense.
In the pleasures of sense I include the pleasures of imagination. Both when you see rowanberries red against the blue sky, and when you afterwards imagine what you saw, the goodness that you apprehend comes under the head of Beauty. By 'imagination' here I mean that image-maker in the soul of whom Plato speaks an his Philebus 39 B. Imagination in this use of the word is conditioned by the experience of the senses, which it in semblance either merely reproduces or remoulds and extends.
I do not include in the beautiful anything non-sensuous, as is often done. That paradoxical eternal Beauty of Plato and his followers, which is described as if sensible and yet said not to be sensible, would be no part of what I am talking about here, even if I believed that it existed. The recommendation that I am here making places me among those whom Plato depreciates as loving the many perishable imitations of Beauty instead of the One Beauty itself.
Plato's language draws some of its persuasiveness from the fact that there are many borderline cases where it is difficult to say whether the goodness that we are enjoying is sensuous or not. The so called elegance of mathematical proofs is an example. We are in doubt whether they are literally or only metaphorically beautiful, because we are in doubt whether or not there is something sensuous in our delight in them. The pleasures of emotion form another kind that is very difficult to classify; for is emotion sensuous or not, or is it partly sensuous and partly not? There is no doubt that the perception of a high degree of sensuous Beauty gives a pleasant emotion, other things being equal; but there is doubt whether feeling an emotion is always a sensuous affair. Certainly one cannot be a good critic of Beauty without distinguishing to some extent between the pleasures of emotion and the pleasures of sense.
It is easy to exaggerate the connexion between Beauty and art. Most art is aimed wholly at utility, not Beauty; for example, the arts of medicine, money-making, and mass production. Even so called fine art is often aimed wholly or largely at utility; for example, architecture, pottery, and the paintings in caves. Fine art is frequently aimed at Truth as much as at Beauty, especially in painting and in serious literature. Sophisticated artists are often annoyed to be told they are aiming at Beauty. It would be less wrong to go to the other extreme, and say that there is no particular connexion between art and Beauty. To Plato it seems never to have occurred that artists aimed at Beauty or that their products were the place to look for it. The majority of beautiful things are not made by art but by nature, and nature is the chief realm in which to look for Beauty. Beauty is not a quality shared among a number of things. There is no common quality, such as proportionality, or significant form, or organic unity, that makes the Beauty of every beautiful thing. What makes an animal beautiful is not what makes a symphony beautiful. If they are both beautiful it is because each of them, when sensuously contemplated, can give us pleasure; but each does so in virtue of its own peculiar qualities. As Sir David Ross has put it, what is common to all beautiful things is only their power to arouse the aesthetic pleasure. Theorists are always trying to find some objective identity in them all; but this leads to empty formalities, or else to a refusal to see and enjoy the infinite variety of Beauty. So much for the meaning of the word 'Beauty'
2.32. Beauty is a great good
There is a strong tradition against Beauty. Though the Greeks were generally in favour of it, their greatest writer had ascetic tendencies which worked powerfully against it, and in his Phaedo he condemned all the interests of the body. Among the Christians there has long been a powerful tradition against Beauty, though it has not been unopposed. I doubt whether it occurs already in the New Testament. When James wrote that love of the cosmos is hatred of God, he was probably not thinking of Beauty. But certainly no special enthusiasm for Beauty occurs in the New Testament; and the Christians soon came to be suspicious of it. Augustine assumed that the love of the cosmos forbidden by John (1 John ii. 15-17) included the love of Beauty; and he struggled to weaken his delight in sex, in food and drink, in smell, in sound, and in sight (Confessions x. 30-34). He puts sex first among these forbidden delights. Sex and Beauty are, indeed, closely related, and many Christians have come to be enemies of Beauty from being enemies of sex. In Anglo-Saxon countries today one great threat to Beauty is its connexion with sex and the Anglo-Saxon's adolescent fear of sex.
Certainly Beauty is dangerous. So are all great goods. In every case the dangers ought to be weighed and guarded against. There is no great good, either Beauty or any other, about which it is wise to take the reckless line of insisting on it at all times at any cost to other goods. Art for art's sake, or Beauty for Beauty's sake, are stupid or detestable doctrines if they mean that bad consequences for other interests do not matter, or that there are no bad consequences. Of course the love of Beauty conflicts sometimes with morality; and of course morality matters.
But, equally certainly, danger is not always to be avoided, or we should avoid all great goods. Furthermore, it is not Beauty so much as art that the moralist has to fear. Enjoying the products of nature has bad consequences far less often than enjoying the products of artists. Furthermore, the products of bad art are more dangerous to morality than the products of good art. The good artist's representation of evil prevents rather than encourages evil activity.
I believe that Beauty is a very great good. I believe that all who seek to enjoy it will be rewarded. The contemplation of Beauty, and especially the Beauty of nature, is an immense solace and joy, calming and cheering. It is shareable by all. If you stare at the yellow elmtrees in the autumn sun you hinder nobody else from doing so too. The contemplation of Beauty is a form of living that involves no competition, interference, consumption, or destruction. In it we are released for a while from our treadmill of production and consumption, that is, of earning our living. There are always at hand a thousand forms of Beauty (the stars at night, for example) that cost nothing except the petty courage to stand and look at them. And the cultivation of Beauty encourages, and is closely allied to, the cultivation of another great good, namely Truth.
The contemplation of Beauty sometimes induces ecstasy, and ecstasy is the happiest state, a humming perfection of the whole person. The greatest artcritic of the earlier twentieth century, Bernard Berenson, writes in his Sketch for a Selfportrait that at the age of five or six he experienced an ecstasy when out of doors. He continues:It has remained for seven decades the goal of my yearning, my longing, my desire. Not always alas! but often enough in moments when passion, or ambition, or selfrighteousness would have had their way with me, the feeling of that moment at the dawn of my conscious life would present itself and like a guardian angel remind me that it was my goal and that it was my only real happiness.... It means taking things as they come ... with grateful recognition of what they offer and an almost holy joy in their being.... From childhood up I have had the dream of a life lived as a sacrament. With the years it merged into the wish that it could be lived with the significance of a work of art: not imitating any visual, musical or literary masterpieces but an art as independent, as autonomous, as each of the arts should be and like them flowing from the same source in the human spirit.
Let us therefore cultivate our appetite for Beauty, and our habit of attending to it, and our power to see it where it is. Let us not eat good food without tasting it, nor pass a rosemary hedge without drawing a hand through it and sniffing. Let us make our own persons and possessions beautiful rather than ugly, as surely it is our duty to do; our dress, our gestures, the way we keep our hair, the house we build, the word we coin, the sentence we write, the way we write it. Let us try to judge who are the good critics, and to see Beauty where they say it is; but at the same time always sincerely to ask whether we ourselves are actually perceiving it. Let us learn to distinguish Beauty from emotion, from sentiment, from antiquity, from modernity, and from whatever else we may tend to confuse it with. When our little opportunity comes to influence the young, let us spread the view that the contemplation of simple, obvious Beauties is a reasonable and civilized thing to do. Let us avoid whatever may bring ridicule or suspicion on the love of Beauty.
2.33. Art and sex
In appendix to this recommendation of Beauty I wish to add a few remarks on art and sex.
Although Beauty is not identical with the product of art, and should be clearly distinguished therefrom, because art aims at much else besides Beauty, yet art is closely related to Beauty, and some of its products are extremely beautiful. The lover of Beauty will seek it among artefacts as well as in nature, even if like Berenson he wonders 'whether art has a higher function than to make us feel, appreciate and enjoy natural objects for their art value'.
The activity of art or making, when successful, is itself one of the great goods of life, whether what is made is Beauty or something else. It is perhaps the greatest good that is almost universally available. It is almost universally available, for nearly every human being can learn to make or do something well, and can have daily opportunities for exercising some of his art. It is not, however, available to most young children. The great handicap of the human child is that he can do little or nothing well; and one of the advantages of children's play is probably that it manufactures an opportunity of doing something successfully or seeming to. It is important to give children frequent opportunities for doing something well, and to equip them with powers of art and craft.
Representative art in its higher reaches can be a rich and valuable 'expression of the imaginative life', because it 'is separated from actual life by the absence of responsive action, and hence freed from moral responsibility and the binding necessities of our actual existence'. 'When freed from these necessities we can clarify and cultivate our perceptions. In the imaginative life our emotions are weaker but much more clearly realized; and we can give them a new valuation.' This point was made by Roger Fry, and I have been quoting his words.
Whether representative or not, all art can be an absorbing and glorious occupation for its own sake, well worthy of being pursued without ulterior reference to wealth or honour or other goods. This absorption in art as such is the good meaning of the phrase 'art for art's sake'. And the finest affirmation of it known to me is Gustave Flaubert's letter of 1852 to Maxime du Camp beginning 'Mon cher ami, tu me parais avoir à mon endroit un tic ou vice rédhibitoire'.
One great hindrance to the love of Beauty in Anglo-Saxon countries is that Beauty is closely connected with sex and Anglo-Saxons are afraid of sex. Is sex a good thing? We are not prepared to say no. We are not ascetics with the courage of their ascetic convictions. On the other hand, we are certainly not prepared to say yes. Some of us feel it as just a revolting necessity, like killing animals in order to have food -- necessary in order to continue the race, but disgusting because, as Yeats has put it, 'love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement', and because such a surrender of the person is intolerable anyhow to our pride. Some of us feel it a shameful pleasure, keenly attractive but necessarily furtive. Most of us are in doubt what value to put upon it, and we recline this way and that as the momentary influences move us, never reaching a confident evaluation that we are prepared to defend.
In this atmosphere of vacillation and uncertainty, of shame and desire and disgust and fear to think, we become the prey to various horrors. We behave towards the enemies of sex as pusillanimously as the Germans behaved towards the Nazis. That is, we do not believe them; but we will not fight them; and, whenever they make a move against sex, we submit and pretend we agree. It only takes one citizen to say a book is obscene, and ninety-nine other Anglo-Saxons will bow their heads although they disagree, will withdraw the book from circulation and prosecute the publisher. We display in sex the cowardice which we accuse the Germans of in politics. The cause in both cases is the same, lack of open and thorough contemplation of the issue. The tyranny, against which we are sensitive and vigilant in politics, flourishes unrebuked among us in matters of sex. We cannot think of any piece of sexual behaviour as improper without instantly thinking that there ought to be a law against it. We see nothing odd in invoking the law against a book that encourages the enjoyment of sex, though we never invoke the law against a book that encourages hatred of the Jews. Yet hatred of Jews is bad and enjoyment of sex is good.
And what a dreadful set of laws they are that we invoke against sex! We make male homosexuality illegal and we fix no age of consent for males. Our hypocrisy and timidity allow hateful arguments to be used in court. For example, it is sometimes suggested that a homosexual must be a liar, much as it used to be suggested that an atheist must be a liar. It is sometimes suggested that coition is a filthy business. The disgusting belief that the erotic is necessarily obscene flourishes in our courts, and that is a great shame upon our lawyers.
One effect of our fear and shame is that gross ignorance and gross error about sex are very common. Sexuality is a field where everyone begins by being bewilderingly in the dark; and in our culture his own shame and other people's repression tend to keep him so. The opinion prevails, and is fostered by our horrible lawcourts, that only scientists and medical men have a right to know about sex. But these very doctors themselves have often been afraid to know. When asked by a newly married couple for advice about sexual intercourse, which in my opinion it is eminently their duty to give, some of them have replied that there is nothing to be said. A few have even repulsed their patients with abuse.
Sex is dangerous. Let us begin by admitting and realizing that. There is the obvious danger of producing a child that is not wanted or cannot be cared for. There are several less obvious but grave dangers, including emotional fixations that make for misery, uncontrollable and brutal desires, frustration or starvation leading to emotional illnesses and vulgarization. An hour of sexual intoxication can make a lifetime of misery for more than one person, much as an hour of alcoholic intoxication can make a murder. Hence, indeed we must all say with the Prayer Book that coition 'is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly ... but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly ... duly considering' the consequences thereof, and the obligations which they involve. And we must say that to invite another person to sexual activity, and especially to initiate a person into it, is an act involving very great responsibilities.
Next we must say that sex is a great good. The sexual act is the source of every new life. It can be a glorious experience in itself. Its imaginative reverberations can spread joy and energy and beauty far and wide through marriage and life and art. That is a large part of the goodness of sex, the fertility and pleasure of its reverberations through life and art. Because of the vivifying and beautifying effect of these long reverberations, we must reject the idea that sexual thoughts and feelings are to be entirely repressed except where they can at once lead to married coition. Here is the main division of opinion about the censorship of art. Much art contains and arouses these sexual reverberations. Some think that is so dangerous that it should be suppressed. I say it is not very dangerous and it is very good. While the sexual act itself is so consequential that it must be severely limited and controlled, imaginative extensions of it and its accompaniments in life and art are neither dangerous nor criminal and are often very good. The dangerous persons are those who have not read books, not those who have.
Every human being has a perfect right to know all that is known about sex, and our culture would be a lot better than it is if most people knew a lot more about sex than they do. This right belongs entire to children as well as to adults, and children in particular have sometimes a grave need to know about sex to help them in understanding and controlling the bewildering things that are happening to them. It is our duty to help them, both by answering their questions informatively and unemotionally, and by leaving informative books where they can read them without embarrassment, and by making such books available in libraries. We must not, however, be angry with librarians who keep these books off the shelves and look searchingly at borrowers who ask for them. We must remember that the poor librarians are at the mercy of Mrs. Grundy (who has no mercy). Mrs. Grundy is waiting to pounce and take away their livelihood if she can. The librarian wants to lend us the books. That is his aim in life. But we must help him by being very discreet in our requests, and letting him see that we are on his side and are not borrowing the book in order to prosecute him.
For the ideal sexual behaviour there exist the words 'purity' and 'chastity'. But on the question what kinds of behaviour deserve these virtue labels, there is probably less agreement than on the question what social arrangements deserve the label 'justice'. In the matter of drink the ideal behaviour is temperance, and there is a strong tendency to the bad idea that temperance is abstinence. Similarly, in sex there is a tendency to the bad idea that chastity and purity consist in total abstinence or virginity. Thus the S.O.E.D. defines 'violate' as to destroy a person's chastity by force. But you cannot destroy a person's chastity by force, because chastity being a virtue is a matter of free will. What you can destroy by force is only her virginity. A violated girl is not an unchaste girl.
2.41. The ideal of Truth
There is a great good for which the best one-word name is 'Truth' or 'Knowledge'. Neither name indicates fully what we have in mind, partly because we have not completed our ideal of the good in question, and partly because both these words are used in several ways. The word 'Truth', for instance, is sometimes used to mean a virtue, either the virtue of sincerity or that of loyalty; but the good that I have in mind now is not a virtue. I mean now something to do with man's power of speech, which is the most peculiar power that he has and the seat of his enormous advantage over all other kinds of life. When words take the form of statements they are either true or false, that is either to be accepted or to be rejected. The great good called 'Truth' is something like the accumulation of acceptable statements, the pursuit, formation, and possession, of as many acceptable statements as possible.
Truth is not to be understood as the knowledge of ultimate secrets, and we are not to talk about 'the ultimate structure of the universe', or about the Truth (as if there were only one or pre-eminently one), or about Truth the woman (as if she were one thing). These are all misconceptions. There are no secrets of the universe; for a secret is a truth deliberately withheld from one person by another person; but no one is deliberately withholding from us facts about the universe; we are deliberately constructing statements about the universe, that is all. There is no ultimate Truth; for what could 'ultimate' mean here? If it means that every other Truth follows from this Truth, there is no such Truth. If it means that he who knows this Truth wants to know nothing else, such a person would not be much of a truthlover. The word 'ultimate' suggests the metaphor of climbing to the top of a pyramid. It would probably be truer to say that the pyramid is upside down; we start from the little apex which is at the bottom; and we climb endlessly towards the ever expanding and ever receding top.
Could there be such a thing as 'the ultimate structure of the universe'? Atoms are constructed into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into men, men into societies, and so on. There is no fixed end to this and so no ultimate structure in this direction. Molecules are constructed out of atoms, atoms out of protons and other particles. We do not know whether there is a fixed end to this; but anyhow such division is an unnatural meaning for the word 'structure'. The phrase seems to refer to nothing possible.
The ideal of Truth is something more catholic than this. Truth is an ever extending pyramid with indefinitely many chambers in it, all worthy of interest and respect. If we do not regard it in this catholic way, we fall into puerile esotericism and mysterymongering, a danger that is always at hand.
There is, however, a distinction between important and petty truths, and we want the important rather than the petty ones. A telephone directory when first published is probably far more true than any history of Athens; but the history can realize something of the ideal of Truth and the directory cannot. We want truths that make us understand the world, rather than merely put us in touch with a number of particular facts.
We want also precise rather than vague truths. For it is easy and useless to make a true statement if you do not care how vague it is. It is true but useless to remark that 'something somehow is', or that 'it will rain sometime'.
The ideal of Truth is sometimes adopted in the half-way form that 'Truth is good for me and my friends, but not for the masses'. 'It is all right for me to read about sex, but not for you.' Plato affirms in noble tones that the philosopher kings of his Callipolis will be passionate lovers of Truth; but examination of other parts of the Republic shows that he intends them to be lovers of Truth for themselves only; they are to have no interest in letting the common citizen know the Truth. When we ask ourselves the question, we know that this will not do. The ideal of Truth includes Truth known or at least available to all speaking beings, although we should not force a department of knowledge on those whom it bores, nor press the more terrible Truths on those who are not ready to bear them.
We include in this ideal the pursuit and discovery of acceptable statements, as well as the possession of them. Truth is inquiry at least as much as contemplation. To learn is probably better than to know, contrary to the opinion of Aristotle. The pursuit of Truth is the profession of the scholar or scientist. It would come out more clearly if we had a single word that embraced both scholar and scientist. Julien Benda revived for this purpose an old use of 'clerk', and published a book affirming that the duty of clerks is to show the world an example of disinterested intellectual activity, to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and truth, to restrain the passions of the layman, to tell the layman truths which are displeasing to him, to quench human pride, and to pay for this with his own peace. (Julien Benda, The Great Betrayal, London, 1928, a translation of La Trahison des clercs.)
It is a misfortune that a great writer has declared that 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'. Nothing is gained by this equation except a vague emotion; and an important distinction is lost. Beauty and Truth are, indeed, related to each other more closely than to any other great goods in that they are the two contemplative goods the two which lie to a large extent in what may be called just looking at the world. But Truth is intellectual, whereas Beauty is sensuous. The enjoyment of Beauty is largely independent of man's power of language, whereas Truth is completely dependent thereon.
Representative art does, indeed, give us the good of Truth as well as that of Beauty; but representative art is only a small part of the domain of Beauty.
2.42. Truth is a great good
There are strong arguments against accepting Truth and Knowledge as a great good.
It may well be said that men in general have very little interest in Truth, and therefore it is hopeless to set it up as a great good. Psychologists listing basic drives rarely include curiosity among them. Most people show only a very faint interest in learning anything but what their neighbours are doing. On the other hand, many people have a great love of mystery, that is of not knowing but being ignorant; and they complain of those who remove mysteries and make things clearer.
It is quite commonly thought that mere knowledge is bad rather than good. In the Old Testament we read that 'in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow' (Eccles. i. 18). The New Testament mostly passes knowledge by in silence; when it does glance at it the glance is unfavourable. Paul wrote that 'knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth' (1 Cor. viii. 1). He was thinking of the particular knowledge that, since there are no gods but God, it is harmless to eat meat that has been offered to idols. But many Christians have taken his words in a far wider sense; and he himself elsewhere says that 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise' (1 Cor. i. 27). Augustine, when he became a Christian, tried to kill his interest in lizards and spiders (Confessions x. 35). Bernard wrote a sonorous passage condemning all knowledge but knowledge for the sake of edification. He stigmatized knowledge for its own sake as 'base curiosity (In Cant. Cant. Sermo 36, Migne clxxxiii. 968). Even Aquinas the Aristotelian was restrained in his praise of knowledge. He did, indeed, assert a virtue of 'studiosity', which was an aspect of temperance, and consisted partly in restraining the appetite for cognition when necessary, partly in urging it on to overcome the labours of learning. But curiosity was vicious to him, too, and so was the disinterested study of sensible things. (Summa Theologica, II. ii. 166, 167.) Pascal wrote that 'man's principal disease is restless curiosity about things that he cannot know; and it is less bad for him to be in error than to be in this state of useless curiosity' (vii. 17). John Henry Newman described as a 'temptation' Nicodemus' question How can these things be?, and implied that God does not care for men to have knowledge as such (Sermon XVI).
The mantle of Christianity has now fallen to Communism, and Communists have adopted the Christian contempt for the ideal of Truth. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the doctrine that universities exist to pursue knowledge for its own sake, appear to the Communists as a denial that knowledge has any useful purpose to serve in society, or a refusal to help man in obtaining control over his environment. Pursuing knowledge without reference to its use seems to them identical with pursuing useless knowledge and asserting that knowledge has no use.
There is no doubt that both the pursuit and the possession of Truth often do harm. The agitation against vivisection is an obvious reminder of the harm sometimes done by the pursuit. As to the harm done by the possession of it, the spectacle of the universe as it really is may perfectly well be terrible and depressing.
Against the authority of the Christian tradition about Knowledge, it would be easy to set other authorities in favour of Knowledge. But authority is not much of an argument anyway. And the Christians were obviously interested parties; they feared that the love of Knowledge would turn men away from the exclusive love of a god which they demanded. Their tirades against Knowledge for its own sake are not convincing but rather contemptible, or, in a very great writer like Augustine or Pascal, saddening.
Against a recital of harm done by the pursuit or possession of Truth, it would be easy to set a recital, of any desired length, of the good done thereby. That Truth has an enormous utility is obvious to anyone who believes in history as a guide to our actions now, or in science as a means of ameliorating our physical condition.
And there is an instruct of curiosity, to form a natural basis for the good of Knowledge and Truth. Aristotle declares it: 'All men by nature desire to know.' And Aristotle was a great observer of men and beasts, and the first man to write a methodical and empirical treatise in psychology. The instinct exists also, to a smaller extent, in some other high vertebrates; and is probably connected with the elaborateness of their nerves. Because of it men often find very great joy in discovering facts.
Because of this instruct the pursuit of Truth cannot be completely stopped. It can be discouraged and disapproved and starved, as it often has been. But wherever there are men there is some curiosity; and wherever men have any strength left after getting their food this curiosity flourishes to some extent. It is ineradicable because of man's nature, and because the greatest enemy of Knowledge cannot help seeing the usefulness of some knowledge. So the only choice we have about it is whether to drive it underground and make it furtive and feeble, or, on the other hand, to encourage and develop it. The better by far is to develop and encourage it. We cannot live a rational life except on the basis of knowing the facts; as reasonable persons we must base our actions on the best relevant knowledge we can acquire. Furthermore, nothing else is consistent with our dignity. The ideal of man evidently includes the seeker and the knower, the being who is aware of the world as much as he can be, and who is developing ever farther the great system of statements by which he describes the world and takes up his attitude towards it. The ideal of universal love also demands the pursuit of truth; for we want to love the world that is, not an illusion.
Truth shares with Beauty the great advantage of being a largely non-competitive good. Your learning does not hinder my learning but helps it. Though I cannot be the first to discover what you have discovered, there is more to discover, and always will be. The pursuit of Truth often extends and enhances other goods, which without it would be of shorter duration or intensity. Thus the pleasures of eating are purified and heightened and lengthened by those who pursue knowledge about how food is obtained and prepared and eaten in different parts of the world.
Although the word 'virtue' is rather out of fashion today, and tends to be written off as one of the more fatuous interests of theologians and philosophers, yet we all still mean by it fairly well one and the same thing, and that a thing which we admit after some reluctance to be very important. A virtue is some valuable aspect of a human being, and to some extent of any living thing so far as it can resemble human beings in this respect. It is not any valuable aspect of the person, not, for example, his beauty or intelligence or speed of running. That comes out clearly if we consider the valuable aspects we ascribe to a person in writing a favourable testimonial about him; for we then find that most of the good qualities we mention are not qualities we class as virtues. The virtues are now only a small part of the possible goodness of man, though to the ancient Greeks they were sometimes the whole of it, divided into his physical, his moral, and his intellectual, kinds of goodness.
The virtues now tend to be confined to what Aristotle called moral virtues; and these are, as he said, praiseworthy habits of choice. Man as he lives acquires habits of exercising his various powers of choice in particular ways, and if we praise such a habit we call it a virtue. (In ascribing this to Aristotle I am combining two assertions that he makes separately in his Nicomachean Ethics: 1103a9 and 1106b36.)
It may be that our present use of the word 'virtue' is still narrower than this. It may be that not even all praiseworthy habits of choice are called virtues. For example, the habit of choosing happiness seems praiseworthy, and the habit of choosing unhappiness seems blameable; yet we do not call them a virtue and a vice. If so, we must ask what marks off those praiseworthy habits of choice that we do call virtues from those that we do not. Moore has plausibly suggested that 'virtues are distinguished from other useful dispositions ... by the fact that they are dispositions which it is particularly useful to praise and to sanction, because there are strong and common temptations to neglect the actions to which they lead' (Principia Ethica, p. 172).
Virtues are good by definition. The mere calling anything a virtue is an implication that it is good. There is no proper place for an argument that virtue is good, except just this argument that virtue is good by the meaning of the word 'virtue'. The place for argument and exhortation is elsewhere, namely where the question arises which habits of choice should be praised as virtues and which should not. Plato in his Republic gave a list of four which has become famous: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice. It is often said that he took this tetrad from common Greek opinion; but I know no evidence for that, and I think it more probable that he was the first to pick out and set up just these four. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics added about eight more, somewhat unconvincingly. He gave the impression of analysing very accidental opinions or usages, rather than of setting up an ideal of behaviour that a reflective person might adopt. Aquinas produced another famous list by combining Plato's four with the faith, hope, and love celebrated by Paul. But this is a typical effort of Aquinas the Tinker, as I think he should be called, soldering together the Greek and the Christian as badly as postwar smiths solder silver. Paul's faith is incompatible with Plato's wisdom; and Paul's hope is too vague and slight a thing to be made a great virtue.
None of these thinkers supposed himself to be giving the complete list of human virtues. They knew well enough that there is no definite end to the dispositions we may want men to have or praise them for having. They were only setting up what they thought the most important virtues, those most often to be striven for and most worth remembering in a slogan, or those most in need of recommendation at the moment. They were not professing to abrogate all accepted evaluations of human character and start again, but only to alter slightly the emphasis accepted when they wrote, raising a little the importance of this and lowering a little the importance of that, rarely adding a wholly new ideal or completely rejecting an old one. I shall do the same. Starting with the current evaluations of human character, and retaining the greater number of them, I shall seek to raise your estimate of two of them and lower your estimate of two others. The two virtues which I wish to celebrate and support are reason and love, the first more Greek than Christian, the second more Christian than Greek. I suppose that Matthew Arnold had them in mind when he recommended 'sweet reasonableness'. Conversely I wish to reject as vices their opposites, which Plato called misology and misanthropy, the hatred of reason and the hatred of man (Phaedo 89 D).
2.502. The word 'reason'
There are at least three importantly different senses of the word 'reason'.
First there is the sense we are using when we say that the reason for having a long chimney is to make a better draught, or that someone offered no reason for his view, or that the reason for an act is not the same as the cause of the act. In these sentences the word 'reason', whatever it means, does not mean a virtue. Therefore it is not this sense that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue.
Second there is a sense in which reason is the ability to think, or the exercise of that ability. 'Man is the rational animal' means 'Man is the animal that can think'. The word has this sense in Descartes' title A Discourse of the Method of rightly conducting the Reason; Descartes means that he is going to tell us how to think rightly. Ralph Linton was using this sense of the word when he wrote that 'reason is the ability to solve problems without going through a physical process of trial and error' (The Study of Man, p. 66). Reason in this sense of the word is, as Linton says, an ability, a power, a faculty.
The most striking part of thinking is reasoning. When we wish to call to mind an example of thinking, we tend to call up an example of reasoning. Yet on reflection we all agree that reasoning is not the only form of thinking. There are also wondering, imagining, composing, remembering, trying to remember, searching for ideas, getting ideas calculating, reciting, and indefinitely many more. All these are indubitably thought. And reason in the sense of a human faculty is the faculty to do any or most of these, not just the faculty of reasoning. Hume, for instance, is too narrow in defining it as judgement from demonstration or probability, or later as 'the discovery of truth and falsehood' (Treatise, 2. 3. 3, 3. 1. 1).
Since a faculty is not a virtue, it is not this second sense of the word either that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue.
But man can use his faculties badly or well, and to have the habit of using a given faculty well is to have a virtue. There is a virtue of exercising our power to think in good ways. There is a vice of habitually thinking badly, and a virtue of habitually thinking well. This virtue of habitually thinking well is what is meant, or obliquely referred to, by the word 'reason' when used in an honorific sense. The phrase 'it stands to reason that' means that, if you think well, you will certainly adopt the proposition in question. The phrase 'reason forbids' means that, if you think well, you will not adopt the proposal in question. If someone says that 'man is an irrational animal', he is not contradicting the statement that 'man is a rational animal', but condemning the way in which man habitually conducts his reason. Man is a rational animal, that is, he thinks; and man is also an irrational animal, that is, he thinks badly.
To give an account of reason in the second sense is to write psychology, to describe human thinking as it occurs; and this is done in, for example, Professor Humphrey's book called Thinking. To give an account of reason in the third sense, however, is to write ethics for it is to adopt or recommend particular habits of thought as being the good ways to think, to answer the question not how we do think but how we ought to think, to construct an ideal of thinking, a conception of intellectual virtue.
It is this third sense of 'reason' that I am using when I say that reason is a great virtue; and the following discussion of reason is my construction and recommendation of the ideal habits of thought.
2.503. The love of truth
In the ideal of reason I include the following eleven elements: love of truth, respect for reasons, consistency, deductiveness, preference for probability, tentativeness, respect for evidence, submission to criticism, selfcompatibility, impartiality, and the lessening of misery.
The first and foremost element in a good habit of thought is the love of truth, philalethy. The good man is philalethic, as Plato said. As Sir David Ross has said, 'intellectual integrity, the love of truth for its own sake, is among the most salient elements in a good moral character' (The Right and the Good, p. 153). The good thinker seeks always to arrive at true statements and opinions and to avoid adopting any false ones. Although it is too narrow to define reason as nothing but the judgement of the true and the false, yet the judgement of the true and the false is the basic interest and duty of reason. And, as one great champion of reason has written, 'he that would seriously set upon the search of truth, ought in the first place to prepare his mind with a love of it. For he that loves it not, will not take much pains to get it; nor be much concerned when he misses it' (Locke, Essay, 4. 19. 1).
2.504. Respect for reasons
If a man wishes to acquire truths, what principles and doctrines should he adopt for his work?
In the first place, he should learn what is wrong with the New Testament's distinction between belief and unbelief, and replace it with the three-part distinction between belief, doubt, and disbelief.
It is a very important part of good thinking to realize that there are three distinct possible attitudes towards every statement. You can believe it, or you can disbelieve it, or you can remain in doubt whether to believe or disbelieve it. In other words, you can assent or dissent or suspend judgement. The New Testament distinction conceals the difference between dissent and suspense of judgement. The 'unbelief' which it opposes to belief is either disbelief or doubt. It is correct to distinguish between believing a proposition and not believing it, and it may be useful sometimes to have the name 'unbelief' for not believing the proposition. But this name 'unbelief' is dangerous because it covers the two different attitudes, disbelieving the proposition and suspending judgement about it; and failure to distinguish these two leads to many errors. We are unlikely to adopt the right attitude towards a proposition if we assume that only two are possible. Pascal, for example, argued that we are immortal by assuming that we must either believe this statement or doubt it, and ignoring the possibility of firmly disbelieving it (Pensées, ix. 1, Havet).
There is another evil in the New Testament distinction between belief and unbelief, much greater than the first; and that is the implication that it is morally obligatory to believe and morally wrong not to believe. The New Testament habitually implies that it is wicked not to believe. This is to poison reason at its source. Reason commands a moral principle contrary to that of the New Testament, namely this: search for and weigh the reasons for and against each statement, and judge in the light of them whether you should assent to the statement or dissent from it or suspend judgement. Reason says that there is nothing wicked in disbelieving or doubting as such; what is wicked is to adopt your attitude in disregard of the available reasons.
You have here two fundamental and contrary principles for the conduct of your intellect, and you must choose between them. There is the principle implied by the New Testament, that it is right to believe and wrong not to believe. And there is the principle of reason, that it is right to believe or disbelieve or doubt in accordance with the balance of the reasons available, and wrong to doubt or disbelieve or believe in disregard of the reasons available. I have chosen the principle of reason, and I beg you to do so too.
This, then, is the first and greatest principle of reason: believe, or disbelieve, or suspend judgement about, each statement that comes to your notice, in accordance with the balance of the reasons for and against it available to you. More shortly, reason demands respect for reasons. In contrast to this, the New Testament principle may be summed as: avoid unbelief.
People sometimes come to prefer the New Testament principle through taking unbelief as equivalent to doubt and judging it better to believe something than to doubt everything. In this state of mind it seems to them reasonable to say that it is impossible to doubt everything, and therefore it is reasonable to believe. But unbelief is not equivalent to doubt; it is equivalent to either doubt or disbelief, and he who disbelieves something believes something.
I will develop this point, that he who disbelieves, something believes something. To assert any statement is necessarily to reject its contradictory, and to reject any statement is necessarily to assert its contradictory. This follows from the nature of contradiction and the fact that every statement has a contradictory.
Every statement has a contradictory, because you can construct the contradictory of any statement by prefixing to it the words 'it is false that'. For example, the following are a pair of contradictories: 'there is a god' and 'it is false that there is a god'. (Langford in Mind for 1927 argued that singular propositions have no proper contradictories; but I will not go into this in an elementary lecture. Nelson discussed Langford's point in Mind for 1946.)
No statement has more than one contradictory. Its contradictory can, indeed, be expressed in different ways; for example, we can say 'there is no god' instead of 'it is false that there is a god'. But these different ways are equivalent and come to the same thing. Every statement has one and only one contradictory.
The definition of contradiction implied in this may be brought out as follows. The contradictory of any statement S is not-S. The contradictory of any statement not-S is S. Any two statements S and T are contradictories if and only if S is equivalent to not-T. Any two statements are contradictories if and only if the truth of either entails the falsity of the other and also the falsity of either entails the truth of the other.
Hence all statements fall into pairs of which one is true and the other is false. Hence, also, exactly half of all the statements that could be made are true, and exactly half are false. Hence, thirdly, and this is the important point for the lover of truth, to assert any proposition is to deny its contradictory, and to deny any proposition is to assert its contradictory; and everybody asserts exactly the same number of propositions as he denies.
The question about any statement is therefore not exactly whether to believe it or not; it is whether to believe it or its contradictory, for one of them must be true. This little shift of emphasis makes a big improvement in our mental attitude. It saves us from the common assumption that, other things being equal, it is good to believe as many things as possible and disbelieve as few things as possible. We see that this desired state is impossible, because every belief is necessarily also a disbelief, and conversely. It relieves us also from the feeling that, if we reject all the propositions presented to us, we are making no progress. On the contrary, since to reject a proposition is to adopt its contradictory, we are gaining just as many opinions as we are rejecting. It relieves us, thirdly, from the feeling that we are sceptics who ought to be believers. We see now that the difference between the sceptic and the believer cannot be that the believer believes much and disbelieves little, while the sceptic disbelieves much and believes little. Everybody, sceptic and believer alike, inevitably believes exactly the same number of statements as he disbelieves.
We must look elsewhere for a tenable distinction between the believer and the sceptic. We might say that the believer believes more affirmative statements, and disbelieves more negative ones, than the sceptic does. Or we might say that the believer more often picks the more consequential of the two contradictories; he more often picks the consequential statement that 'all Russians are suspicious', whereas the sceptic is the man who more often picks the inconsequential contradictory: 'at least one Russian is not suspicious.' Or we might define the believer as him who suspends judgement less often than the sceptic does. Many people, of course, tend to mean by 'the believer' simply the man who believes one particular statement, namely the statement that there is a god.
He who disbelieves something believes something. Therefore unbelief includes belief, since it includes disbelief. Therefore unbelief is not opposed to belief as doubt is. And the principle of reason is not a demand that we shall doubt every proposition. It is a demand that we shall decide in accordance with the available reasons whether to doubt the proposition or to believe it or to believe its contradictory.
2.505. The love of consistency
The next element in the ideal of reason is the love of consistency. This arises from the fact that certain statements follow necessarily from other statements. If a statement S follows necessarily from a statement R, I shall say that R entails S, employing the word 'entails' in a sense invented by G. E. Moore. Whenever S follows from R, R entails S. Conversely, whenever R entails S, S follows from R.
Whenever a statement entails a second statement, it is inconsistent with the contradictory of that second statement. If R entails S, R is inconsistent with not-S and to assert both R and not-S is to be inconsistent. Hence whenever a man believes more than one statement, as we all do, there is a possibility that he may be inconsistent with himself. Reason demands that this possibility be avoided. We are to watch for inconsistencies among our beliefs; and, when an inconsistency appears, we are to drop one of the inconsistent statements and believe its contradictory instead. (The question which we are to drop, of the two inconsistent statements, has to be answered on further grounds. The mere demand for consistency will be satisfied by dropping either of them.)
A horrible example of acquiescing in inconsistency is provided by a certain common way of taking the doctrine that 'the exception proves the rule'. Many people take this to mean that, for example, you can prove that it is a rule that women are inferior to men by producing an exceptional woman who is not inferior. They imply that a universal generalization is proved to be true by the production of a case in which it is false! This is selfcontradictory and absurd. An exceptional woman who was superior to men would not prove a universal rule that all men are superior to all women. On the contrary, she would disprove it completely for all time. And as to a statement about averages, for example that the average man is superior to the average woman, it is neither proved nor disproved by any individual case of anything at all.
What then is the value of this common doctrine that 'the exception proves the rule'? Is it just a piece of insanity? Yes, as commonly used today it is just a piece of insanity. But it has arisen out of a sane procedure in the lawcourts. Wherever men make and enforce rules of action, it is possible for them to allow some exceptions to their rules. If a governor is known to have said 'I make an exception in your favour', this is good evidence that the governor generally follows a certain rule, which he is breaking in this special case. The fact that the governor says he is making an exception shows that he has a rule. The exception proves that there is a rule. This is sane inference. But when it is transferred from the sphere of human rules of action to the sphere of laws of nature, insanity results.
The phrase can also make sense if taken as a reference to the fact that apparent exceptions sometimes turn out on closer examination not to be exceptions at all, and thus strengthen our belief in the general statement. Thus punishing people for ignorance appears to be an exception to the rule that they should be punished only for their voluntary acts; but it may turn out that they are punished for ignorance only when that ignorance is due to a voluntary act of theirs.
The love of consistency is not the same as obstinacy. Some people obstinately refuse to change their opinion because they think to do so would make them inconsistent. A change of view does, of course, involve that my opinion today is inconsistent with my opinion yesterday. But there is no harm in that. What is objectionable is that one of my views today should be inconsistent with another of my views today. The reasonable man pursues consistency of his present opinions with each other. He does not pursue consistency of his present opinions with his past opinions. On the contrary, he changes his opinions whenever present considerations indicate that he should.
Just as the love of consistency does not involve the obstinacy of refusing to change an opinion, so it does not involve the vice of sneering dat others for having changed their opinion, or pouncing on them for believing contrary to what they believed five years ago. The reasonable man objects to any inconsistency of your present opinions with each other, but not to any inconsistency they may have with your past opinions.
People sometimes confuse consistency with order and orderliness, and think that reason demands orderliness because it demands consistency. This confusion is often embodied in the word 'logical' used as a term for judging actions. People say it would be 'more logical' to do so and so when they mean it would embody a tighter order to do so. In this way they come to think that 'reason is that in us which demands sequence, regularity, and order in things; it resents mere accident and chance occurrence' (Bishop Gore, Belief in God, P. 53). This sometimes encourages tyranny in politics by way of the view that it is unreasonable of people to be disorderly.
But consistency is not the same as tight and simple order, or as order of any kind. A disorderly arrangement of flowers in a bed is more reasonable than an orderly one, if it is more pleasing to the eye. There is nothing inherently more reasonable about order than about disorder. Reason forbids us to hold two propositions that are inconsistent with each other; but it does not forbid us to hold two propositions that fail to belong together in some neat and orderly arrangement. And the ideal of reason includes the love of consistency but not the love of order.
There are occasions when it is very hard to be consistent. That is, there are occasions when we feel very strongly impelled to believe both that R is true, and that R entails S, and that S is false. Such a difficulty is usually largely emotional but sometimes it is purely intellectual. If Berkeley's arguments 'admit of no answer but produce no conviction', as Hume said, they provide a purely intellectual case of the difficulty. On such occasions we should not turn away our thoughts but keep on facing the difficulty and considering what we are to abandon, convinced that it is essential to abandon one of the three, either our belief that R is true, or our belief that R entails S, or our belief that S is false.
The love of consistency is important because some propositions exclude others because they entail their contradictories. In that way the fact of entailment between propositions greatly determines the ideal of reason. I wish now to bring out another and more positive way in which entailment determines the ideal of reason. If it is reasonable to believe a given statement, it must also be reasonable to believe all the other statements which the given statement entails. Hence, given one reasonable belief, we can add to our store of reasonable beliefs by finding what it entails. To do this is to be deductive, and deductiveness is part of the ideal of reason. The reasonable man keeps looking for entailments, for 'therefores' and 'follows froms'. By the discovery of entailments he increases his stock of reasonable beliefs, he uncovers inconsistencies which he can then remove, and he brings to bear on each proposition a much greater amount of reasonable consideration and argument, thus making his decision about it much safer.
Deductiveness is the most striking of all the elements in the ideal of reason, and the most widely known. It is often falsely assumed to be the whole of reason. It is already fairly clearly expressed in the dialogues of Plato, both in the actual procedure of argument depicted there, and in phrases like 'wherever reason may carry us like a wind, there we must go' (Rp. 394 D). The magnificent passage on misology in the Phaedo is largely an endorsement of deductiveness: 'A man can suffer no greater evil than to have become a hater of deductions' (logouV mishsaV, Pho. 89 D).
We must, however, make one correction in Plato's statement of the ideal here. Propositions cannot themselves blow us in any particular direction as a wind does. The statement R cannot take us by the hand and show us the statement S which it entails. Our creative effort is required in order to think of any of the other statements which a given statement entails and see that it entails them. The discovery of them is a slow process, though when one is discovered it is often hard to believe that our ancestors failed to realize it.
Thus Plato slightly misplaced the passivity which he assigns to the reasonable man in these passages. The reasonable man is passive in acknowledging and submitting himself to all the entailments which he perceives. But he is not passive in perceiving them, for there is no one to show them to him if he were just to sit expectantly waiting for them to appear. He is active in searching for these entailments. He is active in choosing in which direction to search, and which of the discovered entailments to follow up.
Plato's slight misconception here is reminiscent, and perhaps an ancestor, of the common view that it is bad to think of your conclusion first and then look for arguments for it afterwards. That is perfectly false. There is no harm and much good in thinking of your conclusion first. There is no harm, because the value of your argument is independent of the order in which you invented its parts. When you urge that 'S must be true because of R', the strength or weakness of that argument is nothing to do with the historical question whether you thought of S before you thought of R. There is much good in thinking of your conclusion first, because, if you do not think of it first, you will probably never think of it at all. Good arguments are mostly produced by people who want to prove some particular conclusion, not by people who want to use some particular premiss to prove -- anything it will prove! If you hear a chemist say 'I believe so and so, and I am going to try to prove it', you should not suspect that he is a bad scientist. It is much more likely that he is a good one.
2.507. The pursuit of certainty
In seeking to decide which of a pair of contradictories is the true one, the reasonable man asks first whether they are analytic or synthetic statements. I explain and justify this rule as follows.
We want to avoid doubt or suspense of judgement if we reasonably can; for the task of reason or good thinking is to adopt the true one of each pair of contradictory statements and reject the false one. Provided that we include disbelief in belief, it is true to say that our aim is to believe as much as we reasonably can. We desire that, for as many statements as possible, we may reasonably abandon suspense and come down on the side of either adoption or rejection.
When, then, is it reasonable to abandon suspense about a proposition and either accept it or reject it? Once we have adopted a statement, reason bids us to adopt whatever other statements it entails, and to reject whatever other statements it is inconsistent with. But how are we to adopt the original statement reasonably? How are we to get started? This question is the search for the criterion of truth; for it is equivalent to the question what are the criteria for deciding which of a pair of contradictories is the true one. The first part of the answer to it is that the criterion of truth is different for different kinds of statement, so that we must make the relevant distinctions among statements, and assign its proper criterion to each kind that we distinguish.
Some statements are selfcontradictory, for examples 'no horse is a horse', 'a horse is an insect', 'a triangle does not have three sides', 'if two people are brothers one of them is a woman', 'x is a motor-car and x is not a vehicle'. We need no plainer criterion of a statement's being false than that it is selfcontradictory.
If a statement is false, its contradictory must be true. Hence the contradictory of a selfcontradictory statement is a true statement, for examples 'a horse is a horse', 'a horse is not an insect', 'a triangle has three sides'. 'it is false that if two people are brothers one of them is a woman' 'either x is not a motor-car or x is a vehicle'.
These examples show that there is a class of statements for which the criterion of truth and falsehood is selfcontradiction. They are false if they are selfcontradictory, and true if their contradictories are selfcontradictory. I shall call them 'analytic' statements, 'analytic' falsehoods if they are selfcontradictions, and 'analytic' truths if they are the contradictories of selfcontradictions. Every statement that falls outside this class I call 'synthetic'.
If a statement is analytic, its contradictory is analytic too; and if it is synthetic, its contradictory is synthetic too. You do not change this character of a statement by prefixing to it the words 'it is false that'.
Analytic statements are analytic in virtue of their meaning alone. It is simply and solely what the words mean that makes it false that 'a horse is an insect'. It follows that we have to decide whether a statement is analytic solely by considering its meaning, and that when a statement is analytic we can tell whether it is true or false solely by considering its meaning, and cannot tell it in any other way. It follows also that, in seeking to decide which of a pair of contradictories is the true one, the reasonable man asks first whether they are analytic or synthetic statements.
This rule at first appears to be petty and unimportant on the ground that analytic statements are trivial. Who wants to be told that it is false that a horse is an insect, or true that a triangle must have three sides? But, on the contrary, the rule is of very great importance for two reasons. The first reason is that people who are not well aware of the distinction often spend hours of study and labour and come out with results to which they attach great importance, but which are in fact analytic truisms that could have been obtained without any labour at all. It has been my painful task to point out to a friend, who had taken to writing and composed after four years' research a very learned and obscure book, that the thesis he was seeking to recommend was true by its meaning alone, and all his erudition was irrelevant to its support. This misfortune is frequent. It may well be called 'the first distemper of learning', to borrow a phrase from Francis Bacon; and it may be said to consist in mistaking words for matter, in that it mistakes a statement true by its mere meaning for one that gives important information about the world.
We do not by the mere light of nature see in every case whether a statement is analytic or synthetic. Even when we set ourselves to decide a given case we sometimes have difficulty. And when we are not thinking of the distinction at all, and have our heads full of some concrete matter that we have studied, we often produce a statement which we assume to be an important description of the matter but which is in fact an analytic truth.
Here is the second reason why it is important to realize and apply the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements. Analytic truths are not all truisms, and analytic falsehoods are not all obviously false. Take any three large numbers. That the first when added to the second equals the third is either an analytic truth or an analytic falsehood; but you often cannot tell which without doing some calculation. That there is an infinity of prime numbers is an analytic truth; but it may take you a month to see it if you try to prove it for yourself; and even following Euclid's proof of it takes a number of seconds. analytic truths, far from being all trivial, include the domain of mathematics, vast, difficult, rich, and important. Mathematical proofs are the means by which we realize the analytical truth of complicated or surprising analytical truths; for they are demonstrations of entailment, and entailment is an analytic relation. Whether one statement entails another depends solely on the meanings of the two statements, and has nothing to do with the contents of the world.
Mathematics has two extraordinary values. In the first place it is independent of all observation. It needs no looking or listening or touching or smelling or tasting. It needs no laboratories or field trips. It is all done in the head. It is purely intellectual. In the second place mathematics, or let us say more generally analytical science, is the realm of absolute conviction and, we believe, absolute knowledge and proof. In it we never need to content ourselves with mere evidence or likelihood. I do not mean that we have never been mistaken in this sphere or never shall be again. That would be false. I mean that we need not and should not acquiesce in mere probability in the realm of analytical science, but may and do set ourselves the goal of absolute certainty and proof, and believe that we usually achieve it, and I have no doubt are right so to believe. The reasonable man pursues certainty and eschews mere probability about all analytic statements.
2.508. The pursuit of probability
There was a time when the possibilities of analytic statements had been greatly developed, while the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements was still only faintly grasped. That time included the ancient Greeks, with their development of mathematics; and it also included the seventeenth century, with the further development of mathematics by Descartes and others. During this time there implicitly existed the hope that all statements whatever would turn out to be analytic, in other words that mere thinking without the aid of the senses would ultimately tell us the truth-value of every statement, in other words that the whole of science would become like mathematics, and specifically like what they regarded as the perfect form of mathematics, namely Euclid's Elements. This hope became clearest and strongest in the seventeenth century, when Spinoza composed an Ethics in Euclidean form, and Newton composed a kinetics in Euclidean form, and Steno composed a description of muscle in Euclidean form.
A consequence of this belief that all knowledge could become mathematical or analytical was that they expected and demanded to achieve in all spheres the wonderful certainty that we achieve in mathematics. All science whatever was to be absolutely certain and absolutely proved. Everything less than absolute certainty was useless and to be rejected. Descartes thought that he should reject, as absolutely false, everything about which he could imagine the slightest doubt. Accordingly, he had no use in his account of scientific method for the notion of hypothesis, or even for the notion of probability. It is a waste of time to be setting up hypotheses and estimating probabilities if we can obtain certainty. Every reasoning was either certain or no use at all. Pascal expressed the general attitude when he wrote: 'I am not content with the probable; I seek the sure.'
This hope was vain. Now that the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements has become much clearer, we see that it is false that all statements are analytic and ideally decidable by intellectual considerations alone. The question whether this lobster has recently shed his shell can never be reasonably decided without the aid of the senses; nor can the general question whether lobsters shed their shells from time to time. The laws of nature, if they exist, are not entailments, and cannot be discovered by mere logic and mathematics. The laws of nature hold between things; but entailments hold between propositions. Statements asserting laws of nature or facts of history are one and all synthetic, so that to decide on their truth-value without any appeal to experience would be folly. Even a great deal of what is commonly called mathematics is in fact synthetic and uncertain. For example, the geometrical theorems of Euclid are synthetic. What is analytic in Euclid's geometry is at most his proofs, that is, his statements that his theorems are entailed by his postulates. By far the greater number of the statements that seriously concern us are synthetic.
When people begin to realize that the Cartesian hope is vain, and that the absolute proof of mathematics never will be achieved for propositions describing the real world, they sometimes react with a despairing scepticism. They think that, if human thought cannot achieve mathematical certainty about existence, it is no good at all; and they resign themselves to the view that 'men cannot discover philosophical truths by the sole use of their natural faculties', or the more sweeping view that 'truth is impossible to attain'. 'I look on all sides', wrote Pascal (Pensées, xiv. 2, Havet), 'and everywhere I see nothing but darkness.' That was because to him darkness and certainty were the only alternatives. Hume was a sceptic for the same reason; he abandoned the Cartesian conviction that our knowledge could be mathematically certain, but retained the Cartesian conviction that it ought to be.
From this despairing scepticism it is an easy and common step to unreason. Pascal took it when he recommended us to decide whether there is a god by means of a wager (op. cit. x. 1, Havet). Many take it in the form of saying to themselves: 'Since certainty is unattainable, I can only believe whatever my intuition tells me.' Thus Newman (Grammar of Assent, p. 343), after deciding rightly that there cannot be a science of reasoning sufficient to compel certitude in concrete conclusions, infers wrongly that we should 'confess that there is no ultimate test of truth besides the testimony borne to truth by the mind itself'. Thus reason is brought into disrepute by being identified with the certainty and proof that are obtainable only concerning analytic statements, as it becomes clear that most statements are not analytic and cannot be settled by mere deduction.
The right reaction, to the discovery that mathematical certainty is impossible about most statements, is not to abandon reason, but to include in it the pursuit of probability as well as the pursuit of certainty. Then we can say, contrary to Hume, that it is by reason that we believe in the existence of bodies as well as in the truths of mathematics. The reasonable man does not say 'Give me certainty or I despair'. He looks for certainty about analytic statements only. About synthetic statements he is content with probability. On the considerations available to him at the time concerning a given statement, either the statement is more probable than its contradictory, or it is less probable, or it is equally probable. In the last case he suspends judgement; otherwise he adopts for the present the more probable of the two contradictories. In each pair of contradictories he habitually tries to estimate which is the more probable, and he habitually adopts that.
'All is uncertain', said Hume. But it is extremely unlikely that the probability of every proposition is exactly equal to the probability of its contradictory, so that we ought to suspend judgement about all propositions. It is still more unlikely that a pair of contradictories could both be improbable rather than probable. It is perfectly obvious, when you come to think of it, that some propositions are far more probable than their contradictories, and therefore ought to be adopted. If we were to follow Descartes's advice, and reject as false everything that is not mathematically proved, we should be rejecting both of two contradictories, which is absurd since one of them must be true. If we were to reject as 'invalid' every consideration that did not amount to a strict deductive proof, we should be perversely depriving ourselves of many reasonable aids to picking the true contradictory. The division of arguments into valid and invalid is a remnant of the exclusively deductive and mathematical way of looking at knowledge in general; it should be confined to mathematics. In questions of history and nature, we should give up bothering whether the proposition is certain or not. We should ask ourselves instead whether we will adopt the proposition or reject it, and in deciding we should remember the significant fact that to reject a proposition is to adopt its contradictory. It is not a 'burden of proof' that reason lays on us in existential and practical questions. It is a burden of judgement, of judging which is the more probable of the two contradictories in view of the available considerations.
Some people think that this is impossible because probability entails certainty, so that where nothing is certain nothing can be probable either. I myself argued this view at some length in my first book, The Province of Logic, London, 1931. I withdraw it now. I overlooked the fact that every statement has its contradictory, and that if the one is improbable the other must be probable.
To wild despairs such as 'truth is impossible to attain' the reasonable man opposes the following antiseptic reflection. Of any pair of contradictories, say 'there is a god' and 'there is no god', one is true and the other is false. Now each of these statements has been believed. Therefore somebody has believed a true statement. Therefore truth is possible to attain. If the sceptic replies that he meant that we cannot know for certain which is true, the reasonable man answers that we can often make a reasonable judgement as to which is more probably true, and then it is wise to be content with that. It is unwise to insist on all or nothing, for the result of doing that is to get nothing.
The probable must not be opposed to the true. Plato pointed out that it is wrong to say 'let us seek what is probable, not what is true' (Phaedrus 272 DE). That amounts to the immoral advice: 'seek to convince, and do not mind whether what you say is true.' The right maxim is: let us seek what is probably true rather than what is certainly true, since certainty is unobtainable outside mathematics. The probable is not opposed to the true or the false, but to the certain and the improbable.
2.509. Respect for evidence
Where synthetic statements are concerned, the pursuit of probability is the right middle way between two wrong extremes. One of these wrong extremes is the pursuit of certainty, which I have described. The other is the acquiescence in mere possibility. Some people speak as if they thought that, since certainty is unattainable, they might accept any proposition that is not known to be impossible. 'May it not be that ... ?', they ask; and the implication is that if it is possible it is actual. You can be sure that anyone who recommends a proposition by prefixing to it the words 'May it not be that ... ?' is less than a firstclass reasoner. For of course it may be. Every synthetic proposition is logically possible. But so is its contradictory. That too may be so. Hence the right question is not which of them may be so (for each of them may be so), but which of them has the better evidence. Similarly, the right question is not which of them has some evidence in its favour (for usually each of them has some evidence in its favour), but which of them has the weightier evidence in its favour.
I draw your attention to one specially bad and very common form of acquiescing in mere possibility. People sometimes adopt a proposition for true merely on the ground that they do not know it to be false. 'You cannot prove that it is false', they say; and they regard this as justifying them in holding it true. They speak as if our not knowing a certain statement to be false were good evidence that it is true. I call this the argument from ignorance, though I think it is not what everybody has meant by the phrase 'argument from ignorance'. It is fallacious, because ignorance is not a good ground for asserting anything except that we are ignorant. The question in matters of fact is not what we can or cannot prove, but which of the two contradictories has the better evidence. That we cannot prove that there is no god is irrelevant. The right question is which of the two contradictories, 'there is a god' and 'there is no god', has the better evidence. Even the enlightened Joseph Butler endorsed a case of this fallacy, when he wrote that 'due sense of the general ignorance of man would ... beget in us a disposition to take up and rest satisfied with any evidence whatever, which is real' (Sermon XV, § 10). No amount of ignorance can make it right to consider only one side of a question. However ignorant we may be, we should consider the evidence for both of the two contradictories, and decide which is the heavier.
The argument from ignorance is often concealed in the form of a question. When a man has no argument whatever in favour of his thesis that pigs have wings, he can still impose it on many of the unwary by putting it in the form of a question: Who can say whether after all pigs may not have wings? The implication is that, in view of the general ignorance of man, you would be a rash fool to assert that pigs have no wings.
The worst form of the argument from ignorance masquerading as a question is the 'how can' or 'how could' form. For example, 'the problem still remains how can anyone understand the difference between good and evil unless he has been given at birth a natural feeling for it'. The writer of this sentence implies that your ignorance how this can be done is good evidence that at cannot be done. But, of course, it is no such thing. If it were, we could prove that the moon is made of green cheese, thus: 'Unless the moon were made of green cheese, how could it have that patchy and crumbly appearance?'
The 'how can' form of argument is dishonest. By using this form the speaker conceals the fact that it is he who is making an assertion and thus incurring a responsibility. He insinuates falsely that the responsibility is all on you for not admitting the assertion. Instead of openly making his assertion and taking the responsibility for it, he insinuates that you ought to believe it unless you can answer some 'how' question. The honest thing would be to say: 'The moon has a patchy and crumbly appearance, and most things of that appearance are made of cheese, therefore the moon is probably made of cheese.' And then the weakness of the thought would be apparent. The advantage of the dishonest 'how could' form is that, while it must mean just this, it declines to confess it and take the responsibility for it.
Often the best way to meet one of these bogus questions is to reply: A question is not an argument, only statements can be arguments. Your question is an argument only if it is a way of stating that....' For thus you bring his assertion into the open and force him either to acknowledge it or to drop it. I recommend to you the idea that a question is not an argument. It invalidates a surprisingly large number of letters to The Times.
So much for the mistake of acquiescing in mere possibility. Concerning synthetic statements the reasonable man neither acquiesces in mere possibility nor demands mathematically certain proof, but estimates probabilities and adopts the more probable of the two contradictories.
The truth-value of a synthetic statement cannot be found by merely considering its meaning and entailments. It can be found only by both considering its meaning and doing something more. What more? What further criterion comes in? A great many synthetic statements profess to describe the world that is, or the world that has been or will be. This is done by all particular reports, such as 'the cat mewed when it saw her', and 'the sun will be eclipsed tomorrow', and 'Caesar crossed the Rubicon'. It is done by general reports, such as 'cats make a mewing sound but dogs do not', and 'eclipses of the sun are less frequent than those of the moon', and 'all bodies attract each other with a force reversely proportional to the square of their distance'. There is a class of synthetic statements which are all what we may call in a very general sense descriptions. This class includes all or most of the statements of history and natural science. It excludes statements of value, of goodness and badness.
The criterion of the truth-value of descriptive statements may be labelled 'correspondence'. These statements are false if they fail to correspond to the world, if what they assert to be so is not so. For example, if someone tells you that your waistcoat is on fire, you look down to see if it is. You look to see if what he asserts to be so is so, if his assertion corresponds to the facts.
How do we tell whether the statement corresponds to the world? It is impossible to answer this both generally and completely. It is a matter of gradually accumulating more and more knowledge, both about the meanings of statements and about the world they profess to describe. In the case of 'your waistcoat is on fire', it is a matter of knowing the rules for the use of 'your', the rules for the use of 'waistcoat', and the rest of the meaning, and then using your senses on the world to discover whether what you experience corresponds to what the statement asserts. The evidence for or against 'your waistcoat is on fire' is very simple. It is just what you can observe now in the region of your waistcoat. But evidence becomes a far more complicated and doubtful matter for statements describing absent parts of the world, and for general descriptions of the world, and for conditional descriptions of the world. Questions of judgement and choice soon enter in. Do you judge Tacitus to be a truthful and cautious historian? Was Fisher, or whoever it was, judicious in choosing the standard statistical deviation as he has? These matters will never be completely decided. The process of improving and adding to our decisions is the study of evidence.
We have seen two great domains of statement in which the criteria of truth are different. For analytic statements the criterion is selfcontradiction. For descriptive synthetic statements the criterion is the real world. There appears to be at least one more domain with its own criterion, and that is the domain of ethical and practical synthetic statements, such as 'we ought to tell the truth', 'Beethoven's music is better than Bach's', 'political equality is a good thing', 'disorder is undesirable'. In choosing between such a practical statement and its contradictory, we cannot use the criterion of selfcontradiction because they are synthetic statements. Nor can we use the criterion of correspondence with the real world; for these statements do not profess to describe the world, and therefore nothing the world can do will make them either correspond to it or fail to correspond.
In the first and second domains men are very largely agreed as to what the right criterion is and how to use it. At least, they tend very largely to use the same criteria in the same way and come out with the same results, though they disagree in their theoretical account of the nature of these criteria. But in the third domain, that of practical statements, men neither give the same theory of the criterion nor use the same criterion nor come out with the same results. In one sense there is no criterion for this domain; that is, there is no universally agreed and reliable criterion. But people have their own criteria. I have told you earlier some of my own principles of judgement.
Does this mean that we cannot properly speak of evidence for and against practical propositions, and that the notion of reason as including respect for evidence has no application here? No, it only means that in this sphere evidence is more doubtful and shifting than in the other two. There still is evidence of a kind. Plenty of arguments are produced on practical matters, arguments about the factual situation on which practice has to be based, about the consequences of proposed actions, about the criteria to be employed, about their relative strengths, about the way to apply them. Here as elsewhere it is possible to distinguish between the reasonable man who finds and respects the evidence, and the unreasonable man who does not. It is common and correct to distinguish between those who adopt policies after careful consideration and those who do not.
Reason, then, includes respect for evidence. The decision which of two contradictories is the more probable is to be made by examining the evidence for and against each. And this apparently applies to all classes of statements, though the evidence is of very different kinds in the different classes.
Let us observe some of the forms of disrespect for evidence.
One common form of disrespect for evidence is the habit of believing a proposition not because it has the better evidence but because its contradictory is painful. Somebody has said that 'I could not rest in a truth were I compelled to regard it as hateful'. Christians often recommend their doctrines on the ground that they are comforting, whereas their contradictories are depressing. You can find a striking example of this in Newman's Grammar of Assent, p. 305, which shows how powerful it can be.
Whether to believe the contradictory that has the better evidence, or to believe the one that gives more comfort, is one of our profoundest and most important decisions. Each alternative is often chosen. I am strongly in favour of choosing to believe the contradictory that has the better evidence, because that makes us more likely to believe truly. That one of a pair of contradictories frightens me is no evidence as to which of them is true. Believing truly is in the long run likely to comfort us more than believing falsely; and anyhow it is beneath our dignity as human beings not to seek a correct view of things.
Another form of disrespect for evidence is to reject it in favour of intuitions or hunches. Intuitions are necessary sometimes, namely when we have to make a decision but cannot in the time available find any evidence on which to base it. For instance, if you must decide this instant whether an attacker will shoot at your head or your heart. Furthermore, intuitions are sometimes good evidence in themselves. If there is a person whose intuitions in a certain field have turned out right more often than not in the past, then the fact that he now intuits a certain statement in the field to be true is good evidence that it is true. But an intuition is at best only one piece of evidence among other possible pieces. It is always capable of being overthrown by further considerations. It never justifies us in neglecting to look for other pieces of evidence, or in neglecting to put them also on the scales when they appear. And Bishop Gore's view that we are justified in believing an intuition if it gives us strength is very bad indeed.
Another form of disrespect for evidence, which may overlap with the foregoing, is the fanatic's deliberate hostility to evidence and rejection of it, what Professor Campbell called 'the blind uncritical devotion to an idea or cause which is so utterly sure of its own rectitude that "examination of the evidence" seems mere meaningless waste of labour' (Philosophy, 1950, p. 119). 'I believe it because it is absurd.' The fanatic, if he has to defend his view, does so by force or fury or intimidation or sarcasm or authority or mollification, all means which, while they often convince, never contribute to the determination of a truth-value.
The commonest form of disrespect for evidence is mere carelessness or thoughtlessness or failure to realize what is required. We assume that our meagre experience of some foreign nation is good enough evidence for generalizations about it, not out of any contempt for evidence, but out of mere ignorance of what sort of data such generalizations demand. We write home that 'the hotels here are' so-and-so, after having stayed in one and looked into two others. Respect for evidence involves knowing that evidence usually does not come without work, and hence involves searching for the good evidence.
A subtler form of disrespect for evidence is pretending that we have evidence when we have not. We may do this to others or to ourselves. 'Evidence is accumulating', we say. But how much has actually accumulated? For only that counts. To assume that in the future there will be more is to disrespect evidence.
Respect for evidence, or at least respect for the evidence of the senses, is the main element missing from the ideal of reason in Plato's dialogues. We may roughly say that he found reason merely in deductiveness, but we find it in deductiveness plus inductiveness. Mere deductiveness by itself constituted reasonable thinking according to Plato. But, since the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions has become plain, we have to say that mere deductiveness is reasonable only in mathematics. Everywhere else it must be joined with inductiveness.
The theory of deduction and induction is logic, and logic is thus an important part of the development of the ideal of reason. It is a normative science; that is to say, it lays down norms of how we ought to think; it states an ideal. But do not take me as implying that every respected textbook of logic does this adequately, or even tries to. Among those that make a good shot at it are Pascal's Spirit of Geometry, the Port-Royal Logic, the third and fourth books of Locke's Essay on Human Understanding, John Stuart Mill's System of Logic, W. K. Clifford's Ethics of Belief, and Cohen and Nagel's Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method. Many other logic books are not normative at all, but parts of mathematics exploring the nature of entailment. In them you will find no practical help towards becoming reasonable. It is a pity that the same word 'logic' has to cover both a purely theoretical and a very practical inquiry.
The reasonable man holds his views tentatively rather than dogmatically. He bears in mind the possibility that at some future time the weight of evidence may point the other way. He refrains from thinking that 'there cannot possibly ever be a good reason for changing this view, and so I will never listen to any argument against it'. His views are hypotheses rather than dogmas, laid down to be tested by their consequences and other connexions, and to be exchanged for their contradictories if the network thus revealed ever indicates so. Plato, to whom the tentativeness of reason was clear, made his 'Socrates' say that 'we must submit to the argument until somebody persuades us with a better one' (Rp. 388 E).
Tentativeness is not the same thing as hesitation or indecision. Holding one's opinions always tentatively neither is nor involves being always hesitating and indecisive. Descartes in a well known passage records his decision to act firmly on practical principles although they were provisional, and that was reasonable.
Tentativeness is not the same thing as the pursuit of probability; for we should be tentative about our mathematical opinions as well as about our physical and historical and practical ones. We may be wrong in thinking a certain proposition to be an analytic truth, as well as in thinking it to be synthetic truth. Euclid's postulate about parallels was for long mistakenly thought to be a mathematical certainty. The contrast between mathematics and chemistry is not that we are never mistaken in the one, whereas we are sometimes mistaken in the other. We are sometimes mistaken in each of them. The contrast is that the truth of true mathematical propositions depends only on their meaning, whereas the truth of true chemical propositions depends also on the nature of the world. Descartes should have extended to all his opinions the tentativeness which he rightly chose in practical matters.
Tentativeness does not involve always listening to every argument. If you were hurrying to a vital appointment, and a queer-looking stranger stopped you in the street and asked you to listen there and then to an argument that the earth is flat, reason would not require you to comply. Nor need you read all the volumes of the Society for Psychical Research before deciding that there are no ghosts. We could spend our whole lives listening to arguments and still not have heard all the persons who wish to persuade us. Hence we are obliged to choose what we will hear and when we will hear it; and we are not necessarily unreasonable because we have declined to listen to Mr A's argument or read Mr. B's book. The ideal of tentativeness does, however, involve never deciding that 'under no circumstances will I ever consider any further argument against this proposition, or reconsider an old argument, with a view to possibly changing my opinion'.
The tentativeness of reason sets many people against reason, because they cannot bear to be uncertain. 'Man cannot live by merely tentative beliefs', they say; 'he demands security of mind, an assured faith.' (This statement of the objection is taken from Campbell, Philosophy, 1950, p. 130.) This is a common and natural feeling; but it is childish and ought to be overcome, like the fear of being alone in a house at night. It amounts to taking the absurd position that 'I am going to have certainty at all costs, even if I have to stifle reason to get it'. The desire for security, like other desires, is to be gratified when it can be gratified without grave loss to other interests; but it is not to be gratified at all costs. We know the havoc that a nation causes when its unbridled desire for security drives it to be always acquiring a little more buffer territory at the expense of a neighbour. An individual's private desire for intellectual security can cause as great a proportion of havoc in the intellectual life of himself and his associates. We all can and should learn temperance in the indulgence of our desire for security as in the indulgence of all our desires.
And what is this metaphor, taken from the Bible, that 'man cannot live'? Of course it does not mean that those who are undogmatic in their beliefs die of being so. I suppose it means that they become less happy for being so. But they become more happy for knowing that they are doing the reasonable thing.
Those who think that human reason suffices, and those who think that only a god and faith in him suffice, have in common that they all think that something suffices. And in this they are all mistaken, for nothing suffices. We are always, in any case, going to have mistakes and sufferings, and finally we are going to cease existing. The question we must ask is not what will give us all the help we want, for nothing can do that; but what will give us the most help possible. And the answer is reason. Reason is more likely to avoid mistake and suffering than is faith or any other way.
Yeats once complained that 'the best lack all conviction'. He may have been right in the way he meant it; but -- a certain lack of conviction is the very thing that constitutes the best people.
2.511. The submission of reason
The essential part of bearing in mind the possibility that one is mistaken is not to begin each statement with the words 'I may be wrong but it seems to me that'. That would be very tiresome and quite useless. It is to allow free speech to others and weigh their ideas. Reasonableness includes listening to the other side, and giving the other side full liberty to argue. It includes submission to criticism.
The reasonable man behaves as a fallible being among fallible beings. The unreasonable man, on the contrary, sometimes talks as if you were fallible but he were a god. 'Don't trust man', he sometimes says, 'trust God.' This remark would be selfdefeating if he regarded himself as a man, for in that case he would be telling you not to trust himself and therefore not to trust this advice of his. So the implication is that when he speaks it is the voice of a god. Newman clearly makes this claim in the following sentence: 'Theological reasoning professes to be sustained by a more than human power, and to be guaranteed by a more than human authority' (Grammar of Assent, p. 377). Similarly, Rousseau at the beginning of his Discourse on Inequality, para. 7, quite clearly implies that whereas other men's books are merely human and contain lies, this book of Rousseau's is the voice of nature herself and therefore must be true, though he says he may have added something of his own without intending to. The idea that 'when you talk it is merely your subjective opinion, but when I talk it is the objective truth', is thoroughly bad-mannered and unreasonable. We are all in the same boat, the predicament of subjectivity. Whenever any of us talks it is his subjective opinion; but it may also be true.
Submission to criticism excludes keeping one's opinion secret. It involves making one's views known rather than concealing them. Reason is essentially public. The reasonable man submits to criticism, and he submits to the new evidence and new probabilities that criticism sometimes brings.
A very different kind of submission is sometimes demanded of reason, namely submission to authority. It is pointed out that no man can investigate all things for himself, and that we do in fact rely upon all sorts of authorities, and should be unreasonable not to do so. It is often suggested that a man has no right to have an opinion of his own on a subject about which he is ill informed. Even being in doubt about a proposition is disapproved by some people. Jeremy Bentham, and some others who shared his doubts about the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, were induced, nevertheless, to sign them by a person who reproved their hesitation as 'presumption' (Robert M. Murray, English Social and Political Thinkers in the Nineteenth Century, i. 43).
It is true that no man can investigate for himself all the matters on which he needs to have an opinion, and that it would be foolish never to trust the authority of, say, a physician or an accountant. Yet the demand for submission to authority, as commonly made, is not a right conclusion from this, but on the contrary highly improper. For it is usually a demand that we should submit to a certain authority without having criticized his credentials, without having judged for ourselves whether he is justified in claiming to be an authority. It overlooks or suppresses the vitally important fact that each one of us has to decide who are the authorities.
The Medical Association is not the only set of persons claiming authority in medicine. There are the others, whom the Medical Association calls quacks. The patient has to decide between them; and sometimes he leaves one in disgust and goes to another. The Roman Church is not the only body claiming to be an authority about the gods. There are also the atheists, and the Moslems, whom the Roman Church calls infidels. There is no escape for any of us from choosing between these rival authorities. In adopting any one authority we are judging his rivals, in effect if not explicitly. Therefore we are all of us always inevitably judging the authorities, that is, criticizing them.
The only choices we have in this matter are whether to do this judging consciously or unconsciously, and whether to do it reasonably or unreasonably. Evidently it is better to do it consciously and reasonably. The person who submits to a priest because she found herself doing so when she woke up, and has never considered not doing so, is in a less reasonable and less safe position than the person who submits because she has criticized this authority and decided that it is better to submit. And it is better to review such decisions from time to time than to make them once for life. We should submit to no man in the sense of abandoning our own judgement for ever. Complete submission to an authority, far from being commendable, is a grave irresponsibility. We are responsible for all our opinions, however ignorant we may be in the field, because we are responsible for our choice of any authorities on whom we rely. All submission to an authority should be based on, and revocable by, our own judgement whether he is an authority; and this judgement should be revised from time to time in the light of the best considerations then available.
As to the doctrine that a man may have no right to an opinion on some matter, I suspect it of being held owing to ignorance of the fact that to adopt someone else's opinion is to have an opinion oneself. It is clearly wrong if it includes suspense of judgement in having an opinion. If a man is aware of a proposition he cannot help doing one of three, either adopting it or rejecting it or suspending judgement about it. If, however, we exclude the case of suspending judgement, as not properly falling under the expression 'having an opinion about', and say that having an opinion about a proposition is either accepting it or rejecting it, then it is true that sometimes a man may have no right to an opinion. But when? Precisely when he ought to suspend judgement about the opinion. And he ought to suspend judgement about it when he cannot find any good evidence for or against it; and this includes not being able to find an authority who has an opinion on the matter. If he can find an authority whom it is reasonable to follow on the matter, he ought to have an opinion because he ought to adopt the authority's opinion.
2.512. Practical reason
If a person confined his ideal of reason to what I have so far said, he would not call any action reasonable or unreasonable, except acts of thinking and of arriving at opinions and getting evidence for opinions. But we call actions of many sorts reasonable or unreasonable. Thereby we imply that there is such a thing as practical reason. We are right to do this. For we cannot help evaluating actions, and human actions are essentially thoughtful. Hence in evaluating actions we are evaluating something that involves thought. Hence our ideals for thought come into our ideals for action. Hence in evaluating actions we sometimes use the word that refers to our ideal for thought, and call them reasonable or unreasonable. Thinking includes choosing actions and principles of action, and this can be done well or badly.
Some great men have doubted whether there is such a thing as practical reason, or whether reason has anything to say about practice. That was because they confined reason to deductiveness and consistency. If we understand by 'reason' ideal thinking, as it is very common to do, and if we believe that thinking enters essentially into human action and largely helps to make it good or bad, then it is inconsistent for us to deny the possibility of practical reason. Practical reason is possible and to some extent actual. It is the same as wisdom.
Reason in action includes, first, all that reason in reflection includes. Reasonable action is based on opinion about the world reached by reasonable thinking.
As the reasonable thinker collects impartially all the considerations bearing on a question of fact, so the reasonable agent takes impartial account of all the interests affected and examines all the advantages and disadvantages of each course. There is, however, this difference of degree, that the urgency of time enters into action more than into theory, and makes it sometimes reasonable to act earlier without a full consideration instead of acting later with a full consideration.
Further, we all call it unreasonable to keep on doing two sorts of action such that the one sort defeats the aim of the other sort. Selfdefeatingness in practice is to be added to selfinconsistency in theory as part of unreasonableness. It is unreasonable, for example, to desire people's love and at the same time keep on hurting them. Such selfdefeatingness is often called inconsistency. But it is not a belief in two inconsistent propositions. The statement that 'I want people to love me' is consistent with the statement that 'I want to hurt people'. Selfdefeatingness is due to laws of nature, not laws of logic. It consists in pursuing two aims which nature has made incompatible; and only by knowing some laws of nature can we know what aims are incompatible.
We also call it reasonable to adapt one's means properly to one's ends, and unreasonable to try to achieve an end by a means which is probably ineffective, or which is effective but far too costly in relation to what the end is worth. To insist on achieving some end at all costs would be eminently unreasonable if we really meant 'at all costs'; but usually the context shows that we are referring only to a small part of all the possible costs.
We also call it reasonable to respect the aims and interests of all persons equally. Reason in this sense is referred to in some uses of the words 'impartiality', 'justice', and 'equality'.
So far I think I have mentioned only matters that most people include under reason in action. I myself include in it a further item which, I fear, is not so often included that I can claim that it is generally agreed. I mean the principle that the lessening of misery is the most important aim, and other aims should give way to it. If a man says he would rather all Englishmen were made miserable than that England should play second fiddle to the United States, I call him unreasonable precisely because he holds something else more important than the fight against misery. If a man says that a certain moral law is to be obeyed no matter how much misery it causes, because it is the command of a god or just because it is the moral law, I call him unreasonable for the same reason: he puts something else above the lessening of misery. In other words, pity is part of practical reason.
What is the relation of practical reason to the moral laws? I doubt whether Henry Sidgwick was right in believing that there is a 'common conviction that the fundamental precepts of morality are essentially reasonable' (Methods of Ethics, 5th ed., p. 383). I think that too many people dissociate morality from reason for this to be true. But the precepts of morality ought to be reasonable, and we ought to reject all moral laws that do not tend to diminish misery on the whole. The reasonable man desires to obey general principles that are impartial between men and men and could be obeyed by all to the common advantage. He submits himself to such rules of action as both are actually acknowledged and also impartially diminish misery.
2.513. Depreciations of reason
It is very common to depreciate reason or compare it unfavourably with something else. People say that reason tends to atrophy feeling, that it tends to make action feeble, that it is incompetent in certain spheres, that it cannot help to make us happy, that we should trust God not human reason, that to trust reason is pride, that reason cannot prescribe ends, that reason must be subordinated to faith or intuition, and that we should think not with reason but with the blood.
Yet it is absurd to talk against reason if the word means what I have suggested. Reason, I have suggested, is either the power to think or the good use of that power. As to reason as the power to think, nobody seriously holds the view that we had better not think, at least when it is thus expressed. And as to reason as the good use of the power to think, it is evident that to deny the goodness of that would be to say that something good was not good, a selfcontradiction.
How then do people come to talk against reason? They do so through fear of thought combined with the misconception that reason is a special faculty. Fear of thought is, of course, a common and natural occurrence, because thinking sometimes undermines a cherished belief or reveals an alarming situation. It is usually held in check by the fact that thinking is inevitable and sometimes supports a cherished belief or reveals a delightful situation.
The other element which leads people to talk against reason is the misconception that reason is a special faculty, not the general faculty of thinking but a special department of it. It is easy to regard reason as a faculty because in one correct sense the word does mean a faculty, namely the general faculty of thinking. It is also easy to regard reason as not being the general faculty of thinking but some specific or different faculty, owing to the other sense of the word, in which it means something different from the faculty of thinking. The sense in which reason is the power to think makes us regard reason as a power. But the sense in which reason is the ideal use of something makes us regard it as not the power of thinking. So we slide into regarding reason as some mental power other than the power of thinking. Reason now appears as one mental power among others, the others including probably intuition, faith, belief, memory, imagination, emotion, sight, hearing, and touch. The human mind, or the power of thinking, comes to seem like a toolbox; and these various faculties; reason, intuition, faith, and the rest -- are the tools in the box. Kant called reason a Werkzeug (Grundlegung, Pp. 395-6). Now the good use of a toolbox involves the good choice of which tool to use for each purpose. There are things that you can do well with a chisel but not with a hammer, and conversely. Hence we come to think that there are things you can do with faith but not with reason, and so on.
Once we have come to regard reason as a special faculty, and as only one among many tools available to the mind, we can safely depreciate it, which we should not dare to do if we regarded it as the power of thinking in general. This gives opportunity to that fear of thought which is latent in most of us. Whenever thought leads to results that distress us, we can now say it was because we used reason when we should have used some other faculty, like prentice carpenters trying to make a screwdriver do the work of a chisel. Now we can talk about 'the bounds of reason', and about 'areas where reason is incompetent', thus taking the liberty to reject the results of our thinking when they distress us. Now we can retort, against those who appeal to reason, that they are concentrating on one particular faculty and neglecting all the other ways of knowing. Thus we shut people off from using their reason on our favourite doctrines.
All this is a mistaken thing to do. We should not let the distressing results of some thinking seduce us into inventing the myth of reason as a special faculty alongside intuition and faith and the rest. There are no such special faculties. Reason, in the sense of a mental power other than the general power to think, is a fiction, a dummy set up to be knocked down by those who favour not thinking about certain matters. The human mind is not a box of tools from which you can select. It has only the one tool, thought. And our only choice is whether to use it badly or well, and whether to inquire and learn how to use it well. The English word 'reason' is sometimes the name of this tool, thought, and sometimes the name of the ideal use of this tool, which we dimly perceive and try to perceive more clearly. To be against reason is therefore either to be against thinking as well as possible, or to be against thinking at all.
The bounds of reason are as wide as the bounds of statement and belief. Anything whatever that can be stated or believed should be stated or believed as a result of thought, which is one sense of the word 'reason'; and the thought should be as good as possible, which is the other sense. There is no 'area where reason is incompetent', in the sense of a set of propositions which are to be adopted or rejected without thought. To say that reason is incompetent about a given proposition is to say that it is not good to search for the considerations for and against this proposition, or to weigh them against each other, or to adopt a view accordingly, or to revise this view from time to time, or to listen to criticism of it. On all choices between adopting a proposition and adopting its contradictory either reason is competent or nothing is. The Pope in September 1952 said to astronomers that, when the human intellect has done all it can, faith must carry on. The implied contrast is false, for the human intellect will not have done all it can until the human race is extinct.
This confusion leads also to the idea that those who praise reason are neglecting nonrational methods of knowing, or denying their value. If reason is thought of as one peculiar mental faculty, and we recognize other rival mental faculties alongside it, it seems that those who praise reason are neglecting these other instruments. But when we see that reason is not a special faculty, but the good or ideal use of the general faculty of forming statements and beliefs, this opposition falls to the ground. Every special way of producing beliefs that there may be, either intuition or sight or hearing or telepathy or what you will, is to be examined and given whatever weight seems reasonable after examination; but none of them is to be set up as autonomous and immune from criticism. None of them is even to be assigned a special sphere in which it is uncriticizable. For example, sight is not supreme in the sphere of the visible. We check and sometimes reject its deliverances by the rational use of other faculties, especially touch and memory. Reason is supreme because it is not a special faculty, but the best use of the whole faculty of forming beliefs for the sake of forming them truly. The only alternatives to thinking with reason are thinking unreasonably and not thinking.
The misconception of reason as a special faculty is also responsible for the idea that 'it is beyond the power of reason to prescribe ends' (Harrod in Mind for 1936). Reason is the good employment of thought, and thought both can and should adopt ends.
The idea that to trust reason is pride is, we now see, the idea that it is pride to try to use one of our powers as well as possible, namely the power of thinking. They might as well say that it is pride to try to run as fast as possible, or to preach a sermon as well as possible. Or perhaps they mean that we should use our power of thinking as well as possible to arrive at a conclusion, but then out of humility reject our result and believe instead what is told us by some authority. On the contrary, the doctrines of authorities should be considered before we reach our conclusion and weighed along with the other considerations before us. They are not opposed to reason but part of the evidence which reason weighs.
Any virtue may become an occasion of pride, for the peculiarity of the vice of pride is that it finds its opportunity precisely in the presence of a virtue. But the virtue called reason is not a necessary nor even a specially likely occasion of pride. On the contrary, the submission of our thought to criticism and argument and evidence is a great and good humility; for an important part of 'the worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion', as Whitehead has written (Adventures of Ideas, p. 105). This sort of humility is often conspicuously absent from those who depreciate reason.
It would be a very sad thing if the good employment of our power of thinking tended to atrophy feeling, but fortunately it does not. Brutality and schizophrenia tend to atrophy feeling; but reasonableness does not. It is true that the unreasonable man is often emotional in a way that the reasonable man is not; he tends to anger when contradicted. It is true also that reason tends to atrophy painful and harmful feelings; for good thinking includes reflecting upon the emotions, and deciding which are to be preferred, and training oneself accordingly. But the result of such reflection is not that we are to discourage all emotion. It is that we are to discourage anger and hate and gloom and envy and jealousy, but encourage love and pity and respect and joy and what may well be called the emotion of reasonableness, the sentiment of desiring to listen to both sides, and of enjoying taking one's decisions in the light of all available considerations. We tend wrongly to call it the work of reason only when we decide to discourage the emotion or repress the desire. It can also be the work of reason when we decide to encourage or gratify. Perhaps Plato is partly responsible for this misconception; his works have a tendency to suggest that the business of reason with the emotions is to suppress them all.
As to thinking 'with the blood', all thinking has to be done with the blood in any case. No one can think unless there is plenty of good blood in his brain. If this crass literalism exasperates some disciple of D. H. Lawrence into exclaiming that 'you know what I mean', the answer is that we know that he means that he demands the right to be dogmatic and listen to no argument, and he demands that we follow him blindly.
If you dislike my account of reason, do not because of that reject reason, but give a better account of it. I have recommended the pursuit of reasons and consistency, deductiveness and inductiveness, respect for evidence, tentativeness, and submission to criticism, because I think they are our most likely means of coming to hold true rather than false beliefs. And I have recommended selfcompatibility and impartiality and the rejection of misery because I think they are our most likely means of coming to good decisions. If you disagree, you should make your own account of what constitutes good thinking. You should not reject reason as such, because the word 'reason' is our name for the ideal of thinking, and our dignity as men demands that we conduct our power of thinking in the best possible way. Misology, the hatred of reason, is a great evil.
Love the virtue is the right habitual conduct of love the emotion.
I think we know well enough what we mean by 'the emotion of love'. It is an emotion arousable only towards persons or living things, though there is no definite limit to what somebody may regard as a living thing. The love that one may feel for wine is a different sense of the word.
Love the emotion is not sexual desire or excitement; but it is often produced by sexual desire. There is in the erotic impulse a tendency towards the furthering of all life that is characteristic of love; and Eros is the most philanthropic of the gods, as Plato made his 'Aristophanes' say. The tenderness that can ennoble desire is a form of love.
The elevation of the right conduct of this emotion into a great virtue is the work of the New Testament, and the greatest novelty in the history of morals. But in what does the right conduct of it consist?
The right conduct of love is, in the first place, the withering of hate. 'Love your enemies.' Hate is an undesirable emotion and is to be discouraged.
The right conduct of love is, in the second place, the creation of pleasant converse. To converse with other living things in amiable and pleasant association -- that is the end and essence of right love. The converse may be conversation, or silent being together, or stroking the dog, or working or playing together, or writing letters, or other. Love is primarily conversation. The loving man teaches himself to converse. That is not necessarily to talk and display himself, though some do this too little, and some wrongly despise it; but it is to be with others in understood and amiable communion.
The determined selfsacrificer will say with contempt that I have mistaken petty amiability for love. He is wrong, and he is a hindrance to the good life. The gospels emphasize selfsacrifice too much. 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends' (John xv. 13). If so, to show the greatest love one must have a friend. And that is my point. You do not get a friend by merely sacrificing yourself. People do not usually become friends with those they rescue from drowning at the risk of their own lives. You get a friend by creating loving converse. Selfsacrifice comes into our ideal of love, but its place is restricted. A person who is always sacrificing himself is destructive of everyone's happiness, except perhaps his own; and he creates no love.
Nor is love almsgiving, or 'charity' as that is sometimes wrongly called. 'The real love knows her neighbour face to face, and laughs with him and weeps with him, and eats and drinks with him, so that at last, when his black day dawns, she may share with him, not what she can spare, but all that she has.' Those fine words were written by Stella Benson (Living Alone, p. 92).
Nor is love even service. No doubt service, too, must come into our ideal of love. No doubt the loving person serves and helps. But the mere servant is colourless at best, and often a tyrant. He is the missionary, aiming at reforming you, a smug tyrant whom you cannot repulse in the ordinary way because he is shielded by his armour of religion. He is equally offensive whether he pities or reproves you. The duty of aiding persons in distress is not the same as the ideal of love.
If love is regarded merely as service, the problem how far to extend this service becomes pressing and unanswerable. Nearly all the world is worse off than you are; and everybody has his miseries and could do with some more help. Must you therefore devote all your energy to the service of other men? Yes, if love were primarily service. But no, because love is primarily conversation; and the point of service is to make happy conversation more frequent. The first task, therefore, which love lays on us is to be at least inoffensive, and if possible pleasing, to the other living things with whom we come in contact. Reasonable love demands pleasing converse with our neighbours rather than unpleasing service in Africa. No one should go to serve in slums unless he has good reason to think that he will be personally pleasing rather than repellent to those he is trying to serve. Daughters should not stay at home to look after parents unless they like it. We should seek to please rather than to serve.
The Christian story of Mary and Martha teaches the right ideal. Love lies in the conversation of Mary rather than in the service of Martha. It lies in the enjoyment of the being of other living things, and in friendly communication with them. It lies in amiability and in conversation, in personal relations. Service and selfsacrifice are secondary to this. They are that this may occur. It is for this that love does all those things Paul says it does (1 Cor. xiii), and also some others which he does not mention, including sympathizing, pitying, and imagining. It is for this that love is humble as Paul says it is, and not for the snobbish ends suggested by Luke (ix. 48 and xiv. 7-11). Love receives little children for the sake of converse with them, not in the hope of meeting a god. Love does not take a low seat at table in order to be put into a high one. It takes whatever seat seems most likely to contribute to loving converse at the meal.
A proper appreciation of the personal and conversational character of love sometimes leads people to repudiate the idea of loving the whole human race. They think that 'the human race is so big, so various, so little known, that no one can really love it' (James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1st ed., p. 289). But this may be going too far. Love is not to be confined to those whom we know and whose responses we can apprehend. It is good to say 'I wish you well' not merely to the unknown redcoat who turns his head as he marches by, but to the never seen, to the dead, to the unborn, and to the plant that never responds. What is true is that this love of the unknown and unknowable should always be an imagined extension of our communications with our intimates, rather than a service.
What mostly makes it hard to love living things is not their absence but the hatefulness of their presence. The ways of men and animals often strike us as too hateful to let us love them. As we grow older, men and women come to seem to us nastier and pettier, and full of pervasive and destructive defects. Hence the frequency of the complaint that 'I don't know what has come over people nowadays'. We must keep on fighting against the bitterness and disappointment that experience brings. It is necessary to bear in mind the maxim attributed to Helvetius, that if we are to love men we must expect little of them. Another helpful thought is that we seem as hateful to others as they do to us. Misanthropy, how inevitable soever, is still a great evil.
The only completely improper extension of love is its extension to the love of a god; and the New Testament's putting this first is a great defect in its formulation of the ideal. If there is a god, we should be on man's side against him; and in any case one cannot converse with a god. The doctrine that 'God is love' conflicts violently with other things that are said about him.
Though love is not service, it often commands service; and it is an unfortunate consequence of the New Testament's demand for love of a god that appeals for service are largely made in the name of a god, and that atheists are largely excluded from enterprises of service, or invited to join them under false auspices. Thus the great good of service under love is smeared with the dishonesty that widely infects theism; and the many people who reject theism are not properly mobilized for service. We need to remove the tendency to think that if you disbelieve in theism you reject service, and if you want to serve you must believe that there is a god. We need to put all service on a purely mortal ground, as do the societies against cruelty to children and animals.
So much for the great virtue of love.
Besides reason and love, there are many more habits of choice which we include in our ideal of man. There is, for example, the great sphere of selfdiscipline, which includes selfformation and selfcontrol. The habit of selfformation tends to be repudiated today in contrast to our Victorian ancestors who insisted on it rather pedantically. Their lists of moral exercises to be done daily, their diaries for recording and discussing moral progress, strike us as only comic now. But a middle way is required; for certainly it is desirable to take oneself consciously in hand, and make of oneself, by training and maxims and routine, the best character one can. There is a good brief suggestion of how to do this in the beginning of the fifth book of Spinoza's Ethics.
The other part of selfdiscipline is selfcontrol, and this we are still very conscious of. Selfcontrol divides into controlling ourselves against desire and pleasure, on the one hand, and against fear and pain, on the other. That is, it divides into temperance and courage. Both of them are always necessary, and both of them are goods.
Then there are indefinitely many other virtues, including generosity, industry, and taste or the pursuit of beauty. But there is only one of these further virtues that I wish to discuss, and that merely so far as to disagree with a certain estimate of its value. I mean the virtue of conscientiousness or morality. A conscientious man is 'one who when he deliberates always has (the idea of rightness) in his mind, and does not act until he believes that his action is right' (G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 179).
Conscientiousness is often considered the greatest of the virtues. Kant so represents it when, in the beginning of his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Ethics, he writes that 'there is nothing that can be held to be good without qualification except only a good will'; for by a good will he means one that always acts out of respect for the moral law. All other candidates for unconditional goodness can, he says, sometimes be 'evil and harmful' (böse und schädlich). The same estimate has been expressed by Sir David Ross, who writes: 'The infinite superiority of moral goodness to anything else is clearest in the case of the highest form of moral goodness, the desire to do one's duty' (The Right and the Good, p. 153).
Such an estimate of the value of conscientiousness often causes a man to take great interest in assigning moral praise and blame, and to busy himself in 'fixing the moral worth' of people and actions, as he is likely to put it, and in detecting as many outrages to conscience as possible. Thus Thomas Arnold prayed: 'May the sense of moral evil be as strong in me as my delight in external beauty, for in a deep sense of moral evil, more perhaps than in anything else, abides a saving knowledge of God' (according to Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians, p. 199).
Along with this estimate of the value of conscientiousness there usually goes an unbounded respect for conscience, which is regarded as sacredly uncriticizable. There also goes a terror of any future change in men's moral judgements, although it is recognized that they have changed in the past.
I dissent from this estimate of conscientiousness, and place it decidedly below reason and love in value. Kant's argument for it is a mistake. All other things, he says, can be evil and harmful, but the good will cannot. This is false. All the good wills that have ever existed or ever will exist have been harmful to some extent; for harmfulness, that is having some bad effects, belongs to everything whatever. The English nonconformists' tyrannous and harmful interference with the way other Englishmen spend their Sundays is done from conscientious motives. The massacre on Saint Bartholomew's Day was probably executed, on the part of many of those responsible, from conscientious motives. 'It is as certain as anything can be that very harmful actions may be done from conscientious motives' (G. E. Moore, op. cit., p. 180).
It is natural that conscience should be harmful sometimes, because conscience recks nothing of harm. It is an autonomous commander reckless of the consequences of its orders. It is by nature unreasoning and tyrannous. It gives orders without reasons, and rejects all requests for reasons.
The original conscience of any given individual in any given society is an historical accident, the result of the influences to which he has been subject. It is a set of taboos and compulsions, acquired from his associates in the same unreflecting way as all his other taboos and compulsions. It has only this much of reason in it, that rules of conscience which are very harmful tend by natural selection to be eliminated from a society in course of time, or else the whole society itself tends to be eliminated from the world because it has such bad rules of conscience. Hence there is some natural tendency for more beneficial and less harmful rules of conscience to reign in the world as history goes on; but it is a tendency that may easily be overcome at any time by other influences.
Autonomous morality can be a very low thing indeed. 'Most moralists are fools', said a frivolous writer with much excuse; I mean James Laver in Nymph Errant. A very serious writer, Alfred North Whitehead, has said that 'mankind has been afflicted with low-toned moralists' (Adventures of Ideas, p. 346). Sometimes a person writes to The Times to let us know with fatuous selfsatisfaction that her mother taught her, and she has always obeyed, some perfectly pointless moral rule. The moralizer far too easily becomes intolerant and even a bully. He may acquire the nasty habit of wanting to make people feel guilty. He does not realize that he is a tyrant, and has a perfectly good conscience about his behaviour.
We in England had and have far too much moralizing. As it has been put by one of the wisest members of my College, Matthew Arnold, the English middle class 'in the beginning of the seventeenth century entered ... the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned upon its spirit there for two hundred years They created a type of life and manners ... which is fatally condemned by its hideousness, its immense ennui, and against which the instinct of selfpreservation in humanity rebels.' He goes on to refer to the Puritan Parliament disposing of the National Gallery, and to Milton's abusiveness (Mixed Essays, p. 78).
Some persons would be inclined to accept this estimate of conscientiousness if they believed that Jesus also estimated it low. I suggest that he did. Morality to him was embodied in the rules of the Pharisees, which he often spoke against. 'The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath', he said as he broke one of their sabbatarian rules. The righteousness praised in Matthew's Beatitudes is probably not conscientiousness but piety. And his 'judge not, that ye be not judged' is a command not to take the moralizing point of view. The modern Christian's coupling of Christianity with the moralistic point of view is therefore a perversion of the founder's teaching. However, what Jesus subordinated conscientiousness to, namely the love of god and man, is not identical with what I subordinate it to, namely reason and the love of man.
Augustine subordinated conscientiousness to love in his famous Dilige et quod vis fac.
Conscience deserves no pious acceptance, and ought not to be worshipped as sacredly uncriticizable. 'It is as certain as anything can be ... that conscience does not always tell us the truth about what actions are right'. (G. E. Moore, op. cit., p. 180). Conscience ought to be reflectively criticized and critically adopted or rejected. One of the great merits of utilitarianism was its emphatic suggestion that perhaps ordinary moral consciousness is wrong in some respects (cf. J. S. Mill, On Liberty, introduction, para. 6). This merit comes out by contrast if you read F. H. Bradley's essay on 'Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake' (in his Ethical Studies), and see how hopelessly imbued he is with the sacred uncriticizability of actual conscience.
The terror of future change in men's moral judgements, as found in Plato (Laws 798) and in many twentieth-century writers, would be justified only if most changes in men's moral judgements were for the worse. Plato thought they were, and the task was to restore the past golden age of decency. But our contemporary conservatives have not this justification; for they share the present belief in progress to the extent of holding that in the past men's moral judgements have on the whole improved, and that in particular they took a big step forward with the teaching of Jesus.
Some persons, when invited to criticize conscience, reply that there is nothing to criticize it with. There is no rule by which to overrule the rules of conscience. But there is. The criterion of moral rules is their tendency to decrease misery. As Aristotle put it, 'the right (in one sense) is that which produces and maintains happiness and the parts of happiness for society' (N.E, 1129b18). All moral rules should be submitted to the criticism of reason to determine whether their reign in a given society tends to lessen misery there or not. If it does not lessen misery, it is bad and to be abolished. A moral rule is an interference with freedom, and all interferences with freedom are to be abolished unless they produce a more than compensating advantage. The man who puts morality above everything else is to be faced with the following question: If you became convinced that your moral rules, when they reign in a society, definitely make that society more miserable upon the whole, would you still demand obedience to them? If he says yes, then this moralist is immoral; for the highest morality is that the diminution of misery is the supreme law. Obey those moral rules, and only those, whose reign in society would, reasonable examination concludes, lessen misery. Rise from the plane of morality to that of reason. Contrary to Thomas Arnold, I hope that the sense of moral evil will decrease, and pity for life's unhappiness increase.
Conscientiousness must be subordinated to reason and love. When so subordinated, it is a great virtue, though inferior to them. The lessening of misery urgently demands rules, rules of good faith and sincerity and respect for others' lives and persons and troubles and so on; and the man of good will therefore seeks and obeys the rules whose reign lessens misery. Respect and awe towards the moral law, when the moral law is regarded as the rules whose general observance would most contribute to the happiness of society, is one of the sentiments that reason encourages.
Morality, then, is not to be autonomous but prescribed by reason. But, if we accept this doctrine, we need to remind ourselves that reason has to work, not with an ideal society, but with the actual society we have here now, including its actual set of moral laws, acknowledged to a certain degree, and obeyed to a certain other degree. It can happen that a rule, which would not exist in an ideal society, nevertheless ought to be obeyed by us in this society. Conversely, it can be irrational to follow here a rule that would be universally followed in an ideal society. For that which most lessens misery in view of the taboos we actually have, may be different from that which would most lessen misery if we had no taboos or better taboos. We usually can do little to change even our own taboos, and still less to change those of other people. Hence we must work with the taboos there are, and make the best rules in view of them. In this way many difficulties and doubts and complications arise, and it becomes important to know to what extent such and such a taboo could if we tried be removed from our society; and the question what is the right action comes to depend sometimes in a very awkward way on the question to what extent some existing moral rule is dying out, or whether deliberate defiance of it by you would or would not do anything towards making it die out. This is where the conservative moralist argues that your rebellion will never change a rule, but only make people disobey all moral rules more often, while the reformer calls for deliberate and shocking disobedience in the name of a better society. To take an actual and therefore dangerous example, the present horror of male homosexuality is possibly an irrational taboo, but in spite of that every young male ought to be protected and discouraged from homosexuality, simply because the existence of this powerful taboo means that the male homosexual is exposed to terrible and crippling disapproval, and driven to furtiveness.
So much for the doctrine that conscientiousness is not the greatest virtue, and that conscience should be criticized by reason and love. And so much for virtue in general.
2.81. Religion and reason
I come now to something commonly accepted as a great good which I reject, namely religion.
Religion has held a big place in the thoughts and feelings of most of the human beings who have yet lived; and, though some have found it an inescapable evil, most have found it a great good. The founder of the Gifford lectures said that 'religion is of all things the most excellent and precious' (according to Sherrington, Man on his Nature, p. 360).
The religious man feels that his god is the supreme good, and the worship of him is the supreme good for man; and he obtains an immense satisfaction in worship and obedience. His creed gives him the feeling that the universe is important and that he has his own humble but important part in it. 'God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year'; and in this august enterprise the believer has an assured place. When he says that 'man cannot be at ease in the world unless he has a faith to sustain him', the faith he is thinking of is in part that there is something extremely important to do. Thus his religion lays that spectre of futility and meaninglessness, which man's selfconsciousness and thoughtfulness are always liable to raise. The convert says to himself, in the words at the end of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'My whole life, every moment of my life, will be, not meaningless as before, but full of deep meaning, which I shall have power to impress on every action.' The great comfort of such a belief is obvious.
But this is still less than half of the comfort religion can give. For it is not yet an answer to man's greatest horror, the death of his loved ones and himself. If his religion also makes him believe that death is not the end of life, that on the contrary he and his loved ones will live for ever in perfect justice and happiness, this more than doubles his feeling of comfort and security. This doctrine of the happy survival of death is the chief attraction of the Christian religion to most of its adherents; and their first profound religious belief comes to them as a reassurance after their first realization that they are going to die. It is an easy defensive reaction against this terrible discovery. (This point is well put by Bergson in Les Deux Sources, &c., e.g. p, 137.)
Such is the enormous comfort that religion can give. Because of it a man who deprives the people of the comfort of believing 'in the final proportions of eternal justice' is often regarded as a 'cruel oppressor, the merciless enemy of the poor and wretched' (Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the French Revolution', Works, v. 432).
But is it a cruel oppression to preach atheism? There is a sinister suggestion in this idea, namely the suggestion that we ought to preach religion whether or not it is true, and that we ought not to estimate rationally whether it is true, which implies that truth is below comfort in value.
It seems to me that religion buys its benefits at too high a price, namely at the price of abandoning the ideal of truth and shackling and perverting man's reason. The religious man refuses to be guided by reason and evidence in a certain field, the theory of the gods, theology. He does not say: 'I believe that there is a god, but I am willing to listen to argument that I am mistaken, and I shall be glad to learn better.' He does not seek to find and adopt the more probable of the two contradictories, 'there is a god' and 'there is no god'. On the contrary, he makes his choice between those two propositions once for all. He is determined never to revise his choice, but to believe that there is a god no matter what the evidence. The secretary of the Christian Evidence Society wrote to The Times (19 March 1953) and said: 'When demand is made upon devout Christians to produce evidence in justification of their intense faith in God they are apt to feel surprised, pained, and even disgusted that any such evidence should be considered necessary.' That is true. Christians do not take the attitude of reasonable inquiry towards the proposition that there is a god. If they engage in discussion on the matter at all, they seek more often to intimidate their opponent by expressing shock or disgust at his opinion, or disapproval of his character. They take the view that to hold the negative one of these two contradictories is a moral crime. They make certain beliefs wicked as such, without reference to the question whether the man has reached them sincerely and responsibly. This view, that certain beliefs are as such wicked, is implied in these two sentences in John's gospel (xvi. 8-9 and xx. 29): 'He will reprove the world of sin ... because they believe not on me', and 'Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed'. There is an extensive example of this attitude in Newman's fifteenth sermon.
Along with the view that certain beliefs are as such wicked there often goes, naturally, the view that it is wicked to try to persuade a person to hold certain beliefs. The believer's complaint, you are undermining my faith', implies that it is wrong as such to try to convince a man that there is no god. It implies that whether one believes the proposition or not, and whether one has a good reason to believe it or not, are irrelevant, because it is just wrong in itself to recommend this proposition. This view is contrary to the search for truth and the reasonable attitude of listening to argument and guiding oneself thereby.
If theology were a part of reasonable inquiry, there would be no objection to an atheist's being a professor of theology. That a man's being an atheist is an absolute bar to his occupying a chair of theology proves that theology is not an openminded and reasonable inquiry. Someone may object that a professor should be interested in his subject and an atheist cannot be interested in theology. But a man who maintains that there is no god must think it a sensible and interesting question to ask whether there is a god; and in fact we find that many atheists are interested in theology. Professor H. D. Lewis tells (Philosophy, 1952, p. 347) that an old lady asked him what philosophy is, and, when he had given an answer, she said: 'O I see, theology.' She was nearly right, for theology and philosophy have the same subject-matter. The difference is that in philosophy you are allowed to come out with whichever answer seems to you the more likely.
In most universities the title of theology includes a lot of perfectly good science which is not theory of god, and which I do not reject, I mean the scientific study of the history of the Jews and their languages and their religious books. All that can be reasonable study, and usually is so. But it is a hindrance to the progress of knowledge that we are largely organized for research in such a way that a man cannot be officially paid to engage in these branches of research unless he officially maintains that there is a god. It is as if a man could not be a professor of Greek unless he believed in Zeus and Apollo.
Religious persons often consider gambling to be a bad thing. It certainly causes a great deal of misery. But much of the badness of gambling consists in its refusal to face the probabilities and be guided by them; and in the matter of refusing to face the probabilities religion is a worse offender than gambling, and does more harm to the habits of reason. Religious belief is, in fact, a form of gambling, as Pascal saw. It does more harm to reason than ordinary gambling does, however, because it is more in earnest.
It has been said that the physicist has just as closed a mind about cause as the Christian has about god. The physicist assumes through thick and thin that everything happens according to causal laws. He presupposes cause, just as the Christian presupposes god.
But the physicist does not assume that there is a reign of law; he hopes that there is. He looks for laws; but, whenever a possible law occurs to him, he conscientiously tries to disprove it by all reasonable tests. He asserts at any time only such laws as seem at that time to have passed all reasonable tests, and he remains always prepared to hear of new evidence throwing doubt on those laws. This is far from the Christian attitude about god. The Christian does not merely hope that there is a god and maintain only such gods as the best tests have shown to be more probable than improbable.
The main irrationality of religion is preferring comfort to truth; and it is this that makes religion a very harmful thing on balance, a sort of endemic disease that has so far prevented human life from reaching its full stature. For the sake of comfort and security religion is prepared to sophisticate thought and language to any degree. For the sake of comfort and security there pours out daily, from pulpit and press, a sort of propaganda which, if it were put out for a non-religious purpose, would be seen by everyone to be cynical and immoral. We are perpetually being urged to adopt the Christian creed not because it is true but because it is beneficial, or to hold that it must be true just because belief in it is beneficial. 'The Christian faith', we are assured, 'is a necessity for a fully adjusted personality' (a psychiatrist in the Radio Times for 20 March 1953, p. 33). Hardly a week passes without someone recommending theism on the ground that if it were believed there would be much less crime; and this is a grossly immoral argument. Hardly a week passes without someone recommending theism on the ground that unless it is believed the free nations will succumb to the Communists; and that is the same grossly immoral argument. It is always wicked to recommend anybody to believe anything on the ground that he or anybody else will feel better or be more moral or successful for doing so, or on any ground whatever except that the available considerations indicate that it is probably true. The pragmatic suggestion, that we had better teach the Christian religion whether it is true or not, because people will be much less criminal if they believe it, is disgusting and degrading; but it is being made to us all the time, and it is a natural consequence of the fundamental religious attitude that comfort and security must always prevail over rational inquiry.
This pragmatic fallacy is not the only fallacy into which religion is frequently led by preferring comfortingness to truth, though it is the main one. The religious impulse encourages all the fallacies. It encourages the argument ad hominem, that is the argument that my adversary's view must be false because he is a wicked man: the atheist is impious, therefore he is wicked, therefore his view is false. Religion encourages also the argument from ignorance: instead of rejecting a proposition if it is probably false, the religious man thinks himself entitled to accept it because it is not certainly false. Biased selection of the instances is also very common in religious language. Any case of a man getting his wish after praying for it, or being struck by lightning after doing something mean, is taken as good evidence that there is a god who gives and punishes. Contrary cases are not looked for; and if they obtrude themselves they are dealt with by the further hypothesis that 'God's ways are inscrutable'. Religious arguments even exhibit, very often, what seems the most fallacious possible fallacy, namely inferring a theory from something that contradicts the theory. Thus we often find: 'since no explanation is final, God is the final explanation'; and 'since everybody believes in God, you are wrong not to believe in God'.
I have been saying that religion is gravely infected with intellectual dishonesty. You may find this very unlikely for a general reason. You may think it very unlikely that such widespread dishonesty would go unnoticed. I do not think so. I think, on the contrary, that it is quite common for a moral defect to pervade a certain sphere and yet escape notice in that sphere, although the people concerned are wide awake to its presence in other places. I think there are plenty of other cases of this. One of them is that the English, who are greater haters of the bully and the might-is-right man, nevertheless bully and intimidate each other when driving a motor-car. They know that power does not confer any right, but they assume that horse-power does. Life is full of such inconsistencies, because we can never see all the implications and applications of our principles. In religion it is particularly easy for intellectual dishonesty to escape notice, because of the common assumption that all honesty flows from religion and religion is necessarily honest whatever it does.
According to Christianity one of the great virtues is faith. Paul gave faith a commanding position in the Christian scheme of values, along with hope and love, in the famous thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Thomas Aquinas held that infidelity is a very great sin, that infidels should be compelled to believe, that heretics should not be tolerated, and that heretics who revert to the true doctrine and then relapse again should be received into penitence, but killed (Summa Theologica, 2-2. 1-16).
According to me this is a terrible mistake, and faith is not a virtue but a positive vice. More precisely, there is, indeed, a virtue often called faith but that is not the faith which the Christians make much of. The true virtue of faith is faith as opposed to faithlessness, that is, keeping faith and promises and being loyal. Christian faith, however, is not opposed to faithlessness but to unbelief. It is faith as some opposite of unbelief that I declare to be a vice.
When we investigate what Christians mean by their peculiar use of the word 'faith'. I think we come to the remarkable conclusion that all their accounts of it are either unintelligible or false. Their most famous account is that in Heb. xi. 1: 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' This is obviously unintelligible. In any case, it does not make faith a virtue, since neither a substance nor an evidence can be a virtue. A virtue is a praiseworthy habit of choice, and neither a substance nor an evidence can be a habit of choice. When a Christian gives an intelligible account of faith, I think you will find that it is false. I mean that it is not a true dictionary report of how he and other Christians actually use the word. For example, Augustine asked: 'What is faith but believing what you do not see?' (Joannis Evang. Tract., c. 40, § 8). But Christians do not use the word 'faith' in the sense of believing what you do not see. You do not see thunder; but you cannot say in the Christian sense 'have faith that it is thundering', or 'I have faith that it has thundered in the past and will again in the future'. You do not see mathematical truths; but you cannot say in the Christian sense 'have faith that there is no greatest number'. If we take Augustine's 'see' to stand here for 'know', still it is false that Christians use the word 'faith' to mean believing what you do not know, for they would never call it faith if anyone believed that the sun converts hydrogen into helium, although he did not know it.
A good hint of what Christians really mean by their word 'faith' can be got by considering the proposition: 'Tom Paine had faith that there is no god.' Is this a possible remark, in the Christian sense of the word 'faith'? No, it is an impossible remark, because it is selfcontradictory, because part of what Christians mean by 'faith' is belief that there is a god.
There is more to it than this. Christian faith is not merely believing that there is a god. It is believing that there is a god no matter what the evidence on the question may be. Have faith, in the Christian sense, means 'make yourself believe that there is a god without regard to evidence.' Christian faith is a habit of flouting reason in forming and maintaining one's answer to the question whether there is a god. Its essence is the determination to believe that there is a god no matter what the evidence may be.
No wonder that there is no true and intelligible account of faith in Christian literature. What they mean is too shocking to survive exposure. Faith is a great vice, an example of obstinately refusing to listen to reason, something irrational and undesirable, a form of selfhypnotism. Newman wrote that 'if we but obey God strictly, in time (through His blessing) faith will become like sight' (Sermon XV). This is no better than if he had said: 'Keep on telling yourself that there is a god until you believe it. Hypnotize yourself into this belief.'
It follows that, far from its being wicked to undermine faith, it is a duty to do so. We ought to do what we can towards eradicating the evil habit of believing without regard to evidence.
The usual way of recommending faith is to point out that belief and trust are often rational or necessary attitudes. Here is an example of this from Newman: 'To hear some men speak, (I mean men who scoff at religion), it might be thought we never acted on Faith or Trust, except in religious matters; whereas we are acting on trust every hour of our lives.... We trust our memory ... the general soundness of our reasoning powers.... Faith in (the) sense of reliance on the words of another as opposed to trust in oneself ... is the common meaning of the word' (Sermon XV).
The value of this sort of argument is as follows. It is certainly true that belief and trust are often rational. But it is also certainly true that belief and trust are often irrational. We have to decide in each case by rational considerations whether to believe and trust or not. Sometimes we correctly decide not to trust our memory on some point, but to look the matter up in a book. Sometimes even we correctly decide not to trust our own reason, like poor Canning deciding he was mad because the Duke of Wellington told him he was. But Christian faith is essentially a case of irrational belief and trust and decision, because it consists in deciding to believe and trust the proposition that there is a god no matter what the evidence may be.
Another common way to defend Christian faith is to point out that we are often obliged to act on something less than knowledge and proof. For example, Newman writes: 'Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences; we shall never have done beginning if we determine to begin with proof. Life is for action. If we insist on proof for everything, we shall never come to action; to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith (Assent, p 92).
The value of this argument is as follows. It is true that we are often unable to obtain knowledge and proof. But it does not follow that we must act on faith, for faith is belief reckless of evidence and probability. It follows only that we must act on some belief that does not amount to knowledge. This being so, we ought to assume, as our basis for action, those beliefs which are more probable than their contradictories in the light of the available evidence. We ought not to act on faith, for faith is assuming a certain belief without reference to its probability.
There is an ambiguity in the phrase 'have faith in' that helps to make faith look respectable. When a man says that he has faith in the president he is assuming that it is obvious and known to everybody that there is a president, that the president exists, and he is asserting his confidence that the president will do good work on the whole. But, if a man says he has faith in telepathy, he does not mean that he is confident that telepathy will do good work on the whole, but that he believes that telepathy really occurs sometimes, that telepathy exists. Thus the phrase 'to have faith in x' sometimes means to be confident that good work will be done by x, who is assumed or known to exist, but at other times means to believe that x exists. Which does it mean in the phrase 'have faith in God'? It means ambiguously both; and the selfevidence of what it means in the one sense recommends what it means in the other sense. If there is a perfectly powerful and good god it is selfevidently reasonable to believe that he will do good. In this sense 'have faith in God' is a reasonable exhortation. But it insinuates the other sense, namely 'believe that there is a perfectly powerful and good god, no matter what the evidence'. Thus the reasonableness of trusting God if he exists is used to make it seem also reasonable to believe that he exists. It is well to remark here that a god who wished us to decide certain questions without regard to the evidence would definitely not be a perfectly good god.
Even when a person is aware that faith is belief without regard to evidence, he may be led to hold faith respectable by the consideration that we sometimes think it good for a man to believe in his friend's honesty in spite of strong evidence to the contrary, or for a woman to believe in her son's innocence in spite of strong evidence to the contrary. But, while we admire and love the love that leads the friend or parent to this view, we do not adopt or admire his conclusion unless we believe that he has private evidence of his own, gained by his long and intimate association, to outweigh the public evidence on the other side. Usually we suppose that his love has led him into an error of judgement, which both love and hate are prone to do.
This does not imply that we should never act on a man's word if we think he is deceiving us. Sometimes we ought to act on a man's word although we privately think he is probably lying. For the act required may be unimportant, whereas accusing a man of lying is always important. But there is no argument from this to faith. We cannot say that sometimes we ought to believe a proposition although we think it is false!
So I conclude that faith is a vice and to be condemned. As Plato said, 'It is unholy to abandon the probably true' (Rp. 607 c). Out of Paul's 'faith, hope, and love' I emphatically accept love and reject faith. As to hope, it is more respectable than faith. While we ought not to believe against the probabilities, we are permitted to hope against them. But still the Christian overtones of hope are otherworldly and unrealistic. It is better to take a virtue that avoids that. Instead of faith, hope, and love, let us hymn reason, love, and joy.
What is the application of this to the common phrase 'a faith to live by'? A faith to live by is not necessarily a set of beliefs or valuations maintained without regard to evidence in an irrational way. The phrase can well cover also a criticized and rational choice of values. To decide, for example, that the pursuit of love is better than the pursuit of power, in view of the probable effects of each on human happiness and misery, and to guide one's actions accordingly, is a rational procedure, and is sometimes called and may well be called 'a faith to live by'. In this case a faith to live by is a choice of values, a decision as to great goods and evils, and is what I am doing in these lectures. On the other hand, many 'faiths to live by' are irrational and bad. Some people will not count anything as a faith to live by unless it deliberately ignores rational considerations; so that what they will consent to call a faith to live by must always be something that is bad according to me. Other people refuse to count anything as a faith to live by unless it includes a belief that the big battalions are on their side, so that according to them a man who rationally concludes that he is not the darling of any god by definition has no faith to live by.
2.83 There is no god or afterlife
Good evaluation has to be made in the light of good judgement as to what the facts are, what our situation is. Among the questions of fact on which it is important to have a right judgement are the questions whether there is a god and whether there is a life after death. My answer to each of these questions is 'No'. Ought I to give you the considerations on which I base these answers? That is a hard choice, because, on the one hand, it seems wrong to offer no reasons on these immensely important questions, but, on the other hand, all imaginable reasons have already been exhaustively discussed by both sides for centuries, and we are perfectly sick of them. I have concluded that I had better give something on this topic, but make it merely a brief indication.
Whether there is a god, and whether there is a life after death, are questions of existence, of what there is or what happens. They are not questions of mathematics, nor questions of law or necessary connexion. They are like the questions whether there is a tribe of people on the Amazon who eat their parents, and whether there are flying saucers. They cannot be answered by mathematical proofs, but only by travellers' reports, or at any rate by something far more like a traveller's report than a mathematical proof.
Mathematical proofs can show non-existence but they cannot show existence. (They can show that there 'exists' a prime number greater than the millionth power of ten. But that is another sense of 'exists'. It is not the natural existence in time or place that I am speaking of.) For mathematics can only show that certain conceptions are selfcontradictory and others are not. If a conception is selfcontradictory, as is the round square, that shows that nothing of the sort exists. But if a conception is selfconsistent, as is the round area, that does not show whether anything of the sort exists. Thus mathematics may be able to show that certain conceptions of god or immortality are selfcontradictory and therefore nothing of the kind exists. But, if there is any selfconsistent conception of god or immortality, mathematics will not show in the least whether anything fulfilling this conception exists.
In the Christian religion, though perhaps not in any other, we frequently find a conception of god that is selfcontradictory and therefore corresponds to nothing. That is the conception formed by the following three propositions taken together:1. God is all-powerful.A god who was all-powerful but left much misery in the world would not be all-benevolent. An all-benevolent god in a world containing much misery would not be an all-powerful god. A world containing a god who was both all-powerful and all-benevolent would contain no misery.
2. God is all-benevolent.
3. There is much misery in the world.
Here, then, we have a mathematical proof bearing on a common religious doctrine. Anyone who is confident that he frequently comes across misery in the world may conclude with equal confidence that there is no such thing as an all-powerful and all-benevolent god. And this mathematically disposes of official Christianity, as has long been known (though people have fought endlessly against it by means of the doctrine of free will).
That, however, is as far as mathematics takes us. (And even there we are relying also on our judgement and experience to get the conclusion that misery does occur.) When we turn to consider all the selfconsistent conceptions of gods and devils and angels that have been invented or might be invented, mathematics gives us no help, and we are confronted with the truth that anything whatever might exist so long as it is selfconsistent.
In order to decide what does exist, among all the things that might exist because they are selfconsistent, we have to use our judgement on the reports and experiences available to us. It is a question of using the judgement, of deciding judiciously between the two contradictories; and more than half the battle consists in getting oneself into a sincerely judicious frame of mind and out of the injudicious determination to believe the affirmative answer if one possibly can. The rest of it consists in learning by experience what kinds of inference are reliable in questions of existence. For, whereas in mathematics we learn by logic what kinds of inference are valid, in questions of fact we learn only by experience what kinds of inference are ludicrous. Only experience has taught us that, for example, when a person looks at a police line-up and says confidently that 'this is the man who attacked me', she is sometimes wrong.
What is good evidence for the presence or existence of a person, and have we such evidence for the existence of a superhuman person?
Suppose you wish to decide what kinds of mammal exist. You collect your memories of mammals you have seen. You collect zoologists' descriptions of mammals they have seen. You collect travellers' accounts. And so on. You try to judge which of these you should accept and which you should reject. 'I am sure I remember seeing a panther, but do I really remember seeing something called an "ocelot", or was that a dream? I am sure the reports of okapis in the Congo are true, but can I trust the reports of abominable snowmen in the Himalayas? Among travellers I judge that X is nearly always both honest and correct, Y is always honest but often incorrect, and Z is plain dishonest.' All this is clearly fallible, however copious our information and however much we compare and counter-check. But nothing better can possibly be found. And there are plenty of cases where the judicious man properly comes to a confident judgement as to whether a given thing exists.
Suppose now that instead of mammals I wish to make a list of all the gods there are. Here again I can only rely on my own memories, the reports of travellers, the accounts of scientists, and so on. The scientists in this case will not be zoologists but theologians, prophets, mediums, psychical researchers. Again I have to judge which of their reports to accept, which of them are both honest and aware of the dangers of error, and so on.
Many of their reports have the remarkable feature that they tell us that the god they have experienced is the only god who exists. There is nothing like this in the case of mammals. No one comes back from the Congo and tells us that the kind of mammal he saw there is the only kind of mammal there is. These reports must be unjustified because experience cannot tell us that there is only one of a certain sort in the whole universe. If you carefully examine the whole of this room you will perhaps be justified in declaring that there is one and only one Scotsman in this room. But, since you cannot examine the whole of the universe, you cannot justifiably tell us that there is one and only one god in the universe.
Many of these reports tell us of a god who is infinite or perfect. They must be unjustified, because one cannot experience infinity or perfection. However long a time I may have experienced I have not experienced infinite time. However much goodness I have experienced from a person, I have not experienced infinite goodness or perfection at his hands. It is only a finite god that we could have evidence for. Have we good evidence for such?
All of these reports have the remarkable feature that they tell us that the gods are experienced and yet not perceived. One may, it is said, sometimes perceive manifestations of the gods, visions, miracles, and, of course, images. One may also perceive a man and infer from the miracles he does that he is also a god. But one cannot perceive the god directly with eyes or ears. And yet one experiences him. Experience without perception is, of course, usually a mark of the subjective; what I experience without the aid of perception is primarily my own inner life, my thoughts and imaginations and moods and so on. But we are told that there is also experience without perception of at least one kind of objective reality, namely god or the gods.
This universal feature of the reports makes them all incredible. That is not because a claim to have experience of other persons without perception of them is always to be declared false. It is because such claims require confirmation by subsequent perception, and there is no evidential value in such a claim if it is never confirmed by perception. Even if experience without perception were good evidence, there would be nothing to show that the various believers were all experiencing the same god. A hundred people all having religious experience at the same time in the same church might each be in communication with a different god, since no god ever presents himself to their bodily perception for them to see whether they are talking about the same person.
What about inferring the existence of a god, as opposed to experiencing him? Sometimes we properly and correctly infer the existence of a person in a house, although we do not perceive anyone there. Can we similarly infer the existence of a god in the universe, although we do not perceive one? No, we cannot. The fundamental defect of all such inferences is that they require perceptual confirmation and they never get it. Inferences that there is someone in the house are sometimes confirmed by subsequently seeing him. If they never were confirmed by subsequent perception they would never be proper. But inferences from something or other to the conclusion that there is a god in the universe are never confirmed by subsequently seeing him here.
In the early days of Christianity the favourite phenomenon from which to infer the existence of a god was miracles. But the inference is worthless. It is worthless to monotheists, because all religions have their miracles, so that if miracles were good evidence for one god they would be good evidence for all the gods. It is worthless to every judicious reasoner. For a miracle is an event which astounds us by seeming to contradict the laws of nature. But our being astounded proves nothing but our ignorance. And if an event really contradicts what we thought was a law of nature, that just shows that we were wrong about the laws of nature. We very often are wrong about the laws of nature. They are not to be known by instinct, but only by the endless labours of science.
Another phenomenon from which people infer the existence of an unperceived god is the multitude of convinced and sincere testifiers. 'How could all those intelligent and honest men be mistaken?' This inference is also worthless. If we took the existence of a multitude of convinced and sincere testifiers as good evidence for a belief, we should have to believe not in one religion but in all the conflicting religions that have obtained; we should have to believe both that the sun goes round the earth and that the earth goes round the sun; we should have to believe both that the world ended at several different dates in the past and also that it is still going on; for it is a characteristic of Christianity that from its beginning down to at earliest 1900 it has produced groups of earnest persons who were convinced that the world was going to end within ten years. In 1846, for example, the Irvingites were convinced that the world was going to end in 1847. They were sober and intelligent persons living in London. They included the solicitor to Rugby School, and the banker who founded the chair of political economy in Oxford University. No one is a good reasoner about matters of fact until he has realized that it is very common for a gross falsehood to be firmly and sincerely believed by a great number of superior persons, and that therefore there is nothing in the argument from the consensus of mankind.
Another phenomenon from which many have inferred that there is an unperceived god is the designedness of the world. Since the world is designed, they have thought, it must have a designer. Here it is not the inference that is injudicious but the premiss. The world does not appear to be designed. Little bits of it appear to be designed from time to time, but as a whole it strongly appears not to be designed. When lightning kills a mean bully and leaves his victim unharmed beside him, that looks like somebody's design; but the complete picture of all the lightning-damage in a given country in a given century looks very undesigned.
Recently it has become common to infer that there is a god from the phenomenon of conscience. Human beings have consciences, uninferred convictions that certain kinds of action are wrong, and they feel guilty if they do an action belonging to one of these kinds. This phenomenon, it is thought, could only be caused by a god. But to lay it down that a certain phenomenon can only be caused by a certain something is to claim to know the laws of cause and effect by instinct and without inquiry. No one knows by instinct what the laws of nature are; they have to be laboriously hunted and proved by experiment. Since experiment is largely forbidden on human beings, the laws of human nature are particularly difficult to find; but the phenomenon of 'wolf children', that is human children brought up by wolves without contact with human beings, suggests, so far as I have read the reports, that conscience is caused by association with other human beings.
All the evidence and argument offered for the existence of a god, is, I judge, injudicious, in so far as we mean by a 'god' a superhuman person, and do not use the word as a mere question-mark to indicate an unknown something or other. I have shown briefly what seems to me the badness of some of the common reasons given for believing that there is a god. The eternal persistence with which people bring forward these bad arguments is probably caused by our need for the comfort and security of having a perfectly reliable father. This need often seduces us into very bad methods of argument. For example, some people will be tempted to sneer at the brevity and simplicity of these remarks of mine, saying loftily that the question of religion is not to be settled in five minutes. The question of religion will, indeed, probably never be settled. That is, there will probably never be universal agreement about it. But arguments about it are better when they are short than when they are long. Long arguments should always be suspected of being designed to intimidate or hypnotize rather than to explain. And we should reject the common assumption that no one has a right to assert atheism unless he asserts it at great length with great learning. If, however, anyone wishes for a longer statement of my position, there are plenty in existence. I will mention only David Hume's essay on miracles and his Dialogue concerning Natural Religion.
And now as to life after death. Endless life after death would be a form of infinity, and for actual infinities there can be no good evidence. But is there good evidence for any life after death?
A great deal of the evidence offered for life after death depends on the doctrine that there is a god, and is valueless because that doctrine is false. However, some people have believed that there is no god and yet is an afterlife; and spiritualists and mediums offer us evidence of survival independent of the question whether there is a god. I have never attended a spiritualist performance, but I have read some of their reports. I think I can safely say that no afterlife of any difference in quality from this life has been reported, and no afterlife of any interest. The stuff they offer us is deadly dull. However, it might be true for all that. Homer believed that there is an afterlife and it is deadly dull.
I judge that it is false, and that all these reports of messages from the dead are false. (By which I do not mean that they are all frauds or lies. No doubt many of them are sincere. It is desirable to repeat from time to time that a falsehood is not the same as a lie. A falsehood can be sincerely uttered, and a lie can be true.) These reports have the pattern of inventions, the vagueness, the poverty, the similarity to each other, the comfortingness, and the insistence on circumstances that make criticism difficult, such as darkness and reverence.
My main reason for thinking there is no afterlife is that it seems immensely probable that everything we know as life depends on there being a living body. All that part of life which consists in the activity of a living body selfevidently depends on there being a living body, for example, eating, tasting, running, laughing, kissing. The life that does not selfevidently depend on there being a living body is the interior life of the mind, including reasoning, imagining, dreaming, and other activities and experiences. But it seems quite clear that we have overwhelming physiological evidence that this mental life, too, depends on the activity of a living body, and ceases when there is no longer a good brain with good blood flowing through it in the right quantity.
For this reason I am confident that there is no life after death. However, no one who believes that there is a life after death will be disappointed, because, if there is no life after death, he will not be alive to be disappointed. Only those who believe that there is no life after death can possibly find that experience disproves their answer to this question.
So much for the questions whether there is an afterlife and whether there is a god, on our answers to which a great deal of our evaluations and actions should depend. One thing, however, which should not depend on these answers is our evaluation of religion as we know it now and have known it in the past. Religion as it has so far appeared is upon the whole a bad thing whether or not there is a god or an afterlife, because it is a fundamental rejection of the ideals of truth and reason.
2.84. Religion and reasons for morality
It is often held that religion is the only basis for ethics, that only religion can show a good reason why we should obey any moral laws, and only religion can make us in fact obey them. People holding this view tend to regard the assertion of atheism as an attempt to undermine the morality of the nation; hence they try to prevent atheism from being recommended on the B.B.C., in which they are almost completely successful.
It is false that religion is the only basis for ethics. If we had to choose between the two sweeping assertions 'religion is the only basis for ethics' and 'religion is not a basis for ethics at all', the latter would be preferable. Religion is in fact not a proper basis for ethics at all.
What is a basis for ethics? The phrase refers either to reasons for the moral law, or to causes which make people keep the moral law. It means either that the only good reasons to justify the moral law are religious reasons, or that the only stimulus which effectively causes people to obey the moral law is religion, or both. Let us consider each of these in turn, beginning with reasons. Does religion provide good reasons for the moral law, and does it provide the only good reasons for it?
Let us divide reasons into entailing and non-entailing reasons. An entailing reason for a moral law is one that entails it. A non-entailing reason for a moral law is one that does not entail it but nevertheless seems to somebody to be a good reason for it.
It has been made perfectly clear that there can be no entailing reason for a moral law except another moral law. Probably the first person to point this out unmistakably was H. A. Prichard in his article in Mind for 1911, 'Does Moral Philosophy rest on a Mistake?' (reprinted in his Moral Obligation). A sentence beginning 'thou shalt' or 'thou shalt not', or containing the words 'ought' or 'ought not' or 'right' or 'wrong', can be entailed only by a sentence also containing one of these expressions. For example, the sentence 'thou shalt not kill' is not entailed by any of the following: 'there is a god who hates killing', 'there is a god who punishes killing with eternal fire', and 'there is a god who is our father and commands us not to kill'. None of these is an entailing reason for the law that 'thou shalt not kill'. The following, however, is an entailing reason for this law: God commands us not to kill and thou shalt do whatever God commands.' This is an entailing reason because it contains a 'thou shalt', and therefore is itself a moral law. A moral law can be entailed by a sentence about a god only if that sentence is itself a moral law. It cannot be entailed by a sentence which merely informs us that there is a god, and what his commands are. The moral laws as a whole are not and never will be entailed by anything. In other words, there is a good sense in which ethics has no basis and cannot have a basis. There is a good sense in which there is no such thing as 'the foundations of morality'. Mr. Hare stated this point very clearly, with special reference to Christian thought, in Philosophy for 1950, p. 376.
There could be a man who said: 'There is one and only one moral law, and it is that we ought to do whatever God commands.' If this man believed it possible to discover what his god did command he could then go on to discover it and do it; and he would then be acting morally because he would be acting under a moral law, a sentence with an 'ought' in it. There could be another man who said: 'I am determined to devote myself utterly to God, and to do whatever he commands.' If he also believed that it was possible to find out what his god commanded, he, like the former man, could go on to discover it and do it. But unlike the former man he would not be acting morally, because he would be acting from a principle which contained no 'ought' and no 'thou shalt', but merely said 'I will'. His procedure would be like that of a man who gives up trying to do right and tries instead to please his mistress. He would simply have taken a god for his mistress. To devote oneself utterly to a divine being, and decide to do everything he ordered, would not be to base ethics, but to abandon it and substitute another way of living. We get an entailing religious basis for ethics only if we adopt the moral law that we ought to do whatever our god commands.
Now let us turn to non-entailing reasons for moral laws. There could be, and no doubt there is, a logically minded theist who agrees that religion can provide no entailing reason for the moral laws, but says that it can provide a good non-entailing reason for them, and nothing else can do that. The only good non-entailing reason for the moral laws, he may say, is that there is a god who commands us to obey them and will burn us eternally if we do not. Contrast this with my view that the only good reason for a moral law is that its reign in a society substantially decreases misery in that society.
If it really were probable that we should burn eternally, or not burn eternally, according as we disobeyed or obeyed a certain set of moral laws, that would, indeed, be an excellent reason for obeying them. But, while it would be an excellent reason for obeying them, it would be a poor reason for respecting them, or regarding them as worthy of reverence and awe. On the contrary they, and the god who imposed them on us in this unbelievably brutal way, could only be regarded as beneath contempt. And in fact it is very improbable that hell-fire exists, or that an afterlife at all exists. And we have only very poor evidence indeed that there is a god of any kind, and yet enormously poorer evidence as to what his commands and threats are if he does exist. And it is always possible that, if he exists and ordains certain laws, these laws are in conflict with those that would do most to lessen misery on earth. Because of these facts the religious reason for obeying the moral laws is a very poor reason. On the other hand, we can hope to get good evidence whether obeying a certain set of laws does or does not substantially decrease misery in a given society; and hence, if we take the decrease of misery as the criterion of a right moral law, we are likely to be able to form a reasonably probable opinion as to what the right moral laws are.
People talk disapprovingly of 'moral anarchy'. This phrase 'moral anarchy' is always a muddle, and should be given up. If it refers to the fact that people often disobey the moral laws, it is a bad way of referring to it. Correct phrases for the purpose are 'immorality', 'wickedness', 'disobedience to the moral law', and many others. If it refers to the fact that people disagree to some extent as to what moral rules should be obeyed, that is not something for disapproval; two people can disagree without either of them being reprehensible. If it refers to the fact that no government on earth is trying to enforce legally all the recognized moral rules, it refers to something that is to be approved, not disapproved. If it refers to the fact that many people have given up deducing moral laws from statements about gods, it refers to something good, since moral laws are not in truth entailed by anything but moral laws. If it refers to the fact that a great many people today, in deciding what moral laws to adopt, do not accept the authority of any church or priest or god, but freely criticize them all, it refers to something highly approvable, to that coming of age of man's reason which is an encouraging feature of our time. The truly moral world is essentially anarchical, in that to be a really moral agent a man must judge and choose for himself. A world in which people follow authority and obey an 'archy' for their moral opinions and choices is an imperfectly moral world. The disapprovable thing is moral 'archy', not moral anarchy. Great harm is done to morality by its authoritarian connexions, by the notion that the parson is the depository of it, by the habit of turning to the parson when the question is what is morally right. The average parson is a worse judge of right and wrong than the average layman, and that is simply because he takes his moral laws on authority. Never go to church to learn how to behave unless the sermon is preached by a layman.
So much for religion as a reason for obeying moral laws.
2.85. Religion and causes of morality
Now let us turn from reasons to causes and consider the proposition that 'the only cause which in fact makes people obey moral laws is their believing some religious proposition'.
The first and most important point to make about this proposition is that, whether it is true or false, to use it as an argument in favour of religious belief is a disgraceful thing to do. To do that is to commit the pragmatic dishonesty of arguing that a creed is true because it is useful that people should believe it. I know that this argument is used extremely frequently, and in the most respected quarters. Nevertheless, it is selfevidently null both in logical effectiveness and in common decency. That it would be very convenient if people believed the Christian creed is nothing whatever to do with the question whether that creed is true. And to recommend a proposition on the ground of the convenience of having it believed is just as dishonest as telling a lie. The improper appeal to expediency, which religious people are fond of imputing to their opponents, is in truth made by the religious themselves enormously more often than by the irreligious. To say in a solemn and intimidating tone of voice that, in so far as atheism comes to be believed, murder and thrift and rape increase in the world, is part of an immense number of Christian arguments; and it is thoroughly immoral.
If it were true that a general belief in atheism caused a high frequency of murder and theft and rape, while a general belief in theism caused a low frequency of them, and at the same time atheism were true and theism were false, we should be compelled to make a painful choice. There would be nothing for it but either to preach the true doctrine and see murder and theft and rape increase in consequence, or to keep down the rate of crime by preaching the false doctrine. That would be a hateful dilemma indeed. Yet there is no doubt which course we ought to take if we ever were obliged to make this choice. We ought to preach the true doctrine and endure the consequent increase in crime. To preach a false doctrine, or to preach a doctrine without considering whether it is false or true, is base and beneath human dignity. It is an abandonment of the great good of truth, and a treachery towards our fellows worse than exposing them to a greater risk of crime.
That is the first and most important point about the proposition that 'the only cause which in fact makes people obey moral laws is their believing some religious proposition'. However true it may be, to use it as an argument in favour of religious belief is logically null and morally indecent.
The second aspect of this proposition which I wish to consider is how one would test it. To what branch of inquiry does it belong? Either to history or to anthropology or to sociology. It is a sociological sort of proposition, because it offers a general rule about a causal connexion between human beliefs and human behaviour. So we must ask: What is good method in sociology? How can one reach a justifiable judgement on a general proposition asserting that a certain kind of belief tends to be accompanied by a certain kind of behaviour?
To obtain a justifiable judgement on such a proposition is a matter of statistics and mass observation, and hence a very large undertaking. Sociologists and anthropologists have scarcely ever ventured, yet, to make any such sweeping statement about man in general. They have confined themselves almost wholly to saying things about particular groups of men. I think they have been wise to do so, and the apologists for theism are unwise when they offer us unrestricted generalizations about the effects of theological beliefs on human behaviour.
Even when we have abandoned talk about human behaviour in general, and confined ourselves to a particular society, the inquiry is still laborious in procedure and doubtful in result. Consider, for example, how you would test the proposition that 'from 1700 to 1900 moral and law-abiding behaviour declined in England because religious belief declined'. This involves three different questions: (1) First, did moral and law-abiding behaviour decline in England during this period? (2) Second, did religious belief decline in England during this period? (3) Third, if so, were the two causally connected? We can obtain a probable answer to only one of these three questions, the one about religious belief. The quantity of churchgoing affords a good rough measure of the quantity of religious belief; and we can find out something about that for the period in question.
We have no good way of answering the question whether moral and law-abiding behaviour declined in England during this period. Perhaps we know the population in 1700 well enough to compare with the population in 1900, which we do know. But police figures are not available to give any reliable comparison on the legal side; and on the moral side there is no record and no way of coming at the proportion of moral offences committed. If a centenarian tells us that people were much more moral in his young days, or much less so, that is very poor evidence indeed in view of the deceptiveness of memory, the bias of the old, and the fragmentariness of any one person's experience. Also the centenarian is most unlikely to be sociologically judicious and able to tell good evidence from bad in such matters.
Another difficulty in any such inquiry is as follows. When we speak of the morality or immorality of Englishmen in 1700, do we mean the extent to which they obeyed their own moral laws, or the extent to which they obeyed the moral laws in which we believe now? Our decision on this point may make a big difference, for the reigning body of moral laws may have changed somewhat between then and now. For example, perhaps there was a double standard of sexual morality then, and perhaps there is not now. If so, James Boswell, when he got an illegitimate child upon a girl and then rebuked her for her behaviour, was perhaps obeying his own moral laws though he was certainly disobeying ours. It is possible that by the code of 1700 Englishmen of 1700 were more moral than those of 1900, while at the same time by the code of 1900 Englishmen of 1700 less moral than those of 1900. If we compare our fidelity to our code with the fidelity of an earlier society to our code, we are likely to come out nearly always with the conclusion that we are more moral than they were. But, if we try to compare our fidelity to our code with their fidelity to their code, the conclusion may be different; or there may be no conclusion because we cannot be sure what their code was.
For my part I think that we in England today both have a better code of morals, and obey the reigning code of morals better, than Englishmen did in the eighteenth century. But I also think that this is a precarious judgement, worth mentioning only as a counterweight to the low estimates of present morals which we often hear from bishops and writers to the press. In any case I have no doubt that much of what is said from pulpits today about the immorality of the present generation may properly be described as irresponsible abuse. It is a bad habit that Christians have contracted from certain verses of the gospels.
But suppose we had reliable answers to both the first and the second question. That is, suppose we could say with confidence just how religious belief had changed in these two centuries and just how morality had changed. We should still have no reliable means of knowing whether they were causally connected. A single case of concomitant variation is no evidence of causal connexion in matters so delicate and complicated as religious belief and moral fidelity. Many other possible causes would require to be excluded; and this would require similar knowledge of the variations in moral fidelity and other possible causes at other times and places. I judge that no reliable conclusion is to be obtained here.
I judge also that, when people think they can reach a reliable conclusion here, this is often because they are improperly thinking of the obvious proposition, which needs no statistics for its support, that, 'if the only cause of a man's acting morally is his fear of hell-fire, he will cease to act morally when he ceases to believe in hell-fire'. That is true by the mere meaning of 'only cause'. But it has no application to our question, because fear of hell-fire is not the only cause of moral action. We know that, because we are acquainted with at least one man who acts morally but disbelieves in hell-fire.
There certainly are some people who obey moral laws only from fear of a god or that god's hell-fire; and it certainly does happen sometimes that a person of this sort ceases to believe that there is a god and thereupon ceases to obey moral laws. There is truth in the story of a Papist priest saying to a pair of well-behaved atheists: 'I can't understand you boys; if I didn't believe in God I should be having a high old time.' Nothing that I have said denies the possibility of this kind of human nature. My view is that indefinitely many kinds of human nature are possible, and hence we must not make sweeping statements to the effect that only one kind of human nature is possible and all others are impossible. The proposition that 'the only cause which in fact makes people obey moral laws is their believing some religious proposition' is in effect an assertion that it is impossible for there to be a kind of human nature which obeys moral laws from a non-religious cause. Such assertions of impossibility are injudicious. We do not know all that human nature may do, and we do know that it may do a great many different things, and react in a great many different ways.
The false assumption, that nothing but religious belief will ever make people obey the moral laws, is widespread in the occidental world and it has harmful effects. It leads people into all kinds of intellectual dishonesties in their frantic efforts to save religious belief for the sake of saving morality. It leads many of those who reject religious belief into immorality, because their idea of obeying the moral laws was bound up with their idea of a god. It leads everyone who holds it to neglect the attempt to base morality on something not religious, and to neglect to teach their children a morality independent of religious opinion, that will remain in being however often they may change from theism to atheism or back again.
In other words, what may well be called the capture of morality by religion, which was an achievement of the Jewish religion in particular has turned out harmful for the world now that religion is declining; and it is an urgent task to set morality free again and give it an independent position, dependent only on its serving the earthly good of man, which is his only good. We are not doing all we could in that matter. For example, atheistic parents usually do not try to find atheistic schools for their children. That is a wrong attitude. At theistic schools children are taught that the reason for morality is hell-fire or God's command. This false reason is likely to collapse in later life; and if it does so it leaves the person with no reason for morality unless he thinks one out for himself. Parents ought to demand a school which teaches that the reason for morality is the alleviation of suffering. If you are rich, you could do a great service by helping to maintain a school where morality was taught in this honest way. You would be doing a great deal to make our lives more sincere and our morality more enlightened.
Christianity in a sense captured common decency and made itself the guardian thereof. Nevertheless, it did not itself act in a decent way. According to the Christian historian Professor Herbert Butterfield, 'the Christian church began a cruel policy of persecution from the earliest moment when it was in a position ... to do so; while at the other end of the story both Catholic and Protestant churches fought to the last point of cruelty not merely to maintain their persecuting power -- but fought a separate war for each separate weapon of persecution that was being taken from them' (The Listener, xli. 582-3). The Roman Church is still officially against freedom. A book published in 1948 with the imprimatur of a Roman archbishop says that a Roman State 'could not permit (members of a dissenting religious group) to carry on general propaganda' (Catholic Principles of Politics, by John A. Ryan and Francis J. Boland, New York, Macmillan, 1948, p. 320); and this immoral policy was being practised in Spain in the 1940's and 50's.
There may be another harmful aspect to the capture of morality by religion. It may be that the gods are inevitably immoral, that is, that any god that ever has been or will be conceived acts immorally in some ways. We can, of course, all easily see that other people's gods are immoral. Zeus behaved immorally; so did Moloch; and so on. I suggest that you will find that your own god is immoral too, if you can bring yourself to apply to him the moral standards that you apply to men. Surely it is immoral to condemn people to everlasting fire, or to blame them for the sins of their ancestors. Surely it is immoral to be omnipotent and yet allow the vast and continuing miseries of living things, or to demand that people believe without regard to evidence. All such conventional phrases as 'God's ways are inscrutable' are in use partly because they help to prevent us from seeing the immorality of the god we have conceived.
Now it seems likely that this immorality of all the gods so far invented is not an accident, but a necessary consequence of the religious impulse. It is probably connected with the element of worship in religion. One cannot abase oneself before a perfectly moral person, because a perfectly moral person treats one as an equal and as having a right to one's way of life.
If the gods are inevitably immoral, the idea that they are the guardians of morality is bound to do some harm. The rules of morality will be distorted from time to time by the bad behaviour of their guardians. This, then, seems to be a way in which the capture of morality by religion is always unfortunate.
It sometimes happens, however, that the captive eats the life out of his captor. The capture of morality by religion ends, sometimes, in religion's becoming nothing but a picturesque or mythical form of morality. This was the position of Matthew Arnold in Literature and Dogma, where he wrote that 'religion is ... morality touched by emotion' (p. 47), that 'the object of religion is conduct' (p. 144), and that God is the eternal Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness (p. 303). In this stage people make no independent effort to communicate with their god or find out his nature; they infer his nature from their own moral views. Plato knows that 'God likes a joke' (Cra. 406 c) simply by knowing that it is good to joke sometimes. Benjamin Franklin knows that 'God helps them that helps themselves', although this contradicts the New Testament, because as a sturdy Yankee trader he knows that you ought to help yourself. His famous phrase is simply a mythical form of the moral law 'help yourself'. To many people nowadays god is merely the myth to which they attach their valuations. Religion, which often used to be entirely independent of morality, has become in these people nothing but morality itself in mythical guise.
If a man's religion just is his morality, then certainly he loses his morality if he loses his religion. But in maintaining that we know of no causal connexion between religion and morality, I have, of course, been speaking of religion as the worship of the gods, a combined creed and attitude which has no necessary connexion with morality at all.
The general conditions which tend to make a man behave morally are two. (1) First, his circumstances must not make it very difficult for him to obey the moral law even if he wants to. He must not be exposed to strong temptation to break it. For example, he must not be starving and penniless among people who have food but will not give him any. (2) Second, the moral law must be generally obeyed, respected, and recommended, by those among whom he lives. Departures from it must be generally met with disapproval or something more painful. Where these conditions obtain, the moral law is mostly obeyed. Where they do not obtain, it is largely disobeyed. To destroy or diminish these conditions in a community is easy, for it can be done by a devastating war. To introduce them where they do not obtain is very much harder. Each of us, however, has from time to time opportunities to do a tiny bit towards maintaining or improving the reign of the moral law.
2.86. The ethics of the synoptic gospels
What are Christian ethics? Many people talk as if we all knew perfectly well what they are, and the only trouble were that some of us wickedly refuse to obey them. But it seems to me that what Christian ethics are is obscure and confused and uncertain.
The cause, which makes people confident that they know what Christian ethics are, is often that they assume that they can tell them by intuition. They have only to use their intuition, which when it deals with moral questions is called conscience, and the rules of Christian morality are known to them.
All that a man can find out by intuition is what he himself considers to be the right moral laws. He cannot find out what anybody else thinks right without studying the utterances or other acts of that person. The question what Christian ethics are, however, is an historical question. It is the historical question what rules are or were recommended by the Christians. Any responsible answer to it must proceed by historical method, by ascertaining and studying the texts uttered by the Christians.
Who are the Christians? There have been Christians for nearly 2,000 years, and thousands of them have published statements claiming authority on Christian doctrine. One could hardly read them all; but it takes little reading to discover that they do not altogether agree with each other. When they disagree, which has the better right to the title 'Christian'?
The word 'Christian' is made from a title, 'Christ', given to Jesus of Nazareth. It therefore seems that the writings closest to Jesus have the best claim to be the authority on Christian doctrine. Therefore the New Testament has a better claim than any subsequent writing by fathers or bishops or doctors or theologians or popes. Within the New Testament itself we can distinguish changes or at least additions of doctrine. There is a great deal in the epistles that is not in the gospels. There is a great deal in John's gospel that is not in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. There is a great deal in Matthew that is not in Mark. On the whole, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, stand together against John, and are much closer to each other than any of them is to John. For this reason it is often convenient to refer to the three of them together as 'the synoptics'. The synoptic gospels, then, seem to have the best title of any book to give the Christian ethics.
If, then, we wish to answer the question What are Christian ethics?, the first thing to do is to read the synoptic gospels and try to interpret them correctly.
The interpretation of a book written far away and long ago is always very liable to error. The interpretation of the synoptic gospels suffers from two additional and unusual sources of error. The first of these is that an overwhelming host of other interpreters has gone before us, and their results are ringing in our ears, and many of their results are more familiar to us than the words of the gospels themselves. The second is that we have been given an immensely strong bias to believe that whatever is affirmed in these gospels is rightly affirmed, and hence we have a perverting tendency to read into them whatever we personally think to be the true values and to read out of them any false values they may at first appear to us to preach.
Even the most learned and responsible interpreters make this second mistake, and misinterpret a passage through the conviction that it cannot really be intended to recommend something which the interpreter is sure is disapprovable. Thus Dr. Lonsdale Ragg says of the passage on the ravens which neither sow nor reap, &c. (Luke xii. 22 ff. Commentary on Saint Luke, London, 1922, p. 181), that it 'cannot really be intended as a counsel of improvidence. It is rather a warning against that over-reliance upon dividends, and that degeneration of thrift into grasping greed which are characteristic of our time.' Dr. Ragg gives no reason for his statement that this passage cannot be what it seems to be, a recommendation of improvidence and a rejection of thrift. But it is obvious what reason he had in mind: he was saying to himself: 'Improvidence is bad, and Jesus never recommended anything bad; therefore he never recommended improvidence; therefore this passage is not really a recommendation of improvidence though it seems to be.'
Yet, when you come to think of it, the principle that 'Jesus never recommended anything which we think bad' is one that would make it rather useless to read the gospels. In interpreting them so that they always agreed with our valuations, we should be teaching Jesus rather than learning from him. In any case, it is a principle that is most unlikely to be true, and therefore most unlikely to guide us aright in interpreting the gospels; for the fluidity of human affairs, and the huge difference between our society and heritage and those of Jesus, make it extremely unlikely that all our valuations would be the same as his. If we suspect that a passage in the gospels does not mean what it appears to mean, then the test to apply to it, or rather the background against which to examine it, is not the valuations of the twentieth century but the rest of the gospels. The best way of deciding the meaning of any passage in the synoptic gospels is to look at it against the background of those gospels as a whole.
To interpret the gospels correctly you must read them with what may be called interpreter's piety, that is, the will to receive into your mind the exact meaning the author intended, however strange or repellent or boring it may turn out to be. I urge you to do this, or at least not to use the phrase 'Christian values' until you have done it. I do not mean to say that it will never help to study Palestinian history, or that you need never ask a learned scholar the meaning of some peculiar phrase. I mean that the chief thing you need to do is to read the gospels for yourself, in the original Greek if you know Greek, with the open mind of the pious interpreter, and try to see for yourself what they say.
I will now describe the ethical teaching of the synoptic gospels as it appeared to me the last time I studied it. After that, I will ask to what extent this teaching should be accepted.
These writings are by no means wholly, or even primarily, concerned with ethical teaching, that is, with telling us what things are good and what acts should be done. As one learned and responsible exponent has put it, namely T. W. Manson in his book The Teaching of Jesus, pp. 185-6, 'the "ethics of Jesus", in the sense in which ... many ... think of them, do not exist, and never have existed'. He explains that this is because 'the moral teaching of Jesus is part and parcel of his religion and is not separable from it except by violence'. What the synoptics are mainly concerned to do is to tell a story, the story of the wonderful life, death, and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth. Each of them is in form a biography rather than a collection of commandments and valuations. In each of them, and especially in Mark, Jesus is primarily not a teacher or moralist but a mysterious and miraculous divine leader.
However, this divine leader occupies himself largely with ethical teaching, especially according to Matthew; and we can give some general account of the nature of this teaching.
In the first place, it is quite unsystematic. There is nothing like a treatise. There is hardly even a methodical list like the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The teaching appears to consist of many separate and independent sayings. Unities like Matthew's Sermon on the Mount appear to be conflations by the writer, not original and connected discourses by Jesus. In one saying Jesus says which is the greatest commandment and which is the second greatest (Matt. xxii. 37 ff.); there is no other mention of the question how all these precepts and valuations are to be co-ordinated.
In the second place, a great deal of the teaching is vague, puzzling, or obscure. Much of it consists of fascinating but mysterious stories whose point is doubtful, such as that of the wise and foolish virgins. One does not know what to make of sentences like: 'The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.' Many even of the direct exhortations are very uncertain in meaning. For example, 'blessed are the pure in heart'; what is purity in heart? Is it virtue in general or is it a special virtue? In many cases little can be done to elucidate an obscure saying by comparing other parts of the texts, owing to their fragmentary or atomic character. Sometimes, however, light can be brought by scholars who are familiar with other Jewish writings. In this way, for example, it can be made probable that 'give not that which is holy unto the dogs' means 'do not tell my gospel to anyone who is not a Jew'.
The teaching includes both very general precepts on which great emphasis is laid, and discussions of middling matters including divorce, and some small change of moral advice, such as 'if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone'.
The teaching is paradoxical and intended to be so. The writers represent Jesus as one who repeatedly uttered statements, valuations, and commands, that seemed to most people odd or shocking. He is given to sayings like 'the last shall be first, and the first last', and 'whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant'. Though in one saying he condemns making a scandal (Matt. xviii. 6 ff.), yet in another he implies that his own preaching makes scandal (Matt. xiii. 21); and Matthew often speaks of people being scandalized by him. Most people are in fact scandalized by the saying that 'whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath'.
The teaching has a prominent strain of harshness in it. Jesus threatens weeping and gnashing of teeth. He threatens great misery to those who do not receive his missionaries (Mark vi. 11). He threatens damnation to those who do not believe in his gospel (Mark xvi. 16), and to those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost (Mark iii. 29). He is remarkably abusive (cf. Matt. xi. 20), especially towards the Pharisees, with whom he at least once engages in cleversilly argument (Matt. xxii. 15-22). He harshly neglects his family relations for his gospel (Matt. xii. 46 ff.). He expects his gospel to result in parricide and in the betrayal of brothers and children to death (Matt. x, especially verse 21). He withers a fig tree and destroys a herd of swine. Matthew Arnold seems to me far from the truth when he finds 'sweet reasonableness' in Jesus. There are a few 'sweet and comfortable sayings'; but the prevailing atmosphere is harsh. One of his most judicious twentieth-century followers, Professor T. W. Manson (The Sayings of Jesus, p. 75), acknowledges 'the seeming harshness of Jesus and His almost brutal thrusting into the background of natural feelings and obligations', but puts it down to 'the overwhelming urgency of His task'.
So much for the general character of the sayings; and now for the five main commandments which I find.
(1) According to Matthew the first words of the preaching both of John the Baptist and of Jesus were: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Later Matthew says that Jesus said: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.' Devotion to God, or piety, stands out as Jesus' main precept. It appears in two different forms, love and righteousness. On the one hand, we are to love God. On the other, we are to repent and be righteous.
This first precept appears to be absolute in Jesus' mind. No other precept or interest may in any circumstance override it. He demands its fulfilment no matter what the damage to all other interests, and he expects the damage to other interests to be very great. Among these consequent damages may be strife, the sword, and the denial of family claims. Devotion to God will involve the keen disapproval of others: 'blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.' It will involve poverty: 'ye cannot serve God and mammon'; 'blessed be ye poor, for your's is the kingdom of God'. Jesus is against all prudent provision of material goods to avoid poverty and provide for the future. That would interfere with devotion to God, and is unnecessary because the kingdom of God is at hand. He frequently and consistently recommends improvidence and taking no thought for the morrow. 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.' Imitate instead the fowls of the air, which neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Sell everything you have and follow me (Luke xviii. 22). Give to everyone who asks you (Luke vi. 30). He is against attempting to make ourselves materially secure; and he gives the impression of never having had the thought that, if we all followed his advice, everybody would soon be permanently poorer. His famous story of the Prodigal Son is the story of a waster who got on as well as or better than his careful and responsible brother; and he has several other stories to urge the same moral, that the laborious preserver of material goods neither gets nor deserves more reward than his opposite. As a complete substitute for thrift and prudence he recommends prayer and faith. 'Ask, and it shall be given to you.'
(2) Closely related to this first precept, but distinguishable therefrom, comes what appears to be Jesus' second command: 'Believe in me.' Jesus is represented by the evangelists as constantly demanding faith in himself and declaring it a sin not to believe in him.
The expression 'believe in me' seems obscure. Sometimes Jesus merely says 'believe' or 'have faith', expressions which are more obscure. The naïve reader today feels inclined to ask: 'Believe what precisely?' The answer is not 'believe that I can do miracles', for the evangelists assume that everybody who had heard of Jesus already believed that. The answer, if it is given at all, is given in a few obscure phrases such as 'that Jesus is the anointed' or that 'he is the son of man' or that 'he is the son of God'. But Jesus is represented as noticeably unwilling to utter such phrases himself. He tries to get others to utter them without uttering them himself.
The notion of faith later to become a characteristic and prominent Christian virtue, appears in the gospels mainly in connexion with this precept, 'believe in me'.
This precept is probably much the most novel of Jesus' precepts. Learned commentators show anticipations by other rabbis of most of Jesus' other rules; but naturally there are no anticipations of the rule that we should believe in Jesus.
(3) Jesus' third precept is the love of man. 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' He numbers it as second in importance; for he does not reckon his 'believe in me' when the question is what the commandments are. He regards the command to love the neighbour not as his own invention but as one of the established commandments. It does in fact occur in Lev. xix. 18. But he regards himself as extending it by adding: 'Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' He does not say explicitly that this applies even to Gentile enemies; but his story of the Good Samaritan, told in answer to the question 'Who is my neighbour?', probably means that we should love and help every human being.
(4) He regards his extended law of love as entailing non-resistance to evil. 'To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloke withhold not thy coat also.' It entails also generosity: 'Give to everyone that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.' It entails the golden rule: 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.' It entails forgiveness, even for the seventy-times-seventh offence. No doubt it is the reason for the beatitudes: 'Blessed are the gentle.... Blessed are the merciful' (Matt. v. 5-7). No doubt it is the source of the few comfortable and kindly sayings ascribed to Jesus in these gospels, such as: 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Matt. xi. 28).
It is difficult to see, however, what Jesus' law of love can amount to in practice in view of his overwhelming insistence on the priority of the law of piety. We cannot give material help to our neighbours because the law of piety demands improvidence and poverty. We cannot take family love very seriously because it may interfere with our devotions. Any two rules of conduct will conflict in some cases; and it seems quite clear that Jesus' first two rules must conflict very often. But, in accordance with the unsystematic character of Jesus' teaching, there is no recognition of this in the gospels. There is hardly a recognition of any possibility of conflict between any two rules; but perhaps Professor Manson is right in saying that the verse, 'There is none other commandment greater than these' (Mark xii. 31), implies that the first two commandments may clash with the rest, and declares how such a clash is to be decided (The Sayings of Jesus, p. 227).
(4) Jesus' first three precepts are, then, love God, believe in me, and love man. I know no obvious name for or summary expression of what appears to be his next most important precept. I will call it purity of heart, though this involves a mere guess as to how he himself actually used the word 'pure'. The precept is that we are to regulate our thoughts in the same ways as we are to regulate our actions, that the laws are to be maintained internally as well as externally. It is suggested at length in Matt. v. 21 ff.: 'Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill.... But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment'; and so on. It is also probably the meaning of the doctrine that 'that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man'. It is probably the cause of the critical and reserved attitude of Jesus towards the explicit rules of law and behaviour and ceremony reigning in his society and maintained by the priests. He repudiates the idea that ritual, and ritual laws, can exist for their own sake, appealing to the saying that 'I desire pity and not sacrifice'.
(5) The fifth and last of the major precepts I find in the synoptic gospels is the demand for humility. We are to tapeinoun ourselves, to humiliate or lower ourselves. This will involve preventing ourselves from feeling contempt; we are not to despise one of these little ones, which probably implies that we are not to despise anyone. It will involve not judging people. 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' It will involve avoiding displays of superiority; for example, we should do good in secret, not in public. It will involve not caring about one's prestige, and not demanding honours or recognition, though perhaps accepting them when offered. It will involve serving others, including serving them in low ways such as washing their feet. It will involve, or be, something more central than all these, something inward and mental, which Jesus does not define and I am not prepared to define, but which is suggested by this lovely story: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.' (Luke xviii, 10-13).
These, then, are the five major precepts I find in the synoptic gospels: love God, believe in me, love man, be pure in heart, be humble. We may infer that the greatest virtues are piety, faith, love, purity, and humility; and that the only great goods beyond these virtues are God and Jesus.
Does Jesus offer reasons why we should adopt these precepts? In keeping with the unsystematic and gnomic character of his sayings in general, he has no elaborate argumentation in favour of them. He has, however, two brief reasons for them, which he frequently utters. One is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The other is that those who obey these precepts will be rewarded in heaven, while those who disobey will have weeping and gnashing of teeth. 'Your reward shall be great in heaven.' It is a plain matter of promises and threats.
Certain ideals that are prominent elsewhere are rather conspicuously absent from the synoptic gospels. It is important to notice these because, if they have been strongly adopted since Jesus' day, they are liable to be wrongly labelled Christian and included in the Christian values.
The ideal of beauty is wholly absent from this teaching. Beauty is entirely ignored, unless in the reference to the lilies of the field it is used to enforce the lesson of improvidence.
The ideal of truth and knowledge is wholly absent from this teaching. On the contrary, Jesus poured contempt on the professors of knowledge, and declared that the kingdom of heaven is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes. He frequently inclined to secrecy. At the same time as he was making public demonstrations of miraculous power, he kept trying to keep it a secret that he had this power, according to frequent statements by Mark and some statements by Matthew. He has some sayings according to which his teaching is a mystification rather than a spreading of truth: 'Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them' (Mark iv. 11-12).
As Jesus never recommends knowledge, so he never recommends the virtue that seeks and leads to knowledge, namely reason. On the contrary, he regards certain beliefs as in themselves sinful (such beliefs as that 'Jesus is not the son of God'), whereas it is an essential part of the ideal of reason to hold that no belief can be morally wrong if reached in the attempt to believe truly. Jesus again and again demands faith; and by faith he means believing certain very improbable things without considering evidence or estimating probabilities; and that is contrary to reason.
The virtue of conscientiousness, of respect for the moral law, has been placed very high by many subsequent Christians, especially among the Protestants; but it is not placed high by Jesus. The mere keeping of moral commandments appears to offend Jesus rather than to please him, and he condemns it as Phariseeism.
Jesus says nothing on any social question except divorce, and all ascriptions of any political doctrine to him are false. He does not pronounce about war, capital punishment, gambling, justice, the administration of law, the distribution of goods, socialism, equality of income, equality of sex, equality of colour, equality of opportunity, tyranny, freedom, slavery, selfdetermmation, or contraception. There is nothing Christian about being for any of these things, nor about being against them, if we mean by 'Christian' what Jesus taught according to the synoptic gospels.
The Jesus of the synoptic gospels says little on the subject of sex. He is against divorce. He speaks of adultery as a vice, and perhaps includes in adultery all extramarital intercourse. The story of the woman taken in adultery, which is of a synoptic character though it appears in texts of John, preaches a humane and forgiving attitude towards sexual errors. Jesus shows no trace of that dreadful hatred of sex as such which has disfigured the subsequent history of the Christian churches, or of the disgusting idea that sexual intercourse is sinful in itself, and that, as the English prayer book has it, marriage 'was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication
such persons as have not the gift of continency'. The nearest he comes to that is saying that 'there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake' (Matt. xix. 12). But he declares that 'he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh' (Matt. xix. 4-5); and this cannot mean sexless marriage.
2.87. Criticism of the synoptic gospels
Now I come to the attempt to judge these precepts and say which of them we should accept.
If one has been brought up in the Christian religion, it is easy to feel that there is something fundamentally wicked in judging whether to adopt these precepts. But this feeling we ought to repress. It is easy to fall into an attitude of superstitious and unquestioning awe towards the precepts in the gospels, and to adopt every one of them in automatic and thoughtless submission. But this we ought not to do. We ought to judge these precepts as we judge any other precepts or valuations, weighing their value in the light of reason and love, considering whether to adopt or reject them by asking whether they lessen human misery or do not lessen it.
As a corrective to the uncritical attitude, it is well to bear in mind that the synoptic gospels are very like folktales. Like good folktales, they are strange and beautiful and suggestive, and often embody principles that we wish to adopt. Also like good folktales, however, they often embody principles that we judge barbarous and wish to reject.
Evidently the precepts of Jesus do not provide all the values and rules we need. They do not preach the three great Greek inventions, truth, beauty, and justice, which we certainly must have. They do not recognize the inevitability of conflict between the commandments, and hence give little or no judicious guidance in cases of conflict. Evidently, also, their completely unsystematic character entitles us to pick and choose among them, accepting some and rejecting others if we so judge.
Newman said that when non-Christians read the Christian Bible 'they are much struck with the high tone of its precepts' (Sermon on John xiii. 17). That is contrary to my experience. I shall never forget the first time I read the Old Testament after I had acquired the habit of independent judgement. I was horrified at its barbarity, and bewildered that it had been widely held up as a store of ideals. It seemed to describe a savage people, fierce and brutal, no more admirable than the worse of the savage cultures that anthropologists describe to us today, and a great deal less admirable than the gentler cultures they report. The only major difference between the Old Testament, and an anthropologist's report of a rather brutal culture, seems to be that the Old Testament is written by members of the culture described, who adopt its superstitions and approve of its habits.
Nor will Newman's words fit the impression made by the synoptic gospels. They are a beautiful and fascinating piece of literature; and they preach the great precept 'love thy neighbour'. But this precept is overshadowed in them both by the harsh unloving behaviour of the preacher, and by its absolute subordination to the unreasonable commands to love God and believe in Jesus.
We should reject Jesus' first two precepts, love God and believe in me; and we should reject the values that he associates therewith, piety, faith, and improvidence. It is improbable that there is a god; but, even if it were probable that would not justify Jesus' demand for piety, because he makes his demand without reference to probability, and because he is reckless of its effects on humanity. Whether the pious man is a benefit or a terror to his fellow men depends, of course, on what he believes his god tells him to do; but it is evident that many of man's most terrible actions have been done out of piety, and that piety is responsible for our shameful wars of religion, and that concern to obey a god is less likely to diminish human misery than is concern to diminish human misery.
It is most important to reject the view that it is a sin not to believe in Jesus; for the view that a belief can be sinful is very harmful and wrong. It destroys the whole ideal of knowledge and reason, and prevents man from achieving the knowledge in which much of his dignity and much of his safety lie. No belief is as such morally wrong; but it is morally wrong to form one's beliefs in view of something other than truth and probability; and Jesus demanded this moral wrong. It is a moral wrong whose harmful and degrading effects penetrate widely and are great. It is terrible to think how many million people have, as a result of those passages in the gospels about having faith, done what probably each one of us here did in his childhood tried to hypnotize himself into some particular belief and to disregard whatever scraps of judgement he possessed. The fine things in Jesus' preaching have been and will be greatly harmed by this blasphemy against reason.
It is a typical nemesis on blasphemy against reason that through it Jesus came to exhibit in himself or ascribe to his god some of the bad qualities against which he warned humanity. While he preached humility, he weakened his effect by resisting with considerable asperity on his own divinity or semi-divinity, and demanding that everyone should believe in him. While he preached to men that they should forgive, he threatened unforgiving damnation to those who disbelieved himself or his missionaries, and represented his god as going to produce weeping and gnashing of teeth. While he preached love, he showed an unloving god. To demonstrate his miraculous power he destroyed useful living things.
We should reject also that praise of poverty and improvidence which he bases on these precepts. Human life depends on material resources, and they should not be neglected or thrown away. A proper concern for the misery of creatures involves the husbanding of our wealth.
At the same time we all know that some of Jesus' words on this matter hint at something acceptable and important, especially his 'how hardly shall a rich man enter into the kingdom of heaven'. That many rich people succumb to a frozen and hideous inhumanity, while the poor are sometimes gloriously lovingkind to each other, is clear to see among us. But what principles are there to guide us aright in this matter? It seems that we have not yet discovered them. The best that we have so far is Aristotle's doctrine that property should be private in ownership but public in use, if this is to be interpreted as saying that every owner of material goods is to act with the aim of making them as widely used and enjoyed as possible. He is to fence off his snakeflowers, for example, because otherwise they would all be eradicated in a few years; but he is to take all means he can of letting as many persons as possible enjoy them without destroying them.
We should accept the precept to love our neighbours, extended as Jesus perhaps extended it to love of all humanity, and still further to love of all life, as he certainly did not extend it. And if we reject his precepts to love god and believe in himself, this precept to love man will be able to amount to something and deeply affect our lives. We should accept most of the consequential attitudes that he indicates, generosity, gentleness, mercy, and the observance of the golden rule.
Forgiveness is also to be accepted. But there seems to be something injudicious in his 'seventy times seven', and something still more injudicious in his doctrine of non-resistance. Invariable non-resistance certainly does harm to the world that could be avoided by resistance on occasion. It is no contribution to human happiness always to yield to bullies, but very much the reverse. It is true, however, that many people resist too often.
As to the fourth precept, that we are to regulate our thoughts in the same ways as we are to regulate our actions, it seems to condemn imagination. In imagination, in painting and sculpture, and most of all in fiction, we enjoy the imaginative contemplation of acts that we ought not to do. There is a great and permanent and rather evenly balanced difference of valuation here, half the world approving and the other half disapproving of the contemplation of evil in imagination and art. I am among the approvers, because I find in this activity great interest and happiness, and because I believe that it discourages more than it encourages the performance of wrong acts. I believe that wrong acts are done much more by the unimaginative than by the imaginative, and much more by those who have not contemplated wrong acts in fiction than by those who have. I therefore do not much care to adopt and recommend this precept. However, some writing, and some thinking, are precisely a creation of the intention to do something wrong, and these must be wrong if the thing to be done is wrong. If we understand the precept as directed against this it seems trivial; while if we understand it as against imagination it seems bad.
There is a third way in which we might understand this precept, namely as an injunction not to encourage dangerous emotions or desires, such as anger with one's brother and sexual desire for a forbidden person. And this is the most favourable way to interpret it. It is certainly a distinct interpretation from the first, for imagination and emotion are not the same thing and need not go together.
The fifth and last precept was that of humility. The words 'humility', 'pride', and 'vanity', indicate a complicated and mysterious set of questions about human nature and the evaluation thereof. Though I have thought about this mysterious complex for years, I have not yet reached views on it in which I can rest. Only the following points seem clear to me.
First, it seems undesirable either to lie about one's own value or to be mistaken about it, and this seems to be so whether the false statement overestimates or underestimates one's value. The only good estimate of one's value to have, or to utter, is, surely, the true estimate. The value of humility cannot override the value of truth.
Secondly, it seems clear that we should act according to our actual superiorities and inferiorities. The superior man in a group should lead the group and not hang back. The less informed man in a group should hang back and not offer to inform the company.
Thirdly, it is clear that we often have a choice, between uttering and not uttering remarks about our own value and superiority or inferiority, and between calling attention to our value and not doing so. That being so, the right choice will usually be to refrain from drawing attention either to our superiorities or to our inferiorities. The main criterion of good conversation is what will please others; and the boaster and the selfdepreciator are both unpleasing. But where the conversation has an ulterior purpose, such as the appointment of an officer, these considerations are overridden.
Fourthly, to insist on the recognition of one's superiorities by others, as Aristotle's megalopsychic man so remarkably does, is rarely good, though occasionally it is required. It is not a common vice nowadays. The virtue of modesty is in fashion. Not that the vice of pride has disappeared. It is flourishing mightily in the place where it has hidden itself, namely in politics. Though most people are modest about themselves, nearly everybody insists far too much on the excellence and prestige and honour and glory of his own State, and almost nobody ever recommends his own State to behave humbly, or talks humbly about it.
Fifthly, we should know the true value of others as well as of ourselves; and in that sense we should reject Jesus' 'judge not'. It would be absurd to give up the lawcourts and the accusation and judgement of suspected persons. It would be absurd never to decide that an act was wrong, or an agent inclined to do wrong. 'Judge not' may serve, however, to suggest two desirable principles, first that it is easy to spend too much time in remarking other people's defects, and second that contempt is an emotion for which there is very little place in a good man's heart. Not contempt, but a certain kind of respect, is always required towards all persons, however petty their capacities and however loathsome their crimes. This respect is required towards all higher animals as well, and for the same reason, namely that they are all sufferers and have the rights which suffering gives. I would say they are all equal in this way, were it not that there are more obvious kinds of equality which are bad.
Finally, the reasons that Jesus gave for his precepts, namely his promises and threats, are quite unacceptable. They are false, since there is no heaven or hell; and anyhow they make his precepts precepts of prudence instead of precepts of morality. To obey rules because otherwise you will go to hell is prudence, not morality. The good and moral reason for a moral precept is that its reign in a society lessens misery in that society.
2.88. The human situation
The human situation is this.
Each one of us dies. He ceases to pulse or breathe or move or think. He decays and loses his identity. His mind or soul or spirit ends with the ending of his body, because it is entirely dependent on his body.
The human species too will die one day, like all species of life. One day there will be no more men. This is not quite so probable as that each individual man will die; but it is overwhelmingly probable all the same. It seems very unlikely that we could keep the race going for ever by hopping from planet to planet as each in turn cooled down. Only in times of extraordinary prosperity like the present could we ever travel to another planet at all.
We are permanently insecure. We are permanently in danger of loss, damage, misery, and death.
Our insecurity is due partly to our ignorance. There is a vast amount that we do not know, and some of it is very relevant to our survival and happiness. It is not just one important thing that we do not know. If it were, we might hope to discover that one important thing and live secure ever after. That one important thing would then deserve to be called 'the secret of the universe'. But there is no one secret of the universe. On the contrary, there are inexhaustibly many things about the universe that we need to know but do not know. There is no possibility of 'making sense of the universe', if that means discovering one truth about it which explains everything else about it and also explains itself. Our ignorance grows progressively less, at least during periods of enormous prosperity like the present time; but it cannot disappear, and must always leave us liable to unforeseen disasters.
The main cause of our insecurity is the limitedness of our power. What happens to us depends largely on forces we cannot always control. This will remain so throughout the life of our species, although our power will probably greatly increase.
There is no god to make up for the limitations of our power, to rescue us whenever the forces affecting us get beyond our control, or provide us hereafter with an incorruptible haven of absolute security. We have no superhuman father who is perfectly competent and benevolent as we perhaps once supposed our actual father to be.
What attitude ought we to take up, in view of this situation?
It would be senseless to be rebellious, since there is no god to rebel against. It would be wrong to let disappointment or terror or apathy or folly overcome us. It would be wrong to be sad or sarcastic or cynical or indignant. A. E. Housman has imagined some of the wrong attitudes very poetically for us.High heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;Or the words he gives to Terence Hearsay:
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation --
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead,
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
No; in a dark and cloudy day a book of humour is better than The Shropshire Lad; and one of the important parts of 'training for ill' is to acquire cheerfulness.
Cheerfulness is part of courage, and courage is an essential part of the right attitude. Let us not tell ourselves a comforting tale of a father in heaven because we are afraid to be alone, but bravely and cheerfully face whatever appears to be the truth.
The theist sometimes rebukes the pleasure-seeker by saying: 'We were not put here to enjoy ourselves; man has a sterner and nobler purpose than that.' The atheist's conception of man is, however, still sterner and nobler than that of the theist. According to the theist we were put here by an all-powerful and all-benevolent god who will give us eternal victory and happiness if we only obey him. According to the atheist our situation is far sterner than that. There is no one to look after us but ourselves, and we shall certainly be defeated.
As our situation is far sterner than the theist dares to think, so our possible attitude towards it is far nobler than he conceives. When we contemplate the friendless position of man in the universe, as it is right sometimes to do, our attitude should be the tragic poet's affirmation of man's ideals of behaviour. Our dignity, and our finest occupation, is to assert and maintain our own selfchosen goods as long as we can, those great goods of beauty and truth and virtue. And among the virtues it is proper to mention in this connexion above all the virtues of courage and love. There is no person in this universe to love us except ourselves; therefore let us love one another. The human race is alone; but individual men need not be alone, because we have each other. We are brothers without a father; let us all the more for that behave brotherly to each other. The finest achievement for humanity is to recognize our predicament, including our insecurity and our coming extinction, and to maintain our cheerfulness and love and decency in spite of it, to prosecute our ideals in spite of it. We have good things to contemplate and high things to do. Let us do them.
We need to create and spread symbols and procedures that will confirm our intentions without involving us in intellectual dishonesty. This need is urgent today. For we have as yet no strong ceremonies to confirm our resolves except religious ceremonies, and most of us cannot join in religious ceremonies with a good conscience. When the Titanic went down, people sang 'Nearer, my God, to thee'. When the Gloucesters were in prison in North Korea they strengthened themselves with religious ceremonies. At present we know no other way to strengthen ourselves in our most testing and tragic times. Yet this way has become dishonest. That is why it is urgent for us to create new ceremonies, through which to find strength without falsehood in these terrible situations. It is not enough to formulate honest and high ideals. We must also create the ceremonies and the atmosphere that will hold them before us at all times. I have no conception how to do this; but I believe it will be done if we try.