Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: MORAL EXPERIENCE - The Liberal Mind
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I.: MORAL EXPERIENCE - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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like many other modern doctrines, liberalism cherishes the hope that one day politics will fade away, and the era of “power-mad politicians” (Lord Russell’s phrase) will come to an end. In Marxist doctrine, this belief is quite explicit: with the coming of communism, the State will wither away, and power over men will give way to power over things. The liberal view is much more oblique. Liberals are rather like ingenious accountants shuffling figures from one column to another. They have, over the years, transferred many issues from “politics” into a variety of other columns. They seek to find moral substitutes for war, to educate the ignorant and superstitious, to cure the criminal and delinquent, and to clarify the goals of mankind. Given a progress of this kind, democratic politics will turn (in the dream of Lenin) into a simple administrative matter to be handled by clerks: the people’s wishes will be ascertained and the people’s wishes will be executed.
This illusion arises from one of the more indestructible fantasies of mankind. Nor does it greatly matter whether present discontents are attributed to the presence of something—passion, or original sin—or to the absence of something—such as understanding, reason, or education. Scope always remains for a remedy. And with the arrival of the remedy, we shall find ourselves released not only from political conflict, but from moral conflict as well. And this is quite inevitable, for ethics and politics are inseparable.
The effect of modern liberal doctrine has been to hand over the facts of moral and political life into the maladroit hands of social and political scientists, and the results have been intellectually disastrous. For moral issues, shuffled into the logician’s column, turn into formalized imperatives; transferred by the device of generic man to the sociologist, they turn into culturally determined norms. As likely as not, the psychologist will regard them as neurotic symptoms. Politics similarly loses its autonomy, dissolved into a set of reactions to supposed external causes. The criterion of a “value-free science” is no doubt scientific in excluding propaganda from intellectual investigation. But it is merely superstitious when it turns “values”—in fact the subject matter of ethics and politics—into an intellectual red light district into which no thinker may stray, on pain of losing his respectability.
The commonest kind of moral evasion found in liberalism is some variation of utilitarianism. “It is no derogation from promise-keeping as a moral principle to say that the reasons for it are ones of social convenience . . . if we could never rely on people to keep their promises social life as we know it would be rendered impossible.”1 This is similar to the Hooker-Locke argument already quoted,2 and to Hume’s view that we obey the state “because society could not otherwise subsist.”3 And the most obvious point about it is that it has nothing at all to do with ethics. Social convenience and political advantage are social convenience and political advantage; no more. These are the statements of a political technology. In order to promote “convenience” and a “comfortable society,” certain modes of behavior must be established as duties. Assertions of this kind may be true or false, but they remain technological calculations. The fallacy involved is a simple and familiar one—that of undistributed middle. The argument is of this nature: promise-keeping is socially necessary. Promise-keeping is a moral principle. Therefore a moral principle is what is socially necessary.
It is not for example true that “We accept it as a duty to keep our word because we recognize the advantage for social relations of reliability and predictability.”4 If this is a psychological statement about our mental condition as we keep our promises, it is untrue. And if it is a moral statement describing why promise-keeping is moral behavior, then it is also false, though it is more difficult to demonstrate why this is so. One reason, of course, is that promise keeping (like any other generalized moral category) does not have a consistent moral significance. It depends upon a complex set of circumstances, and we can invent cases where the keeping of a promise may be a brutal act of revenge. But this is a detail. The point is, I think, that in all the conventional cases, a promise-keeper has a different character from a promise-breaker, and this character can only be adequately described if we consider it in moral terms. To establish this is enormously difficult, and the temptation is to retreat, as Moore did, into intuitionism (which is dogmatic) and to the assertion that good is indefinable.
The argument that “if we could never rely on people to keep their promises social life as we know it would be rendered impossible” runs into a dilemma. If everybody except me keeps their promises then social life is not threatened; and if promise-breaking is extensive, I will only suffer fruitlessly if I keep mine. Hobbes and Spinoza understood this situation more realistically, and they had little patience with rationalist appeals of this particular kind.5
This utilitarian treatment of moral principles obscures the fact that it is exactly the seeking of advantages which often leads people to break promises. Quite often, furthermore, people are perfectly right in their calculations, and they do reap an advantage from betraying a trust. Indeed, one way of describing the evil in cases of promise-breaking is in pointing to the fact that it arises from a prudent concern with advantages, whereas goodness results from moral or spiritual integrity. Promise-breaking is a refusal to accept the consequences of one’s past act; it indicates an incoherence in the character of the person who does it. The description of such acts as evil depends upon moral understanding, not upon any supposed social consequences.
What makes it difficult to give an account of moral experience is the intense practical interest we all have in the behavior of others. Even moral philosophers suffer from a deep anxiety about the possible consequences of the theories they suggest. “It is hardly necessary to add,” remarks Mr. Nowell-Smith, talking about that form of objectivism in ethics which attributes ethical disagreements to perversity and insincerity, “that this theory has had the most tragic consequences in international affairs.”6 This is a headlong jump from philosophy to action; on a par with the notion that Hegel must share the blame for Hitler. The difficulty with any principle of behavior, of course, is that there will always be circumstances in which it will have undesirable results; and we may perhaps conclude that one thing determining the content of such moral principles is the wish to generalize what the philosopher considers (independently) to be desirable.
It is further true that all the terms of moral discourse turn up very frequently in an imperative use: “Don’t be vain!” “Be honest with me!” “You ought to be loyal.” This is a common, perhaps even the most common, way in which they function. And for this reason, it is a perfectly legitimate concern to analyze the logic of imperatives, and to distinguish (as does Mr. Hare) neustics from phrastics.7 But to consider that moral philosophy is no more than preoccupations of this kind is false. It is an example of what we shall later discuss as meliorism. It derives from the view that the imperative element in ethics is the only part of it which cannot be reduced to facts and thus assimilated to other fields of enquiry. This view can itself become a crude form of reductionism: “When Plato asks ‘What is Justice?’, it is clear that he keeps his eye continually on the question ‘What ought we to do?’”8 But whatever biaxial distortions of vision philosophers may manage in compounding the two questions, the questions themselves are perfectly distinct, particularly, indeed, in Plato. When he asks “What is Justice?” he means exactly that, and the answer that he gives is in the indicative, not the imperative, mood.
We might perhaps begin by suggesting that there are two parallel kinds of moral philosophy distinguished by their vocabularies. One vocabulary is a functional one, indicating abstractly a direction of behavior: it includes such terms as ought, right, wrong, duty, obligation and end. There is another vocabulary which is descriptive and includes terms like vain, loyal, heroic, deceitful and honest. The functional set of terms is imperative; the latter, because it sometimes functions prescriptively, may also—though falsely—be thought of as essentially imperative, but as containing a psychological admixture. The result of this view of moral philosophy is, rather curiously, to establish a practice for which there can be no uniquely appropriate theory. Whatever looks like ethical theory must forthwith be handed over to the stewardship of another type of enquirer.
Against this view, I am suggesting that there exists something which we may call the moral life, some kind of moral experience which is to some extent shared by all. This moral experience is certainly not identical with “being good.” It is something of which we are all only intermittently conscious, but it is not to be identified with conscious moral choices, since we often discover afterwards that some act which we did unreflectingly was far more ethically significant than those choices which kept us awake at nights. All manner of apparently casual acts are incidents of the moral life, at least on a par with those thorny questions, such as the nature of our obligation to return borrowed books, which have captured the attention of professional moralists. For most moralists are concerned either to discover or to analyze reasons why we ought to do the right thing; they are partly concerned with the practical—in fact the political—issue of how we ought to act. Whereas the moral significance of such situations is found in the discoveries we make about ourselves in the course of our deliberations, the kind of temptations we encounter, and the moral character which is implied by the act when it is done.
For this reason, a concern with the moral life in this sense is inescapably part of the materials of the novelist. As far as, for example, Flaubert is concerned, the choices made by his characters are of interest as evidence of the character they have, while for the moralist the interest lies not in the act itself and what the act reveals, but in the reasons which may be given for it. Flaubert is dealing with moral issues in Madame Bovary. He is, among other things, examining an intricate moral network of relations between his characters, as they act and develop, as they gain one kind of understanding and lose another. Yet this moral interest is certainly not an interest in guides to conduct or imperatives or prescriptions of any kind. Flaubert is not circuitously telling us that adultery is wrong and that we ought not to engage in it. He is not a moral propagandist.
A character in literature—and often in life—is conceived as vivid, concrete, and particular. It is partly understood as a disposition to make particular kinds of choices, and each choice made both contributes further evidence about the character and at the same time changes the character. But the regularities of character are no more than dispositions. People are not reliably predictable. Worms will turn and heroes quake. As moral characters, our own privileged introspections give us little more advantage in understanding ourselves than we have in understanding other people. For part of the drama of the moral life is that, while we struggle to understand, we also struggle to maintain our self-deceptions. There are many things which we are determined not to understand. Our knowledge is therefore incomplete and, in any case, the thing we are trying to understand is unstable and changing—
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
Perhaps the most spectacular exemplars of the conscious cultivation of the moral life were the Puritans—those relentless moral athletes minutely examining each performance with the stop-watch of dogma. They imported into everyday life a type of moral cultivation normally found only in monastic circumstances. Their entire religious organization was calculated to facilitate the spontaneous operations of conscience, and some of their more searing scorn was reserved for those whose moral life was either abandoned to others, or merely mechanical. For Milton it was not only Papists who thus disembarrassed themselves of conscience; he railed against many a Protestant as being too ready “to give over toiling, and to find himself out some factor, to whose care and credit he may commit the whole managing of his religious affairs.”9
Many attempts have been made to describe the general structure of moral experience, but all describe some varieties of moral life better than others. The cause of this lies partly in the practical concerns of the philosophers. Liberalism, for example, is antipathetic to the unreflective adherence to traditional moral rules, and has therefore attempted to rationalize these rules by constructing a generalized policy adapted to the character of natural man. In this policy, most of the conventional moral rules reappear as items of technical advice. This teleological view of the moral life appears only to affect the structure of morality; in fact, it also affects the content. For it turns moral agents into calculators of consequences, opening up possibilities of individual variation which cannot appear where morality is taken to be conformity to a code.
Alternatively moral experience may be explained in terms of law and will. There exist moral rules—duties, laws, obligations—which are independently valid. The moral problem faced by individuals is partly cognitive, mostly conative. The cognitive element comes first. It is to discover, in any particular situation, which of the rules or duties is appropriate. Once this is done, the only problem remaining is to will the act enjoined by the rule, the difficulty being that impulse, pleasure, or evil may all be pulling in some other direction. This description of the moral life gives us such notions as the “loosening of moral standards” and “the hard path of virtue.”
The teleological and the legislative views of moral experience are those most commonly found, both in philosophy and in ordinary life. But they are far from exhausting all possibilities. The moral life may be understood as the maintenance of an internal coherence or harmony; the good man, as his life proceeds, is one who maintains this harmony, the evil one being divided within himself. Goodness here is something which permits a constant understanding of one’s surroundings. The good man has no illusions because he lives in the present and his mind is unblinkered by emotions like avarice or ambition.10 This view is found in Plato’s doctrine about the goodness of the philosophical life, and appears in literature especially in criticism of conventional bourgeois ways of living. Related to it is the theological notion that goodness is a matter of imitating a divine model, of being Christlike in one’s behavior. And a similar view is to be found in such advice as: “You must do what you must do.” Any of these views are likely to turn up in any extended moral discussion, and either pure or in combination they may be put forward as explanations of the moral life.
The difficulty, of course, is that each account is certain to generate commands and imperatives.11 Each view can be used, like any other piece of knowledge, in the actual conduct of life. Further, the moral life is something which imperatively must be controlled, especially from a political point of view. It is spontaneous; it is unpredictable; and it can often be disruptive of social and political arrangements. In so far as people act rationally, they are calculable; one can appeal to their interests and their fears. But what is most characteristic of the moral life is that within it neither interests nor fears are decisive. It can produce martyrs, crusaders, heroes, megalomaniacs, and a variety of socially indigestible (though often in some terms valuable) phenomena.
In all the issues of moral experience, moral character is the crucial thing, for it is only character which determines the existence of a moral problem. There is no such thing as a moral problem (or any other kind of problem) outside the context of a human situation; and in talking of particular problems we always imply the kind of human being who could have that particular problem. There are some people in the world who are virtually immobilized because every decision they have to make turns into a moral problem; and there are also others, called psychopaths, for whom nothing at all presents a moral problem. Moral philosophers concern themselves with a vague concept of ordinary men, whose moral problems are assumed capable of some approximate standardization. But even ordinary people vary enormously; and what is at one stage of life no problem at all may become morally significant at a later date. Those who associate moral philosophy with the study of imperatives take no interest in such variations; for them, that is psychology. But psychologists are hardly equipped to give such intractable questions much attention, and the whole area goes by default12 because it happens to be included in no one’s disciplinary boundaries.
I take it, then, that moral experience is found everywhere in human behavior, and that it is not something which can be ignored without serious misunderstanding of social and political life. The term “duty” for example is one that turns up in ethics, politics, sociology, and law. But the way in which it must be understood depends upon variations both in the bearer of the duty and in the environing situation. To an eager young military volunteer, an account of his duties as a soldier has a purely descriptive force; it tells him what is involved in an activity for which he already has a great deal of enthusiasm. Should this enthusiasm wane with experience, then tasks like cleaning his rifle and polishing his buttons will become duties in a far more prescriptive sense; they become things which he has to do as a condition of being something else. Here the prescriptive element, as in many other cases, arises only with the coming of internal conflict, a conflict which may be induced by laziness, boredom, or perhaps some more philosophical criticism of military life. It also appears to be a common experience that duties begin as things which “ought” to be done, and end by becoming part of the structure of a person’s life, so that he feels lost without the doing of them. “Doing the right thing” is very frequently less the product of imperative rules, calculations of ends and means, or awareness of internal coherence, than a kind of itch; a person can get no peace of mind till it is done.
Moral knowledge is sometimes a thing we seek; more often it is something we have forced upon us. A Nazi bureaucrat receiving orders to arrest and execute a Jewish friend, has, in the classic textbook sense, a moral problem. Does he obey the State, to which he owes allegiance? Does he resign? Does he help his friend to get out of the country to safety? He may formulate his question as: what ought I to do? He may rank the various appropriate rules (help friends, obey the law, keep promises, etc.). He may calculate the utils of pain involved for everybody concerned. He may ask what Christ or Luther would have done. He is in fact unlikely to do any of these things with much resolution. It is far more likely that a set of incidents—watching his children, the remark of a superior, or an obsessive memory—will give him some vision of things in which his decision will emerge. But whatever he does, his choice will be evidence about his character. It may indicate weakness or strength, vanity, self-sacrifice, honesty or self-deception. The conflict may be seen in quite other terms than “what ought he to do?” as, for example, whether he is a loyal friend or an obedient supporter of the régime. If our Nazi functionary were singlemindedly dedicated to the régime, he would not be aware of a moral dilemma at all. He would simply do his “duty.” And if, later, after executing his Jewish friend, he began to suffer remorse, he would be criticizing not only his act or choice; he would be implicitly criticizing the narrowly obedient way of life which, unchosen, had led up to the decision.
This, then, is a brief sketch of what I take to be moral experience, a field of human concerns which liberalism, for reasons we shall indicate, has ignored. It may be that some stubborn meliorist will insist that what I have been describing is a matter of fact, and therefore belongs in the intellectual province called psychology rather than to that called ethics. I have no wish to quarrel over labels; someone who starts from the premise that ethics is concerned with imperatives and obligations will no doubt be led to the conclusion that what I have taken to be moral facts must be facts of a different kind. But if we must regard the empirical study of moral experience as part of psychology, then I can only observe that it is psychology of a highly peculiar kind. It has no relation at all to those textbooks called Psychology which have chapter headings like “Drives,” “Memory,” “Learning,” “Maturation,” etc. and which report in statistical detail the behavior of mice and control groups of all kinds. Nor is it to be identified with psychoanalysis, though indeed part of the greater subtlety which we may find in Freud, and some of those who have constructed similar kinds of depth-analysis, results from the fact that some psychoanalytic concepts are close to moral ones. One might, for example, give a tolerable account of vanity in terms of narcissism. There are further analogues of the moral struggle in the conflict between the analyst and the subtle evasions of the subject. But while psychoanalysis can tell us much about moral experience, there can be no comprehensive theory of ethics which does not arise from ethics itself.
[1. ]H. R. G. Greaves, The Foundations of Political Theory, London, 1958, p. 120.
[2. ]See above, p. 24.
[3. ]Hume, Of the Original Contract.
[4. ]Greaves, op. cit., p. 120 (my italics).
[5. ]Cf. Hume’s classic argument on this point in the Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Part II, Sec. II.
[6. ]P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics, London, 1954, p. 23.
[7. ]R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, 1952, p. 1.
[8. ]Nowell-Smith, op. cit.
[10. ]A popular version of this view of moral experience, one which has had great currency, is the character of Larry in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge.
[11. ]We should note, however, that on some ethical views (in Plato, for example) goodness cannot be an object of striving. Commands and imperatives would therefore be an illicit use of moral knowledge.
[12. ]Not entirely. Part of the attraction of Existentialism is that it does at least recognize this field, and the issues are also discussed in novels and literary criticism.