Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: SCIENTIFIC MORALISM - The Liberal Mind
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IV.: SCIENTIFIC MORALISM - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The various supposedly scientific evasions of ethics and politics hold out a promise:
Treated as principles beyond the necessity for argument [rules of sexual morality] have been established as categorical imperatives to be imposed with the help of social sanctions, and the result has only too often been to divorce theoretic assertion from practical acceptance. Only when they are seen as rationally conceived guides to happiness, or as conditions of happiness empirically determined, is this divorce ended. Then, for instance, the nearly universal rule against incest ceases to appear as an unexplained decree, and is seen as arising out of the requirement for preserving the stability of family life. Similarly rules against adultery, which show much greater variety, instead of being rested on authoritative dogmas can claim rational acceptance as being grounded in the need and desire for permanent marital relationship and the demonstrably damaging effects of its breach upon this. And “thou shalt not commit adultery” is transformed from a commandment, rested on fear and aimed at restraining “natural” desire, into a commonsense guide to behaviour, grounded in demonstrable psychological facts in the field of the causation of attitude and habit, and which by rationally establishing the behavioural conditions of happiness tends to direct desires along channels leading to its achievement.11
Psychology, physiology and biology in close alliance are the props of this scientific moralism, and each is taken as a source of technical prescriptions: “the psychological is thus tending to replace the moral point of view, and there is little doubt that, in so far as the new approach proves effective, the process will continue.”12 These are statements appropriate to a liberal manifesto; what is the program they embody?
The program is clearly utilitarian: the maximization of happiness or satisfaction. It is a technology for getting the largest quantity of preferred things which the condition of the world will allow. Being a technology purportedly geared to our own desires and needs, it does not have to command or condemn; it is merely technical guidance. Indeed, the liberal objection to morality can be summed up in the formula: morality condemns, liberalism tries to understand. This is a scientific attitude which was powerfully codified in the operation of psychoanalysis, for no analysis could possibly overcome repressions if the analyst persistently interjected remarks like: “What a deplorable thing to think about your mother!” For condemnation separates people, whereas understanding brings them together.
This unobjectionable formula may with some justice be claimed as scientific; on its most obvious interpretation, we accept the world, including moral behavior, as evidence from which we may construct a theory of what the world is like. But the inroads of ideology here arise out of the ambiguity of the term “understanding.” For while understanding might be simply an intellectual development, the comprehension of what was previously obscure, it might also include varying quantities of sympathy, as in the phrase: “Yes, I do understand.” Given the intrusion of sympathy, much liberal understanding includes forgiveness, or, even, an implied renunciation of forgiveness on the grounds that forgiveness arrogantly assumes an unwarrantable superiority. Among liberals, understanding in this sympathetic manner became a duty, one of the stigmata of true tolerance. But understanding as a duty, like anything widely presented as a duty, undergoes considerable distortions. Given tout comprendre: c’est tout pardonner it is an easy step to tout pardonner: c’est tout comprendre. If the only proof of “understanding” is the emotion of sympathy, it is rather tempting to take the shortcut of automatic sympathy and omit the hard work of actual comprehension.
Yet while scientific moralism never strays very far from its protector Science, it can still claim continuity with earlier moral doctrines by pointing to the fact that it very largely incorporates the same rules—doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, restraining selfish desires, looking before one takes the indulgent leap. But—and here the program makes its claims to superiority—whereas the earlier grounds offered for these moral rules were confused, dogmatic and subject to endless dispute, the new grounds are irresistibly rational and must appeal to all men. There is nothing very novel about this belief. Hobbes shared it; so did Bentham, and neither could conceal an arrogant contempt for his bungling predecessors.
The most obvious criticism of scientific moralism is in terms of the naturalistic fallacy—even though most scientific moralists are aware of the danger. Both moralist and critic are here on the same ground, and they are even united in the suspicion that if we shut the door on values, they’ll come sneaking back through the window. Thus when the scientific moralist relates moral rules to terms like “health” or “adjustment,” his more rigorous critic will quickly point out that these terms are value-loaded and may go off. The rigorous critic is simply one who will not move from the position that the only thing which can constitute a value is actual demandedness. If people insist that they do not want health or adjustment, then the scientific expert must be silent. Values are created by personal choice and can be created in no other way.
The scientific moralist is not necessarily reduced to silence by this kind of criticism. For his studies have taught him to look deeper into the mind in search of the function of certain kinds of preference. And this has led him to the conclusion that a man who does not want to be healthy, for example, is sick in a peculiar kind of way. He is a hypochondriac, who uses his illnesses as an escape from personal responsibility. Therefore one must set out to cure this defect. For all rational men will agree that health is preferable to illness. To deny this position, concludes the argument of scientific moralism, would be merely irrationalist.13
Scientific moralism depends, then, upon placing every act in a policy context and studying its efficiency. The trick is simply to isolate a function, demonstrate the ineffciency with which it is currently being pursued, and proceed to recommendations for maximizing efficiency. The crucially loaded value in this system is therefore not “health” or “adjustment” or “satisfaction” or any of the many other variations of this kind of idea, but rather the conception of generic man as a system of functions.
It is the concept of generic man, or humanity, which makes plausible the idea of human progress. For if we begin with a single abstract hero called man, emerging in the springtide of his infancy from the caves and hovels of prehis-tory, and attribute to this hero all the swirling dramas of history up to the present time, and if we also consider those things which we now think most important, then it will be difficult for us to resist the conclusion that he has “improved himself.” He is cleaner, more knowledgeable, more comfortable, and each cell of the abstraction lives longer. If medical science, for example, is taken as the activity of discovering the character of human illnesses and the discovery of ways of removing them, then it makes very good sense to talk of progress in medicine. And if we invalidly take the utilitarian step of adding together into a single quantity all those things in which we detect progress, then the plausibility of attributing the progress-trend to “humanity” becomes nearly irresistible. All of this depends upon a theory of man as a purposive creature who will merely blunder ineffectually in the mire of his own ignorance and confusion unless he pursues goals clearly and rationally. In moods of complacency, for example, we find it easy to patronize rainmakers who were so palpably ineffcient at producing their declared end. “Magic, divination, sacrifice and prayer may relieve our feelings and reduce our fears when we are ignorant and impotent, but as our knowledge and our power increase we tend to abandon these practices in favour of others which we can see to lead more surely and directly to our goal.”14Our goal? But we have many, and some are incompatible with others. The great error of any doctrine of progress is to regard past behavior as incompetent and ineffcient; whereas, if we are to continue talking in these functional terms, all incompetence and ineffciency result from conflict about the nature of what we are doing.
We have, thus, the possibility of regarding the people of history either as radically different from us, not least in that they wanted different things and suffered different torments; or alternatively, we may regard them as failed replicas of ourselves. If we take this latter view, we will prefer to attribute those elements of history on which we have improved to a lack of reason or understanding—certainly a lack of something—in historical people. If, however, we take the former view, then we will attribute the different conditions and different achievements of times past as the product of quite different interests and preoccupations. And this latter view involves the abandonment of functionalism.
But it is difficult to abandon functionalism, because it is so tempting to go on inventing new functions to explain what was inexplicable before. We may, for example, assume that businessmen are rational pursuers of profit; and wherever we find ineffciency, we may diagnose deficiency. If this simple scheme appears to be inadequate, then we may simply go on adding functions: “. . . both politics and economics are as much competitive games as they are instrumentalities for meeting recognized needs or satisfying wants.”15 Again, since William James particularly, war has often been interpreted in functional terms as an outlet for various competitive or aggressive impulses in human nature, an interpretation leading to the search for moral substitutes—getting the kicks without spilling the blood. Both of these cases exemplify the intellectual device by which functionalism evades the moral character of the people engaged in these activities by splitting the situation up into generic man combined with some kind of policy.
Scientific moralism arises from the search for a single point of view which will ultimately harmonize human relations. The point of view requires the creation of a system in which everything can find a place. The meliorist concept of improvement means greater systematization, at the same time as meliorism demands active, improving behavior from people. The strategy of the system is determined by needs and similar functional concepts, and the tactics arise from a close attention to trends. In this system, everything finds a place, but only as a means to or function of some general abstract entity like happiness, satisfaction or equilibrium. Disinterested acts16 must be reduced for they cannot be systematized. A sculptor, for example, cannot simply do a piece of sculpture; he must have reasons for his act, that is, it must be a means to something else. It is only in this way that the system can preserve its flexibility. And it is only by being flexible, by being susceptible to continuous adjustment and revaluation, that the promise of ultimate harmony can be sustained. The system constructed out of generic man provides a point of view by which traditional moral rules can be judged and reinterpreted. It is in this way that they turn into “rationally conceived guides to happiness.”
But not all moral rules survive this transplantation to new grounds. Some must be discarded, and they are rejected because they are the functions of a corrupt human nature, in contrast to the fundamental human nature from which the moral principles of scientific moralism itself derive. On this principle, we encounter the interests argument.
The interests argument depends upon the assumption that everyone is maximizing happiness, and that for this reason people “promote their interests.” The promotion of interests involves, furthermore, the assertion of moral and political opinions. Such opinions, however, are merely epiphenomena, rationalizations of a pre-established interest. Why do white settlers in African territories believe that Africans will not be capable of governing themselves for centuries? Obviously, runs the interests argument, because they have an interest in remaining politically dominant. Why is it that rich people assert the sanctity of property? Obviously because they wish to safeguard political order in their possessions and privileges.
Logically speaking, the interests argument is a petitio principi if it is taken as a refutation of the moral and political opinions concerned. But the point of such a sophistical device is precisely to evade anything that might look like an invalid argument. The main successes of propaganda come not from invalid argument but from diversion of attention. Our concern is moved from the moral or political argument involved to items of economic or sociological information which “put the argument in perspective.”
Intellectually, the objection to the interests argument is its crudity. An interest is something assumed to explain the motives of human action and belief; but the only interests we can examine are the visible ones—the economic interests. The theory of human behavior involved is that which has generated the model of economic man; a calculator who mechanically responds to changes in his possibilities of consumption. It is much more difficult even to discover, much less to systematize, the psychological undercurrent—the passion to be proved right, the sudden moral intuitions, the fanatical convictions—which develop independently of any visible interests. It has been observed17 that one reason why Bentham preferred self-interest to sympathy among the moral concepts of the eighteenth century was the fact that self-interest is conceivably measurable; sympathy is not. The same consideration applies here. Visible or vested interests can be measured, and for that very reason they seem to be more real.
It is the theory of ideology which most elaborately justifies our acceptance of the interests argument. The difficulty is that the generalizations are false. It is not true that all industrialists are conservative, any more than it is true that all trade unionists are natural radicals. Both these beliefs are sound enough as political maxims in some circumstances; both have, on occasion, betrayed politicians. But when a cherished political maxim fails to fit the facts, it can be given a certain grandeur by the device of metaphysical elevation. The rich as such are conservative; or, in a sociological ideal model, conservatism is one of the attributes allocated to the rich, though the model may have to be modified if it is to be applied to reality. Our political maxim now leads an uneasy logical life, half-way between fact and definition, the kind of device by which the absurdities of Marxian or sociological class theory are propped up. The next move must be the construction of ad hoc hypotheses to explain to us why some rich are radical. Addenda of this kind might be a possible escape from this fantasy world, but even this escape is blocked off by the temptations of scientific moralism. For we might explain the fact that some rich are radical, or some white settlers espouse African majority governments, by the fact that these people are rational. They have seen a truth which their fellow members of the class have missed because of the distorting mists of interest. This kind of enlightenment solution is—as Marx pointed out—illogical if we are concerned with ideologies, and it leaves the interests argument with no higher status than that of a highly selective propaganda device. For the question remains: What are the interests which led to this espousal of Reason?
Paradoxically enough, the interests argument is a distant relation of a hallowed moral preoccupation—that of judging the disinterestedness of good acts. If certain political and moral policies, presented as the dictates of reason or experience, are seen as the product of economic or political interest, they are quite literally “demoralized.” The plausibility of the ensuing disparagement rests upon a generalized suspicion of motives where interests are involved. The criterion of interests is one which everyone uses in practical affairs to a greater or less extent.
Doctrines, then, are epiphenomena, outgrowths of passion and interest. So too are political organizations. Both are the functions of something deeper. These liberal beliefs may seem to arise from a somewhat eclectic borrowing from Marxism; and for particular liberals Marx may be the source of such beliefs. But liberalism has its own tradition of thought leading to the same conclusions. British empirical psychology can perfectly well tamper with the autonomy of thought by its use of the doctrine that “reason is the slave of the passions.” And liberal political thought has grown out of the social contract doctrine in its Lockian form, by which the State is an agency of something called Society. For in the monistic conception of society, modern liberalism has increasingly found its main criterion of political judgment. To this conception we must now turn.
Society and Its Variations
[11. ]Greaves, op. cit., p. 124.
[12. ]J. C. Flugel, Man, Morals and Society, London, p. 21 (my italics).
[13. ]Flugel (op. cit., pp. 17, 18) has an ingenious argument in general support of this position: “the distinction between means and ends,” he remarks quaintly, “is nearly always relative. There exists a whole hierarchy of values, each of which is a means to the value that stands just above it in the hierarchy” (my italics). This line of thought might have led him to a total rejection of teleological ethics; but its uses are too attractive to permit that. “Indeed,” he goes on, “the distinction between means and ends, though often convenient for the consideration of some relatively narrow problem, is largely arbitrary. At best there can only be a few unquestionable intrinsic values at the top of the hierarchy, such as Truth, Goodness, Beauty; or, if we press the matter further (?), there should strictly speaking be one only, a summum bonum or supreme value, to which all the rest are means—and, as we know, moral philosophers are not yet in agreement as to what this supreme value is.” The last sentence is a memorable understatement. Flugel is in the unhappy position of seeing that this hierarchy of values is an imposture, yet he cannot bear to abandon it. The reason is soon evident: “When it is objected that psychology can have no concern with values, it is of course meant that it is not in a position to state what are intrinsic values. But in view of the relative and fluctuating position of intrinsic and instrumental values it is hardly possible to say exactly at what point in the hierarchy of values its (psychology’s) influence must cease.” The splendid vagueness of this position simultaneously exiles moral philosophers to the vapid and airless heights of the ultimate, and underwrites anything at all that scientific moralists choose to assert.
[14. ]Flugel, op. cit., p. 21.
[15. ]Frank H. Knight, Intelligence and Democratic Action, Cambridge (Mass.), 1960, p. 129.
[16. ]Disinterested acts are spontaneous; they are done for no purpose and have no function in a system. The fact that the very word “disinterested” is now commonly misused to mean “uninterested” may be a symptom of how thoroughly utilitarian assumptions are accepted where modern liberalism is strong. Gide’s theory of the acte gratuit and many varieties of modern irrationalism may be seen as baffled attempts to escape from the incessant pressure to calculate behavior, constructing systems and being guided by them.
[17. ]By Wilfrid Harrison, Introduction (p. lii) to the Blackwell Edition of Bentham’s A Fragment on Government, etc., 1948.