Religion and the Modern Mind

by W.T. Stace


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Part 2: Section 3 - The Consequences for Morals

WE HAVE NOW TO TRACE ANOTHER SET OF CONSEQUENCES WHICH flowed from the seventeenth century scientific revolution. This time our question is: what has been the effect of that revolution, and of the consequent domination of the modern mind by science, on our moral ideas?

The first thing to see, as in the case of the effects of science on religion, is that there is no logical connection at all between the discoveries of the founders of science and any moral question. What difference can it make to any such question whether the earth goes round the sun or the sun goes round the earth? Does it alter the nature of our duties if the planets move in ellipses rather than circles? Is it any less our duty to be honest, sober, truthful and just, if Galileo's law of motion rather than Aristotle's holds; or if Newton's force of gravitation rather than Descartes' whirlpools controls the heavenly bodies? How, we may well ask, can these scientific discoveries possibly have anythmg to do with our moral problems?

It is the old story. There is indeed no logical connection. Yet in fact these scientific concepts have had a profound and unfortunate effect on moral ideas. They have brought about the collapse of the belief that the world is a moral order.

We may briefly remind the reader of the implications of this

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belief. It meant that the final government of the world is in some way a righteous government. There is a drive towards moral goodness in the world-process. This may be personified in the concept of a righteous God who rules the world. It may be vaguely conceived as a force in nature making for goodness. It expresses itself often enough in the mere feeling that somehow or other the good must triumph in the end and the evil be defeated.

It is the same as the conception which philosophers have expressed in their own jargon by saying that moral values are objecctive. And the belief that the world is not a moral order is the same as the conception that moral values are subjective. For a value is subjective if it depends on human desires, feelings, or opinions. It is objective if it does not depend on any such human mental states. And if moral values depend on human psychology, then they do not exist in the universe apart from the existence and the thoughts of human beings. There was no good or evil in the world before there were any men, and there will be none after men cease to exist. The non-human universe which is our dwelling place has in itself nothing either moral or immoral. It is indifferent to our human values. It is a non-moral world.

Finally, the belief that the world is a moral order is a part of the intellectual or cultural heritage of all highly civilized peoples. Not only is it a part of Christianity—finding expression therein in the concept of a righteous God—but in ancient Greece it expressed itself in different ways in such philosophies as those of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It permeates the Hebrew scriptures. In Indian religions, in Buddhism and Hinduism, it shows itself, somewhat dimly perhaps, in the law of karma.

Confining ourselves to the western world since the birth of Christ, we may say that one of the major contrasts between the medieval mind and the modern mind is that the former believed that the world is a moral order while the latter believes that it is not. Of course this is to state the matter too strongly, for the sake ·of emphasis. It is not meant that everybody in medieval times believed that the world is a moral order, while nobody in the modern world believes this. The former statement might be true,

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or very nearly true. But the latter statement needs much qualificaation. Throughout the modern period there has been a continuing series of powerful protests against the doctrine of the subjectivity of morals. To this aspect of the matter I hope to do justice in a later chapter. For the moment let us put the matter thus. In spite of frequent protests, it is characteristic of the modern Weltannschauung to hold that the world is not a moral order. This is the prevailing, if not the universal, opinion. And it would appear—at least to the present writer—to be the opinion which is winning out. The drift of the modern mind since the rise of science has set steadily more and more in that direction. And we have to ask how this has come about.

The key to the answer lies in the consideration that the concept of value—value of any kind, economic, esthetic, or moral—is intimately bound up with the concept of purpose, and that therefore those causes which operated to destroy or diminish belief in the existence of a world-purpose also operated to destroy or diminish belief that value is a factor in the universe. If there is purpose in the world, then there will be values in the world; values will be objective. But if there is no purpose in the world, but only in human minds, then there will be no values in the world, but only in human minds; values will be subjective.

We have to make clear the connection between the concept of value and that of purpose. It lies in the fact that, if anything is in any way valuable, it must presumably be valuable for some purpose. If we say that something is valuable, it is natural to ask: valuable for what purpose? It is also natural to ask: valuable to whom? And if we should say, "Such and such a thing is valuable, but it is not valuable for any purpose, or to anybody, it is just valuable," this would appear to be nonsense.

It is no doubt possible to dispute the statement that whatever is valuable must be valuable for some purpose. There may be ingenious philosophical theories of value which would deny this. But if so I shall have to point out that this does not really in the end concern us. For we are not in fact concerned with the theories of philosophers, or even with logic or truth, but with the psychol-

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ogy of the ages, with what men actually think and have thought. And even if a clever philosopher could construct a rational theory which made value wholly independent of purpose, it would still nevertheless be true that plain men always connect value with purpose. It is at least natural to think that if anything is valuable, this must be because it is valuable to somebody and for some purpose. Even if there is no logical transition from the concept of value to that of purpose, there certainly is a psychological transition. Men have supposed, rightly or wrongly, that there is a connection. And in terms of this psychological transition we can explain how men in the modern age came to believe that moral values are subjective.

For to say that something is morally good is to say that it has value of a certain kind. And if what is valuable must be valuable to some person and for some purpose, it is natural to ask to whom and for what purpose the thing which is morally good is valuable. Now so long as men believed in a world-purpose, whether existing in the mind of God or immanent in the world itself, what is morally good could be connected with that purpose and defined in terms of it. Either what is good is defined as that which is in accordance with God's purposes; or it is defined as that which is in accordance with the immanent world-purpose. I do not mean that common men would consciously articulate any such definiitions. They doubtless did not consciously articulate any definitions at all. But some such definitions they would have had to give if they had been capable of thinking out clearly the implications of their own ideas. We may perhaps say that in pre-scientific times these theories of the nature of moral value unconsciously controlled men's thinking.

As has been pointed out already, any such theory of the nature of moral value makes that value objective. For the purposes of God, and the immanent world-purpose, are independent of the human mind.

Now suppose that men lose their effective beliefs in God or a world-purpose. What will be the consequences for their conceptions of moral good and evil? They can no longer define them in

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terms of divine or cosmic purposes. But in terms of some purpose they have to be defined because of the principle that everything of value must be of value for some purpose. Men must therefore find some purposes other than divine or cosmic purposes on which to base moral values. What other purposes are there? None except human purposes. It therefore follows that men will be compelled to believe in some view of the nature of good and evil according to which they are dependent on human purposes. But this, by definition, is subjectivism. And it is the view that the world is not a moral order.

Thus the train of thought which has led from the pre-scientific belief that the world is a moral order to the modern belief that it is not may be summarized thus:

If morality is grounded in divine or cosmic purpose, it is objective. The world is a moral order.

Newtonian science caused a loss of effective belief in divine or cosmic purpose in the manner explained in the last chapter.

Hence morality could no longer be grounded in divine or cosmic purpose.

But values have to be connected with, and defined in terms of, some purpose.

If divine and cosmic purposes are eliminated, the only remaining alternative is human purpose.

Therefore moral values must now be made dependent on human purposes.

But this, by definition, is subjectivism, and is the view that the world is not a moral order.

This is the bald outline of the train of thought by which the moral objectivism of the medieval mind passed into the moral subjectivism of the modern mind. Of course it is not meant that this exact argument was ever laid out by thinkers in this exact way. This is no more than a schema, a naked skeleton of human thought, not the full flesh and body of any actual human thinking.

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Nobody, so far as I know, in the transitional period between medieval and modern times, ever actually argued precisely in these terms. Yet this does represent the compulsive force which must have lain behind human thinking. However men argued or expressed their thoughts this, or something like it, must have been what caused them to think and argue in the way they did. If men's belief in God or in a world-purpose ceased to be effecctive, it was inevitable, for the reasons given in the skeleton summmary, that they should come to think of moral values in human terms and not in divine or cosmic terms. Loss of religious faith necessitates the substitution of a secular ethics based on human purposes for an ethics grounded in religious conceptions.

It does not matter what men say they believe. It does not even matter much what they think they believe. Ninety-five per cent of Americans may say they believe in God, and it is not of course suggested that they are saying what is not true. No doubt they are quite sincere. The important question, however, concerns the effectiveness of the belief. If a belief has no influence, or extremely little influence, on action, then it is not an effective belief. Only if men base their mode of living on it can it be called effective. No doubt there are many people now alive who do base their lives on their religion. They are the truly religious souls. But they are few in number. No doubt in a sense this has always been true, even in the middle ages. Then, too, a majority may have been apathetic in religious matters. Yet it is commonly admitted that there was then in the world an "age of faith" which is now gone. It is impossible to measure such matters in terms of percentages. But there is certainly a truth in the contrast between the medieval and the modern ages in this respect.

We cannot say then that before the rise of science men believed in God and in cosmic purpose and that now they do not; and that therefore they then believed that the world is a moral order but now they do not. This would be plainly over-simple. But perhaps we can say something like this—that as the depth and effectiveness of religious belief has waned in the modern age, so belief that the world is a moral order has waned; that whereas the typical

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ethical thinking of the medieval period was objectivist, so the typical ethical thinking of the modern period is subjectivist; that this change-over began to appear precisely at that juncture in history which coincided with the birth of science; and that this was not a coincidence but a case of cause and effect. And how this cause, science, produced this effect, subjectivism, is what I have been trying to explain.

That subjectivism did appear first at the time of the rise of the new science is evidenced by the words of Hobbes already quoted.[1] Hobbes was not a great philosopher. But he was the philosophical mirror of the new science of his time. His philosophy is simply the generalization of the tendencies of the new science. Whatever appears in Galileo as a truth limited to the particular area of physics reappears in Hobbes as a universal truth about the whole cosmos. For instance, the new science is atomistic, which means that, according to it, matter is composed of atoms. Hobbes applies this to the whole universe. Nothing exists which is not made of atoms. Even the human soul is made of atoms. Everything which exists is material, and there are no non-material things. Thus the physical science of Galileo is translated by Hobbes into philosophical materialism. Again, the new science is based upon the principle that everything which happens in the physical world is rigidly determined by causes. This is universalized by Hobbes, and therefore applied to human actions. Either there is no free will, or free will has somehow to be understood within a framework of determinism. The world-view which Hobbes teaches is the world-view which he thought followed from science. And this fact makes him for us—in spite of his crudeness—a sensitive instrument for recording the influences of seventeenth century science on the more general trends of human thought. And thus it is too that Hobbes at once records the influence of that science upon moral ideas. He records the change from medieval objectivism to moddern subjectivism.

The moral subjectivism which first becomes apparent in Hobbes runs, as a major theme of the modern Weltanschauung, through

1 P. 35.

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through all those philosophers who, from his day to our own, have preached in one form of words or another that the world is not a moral order. I shall record some of the detail of this history in a later chapter. We may note now that John Dewey, who is generally admitted to be the mouthpiece of the most characteristic American thought of our day, is perpetually insisting that morallity is a human thing, having its roots in human nature. This is saying the same thing as Hobbes said, notwithstanding that Hobbes's version of subjectivism is crude, while Dewey's version is subtle and sophisticated. The same thing is true of the subjectivism of the currently fashionable philosophic school of the logical positivists. According to them an ethical statement, such as "Murder is wicked," is no more than an expression of a human emotion or a human attitude. They have their own way of using the term "subjectivistic," according to which their theory is not subjectivism. But we must not be misled by words. Of course whether a theory is subjectivistic or not depends on your definiition of subjectivism. The positivists have a definition which is different from mine. By my definition any view is subjectivistic in which moral values are dependent on human psychology. And by this definition the positivistic theory that moral statements are expressions of our emotions or attitudes is a version of subbjectivism. And the subjectivism of the present day has its roots in the same causes which led Hobbes to his subjectivism, the science of the seventeenth century and the general domination of the modern mind by science which dates from that time.

We must now take another step forward. The scientific revolution was the ultimate cause of modern moral subjectivism. But that moral subjectivism led at once to moral relativism, the theory that all moral values and standards are relative either to individual persons—individual relativism—or to cultures or societies—group relativism. We must describe both what this idea means and how it has seemed to men to be a necessary corollary of subjectivism.

The latter point is easy to understand. Subjectivism means that

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moral values have their source in human purposes or desires. But what things do men desire, and what are their purposes? The first thing that occurs to one is that this differs from man to man. What one man likes is exactly what another dislikes. To see how moral relativism has been supposed to follow from moral subjectivism, we have simply to point to the vast variety of human purposes. If what is good or right is simply what suits the purposes of a man, then, since the purposes of one man or set of men differ from those of another, what is good for one man or set of men will not be good for another. It may be indifferent or it may be positively bad. As usual Hobbes records at once the view which he thinks follows from science. "Every man," he writes, "calleth that which pleaseth, and is delightful to himself, good." This is subjectivism. He goes on immediately: "while every man differeth from another in constitution, they differ also from one another concerning the common distinction of good and evil. Nor is there any such thing as absolute goodness, considered without relation." This is relativism.

Thus the skeleton framework of another part of the modern Weltanschauung is exposed naked:

Science leads to subjectivism.

Subjectivism leads to relativism.

The reason given by Hobbes—the differing constitutions of men, the differences of their desires and purposes—has always been, from his time to the present day, the fundamental reason for believing that morals are relative. We may ask whether the transition from subjectivism to relativism is a valid logical transition. I hold that it is not, or at least that there is in it only a partial validity leading to conclusions differing widely from the chaotic relativism which is characteristic of our time. But I must reserve consideration of the logic of the question to a later chapter. At present I am describing only what has happened in the modern world. And what has happened is given, in essence, in the transition exhibited above. It is for the reason there stated that the

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modern Weltanschauung is relativistic in regard to its moral theory.

We must of course make the usual qualifications. Not everyone living in our day accepts a relativistic view of morals. There have been, and there still are, important protests in the modern period. We are describing only the most characteristic and dominant trends of the modern age. The protests will be considered in their proper place.

The contrast of the modern view with the medieval view is obvious. In the "age of faith," before faith had been undermined by science, it was taken as a matter of course that the moral law is absolute and is the same for all men. There is but one God, the father of all men, and his commands for all his children are the same. The same moral law is in reality the law alike for the Christian and for the most benighted heathen. The difference is that the heathen has not learned and does not know the law. Hence he may develop different views as to what is right and wrong. Where these views coincide with the one true moral law they are correct, where they diverge from it they are mistaken. This belief in a single absolute moral law is not in the least inconsistent with the fact that in different countries, ages and civiliizations, moral ideas vary. The fact that the same thing is thought good in one culture and bad in another does not show that morals are relative in the sense that the same thing is good in one culture and is bad in another. For one belief or the other may be mistaken, and those who hold it may be ignorant of the true moral law. If stealing is wrong it is wrong, everywhere and always. If some uncivilized tribe should be found which thinks stealing a duty, this does not mean that stealing is in fact a duty for them. It means that they are ignorant of the true conception of duty.

This is not merely the view which was common in Christenndom. Anyone who believes that the world is a moral order must necessarily hold it if he is to be consistent. For if moral values are objective they are independent of the beliefs or opinions of men, so that something is not made good by the mere fact that some men or some cultures think it good. If what is good or bad is

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determined by any sort of cosmic purpose, or by the nature of the universe, It will he quite independent of the special idiosyncrasies of particular societies. What is right will be what is in harmony with the cosmic order. Men's beliefs about this will naturally vary, as they vary about other facts in the universe. But there can be only one truth about the facts. Thus any kind of moral objectivism implies the existence of a single universal morality. It is only subjectivism which leads to the contrary view. And it is very imporrtant to realize that ethical relativism is in conflict not only with Christianity but with any genuinely religious view of the world. For the belief that the world is a moral order is a part of the religious view of things, and it implies a single universal morality.

That relativism is characteristic of the modern mind can hardly, I think, be doubted. The most "advanced" philosophers of our time, the logical positivists, proclaim it. So do numerous philosophers of other schools. The only contemporary philosophers who tend to deny it are the so-called idealists, and they are commonly regarded as "out of date." Anthropologists and sociologists generally support it. Nor is it only the learned who teach it. It has become a part of the mental outfit of common men. Anyone who has much to do with students in their freshman and sophomore years—and these perhaps constitute something like a cross-section of the upper layers of our society—will know that if a moral question is under discussion, some student is almost sure to say, "But of course morals are all relative," and this will generally pass without any comment from his fellow students. The "of course" tells its own tale as to the general opinion. The very same people, students or more adult members of the population, who say that "of course" morals are relative may at the same time profess belief in some form of Christianity. They are unaware that there is a contradiction in their views.

The genealogy of moral relativism has now been traced. Its source is in seventeenth century science. That science led to subjectivism, and subjectivism led to relativism. There seems to be a popular belief that it is the anthropologists of the present day who originated relativism, or at least "proved" it. I do not know

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whether the anthropologists themselves would make any such claim. It is, at any rate, absurd. Relativism was born into the world long before the rise of the new science of anthropology, as a mere glance at Hobbes would be sufficient to show. The anthropologists and sociologists are merely carried more or less helplessly along on the tidal wave of modern thought propagated by the scientific earthquake of three hundred years ago.

The claim that recent anthropology has proved relativism is even more absurd than the claim that it originated that tendency of thought. All it has done is to discover a large number of new instances of the fact that moral beliefs vary from society to society. Anthropologists study the customs of Melanesian islanders or American Indians, and they discover among these peoples widely varying ideas of what is good or bad, right or wrong. But the general fact that moral ideas vary from society to society has been known at least since the time of the Greek historian Herodotus, who travelled widely and recorded in his book many differing sets of moral beliefs among the different peoples among whom he dwelt. Plato knew quite well that the moral standards of "barbarians" were different from those of the Hellenes. Christian writers throughout the ages must have known that moral beliefs vary, otherwise they could not have protested against the false moral ideas of the heathen. And recent anthropology, for all its interesting revelations about primitive peoples, has contributed nothing whatever to the solution of the problem whether morals are relative. It has only underlined the already well-known truth that moral beliefs vary.

This brings us to the all-important question of the meaning of the doctrine of ethical relativity. The sentence, "Morals are relative," might no doubt be understood in a variety of ways. But there are two meanings which must be carefully distinguished, because the failure to keep them separate is the root cause of much muddled thinking on this subject.

First, the sentence, "Morals are relative," may be intended to mean only that moral beliefs, ideas, and standards vary from

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society to society, from age to age, from culture to culture, and are therefore in this sense relative to the cultures in which they make their appearance. This is indisputable, and anyone who denied it would be ignorant. This is what Herodotus and Plato knew. This is what most educated men have always known. And this is what the anthropologists have more abundantly proved.

The second meaning of relativism includes this, but goes much further. The sentence, "Morals are relative," is in this case taken to mean that the moral ideas of any society are true for that society. It is one thing to say that a man believes an idea, and quite another thing to say that the idea is true. According to this second meaning of relativism, it is not only the case that two different cultures may have two differing beliefs about some moral question, but it is also the case that each of these beliefs is true in the culture which accepts it. It is one thing to say that the Greeks thought that slavery was right, another thing to say that in ancient Greece slavery was right. There is exactly the same difference as there would be between saying that men in a certain age thought that the earth is flat and saying that in that age the earth was flat.

We may put this second meaning of relativism in another way.

According to those who hold it there is no single universal moral truth which is the standard by which all varying moral beliefs are to be judged. There exist only the varying moral beliefs of the different cultures. Each of these is therefore its own standard of moral truth. This comes to the same thing as saying that there is no objective moral standard. There are only the varying subjective standards of different cultures. Therefore, if any question arises as to what is right or good, one can only look to these varying cultural standards to find the answer. According to one such standard a certain thing will be good. According to another such standard the very same thing will be bad. There is no sense in asking whether the thing is "really" good or bad. For this implies some objective standard by reference to which the answer is to be given. And no such standard exists. What alone exists is the varying subjective opinions about good and evil. Therefore

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if one insists on asking the question whether a certain thing actually is good or not—which is really, on the relativist view, a meaningless question—the only possible answer is that it is good in one society and bad in another.

It is this second meaning of relativism—and not only the first—which is characteristic of the modern mind. For if the philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who assert relativism meant only that moral beliefs vary from society to society, they would merely be asserting a platitude, the truth of which has always been known by educated people.

And it is important to see that it is this second meaning of relativism which follows from—or has been thought to follow from—subjectivism. One can see this simply by looking again at Hobbes. Good is by him defined as "that which pleaseth a man," and evil as "that which displeaseth a man." There is, on this view, no objective standard of what is good or bad. The standard is only the subjective pleasure of the individual. Accordingly, if a thing pleases me, that thing is good—for me. And if the same thing displeases you, that thing is bad—for you. There is no external or objective standard by reference to which it is possible to say that one of the two opinions is right, the other wrong.

Exactly the same thing holds if we substitute group relativism for the individual relativism asserted in the sentences quoted from Hobbes. Good will then be defined as that which pleases the group, evil as that which displeases it. The same conclusion folllows that there is no objective standard, and that if the same thing pleases one group and displeases another, then the same thing is good for one and bad for the other, and that neither of the two opinions is more right or correct or true than the other. Each is right according to its own standard, and there is no other standard to judge by. Modern relativists do not usually define good and evil, as Hobbes did, in terms of pleasure and displeasure. They speak of differing feelings, emotions, or attitudes. But this obviously makes no difference to what I am saying. Feelings,

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emotions, and attitudes are just as subjective as pleasures and displeasures, and just as variable. And if good and evil are defined in terms of them, we shall have varying subjective moral standdards with no objective standard to decide between them.

I said that it is very important to keep the two meanings of the sentence, "Morals are relative," distinct; and that much of the muddled thinking in our age results from confusing the two. This is because, if one supposes that the first meaning, namely, "moral ideas and beliefs vary from culture to culture," is equivalent to the second meaning, namely, "there is no objective moral standard, and the moral beliefs of each culture are true in that culture," then of course one also supposes that if the first meaning is true the second meaning must be true too. And since the first meaning obviously is true, it will seem to follow that the second meaning must be true. But if the two meanings are kept distinct, it will be seen that relativism in the second sense does not follow from relativism in the first sense.

There is very good reason to believe that a vast number of people, including, I regret to say, both anthropologists and phiilosophers, do fall into this trap and commit this fallacy, and this is one of the main reasons why moral relativism—in the second sense—is so easily and uncritically swallowed by the multitude. They point to the fact that moral beliefs vary from culture to culture. They quote the discoveries about primitive peoples made by the anthropologists. And they think that these facts "prove" the truth of relativism. Obviously all they actually prove is that "morals are relative" in the first of the two meanings of that sentence. They have no tendency at all to prove the second and important meaning of relativism, unless one wrongly supposes that the two meanings are the same, or that the second follows from the first.

One can perhaps make the essentially fallacious character of this common thinking clear by pointing out that men differ in their opinions, not only about moral matters, but about almost everything; and that, in matters other than moral, nobody sup-

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poses that the existence of conflicting opinions shows that there is no objective standard of truth. For instance, suppose someone should argue in this way:

We believe that the earth is globular, but there was an age and a culture in which it was believed that the earth is flat.

Therefore the earth is globular now in our culture, but it was flat in that age and that culture.

Everyone would recognize that this argument is ridiculous. But the logic of it is exactly the same as that of the argument:

We believe that head hunting is a moral evil, but there is a cullture in the South Seas in which it is believed that it is a very fine thing.

Therefore head hunting is bad in our culture and good in that other culture.

In both of the arguments the premise states that beliefs are variable. In both the conclusion is drawn that no objective standard of truth exists, and that consequently any and every opinion must be admitted to be true in and for the age or the culture which believes it. But if the logic is bad in the one case, it is bad in the other. Therefore it is a complete fallacy to think that the great variety of moral codes in the world in any way tends to show that morals are relative in the sense in which that phrase is commonly understood in our day. Yet there is no doubt that this absurd non sequitur influences the popular mind. And I cannot help suspecting that the same logical naivete characterizes the thinking of some social scientists and some philosophers. Of course they do not state the argument as I stated it. If they did, they would see its absurdity. But they are influenced by it in the sense that they vaguely suppose, without thinking it out, that in some way the great variety of moral beliefs is an evidence of relativism.

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That this argument for relativism is a bad one does not prove, of course, that relativism is false. For true conclusions are often supported by bad arguments. And there might be other arguments for relativism which are valid. For instance, if it were proved that subjectivism is true, i.e., that the world is not a moral order; and if it were shown that relativism follows (as most moddern thinkers have supposed that it does) from subjectivism; then this would be a good, in fact a conclusive, argument for relativism. And this is the argument on which those philosophers, as distinct from social scientists, who believe in relativism, have always relied. It is the argument, or at least the train of thought, which has actually produced the characteristic relativism of the modern age. And if the modern discoveries about the moral ideas of primitive peoples have exerted an influence, it has been only on a superficial level. Seventeenth century science caused the trend towards relativism, brought relativism into existence, and the work of the anthropologists is merely seized on by an age which already believes in relativism as a support for its conclusions.

What all this amounts to is that the older religious foundations of morality have disappeared owing to our "scientific" ways of thinking, that no other foundation has been discovered, and that in consequence the theory of morality is bankrupt and is collapsing. For to say that the moral beliefs of every society, however primitive it may be, are for it the only possible standards, and that in consequence the moral ideas of one culture are not any better than, but only different from, those of another, is really to say that morality has no foundation at all and moral beliefs no truth.

What influence, if any, the collapse of moral theory has had, or will have, upon actual moral behavior, is a difficult question to discuss. People, of course, go on being moral up to a point out of mere habit. Without a minimum of moral behavior a society cannot flourish, or even survive. Common decency, apart from any conviction, impels most men to treat their fellow beings with a certain amount· of fairness and even kindness. Generous impulses are strong in many people. Such considerations,

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though they are insufficient to be motives for any exalted nobility of action, will always ensure that good behavior does not entirely disappear within any given society.

But if we turn from the internal relations between individuals in the same society to the relations between societies, the picture seems to be different. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the present breakdown of international morals is, at least in part, due to the relativism of the modern age. We cannot, of course, ignore economic and other purely material causes. But spiritual and intellectual conditions are not without effect. And it cannot be denied that the present moral chaos of international relations is the perfect reflection in the practical world of the theory of ethical relativity. It is not without significance that Mussolini described the ethical theory on which he based his state as "politiical relativism." We are inclined, at the moment, to ascribe the breakdown of international morals to communism. But a little while ago we were blaming fascism. Mussolini was right. For suppose we apply moral relativism to the relations between socieeties. According to the group relativism now popular among social scientists and philosophers, the moral standards of a given society are, within that society, binding upon the individuals who compose it. (Whether there is any logical basis for this contention or not is another question. I should hold that there is not.) But as between societies or cultures, there can be no moral code which is binding. On the view stated by Hobbes, good is what pleases the individual, evil is what displeases him. This is now given up. Group relativism is the view that what pleases (or evokes an attitude of approval, or some other subjective emotional state, in) a society is good within that society and for that society, but not outside it. Translated into practice, what this means is that what Germany likes is morally right for Germany, and what Russia likes is morally right for Russia. This is "political relativism," and it is equivalent to the total absence of any morality as beetween nations, and this is exactly what we see in practice.

The relativistic spirit of the age is, of course, rampant in western Europe and America. Indeed, it was in western Europe that

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it originated, and not in Germany or Russia. And if the western democracies do not follow its lead in international affairs, if they still believe in international justice and try to establish it, this can only be because we in the west are muddled in our thinking. We keep murmuring, "Of course morals are only relative," and our intellectuals argue for ethical relativity. But fortunately we do not yet act on these beliefs. We act as if we still believed that there is a law of justice valid for all men, valid between nations as between individuals. This is inconsistent with modern "enlightenment." But our actions seem to be better than our theory.


We must now briefly trace another line of thought which had its source in the scientific revolution, and which has had at least a measure of influence on men's moral ideas. This concerns the so-called "problem of free will." To say that a man has free will is to say that he has the power to choose between alternative courses of action. I am presumably free to choose whether I shall drink tea or coffee for my breakfast. Nothing normally compels me to drink either the one or the other. This is not what we call a moral choice, because whether I drink tea or coffee is morally indifferent. But we do make moral choices, and these may be profoundly important. I may have a choice between murdering my mother to get her life insurance and not murdering her. There may be cases in which it is very difficult to say whether an action was done as a result of a man's free choice or as a result of compulsion. For instance, whether a man who steals a loaf of bread under the urge of intense hunger, which he could not satisfy in any other way, can be said to act freely or under compulsion, may be a matter of dispute. But it cannot be doubted that there are frequently situations in which we seem to be quite free to choose whether we shall do what is right or what is wrong. In these cases at least we commonly believe in the existence of free will.

The connection of free will with the theory of morality lies in the fact that it has usually been held by philosophers that, unless there is free will, nobody can rightly be held morally responsible


for what they do. Suppose we disbelieved in free will. Suppose we believed that everybody, in everything they do, from the most important to the most trivial actions, acts under unavoidable compulsion, we should doubt whether we ought to hold anybody morally responsible for their actions. How would it be just to punish, or even to blame, a man for doing something which he could not help doing? For the same reason we should very likely feel that no one really deserves the reward, or the praise, which he gets for his good actions since he could not help doing them. Thus free will seems to be essential if there is to be any moral responsibility. And if no one can be held morally responsible for what they do, how can there be any morality?

All normal people instinctively believe in free will. Nothing seems more obvious than that I am free to choose whether I will drink tea or coffee. I have no doubt myself that the obvious view is the true view, and that we do have free will. Nevertheless this can be doubted, and has been doubted, by many very clever and learned men. They have used arguments to show that free will, however strongly we may feel that we have it, is in fact a delusion. And the reason why this becomes a part of our story is that these arguments are based upon ideas which have been derived from the scientific revolution. I do not mean to say that science invented the problem of free will, or that the difficulties which are inherent in the conception of it were discovered by modern science. There may be said to have been a problem about free will ever since men began to think. It was discussed in the middle ages by Thomas Aquinas, and in ancient times by Aristotle. What science did was to make the problem acute in the modern period by providing a new argument for disbelieving in free will. And modern disbelief in it—maintained, it should be said, only by a few intellectuals and not by the man in the street, who is usually unaware that there is any problem—is the immediate result of the scientific view of things.

Newtonian science gave rise to the assumption that every event is completely determined by a chain of causes which could, if we knew enough, be traced back indefinitely far into the past. What-

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ever happens, therefore, has been certain and pre-determined from the beginning of time. This general thesis is called determinism. It was well expressed by Laplace who wrote:

An intelligence knowing, at a given instant of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary positions of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motions of the largest bodies of the world and those of the smalllest atoms in one single formula, provided it were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, both future and past would be present before its eyes.[2]

Recent physics has shown reasons for doubting the complete truth of this view. But it was the view which seemed to follow from Newtonian science, and it was Newtonian science which became influential in the making of the modern mind. Moreover—in spite of the assertions of some physicists—the indeterminism of recent science does nothing to relieve the difficulties of the problem of free will, as will be shown in due course.

The postulate of determinism provided the modern argument against free will. Every event is completely determined by causes. A human action is just as much an event in nature as is a whirlwind or an eclipse of the sun. Therefore a human action is wholly determined by its past causes. Therefore it could not possibly be other than it is. If you know all the causes which produce an event, you can predict the event. The eclipse of the sun which occurred yesterday could have been predicted a million years ago if there had been astronomers alive then who knew all the causes which operate in the solar system. Apply this thought to the actions of human beings, which are, after all, nothing but motions of their physical bodies. Everything which men do could be predicted beforehand by anyone who knew enough about the causes, and the chains of causes stretching back into the past, which produced their actions. This means that whatever you do you were certain to do. You could not have done otherwise. You had no choice. You told a lie yesterday. It was certain thousands

2 Quoted, Foundations oj Physics, R. B. Lindsay and H. Margenau (New York: Wiley, 1936), p. 517.

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of years ago, nay, millions of years ago, that you would tell that lie; and the intelligence imagined by Laplace—the Laplacean "Calculator, as it is sometimes called—could have foreseen it. But if this is so, what sense is there in saying that, when your life came to the moment of time in which you told that lie, you could have chosen whether you would tell it or not?

The general argument then is simply that all human actions must be wholly determined by causes of some kind, and that this is inconsistent with belief in free will. But if it is asked what kind of causes determine human actions, the answer is not so clear. Different answers have been given to this question, and these differing answers have given rise to different versions of the denial of free will. In general there have been two versions which may be called respectively the materialistic and the dualistic view.

The materialistic view holds that a human being is simply a material object and nothing more. What is called mind, soul, or spirit is not a non-material thing, but is material or a function of matter. In that case a human being—body and soul as we say—is entirely composed of atoms. Human actions are motions of the body, and these are ultimately reducible to the motions of swarms of atoms. The motions of each atom, and therefore the motions of the whole body, are entirely controlled by physical laws and physical causes. Therefore human actions are no more free than are the motions of the individual atoms which compose the human body.

The dualistic view depends on the belief that what we call mind cannot be reduced in this way to material atoms. Thoughts, emotions, and mental states generally, are not physical existences. (We need not specify, for our purposes, what they are supposed to be.) It may be thought that any dualistic view of the nature of mind will free us from the dilemma into which we have fallen about free will. For it cannot be said, if we hold a dualistic view, that all our actions are the results of the physical forces which control atoms. May not our minds, then, be free?

But it has not usually been thought possible to adopt this way out. For the general theory of determinism has been held to apply

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to minds, even if they are not material. Dualism only leads to another version of the denial of free will. Dualistic determinism usually says that our actions, or many of them, are caused by motives, or desires, or volitions. These in turn must have had their causes; and their causes must have had causes; and so on back indefinitely. In other words, it makes no difference whether we regard the universe as made of only one kind of thing, matter, or whether we think that there are in it two distinct kinds of thing, matter and mind. The principle of determinism, that whatever happens, is wholly determined by causes, and is theoretically predictable and therefore certain beforehand, applies to everything which exists, mind as well as matter. Therefore on either view human actions are not free.

It may be said that although physical determinism may be true, there is no reason to suppose that determinism applies to minds as well as to matter. But this suggestion seems to be groundless. Whatever kind of psychology you accept, materialistic or duallistic, it would appear that desires, motives, emotions, thoughts, and other mental states have causes, and that these causes have causes, and so on indefinitely back into the past. Hunger, or the desire for food, is caused by well-known physiological states of the body. Desires for drink and sex obviously also have bodily causes. These simple desires are easily explained. Even the more complex desires plainly have causes, though it is often very diffiicult to trace them in detail. Environment, heredity, social pressures, education, all play their part. And it would seem that if one knew all the causes of a man's mental condition at any time, one could predict his actions with certainty.

The fact that the causes which determine actions are often unknown, or are so complicated that it is impossible to determine them in detail, is nothing to the point. For the same is true in the physical world. Who can set out all the conditions which bring about a certain rainstorm? For this reason the weather is notoriiously unpredictable. And if human actions often seem unpredictable, it is for the same reason. Theoretically, if one knew all the relevant meteorological conditions, one could predict every detail

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of the rainstorm. It will be the same with human actions. And just as the weather is in some degree predictable, so are human actions. The more you know of a human being, and of his psychology, and of the forces, social, environmental, or spiritual, which act on him, the more nearly you can say beforehand what he will do.

Thus there is every reason to think that the law of causal deterrminism is universal, that it applies in the internal world of mind as well as in the external world of matter. Whether we adopt a materialistic or a dualistic theory of human personality, in either case free will seems to be impossible. However you look at it, Newtonian science implies determinism, and determinism has seemed to most people to imply the denial of free will. Whether it really does so, whether there is any escape from this impasse, will be discussed in a later chapter. For the moment we have been concerned only with the story of how the modern mind came to its denial of free will.

Admitting that belief in free will is necessary to belief in moral responsibility, it is an open question whether the modern denial of free will has had any noticeable effect on morals. I shall later show that the whole line of thought which led to the denial of free will is a logical muddle, that there is nothing either in recent or in Newtonian science which need have caused it. But this would not prevent it from influencing human thoughts and actions. Nothing in Newtonian science need have caused a breakkdown of religious faith. But the modern mind has supposed that it must. Nothing in it excludes belief in a cosmic purpose. But the modern mind has supposed that it does. Nothing in it has any tendency to prove that the world is not a moral order. Yet the world has drawn from it that conclusion. All these fancied impliications of science are logical muddles. But the history of human thought is the history of muddles. And the question now before us is whether this particular muddle about free will has had any practical influence in the way of undermining morality.

The main reason which can be given for doubting whether it has is that the denial of free will has been practically confined to

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intellectuals, and does not seem to have seeped down, in any noticeable degree, to the unlearned. In this it differs from the loss of effective belief in God or a world-purpose, which have infected popular thought. The picture of a meaningless and senseless world, and therefore of the futility of human life, is mirrored in the popular art and literature of our time. It does not seem that the denial of free will is so mirrored—unless perhaps the sort of fatalistic view of human life to be found in some of the writings of Thomas Hardy could be given as an example. The reason for this difference is, I think, plain. God and world-purpose, whether in fact they exist or not, are not at any rate obvious in our daily lives, whereas the existence of free will is obvious every time we decide to eat or drink or go for a walk. And as a rule only very learned and clever men deny what is obviously true. Common men have less brains, but more sense.

But on the question of the actual influence of the denial of free will there is a certain amount to be said on the other side. The notions of historical determinism, economic determinism, and cultural determinism, although they are primarily intellectualist ideas have become fairly widely popular. The thoughts that we are all engulfed in "the wave of the future," that nothing that any individual can do will affect the course of history, that even great men are the products of historical movements and are not, except in a negligible degree, the causes of these movements, exert their influence. In the conduct of our private lives also determinism may be thought to be apparent. Whereas even fifty or a hundred years ago people were in general believed to be responsible for their evil actions, these are now more generally attributed to causes beyond their control. Crime is not really a moral lapse but a disease which, like measles, should not be punished but cured. Men, on any view, do wrong. But former generations urged moral endeavor as the preventive of wrongdoing. Now we think that pills and injections should be substituted for the prescriptions of the saints. It may be that all this is an improvement in our thinking. But it may also be that men and women who could, with a little effort, control their tempers, their lusts, or their

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folly may think themselves excused from such effort by laying the blame for their ill behavior on their glands, their livers, their environment, their heredity, the social system—on anything, in fact, except themselves. It may be the case that the more humane treatment of criminals, the benefits which can be derived from the work of psychiatrists, the greater tolerance which may now be extended to certain forms of behavior which were formerly treated with brutal lack of understanding, outweigh the disadvantages which attach to a weakened sense of moral responsibility. But the latter should not be ignored, and is fraught with obvious dangers.

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Next: The Consequences for Philosophy




W.T. Stace: Mysticism and Philosophy

W.T. Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

W.T. Stace: Theory of Existence and Knowledge

The problem of evil assumes the existence of a world-purpose. What, we are really asking, is the purpose of suffering? It seems purposeless. Our question of the why of evil assumes the view that the world has a purpose, and what we want to know is how suffering fits into and advances this purpose. The modern view is that suffering has no purpose because nothing that happens has any purpose: the world is run by causes, not by purposes.
         ... W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind