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The anachronism of morality

Innes Crellin attacks the cold logic of English moral philosophy.

Fifty years ago the concentration camp at Auschwitz was revealed in all its horror. The questions which were raised then were, in all innocence, simple ones. “What sort of people could commit such outrages?” “What conditions produced men and women who were capable of such evil and immoral behaviour?” Such questions were, of course, based on assumptions about concepts such as ‘outrage’, ‘morality’, ‘evil’ and the like. While psychologists have been able to investigate, to some degree at least, the causes of the behaviour exhibited in the camps, the meanings which lie behind such concepts and which are properly the concern of philosophers have been shrouded and distorted by parochial philosophical interests. Ninian Smart (a leading philosopher of religion) may deplore the fact that “Western philosophy remains particularly tribal in its interests”, but the reality is even more stark than his comment suggests.

Anglo-Saxon Philosophy

The insularity of English philosophy was demonstrated by R.M. Hare, formerly White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, when he suggested that “the commoner sort [of Continental philosophers] do little but blow up balloons of different shapes and colours, full of nothing but their own breath, which float across the Channel … and if you prick them with a sharp needle, it’s very hard to say what was in them, except that it was probably inflammable and certainly intoxicating” 1. Such a comment represents a form of philosophical Euro-scepticism that does little to advance universal understanding. Such tribalism has damaged philosophy by constraining the development of a wider vision which sees all such talk of morality as anachronistic.

The reaction of the English philosophical intelligentsia to such moral outrages as Auschwitz was, as could have been predicted from its positivist and disinterested heritage, the defensive response of distancing. Questions about ‘evil’ were relegated to the metaphysical dustbin and questions about morality were re-phrased and neutralised. They became questions about the meaning of the word ‘moral’ and were reformulated as questions about the ‘correct’ use of that word (that is, asking how moral language could be used without logical or literal contradictions).

Typical of such responses were Hare’s deliberations in his 1952 book The Language of Morals. Hare suggested that a proposition could only claim to be moral when it called for an action which was universalisable (that is, when the person uttering the proposition saw it as equally appropriate both to himself and to all others). Thus, for example, the proposition “All Jews should be killed” could only be regarded as fulfilling the requirements of a ‘moral’ proposition if the person saying it was willing, if he found himself to be a Jew, to be killed. Such analysis added up to no more than the moral imperative ‘Act towards others as you would wish to be treated’ – or ‘Don’t make exceptions in your own case’.

The main thrust of Hare’s argument was not, however, designed to produce moral propositions such as these – only to clarify their linguistic nature. Although Hare concluded that moral propositions were, in effect, nothing more than ‘universalisable prescriptions’, he was aware of the need to base these prescriptions on a set of principles which, he declared, “we have by our own decision accepted and made our own.” 2 What he failed to do was enlarge on the much more relevant matter of what was involved in doing this.

Alongside these deliberations were other, equally abstract, attempts at clarification – not, it must be said, clarification of what were the necessary conditions of being moral, but merely clarification of the linguistic or logical basis of moral propositions. Hence we have the American, Stevenson (Facts and Values, 1963), constrained within the exported framework of English academic philosophy, proposing that moral propositions were nothing more than emotional statements of preference, a conclusion based on the rather flimsy belief that if we were all fully aware of the totality of consequences and implications we would not be in disagreement about moral action.

In assuming this Stevenson cleverly avoided the main issue posed by morality – the question of what enabled people to prefer ‘good’ decisions rather than ‘bad’ ones. (We might conclude from his work, for example, that the Nazis’ desire to exterminate the Jews was based on nothing more than a failure to read correctly the consequences and implications of doing so).

A.J. Ayer, to take another example, limited by a similar objectified disinterest, dismissed the existence of any solid substance to morality with his suggestion that moral propositions were nothing more than expressions of approval or disapproval. Thus when we say, “It is wrong to attempt to annihilate Jewry” all we are expressing is our disapproval, which implies, of course, that others have an equal right to express their approval or disapproval. No attempt was made to draw a distinction between sound and unsound approval, a distinction which, I suggest, would throw far more light on the questions posed by morality than mere linguistic analysis, however clever it may be.

Such Anglo-American approaches to the problem seem – especially to those involved in making serious moral judgments – to be a mischievous, if not offensive, avoidance of the problem of what it means to act morally. They seem to suggest that, for example, those who perpetrated such horrific crimes against humanity as did the Nazis against the Jews, were doing nothing more than failing to universalise their actions, or merely stating in their actions preferences or approvals. I am sure that Anglo-American philosophers of this ilk are, in fact, as genuinely condemnatory of the actions of the Nazis as are the rest of us, but what I find disturbing is the fact that their works fail totally to carry this conviction forward. They fail to recognise that the crux of the problem is about the nature of evil and about good being and its nature.

The reasons for this failure are many, but primarily, I think, they rest with the conceptual constraints presented by a peculiarly English disinterested view of what it means to engage in philosophical discourse. They believe that to see the world clearly they must be objective, like scientists. They see all subjective concerns as inappropriate and this in turn prohibits philosophers from speaking for themselves as persons in their own right. Such constraints, above all, deny the subjectivity of the proposer of such theories and deny him any form of authenticity (genuineness). Such a situation comes about because English philosophers, in their deep desire to avoid any form of partisanship, confuse ‘subjectivity’ with ‘bias’. It is this deep fear of the possibility of being swayed by anything but cold logic or empirical evaluations that prevents them opening their hearts to that which is of signal importance – their own ‘being’. It is a peculiarly English condition.

Continental Philosophy

Continental philosophy, unhampered by these academic constraints, is, by comparison, far more vital and convincing. At about the same time as Hare was writing his book on language and morals, Carl Jaspers was giving a series of lectures on Basle radio about the importance of philosophy and the act of philosophising (later to be published in 1952 as Way to Wisdom).

In these lectures Jaspers, speaking to real people about real people, attempted to break down this subjectiveobjective dichotomy (the world as I see it and the world outside as the disinterested scientist sees it) which so bedevils English academic moral philosophy. He was acutely aware of the fact that there is a distinction between ‘others’ (as objects) and ‘others’ (as beings like myself). Above all he recognised the importance of the subjective, and the fact, as Schopenhauer pointed out, that there is “no object without a subject and no subject without an object.”

Building upon this basic assumption, Jaspers conceived of a coming-together of these two elements in what he called ‘the Comprehensive’ (“being as a whole is neither subject nor object but must be the Comprehensive…”) 3 He concluded that when man acknowledged this ‘Comprehensiveness’ and responded to it he ceased to be a mere copy or imitation of other men and became a person in his own right, that is, an ‘authentic’ or ‘genuine’ person.

To put it simply, Jaspers claims that authenticity occurs when a man recognises, for example, that he is not merely a stereotyped scientist or company director, but also a person who has responsibilities to others as people which extend beyond the responsibilities of the post he occupies. That is, he is unlike Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, who said “It’s not my business to deal with the political or moral questions.” (Napalm Inventor 1967, p.8). For Jaspers those who deny their own subjectivity fail to recognise the Comprehensive and so fail to be authentic. They remain objects and are unable to resist the objective forces which operate upon them. Such individuals act parts and so become actors rather than authentic persons. They hide behind the facade of their own self-importance and are afraid of the responsibility that authenticity brings. They become the unresponsive bystander and the Eichmann who is ‘only carrying out orders’. They become the guards at Auschwitz or those who watched and did nothing. And they become English philosophers.

Such an approach to the question of what it means to be a person (as opposed to a mere experiencing organism) had already been explored by the liberal Jewish theologian Martin Buber just before the Second World War (his book I and Thou first appeared in English in 1937). In this work, which reached the height of its popularity in the 1950s, Buber distinguishes between an ‘I-It’ mode of response to the world (where all things, including other people, are seen as objects to be experienced) and an ‘IThou’ mode (where people are encountered not only as objects but also as persons in their own right). The ‘I-It’ world, if it fails to recognise the importance of this ‘IThou’ mode, is depicted by Buber as barren, exploitative, and imposing.

Buber makes it clear that if our morality is based solely on this objective world such morality amounts to no more than mere prescription. He writes, “All the prescriptions that have been excogitated and invented … all the preparations, exercises that have been suggested have nothing to do with the primally simple fact of encounter. All the advantages for knowledge … do not approach that of which we are speaking here. All this has its place in the ‘It’ world and does not take us one step out of it…” 4. And this is so because it fails, like English academic philosophy, to take account of the subjective (the ‘I-Thou’).

Like Jaspers, Buber sees the need for the coming together of these two worlds in a holistic and harmonious relationship. He writes, “And in all seriousness of truth, listen: without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human” 5. The views of Jaspers and Buber originated in the teaching of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 -1911) who first encapsulated these thoughts in his claim that “understanding is a rediscovery of the I in the thou”.

Ideas such as these give a deeper understanding than the views expressed by English philosophers. They clarify states of affairs in ways which give rise to greater insight into the current condition of man. The psychologist Erich Fromm, for example, basing his moral stance on these beliefs, pointed out the inherent contradiction between an ‘It’ world concerned only with the maximising of material profit, a world where the basic commandment is ‘one ought to do whatever it is technically possible to do’ and one which accepts that what is good is not necessarily what man “desires, or does not desire, nor simply what is good or bad for his material well-being… [but is concerned with that which is] conducive to the full growth of the total man, of all his capacities and potentialities, [that is] what is good for the attainment of his optimal human maturity”.

Such insights, at least, indicate a way forward even though making use of them would mean “a radical change in our social structure, in our overall goals, in the priorities of production and in our methods of managing.” 6 These statements, it should be emphasised, are not prescriptions – for there is nothing compelling about prescriptions. As prescriptions they have failed. These are compelling appeals to authentic man to recognise that which he already knows to be the case. And they can only be heard by such men.

This distinction between ‘prescriptions’ and ‘appeals’ needs further elaboration. Prescriptions, which form the substance of morality, can be recognised as important in two ways; firstly because they are presented by an authority that is to be obeyed, such as the Church or one’s parents, and secondly because the reasons which support them seem legitimate. But in both cases the prescription in question need not be, in any generally accepted sense,‘good’ for either man or mankind. Blind obedience is only a guarantee of conforming morality and ‘legitimising’ fails to take account of the fact that there can be ‘bad’ laws.

What Buber and Jaspers are appealing to is the genuine concern (‘good being’) within us (that which, I assume, Hare refers to as ‘our own’). Rather than prescribing action for the ‘do-gooder’ they are asking each of us to search within the depths of our own subjectivity to find and recognise our own authentic prescriptions. We cannot, however, do this successfully unless we have some authenticity within us. Without it, all we would recognise is the need to conform or to achieve what is popularly acclaimed, wealth, power, authority and so on. If we do not have such authenticity such appeals are, as the Epigram of Lichtenburg suggests, “like mirrors. If an ape peeks in no apostle will look out.”

The concept of morality implies prescription – it implies a set of laws which are ‘outside’ ourselves, laws which, if we are to be ‘moral’ we agree to have imposed upon us. All current morality is of this kind – its contemporary form is idealised in the ‘traditional’ society and its contemporary imposition is in the form of a ‘back to basics’ movement. In its academic form it is based in objective ‘thought’. It requires us to be obedient and dutiful. Its ideal is the ‘good’ child, one who can say…

“I was brought up by my parents to give due respect and honour to all adults, particularly older persons, no matter which social classes they belonged to. Whenever the need arose, I was told, it was my primary duty to be of assistance – in particular I was always directed to carry out the wishes … of my parents, the teacher, the pastor … without hesitation, and allow nothing to deter me.” Such was the traditional ‘back to basics’ upbringing of Rudolf Höss, later to become Kommandant of Auschwitz. 7

It seems that it is now time to declare such cognitive and linguistic morality dead and to look elsewhere for our salvation. Even if it could be achieved, no regression to the moral traditions of the past will do, for it would only bring forth repetitions of the past. Jaspers gives us a clue as to the direction we might take when he writes, “Morally, man seeks to base his decision on thought. Ethically, he rehabilitates himself from perversion through a rebirth of his goodwill. Metaphysically he achieves awareness of being given to himself in his ability to love. He chooses the right, his motives become authentic, he lives out of love.” 8

With their emphasis on cognitive morality English philosophers find the implications of this difficult, if not impossible, to accept. Such acceptance would require them to recognise, firstly, a distinction between objects and persons, to recognise, that is, that persons are unlike, say, billiard balls, in that their actions are not always predictable even when given total knowledge of the objective forces which operate upon them, and secondly, if this distinction is true, to accept also that persons have, as a consequence, responsibility for their own actions. All these conditions pose major problems for objectivists.


Anachronistic morality assumes the necessity of imposition – it adopts the Scholastic stance of Catholicism in assuming that man is, by nature, evil and that his redemption can only be brought about by submission to a ‘higher’ law. It claims that man has to be told what is right and wrong before he can become morally responsible. It emphatically denies that man is capable, through the discovery of his own authenticity, of acting from ‘good being’. Such Western moralistic beliefs have been tried for the past two centuries and have produced nothing more than a “world which … reduces everything to commodity status – people, dolphins, rainforests.”

What is needed is a new ‘aesthetic and metaphysical caring’ 9, a new awareness in man of “being given to himself in his ability to love”. To realise such potential, to dismiss forever the possibility of a further Auschwitz, we should, at least, put behind us the notion of an imposed external morality. This notion has failed to give man that which Bertrand Russell described as an “indication of some new way of feeling towards life and the world, some way of feeling by which our own existence can acquire more of the characteristics we most deeply desire” 10 and we need to re-open our eyes to the possibility of authentic existence. To do this, I believe, is no longer merely to take on board some rarefied intellectual concern but is rather a necessary condition for human survival.

© Professor I. Crellin 1996


1. Magee, B., Men of Ideas, Oxford University Press, 1982 Interview with R.M. Hare. p.130
2. Hare, R.M., The Language of Morals, Oxford University Press, 1972 Reprint, p.78
3. Jaspers, K., Way to Wisdom, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1951 p.30
4. Buber, M., I and Thou T. and T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1970 Ed.p.125
5. Buber, M., (above) p.85
6. Fromm, E., The Crisis of Psycho-Analysis Jonathan Cape, 1970 p.81
7. Höss, R., Ische Aufzeichungen Munich, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1963 p.25
8. Jaspers, K., (above) p.61
9. Carter R.E., Becoming Bamboo; Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 p.110
10. Russell, B., in Mysticism and Logic (1918)

Innes B. Crellin is a former professor of Anthropological Philosophy who believes that his status as a philosopher was affirmed when all his students were arrested and jailed for ‘subversion’ and when he himself was ‘death-listed’ by the Bureau of State Security in South Africa. This article arose out of the disillusionment he felt with English philosophy during that period.

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