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The Need for Authenticity

Innes Crellin attacks the “Anglo-Saxon” approach to moral philosophy.

Those who seek some meaning in the concept of ‘morality’ find it confused and distorted. What it means seems to vary from one authority to another. In the media and in popular usage, the word has assumed a rhetorical flavour that has disguised any real meaning which it may once have had. This, of course, is not a bad thing – it has forced us to focus again on what our intentions are when we use the word. I believe that if we want to pin down this elusive concept we need, firstly, to look at its converse ‘immorality’.

There appears to be one uniting characteristic underlying all forms of immorality. That characteristic is one of imposition, or, to be more linguistically accurate (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) ‘overcharging’. This defining concept, because it avoids the connotational confusions that often arise from the use of the word ‘imposition’, is preferred here.

For example, it could be argued that if all ‘imposition’ is regarded as immoral then action taken against those who impose upon others (such as locking up burglars) is itself a form of imposition and therefore immoral. This assumption would not apply if the concept ‘overcharging’ is used, as those who get themselves locked up could be said to be paying only a fair price for their actions.

All immoral acts appear to have such overcharging in common whether they are criminal acts or acts which contravene traditional and religious notions of morality. In every instance of immorality some person is seen as being ‘overcharged’, and consequently being treated unjustly or without due consideration. Of course, what constitutes overcharging is a matter which is determined by prior assumptions. But apart from these differences in interpretation which arise from differing sets of meanings, assumptions or contracts, the notion of morality, if it is to have any consistency at all, is dependent upon its converse displaying the characteristics of overcharging.

Such a definition does not, of course, imply that all acts which are not immoral are, by logical necessity, moral, for the concept ‘morality’ carries with it the notion of activity rather than inactivity, of doing specific things rather than merely doing no wrong. A man who never does an immoral act could be described as honourable, trustworthy, dependable or reliable, and so on, but these terms do not automatically carry with them the same connotations as does the term ‘moral’.

The term ‘moral’ implies some activity over and above being ‘honourable’, ‘trustworthy’ and the like. It implies that the person being so described is actively promoting some moral cause. Such an active moral response, I would suggest, can arise in two fundamentally different ways. It can arise, in the first case, from the zealous application of moral beliefs or principles and, in the second, it can arise from a genuine awareness by an authentic person of the immorality of certain events. In this latter case, persons who respond from an authentic awareness are sometimes labelled (often in hindsight) ‘moral agents’ – but more frequently are condemned as subversives, heretics, or mad mystics. I would argue that a crucial distinction can be made between these two cases, a distinction which shows that only in this second case are the requirements implied by ‘morality’ fulfilled. In order to do this we need to look more closely at the characteristics which define each of these two cases.

A number of common features are apparent in the first case. Those who act from a zealous application of moral beliefs invariably seek to impose and promote these beliefs and often condemn those who do not accept what they see as ‘the truth’. Of course, they may do this with apparent humility but, as we all know, this can be as effective a weapon as forceful persuasion. Or they may use rational argument which calls upon principles of conduct, employs the power of logical validity or refers to consequences and implications. In either case, they base their actions on a predetermined set of religious or philosophical beliefs (such as, for example, ‘positivism’). And, in both cases, these beliefs can be misrepresented or flawed. All such cases as these can be represented on a continuum which runs from religious and philosophical fundamentalism at one end to the pragmatism of so-called ‘practical ethics’ at the other. But whatever their level of religious respectability or philosophical accredibility, all these positions display the common characteristic of overcharging. What they always require is either an acceptance of a specific moral position in return for the false promise of certainty or else the acceptance of the false assumption that all that is needed in the making of moral decisions is logical integrity. In the case of fundamentalism the cost is blind obedience. In the case of ‘practical ethics’ the cost is a denial of the requirements of strict deductive logic that nothing should be drawn out by way of conclusion that is not contained implicitly or explicitly in the premises (an ‘ought’ for an ‘is’, for example). “The distinction of vice and virtue”, as David Hume warned us, “is not founded merely on the relation of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” To pretend that it is, is to misrepresent the position, that is, to sell goods for more than they are worth. And this clearly cannot be moral. So, by a consistent use of their own definitional implications we can see that all the forms of ‘moral action’ presented in the first case are an extension of ‘moralising’ and consequently, because they impose, are self-invalidating.

Let us turn now to the second case. Here there is, initially, in the agent, not a prior set of assumptions, but the deep-seated recognition of ‘virtue or vice’. Such a recognition is not a product of religious indoctrination or reasoned argument. When we are confronted with an Auschwitz our moral revulsion is not the result of a past history of religious or moral reinforcement contingencies or a long and detailed philosophical investigation into whether or not the actions which took place could be ‘universalised’ – or even whether the arguments for such cruelty could be logically sustained. When confronted with such horrors we do not turn to others and say to them “This is wrong because of x or y…” or “Because it is written in z …”. We turn to others, not to convince them that such things are wrong, but simply because the revulsion we feel is too strong for us to bear alone. We go beyond the cognitive, beyond reason and religious dogma and appeal to the humanity of others. We reveal in such authentic actions our humanity.

There are other significant characteristics displayed by authenticity which diverge from those we see in moralising. Chief amongst these is the refusal of authentics to prescribe – to support, that is, ‘oughts’ with rational, persuasive or religious argument. They recognise that, for example, in pointing out implications and consequences (and there is nothing wrong in doing this), they are not implying an ‘ought’ but only seeking to clarify for those unable to do so factors of which these others may not be aware. (If, on the other hand, consequences and implications were distorted in order to produce a predetermined end – as happens in both politics and moralising – then such actions would be an overcharging and consequently immoral).

Authentic people recognise the need to expose illogical argument and reason out consequences but see these only as means to an end and not as ends in themselves – which, through a display of clever logic, they can only too readily become. They accept that just as the function of some kinds of philosophy is to protect the intellect against the bewitchment of words, so too, that which gives rise to authenticity needs protection against the clever wiles of sophistry. Such requirements are not moral requirements but arise from an appeal to others to recognise their own authenticity. For it is through this authenticity, and this alone, that those who seek authenticity see the humanity or inhumanity of all action.

Just as those who seek authenticity do not prescribe, so neither do they act from a sense of morality. Rather they act against immorality because they see clearly where overcharging occurs and react against it, not from any moral sense of rightness or righteousness but because they are compelled to do so. And because such a response is authentic and is derived from no rote moral system (although it may often coincide with one) such persons are often misunderstood. For example, those who are authentic may find themselves sharing the same cell as other ‘subversives’ whose motivations may be political or religious, but they differ from them in that they have no political or religious agenda which they wish to impose upon others. Their perception of ‘virtue and vice’ is independent of such dogma. This is deeply confusing to those who can only act from a sense of morality or are driven by a desire to achieve political ends!

In one other significant way do these two cases show differing characteristics. Those who are authentic accept the authenticity of their own actions – that is, they accept full responsibility for them. Those who are not authentic have to rely upon others to supply them with moral rules and consequently can always lay the fault for any failure on the inadequacy of those rules – or they can engage, as they often do, in prolonged and laborious arguments about what the rules mean. What they fail to appreciate is that, in the last resort, they cannot escape from their own decisions, that they have finally to decide for themselves whether or not what they are hearing is ‘the voice of God’. Authenticity is not constrained in this way and so has no escape from its own responsibility. Because of the greater maturity that follows from such authenticity, it is able to recognise its own fallibility and come to terms with a lack of certainty in a way which cannot be done by those who merely follow the rules of a system of morality.

At first sight it would appear that whether or not the notion of authenticity is philosophically convincing depends upon the resolution of a number of problems. Two of these problems appear pivotal. Firstly, there is the ‘vacuum’ problem (this is the belief that when all façades have been removed from personality nothing remains) and the second is the ‘billiard ball’ problem (the belief that all human responses are the product of previously applied forces – in other words, ‘determined’). A detailed positivist dissolution of these problems is beyond the scope of this article and I won’t attempt it here for the simple reason that such a dissolution seems to me to be an irrelevant and unnecessary entrapment.

The grand narrative of English philosophy is built upon a belief in disinterested objectivity. Like its counterpart in Behavioural psychology it is deeply wary of all things ‘mentalistic’ – of explaining events by reference to subjective causes which cannot be isolated and measured or which do not fit easily into a predetermined logical scheme. Because this approach discounts and ignores certain features of behaviour, it invariably ends up with the conclusion that these features do not exist. Thus the assumptions made prior to the event, appear, at the end, as logically-entailed conclusions. Burrhus Skinner, the best known of all Behavioural psychologists, was forced to conclude that all behaviour must be the product of reinforcement contingencies (the ‘vacuum’ theory) because, at the start of his work, he deliberately excluded as inappropriate to psychological study anything which fell outside this paradigm. English philosophy does likewise. The assumptions upon which it bases its criteria for deciding whether or not any discourse counts as ‘philosophy’ determine also what is to be taken seriously. And because these criteria are essentially ‘objective’, all ‘subjective’ considerations are excluded. Thus, a number of significant human problems which cannot seriously be spoken of within the criteria for discourse laid down, become confused and unanswerable (you can’t seriously ask whether or not the behaviour of human beings is determined in the same way as that of billiard balls while excluding from your answer all factors which suggest that human beings are different in an essential way from billiard balls!)

This is not the case with Continental existential philosophy, which attempts to bridge the subject-object divide. Compare, for example, Way to Wisdom – An Introduction to Philosophy by Karl Jaspers with Learning to Philosophize by E.R.Emmet. It acknowledges the primary fact that no one who speaks seriously speaks as a non-person, that all utterances are essentially human. Such philosophy appeals to us to listen, not only to the words that are spoken but also to listen to the person who speaks to us. In this way it seeks to bring together the subjective and the objective in some form of holistic harmony. Walter Kaufmann in his book The Philosophy of Martin Buber gives a clear indication of what this means when he writes, with reference to Buber’s I and Thou, “If one approaches I and Thou as a philosophic essay, trying to reconstruct an argument and testing that, it is not hard to criticise the book. But if instead of examining the book as an object, an It, we open our hearts to it to hear what it has to say to us, we are confronted with a crucial question: if God is to mean something to us, can it mean anything but what Buber suggests in this book, namely das ewige Du (the Eternal Thou)?” We may not agree with Buber’s conclusion, but at least when we ‘hear what he has to say’ we know that we are not listening to a depersonalised abstract voice. We know that what we hear has about it the ring of authenticity. We know that this is no mere objective analysis.

When Jaspers, after placing ‘morality’ firmly at the initial objective level, writes: “Metaphysically [man] achieves awareness of being given to himself in his ability to love… He choose the right, his motives become authentic, he lives out of love…” he shows us the root of such authenticity. I can think of no better way of expressing what new awareness this beginning involves than by quoting the ‘before and after’ words of Bertrand Russell. Firstly, in his fiftyninth year, when despairing at the failure of positivism to provide illumination in his life, he wrote:

“And what of philosophy? The best years of my life were given to the Principles of Mathematics, in the hope of finding somewhere some certain knowledge. The whole of this effort, in spite of three big volumes, ended inwardly in doubt and bewilderment. As regards metaphysics, when, under the influence of Moore, I first threw off the belief in German idealism, I experienced the delight of believing that the sensible world is real. Bit by bit, under the influence of physics, this delight has faded.

“When I survey my life, it seems to be a useless one, devoted to impossible ideals…

“I do not believe that the constructive efforts of present day philosophers and men of science have anything approaching the validity that attaches to their destructive criticism…”

and, secondly, when, toward the end of his life, he becomes aware of ‘being given to himself in his ability to love’:

“I have sought love, first because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of a heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.”

Such awareness lies at the base of all authenticity. It alters our perception of the world and confronts us with a new set of meanings – a set of meanings which are startlingly different from those which the objective world presents as ‘truth’. We cannot be indoctrinated into such authenticity, nor can we explore it with disinterest. Neither can we explain it away as ‘bias’ or ‘sentiment’ because it is this authenticity, and not moral judgment, which reveals to us the full horror of an Auschwitz, the horror we feel when confronted with the recognition that all its victims might have that capability which Russell speaks of – the irrational, unreasonable capacity for commitment to love. Moral philosophy or religious dogma is no substitute for this.

© Professor I. Crellin 1996

The quotations of Bertrand Russell are taken from The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell Vol. II. George Allen and Unwin, 1968. The quotation from David Hume is taken from Treatise III i. 1., page 470 (Selby-Bigge Edition) The quotation from Karl Jaspers comes from Way to Wisdom, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1951 page 61.

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 Anglo-Saxon philosophy during that period.

Mummy, Mummy, what’s Hume’s Law?

David Hume (1711-76), the great Scottish philosopher, argued that it is impossible in principle to reach conclusions about what ought to be done from assumptions stating only what is the case. In his Treatise on Human Nature (1740) he says:

“In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d , that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning… when of a sudden I am surpris’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, ‘is’ and ‘is not’, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ‘ought’ or an ‘ought not’. This change is imperceptible but is, however, of the last consequence.”

Hume was making a logical point – that an argument’s conclusion can’t contain anything not in its assumptions. If I say “Oranges are round and buses are red; therefore bananas are mauve” then you know my argument is false, even if you’ve never seen a banana. My assumptions don’t mention bananas and so there is simply no way that my conclusion can mention bananas.

The consequences of this little piece of logic for moral philosophy are far-reaching. Any ethical system which derives rules about how we should live solely from information about the world must be flawed, even if the error isn’t immediately obvious.

For decades the significance of what Hume had said was ignored, ticking away like a time-bomb under moral philosophy until it exploded earlier this century, scattering bits of ethical systems messily over a wide area.

In the 1960’s there were great arguments over the validity of Hume’s Law, with many people (particularly Max Black, John Searle and Peter Geach) trying to find logically valid ways of moving from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Debate has now moved on elsewhere, but this fundamental point remains unresolved. Hume’s Law, the ‘is-ought’ problem and the Naturalistic fallacy are all different names for the same kind of point.

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