12 MARCH, 2002
Author: George Irbe
Back to George's Views
A CONVERSATION WITH THOMAS HILL GREEN
I have been studying Thomas Hill Green’s Prolegomena to Ethics, his very thorough work on moral philosophy. I find myself in agreement with most of his philosophy which is largely based on Aristotle. However, there are certain views in Green’s philosophy I take issue with. I surmise that Green’s mind-set was inevitably conditioned by certain philosophical currents that were coursing through the public psyche during the productive years of his much too short (1836-1882) life. The zeit-geist then among the intellectual elite and the clergy of Victorian Britain was exuberantly missionary in both the social and religious sense. Therefore, I permit myself to imagine that his overly optimistic expectations of man’s moral perfectibility would have a duller cast and that some of his philosophical views would be somewhat modified were he living and writing the Prolegomena today. If that were the case, I would expect that the differences in our points of view would be diminished accordingly.
I wish I could discuss these matters with Professor Green. But of course I cannot do that with him directly; instead, I am resorting to a second-best alternative to an actual conversation between us by conducting a dialogue of sorts with Green’s written words. What follows, then, is an imaginary dialogue between the two of us.
ON GREEN'S 'HEGELIANISM'
GJI: Professor Green, I want first of all to say that some of us think that the pejorative label of ‘Hegelian’ with which you have been tagged does not fit you. I suspect that it was probably hung on you by some spiteful people who were infuriated by your devastatingly effective demolition of the ramparts of Utilitarianism, and your criticism of some of Locke’s, Hume’s and Kant’s ideas. It was indeed audacious of you to take on the very popular (and very wrong) ideas of the Utilitarians at the height of their dominance in the English-speaking world.
In the opinion of many, including myself, Hegel is considered to be hardly worth the name of philosopher. He was a sycophant of the Prussian autocrats. The short outline of Hegel’s philosophy at the Radical Academy’s web site says that Hegel exalted the State as the embodiment of the living God and insisted that a State must be aggressive and militaristic in order to be a successful State. I want to point out that your views are obviously in no way like those of Hegel by quoting from the Prolegomena to Ethics,
(#184) . . there can be nothing in a nation however exalted its mission, or in a society however perfectly organized, which is not in the persons composing the nation or society. Our ultimate standard of worth is an ideal of personal worth. All other values are relative to value for, of, or in a person. To speak of any progress or improvement or development of a nation or society or mankind, except as relative to some greater worth of persons, is to use words without meaning. . . the life of the nation has no real existence except as the life of the individuals composing the nation. . . A ‘national spirit’ is not something in the air; nor is it a series of phenomena of a particular kind; nor yet is it God – the eternal Spirit or self-conscious subject which communicates itself, in measure and under conditions, to beings which through that communication become spiritual.
Contrary to Hegel’s low regard for the worth of the individual person, you esteem it highly, as you state in the following:
(#217) . . [we say] that every human person has an absolute value; that humanity in the person of every one is always to be treated as an end, never merely as a means; that in the estimate of that well-being which forms the true good every one is to count for one and no one for more than one; that every one has a ‘suum’ which every one else is bound to render him.
I value greatly Karl Popper’s opinions because they are honest and straightforward. On p. 260, Vol. 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper states that “.. Green has clearly shown (in his Lectures on Political Obligation) that it is impossible for the state to enforce morality by law. He would certainly have agreed with the formula: ‘We want to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals.’ And on p. 79, Vol. 2 of The Open Society and Its Enemies, referring to a history of British philosophy written in 1935 by a German Hegelian, R. Metz , Popper testifies to his high regard for Thomas Hill Green by saying: “A man of the excellence of T.H. Green is here [in Metz’s work] criticized, not of course because he was influenced by Hegel, but because he ‘fell back into the typical individualism of the English. . . He shrank from such radical consequences as Hegel has drawn’.”
In my estimation, Karl Popper’s endorsement of you debunks the ‘Hegelian’ label in unequivocal terms.
ON MORALITY AND MORAL DEVELOPMENT
GJI: Professor Green, I would now like to ask you to explain your understanding of how man came to possess his moral characteristics.
THG: (#241). . if the idea of the good is an idea of something which man should become for the sake of becoming it, or in order to fulfill his capabilities and in so doing to satisfy himself, . . [t]he idea of the good, according to this view, is an idea . . which gradually creates its own filling. It is not an idea like that of any pleasure, which a man retains from an experience that he has had and would like to have again. It is an idea to which nothing that has happened to us or that we can find in experience corresponds, but which sets us upon causing certain things to happen, upon bringing certain things into existence. Acting in us, to begin with, as a demand which is ignorant of what will satisfy itself, it only arrives at a more definite consciousness of its own nature and tendency through reflection on its own creations – on habits and institutions and modes of life which, as a demand not reflected upon, it has brought into being.
GJI: I agree with your speculation that moral concepts evolved when man began to reflect on the absolute goodness and utility of his own creations – his habits and institutions and modes of life.
THG: (#241) Moral development then will not be merely progress in the discovery and practice of means to an end which throughout remains the same for the subject of the development. It will imply a progressive determination of the idea of the end itself, as the subject of it, through reflection on that which, under the influence of the idea but without adequate reflection upon it, he has done and has become, comes to be more fully aware of what he has in him to do and to become.
GJI: I agree that moral development began when man started to reflect on, and refine his understanding of, the ideas intrinsic to the goals and ends which he is striving to attain.
THG: Of a moral development in this sense we have evidence in the result; and we can understand the principle of it; but the stages in the process by which the principle thus unfolds itself remain obscure.
GJI: Indeed, we can only make reasonable assumptions about the most likely way in which our moral development evolved. F.A. Hayek offers a reasonable theory in Law, Legislation and Liberty, which I also favor, and which states that the customs and rules of conduct that became established and have survived from the times of our primitive origins are those that promoted the success and growth of the human societies in which they were tried.
THG: (#242) . . such an end as provision for the maintenance of a family, if pursued not instinctively but with consciousness of the end pursued, implies in the person pursuing it [as] motive . . a possibly permanent satisfaction . . in the satisfaction of others. Here is already a moral and spiritual, as distinct from an animal or merely natural, interest – an interest in an object which only thought constitutes, an interest in bringing about something that should be, as distinct from desire to feel again a pleasure already felt. But to be actuated by such an interest does not necessarily imply any reflection on its nature; and hence in men under its influence there need not be any conception of a moral as other than a material good. Food and drink, warmth and clothing, may still seem to them to be the only good things which they desire for themselves or for others.
This may probably still be the case with some wholly savage tribes; it may have once been the case with our own ancestors. If it was, of the process by which they emerged from it we know nothing, for they have already emerged from it in the earliest state of mind which has left any record of itself. All that we can say is that an interest moral and spiritual in the sense explained – however unaware of its own nature, however unable to describe itself as directed to other than material objects – must have been at work to bring about the habits and institutions, the standards of praise and blame, which we inherit, even the remotest and most elementary which our investigations can reach.
GJI: First, I would like to interject here that, of course, the still “wholly savage tribes” have progressed little, if at all, beyond the very basics in societal and moral development because they have clung stubbornly to customs and rules of conduct inimical to progress in such development.
Second, I would like to emphasize from your last statement the words “. . an interest moral and spiritual . .must have been at work [in our ancestors] to bring about the habits and institutions, the standards of praise and blame, which we inherit ..” as indicative of the great antiquity of our moral heritage.
THG: (#242) We know further that if that interest, even in the form of interest in the mere provision for the material support of a family, were duly reflected upon, those who were influenced by it must have become aware that they had objects independent of the gratification of their animal nature; and having become aware of this, they could not fail with more or less distinctness to conceive that permanent welfare of the family, which it was their great object to promote, as consisting, at any rate among other things, in the continuance in others of an interest like their own; in other words, as consisting in the propagation of virtue.
GJI: I interpret this to mean that when men recognized, while reflecting introspectively on such matters, how essential is the caring for one’s family to the health and success of one’s direct progeny and one’s social group in general, then such care became a moral obligation and a virtue.
THG: (#243) When and how and by what degrees this process of reflection may take place, we cannot say. It is reasonable that till a certain amount of shelter had been secured from the pressure of natural wants, it would be impossible. The work of making provision for the family would be too absorbing for a man to ask himself what was implied in his interest in making it, and thus to become aware of there being such a thing as a moral nature in himself and others, or of a moral value as distinct from the value of that which can be seen and touched and tasted. However strong in him the interest in the welfare of his society – which, as we have seen, is essentially a moral interest – until some relief had been won from the constant care of providing for that welfare in material forms, he would have no time to think of any intrinsic value in the persons for whom the provision was made, or in the qualities which enabled it to be made. Somehow or other, however – by what steps we know not – with all peoples that have a history the time of reflection has come, and with it the supervention upon those moral interests that are unconscious of their morality, of an interest in moral qualities as such. An interest has arisen, over and above that in keeping members of a family or tribe alive, in rendering them persons of a certain kind; in forming in them certain qualities, not as a means to anything ulterior which the possession of these qualities might bring about, but simply for the sake of that possession; in inducing in them habits of action on account of the intrinsic value of those habits, as forms of activity in which man achieves what he has it in him to achieve, and so far satisfies himself. There has arisen, in short, a conception of good things of the soul, as having a value distinct from and independent of the good things of the body, if not as the only things truly good, to which all other goodness is merely relative.
(#201) We may take it, then, as an ultimate fact of human history – a fact without which there would not be such a history, and which is not in turn deducible from any other history – that out of sympathies of animal origin, through their presence in a self-conscious soul, there arise interests as of a person in persons. Out of the process common to man’s life with the life of animals there arise for man, as there do not apparently arise for animals,
Relations dear and all the charities
Of father, son, and brother
and of those relations and charities self-consciousness on the part of all concerned in them is the condition. At the risk of provoking a charge of pedantry, this point must be insisted on. It is not any mere sympathy with pleasure and pain that can by itself yield the affections and recognized obligations of the family. The man for whom they are to be possible must be able, through consciousness of himself as an end to himself, to enter into a like consciousness as belonging to others, whose expression of it corresponds to his own. He must have practical understanding of what is meant for them, as for himself, by saying ‘I’. Having found his pleasures and pains dependent on the pleasures and pains of others, he must be able in the contemplation of a possible satisfaction of himself to include the satisfaction of those others, and that a satisfaction of them as ends to themselves and not as mean to his pleasure. He must, in short, be capable of conceiving and seeking a permanent well-being in which the permanent well-being of others is included.
GJI: I wish to remark here on the cogency and rationality of your speculations regarding the distant beginnings of man’s moral development. I must mention here that the main reason why I respect your moral philosophy, Professor Green, is because you properly give credit to the ancient Greek philosophers for their great achievement in codifying our moral concepts in abstract terms. Could you, please, say a few words about the Greeks.
THG: (#243) Already in the earliest stages of the development of the human soul, of which we have any recorded expression, th[e] distinction [between the good things of the soul and of the body] is virtually recognized. Such a formal classification as that which Aristotle assumes to be familiar, between ‘external goods, goods of the soul, and goods of the body’ [Nic. Eth. I. Vii. 2], is, of course, only the product of what may be called reflection upon reflection. It is the achievement of men who have not only learnt to recognize and value the spiritual qualities to which material things serve as instruments or means of expression, but have formed the abstract concept of a universe of values which may be exhaustively classified. But independently of such abstract conceptions, we have evidence in the earliest literature accessible to us of the conception and appreciation of impalpable virtues of the character and disposition, standing in no direct relation to the senses or to animal wants – courage, wisdom, fidelity, and the like.
GJI: We know that Thomas Aquinas incorporated Aristotle’s moral philosophy into what are commonly called ‘Christian values.’ According to The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas (1993) which I have used as a reference in my essay Of Aristotle, Aquinas and Adler, Aquinas stated that "... those who use philosophical texts in sacred teaching, by subjugating them to faith, do not mix water with wine, but turn water into wine." "Subjugating" philosophy to theology seems to mean several things. First, it means that the theologian takes truth from the philosophers as from usurpers. The ground of philosophic truth is thus asserted to be revealing God who is more fully and accurately described in theology. This suggests, second, that theology serves as a corrective to philosophy.’
In your opinion, Professor Green, how much credit should we give the ancient Greeks for our moral values today?
THG: (#249) . .The habit of derogation from the uses of ‘mere philosophy,’ common alike to Christian advocates and the professors of natural science, has led us too much to ignore the immense practical service which Socrates and his followers rendered to mankind. From them in effect comes the connected scheme of virtues and duties within which the educated conscience of Christendom still moves, when it is impartially reflecting on what ought to be done. Religious teachers have no doubt affected the hopes and fears which actuate us in the pursuit of virtue or rouse us from its neglect. Religious societies have both strengthened men in the performance of recognized duties, and taught them to recognize relations of duty towards those whom they might otherwise have been content to treat as beyond the pale of such duties; but the articulated scheme of what the virtues and duties are, in their difference and in their unity, remains for us now in its main outlines what the Greek philosophers left it.
(#250) In their Ethical teaching, however, the greatest of the Greek philosophers – those to whom Christendom owes, not indeed its highest moral inspiration, but its moral categories, its forms of practical judgment – never professed to be inventors. They did not claim to be prophets of new truth, but exponents of principles on which the good citizen, if he thought the matter out, would find that he had already been acting. . . They were really organs through which reason, as operative in men, became more clearly aware of the work it had been doing in the creation and maintenance of free social life, and in the activities of which that life is at once the source and the result. In thus becoming aware of its work the same reason through them gave a further reality to itself in human life.
GJI: Of course, the achievements in philosophy by the ancient Greeks is mostly due to their appreciation of the value of Reason, as such, and to their adroitness in applying it. You remark on “the immense practical service which Socrates and his followers rendered to mankind” and that “from them in effect comes the connected scheme of virtues and duties within which the educated conscience of Christendom still moves, when it is impartially reflecting on what ought to be done.” How important, do you think, is the heritage of Reason of the ancient Greeks in Western civilization?
THG: (#217) . . in the conscientious citizen of modern Christendom reason without and reason within, reason as objective and reason as subjective, reason as the better spirit of the social order in which he lives, and reason as his loyal recognition and interpretation of that spirit – these being but different aspects of one and the same reality, which is the operation of the divine mind in man – combine to yield both the judgment, and obedience to the judgment, which we variously express by saying that every human person has an absolute value; that humanity in the person of every one is always to be treated as an end, never merely as a means; that in the estimate of that well-being which forms the true good every one is to count for one and no one for more than one; that every one has a ‘suum’ which every one else is bound to render him.
(#253) . . [we must] point out the greatness – in a certain sense the completeness and finality – of the advance in spiritual development which the Greek philosophers represent. Once for all they conceived and expressed the conception of a free or pure morality, as resting on what we may venture to call a disinterested interest in the good; of the several virtues as so many applications of that interest to the main relations of social life; of the good itself not as anything external to the capacities virtuously exercised in its pursuit, but as their full realization. This idea was one which was to govern the growth of all the true and vital moral conviction which has descended to us.
GJI: You declare emphatically that the Greek philosophers represent “the greatness – in a certain sense the completeness and finality – of the advance in spiritual development.” But does not Christianity make this very same claim for itself? And does not your declaration regarding the completeness and finality of the advance in spiritual development achieved by the Greek philosophers deny this very claim to Christianity? How do you reconcile the two?
THG: (#285) It would not be to the purpose here to enter on the complicated and probably unanswerable question of the share which different personal influences may have had in gaining acceptance for the idea of human brotherhood, and in giving it some practical effect in the organization of society. [I] have no disposition to hold a brief for the Greek philosophers against the founders of the Christian Church, or for the latter against the former. All that it is sought to maintain is this; that the society of which we are consciously members – a society founded on the self-subordination of each individual to the rational claims of others, and potentially all-inclusive – could not have come into existence except (1) through the action in men of a desire of which (unlike the desire for pleasure) the object is in its own nature common to all; and (2) through the formation in men’s minds of a conception of what this object is, sufficiently full and clear to prevent its being regarded as an object for any set of men to the exclusion of another. It was among the followers of Socrates, so far as we know, that such a conception was for the first time formed and expressed – for the first time, at any rate, in the history of the traceable antecedents of modern Christendom. . . When through the establishment of the ‘Pax Romana’ round the basin of the Mediterranean, or otherwise, the external conditions had been fulfilled for the initiation of a society aiming at universality; when a person had appeared charging himself with the work of establishing a kingdom of God among men, announcing purity of heart as the sole condition of membership of that kingdom, and able to inspire his followers with a belief in the perpetuity of his spiritual presence and work among them; then the time came for the value of the philosopher’s work to appear.
GJI: I think you are framing your answer with diplomatic tact when you say that you “have no disposition to hold a brief for the Greek philosophers against the founders of the Christian Church, or for the latter against the former.” But, if I understand you correctly, then, at least in our Western civilization, Christianity can no more take credit for the development of our morals than it can take credit for the development of our ability to reason. You concede to Christianity, beginning with Jesus himself, only the role of facilitator for the implementation of the ideas of the Greek philosophers, which were based in reason, not in faith or in religion. Professor Green, can you say something that would confirm my conclusions.
THG: (#217) . . we may trace a history . . of the just man’s conscience – of the conscience which dictates to him an equal regard to the well-being, estimated on the same principle as his own, of all whom his actions may affect. It is a history, however, which does not carry us back to anything beyond reason. It is a history of which reason is the beginning and the end. It is reason which renders the individual capable of self-imposed obedience to the law of his family and of his state, while it is to reason that this law itself owes its existence. . . in the conscientious citizen of modern Christendom reason without and reason within, reason as objective and reason as subjective, reason as the better spirit of the social order in which he lives, and reason as his loyal recognition and interpretation of that spirit – these being but different aspects of one and the same reality, which is the operation of the divine mind in man – combine to yield both the judgment, and obedience to the judgment, which we variously express by saying that every human person has an absolute value; . .
ON MORALITY AND RELIGION
GJI: I take your last statement to express agreement with my conclusions that our morals are inspired by the teaching of the Greek philosophers. We know that the Greeks, and particularly their intellectually advanced philosophers, did not take their gods and their religious myths very seriously. You have stated above (#250) that the Greek philosophers “never professed to be inventors. They did not claim to be prophets of new truth, but exponents of principles on which the good citizen, if he thought the matter out, would find that he had already been acting.”
In other words, the moral code of the Greeks was based entirely on their common-sense observation and interpretation of human nature and human behavior, and required no intervention or oversight by supernatural powers acting through the mechanism of an organized religion. But you, Professor Green, appear to think that such oversight of men’s consciences by God as portrayed by the Judeo-Christian religious dogma is necessary for the maintenance of morals in Western society. Can you elaborate on why you think so?
THG: (#302). . so long as it is the life of men, i.e. beings who are born and grow and die; in whom an animal nature is the vehicle through which the divine self-realizing spirit works; in whom virtue is not born ready-made but has to be formed (however unfailing the process may come to be) through habit and education in conflict with opposing tendencies; so long the contrast must remain for the human soul between itself and the infinite spirit, of whom it must be conscious, as present to itself but other than itself, or it would not be the human soul. The more complete the realization of its capacities, the clearer will be its apprehension at once of its own infinity in respect of its consciousness of there being an infinite spirit – a consciousness which only a self-communication of that spirit could convey – and of its finiteness as an outcome of natural conditions; a finiteness in consequence of which the infinite spirit is for ever something beyond it, still longed for, never reached. Towards the infinite spirit, to whom he is thus related, the attitude of man at his highest and completest could still be only that which we have described as self-abasement before an ideal of holiness; not the attitude of knowledge, for knowledge is of matters of fact or relations, and the infinite spirit is neither fact nor relation; not the attitude of full and conscious union, for that the limitation of human nature prevents; but the same attitude of awe and aspiration which belongs to all the upward stages of the moral life. He must think of the infinite spirit as better than the best that he can himself attain to . .
GJI: In what you have said so far, your concept of man’s relationship with the Supreme being, who I call the Creator-God, differs from mine only in one important respect. I do not subscribe to your idea that God, who you describe as ” the divine self-realizing spirit” works (I assume that you mean in a continuing process in time) through man’s animal nature or through his soul. I believe that the onus is on the soul to mature, to develop its self-consciousness and conscience, and to acquire the knowledge and understanding of God and his creation and of his laws, including his moral laws. To that I would add that, although, as you say, God is not knowable like a matter of fact is knowable, acquisition of knowledge about the workings of his creation and his laws is essential to the perfection of the human soul.
THG: (#317) . . The idea, in its various forms, of something that human life should be, [and] of a perfect being for whom this ‘should be’ already ‘is,’ cannot proceed from observation of matters of fact or from inference founded on such observation, . . Such ideas or principles of action, at work before they are understood, not only give rise to institutions and modes of life, but also express themselves in forms of the imagination. In complication with effects of passion and force, they produce the laws, whether enforced by opinion or by the magistrate, which form the essential and permanent element in the fabric of social obligation; and they also yield the imagination of a supreme invisible but all-seeing ruler, to whom service is due, from whom commands proceed as from an earthly superior – the head of a family or the sovereign of a state – and who punishes the violation of those commands. It is in the form of this imagination that, in the case at least of all ordinary good people, the idea of an absolute duty is brought to bear on the soul as to yield an awe superior to any personal inclination. In sudden calls upon the will, when the sustaining force of habit is of no avail, when no rewards or penalties, either under law or the state or the law of opinion, are to be looked for, whatever the course of action adopted, can any of us be sure that, except under the impression of the ‘great task-master’s eye’ upon him, he would do the work which upon reflection he would admit should be done?
GJI: I want to note that at this point you have introduced, without saying so outright, the notion of the God of the Judeo-Christian religion into the moral equation. (I take the liberty to interpret, here and elsewhere, your term “imagination” to mean “religion”). This God is the “all-seeing ruler, to whom service is due, from whom commands proceed as from an earthly superior . . and who punishes the violation of those commands.” Then you go on to say that this religion is what instills the idea of an absolute [moral] duty in the souls of all ordinary good people. I conjecture that it is probably your Christian faith which compels you, like it did Thomas Aquinas, to delegate the enforcement of the moral code, which is based on man’s reason, to a higher supernatural power, i.e. God; in line with Thomas Aquinas, you use theology as a corrective for philosophy.
THG: (#318) It is a necessity . . of our rational nature that these forms of imagination, in which our highest practical ideas have found expression, should be subject to criticism. Is there really a divine ruler, who issues commands which we can obey or disobey; who somehow sees and hears us, though not through eye and ear; whom it is possible for us to please or offend? Now there is undoubtedly a sense in which these questions, once asked, can only be answered in the negative. The most convinced Theist must admit that God is as unimaginable as He is unperceivable – unimaginable because unperceivable, for that which we imagine (in the proper sense of the term) has the necessary finiteness of that which we perceive; that statements, therefore, which in any strict sense could only be applied to an imaginable finite agent, cannot in any such sense be applied to God. As applied to Him, they must at any rate not be reasoned from as we reason from statements about matters of fact. The practice of treating them as if they were such statements, with the confusions and contradictions to which it inevitably leads, only enhances doubt as to the reality of the divine Spirit; of which we must confess that it is inexpressible in its nature by us, though operative in us through those practical ideas of a possible perfect life, of a being for whom this perfect life is already actual, which, acting upon imagination, yield the language of ordinary religion.
GJI: I must interject here that I consider my belief system to be that of a rational Theist. I concur fully with your characterization of God; it is God as perceived by philosophers. But I do not see why my belief in God or my efforts to live a moral life should need expression in, as you put it, “the language of ordinary religion.” Furthermore, I hazard to say that your “ordinary good people” find religion a necessity in their practice of a moral life only because they have been told for millennia by agents with a vested interest in established religion that they cannot do so without it. My blunt language on this point conveys my strong feelings about it. I expect that you will have something to say in rebuttal to it.
THG: (#319) Now when criticism comes to do its inevitable work upon the language of imagination in which our fundamental moral ideas have found expression, a counter-work is called for from philosophy, which has an important bearing upon conduct. It has to disentangle the operative ideas from their necessarily imperfect expression, and to explain that the validity of the ideas themselves, as principles of action, is not affected by the discovery that the language, in which men under their influence naturally express themselves, has not the sort of truth which belongs to a correct statement of matters of fact. It has to show when and how – these ideas not being matters of fact or obtained by abstraction from matters of fact – the figures of speech employed in expressing the aspirations and endeavors to which they give rise, being derived by metaphor from sensible matters of fact, are liable to mislead us if we argue from them as though they conveyed literal truth. It has to point out what is the sense in which alone the question as to the truth of such language can properly be asked or answered. If the question is asked, for instance, whether there is truth in the language, habitual to the religious conscience, in which God is represented as giving us certain commands and seeing whether we perform them or no, the philosopher will remind us that to enquire whether such language is true, in the same sense in which it might be true that I ordered my servant to do certain things this morning and took notice whether he did them, is as inappropriate as it would be to enquire (according to an example employed by Locke in another connection) whether sleep is swift or virtue square. It can only be reasonably asked whether it is true in the sense that it naturally expresses, in terms of imagination, an emotion arising from consciousness of a relation which really subsists between the human soul and God.
GJI: You are saying, then, that our fundamental moral ideas are expressed in the language of religion and that it is the task of the philosopher to interpret such religious language. But I ask why this need be so. Obviously, the Greek philosophers found no need to express the meaning of moral ideas in religious terms; they succeeded quite admirably expressing the moral ideas in rational language.
But for all that, the Greek philosophers did not deny the existence or importance of the spiritual part of man. For example, Aristotle exhorts us: “Thus we should not follow the recommendation of thinkers who say that those who are men should think only of human things and that mortals should think only of mortal things, but we should try as far as possible to partake of immortality and to make every effort to live according to the best part of the soul in us; for even if this part be of small measure, it surpasses all the others by far in power and worth.” [Nic. Eth. X.vii.]. But, please continue with your explanation, Professor Green.
THG: (#319) If the infinite Spirit so communicates itself to the soul of man as to yield the idea of a possible perfect life, and that consequent sense of personal responsibility on the part of the individual for making the best of himself as a social being from which the recognition of particular duties arises, then it is a legitimate expression by means of metaphor – the only possible means, except action, by which the consciousness of spiritual realities can express itself – to say that our essential duties are commands of God. If again the self-communication of the infinite Spirit to the soul of man is such that man is conscious of his relation to a conscious being, who is in eternal perfection all that man has it in him to come to be, then it is a legitimate expression of that conscious relation by means of metaphor to say that God sees whether His commands are fulfilled by us or no, and an appropriate emotion to feel shame as in His presence for omissions or violations of duty incognizable by other men.
(#320)The above must not be taken to mean that it is to be considered the business of philosophy to justify the language of religious imagination universally and unconditionally. Even as that language is current in Christendom, there may be much in it that a true moral philosophy will have to condemn as inconsistent with the highest kind of moral conviction. Objection may properly be taken, for instance, to the ordinary representation of God as a source of rewards and penalties; as rewarding goodness with certain pleasures bestowed from without, as punishing wickedness with pains inflicted from without. The objection to it, however, is not that it represents God under a figure which is not a statement of fact (for the same objection would apply equally to all the language of religion), but that the figure is one which interferes with the true idea of goodness as its own reward, of vice as its own punishment. It is an important function of philosophy to examine the current language of religious imagination, not with the unreasonable view of testing its speculative truth, as we might test the truth of some doctrine about natural phenomena, but in order to satisfy ourselves whether it worthily expresses the emotions of a soul in which the highest moral ideas have done their perfect work.
GJI: You say that “it is an important function of philosophy to examine the current language of religious imagination, [but] not with the unreasonable view of testing its speculative truth.” But philosophy, if it is going to be genuine and not merely theological, like Aquinas’, cannot help but test the speculative truth of religion, which is also asserted to be “revealed” truth. As far as I am concerned, it would be just as well if philosophy avoided any involvement with religion at all, just as I would prefer to see religion not usurp moral philosophy. I know that the first is possible because the Greeks already have done so; I must regretfully concede that the second can hopefully only come about at some time in the distant future, whenever religion in general and Christianity in particular has lost its grip on the minds of men.
ON MISPLACING MORAL AUTHORITY IN SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS
GJI: I regret it deeply that our moral code became embedded within the dogma of Christianity because, as the 20th century is witness to the fact, it has proven to be only too easy for insidious ideologies, which are themselves secular perversions of Christianity, to ridicule, parody and nullify the moral code along with the religious trappings in which it has been cloaked. In the 20th century we indeed saw the paving of the broadest and longest road to hell with, purportedly, the best of intentions; most of the intentions were proclaimed in terms of the noblest of moral concepts.
Of course, I have the advantage of hindsight in this matter which you did not, Professor Green. However, as I remarked at the beginning, most of the educated elite of your generation believed in the perfectibility of man and human society. Missionaries and merchants went forth from Britain to ‘carry the white man’s burden’ in the backward societies of the world. Socialism – the secular version of Christianity – was already in vogue among your peers. The first Communist revolution had already happened (and failed) in the heart of Europe (1848), and Karl Marx had issued instructions on how to destroy liberal democratic governments in the future, should any come into being, in his Address to the Communist League (1850).
Although you make no specific reference to these political events, I take it for granted that you were quite aware of them, that you were sensitive to the social currents in your own society in England, and that your concepts of social morality and social duty were influenced to some degree by the prevailing zeit-geist. And, being so influenced, it may also explain why you have come to be identified, not entirely undeservedly, as an ‘idealist’ and a ‘Hegelian.’
In the Prolegomena you discuss at some length the perplexity of conscience when it is faced with conflicting moral choices. Would you comment on how you think the individual should resolve the moral dilemmas that are thrust upon him in times of social revolt.
THG: (#328) When [a man] finds that the requirement of Church or State, the observances of conventional morality or conventional religion, are in conflict with what some plead as their conscientious convictions, it will make him watchful to ascertain whether these new convictions may not represent a truer effort after the highest ideal than that embodied in the authorities which seek to suppress them.
(#321) . . if the private opinion . . is a source of really conscientious opposition to an authority which equally appeals to the conscience; if, in other words, it is an expression which the ideal of human good gives to itself in the mind of the man who entertains it; then it too rests on a basis of social authority. No individual can make a conscience for himself. He always needs a society to make it for him. A conscientious ‘heresy,’ religious or political, always represent some gradually maturing conviction as to social good, already implicitly involved in the ideas on which the accepted rules of conduct rest, though it may conflict with the formulae in which those ideas have been hitherto authoritatively expressed, and may lead to the overthrow of institutions which have previously contributed to their realization.
GJI: You are perhaps aware that your reasoning is quite similar to what a socio-political revolutionary uses to justify his actions. You use the term “social authority” and claim that an individual always needs a society to make his conscience for him. My belief is that there can be no intervening moral authority between a man’s conscience which should be guided in all important aspects by the moral code established by the ancient Greek philosophers, and God. If such intervening authority is introduced, as for instance a religious one, the individual is in a large measure divested of personal responsibility for his morals; his moral code is subject to modifications according to the preferences of the supervisory ‘authority.’ The authority may itself undergo change from time to time, particularly so in an age of social upheaval and revolution. I hope you will at least concede the last point.
THG: (#325) . . the Church is an authority to the good Catholic, the State to the good citizen, the Bible to the orthodox Protestant. In each case the acknowledgement of the authority has become one and the same thing with the individual’s presentation to himself of a true good, at once his own and the good of others, which it is his business to pursue.
(#323) Just as to children the duty of speaking the truth seems inseparable from the parental command to do so, so to many a simple Catholic, for instance, the fact that the Church commands him to live cleanly and honestly seems the source of the obligation so to live. To give just measure and to go to Mass are to him homogeneous duties; just as to the unenlightened persons in a differently ordered religious community to give just measure and to observe the Sabbath may be so. An abrogation of the authority which imposes the ceremonial obligation would seem to imply a disappearance of the moral obligation as well; because this too in the mind of the individual has become associated with the imagination of an imponent authority, the same as that which enjoins the ceremonial observance. This does not arise from the existence of a Church as a co-ordinate institution with the State. Were there no Church, the difference would only be that, as in the Greco-Roman world, the State would gather to itself the sentiments of which, as it is, the Church seems the more natural object. Moral duties would still be associated with the imagination of an imponent authority, whose injunctions they would be supposed to be, though the authority might be single instead of twofold. . . Nor would any considerate member of modern society, even the most enlightened, venture to say that his sense of moral duty was independent of some such imagination of an imponent . . If he ceased to present such an authority to himself, having previously discarded the imagination of Church or King or Divine Lawgiver as imponents of duty, he would be apt to find the obligation, not only of what is local and temporary to positive law, but of what is essential in the moral law, slipping away from him.
GJI: I am satisfied that you also recognize that there are numerous kinds of moral authority. And I am elated by what you have just finished with, because it proves the very core of my argument for there being one and only one moral authority, one and only one imponent of duty. Indeed, we should all recognize only the Divine Lawgiver as the imponent. He is the only one whose authority cannot be called into question or replaced by another. All the others can be, and have been, so questioned and replaced. I maintain that it is precisely because of our penchant for inventing false moral authorities in the past centuries that has led to the moral confusion and acceptance of moral relativism in the 20th century, and now, in the 21st, to the severe moral crisis in Western civilization. Indeed, it is because we paid homage to false moral authorities in the past that we now, as you say, “find the obligation, not only of what is local and temporary to positive law, but of what is essential in the moral law, slipping away from [us].”
Before we conclude, there is one other point I would like to clarify with you, Professor Green. Politically you have been identified as belonging with the Gladstonian Liberals. Could you briefly state again your views on the relationship between the individual and society.
THG: (#273) Human society indeed is essentially a society of self-determined persons. There can be no progress of society which is not a development of capacities on the part of persons composing it, considered as ends in themselves.
(#184) . . there can be nothing. . in a society however perfectly organized, which is not in the persons composing the nation or society. Our ultimate standard of worth is an ideal of personal worth. All other values are relative to value for, of, or in a person. To speak of any progress or improvement or development of a nation or society or mankind, except as relative to some greater worth of persons, is to use words without meaning. . .
GJI: That is not at all how a socialist would rate the value of the individual. In the Prolegomena you do have much to say regarding the betterment of society through the perfecting of the individual. Do you, then, also foresee a perfect society one day, like Karl Marx does?
THG: (#245) . . the conviction of the community of good for all men, while retaining its hold on us as an abstract principle, has little positive influence over our practical judgments. It is a source of counsels of perfection which we do not ‘see our way’ to carrying out. It makes itself felt in certain prohibitions, e.g. of slavery, but it has no such effect on the ordering of life as to secure for those whom we admit that it is wrong to use as chattels much real opportunity of self-development. They are left to sink or swim in the stream of unrelenting competition, in which we admit that the weaker has no chance. So far as negative rights go – rights to be let alone – they are admitted to membership of civil society, but the good things to which the pursuits of society are in fact directed turn out to be no good things for them. Civil society must be, and is, founded on the idea of there being a common good, but that idea in relation to the less favored members of society is in effect unrealized, and it is unrealized because the good is being sought in objects which admit of being competed for. They are of such a kind that they cannot be equally attained by all. The success of some in obtaining them is incompatible with the success of others. Until the object generally sought as good comes to be a state of mind or character of which the attainment, or approach to attainment, by each is itself a contribution to its attainment by every one else, social life must continue to be one of war – a war, indeed, in which the neutral ground is constantly being extended and which is itself constantly yielding new tendencies to peace, but in which at the same time new vistas of hostile interests, with new prospects of failure for the weaker, are as constantly opening.
GJI: Spoken like a true Liberal, Professor Green. We can only try to make society better; we can never achieve Utopia. Thank you very much.
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