IMPERATIVES, AND HIMSELF: BERNARD WILLIAMS, R.M. HARE,
AND A.J. AYER
by Ted Honderich
Time is real, it keeps on passing, but does it change your opinions? Well, sometimes it doesn't, anyway not much. The other day I came upon two book reviews in old copies of the New Statesman, from a year before it ceased to be the guiding light of the Left in Britain and fell into confusion about its politics and also into a wonderful latitude about what can be included under the heading of culture. This recovery of the past coincided with the new book of Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness, certainly a good thing, and what you might call the continuing quiet recollection on the part of philosophers of R. M. Hare and A. J. Ayer. Are they much read? Neither is so lucky as Karl Popper, whose politics alone continues to keep active persons engaged in renewing his reputation. The Williams book reviewed below is Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press) and the Hare one Moral Thinking (Oxford University Press). The Ayer one was his second volume of autobiography, More of My Life (Collins), not very philosophical. What I had to say of the first two still seems true, and what was said of the third loyal and true. You can also turn, by the way, to full judgements on Ayer, one by Anthony Quinton, one by a greater admirer.
WAS GAUGUIN MORALLY RIGHT?
Professors Williams and Hare met on television once, and the first put it to the second that he would have trouble, as a Utilitarian, if he had to choose between saving his son from the burning airliner after the crash, and saving the surgeon who could then save the lives of some more passengers. Would Hare, committed as he is to what used to be called the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number, not be committed to abandoning his son, and wouldn't that be morally unthinkable?
Hare in his book says the example is fraudulent. Williams in his persists in the conviction that such examples show Utilitarianism to be quite absurd. It gives affront to personal attachments, attachments which may be among the deep life-projects that give a man his very identity and make it worthwhile going on.
That is one difference between them. Another, although Hare does not give it explicit attention, has to do with the idea that one's being blameable or not in some course of action may depend on luck -- and so perhaps we shouldn't carry on so much about moral justifications or the want of them. Gauguin abandoned his family and went off to Tahiti to paint. As it happened, things turned out very well indeed, as evidenced by the painting on the jacket of Moral Luck.
Suppose some other painter, with just as much reason to take a flier on his painterly abilities, also abandoned wife and children. In the end he did no great work. Williams contemplates the idea, and variants of it, that culpability attaches to our forgotten figure in a way in which it doesn't to Gauguin. So with the negligent lorry driver who has the bad luck to kill a child, as against the equally negligent one who doesn't.
A third difference has to do with situations of moral conflict, some of them political. Williams does not disagree that politics is a line of life that selects at least for cynicism in politicians, perhaps for brutality. He allows that lying, breaking promises, sacrificing worthy to unworthy persons, and coercion up to blackmail may be means to a defensible and proper end. Are we then to say, when the ends are in fact defensible and proper, that that is all that there is to say?
No, sometimes it is also true that the victim has a morally justifiable claim against the justified liar or betrayer. It can be true, indeed, that there are cases where no matter which of mutually exclusive things is done by the politician or other agent, he really is in the moral wrong. There are irresoluble moral conflicts. That is not Hare's view. For him, to say roundly that there are such conflicts is to display superficiality, and want of comprehensiveness and penetration in moral thought.
Although the milk of human kindness to other philosophers does not flow through them, both books are admirable. Moral Luck is initiatory and about as clever as philosophy books get, too clever by no more than an eighth. Singularly acule distinctions are its fundamental stuff, and it is written from within rather than about human experience. Moral Thinking is a completed work of formidable reasoned commitment. Unlike Moral Luck, which is a collection of essays written on different occasions, Moral Thinking is a culmination of a career given over to a fully orderly attempt to get things clear, make the world a more decent place and, certainly, to put us all right. Moral Thinking is in a way introductory, Moral Luck nothing like, and such as to unnerve non-philosophers.
Hare begins from the view of moral judgments about which he has been indefatigable, and not without reason, for 30 years. An ordinary moral judgment about a particular situation is prescriptive, which is to say like an ordinary imperative such as 'Move over'. However, It also entails and so commits its maker to a universal moral judgment, one which covers all like situa- tions. Above all, it covers those conceivable situations where the maker is on the receiving end of what he has said he is right to be giving someone else in the actual situation. These are said to be two facts of philosophical logic, and hence the second is not to be confused with what it resem- bles, the notably escapable Golden Rule.
If we accept the two things, and are not amoralists or a bit dotty, we shall end up as Utilitarians. That is the argument. In particular we shall end up as split-level Utilitarians, which is to say tnat we shall have what might be called two moral lives. The ideal exemplar of the first is the archangel, superhuman in thought and without partiality to self or to friends and relations. The dismal exemplar of the second is George Orwell's prole, who is pretty nasty, and pretty dim, and would act pretty nastily had he not been supplied with principles from above.
When we are doing critical thinking, we are considering and devising prima facie moral principles for use in day-to-day or intuitive moral life. Or we may be considering conflicts that have turned up in day- to-day life between the prima facie moral principles. In intuitive moral life, by contrast, given the possibility of self-interest and factual mistake, we operate almost entirely by way of the prima facie principles.
In our critical thinking we are governed by a Principle of Utility. It is not closely specified by Hare but gives weight impartially to the preferences of all persons affected by possible choices, and calls for the choice which will give the largest total of satisfaction. In our intuitive moral life, the principles we depend on turn out to be pretty familiar. Don't lie unless, for example, you are crossing the Czech border in order to support persecuted intellectual dissidents, and if you say so you will not be let in.
I myself can find no explicit finality in the argument that prescriptivity and the universal entailment of moral judgments issues in a Utilitarianism. Certainly I can always be logically forced to put myself in the shoes of others. But exactly what about my experiences is supposed to make me favour largest totals of satisfaction as against certain distributions of satisfaction? Why can't I come, say, to the Principle of Equality, certainly not Utilitarian and certainly capable of being given precision. It is that the badly-off are to be made well-off, even if that isn't always satisfaction-maximising. Hare depends here on what it is to know another's sorrow, which is in ways connected with prescriptivity, but might knowing the sorrow of some others not be just what leads me to go against largest totals?
Still, true conclusions have been supported by insufficient argument's before now. Does two-level Utilitarianism deal adequately with the aircrash, your son, and the surgeon? A part of the gist of Hare's answer is that the good Utilitarian father will save his son, since he operates on prima face principles which include family loyalty. Almost always, so acting is in accordance with Utilitarianism, and it is extremely difficult to judge probabilities in actual situations.
"The fraudulence of the example," Hare says, "consists in suggesting that you can at one and the same time be in this emergency situation, and do the leisured critical thinking which would be necessary in order to justify you in going against your intuitions."
There is a riposte. To put it briskly, you save your son, and then take the time for some critical thinking before the next air-crash or such-like. Do you acquire a prima facie principle that would work out well for the surgeon and not your son in another aircrash? Will Utilitarianism force you to that? If so, would you be right? Hare in effect considers the riposte, and has a good deal to say against it, in part forceful.
The apparent foundation of Williams's rnoral philosophy is the nature and importance of an individual life. An individual life has its value m the projects which define it and are the very reason for its being carried forward. They issue in the demand of integrity, a kind of truth to oneself, take as essential to the unity of the individual.
There is not just the question of what possible states of affairs, what possible consequences of human action, would in some sense be the best ones. A man is not to be regarded as merely a possible cause of this or that outcome. There is the question of his own commitment. Much of the present book comes into focus by way of one of Williams's earlier examples, that of the chemist who will not himself do certain foul research, despite the fact that his refusal will issue in the research being carried forward more vigorously by someone else.
To persist in this way, to stay true to one's life, is not necessarily to be engaged in the strategy of keeping one's own hands clean. It is not necessarily self-indulgence. That possible failure is no more tied to the life of integrity than to any other moral outlook. The man who judges actions by their consequences, whether in terms of fair distribution or largest totals of satisfaction, may also care less about others than he cares about the image of himself as a moral agent of his preferred kind.
Connected with the idea of an individual life is the idea of a certain primacy of deep feeling. It is to overbear general doctrines or theories, supposedly objective or perspectiveless views of reality, and indeed many conceptions of rationality. Irresoluble moral conflict is thus inevitable. If going by consequences is to be rejected, so are the traditionally opposed categorical imperatives of Kantianism, or any such self-denying impartiality. There is "that worthwhile kind of life which human beings lack unless they feel more than they can say, and grasp more than they can explain".
It is possible to disagree. What is the life of integrity? "...one who displays integrity acts from those dispositions and motives which are most deeply his, and has also the virtues that enable him to do that." It seems awfully clear that not any old deep dispositions or motives will do. The torturer whose activities are owed to the profound belief that he is on the side of history is presumably not much more engaging than the torturer who is only there to earn a living wage. Still more to the point, although Williams does not like the distinction between rightness of acts and moral standing of agents, it can hardly be that there is more to be said for the identical acts of the first torturer.
In my view, then, we here have a morality whose true foundation has not been brought into view. However capacious and however atuned to moral sentiments, it will be of the order of what has been put aside: a general claim as to what human life is best and how it is to be ordered.
To come round to moral luck, the essential question is whether culpability is wholly a function of a man's intentions, reasonable concern for others, negligence and the like, or is in part a function of what was unpredictable when he acted. Now we are of course inclined to take a bad upshot -- no great paintings or the lorry driver's killing the child -- as evidence of greater unreasonable self-concern or negligence. What happens if we contrive cases where the upshot does not touch such matters?
Two appalling thugs, neither leading the other, use their revolvers to play Russian roulette with someone else's head, their captive's. When they pull their triggers, one gun kills the man. Might their being monsters affect the issue? Then consider two hunters, standing shoulder to shoulder, who negligently fire at the deer just after the moment it disappears into the bushes. One kills a person. It will take an awful lot of invention to convince me that the lucky thug, or the lucky hunter, should have less on his conscience.
15 January 1982
Once, in his middle years which are the subject of this book, Professor Sir Alfred Ayer found himself invited by two monsters, Somerset Maugham and Lord Beaverbrook, to be gentle with their shared deep hope. Maugham, in whose villa the Ayers were staying, was 86 and Beaverbrook was 81. Was there perhaps survival after death? Could there be reason, such as might occur to a beholden guest and a philosopher, for contemplating vistas well beyond those of Cap Ferrat and Fleet Street? Perhaps the possibility of recognition of earlier achievement? The monsters showed that they did not get the answer for which they had hoped. By the guest's further thought that, if one were to take up Christianity, then what would be most logical would be Calvinism and hence the divine predestination of the elect and the lost, Beaverbrook was mollified. Whether Maugham saw so clearly that he too would be among the chosen is not recorded.
The episode was not a large one in the life ot Freddie Ayer between the ages of 35 and 53, which he was in 1946 and 1963, but it tells well enough one fact: that he has generally found it necessary, when he speaks, to speak truth by his lights. That rare feature in a worldly man leaves only the option, in challenging circumstances, of not speaking. Does he often do that? In this second volume of his autobiography, he does not slide silently past what I as a friend of later years would guess to have been the hurts of the years recorded here -- that there are hurts in great and happy lives will come as a surprise only to very young readers. He does not slide past the question of who voted how and did what in his election to the Oxford chair which he so distinguished, perhaps more than any predecessor. Nor does he slide past the fact of a book of clever ridicule written against him. He does not, however, greatly burden his story with self-reflection, the exhumation of past selves. The least that can be said for that is that it makes a change.
At about the same time as the perturbations at Cap Ferrat, early in 1961, he learned that his old school, Eton, to which he had won a scholarship, had very recently enacted a statute requiring that candidates for scholarships have fathers of British nationality by birth. He extracted from the Provost of Eton, perhaps a man also truth's agent, the admission that the motive was indeed to keep down the number ot Jews, by excluding from scholarships the sons of Jewish refugees from Europe. His subsequent campaign did not get the support of likely persons. It was advanced, however, through running into a member of the Macmillan government, Sir Edward Boyle, on the train from Oxford. Supermac's being informed was followed within a fortnight by a press announcement. The Provost and Fellows of Eton were of the intention to change their statute, since it was now out of date.
That episode shows decent principle, which is to say of a Leftward kind, and a satisfactory want of sensitivity of the costs and embarrassments of acting on it. Again no common feature among those with a champagne side. It led him into several good causes and abstentions, but, despite connections with Gaitskell and the like, not far into politics. A pity he was not elected when he was a Labour candidate for Westminster City Council. We and that galere would at least have had the distinction of a Philosopher-Alderman. A pity, too, that he did not support Russell on nuclear disarmament, out of a certain realism and also a thought or two about the manipulation of Russell by his secretary, who was indeed a somewhat alarming character.
The book and the life have at least as much passion in them as is consistent with a moderate decorum. It comes into view with the ladies of his life, a quite satisfactory number and assorted, and with his son Nicholas, the subject of the last line of the book. "My love for this child has been a dominating factor in the remainder of my life." It comes into view elsewhere. C.E.M. Joad, not wholly averse to being misdescribed as "Professor Joad" on the telly, and inclined to forget to get a ticket for his railway journeys, was one who announced that the Logical Positivism of Language, Truth and Logic led to Fascism. He is not remembered over-kindly.
There is some philosophy in the book, necessarily potted, and a lot more life. Before Oxford, 13 engaging years as professor at University College London; the Brains Trust; America, France, Russia, India, China, Peru, Clapham; bibulous clubs and perilous seminars; Sir Karl Popper resolutely committed to wholly critical discussion, preferably of the ideas of others; Burgess and Maclean; scuffles with Continental deep thinkers; putting Stanley Spencer right about aesthetics; Muggeridge impervious to reason.
Each paragraph is pellucid. When the third volume of this autobiography appears, its author will have done less for letters than for philosophy, but enough to secure futurity.
14 September 1984
For a review of another book, go to Bernard Williams' New Book, Truth and Truthfulness.