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Moral Philosophy Without Morality?

might be or are applied. To investigate the
latter is to raise political or moral or
religious, but not philosophical, problems
or questions. 2

..o ..alily?

Richard Norman

Of the traditional areas of philosophy, moral
philosophy is one in which the inadequacy of recent
work has been most obvious. The writings of people
like R M Hare can readily be seen as representing
in an extreme degree the barrenness of so much
contemporary philosophy. A common response to their
work has consequently been to say something like
this: that recent moral philosophy has been so arid
and sterile because philosophers have turned away
from substantive moral questions and have occupied
themselves solely with ‘the language of morals’ ,
with the analysis of moral concepts. This diagnosis
might seem to be confirmed by their own pronouncements about what they are doing. Although it is
perhaps unfair to do so, I cannot resist quoting, as
an example, the write-up on the back cover of
Nowell-Smith’s Ethics:

‘What ought I to do ,here and now?’ This is a
question which each of us frequently has to
answer. More rarely, in a reflective moment or
when faced with a difficult moral problem, we
ask such questions as: ‘What ought I to do in
general?’, ‘To what moral code ought I to
adhere?’, ‘Why should I adhere to any moral
code at all?’. These are the perennial
questions of moral philosophy. It is not,
however, the aim of this book to answer these
questions •••
There is indeed a certain truth in the above
explanation of why recent moral philosoph~ has been
so boring. As it stands, however , this explanation
is inadequate. The trouble with it is that it
accepts these philosophers’ own characterisation of
their work at its face value. There are two main
respects in which it is inadequate:

(a) Modern moral philosophy has not in fact been
morally neutral.

It has been done from a specific
moral standpoint. This has become quite explicit
in some of the more recent work 1 G J Warnock, for
example, in The Object of Morality, is concerned
to argue that morality has a specific content, and
to justify its having such a content. But one can
also identify a particular morality (and, significantly, it is more or less the same morality) which
is implicitly presupposed, though unacknowledged,
in the work of writers like Hare who take moral
philosophy to be concerned solely with the form
of moral discourse.

(b) What is really significant about the method
employed by modern moral philosophers is not the
fact that it consists in conceptual analysis, but
rather their particular view of what ‘conceptual
analysis’ actually is. This view is epitomised
in the following quotation. l
[Contemporary philosophers] would say ••• that
philosophy is the study of the concepts that
we employ, and not of the facts, phenomena,
cases, or events to which those concepts


What we have here is essentially a Platonic view of

It is supposed that concepts on t~e one
hand, and facts, phenomena and events on the other,
belong in two different realms, and that they can
therefore be investigated quite separately. What
is usually then implied is that the investigation
and analysis of concepts is a purely a priori study,
whereas knowledge of things in the world and of
facts about the world is obtained entirely by
empirical investigation.

Now, put like that, as a kind of Platonic dualism, the thesis is obviously untenable, and I doubt
whether any contemporary philosopher would subscribe
to it. Nevertheless, some such view does in fact
underly the practice of recent moral philosophy.

In opposition to such a view I would claim that,
although philosophy certainly does involve the
analysis of concepts, and although this could even
be regarded as distinctive of philosophical enquiry,
still, the analysis of concepts is not a selfcontained activity. On the one hand, how we analyse
concepts will affect our view of the facts about
the world.

(For example, if we accept a Humean
analysis of the concept of causality, we are
committed to a certain belief about events in the
world, namely that they are not linked by any
necessary connections.)
And, perhaps even more
importantly, our factual beliefs affect the concepts
we employ.

If our knowledge of empirical facts
about the world changes radically, this will require
a corresponding revision of our concepts.

Applied specifically to moral philosophy, this
means that, most obviously, our empirical knowledge
of social and psychological facts will be relevant
to the analysis of moral concepts. Depending on
what one takes to be the nature of contemporary
society and the nature of human behaviour, particular
moral concepts will have to be regarded as more or
less appropriate, and will need to be interpreted
in different ways. And the most important general
indictment of recent moral philosophy is that it
has studiously ignored relevant empirical facts of
this kind. Consequently, it has taken moral concepts
to be essentially uncontrovers·ial. Moral concepts
have been accepted as though ready-made, as though
their status and viability, their appropriateness
to human activity, were not in question, and as
though they could be analysised in purely a priori

The exception proves the rule. Warnock, in his
recent book, thinks it important to ground the
concept of morality in a general view of what he
calls ‘the human predicament’. But he demonstrates
how out of practice philosophers are at this game,
both by the obvious embarrassment with which he
sets about his task, and by the banal half-truths
he comes up with. Whenever he uses the term ‘the
human predicament’, he apologises for talking
‘pompously’ or ‘in archaic style’. As for what I
have referred to as the ‘banal half-truths’, the
following is typical:

It seems reasonable, and in the present context
is highly relevant, to say, without necessarily
going quite as far as Hobbes did, that the
human predicament is inherently such that
things are liable to go badly. 3


I shall now attempt to substantiate these two points
– that moral philosophers have been committed, even
without acknowledging it, to a substantive morality,
and that they have dealt in a purely a priori
fashion with concepts whose status is called in
question by empirical considerations – by looking
at some of the basic assumptions which have been
most influential in recent moral philosophy.

(a) The first of these is the primary role which has
been given to the concepts of wants, desires,
interests, etc. Moral beliefs have been widely
thought to be reducible to statements about these.

It has been assumed by many philosophers that at
least the most basic and most important wants and
desires are simply given, i.e. that with regard to
those things which are desired for their own sake
rather than for the sake of any further end, such
desires are immune to further assessment. They may
indeed conflict with one another, and if they do
so, one of them may have to be sacrificed to
another, but in themselves, it is thought, they are
immune to criticism.

What is significant is that this view has been
maintained in the face of so much evidence of how,
in our society, people’s wants are manipulated, are
artificially stimulated and created. People can be
said to have ‘false wants’ both insofar as they are
deliberately manipulated, by techniques of persuasion
such as advertising, and also insofar as they
unconsciously adapt their wants to the kinds of
satisfaction attainable within the limits of the
existing social structure. Certain kinds of ‘false’

wants are built into the operation of the economy,
for example, and are thus adopted unconsciously by
people as their own.

I can’t elaborate on this
here, but it should be obvious that I am thinking
particularly of Marcuse’s writing, such as his
One-Dimensional Man. Thus if people appear to want,
for their own sake, such things as social status or
superfluous material luxuries for example, we can’t
simply stop at that fact.

Such wants are not just
‘given’. The concept of ‘wants’ and ‘desires’

therefore cannot be treated as philosophically unproblematic, nor can it play the kind of role
widely assigned to it in practical reasoning. From
a philosophical point of view what is needed, in the
light of these empirical considerations, is an
examination of the distinction between true and
false wants, true and false needs.

(b) A second typical featUre of recent moral philosophy has been the fundamental importance attached
to the concept of altruism and to the egoism/altruism
distinction. The notion of altruism, when added to
the notion of desires, has regularly been taken to
be the defining feature of morality.

It has very
often been suggested that practical reasoning falls
into two clear categories: reasoning concerned with
the satisfaction of one’s desires is prudential, and
reasoning which takes equal account of everyone’s
desires, others’ as well as one’s own, constitutes
moral reasoning. Moreover philosophers have thought
that it can be proved entirely a priori that one
ought to be altruistic. The notion of ‘universalisability’ is usually appealed to, and is thought
to be the means of proving that anyone who doesn’t
give equal weight to other people’s desires, when
these will be affected by his actions, is being
irrational. Now if it were not for universalisability, I would be inclined to say that this is
just obviously false.

It seems to be simply
obvious that egoism is not irrational.

The idea that
the arguments of someone like Nietzsche, for
example, could be countered by a simply logical
appeal to ‘universalisability’ is surely intrinsical
ally implausible. Of course egoism makes sense.

Of course it is not irrational.

It may even be

What are more important, however, are those
psychological considerations which call in question
the egoism/altruism dichotomy altogether.

I have
in mind, in particular, what might be called ‘the
ambiguity of altruism’. Supposedly altruistic
behaviour can in fact have a psychological character
of widely differing kinds. To take the most basic
opposition: altruistic behaviour may be masochistic behaviour, the product of frustrated
aggressions which are turned inward against oneself
and thus produce an attitude of self-negation and
self-denial; or, at the other extreme, it may be
the genuine, spontaneous generosity and sympathy
and humanity of someone who can afford to give

freely of himself, who is able to recognise others
as independent beings with needs and interests of
their own, because he is secure in his own identity.

I think it would be fair to regard only the latter
as genuine altruism. Now, this point is sometimes
formulated by saying that ‘one cannot love others
unless one also loves oneself,.4 This locution,
however, is misleading. By linking concern for
oneself and concern for others instrumentally, it
preserves the conceptual dichotomy between the two.

It invites the response: ‘This is simply a contingent connection which you are pointing out; you
are telling us that the most effective means of
being altruistic is to love oneself equally; but
though this may be true empirically, the fact remains
that there is a conceptual distinction between
egoism and altruism and that the latter concept is
definitive of morality.’ The point how~Ver is
precisely that the contingent empirical facts have
conceptual implications. They require us to revise
our conceptual categories. They point to the need
for some basic ethical concept which is prior to
both egoism and altruism – perhaps something like
‘health’ or ‘harmony’ or ‘integrity’ or ‘fulfilment’.

And altruism would have then to be seen simply as
one particular natural manifestation of such a

(c) The third idea which I want to mention is less
widespread, but equally significant.

In the last
few years some phillsophers, apparently still
impressed with the idea that morality comes into
play when one extends one’s behaviour from a concern
for one’s own interests to a concern for the
interests of others, have tried to base this
extension on the concept of a ‘contract’S The idea
has a long history; we could trace it back to
Hobbes, for example (for whom, of course, the
connection betweel morality and the contract is
complicated by being mediated via the notion of
political authority), and, further back, to what is
perhaps its classic statement in Book 11 of Plato’s
Republic, where it is put into the mouth of Glaucon.

The idea is this: given the basic postulate of
individuals who are concerned to satisfy their o~n
interests, and given also the fact that these
interests conflict, it is in people’s interest to
enter into a contract whereby they mutually undertake to respect one another’s basic interests.

It is such a contract which creates moral obligations-; having entered into it, men have obligatiO!.

towards one another in respect of these basic

Now there is a familiar and insuperable objection
to the traditional ‘contract’ theory – namely, that
no such general contract has ever been entered into.

Contemporary attempts to revive the ‘contract’ idea
have therefore been framed not in terms of any
actual contract, but in terms of a purely hypothetical one. The suggestion is that, where it would be
in our interests for such a contract to exist, we
ought to act as though we had contracted with others
to respect certain interests of theirs in return
for their respecting our interests.

OUr obligations
towards others are thus supposed to derive from
this hypothetical – that is, non-existent – contract.

The objection to this is obvious: Why on earth
should I be bound by a contract which I have never
made? If the contract is purely hypothetical, it
cannot generate any actual obligations. The whole
point about a contract is that it provides some kind
of guarantee of how other people are going to behave.

Given the guarantee that others are likely to respect my interests, it is worth my while to limit
my own actions in accordance with the contract.

But if the contract is only hypothetical, there is
no such guarantee. The supposed reason for acting
in accordance with the contract therefore

The issue here is not just an academic one.

Professional politicans and ideologues often talk
as though social and economic relations could be
seen as some kind of implicit contract. The constant


appeal to ‘the national interest’ invokes an idea
of the economy as a jOint enterprise in which all,
workers and capitalists alike, pool their resources
and abilities, and make certain sacrifices in return
for mutual benefits.

It is then suggested that the
workers ought to limit their wage claims, and in
general ought to moderate their concern for their
own interests, because this is their side of the

The same idea is in fact extended to the
whole field of social relations – one is asked to
forego one’s own interests in return for the same
restraint on the part of everybody else.

Here again
therefore we must emphasise that no such contract

As a matter of empirical fact, social
relations within our society are simply not like

Power and wealth are unequally shared, and
those who have an abundance of both have not been
restrained in the acquisition of them by any contract.

Consequently those who are deprived of power and
wealth are under no corresponding obligation to
forego their own interests.

On the contrary, the
appropriate response to their situation is for them
to assert their own interests and to aim at the
satisfaction of them.

In this context, and in
relation to the whole question of altruism, we can
fittingly quote what Marx and Engels say in the
German Ideology:

The communists do not preach morality at all …

They do not put to people the moral demand: love
one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the
contrary, they are very well aware that
egoism, just as much as self-sacrifice, is in
definite circumstances a necessary form of the
self-assertion of individuals. 6
So far, in discussing these three ideas, I have
been concerned to emphasise the apriorism of recent
moral philosophy, and to indicate how empirical
considerations actually call in question the role
which this philosophy ascribes to the concepts i t
analyses. My other intention was to show that this
philosophy has not been morally neutral, and this
also, I hope, will by now be fairly obvious. The
idea that individuals are entirely autonomous in the
wants and needs which they aim to satisfy and the
goals which they pursue, that these are entirely
personal and that there is no room for external
criticism of them; the idea of morality as a device
which supervenes upon this private activity and
prevents people from getting in one another’s way
when they pursue these ends, by requiring them to
take account of one another’s interests; the idea of
one’s relations to other people as essentially
contractual – what is all this but the morality of

Thi~ liberalism is specifically apparent in the
frequent distinction, which one finds in a number of
contemporary moral philosophers, between, on the one
hand, the private and personal ideals which each
person pursues within his own individual life, and,
on the other hand, a social morality whose function
is to arbitrate between competing interests. That
this division is characteristic of the liberal
tradition will, I think, be obvious.

It is
epitomised in the view which Mill ascribes to
Bentham :

Bentham’s idea of the world is that of a
collection of persons pursuing each his separate
interest or pleasure, and the prevention of
whom from jostling one another more than is
avoidable, may be attempted by hopes and fears
derived from three sources – the law, religion,
and public opinion. 7
Mill intends these to be rather scathing remarks,
yet he never succeeds in freeing himself from these
same limitations; his essay On Liberty, for example,
is dominated by the same conception. What is
significant for the purposes of this paper, then,
is that we find the same division, between private
ideals and socially negotiated interests, prominent
in recent moral philosophers.

It plays a large role
in Hare’s Freedom and Reason, for example.



occurs in Warnock’s The Object of Morality when he
asserts that morality does not tell us ‘how one
should live’ or what could constitute ‘the good

That, he says, is a matter for individual
life-styles, and one may, according to one’s individual personality, regard the good life as that
of the man of action, or the dedicated artist, or
the religious recluse, or the professional golfer. 8
What morality does is to produce the appropriate
conditions within which various kinds of individual
lives may be lived.

Perhaps the most explicit
statement of the morality of liberalism is in
Strawson’s paper Social Morality and Individual
Ideal (Philosophy 1961). He talks there of the
diversity of individual ideas as a sort of picturegallery of possibilities; he then goes on to
suggest that the observance of a recognised social
code of morality is necessary as a pre~condition
for the pursuit of these ideals, and that a
liberal society is one in which the pursuit of a
variety of conflicting ideals of life is possible.

If i t were my main concern here to criticise
this latter-day liberalism, I would try to show how,
on the one hand, the quality of one’s life as an
individual is conditioned by the nature of the
social relations and social patterns of behaviour in
which one is implicated (think, for example, of how
any discussion of alienation would require the
abandonment of the liberal dichotomy), and how, on
the other hand, one’s conception of the general
nature and purpose of human activity – one’s
‘ideals’, to use the liberal word – will determine
one’s view of what men’s interests consist in, and
will affect one’s attitude towards social conflicts
of interest and towards the ways in which these can
or cannot be resolved, whether by a ‘social morality’

or by some other means. However, I cannot go into
this now. What I want to stress is that recent
moral philosophy has tended to presuppose a specific
morality, that this morality is contestable, and
that if philosophers had been less anxious to limit
themselves to a priori analysis and had been more
inclined to look at what human societies and human
behaviour are actually like, they might have been
led to question the moral concepts which th~y have
been content to analyse.

If we are going to take this critical function of
moral philosophy more seriously, then the very first
concept to look at critically might be the concept
of morality itself. There are certain standard
objections to the use of the concept of ‘morality’,
and in particular to the use of the epithet
, : immoral. ‘ as applied to men and their actions.

These objections are formidable ones.

they’re entirely valid, I’m not sure. But they
certainly need to be taken seriously by moral
philosophers, and I therefore want to put them
forward now.

(a) We can approach the first objection by taking up
my earlier point about altruism.

If i t is indeed
the case that the basic value-concepts to apply to
people’s lives are concepts such as health and
harmony and balance, fulfilment, self-realization,
and so on, then I think we could reasonably add that
these are not specifically moral concepts.

It would
be out of place to assert that people ought to aim
at these.

Not only would the ‘ought’ be essentially
redundant; i t would miss the point as to why men
fail to achieve such ends.

The answer to that
question would need to be in terms of factors which
are not primarily individual but social.

If we take
seriously the question ‘What is i t that screws up
people’s lives?’, then, ultimately, the answer must
be: not individual failings and weaknesses, but
corrupt and oppressive institutions.

(b) The second objection focuses on the particular
kind of motivation which moral behaviour seems to


If, as I think we should: we try to attach
a fairly definite meaning to the notion of ‘morality’,
so that moral considerations are not just equated
with practical considerations in general but are a
particular subset of the latter, then one way of
pinning the term down is by noting that it is
readily associated with the notion of ‘conscience’.

Morally motivated behaviour is typically equated
with actions performed in obedience to conscience.

And conscience, in turn, is characteristically seen
as something which imposes itself from without.

is essentially an external kind of motivation. This
feature of morality is brought out most clearly by
Kant, with his emphasis on the opposition between
inclination and duty. Think of Kant’s contrast
between practical love and pathological love.

Morality requires that I show concern for another
not because I love him in any normal sense, or
because he is my friend or my comrade or stands in
any other spontaneous human r~lationship to me, or
even because his situation as another human being
evokes my sympathy or pity; I must show concern for
him simply and solely because that is what morality
commands. We may well wonder how this abstract concern, produced by command, can be genuine or can
have any real human value.

Now what can be said for
Kant, I think, is that his picture is at any rate
true to the concept of ‘morality’ and ‘moral duty’

and ‘moral conscience’. But we are also led to ask
how this kind of motivation can be possible. How
can moral actions be called forth by this abstract
sense of duty? And here the most plausible explanation is the familiar Freudian account of the superego. What it implies is that such motivation is, as
I indicated, essentially external. Though conscience
is regarded as being in some sense internal, it is
nevertheless the internalization of an external

Initially the appropriate actions are
produced in response to an authority, just because
they are what the authority commands; and the role
of this external authority is then taken over by an
internalised version of it.

In short, morally
motivated behaviour is compulsive behaviour.

(c) The third kind of objection which I have in mind
tends often to be put in terms of an opposition
between determinism and morality – misleadingly so,
I shall suggest.

It is supposed that the standpoint
of determinism rules out that of morality, that once
an action has been causally explained and thereby
shown to be inevitable, the agent can no longer be
regarded as morally responsible and it therefore
becomes inappropriate to assess the action in moral
terms. This case tends to be argued largely by
appeal to examples, and especially to examples from
the law courts. A typical example which comes to mind
is one from a few months ago, of a young boy who was
given a massive sentence after being convicted of
‘mugging’; people then pointed to the area where he
lived, to the depressed environment in which he’d
grown up, the high level of unemployment, the
absence of any meaningful opportunities for a worthwhile life; and they were then inclined to say:

‘How could he help it? He was bound to act as he
did, he didn’t have a chance, you can’t really blame

Examples of this kind do seem to me to be
very forceful, but I would say that the reference to
determinism obscures what is really significant about

The problem – that of the inappropriateness
of moral vocabulary in such situations – arises
regardless of whether or not we suppose the action
to be ‘inevitable’. It arises, rather, because,
once we understand why the individual acted as he
did, there is no longer the same inclination to
condemn him as ‘immoral’. The real opposition is
between, on the one hand, an understanding of the
action, which sees it as an intelligible response to
a situation, and, on the other hand, a characteristically moral view of it. The latter in fact cuts
short all understanding.

It simply categorises and
labels the agent with some such assertion as ‘He is
immoral’, ‘He is guilty’. The moral point of view
seems to involve a particular view of responsibility,
one which sees ‘evil’ as some kind of quality

residing wholly in the person and, as it were,
making up his whole identity.

It would be fair to
characterise this as a ‘judicial’ mentality, one
which is concerned not with why the agent did what
he did, but solely with the question ‘innocent or

It is the mentality which is concerned
with passing sentence.

I would suggest that we
should be more struck by the use of the phrase ‘moral
judgements’. As this is used, it is not just
analogous to ‘factual judgements’ or ‘scientific
judgements’. People regularly talk, even within
moral philosophy, about ‘passing moral judgements’,
and this brings out very dramatically the judicial
connotations of the phrase. This aspect of morality
is one of the main grounds for Nietzsche’s attack
on the concept. Nietzsche of course linked the
moral point of view closely with Chrigtianity.

The Twilight of the Idols he has a fi~e phrase:

‘Christianity is the metaphysics of the hangman.’

I would say there is a good deal of truth in that.

It is important to notice what concepts are
being called in question by these considerations.

It is not just a matter of the concept ‘moral’. As
I have intimated above, the objections also apply to
the concept ‘ought’, at least in its characteristically moral sense, which is the sense that has
occupied the attention of philosophers.

Of course
there are other senses of ‘ought’ .• The ‘ought’ of
advice, as in ‘You ought to see the film at the Ode on
this week’ or ‘You ought to see a doctor’ is
obviously indispensible. But the moral ‘ought’,
which, as Hare rightly says, has the force of an
imperative, stands or falls with the concept ‘moral’,
for reasons which I have already indicated.

It is remarkable how philosophers, having accepted that the language of moral oughts belongs wi th
the language of imperatives, have seen nothing
questionable about the use of such language. They
have apparently given no thought to the question how
one can be in a position to issue imperatives to
other people.

In the case of most uses of imperatives the answer will be obvious and uninteresting.

But in the case of moral commands and moral ‘oughts’,
their use seems to carry with it an asswnpt:.ion”of
moral superiority which, to say the least, needs

What this shows, then, is that even the most
general concepts, so general that philosophers have
thought them morally uncontentious, actually have
a spec~fic moral content.

In analysing the terms
‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘ought’, philosophers have
thought that they were on safe neutral ground.

I would say they were mistaken.

Another concept which we should seriously consider jettisoning is that of ‘the virtues’. The
most recent attempt to revive this concept, by G. J.

Warnock, is open to objection on both the first two
counts. Warnock thinks that the most important
reason why ‘things tend to go badly’ is the fact of
limited human sympathies – roughly speaking, the
fact that men are too selfish. He gives no attention
at all to the idea that things might ‘go badly’

because of the kind of society in which men have to
live and the kinds of institution within which they
have to act. Secondly, there is the question of
moral motivation. Warnock says that, because men
have limited sympathies, morality seeks to counteract these limitations. 9 What is this supposed to
mean? He can’t mean literally that ‘morality’ does

It must be understood as, in some way or
other, a claim about what human beings seek to do.

But it is difficult to see how men Can provide the
required countervailing tendency, since, according
to Warnock, the human predicament consists precisely
in the fact that men are not sympathetic. Warnock
seems to imply that morality manages to impose
itself by some kind of sleight of hand – men are, in
themselves, selfish, but thanks to morality they can
turn out to be more sympathetic than they really are.

As it stands, this is logically incoherent. What
makes it plausible is the psychological fact I
mentioned earlier – that moral motivation does
characteristically impose itself as something


external, as the Internalisation of external

As I’ve said before, I’m not sure whether these
objections to traditional moral concepts are
decisive. But certainly I think that they are
important objections. Even so, I do not want
to push this line of thought too far.

In particular,
there are two important reservations to be made.

(a) I don’t simply want to say that everything is
political. The first of my three objections above
might be thought to lead to the conclusion that all
talk about the desirability of and kind of life
rather than another is political discourse, requiring a political solution. Well, as I’ve said, it
does require a political solution. But that doesn’t
mean that the necessity for personal decisions
disappears. For a start, whatever beliefs one has
about the necessity for political action, one’s
own commitment to the political cause requires a
decision – a personal decision, moreover, one which
depends not just on an abstract calculation that
the world after the revolution will be better than
it is now, but on showing that an engagement in
political activity is something which makes sense
in terms of one’s own life. Furthermore, I would
not go along with the mentality which postpones
everything worthwhile until ‘after the revolution’.

The fact is that one has to live in the existing
world, and one has to make one’s own life tolerable
and meaningful within the existing situation. This
split in one’s consciousness, between the personal
and the political, is an undeniable fact of experience.

The appropriate response to i t is not to try and
pretend that the personal can be somehow swallowed
up in the political, but to find forms of activity
which link the two in a meaningful way. Women’s
Liberation is, I think,·a movement which has to some
extent succeeded in doing this, though the tensions
are apparent even there.

(b) My second reservation is this: given that moral
motivation can be characterised as external and
compulsive, it doesn’t follow that the alternative
is one of sheer immediacy. One writer who sometimes
seems to suggest this is Wilhelm Reich. Consider
for example the following passage, where he is
talking about patients who have undergone his
character-analytic treatment:

If one represses one’s own sexuality one
develops all kinds of moralistic and aesthetic
defenses. When the patients regain contact
with their own sexual needs, these neurotic
differentiations disappear … Previously, the
insoluble conflict between instinctual need
and moral inhibition forced the patient to
act, in every respect, according to some law
outside and above him .•. When the patient,
in the process of acquiring a different
structure, realizes the indispensability of
genital gratification, he loses this moralistic
straitjacket and with it the damming up of his
instinctual needs … Moral regulation becomes
unnecessary. The previously indispensable
mechanism of self-control is no longer needed.

This is so because the energy is being withdrawn from the antisocial impulses; there is
little left which needs to be kept under
control. The healthy individual has no
compulsive morality because he has no impulses
which call for moral inhibition. What antisocial impulses may be left are easily
controlled, provided the basic genital needs
are satisfied ‘” The organism is capable of
self-regulation. 10
Much of this passage is
we’ve said previously no compulsive morality’

taken to imply that the


clearly reminiscent of what
‘the healthy individual has
and so on. But if this is
healthy individual acts

entirely on impulses, entirely in accordance with
his most immediate inclinations, this hardly seems
either. plausible or satisfactory. I do not think
it either possible or desirable to eliminate the
notions of internal conflict and struggle, and to
reduce one’s activity to this sort of onedimensional level.

So if one is to be able to talk
realistically of acting spontaneously, without
external and compulsive moral inhibitions, what
one has to get at is the idea of acting in response
to a higher self which stands above one and makes
demands upon one, but which one accepts just because
one recognises it to be one’s true self.

I regard
the proper elucidation of these ideas of a true and
a false self as one of the most pressing tasks of
phi losophy .


So, in view of all this, there does remain a need
for something like moral philosophy – perhaps I
should call it ‘ethical philosophy’ in order to
indicate that within it the status of ‘morality’ is
an open question. The task of this ethical philosophy·would be to articulate a workable set of
ethical concepts in terms of which one could direct
one’s life and activity. So in a sense we are
brought back to a notion of conceptual analysis but I have previously indicated various important
ways in which this would differ from what presently
goes under that name.

It not just an
analytical but also a critical activity – it would
not simply accept unquestioningly those ethical
concepts which are in current use, but would involve
judgements as to which of these are acceptable and
which ought to be jettisoned. Thus it would not
purport to be a purely neutral activity – it would
be qUite explicitly for some ethical ideas and
against others. And it would no longer be a pu~ely
a priori activity – it would embody the recognition
that ethical concepts have to be assessed in the
light of psychological and sociological facts perhaps very general but nevertheless

Again, it would be primarily concerned with ~hat
have been misleadingly called the secondary
evaluative concepts – not ones like ‘good’ and
‘right’ so much as ones like ‘self-realization’,
‘health’, ‘authenticity’, ‘conscience’, ‘the true
self’ as well as more frequently discussed ones like
‘freedom’ and ‘justice’.

There remains one other vital difference. What
I would stress is the necessity to articulate a
system of concepts. Concepts of the sort that I
have referred to have to some extent been discussed
by analytical phi1oso?hers. But they have been
discussed piecemeal – and this fact largely accounts
for the lack of critical thrust in such philnsophy.

Taken in isolation, a concept like ‘conscience’,
for example, can be analysed and various different
senses can be assigned to it. But the crucial
question is: can it form one element in a coherent
ethical perspective alongside the other concepts we
want to employ? Can it cohabit with concepts like
‘authenticity’ or ‘self-realization’, for example?

This demand that one’s ethical concepts constitute
a coherent system corresponds to the necessity that
one’s life as a whole should have an overall meaningfulness and coherence. Academic philosophers tend
to sneer at the suggestion that philosophy has
anything to do with questions about the meaning of

I think it is time that they stopped sneering.


I have actually taken the quotation from Sean
Sayers’ article ‘Towards a Radical Philosophy’ ,
which appeared in the Cambridge Review (20 Oct.

1972). The ideas in that article have stimulated
much of what I have to say here.


G. J. Warnock English Philosophy Since 1900
(OXford, 1958), p.167.


The Object of Morality, p.17


Cf. Erich Framm: Man For Himself, ch.IV section
1. Despite its limitations, Fromm’s discussion,
and the book as a whole, are a useful application of psychological ideas to philosophical
ethics, and far more valuable than most recent
moral philosophY,in the analytical tradition.


I have in mind such works as G. R. Grice’s The
Grounds of Moral Judgement, D. A. J. Richards’

A Theory of Reasons for Action, and J. Rawls’

A Theory of Justice. Though these are, in vary-

what follows, a gross and critically misleading

In general, then, I shall be pursuing the line
of defence of Fielding already pioneered by Empson
in his essay on Tom Jones 2 • Empson sees that Tom
Jones is, among other things, a structure of
implicit argument, and that the beauty and power of
the novel have much in common with the beauty and
power of the more sustained and formally satisfying
monuments of philosophy:

••. ,the feeling that he [Fielding] is providing
a case is what gives Tom Jones its radiance,
making it immensely better, I think, than the
other two novels … it builds up like Euclid.

Modern critics seem unable to feel this,
apparently because it is forbidden by their
aesthetic principles, even when Fielding tells
them he is doing it; whereas Dr. Johnson and Sir
John Hawkins, for example, took it seriously at
once, and complained bitterly that the book had
an immoral purpose. 3

ing degrees, more impressive than anything in
the ‘Language of Morals’ vein, I still feel that
they are open to my general criticisms of the


Marx and Engels: The German Ideology, Lawrence
& Wishart, p.267.


J. S. Mill: Essays on Bentham and Coleridge,
Chatto & Windus.


These revealing examples occur oh page 90 of

But even Ernpson, though he sees that Fielding is
defending a central doctrine, feels that that doctrine
‘retains the shimmering mystery of a mirage’, and
later on after stating the doctrine (I think wrongly)
mutters uncomfortably, ‘A modern philosopher might
answer that this makes no logical difference,.4
Fielding, it seems, needs an advocate among the
philosophers, and that is the modest office which I
shall try to execute in this essay.

The Object of Morality.


The Object of Morality, p.26
The Sexual Revolution, pp.6-7

fielding and
Ihe _o.-alisls



Bernard Harrison

Those who believe that morality is the primary
concern of the novel have been almost unanimous in
dismissing Fielding as a serious novelist.

I think
this is a pity, since I find Fielding’s treatment of
moral questions, and ,particularly of questions
about the nature of morality itself, sufficiently
powerful for his work to have something to offer,
not only to the critic and the common reader, but to
the professional philosopher.

Amongst literary men, and not without same
reason, the words ‘professional philosopher’ not
uncommonly produce a sinking of the heart.

I should therefore begin by disclaiming the intention
of dealing with Fielding as the prudent and judicious
gravel contractor deals with the verdant meadow or
the pastoral hillside.

I do not propose, that is,
to strip away everything of literary interest in his
work in order to arrive at some gritty but useful
substance of philosophical generalisation which lies
beneath. My concern is with the question, how ought
Fielding to be read?

I want to suggest that one reason why a writer
in one sense so straightforward has so often been
read with astonishing obtuseness is to be found in
the relative insensitivity of readers to the rather
impressive vein of philosophical dialectic which
underlies the entire fabric of Fielding’s writings,
but which is easy to miss, precisely because it is
so well and completely integrated into them. To
miss the power of Fielding’s philosophical position
is to miss half the occasional force and all of the
cumulative force of the systematic patterns of irony
which this position dominates and directs; it is to
miss the essential mode of Fielding’s concern with
the interaction of character and conduct; and, in
general, to remain ignorant or misguided on the
question of what sort of novel Fielding is, or ought
to be, trying to write. To regard Fielding, in the
dismissive words of a recent critic, as ‘a competent
amateur in philosophy’ is, as I shall try to show in

One kind of case against Fielding, put baldly, runs
like this. A novel by Fielding is a parade of
puppets, each clearly labelled by the author at the
outset as vicious or virtuous, and allowed no
subsequent moral development. This, it is argued,
is grossly so in Jonathan Wild, a recent editionS of
which is garnished with woodcuts so remarkably wooden
as to testify mutely to the plausibility of this
critical response to the novel. But similar charges
can be brought against Tom Jones.

Fielding indeed
wishes us to believe in Book XVII that Tom ~as
learned from his experiences; that he has
reflection on his past follies, acquired a discretion and prudence very uncommon in one of his lively
parts.’ But these changes lie beyond the events of
the novel, in which they manifest themselves, if at
all, only by the passing remorse and embarrassment
which T~ displays at his’first meeting with Sophia
after his release from Newgate. Beyond this there
is only what is politely called the picaresque: that
jolly, remorseless procession of Thwackums and
Squares, Westons and Partridges, making, to borrow
‘Savonarola’ Brown’s stage- direction, remarks
highly characteristic of themselves.

There is no developnent of charac’ter in Fielding,
the argument proceeds, because Fielding’s characters
are not allowed to interact in a fully imagined
world. The action proceeds in a toy world of comic
convention, presided over by a comic Providence in
the person of an ubiquitously intrusive authornarrator who supplies interminable didactic moral
commentary, stage-manages the plot by liberal
helpings of shameless coincidence, and sees that
calamity never goes beyond a joke. In this world
character and action fall apart, for action is
arranged merely to display predetermined traits of
character, and any doubts which action might cast
upon the preordained lineaments of particular
characters are simply, dismissed, by appeal, either
directly, or by means of irony, to the judgement
of the privileged narrator.

A case of this sort has been ‘persuasively put
by Frank Kerrnode 6 • Kermode, like Coleridge,
chooses, as a locus of the divorce between
character and conduct in Fielding, the episode in
Tom Jones in which the young Blifil releases the pet
bird which Torn had given to Sophia. Tom tries to
coax the bird from a tree and falls into the canal;
Sophia weeps; Blifil defends himself on grounds of a
humanitarian pity for the bird, but blames himself


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