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Social and Philosophical Understanding – An Example



Social and Philosophical
Understanding – an example
John Paley
it is genetically unsound? Meanwhile, belief in the moral
reprehensibility of masturbation continues, despite the fact
that we have so far been unable to provide a replacement for
the view that it causes insanity. Research, however, continues.

Warnock’s “The Object of Morality”
As far as possible, I let Warnock speak for himself,
interspersing my own comments as and when necessary


“I want to consider the idea that the subjectmatter of Ethics is, so to speak, inherently
shifting and unstable because of the phenomena
of social and historical change.”


“there is certainly something strongly tempting
in this, and no doubt something right •… one should
also give some thought to the question: what changes?

What exactly is it of which we must not take too
static a view?

•.•• it is uncontroversially obvious that views change.”


An alternative account of the connection between belief
and moral view is available: that both can be explained in
other sociological or anthropological terms, as the consequence,
for example, of other social, economic, political and historical
factors. Strictly, this account leaves open the question of
the relation between belief and moral view. But it is suggesr
tive. Perhaps, in extreme cases, belief relates to moral view
merely as legitimation (Cf.Berger and Luckmann: ‘The Social
Construction of Reality”).

The term ‘legitimation’ here (in a non-pejorative sense)
bears comparison with the term ‘rationalisation’. While the
latter enables us to distinguish between a reason which actually
brings about an action and one which does not, the former
enables us to distinguish between a belief which actually brings
about a moral view and ones which does not. Warnock’s failure,
or inability, to distinguish legitimation from explanation
tends, as I shall argue later, to vitiate his entire enterprise.

“However, it is patently absurd, though it is sometimes done, to present this nearly limitless diversity
as if it were a bald, brute, irreducible fact, insusceptible of explanation.”

Warnock, then, claims the diversity of moral views to be
capable of explanation. How far he is committed to this claim,
the better to obviate the “victories of an excessive relativism”
(p.3), is a question I shall raise towards the end. What, though,
is to count as explanation? Warnock continues:


A more general view of the explanation of differences
in moral views follows immediately:



“For it is really quite obvious that these differences
of view, with their consequent differences of prevalent
modes of behaviour, are at least in large part consequences of other differences – of, for instances,
differences in belief about the natural consequences
of actions, or, perhaps even more importantly, the
supernatural consequences of actions … beliefs,
incidentally, which, in many cases are very far from
being able to claim the dignity of knowledge.”

“Then it is also plainly relevant that what, in
human character and conduct, is needed for success,
and even for survival, varies widely in different
social and physical conditions.”

This passage illustrates one of Warnock’s fundamental
assumptions; it is the basically functionalist assumption
that the structures of thought and social form are explicable
by their efficacy in promoting and preserving the prosperity,
success and survival of a given society. Warnock’s use of
this assumption turns out to be not unconnected with his
conflation of legitimation and explanation.

It may be right that (i) differences of moral view can be
explained as consequences of other differences. It may be true
that (ii) moral views and beliefs about nature or the supernatural are related. But holding (i) and (ii) does not commit
one to the thesis (iii) that differences of moral view are a
consequence of differences of belief. But it is evident from
his examples that Warnock does, in fact, adopt (iii):

Having concluded that people who hold very different
beliefs would quite naturally arrive, on the very same basis
of appraisal, at wholly different practical conclusions,
Warnock turns to the differences in concept (as opposed to
views). And repeats his functionalist assumption:



“A propensity to decapitate strangers is not really
surprising in one who is convinced, however absurdly,
that a regular supply of severed heads is a necessary
condition of the survival and prosperity of his tribe;
and at a less exotic level, it is clear that at least
some differences, about, for instance, sexual mores are
the result of divergent beliefs about the consequences,
social or psychological, of various sorts of sexual
behaviour. ”

As it has been argued elsewhere, functionalism has no place as
an assumption in a work of philosophy. It is a theory of
methodology in anthropology and sociology. To say no more,
it is a theory whose cogency has been strongly questioned.

It may be the case, as Warnock implies, that, if asked to give
reasons for his view as to the desirability of decapitating
strangers, the tribesman in question would offer certain supernatural beliefs about the consequences of doing otherwise (just
as we would offer beliefs about the consequences of abstaining
from, say, punishment, mentioning social breakdown, anarchy,
etc., etc.). It does not follow, however, that the view is a
consequence of the belief (though we, like the tribesman,
prefer to think so) – it does not follow that there is a
causal connection here. Citing these beliefs may not be
adequately explaining the existence of such and such moral

This becomes more obvious when we ask whether we have
any reason for believing that the appropriate counterfactuals
hold: would the moral views in question not have been held if
the beliefs had been any different? The answer to this
question is far from clear. To take sexual mores as a example:

is it really the case that if certain tribes had no beliefs
about the deleterious effects, supernatural or otherwise, of
incest, the practice would not be proscribed? Or, would we
be any the less opposed to incest if we had reason to believe
it not genetically unsound? Isn’t it lucky we have discovered

“one wovld expect communities to evolve, no doubt
imperfectly and often obscurely, such concepts as
they need; and this surely, communities differing
so widely as they do and have done, is likely to
come about in different ways.”


Considering, then, the thesis that concepts differ,
Warnock continues:



“Well, so they do, and of course it is as well to be
aware of that. But have we said, in saying this,
that moral concepts change, and consequently there is
no such thing as ‘the language of morals’ •… waiting
to be philosophically investigated? Not necessarily •..•
If we take ‘the language of morals’ to consist
essentially of such very general, non-specific terms ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘ought’ and perhaps
a few more – we have something that there is reason to
regard as floating stably in the Heracleitian flux, and
to be recognised as persisting through all the diversitie~
paraded by Hegel and the historians and anthropologists.

Moral philosophy, it might be said, is concerned with
the logic or analysis of these words and their synonyms.”

Later, this conception of moral philosophy reappears as one of

central issue is going to be that of trying to
characterise, and thereafter critically to consider in
various respects, what this particular mode of appraisal
actually consists in •.• my object is to seek some clearer
understanding of this (particular kind of appraisal).”

the three possible programmes Warnock suggests, programme (b):


“One may say: there is something common to all
these, admittedly in many ways diverse, phenomena ••.

namely, they are all instances of appraisal, or
evaluation, and indeed of practical evaluation ••.

What is the difference between programmes (a) and (c)? Programme
(c), of course, concentrates on one moral standpoint, while
programme (a) ranges over a diversity of moral views. But what
makes for this difference?

So it is possible to consider what might be called
‘logic’ of that – the general theory, so to speak of
practical appraisal, and the nature of and the
relations between those very general concepts which
must be employed in any instance of it.”

The natural way of taking what Warnock actually says is
as follows. The difference between (a) and (c) is determined by
a difference between two senses of the word ‘moral’. In the
one sense all societies have moral ideas: correspondingly,
‘moral philosophy’ is understood as an enterprise which seeks to
understand the diversity of those ideas “in the spirit of the
anthropologist or historian”. In another sense of ‘moral’, only
some societies, including, presumably, our own, evaluate on moral
grounds: correspondingly, ‘moral philosophy’ is a discipline
which seeks to understand those particular grounds.

This involves two non-sequiturs.

A minimal version of this thesis is forced on the
anthropologist who believes with, for example, Maclntyre, that
“moral concepts change as social life changes”. Simply, there
must be some means of identifying the items on the left-hand
side of the equation, namely, moral concepts: and this
requirement entails the use of certain very general concepts
such as the ones Warnock mentions.

This way of understanding the difference between (a) and
(c) does not give notice of any additional differences in

It does not follow (i) that these concepts are employed
by the members of whichever society happens to be the object
of study. They are our concepts, even if they are very general
ones, and they are being used for a special purpose of ours.

This is particularly obvious with such relatively sophisticated
ideas as ‘evaluation’ and ‘appraisal’. The very general
concepts by means of which we identify the ‘moral concepts’ of
other societies are not necessarily the concepts we identify.

Has Warnock confused the generality of a certain set of concepts
with their universal employment?

If we now look at Warnock’s (briefest) statement of his
proposals, we find:

p.26: “Now, the general suggestion that (guardedly) I wish
to put up for consideration is this: that the ‘general
object’ of morality, appreciation of which may enable
us to understand the basis of moral evaluations, is to
contribute to the betterment – or non-deterioration of the human predicament, primarily and essentially by
seeking to countervail ‘limited sympathies’ and their
potentially most damaging effect.”

But even if we could identify universal concepts such as
Warnock requires, it would still not follow (ii) that they had
a universal ‘logic’ which, apparently, he assumes they would
have. One might, of course, attempt to formulate the ‘logic’

of those very general concepts, employed by us, with which
‘moral concepts’ from society to society can be identified
(though even whether this can be done and what it would be
like to do it are substantial questions), but this would do
nothing to establish the kind of logical relations between
certain concepts in those societies: it would not even establish
that they had specifiable logical relations at all. The problems
of establishing elther thesis in fieldwork need not be raised
here. It is sufficient to mention the iMpossibility of
establishing them in t~e way Warnock suggests in programme Cb).

This implies, what seems to be true, that Warnock’s views
about the ‘human predicament’ (the heading of Chapter 2) are
somewhat pessimistic.

What is important about this passage, is this. Warnock
failed earlier to distinguish legitimation from explanation.

That he has not here rectified that omission is clear from the
use of expressions like “the ‘general object of morality”; “to
understand the basis of moral evaluation” (cf.p 4: ” .. there is
no reason to suppose that the basis of such views is correspondingly diversified .. “). These expressions reflect the remaining
ambiguity as between legitimation and explanation.



We do not have to look far for the explanation of this.

Warnock is a functionalist, and this fact alone makes it hard,
if not impossible, for him to recognise the ambiguity. For it
is in the nature of legitimating beliefs to make the views and
practices they legitimate seem functional to him whose views
and practices they are; and here Warnock is considering views
and practices which he shares. (Similarly, it is in the nature
of rationalisation to-ffiake an action seem intelligible: the
agent himself is not always the first~realise it is not an
adequate explanation of what he did).

in programme (a), he suggests that

“one thing that one could reasonably do would be to
survey this very great diversity, in the spirit of
the l1istorian or anthropologist, and perhaps try tn
understand it – see now far, to take just onc
possibility, differing appra.:sals of character and
conduct may derive from differing circumstances and
demands of social life. One might even, perhaps
running some risk of parochialism here, consider
differing views and sets of views in a critical
spirit, as being for instance, each in its own
conditions or ‘background’ more or less reasonable,
or intelligent, or beneficient in effect …. one will
be able to regard one’s undertakings as a sort of
critical study of the morphology of moral ideas …..

In point of fact, Warnock’s account of the particular
conception of morality has to be understood as legitimation
and not explanation. For it explains nothing. At least, it
would be most surprising if Warnock thought he had understood
(explained) the particular conception by grounding it in the
most general facts about the ‘human predicament’. If he is
trying to understand how far “differing appraisals of character
and conduct may derive from circumstances and demands of social
life” and his particular conception is one such mode of appraisal,
it is difficult to see how general facts, allegedly true of all
societies at all times, can contribute to this understanding.

Rather, if the particular conception were, as Warnock suggests,
emergent in some communities and not others, one would expect
understanding in terms of differentiating, particular facts
about those communities in which it was emergent. As it is,
the question with which he begins is the very one which remains

The functionalist spirit of this passage should be noticed;
also its implications. I have already remarked that there
are other theories of sociological and anthropological
explanation. As long as one remains a functionalist, the
quietist idea of a ‘morphology of moral ideas’ will be a
reasonable characterisation of .one’s programme. The
adoption of other kinds of explanation, however, may disturb
this complacency. The application of non-functionalist
methodology to one’s own society, for example, and the moral
universe in which one has been accustomed to move, may have
distressing, or perhaps revolutionary, implications. I shall
return briefly to this idea after considering programme (c),
which Warnock himself actually takes up.

“The suggestion here is, then … that ‘moral concepts’ …

are of some comparatively determinate, special sort, and
do not change for that reason, – for the reason, namely,
that concepts not of that sort are, not different moral
concepts, but not moral concepts at all …. If we have,
for instance, an individual whose views about good and
bad, right and wrong, turn out to derive from a mixture
of religious taboos and of passionate, exclusive devotion
to the martial glory of his tribe, it seems to me that
we could intelligibly say: This man does not see anything
as a moral problem; he has no moral concepts at all …

p.IO: .•• what the anthropological evidence, for instance, gives
one reason to say (is that) in some societies at some
dates, ‘morality’ perhaps is not found at all, or is
present only partially, or in some primitive state, or
something like that .•.• And clearly, taking this line, the

Warnock’s only move here is to sharpen his position by
admitting a further, methodOlogical, difference between programmes (a) and (c). Whereas programme (a) is that of understanding, “in the spirit of the historian or anthropologist”,
a programme of explanation, programme (c) is that of “characterisation” only. That is, it is a programme of legitimation.

(To see this, compare Warnock’s beliefs about the human predicament with the tribesman’s beliefs about the supernatural.

The tribesman is no more inclined to place a restriction on the
objectivity of his beliefs than Warnock is on his. In both
cases, the (alleged) universal validity of the~liefs rests
uneasily with the strictly non-universality of the moral views
they legitimate.)




But if Warnock does make this move, his position only
worsens. For the interest aroused by programme (c) can be
proportional only to the extent to which he conflates legitimation and explanation. What interest has mere legitimation,
mere characterisation? Warnock himself half sees this. Earlier,

his way of obviating the “victories of an excessive relativism”
was to resort to the possibility of explaining diverse views.

But if ‘explanation’ is to be understood as legitimation, he is
no better off. The ‘relativist’ is perfectly prepared to admit
differenc&,f of legitimation and characterisation co-ordinate
with differences in moral view.

Finally, he might say that the particular conception was
interesting because it was curs. But this is like saying that
I should be content with my own rationalisation of an action
because the action iS,after all, mine. The point is: the effort
to understand and explain one’s own behaviour, or views, as
opposed merely to rationalising or legitimating them, may always
be a prelude to (perhaps even a necessary condition of) changing

Has Warnock any alternative ways of arousing interest in
programme (c) and so, possibly, of keeping the ‘relativist’ at


He might say that a characterisation of the particular
conception of morality was interesting because that conception
was in some way superior. But, independently of the actual
characterisation, he has given absolutely no grounds for
believing this to be true, or for thinking (if it were true)
there could not be a better one.

The echo in the last sentence is intentional. Warnock’s
theme is, as he says himself, not a new one, either from the
point of view of characterisation or from that of explanation.

The explanation, however, need not be functionalist (which tends
to legitimation). Marx is one philosopher who took up the theme
in a non-functionalist way.

Nietzsche is another example. But
their-approach is not quietist in the way that Warnock’s is and for the very reason that it is a non-functionalist approach.

For to explain a particular conception of morality which is a
feature of one’s own society and to explain it in a non-functionalist way, is to condemn it. To assume its functionalism is to
legitimate it. Warnock has therefore, only interpreted his
particular conception of morality; the point, however, may be
to change it.

He might say that it rested on objective grounds: that is,
Warnock’s beliefs about the ‘human predicament’ are true,
whereas the tribesman’s beliefs about the supernatural (for
example) are not. But this would only be of interest if indeed
the respective beliefs constituted an adequate explanation of
the respective moral views. This Warnockhas made no attempt
to show.

Remarks OD B8IOIutionarJ Perspectives
To be revolutionary in a capitalist society entails
holding at least the following beliefs: (1) that it is both
desirable and possible to abolish the wage-system, the circumstance that the majority of people live by the sale of labourpower to others who employ it in a manner alien to the interests
of the sellers and their dependents; and (2) that tpose with a
stake in the wage-system, the employers of labour, are so powerful and so well-protected by established institutions that
militant methods must be used to abolish the system.

These two
beliefs comprise what may be called the fundamental reVOlutionary

Among subscribers to the creed we can identify contrasting
attitudes to the wage-system. Two attitudes will be distinguished
in the sequel.

For one attitude, the revolution represents a rupture with
all earlier human history. For the other, it represents a continuation of that history. I shall argue in favour of the second

For those who have the first attitude the condition of being
a wage-labourer is just the most recent form that slavery, in a
broad sense of the word, has taken in history. Other forms have
been slavery proper and serfdom. The differences between these
conditions are largely juridical and incidental. They do not
mean that a proletarian enjoys a status superior to that imposed
on members of previous labouring classes. The roles of master
and men have been articulated differently, but they have remained
the same in essence. The mass of mankind has always been enslaved.

The object of the revolution is to abolish slavery forever.

One who embraces the second attitude will respond as follows
to the above formulation of the revolutionary position.

The transition from slavery to serfdom, and from serfdom to
wage-labour, entailed important accretions of dignity, freedom
and welfare £o~ the masses of the people. The series of subordinate class roles constitutes a progress, which to a significant extent has been broughf about by the oppositional struggle
of the people themselves •. ‘To adopt the first attitude is
therefore to slur their historic achievements. It is, morever,
implausible to suppose that men who have always been complete
slaves are now going to be made completely free. The best
reasons for thinking that men can escape proletarianhood is that
they have already escaped other conditions. To regard earlier
escapes as having accomplished no substantial change is to
nourish the suspicion that any future reVOlution will result only
in the invention of yet another form of subordination.

Advocates of the second attitude, who conceive the revolution as an extension of victories already gained, face a
difficult question. Why is it supposed that men can become
completely free, that a society of equals without subordination
is possible? Does not history teach that while it is possible
to increase further the rights and liberties of ordinary men, it
is gratuitous to hope for their total emancipation?


One reply to this challenge is that one need not know. that
complete liberation is possible in order to be a revoluti6naiY~’

One need know only that more freedom than now prevails is possible,
and that the ruling class is now, as ever, concerned to inhibit
and arrest th growth of freedom. These things have always been
true, and they have meant that struggle, sometimes involving
violence, has been necessary for progress, and there is no
reason to believe that they have become false. A reVOlutionary
posture is therefore defensible even if the socialist ideal
cannot be fully realised. And if it is realisable, the first
step in approaching it is to increase the amount of freedom
presently enjoyed. One can therefore pursue a reVOlutionary
policy while being agnostic about the feasibility of socialism.

A different and more ambitious reply to the challenge is
to argue that a relationship which has made subordination (in
decreasing measure) necessary now enables the elimination of
subordination. The relationship is that between human needs
and the apparatus of production (technology) employed to
satisfy them. When the apparatus is relatively undeveloped,
men must spend the major part of their energy and time in
labour. Because of the state of the apparatus in history, the
types of labour men have had to perform to secure their existence have been so onerous that a class division has been
necessary between those who carry out unattractive tasks and
those who see to it that they do so. Improvements in the
status of the labourers were made possible by developments in
the apparatus which reduced the amount of drudgery required by
the labour imperative, though the possibilities_of improvement
had to be actualised through struggle, since they always entailed
an assault on the existing privileges of the supervisory class.

When productive power becomes so extensive that labour need no
longer be the focus of men’s lives, subordination in any form
becomes unnecessary. The exploitation of man by man recedes as
the curse of Adam is lifted. Therefore the view that the anticapitalist revolution continues rather than begins the emancipatory process, when combined with an explanation of’ that
process in terms of progress in productive power, supports the
hope that the revolution will not only continue the process but
complete it. But the completion must await the accumulation
of massive productive power which liberates men from toil. This
is what Kllrl ~1arx envisaged when he insisted that abundance was
an indispensable requisite of a fully socialist society. For
the essence of abundance is not a maximum ‘of goods, but a minimum
of unpleasant effort required to produce a sufficiency. The bias
of capitalism is to check labour-reduction and pro.mote goodsexpansion (hence planned obsolescence, feve~i.S’h:·1>roduct-innovation,
.huge investments in advertising, etc) since only the latter
option preserves profitability. The ruling class continues to
have an interest in resisting the further extension of freedom.

personally believe in the doctrine expounded in the· last
paragraph; but .1 should like to emphasise that the first rep~y.

which i.s far more modest. suffices to render the revolutionary
intellectually respectable. It is important to see that one
carl be a consistent revolutionary without advancing ambitious
claims which are difficult to prove about the possibilities for
men in society.

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