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Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2007 Question

Why do process thinkers so consistently emphasize the priority of the aesthetic in relation to the ethical? And why is “interest” more important than “truth?”

Dr. Cobb's Response

On first blush this seems to be quite contrary to the normal sensibility of serious-minded persons informed by the Abrahamic traditions. For most of us the primary matter is the way we treat our neighbors and how inclusive of others our “neighbors” are. Justice and mercy are lifted up repeatedly in our scriptures. Can these be subordinated to a higher value?

They certainly should not be subordinated to the fine arts, important as these are. If giving priority to the aesthetic meant that it is more important to enjoy creating or viewing a painting than feeding hungry children, there would be good reason to be offended. Paintings can contribute to the beauty of experience, which is the kind of aesthetic value in question, but the fine arts are only one such contribution among others.And to be preoccupied with enjoying paintings in a world where children are starving would not be an expression of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic faith.

We sometimes speak of a beautiful person or a beautiful life without any emphasis on outward appearance. We can even emphasize the inner beauty of one who is not physically attractive. This brings us close to what process thinkers are talking about. We would be unlikely to speak of a person as beautiful in this sense if she or he had little concern for others or if the person in question was frequently deceitful. In other words, this kind of beauty presupposes much of what we think of as ethical, but what we assert in this way is more inclusive than the assertion that a person is ethical. Being “ethical” is compatible with being a bit rigid and even judgmental. Being “beautiful” is not. When one is hurting or lonely or bored, one may not seek out the person one characterize as especially “ethical.” One is likely to prefer the “beautiful” person instead.

In the New Testament, and especially in Paul, the ethical is associated with obedience to the law. This is usually the Jewish law, but Paul thinks that a law is also written on the hearts of Gentiles. Neither Jesus nor Paul thinks the law is bad or out of date or should be ignored. However, Jesus thinks that putting the law first is a mistake. Laws exist for the sake of people. When following the law does not serve the needs of people, it should be subordinated to meeting their needs. Love of God and neighbor trumps everything else. Paul argues that putting the law first actually does one harm.

Thus far I have appealed to Christian sources for a certain intuitive understanding of why one may subordinate ethics to something else. I have made no reference to process thought or even to the traditional philosophical discussions of the good life. It is time to turn to the philosophical discussion that is the more immediate context for the subordination of the ethical to the aesthetic on the part of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Immanuel Kant is sometimes identified as the philosopher of Protestantism. This is partly because of his insistence on the primacy of the ethical dimension. To him it was self-evident that one ought to act rightly and that the right act was the one that conformed to the right rule. He called this the “categorical imperative.” We should act in the way that we could will that everyone would act. Acting in this way is the only pure good.

Of course, our actions can be for the sake of the good of other people, and their good can include many things. But for Kant the deepest concern for the other is also the other’s realization of pure good. Kant distinguishes this from “happiness” and recognizes that right action often does not lead to happiness. The discrepancy between ethical goodness and happiness leads him to concern for a life after death in which moral virtue is united with happiness.

Process thinkers believe that this focus on the primacy of ethics is not healthy or wise. Operating with Kant’s categories, we think that what we should aim at for others is their happiness. We believe that the happiness they may gain by dishonesty and indifference to others is a very shallow “happiness” and not the genuine happiness we want for them. But we want our neighbors not just to observe the categorical imperative but also to enjoy life. We doubt that preoccupation with ethical rightness contributes as much to their happiness or their contribution to the happiness of others as does the achievement of a loving and accepting spirit.

Kant carries his commitment to obey rules to an extreme. The categorical imperative requires that one not to lie even to save the life of an innocent child. We process thinkers, along with many others disagree. We follow Jesus in holding that the law should be subordinated to meeting real human needs.

The other major tradition of ethics in modern Western philosophy is utilitarianism. For utilitarians the universal goal is to avoid pain and to increase pleasure. The ethical action is the one that generates the greatest surplus of pleasure over pain for the largest number of people. Clearly ethics is important, but the importance of ethical action lies in its generation of pleasure.

Of course, the utilitarian family is open to naming what is sought in terms other than “pleasure.” “Happiness’ and “satisfaction” are sometimes used. We process thinkers are closer to the utilitarians than to Kant.

We differ in two ways. First, terms like pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction all focus on the quality of feeling without consideration of the feelings as relations to others. This leads to ignoring the nature of the past that is being felt. In reality, however, a great deal of what we do is to fulfill commitments that we have made explicitly or implicitly to our family and friends and to employers and employees. Kant argues that one should always keep one’s promises. Pure utilitarianism focuses entirely on future consequences, but most people agree that the quality of the relation to the past is also ethically important. One should at least weigh the pleasure one will get and give from some action in relation to the importance of past commitments. “Rule” utilitarianism tries to incorporate Kantian elements into an expanded utilitarian vision. We process thinkers agree that this is a gain.

We think, however, that this complication shows the need of thinking about the good at which one aims in more complex ways. “Pleasure,” “happiness,” and “satisfaction” are not adequate. In each moment, feelings of the past and recognition of the legitimate expectations this past has generated are one factor in a human experience. Anticipation of probable consequences is another. The physical and sensuous experiences of the world here and now are still another. Images and ideas that arise in intercourse with the world are yet another. In one’s experience these are all to be integrated. How shall we judge the value of the integration?

The ethical element is certainly important. It pulls toward fulfilling commitments and also contributing to the value of the experiences of others. But there are no rules for balancing these. Also there is the importance of including in our experience all that contributes to its richness in the moment. This includes sensory enjoyment, new ideas, the feeling of human companionship, and much else.

One way of dealing with this multiplicity of ingredients of experience is exclude much of what they offer. Process thinkers believe that the more of this diversity that is harmoniously included the better. That requires that what seems incompatible at one level is converted into contrasts at another. These contrasts bring out the differences in such a way that they do not obstruct the contribution of either. They make possible a more intense experience or a richer whole that minimizes discord.

These are the sort of considerations that are discussed in aesthetics rather than in ethics. This is why process thinkers argue that the intrinsic value of experience is more a matter of aesthetics than of ethics. The goal of ethics is to bring about as much of this intrinsic value as possible. That will include encouraging others to be ethical. But the ethical element in the sort of experience ethical action seeks to contribute to in others is only a part of a larger whole. The goal is better described as beauty than as moral virtue.

In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead speaks of “strength” of beauty. There are forms of beauty that are shallow; so he needs the addition. Morality and truth strengthen beauty. But even “strength of beauty” does not capture all that needs to be said. He writes also of the importance of adventure and peace. Thus, in the end, even aesthetic categories break down. The values to be sought vary so greatly according to historical and personal circumstances that no one term encompasses them all.

I have made a brief reference to “truth.” Like ethics it is subordinate to beauty. But like ethics it remains extremely important. Whitehead devoted his life to seeking it, and for this we process thinkers are deeply grateful.

Whitehead’s famous statement on this topic is that it is more important that a proposition be “interesting” than that it be true. This statement like the priority of the aesthetic over the ethical is initially startling. If I ask someone for directions I want a true answer, not an “interesting” lie.

But again, a little reflection enables us to grasp Whitehead’s point. The teacher who cannot draw the attention of students to an idea cannot even raise the question of its truth or falsity. The statements in a great novel are superficially false, but they hold our interest. The novelist through them may broaden the horizons of our thought and break through some of our prejudices. Propositions that more directly point to the wider horizons and what is wrong with our prejudices rarely hold our attention long enough to be effective.

Even fairy stories, whose contribution to the growth of children is ambiguous, at least contribute quite directly to their immediate enjoyment. Process thinkers prize that enjoyment apart from its further consequences. Interesting proposition contribute to immediate value. Uninteresting propositions, even if they are true, do not.

However, Whitehead continues, truth adds to interest. In due course children want to know with respect to the stories they are told whether they are true. Stories of Santa Claus cease to interest when they are known to be factually false. Scientific hypotheses are of great interest as long as they may be true, and if the evidence supports them they garner more and more interest. If the evidence shows them to be false, interest markedly declines.

We who follow Whitehead think his ideas are closer to the truth than are those that currently hold the attention of people in many fields of thought. We think that if they would regard both the beliefs they now entertain and those that Whitehead proposes as hypotheses to be tested, there would soon be a massive swing in Western society toward a Whiteheadian vision. But it is hard to gain the interest of those socialized to think in one pattern for a quite different one. Our task is not so much the demonstration of the truth of Whitehead’s ideas as finding ways to make them interesting to those who thus far prefer to ignore them.

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