The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 15.4 (2001) 305-320
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Whitehead's Theory of Moral Experience:
Its Reconstruction and Importance
Elizabethe Segars McRae
John Carroll University
The potential of Whitehead's metaphysics of value to interpret moral experience has generated a fair amount of interest within Whiteheadian scholarship. However, because Whitehead left no explicit ethical treatise, scholars have been unsuccessful in producing a widely accepted interpretative framework defining Whitehead's views on the issue. This failure to develop an authentically Whiteheadian position on moral matters weakens the perceived viability of Whitehead's own project. Whitehead is clear that the purpose of speculative philosophy is to elucidate all aspects of experience: "Whatever is found in 'practice' must lie within the scope of the metaphysical description. When description fails to include the 'practice,' the metaphysics is inadequate and requires revision" (1978, 13). It is also certain that he finds morality to be an important human practice: "beauty, moral and aesthetic, is the aim of existence" (Schilpp 1951, 8). In addition, an interest in moral issues seems congruent with the emphasis on value, beauty and religious experience found throughout his works. Thus, the possibility that Whitehead offered merely incoherent insights into matters moral, or that no coherent theory could be built from his own foundations, undermines the credibility of his entire project.
This article addresses this gap in Whiteheadian scholarship by demonstrating that Whitehead did offer a consistent and coherent theory on moral matters. My approach will be based on a hermeneutic akin to archeological recovery and reconstruction, seeking clues by collecting [End Page 305] and analyzing the fragmentary reflections on moral matters he left scattered among his writings. While this approach reveals that Whitehead offers little in the way of normative or meta-ethical theorizing, it also reveals that he developed a rich descriptive account of the nature and development of moral experience.
I begin by introducing the way in which reliance on scattered quotations, in lieu of an explicit ethical treatise, has proven difficult for scholars. Next, I introduce what Whitehead calls a "crude three-fold division of human nature" consisting of the activities of "Instinct, Intelligence, [and] Wisdom" (1961, 47). Then, I utilize this theory as a framework for coordinating and anchoring Whitehead's scattered and fragmented comments on moral experience. Finally, I conclude by suggesting ways in which this recovered theory is significant for Whiteheadian scholarship and lays the groundwork for novel contributions to the broader field of ethical theory.
1. Deciphering Whitehead's Statements on Moral Matters
The state of ethical scholarship within the Whiteheadian community is a rather complex issue. On the one hand, much of Whiteheadian scholarship is permeated with issues relevant to moral experience. Influenced by his theory of intrinsically valuable individuals striving for the creative realization of wider harmonies, scholarship in the religious, political, environmental, and even metaphysical realms resonates with themes relevant to matters moral. Despite what might be considered a prevalent "moral spirit" associated with Whiteheadian scholarship, however, dedicated ethical scholarship within the Whiteheadian vein remains a rather undeveloped line of inquiry. One of the most significant factors contributing to this dearth of scholarship is the lack of guidance left by Whitehead himself. It is widely known that Whitehead left no explicit ethical treatise. In fact, Whitehead wrote only one paper specifically dedicated to the topic. This paper, entitled "Mathematics and the Good," does not cover traditional issues but instead interprets the Good by comparing it with various fields of mathematics (Schilpp 1951, 666-81). Other than this enigmatic piece, no book, not even a chapter, is dedicated explicitly to the exploration of moral and ethical questions.
In the absence of an explicit treatise, scholars are left to reconstruct Whitehead's ideas by using only fragmentary reflections. The coordination of these reflections, however, has been extremely difficult. Scattered amidst numerous works, tucked in amongst discussions of other topics, and revealing disparity of content, these fragments offer no easy access to Whitehead's thoughts about matters moral. In fact, a systematic review of Whitehead's many statements on moral...