Bertrand Russell v. Frederick Copleston debate transcript (Part 4)

THE MORAL ARGUMENT

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
But aren’t you now saying in effect, I mean by God whatever is good or the sum total of what is good — the system of what is good, and, therefore, when a young man loves anything that is good he is loving God. Is that what you’re saying, because if so, it wants a bit of arguing.

    FATHER COPLESTON
I don’t say, of course, that God is the sum-total or system of what is good in the pantheistic sense; I’m not a pantheist, but I do think that all goodness reflects God in some way and proceeds from Him, so that in a sense the man who loves what is truly good, loves God even if he doesn’t advert to God. But still I agree that the validity of such an interpretation of a man’s conduct depends on the recognition of God’s existence, obviously.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, but that’s a point to be proved.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Quite so, but I regard the metaphysical argument as probative, but there we differ.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
By my feelings.

    FATHER COPLESTON
By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, let’s take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you’d have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No, I shouldn’t quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You’re making a mistake.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it’s simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler’s emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Granted. But there’s no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No more than there is for the color-blind person who’s in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn’t it because he’s in the minority?

    FATHER COPLESTON
I would say because he is lacking in a thing which normally belongs to human nature.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, but if he were in the majority, we shouldn’t say that.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Then you’d say that there’s no criterion outside feeling that will enable one to distinguish between the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen and the behavior, say, of Sir Stafford Cripps or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
The feeling is a little too simplified. You’ve got to take account of the effects of actions and your feelings toward those effects. You see, you can have an argument about it if you can say that certain sorts of occurrences are the sort you like and certain others the sort you don’t like. Then you have to take account of the effects of actions. You can very well say that the effects of the actions of the Commandant of Belsen were painful and unpleasant.

    FATHER COPLESTON
They certainly were, I agree, very painful and unpleasant to all the people in the camp.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, but not only to the people in the camp, but to outsiders contemplating them also.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Yes, quite true in imagination. But that’s my point. I don’t approve of them, and I know you don’t approve of them, but I don’t see what ground you have for not approving of them, because after all, to the Commandant of Belsen himself, they’re pleasant, those actions.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Yes, but you see I don’t need any more ground in that case than I do in the case of color perception. There are some people who think everything is yellow, there are people suffering from jaundice, and I don’t agree with these people. I can’t prove that the things are not yellow, there isn’t any proof, but most people agree with him that they’re not yellow, and most people agree with me that the Commandant of Belsen was making mistakes.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, do you accept any moral obligation?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, I should have to answer at considerable length to answer that. Practically speaking — yes. Theoretically speaking I should have to define moral obligation rather carefully.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, do you think that the word “ought” simply has an emotional connotation?

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No, I don’t think that, because you see, as I was saying a moment ago, one has to take account of the effects, and I think right conduct is that which would probably produce the greatest possible balance in intrinsic value of all the acts possible in the circumstances, and you’ve got to take account of the probable effects of your action in considering what is right.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I brought in moral obligation because I think that one can approach the question of God’s existence in that way. The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It’s my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law. I do mean by “author of the moral law” an arbitrary author of the moral law. I think, in fact, that those modern atheists who have argued in a converse way “there is no God; therefore, there are no absolute values and no absolute law,” are quite logical.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I don’t like the word “absolute.” I don’t think there is anything absolute whatever. The moral law, for example, is always changing. At one period in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was a duty.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I don’t see that differences in particular moral judgments are any conclusive argument against the universality of the moral law. Let’s assume for the moment that there are absolute moral values, even on that hypothesis it’s only to be expected that different individuals and different groups should enjoy varying degrees of insight into those values.

        BERTRAND RUSSELL
I’m inclined to think that “ought,” the feeling that one has about “ought” is an echo of what has been told one by one’s parents or one’s nurses.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, I wonder if you can explain away the idea of the “ought” merely in terms of nurses and parents. I really don’t see how it can be conveyed to anybody in other terms than itself. It seems to be that if there is a moral order bearing upon the human conscience, that that moral order is unintelligible apart from the existence of God.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Then you have to say one or other of two things. Either God only speaks to a very small percentage of mankind — which happens to include yourself — or He deliberately says things are not true in talking to the consciences of savages.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, you see, I’m not suggesting that God actually dictates moral precepts to the conscience. The human being’s ideas of the content of the moral law depends entirely to a large extent on education and environment, and a man has to use his reason in assessing the validity of the actual moral ideas of his social group. But the possibility of criticizing the accepted moral code presupposes that there is an objective standard, and there is an ideal moral order, which imposes itself (I mean the obligatory character of which can be recognized). I think that the recognition of this ideal moral order is part of the recognition of contingency. It implies the existence of a real foundation of God.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
But the law-giver has always been, it seems to me, one’s parents or someone like. There are plenty of terrestrial law-givers to account for it, and that would explain why people’s consciences are so amazingly different in different times and places.

    FATHER COPLESTON
It helps to explain differences in the perception of particular moral values, which otherwise are inexplicable. It will help to explain changes in the matter of the moral law in the content of the precepts as accepted by this or that nation, or this or that individual. But the form of it, what Kant calls the categorical imperative, the “ought,” I really don’t see how that can possibly be conveyed to anybody by nurse or parent because there aren’t any possible terms, so far as I can see, with which it can be explained. it can’t be defined in other terms than itself, because once you’ve defined it in other terms than itself you’ve explained it away. It’s no longer a moral “ought.” It’s something else.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, I think the sense of “ought” is the effect of somebody’s imagined disapproval, it may be God’s imagined disapproval, but it’s somebody’s imagined disapproval. And I think that is what is meant by “ought.”

    FATHER COPLESTON
It seems to me to be external customs and taboos and things of that sort which can most easily be explained simply through environment and education, but all that seems to me to belong to what I call the matter of the law, the content. The idea of the “ought” as such can never be conveyed to a man by the tribal chief or by anybody else, because there are no other terms in which it could be conveyed. It seems to me entirely….

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
But I don’t see any reason to say that — I mean we all know about conditioned reflexes. We know that an animal, if punished habitually for a certain sort of act, after a time will refrain. I don’t think the animal refrains from arguing within himself, “Master will be angry if I do this.” He has a feeling that that’s not the thing to do. That’s what we can do with ourselves and nothing more.

    FATHER COPLESTON
I see no reason to suppose that an animal has a consciousness or moral obligation; and we certainly don’t regard an animal as morally responsible for his acts of disobedience. But a man has a consciousness of obligation and of moral values. I see no reason to suppose that one could condition all men as one can “condition” an animal, and I don’t suppose you’d really want to do so even if one could. If “behaviorism” were true, there would be no objective moral distinction between the emperor Nero and St. Francis of Assisi. I can’t help feeling, Lord Russell, you know, that you regard the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen as morally reprehensible, and that you yourself would never under any circumstances act in that way, even if you thought, or had reason to think, that possibly the balance of the happiness of the human race might be increased through some people being treated in that abominable manner.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
No. I wouldn’t imitate the conduct of a mad dog. The fact that I wouldn’t do it doesn’t really bear on this question we’re discussing.

    FATHER COPLESTON
No, but if you were making a utilitarian explanation of right and wrong in terms of consequences, it might be held, and I suppose some of the Nazis of the better type would have held that although it’s lamentable to have to act in this way, yet the balance in the long run leads to greater happiness. I don’t think you’d say that, would you? I think you’d say that sort of action is wrong — and in itself, quite apart from whether the general balance of happiness is increased or not. Then, if you’re prepared to say that, then I think you must have some criterion of feeling, at any rate. To me, that admission would ultimately result in the admission of an ultimate ground of value in God.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
I think we are perhaps getting into confusion. It is not direct feeling about the act by which I should judge, but rather a feeling as to the effects. And I can’t admit any circumstances in which certain kinds of behavior, such as you have been discussing, would do good. I can’t imagine circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect. I think the persons who think they do are deceiving themselves. But if there were circumstances in which they would have a beneficial effect, then I might be obliged, however reluctantly, to say — “Well, I don’t like these things, but I will acquiesce in them,” just as I acquiesce in the Criminal Law, although I profoundly dislike punishment.

    FATHER COPLESTON
Well, perhaps it’s time I summed up my position. I’ve argued two things. First, that the existence of God can be philosophically proved by a metaphysical argument; secondly, that it is only the existence of God that will make sense of man’s moral experience and of religious experience. Personally, I think that your way of accounting for man’s moral judgments leads inevitably to a contradiction between what your theory demands and your own spontaneous judgments. Moreover, your theory explains moral obligation away, and explaining away is not explanation.

As regards the metaphysical argument, we are apparently in agreement that what we call the world consists simply of contingent beings. That is, of beings no one of which can account for its own existence. You say that the series of events needs no explanation: I say that if there were no necessary being, no being which must exist and cannot not-exist, nothing would exist. The infinity of the series of contingent beings, even if proved, would be irrelevant. Something does exist; therefore, there must be something which accounts for this fact, a being which is outside the series of contingent beings. If you had admitted this, we could then have discussed whether that being is personal, good, and so on. On the actual point discussed, whether there is or is not a necessary being, I find myself, I think in agreement with the great majority of classical philosophers.

You maintain, I think, that existing beings are simply there, and that I have no justification for raising the question of the explanation of their existence. But I would like to point out that this position cannot be substantiated by logical analysis; it expresses a philosophy which itself stands in need of proof. I think we have reached an impasse because our ideas of philosophy are radically different; it seems to me that what I call a part of philosophy, that you call the whole, insofar at least as philosophy is rational.

It seems to me, if you will pardon my saying so, that besides your own logical system — what you call “modern” in opposition to antiquated logic (a tendentious adjective) — you maintain a philosophy which cannot be substantiated by logical analysis. After all, the problem of God’s existence is an existential problem whereas logical analysis does not deal directly with problems of existence. So it seems to me, to declare that the terms involved in one set of problems are meaningless because they are not required in dealing with another set of problems, is to settle from the beginning the nature and extent of philosophy, and that is itself a philosophical act which stands in need of justification.

    BERTRAND RUSSELL
Well, I should like to say just a few words by way of summary on my side. First, as to the metaphysical argument: I don’t admit the connotations of such a term as “contingent” or the possibility of explanation in Father Copleston’s sense. I think the word “contingent” inevitably suggests the possibility of something that wouldn’t have this what you might call accidental character of just being there, and I don’t think is true except int he purely causal sense. You can sometimes give a causal explanation of one thing as being the effect of something else, but that is merely referring one thing to another thing and there’s no — to my mind — explanation in FATHER COPLESTON’s sense of anything at all, nor is there any meaning in calling things “contingent” because there isn’t anything else they could be.

That’s what I should say about that, but I should like to say a few words about Father Copleston’s accusation that I regard logic as all philosophy — that is by no means the case. I don’t by any means regard logic as all philosophy. I think logic is an essential part of philosophy and logic has to be used in philosophy, and in that I think he and I are at one. When the logic that he uses was new — namely, in the time of Aristotle, there had to be a great deal of fuss made about it; Aristotle made a lot of fuss about that logic. Nowadays it’s become old and respectable, and you don’t have to make so much fuss about it. The logic that I believe in is comparatively new, and therefore I have to imitate Aristotle in making a fuss about it; but it’s not that I think it’s all philosophy by any means — I don’t think so. I think it’s an important part of philosophy, and when I say that, I don’t find a meaning for this or that word, that is a position of detail based upon what I’ve found out about that particular word, from thinking about it. It’s not a general position that all words that are used in metaphysics are nonsense, or anything like that which I don’t really hold.

As regards the moral argument, I do find that when one studies anthropology or history, there are people who think it their duty to perform acts which I think abominable, and I certainly can’t, therefore, attribute Divine origin to the matter of moral obligation, which FATHER COPLESTON doesn’t ask me to; but I think even the form of moral obligation, when it takes the form of enjoining you to eat your father or what not, doesn’t seem to me to be such a very beautiful and noble thing; and, therefore, I cannot attribute a Divine origin to this sense of moral obligation, which I think is quite easily accounted for in quite other ways.

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