Whitehead’s Theory of Value
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. return to religion-online
In Process and Reality Whitehead states that the aim of every experience is to attain intensity within itself and also in its relevant future. Morality has to do with this contribution to the future. The broader the future one takes into account, the more moral is the aim. Since "strength of beauty" plays the role in Adventures of Ideas that is played by "intensity" in Process and Reality, I will substitute that term here.
Consider a simple case. I am offered a piece of delicious cake. I am not hungry and have no need of more food. Yet the taste of that cake would add to the beauty of my experience for a few minutes. If the scope of the future that I consider is only that brief period, I will accept and eat the cake. But perhaps I am a little overweight. Eating that cake will tend to add to that weight. Being overweight detracts from the beauty of my experience over a long period of time. Alternately, to avoid adding weight, I will have to forego food I like at a later point, when, because I am hungry, the food will add more to the beauty of my experience than the cake will now. This broader consideration of the relevant future may lead me to decline. Whitehead asserts that the latter decision is the more moral because it takes into account a more extended future. Of course, I may recognize that I should decline, but eat the cake anyway. That would be immoral.
You will notice that the consideration I have proposed deals only with my personal future. I have offered only a prudential, which some exclude them from morality altogether. Whitehead does not exclude prudence from morality. For him, all reflection about future consequences belongs to the sphere morality. Nevertheless, considering only the personal future is less moral that considering others as well. If we imagine that my acceptance of the cake would deny it to someone else who is truly in need of food, then my failure to consider that person’s needs would be immoral.
Obviously, we all face far more serious moral problems than this. I am sometimes asked to subordinate my personal good to that of my family. To consider only my personal benefit and fail to take into account that of my wife and children would certainly be immoral. Sometimes we are asked to subordinate the interests of the family to that of the nation. To refuse to consider the well being of this larger community would also be immoral. Sometimes the interests of the nation are in tension with those of the community of nations. The wider the scope of our consideration, the more moral we are. Of course, those who do not perceive the wider scope as relevant, those with narrower horizons, will accuse one who subordinates the smaller to the larger group of betrayal.
These moral issues are of immense importance. There is nothing in Whitehead’s theory of value to minimize them. But it should be noticed that the good that is aimed at for others is an aesthetic good. It is the strength of beauty of their experience.
There can be a tension between the aim at strength of beauty in the moment and the aim at benefiting future occasions of experience, one’s own and others. Whitehead does not tell us how to resolve it. It is not the case that it is always best to sacrifice the present to the future. Living intensely in the present, enjoying each moment as it arises, has its advantage. On the other hand, the failure to consider consequences can be extremely dangerous both for oneself and for others. The purely aesthetic impulse and the moral one exist in a tension that cannot be totally resolved.
On the other hand, the tension is far less than this formal statement suggests. The relation is more a polarity in which each pole supports the other than an opposition in which they exclude one another. One’s own enjoyment in the present usually contributes more to the enjoyment of others than does a highly calculating morality. One generally enjoys oneself more, moment by moment, if one’s mode of enjoyment is contributing to the enjoyment of others and not harming one’s own future prospects. That is, anticipation of a favorable future for oneself and others adds to the strength of beauty of the moment.
Morality is often thought of as a matter of rules or principles. Whitehead recognized the need for these but also their danger. As general guidelines, rules and principles are highly desirable. Some are general enough to be useful in any society whatever, whereas others describe the behavior that is wanted in a particular society. We think of the former as the truly moral ones, but the line between the two is difficult to draw. In any case, one moral rule may be to observe social conventions unless these require behavior that is immoral in other ways. Also, even the most general ones have their limits. For example, although it is appropriate to have a general rule against lying and stealing, nevertheless, we can all think of circumstances in which such rules should be broken. This is true even for killing other human beings. Whitehead strongly opposes the widespread Western tendency to seek absolute rules or principles of morality.