Ethical Naturalism and Religious Ethics in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”

Ethical Naturalism and Religious Belief in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”1

Michael R. Slater

Abstract. In this paper I offer a re-reading of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” William James’s most well known work on ethics.  I show that while James defends a naturalistic account of the basis of morality in the essay, he also makes a practical argument for religious faith, one that closely connects the piece to such works as “The Will to Believe” and The Varieties of Religious Experience.  After discussing some of the strengths and weaknesses of James’s moral theory and metaethical views, I argue that the religious aspect of the essay—which has tended to be either ignored or downplayed by previous interpreters—is of crucial importance for understanding James’s ethics, and that his practical argument is valid and worthy of serious consideration.
    “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) is probably the most well-known and oft-cited of William James’s moral writings, and with good reason.2  It presents a bold, empiricist and consequentialist vision of the moral life, and sets that vision in sharp relief from rationalist and deontological approaches to ethics.  And unlike the great majority of James’s moral writings, it not only explicitly addresses a number of fundamental issues in moral philosophy, but also offers a clearly defined—though insufficiently developed—moral theory.  It should therefore come as little surprise that The Moral Philosopher is usually the first source to which scholars interested in James’s moral philosophy turn when inquiring into James’s views on that subject.  What is surprising, however, is that the religious dimension of an otherwise naturalistic essay has gone virtually unnoticed by most James scholars.3  The one exception, to my knowledge, is Richard Gale, who has offered a rigorous and illuminating treatment of this dimension of the essay.  In this paper I tackle the issue from a somewhat different perspective than Gale, and try to show how James’s turn to religious ethics in The Moral Philosopher functions to shore up certain deficiencies in the naturalistic dimension of his moral theory.4  Having done so, I then assess the merits and demerits of James’s account, focusing in particular on James’s provocative argument for the ineluctability of religious beliefs in the moral life.
    Before going any further, however, I should first clarify my use of the terms “ethical naturalism” and “religious ethics.” Strictly speaking, James uses neither of these terms in The Moral Philosopher.  Then again, James does not use any single term to denote the operative distinction which he makes between, on the one hand, a “concrete ethics” which acknowledges no grounds for ethics beyond those provided by the mere existence of sentient beings and the claims that they make on one another (James also calls this “the religion of humanity”), and on the other hand ethical views and theories which involve certain “metaphysical and theological beliefs.”  Since James only elaborates on the role that “theological beliefs” play in the moral life (presumably he has in mind belief in free will when he mentions metaphysical beliefs—but this is only a conjecture), I shall confine my analysis accordingly.  Using terminology that is standard in my own field, Religious Studies, I propose to use the term “religious ethics” to refer to the religious turn that James’s ethics takes in the concluding section of The Moral Philosopher.  I shall use the terms “ethical naturalism” and “naturalistic ethics” interchangeably to refer to the moral theory that James develops in the earlier sections of the essay, a theory which sees the basis of morality as independent of religion, and which (as we saw above) holds that morality can be accounted for in purely human terms—that is, in terms drawn from human nature and human experience.  Using this broad definition, humanistic accounts such as James’s as well as reductively materialist accounts of ethics qualify as naturalistic.5  Whether—and if so, how—the naturalistic and religious accounts of ethics that James defends in The Moral Philosopher cohere is the primary subject of this article.6
     That James connected ethical and religious issues should come as no surprise.  Other essays in WB deal at length with issues in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, especially the ethics of religious belief.  As James make clear in the Preface to WB, the first four essays in the collection “are largely concerned with defending the legitimacy of religious faith” (WB, x).  Indeed, James defends not only the legitimacy of religious belief in these essays, but its superiority to other modes of belief (such as atheism and agnosticism).  James continues to defend and modify this basic view in such works as VRE and PU, where he grounds religious belief in religious and mystical experience and develops a pluralistic interpretation of religion (indeed, a worldview) capable of accounting for a plurality of religious overbeliefs.  Perhaps the most important difference between the “theological beliefs” that James describes in The Moral Philosopher and the more religious beliefs described above is that the latter are not explicitly theistic in nature, whereas the former are.  Another important difference is that in The Moral Philosopher (as in WB more generally) James makes no explicit appeal to religious or mystical experience.  A number of commentators have studied this shift in James’s religious thought, from a “finite” version of theism to a more pluralistic and experiential religious outlook in which “God” simply names one possible “overbelief” among many.7  For our purposes, it should be enough to note that while James has a recognizably Christian (albeit heterodox) version of theism in mind in The Moral Philosopher, this should not be taken as his settled religious view.  If, however, James sees religious belief as playing an indispensable role in the moral life, as section V suggests, and if James’s religious views change over time (as is evident in such works as VRE and PU), it is possible—though not, of course, necessary—that James’s ethical views change to some degree as well.  If this turns out to be the case, then scholars who are interested in understanding James’s ethics will need to read his ethical and religious writings in conjunction with one another; indeed, it may be that there is more ethical content to James’s religious writings than has heretofore been appreciated.8  In any case, a fuller treatment of James’s religious views will be required if we are to make sense of James’s religious turn in The Moral Philosopher.  This article aims to make a limited but nonetheless needful contribution towards that end.
    A brief summary of James’s argument in the essay may be helpful at this point, before we proceed any further.  In The Moral Philosopher, James presents a consequentialist theory of morality, and develops that theory against the background of a broadly naturalistic view of the nature of moral properties and relations.  According to James, we both can and should understand moral properties and relations as natural in kind.  We can do so, insofar as moral properties and relations are conceivable in purely human terms—that is, both are conceivable without reference to such things as God, Platonic Forms, or other supernatural concepts.  And we should do so, because adopting such an approach will help us to arrive at the only empirically grounded and testable moral theory.9  4
    Interestingly, however, James devotes the final section of the essay to a discussion of the reasons why a “bald” form of ethical naturalism is ultimately unsustainable in the moral life in the long run.10  Here, James roughly claims that certain non-naturalistic metaphysical and religious beliefs are necessary (though not sufficient) for leading the highest sort of moral life attainable, which he calls the “morally strenuous” life.  The morally strenuous life, as James describes it, is a life characterized by faith: faith in moral objectivity, and faith in the ultimate success of our ethical endeavors.  Morally strenuous persons, on James’s view, are the persons who are least susceptible to moral pessimism, skepticism, relativism, and other moral pathologies; and the reason why they are the least susceptible to these pathologies is because they are religious persons: that is, they confidently believe (truly or falsely) that their moral judgements and actions are variously grounded in and assisted by such things as supernatural agents, objects, events, and states of affairs.11 Thus, James holds that even though morality is a basically human and naturalistic affair, it is nonetheless the case that some form of religious faith is practically required for achieving the most stable and capable form of moral agency.12 5
    One of the more curious features of The Moral Philosopher is that until virtually the final section of the essay James gives the impression that he aims to offer a purely naturalistic account of morality.13  Yet, while James does indeed develop a naturalistic account of the basis of morality, and of moral properties and relations besides, he also goes on to argue that the demands of leading a moral life are such that we can scarcely avoid adopting certain metaphysical and religious beliefs to sustain it—that is, to sustain us as moral agents over time in a tragic, finite world.  While James defends a naturalistic approach to ethics that is similar in a number of respects to those advanced by many moral philosophers today, he also holds that ethical naturalism fails to provide a motivationally sufficient and sustainable ethical outlook.  In doing so, and without advocating a religious moral theory, James nonetheless comes to recognize an indispensable role for religious postulates in the moral life.14
    The outline of the essay is as follows.  In section one (�1), I analyze the naturalistic portion of James’s account of the moral life.  Then, in section two (�2), I examine the religious dimension of James’s account, wherein James develops his view that ethical naturalism stands in need of religious supplementation.  Finally, in section three (�3) I discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of James’s arguments in The Moral Philosopher, especially his argument for a “religiously supplemented” version of ethical naturalism.
1. James’s Ethical Naturalism
    James’s stated purpose in The Moral Philosopher was “to show that there is no such thing possible as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance” (WB, 184).  What this statement reveals, in addition to James’s rejection of a priorism in ethics, is his commitment to epistemic fallibilism.  James believed that while a genuine science or objective account of ethics is possible, “there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say” (WB, 184).15  If there is to be a final truth in ethics, then it must await a complete analysis of human moral experience and judgment.  This is, to say the least, a tall order, and arguably much taller than an a posteriori and fallibilist account of ethics needs to be.  Rather than providing such an analysis, however, The Moral Philosopher should be seen as sketching the lines along which such an account of ethics might proceed.  Whatever the fate of James’s claim might be, it is nevertheless the case that much of what James has to say about the nature of morality and the ethical enterprise is highly interesting (not to mention provocative), and foreshadows a number of later developments in 20th century Anglo-American moral philosophy.  I shall have more to say about these features of James’s account as we proceed.
    As he will later insist in “The Will to Believe,” James asserts that one of the pre-conditions for doing moral philosophy, or for having a moral philosophy at all, is the rejection of moral skepticism (WB, 184).  The would-be moral philosopher, as well as one who simply seeks to live by a moral philosophy, must resolve at the outset that she will not be a moral skeptic.  With that commitment assumed, James thinks that the basic aim of moral philosophy is to arrive at a unified account or system of ethics.  It is, namely, “to find an account of the moral relations that obtain among things, which will weave them into the unity of a stable system, and make of the world what one may call a genuine universe from the ethical point of view” (WB, 184-85).  The basic aim of moral philosophy, then, is to provide us with a moral picture of the universe, or a moral worldview.  The subject-matter of moral philosophy, furthermore, is both normative and descriptive in nature: normative, in that it aims to provide us with an account of how we should act; and descriptive, in that it studies those ideals which the moral philosopher finds “existing in the world” (WB, 185).  While James takes an empirical approach to moral philosophy, he also recognizes that moral philosophy can never be a purely descriptive enterprise, since the aim motivating moral philosophy is itself an ideal, and “a factor in ethical philosophy whose legitimate presence must never be overlooked; it is a positive contribution which the philosopher himself necessarily makes to the problem” (WB, 185). 9
    Having laid down his methodology, James devotes the greater part of The Moral Philosopher, and virtually the entirety of what I have termed the “naturalistic” portion of his account, to analyzing what he takes to be the three basic kinds of questions in moral philosophy.  These are the psychological, the metaphysical, and the casuistic questions of ethics (WB, 185).  The first, James tells us, deals with the historical origins of our moral ideas and judgments; the second with the “very meaning of the words ‘good,’ ‘ill,’ and ‘obligation'”; and the third with “the measure of the various goods and ills which men recognize, so that the philosopher may settle the true order of human obligation.” As I have said, James devotes the majority of the essay to an elucidation of these questions, and in doing so he lays out his own moral theory.  For reasons of space, I shall only treat James’s discussion of the metaphysical and casuistic questions of ethics.  Fortunately, it is here that the sharpest contrast between James’s naturalistic and religious ethical views is to be found. 10
    While James is not very clear about what he means by “metaphysics,” he seems to have in mind both metaphysical and semantic issues in ethics.  For James, the metaphysical questions of ethics have principally to do with what we might call the meaningfulness of ethical concepts, claims, and theories: that is, the conditions under which ethical concepts, claims, and theories might be meaningfully said to ‘fit’ or apply to our moral experience.  On James’s view, ethical terms and claims can have no meaning apart from certain prior metaphysical conditions having been met, and the most basic of these is the existence of sentient beings (for the sake of convenience, let us call this an existential condition for ethics—if ethical ideas are to have any purchase on reality, there must be sentient beings who can think and use them).16  James asks us first to imagine a brute, material world in which no sentient life exists, a world which has existed “from eternity without a God, without even an interested spectator” (WB, 189).  He then asks us to consider on the one hand whether or not in such a world evaluative concepts would have any meaning, and on the other whether or not such things as goods, evils, and obligations could be said to exist.  For James, the answer on both counts is clearly ‘No.’ James writes:

Neither moral relations nor the moral law can swing in vacuo.  Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them; and no world composed of merely physical facts can possibly be a world to which ethical propositions apply (WB, 190).

Not only can we not sensibly conjecture the existence of values in a purely physical world; we also cannot sensibly hold that goods and obligations exist independently of minds, or minded beings.  This last point is crucial, for it rules out not only reductively materialist accounts of ethics, but also transcendental accounts which purport to ground ethics in an a priori, extra-human moral law.  Yet, James holds, “[t]he moment one sentient being�.is made a part of the universe, there is a chance for goods and evils really to exist” (WB, 190).  With the existence of at least one mind or minded being, moral relations can sensibly and possibly arise.  But if only one sentient being exists, James observes, value judgments will have a subjective character, because they will be relative to its preferences alone.  This sort of moral universe is what James calls a moral solitude (WB, 191).  Beyond that single being’s value judgments, there are no moral facts or truths.  Even if we introduce a second thinker into the universe, James thinks, the situation does not necessarily make value judgments any more objective—for in this case the two beings might go on forming value judgments independently of each other, but with incommensurable and equally subjective results.  Nor is the problem of moral subjectivism solved by pluralizing matters further still, for it is possible that in such a world only a multitude of subjective standpoints exist (WB, 192). Objectivity enters the picture—at least at the level of assertion—only when moral subjects begin to assert that some standpoints are better or truer than others, and ought to be recognized as such.  Objectivity, then, can only arise with the advent of the concept of obligation (WB, 192).17  But if there are no extra-human (or better, mind-independent) grounds for ethics, if “nothing can be good or right except so far as some consciousness feels it to be good or thinks it to be right” (WB, 192-3), then moral subjectivism would still seem to be an ineliminable fact.  Neither recourse to a divine standard nor agreement among individuals can undo the fact that the putative objectivity of moral judgments ultimately devolves to authority, and is really at best subjective or intersubjective in nature. 12
   To this point, James has said nothing about what it is about sentient beings that might make them concerned about one another’s welfare or flourishing.  Consequently, to this point James’s account seems rather underdeveloped.  A few pages later, however, James uses the qualifier “loving” (WB, 197) to mark a potential difference between a moral universe � deux and the non-moral universe comprised of two moral subjectivists that we encountered above.  Is the differentiating condition between them that in the former the two subjects recognize each other’s claims as obligating, whereas in the latter they do not?  If so, a moral sentiment like affection or benevolence shared between two minded beings would then be the necessary condition for the possibility of morality, and not merely the existence of two minded beings alone.  If the beings are and remain disinterested in one another, then presumably a moral universe does not exist, and never comes to be.  James’s ethical naturalism would have been more adequate and compelling, I submit, if he had been clearer about and had devoted more space to a discussion of the place of the moral sentiments.  (Indeed, as we have seen, his account seems to presuppose the existence of shared moral sentiments.) 13
    James’s attempt to account for moral objectivity is thus far unsatisfactory.  James recognizes and indeed insists that we can have no recourse to a mind-independent ground of ethics, or the idea of “an abstract moral order in which the objective truth resides” (WB, 194).  He thinks that we cannot sensibly appeal to a mind-independent, de jure moral order “which antedates and overarches the mere facts, and would make it right that we should conform our thoughts to God’s thoughts, even though he made no claim to that effect, and though we preferred de facto to go on thinking for ourselves” (WB, 194).  In short, The Moral Philosopher asserts that moral realism is not a plausible theory of moral properties and relations.  Rather, only moral anti-realism is plausible, in which we understand moral properties and relations as ontologically mind-dependent (rather than mind-independent) in nature.  If moral anti-realism is true, and if not all moral agents agree on which moral claims are obligating, then how can one account for moral objectivity?  Rather than abandoning the notion of moral objectivity or attempting to redefine it in intersubjective terms (thus reducing objectivity to intersubjectivity), James instead tries to locate moral objectivity in the very act of making claims: that is, by equating ethical claims with ethical obligations.  He writes:

But the moment we take a steady look at the question, we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim.  Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly (WB, 194).

There are a number of problems with James’s argument.  To begin with, we have two separate claims here, and one can grant the truth of the first without granting the truth of the second. 18 Secondly, if it is true, as James asserts, that claims and obligations are logically equivalent, then all claims are morally obligating.  There can be no such thing as a non-morally obligatory claim.19 Indeed, the very distinction between moral and immoral claims seems to break down, since all claims become “valid” or morally obligating simply by virtue of being made.  But if there are any invalid or non-morally obligating claims, as most people believe, then it cannot be the case that “every de facto claim creates in so far forth an obligation” (WB, 195); the mere act of asserting a claim cannot be what makes it valid.  As Roth, Gale, and other commentators have argued, James’s attempt to account for moral objectivity along these lines appears to strike out. 15
    Suppose, though, that we interpret James’s claims about obligation in prima facie terms, instead?  (While this would admittedly be revisionary—the notion of prima facie obligation was developed by W.D. Ross several decades later—it might possibly allow us to salvage this aspect of James’s account.)  Even this strategy does not fare very well, though, because it seems to undo James’s key claim that obligations and claims cover each other exactly.  If claims are prima facie obligating, then there are at least some (and perhaps many) claims which effectively cease to be obligating under certain conditions.  On a prima facie interpretation, claim and obligation cease to cover each other exactly, which is precisely what James cannot allow if his account is to work. 16
    Let us set aside these problems for the time being, though, and take stock of the overall trajectory of James’s account.  Up to this stage of The Moral Philosopher, James has presented ethics as a purely human affair.  But in making ethics humanistic, James is not thereby making ethics a-religious.  For a few lines later, we find James entertaining the possibility of our being in moral community with God.  While James recommends (presumably for economical reasons) that we not personalize the universe unless we happen to believe “in a universal or divine consciousness which actually exists” (WB, 196), he recognizes the legitimacy of holding such a belief.  “If there be such a consciousness,” James writes, “then its demands carry the most of obligation simply because they are the greatest in amount” (WB, 196).20  James does not want to rule out God’s participation in the moral life; but he does want theists to understand God’s obligations in the same terms in which he thinks we should understand our own.  Our moral obligations inhere in the structure of our actual moral relationships on James’s view, and not in an extra-relational, a priori order.  As James forcefully puts the matter:

[T]he only force of appeal to us, which either a living God or an abstract ideal order can wield, is found in the ‘everlasting ruby vaults’ of our human hearts, as they happen to beat responsive and not irresponsive to the claim.  So far as they do feel it when made by a living consciousness, it is life answering to life (WB, 196).

If God exists, neither God nor we are bound by an extra-empirical, transcendental moral order.  And more tellingly, if God exists, then any claims that God makes on us are binding only insofar as we respond to those claims.  This puts ethics on a decisively humanistic—and highly subjective—footing.  Indeed, it seems to involve a more general claim on James’s part that moral reasons are internal reasons: that is, in order for an appeal to be a reason for action, it must be “internal” to the agent by according with that agent’s motives.21  Yet, James’s assertion that claims are binding on us only insofar as we choose to recognize them as binding undercuts his earlier assertion that claims ipso facto entail obligations.  James cannot have his cake and eat it too: either claims and obligations are logically equivalent (which is absurd), or they are not (in which case James’s account of moral objectivity goes to ruins, because it makes the validity of a claim depend on its being actually recognized by a subject, who may always in principle choose not to recognize it as binding, or may not feel obliged to meet it). 18
    In any case, the larger point that James aims to make in his discussion of the metaphysical questions of ethics is that morality is autonomous.  Its existence does not require God’s existence.  James writes:

We, on this terrestrial globe, so far as the visible facts go, are just like the inhabitants of such a rock.  Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist, in you blue heaven above us bent, we form at any rate an ethical republic here below.  And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well.  ‘The religion of humanity’ affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.  Whether the purely human system can gratify the philosopher’s demands as well as the other is a different question, which we ourselves must answer ere we close (WB, 198; emphasis added).

When we read these last two quotes in conjunction, we find James claiming that so long as there are sentient beings that recognize and vitally respond to one another’s claims, we have a moral universe.22  Following Auguste Comte and J.S. Mill, James now asserts that ‘the religion of humanity‘ is as adequate a basis for ethics as theism.23 20
    The last kinds of questions that James considers are the casuistic, which James roughly takes to consist in questions concerning the decision procedures of ethics, or those concerning the nature of ethical reasoning.  We inhabit a world where moral agreement is often lacking, where competition for goods and conflicts of ideals all too frequently occur.  Indeed, ethical conflict and incommensurability are such basic facts of our existence that moral philosophy itself can come to seem a doomed enterprise.  Our conflicts “all form a maze of apparently inextricable confusion with no obvious Ariadne’s thread to lead one out” (WB, 198).  In this state, however, we must not become moral skeptics, believing that moral truth does not exist; but neither must we be moral subjectivists, assuming that moral truth is relative to individual belief or preference (WB, 199). 21
    This last qualification is especially difficult, James recognizes, because he has ruled out the possible existence of abstract moral truth (qua ruling out abstract orders of moral truth) and made moral truth relative to beliefs (indeed, preferences) actually held by sentient beings.  Consistent with his general view of ethics, James affirms that the moral philosopher must strive for impartiality in her moral judgments, and bracket her individual values as far as possible, but this seems to be an impossible demand in light of the subjective ground of ethics that James thinks is the fact of the matter (WB, 199).24  James muses that if only we could develop a method or procedure for discerning the essence of the good, we could then hope to settle our evaluative conflicts in a non-subjective fashion (WB, 199-200).  Many such attempts have been made historically by philosophers, James observes, but “no one of the measures that have been actually proposed has, however, given general satisfaction” (WB, 200).  James thinks that the best candidate for disclosing the essence of the good, and for constituting the supreme principle of morality, is the satisfaction of demand; that is, on James’s view “the essence of good is simply to satisfy demand” (WB, 201).  For better or worse, this move ties James’s answer to the casuistic questions of ethics to his answer to the metaphysical questions of ethics, and in particular, to his account of the nature of moral obligation. 22
    James recognizes, however, that his is a hopelessly broad claim, one that permits what seems to be anything under the sun (WB, 201).  And of course, the demands to be satisfied will obviously not all be of the same kind, nor will they necessarily share the same underlying motives.  This leads James to admit that, even though this is his best candidate for specifying the basic principle of morality, it can hardly pretend to encapsulate all ethical actions and judgments.  Moral philosophy thus proves exceedingly difficult to do, and its task is made even harder by the fact that not all ideal moral orders or systems will fit the empirical facts (WB, 202).  Our world, James thinks, displays a pattern that does not cohere with such ideal orders.  James takes it as a consequence of this fact that moral theory must always give way to actual, practical demands.  He writes:

The actually possible in this world is vastly narrower than all that is demanded; and there is always a pinch between the ideal and the actual which can only be got through by leaving part of the ideal behind.  There is hardly a good which we can imagine except as competing for the possession of the same bit of space and time with some other imagined good.  Every end of desire that presents itself appears exclusive of some other end of desire (WB, 202).

According to James, the plurality of goods and ends that we hold and the potential conflict between them entails that compromise is an ineluctable feature of the moral life.25  Though we should take the achievement of a stable, unified system of ethics as our regulative ideal, or the goal which guides inquiry, in actuality we should be prepared for the possibility that we shall have to settle for less.   24
    A further difficulty facing the moral philosopher, James observes, is that she is born “into a society whose ideals are largely ordered already” (WB, 203), and tends to have her own ideals shaped in large part for her by the society of which she is a member.  “In other words,” James tells us, “our environment encourages us not to be philosophers but partisans” (WB, 203).  For James, however, the moral philosopher should seek to transcend her own ideals and those of her society in the attempt to arrive at an objective moral point of view.  Faced with the prospect of moral philosophers becoming partisans of particular ideals—and what is worse, moralists dogmatically espousing those ideals—James recoils.  He writes:

Better chaos forever rule than an order based on any closet-philosopher’s rule, even though he were the most enlightened member of his tribe.  No! if the philosopher is to keep his judicial position, he must never become one of the parties to the fray (WB, 204).

Thus, doing moral philosophy from within a moral tradition, or on the basis of one’s reflective moral commitments, should be rejected.  But what options, exactly, does this leave James? 26
    The only way to escape these difficulties, James thinks, lies in adopting the maxim that we should always strive to satisfy as many demands as we can (WB, 205).  “That act must be the best act, accordingly,” he writes, “which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions” (WB, 205).  The casuistic principle that James thus recommends takes the best ideals as those which “prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least possible number of other ideals are destroyed” (WB, 205).  James thinks, then, that the best ethical ideal to adopt is the one most inclusive of other ideals, and he keenly recognizes that this principle has had great success historically in eliminating social strife and cruelty.  What is unclear from James’s discussion of this issue, however, is whether we should interpret James as claiming that we should seek to maximize the desires of individuals (which surely motivate their demands) or rather their ideals.  On the basis of these passages, James can be—and has been—interpreted as either a “desire-satisfaction” utilitarian, or as an “ideal-satisfaction” utilitarian.26  The difficulty facing James is that these forms of utilitarianism potentially conflict, and he appears to endorse both. Insofar as James equates obligations with demands or claims, he seems bound to honor a desire-satisfaction principle; and insofar as he aims to recognize the greatest number of ideals at the least cost, he seems bound to honor an ideal-satisfaction principle.  In order to resolve this dilemma James would need, at minimum, to assign a priority either to demands or ideals in cases of conflict (this would be to pursue a prima facie approach, which as I mentioned earlier, was not available to James).  It is simply not clear how James himself might have resolved this dilemma, though given the emphasis that he will later place upon the philosophical significance of ideals and over-beliefs (see TT, VRE, Pragmatism, and PU), and the relative lack of emphasis that he will subsequently place upon maximizing demands, it would seem to be the case that the latter was the less important of the two concerns. Perhaps the larger point to be made here, however, is that no matter which horn of the dilemma one decides to break, James’s moral theory still stands in need of serious modification. 27
    James concludes his discussion of the casuistic questions of ethics by declaring that “ethical science is just like physical science, and instead of being deducible all at once from abstract principles, must simply bide its time, and be ready to revise its conclusions from day to day” (WB, 208).27 James’s is a decisively empiricist and humanist vision of the moral life, and it calls for doing the best we can with what resources we have.  “There is but one unconditional commandment,” he declares, “which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see” (WB, 209).  Our task, as moral philosophers and agents, is to muddle through as best we can, enlisting sources of moral inspiration from wherever we can (WB, 210).  This, effectively, concludes James’s discussion of the naturalistic dimensions of ethics.  And yet, his account of ethics remains incomplete. 28
2. James’s Turn to Religious Ethics
    “The chief of all the reasons why concrete ethics cannot be final,” James proclaims, “is that they have to wait on metaphysical and theological beliefs” (WB, 210).  This remark represents a watershed in James’s argument, for with it he begins to modify his earlier claims regarding a humanistic version of ethical naturalism, or what he at one point calls “the religion of humanity.”  James’s view up to this stage has been that ethical relations are possible in a purely human world.28  Now, however, we find James claiming that religious beliefs are somehow indispensable in leading a moral life.  What, exactly, does James mean by this claim? 29
    James begins this portion of his account by drawing a distinction between what he calls the easy-going and the strenuous mood (WB, 211).  What James basically has in mind by such a distinction is the difference between ethical indifference, cowardice, and weakness of will on the one hand, and ethical concern, courage, and volitional resolve on the other.  “The capacity for the strenuous mood,” James writes, “probably lies slumbering in every man, but it has more difficulty in some than in others in waking up” (WB, 211).  Strong passions such as fear, love, and indignation, in addition to higher ideals like justice, truth, and freedom are required to awaken the strenuous mood, for “[s]trong relief is a necessity of its vision; and a world where all the mountains are brought down and all the valleys are exalted is no congenial place for its habitation” (WB, 211-12).29  The next lines are revealing, and worth quoting in full.  James writes:

This is why in a solitary thinker this mood might slumber on forever without waking.  His various ideals, known to him to be mere preferences of his own, are too nearly of the same denominational value: he can play fast or loose with them at will.  This too is why in a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power.  Life, to be sure, is even in such a world a genuinely ethical symphony; but it is played in the compass of a couple of poor octaves, and the infinite scale of values fails to open up (WB, 212; emphasis added).

For James, personal preferences—which constitute the basic unit of moral value and calculation, insofar as they are expressed as demands—exist independently of God’s existence.  Purely individual preferences, however, are incapable of either awakening or sustaining the strenuous mood.  Why does James believe this to be the case?  James unfortunately does not provide an argument in support of his claims, but the basic idea seems to be that without an infinite, divine commander (or “infinite demander,” to use James’s formulation) our moral ideals lack objective grounds (they remain mere subjective preferences, James suggests) and fail to be sufficiently motivating.  This represents an important qualification on James’s moral theory, since James now seems to be suggesting that while a moral universe can exist without a God, it cannot remain in existence for very long or reach its most developed stage without one.  Belief in God and God’s infinite scale of values is—to use a term from “Is Life Worth Living?—a “supplemental fact” or over-belief which provides the moral life with the objectivity and motivation it putatively lacks on purely naturalistic grounds (WB, 212-13).  While the religion of humanity may provide as adequate a basis for morality as theism, it fails to be as motivationally sufficient as theism, presumably because it is not religious enough. 31
    For James there exists a conflict, then, not only between the easy-going and strenuous moods, but also between finite and infinite ethical ideals.  The former admits only of purely naturalistic and humanistic perspectives on the good, and an ethics grounded in that mood remains tied to “prudence and the satisfaction of merely finite need” (WB, 213).  The latter mood, however, locates the ground of ethical obligation in an extra-human, divine source: that is, a divine good.  James’s assumption throughout section V seems to be that the moral life lacks objectivity and long-term motivational sufficiency without acquiring a strenuous mood, which in turn can only be gained through the adoption of certain religious and metaphysical over-beliefs (James will later speak of the inevitable failure of the “athletic attitude” towards the moral life in VRE, even though he grants that it can sustain moral strenuousness for a short while; see VRE, 44-46).  While non-religious moral agents seem to be capable of realizing the strenuous mood (James refers to it as a natural human capacity on WB, 213), they seem to be ultimately incapable of sustaining it in the face of life’s hardships.30 32
    It would seem that for James the strenuous mood is in fact a religious mood, and that acquiring it means thereby acquiring certain “supplemental” metaphysical and theological beliefs (if this is true, then the “religion of humanity” cannot in principle realize the “strenuous mood,” which seems to be a case of defining one’s way to a conclusion).  This equation is made clearer when James writes:

The capacity of the strenuous mood lies so deep down among our natural human possibilities that even if there were no metaphysical or traditional grounds for believing in a God, men would postulate one simply as a pretext for living hard, and getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest.  Our attitude towards concrete evils is entirely different in a world where we believe there are none but finite demanders, from what it is in one where we joyously face tragedy for an infinite demander’s sake.  Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for handling life’s evils, is set free in those who have religious faith.  For this reason the strenuous type of character will on the battle-field of human history always outwear the easy-going type, and religion will drive irreligion to the wall (WB, 213).31

    Thus, not only does the strenuous mood lead us to adopt metaphysical and religious beliefs as a support for morality and an impetus to moral action; it also seems to be the case that those who variously lack or reject such beliefs are not genuinely capable of living morally strenuous lives.32  And one of the reasons why irreligious moral agents lack the strenuous character, James further suggests, is because their conceptions of the good and of moral obligation have a finite rather than an infinite ground.  Moral objectivity is a plausible notion, then, on James’s considered view—but it is only plausible as a religious postulate, or an article of faith.  This faith, in turn, is seen to consist minimally in the belief that God’s infinite scale of value; moral legislation; and participation in the moral life jointly put morality on an objective footing, and in turn provide us with the hope that our moral aspirations will not go unfulfilled.33 34
    In the final section of “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” James brings his account of ethics to a close by modifying his earlier claims for the sufficiency of a purely naturalistic account of ethics.  His final conclusion is that:

The stable and systematic moral universe for which the ethical philosopher asks is fully possible only in a world where there is a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands.  If such a thinker existed, his way of subordinating the demands to one another would be the finally valid casuistic scale; his claims would be the most appealing; his ideal universe would be the most inclusive realizable whole.  If he now exist, then actualized in his thought already must be that ethical philosophy which we seek as the pattern which our own must evermore approach.  In the interests of our own ideal of systematically unified moral truth, therefore, we, as would-be philosophers, must postulate a divine thinker, and pray for the victory of the religious cause.  Meanwhile, exactly what the thought of the infinite thinker may be is hidden from us even were we sure of his existence; so that our postulation of him after all serves only to let loose in us the strenuous mood.  But this is what it does in all men, even those who have no interest in philosophy.  The ethical philosopher, therefore, whenever he ventures to say which course of action is the best, is on no essentially different level from the common man (WB, 214).

While the basis of ethics may be naturalistic, James thinks, if we want to have a maximally stable and systematic account of ethics (including, presumably, an account of the ultimate grounds and final ends of ethics), then we need to hold certain religious postulates: namely, and minimally, those concerning God’s existence, goodness and assistance.  Truly or falsely, James believes that exclusively naturalistic accounts of ethics 1) cannot provide objective grounds or sufficient motivation for the moral life, and 2) inevitably require us to attenuate the scope of moral agency (i.e., what can be reasonably achieved in the moral life).  The demands of leading a morally strenuous life, however, are such than we cannot reasonably accept such limitations.  It is here, at the practical level, that religious postulates become necessary.  Consequently, James’s account of ethics does not so much call for abandoning ethical naturalism as it does call for placing limit-conditions upon it.  James finally settles, then, on a “piecemeal supernaturalist” account of ethics, in which his otherwise naturalistic ethical outlook is supplemented by a form of religious faith.34  While James thinks that our reasons for adopting supernaturalistic commitments are of a natural kind (insofar as it is our human moral needs and aspirations which lead us in this direction), he also thinks that our ethical judgments can have no truly objective basis, and our highest ethical aspirations no rational hope of fulfillment, apart from the postulation of supernatural standards and assistance in the moral life. 36
    In developing such an account, however, James never affirms that we possess knowledge of God’s existence or nature.35  That is, the postulation of a morally helpful and supremely good God plays a practical role in James’s account, and serves as an object of faith rather than knowledge.  James arrives at his position instead through reflecting on what he takes to be the limits of ethical naturalism and our native moral capacities. And this, in turn, leads him to postulate God’s existence and legislative role in the moral life as a way of addressing those shortcomings.36  Rather curiously, James never considers the possibility that the natural reasons which he thinks impel us to adopt certain religious beliefs in the moral life might be implanted in our nature by a supernatural author, such as would be the case if God were our creator in addition to being our moral commander or guide.  Were this the case, then presumably our “natural” moral reasons would have an ultimately supernatural source or origin, and our decision to call our ethical theory basically naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic would be somewhat arbitrary.  But James clearly rejects this more traditional theistic view, and only endorses a piecemeal as opposed to a robust or thoroughgoing version of supernaturalism in ethics, presumably because he thinks that more traditional forms of religious faith carry too much doctrinal baggage.37  37
3. Concluding Observations
    Having concluded the interpretive portion of this essay, we now need to consider the philosophical adequacy and relevance of James’s account of ethics in The Moral Philosopher.  We should begin by addressing some of the problems with James’s account.  First, it is undoubtedly the case that James fails to demonstrate the major claims of the essay, namely that there can be no such thing as an ethical philosophy “dogmatically made up in advance” and “no final truth in ethics�until the last man has had his experience and said his say” (WB, 184).  In the first case, James fails to show conclusively why a priori accounts of ethics are untenable.  At best, James only provides reasons for thinking that moral concepts make no sense apart from the existence of sentient, evaluating beings.  This is, I think, an important (indeed, a truthful) insight; but it is insufficient by itself for showing that ethical a priorism is a false view. 38
    Second, James’s equation of ethical claims and obligations is simply untenable, since it does not allow us to make qualitative distinctions between claims, and has the absurd consequence of making all claims morally obligating.  James would have done better if he had confined himself to saying that claims and obligations presuppose or entail one another; but this, however, does not do the philosophical heavy lifting that James has in mind.  Given that James equates ethical claims and obligations in an attempt to overcome the problem of moral subjectivism raised by his account, and given the failure of that attempt, it follows that James does not manage to overcome that problem.  Indeed, it seems to be the case that James’s argument for the necessity of certain religious beliefs is occasioned by the inadequacy of his naturalistic (and perhaps more importantly, subjectivist) account of moral obligation.  If so, James’s religious turn in The Moral Philosopher could be seen as a kind of “deus ex machina strategy”: that is, an attempt to solve a philosophical problem—in this case, the problem of moral subjectivism which plagues his account—through supernatural means when naturalistic means appear insufficient.38  Indeed, most contemporary naturalists in ethics will likely see James’s view of morality as a contest of subjective preferences as problematic in itself, especially insofar as its focus on preferences occludes recognition of other important features of the moral life, such as the moral sentiments and the virtues.  If the naturalistic portion of James’s account is either deficient or mistaken, then the contemporary ethical naturalist will not be prepared to grant that a turn to religion is somehow inevitable in ethics.  Instead, she will very likely (and quite reasonably) insist that the solution to James’s worries about ethical naturalism can be satisfied along naturalistic lines. 39
    With that said, however, James’s account nonetheless has a number of strengths, and affords a number of important insights which are worthy of our attention.  I have already mentioned James’s insight that moral concepts seem to make no sense apart from the existence of sentient, evaluating beings.  Concepts like “good” and “bad,” and indeed, the very idea of a moral law, do seem to be nonsensical outside of this context.  Over sixty years before G.E.M. Anscombe made the same point in “Modern Moral Philosophy,” James argued that the idea of a moral law presupposes the idea of a moral legislator.39 We should also add to the list James’s fallibilism (a doctrine that he shared with his friend C.S. Peirce) and ethical pluralism, or recognition that there exists an irreducible plurality of values.  While fallibilism is now a commonplace view among contemporary philosophers (so much so, perhaps, that it has become virtually unquestioned), it was a radical philosophical view in the late 19th century, and certainly not one associated with the philosophical school which dominated in British and American universities at the time: Absolute Idealism.  The very idea that our ethical knowledge might be uncertain, not to mention empirically and progressively acquired, was widely viewed as scandalous.  While James was arguably wrong to think of ethics as a science, he was undoubtedly right to think that ethical knowledge is not and cannot be apodictically certain in character.  Similarly, James was aware of the fact that an irreducible plurality of values exists, and responded to that fact by counseling tolerance (see p. 11).  A half-century before Isaiah Berlin, and nearly a century before John Rawls, James grasped both the theoretical and practical significance of what Rawls calls “the fact of reasonable pluralism.”40 40
    These insights are admirable enough, one might object, but what are we to make of James’s argument for religious ethics?  This, I think, is by far the most controversial aspect of James’s account of the moral life, and one that even James’s most admiring supporters may have difficulty accepting.  While James’s argument is unquestionably controversial, it is also probably the most philosophically challenging and relevant portion of James’s account.  Indeed, unlike much of what else James has to say about the moral life in The Moral Philosopher, this argument somewhat surprisingly has legs. 41
    The reader will recall that for James we find ourselves with moral needs and hopes which are not easily met, if met at all, under the terms of a naturalistic account of ethics.  We live in a tragic, finite moral world where moral failure and disappointment are inevitable, and wherein we find ourselves constantly encountering our limits as moral agents.  Likewise, we find ourselves in need of providing an account of moral objectivity, and find it difficult to do so on strictly naturalistic grounds.  In the face of these problems, it might well seem unreasonable to believe that our moral agency can make an ultimate difference in the outcome of events; that our moral obligations might be imposed by anyone or anything other than human beings; or even to believe that there can be such a thing as an objective moral point of view.  How should one respond to these difficulties?  One answer is to concede defeat; this is what James calls moral pessimism, and he rejects it as an unviable option.  Another answer is to reject those of our moral needs, aspirations, and hopes which seem to point in a religious or broadly metaphysical direction.  James rejects this answer, too—we might call it the “moral ironist” view—because it attenuates the moral life in an unsatisfactory way and fails to provide a stable basis for ethics and moral agency.  This, incidentally, is perhaps James’s strongest reply to the convinced and unalloyed ethical naturalist.  The only alternative, James thinks, is to move in a metaphysical and religious direction: that is, to adopt some metaphysical and religious postulates that shore up the deficiencies and limitations which we encounter in the moral life. 42
    While one could, I think rightly, object that metaphysical and religious postulates need not take a theistic form (James simply takes this for granted), James’s account does manage to cover all of the bases which he identifies: namely, the need to account for moral objectivity, and the need for a form of assistance in the moral life which other human beings cannot provide.41  Furthermore, the argument that James advances turns out to be valid.  Taking “moral strenuousness” (S) to denote the highest degree of moral agency; “moral hopefulness” (H) to denote the hope that the two moral needs listed above can be satisfied; and “religious” (R) in terms of belief in such things as supernatural objects, events, or states of affairs, James’s argument can be expressed as:

If S, then H.

If H, then R.

If S, then R.

James’s argument thus takes the form of a hypothetical syllogism.  While one might doubt the truth of James’s premises, there is—or so it seems to me—nothing demonstrably false about them, and this should give the would-be critic pause, even if it does not ultimately satisfy her.  In any event, James’s practical argument for the necessity of metaphysical and religious postulates in the moral life will be compelling for anyone prepared to grant the truth of his claims. 44
    Does accepting James’s argument entail acceptance of his account of the moral life as a whole?  The answer to this question is pretty clearly ‘No,’ and the reasons for this are several.  Firstly, acceptance of James’s argument for religious ethics does not require wholesale endorsement of his ethical naturalism.  For example, one might reject James’s consequentialist moral theory; indeed, we might do well to reject (or at least, significantly modify) that aspect of James’s account, given the serious problems we discussed above.  All that would seem to be required is acceptance of James’s claim that naturalistic accounts of ethics have limits, and that our moral needs exceed those limits.42  Secondly, one might accept his argument for religious ethics while substituting a different set of religious beliefs for the ones which James himself holds.  That is, one could plausibly substitute different metaphysical and religious beliefs for the ones that James prescribes, while still formally satisfying the conditions of his argument.  James’s argument does not necessarily require that we postulate the existence of a monotheistic, omnipredicate God, for example; some version of polytheism or pantheism would seem to satisfy our moral needs equally well, it seems (see footnote 35). 45
    Similarly, one might accept James’s claim about the practical necessity of belief in moral objectivity, while rejecting his claim that belief in some sort of supernatural assistance is practically necessary in the moral life.  This would seem to be the case, as these are separate issues.  At the most minimal level, belief in moral objectivity only seems to presuppose some sort of metaphysical belief in the existence of properties or objects which ground morality: if not transcendent in kind, then at least “non-natural” according to the physicalist standards of the modern natural sciences.   Platonists, Kantians, and contemporary moral realists would all appear to believe in the existence of non-natural properties which provide for moral objectivity: the Form of the Good, the moral law, or metaphysically real and supervenient properties like “good” and “bad.”  If this is so, then all of these accounts of ethics are formally similar to the degree that all of them postulate at least one metaphysical belief in developing an account of moral objectivity.  They do not, however, involve holding any further beliefs regarding supernatural assistance or agency in the moral life. 46
    If, however, we have a perfectionist streak (as both Kant and James did) and frame our actions and characters in accordance with some ideal, regulative end (say, world peace, or the achievement of a kingdom of ends), we quickly discover that we cannot attain it through our own agency.  The realist in us tells us so, yet the perfectionist in us demands that we keep pursuing that end.  What are we to do?  Pursuing the regulative end with the knowledge that our moral acts are ultimately futile is perhaps noble, and can accomplish much good, but nonetheless tends to be a psychologically unstable attitude, and hence tends to break down over time (as we have seen, James calls this the “athletic attitude”).  While some individuals may be capable of sustaining such an attitude throughout the course of their lives, most eventually fall prey to one or more of James’s moral pathologies.  If, however, we find ourselves committed to believing that the regulative end must be attainable—that “ought” implies “can,” to use Kant’s language—then some additional metaphysical and religious beliefs would seem to be rationally required for the satisfaction of that demand.  Either the demand is impossible, in which case it is unreasonable and should be rejected, or it is not, in which case some sort of religious account is rationally required if it is to be met.  The rub, as James sees it, is that giving up these kinds of demands is not so easy to do, and neither is it good for us to give them up, in light of the moral pathologies which tend to set in once they have been rejected.  Even if it is possible for some people to lead morally strenuous lives without holding any metaphysical or religious beliefs (though James doubts this), most people are naturally led to adopt them over the course of their lives as moral agents.43  What James’s argument for religious ethics does, then, is to justify our holding certain metaphysical and religious beliefs on moral grounds.  Even if such a view fails to compel our assent, it would nonetheless seem to be a reasonable and warranted candidate for belief. 47
Department of Philosophy
University of Oregon


Anscombe, G.E.M.  “Modern Moral Philosophy” [1958], reprinted in Virtue Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Bird, Graham.  “Moral philosophy and the development of morality” in The Cambridge Companion to William James (Cambridge University Press, 1997); pp. 260-81.

Brennan, Bernard P.  The Ethics of William James (College and University Press Services, Inc., 1962).

Cooper, Wesley.  The Unity of William James’s Thought (Vanderbilt University Press, 2002). 

Gale, Richard.  The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

James, William.  The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy [1896/98] (Dover Publications, 1956).

________.  Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals [1899] (Harvard University  Press, 1983).

________.  The Varieties of Religious Experience [1902] (Harvard University Press, 1975).

________.  Pragmatism [1907] and The Meaning of Truth [1909] (Harvard University Press,   2000).

________.  A Pluralistic Universe [1909] (University of Nebraska Press, 1996).

Lamberth, David C.  William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Levinson, Henry S.  The Religious Investigations of William James (The University of North Carolina Press, 1977).

McDowell, John.  Mind and World (Harvard University Press, 1994). 

Mill, J.S.  “The Utility of Religion,” in Three Essays on Religion (Prometheus Books, 1998).

Raeder, Linda C. John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (University of Missouri Press, 2002).

Roth, John K.  Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James (Westminster Press, 1969).

Taylor, Charles.  Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989).

Williams, Bernard.  Moral Luck (Cambridge University Press, 1981).


1 I thank Philip J. Ivanhoe and Erin M. Cline for their many helpful comments and suggestions, as well as two anonymous reviewers for WJS for their constructive criticism of a previous draft of this paper. 

2 All parenthetical citations (abbreviated WB) are from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” in The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy [1897] (Dover Publications, 1956), pp. 184-215.  The abbreviations “TT,” “VRE,” “MT,” and “PU” refer, respectively, to Talks to Teachers (1899), The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), The Meaning of Truth (1909) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909).  For the full bibliographic entries for these works, please refer to the reference section at the end of this article.

3 There is an unfortunate scarcity of literature on James’s ethics, and only two treatments to have appeared in the last fifty years which could reasonably claim to be comprehensive, namely Bernard P. Brennan’s The Ethics of William James (1962) and John K. Roth’s Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James (1969).  Both accounts, unfortunately, are now dated in a number of respects, and have long been out of print.  One of the most recent but less comprehensive treatments of James’s account of morality is Graham Bird’s essay, “Moral philosophy and the development of morality” (1997).  While all of these works deal with “The Moral Philosopher” and rightly recognize its importance in James’s account of ethics, none of them accounts for the supernaturalistic turn which occurs in section V of the essay, and consequently none of them accounts for the impact of that turn on James’s discussion of the moral life, or his subsequent religious approach to the moral life in The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Among recent interpretations of James, both Richard Gale’s The Divided Self of William James (1999) and Wesley Cooper’s The Unity of William James’s Thought (2002) treat James’s ethics at some length, though to a lesser extent than Brennan and Roth.  Of these, only Gale’s treatment of The Moral Philosopher takes section V into account.

4 I am sympathetic to Gale’s overall reading of James as a philosopher divided by his “promethean” and “mystical” selves, as well as his reading of The Moral Philosopher in particular.  What I would like to suggest here, though, is that like Kant, James took his moral theory in a religious direction in order to shore up certain deficiencies in it which could not be remedied on strictly moral grounds.  If I am right about this, there may be more unity in James’s ethics than Gale has allowed.  This is not to say, however, that there are no incommensurable claims and themes in James’s ethics.

5 Unlike the former, the latter type of moral theory necessarily denies the existence of religious or supernatural objects, events, and states of affairs.  James’s naturalistic views are of the former type, insofar as they merely hold that we can (and to some degree should) account for morality in naturalistic terms—that is, as an empirical, human phenomenon.  Given James’s general philosophical rejection of materialism and defense of religious faith, however, it is safe to assume—though he does not explicitly do so in The Moral Philosopher—that he would reject the latter type of moral theory on the grounds that it illegitimately rules out a possible religious or supernatural dimension to morality (and to reality more generally).

6 In framing the distinction in this way, I have self-consciously bracketed the issue of epistemic justification potentially involved in these accounts.  I have done so because while naturalistic accounts do not appeal to religious or supernatural warrants as justification for their claims, it is not always or necessarily the case that religious accounts do appeal to such warrants.  Indeed, as we shall see, one of the more distinctive features of James’s account in The Moral Philosopher is that he offers naturalistic warrants for his religious claims.  In arguing for the necessity of religious belief in the moral life, James builds his case upon what he takes to be our human moral needs, and not upon putative supernatural evidence.  While other versions of religious ethics may derive warrant from the latter, James’s account in The Moral Philosopher does not—though, I should add, James will later modify his views on this issue in The Varieties of Religious Experience.  I am indebted to Philip J. Ivanhoe for helping me to clarify my position on this issue.  

7 See especially Henry S. Levinson, The Religious Investigations of William James (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1981) and David C. Lamberth, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).  I offer my own interpretation of this shift in James’s religious views in The Metaphysician and the Moral Life: Religion and Metaphysics in William James’s Ethical Thought (Unpublished dissertation, Brown University, 2005).

8 Thus, for example, one of the central issues explored in WB (especially in such essays as “The Will to Believe,” “Is Life Worth Living?” and “The Dilemma of Determinism”) and which receives extended treatment in VRE is the connection between religion and ethics.  Not only does James think that our attempts to lead “morally strenuous” lives require certain religious and metaphysical beliefs; he also believes that our supreme good lies in our harmonious adjustment to an unseen order (VRE, 51) or “wider self” through which saving experiences come (VRE, 405).  While I do not have space to demonstrate such a claim here, I believe that a truly comprehensive understanding of the religious dimension of The Moral Philosopher can only be had by bringing James’s views in that essay into relation with the religious dimension of his thought as a whole. 

9 Throughout The Moral Philosopher, James assumes that among our available moral theories only some version of consequentialism could be suitably naturalistic, in the sense that it alone (or rather, some version of it) could provide us with a purely humanistic or humanocentric account of moral properties and relations.  This assumption seems to be false, for it overlooks not only the possibility of a naturalistic deontological moral theory (such a notion is hardly inconceivable), but also various virtue ethical theories (such as Aristotle’s, e.g.). 

10 In using the term “bald” to describe a form of ethical naturalism which makes no reference to any non- or supernatural concepts (much less to any non- or supernatural objects, events, or states of affairs), I draw upon John McDowell’s discussion of “bald naturalism” in Mind and World (1994).  The term “bald,” as McDowell uses it, is roughly synonymous with “reductive.”   

11 As James makes clear in other essays in WB, particularly in “The Will to Believe” and “The Sentiment of Rationality,” religious belief occupies a class of beliefs (viz., overbeliefs) which are crucial to questions of human flourishing, and which, rather than having an evidential basis, are articles of faith which “bring forth their own verification.”  While James does not explicitly mention “overbeliefs” or “supplemental facts” in The Moral Philosopher or engage in a defense of the ethics of religious belief, he does defend the view (as he would later do in the above-mentioned essays) that faith is practically unavoidable in the business of living.

12 We shall examine exactly what sort of requirement James has in mind later on in this paper.  To tip my hand, I think we would do well do reject the idea that James has anything approaching logical necessity in mind.  Rather, the sort of “necessity” that James has in mind is broadly practical—and specifically psychological—in nature.  James’s view, in nuce, is an empirically grounded psychological claim.      

13 The one exception is a hint that James gives at the close of section II; see WB, 198.

14 Thus, while James makes a space for religion in the moral life (indeed, at the practical level he sees it as required for achieving the highest and most stable form of moral character), he does not base morality on religion, as, for instance, divine command and natural law accounts of ethics do.  In VRE, however, James will argue that religion and morality fulfill essentially the same function (which James characterizes as the achievement of the good life for human beings), but that religion fulfills this function better because it provides a more meaningful and hopeful way of viewing the world.  This is an overarching theme in VRE, but James discusses these issues most clearly in Lecture II, “Circumscription of the Topic.”

15 James makes an almost identical claim in an earlier essay, “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880), where he writes of moral inquiry and commitment that “in a question of this scope, the experience of the entire human race must make the verification, and that all the evidence will not be ‘in’ till the final integration of things, when the last man has had his say and contributed his share to the still unfinished x” (WB, 107).

16 While he is perhaps not as clear as he might have been, James seems entitled to use the term “metaphysics” here, since the existence of sentient beings and moral properties are metaphysical issues.  James is interested in what conditions need to obtain in order for morality to exist and in the basis of morality, questions which traditionally fall under the province of the metaphysics of morals.

17 One can understand James as claiming here that the moral point of view is brought into being when another person makes a claim or demand on us.  This intersubjective way of characterizing the moral point of view places James in company (though not necessarily full agreement) with philosophers as various as Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Stephen Darwall.  I thank Philip J. Ivanhoe for bringing this point to my attention. 

18 James seems to run two very different assertions together here: namely, the assertion that claims and obligations conceptually entail one another; and the assertion that claims and obligations are equivalent.  The former is the more innocuous (and strictly semantic) of the two, though James’s argument in this section of the paper also—and quite problematically—requires the latter.  I thank Erin M. Cline for helping me to clarify this point.

19 Roth, for example, has argued that the major problem with James’s moral theory is its inability to account for qualitative distinctions between claims.  See his Freedom and the Moral Life: The Ethics of William James (op. cit.), pp. 66-71.  As Roth rightly recognizes, “James’s principles can allow some highly questionable consequences.  As his principles stand, it is possible for force of numbers to dictate what is right without any serious consideration of the qualities of the choices and demands that are being made” (p. 68).  The basic problem with James’s principles, Roth notes, is that “they do not have qualitative distinctions built into them from the beginning” (p. 69).

20 What James means when he claims that God’s demands are “greatest in amount” is not entirely clear.  Does he mean this in a strictly numerical sense, i.e., that God makes more demands than any other being, or perhaps all other beings combined?  Does James perhaps mean that God’s desires and preferences are stronger or weightier than those of any other being, or perhaps all other beings combined, in which case we have a very different utilitarian calculus?  Whatever James means, it remains unclear on his account why individuals would have a reason to recognize God’s demands, or to assign those demands greater weight than the demands of other moral agents. 

21 My use of the term ‘internal reason’ is drawn from Bernard Williams’s discussion in “Internal and external reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck (1981).

22 As we saw earlier (p. 6), this state of affairs also presupposes the rejection of moral skepticism.  James does not presume that skepticism is the sort of problem that one can defeat on argumentative grounds.  He chooses to see it as a moral pathology, rather than as a moral problem.  This is a highly significant move on James’s part, I think, and it puts him in the company of a number of contemporary philosophers, including such notable names as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam (both of whom have been influenced by James in many respects, and perhaps in this one as well).  

23 The most comprehensive study to date of Mill’s “religion of humanity” is Linda C. Raeder’s John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (2002).  Mill’s use of the phrase can be found in his posthumously published essay, “The Utility of Religion,” published in Three Essays on Religion (1998); pp. 69-122.

24 James’s view that ethics can and should be a science on par with the natural sciences, and that the moral philosopher can and should “bracket” her moral ideals and commitments (see WB, 184-85), are both assumptions that many contemporary ethicists would seriously question, if not disavow.  Moreover, such a view of inquiry conflicts with another of James’s metaphilosophical views: namely, that inquiry has an irreducibly personal or “temperamental” dimension (see, e.g., “The Sentiment of Rationality” and “The Will to Believe” in WB, as well as Pragmatism).        

25 As James will later argue in such works as “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes Life Significant,” coming to grips with the fact of ethical pluralism should lead us to recognize the importance of tolerance as both an individual virtue and a social principle.  Both essays are found in TT (1899). 

26 Richard Gale defends the former interpretation, and Wesley Cooper the latter.  For Gale’s view, see The Divided Self of William James (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 25-49.  For Cooper’s, see The Unity of William James’s Thought (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002).

27 James (sensibly enough) seems to associate the fallibilism of the modern natural sciences with their claims to objectivity.  But it is not clear why ethics would be any more scientific simply by virtue of being fallible, unless there are (as in the natural sciences) real, objective facts of the matter to be discovered.  James seems to overlook this crucial condition. 

28 James actually reiterates this theme a few lines later, now insisting that ethical relations are possible not only wherever there exist two loving souls, but also in a “moral solitude”—that is, in a world where only a single thinker exists (WB, 210-11).  This is intended as a summary, and yet it represents another reversal of James’s prior claims, for here James maintains that obligation “can�.exist inside a single thinker’s consciousness” (WB, 211).  This is apparently because that single thinker can feel constrained by her conscience, and feel such emotions as regret and guilt over her moral failings.  But exactly who has been wronged in such a solitary universe, or how this solitary thinker came to be a developed moral agent, are details which remain thoroughly obscure.  James appears to be undecided between two incompatible “humanistic” accounts, the first of which sees the moral point of view as subjectively grounded, and the other as intersubjectively grounded.  The latter view is, I think, clearly the more defensible of the two.      

29 In passing, I note here that James’s claims regarding the necessary conditions for developing a “strenuous mood” bear at least a formal resemblance to Charles Taylor’s concept of “strong evaluation.”  Roughly, and in brief, Taylor’s concept of strong evaluation involves the claim that our capacities for practical reasoning and ethical agency are neither fully developed nor rightly ordered unless they are oriented around and motivated by what Taylor variously calls hypergoods or “Great goods.” These, in turn, impose an ordered structure on one’s total set of goods and ethical priorities, and provide the substance, standards, and criteria for practical reasoning and/or ethical judgment.  Such strongly valued goods, then, are constitutive features of fully developed ethical agency, and a necessary condition for having a coherent sense of self.  See Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), especially Part I.

30 In order to understand James’s comments here, it may be helpful to place them in relation to such works as “Is Life Worth Living?” (1896) and VRE (1902).  In the former piece, James argues that temperamental pessimism (which he describes as an essentially “religious disease,” and which he further identifies with Weltschmertz) can be overcome in one of two ways: either by rejecting the religious needs which cause it (and becoming a heroic sort of atheist), or by adopting certain religious over-beliefs about human beings and the world which satisfy those needs.  In VRE, however, James seems to have arrived at a somewhat different view, insofar as he now denies that non-religious persons are capable of sustaining the moral life in the long term (VRE, 45-46), and now distinguishes between different types of overbeliefs, the twice-born and once-born types.  Equally importantly, James evaluates the twice-born experience more highly than the once-born, on account of its recognition (rather than denial) of the causes which produce human suffering and a pessimistic attitude towards life (see VRE 137-38, 385).  James’s later view, expressed in VRE, seems to be that the “prometheanism” which characterizes the humanistic “athletic attitude” is ultimately inadequate in the moral life because it inevitably breaks down, and because—as James colorfully puts it—we are all “helpless failures in the last resort” without religious faith, which comes to our rescue (see VRE, 45-46; 49).  While James allows in VRE that the athletic attitude of the atheist and agnostic is a form of moral strenuousness, he does not believe that moral strenuousness can be sustained—or complete human well-being and happiness achieved—apart from religious faith (this is a dominant theme in Lecture II; see VRE, 30-50).    

31 Compare to the following passage from “The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880): “Man needs a rule for his will, and will invent one if one not be given him” (WB, 88).  James seems to expand upon this claim here, taking it in a definitely religious direction. 

32 This is an assertion on James’s part, and he does not mount an argument for it.  Undoubtedly James’s personal experience plays some role in his holding such a view, and it may even be the case that James is making a universal statement on the basis of his particular experience.  For James’s well-known description of his recovery from depression (in which an overbelief—in this case, belief in free will—plays a crucial role), see the journal entries from 1870 reprinted in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 6-8.

33 The question might arise as to whether James’s notion of an “infinite scale of values” contradicts his overbelief in a finite God.  There is no contradiction here, though, because James’s God is only finite with respect to power (i.e., God is not omniscient), and not with respect to knowledge or goodness.  On a more historical note, James gives no indication in The Moral Philosopher that his own personal over-belief (at least at the time WB was published in 1896) was in a finite God, a view which he took to be morally as well as rationally superior to the traditional theistic belief in an omnipredicate God.  Whether or not James held such a belief when he wrote the essay in 1891 is a matter for intellectual history, which is not the subject of this article, and is beyond the range of my expertise.  Readers interested in this issue should consult Levinson, 1981 and Lamberth, 1999.  I should note, however, that James’s religious views gradually shifted away from theism during the last decade of his life towards a pluralistic version of panpsychism (see Lamberth, 1999 on this issue).  As Levinson, Lamberth, Gale, and a number of other commentators have observed, James’s religious views were anything but static.   

34 “Piecemeal supernaturalism” is the name that James will later give to his “philosophic outlook” in the philosophy of religion.  See the “Postscript” to VRE, 409-14.

35 This does not, however, rule out the possibility of our acquiring such knowledge.  While James seems to give no credence to revealed theology, he does leave open the possibility that empirical knowledge of God might be gained.  In subsequent writings (and most prominently in VRE), James will come to affirm that religious and mystical experiences are avenues to supernatural knowledge of a limited but nonetheless important sort.

36 One interesting and potentially disturbing consequence of this view is that even if it were to turn out that God does not exist, we should on James’s view continue to postulate God’s existence for exigent moral and other practical reasons.  James could offer, however, a basically Kantian reply, to the effect that God’s existence or nonexistence is not susceptible either to proof or disproof; and this being the case, we needn’t worry about falling into this sort of “bad faith” in satisfying our moral psychological and agential needs.    

37 James expresses this concern explicitly in later works such as VRE and PU (1908-09).

38 Let me be clear, however, that I am not claiming that what I call “deus ex machina strategies” are somehow fallacious or unreasonable per se.  There may be cases where a strategy of this kind provides our only way of proposing an answer to a given question (say, concerning the ultimate origin of matter).  My point is that these answers are not empirically testable hypotheses (to cut James off at the pass, I should add “in the usual sense of that term”).  As such, they seem to exceed the scope of natural scientific inquiry altogether.  If this is right, then scientific and philosophical naturalists will be justified in rejecting such strategies and the answers they generate, even if those answers are not demonstrably false.   

39 For Anscombe’s well-known criticism of Kantian ethics, as well as the state of moral philosophy in her day, see “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958), reprinted in Virtue Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (1997).

40 James develops his ideas on this subject further in essays such as “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” and “What Makes a Life Significant” in TT (1899).

41 Incidentally, Kant also took theism for granted in developing his own ethical account of the metaphysical and religious postulates in the Critique of Practical Reason.   Why our practical reason should lead us to belief in God, specifically—as opposed to the kinds of beings and entities which one finds in other religious traditions—is an issue that Kant neglects altogether.  James, on the other hand, seems to provide at least a partial response in such works as The Varieties of Religious Experience and A Pluralistic Universe, where he specifies that his belief in God is his own “overbelief,” and allows that the ultimate powers or realities in the universe can be conceived differently.  James also indicates that his preference for theism is due largely to the personalistic character of this way of conceiving what he calls “the wider self.”  Presumably (though James does not say so), a personal God can sensibly provide assistance in the moral life in addition to providing objective grounds for ethics, whereas metaphysical entities like the Platonic Forms can only provide the latter.  This does nothing to settle the matter decisively in favor of monotheism, however, since a plurality of gods or other helpful and powerful beings would seem to work equally well (as, for instance, in Hinduism, or in popular Daoist and Buddhist cosmology).  I suspect that cultural inheritance plays the largest part in both Kant’s and James’s postulations of God’s existence and assistance in the moral life, though economy may also play a role: it is, after all, more economical to postulate the existence of one deity than many.  Then again, there is nothing logically necessary about Occam ‘s Razor.         

42 One might object that it is problematic to attribute a realist understanding of either a moral order or an unseen religious order to James; indeed, as we have seen in The Moral Philosopher, James seems to reject the very idea of a mind-independent moral order as implausible.  Yet, while James does not clearly endorse a realist position in The Moral Philosopher, he does clearly defend a realist interpretation of the objects of religious and mystical experience in VRE, and understands the source of our moral ideals to lie in an unseen order.  James’s pronounced religious realism extends to a version (but not necessarily a full-blown version) of moral realism here, insofar as he believes that values and ideals have a sense of reality which is not merely imagined by moral agents (see Lecture III, VRE, 51-70).  James is quite explicit on this point; indeed, one of his conclusions in VRE is that

The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely “understandable” world.  Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose.  So far as our ideal impulses originate in this region (and most of them do originate in it, for we find them possessing us in a way for which we cannot articulately account), we belong to it in a more intimate sense that that in which we belong to the visible world, for we belong in the most intimate sense wherever our ideals belong.  Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it produces effects in this world.  When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change.  But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal (VRE, 406; emphasis added).

James is too often interpreted as a thorough-going anti-realist, by both his critics and his defenders.  There are, however, a number of passages in his philosophical corpus where he explicitly denies this charge, and affirms his commitment to realism (in addition to the passage quoted above, see also MT, [106]-272, which is especially telling because it clarifies his views in Pragmatism).

43 James will later argue in VRE (Lectures IV-VIII) that natural goods, while necessary, are ultimately insufficient in the moral life and require supplementation by (indeed, grounding in) supernatural goods acquired through religious experience.  Indeed, he will claim that we are all “helpless failures in the last resort,” by which he means that we all face limitations as moral agents which can only be overcome, if at all, through a form of religious faith which is grounded in religious experience (see VRE, 45-46).  In The Moral Philosopher, however, James confines himself strictly to a discussion of the practical necessity of religious beliefs, and says nothing of religious experience or its epistemic status.  James’s religious views increasingly move in a realist direction, however, with the consequence that James will eventually argue that we are warranted in holding that some religious beliefs—including belief in supernatural goods—are true.  In the process James’s moral views move in a realistic direction as well, to the point that in the Postscript to VRE James is willing to characterize both his religious and moral views in “piecemeal supernaturalist” terms.  This represents a modification of James’s ethical theory along “piecemeal supernaturalist” lines, a fact which previous interpreters of James have failed to notice.  For an extended account of the religious dimension of James’s ethics, see my The Metaphysician and the Moral Life: Religion and Metaphysics in William James’s Ethical Thought (unpublished dissertation). 

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