The Ethics Of Value-Creation

Don Cupitt gave this talk for the 2005 National Conference, "Beyond Good and Evil: the challenge of reconciliation."

In about the year 1960, as a young curate in a South Lancashire parish, I was privileged to witness what may have been one of the last great examples of a public death, 'a good death' in the grand manner. The person in question was a redoubtable old matriarch of the parish, whose entire descent-group of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren used to assemble for lunch at her house every Sunday. Now in her late eighties, she had taken to her bed and was known to be dying. Her last important act was to summon all her ancient enemies — and they were very numerous — to her bedside and forgive them all unconditionally. It was hardly an occasion on which her enemies could argue back at her. They had no alternative but to accept her generous forgiveness of their supposed sins and slink silently away, eternally one-down. Meanwhile the old lady went off to join the Church Triumphant, eternally one-up on all her foes. They could not retaliate now. She had given checkmate, and the blame game was over. She was the victor; hers was the crown of life. That was how a Christian should die — understanding the logic of the blame game so well as to make quite sure that you die in the odour of sanctity and feeling really good, while at the same time you have ensured that everyone else is left behind feeling really bad, forever indebted to you and morally inferior.

Such is the logic of the traditional ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation. They always involve a power-struggle: somebody always comes out on top. You may say that religious people are people who are smart enough to know that in the long run it is the moral advantage that counts for most, and so are careful to be sure that they always have it. And if the old lady’s enemies felt annoyed that she had outmanoeuvred them, then it could always be pointed out to them that they too could play the same trick when their own last days came. And is it not common knowledge that everywhere people do in fact battle for the moral high ground, in a way that ensures that the dead are always morally superior to the living, as women are morally superior to men and as respectable and well-housed people are superior to those who are down and out?

The assumptions behind my example are now becoming clear. Why is it so important to die 'in a state of Grace'? Because the whole of our human life is spent in making preparations for a great court case after we die, at which our eternal destiny will be decided. We've got to ensure that our accounts are fully prepared, ready for audit, and that our reputations are spotless. We cannot afford to have any skeletons in our closets, because the soul at our Last Assize will be in the same sort of position as the defendant in a great libel case. We need to look and to be really fragrant.

But why this conception of human life, and how we should spend it? Because at the time when our religious traditions were taking shape the first legal systems were being graven on stones and codified in books. It was inevitable that thinking about morality should come to be saturated in legal metaphors. The Universe was modelled on the state, and God was its absolute Monarch. He promulgated both the laws of Nature, and also the Moral Law that governs the actions of all rational creatures. Irrational creatures obey the natural law by physical necessitation. Rational creatures are morally necessitated to obey the moral law, and are given consciences to tell them so. In addition, it was widely believed that there is at least a partial enforcement of the moral law by God even during this life, which functions to remind us of the Final Accounting that still lies ahead of us. Prudence pays; honesty is even in purely this- worldly terms already the best policy. Thus the Psalmist declares confidently:

I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread.(2)

And this claim, that human life is here and now already subject to a Moral Providence that will ultimately (and indeed, literally) have the Last Word, could still be made seriously in the eighteenth century by the celebrated Anglican apologist, Bishop Joseph Butler.(3) Which prompts a thought: in litigious countries where the legal system is very well established, people are quick to learn the art of working the system to their own advantage. And where people are similarly sure of a long-established moral and religious system which is modelled on the civil law, it is not altogether surprising that they should learn to operate the religious system to their own advantage, too. Which indeed is just what my beloved old matriarch was doing. She was playing the moral card, and in a situation in which it was her Ace of trumps. She was securing victory for herself in a power-game, the power-game that completely dominates human life, and not least amongst the religious.

To take another and much less edifying example, consider the fierce struggle for power that has dominated the life of Anglicans and others in recent decades. The Conservative Evangelicals have been playing a part rather like that of Militant and other near-Trotskyite 'entryists' in the Labour Party. They have been battling to get in and take over, and have done so by ceaselessly claiming sole legitimacy for themselves. As the hard Left claim to be the only real socialists, so the Evangelicals are in the habit of using language designed to get us all into the way of assuming that -they are the only true Christians, and even the only true Anglicans. This is odd, because the Church of England is a rather medieval type of 'broad' folk-church, a 'school for sinners', episcopally-governed and (since the Reformation) basically Lutheran. There could hardly be a Church less suitable for the Evangelicals, with their strange mixture of pop Calvinism and campfire revivalism. They notoriously have no respect at all for the authority of bishops, so why do they so much want to be bishops?

In the British situation, the answer is of course that the Evangelicals greatly covet the historic social standing and wealth of the Church of England (or what's left of it), and they are willing to play any card that will give them an advantage in their struggles for power. Homosexuality is currently proving just the right issue for them. In other areas they will play other cards, exploiting popular anxieties about medical research in order to combat the way in which doctors and life-scientists are nowadays tending to take over large areas of 'bio-ethics', and exploiting the gap between the Creeds and the results of biblical criticism in order to defeat liberal theology.

Enough. In religion there is very often a struggle for power between different factions or sects, and we seem always to find the high ground occupied by those who have most successfully appropriated to themselves the language of legitimacy. They are the Orthodox, the traditionalists, the real thing: the ones who believe what has always been believed. In Judaism, modernizers have struggled to find a word that will give them some leverage against the Orthodox majority. Different groups have called themselves Liberal, Reformed, Progressive and even 'Conservative' — but to no avail. The Orthodox remain in the saddle. Similarly in Islam the Sunnis always come first, and the Shias and all the other smaller groups will always be second. In Western Christianity the Church's patience has ensured that even in countries that were staunchly anti-Catholic for four centuries Protestantism has been slowly ground down and now comes second to Catholicism again. Morally, at least, Catholicism is back on the high ground, even in Britain and Holland.

Both within the Churches and in the larger world outside them, what is rather optimistically called 'morality' plays a prominent part in battles for social prestige and authority. Within the Churches, especially in rural areas, the remaining faithful are all too often people whose religion and morality functions to make their armoured self-satisfaction still more impenetrable. Outside the Churches, everyone will have noticed that morality is nearly always preached downwards. Those who are relatively more old, rich and socially- secure deliver moral lectures to those who are younger, poorer and less long-resident. The old, rich and powerful not only always assume their own moral superiority; they keep on and on reminding us of it. Moral talk rarely has much effect upon its audience, because its real purpose is to make the speaker feel even more self-satisfied. Both in religion and in ethics, people's biggest need is for a strong subjective assurance of moral justification or legitimacy. In religion I want to be really sure that I am one of God's Elect, and in morality I want to be quite sure that my morality is the only really moral morality; that I really am better than my neighbour. That's the function of moral realism, the belief in objective moral absolutes out there. The thing out there that faith clings to, and that underwrites our moral judgements, functions to give people a kind of cosmic legitimation that they crave more than anything, that they have always had, and which they will not give up freely.

Our discussion so far indicates what Nietzsche meant by using the phrase 'beyond good and evil'. He rightly thought that our moral discourse is full of false beliefs, illusions, awkward leftovers from the past, and dirty tricks. Morality is, very often, not something ultimate in our lives, but a fig leaf; a tool in our power-games as the playwright Bernard Shaw used to say so clearly through his plays. That is why the whole subject of moral philosophy has become a morass, so difficult that it is one of the least-developed and most obscure territories in the whole of philosophy. Only a handful of philosophers have ever succeeded in making any significant contribution to it at all. (I'd say Aristotle, Spinoza, Bentham, Hegel. Nietzsche and Foucault, but I'm probably asking for trouble.) By urging us to take up a standpoint ‘beyond good and evil', Nietzsche is saying that we should look at the various competing human moralities as if from outside, and in a cool and critical spirit. We should question the morality of morality. What good does it do? Will these teachings really help us to conduct our common life more successfully? Does our morality really succeed in making our life seem to us more worth while?

Good questions; and they are the reason why over the past decades I have tried to work out a moral philosophy of my own that gives answers to them. I’ll give a very brief sketch of a few of my ideas, and you may find them very odd: but you must remember that I find all the more orthodox moralities and justifications of morality to be unbearably obscure, and often repulsive. I have felt that I must be as radical in ethics as I notoriously am in doctrine.


Before sketching my own ideas about how we should see morality, I must briefly mention a second large background fact. Moral discourse in our tradition has not only been heavily influenced by legal metaphors; it has also been much influenced by Jewish and Christian apocalyptic myths, which have pictured the world and our life in terms of a cosmic struggle between the Principles of Good and Evil. The Christian was a soldier, and the Church on earth was 'Militant'. (It was 'Expectant' in Purgatory and, as we saw earlier, 'Triumphant' in Heaven.) The persistence of this mythology still to this day encourages moral realism and moral dualism, as when people focus upon an Evil Empire out there, an enemy to confront that gives purpose to their lives. 'We are the good people, who with God's help will struggle against this evil Power and will prevail'. But what we observers notice is that where this style of thinking is influential morality tends to be led by an urgent (and very expensive) quest to identify, hunt down and destroy 'evil'. Reactive, negative emotions become very prominent, and the typical moralist is the crusader, the witch hunter, the purity campaigner, and the embittered victim

My own account, as you will soon see, does not contain anything of that kind, because I have been attempting to describe a purely-affirmative ethics of value that simply does without ideas of sin, evil, warfare, punishment, vindication and so on. I have felt that above all I must try to cut out of my ethics all the stuff that poisons the soul.(4)

Why? Because modern ethics is no longer a struggle to appear righteous in the eyes of one’s neighbours, and no longer a cosmic battle against evil supernatural Powers. It is first and foremost a struggle for value, a struggle against nihilism, a struggle against the pervasive feeling that our life is worthless, meaningless, brief and insignificant. The first task of ethics today is to make life feel worth living.

Our ethics then must be rooted in our own being as biological organisms who are perpetually appetitive, questing, with a strong appetite for experience and an urgent interest in life. In us emotion flows all the time, and reacts at once and very sensitively to everything we come across. We are not pure thinkers at all: on the contrary, our first response to each thing is a very delicately-attuned feeling-response, favourable or unfavourable. We may call this response an evaluation, because I am suggesting that all our experience is coloured by our likes and dislikes, by extremely varied and delicately-adjusted feelings. And when language enters; when we classify and interpret our experience by putting it into words — then our primitive feeling-responses to experience are carried over into our language, and every description of things and events carries with it some evaluative overtones, tilting our sympathy one way or the other.

Now, our language includes a sort of inventory of our world. All the kinds of experience, processes, situations and things that together make up our life-world are duly represented in our language. And because the ways we instinctively and immediately feel about everything come to be associated with and to flavour all our words, our language not only contains a comprehensive evaluation of our life as we presently experience it, but also, because it is our inherited language, our language tends to teach us our culture — a culture being an inherited traditional evaluation of life. The flavours annexed to words suggest to us how we should behave towards everything we come across.

Does this mean that our culture — that is, our inherited language — pre-programmes us to respond to, to evaluate, and to treat everything exactly as it prescribes? No, not at all, for because we are ourselves living and changing beings, we are always slightly modifying our received language, and therewith also adjusting our received valuations of things, as we go along. Thus our language is our culture, and is our overall evaluation of life. As we learn it, it shapes our feelings and helps us to build and to colour up our common world. But our feeling-life is not mechanical and automatic: we are living beings, always changing, and we never exactly repeat the previous generation's world-view, feelings and way of life. On the contrary, our culture, our language, our feeling-life, and the world itself, are all transactional; that is, they are being renegotiated and evolving every day. In life, everything changes a little all the time — and we are part of it all.

Thus our language gives us a choice. We may accept and go along with the received current evaluations of things, and so fit in with and accept the conventional wisdom. But it quite often happens that we disagree with the current evaluation of something that is coded into the way it is currently spoken of. We feel that it has been unjustly given a bad name. It is underestimated. In which case, we can argue for a change in the vocabulary that is used to describe that thing. During the 1960s, as people first realized all these points, there were successful campaigns to alter somewhat the vocabulary in which we all of us habitually spoke of—and therefore acted towards — women, homosexual men, black people and many other groups who had long been linguistically stigmatized. And mention of the 1960s reminds me that it was indeed during that period that we all of us gradually learnt to think about morality in the new way that I am describing — i.e. as human, as transactional, as embedded in language, and as changeable by consent, through public debate and linguistic change.

This new way of thinking about ethics is anti-realist, for it makes ethics human, and grounds it in our flickering and ever-changing life of feeling. Nothing in ethics needs to be thought of as 'absolute' or as 'eternal': on the contrary, everything in ethics is immanent, human and in principle revisable. All of which shows us that we have found here our answer to the problem of nihilism. Ever since the days of Galileo and Descartes it has been thought that orthodox scientific method is by far the best and most powerful way to knowledge that human beings have ever devised — and that it pictures the Universe as a value-free zone, a huge, dead machine with no immanent purposiveness at all. From Pascal onwards people complained of feeling threatened by nihilism, until eventually Nietzsche announced its arrival. For him — for Nietzsche, that is — the end of moral realism is the decisive point. We now know that 'the moral interpretation of the world' was an illusion. There is no hidden force for good secretly at work out there. We are alone. Nobody cares; and when we become extinct — which we now fear may actually happen within a couple of centuries or less — the Universe won't even notice our absence.

The new ethical theory that I have been describing proposes an answer to all this. True, the world-view of natural science is value-neutral; but the human life-world, which for us is our world and the primary world, is steeped in evaluations. An evaluation is a human feeling-response of liking or dislike. Everything has a value-colouration of one sort or another, and we humans in the world of everyday life are constantly comparing and sharing our valuations of things.

To see how nihilism is conquered in everyday life, let us continue the exposition of our post-1960s ethics of value-creation.

The fear that our whole life is ultimately meaningless and worthless is partly based, as we have seen, on the belief that science is by far the best way to knowledge we've got, coupled with the fact that the scientific world-picture does not find any purposiveness or values in the world. But there is also the fact that the Augustinian Christianity, which was dominant amongst both Catholics and Protestants until the late seventeenth century, took such a very gloomy view of human nature and of this world. In retrospect, it was horrible. It located almost all goodness, beauty and happiness in the eternal world, and portrayed our ordinary human life as utterly wretched. When people began to lose faith in the eternal world, they had nothing left but what the Book of Common Prayer (1662) describes as 'the miseries of this sinful world' — i.e., nihilism; for we can now see that nihilism is an artificial bogey, something that was constructed by Augustinian Christianity in order to frighten us into holding on to realistic theism and supernatural faith.

... always keep hold of nurse For fear of finding something worse.

So during the early modern period — roughly, the period of our Tudor monarchs — we inherited from the Middle Ages a life-world that looked rather shabby and dismal. Since then there has been a long, hard struggle to upgrade the life-world, and learn how to enjoy life. We have struggled to redeem the world and this life by slowly revaluing and upgrading (for example) time, matter, the body. Nature, the senses, the emotions, women and human love. And it is against this background that I formulate my version of the moral task. For the sake of the general happiness, we should teach people to value every aspect of the body, this life, each person, and this world as highly as is self-consistently possible. We should try to be generous, and should do as little denouncing, condemning, disparaging and judging as we can. We should look at what the study of natural history, for example, has done to differentiate, diversify and enrich the perceived natural world, and should do likewise. The life-world is maximally enriched and beautified for all if each individual does her bit to love and care for her own corner of it. Individually and collectively, we are all of us happier when we value life and the life-world highly, so it is rational to pursue as life-affirming an ethical policy as possible.

In our world a very great number of people consider themselves to be members of badly-treated minorities. Such people seem to devote much of their time to brooding over ancient wrongs, and nourishing grudges, grievances and dreams of bloody revenge. To do this poisons the soul, and to such people I say: 'Leave your ethnic group, your victimized minority! Leave them! The true conquest of evil and nihilism is simply the practice of magnanimity. Try to be as consistently affirmative as possible, and try to avoid any complaining. Do not get into disputes, or seek compensation. Instead, just try to cherish and enrich your corner of the world, and so contribute something to the whole human scene. Create value! Value is saving Grace!'

This may seem a very simple-minded and thin injunction, but you must remember that I am a non-realist. We, and only we, have the responsibility for building our world and making our own lives seem to us to be meaningful and valuable. The world as such, and independently of us, does not contain any ready-made, pre-existent moral facts, and does not prescribe any ready-made ethical theory to us. In the matter of ethics, we are not given anything. There is no divinely-revealed moral code, the physical universe does not have any natural moral law built into it, and our conscience is a cultural creation which is not at all a reliable moral guide. There are no ready-made human rights or absolute obligations that just present themselves to us. The moral order is not a ready-made, intelligible system out there, which we are predesigned to live in. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we invented all the strange jumble of moral theories that we have inherited, and I say that most of them are not very good. So I am proposing only a very liberal moral theory that says that it is rational for us all to pick out and follow practices that will enhance our life's perceived value and our overall enjoyment of it. To that end we should all love life and try to live it to the full — which is what ordinary language nowadays recommends to us. We should try to raise the value of our own corner of the world by making a habit of avoiding the negative emotions — ressentiment(5) and so on — and cultivating as generous and affirmative an outlook as we can. This will involve valuing each person and each aspect of the world and of our life as highly as is self-consistently possible. Then, leave it at that. Don't discuss sin: forget the word. Just get on with redeeming the world, by revaluing it.

This is a very general prescription, and people may carry it out in a great variety of different ways. But then, I have sought to avoid any picture of morality as a standard, one-size-fits-all burden of duties, commandments and prohibitions, to be imposed upon everybody alike. On the contrary, I have borne in mind the great diversity of modern people and modern society. I have argued that we should see morality in the age of nihilism as a creative, productive task, the task of creating value and making life precious and happy for all. This is a task which people can discharge in a great variety of ways through their jobs, their hobbies, their loves and so on. The emphasis is upon value-creation and diversification. In the age of nihilism we do best to see the task of religion and morality as being celebratory, and like art.

A last point. My account has been rather unsystematic, and I see that Nigel Leaves, in his recent book, describes me as having had about five worthwhile ideas about ethics this last thirty or forty years, without ever developing much of a system. That is, I don't really succeed in unifying either the moral order itself, or the human moral life, in quite the way that Plato taught us to expect.

I think I can't apologize for this, because in my view we did not appear on earth to find a ready-made moral order waiting for us, like a house to be lived in. On the contrary, human beings have had to start from scratch. We have produced many moralities, and we have made many attempts to codify them. But today our received moral traditions look a bit of a muddle. Nothing guarantees that a convincing and coherent account of the moral order is just sitting out there waiting for someone to come along and spell it out. And although most of us would like to have a reasonably coherent and consistent moral life-policy and form of selfhood, nothing guarantees that a fully-unified and saintly human selfhood is ever going to be achievable. We are not given any ready-made unity of all values, or of all the virtues. The best we can do is to raise our own spirits by doing what we can do to inject enough meaning and value into life to make the world beautiful and life worth living.

It follows that — like George Eliot, I think(6) — I have to admit that we can't aim quite as high as the saints in the past. But I can claim that something very good and worthwhile remains within reach.


1 I confess to having used this anecdote before, in Leo Howe and Alan Wain, edd., Predicting the Future, Cambridge University Press 1993, p. 169. But it is still true, and very apposite here.

2 Psalm 37:25.

3 Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 1736.

4 In what follows I draw upon ideas first put forward in The New Christian Ethics, London: SCM Press 1987. Notice that I make ethics thoroughly subjective and emotive. We, and we only, put the values into life by the ways in which we feel about things.

5 Nietzsche's word, used by him to epitomize the 'reactive' emotions.

6 In her preface to Middlemarch, 1872.

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