Process and Morality

[M]orality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral. […] Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history (MT 14-15).

It is through passages such as this that we are reminded of just how radical and far-reaching Whitehead’s thought can be. Whereas traditional ethical theories limit morality to the relations between human beings, Whitehead seems committed to a fundamentally different model. Yet despite the longstanding consensus among process scholars that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism provides an ideal ground for a rich moral philosophy, particularly one encompassing ecological concerns, there is a relative dearth of scholarship on the topic. What is more, among those who do engage in such scholarship, there seems to be no agreement as to how to classify Whitehead’s ethics, which has at different times been labeled, among other things, a moral interest theory, a totalizing form of utilitarianism, and a virtue ethic.[1] Some have even suggested that Whitehead’s metaphysics is consistent with a deontological approach (e.g. Lango 2001). Given the diversity of such conflicting interpretations, one might well wonder whether Whitehead can even be said to have a moral philosophy. In this essay, my primary aim is to bring clarity to the debate over Whitehead’s ethics by systematically examining Whitehead’s own scattered remarks on morality. I will demonstrate that, although he may not have systematically elaborated a complete moral philosophy, he did indeed affirm a model of morality that is every bit as unique, fallible, and speculative as his metaphysics.

1. The Paradox of Morality

Though scattered references to morality can be found throughout his post-London works, Whitehead does not turn his attention directly to the nature of morality until Modes of Thought (1938). Here we find that, in rather stark contrast to much of modern and contemporary moral philosophy, Whitehead rejects the view that morality can be distilled into absolute, unchanging moral laws, arguing that “[t]here is no one behavior system belonging to the essential character of the universe, as the universal moral ideal” (MT 14). Yet, without qualification, this claim is likely to be misunderstood to imply some form of gross relativism. In that Whitehead’s position grows out of his general rejection of a static conception of reality, it is helpful to consider his position on moral codes in the same light as his repudiation of independent substances.

While it is well known that Whitehead rejects the explanatory adequacy of the substantial view of individuals, we must not forget that he fully recognizes that it is unavoidable and even important that the human mind think of things in terms of substance and quality. For “without these ways of thinking we could not get our ideas straight for daily use” (SMW 52). Thus, for Whitehead the problem is not the mere fact that we perceive the world in terms of substantial individuals—this is both unavoidable and practically important—but that we fail to recognize “that we are presenting ourselves with simplified editions of immediate matters of fact” (SMW 52). This inappropriate substitution of the abstract for the concrete is the essence of what Whitehead calls the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Ultimately, then, the violation of this fallacy does not result from the mere employment of the word “substance,” but from taking, whether consciously or unconsciously, independence rather than interconnection as ontologically ultimate (e.g. PR 79).

Whitehead’s rejection of moral codes should be seen in a similar light. By carrying us beyond “our own direct immediate insights,” abstract moral codes are “useful, and indeed essential, for civilization. […] But we only weaken their influence by exaggerating their status” (MT 14). Thus, Whitehead does not reject moral codes per se. What he rejects is the notion that one could achieve a timeless expression of moral obligation. Pushed beyond the environment for which it was designed, a moral code becomes nothing more than a “vacuous statement of abstract irrelevancies” (MT 13). Ultimately, then, the problem with the idea of absolute moral codes is that they presuppose a static conception of reality. If reality were static, then it would, in principle, be possible to formulate a moral code that described how one ought always to act. However, in light of our dynamic and processive cosmos, such a static formulation is unavailable.

In this way, moral laws are analogous to physical laws. Just as physical laws are those “forms of activity which happen to prevail within the vast epoch of activity which we dimly discern” (MT 87; cf. MT 143, 155), moral codes are those patterns of behavior that are likely to promote the “evolution” of a given environment toward its “proper perfection” (AI 292). Moral and physical laws are not, therefore, timeless expressions of absolute verities.[2] Just as new experiments may force the revision and reinterpretation of physical laws, the emergence of new forms of social order will inevitably require the revision and refinement of our moral laws. In keeping with the dynamic and processive nature of reality, therefore, morality must always remain open to improvement (AI 290). In this way, the true foe of morality is not change, but “stagnation” (AI 269).[3]

Yet in the effort to avoid dogmatism, Whitehead recognizes that we must be equally wary of embracing the opposite extreme and rejecting all moral codes for some form of pure relativism or subjectivism. Novel and intense experiences are only achievable within a sufficiently stable environment. Law and order, for instance, are critical to the functioning of complex human communities. The problem, however, is that too often the conservative becomes obstructionist, particularly in debates over morality. As Whitehead notes in an uncharacteristically harsh passage, “it is true that the defense of morals is the battle-cry which best rallies stupidity against change. Perhaps countless ages ago respectable amœbæ refused to migrate from ocean to dry land—refusing in defence of morals” (AI 268). In attempting to defend absolute, unchanging moral laws, the “pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe” (AI 274). Thus, morality must be at once conservative and adventurous. Morality requires that we intrepidly revise our moral laws in light of new forms of order, while simultaneously preventing relapse to “lower levels.” This is what Whitehead calls the “paradox concerning morals” (AI 269).

At its best, then, morality concerns itself not with codifying certain behaviors, but with the formulation of moral ideals which serve to inspire and challenge. “In ethical ideals we find the supreme example of consciously formulated ideas acting as a driving force effecting transitions from social state to social state. Such ideas are at once gadflies irritating, and beacons luring, the victims among whom they dwell” (AI 17-18).Thus perhaps the most important function of moral philosophy is in formulating, testing, and revising our moral ideals. Given this understanding, let us turn to Whitehead’s own formulation of the aim of morality.

2. The Perfection of Importance

One of the first things one is likely to notice regarding the opening quotation is how broadly Whitehead paints the scope of morality. Whereas for traditional ethical theories the only relations that are morally significant are inter-human relations, for Whitehead, “[t]he destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral” (MT 14). To understand this initially surprising claim, let us briefly examine Whitehead’s unique conception of value.

It is difficult to find a system that gives a more central role to value than Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. For Whitehead, to be actual is to have value. Every individual—no matter how fleeting or insignificant—has value “for its own sake” (MT 109). However, if it is to be properly understood, this claim must be put within the larger context of Whitehead’s organic conception of individuality and its rejection of independent existence. In our processive cosmos, every individual begins from and is partially constituted by the achieved values of the past and completes itself by rendering its relationship to each of these past values determinate either by eliminating them (negative prehension) or by incorporating them into itself by repeating their felt value intensity (positive prehension). Hence, an individual is what it is because it is internally and essentially related to other achieved values (SMW 194). This process constitutes the ultimate fact of existence: “the many become one and are increased by one.” For Whitehead, therefore, an individual’s self-value cannot be taken in isolation from the value it contributes to others and to the whole. The notion that “[e]verything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole” not only characterizes “the very meaning of actuality,” it is by reason of this fact that “the conception of morality arises” (MT 111).

In this way we arrive at a sense of how broadly Whitehead conceives of the scope of morality. In contradistinction to the long-held conception of ethics as being limited to inter-human relationships, Whitehead affirms a conception of morality that excludes nothing from its scope. In a universe in which every individual is intrinsically valuable, nothing can be wholly excluded from our moral concern. Every action is potentially moral or immoral. Given this triadic conception of value, then, the important question is not whether others have intrinsic value, but whether the intrinsic value of oneself, of others and of the whole is recognized, appreciated, and affirmed. For Whitehead, this defines the essence of morality:

Morality consists in the control of process so as to maximize importance. It is the aim at greatness of experience in the various dimensions belonging to it. […] Morality is always the aim at that union of harmony, intensity, and vividness which involves the perfection of importance for that occasion (MT 13-14).

It is on the interpretation of this definition, which Whitehead himself notes is “difficult to understand,” that most of the scholarship on Whitehead’s ethics has focused. In particular, it was Paul Arthur Schilpp’s 1941 Library of Living Philosopher’s essay, “Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy,” that established the context for the interpretation of Whitehead’s ethics in the twentieth century. Thus, Schilpp’s essay is an apt point of departure for our own analysis.

The argument that most concerns us at present is Schilpp’s claim that Whitehead reduces importance to “interest” and that, therefore, Whitehead’s moral philosophy should be classified as a “moral interest theory.” “Unless the essential meaning of Whitehead’s notion of ‘importance’ has been missed,” Schilpp contends, “there have appeared no sufficiently adequate reasons for accepting this doctrine of the subordination of morals under ‘importance’” (Schilpp 1951, 610). The question, then, is whether Schilpp’s characterization of importance is accurate. Does Whitehead make importance equivalent to interest? A closer examination of Whitehead’s work reveals that this interpretation is unduly narrow.

In his first lecture of Modes of Thought, which was dedicated to the topic of importance, Whitehead defines importance in a particularly broad way:

Importance is a generic notion which has been obscured by the overwhelming prominence of a few of its innumerable species. The terms morality, logic, religion, art, have each of them been claimed as exhausting the whole meaning of importance. Each of them denotes a subordinate species. But the genus stretches beyond any finite group of species (MT 11).

Insofar as morality, logic, religion, and art are merely a handful of the “innumerable species” of importance, we must take Whitehead’s use of the term in a much wider and more fundamental sense than mere “interest.” Indeed, Whitehead himself explicitly states that he understood importance to extend beyond interest: “there are two aspects to importance; one based on the unity of the Universe, the other on the individuality of the details. The word interest suggests the latter aspect; the word importance leans toward the former” (MT 8, author’s emphases). Given critics’ claims to the contrary, it is ironic that Whitehead intentionally chose the term importance because it emphasized the unity of the universe, rather than the interests of individuals. The problem, as Whitehead himself recognizes, is that “the word importance, as in common use, has been reduced to suggest a silly little pomposity which is the extreme trivialization of its meaning here. This is a permanent difficulty of philosophic discussion; namely, that words must be stretched beyond their common meanings in the marketplace” (MT 12). Yet if importance is not limited to interest, then how does Whitehead conceive of it?

A closer analysis of Modes of Thought demonstrates that Whitehead makes importance equivalent not to interest, but to value. For instance, as we see in the following selections, Whitehead uses both importance and value to describe what is attained by actuality: “Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience” (MT 116); and “Actuality is the self-enjoyment of importance” (MT 117). Similarly, as the following passages suggest, both importance and value have the same triadic structure of the self, other and whole: “But the sense of importance is not exclusively referent to the experiencing self. It is exactly this vague sense which differentiates itself into the disclosure of the whole, the many, and the self” (MT 117); and “Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality” (MT 111). Finally, Whitehead also describes morality in terms of both value and importance: “Morality is the control of process so as to maximize importance” (MT 13-14); and “Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole[…]. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises” (MT 111). Thus, value and importance have the same structure and equally characterize morality and actuality. Because of this, I contend that for Whitehead value and importance are ontologically interchangeable.[4]

In this way we can begin to understand just how much Whitehead intends to “stretch” the common usage of importance. He conceives of importance as not only the aim of morality, but of every process. “The generic aim of process is the attainment of importance, in that species and to that extent which in that instance is possible” (MT 12, emphasis added). This passage gives us a crucial insight into the relationship between Whitehead’s systematically developed metaphysics and his nascent moral philosophy. If the general aim of process is at the attainment of importance and value, then morality, as a particular species of process, must necessarily aim at the attainment of importance and value as well. Morality, then, is but one species of the process of the universe, the whole of which aims at the attainment of importance.

Given that it is not appropriate to define Whitehead’s moral philosophy as a moral interest theory, how are we to understand his conception of morality as “the control of process so as to maximize importance”? Given that he defines morality as but one instance of the universal drive to maximize importance and value, perhaps Whitehead affirmed some form of totalizing utilitarianism? It is this view, put forward by Clare Palmer in her Environmental Ethics and Process Thinking (1998), that has served as the context for much of the recent debate over the possible value of Whitehead’s ethics.

The heart of Palmer’s position lies in her understanding that, for process thinkers such as Whitehead, “The ultimate aim of ethical behaviour is to produce the greatest possible value for the consequent nature of God” (Palmer 1998, 15). If all ethical behavior and all value is to be understood only in terms of how it contributes to God, then morality becomes the maximization of a certain form of experience (value, beauty, importance) for God. Thus, like utilitarianism, one ought always to choose that course of action which maximizes utility/happiness/value for the relevant entity, which, in our processive cosmos, is God. Given this interpretation, Palmer concludes that, “Value is contributory; God sums the value generated by actual occasions and within Himself; the system must therefore be consequentialist and totalizing” (1998, 213). By reducing an individual’s value to its possible contribution to God’s experience, Palmer argues, Whitehead constructs a totalizing form of utilitarianism and is, therefore, subject to the same concerns regarding, for instance, justice.

Palmer is certainly correct that any Whiteheadian moral philosophy will have a strong consequentialist element. Our aim is to bring about “that union of harmony, intensity, and vividness which involves the perfection of importance for that occasion” (MT 14). Where Palmer’s interpretation shoots wide of its mark, however, is in suggesting that Whitehead’s thought leads to a totalizing form of utilitarianism. This position ultimately rests on her understanding that, for process thought, “What matters is the generation of rich experience for God” (Palmer 1998, 15). The problem is that, while this interpretation of process thought, referred to as “contributionism,” plays a prominent role in process theology, it is doubtful that Whitehead ever held such a view.[5] Yes, every individual has value for the whole but, Whitehead insists, an individual’s value for the whole cannot be separated from the value it has for itself and for others. Each part of this axiological triad of self, other and whole equally characterizes actuality. “These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other” (MT 116-17). Yet if morality aims at the maximization of importance and value, but value is understood to extend not merely to the self but to others (the past actual occasions in an occasion’s actual world) and to the whole (the totality of achieved occasions), then it becomes impossible to interpret Whitehead’s moral philosophy as a totalizing form of utilitarianism aimed at maximizing intense experience for God.[6] Moral behavior aims to maximize the value experience not only of the whole or God, but also of every individual for its own sake and for the sake of its community.

Yet if Whitehead’s moral philosophy is neither a moral interest theory nor a totalizing utilitarianism, how are we to classify it? First, given the equivalence of actuality and value, the scope of morality may exclude nothing. Any action may be moral or immoral. “Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history” (MT 15). Second, the primary task of moral philosophy is not the divination of apodictic codes of behavior but the development and revision of ideals that seek to lure, rather than coerce.

As Whitehead conceives of it, the ideal of morality is to maximize or perfect the importance and value experience for the self, for others, and for the whole. Morality, like every process, aims at the attainment of value. In this sense we have found that—contrary to the contemporary ethical offspring of modern metaphysical projects—the aim and nature of morality grows out of and is continuous with the aim and nature of the creative advance of the universe. Morality is but one species of process, the whole of which aims at the attainment of value and importance. Yet there is one essential component of Whitehead’s conception of morality that has to this point been overlooked: his controversial claim that morality is ultimately an aspect of aesthetics. It is this claim that is at once the most distinctive and, for some, troubling element of Whitehead’s unique conception of morality.

3. Whitehead’s Æsthetics of Morals

Throughout much of his metaphysical work we find Whitehead repeating two central claims regarding beauty: first, the aim of the universe is at the production of beauty; and second, morality is an “aspect” of aesthetics. For instance, as early as his 1926 Lowell Lectures, Religion in the Making, we find Whitehead claim that “All order is […] aesthetic order, and the moral order is merely certain aspects of aesthetic order” (RM 105). Though a discussion of beauty is notably absent from Process and Reality (1929),in Adventures of Ideas (1933) Whitehead expands on his earlier claims, arguing that “The teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty. Thus any system of things which in any wide sense is beautiful is to that extent justified in its existence” (AI 265). “The real world is good, [therefore,] when it is beautiful” (AI 268). These claims are once again repeated in one of his last monographs, Modes of Thought (1938), where he argues: “The final actuality has the unity of power. The essence of power is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake. […] There is no other fact. […] It constitutes the drive of the universe” (MT 119). At first encounter many are likely to chafe at such claims. Does Whitehead really mean to argue that all forms of order are aesthetic? Why would he give such a prominent role to beauty? Furthermore, does he really intend to reduce ethics to aesthetics? How are we to interpret these claims?

Though notable in their absence from Palmer’s assessment of process thought, Whitehead’s characterizations of beauty are not overlooked by Schilpp, who does not hesitate to accuse Whitehead of a vicious aestheticism. While both ethics and aesthetics involve value judgments and value experience, he argues, this structural similarity is an insufficient justification for reducing the one (ethics) to the other (aesthetics). There are, Schilpp insists, “sufficient differences, both of kind and in number, between the two types of value judgment and value experience to warrant a rather precise method of differing analysis, procedure, and conclusion for the two areas” (Schilpp 1951, 615). Because Schilpp conceives of these substantial differences between ethics and aesthetics, he sees the subsumption of ethics under aesthetics as a “disastrous reduction.” “After all,” Schilpp argues, “morality is not beauty, though the moral life—like a lot of other things—may be beautiful; but it is not the fact that it is beautiful which makes it moral” (1951, 615).

If correct, Schilpp’s criticism would seem to seriously undermine the viability and appeal of Whitehead’s moral philosophy. Thus to avoid the charge of aestheticism perhaps we should join Lynne Belaief, who in Toward a Whiteheadian Ethics argues that “the apparent identity of ethical concepts with the basic aesthetic analysis is only apparent, Whitehead [is] being intentionally metaphorical when using the language of aesthetics to apply to ethical phenomena, except in the justifiable case when he is discussing the generic origin of moral experience” (1984, 53; italics added).[7] Initially, Belaief’s position seems very appealing. For if we interpret Whitehead’s statements as being merely metaphorical, the danger of aestheticism subsides. Yet, as a closer analysis reveals, Belaief’s position comes at a high price.

The problem with Belaief’s solution is that Whitehead’s claim that the good is an aspect of the beautiful follows directly from his more basic commitment to the view that every process aims at the achievement of beauty (AI 265; MT 119). Every process represents some finite achievement of beauty. Thus, if, following Belaief, we argue that Whitehead is merely being metaphorical, then we commit ourselves to the untenable position that morality has an aim and structure different from that of the rest of the creative advance. For in making morality into an inexplicable anomaly, we risk irreparably rupturing the coherence of Whitehead’s system. We are forced, therefore, to take seriously Whitehead’s claims regarding the foundational relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Yet, in doing so, have we not granted that he is guilty of a vicious aestheticism as Schilpp contends? How are we to maintain the coherence of Whitehead’s system while avoiding the potentially serious charge of aestheticism?

The problem, I contend, is not with Whitehead’s alleged aestheticism, but in critics’ attenuated conception of beauty. As I have argued more fully elsewhere, Whitehead’s conception of beauty is far more rich and complex than the common usage of the term (Henning 2002, 71-114). Just as creativity is the fundamental process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one,” Whitehead defines beauty as the achievement of a “miraculous balance” wherein “[t]he whole displays its component parts, each with its own value enhanced; and the parts lead up to a whole, which is beyond themselves, and yet not destructive of themselves” (MT 62). For Whitehead, every process aims at the achievement of beauty in the sense that it aims at achieving an ideal balance between harmony, which concerns the greatest possible variety of detail with effective contrast, and intensity, which concerns the comparative magnitude or depth of the contrasts achieved. In this sense, there is no strictly unbeautiful experience. Actuality is, to use a phrase coined by Frederick Ferré, inherently kalogenic or beauty generating (Ferré 1996, 340). “Beauty is […] the one aim which by its very nature is self-justifying” (AI 266). Moreover, in defining it in this way we also come to understand the relationship between beauty, importance and value. In that each is at various times taken to be the aim of both process and morality, beauty, importance, and value are ultimately coextensive. Every individual represents a finite achievement of beauty, importance, and value for itself, for others and for the whole.

Given this metaphysically rich understanding of beauty, it becomes possible to affirm that ethics is a species of aesthetics, but in a non-reductive sense. For to do so is simply to regard morality as a process continuous with the creative advance of the universe as a whole. Indeed, given that the universe itself aims at the attainment of beauty, importance, and value, as a particular form of process, morality must be a species of aesthetics. It is in this sense that we should understand Whitehead’s claim that “The real world is good when it is beautiful” (AI 268). Insofar as every process aims at the achievement of beauty, the conditions of beauty are the conditions of maximally effective processes in general, and, by extension, of morality. In this way aesthetics can serve as a bridge from Whitehead’s rich metaphysics of creativity to the development of a fully fledged ethics of creativity. It is this insight that guides my own interpretation and use of Whitehead’s moral philosophy.

In The Ethics of Creativity I seek to systematically articulate an organic ethical paradigm grounded in Whitehead’s rich aesthetico-metaphysics of process by developing the moral implications of a kalocentric conception of reality. Our most basic moral obligation, I argue, is the “obligation of beauty” or the obligation to act in such a way to affirm the greatest possible universe of beauty, value, and importance which we can see (Henning 2005a, 146).

Given that even a brief analysis of this position is not possible here, we may instead examine one of the more novel aspects of this approach: its depiction of the relationship between an individual’s value and individual’s moral significance. In rather stark contrast to mainstream contemporary philosophy, process scholars continue to maintain (rightly I would argue) that every individual is equal in having value, but that every individual does not have value equally. Thus, process thought affirms what Ferré aptly calls a “multidimensional continuum” of beauty and value (1996, 374). Yet it is this retention of what is perceived to be hierarchical thinking that leads many moral philosophers, e.g., deep ecologists, to shy away from Whitehead’s work. After all, hierarchical thinking has too often led to the subjugation and destruction of “less valuable” individuals. However the problem, I suggest, is not with the notion of degrees of value per se. Rather, hierarchical thinking is invidious when an individual’s degree of value determines its moral significance, as in the argument: “Individual A is less valuable than individual B. Therefore, A may be sacrificed in instances of conflict with B.” The problem with this argument, I contend, is not in the premises, but in the conclusion. I argue that while the depth of beauty and value achieved by an individual (its “onto-aesthetic status”) is relevant in determining its moral significance, an individual’s onto-aesthetic status does not strictly constitute its moral significance. In an ethics of creativity we find that our obligation is not simply to give preference to “higher-order” individuals, but to maximize the beauty achievable in a given situation. This is what is referred to as the “obligation of peace” or the obligation to avoid destroying another individual, unless not doing so threatens the achievement of the greatest degree of harmony and intensity which in that situation is possible (cf. Henning 2005a, 146). Accordingly, depending on the situation, it is not only possible but likely that meeting this obligation will require sacrifice on the part of “more valuable” individuals. For the most beautiful whole achievable is often not in keeping with the perceived needs of, for instance, humans. In this way, by insisting that our moral obligation is to affirm the greatest possible universe of beauty, value, and importance which in each situation we can see, the ethics of creativity is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric: it is kalocentric.

Despite the numerous attempts to do so, in the end, we find that Whitehead’s moral philosophy does not fit neatly into traditional moral categories. Indeed, in an important sense, it is this very approach which has most undermined previous attempts to evaluate Whitehead’s ethics. Perhaps because of the relative paucity and abstruseness of the material, instead of asking “What is Whitehead’s ethics?” most commentators begin instead by asking “What is Whitehead’s ethics like?” For instance, in calling for the “maximizationof importance,” perhaps it is like utilitarianism, or like moral interest theory? Or, since it affirms the irreplaceable uniqueness of every individual, maybe it is like deontology? Clearly there is a sense in which such comparisons are helpful. After all, it is not uncommon for scholars to approach Whitehead’s notoriously difficult metaphysics by asking how it is like or unlike the systems of Leibniz, Locke, or Plato. Moreover, Whitehead himself regularly makes such comparisons. While initially helpful and to an extent unavoidable, if such comparisons are taken as our primary interpretive lens, we are likely to miss what is unique and valuable about Whitehead’s conception of morality. Indeed, by taking such comparisons as our primary context we inevitably import many of the presuppositions that Whitehead’s system was explicitly designed to avoid. Utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, each is grounded in certain metaphysical and axiological assumptions that Whitehead repudiated. Thus although we may begin examining any aspect of Whitehead’s thought by asking how it is like or unlike previous positions, if it is to be properly understood, it must ultimately be confronted on its own terms. Though certainly more arduous, in the end this is the only path that will allow us to come to a true understanding of Whitehead’s conception of morality and its possible contributions to contemporary moral discourse.


[1] These positions are defended respectively in Schilpp 1951, Palmer 1998, and Gier 2004.

[2] See, for instance, MT: “The notion of the unqualified stability of particular laws of nature and of particular moral codes is a primary illusion which has vitiated much philosophy” (13).

[3] Cf. Adventures of Ideas: “For after all, we can aim at nothing except from the standpoint of a well-assimilated system of customs—that is, of mores. The fortunate changes are made ‘Hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow’” (269). Though Whitehead is primarily concerned with the exaggeration of the status of moral codes of behavior, his criticisms would seem to equally apply to a conception of morality grounded in categorical imperatives. Though I would hesitate to adopt such language, one might say that for Whitehead all imperatives are ultimately hypothetical. For a more developed discussion of this view and the relationship between a Whiteheadian moral philosophy and deontology, see Lango 2001, Henning 2006 and 2005a (esp. Chapters 5 and 7).

[4] If there is a difference, it would seem merely to be a matter of emphasis. Whereas the term value seems to suggest that which is achieved in process, importance seems to emphasize the end toward which process strives.

[5] In several recent articles, scholars have sought to respond to Palmer’s criticisms from within the contributionist framework. See the exchange between Palmer, Cobb, Dombrowski and Menta referenced in the bibliography.

[6] A complete analysis of this claim would require a more thorough analysis of Whitehead’s conception of individuality, particularly the relationship between the subject and superject. How one resolves this relationship significantly affects how one interprets Whitehead’s axiology and moral philosophy. In contrast to the “classical interpretation” of Whitehead’s work, which insists on a sharp ontological distinction between the subject and superject, I defend what I refer to as the “ecstatic interpretation” of Whitehead’s metaphysics (see Henning 2005a, 41-65 and Henning 2005b).

[7] Belaief reiterates this claim in her “Whitehead and Private-Interest Theories” (1996, 279).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Belaief, Lynne. 1984. Toward a Whiteheadian Ethics (Lanham, University Press of America).

Belaief, Lynne. 1996. “Whitehead and Private-Interest Theories,” Ethics 76, 277-86.

Cobb, John B., Jr. 2004. “Palmer on Whitehead: A Critical Evaluation,” Process Studies 33, 4-23.

Cobb, John B., Jr. 2005. “Another Response to Clare Palmer,” Process Studies, 34, 132-35.

Ferré, Frederick. 1996. Being and Value: Toward a Constructive Postmodern Metaphysics (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Gier, Nicholas F. 2004. “Whitehead, Confucius, and the Aesthetics of Virtue,” Asian Philosophy 14, 171-90.

Henning, Brian G. 2002a. “On the Possibility of a Whiteheadian Aesthetics of Morals,” Process Studies 31, 97-114.

Henning, Brian G. 2005a. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press

Henning, Brian G. 2005b. “Saving Whitehead’s Universe of Value: An ‘Ecstatic’ Challenge to the Classical Interpretation,” International Philosophical Quarterly 45, 447-66.

Henning, Brian G. 2006a, “Is There an Ethics of Creativity?,” Michel Weber et Pierfrancesco Basile (sous la direction de), Chromatikon II. Annuaire de la philosophie en procès—Yearbook of Philosophy in Process, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses universitaires de Louvain, 161-174.

Lango, John W. 2001. “Does Whitehead’s Metaphysics Contain an Ethics?” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 37, 515-36.

Menta, Timothy. 2004. “Clare Palmer’s Environmental Ethics and Process Thinking: A Hartshornian Response,” Process Studies 33, 24-45.

Palmer, Clare. 1998. Environmental Ethics and Process Thinking (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Palmer, Clare. 2004. “Response to Cobb and Menta,” Process Studies 33, 46-70.

Schilpp, Paul A. 1951. “Whitehead’s Moral Philosophy,” in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (LaSalle, Open Court), 561-618.

Author Information

Brian G. Henning
Philosophy Department, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258

How to Cite this Article

Henning, Brian G., “Process and Morality”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.