The Sources of Ethical Energy: A Critical Examination of James' Account of Moral Motivation

Todd Lekan
Revised, 11-22-04


In his "The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life," James asserts that metaphysical or theological beliefs are necessary to complete "concrete ethics."  For James, concrete ethics seeks a criterion by which to measure competing goods.  He offers a normative principle for judging right action that says right acts are those that maximize demand satisfaction. He seems to think that theological beliefs are necessary to motivate us because we will not be inspired to work for the satisfaction of merely finite future human satisfaction.  We need to believe that our moral efforts are tied to the grand plans of a divine being who helps our moral efforts.  My aim in this paper is to show that James' arguments for this belief in a divine helper are flawed and at odds with the naturalistic approach to ethics developed earlier in the essay.  In the final section of the paper I offer some suggestions about a more fruitful answer to James' concern over moral motivation would focus less on speculative theological metaphysical or theological beliefs and more on practices that help us to transform our habits of attention.   Building on James' important psychological concept of "attention," I sketch three practices of ethical attention that might provide the necessary motivating function to supplement James' ethical ideal (or any abstract ideal for that matter). 

I proceed as follows.  In the first section I will cover the part of James' essay that addresses what he calls the "metaphysical question," which he claims addresses the meanings of moral terms such as "obligation," "good," "better" and "worse."  James distinguishes this question from two others that a philosopher may treat:  the psychological question concerning the origin of moral notions and the casuist question concerning the criterion of morally correct action.  I will pass over the psychological question in this essay, since my concern is the relationship between James' metaphysical and normative claims.  In section II, show that the arguments we might reconstruct for James' theological postulate are flawed.  I conclude, in section III, with a better alternative approach to moral motivation.  My critique is meant to be internal to "Moral Philosopher and Moral Life"—James only sustained work on moral philosophy.  As we will see, however, my own account of ethical practices of attention is friendly to ideas that James himself develops in other essays.  Thus, I view the argument of this paper as, in part, using Jamesian ideas to improve on the flawed arguments of "Moral Philosopher and Moral Life."

I) The Metaphysical Context of James' Ethical Ideal

(Section I to be summarized, not read, at session)

It is important to set the naturalistic context of James' ethical ideal so that we may fully appreciate the shortcomings of his theological postulate.  I turn to that task now. Even though James takes the metaphysical question to be about the meanings of moral terms, he does not seem to be offering definitions so much as an account of those conditions of intelligibility for making moral judgments.  That is, he is telling us what features of the world give rise to moral properties.  His central claim is that it would not be intelligible to ascribe the predicates like "good", "better," "bad" and "worse" in a world without sentient creatures.  A world with thirty hunks of rock seems no better or worse than a world with fifty, if no sentient creature exists who cares one way or the other about rocks.  James suggests that if we introduced one sentient creature into a world "it would be absurd to raise the question of whether the solitary thinker's judgments of good and ill are true or not."[1]  Apparently a solitary creature could make value judgments such as "this hunk of rocks is good" or "I think it is better to stay in the cave when it rains than to stay in the swamp."  However, none of these judgments can count as true or false until there is some standard outside the thinker.  James refers to the condition of this solitary thinker as a "moral solitude."  A universe in which one consciousness identifies itself with a good is a universe without true judgments of good, bad, ought, or ought not. 

James does not carefully distinguish between terms such as "good", "right," and "ought." For purposes of clarity, we might say that the moral solitary applies judgments of good and bad to states of affairs, whereas judgments regarding "right" or "ought" are applied to whatever actions or events promote such states of affairs.  Obviously, the moral solitary's use of terms such as "right" and "ought" cannot mean "morally right" or "morally obligatory" given that these notions, as used by James, require some standard outside the solitary's mind.  This might imply that there are no moral obligations in the solitary thinker's world, but that moral obligations arise once two or more sentient creatures exist.  However, two important caveats need to be stressed.  First, James holds that although the solitary thinker has no "outward" obligation to other sentient beings, he may at times experience conflicts among goods.  To the extent that goods conflict, the solitary may be said to have two competing obligations.  This internal conflict is resolved when the solitary "lives according to some sort of a casuistic scale which keeps his more imperative goods on top."[2] Presumably, for the solitary, any ranking procedure will do so long as he or she establishes some sort of internal equilibrium.[3] 

Second, and more important for our purposes, James suggests that the existence of two or more thinkers does not guarantee the end of moral solitude.  If these thinkers are indifferent to each other, then they have no obligations to each other.  James writes, "Such a world . . . is not a moral universe but a moral dualism.  Not only is there no single point of view within it from which the values of things can be unequivocally judged, but there is not even a demand for such a point of view, since the two thinkers are supposed to be indifferent to each other's thoughts and acts."[4]

James' point here is crucial.  Morality, in a post-Darwinian context, must be rooted in the concrete demands of individual animals.  A moral obligation that was not based in the concrete experiences of sentient creatures is at best an abstraction from living demands.  At worst, it is a superstitious mystification of moral life.  To say that some sentient creature is obligated to another because "reason" demands it is for James to be lulled by concepts, covering over the basic fact that sentient creatures, not abstract reason, make demands.  Until I actually identify with, or at least seriously consider, the demands of other sentient creatures I live in a moral solitude.

After explaining the notion of moral solitude, James moves right into a controversial analysis of moral obligation.  He says, "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. . . "[5] James says that there is a deep conceptual connection between the notions "obligation" and "claim."  He is committed to the thesis that "x has a prima facie obligation to y if and only if y asserts some "claim."  There are many interpretive difficulties here.  For one thing, James does not explain what he means by "claim," but it is hard not to get the impression that he means something that could be verbally articulated as in "I claim the right to have healthcare."  Claims, read this way, would be speech acts produced by rational beings.  However, just a few lines later James lapses into the language of demands.  "Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make.  Ought it not, for its own sole sake, to be satisfied?  If not, prove why not."[6]  I propose, given this passage, that we read the notion of claims liberally so as to include any demand that we could reasonably ascertain. Thus, animals, children and the insane could make obligating claims insofar as we (rational beings) could comprehend their demands through non-verbal means.  Now, of course the problem with the liberal view is that it seems crazy to assume that I am obligated to satisfy any demand of any sentient creature.  However, James means something weaker by "claim- linked obligations" than what moral philosophers mean when they say we have an obligation to perform some action on behalf of another.  James' meaning is closer to the notion of a prima-facie obligation.  It might be best to think of James' notion here as what Micah Hester calls "pre-critical de facto obligations.[7] De facto obligations are the inputs of moral deliberation.  Moral deliberation's goal is to yield binding moral obligations after sorting through the conflicts and ambiguities associated with de facto obligations.  The moral philosopher's task, as James sees it, is to provide a criterion for adjudicating such conflicts.  The criterion James offers is to do whatever will maximize as many demands as possible, or at least that act which frustrates the fewest demands.   James writes "that act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions."[8]  James also formulates his principle in terms of ideals.  He writes, " . . . those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least number of other ideals are destroyed."[9]  James offers a more detailed analysis of ideals in other essays.[10]  Minimally, he seems to think of ideals as purposes or goals that order decisions over time.  The issues here are complex, and not directly germane to my concerns in this paper.  Suffice to say, if the criterion says that we should maximize ideals, it is not clear that animals or other non-rational beings will be given moral consideration.  Since we have already accepted a liberal interpretation of claims I propose that we take James' casuistic standard to advocate maximizing as many demands as possible.[11]  The criterion could be stated as that act is best which makes possible the greatest number of demands, or which frustrates the least number.[12]  I will refer to this criterion as James' ethical ideal for the remainder of the essay. 

James' moral philosopher is addressing only those fellow moral agents who are motivated to come out of moral solitude.  At the outset of the essay James makes clear that he is only speaking to those who are willing to set aside moral skepticism and seek some sort of "unity" or "system" of moral relations.  Moral solitaries need not attend the lecture since it is not for them anyway.  What this means is that James assumes that there is at least a rudimentary motivation to care about the demands of other sentient creatures.  This is important to keep in mind.  When James offers us his theological postulate as necessary to motivate agents to energetically pursue his ethical ideal, he assumes first, that moral agents are convinced of the reasonableness of his casuistic criterion and that, second they are somewhat motivated to use the criterion to regulate their decisions.

We have just seen the way in which James' metaphysical speculations provide the grounding context for understanding his normative criterion.  This is just what we should expect.  It would be odd if a pragmatist meta-ethics were isolated from normative questions about what is right and wrong in everyday practice.[13]  Any metaphysical inquiry into the status of moral values should grow out of a lived existential doubt.  James' moral philosopher is motivated by both theoretical and practical doubts. The theoretical doubt stems from the question of how we generate an ethical unity after rejecting any appeal to abstract moral order in favor of a hard-nosed post Darwinian view that says all moral value is rooted in the demands of sentient animals.  Given the great variety of sentient animals and their demands, it is initially daunting for the moral philosopher to achieve any sort of theoretically simple account.  The practical need is obviously the need to establish some authoritative demand whose claims can justifiably order the conflicts among ordinary moral agents.

II) Critique of James' Theological Postulate

Interestingly, although post-Darwinian metaphysical assumptions are the ground of moral inquiry, James introduces theistic assumptions at the end of the essay.  He thinks theological beliefs are necessary to energize the pursuit of his ethical ideal.  He says, "the chief of all reasons why concrete ethics cannot be final is that they have to wait on metaphysical and theological beliefs."[14] Later he clearly favors the view 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."[15] James thinks that strenuous pursuit of his normative criterion requires a belief in a God, who is a kind of "divine demander." As he puts it, " . . . in a merely human world without a God, the appeal to our moral energy falls short of its maximal stimulating power." [16]  Let's call this view James' "theological postulate."

While James is not very explicit about his reasons for endorsing the theological postulate, I offer four possible reasons that are reconstructions of the text that I think capture the range of ideas James may have in mind:  1) James appears to accept the claim that the "larger" the demand the more obligatory it is.[17]  Given this assumption, God's demands would be the most obligatory.  2) James suggests that a belief in a divine being makes sacrifices on behalf of the moral ideal bearable because most of us will not be inspired to make sacrifices for the happiness of a future humanity.  Although hardly clear about why, it seem James thinks that a divine being's cause is more heroic and mysterious—exciting in us a kind of wild, adventurous moral spirit.  3) Perhaps a more straightforward argument related to "2" is that a belief that some higher being is helping our paltry efforts encourages greater zeal in our efforts to realize the ethical ideal. 4) Finally, James appears to endorse the claim that believing that God's divine mind is contemplating the correct solution to a moral dilemma offers encouragement to us during difficult deliberations.  Such a belief reminds us that what we think is hopeless may only be a function of our own limited view of the matter, and that perhaps we simply need to work harder at getting closer to the way that the divine being views the situation.

Let's look at these four more closely.  Take the first reason.  How is it that I am motivated by God's demands in virtue of the size of these demands?  If we follow Deborah Boyle, and interpret James' God as demanding that we maximize the most inclusive arrangement of ideals or demands, then God would serve an additional motivational role grounded in what would be a supreme moral truth about our obligations to help satisfy his very large demand.[18]  James might be assuming that forceful demands create forceful motives in those that "hear" or contemplate them.  But a forceful demand may provoke aversion in me (as when I rebel against someone "yelling" at me) or it may lead me to fearful withdrawal.  Finally, I may find ways to ignore or shut out the loud voice.  The problem here can be put more simply:  Even if big and loud demanders can cause moral agents to care about obligations, it hardly seems like this causal force is a moral motive for action.

Consider the second reason for the theological postulate:  it is doubtful that moral agents will energetically work for the betterment of future finite human beings.  As James writes, "We do not love these men of the future keenly enough; and we love them perhaps the less the more we hear of their evolutionized perfection."[19] James says that this goal is still "all too finite" and that "we see too well the vacuum beyond."[20] These remarks suggest we are more likely to make sacrifices for a greater being whose triumphs comprise an eternal order beyond the human.  It isn't easy to assess James' argument here.  Obviously, whether "finite humanity" could inspire moral effort will depend to a great degree on personal inclinations (James would heartedly agree with this point).  Even if historically humans have appealed to supernatural beliefs for moral inspiration, it hardly follows that this will continue to be desirable or necessary.  Finally, a more serious problem:  any religious belief that motivates us to work for an ethical ideal runs the risk of shifting our focus more to our own personal salvation and less to the benefiting others.  If one acts morally because of a belief that God will reward such acts with some sort of salvation, then one is really not acting for a moral reason per se.[21]

James may have a slightly different point in mind, as is suggested by the third argument:  my belief that I have help from a divine demander may encourage my zeal in pursuing the ethical ideal.  How does that thought help to motivate me? On the one hand, it may actually make me somewhat morally lax because I may assume that someone stronger than me will pick up any of my moral slack.  James, of course, is well aware of this particular danger.  He never tires of cautioning us about the ways that belief in an absolute being serves as an excuse to go on "moral holidays." On holiday, we ignore evil because we believe an absolute being will take care of it.  James' theistic solution to such holiday temptations is to downgrade God's powers just enough so that he needs our help. He may be stronger than us but he alone will not necessarily be able to alleviate evil.  He needs our help.  This approach may work to motivate but it obviously depends on knowledge claims about God that we can hardly validate (James would admit as much).  But even setting aside worries about how we can know that God is like this, there is a larger problem: why should the belief in a divine helper motivate us to try to work for the ethical ideal?

James might reply by pointing out that if I start with the assumption that I already care deeply about the realization of as many demands as possible, then belief in some stronger (but not all powerful) divine demander supplies additional encouragement in the pursuit of my project.  After all, most people that take up life projects want them to succeed.  Although there may be a great degree of variability regarding how much risk one is willing to take, it is generally true that the less likely the prospect for success the less motivated we are to undertake a life project.  James is saying that we would be more motivated to pursue the project of maximizing demands if we simply believed that we are contributing to that inclusive whole of satisfied demands that includes God's help.

But given that we can't know whether the divine demander exists, and given that we are already committed to a project of creating an inclusive whole, why would we be more motivated to pursue this project by believing in him?  Consider an analogy:  I am a resident physician in an emergency room and am committed to saving as many patients as possible tonight.  I know that if the attending doctor shows up in another room there is a greater possibility more patients will be saved tonight.  But given my commitment, it would seem that I would be as motivated to save my patients regardless of whether I believed the doctor shows up. To be sure, as a resident, the presence of a more experienced doctor will be encouraging.  I may lack confidence in my skills.  But if I care about saving lines and I believe that the other doctor may not show up I may be even be more motivated.  If any patients are going to be saved tonight, it is up to me to do it! I may be more motivated to pursue this project if I believed it really depended on me (and my cohorts).

Finally, consider the idea that it will be helpful to consider the divine demander's perspective as we struggle to realize an inclusive whole.  James writes,

 . . . 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."[22]

James does not maintain that we could decide morally correct actions by appeal to what "God thinks."  He asserts that the moral philosopher is like the rest of us:  since we cannot know God's mind, we simply use him as a postulate in order "to let loose in us the strenuous mood."[23] If I am committed to James' ethical ideal, I may find myself in discouraging, possibly tragic, situations in which it seems like no satisfactory harmony of demands can be found.  Whatever I do, much butchering (to use James' metaphor) of demands will result.  The hope that perhaps someone has a better perspective on the conflict situation may encourage me not to give up deliberating as soon as I might otherwise.[24]  But do I need to believe that God exists right now, contemplating the correct solution to a moral problem, in order to be inspired to cultivate a more inclusive self?  We need to distinguish between two possible claims:

  1. There exists right now a divine mind that comprehends the best possible harmony of satisfied demands.
  2. There is some possible perspective that might be attained, which will discern the best possible harmony of satisfied demands.

Even though it might be encouraging to imagine that God is somewhere correctly pondering the best way to realize the most demands, my real motivation to strive harder in the pursuit of the ethical ideal is my conviction that I can get closer to that better perspective.  This conviction is plausibly tied to an aspiration to strive to become an "inclusive self"—a self better able to understand and act upon the ethical ideal.  The hope that I might become such an inclusive self may be a more promising motivating idea than James' postulate theological postulate.  At the very least, this hope seems to rely less on speculative theological or metaphysical assumptions.  However, we need to demonstrate how the aspiration to be a more concrete self can be made real in conduct (more on this shortly).

To sum up, James seems to be wrong in his assumption that his ethical ideal can only be energetically pursued if one accepts his theological postulate.  All of the arguments that we might reconstruct for this claim are flawed.  Moreover, the theological postulate seems to be in tension with the post-Darwinian naturalistic metaphysical assumptions in the other section of the essay.  Although it is not impossible to reconcile this naturalism with the theological postulate, the belief that morality springs from the demands of a transcendent being and the view that morality is rooted in the concrete demands of finite sentient beings form an unhappy marriage.  It would be better, I think, if we pursue the suggestion that the aspiration to be a more inclusive self might be a more appropriate foci for moral motivation.  But how energizing is the thought that I could be a more inclusive self—better able to express the ethical ideal in my thoughts and deeds?  It hardly seems sufficient to be told "go be an inclusive self!"  In what follows, I will offer an account "practices of ethical attention" that will begin to illustrate the pathway towards becoming the inclusive selves who will more energetically pursue the ethical ideal.

III) Practices of Ethical Attention

Consider first the notion of "attention"—pivotal in James' psychology.  For James, consciousness is not a passive recording of ideas but an active agency, attending to features that hold its interest.  Of the will James says, "volitional effort is the effort of attention."[25]  Successful volition requires sufficient effort of attention.  Ethically appropriate volition requires effortful attention to the right sorts of ideas.  Telling ourselves or others to simply try to become inclusive selves is not enough.  We need concrete methods to train attention on concrete images of the inclusive self so that we continuously grow into this imaged self.  In his Talks to Teachers James acknowledges the importance of training attention in moral education. He writes:

If, then, you are asked, 'In what does a moral act consist when reduced to its simplest and most elementary form?' you can make only one reply.  You can say that it consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there.  To think, in short, is the secret of will just as it is the secret of memory."[26]

James goes on to remark that the moral educator would do better to focus on "inhibition by substitution" than it is "inhibition by repression."  The former offers a positive alternative idea, whereas the latter repressively curbs a troubling idea.  James' remarks about attention in moral education suggest that we ought to find ways to positively orient our minds.  We need to go beyond bare injunctions to "become better selves," or even worse injunctions that tell us to suppress desires that work against the pursuit of ethical ideal.  Practices of ethical attention are techniques for training the mind on objects that promote the growth of the kind of self that is better able to energetically pursue the ethical ideal. 

How are these practices motivating?  The availability of such practices encourages us by offering concrete methods for transforming our habits so that we may grow into inclusive selves.  If the practices work to transform our habits, we come to be those ethical selves that have the power to energetically pursue James' moral ideal.  Of course, we must be fallibilist and contextualist about attention practices.  They may not always work for all people in all times.   Practices of ethical attention are offered for moral agents who are already to some degree motivated by the ethical ideal.  As I have already mentioned, the Jamesian approach requires the assumptions that we are not moral skeptics and that his ethical ideal is a plausible criterion for the resolution of moral problems.[27]  Let's consider in more detail three practices of ethical attention:  imaging moral exemplars, imaging better versions of one's own self, and practicing "letting go" as an antidote to moral self-importance.

i) Imaging Moral Exemplars

Some four decades after James wrote his essay, pragmatist John Dewey writes,

Aims, ideals, do not exist simply in "mind"; they exist in character, in personality and action.  One might call the roll of artists, intellectual inquirers, parents, friends, citizens who are neighbors, to show that purposes exist in an operative way.[28]

Dewey's point is that ideals are not mysterious things but features embodied in the characters of individuals whose lives are available to ordinary experience.  Dewey goes on to say that he does not object to the notion that ideals exist, but "the idea that their authority and value depend on some prior complete embodiment . . ."[29]  Dewey does not include religious saints and fictional or mythical beings in his list of the roll that we may call upon to witness operative ideals (perhaps because he is extra cautious to avoid any appeal to supernatural).  But we might be more liberal here, drawing on characters, real or imagined, that might include:  religious teachers such as Buddha, Jesus, or saints from various religious traditions.  We could think of these characters as superior moral minds that might serve as objects for attentive meditation either between or during moral deliberation.  Between deliberations, the moral agent may find value in extended contemplation of specific characters that embody a more inclusive self.  As James puts in Varieties of Religious Experience,

 . . .  just as our courage is so often a reflex of another's courage, so our faith is apt to be some one else's faith.  We draw new life from the heroic example.  The prophet has drunk more deeply than anyone of the cup of bitterness, but his countenance is so unshaken and he speaks such might words of cheer that his will becomes our will, and our life is kindled at his own.[30]

During difficult deliberations, moral agents may find solace or energy in thinking of individuals who inspire imagination and resolve.  My point here is not to recommend that we approach moral dilemmas with the question "what would x (Buddha, Christ, Muhammad etc) do?"  Although not without perhaps some merit, it would be either irrelevant or possibly just weird to try to resolve a difficult moral issue such as institutional sexism in a school by asking how the historical Buddha would handle the matter.  My point is that when moral agents get stuck, it may be helpful to have some concrete object of attention to refocus their efforts and not give up so soon. Intensive reflection upon moral exemplars may, over time, shape a person's habits so that when in the thick of deliberation they are able to more spontaneously sympathize with the interests of others.

ii) Imaging a Better Self

Of course, attending to moral heroes has its downside.  Such reflection may result in a hero worship that denigrates one's own powers.  We might address these worries by supplementing imaging of exemplars with attention practices that focus on visualizing ourselves as better agents.  The idea is to begin with a belief that we can accomplish some difficult moral task.  The belief that we could be a better moral self is (at least one) condition of the birth of that self.  As James puts it, "there are . . . cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming."[31]  The trick here is to avoid outright self-deluded fantasy, on the one hand, and a too modest estimate of our potential for growth, on the other.  It is important, then, to work at fostering habits that instill a realistic self-confidence.  An example of a meditation practice that may be relevant here is "tong-len" or or "giving and receiving."  This is a Mahayana Buddhist practice transmitted by the Tibetan tradition.[32]  In this practice the meditator imagines breathing in the suffering of others, while offering one's happiness, virtue, or good fortune by visualizing these going to others in rays of light on the out breath.  One primary goal of the practice is to break down the self-cherishing that Buddhists claim is the root of personal suffering.  By meditating on love and compassion, one seeks to transform one's attitudes and habits so that one will actually become the sort of person who is capable of helping others.  This goal of self-transformation might itself become a source of arrogance. ("I am so good because I am capable of taking on suffering and offering happiness").  Significantly, tong-len addresses this potential pitfall by recommending that the meditator abandon fixation on self by resting in a "pure awareness" before and after the breathing exercise.  Additionally, the meditation technique recommends visualizing incoming suffering and outgoing happiness as emerging out of and into an empty space so that one avoids any fixation on a solid "self" engaged in the mind-training practice.  Tong-len, and related practices, may help bolster habits of sympathy and concern for others that provide the focused energy necessary to grapple with difficult moral problems.  Practicing fearless compassion on the meditation cushion may eventually transform our ability to work to alleviate suffering in the world.  It may at least help us to better hear what James calls the "cries of the wounded."

iii) Practicing Letting Go

Moral agents striving to be "better selves" run the risk of an exaggerated sense of self-importance, whereas practices that image moral exemplars run the risk of promoting self-denigration. Both sorts of practices take images of concrete individuals as their focus.  They are addressed to the mind of the moral agent who struggles through her own efforts to be the sort of self who can energetically pursue the ethical ideal.  This individualistic focus on one's own moral struggles may collapse into a self-absorbed exaggerated preoccupation with one's moral efforts.  Sometimes we need to let go of exaggerated attitudes about the importance of our power and influence.  We would do well to find other practices of ethical attention that acknowledge the limits of individual choice and power.  A balanced recognition of our own limitations may be a source of moral strength when we understand that the pursuit of the ethical ideal is a shared project, depending on the cooperation of the past and present efforts of a vast human community.  Furthermore, although perhaps not "deliberate," our efforts depend on the fortunate cooperation of nature.  Expressing gratitude or reverence to those social and natural forces may help to foster a saner attitude of our own capacities to work for the ethical ideal.  Dewey labels this kind of attitude "natural piety,"

The sense of dignity of human nature is as religious as is the sense of awe and reverence when it rests upon a sense of human nature as a cooperating part of a larger whole.  Natural piety is not of necessity either a fatalistic acquiescence in natural happenings or a romantic idealization of the world.  It may rest upon a just sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts, while it also recognizes that we are parts that are marked by intelligence and purpose, having the capacity to strive by their aid to bring conditions into a greater consonance with what is human desirable.[33]

Dewey does not offer suggestions for how we could practice piety.  But examples readily come to mind:  rites commemorating ancestors, communal festivals celebrating significant moral achievements, and celebrations of the cycles of nature might count as expressions of piety. It would seem appropriate that these practices have a social character because their point is to foster a sense of positive dependence on a larger whole.


I have only sketched the bare outlines of three practices of ethical attention that may provide the needed motivational supplement to a Jamesian ethical ideal.  To some extent, these kinds of practices could be grafted onto other ethical ideals, and thus might be valuable to articulate even if we reject James' own normative ethical theory.   I think that practices of ethical attention can be engaged with minimal reliance on supernatural or theological beliefs.[34]  However, this does not mean that spiritual traditions are irrelevant to moral motivation. They supply rich sources for practices of attention, especially those spiritual traditions that offer mind-training techniques.  Nevertheless, it is an open question (settled by practice) whether or not these traditions remain relevant and can be meaningfully married to the post-Darwinian account of morality.  I see no reason, at the outset, to be skeptical that they can.  The first step in making them work is to believe that they can.

[1] James (1977a) p. 615.

[2] Ibid.  617.

[3] As James puts it, "Into whatever equilibrium he may settle, though, and however he may straighten out his system, it will be a right system; for beyond the facts of his own subjectivity there is nothing moral in the world" (1977a) p. 615.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid. p. 617.

[6] James (1977a) p. 617

[7]  Hester (1999).

[8] James (1977a) p. 623

[9] James (1977a) p. 623.

[10] See, for example, "What Makes Life Significant" and "On A Certain Blindness in Human Beings" in James (1977).

[11]Certainly James provides no help, suggesting that he either thought their relationship was two obvious to require comment or they were three ways of saying the same thing (surely a false assumption).   Ruth Anna Putnman reads James' formulation with reference to ideals as a gloss on the formulation mentioning demands.  Ideals, according to Putnam, are overriding purposes or goals that give shape to a life.  The virtue of this account is that it rescues James from easy refutations based on the complaint that we have plenty of desires that we should not satisfy or that should not even count in a positive moral evaluation. Putnman can say "If not every object of desire is an ideal but only those that shape lives, or at rate significant parts thereof, then large numbers of more or less temporary desires may well be sacrificed for an ideal" (1991) pp. 83-84.  Putnam's view puts James' text in a better light, however, it is not clear that a principle that tells us to "maximize ideals" will be capable of doing the casuistic work James requires of it.  First, it is not clear that every moral conflict is one of a clash of ideals, understood as "life plans."  Even though, we may grant that ideals form the background of our interpretation of moral problems.  Second, many of the problems associated with "maximization rules" as they apply to desires or hedonic states will apply to ideals.  For example, what of the society in which prejudiced, non-inclusive ideals outnumber those ideals of a minority?  To be fair, Putnman addresses this worry to some extent in her discussion of what James might be inclusivity.  See Putnam (1991) pp. 85-85.

[12] If the moral aim is to maximize as many demands as possible, then we might be morally obligated to abuse, kill, or exploit a minority if doing so is conducive to optimal demand maximization. This criticism is made by Roth (1969) pp. 66-69.  See also Myers (1986) p. 400.  However, James might be able to reply that ideals that respect rights of individuals are, when rigorously followed, conducive to the satisfaction of more demands than when they are violated.  Such a move would advocate a kind of rule-utilitarian position suggested recently by Boyle (1998). 

[13] Even though James' meta-ethical analysis resembles that of the linguists of the mid-twentieth century, he would clearly reject their commonly accepted assumption that meta-ethics is simply a neutral analysis of the meaning of moral terms.   For pragmatists, all inquiry is value-laden. 

[14] James (1977) p. 626.

[15]  Ibid. p. 628.

[16] Ibid. p. 627. My concern is not to evaluate James' epistemological justifications of our "right" to hold religious beliefs, but to throw into question his claim that a theistic postulate energizes the pursuit of his normative ideal.

[17] See Boyle (1998) for an excellent discussion of this point.

[18] Boyle (1998)

[19]  James (1977a) p. 627.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Kant makes this point forcefully.  See Kant (1981) pp. 7-13.

[22]  Ibid. p. 628.

[23] Ibid. p. 629.

[24] This understanding of the motivating function of the divine demander resembles the impartial spectator device used in much utilitarian moral philosophy.  Nevertheless, James' use of such a device need not imply the attempt to attain a perfect comprehension the perspectives of all sentient beings—or even of those beings who are likely to be affected by a particular act.  Besides being too demanding, such a totalizing perspective runs the risk of falling into the incoherent position of trying to simultaneously combine finite and infinite perspectives.  (James criticizes this sort of faulty combination in many of his attacks against absolute idealism).

[25] James (1977c) p. 709

[26] James (1929) pp. 186 –187.

[27] Practices of ethical attention require appropriate social contexts for their success.  The interaction of appropriate social contexts and successful attention practices is an important topic in its own right that I cannot treat in detail here.

[28] Dewey (1962), p. 48.

[29] ibid. 

[30] James (1977c) p. 716

[31] James (1977b) p. 731.

[32] See Kongtrul (1987).

[33] Dewey (1962) p. 25.

[34] James moved away from the view of "God as entity" to a more fuzzy view of "God as a higher power that supplies some support to our ideals."  In the "Postscript" to Varieties of Religious Experience he writes " . . . The practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.  All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves.  Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.  It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.  It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all" James (1977d) pp. 785-786. 

Works Cited

Boyle, Deborah (1998) "William James' Ethical Symphony" (Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4) pp. 977-1003

Fesmire, Steven (2003) John Dewey and Moral Imagination (Indianapolis, Indiana University Press)

James, William (1977a) "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," The Writings of William James, ed. J. McDermott (Chicago, University of Chicago Press) pp. 610-629

--(1977b) "The Will To Believe," The Writings Of William James, pp. 717-735.

--(1977c) "Will" The Writings of William James, pp. 684-716.

--(1977d) "Postscript" to Varieties of Religious Experience, The Writings of William James, pp. 785-786.

Hester, Micah (1999) "The Possibility For Tragic Obligations"

Kongtrul, Jamgon (1987) The Great Path of Awakening, trans. K. McLeod (Boston, Shambhala Publications)

Putnam, Ruth Anna (1991) "The Moral Life of A Pragmatist," Identity, Character and Morality, ed. O. Flannagan and A. O. Rorty (New York, Bradford Book) pp. 67-89

Myers, Gerald (1986) William James (New Haven, Yale University Press)

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