Process Ethics – June 2000

Question: Does process thought have a distinctive ethical slant?

Publication Month: June 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

That’s a good question and not an easy one to answer. Like so many good questions, it calls for an answer that says both “yes” and “no.” Process thought suggests a distinctive approach to ethical issues, but it does not clearly support any one of the standard ethical theories over against the others. I’ll try to unpack this a bit.

Process thought discourages abstracting one sphere of life and thought from the rest. Therefore, it cuts against treating ethics as an independent discipline, separable from aesthetics and science and religion and metaphysics. Of course, it equally opposes treating any of these others in separation from ethics. On the other hand, there is no objection to starting reflection with questions about how we should respond to the issues posed by life. On the contrary, for many of us, this is the best place to begin. But we should not expect to get much help in answering these questions by turning to textbooks on philosophical ethics.

In such textbooks one will find, for example, discussions of deontological and teleological ethics. The distinction is real and at a certain level has some importance. But process thought sees that elements of both are inevitably present in the decision-making process. Often the really difficult questions have more to do with the facts and how we interpret the facts than with theories about how ethical questions are answered.

Process thought implies that we ought (underlined) to consider the wider consequences of our actions. That is, there is a deontological ground for adopting a teleological stance. The more difficult issue is how to evaluate anticipated consequences. Here process thought does contribute distinctive (not necessarily unique) elements to the discussion. I can note just a few.

    1. Consequences are judged in terms of an understanding of value that
        emphasizes aesthetic qualities. See Part Four of Whitehead’s Adventures of
        Ideas (italics) for the fullest elaboration.
    2. Animal experience counts in the evaluation.
    3. There are gradations of value among the typical experiences of
        different species. We judge the experience of a whale as more valuable
        than that of squid.
    4. Variety contributes to value.
    5. All the values in the world add up in God and are supplemented by
        contrasts among these values in the divine experience.

For a process thinker, moral rules have a place in guiding our actions. They represent accumulated wisdom gained in experience. On the other hand, when moral rules are absolutized, they are likely to do as much harm as good.

For a process thinker, generalizations are very important. We could not think or act without them. But it is equally important to recognize that in every moment each person is located in a unique position never occupied before. Generalizations must be qualified in light of this.

Process thinkers have long recognized that the position from which thinking occurs is historically and culturally conditioned. In recent years we have learned more deeply that it is also conditioned by ethnicity and gender as well as one’s place in social hierarchy. On the other hand, process thinkers believe that in the midst of all this relativity, there is the possibility of some limited transcendence toward objectivity. The recognition of relativity is itself an expression of such objectivity.

These comments are far from exhaustive. They may, however, help to explain why it is so difficult to write “a process ethics.” It is not difficult to write from a process point of view on critical ethical issues.  That kind of writing exists in abundance.