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Theoretical Ethics

Ethics and Reality

Alison Roberts Miculan
McMaster University

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ABSTRACT: One of the most pervasive problems in theoretical ethics has been the attempt to reconcile the good for the individual with the good for all. It is a problem which appears in contemporary discussions (like those initiated by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue) as a debate between emotivism and rationalism, and in more traditional debates between relativism and absolutism. I believe that a vital cause of this difficulty arises from a failure to ground ethics in metaphysics. It is crucial, it seems to me, to begin with "the way the world is" before we begin to speculate about the way it ought to be. And, the most significant "way the world is" for ethics is that it is individuals in community. This paper attempts to develop an ethical theory based solidly on Whitehead’s metaphysics, and to address precisely the problem of the relation between the good for the individual and the common good, in such a way as to be sympathetic to both.

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One of the most pervasive problems in theoretical ethics has been the attempt to reconcile the good for the individual with the good for all. It is a problem which appears in contemporary discussions (like those initiated by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue) as a debate between emotivism and rationalism, and in more traditional debates between relativism and absolutism. I believe that a vital cause of this difficulty arises from a failure to ground ethics in metaphysics. It is crucial, it seems to me, to begin with "the way the world is" before we begin to speculate about the way it ought to be. The most significant "way the world is" for ethics, is that it is individuals in community, and this is the cosmology promoted by Whitehead.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead outlines the three primary notions of his cosmology as actual entities, prehensions and nex■s. Actual entities or actual occasions, as he also calls them, are "the final real things of which the world is made up,...these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent." (PR, p.18) Prehensions are "...the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities." (PR, p.19) "A prehension reproduces in itself the general characteristics of an actual entity: it is referent to an external world, and in this sense will be said to have a ‘vector character’; it involves emotion, and purpose and valuation and causation." (PR, p.19) Nex■s are "...the final real individual facts of the togetherness of actual entities...by reason of their prehension of each other." (PR, p.20) The way in which these factors relate, provides us with Whitehead’s fundamental cosmology, and the basis of that relationship is "creativity".

"’Creativity’ is the principle of novelty," (PR, p. 21) which allows disjunctive elements to form a conjunctive new entity. This "’production of novel togetherness’ is the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concrescence’" (PR, p.21) and it provides the cornerstone of Whitehead’s thought. Creativity has to do with the relationship that traditional metaphysics describes as the relationship between the one and the many. For Whitehead this is not a relation of opposites in the traditional sense, but really two ways of describing the same thing. The notion of "many" or "disjunctive diversity" entails the notion of "one" in the sense of many ones. And, the notion of "one" or "singularity" implies "Many" as one of many. (PR, p.21) Neither is meaningful without the other. That is to say, the notion of unity cannot exist independently of the notion of plurality. We cannot grasp one notion (intellectually) unless we grasp, at least implicitly, the other. Creativity is the principle whereby many ones come together in a new way to form a new one. "Thus ‘creativity’ introduces novelty into the content of the many, which are the universe disjunctively. The ‘creative advance’ is the application of this ultimate [metaphysical] principle of creativity to each novel situation which it originates." (PR, p.21) This "production of novel togetherness" defines Whitehead’s famous notion of "concrescence". (PR, p.21)

An actual entity can be described in two ways: 1) as an actual entity which itself arose from a process, and 2) as an actual entity which will contribute to the creation of other actual entities, that is, as a part of the process or "becoming" of the actual world. (PR, p.23) These descriptions are, of course, very intimately related, inasmuch as how an entity develops is directly relevant to what it becomes, and what an entity is will specifically affect how it will contribute to other entities. (PR, p.23) This relationship between what entities are and what effect they will have is what Whitehead calls "the principle of process". (PR, p.23)

If we begin with an actual entity to see how the creation of that particular entity took place, then, we must recognize that an actual entity can only occur because of the potential unity of other entities. (PR, p.22) For Whitehead the universe is completely interrelated (RM, p.85 and PR, p.7) and the production of something new is utterly dependent on that which already is. Although every actual entity in the universe is able to contribute to the concrescence of a novel entity, inasmuch as they all relate to the same pure potentials, only some particular actual entities actually do relate to a particular concrescence. Moreover, the way in which each of the particular actual entities could relate to the novel entity varies a great deal, but the manner in which they do, in fact, relate or become "objectified" is particular, "though it is conditioned by the correlate universe." (PR, p.23) We have, therefore, a "conditioned indetermination". (PR, p.23)

In addition to the actual entities which contribute to the creation of a novel entity, the novel entity is conditioned by pure potentials. Whitehead’s preferred term is actually "eternal objects", but he does offer "pure potential(s)" (PR, p. 23) as a synonym which I have chosen to adopt in order to avoid some of the baggage that may come with both the notions "eternal" and "object". We do not, for instance, want to describe pure potentials in such a way as to suggest that when we remove all the entities from the world — we have something left over — namely, eternal objects. What we do want to say is that while there are entities in the world they have the potential for such and such. We also need to bear in mind that, for Whitehead, there is a difference between an entity and an actual entity, and pure potentials fall into the former category, but not the latter. As the name suggests, pure potentials are actualized only in their contribution to the definiteness of the novel actual entity. (PR, p.23) The specific way in which a pure potential contributes to a novel entity is called "ingression". According to Whitehead, actual entities and pure potentials are the only "real" categories of existence, and all other forms (eg. prehensions, nex■s, propositions etc.) are simply descriptive of the relationships which may exist between these two.

Prehensions are what Whitehead describes as "Concrete Facts of Relatedness". They are the links between actual entities, or between actual entities and pure potentials. The former Whitehead calls "physical prehensions" and the latter he refers to as "conceptual prehensions" (PR, p.23). In addition to these two major classes of prehensions, there are two "species" of prehensions: "positive prehensions" and "negative prehensions". (PR, p.23) Essentially, the distinction between positive and negative prehensions has to do with whether or not the prehension is operative in the creation of a novel entity. Positive prehensions are operative — negative prehensions are inoperative.

When actual entities and pure potentials come together in a particular way, the unity of their relatedness is called a nexus. (PR, p.24) They are what Whitehead calls "Public Matters of Fact". (PR, p. 22) To distinguish between prehensions and nex■s, we could say that prehensions are the elements or factors which contribute to an entity and nex■s are the entities themselves. But in making such a distinction it is important to remember that this is a descriptive distinction and not an actual one.

This, then, is the most basic description of the "becoming" of a novel entity: it is the objectification of prehensions, conditioned by their correlate actual worlds, and pure potentials. In terms of functioning:

An entity is actual, when it has significance for itself. By this it is meant that an entity functions in respect to its own determinism. Thus an actual entity combines self-identity with self-diversity. (PR, p. 25)

When an entity has itself for its subject in a way in which it can contribute to determining itself, it is actual and has realized its own "real internal constitution" (PR, p.25). "It is fully determinate (a) as to its genesis, (b) as to its objective character for the transcendent creativity, and (c) as to its prehension...of every item in its universe." (PR, p. 26). At this stage we say that the entity has achieved "satisfaction". In the process of becoming, or achieving "satisfaction" the actual entity has been self-creative and incoherence has become coherent. (PR, p.25) Whitehead describes this self-creativity or "self-functioning" of actual entities as "the real internal constitution of an actual entity. It is the ‘immediacy’ of the actual entity". (PR, p.25)

Once an actual entity has achieved satisfaction, then, the entity itself becomes a prehension for another novel entity, and the whole process begins again. In the union of ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ in actual entities, Whitehead’s goal of forming conjunctive disjunctions or disjunctive conjunctions is achieved. Being constituted by and constitutive of becoming is Whitehead’s "principle of process" (PR, p.23) and this is the principle on which we shall base our ethics.

Beginning with the "ultimate metaphysical principle" of creativity, then, we can establish our first ultimate ethical principle. Inasmuch as metaphysical creativity represents the move from "disjunction to conjunction" (PR p.21), ethical creativity must make the same move. Ethics must go beyond the individual in isolation to viewing the individual in the full context of its relations. But, how do we go about this in the specific case of ethics?

It is always tempting in ethics to talk about agents making ethical decisions, and simply to discuss the becoming of the agents. The Australian philosophers Richard Sylvan and David Bennett provide a very useful model for understanding the dynamic of agents of action, however. They maintain that because actions necessarily entail agents, actions form the legitimate focal point here, and that "Choice-making is a morally critical type of action." (Sylvan/Bennett, pp. 11-12) The point is that we want to focus on the moral assessment of actions, rather than the moral assessment of the agents performing those actions. The two are clearly related, but my preference is to assess the moral worth of an agent of action based on the actions performed, rather than to assess actions based on the moral worth of the agent. By focusing on the ethical actions, we arrive at the culmination of the decision-making process, and the element which will in fact contribute to further ethical decisions.

Our first task then, must be to understand the role and development of ethical actions, linking them as closely as possible to Whitehead’s cosmology. This will provide the groundwork for a more general ethical paradigm. Maintaining the scheme set out by the cosmology, then, ethical actions correspond to actual entities; ethical prehensions to metaphysical prehensions; and ethical nex■s relate to metaphysical nex■s.

The ethical theory being proposed begins with the Ultimate Ethical Principle of Value. This is a rather unusual place to begin in ethics, since traditional theories seek to base value on a particular ethical principle. What, then, does it mean to say that the Ultimate Ethical Principle is itself Value?

It means that as a fact of our very existence, we have value. At this stage, value is best understood as significance. At the moment an entity enters into existence, it is significant for the whole of the rest of the universe because of the utter interrelatedness of the universe. The relation between value and existence is what we shall describe as the Principle of Ethical Ontology. The importance of the Principle of Ethical Ontology is in recognizing that the reason for ethical action is the entities which will effect or be affected by the action. There is no looking beyond the entities for a justification of ethical behaviour. The entities alone provide the reasons. Value, at this stage, is neither positive nor negative — it is morally neutral. In order for value to gain its moral character it requires something more.

Goodness is taken to be a pure potential in the context of Whitehead’s metaphysics, that is, as a measure by which ethical actions are judged. Such a concept of Goodness is crucial, for without it, it would be meaningless to describe any action as good, and it would be utterly impossible to say an action will be good or evil prior to its being performed. The relative differences in the concept of Goodness occur with respect to the specific actions (and sometimes even types of actions — Virtues) which can be described as good.

Goodness, then, provides the structure of good actions, and the Virtues direct action towards that structure. We must be careful, though, to avoid thinking that Goodness is merely the sum total of good people performing good actions. Though this certainly provides the basis for the universal notion of pure potential Goodness, we do not want to reduce it solely to those terms. The very universality (or cohesion, or Harmony) of Goodness cannot be held by the individual instances of it (simply by reason of the fact that they are individual instances). Whitehead’s Category of Subjective Harmony draws attention to this concern. It is the subjective forms of Goodness and the Virtues which give structure to specific acts of goodness and which, thereby, allow for them to occur at all.

It is crucial, however, to maintain the link between a universal notion of Goodness and good people performing good actions, since in metaphysical terms the latter is the actualization of the former, and the former is the basis for the latter. The strongest way of making this link, (not to mention the only reasonable way of making it given our Ultimate Ethical Principle), is to define Goodness in terms of existence. Any other way of defining Goodness winds up being contingent on existence anyway, as, of course, does the very possibility of good people performing good actions. Goodness is that which maintains and enhances existence. Evil is that which destroys, degrades or undermines existence (PR p. 36/RM, p.94) Whitehead says, "The common character of all evil is that its realization in fact involves that there is some concurrent realization of a purpose towards elimination...it has secured a descent towards nothingness, in contrast to the creativeness of what can without qualification be termed good." (RM, pp. 92-93) This, of course, is not to say that everything which exists is good. It is saying that all entities which contribute to existence in a positive way are good, and all those which contribute negatively are evil. In other words, given our Ontological Ethical Principle that all existents have value, Goodness helps us to delineate between existence of a positive value, and that of a negative value.

Ethical decision-making, in the context of Whiteheadian metaphysics then, is a process that involves agents selecting actions. An ethical action occurs as the culmination of events which can contribute to the action in various ways. It is recognized, therefore, that there is a relation between the elements which go into an ethical action and the action taken. Moreover, an ethical action is never an isolated occurrence, nor is an ethical decision made in an identical context to any other ethical decision. Ethical actions must take place in a context in which many (at least two) possible actions could occur. That is to say, actions which could not have been made otherwise are not ethical decisions (in fact, they are not decisions at all).

Each individual ethical action is internally determined and is externally free. I am suggesting by this that at the point when we are confronted with an ethical dilemma, we can no longer affect the factors which contributed to that dilemma — but we can affect our response to it. Whatever past actions may have led to my situation, whatever my station in life, whatever my political, economic circumstances etc. etc. is settled, and though all of these features will certainly affect the decision I make, what ethical action I choose to perform is still up to me.

Ethical propositions, then, allow us to assess a given action’s propensity for Goodness, prior to that action being performed. Ethical propositions allow us to say, for instance, "Under conditions x, y will be a good action." The determination of whether or not a good action is performed, however, remains with the agent. But once the action has been performed, its determination is settled and the action becomes an element contributing to further actions and entities. When one action contributes to another action or entity we say it is "functioning" in it. When Goodness functions in an ethical action, we call it the "ingression" of Goodness in the action.

In order to maintain an existence of positive value, then, agents perform ethical actions. But the performing of ethical actions itself involves a series of relations. Many elements contribute to the making of an ethical decision and the action which follows from that decision, and in the decision-making process the elements, the action, the consequences of the action, in fact, the entire ethical milieu is affected.

Once an ethical action is performed, it is actual and thereby determinate as to its potential for functioning in every future action and entity in its universe, and those actions and entities will then gain the potential for functioning in even further actions and entities. Though the potential elements for functioning in future actions and entities are unrelated by virtue of their non-actualization, they are related by their potential for actualization, despite their unique function within the new action or entity. This interrelatedness of ethical activity, then, is the principle of ethical relativity and is the precise way in which the good for the individual contributes to the common good.

But the fact of interrelatedness brings with it obligations of its own. As soon as an action is performed, it has a determined relevance for future actions and entities so we have to make sure that our actions are the right ones. That is to say, not just any action, is an ethical action. An ethical action requires Goodness. By performing an action which can be described as good, my individual good action is linked with all good actions. It has been defined by the notion of Goodness, and contributes to the definition of Goodness. We have, then, a reciprocal relation between the good for the individual and the common good grounded in Whiteheadian metaphysics.

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Sylvan, R. and Bennett, D., The Greening of Ethics, Cambridge, U.K.: The White Horse Press, 1994.


Whitehead, A.N., Process and Reality, New York & London: Macmillan, 1978 edn..


Whitehead, A.N., Religion in the Making, N.Y.: New American Library, 1974 edn..

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