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Russell’s Moral Quandary | Issue 158


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David Berman holds key oppositions in tension, including concerning morality.

The 1948 BBC radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston on the existence of God is justly famous as a notable moment in the history of twentieth century philosophy. For one thing, it seems to have been the first time that two respected philosophers – one highly and widely respected – debated publicly, in the mass media, on the existence of God. Before 1948, there had been many public debates on the subject, but between popular atheists, like Charles Bradlaugh, and clergymen of various religious denominations, where neither debater had any real standing in philosophy.

In his Life of Bertrand Russell (1975), Ronald Clark describes Russell’s involvement with the BBC, and how, by 1947, it had become intense. Continuing his account, Clark quotes Ronald Lewin of the BBC as saying that “Of all the many speakers I handled I would put Bertie among the most professional… His scripts were always immaculately composed to exactly the right length and written in a style that absolutely fitted his way of speaking.” And it was this, as Clark then observes, that “led on to a major unscripted debate with Father Copleston on ‘The Existence of God’… ‘Copleston is a find’, the Director-General [of the BBC] wrote the following day [after the debate]. ‘He was the first man I had heard who could stand in the same ring as Russell on these matters and not seem out of place’.”

In his Memoirs of a Philosopher (1993), Copleston himself says a good deal about his 1948 encounter with Russell. However, five years earlier, Copleston had sent me a lengthy account of the debate, in a letter dated 9 February 1988. It was written in reply to one I sent him expressing my gratitude for a Sunday Times review he wrote of my History of Atheism in Britain. In my letter I asked him if he had any memories of his 1948 debate with Russell that I might include if there was a new edition of my History.

While what Copleston wrote in his Memoirs and in his letter to me are in general agreement, there are some topics in his letter which are not in his Memoirs, and vice versa. One important thing that they agree on is that the debate was scripted beforehand, so Ronald Clark, and probably most of those who knew the debate, had misunderstood its format. However, the most important thing in Copleston’s letter to me, which is not in his Memoirs, is his recollection of Russell’s summing up of his moral theory. Since Copleston’s Memoirs are publicly available, I quote from my letter where there is agreement between the two accounts.

To begin, then, Copleston describes how he and Russell met at the BBC for a preliminary discussion. This was

“fed into machines located out of sight. The machines worked only spasmodically, and the BBC sent us each a copy of the discussion with great gaps or blanks and asked us to reconstruct as best we could. Being then a relatively young man, I put in a lot of work on the job and tried to improve my position a bit. Russell – being an old hand – did nothing. But this did not prevent him from demanding parity of space, so to speak, when we met for the final broadcast.”

Arguably, the crucial point in the original discussion concerned the relation of morality and the existence of God. For, according to Copleston,

“when [Russell] saw from the surviving parts of the original discussion that he had admitted to finding himself in a quandary – something like ‘I certainly would want to say that polishing off Jews at Auschwitz was absolutely wrong, even if it could be shown that at some future date the human race would be benefited, but my ethical theory does not allow me to say this, and I cannot provide a satisfactory solution; I find myself in a quandary’ – he then added to me, ‘I cannot say this in public’ and modified what he had said.”

I believe that Copleston has here captured for us a telling moment in their debate, and even perhaps in the history of philosophy, i.e. Russell’s moment of acute and unhappy awareness of the non-satisfactory nature of his moral theory, which he felt he could not express in public, so needed to modify – which is what he did.

Combining Contrasting Judgements

Russell’s moral theory, at least as he describes it in the debate, was that our moral judgments come from a combination of our nurture and education, but primarily come from our feelings and their consequences. Hence they do not arise from any timeless, non-natural absolutes, for they are different in different times and places. Russell puts this nicely in the published version of the debate, where he sums up his theory of moral judgments with the formula that they arise from ‘feelings as to effects’. But while that was his theory, he recognized, as a result of Copleston’s pointed questioning, that it did not enable him to hold that the Nazi policy of killing the Jews at Auschwitz was absolutely wrong ‘even if it could be shown that the effects at some future date on the human race would be beneficial’. And hence he conceded that his moral theory was not satisfactory.

However in his letter to me (and only in my letter) Copleston says that Russell went further and said that “I do not find my ethical theory satisfactory, but I find other people’s even less satisfactory.” Copleston is, however, careful to add that this is what Russell said to him “if my memory does not fail me, his position was more or less…” So here, supposing Copleston was remembering accurately, Russell seems to be generalizing his quandary, and saying that all ethical theories are unsatisfactory.

Now I agree with Russell’s judgment, but I want to argue that while no one theory is satisfactory, there are two theories, which, when taken together, are satisfactory. I shall do this by drawing on the main idea in two recently published works: my Consciousness from Descartes to Ayer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, and The Essential Berkeley and Neo-Berkeley, Bloomsbury, 2022.

The idea, in short, is that the philosophical positions known as monism and dualism, widely assumed to be irreconcilable opposites, are both true as basic epistemic-ontological types. Hence they can be combined as contrary (not contradictory) ways of understanding the world. For simplicity, I call this the Dualist Monist Typology. When this move is taken into the moral realm the opposing positions are non-naturalism and naturalism, and as such are able, when combined, to provide a satisfactory moral theory, and so solve Russell’s quandary. Although here I need to add that every person individually must pursue either one or the other of the two opposing positions – naturalism or non-naturalism – depending on which type they are.

Of course, the natural question is: on what is my Dualist Monist Typology based? My answer is on the nature of philosophy as known through its history, and also on a theory of intuition which is most clearly expressed in Spinoza’s Ethics and Bergson’s Introduction to Metaphysics (1903). So it has two pillars, but the main pillar is the history of philosophy.

More specifically, what I think the history of philosophy shows is that because philosophy aims to answer ultimate questions, it accepts no assumptions. It is chiefly in this that philosophy differs from science, which does assume certain things. As William James nicely pointed out in the opening chapter of his Textbook of Psychology, 1892, physicists assume that independent of mind there are material things which have mass or weight. But they do not think this can be proven; nor do they believe it is axiomatically or intuitively evident. Philosophers, by contrast, generally hold that their accounts of basic and ultimate matters are not just assumptions, but are true. This must mean that they think their understanding of them is itself self-evident or intuitively certain. So while they do often offer supporting arguments for their basic truths, these must rest finally on their to-them self-evident intuitions. Yet as the history of philosophy also shows, there has been no actual agreement amongst great philosophers about these ‘self-evident’ matters. What we find is that some great philosophers, such as Descartes, are dualists, believing the world is made of two basic sorts of substance, mind and matter; while others, such as Spinoza, are monists, believing that the world is composed of only one type of basic substance.

Indeed, the history of philosophy shows that there are perennial oppositions which are never resolved, since they return again and again, although usually in differently-developed forms. I think the best way of explaining this is through my Dualist-Monist Typology, which opposes the idea that there is just one kind of human mind. (Following Francis Galton, I call that the ‘Typical Mind Fallacy’.)


Bertrand Russell portrait by Woodrow Cowher

The Testimony of History

Since my argument depends so much on the history of philosophy I should say a word about that. All philosophers know something of it, but I think few have considered what it is in itself, and how it differs from the other sub-disciplines of philosophy, such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics or aesthetics. What is it that distinguishes historians of philosophy from metaphysicians, epistemologists, etc? I wrote something about this in my 2021 book Consciousness from Descartes to Ayer, but here I think I can both go further and also be more concise.

To begin with, I think there is far more agreement amongst historians of philosophy than among those who devote themselves to any of its other sub-disciplines. I think this arises from there being a factual or empirical dimension to the history of philosophy, namely the texts of past philosophers. This is its concrete data. Yet also important is that, beginning with GWF Hegel (1770-1831), the first great historian of philosophy, historians have recognized that the history of philosophy, right back to ancient philosophy, exhibits itself in fundamental oppositions. Where Hegel went wrong (followed by Marx) was in holding that these oppositions are then reconciled by something higher – a synthesis of the two. In this, Hegel was moving from being an objective historian of philosophy to being a partisan of one metaphysical view, in this case monism: for Hegel the world is Spirit or Idea. But for the objective historian of philosophy, there is no one unifying position, only the evident oppositions, perhaps most prominently between monism and dualism, but also between free will and determinism, and, of course, naturalism and non-naturalism in ethics. So whereas some philosophers, such as Spinoza, are certain that there is no free will, others such as Berkeley are certain that there is free will. As mentioned above, the source of their opposing certainties must be their opposing intuitions.

What the history of philosophy shows, then, is that philosophy as such is essentially a series of debates between opposing positions on ultimate matters. And it is upon this that I base my solution to Russell’s quandary. But I also need to concede that my Dualist Monist Typology can be opposed by a powerful counter theory, which I think is accepted by many present-day philosophers. Moreover, I concede that this counter theory is based on the same account of the history of philosophy as my Dualist Monist Typology. Where it differs is that it holds that philosophy yields no knowledge, for its oppositions are unresolvable. Where, according to it, we do gain genuine knowledge is in the sciences which have developed from and separated themselves from philosophy: physics, chemistry and, most recently, psychology. For convenience I will call this opposing position the Anti-Dualist-Monist Typology.

Now both my Dualist-Monist Typology and the Anti-Dualist-Monist Typology agree that the fundamental oppositions in the history of philosophy have no decisive arguments supporting any of their possible positions. This is demonstrated through there being no agreement about these oppositions, even after more than two thousand years of debate and discussion. But to this the Dualist-Monist Typology adds the second pillar of the theory, namely the doctrine of intuition, which enables it to hold that both opposing positions give knowledge, because both types have direct intuitive experience of their respective truths. According to the Dualist-Monist Typology, then, Parmenides, Democritus, Epicurus, Hobbes, and Spinoza were right in being certain that monism is true; whereas Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz, among others, were equally certain, and right, that dualism is true. The main difference between my Dualist-Monist Typology and the Anti-Dualist-Monist Typology is that whereas the latter holds that philosophy gives no knowledge, the former holds that it gives double knowledge: what both the opposing types holds is true, being demonstrated through self-evident intuition! So one clear advantage of the Dualist-Monist Typology is that no great philosophers are rubbished. It is a win-win situation, not a win-lose situation or worse still, as it seems to be according to the Anti-Dualist-Monist Typology, lose-lose. So I would urge that anyone who loves philosophy should accept my Dualist-Monist Typology.

Ways of Being Moral

Given the above, I think we are now in a position to show more specifically how the Dualist-Monist Typology can solve Russell’s moral quandary. There are two opposing basic moral theories, one purely non-natural and absolute, the other purely natural and relativistic. The former I think is most powerfully exemplified by Plato, according to whom moral values exist in the abstract realm of Forms, where the Form of the Good overlaps with other Forms, such as Justice. Absolute moral valuations can then be made by those who are aware of these Forms. According to the opposite, naturalist position, exemplified most powerfully by Spinoza, the way to understand moral perfection is through the identification of the human mind at its best with the whole of Nature. Put in Spinoza’s terminology, human perfection, including moral perfection, can be attained if the eternal mode of the human mind is brought into accord with the Mind of ‘God or Nature’.

My suggested solution to Russell’s moral quandary is that both positions are true, and so provide a way of attaining what is Good (as Plato calls it), or perfect (as Spinoza puts it). Yet as I mentioned, it is necessary that each person accept one or the other of the theories in order to pursue what is good or perfect. This choice should be in accordance with his or her basic philosophical type. In short, one must become either a total naturalist or non-naturalist; and not just in theory but in life.

To be sure, this is neither easy to understand nor to achieve, for in this world there is very little chance of being completely good or perfect, since this world is a mixture of opposing elements. However both Plato and Spinoza recognize that our lives in this world can be better or worse, and they both recommend practical ways to make them better – for example, by us accepting short-term compromise and cooperation with people who oppose us. This provides the means whereby each person can move by degrees from one imperfect stage to another which is a little more perfect and contented – either in the Platonic, non-natural way, or the Spinozistic, natural way. Specifically, an individual must try to realize and then actualize what is essential in his or her nature, by eliminating more and more the opposing alien elements in his or her self and life. In this way, he or she can ultimately become either a demi-god, according to Plato; or one with the mind of ‘God or Nature’, according to Spinoza.

This then, in outline, is a way to attain what Russell thought was unattainable – a satisfactory ethics.

© Prof. David Berman 2023

David Berman is Professor Emeritus Fellow in the Philosophy Department, Trinity College Dublin. He has published a number of books on various aspects of the history of philosophy. A short account of his present work and method of doing philosophy can be read at artisanphilosophybrochure.wordpress.com.

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