This paper is available at the Center for Process Studies site, but is somewhat difficult to reach, so it is reproduced here.

Process and Reality: a Resource for Parsing Ethics

by Theodore Walker, Jr.,
Perkins School of Theology,
Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas;
presented at an 8 August 1998 ethics section of the third
International Whitehead Conference (4-9 August 1998) on the theme
"Process Thought and the Common Good" at the Center for Process Studies
and Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California, in
celebration of the Center's 25th year (revised 13 August 1998).

In his 15th chapter of ADVENTURES OF IDEAS (New York: Macmillan, 1967, originally 1933), a chapter entitled "Philosophic Method," Alfred North Whitehead argues "that theory dictates method," and he illustrates the power of theory to dictate method by reference to his own doctrine of "the transient aspect of nature" (p. 220).

Here I understand Whitehead's doctrine of the "transient aspect of nature" as a theory dictating method in ethics. The transient aspect of nature requires that ethics be parsed according to temporal distinctions, according to distinctions between past, present and probable futures.

[Charles Hartshorne is equally emphatic in prescribing attention to temporal distinctions. To be sure, "temporal distinctions" is Hartshorne's wording in CREATIVE SYNTHESIS AND PHILOSOPHIC METHOD (New York: University Press of America, 1983, originally 1970) where he argues "temporal distinctions are modal distinctions" (p. 62).]

Accordingly, in part one, I offer my own account of ethics so parsed.

Then, after having presented my account of ethics parsed according to distinctions between past, present and probable futures, I offer a brief metaethical analysis of Whitehead's thought bringing us to a conclusion which, as far as I know, Whitehead himself fails to explicate--namely, this:

Whitehead's philosophy is a systematic ethical inquiry.

Furthermore, all critical systematic philosophical deliberation is a species of ethics.

Hence, I am an ethicist employing Whiteheadian-Hartshornian resources to annex the whole of philosophy.

Part One

First, my account of ethics parsed with attention to distinctions between past, present and probable futures:

It is entirely consistent with Whitehead and Hartshorne to hold, as I do, all ethics is social ethics.

The gains in adding the qualifier "social" include rendering this point explicit, and rightly implying ethics includes social science.

Social science, like other academic science, presupposes a metaphysical truth about time and temporal distinctions clearly accounted for in the philosophies of Whitehead and Hartshorne--namely this: The present is partly determined by the past and partly determinative of the future.--1

Given this metaphysical truth, a social-historical description of the past is understood to have partly determinative implications for the present; and, a sociological description of the present is understood to have partly determinative implications for the future.

Hence, social scientific descriptions have at least implicit predictive power.

Thus, forms of social ethical analysis having a social scientific component include these distinct elements: (1) interpretative themes,
(2) populations/circles of concern,
(3) descriptions,
(4) predictions,
(5) visions (alternative predictions), and
(6) prescriptions.
Each of these elements are permeated by (7) values and value judgments.

Interpretative themes are selected based upon value judgments about what is important and good (or bad) and worthy (or unworthy) of attention.

Fundamental value judgments lead us to interpret the world in terms of selected aspects, features, typologies, and themes.

Social sciences and social ethics are studies pertaining to selected populations or circles of concern. Usually selected human populations are identified by time, by geographic space, and by topological distinctions such as tribal, ethnic and national entities.

Social scientific descriptions are usually descriptions of present circumstances, or more precisely, descriptions of very recent circumstances, and descriptions of historical circumstances contributing to recent and present circumstances.

That part of social science which describes the past and the past's contributions to the present is usually called history.

That part of social science which describes the present, or more precisely, the very recent past, is usually called sociology.

Sociology, insofar as it is a science rather than a mere academic account of the "news," goes beyond simply reporting recent and old news.

In addition to offering descriptions of the present and of the past's contributions to present events, sociology offers predictions.

Social scientific predictions are about probable future circumstances following from present and past trends.

Social ethics reaches beyond social science by including explicit and sustained attention to formulating social ethical and public policy prescriptions.

Social ethical prescriptions concern what ought to be done to make righteous differences to the probable future.

Envisioning more righteous alternatives (alternatives to continuing along the present path into the probable future) is inherently critical of circumstances, habits and policies contributing to the predicted-less righteous-probable future.

Consequently, social ethical prescriptions are guided by heavily value-laden visions of alternative and more righteous futures.

Typically, visions of an alternative more righteous future are partly visions of the differences being and doing as prescribed will make, and partly visions of differences to be made by other favorable influences.

And of course all ethical reflection is founded upon the metaphysical presupposition that being-becoming-doing or merely thinking differently makes at least some difference, and upon the metaethical presupposition that we ought to value some differences over others, namely, we ought to prefer making righteous differences--differences contributing to the good, to shared well-being.

Two notes are in order:

First, please note that values and value judgments play a critical role in all social analysis. Selection of an interpretive theme is an existential value-laden decision.

And as liberation and black theologians have frequently reminded us, such value-laden decisions are frequently functions of social location and narrow self-interest.

For imaginary example; if I were tenured at the Niki shoe company, I might select to interpret the world in terms of feet and shoes. Shoes would be a major interpretive theme for my social analytic work.

Similarly, the selection of a population or circle of concern is a function of valuing some selected population(s) over other populations.

Moreover, even the most flat footed descriptions and predictions include at least implicit evaluations of the importance and goodness or badness of the circumstances described and predicted.

These heavily value-laden selections should be subject to critical ethical inquiry.

Secondly, please note that social analytic method can apply to a broad range of concerns and populations, from the most inclusive to the least. To be sure, the circle of concern or population could be a single individual.

And if physical health were the interpretive theme, then we could employ social analytic method in the practice of medicine. Then instead of saying "description," we would say "diagnosis." Instead of "prediction," we would say "prognosis." And instead of "vision," we would say "alternative prognosis" given the efficacy of the "prescription," treatment or therapy.--2

Also, one can analyze the social ethical components of a book or essay. One could look at a book, say BLACK ELK SPEAKS--3, or a letter, say Paul's letter to the Corinthians, and seek to identify the main interpretive themes, the circles of concern, the descriptions of previous and contemporaneous circumstances, implicit and explicit predictions, and implicit and explicit prescriptions for changing the future from what is predicted to what is envisioned as a more righteous alternative future.

So be it here-now noted, social ethical analysis has various applications and ranges of possible use.

Part Two

Part one presented an analysis of ethics parsed according to temporal and other distinctions.

According to this analysis, there are seven formal elements entering into a complete systematic ethical deliberation:

(1) interpretive themes,
(2) populations/circles of concern,
(3) descriptions(of past and present),
(4) predictions (probable futures),
(5) visions (of more righteous alternative futures), & (6) prescriptions (for changing the future from what is predicted as most probable to what is envisioned as a more righteous alternative); all permeated by
(7) values and value judgments.

Part two is a brief analysis of chapter XIII of Whitehead's SCIENCE AND THE MODERN WORLD: LOWELL LECTURES, 1925 (New York: Macmillan, 1954, originally 1925), a chapter entitled "Requisites for Social Progress."

In addition to displaying some little portion of the material content of Whitehead's ethical thought, this metaethical analysis reveals each of the seven said formal elements is present.

In "Requisites for Social Progress," "social progress" is a major interpretive theme, and according to Whiteheadian values, social progress is good.

And here Whitehead's circle of concern is modern "civilised societies" (p. 279).

Whitehead's description of the past contributing to the present is "the recent breakdown of the seventeenth century settlement of the principles of physical science" (p. 277) including "the assumption of bodies and minds as independent individual substances" and concordant moral individualism (p. 279).

Whitehead's valuation of this circumstance is that the "western world is now suffering from the limited moral outlook of the three previous generations" (p. 281). This limited moral outlook includes "assumption of the bare valuelessness of mere matter" and nature. And Whitehead goes on to speak of the "evils" of being ignorant of organic relations to the environment and of being ignorant of nature's "intrinsic worth" (p. 281-282).

Whitehead predicts, if we continue with such ignorance, we will be deficit in wisdom required to avoid "disasters" (p. 284).

If we continue as we are presently going, then our probable future will be characterized by disastrous relations to the environment and to each other.

In contrast to this probable disastrous future, Whitehead envisions a more righteous alternative possibility characterized by "balanced development" and "wisdom" (p. 284).

And Whitehead offers prescriptions for contributing to the realization of this more righteous alternative, thereby avoiding probable future disasters.

Whitehead's prescriptions are for changing the future from what is predicted as most probable to what is envisioned and valued as more righteous.

Specifically, Whitehead prescribes changes in education and professional training.

These prescribed changes include increased attention to the value of nature, to environmental relations, and to artistic-aesthetic values such as beauty.

[Other Whiteheadian values aimed for with critical inquiry include intellectual and moral beauty. See ADVENTURES OF IDEAS (New York: Macmillan, 1967, originally 1933), p. 11.]

Also, Whitehead prescribes rejection of the gospels of force and uniformity in favor of diversity (p. 297-298) and recourse to more "creative imagination" and to "the power of reason" (p. 299).

Please observe that each of the basic elements of a complete systematic social ethic are explicitly present.

Whitehead goes beyond scientific description and prediction to envision an alternative more righteous future, and he offers prescriptions for actualizing that more righteous alternative.

And not only here in this chapter, but throughout his work, Whitehead goes beyond description and prediction to prescribe more adequate views over less adequate or wrong or confused views, for the sake of changing the future in ways favoring social and intellectual progress.

Because Whitehead's philosophy includes each of the basic formal elements entering into a complete systematic social ethical deliberation, we may rightly identify it as a species of critical social ethical inquiry.

Locating Whitehead's philosophy within ethics is a particular instance of a more general truth--ethics includes philosophy.

Critical philosophical deliberations favoring more adequate accounts over lesser accounts for the sake of some good(s) or value(s) (truth, beauty, utility, liberty, whatever) are ethical endeavors.

Said formal elements are at least implicit in all critical philosophical argumentation.

Thus, I annex you all, for philosophy is a species of ethics.


1-- Alfred North Whitehead's doctrines of the future inheriting the past are developed throughout his works, including especially in PROCESS AND REALITY: AN ESSAY IN COSMOLOGY: CORRECTED EDITION (New York: Free Press, originally 1929, 1978 corrected edition edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne), and in chapter XII--"Past, Present, Future"--of ADVENTURES OF IDEAS (New York: Macmillan, 1967, originally 1933).

2-- Medical practice is social ethics focused on a population of one with physical health as its main interpretive theme. Frequently, this turns out to be an inadequate circle of concern. Viewing medical practice as a social ethical endeavor is consistent with Black Elks understanding of his vocation as healer of individuals and nations. See BLACK ELK SPEAKS: BEING THE LIFE STORY OF A HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA SIOUX AS TOLD THROUGH JOHN G. NEIHARDT (FLAMING RAINBOW) (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, originally 1932), by John G. Neihardt.

3-- For example, see my analysis of BLACK ELK SPEAKS: BEING THE LIFE STORY OF A HOLY MAN OF THE OGLALA SIOUX AS TOLD THROUGH JOHN G. NEIHARDT (FLAMING RAINBOW) (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, originally 1932), by John G. Neihardt in SOCIAL SCIENCE AND SOCIAL ETHICS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY: HERE INSTRUCTED BY NATIVE AMERICAN SOCIAL WISDOM by Theodore Walker, Jr. on the world wide web at

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Entered Feb. 11, 2000, by Alan Andrson,

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