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"Neoclassical Thought and Social Ethical Analysis"

by Theodore Walker, Jr.

presented at The Center for Process Studies
at the Claremont School of Theology
on 13 November 1996 (revised 12 March 1997).
This revised version appears in a special edition of CREATIVE TRANSFORMATION (vol. 6: no. 2, Winter 1997) honoring Charles Hartshorne on the occasion of his 100th birthday on 5 June 1997.


According to my job description and title, I am primarily a social ethicist. I am distinguished from many social ethicists by virtue of my continuing attention to metaphysics, particularly by attention to neoclassical-process metaphysics.

Many social ethicists question the value of sustained attention to metaphysics.

And there is good logical reason for being skeptical about the social ethical value of metaphysical inquiry. One good logical reason is this: Given that properly metaphysical assertions are consistent with all actual and conceivably actual circumstances nd inconsistent with no actual or conceivably actual circumstance; it is not at all obvious that metaphysical truths make any difference whatsoever to social ethical inquiry.

And so my colleagues in the social sciences and in social ethics are continually challenging me to show how any actual or conceivably actual social ethical reflection could benefit from attention to metaphysics.

One of the classes I teach at the Perkins School of Theology is entitled "Process Theology and Social Ethics."

In this class, time and time again I encounter students who are easily brought to understand the distinction between a narrowly and properly metaphysical assertion and contingent-empirical-factual statements; but, who resist understanding how attention to the properly metaphysical can be useful in the thoroughly contingent world of social ethical imperatives.

Here again, the connection between social ethics and metaphysics is not taken for granted.

To be sure, in many instances, rather than being taken for granted, the connection is explicitly denied.

For those of us seeking answers to such critical questions, I recommend chapter IV --"God and Righteousness"-- of Charles Hartshorne's MAN'S VISION OF GOD AND THE LOGIC OF THEISM (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1964, originally 1941).

Here Hartshorne argues theology illuminates ethics. In "God and Righteousness" (theology and ethics) Hartshorne finds a neoclassical and metaphysical theology is necessary for ethics.

My own view is neoclassical and process thinkers answer these critical questions adequately. Necessarily, social ethics needs theology and metaphysics.

Hartshorne and Whitehead, Cobb and Ogden, Beardslee, Brown, Devaney, Devenish, Griffin, Moore, Phan, Reeves, Suchockie, Thandaka, Young, and others have advanced this discussion by contributing answers and criticisms of answers favoring neoclassical and process thought.

Here I shall offer a modest contribution. I shall offer two examples of how social ethical reflection is helped by attention to metaphysics.

The first example concerns the basic elements of social ethical analysis. The second example concerns the value of Hartshorne's conception of love.


Here I shall offer an analysis of social ethical analysis. This analysis is
partly indebted to Schubert Ogden for clarifying the fact that empirical-historical assertions are also partly existential-historical assertions (PofC);
partly indebted to Charles Hartshorne who regularly reminds us to be attentive to temporal distinctions (CS&PM, MVofG);
partly indebted to Charles Sanders Pierce and his classic essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" where he draws attention to the conditional and hence predictive content of scientifically meaningful terms;
partly indebted to Alfred North Whitehead for teaching us "the future inherits the past" (P&R);
partly indebted to Vine Deloria, Jr. and Black Elk of the Sioux nations, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga nation and other Native American scholars for increased attention to vision and visions of the future (see addendum); and
partly indebted to so many others, it is virtually impossible to name them all or even to recall them all by name.

For here-now, the main point of indebtedness concerns the Whiteheadian-Hartshornian call for attention to temporal distinctions, and the most important point about temporal distinctions is simply this:

The present is partly determined by the past and partly determinative of the future.

Given this metaphysical truth,
any social-historical description of the past is understood to have partly determinative implications for the present;
any sociological description of the present is understood to have partly determinative implications for the future. Hence, all social scientific descriptions have at least implicit predictive power.

social ethical analysis has these distinct elements: interpretative themes, populations/circles of concern, descriptions, predictions, visions (alternative predictions), and prescriptions. Each of these overlapping elements are permeated by 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 typological distinctions such as tribal, ethnic and national entities.

Social scientific descriptions are 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 should (ought) be done to make favorable differences to the probable future.

Social ethical prescriptions are often guided by heavily value laden visions of an alternative and more righteous future.

These 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 social ethical reflection is founded upon the metaphysical presupposition that being-becoming-doing differently makes at least some difference,
upon the metaethical presupposition that we ought to prefer 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. The selection of interpretive themes is an existential value laden decision. And as liberation and black theologians have frequently reminded us, such value laden decisions are frequently a function of social location and narrow self-interest. For imaginary example: If I were tenured at the Nikki shoe company, I might select to interpret the world in terms of feet and shoes. Shoes would be a major interpret e 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 individuals as well as to social groups. 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 or therapy.

Also, one can analyze the social ethical components of a book or essay. One could look at a book, say BLACK ELK SPEAKS, 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 predicted future to an alternative future envisioned as more righteous.

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

If in fact these are basic elements of social ethical analysis (interpretations, populations, descriptions, predictions, visions, prescriptions, values), and if we are well served by attention to these basic elements; then attention to metaphysical resources has contributed to social scientific and social ethical inquiry because my seeing these basic elements is much indebted to neoclassical-process-pragmatic resources, especially those resources calling for attention to temporal distinctions.


When I teach "Process Theology and Social Ethics," usually my Christian students are most profoundly helped by Charles Hartshorne's understanding of love.

Remember for Hartshorne love is not mere sentimental heart throbbings for the other; instead, love is being positively related to the ups and downs of the other.

According to this understanding, to speak of A loving B is to say A is moved upward by B's upward motion and downward by B's downward motion.

This literal understanding of love as being positively related to the ups and downs of the other is a potent resource for social ethical analysis, especially for those forms of social ethical analysis employing love as one of its main interpretive them.

Given this understanding of love, the following kinds of questions become vitally important for social ethical reflection: Are we positively related to the ups and downs of others? To whom are we positively related? To whom are we negatively related? What adjustments should we make in our relations to others?

Given this understanding of love, and given a social ethical analysis which interprets the world in terms of this understanding of love; we have a powerful tool for making critical judgments about the ethics of social groups as they relate to other social groups, and a powerful tool for making critical judgments about the ethics of social location.

Given these conceptual resources, it becomes meaningful to speak of some social locations as inherently unloving and hence unrighteous.

For instance, if our social location is such that we profit from the misfortune and suffering of others, then regardless of our individual motives, we exist in a hateful and morally unrighteous relation to others.

Here then is a social analysis prepared to argue that righteousness and unrighteousness are as much or more about social locations as about individual virtues or vices.

According to this analysis, there is literal meaning to speech about social groups loving or hating each other and literal meaning to speech about the moral status of social location.

And this is very important because a rightly liberating social ethical analysis needs resources for pronouncing critical ethical judgments upon social structures, social groups, social locations, tribes, nations, races, and peoples.

Finally, a social ethical analysis informed by Hartshorne's conception of love can offer fresh insight into the Christian concept of being "born in sin."

According to this analysis, being born into social circumstances where we benefit from the suffering of others is one form of being born in sin. And to the extent all living creatures unavoidably subsist at the expense of at least some other creatures, we can speak meaningfully of a creaturely state of "original sin."


#1 Attention to process-neoclassical and pragmatic thought has helped me discern these basic elements of social ethical analysis:
interpretive themes,
circles of concern / populations,
descriptions (of past & present),
predictions (following from past & present influences),
visions (alternative predictions), and
prescriptions (for changing the future from what is predicted to what is envisioned as a more righteous alternative);
all permeated by values and value judgments.

#2 Hartshorne's literal conception of love as positively related to the ups and downs of others is a mightily helpful resource for making critical social ethical judgments about social groups and social locations, and perhaps a helpful resource for making literal sense of Christian language about birth in sin.

Here then are two examples of attention to metaphysics benefiting social ethical inquiry.


Other important lessons:





Also, see the following:


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most recent update: 27 Feb 1999, 16 March 1998
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