Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


Peter A. Bertocci (left) with Boston University graduate students, October 2, 1959


Essays by Me

Essays by Others


From The Personalist, Vol. 40 (Spring, 1959), 141-151; reprinted in Peter A. Bertocci, The Person God Is, London: George Allen & Unwin and New York: Humanities Press, 1970, 113-122.  The essay's three footnotes were originally all numbered “1” on their respective pages of the book; they have been renumbered serially and are now endnotes.

Anthony Flood


The Person, Obligation, and Value

Peter A. Bertocci


[Before the text of the anthologized edition of the article, Bertocci supplied this preface:]

Obligation, I have proposed, is neither the voice of God, nor the voice of society, nor the voice of a person’s basic needs and abilities as re-formed in his personality.  “Oughting” is that imperative to the best which a person experiences at choice point, once he reflects on the alternatives he believes are open to him.  The experience of obligation is neither a cognition of some irreducible value-data, or prima facie, or a priori obligations; nor is it an emotive response symptomatic of the person’s affective-conative preferences. 

“Oughting” has its own magisterial authority, as Bishop Butler said.  Yet Butler and the cognitivists, or ethical realists, do not take into account adequately the fact that ‘cognitions’ of the best do change while obligation to the best does not.  Nor do they adequately see that needs and wants, learned and acquired, are the raw material for choice and do influence the range of actual preferences in the person’s moral horizon.  In the present chapter, I indicate how the authority of oughting is related to the person’s decisions about what he ought to become as he analyses the welter of claims and counter-claims that confront him as a caring person.

*     *     *

It is the theme of this paper that a more adequate account of moral obligation and value may be given if the experiences of obligation and of value are seen as distinct, though complementary, phases within the matrix of personal self-experience.  It is to be suggested that “obligatoriness” is not an attribute of any value-object per se, but a sui generis quality of personal experience.  Value-experiences, on the other hand, become norms for persons, not because they are non-natural, but because, critically selected, they become guides to creative fulfilment.  On such a view the emphasis of the deontologists on irreducible obligatoriness is granted, but is relocated as a unique quality of personal non-cognitive experiencing in choice situations.  At the same time, value may be defined in terms of experienced preference, or preferred experience, and located in the person as he interacts with the environment. These suggestions may be briefly amplified as follows:


1. Whatever final metaphysical status is attributed to a person whether, for example, he be a composition of electrical charges from which conscious states emerge, whether he be a focus or centre of unconditional Being or of an Absolute Spirit, whether he be a “substance” created with delegated spontaneity by God—his existence as a knowing-agent is presupposed in hypothesizing any theory about his metaphysical status.  Human knowing cannot go on—that is, sense-data cannot be interpreted, logical and mathematical relations clarified, a perceptual world organized, comparisons and contrasts drawn, conceptions entertained, and experiences evaluated—unless remembering and constant present undergoing or experiencing are inseparate aspects of the knowing process (H. H. Price, Bowne, Brightman, Tennant).  Thus, to be a person is, minimally, to be an active-timebinding unity of experiencing.  Experiencing is used here to embrace that kind of durée or process which can be stipulatively or ostensively defined as a unitas multiplex (W. Stern) or sensing, remembering, thinking, feeling, willing, wanting, and, as we shall see, oughting.  It is a person who develops theories about himself upon the basis—of what else but experiencing? Finally, if a person knows that, wherever there is cognitive experiencing, what goes on is a mental process of connecting and relating; if he knows that this process is distinguishable from sensing, and that both thinking and sensing are distinguishable from emotive and wanting processes, it is because, as experienced, these activities have qualitatively different psychic tones—for want of better words!  Yet, so far as we know, each experiential process is embedded inextricably in the unified matrix of the kind we call a person.  This largely phenomenological description of personal experience must suffice as a background for the analysis of moral obligation and value.


2. Among my experiences as a person I note a peculiar experience of obligation.  This experience has been described in different ways and in terms which seem not to do justice to the phenomenology of the experience.  The experience of obligation has suffered by being interpreted, rather than described, in its own experienced light.  For example, Freudians, materialists, naturalists, and others have interpreted it in the context of what it might be expected to be if the remainder of their theories of human nature were to dictate.  In their hands the experience “I ought” becomes, generally speaking, a consolidated complex of desires, especially of fear and approval, conditioned in a cultural milieu to specific or general permissions and prohibitions.  On such views, however, the experience of obligatoriness, of oughting, if I may coin the appropriate verb, turns out, on analysis, to be totally explained by understanding what pressures in each case were brought to form this monitor or censor.

Many theists (Butler, Kant, J. Baillie, A. C. Garnett), on the other hand, have interpreted the experience of obligation as ultimately a moral cognition of God’s norms for men.  On either “naturalistic” or theistic views, the experience of oughting ends up as the experience in man of specific or general imperatives originating beyond the individual experient’s nature.

But do not such accounts, though logically possible as theories, run contrary to what a person actually feels when he experiences obligation?  I am not denying that conditioning is present in the total personality, nor am I denying the possibility of God’s existence and effects in man’s life.  But, to limit myself here to the naturalistic social theory of obligation, I must question whether ought, as experienced, is essentially the introjection of social pressures and approvals.  There is nothing coercive, or permissive, in a strict sense, in the experience of felt obligation.  The different degrees of psychological compulsion I may feel are not that which is present in oughting as such.  I can never fairly substitute the words “I must,” or “I may,” “I fear,” “I am anxious,” as a description of what takes place when I feel “I ought.”

Again, prima facie, when “I ought” is felt, social disapproval or approval may accompany it, together with felt desires, fears, and anxieties.  But, prima facie, oughting is not felt as what is required by pressures of desire from within or demands from others. For it itself is not felt as a conative urge (“I want”), or as compulsion (“I must”).  Oughting has its own peculiar tone, its own kind of appeal or urgency, within the context of wants, fears, and feeling-emotive tensions.  When I say, “I ought to do X,” the X may be what others approve or disapprove, but I never feel I ought in connection with X unless I believe that what others approve or disapprove is the best standard for me also.  Let the reader ask himself: “Do I feel ‘I ought’ about a command or demand which I myself in no sense approve?  On the other hand, if the command or demand is deemed by me to be the best possible in this situation, or most consistent with what I believe to be the best, do I not feel I ought in connection with it, even if, in fact, I then fail to will it?”  In brief, the suggestion here is that the experience of obligation is felt about any alternative or option approved by the person (whatever his criterion of the good or the best may be).

We cannot consider here the genesis of the experience, but must remind ourselves that prima facie facts must be explained by genetic psychology and must not be explained away.  It is such a far cry from “I must,” or “I want,” to “I ought,” that this writer would hold that the experience of obligation is as primitive and irreducible as the experience of wanting or thinking, and that it appears in the maturing person at that point when he begins to contemplate and compare alternatives.  Oughting seems clearly to be present in adult experience when a choice-point is confronted, and when the person judges which alternative is best.  The moment he decides which alternative is best, he feels: I ought to do it.  Thus we may conceptualize the experience of oughting in the words, “I ought to do the best I know.”

Persons may differ, owing to innate sensitivity or perceptivity, owing to differences in personal learning and cultural influences, owing to whatever the factors may turn out to be which influence the final decision as to what is best.  But is there ever a choice situation in which a person does not feel obligated to the best as he sees it?  A theory of value-experience is, to be sure, crucial in the final decision about what is best, but the contention here is twofold:

(a) that whatever the theory of the value-object or objective by which one determines the best, at choice-points a persistent, continuous obligation to the conceived best is felt by the person.  This is as much a, part of his unlearned nature as thinking is, though neither is present at birth.  Furthermore, whatever the structure of value, or of the universe may be—whether, for example, there be a good God or not—“I ought to do the best I know.”  As a person grows and reflects, the meaning of “the best” may change, but the inner imperative to the best possible is unwavering.  This is not one ought among other prima facie oughts (W. D. Ross), but the underlying and common thrust of every other selected best or specific “ought to do.”

(b) This experience of obligation, as such, cannot be conceived as a by-product of the pressures of society, of the world, or of the rest of a person’s nature upon him.  The “ought to will the best I know” is as irreducible at the level of choice as, say, the “will to live” is at the level of sheer psychobiological conation.

Thus we are simply not describing the personal structure of experience adequately without adding such “oughting” to the distinguishable list of human capacities.  What is considered best may vary with maturity and learning, just as the thoughts one thinks vary; “oughting to do the best” is as unwavering as a magnetic needle toward the best in choice situations, even though it must await decision rather than itself assert some intuition of the best.

This account of the uniqueness of obligation may be buttressed by calling attention to what a person feels when he obeys his “ought to the best” despite the fact that stern social reprisals or personal disappointments ensue!  He may indeed feel fear and anxiety because of what may happen to him, yet he still can “look himself in the mirror,” as we say, and feel what, for want of other words, we may call moral approval.  The surgeon who has done his very best to save a patient when all was in vain, feels miserable indeed.  But he feels, together with disappointment, a “moral approval.”  The prophet may feel anxiety, but he still feels, and is exalted by, the unique moral approval of:  “I can do no other.”  What happens on the other hand, if a person does not will his chosen ought-objective?  He may feel social approval, and he may feel that other ends are now secure—but he also feels moral guilt.

To feel guilty is not to feel anxiety (though one may accompany the other), and it is anomalous that so much psychology identifies the two.  But there is, to say the least, a component of fear in anxiety which is never present in guilt as such.  Anxiety may be produced by social pressure, but guilt never.  A professor may feel anxious lest he lose his position owing to the publication of his investigations, but does he feel guilty if he believes that publication is for the best?  To take the surgeon again.  If his patient gets well despite an avoidable surgical error, he may not feel the pointing finger of social disapproval.  But on coolly contemplating his avoidable actions, he will feel guilt—and may try to wipe these feelings away by rationalization.  For such reasons, then, we may contend that moral approval and moral guilt are misconstrued if reduced, respectively, to social approval and socially conditioned anxiety.

It will be noted that this analysis of obligation so far could be classified as agreeing with deontologists like Ross, against utilitarian, “emotivist,” Freudian, and many psychosociological reductions of personal-social interaction.  But it seems to me that deontologists, while properly insisting on obligations as an impregnable “given” in human experience, have erred, together with moral intuitionists like Butler or Hartmann.  They have committed the cognitive fallacy in regard to the experience of obligation.  For “oughting” is no more a cognitive experience than are “wanting” or logical thinking as such.  The “object” of oughting is its “objective” (the best), which may vary from situation to situation in specific content, as a person decides what value is the best.  The “ought” imperative to “the best I know” is absolute and unwavering.  But there are no specific values, or “rights” which are found by its nature to be “the best,” apart from learning or moral experimentation.  Even W. D. Ross grants this basic thesis by saying that his special obligations are prima facie only, and in need of further criticism; and he gives greater authority to the obligation to optimize the good than to his other special obligations.  At any rate, as Mandelbaum has reminded the deontolo-gists, “the phenomenon of obligation is not merely a matter of action-accordingly-to-rule.”1


3. How, then, on this view does one come to know what values constitute the best?  The suggestion to be made is indebted to nonintuitionists in value-theory—and especially Dewey, R. B. Perry, F. R. Tennant, and E. S. Brightman.  Here the emphasis is placed on the fact that what is deemed the best value depends on the careful organization and systematic criticism of actual value-undergoing on the part of persons, with a view to discovering which ideal of personality and society will protect the widest range and the highest quality of values open to man as he interacts with his total environment.  In a word, “the best” is not some one quality or value independent of any enjoyed experience of desire or interest, nor is it definable a priori or independently of experienced and experienceable values.  In every choice situation, “the best” refers to some desired experience or experiences, critically conceived (after comparison with other desired experiences, and after assessment of foreseeable consequences), to the total value-complex of which persons are deemed capable.  Once a desired experience is judged “the best” in a given situation, it immediately becomes the object of obligation, until some other alternative takes its place.  Thus, once more, obligation to the best is invariable and unwavering, but what constitutes the best may vary as the person’s insight into values and their conditions grows.

To explicate: “Value,” to begin with, is the name for any desired human experience; “disvalue” for any undesired or unwanted human experience.  In this sense, there are no values or disvalues of any kind without persons undergoing experiences which are then deemed wanted or unwanted.  As experienced, the “value” is always at least a wanted state of a person undergoing the experience.  The wanting does not have to precede the experiencing, for a person often finds himself experiencing a state which he then wants to continue or discontinue.  The “problem of value” in a given life is always the problem of deciding which of desired states (or undesired states) is to be chosen when there is a conflict between the human states desired or undesired.  In view of the fact that persons grow and situations change, no assessment of value-experience is intrinsically beyond question—no matter how convinced, psychologically, a person may be about the asserted prima facie value of “fittingness” of any experience.  It is more cautious to say that we all begin with prima facie value-claims, and that the problem is to decide which “claims” are trustworthy.

What does the word trustworthy mean in a value-situation?  Where are the controls to be sought?  Within the person?  Outside the person?  The answer involves both.  First, a person has a fundamental structure common to other persons, together with differences which constitute him a unique person among other unique persons.  No person knows exactly what he is and what he can become.  Second, every person interacts with other persons in a non-human world, whose exact nature is not exactly known.  Nevertheless, within his own nature he discovers more dependable “structures” or tendencies and abilities which he himself cannot constitute or create as such, though they may be amenable to change within hard-to-define limits.  And he finds himself among other persons who bring him up amid the values which they believe to be trustworthy for their natures in the world as they conceive it.

Two considerations emerge as crucial to an adequate theory of human valuation.

(a) While human valuations are aspects of human experience, they represent one’s own interaction, on the basis of one’s own given ability and sensitivity, with value-schemes and natures of other persons in this kind of not-man-made world.

(b) A value-claim, accordingly, is a joint-product, for whatever its final worth, of the total nature of the person, as developed to a given point, and of the total nature of the nurturant environment, as it impinges upon him.

Put differently: In making a value-claim, a person is making a claim about what he believes at least possible to human experience in a given social situation in a given world up to this time.  In claiming certain experiences to be valuable for him, he is also, until he is brought up short by brute experience and reflection, suggesting that this experience is valuable for others also.  The stress here is on the fact that in saying that values are related to persons and their structure and growth-potential, we are not asserting that values are relative to the individual in the sense that no standards at all can be found for judging which value-claims are to be preferred to which other value-claims.  For the controls are fixed (but not all, or finally, known) within the potentialities of human nature for wide varieties of value-experience and within the possibilities allowed to human experience by the non-human world.2

Value-experience, then, is indeed man-made in the sense that man can “make” or “unmake” any value-experience (and its consequences) as he wants.  The biological, psychic, and spiritual potentialities in his nature do not operate helter-skelter in their growth and fulfilment; nor are they fulfilled without the encouragement, discourage-ment, or nurturance and sustenance, by the actualities and possibilities open to human nature in the world within which man lives.  It is this world which “allows” that vast experiences which are human responses to it.  It is this world which constitutes a realm of value-eligibility and non-eligibility, for it demands responses adequate to its nature.  Value-claims are man-made, but neither man nor the total environment is by any means totally man-made.

To come back, then, to the problem of value-selection.  Assessment of value-claims is forced by the plethora of possible value-claims and the actual conflicts which ensue if certain values are pursued and not others.  By what are we, or can we be, guided in value-selection?  By the initial prima facie quality of a value-experience, by the sequences and consequences found as a result of actual human experimentation in value-realization, by the interrelation of value-experiences with each other, and by as careful an assessment as we can make of what further value-experience may still be possible if certain selections and not others are made.  Each of these considerations involves us in making “factual” statements about what is happening, has happened, and may happen to human beings, given their nature, as so far known, in the kind of universe, as so far understood, responded to, and appreciated.  The resulting criticized “real” values are statements of what is most coherently believed to be possible in the light of what has been possible to persons in this kind of world!

What we actually do as we proceed to criticize value-claims is to take each value-claim and criticize it by other claims of our own and in relation to the claims of others.  We judge each by its supportive, enhancing, or undermining relation to other value-claims.

The verification of a value-judgment (whether it refers to biological, social, intellectual, aesthetic, or religious value-claims), consists in understanding its relation to other value-experiences and their probable relation to the developing potentialities of human nature in the total environment.  “The best,” concretely defined, will, accordingly, consist of some interrelated system of value-experiences deemed to protect creative growth in value-realization open to persons in this kind of world.  Thus, any theory of “the best” is also a theory of what persons can and ought to be in this kind of universe.

4. To suggest the outcome of these brief reflections: The obligation is being experienced when the person is confronted by a choice-situation in which wanted (and unwanted) experiences are in competition.  The total situation, in minimal terms, may be characterized thus: I want A, but I also want B (and possibly other conflicting wants).  I cannot have both.  As I reflect upon these varied value-claims in the light of all I know about myself and others in the world as I conceive it, as I reflect upon the quality and the foreseeable consequences of these value-claims, I decide (let us assume) that A is better than B.  As soon as the judgment is made, I feel: I ought to will A and not B.  If I will A and find unforeseen disagreeable consequences and disap-provals, I am disappointed and even anxious, but I do not feel guilty.  If I will B (less than the best I know), I may find unforeseen good consequences and approvals which gratify me, but I feel guilty.  But always my choice of the best is guided by growing knowledge of the optimum-maximum range of values which for ever constitute the obligatory, and of human development.  A person is morally good to the extent that he consistently wills the best he knows.

But he can be morally good without being happy or “fulfilled” (summum bonum).  He approaches fulfilment in so far as he creatively realizes and coherently orchestrates those values which bring the total potential of his human nature into creative interaction with the activities, achievements, and possibilities of other human beings and of the total environment.  Thus, both the moral good and the summum bonum involve creative growth of persons, and the kind of good which they can achieve is a fact to be properly assessed in any adequate theory of the universe.

The limitations of space forbid a consideration of the metaphysics of value and of the relation of values to God—indeed, too much of what has been said must sound too dogmatic, though the hope is that it will be taken as programmatic.  But until we know what we mean by the word “good” and what the ideal of human existence is, we cannot think clearly about the existence and, especially, the goodness of God.  On the other hand, as the writer has suggested elsewhere, if knowledge-seeking and finding, if creative moral fulfilment in compassionate love and forgiveness, if the poignant joys and “peak-experiences” open to us in aesthetic and religious experiences are to be taken as any part of the evidence for an adequate metaphysics, then we may indeed find in the very possibility that persons can enjoy and incarnate such values grounds for reasonable faith in the goodness of God.3



1 M. Mandelbaum, The Phenomenology of Moral Experience, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1955, p. 52.  I am glad to note many parallel developments to basic contentions in this paper in Mandelbaum’s excellent and original treatment.  Thus the view of obligation here has much in common with Mandelbaum’s, though there is more “perceptual intuitionism” in his conception of “the fitting” than there is here in the “ought to the best.”  I would contend that the “fitting” which he makes the object of obligation consists of a judgment, “This is more fitting than that,” in the phenomenological situation confronting the deciding person.  There is a tendency in Mandelbaum’s thought to assimilate the moral situation of choice to the aesthetic situation or “Gestalt” in which there is “demand” without choice.  Moral obligation, as I see it, presupposes not merely an apprehended relation of fittingness, but the reflective decision that one line of action will be more “fitting” than any other in the totally envisioned situation (though this would seem to be granted in some passages) (cf. pp. 69-70, 81).  Nor am I clear that it is the condition of a feeling of obligation that the value (objective) “must appear as independent of our inclinations or desires” (p. 85).  What I experience as the “condition of obligation” is simply that one alternative, be it desired or anything else, is deemed better than any other; but “oughting” is not geared even as a prima facie tendency (Ross) to a specific right, or to any specific perception of what is fitting.

2 I am glad to note at this point and at others, agreement in B. Blanshard’s Howison Lecture, The Impasse in Ethics and a Way Out (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1954).

3 See the author’s “Can the Goodness of God be Empirically Grounded?” in The Journal of Bible and Religion, Volume 25,  April 1957, pp. 99-105.


Posted October 13, 2007

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