Westermarck, Edward Alexander (1862–1939)

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Edward Alexander Westermarck is best known as an anthropologist and sociologist; he is important in philosophy, however, as an exponent of a subjectivist theory of ethics, which he illustrated and supported by a survey of the actual variations in moral ideas. He himself made it clear in Memories of My Life that his interest in the sociology of morals arose from a concern with the philosophical question of the status of moral judgments and not vice versa.

Westermarck was born in Helsinki, Finland, of Swedish ancestry and was educated at the University of Helsinki. After 1887 he lived partly in England and partly in Finland, but he also made lengthy visits to Morocco from 1897 on. He was lecturer in sociology at the University of London from 1903 and professor of sociology there from 1907 to 1930; professor of practical philosophy at the University of Helsinki from 1906 to 1918; and professor of philosophy at the Academy of Abo from 1918. Westermarck did not marry, and his life was spent mainly in research, writing, and university teaching. On occasion, however, he joined other Finnish intellectuals in defense of their country's national interests, and he took a leading part in the founding of people's high schools for the Swedish-speaking population of Finland and of the Swedish university at Abo in Finland, of which he became the first rector in 1918.

As an undergraduate Westermarck became (and thereafter remained) an agnostic. The theme of his last book, Christianity and Morals, is that the moral influence of Christianity has been, on the whole, bad rather than good. He found German metaphysics distasteful but was attracted by English empiricism, especially that of J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer. This interest, together with the aim of using the library of the British Museum, attracted Westermarck to England. Through an interest in evolution he was led to the investigation of the history of marriage, which was to be the subject of his first book. Though much of his later work was based on his own observations and personal knowledge of Morocco, all Westermarck's early anthropological research was carried out in the reading room of the British Museum. On each topic that he studied, he painstakingly collected an enormous volume of data from a wide range of sources. His aim was never merely to amass evidence, however, but to draw general conclusions from it. In The History of Human Marriage, for example, he rejected the widely accepted theory of primitive promiscuity or communal marriage, severely criticizing the use of supposed "survivals" as evidence for it and showing that the actual evidence pointed to the extreme antiquity of individual marriage. And throughout this work evolution by natural selection is used as a guiding principle in forming theories and explanations.

Westermarck's second and longest work, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, written from 1891 to 1908, is partly philosophical and partly sociological. He began by propounding the subjectivist view of ethics presupposed in the whole plan of the investigation. No ethical principles are objectively valid; moral judgments are based not on the intellect but on emotions; there can be no moral truths. "Consequently the object of scientific ethics cannot be to fix rules for human conduct its task can be none other than to investigate the moral consciousness as a fact." Thus, he discussed the nature and origin of the specifically moral emotions and the analysis of moral concepts, and he carefully examined and attempted to explain the conflicting tendencies to pass moral judgments on overt acts or exclusively on the will.

The bulk of this work treats the moral ideas comparatively and historically in order to confirm this account of the moral consciousness. Westermarck surveyed the varying attitudes and practices of many human societies on such topics as homicide, blood revenge, charity, slavery, truthfulness, altruism, asceticism, regard for the dead, and regard for supernatural beings. This detailed survey showed the continuity between moral and nonmoral retributive emotions and traced the variations in moral ideas to a number of causes.

General conclusions do not readily emerge from this mass of information, but some widely held views are conclusively proved to be false. There is no simple path of moral advance through history; many of the sentiments and rules that we associate with moral refinement are found in primitive peoples, while more barbarous views and practices have sometimes accompanied the advance of civilization. Nevertheless, Westermarck did indicate a few main trends that he expected to continuethe expansion of the altruistic sentiment, the increasing influence on moral judgments of reflection as opposed to sentimental likes and dislikes, and the restricting of religion to the function of supporting ordinary moral rules as opposed to special religious duties.

Ethical Relativity is Westermarck's most exclusively philosophical work. It repeated much from the early chapters of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, but it argued more directly for the subjectivist view of ethics and replied to such critics of the earlier work as G. E. Moore, Hastings Rashdall, and William McDougall. Westermarck began by saying that if moral judgments state objective truths, there must be considerations by which their truth can be established, but he showed that typical ethical theories, including hedonism, utilitarianism, evolutionary ethics, rationalism, and the various accounts of a special "moral faculty," are quite unable to defend their basic principles. He recognized that the variability of moral judgments did not in itself disprove objectivism, but he argued that the persistent disagreement even on fundamental principles among the most thoughtful of moral specialists tells strongly against every form of intuitionism. He admitted that our ordinary moral judgments make a claim to objectivity, but he rightly insisted that this does not show that any judgments have objective validity. Our moral judgments result from the "objectivizing" of moral emotions, this being just one example of "a very general tendency to assign objectivity to our subjective experience." This point is of radical importance, for it undermines all attempts to support ethical objectivism by appealing to the meaning of moral terms and incidentally reveals Westermarck's firm grasp of essentials that are often obscured by the current preoccupation with the use of ethical language.

To the argument that the subjectivist theory is fatal to our spiritual convictions and aspirations, Westermarck replied that a scientific theory would not be invalidated even if it were shown to be harmful and that in any case subjectivism, by making people more tolerant and more critically reflective, is likely to do more good than harm. In reply to McDougall he defended his view that there are distinguishable moral emotions, marked off by apparent impartiality.

An important part of Ethical Relativity and the earlier work is the analysis of particular moral concepts to show exactly how they are related to emotions. Among other things Westermarck insisted that although the concept of "moral goodness" is based on approval, those of "right," "ought," and "duty" rest not on approval but on disapproval, of what ought not to be done or ought not to be omitted.

Westermarck admitted that the variability of moral judgments is due largely to differences in knowledge and beliefs, especially religious beliefs, and that insofar as variability can be thus explained, it is not evidence against the objective validity of ethics. However, some variationsin particular, in the breadth of the altruistic sentimentare due to emotional differences. The gradual extension of morality until it enjoins respect for all humankind and even for animals is due to the expansion of this altruistic sentiment, not to reason or religion. Not only particular moral judgments, but also the broader features of normative theories, are explained by the emotional basis of ethics. This applies not only to various hedonistic views, which are obviously linked to the source of the moral emotions in pleasure and pain, but also to the ethics of Immanuel Kant, which Westermarck criticized very thoroughly, concluding that "in his alleged dictates of reason the emotional background is transparent throughout" (p. 289).

Westermarck's ethical subjectivism belongs to a persistent, though often unpopular, tradition in philosophy. He himself particularly commended Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Westermarck's own chief contributions are his stress on "objectivization," his careful analysis of moral concepts in relation to the emotions, and his moderate and cautious use of the argument from the variability of moral judgments, backed by immense evidence of this variability. His criticism of many contrary views and his defense of his own theory against contemporary critics are also effective, though he did not develop very far the logical and epistemological considerations that tell against the objectivist view of ethics. He formulated his account with considerable care. By making it clear that moral judgments do not report the feelings of the speaker or of anyone else and that moral terms are not necessarily simply expressive of the immediate feelings of the speaker, he protected his view against the stock objections to cruder versions of subjectivism, and he left room for the part played by social demand and custom in the genesis of morality. His formulations are, perhaps, still open to more refined objections, for to give any adequate account of moral concepts is a difficult task. There are also difficulties in his theory of the moral emotions. Nevertheless, some contemporary moral philosophers believe that Westermarck's views on ethics are substantially correct and that he made an important contribution to the development and defense of views of this kind.

See also Ethical Subjectivism; Ethics and Morality; Ethics, History of; Kant, Immanuel; McDougall, William; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Rashdall, Hastings; Smith, Adam.


works by westermarck

The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 19061908.

The History of Human Marriage, 5th ed., 3 vols. London: Macmillan, 1921.

The Goodness of Gods. London: Watts, 1926.

A Short History of Marriage. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

Memories of My Life. London: Allen and Unwin, 1929.

Early Beliefs and Their Social Influence. London: Macmillan, 1932.

Ethical Relativity. London: Kegan Paul, 1932.

Three Essays on Sex and Marriage. London: Macmillan, 1934.

The Future of Marriage. London: Macmillan, 1936.

Christianity and Morals. London: Kegan Paul, 1939.

works on westermarck

Discussions of Westermarck's philosophical views can be found in Paul Edwards's The Logic of Moral Discourse (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1955), pp. 4650, 6164; G. E. Moore's Philosophical Studies (London: Routledge, 1922), pp. 332336; and L. A. Reid's review of Westermarck's Ethical Relativity, in Mind 42 (1933): 8594.

J. L. Mackie (1967)

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Westermarck, Edward Alexander (1862–1939)

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Westermarck, Edward Alexander (1862–1939)