Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Professor of Philosophy
[p. 157] Your first professorial appointment was in the philosophy department at the University of Southern California, Sterling. How did that come about?
After I had passed my written and oral examinations at USC, Professor Flewelling dropped into my office and said they wanted me to accept a position as an instructor in philosophy beginning that fall 1945. I told him I’d like that very much but I was already committed to a third year with the LDS institute at Tucson. He proposed that I see if I could gracefully leave the church position at the end of the first semester. Commissioner West was agreeable, and both schools were on a semester system, so there was no difficulty. The appointment when it came was actually as assistant professor. Later that summer and fall I was also offered positions on the philosophy faculties of the University of Utah and the University of Arizona. If either of them had come first, I would have taken it; but I was greatly pleased to be joining the USC faculty.
So you began teaching at USC in January 1946?
Yes. We moved to Los Angeles; and because there was no housing available, we lived with my parents again until we were able to rent a home. By then Trudy and Joe had been born so Natalie had her hands full. Los Angeles was a good place to live in those days, and I was very happy in every way at USC. We’d probably be there yet—unless they’d fired me—but my breathing difficulties in that climate gradually became worse. I tried to control my bronchial asthma with various medications, but it didn’t work. In 1948 USC offered me an associate professorship in philosophy. After much soul searching, however, I accepted instead the offer of a full professorship at the University of Utah. I didn’t want to leave USC, but it had become clear that I couldn’t keep on breathing in Southern California. It was that simple.
What was your teaching experience at USC?
It seemed much longer than two and a half years—from 1946 [p. 158] through the summer of 1948—because so much was going on. In addition to advanced seminars, I taught a general education course, “Human Values.” For the first semester I was one of four faculty members from the Philosophy School teaching it—former teachers of mine, who were now my colleagues.
I’ve taught a humanities core course on human values at the University of Utah for twenty years now. You urged me to start, as I recall. What was the content of yours?
It was primarily a course on the historical development of moral practices and ethical theory. We used a book of readings and commentaries that Flewelling had edited called The Things That Matter Most. Usually I don’t like survey courses, but this was a good one, even though I wasn’t in on designing it. It covered moral systems from the very early period—Plato, Aristotle, Epicureanism, and Stoicism—right up to modern thought.
If it was a general education course, you were dealing with large classes?
Oh, yes. It was a big lecture operation. We lectured in an auditorium twice a week, then the students would meet in discussion groups twice a week with the teaching assistants. The understanding was that each of the instructors would attend all of the lectures given by the other three instructors as well. My colleagues—all of them my former teachers— would get up on the platform with a folder of notes. I was up against a very serious problem. I don’t have any use for notes, but how could I as a new faculty member look serious without notes? I finally solved the problem by going to the podium with a folder of blank yellow pages. I’d stand up there and, from time to time, turn a page and glance down. It was a rather effective deception and no one was any the wiser.
You weren’t going to run the risk of losing credibility as a newly appointed professor!
You bet your life I wasn’t. But some years later I encountered a problem here at the University of Utah. I had a student from the Law School, older than the average, who came to my office the second week of class and said, “Do you want my criticism of your course now or at the end?” I’d never had quite so blunt an introduction, but of course I invited him to give me the works on the spot.
“You’re not prepared,” he said, “and you apparently don’t know your subject.”
“What are your evidences of that?” I asked.
“You don’t have any notes,” he said.
Well, he dropped the class. I got quite a kick out of that.
[p. 159] But to return to this course in human values.
At the end of the first semester, the academic vice-president, Albert Raubenheimer, called me in and said, “I am releasing the other people from that large course and you are to do the whole thing yourself.” Raubenheimer was a real powerhouse in the university. People were scared of him. Well, this gave me four lectures a week, two classes of about four or five hundred students each. I did that for the next two years with a staff of teaching assistants. It operated like a separate department with its own budget. I had some excellent teaching assistants, two of them with Ph.D.s.
Did this let you design it more the way you wanted to teach it?
Yes, but I liked the basic design of the course and the materials that had been prepared for it were excellent. So I carried on and had quite a good time with the course.
I have a theory that those large multi-section courses that we are often asked to teach when starting out—in my case Western Civilization at Clemson University—lay a broad pedagogical foundation that nourishes our whole careers. What else did you teach?
Mostly graduate courses. My students were not only philosophy majors but from other disciplines as well, especially religion. Students in the Graduate School of Religion who were working on professional degrees like doctor of theology and academic degrees like Ph.D.s very often minored in philosophy. There were a lot of good, mature students there. My courses and seminars were in such fields as realism, idealism, and pragmatism—the emphasis being on epistemology and metaphysics.
You started out teaching high school students in seminary, then high school and college simultaneously, then undergraduate and graduate students. Where did you find the greatest challenge and satisfaction?
I definitely prefer college students. But I wouldn’t draw a line between undergraduates and graduates. I take great satisfaction in teaching good students. Before I retired, I taught courses in both the Department of History and the Department of Philosophy. Most of my students here, unlike USC, have not been advanced—they’re often mature in their thinking but they have very little academic preparation. That doesn’t bother me, as long as they have real intellectual competence and a genuine interest in the subject or a desire to learn.
I think we can find those qualities in students at any stage. Also I think you attract good students, Sterling.
Maybe I attract serious students. A course in intellectual history that I taught for you in liberal education during your years as dean usually [p. 160] started out so full that students were sitting on the floor, and there often was a waiting list. But after a short shakedown period, when they looked at how much reading I required and the research papers, the classes always shrank. Faculty members used to attend my advanced classes.
I must say, as long as we’re on this topic, that I’ve never particularly liked teaching courses in ethics.
Why is that?
I don’t know, perhaps it’s because I’m unethical! I’ve liked courses in the history of ethical theory or the analysis of ethical theory, but I’ve never had any interest in doing the kind of thing that both Ericksen and Read did superbly—courses in ethics where you dealt with what’s right and what’s wrong. As important as that is, it has never interested me as an academic pursuit.
And yet so much of your work has had to do with causing other people to consider what is right and wrong.
Well, yes. I’ve been interested in what goes into the making of an ethical theory, rather than in the issue of what’s right or wrong. I like analyzing the logical meaning of a proposition. If I had it to do all over again, I’d study far more logic and mathematics than I did as a student.
You’re overlooking the power of your example, Sterling. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve been, in many respects, the conscience of the university with regard to most of its central values. I think it springs from the fact that you have thought so much about underlying ethical issues.
The underlying issues are really very crucial and always will be; but the big issue is the one we’ve already talked about—the tremendous disparity between technological advancement and moral progress. I think there’s no question that we’ve made significant moral progress since the end of World War II—in human rights, environmental ethics, and public health for instance. When I was young, nobody gave a damn about the environment. I didn’t even know the word. I’ve had to learn environmental morality from my children.
Even more significant is the fact that we’re dealing with moral issues that haven’t even come up before. There has been major concern about human rights for several hundred years, but more people seem to think about human dignity now, all around the world, and more people act on moral ideas with regard to human rights. There is, of course, a frightening backlash too.
You’re absolutely right. No question about it. When it comes to personal morality, though, you have a different kind of problem on your hands. I’d say here there’s been no great advance. Are people more honest today than they were three hundred years ago? Do we have a [p. 161] stronger and finer sense of community now than we had two generations ago? I’m very old-fashioned when it comes to sexual morality, and I’m pretty sure we’ve here seen disastrous retrogression. The idea of progress is a modern one, and so is the question about whether there’s such a thing as real progress.
We always tout technological advances, of course, but if they result in the destruction of the world’s life-sustaining environment, because our individual and social morality is at such a low ebb, then it’s hard to argue that we have “progressed.”
The irony about what we’re saying, of course, Jack, is that I’d argue from now till Tuesday against any theoretical absolutes, even in sexual morality. It’s simply that in actual practice I’ve gone in for moral absolutes.
I’m inclined to think that your moral instincts are pretty conservative, Sterling, and they have contributed to an unusually happy life. But what have been the effects of the scientific method on social morality? Our analysis of problems has become more rational, but are we making better decisions? What about the responsibility of Robert Oppenheimer and the others who worked on the atom bomb during World War II?
Well, I have to remind you, Jack, that you’re speaking as a university professor when you talk about the scientific method. Most people never give a thought to such methods and give little attention to science. But I know what you mean, and I very much agree that we should cultivate good sense, authentic experience, and verifiable knowledge as the foundation for moral judgment. Since the most reliable form of knowledge is scientific knowledge, we should pursue the sciences seriously if we want a moral society. But we should not be taken in by the idea that the sciences are the last word in everything. In matters of morals, they’re not—though they are of immeasurable importance.
There isn’t any last word. But what’s the best word?
Well, it’s the cultivation of good judgment.
Isn’t that begging the question?
Guilty! But we’re caught in that kind of predicament. Our moral judgments must be based squarely on knowledge and experience. Without this foundation we cannot arrive at acceptable norms for morality.
Don’t mystical experiences have the potential to yield moral insight, if not knowledge?
I’m inclined to think that they do not. Most mystics have described their experiences as ineffable and indescribable, except by analogy. But [p. 162] I respect W. T. Stace, a British civil servant who spent a great deal of time studying mysticism in India and the Far East and then became professor of philosophy at Princeton University. He has been one of the best contemporary authorities on mysticism. Stace takes the position that the mystic experience can yield knowledge; and partly out of respect for him—he produces very good stuff—I’ve become a little more hesitant in the last few decades in asserting that mysticism can never yield knowledge.
Is this a change from your earlier stance?
It is. I used to be far more dogmatic about the position that mysticism does not yield genuine propositional knowledge. But let me tell you a story about Stace. I was living in New York in 1953 and attended a three-cornered debate among Stace, Paul Tillich, the theologian, and Ernest Nagel, one of America’s leading logicians, professor of philosophy at Columbia. It was quite an exciting debate. When I went to Princeton a few days later, I called on Stace, who was already acquainted with Obert Tanner.
Obert had studied with Stace when he was teaching at Stanford. We talked, of course, about the debate, and Stace thought he and Nagel agreed pretty well, but that Tillich’s theology was just a lot of nonsense. Then he said, “I know this can’t be true, but I’d swear that Tanner told me that the Mormons believe that God actually has a body like a human being, like a man.”
I said, “Yes, that’s what he told you.”
Stace stared, “You mean Mormons really believe that God is a person who has a body and looks like a man?”
I nodded. “That’s what they believe.”
Then Stace, a big rawboned Englishman, slammed his enormous hand down on the table and said, “God damn! It’s nice to find a religion that makes some sense.” Stace was great.
Mystics are not immune to the lure of the concrete! Didn’t William James toy around with parapsychology?
He certainly did. I think James would have liked to have been a mystic, but he couldn’t quite make it. You know, we all have strange insights that come just when we’re halfway between waking and sleeping, intimations that time is standing still, that space is infinite, and so on. I’d be hesitant to rule out the remote possibility of some kind of knowledge through mystical experience but also very hesitant to rule it in.
We don’t have a good taxonomy to deal with these things, even now, but [p. 163] another place along this continuum is intuition. Where does it fit among our ways of knowing?
I don’t really distinguish between intuition and the mystical experience. From the standpoint of knowledge claims, I think they should be regarded as the same thing. Montague, in his Ways of Knowing, presented six different methods, beginning with skepticism, which is the position that knowledge is an impossibility. Next comes authority, which is not a way of knowing but at best a way of transmitting knowledge, and pragmatism, which is a way of testing knowledge, not of getting it. So that leaves us with the claim to three ways of knowing: reason, experience (usually sensory), and mysticism, the extra-sensory apprehension of something other. That is the meaning of intuition, the immediate (non-mediated) grasp of the object by the mind.
What else have you concluded about the relationship among intellectual, physical, and spiritual methods of knowing, Sterling?
I must say that I’m very much of an empiricist. I’m completely converted to the notion that factual knowledge has to have an empirical foundation. Obviously, we’re justified in making claims to certain kinds of factual knowledge that can’t actually be verified directly through the senses—the existence of an electron, for instance.
But here there is a joining of reason and sensory data.
Yes. It deals with rational inferences from propositions based on facts. Rationalism is not necessarily nonempirical. The sciences embrace as a method both observation and experimentation, or empirical method, and the processes of reasoning, or rational method. The more advanced a discipline’s mathematical processes, the more rational it becomes. The important thing is to recognize the limits of knowledge. Bertrand Russell, who has my vote as the foremost philosopher of the twentieth century, wrote a very profound essay entitled “The Limits of Empiricism,” in which he made clear that the empirical method is not the whole of scientific method.
It’s obvious that philosophy has been a lifelong passion of yours. Would you reflect a bit on the meaning of philosophy?
Now that’s a deceptively simple-sounding question. Of course, we have to start with its etymology—it’s the love of wisdom. And ordinarily you think of a philosopher as being a person of wisdom and learning. I’m always amused when young people in philosophy departments refer to themselves as philosophers. It doesn’t seem to me that the meaning of “philosopher” can be equated with “professor of philosophy,” even though I have no objection when professors of mathematics call [p. 164] themselves mathematicians or professors of sociology call themselves sociologists.
So you want a broader definition for philosopher?
Yes. You can find a philosopher anywhere in a cave in the Himalayas, on the waterfront like Eric Hoffer—although I don’t think of Hoffer as being a very good philosopher. It isn’t necessary to look within university philosophy departments to find philosophers. You may find some there, of course, if you’re lucky.
But to define philosophy—
Of course you can do it by divisions, which is the way it typically happens in American universities: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and axiology, which includes ethics and aesthetics. Or you can define it by function—analytic philosophy, where you’re doing linguistic and logical analyses of meaning, or substantive philosophy, which looks at the basic assumptions and arguments of metaphysics, epistemology, axiology, and so forth.
I tend to take the position that Aristotle did—that “philosophy is the science of the principles”—the basics. I was intrigued by a taxi driver in New York who asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he said, “Oh, I have a philosophy of cab driving.” Well, that’s amusing, but it gets at some of the very things Aristotle had in mind when he said philosophy is the science of the principles.
Sure. You can have a philosophy of history, a philosophy of law. Why not a philosophy of cab driving? It gets at the essence of the activity.
I’m not sure that’s a very good answer to your question. When I was a student, analytical philosophy with its emphasis on logic and language was on the rise. It began in the thirties and was very strong through the fifties. But I think that metaphysics, which deals with the nature of the real, has been making something of a comeback in the last decade or so. In recent years I have taught two courses in the philosophy of history: one is listed in the catalogue as analytical and the other as substantive.
What different emphases do you stress in teaching these two courses?
In the analytical course I dealt with the meaning of historical sentences, the problem of the nature of historical explanations—that sort of thing. In the substantive course I dealt with specific philosophies of history: the ideas of Isaiah in the Bible, of St. Augustine, Marx, Sorokin, and so on. My feeling is that we really ought to preserve both approaches in studying history—and tie them together.
[p. 165] Would you agree that axiology is making a comeback?
Oh, yes, like metaphysics, now that positivism has declined in influence. Value philosophy never did suffer a decline comparable to that of traditional metaphysics, but it was affected by that decline. Both ethics and aesthetics suffered. I think the revival of metaphysics is breathing new life into value philosophy.
The term “axiology” derives from the Greek term meaning “value,” but it includes aesthetic value or artistic value as well as moral value. Often there’s a tendency to downplay the aesthetic side of the picture. I personally think the tie between morality and art is very, very strong. We regard many things as immoral because they are repugnant to our artistic sensibilities.
What do you make of the current interest in practical ethics—medical ethics, legal ethics, administrative ethics, and so on?
Oh, it’s tremendously important. I’m very pleased that in academic circles increasing attention is being given to practical ethics. As a matter of fact, that was the main focus of the philosophy department here at the University of Utah even after the Second World War. Milton Bennion’s course on citizenship, which I mentioned earlier, for instance, was very practical. Philosophy I, which was titled “Social Ethics,” was always bulging at the seams, partly because it was required for teacher certification.
Would Ericksen ever have used the term “practical ethics”?
Oh yes. Ethics for Ericksen was practical. He taught courses in ethical theory, but his main interest was in practical, moral problems. He introduced a course in courtship and marriage which he taught during the 1920s and 1930s. It received national attention. Now you expect this sort of thing in sociology, but here it was in the philosophy department.
Well, we’ve started out with your first professorial appointment and ranged broadly over your whole philosophy. Do you have other comments on your experience as a faculty member at USC? You said there was a lot going on.
Not just with me, with the whole university. I’d only been there a short time when the president was made chancellor and a new president came in. No sooner was he on campus than he appointed me chair of a faculty committee on religion on the campus—not for academic courses but for student religious life and services.
To meet students’ religious interests, there was a Methodist church on the edge of campus, and no doubt a Newman Center, Hillel Foundation, and others, but of course they were not part of the university. As a junior member of the faculty, I felt a little out of place [p. 166] as chair of the committee. The dean of women and dean of men were both on the committee. The dean of women was very active in her denomination, and I think she wasn’t very happy with a Mormon chairing the committee. We did a few things before I left—decided to have a university chaplain, which they hadn’t had, and laid the groundwork for constructing a small interdenominational campus chapel, and that sort of thing.
You have described two experiences where you were given uncommon responsibility as a junior faculty member. Was it difficult for you, making the switch from student to colleague as far as the other faculty members went?
In some ways, yes. Raubenheimer gave me quite a little lecture on that when he first discussed with me my faculty appointment. He said, “Now there’s one thing you’re going to have to forget. These men who are now your colleagues—you must forget that they were ever your teachers.” That’s good advice, but it’s a hard thing to do.
Do you think you and they succeeded?
I think so. We always got along famously. No problems. I always had great respect for them. They’re all dead now except one; without exception, I maintained friendships with them right up till their deaths. The last one is Wilbur Long, now in his advanced years.
Who was the university president?
When I was appointed it was Rufus B. Von Klein Schmid, whom I already knew slightly. When I was at the Institute of Religion at Tucson, he came to Arizona to give the commencement address. I was asked to give the invocation, and we were teamed up for the procession to the stadium. He was very cordial during that long, slow walk—told me he knew and greatly respected Heber J. Grant, president of the LDS church. He also commented on his great admiration for the Mormon system of tithing. “A wonderful thing,” he said. I replied as diplomatically as I could, “Well, I guess there are certain things to be said for it, but there are also some things to be said against it. It can become very mechanical, and it’s not very democratic.” He listened to me very thoughtfully and then had the final word. “Young man,” he said, “if you were an administrator, you’d have higher regard for that tithing system.”
There’s a lot of truth in that. Those in power rarely relinquish an advantage voluntarily. How did you feel about making the move from USC to the University of Utah in the summer of 1948?
I was very sorry to leave USC, and they made a strong effort to keep [p. 167] me—offered a promotion to associate professor and a salary increase from $4,800 to $5,600, which was not bad for those days, strange as it now seems. There were some real losses, particularly the administrative status of the philosophy department, the number and maturity of graduate students, and the great philosophical library. The philosophy library at the University of Utah is not bad now, but it wasn’t very good when I came; and USC had a magnificent library. But in addition to being able to breathe more freely, the plus of coming to Utah, aside from the fact that we were in a sense returning home, was the noticeable enthusiasm of students here for the study of philosophy and the very pleasant association with both old and new friends.
Your medical condition has pretty well assured that you stayed in Utah after you got here?
That’s been the result, although I should say that USC made two really valiant efforts to get me back as director of the School of Philosophy, first during the winter of 1952-53 and again in the middle 1960s. The first time, I didn’t even entertain the idea seriously because I felt that I simply couldn’t live down there. But when the second invitation came, President Norman Hubbard of USC, who was an M.D., checked into the medical problem very closely and assured me that the Medical School could take care of my breathing problem. They pressed me pretty persuasively, and I was very close to leaving Utah in 1965. I even went down to Los Angeles and met with the president, some trustees, and the philosophy faculty to discuss the matter. They offered me everything—a high salary, excellent budget for the School of Philosophy, freedom from the directorship if I preferred simply to teach, and no teaching unless I wanted to teach.
They handed you a blank check!
Yes, but Waldemer Read tattled to the academic vice-president, Jack Adamson, and he hauled me into a meeting with President Fletcher. Those two guys just beat me until I was bloody, so I had no choice.
They made a counter offer you couldn’t refuse! Any regrets?
There was no counteroffer except assurance that the department of philosophy would be strengthened. I did have some regrets about leaving USC, and about moving away from family in Los Angeles. But even spending a couple of days in Southern California brought back suggestions of the old trouble, so I’m sure it was wise for me to stay in Utah.
Was this condition a problem in the other places you’ve lived?
I had a tough several weeks in New York when I was living there in 1952, but then it left and didn’t come back. I had no problem in [p. 168] Washington, D.C., when I was living there during the early sixties, and I have never had trouble anywhere else in the world.
Let’s talk about other transitions, Sterling. What conclusions did you reach as a young man about the nature of human beings, the nature of God—where do you stand, for instance, on free will and determinism?
I must say that I am 100 percent a believer in the freedom of the will. Now there are certain problems with that because I also believe in universal causation—that everything occurs as a result of a cause. The thoroughgoing determinists quite commonly base their determinism on the notion of universal causation. The problem is whether you can be a “free willer” and also believe in causation. Now there are a good many problems connected with this, as you know. In quantum mechanics…
The Heisenberg uncertainty principle? You can’t predict the path of an electron because you have to know both location and velocity, and they can’t be determined simultaneously.
Yes, uncertainty in knowledge is apparently built into the very structure of the situation. Many physicists, philosophers, and theologians have therefore concluded that, on the subatomic level, the world is indeterminate. Professor Henry Eyring of our university, a really great man in theoretical chemistry who taught quantum mechanics for years, held that view—that the world ultimately is indeterminate. He and I used to disagree with one another on this issue as on many others. I put forth the fairly standard argument that the impossibility of prediction doesn’t necessarily mean that the course of the electron is not caused, while Eyring argued for a breakdown in the causal structure of things at the subatomic level. The classical position of Newtonian mechanics is that everything functions according to causation on essentially a mechanical level. The indeterminists hold, of course, that determinism is found only on the macroscopic level dealt with by the Newtonians prior to this century.
The problem is where you try to apply the indeterminate model to free will.
Maybe the world is indeterminate. Maybe it’s not a case of universal causation, but no one has been able to show that the human will is a subatomic particle, so I don’t think that this is a satisfactory way to handle the question of free will. Einstein, for instance, was very much opposed to indeterminacy based on the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty.
My book Religion, Reason, and Truth contains a long essay on the freedom of the will. Two highly competent people have challenged me on it, but I’m not sure either one read the last pages where I came out solidly on the side of free will. One was the American philosopher [p. 169] Charles Hartshorne who, in my opinion, is the most important philosopher of religion today. He wrote that he didn’t agree with my denial of the freedom of the will. I didn’t deny the freedom of the will. I hold that free will is compatible with causation. What I attempted to do was to develop a theory that accounts for freedom and still allows universal causation. What Hartshorne should have said instead, in my opinion is, “You have made a very bad argument.” The evidences for free will are simply that we behave freely and we have the experience of being free. For example, you will walk out the door to this room when you decide it’s time to go, but still there are causes. You may look at the clock, you may recall that you have another appointment, you may be sick of this conversation—but you still decide to go. Now the problem is: How do you reconcile the fact that you are caused to do something with the fact that you do it freely?
You presumably choose to do it.
Yes. Well what I’ve attempted to do is to develop a theory which I believe, frankly, has a certain amount of originality, at least I’ve never seen it handled in this way by others, though the reconciliation of freedom and causation is not uncommon. When you say, “I am free,” what do you mean by I? Well, the I, among other things, is a combination of countless causes—genetic, biological, environmental—and that’s what we are.
Typical arguments for freedom of the will tend to center on moral decisions. For example, a friend says to you, “I know that my son will make the right decision.” You say, “How do you know that? …. Well, he has free agency, and he will make the right decision.” “But how do you know? …. Well, I taught him from the ground up. He went to Sunday school; he read the scriptures and all the right literature.” Well, the kid may indeed make his father’s predicted decision, but it is because these various factors have caused him to make that decision. There would be no meaning to moral education if moral decisions and actions were not subject to causes. But are you going to say that the decision was not made freely? Without causes for moral action, there would be moral anarchy. Chaos.
Now I have attempted to produce a reconciliation of freedom with causation. The way in which the problem is often stated is that to be free is not to be subject to coercion, rather than not to be subject to cause. Who makes our decisions? We make our decisions, or we choose to let someone else make the decision for us. In either case, we are free.
Take the case of Harry Truman firing Douglas MacArthur in 1953. We [p. 170] generally regard that as a courageous moral decision where a controversial president fires a revered general. I might argue that Truman’s background—specifically his distaste for the powerful and their arrogant use of power—made that decision inevitable. But the source of his courage was his determination not to let power run unchecked.
Absolutely, he made that decision. But you see, when you say everything in his experience up to that time made the decision inevitable, you put your finger right on the problem. Did those factors make it inevitable? The determinists would say, “Well, if it was inevitable, there was no freedom.”
The very nature of human psychological and physiological processes is so utterly complex that you cannot say that it is inevitable in such a way that the person was not involved in the decision.
If you put it in a religious context, some of the most competent logicians have shown that even divine foreknowledge does not destroy freedom of the will.
St. Augustine, for example, held that God is a timeless being, so our future is in his present just as our past is in his present. Augustine had two kinds of arguments: One, God is timeless. For God there is no past and no future, so God’s knowing what you’re going to do tomorrow does not mean that you will not act freely any more than his remembering what you did yesterday means that you were not free. But his other argument is a very simple one. He said, “Yes, God knows that you’re going to make this decision tomorrow. He knows that you’re going to make it freely.”
You see, if you get rid of the notion of causation the whole structure of morality collapses. Without causes for moral decisions, morality would be an aimless confusion and moral education would be impossible. In moral education, you attempt to cause the student or child to think and act in certain ways.
Another point I’d make is that you treat people differently if you believe they’re free agents. And they’re likely to respond differently as a result.
Yes, as you know that’s also the ethical principle at the foundation of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. You should always treat another human being as an end and never as a means only. When you emphasize freedom, you are treating a person as an end. Determinism is more likely to lead to treating an individual as a means, as part of a mechanism you’re manipulating. Now you may be doing a little manipulating when you try to get this person to be intellectually honest. That’s a very real problem. But I must confess that I think there is a sense in which the problem of free will may be meaningless. [p. 171] When my positivistic temperament gets the best of me, I’m inclined to think that this is the case, that the question of free will may be cognitively meaningless. Most of the time, however, I think it’s a meaningful problem. And when it comes right down to it, free willers and determinists both tend to behave as if they have freedom.
Some people assume that human nature is basically good but vulnerable to temptation, while others think it’s basically bad but the individual can be redeemed. How have you unraveled that dichotomy?
Well, in the first place I’m not sure that I even go along with the notion that there is any such thing as human nature. But leaving that aside, if we find a human being in a natural condition—a newborn, say—what we have here is moral neutrality—able to be influenced but neutral in itself.
So human beings are good or bad but not human nature?
Yes, that would be my view.
What about the concept of human corruptibility or original sin?
I’m inclined to think that human beings are more good than bad, but certainly all are vulnerable to corruption. The Christian idea of original sin is probably the worst idea that the mind of man ever concocted, and it’s basic to most of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, though it’s moderate in Catholicism and has been pretty much abandoned in the liberal forms of Protestantism. I think it’s not just nonsense but evil nonsense—the idea that human nature is fundamentally corrupt from its origins.
What about Mormon thought on this topic?
I’ve always been quite pleased that Mormonism rejects original sin. The term is used occasionally by Mormon writers, but what they usually mean by it is simply “the sin of Adam,” the cultural myth.
If you believe people are basically good, though corruptible, then you have a democratic temperament because you think people are not only free to make their own decisions but also likely to make decent decisions. But if you don’t believe people are free, then you might as well go ahead and make their decisions for them. Or if you believe they’re free but instinctively bad, then you can’t afford to let them make their own decisions.
So we only have one chance in four! Well, Jack, let’s believe that people aren’t basically bad and also that they’re free. It always pays to be on the side of truth and righteousness.
The Marxist view sees our behavior as so determined by economic and social institutions that the only way we can redeem society and the individuals in it is to change our environment—to totally eradicate all the ills of competition, [p. 172] greed, and exploitation that come with a capitalist system. Create a perfect economic system and produce perfectly cooperative human beings.
Yes, of course. But I think you would find on close examination that Karl Marx believed in the freedom of the will, too, despite his strong element of historical determinism. And then it’s complicated by whether you’re dealing with the Leninist, Stalinist, or Marx-Engels form of Marxism. But your point is certainly an excellent one. What you’re getting at, it seems to me, is the problem of freedom in connection with democracy, or the problem of the individual versus society. And that’s a problem determinists and free willers both face.
I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I helped organize an international philosophers’ conference held at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii campus. Fifteen or twenty philosophers from Asia, Europe, and the Americas gathered to discuss fundamental philosophical problems in a session that lasted six weeks. It was quite an exclusive group—a few observers were admitted, and there were a couple of public lectures; but most of the time it was a more or less private conversation. “The World and the Individual” was our subject. The Asians tended to put community first, emphasizing obligations and responsibilities associated with corporate and public life. The Americans and British held that individual rights are more original than responsibilities. You recognize your moral responsibilities because the other person has rights.
Now does this distinction predate Locke and Rousseau?
No, I think it’s primarily a modern emphasis. If you go back into the Middle Ages, the social structure clearly takes precedence over the individual in Europe. Catholicism certainly fit this pattern.
But Luther’s concept of the “priesthood of all believers” involved a strong shift toward individualism, though he didn’t go as far as Locke.
I think Luther was influenced by the nominalism of William of Occam, a late medieval philosopher at Oxford University. Occam opposed the Platonic approach to reality and asserted that universals like justice, truth, beauty, blueness, and so forth are just names—hence the term nominalism. If only particulars are real, then the nation or the church is not a reality, only the individual person is real.
Where does Occam’s famous razor fit into his nominalism?
Its literal translation from Latin is: “You should not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Stop with what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Not that he didn’t believe in other things. He believed in the reality of God, for instance, and that the good is good because God wills [p. 173] it. Occam would say that if God changed his mind, then killing would be good. Makes all the difference in the world.
And you think he had an influence on Luther and Calvin?
Oh, absolutely. You get Calvin laying tremendous stress on the inscrutable but sovereign will of God. If God wills that you go to heaven and I go to hell, then we have no grounds for complaint because we can’t question the will of God. Both of us glorify God equally; I can glorify his justice just as well from hell as you can glorify it from heaven.
As your philosophy developed, Sterling, so did your career. When did you decide to join the University of Utah faculty?
Meredith Wilson, the dean of the College of Arts and Science, and President A. Kay Olpin both got in touch with me and asked me if I would come to the university. I’ve never known, to be frank with you, whether the philosophy department, in which I was appointed, was ever consulted. I rather think the chairman was, but I’ve never known for sure. Waldemer Read was department chair, and he wrote to me asking what I would like to teach. I told him anything but aesthetics.
When President Olpin, who had just assumed office in 1946, visited me in Los Angeles in the spring of 1948 to persuade me to come to the University of Utah, he apparently didn’t know that I had already agreed with Dean Meredith Wilson to come. So I didn’t tell him. I listened with a great deal of interest as he made a very persuasive case. We sat in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel downtown in Los Angeles while he described his plans for the university, especially in research. Frankly, I was impressed.
Although many seem to have forgotten now, he boosted the reputation of the university across the board. But what were his plans when he began?
Olpin, who had had extensive experience in scientific research, came to the University of Utah from Ohio State, where he had spearheaded their movement toward research. He had a vision of the University of Utah becoming a major research center. One of his first acts as president was to attract world-class chemist Henry Eyring here from Princeton University. Himself a physicist, Olpin did as much to promote excellence in the arts as he did for the sciences at the university. He and George Thomas were our most influential presidents. Thomas vouchsafed our intellectual independence in the twenties and thirties; Olpin transformed us into a major research university and cultural center after World War II.
You had been here for only about a year and a half when the university celebrated its centennial on February 28, 1950. Was that something of a [p. 174] marker in the university’s history, a turning point of any kind?
It was certainly a milepost. I don’t think you could regard it as a turning point. The turning point was the post-World War II combination of circumstances that hit all of the schools in the country: the flood of veterans into the schools, the increase of federal funds for research, and increased private money for research and development as well. The University of Utah was lucky because it was ready for this and it got first-rate leadership just at the right time. A. Ray Olpin as president and Henry Eyring as dean of the graduate school transformed us quickly and effectively into a research university.
Olpin and Eyring were a great combination, but who else contributed centrally to this institution-building process?
It’s difficult to start naming them, because a great many people were involved in making this a real university. Meredith Wilson was a major factor and Maxwell Wintrobe and Louis Goodman in the Medical School were certainly two of the most important.
Did Olpin and Eyring jump on a moving train and hit the throttle or did they switch to another track and then pour on the coal?
I think the university was moving on that track already. Olpin was remarkably effective in getting things done, but he had a very firm foundation to build on. The University of Utah was a competent institution before he came here.
But it had been primarily a teaching institution rather than one distinguished for its scholarship.
Certainly there was research going on before, but I think there was more at Utah State University because of the agricultural experiment station with its federal funding.
I’ve heard you say over the years that you know of no institution that defends academic freedom more fully than the University of Utah. Why do you say that?
Yes, the University of Utah has genuine intellectual freedom. It’s partly because there has always been a powerful interest group, the Mormon church, right on the university’s doorstep. Olpin used to tell me in the 1950s of complaints from Mormon officials—and others, of course—about what professor so-and-so was saying in the classroom, what questionable plays were performed by the theater, and so on. Without exception, Olpin was a stalwart defender of the freedom of his faculty. He was almost bullheaded about it. And, for the most part, the faculty exercised its academic freedom responsibly—speaking and writing honestly but without malice toward local institutions and interests.
[p. 175] I’m sure you’ve got an example or two in mind.
One such event occurred in 1949, or possibly 1950. There was a great deal of concern over the loyalty oath that California initiated, a concern which was spreading across the country. There was some agitation in Utah for requiring loyalty oaths from university professors. The faculty met in Kingsbury Hall to discuss the matter and President Olpin said very firmly, “There will be no loyalty oaths in this university while I am president,” and that settled that. Thereafter loyalty oaths were a dead issue at the university and, generally, in the Utah community.
I would occasionally run into people—who were not Utahns, incidentally—who would ask, “When are you going to get rid of the communists in the university?”
It was a common assumption in the 1950s that universities were full of communists.
Absolutely. I said, “I don’t know that we have any communists.” “Oh, don’t talk like that,” they’d snap back. “You know very well that place is full of communists.” Well, as a matter of fact, we did have at least one card-carrying communist at the Medical School; but he wasn’t thrown out. At the end of the year he simply left.
Were faculty salaries an issue with the public at that time, as they seem to be now? What was your salary when you came here in the fall of 1948?
This issue is a perennial one, of course, and it never gets much better or goes away. I was appointed a full professor and my salary was $5,600, quite respectable then.
During the academic year 1952-53, you were a Ford Fellow and spent some time in New York. How did that come about?
That was quite a delightful year in many ways. Ford Faculty Fellowships paid your salary, moving, and travel expenses. In the application you told them what you wanted to do; if they agreed with you and appointed you, you were on your own. My education had all been in the west and I thought I should have some experience in the east; so when I received the appointment, I took the family and drove through the south and down into Florida before going up the east coast to New York. It was a great experience for us. I hadn’t been east of Denver before. We had four of our children at that time. Trudy, the oldest, was in the third grade. We managed to rent a house in Queens—looked just like the Sugarhouse-type bungalow that Archie Bunker lived in and just the same kind of neighborhood. That was a stroke of luck; we rented it for the same price that we rented our house here to some people who were coming to Salt Lake in connection with the Medical [p. 176] School. It worked out nicely.
Back up just a bit, Sterling. What were you doing? Where were you studying?
I wanted to study philosophy, of course; and I chose New York because I felt that it was the center of the universe and that you could get to other places from there. I was doing postdoctoral work: at Columbia, Princeton, and Union Theological Seminary. I was appointed visiting scholar at Columbia and the Union Theological Seminary and a Ford Fellow in philosophy at Princeton. And as if that weren’t enough, I was appointed as some kind of fellow at Yale.
This sounds like four part-time jobs, not a leisurely year of study! What was the heart of the experience?
Well, I did go up to Yale quite a bit to spend time with their people in philosophy. I also went to Harvard several times. Mainly, however, I concentrated on Columbia and Union Theological Seminary. Union was, and may still be, the best place in America for the scholarly study of religion, and, of course, it is right by Columbia so this was very convenient. I could attend lectures at both places with no difficulty. This was a great experience for me because I made contact with many leaders in the field of philosophy and religion. The most celebrated of them was Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. For that entire year I attended his classes—four of them: one on the history of Christianity, one on Luther, one on Calvin, and a seminar on Tillich’s own systematic theology. Later he and I participated in a week-long seminar at the College of Wooster in Ohio on the problem of the self.
Were there other people at Columbia and Union Theological Seminary that you especially remember from that year?
At Columbia I was especially attracted to Ernest Nagel’s lectures on logic. At Union I got to know John T. McNeill, one of the leading historians of Protestantism. A major figure at Yale with whom I had contact was Richard Niebuhr, a brother of Reinhold Niebuhr and a man of great distinction in Christian ethics. Reinhold had just retired from Union Seminary because of a heart attack. I was fortunate to hear him lecture a time or two in later years, but I regretted missing the chance to take a seminar with Reinhold that year, since he was probably the leading American theologian at the time.
You made contact with philosophers at Princeton that year, too?
Yes. Rudolf Carnap, the leading figure among the logical positivists, was at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and I spent some time with him at his home at the institute. I also had a marvelous [p. 177] seminar on the logical structure of scientific theory with Carl Hempel, a German who had been in this country for some time and was one of the leading logical positivists. He had been a professor at the University of Berlin and left during the Nazi regime, went to Queen’s College in New York, and then to Yale and finally Princeton. I’d studied his stuff and very much enjoyed it. I joined his seminar on the structure of scientific theory.
Years later I was appointed a member of the visiting committee for the Department of Philosophy at Princeton—you know, we would snoop around to see whether they were doing good things or bad in the philosophy department. It was a very pleasant occasion to renew old acquaintances there.
At Harvard you had some very interesting sessions with the Russian-American sociologist and philosopher Pitirim Sorokin, who invited you to his home. Now that is the way to get to know a scholar!
Yes, you can see what kinds of books they have in their bookcases and whether they pick up after themselves, and so on. Sorokin had been at Harvard for some years and produced a multi-volume social approach to the philosophy of history entitled Social and Cultural Dynamics. I was pleased to spend the afternoon with him, because he had advanced a conception of history based on three types of culture—ideational, idealistic, and sensate—that move in cycles. When a culture dies, it may be reborn as one of the other types.
I suppose classical Greece was an ideational culture and medieval Christian was idealistic.
And our own time is sensate, or, a roughly equivalent term, materialistic. These three aren’t in any kind of progressive form. You don’t necessarily start with the ideational and go to the idealistic. Both Oswald Spengler and Sorokin held that our culture is nearing its end, and I’m inclined to think they were right. Well, during this fascinating time with Sorokin—it was about 1953—I asked him if he still held to the view set forth in his major work on the cyclical movement of cultures. He didn’t say yes or no. He just smiled and said, “I doubt if any other philosopher has wasted as much paper as I have.” Well, his work wasn’t as extensive as Arnold Toynbee’s.
Did you ever meet Professor Toynbee?
As a matter of fact, we had Toynbee out here in Utah. Cal Taylor in our psychology department invited me to read a paper for one of his projects on multiple talents; Toynbee was another of the lecturers. I got acquainted with him then. Later, during the Vietnam War, we had [p. 178] Toynbee as commencement speaker. He sure blasted the hell out of us.
It sounds as if your year in New York led to a lot of good things later on. It was a fast-paced year. Did you have time to taste the culture of New York City?
Oh, we were serious about pleasure, too, Jack. Lowell Durham, Sr., professor of music and later fine arts dean at the University of Utah, was also at Columbia University that year on a Ford Fellowship. We went to the Metropolitan Opera together on a number of occasions. Sometimes we stood up, sometimes we sat down; but I must say we didn’t miss anything in New York.
I notice you said “we.” This experience must have been wonderful for Natalie and your children as well?
Our family did more in one year than most New Yorkers would ever think of doing in ten. We made the most of it—museums, concerts, parks, monuments, bridges—you name it. Then on the way home we drove up through New England and Quebec, before heading west across country. I think the children enjoyed the whole year a great deal. But that was the first time Trudy had encountered written homework, and she was quite upset about it. So I settled down to see if I could give her some help. The first question was, “What is the home field of the Brooklyn Dodgers?”
That’s a geographically and culturally loaded question, and it didn’t favor a Utah child!
No it didn’t, and she deserved a little help with it.
Shortly after your return home, you began to get a number of tempting offers. The Aspen Institute called on you to lead its seminars in 1954, Reed College wooed you for its presidency in 1956, Columbia pursued you for a philosophy professorship in its Graduate School of Business in 1958, and later you received a most attractive offer from the Ford Foundation. How did you respond to these enticing possibilities?
Well, I’m simply attached to Utah and attached to the university. It’s true that I received numerous offers, some of them exceedingly attractive, but I was never seriously tempted by any of them. I have accepted many visiting assignments in other parts of the nation and the world, but coming home to Utah and to the classroom—was always a pleasure for me. I am a Utahn and a teacher at heart.