Chapter XIX | The Good Man
§ 1. Moral scepticism
In an earlier chapter, when I quoted from Hamlet's eulogy of man, I confined myself to the admiration it expressed for the human intellect. Hamlet himself took a wider view. He describes man also as the beauty of the world, express and admirable alike in form and in motion. This observation, which perhaps is more appropriate to some of us than to others, seems to be concerned with the body, not merely as beautiful to contemplate, but also as adapted to purposes of action. At any rate Shakespeare goes on to couple man the agent with man the thinker—‘In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a God!’ If we consider man only as a being who thinks and knows, we get a distorted picture. We must try to see how he appears to himself from his own point of view as an agent, and particularly as a moral agent.
It is a commonplace of religious thinking that God is revealed both in nature and in the soul of man. In this context the soul of man is sometimes identified with the heart—that is, with religious feeling taken to be an immediate awareness of God; but it is also, and perhaps more wisely, equated with conscience—with consciousness of our subjection to moral law. To quote Dean Inge, ‘The “ought” is the voice of the super-personal spirit within us’. Such an aphorism suggests that there are moral grounds for believing in the existence of God; and it is with this claim in mind that man as a moral agent has now to be considered.
At this point we are faced with a new difficulty. Although there has been in the world at all times an undercurrent, and perhaps more than an undercurrent, of moral scepticism, we should until recently have been entitled, with general approbation, to take for granted that there is a moral law and that we are acquainted at least with its main provisions. We can no longer, if we make such an assumption, expect to find general agreement either from philosophers or from ordinary men. Agnostics of the nineteenth century did not, as a rule, question the moral code of their time: they tended rather to make it more exacting. This could not be said to-day; and apart from criticism of particular moral rules, which is often healthy, there is an inclination to regard all morality as subjective and relative, founded upon emotion or self-interest rather than upon reason.
Moral scepticism has often an intellectual basis. It may rest partly on the findings of particular sciences. Thus psycho-analysis is commonly thought to have shown that reason plays no part in human action, although it should be obvious that by acquiring rational insight into the subconscious man has now greater opportunities for rational self-control than he ever had before. Similarly anthropology is sometimes supposed to establish a complete lack of common moral principles among the different tribes of men. This argument goes back to Herodotus; but wider knowledge and deeper understanding may deprive it of much of its force. If in reading about primitive societies we make allowance both for their misconceptions of the world and for the inevitable tendency to confine morality within the tribe, we may be surprised to find how rational their moral principles are and indeed how like our own.
These particular problems cannot be examined here, but the reader may be referred to Professor MacBeath's ‘Experiments in Living’ if he wishes to find a combination of philosophical insight and common sense in the discussion of primitive morality.
The main intellectual basis of modern scepticism in ethics is perhaps to be found, not so much in particular sciences as in a point of view which assumes, whether as the result of psychological inertia or as the conclusion of philosophical reflexion, that science is the only kind of knowledge there is. If we place ourselves in the position of detached observers and consider man solely as an object of scientific study, his so-called actions, like his so-called knowledge, cannot but be taken as an effect of forces in and outside of his body. We are thus precluded from taking his own point of view as an agent—an agent conscious of a moral law which he ought to obey and may even try to obey. Furthermore, nothing can be more certain than that science tells us only what is: it has no concern with what ought to be. If we confine ourselves to scientific knowledge, all our ethical beliefs must be relegated to some philosophical limbo outside the heaven of knowledge—to the rubbish-heap of emotion or desire, or even, worst fate of all, to the dark domain of metaphysics.
On this view moral judgements, although in fact they always claim to be valid for others as well as for the agent, tend to have their claims dismissed without serious examination. They have to be explained away as the expression of personal emotions or likings, as the product of tradition and religious mystification, as the modern equivalent of taboo, as the effect of social environment, or even as the arrogant manifestation of an irrational super-ego. At best they may be regarded as formulating the rules found practically convenient in a particular social system. The Russians happen to have one code of behaviour and we to have another, and that is all there is to it. It is a mere waste of breath to ask which code is the better or the more right, and we are not entitled to condemn the liquidation of class enemies—if it happens in Russia—as a moral wrong.
Intellectual scepticism about morality may have still deeper foundations in practical scepticism—or at least the two kinds of scepticism may reinforce one another. The plain man is not unaffected by the catchwords of a semi-popular philosophy; but his ethical doubts may spring more directly from his experience as an agent and so may cut more deeply into his moral life.
§ 2. The unstable society
There is a close connexion between moral belief and moral behaviour—a belief on which we never try to act is hardly a belief at all; and the fact must be faced that moral behaviour, or at least right behaviour, is more common in a stable society. While such a society may tend to complacency or even hypocrisy, it is unfavourable to the brigand and the man of violence. In this country, in spite of a social revolution, we still have a relatively stable society. Yet nowadays we cannot but be acutely conscious of living also in a world society, and our world society has been in a state of instability for the last forty years.
It is hard to exaggerate the difference in this respect between what may be called the Victorian world—the world before 1914—and the world of to-day. On the 3rd of August in that year, as Sir Edward Grey looked out from a window of the Foreign Office at the gathering dusk, he remarked to those about him ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. His prophecy has been amply fulfilled. Let me recall some of the differences in outlook between then and now.
I can remember as a boy hearing some wise old gentlemen—at least they were old to me—talking gravely about the fall of empires. Former empires, they said, like Babylon, Assyria, and even Rome, had all passed away, and presumably the British Empire would one day pass like the rest, although this was hard to believe when one considered, not merely her power and wealth, but her dispensation of security and justice. In those days the British Empire was regarded, at least in these islands, not as the tyrant and exploiter, but as the bulwark of peace, the destroyer of the slave trade, the bringer of law and freedom to the victims of cruelty, anarchy, and superstition. It was firmly believed, no doubt with too great complacency, that other nations, having once seen these wonderful achievements in practice, would in time come to follow the same ideals. Yet since then not only has our country had to struggle twice for its very existence—and who knows what trials may still lie before us?—but our very ideals of peace and law and liberty have been spurned and derided over more than half the globe.
In civilized societies, or societies supposed to be civilized, we have seen things happen which to a Victorian were unbelievable. In the First World War the disregard of treaties, the shooting of hostages, and the sinking of passenger ships came as a moral shock which disturbed men's minds more than the far grosser outrages which were still to come. We have seen men, not merely imprisoned without trial, but humiliated and tortured and killed for their opinions. What is even worse, we have seen the same treatment meted out to their wives and children—punishment of relatives is said to be explicitly enjoined in the Russian penal code. One such act is an iniquity; but the scale on which these enormities have been practised staggers and baffles human imagination. Thousands, and perhaps millions, of innocent men and women have been deported to strange countries and condemned to slavery. Deliberate attempts have been made to kill off the intellectuals in Poland and Abyssinia, not to mention other places, so that whole nations might be reduced to ignorance and servility. The Jewish race in Europe has been almost wiped out. We need not dwell on these horrors, but they have to be looked at with open eyes. The only revival of savagery we have so far been spared is the public burning of heretics; and we have become almost callous to cruelties which in our innocence we had imagined were embalmed as records in the early books of the Old Testament and the history of oriental tyrannies.
In circumstances like these it is no wonder if private morality declines. Not very long ago an Englishman was sentenced in the Belgian Courts to a long term of imprisonment. The charge against him was that he had informed against Belgian families who had sheltered him as a British soldier during the last war and had helped him to escape. He had been recaptured at the last moment and under threats of torture had betrayed his benefactors to an infamous Nazi revenge. He committed a terrible wrong, to which no punishment could be adequate; but which of us can be sure that in like circumstances we might not have done the same?
This is an extreme example, confined, it may be said, to times of war; but it is difficult to believe that nothing like this happens in what we are pleased nowadays to call peace. Yet even war—whether civil or international, cold or hot—is only the supreme illustration of the way in which social instability tends to weaken morality and, at a less exalted level, to impair manners. Changes, for example, in the value of money tempt some of us to sharp practice, and many of us, if not to jealousy and spite, at least to discontent and grumbling. Incredible as it may seem, there was a time, not so long ago, when it was considered vulgar to talk about one's personal income. To-day the ideal of a gentleman is almost as unfashionable as the ideal of a saint.
The present generation may be no worse than its predecessors: it may only have been exposed to greater temptations. Our own age has not been deficient in military courage, and we are more conscious, sometimes rather smugly, of evils which our fathers took too lightly. But if there is a greater scepticism about moral principles, this should not be too difficult to understand. For most of us what we take to be the good life is a delicate balance between self-interest and duty. In a stable society the way of self-interest may not deviate very far from the path of duty: on the whole it pays to be respectable. When this happy coincidence fails, men tend to lose their bearings, especially as they see advantages gained by others through a lack of scruple. Under the stress of hardship they may speedily abandon, not merely the little airs and graces, but the bigger generosities and even the common decencies of life. If the situation becomes desperate, they may be faced with terrible choices which all but a very few are unprepared to meet.
§ 3. Total and partial scepticism
In ethics, as in other subjects, we ought to distinguish between total and partial scepticism. Partial scepticism is healthy as long as it does not lead to paralysis of the will; but it may be expressed in misleading terms which cause men to imagine that they are totally sceptical when in fact they are nothing of the kind.
Some of those who profess to debunk morality—a fashion perhaps now on the wane—are merely repudiating a Victorian rigorism which they are pleased to associate with the alleged pomposity of our grandfathers—with gold alberts and Dundreary whiskers. A great deal of nonsense is talked under this head, and we ought to be told more precisely what is being repudiated and what is being put in its place. So acute a judge as the late Lord Balfour once remarked in my hearing that while standards of outer decorum varied greatly, the fundamental behaviour of men and women varied little. There was, it is true, in wide circles of Victorian society a prudishness that was really harmful, and Freud has at least helped us to get rid of this. But it is a complete mistake to imagine that all Victorian fathers bullied their wives and terrorized their children—sometimes it was the other way about. It is very hard not to falsify recent history and almost impossible to see it in its true proportions. All of us to-day will seem very funny to the young men of the year two thousand; but even humour should be kept within bounds.
We ought not to assume that we are all right and our predecessors all wrong. We should rather reflect that if they went wrong, we may do so too; and such a reminder may be an aid to moral sensitivity. It is not obvious that coarseness is always to be preferred to reticence; and the modern growth of crime among the young is flattering neither to our family relations nor to our educational practice.
There is plenty of room for differences of opinion, not only about the interpretation of past history and the value of past ideals, but also about quite fundamental topics such as the morality of war, of capital punishment, of euthanasia, of divorce, and of birth control. But even if we admit alt this, and even if we condemn as vices what our predecessors may (or may not) have taken to be virtues, it is absurd to suppose that we have thereby freed ourselves from the shackles of morality. We are, on the contrary, whether wisely or foolishly, seeking to replace old moral standards by new ones—perhaps by ones more suited to our new situation. It is a tiresome abuse of language when we describe as moral conduct everything we believe people ought not to do.
It is fair to say that some men profess moral scepticism because of their dislike for harshness and intolerance, which—especially when allied with religion—may be among the aberrations of morality and may spring from causes too often believed to account for morality as such. It is sometimes supposed that toleration can be safeguarded by denying objective moral standards and by making duty and goodness relative to the wishes of each separate agent. But if I once free myself from objective standards, there is no reason why I should not regard it as good to impose my will upon other people by any means in my power. The only sure safeguard against intolerance is to recognize the duty of toleration.
In actual practice complete moral scepticism is very rare. There are plenty of bad men willing to exempt themselves from all moral obligations, but they are not so willing to extend this exemption to their neighbours, and then they begin to seem funny as well as immoral. They can see clearly enough that violence or treachery to themselves is an intolerable wrong—‘you can't do this to me’. Even Hitler appeared to be morally shocked at any fancied injustice done to his country. If we could find a genuinely amoral man—amoral not in some respects but in all—there would be nothing to do about him. He would just not be human.
As to complete intellectual scepticism about morality, it must be left to work itself out like any other form of total scepticism. In the long run it becomes as boring in theory as it is unworkable in practice. If the sceptic makes any moral admission at all—and he will find it hard to avoid doing so—it is possible to move on from this admission. This is why it is so important not to confuse the repudiation of some moral rules with total scepticism about morality. We do not say that we have abandoned science when we reject Newton in favour of Einstein; and we should not say that we have abandoned morality if we think that we are putting something better in its place.
§ 4. Duty
Morality was not invented yesterday. Like science itself, it has a long history behind it. In the face of modern scepticism I propose to assume that—at least in extreme cases—we are able to distinguish between a good man and a bad, and between right and wrong actions. Such an assumption is not affected by the fact that good men are sometimes confused in their moral thinking and may allow self-interest to mislead them both in their judgements and in their conduct. This is merely a danger against which we have all to be on our guard.
On this assumption it is simply untrue to say, whether directly or indirectly, that a good man is one who is good at satisfying his impulses or at furthering his own happiness. Skill in attaining our ends and prudence or enlightened self-love have their own value, and even their own place in a morally good life; but in themselves they are self-centred and so far are directly opposed to morality. This topic has already been discussed in Chapter VI, especially in § § 3 and 6, and I will not revert to it.
Similarly it is untrue to say, as religious leaders sometimes do, that a good man is one who is proud and pharisaical. Here again the suggestion is that morality must be self-centred. Distortions of this kind are not likely to further the cause of religion.
To describe morality in terms of self-interest is rather like describing science as if it were mainly the work of medicine-men and witch-doctors. This would no doubt be welcome to the witch-doctors themselves, and we may all have something of the witch-doctor in us when we come to consider the nature of moral goodness. But we try to look at science from the point of view of the scientist; and similarly we must try to look at morality from the point of view of the moral agent. We do so on the assumption that we already know what a scientist or a good man is.
There is too often a tendency—it is the mark of over-intellectualism—to regard the moral problem mainly as one of criticism, of praising and blaming others, and incidentally of praising and blaming our past selves or our past actions. We forget that there would be no moral problem at all if we did not have to live and act in a society. The primary question of morality for a good man—the one that arises directly in action—is not ‘What ought you to do?’ It is not ‘What ought you to have done?’ It is not even ‘What ought I to have done?’ The primary question is ‘What ought I to do now?’ The other questions are derivative; and it is a mistake to tackle them first and then apply the results to the pressing problem of my own duty here and now. Only such a mistaken method could account for the wide-spread philosophical belief—the remark comes from an acute Australian observer of our country—that moral judgement consists in a lot of individual Englishmen having funny feelings all by themselves.
The question ‘What ought I to do?’ may be a question about the best means for securing an already adopted end or for furthering what I take to be my happiness as a whole. If this is all, it has nothing to do with morality. When it is a moral question, it is equivalent to the question ‘What is my present duty?’ By asking this a good man already indicates that he is willing to do his duty whatever his duty may be. That is, he is willing to do his duty for the sake of duty as such, and not merely because it chimes with his desires or furthers his ends or promotes his happiness.
Some may think that this makes too much of duty. A saint or a holy man might conceivably be so good as to be immune from temptation and so to rise above duty altogether. But even if this is so, we need not be unduly perturbed. Few of us have any pretensions to be saints, and the problems of saints, if they have any, are not ours.
The path of duty, as Tennyson observes, may be the way to glory—or to wealth or happiness; but if we do our duty solely for the sake of glory or wealth or happiness, we are not good men. We find out our weakness when the two paths diverge and we are faced with the painful choice between duty and self-interest. Duty and self-interest may at such times almost seem like two different persons who press their claims upon us; and it is then especially that we are tempted to become sophisticated and to pretend that duty is a standard imposed upon us from without, a social device, a traditional taboo, and so on. But our first duty is to be honest with ourselves, and this is a duty which is not imposed on us from without. The claim of this duty, as of duty in general, is absolute and unconditioned—not in any metaphysical sense, but in the very simple sense that it is independent of our likings and dislikings and of what we expect to get out of it. If there is such a thing as duty, it is what I ought to do now, not if or because I happen to want something else, but no matter what I happen to want. That is what is meant when it is said that the ‘ought’ of morality is not hypothetical, but categorical: it does not depend on any ‘f’.
The moral judgement ‘I ought to do this now’ is manifestly not a descriptive judgement: it is quite unlike such judgements as ‘I have a red face’ or ‘I have a wart on my nose’. Even these descriptive judgements, although they are about me, are—at least professedly—independent of any whims or fancies of mine. They make a claim to the assent of others. In more technical language they claim to be universally valid or to be objective. The moral judgement ‘I ought to do this now’ also claims to be objective in this sense, but it claims more. It claims that what I ought to do (and not merely my judgement about it) is independent of my feelings and desires and fancies and of anything peculiar to myself. It claims to state a law binding upon me as a man or as a rational being—a law equally binding upon any other man in my place. That is to say, it claims the agreement of others, not merely to a descriptive statement about myself, but to the statement of a universal law which any rational being would be obliged to follow in the same circumstances. The moral law is impersonal and impartial; and duty is no respecter of persons. In moral action there can be no special privileges either for me or for you. In asserting that this is what I ought to do, I am asserting that this is what anybody ought to do if he were in my place.
In the modern world it is hard to know whether these statements will be regarded as platitudes or as paradoxes or as sheer illusions. Nevertheless I should be compelled to maintain that if any one denies them, then—although he may be talking most intelligently about some other subject—he has simply no notion of what morality is.
It is too commonly assumed nowadays that if any one claims objectivity for the judgement that a man is good or an action right, he is claiming to possess some mysterious, non-sensuous intuition of an unanalysable and indefinable quality present in men or in actions—or even in things. This interpretation is wholly contrary to the traditional use of the word ‘objective’: it has arisen solely because of the doctrines of Professor G. E. Moore, which do not have many supporters to-day. It is also wholly contrary to the doctrine expounded here—namely, that an action is morally good only if it is willed in accordance with a principle valid for every reasonable man in the same situation independently of what he happens to like or desire.
This is the doctrine formulated by Kant in what he called ‘the categorical imperative’—Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
§ 5. Persons and society
The principle of moral duty clearly implies that a morally good action, and a fortiori a morally good man, is of more value than the particular objects of our desires, the particular products of our actions, and even the attainment of our own happiness. What we have an absolute duty to do or to be must be considered to have an absolute value, with which no other value can be compared. Yet to describe moral action in the abstract as obedience to universal law may seem arid and unconvincing to those more concerned with action than with thinking. Hence it may be well to add that men who seek to follow a universal law, or even are capable of following it, are worthy of respect and indeed of reverence, and so are never to be used merely as a means to the satisfaction of our desires. In more technical language it is our duty to treat them as persons or as ends in themselves, and never merely as a means. If we use the language of religion, we may say that every human soul is of infinite or supreme value, and that this should never be forgotten in dealing with others or even with ourselves.
In moral action the relation of person to person is of fundamental importance—it is here above all that we have to use the language of I-Thou, and each person has to be treated as his own individual self. But we are also related to persons as members of a society; and so it is the duty of a good man to aim at establishing a society where all men, in seeking to realize in their actions the same universal law, will respect each other and respect themselves. This ideal society has been described in technical terms as a kingdom of ends in themselves. It is what is known to the religious man as the kingdom of God; and so far as it is realized in earth or heaven, it is the communion of saints.
If this principle is applied to the mundane field of politics, it enjoins also that so far as men constitute a political society, they ought to aim at establishing as much external freedom under law as is compatible with the like freedom for others; for this is the condition of the fullest realization of the moral society itself.
When the moral principle of obeying a universal law for its own sake, and not for the sake of any gain to ourselves or others, is interpreted in terms of respect for human personality and the realization of a society of persons as ends in themselves, it becomes warmer and more vivid to our imagination, and—although it still remains highly abstract—it may seem to express better the motives on which good men act. Men find their place in a well ordered society, or perhaps we should say in a society of societies, and in this way they know, even at the most primitive level, what their duty is. They do not ordinarily attempt to disentangle the motives or justifications for their moral actions, and they may seem to be moved only by loyalty to persons and to the particular society of which they form a part. If they can find no place or function in their society, the result is likely to be maladjustment and frustration and deep unhappiness, such as we see too often in the vast and machine-like States of to-day; and it is very easy to assume that what men seek is their own happiness, as indeed they very often do—their motives are generally mixed. Certainly they do not start from scratch in morals any more than they do in science: they have to accept the social structure as given and endeavour to fit in with it, and perhaps to improve it—the scientist does something very like this with his science. But if there is to be any criticism or reform of an existing society, or even of an individual way of life, it is necessary to get back to first principles; and here above all the principle that a moral law is universal becomes of supreme importance—it must hold for all men in like circumstances and cannot be confined within the limits of one privileged society, still less within the relation between one individual and another.
§ 6. Moral principles
Into the intricacies and implications of this doctrine it is impossible to enter here. The man who adopts these moral principles as his supreme rule of life is no longer an average sensual man whose highest rule is at the best the principle of self-interest: he has undergone a spiritual conversion, a kind of new birth; and if he is possessed of common sense and sound judgement, he will be able in many, or even in most, ordinary situations to recognize without much difficulty where his duty lies.
We must indeed distinguish between such ultimate principles and particular moral laws or moral rules. Since moral laws (such as ‘Thou shalt not lie’) and moral rules (such as ‘A soldier may have a duty to kill’) are confined in a lesser or greater degree to particular situations, the question may have to be considered whether a given situation properly falls under some accepted law or rule. A moral principle is absolute—that is, it holds in all situations. A moral law, and still more a moral rule, is only one application of a moral principle and must also be relative to a special kind of situation. Thus even a law or rule may be called absolute in the sense of not being dependent on the likings or dislikings of the agent and of holding for ail men in a like situation; but it is not absolute in the sense of holding for all situations whatsoever.
Only by making a distinction of this kind can we avoid an absurd rigidity which leads men—often through misunderstanding—to reject out of hand the doctrine that moral principles are absolute and universal. Such a distinction also compels a good man—and this too is wholesome—to recognize that his judgements about his duty in a particular situation are not infallible although he has to act as if they were. All he can claim is that they may be right or wrong, true or false (unless we confine truth and falsity to scientific statements). How such a claim can be tested is too large a question to examine here; but in doubtful cases we have to start from common beliefs and practices and criticize these in the light of our ultimate principles. In the end there may come a time for decision or experiment. It would be absurd to deny that even moral principles can have their full meaning only in relation to a whole system of rights and duties. In this sense they may be enriched, expanded, and illuminated with a wider experience and with that deeper moral insight which can be attained only in action. We must always assume that we have made some way already; and each moral discovery may become, as it were, the instrument of further advance.
Belief in the absolute claims of duty does not prevent us from being tolerant or from recognizing both that our judgement is fallible and that the principles of morality have to be applied differently in different circumstances. But it does assume that there are ultimate moral principles by which a good man must judge and on which he is obliged to act. These principles may be difficult to formulate, difficult to apply, and still more difficult to justify; but they must nevertheless be presupposed in our moral judgements and moral actions, and without them there is no morality at all.
Moral principles bear a certain resemblance to the theoretical principles of synthesis discussed in Chapter XVIII § 4, or again—if something more familiar is wanted—to the principles of induction, without which there could be no science. All such principles (including the so-called Principle of Verification) have to be distinguished from generalizations about the way men in fact think and behave—most men think incompetently and behave badly. On the other hand, men may think and act on principles which they cannot clearly formulate; and it is only by principles, however vaguely grasped, that they distinguish sound scientific thinking or good moral action from their opposites. Is it not partly an unreasoned intellectualistic prejudice that makes so many thinkers to-day boggle at moral principles even when they are prepared to swallow theoretical principles without a qualm? It is hard to see why moral principles should be regarded as less intelligible or less rational than are, for example, Mr. Russell's five postulates of scientific inference on his book on Human Knowledge.
In spite of their resemblance we should not forget the difference between moral and scientific principles; for moral principles are principles of acting and not merely of thinking. This is the reason why moral judgements arouse stronger feelings—so much so that they are often thought to be founded on emotion. Moral judgement makes a claim, not merely for theoretical assent, but for practical co-operation as well; and the refusal of practical cooperation, still more an attempt at practical opposition, will arouse more passion than is found in our not always unemotional theoretical disputes. This is true even when practical co-operation is required below the level of morality. When rowing men are bent on winning a boatrace, they will not love the oarsman who prefers his own style or who deliberately rocks the boat. It is easy for one powerful man—or one powerful nation—to rock the ship of State; and those who care passionately for law and order will have no tepid emotions about a disturber of the peace. They may even be tempted to harshness and cruelty; for badness—like goodness—may be highly infectious. If they succumb to the temptation, they depart from their own principles; but perhaps at a time when so much sympathy is lavished on the criminal rather than on his victim, we may be able to spare some sympathy even for the criminally good.
§ 7. Material principles
Ultimate moral principles must be highly abstract and formal. If you expect the wrong things from them—such as detailed instructions or emotional uplift—you are doomed to disappointment. They can no more provide a mechanical solution for moral problems than the principles of induction can for scientific problems. But it may be maintained that as they have been formulated here, they are too thin and empty to receive the assent or allegiance of men. Moral principles, we are told, should not be formal, but material—that is, they should put before us some specific, concrete end.
No sensible person would deny that moral principles have to be embodied in specific laws and rules—and, I would add, in actual concrete living—if they are to win the full allegiance of men. But the question here is whether it is possible to adopt some material principle as the sole and sufficient standard of morality. I think not.
The oldest and best of these material principles (though it has had refinements in recent years) is that a good man is one who aims at the happiness of mankind.
This doctrine has at least the merit of formulating one of the main obligations of good men—the duty of benevolence or kindness. It may even afford a rough criterion for the progress of morality, for there is probably something morally wrong with a society in which there is widespread unhappiness. But is it plausible to maintain that the only moral relation between man and man is that of benefactor and beneficiary? Can this principle give an adequate account of virtues like gratitude, good faith, justice, perseverance, courage? These virtues, and indeed virtue as such, seem to have a value incomparably greater than any happiness they may bestow. To regard happiness as the end, and virtue only as the means to it, is not to give a convincing account of moral goodness. And however amiable be such a doctrine, it is too soft for the rigours of actual life. Unless men value freedom and virtue and duty above happiness—and even above such great goods as personal affection or aesthetic enjoyment—they will not have enough virtue in them to defend the goods they cherish.
Some of those who uphold material principles do so because they admire the power and energy exhibited by enthusiasts who make some cause, such as communism or fascism, their sole end and the criterion by which all actions are to be judged. We no longer hear this claim on behalf of fascism; but there are still some who would maintain that communism, with all its cruelties and treacheries, is a higher morality than ours or is at least as high. Yet although admittedly men may be attracted to a popular movement by some moral element within it, they are never more in need of the restraints of morality than when they espouse a cause.
The greatest stains in our human history have been inflicted by those who have given themselves totally to some respectable cause—be it race or class or country or Church—and have subordinated everything to that one end. Totalitarianism, under whatever guise we find it, is not an alternative system of morality: it is a repudiation of morality, and we should not be afraid to say so. Or perhaps we should say that it is the setting up of a false morality and so corresponds to that worship of false gods which is known in religion as idolatry.
§ 8. Practical reason
If we hold that moral principles are universal in the sense that they are binding upon all men as men—and without this there may be mores, but not morality—we are not talking of man as ‘a forked radish with a head fantastically, carved upon it’: we are talking of him as a rational or reasonable being. There must be something common to men in virtue of which they can be moral agents and can be treated as such. This cannot be merely their common desires, for these, the more they are alike, may the more easily lead to antagonism and conflict. It is best described as reason, and when it is concerned with action, as practical reason.
There are many to-day who dislike such language, partly because they mistranslate it into a statement about some occult faculty. Practical reason is in no way occult, nor does it differ except in its application from the reason displayed in human thinking. We think and act well only in accordance with principles which claim to be valid for all rational agents; and to do this is to be reasonable alike in thought and in action. If we are inclined to seek support for philosophical doctrines in ordinary language, we should not ignore the fact that we speak of reasonable and unreasonable actions at least as much as we speak of reasonable and unreasonable thoughts. And it is no paradox to say that a morally good man is essentially a reasonable one. Unless this is so, there can be no objective and binding moral standards.
It is impossible to discuss here either this doctrine itself or the objections to which it lays itself open; but I am compelled to add that the function of reason in morality is closely connected with what I described in Chapter XIII as the drive in our thinking towards wholeness or completeness. In our thoughts this drive leads us, as we saw, to the conception of a first cause and an unconditioned reality with all its paradoxes and even contradictions. In our actions it leads us to the conception of an unconditioned good and an absolute obligation—we cannot be content to pursue one thing for the sake of another and so on indefinitely. But there is a difference between the two cases. For the theoretical notion of an unconditioned reality, even if we can conceive it consistently, we can find no corresponding object in experience; but in action we can provide, however imperfectly, an object corresponding to the notions of unconditioned good and absolute obligation so far as we succeed in doing our duty for its own sake.
It is perhaps because this is dimly grasped that men attach a supreme and over-riding value to moral goodness and blame their moral failures as they do not blame their intellectual errors and aesthetic defects. In moral action above all they seem able to attain freedom from determination by external causes and so to rise to the full dignity of man. Failure to fulfil so absolute an obligation and to realize so supreme an ideal must bring with it a conviction of unworthiness.
To those committed exclusively to a scientific point of view all this must appear as emotive utterance and metaphysical nonsense. Even men who adopt the moral standpoint may be content to think that they do so by a personal decision or commitment—‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’. For purposes of action this is enough. But whatever be our intellectual attitude to these matters, one claim may perhaps be generally admitted—that an ethics of the type so summarily expounded here is at least as likely as any other to afford a basis for theological argument.