I TURN now to the question, What is the general nature of that which is obligatory on us?; and I will first state three alternatives which naturally present themselves: are we bound to do certain things, i.e. to effect certain changes in the state of affairs; or are we bound to be influenced by certain motives; or are we bound to do certain things under the influence of certain motives? The question may also be put in the form, Is what I ought to do what I ought to do because in doing it I shall be initiating a certain change in the state of affairs, or because in doing it I shall be acting from a certain motive, or because in doing it I shall be initiating a certain change under the influence of a certain motive? I am not sure that the second view is ever held, as a complete account of the nature of that which is obligatory. We sometimes use expressions which seem to harmonize with it, as when we say that a judge ought not to be influenced by partiality for either of the parties who appear before him. But when we say this we do not think that this is the whole content of his duty, even in this particular context; we also think that he should not under the influence of partiality do a certain act, i.e. give an unjust decision. It would seem highly paradoxical to make the nature of our motive in doing this or that act the sole ground of one act's being our duty and another's not being so. For it would imply that in trying to discover our duty we need not attend to the facts of the outer situation, but have only to consider the respective merits of different motives from which we might act; whereas it is obvious that our view of the outer facts of the situation is what mainly affects our judgement of what we ought to do. Those therefore who lay stress on motive in this connexion usually hold the third view, that we ought to do certain acts under the influence of certain motives; which really means that what is obligatory is always a complex thing, including the doing of a certain act and the being influenced by a certain motive. Now there are certain facts that seem to support this view. Suppose that a certain man pays a debt, but does it not from a sense of justice but solely in order to avoid a legal action against him; or suppose that he does it in order to tempt his creditor to reckless speculation with the money repaid; it seems natural to say that such a man has not done what he ought; that in the first case he has not done what he was obliged to do, and that in the second he has done what he was definitely obliged not to do. Yet we shall see that this way of thinking leads to very awkward consequences; and I think we shall see that there is another way of putting the matter which, without involving these awkward consequences, does justice to the dissatisfaction which we rightly feel when some one behaves in either of the ways indicated.
(1) The first objection I would urge against the view that what I ought to do is to act from a certain motive is this. To say that I ought to act from a certain motive means one of two things. It may mean that I ought first to have the motive, and in consequence to act under its influence. Now having a motive means, I think it will be agreed, thinking that a certain act would have a certain character, and desiring to do an act of that character. This is disguised by the brachylogical way in which we tend to refer to motives. We speak of love, or of pity, as a motive. But when we ask ourselves what we mean by acting from love, we must admit that we mean acting from the thought that a certain act would promote the well-being of a certain person, and from the desire to do such an act as would promote it; and a corresponding account can be given of pity, or of any other motive that can be named. To say that we ought to act from love is to say that we ought to think that a certain act would promote some one's welfare, that we ought to desire his welfare, and that we ought to do the act on that account. But it is surely clear that neither opinion nor desire is under our immediate control. It cannot be my duty to think that a certain act would have a certain character, because I cannot by an act of choice produce this opinion in myself, any more than I can by choice produce any other opinion. And again, it cannot be my duty to desire to do such an act, because I cannot by choice produce this desire forthwith in myself, any more than I can by choice produce any other desire. I can no doubt take steps which may in the long run lead to my having a certain opinion; e.g. by attending to certain features of the act and ignoring others. And again I can by a suitable direction of my attention make it likely that a certain desire will arise in me. I can cultivate motives; but I cannot manufacture them at a moment's notice; and since my duty is my duty here and now, it can be no part of my duty to have a certain motive, since I cannot at choice have it here and now. Thus of the three things which the theory in question says I ought to do, only one is left as that which it can be my duty to do, namely, to do a certain act.
But to say that we ought to act from a certain motive may have another meaning. Some one might say ‘though you cannot produce a motive at a moment's notice, and though it cannot be your duty to act from it if you have not got it, it is your duty to act from it if you have got it’. Suppose, for instance, that I have a wish to further A's well-being, and think that act M would do so, and wish to injure B, and think that act N would do so, ought I not to act from the one motive and not from the other? Undoubtedly I ought to do the act to which love points, and not that to which malevolence points. But it is not my duty to be under the influence of love; for that I already am, whereas my duty is that which is in the immediate future. My duty is simply to do the corresponding act; and what makes it my duty is not that in doing it I shall be acting from the wish to promote A's welfare, but the fact that I think it will promote A's welfare.
(2) The second argument I would put forward for holding that our duty is to do acts, and not to do them from certain motives, is this: it is commonly held that the highest of all motives is the sense of duty. It is clear that whenever the sense of duty conflicts with any other motive, it is a morally better action to do that which we think to be our duty than to do any alternative act, whatever be the motive that points to it. And if sense of duty is the morally best motive when it points to a different action from that to which some other motive points, it is also the best single motive when it points to the same act to which some other motive points. It is better, for instance, to confer a benefit upon A from the reflective thought that that is the action which duty requires, than to do so from a mere instinctive love of A without considering the rights or the interests of other people. It would therefore be highly paradoxical to say that we ought to act from some other motive, but never from a sense of duty. Now it can be shown that it is never our duty to act from sense of duty. To say ‘you ought to act from sense of duty’ does not at first sight appear nonsensical. But it is seen to be so, as soon as we translate the vague phrase ‘from sense of duty’ into a more definite form. If the sense of duty is to be my motive for doing a certain act, it must be the sense that it is my duty to do the act. If, therefore, I say ‘it is my duty to do act A from the sense of duty’, this means ‘it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A’. And this involves a self-contradiction. The whole sentence says that ‘it is my duty to-do-act-A-from-the-sense-that-it-is-my-duty-to-do-act-A’; that all this and nothing less than this is my duty. But the last part of the expression involves that what I really think or ought to think, is that it is my duty to do-act-A simply. And if we try to amend the latter part of the expression to bring it into accordance with the theory, we get the result; ‘it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A’, where again the final part of the expression is in conflict with the theory. It is clear that a further similar amendment, and a further, and in the end an infinite series of amendments would be necessary in the attempt to bring the last part of the expression into accordance with the theory, and that even then we should not have succeeded in doing so. Any such expression would finish with the words ‘from the sense that it is my duty to do act A’, where it is implied that what I really think is that to do a certain act, and not to do it from the sense of duty, is what is my duty.
Again, suppose that I say to you ‘it is your duty to do act A from the sense of duty’; that means ‘it is your duty to do act A from the sense that it is your duty to do act A’. Then I think that it is your duty to act from a certain motive, but I am suggesting that you should act under the supposition that it is your duty to do a certain thing, irrespective of motive, i.e. under a supposition which I must think false, since it contradicts my own.
It is important to realize what is, and what is not, proved by this argument. It seems to be proved that it cannot be true that it is always, or even at any moment, our only duty to act from a sense of duty. For it is impossible to act merely from the sense that there are duties, or that I have duties, or even that I have certain particular duties, such as a duty to maximize the amount of good in the world. Even the more particular thought last mentioned, if it is to lead to any particular act, must be supplemented by the minor premiss that some particular act would in fact be the act which (of all the acts open to me) would most increase the amount of good in the world, and by the conclusion that I ought to do that particular act. Action from the sense of duty thus involves the thought that there is a duty to do a particular act, not because if done it will be done from a sense of duty, but because it will have a particular character such as that of maximizing the good in the world. And it can hardly be claimed that it is our duty to act from a mistaken thought; so that the very claim that we ought to act from a sense of duty involves the thought that there are duties other than that of acting from a sense of duty, acts the obligatoriness of which does not rest on the nature of the motive from which they will be done.
Can it then be contended that besides duties of this type there is also the duty of acting from the sense of duty? This is the suggestion made in a criticism of my argument by Professor L. A. Reid.1
‘If I say “It is my duty to do act X from a sense of duty”, I do not mean of course that it is my duty (as well as to do act X) to have the “sense” of duty which is an innate capacity, for no one can, by willing, produce that. This must be assumed, as we have said, if we are to talk ethics at all. I mean by the above sentence that it is my duty to summon into action, with the freedom which I possess (and which is also assumed to exist) my capacity for apprehending and conating duty. I must do the act X which is my duty, and I must do it from a sense of duty which is the fulfilment of an innate capacity of mine.
‘Further, there is no regress here, since the sense that X is a duty, and the sense that I ought to do X from a sense of duty (or that I ought to use in this instance the sense of duty which I possess) are not on the same footing. The one (a) has as its object an action, X, the other (b) has as its object a cognitional-conational state of mind, and whilst (a) without (b) is a concrete specific duty, (b) without (a) is a general capacity without special content. (b) needs some (a) to give it special content, so that some (a) is all the time and in every case the terminal object of a “sense of duty”. As, in Ross's statement, the “duty to do X” and the “sense of duty” are not “duties” on the same level, there is no formal vicious regress involved.’
I must leave readers to judge whether this meets my argument. It seems to me not do so; for (apart from the fact that he does not address himself very closely to the precise form of the infinite regress argument), one of the things of which Professor Reid assumes the existence—‘the sense that I ought to do X from a sense of duty’—is the very thing of which I was arguing for the non-existence. The theory he is maintaining is the theory that in any situation calling for moral choice we have two duties, to do a particular act and to be under the influence of the sense of duty when we do it; or he might prefer to say that we have a single complex duty including these two elements. Now we may ask, in what circumstances are we supposed to be faced with this choice? Is it suggested that we are already under the predominant influence of the sense of duty, or that we are not? Take the latter case first. It might be suggested that if one admires some one very greatly, and if that person urges one to act from a sense of duty, one might under the influence of admiration for him choose to act from a sense of duty. But surely this is a psychological impossibility. We might wish to substitute the sense of duty for admiration of a person, as our predominant motive, but we cannot effectively choose to do so, here and now. The most that we could possibly effectively choose would be to perform certain activities, either of action or of thought, which would gradually lead to the substitution of the one motive for the other; and then it would be the performing of these activities, and not the being under the influence of the sense of duty, that we ought to choose.
The only alternative is that we are already under the predominant influence of the sense of duty when we decide to do act X from the sense of duty. Then what we should be supposed to choose is to continue under that influence up to and including the time at which we do the act. But it is surely clear that this is not what happens. It is surely clear that when we decide to do our immediate duty, it is what we are to do that is the object of our choice, and not the motive from which we are to do it; and that for the simple reason that we do not question that the sense of duty, which is now the predominant motive, will continue to be so till the act is done.
To count the being under the influence of a certain motive, which is the precondition of the choice, as part of the object of choice, is to commit an error which is, in a very distant way, analogous to the error of treating the principles upon which we reason, as additional premisses from which we reason. What we choose is to do the act to which the already existing predominant motive points, and it is easy to fall into the error of supposing that what we choose is to act from that motive. What is our duty is to do the act to which the sense of duty points, and it is easy to fall into the error of supposing that what is our duty is to act from the sense of duty.
My insistence that it is always our duty to do certain acts, and not to act from certain motives, may seem to lay me open to the charge of making the moral life a very discontinuous thing, consisting of doing ‘one damned thing after another’, and having no real unity in itself. The good life, it might be argued against me, consists in becoming and in being a certain kind of person, not in doing certain kinds of thing. I should like to embrace what is true in this contention, and if possible to reconcile it with the general view I have put forward. I may begin by saying that it is one of our main duties to build up a good character in ourselves. The duties of special obligation by no means exhaust the range of duty. Besides them there is the duty of producing as much as possible of what is good; and in what is good goodness of character takes, I believe, the highest place; and for his own character a man has a special responsibility, since it is more under his control than that of any one else. I do not doubt that it is well for us, from time to time, to sit back, as it were, and review the way our character is developing, and take what steps seem necessary to develop it on better lines, by throwing ourselves, for example, into better surroundings. But improvement of character comes mainly not by anxious observation of our character but by faithful discharge of the other duties that arise for us hour by hour. This might no doubt lead to a one-sided development of character, since our existing surroundings might not call for the discharge of certain branches of duty. But, for a person leading his life in natural surroundings, these surroundings usually in fact yield occasions various enough to provide for an all-round development of character, and to provide for it better than a more self-directed attention does. I think Professor N. Hartmann is right in insisting that the development of character is best achieved when it arrives ‘on the back of the discharge of other duties; I think that if we study the lives of the best people we know we shall find this to be the case. The sense of duty and the various virtues are developed rather by acting in accordance with them, in so far as we have them already, than by searching anxiously to develop them further.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from our discussion is that our duty is to do certain things, not to do them from the sense of duty. If then it be still held that it is our duty to act from some motive, this can only mean that it is our duty to act from some other motive than the sense of duty, though the sense of duty is admittedly the highest motive; but such a paradoxical view is hardly likely to commend itself.
But, it might be replied, it is surely a very poor notion of the content of duty that you are putting forward, if you contend that a man who goes through life paying his debts from purely selfish motives, telling the truth simply to maintain a reputation for truthfulness, and so on, would nevertheless have done the whole duty of man. But to this there is the clear answer that a man who behaved in the way suggested, however many other duties he had done, would have failed to do one of his most important duties, that of cultivating the sense of duty. And it should be added that the duty of cultivating the sense of duty is the duty of cultivating the sense of duty, and not the duty of cultivating, from the sense of duty, the sense of duty.
An opponent might, however, return to the charge. He might say ‘you are admitting that the man who acts from indifferent or bad motives must have neglected one important branch of duty, that of cultivating good motives. But you are nevertheless judging his particular acts of payment of debts and the like from indifferent or bad motives to be morally on the same level as acts of payment of debt from the sense of duty or some other unselfish motive; and that is what cannot be tolerated.’ To this again the answer is quite clear. The man who pays his debts is doing this particular duty, from whatever motive he does it. But his action is morally worthless if he does so from certain motives, and morally worthy if he does it from others; for while an act's being my duty is quite independent of motive, the moral worth of my doing it depends mainly2 on the worth of the motive. I discriminate just as rigidly as any one could between the conscientious and the selfish act; but I describe this as a difference of moral worth and not as a difference in respect of the one act's being a doing of duty and the other act's not being so. Both persons alike are doing these particular duties, but the one is doing them as duties, the other is doing them as it were by accident; and between these two things there is the greatest possible difference of moral goodness.
I would add two further considerations in support of the view I am urging. (3) When I set myself to ask in some particular situation what my duty is, it is because I intend, when I have come to know or think some particular act to be my duty, to do it for that reason. Now when we ask what it is that makes an act my duty, we are asking what is the distinctive feature of that act that makes it and not some other to be my duty. Now, whichever of two or more acts I decide to be my duty, I shall do it (if I carry out my intention) from the sense of duty. The motive will be the same whichever I do; the motive therefore can be no part of that which makes the one act my duty while the others are not, since the same motive will be the motive of whichever act I do.
That is the argument from the necessities of the case. And now for the corresponding a posteriori argument. (4) What is it to which we in fact find ourselves attending when we are trying to discover our duty in some situation? Is it not clear that what we attend to is the nature of the possible acts, considered apart from the motive from which we should do them—their tendency to affect the welfare of other people in this way or in that, their quality as fulfilments of promise or breaches of promise, and the like? This is certainly what I find myself attending to, and I venture to think that others will find the same.
But, it may be said, is not scrutiny of one's own motives a well-known part of the technique of moral deliberation? I think it is, but not as tending to show what is one's duty. Suppose that some attractive proposal is made to me, which I am tempted to accept straight off. I shall do well to ask myself what is the motive which is influencing me, i.e. whether it is not simply the desire to have some pleasant experience; for there is a real danger that such a desire may lead me either never to consider the question what is my duty, or to sophisticate myself into thinking that to be my duty which would merely be very pleasant. But if I can refrain from acting immediately from the desire for pleasure, and turn to ask seriously what is my duty, consideration of my motives will throw no light on this question; this question must be decided in the light of quite other considerations such as I have suggested above. The fact that in my original consideration of a proposed act I was being influenced simply by its pleasantness has no tendency to show that it is not in fact my duty, any more than it has any tendency to show that it is.
I turn now to consider two particular defences of the view that motive is, or may be, at least an element in causing that which is my duty to be my duty. The first attempt I will consider is that of Mr. Joseph, in chapters 2–5 of his Some Problems in Ethics. Mr. Joseph's general position, if I understand it rightly, is this. He holds that the obligatoriness of any action must be dependent on the goodness of something; he holds that it would be irrational to think of any action as being obligatory unless we first think of some element in the action, or something with which the action is connected, as good. ‘My obligation to do what is right is to the performance not of an act without value, but of one which, if not related causally to good, must be somehow so related or in some way good itself.’3 Now, as regards many obligatory actions, he accepts Professor Moore's account, that their obligatoriness depends on their tendency to produce good results; that is implied in the sentence quoted.4 But he thinks that this account does not cover all obligatory action, and he thinks this for very much the same reasons that I do; he thinks, for instance, that it does not account for the sense that we have of an obligation to fulfil promises even when, so far as we can see, no more good would be caused by keeping the promise than by breaking it. Where, then, is he to find the goodness that makes such acts right? He first attempts to find it in the motive from which the act is done. He defends this view by urging first that all the acts to which moral judgements apply are motived acts. So far, I have no disposition to quarrel with him. There are indeed cases which at first sight seem to cast doubt on this statement. Take, for instance, the case of some one who knows that there is an invalid in a house but nevertheless stamps noisily upstairs. His making of the noise may have no motive; it may be the unthinking following of a habit. But we should certainly condemn a man who behaves so. And it is easy to see that this is but one of a large class of what may be called thoughtless acts, which are unmotived and which nevertheless we certainly condemn. Probably, however, we ought to be condemning the agent not for the thoughtless act, but for failure to do an act which if it had been done would have been done from a motive, viz. the act of controlling his habitual tendency to noisiness. The making of the noise is not merely not a motived act, but not even an intentional act, and no true subject of moral judgement. In fact, is it not clear that an intentional act must be a motived act? An intentional act is the conscious setting of oneself to bring some change into being, or to prevent some change from coming into being, and it seems clear that we never do this except when there is some feature, either in the act or in its consequences, which we wish to bring into being. The desire to do this will be the motive of the act.
I agree, then, that all the acts that are subjects of moral judgement are motived acts. But I cannot agree with Mr. Joseph's analysis of a motived act. He analyses it into two things—(1) the motive and (2) a consequent physical movement.5 He overlooks what seems to me a plainly existent third thing, viz. the setting oneself to produce the change in question. This is not a physical movement; it is a mental activity. And it is quite plainly to be distinguished from the motive. The motive is the wish to bring into being a state of things which we think will have a particular character, e.g. pleasantness. This is quite distinct from the setting oneself to bring into being a state of affairs which, we think, will have that character but will have others as well. And while it is true that no physical movement can be a subject of moral judgement, there is no antecedent reason why the setting oneself to produce a physical movement should not be the subject of the predicate right or wrong. I would add that the occurrence of a physical change is not even a necessary part of the whole thing which we call an action. No doubt in most cases what I set myself to do is to effect some change in the state of my body, and further consequential changes, as when I set myself to tell the truth or to pay a debt. But there is also such a thing as setting oneself to learn the truth or to improve one's own character, and here what one sets oneself to produce is a change in the state of one's own mind or of one's own character. Thus for the analysis of the motived action into motive and physical change, I would substitute the analysis of it into the setting oneself to effect some change, which may be either physical or mental, and the motive which leads us to do so, which in turn is analysable into the thought that the act will have a certain character and the desire to do an act of that character. Not merely, however, does Mr. Joseph ignore a vital element in a motived action, viz. the setting oneself to effect a certain change. He proceeds to speak as if a motived action were such a unity that no true ethical statement can be made about any element in it.
‘No act exists except in the doing of it, and in the doing of it there is a motive; and you cannot separate the doing of it from the motive without substituting for action in the moral sense action in the physical, mere movements of bodies.’6
‘A man who was fond of oysters might eat a plateful put before him for the sake of their flavour; a man who loathed them might do so to avoid hurting his host's feelings; a man who loathed or was indifferent to them might do so to prevent his neighbour, whom he knew to be fond of them and he disliked, from having two portions. I think these are three different acts, one morally good or else kindly, one morally bad or spiteful, one indifferent. They are not three instances of one act, viz. eating a plateful of oysters.’7
They are not of course three merely numerically different instances of something specifically the same. They are specifically different, since the motives are different. And in virtue of this difference three very different moral judgements are passed upon them, just as Mr. Joseph has said; one is morally good, one indifferent, one bad. But nevertheless they are specifically different instances of something that is generically the same, viz. of the act of setting oneself to eat a plateful of oysters; and while in virtue of their specific difference they differ in respect of moral goodness, there is no reason at all why in virtue of their generic resemblance they may not agree in possessing another moral attribute, viz. rightness (or wrongness).
Mr. Joseph speaks of the wrongness of ‘separating’ the act from the motive; and the word covers a dangerous ambiguity. Does he mean that it is wrong to suppose that the act could exist without a motive? I quite agree; I agree that all intentional acts are motived acts. But if he means that it is wrong to consider the act independently of the motive, to abstract from the motive and ask whether the act, which must be accompanied by some motive, has not some moral character of its own independent of whatever motive it is accompanied by, then I must reply that this is simply an instance of a type of objection which if it could properly be made here could equally be made to all abstract thinking. A body cannot have size without having shape, nor shape without having size; but it can have a certain size independently of its shape, or a certain shape independently of its size, and true statements may be made about either separately. A musical note cannot have pitch without having intensity, nor intensity without having pitch; but its pitch does not vary with its intensity, nor its intensity with its pitch, and pitch and intensity can profitably be studied separately. We shall not know the whole truth about the note till we have considered both, and we shall not know the whole truth about a motived act till we have considered both act and motive. But it is equally true that we shall never attain the whole truth about it till we have analysed it into its constituents and considered them first in isolation.
It may be remarked in passing that Mr. Joseph, who here attacks the consideration of acts apart from their motives, in a different context does this very thing himself, viz. where he points out that as regards acts which produce good results their rightness can be seen in certain cases to depend solely on the goodness of the results, without consideration of the motives.8 In fact it is pretty clear that he thinks that the rightness of most right acts depends on their consequences (or intended, or probable, consequences)—that it is only two rather special types of right act that owe their rightness to their motives.9
So far I have only established that besides a motive and a physical change there is a third thing—the setting oneself to bring about a change, or in other words an intentional act—and that this is a possible subject of the predicate right or wrong; we have still to consider whether it is so in fact. (1) The first kind of case that we may consider is one propounded by Mr. Joseph.
‘If I am prompted or inclined by affection to do some kindness that will cost me money, and simultaneously by desire of amusement to spend the money on myself, I may judge that I ought rather to do the kindness; and the rightness because of which I judge that I ought to do it is its having the goodness that lies in its being an expression of affection, the alternative action, which is an expression of the desire for my own amusement, having thereby an inferior goodness or none at all.’10
That is a possible view. But clearly quite a different account might be given. It might be said that we simply see that any act tending to produce pleasure for another has therefore some degree of obligatoriness, quite apart from its motive, and that any act tending simply to produce pleasure for oneself has no degree of obligatoriness, whatever its motive. It is not very easy to choose between the two views. But I suggest a test case which will, I think, enable us to choose between them. Suppose that there are two acts possible for me. By one I shall produce a great deal of pleasure for a large number of people, but also a small amount of pain for some one A whom I dislike; and I may feel sure that if I do it I shall do it from a mixture of two motives, benevolence towards this set of people and malevolence towards A. By the other act I shall produce a much less amount of pleasure for the set of people concerned, but no pain to A, and I may feel sure that if I do it I shall do it simply from benevolence. On Mr. Joseph's theory the rightness of whichever act is right in such a case should depend partly on the goodness of its consequences, and partly on the goodness of its motive.11 Therefore I should, before I can decide which I ought to do, have to ask myself anxiously whether the worth of my pure motive in the second case exceeds the worth of my mixed motive in the first case by a greater or less amount than that by which the net good to be produced in the first case exceeds the net good to be produced in the second. I suggest that we do not in fact perform this comparison, but that, where some special obligation like that of keeping promises does not enter into the case, we judge directly that the act which will produce the greatest balance of good for others is the right act,12 the motive not being considered at all.
I would add a further suggestion, which may or may not be true. If it is not true, it will not affect the truth of what I have been contending for; if it is true, it will tend to support it. Mr. Joseph thinks that we directly judge an act motived by the desire to give pleasure to be better than one motived by the desire to get pleasure, and for that reason judge that we ought to do the first rather than the second. I suggest that when we have reached moral maturity, we take one motive, the desire to do one's duty, as our standard of moral goodness, and judge other motives by the degree of their approximation to this. By the desire to do one's duty I understand the desire to act with the fullest possible regard to the various morally significant characteristics that the possible alternative acts would have. Now plainly a tendency to promote the happiness of others is one of these; and it seems to me equally clear that we do not think a tendency to promote one's own pleasure to be one of them. The reason why we judge kindness to be a better motive than the desire for pleasure is that it reveals, not indeed a reflective attention to all the morally significant aspects of an act, but at any rate an instinctive sensitiveness to one of them, viz. to its tendency to promote the happiness of others; while selfishness reveals only sensitiveness to a characteristic which we think has no moral significance, viz. the tendency to promote one's own happiness. I believe that it is on such a principle that we evaluate motives, good or bad; and it will be seen that it presupposes a prior judgement on acts as being right, wrong, or indifferent, in view of their characteristics apart from motive.
(2) What now are we to say of an act done from sense of duty? Are we to say that its obligatoriness depends on its being done from that motive? It might seem obvious that it cannot be so, because the sense of duty is already the sense that a certain action is obligatory; i.e. we are already satisfied of the rightness of the act by a consideration of its nature apart from its motive, and do not need to be satisfied of its rightness as we were (according to Mr. Joseph) in the former case,13 viz. by considering the superiority of the motive from which if done it would be done. Mr. Joseph admits this:14 ‘Nor can the act owe its rightness to being a manifestation of that sense of duty to which it owes its morality.’ Yet he seems to be hankering after an explanation of our sense of the rightness of such acts as promise-keeping, by the motive from which if done they will be done. For he goes on immediately to say: ‘But I believe it is possible to distinguish between the sense of duty in general, and that of a duty to realize a goodness connected with the particular principle of the action which is recognized as my duty now.’ The suggestion seems to be: ‘The reason why I ought to keep a promise is that if I keep it I shall be acting out of respect for a certain principle, and that this is a better motive than that from which the alternative act would proceed.’ ‘I have to distinguish’, says Mr. Joseph,15 ‘between the consciousness of duty in general, and that of my duty to act in a particular way here and now. It is this latter that may be the motive making the rightness of the action which, when moved by the former to ask myself what I ought to do, I recognize as the ground why one act rather than another is my duty now: this latter which, in such a case, takes the place of a particular good motive like affection.’ This, I confess, seems to me an impossible position. What makes the act right is, we are told, a certain motive; and this motive is the thought that the objective act (or act considered apart from motive) is my duty here and now. This is surely impossible. I am represented both as thinking that I ought to do a certain act because of its own nature (e.g. because it is the keeping of a promise) and as thinking that I ought to do it because if I do it I shall be doing it from this good motive. But I cannot think both things together, and if I think the first I do not need to think the second in order to be convinced that the act is my duty.
I am quite willing to admit Mr. Joseph's distinction between the consciousness of duty in general, and that of my duty to act in a particular way here and now. I might, for instance, think that I ought here and now to keep a certain promise, without realizing that in all normal circumstances there is something that is my duty. I might be alive to the duty of promise-keeping and blind to the duty of promoting the general good, or vice versa. It is not necessary to suppose that the sense of duty develops pari passu with regard to all the branches of duty. There are many people in whom fidelity to promises is strong but care for the general welfare weak, and others in whom the opposite state of affairs is found. But when Mr. Joseph tries to distinguish between the ‘urgency’ of the thought of a promise made and the sense of an obligation to fulfil it, and to make the obligation to fulfil it depend on the fact that if fulfilled it will be fulfilled as a result of the urgency of the thought,16 he is (I believe) making a distinction without a difference. For if the urgent thought of the promise is to be such a motive as could give the action from it moral value, it must be the thought of the promise as binding, i.e. as being something I ought to fulfil; we are back at the immediate intuition of the rightness of fulfilling promises, and the reference to the excellence of the motive as making the act right is both unnecessary and inconsistent with what has gone before, since in what has gone before it has been admitted that the act is thought of as right apart from its motive. That Mr. Joseph is really making a distinction where there is no difference is seen incidentally from the fact that while he says17 that the ‘thought of a particular action’ (e.g. of keeping a promise) of which he is speaking need not be the thought of an obligation, he describes it18 as the thought of my duty to act in a particular way here and now.
Mr. Joseph, however, does not remain content with the view put forward in these early chapters, that when the goodness connected with an action, on which its rightness depends, is not to be found in its consequences, it is to be found in its motive. In his eighth chapter he recurs to the question what makes right acts right. He finds that besides the cases covered by the utilitarian view, there are two other types of case: (1) ‘the practice of what Hume called the indirect virtues, such as justice, veracity, fidelity to promises’,19 and (2) ‘an example of the second kind occurs when a man judges that he ought to do one rather than another of two actions, the resultant goods to be expected from which appear equal, but would consist, if he acted one way, in his enjoyment of certain advantages; if he acted the other way, in another man's doing so’.20 These, it will be recognized, are just the types of act whose rightness in the early part of his book he describes as flowing from the motive from which they are done. As regards both these types of action, he rejects21 the utilitarian theory that such actions are made right by the fact that they produce or are likely to produce good results. But he also rejects his former explanation—the view that they are made right by proceeding from good motives. Or at least he admits that there are cases in which there is no motive for the doing of either of two actions except the sense of duty, and he admits that then ‘in the judgement which I have to make before action, when I ask which course is right, which do I owe to do, it is assumed that the same motive will have determined me in the adoption of either course; and the determining difference must be a goodness in one course that is not in the other’.22 He goes on to offer a different account of what it is in which this goodness lies, and this will demand later consideration.23 The important thing is that he admits that where we act from a sense of duty alone, the action's being a duty cannot spring from its being done from a sense of duty.
I turn now to a second attempt to vindicate the view that the rightness of right acts springs from the goodness of motives; that put forward by Professor Field in his article on Kant's First Moral Principle.24 His view arises in this way. In considering the problem of conflict of duties, which arises when, for instance, we ask ourselves whether we ought to tell a particular lie or break a particular promise when we think that a balance of good consequences will arise from our doing so, I had said that our answer will sometimes be ‘yes’ and sometimes be ‘no’, so that we cannot maintain with Kant that it is always wrong to tell a lie or break a promise. I had added that there are certain moral principles that remain always true, e.g. that there is always a prima facie obligation to tell the truth or keep a promise, so that telling the truth or keeping a promise always tends as such to be right, even though in particular cases this tendency may be overborne by some other tendency which the act may have in virtue of some other rubric under which it falls, such as failing to produce a great advantage for some one else. This seems to me to be a straightforward account of what we really think about the matter. We think that whichever of the alternative acts we do in such a case is in one respect suitable to the situation and in another not, and in consequence we have a certain—not bad conscience, but compunction, if we either tell the truth and damn the consequences or secure the good consequences by telling a lie. Professor Field thinks this is a true account of how we feel about such a case, when we do not reflect deeply, but that it does not go to the root of the matter. The root difficulty arises, he thinks, from the fact that there are no kinds of act which as such either always are wrong (as Kant says) or even always tend to be wrong (as I have suggested). And he suggests that if we turn to motives, there and there only shall we find things that always have a certain moral character; hatred of a person and cruelty being always bad, and benevolence being presumably always good. Judgements such as that cruelty is bad are, he thinks, the primary moral judgements. Now, he points out, there is a special connexion between certain motives and certain types of acts. The truth may be told from a variety of motives, but truth-telling has a special connexion with one motive, viz. the desire to tell the truth. Pain may be inflicted from a variety of motives, but the infliction of pain has a special connexion with cruelty, or the desire to inflict pain for its own sake. And because we judge a certain motive to be good or bad, we judge the kind of act which is thus specially connected with it to be prima facie right or wrong. Our judgement of acts is thus based on our judgement of motives.
Professor Field, it will be seen, goes a great deal farther than Mr. Joseph. Mr. Joseph thinks that the rightness of most right acts is due to the goodness of that which they bring about, or are meant to bring about, and it is only with regard to two classes of acts25 that, finding no special good in what they bring about, he tries to find the ground of their rightness in the motive from which they proceed. Professor Field holds that the only primary moral facts are the facts that certain motives are good and certain others bad, and on these facts and these alone he bases the rightness of certain acts and the wrongness of others. Against this general view I would refer to the arguments I have already put forward,26 which I believe to show that it is never on the goodness or badness of motives that the rightness or wrongness of acts is based. In particular, the sense of duty is always the sense of a duty to do an act of a certain kind, and to say that it is the sense of a duty to act from a sense of duty involves a self-contradiction.27 This, the highest motive, already involves the recognition of a rightness and wrongness which is independent of motive.
Professor Field cites, as an example of the mode of reasoning which he thinks we use, a story that is told of Plato, that he said to a delinquent slave, ‘I should have punished you, if I had not been angry.’ But if Plato actually reasoned on Professor Field's lines, he can only be judged to have dealt very perfunctorily with a case of conscience. His problem was, Should I inflict pain on this slave? If he really decided not to do so on the sole ground that he was angry, he would have been judging the suggested act in the light only of one of the characteristics it would have, viz. that it would be a satisfaction of his anger, and ignoring all its other characteristics, such as that it would be the punishment of a person who deserved punishment, that it was likely to have certain effects, some good, some bad, on the slave, that it was likely to deter other slaves from behaving similarly, and so on; whereas clearly he ought to have considered all these other circumstances. What I suppose Plato to have done was something very different—to have realized that he was so much under the influence of anger that he was not in a position to judge rightly of these other characteristics of the act, and therefore to have thought it safer not to do without further reflection an act which in his sober judgement he was just as likely to think wrong as right.
But, apart from the general objections to a view which makes the rightness of acts depend on the goodness of motives, we must consider whether Professor Field's account explains what we think in cases of ‘conflict of duties’, which is the problem that both the theory of prima facie obligations and his own theory are put forward to account for. Let us take a case in which an act, if done, will be done not from the motive from which it ‘normally’ proceeds, e.g. when a doctor considers whether he should deceive a patient, when the deception may be expected to be for the patient's good. Professor Field agrees that in such a case the doctor, if he is a good man, will, even if he decides to tell the lie, have some compunction in doing so. He thinks that the doctor infers from the badness of the love of telling lies that an act belonging to a type which would normally be connected with this motive, viz. the telling of the lie in question, has a tendency to be wrong, and this, he thinks, is what lies at the basis of our sense of prima facie obligations. The suggestion seems to me erroneous. Suppose that we grant, merely for the sake of argument, that the badness of a motive tends to make wrong an act proceeding from that motive. How can it tend to make wrong, or even be thought to tend to make wrong, an act which if done will not be done from that motive, but from a desire for the good of the patient? If the badness of a motive makes acts which proceed from it to be wrong, then we may say in a statistical sense that acts of deceit tend to be wrong because love of deceit is wrong; for acts of deceit normally proceed from love of deceit;28 but an individual act of deceit which does not proceed from this motive can have no tendency to be wrong because most acts of deceit proceed from the love of deceit, and the love of deceit is bad. If, then, Professor Field's view were right, the doctor should have no compunction at all about telling the lie, and no objection to telling it. He should regard as sheer confusion of thought the notion that this lie can have any tendency to be wrong because other lies in virtue of proceeding from a different motive tend to be wrong. But the plain fact is that he thinks that his act's being a lie is a factor adverse to its being his duty, even if he decides that this is overborne by other factors tending to make it his duty.
Suppose the opposite process to take place, and all is plain sailing. Because we judge that the infliction of pain has a tendency to be wrong, we think that being attracted to the infliction of pain as such, i.e. in virtue of a characteristic in which it is known to tend to be wrong, is morally bad. The motive is judged bad because of the prima facie wrongness of that which it is an attraction towards.
I conclude that Professor Field's theory does not explain our actual judgements in cases of apparent conflict of duties. And I suggest that the view that we judge acts right or wrong in virtue of the motives from which they would normally proceed, and not motives good or bad in virtue of the prima facie rightness or wrongness of the actions which they are attractions or inclinations towards, is a putting of the cart before the horse.
Something should be said of Professor Field's reply to another of the arguments I put forward for the view that our duty is to do certain kinds of act and not to act from certain motives, viz. that we cannot choose to act from a particular motive. In reply to this he says29 that ‘in any sense in which we can choose what action we shall do, we can choose what motive we shall act from’. Now, choosing to do a certain act does not necessarily involve choosing to act from a certain motive. For there are acts which might proceed from any one of two or more motives, and in such a case choosing to do the act is not choosing to do it from any one of the motives, though it must be from one of the motives that we make the choice. Let us take, however, the case in which there is only one motive from which the act could be done; say, sense of duty, or desire for pleasure. Then it might seem that in choosing the act we are choosing the motive, since the act can only be done from one motive. But this is not really so. You might as well say that if I choose to walk down the High Street of Oxford I am choosing to be still alive, and choosing that the High Street shall exist, when the time comes at which I mean to take the walk; for certainly I cannot walk down the street unless I am alive and it exists. We do not choose that these things shall be; we choose on the assumption that they will be, or perhaps we should say ‘without thinking of the possibility that they may not be’. Similarly, though in the case supposed we could not do the act except from the motive in question, what happens, strictly speaking, is not that we choose to act from that motive, but that from that motive we choose to do the act in question, on the assumption that the motive will still exist in our mind, or will have come to exist again, when the time for doing the act arrives. When the choice or decision precedes the act by only a short interval, the assumption is usually justified; but when the interval is long, we are only too familiar with the fact that the motive often fails to be present, or to be present with sufficient strength, when it is needed.
It has been rather a surprise to me that so many writers have fallen foul of the view I expressed in The Right and the Good that obligatoriness attaches to acts independently of their motives, and moral goodness to them in consequence of their motives. I had thought that I was simply stating in a very explicit way what had always been implicit in the main lines of ethical theory. Possibly the doctrine is less likely to be rejected as a paradox if I indicate what a respectable ancestry it has. It is implicit in the doctrine of Aristotle, in which the whole content of the just, for example—of that which it is incumbent on us to do, in this particular department of duty—is described, without any reference to the motive of the agent, as arising from the nature of the situation in which he is acting (i.e. from the rights of the various persons affected by his action), and doing that which is just, doing this particular part of our duty, is described as consisting simply in the effecting of the proper distribution, compensation, or exchange—all this being distinguished from the doing of what is just ‘as just men do it’,30 i.e. from the motive of love of justice. It is clearly implied that the one is what is obligatory, while the other is that which has moral goodness.
Again, the doctrine is stated very explicitly by Kant, when near the beginning of the Grundlegung31 he distinguishes between doing what is your duty and acting from duty (i.e. from a sense of duty). He clearly implies that you can do the former even when your motive is a purely selfish one; and I believe that he consistently describes action from a sense of duty not as the only action that is right, but as the only action that has moral worth, thus making the motive (or, as he prefers to call it, the principle or maxim of action) the ground of moral goodness, but the nature of the action apart from its motive the ground of its rightness.
It is hardly necessary to point out that in this respect, if in no other, Utilitarianism joins hands with Kant. For utilitarians, the rightness of an act is determined by its consequences or else by its expected or probable consequences, and in no wise by its motive; witness Mill's well-known phrase ‘the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action, though much with the worth of the agent’.32 And in this respect Mill's example is followed by the revised version of Utilitarianism associated with the name of Professor Moore.
This is perhaps the most convenient place to discuss the final part of Mr. Joseph's theory.33 It has no direct connexion with the general view we have been considering, that the motive from which an act will be done, if it is done, forms, always or sometimes, all or part of the reason why we ought to do it. But in his mind it arises, as that view arose, from a consideration of actions whose obligatoriness cannot be accounted for, as that of many actions can, by their tending to produce good results. He has already insisted34 that the word ‘right’ is ambiguous; that besides standing for the fact that an act ought to be done, it stands for a common characteristic in virtue of which the acts that ought to be done ought to be done, and this rightness is, he maintains, ‘a sort of goodness’.35 Whether ‘right’ can thus stand for the supposed common characteristic in virtue of which all acts that ought to be done ought to be done, is only a question about the use of language; the important question is whether Mr. Joseph can detect such a common characteristic, which is itself a form of goodness. He makes this impossible for himself, if I have grasped his view aright, by accepting the instrumental or utilitarian account of the source of the obligatoriness of many—I think, most—of the acts we ought to do. Most acts that are right are so, according to him, because they are productive of good. But productivity of good is, I would maintain, not a form of goodness in any strict sense of the word ‘good’, and is most certainly not the same thing which he describes as the basis of the obligatoriness of two other kinds of act, to which he thinks the utilitarian account inapplicable.36 As regards both these kinds of action, he rejects37 the utilitarian theory that such actions are made right by the fact that they produce, or are likely to produce, good results. And he rejects38 the view that they are made right by their proceeding from good motives. His view, then, is that such actions are obligatory because they have a rightness, which is a form of goodness, independent both of results and of motives. And his positive suggestion as to the source of the rightness of such an act is that it is the goodness ‘of the system which it forms with its context’.39
This view seems to me open to serious criticism on two grounds. (1) If I contemplate one of the acts in question, an act, say, in which a promise is kept, or an act in which A brings into being a certain pleasure for B, when he might have brought into being an equal or greater pleasure for himself, and ask myself whether it is good, apart both from results and from motives, I can find no goodness in it. The fact is that when some one keeps a promise we can see no intrinsic worth in that; we must first know from what motive the promise was kept. It may have been kept in order later to procure some satisfaction from the promisee; then the keeping of the promise from that motive is indifferent. It may have been kept to spite some third person; the keeping of it from that motive is positively bad.
If I am right in holding that such acts are not as such good (but only the doing of them from a sense of duty or from some other good motive), then Mr. Joseph's view as to the source of the goodness he ascribes to them must be wrong. But since some readers may not have been convinced by what I have said on the first head, it is worth while (2) to examine his view as to the source of the goodness of such acts. This view is differently expressed by him in different places. One of his ways of putting it is to say that the goodness belongs not so much to the act but to ‘the system which it forms with its context’.40 Another is that it belongs to ‘the rule of action of which it’ (the action) ‘is a manifestation.’41 But finally42 we are told that ‘we must look to the whole form of life in some community, to which all the actions manifesting this rule would belong, and ask whether it, or some other form of life is better, which would be lived by the community instead, if this rule were not helping to determine it. If we judge that it is better, then the particular action is right, for the sake of the better system to which it belongs’.
The view has perhaps been suggested by Kant's attempt to test the rightness of an act by asking whether the principle involved in it could without self-contradiction be made a universal law of conduct for all rational beings.43 But Mr. Joseph does not contend that the rule of life, of which keeping promises is one manifestation, is the only self-consistent rule; he sees that Kant failed to make this out.44 What he claims is that ‘the form of life requiring the particular action in the working out of its plan’ is better than any other.45 The suggestion, then, is that we have an imaginative vision of a certain kind of life in a community which we see would be better than any other, and that, reading off its implications, we see that among them are, for instance, that we should keep promises, that we should produce happiness for others rather than for ourselves, and the like. To this I have three objections. (1) One is that already made, that we can see no intrinsic goodness attaching to the life of a community merely because promises are kept in it. Before judging that the life of a promise-keeping community was good, we should insist on knowing whether the promises were being kept from good or from indifferent or from bad motives. (2) Mr. Joseph seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. We do not start with a general notion of the ideal life of a community, and read off, as consequences that can be deduced from this, that promises should be kept, and the like. Rather, because we see that promises ought to be kept, that people should make restitution for the ills they have done, and render good for the good they have received, as well as promoting the general welfare, we build up from these intuitive insights the conception of an ideal community in which people would do these things, and do them because they know them to be right. If Mr. Joseph holds that we read the particular types of duty off as consequences from a single ideal, he may fairly be asked to state the general ideal in much more definite language than he ever does, and exhibit the deduction of the several branches of duty from it.
(3) No element in a system can owe its goodness merely to the goodness of the system; for neither presence in a good system, nor even presence as a necessary element in a good system, can guarantee the goodness of everything that is thus present. Thus, whatever be the merits of Mr. Joseph's view that certain actions owe their rightness to inclusion in a good system, they cannot be good by virtue of this, and therefore their rightness is not, as he maintains it is, a sort of goodness.
In fact his view, so far from finding a single source of the obligatoriness of all acts that are obligatory, describes some as being obligatory because their consequences are good,46 some as being so because their motives are good,47 and some as being so because the system to which they belong is good.48 In no case is rightness shown to be itself ‘a sort of goodness’.
Some light is thrown on his view by a comparison which he later49 makes between ethics and mathematics. In mathematics
‘a man may come to know, independently one of another, many facts between which he later discovers necessary connexion. Indeed in this field it is hard to doubt that all facts are mutually involved, though we cannot show this. Some have urged that, if this is so, the apprehension of the facts in their isolation is not properly to be called knowledge of them; we do not really know anything unless we know it in all its linkages. Perhaps there is a parallel here between Ethics and Mathematics. We think we know of certain actions separately that we ought to do or forbear them. But if the obligation is grounded in some goodness or badness which the action would have, and which is not independent of its being so linked with other actions as to make good or bad the form of life to which it and they would belong, it might be said that we could not really know our obligation till we viewed the action in these linkages. Yet in both fields some isolated judgments seem true, though the facts cannot be so independent of each other as the judgments are isolated.’
Mr. Joseph seems to me to adopt, though rather half-heartedly, a coherence view of truth both as regards mathematics and as regards ethics. That view, if accepted whole-heartedly, involves that no proposition can be known to be true until it can be seen to imply and be implied by all the other true propositions within the given field (ethics, say, or mathematics). And since, admittedly, we do not know all the linkages of implication between our axioms, it follows, on this view, that we do not know the axioms, and in fact strictly know nothing. But Mr. Joseph is in two respects half-hearted. (a) He admits that we do know the axioms. ‘A man may come to know,50 independently one of another, many facts between which he later discovers necessary connexion.’ Then we do know the axioms, and even if we should later be able to discover logical connexions between them, that cannot rob them of their self-evidence, (b) He treats mathematics and ethics as independent fields of knowledge, but if he were consistent in his allegiance to the coherence theory he should say that nothing can be known in ethics till it can be seen to imply and be implied by what is true in mathematics, and vice versa. We could not know that promises should be kept unless we could see it to be implied by what we know about the nature of numbers; and we could not know that 2 and 2 make 4 unless we could see it to be implied by what we know about duty.
As against this theory, what I suggest is that both in mathematics and in ethics we have certain crystal-clear intuitions from which we build up all that we can know about the nature of numbers and the nature of duty. And, to return to our proper subject, we do not read off our knowledge of particular branches of duty from a single ideal of the good life, but build up our ideal of the good life from intuitions into particular branches of duty. In the course of our thinking we come to know more, but we should never come to know more if we did not know what we start with.
Creative Morality, 64–5.
Cf. pp. 306–8.
Op. cit. 58.
Cf. Some Problems in Ethics, 28.
Some Problems in Ethics, 28.
Ibid. 92–4. For the two types see my p. 129, n. 2.
Op. cit. 47.
His theory introduces goodness of motive as making right the act that is right, only in two types of case, viz. (1) where we think we ought to produce a pleasure for another rather than an equal pleasure for ourselves, (2) in such a case as promise-keeping, where we think we ought to fulfil a promise even when this does not seem likely to produce more good than an alternative act would. But if motive is the determinant of rightness here, it ought to be a determinant of rightness in other cases, such as the test case I suggest above.
Subject to the consideration that there is a more stringent obligation not to inflict injury on others, than there is to confer benefit on them; cf. p. 75.
That mentioned on p. 128, supra.
Some Problems in Ethics, 48.
Some Problems in Ethics, 50–1.
See pp. 140–5.
Mind, xli (1932), pp. 17–36.
Cf. p. 129, n. 2, supra.
Cf. pp. 116–21.
I admit this merely for the sake of argument; in fact most acts of deceit proceed from the desire of advantage to oneself.
Mind, xli (1932), 33.
Eth. Nic. 1105 b 8.
Akad. Ausgabe, iv. 397–9 (Abbott's translation, 15–18).
Utilitarianism, copyright editions, 26. Cf. the note on the same page.
Referred to above, p. 133.
Some Problems in Ethics, ch. vi.
Viz. those mentioned above, p. 129, n. 2.
Some Problems in Ethics, 94.
Some Problems in Ethics, 98.
Cf. ibid. 98.
Cf. pp. 124–5, supra.
Cf. pp. 125–32, supra.
Cf. pp. 140–1, supra.
Some Problems of Ethics, 108.