You are here

4: The Criteria of Moral Value

CERTAIN points have been made clear in the preceding discussion: the persistence of value-judgments in our experience; the prominence among these of the moral judgment or appreciation of good and evil; and the irreducible significance of these judgments. Their meaning is not explained by searching for their causes in the phenomena of emotion or of desire or in the history of society. The nature and significance of these judgments, and of the moral judgment in particular, require some further elucidation.

The moral judgment is not exhaustive as regards the things concerning which it is passed. The same things may be also the subjects of non-moral or positive judgments. We may say that pleasure or knowledge or justice or love is good; but, in so saying, we allow that these same things may be, and indeed always are, appropriate subjects for judgments of a different kind, which form the basis of the positive sciences. Anything which we approve or disapprove morally may also have its causes traced, its structure analysed, and in general its relations to other things investigated. The same holds of other value-judgments. Whatever is valued must have qualities which can be examined scientifically and about which causal and other assertions can be made, just as, on the other hand, when we have discovered all that can be discovered about the causes of things, the question of their value still remains. The two orders of proposition are concerned with the same subjects, and differ only in their predicates. It is the predicate which brings out the characteristic difference of moral approval or æsthetic admiration as distinguished from scientific generalisation.

But, as we have seen, value is not separated from existence. It is even more closely connected with it than certain departments of positive science. These may deal solely with the relation of concepts—or of things which, to use an old term, now once more in common use, subsist only and do not exist. All relations of logical implication are of this order. Thus if I say that the equilateral triangle is equiangular I do not mean that those actually existing three-sided figures whose sides are exactly equal will also enclose equal angles, or that when and if anyone succeeds in constructing a figure with its three sides equal it will also have its three angles equal. These truths follow from my statement; but the statement itself is not about existing things, but about the relation of concepts or mere subsistents. The assertion is that the concept equilateral triangle implies the concept equiangular triangle—whether such a thing as an equilateral triangle have any existence or not. Can we say the same of ethical propositions? If the proposition is ‘pleasure is good,’ or ‘knowledge is good,’ or ‘love is good,’ is the assertion about the implication of concepts? Do I mean that the concept pleasure—though pleasure were never experienced by any sentient being—is good? or that the mere concept knowledge is good, although knowledge had no existence, and no one ever knew anything? Or that love is good, meaning by love simply a concept which has what is called being or subsistence, but does not exist at all, and is not manifested in the emotions or character of living beings?

If we think of answering these questions in the affirmative, we have only to realise our meaning to see grounds for hesitation. Consider, for instance, the simplest of them all—pleasure; and let us assume for the moment that pleasant experience is good. But what is meant by saying that pleasure is good? It may be a perfectly legitimate general expression for the goodness that belongs to any and every actual experience of pleasure. But then it refers to actual experiences, and their goodness is not now in question. The question is this: apart from any actual or possible pleasant experience, would pleasure—the bare concept or subsistent pleasure—be good? To this the answer must be that the mere concept pleasure is neither good nor evil: and the same must be said of love or knowledge or anything else, if used to signify merely a concept and not an existing thing or experience.

When we predicate goodness or other value, it is always predicated upon the assumption or under the hypothesis of existence. The existence need not be actual or present; but it is only as existing—or if it exists—that the thing is held to be good. “It would be good for us to be there” is as fair an example of a moral judgment as “it is good for us to be here.” But it has also as plain a reference to existence. Only, in the latter case existence is given as actual; in the former it is merely postulated as possible. When Kant said that there is nothing good without qualification except a good will, and at the same time admitted that perhaps a truly good will had never existed in human history, he yet postulated the good will as a possible existent whose existence, if actualised, would be good. It was to the good will conceived as actual that he attributed goodness, while he also recognised that there might be nothing in existence which could thus be called good without qualification. Without the postulate of existence, expressed or implied, actual or hypothetical, the attribution of goodness or of any value would be out of place. This existence need not be asserted; we do not need to believe in the actual existence of the object, but we must contemplate it as existing. There need not be a judgment, but there must be an assumption1 (as it has been called) of its existence. This assumption may take various forms. It may be a mere presumption and the question of actual or only possible existence may not even be raised, as when we say “the punctual performance of duty is good,” without considering and without needing to consider whether punctual performance of duty is an actual occurrence, or something approximately realised only, or something merely supposed to exist. On the other hand, existence may be taken as given, as when we ascribe goodness to some concrete situation or actual person; and in this case we have an implicit judgment rather than what is technically called an assumption. Or the assumption may be definitely formulated without one's committing oneself to belief in it. This assumption is a hypothesis on which we proceed—whether we are going to test it by drawing out its conclusions, or whether our interest lies outside the truth of the assumption. Thus, when we say perfection is good, or a painless life would be good, or a sinless life would be good, we do not assert that, and do not need to enquire whether, the thing we call good actually exists: what we mean is that it would be good if it existed. Accordingly, the existence implied concerning the subject of the value-judgment need not be asserted or believed, but it must at least be assumed. Apart from its claim upon existence in some such way nothing is either good or evil.

This conclusion points to another result of some importance. Ethics is distinguished from the natural sciences by the fact that its propositions are value-propositions and not causal propositions: it predicates value, not causation; and it is further distinguished from mathematics (and abstract science generally) because its main propositions2 are not concerned with the logical implication of concepts. It does not predicate causation, and its propositions are therefore unlike those of natural science. They assume the existence of their subject, and this marks the difference between ethics and mathematics.

The moral consciousness is thus one aspect of the consciousness of existing reality or of something contemplated as existing. In order to be good, or for that matter in order to be evil, a thing must first of all exist. But on the other hand the ground of its goodness lies in something else than its mere existence. Existence of itself does not imply goodness nor does it imply evil. If a reason can be found for saying that a thing is good, then this reason must lie in some quality or relation of the thing; it cannot be due to its mere existence, for otherwise the distinction between good and evil would disappear. The moral order cuts across the actual order of existence as presented in sense-perception and described by science. Two things therefore hold of the subject of the moral judgment. It must exist or be assumed as existing. But it is called good not merely because it exists, but in virtue of some quality or combination of qualities which distinguish it, or some relation in which it stands to other things. Yet these qualities or relations would not be called good unless postulated as existing. The predicate good therefore divides existence (real or possible) into two classes: the things to which this predicate applies and the things to which it does not apply.

So far accordingly, that is, from the examination of the moral consciousness, no support is given to either of two opposed doctrines which are common in metaphysical ethics. One of these doctrines equates goodness with reality; but when reality is used as synonymous with or as implying existence, this doctrine is faced by the fact that the moral consciousness distinguishes some existing things as good and others as evil. The other and opposed doctrine looks upon good as a quality which is implied by certain other qualities merely as such and irrespective of any reference to existence; this doctrine does not allow for the fact, to which equal witness is given by the moral consciousness, that goodness does not belong to any quality by itself but only on the assumption of its existence. It is not the mere concept or idea but the existence corresponding to the concept, or the realisation of the idea, that forms the subject of the moral judgment. That judgment, therefore, always involves both something assumed as existing and a universal by means of which it is approved or disapproved.

The view which has been set forth here may be illustrated by an ingenious essay in literary criticism and perhaps gain support from it. In his essay ‘On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century,’ Charles Lamb defended the licentious plays of Congreve and Wycherley by arguing that the characters represented in them have no connexion with real life. “It is altogether a speculative scene of things,” he said, “which has no reference whatever to the world that is.… The whole is a passing pageant, where we should sit as unconcerned at the issues, for life or death, as at the battle of the frogs and mice. But, like Don Quixote, we take part against the puppets, and quite as impertinently.” The comedies cannot be acted any longer, he says, because we insist on regarding the characters as real men and women instead of the puppets they are. We are unable to enjoy the play just because our imagination is spoiled by “the exclusive and all-devouring drama of common life, where the moral point is everything.” Probably Lamb did not intend his criticism to be taken too seriously. He knew that dramatic interest demands at least the illusion of reality and that mere puppets would spoil the illusion. But he wished to justify his own enjoyment in reading the plays, and he saw that, in order to keep moral interests out of the drama, it was necessary at the same time to “escape from the pressure of reality.” He was seeking a moral holiday; he wished “to take an airing beyond the diocese of the strict conscience” and, “for a dream-while or so, to imagine a world with no meddling restrictions.” Lamb felt—and his instinct was sound—that the moral holiday must be taken in a region as remote from the actual world as is fairy land. “Somewhere east of Suez” is not far enough away. In our world good and evil are insistent; but outside it, among the puppets of our imagination, we may feign their absence: and indeed they are irrelevant unless the puppets are somehow regarded as human beings with human surroundings.

We become aware of existence as a particular—a here and now; from this we pass on to the idea of future existence and backwards to that of past existence; even when we imagine the existence of something without assigning definite place and date to it, this idea also is founded on a particular apprehension and distinguished from it only by the loss of its concrete determinateness. Accordingly, seeing that moral judgment proceeds on an assumption of existence, we shall expect the system of moral values to be built up gradually upon the basis of particular appreciations. Value resides in the particular. But it does not belong to it in virtue of its mere particularity; it belongs to the realisation by the particular of a certain character. The full determination of this character would be the completion of an ethical system, or, generally, of a system of values. It has been expressed, so far as moral value is concerned, in different ways by different schools, but chiefly in two ways: sometimes by an idea of the Supreme Good, sometimes by the conception of a Universal Law or Categorical Imperative. This conception and that idea are expressions for the ultimate ground of goodness—for that character or sum of characters which (or some of which) are possessed by everything which is rightly termed good. But neither the idea of a Supreme Good nor the conception of a Universal Law is present—at any rate, explicitly present—in our ordinary moral judgments. And if we attempt to get to our primary moral judgments we find even less trace of this universal conception of the things called good.

The traditional doctrine of the Intuitional moralists was different from that expressed here. It followed the Scholastic doctrine of morality by representing the moral judgment as arrived at deductively from a general principle of morality. The particular case (it was supposed) was first of all identified as a member of a class or instance of a principle; and this class or principle was supposed to be known intuitively as good. The moral syllogism had accordingly a universal principle of morality as its major premiss; the minor premiss brought the particular case under the general principle; and the conclusion which resulted was the moral judgment. Thus, in spite of the apparent immediateness of the moral judgment, it was represented as the conclusion of a syllogism; and this conclusion could not have been drawn unless the major premiss—attributing goodness to a universal—had been first of all recognised. In this respect Kant's doctrine resembles the Scholastic or intuitional. According to him all moral judgment is an application of the general principle that goodness belongs only to will in so far as it is determined by the conception of a law which admits of use as a universal principle. Kant does indeed avoid a difficulty which faces the traditional intuitionists—the difficulty which arises from their assumption either of some one general conception (such as happiness or perfection) or of a number of such general conceptions (such as justice, benevolence, and the like) as the ultimate subjects of ethical axioms, independently of all experience of happiness or perfection or justice or benevolence. The difficulty for the intuitionists is that these general conceptions are themselves only formed by the experience of being happy or of seeing or doing just or benevolent actions. All these principles were rejected by Kant as material; and indeed it is clear that they are arrived at through experience and criticism of life, and cannot therefore be primary elements in the moral consciousness. The principle which he substituted for them was not open to the same objection; but, as purely formal, it encountered another difficulty, for it was unable to yield any concrete ethical content. Both attempts at a rational ethics thus failed for opposite but corresponding reasons. The traditional intuitionism laid down concrete moral doctrines, but it arrived at these by assuming as primary conceptions which are clearly gathered from experience. Kantianism avoided this error, but only to remain shut up to a purely formal doctrine which was without connexion with the content of life and thus failed to give a system of moral values. It reduced the principle of morality to the formal proposition that the good will alone is good or that goodness ought to be realised or willed3.

The universal of morality is contained in particulars and at first concealed by them; and the moralist's problem is to elucidate the universal by reason of which these particular cases are appropriate subjects for the moral judgment. Goodness is, first of all, recognised in a concrete situation. The moral judgment is in the first instance a perceptive judgment, as Aristotle held4; and ethical science is based on these perceptive judgments just as natural science is based on the judgments of sense-perception. The data of ethics are accordingly the particular appreciations or judgments of good or evil passed in certain concrete situations. These are moral intuitions, in the literal sense, for they are immediate and of the nature of perception, not the results of reasoning. But they are not intuitions as understood by the Scholastic or modern moralists of the intuitional school: for they are not general propositions, and other moral truths are not derived from them by deduction. Nor have they any infallible claim to truth. In this respect they are on the same level as the judgments of sense-perception. These judgments, although natural science ultimately depends upon them, may also be mistaken. The square tower seen in the distance appears to be round; different colours seem the same in a faint light; we see the sun move across the heavens from east to west. All these are judgments of perception which further perception itself leads us to revise and amend. The illusions of the senses are corrected by the means that cause them, that is, by additional sense-perceptions, which make comparison and criticism possible. Similar mistakes and illusions may enter into our judgments of approval and disapproval, and they need to be examined and corrected in the same way. But the possibility of error does not, in one case any more than in the other, imply the impossibility of truth. It only compels an enquiry into the criteria of validity.

For this enquiry we must use an appropriate method, and the method must have regard to the data at our disposal. It would be inappropriate, for example, to imitate mathematical method, although Descartes regarded it as the only valid type of thinking. For mathematics begins with definite concepts and proceeds to elaborate the implication of one concept by another; and for this procedure moral experience does not provide us with the requisite conceptual material. All knowledge which is concerned with the data of experience must follow a different method. It has to bring the content of experience into order, consistency, and system; and this content requires to be sifted and criticised by thought. The inconsistencies in the data of moral experience make it impossible to hold that the propositions which directly express them are always valid. On the other hand these data may not be indiscriminately rejected, for there is no other material before us. The general validity of moral experience must be accepted in order to make possible the criticism of any portion of it by the assistance of the remainder. The work of thought is to clear away contradiction within the content of morality, to find the underlying harmony, if there be such a harmony, and to construct a system. It is, in the first place, a search for principles.

The variety of moral opinion arises out of an immense number of particular judgments of good and evil. These judgments have been pronounced upon many different situations and under different conditions. The difficulty is to extract from them general principles which can be relied upon as true expressions of moral value. In confronting this difficulty we must ask whether there are any criteria of validity which can be applied to moral judgments and by which they can be tested. Certain criteria may be suggested.

1. Every moral judgment claims validity. When I assert ‘this is good’ or ‘that is evil,’ I do not mean that I experience desire or aversion, or that I have a feeling of liking or indignation. These subjective experiences may be present; but the judgment points not to a personal or subjective state of mind but to the presence of an objective value in the situation. What is implied in this objectivity? Clearly, in the first place, it implies independence of the judging subject. If my assertion ‘this is good’ is valid, then it is valid not for me only but for everyone. If I say ‘this is good,’ and another person, referring to the same situation, says ‘this is not good,’ one or other of us must be mistaken. The proposition is either true or false; it cannot be both. The validity of a moral judgment does not depend upon the person by whom the judgment is made. In this sense it is impersonal.

There is another sense in which moral value is sometimes said to be independent of the person. It is said that what is right for me to do must, if all the circumstances are the same, be right for any one else. And this also has been held to be an ethical axiom. But with this axiom—if it be such—we have at present nothing to do. So far as we are concerned an action may be right for A and wrong for B. We have as yet only asserted that the person who passes the judgment is indifferent, not that the person about whom it is passed is indifferent. The latter proposition has to do with a special application of moral value—its application to the conduct of individual persons. The former proposition is perfectly general, and is a preliminary postulate of the existence of ethics as a system of truths. There can be no ethical truth if the same proposition is valid when asserted by one man and invalid when asserted by another. If the proposition ‘A is good’ is true, then it is true by whomsoever and whenever it is asserted.

This postulate is inconsistent with one meaning of the favourite phrase ‘the relativity of morals.’ If moral judgments are simply expressions of a subjective emotion, then they are all in a sense correct, for the existence of the emotion is not denied; but they have no further validity—nor, indeed, meaning. But we have already seen reason to dismiss this view. And my postulate contains nothing inconsistent with the development of moral ideas or with the fact that different conduct is appropriate to different circumstances, or even to different persons in the same circumstances. Customs vary indefinitely and moral opinion varies with them. There is the greatest difference, for example, between the practice and opinion of the head-hunters of Borneo on the one hand and the practice and opinion of the Society of Friends on the other. The latter condemn the actions which are the daily and admired performance of the former. The head-hunter of Borneo approves with enthusiasm what the follower of George Fox condemns and abhors. Is it possible to institute any fruitful comparison between ideas and habits so far apart? Is it not better simply to discriminate the two stages of social development and say that moral practice and opinion are relative to the social order? The Quaker condemns homicide; and this condemnation is bound up with his religious and political creed. The head-hunter follows the way of life of his tribe and conforms to its standards, without any thought of general principles. If we seek to realise a special concrete situation which the latter approves, we must put ourselves in his position, recognise the facts of his life, and allow for the social pressure that surrounds him. It is difficult for the modern to do this, from the midst of a civilised society in which peaceful living is secured, and the necessary means for that security are not obtruded on his notice. But if he is able to do this, and to apprehend the same situation as the savage, he may still say ‘this is wrong’ when the former says ‘this is right’—the ‘this’ referring in both cases to the same situation. When the two propositions have thus clearly the same subject, they cannot both be true if they contradict one another. This follows from our postulate. Did it not hold there would be no meaning in the opposition of moral opinion or in the progress of moral ideas. It is only because, in any given situation, there is always a right and a wrong method of reacting upon it, that we can explain the true nature of the relativity of morals. The phrase loses its meaning, because morality loses its meaning, if the same thing may be both right and wrong, good and evil.

2. This character of objectivity, therefore, and of the universality implied by objectivity, belongs to the moral judgment, as to other judgments. If valid as asserted by me, it is equally valid for everyone. No proposition can claim to belong to ethics unless it has this objectivity and the resulting universality. But it is a characteristic which, at the same time, brings out the mixture of truth and error in our moral judgments. They all claim validity; but they cannot all be valid, because they are not all consistent with one another. Any moral judgment which is valid must be coherent with all other valid moral judgments: at least it cannot be inconsistent with any. Freedom from contradiction, coherence, and thus possible systematisation are criteria by which the validity of any moral judgment may be tested. If any such judgment is inconsistent with some other judgment known to be valid then it cannot be valid also; if it is consistent with other valid judgments then it may be valid. And if it is capable of entering into a system of moral judgments along with them and thus harmonising with them, the probability of its validity is increased. This probability may be of various degrees. When the judgment in question is logically implied by other judgments known to be valid, its validity is certain.

This represents and in its completeness applies to a further stage in the development of moral ideas. So far I have spoken only of the primary moral judgment whose subject is some concrete individual situation—a this or that. And, if we kept to such particular judgments, science and system would be impossible: only a multitude of judgments some of which might be esteemed valid and others invalid; while the only opening for consistency or inconsistency would be between different persons' judgments concerning the same situation. But the moral judgment, even though it concern the particular, always implies a universal. When I say ‘this is good,’ it is because of some character of the ‘this’ that it is called good. The head-hunter may judge ‘this is good’ when he displays his first triumph and proves his manhood upon some member of an alien tribe. He does not reflect at all upon the ground of his approval. But, if he did reflect, he might find that what he approved in calling his deed good or right was his attainment of the standard of his fellow-tribesmen—his contribution to the union and power of a community which lived amongst enemies and must be vigilant and strong in order to survive. It is thus in virtue of a universal present in the particular that the particular is approved. The given action is held to be right because it contributes to tribal preservation or strength or unity. When a later or more civilised observer reflects upon the same incident, he looks from a different point of view and sees further. In his eyes the gain to one community has its set-off in the loss to another; what strengthens one tribe at the same time weakens another; the action may even be in his eyes part of a system which keeps every community which practises it in constant danger of death and with the barest minimum of the goods of life. Therefore the same situation which the tribesman welcomes as good, he calls evil. The two judgments upon the same concrete situation contradict one another. But this contradiction may not apply to the underlying grounds of the judgment, if these have been correctly analysed. These may, indeed, be largely identical and differ only in degree of comprehensiveness. The ground of the savage's judgment might be expressed in the proposition ‘tribal welfare is good,’ and by this would be meant the welfare of this particular tribe, which (as in this case) might imply the hurt of another. The ground of the civilised man's judgment may be ‘common welfare is good,’ and he will not limit common welfare to the welfare of a particular tribe. Underlying the judgment of both, is the idea of a community and of the common welfare, however differently conceived; and it is on this account that the predicate ‘good’ is applicable. But the judgments differ in that the community in view is narrower in the one case than in the other, while common welfare may be differently understood.

This analysis brings out two points. It shows that moral judgments, which in their first expression flatly contradict one another, may yet have an underlying principle of agreement; the moral element, when elicited from each judgment, may not show the same opposition as their first statement expressed; it may even be identical in the two cases. In the second place, the criticism of the moral judgment reveals a universal element in its subject; the subject is not a mere ‘this’; it is a ‘this’ of a certain determinate kind; and it is owing to its character in this respect, that is, to the universal element in it, that it is held to be good or evil. The same universal element may be the underlying ground which makes possible moral judgments regarding many different subjects. Criticism will therefore reveal the possibility of systematising moral judgments with respect to the principles which they imply.

In this way we may arrive at a degree of coherence between moral judgments far closer than any mere absence of contradiction shown by the primary judgments on different moral situations. The principles involved in these judgments may be related in a variety of ways—by the kind of objects to which they refer, by the degree of generality in which these objects are taken, and so on. If the predicates of two such judgments conflict (if in the one case the predicate is ‘good’ and in the other ‘evil’), we investigate the principle involved in the subject of each judgment, and from the relation of the two principles, seek to understand the reason for the difference in the predicates. Systematisation will, in this way, compel us often to reject the first expression of the moral consciousness, but yet without throwing doubt upon the fundamental validity of that consciousness.

In this way system becomes a criterion of moral validity. Particular judgments which conflict with a system of judgments must themselves be judged by that system. In such a case we do not merely compare two judgments, both of which cannot be valid and between which there is room for hesitation and no clear ground for decision. On the one side we have the weight of a systematic whole, on the other the single conflicting judgment standing alone; and the system of judgments gives a stronger claim to moral validity. If this criterion still seem unsatisfactory, we must remember that the test is the same as that by which the accuracy of sense-perception is established. What we learn to call illusions of perception are in their immediate nature simply perceptions among other perceptions; but they conflict with the systematic ordering of the perceptions which lie at the basis of our scientific generalisations; we are therefore forced to reject their claim to objective validity, and we seek a new explanation of them as illusions.

3. It is possible, however, that the issue may not be between a single judgment on one side and a system of judgments on the other: but that there may be system on both sides. This is certainly to some extent the case in morality, as it also is in science; and we must proceed to enquire whether there is any further criterion of moral validity by which we may distinguish between system and system. This further test is that of comprehensiveness. It is possible that moral judgments may admit of being grouped into a system, so that within the system there is perfect coherence, while, nevertheless, a great mass of moral judgments is left outside this system and in conflict with it, but forming a different system. In such a case of conflict between system and system we may be inclined at first to appeal to a quantitative estimate and to compare the systems according to the number of the facts of moral experience which they are able consistently to explain; and we may give the preference to the system of greater comprehensiveness, that is, to the system which is able to explain the greater number of facts.

Rival moral systems which exemplify a conflict of this kind are not unknown. Perhaps they are most evident in the department of ethics which has to do with political affairs. Tribal custom was the original moral standard; and, although moral ideas have been gradually freed from tribal limitations, the community as nation country or State remains a partial embodiment of morality. So it happens that, even when egoism is not the principle of individual morality, a political egoism often continues to be regarded as the proper standard for the State and its representatives. It is possible for such a system of ideas to endure when egoism is seen to be an immoral principle for the individual. The State has a measure of self-sufficiency which the individual entirely lacks; it might still persist if, like the Ireland of Berkeley's imagination, it were surrounded by a wall of brass a thousand cubits high5. Thus it happens that, in every powerful State, many thinkers share the view of Bismarck and Treitschke that the only ethical principle which is valid for the guidance of a State's activity is its own preservation and the increase of its power6. This principle makes it possible to systematise many judgments as to what is good and what is evil in political conduct. But it comes into conflict with the corresponding but opposed views of the representatives of other States. If the rulers of State A hold that the only principle by which political action should be judged is the maintenance and increase of the power of that State, others, in a different country, will hold that the only principle of political ethics is the maintenance and increase of the power of State B. And the familiar conflict in political morality results.

Now, if we are to apply the test of comprehensiveness, it must be allowed to be, at any rate in the first view of it, inadequate. Neither State A nor State B can make any claim to represent a comprehensive universality of interests. One may be larger and more complexly organised than the other, and the ethical principle which it adopts may comprehend a greater number and variety of particular appreciations. In relative comprehensiveness, the principle which takes as its standard the increase of the power of State A may appear to be clearly superior to the principle whose standard is the increase of the power of State B. But this bare quantitative test fails to supply any true moral principle or any criterion between the conflicting principles.

The test of comprehensiveness will not be satisfactorily met by a process of adding up particulars and comparing systems according to the number of such particulars which they can include. We must find a principle which will comprehend both the conflicting systems, and by explaining their opposition will justify whatever validity they possess. To revert to the example. The principle of political egoism is of value on all occasions which concern only the internal policy of a single State; but in international relations it is inadequate, not in one case only but in all, because it sets different States in opposition to one another. This marks the limits of its validity. It is of no assistance as an ethical principle when the interests of different States conflict. Apart from this conflict we can see in it something that is not really egoism, but is the recognition of a larger and common life which has claims upon the thought and activity of its constituent members. Its underlying principle, we may say, is that of the ethical importance of the organised community and the claim of the latter upon the devotion of its members. But the principle is not vindicated when one such community oppresses another with a view to the increase of its own power. On the contrary, the principle is misunderstood or relaxed, because the still larger community of the concert of nations or of human society is sacrificed to particularist claims. The criterion of comprehensiveness is fully vindicated only when the moral principle of wider sweep has proved its claim to validity by including the narrower principle which it supplants. It is not sufficient for it to cover a greater number of particular judgments than the competing principle does; it must take up the competing principle into itself and show the measure of validity which it possesses and then explain the limits of this validity. In general, it will not be a mere contrary of the other principle, but a new principle which includes more than either because it penetrates deeper than they do. Thus the moral particularism which makes the interests of one community the supreme standard of political action cannot be supplanted by the similar particularism of another community, but only by a view of the social principle in morality and of the value which belongs to particular communities in the social whole which is co-extensive with mankind7.

In the preceding example we have been concerned with a conflict of ethical ideals, which was due not so much to difference in the nature or meaning of the ideals themselves, as to their different range of application; and a means for resolving this conflict was found in the test of comprehensiveness. Another example may serve to show that the same test will still be of value, even when the conflict is not merely about the application of ethical ideals but concerns their fundamental nature. No difference of moral opinion can be greater than that which distinguishes the two views which may be described respectively as moral materialism and moral asceticism. By materialism in morals I mean the view that the most important things are those that affect the senses and that the highest values are to be found in the satisfaction of material wants. The view is not often expressed in serious argument, but it is frequently acted upon, and to adopt it involves a complete ‘transvaluation of all values’ which must dismiss as illusory the ideals which have tended to spiritualise human nature. The invalidity of this doctrine does not admit of direct demonstration; it is an ultimate point of view regarding the worth of things. But we may apply to it our previous test and ask, Can it be made finally coherent without disregarding essential facts? The answer to this question hardly admits of doubt. The view could be carried out systematically only by annulling or ignoring almost all the salient facts of moral appreciation: for these express a constant preference of the spiritual over the material or sensuous values.

On the other hand, the contrary doctrine of asceticism recognises the supreme importance of the spiritual values but sees in the whole material apparatus of life only obstacles to their realisation. In emphasising the values which moral materialism ignores, it condemns all the values which the latter admits. Thus this doctrine also is unable to give a coherent account of values without arbitrarily excluding certain factors. Further, in restricting all value to the spiritual factor, it falls itself into inconsistency: for the spiritual life needs the support of a material basis, the assistance of material instruments. Systems of asceticism have sometimes admitted this. But they have commonly maintained that the body and all worldly things are simply a clog to the soul and that the only worthy life is a study of death; and in this way they have adopted a conclusion which cuts away the ground for holding that there is any positive worth in the world.

The test of comprehensiveness furnishes us with a clue whereby we may penetrate beneath this conflict of views. We may admit the estimate which the ascetic doctrine puts on spiritual values and yet, at the same time, find a place in our system of values for material goods. As spiritual activities require material instruments for their support and expression, the latter must at least have instrumental value; they cannot be merely obstacles to value; we must see in them the material through which values have to be realised, and we shall no longer be disinclined to assign them a place within the system of worth.

The criteria of universality, system, and comprehensiveness are not always capable of easy application: for our ethical knowledge, like our knowledge of causes and effects, is limited. But it may be doubted whether there is more uncertainty in the former than in the latter. In both, general knowledge is founded on particular or perceptive judgments, and the judgments of sense-perception need criticism and revision much in the same way as particular moral judgments do. Nor does the advance of science, any more than the advance of ethics, dispense with the occasional necessity for criticising and discarding preliminary generalisations. Theories which at one time seemed firmly established, such as the Ptolemaic theory in astronomy, or the atomic theory which lasted from the time of Democritus almost to the present day, have given place to other theories which include a wider sweep, and a better understanding of each portion, of experience. The progress of moral ideas shows no greater transformation.

Throughout the history of moral ideas, in spite of constant change, we may nevertheless trace a certain persistent content. In each modification the new stage is not entirely new; it brings out more fully something that was already suggested at an earlier stage. It is a permanent characteristic of the moral consciousness to find value in certain kinds of experience rather than in other kinds. At every critical turn the moral judgment pronounces for the superiority of the spiritual to the material in life, and recognises the importance of social ends when confronted by the interests or apparent interests of the self-seeking individual. The higher life and the wider life—the life of spirit and the life for others—these the moral judgment approves with a constancy which is almost uniform. Perhaps it is entirely uniform. The valuation has indeed been rejected by individuals from time to time—as it was by Thrasymachus in the Republic, as it is at the present day by the followers of Nietzsche. But this rejection is not so much a different interpretation of the moral consciousness as a revolt against morality. It is a substitution of new values for old, like the magician's offer of new lamps for old in the Arabian tale. The new lamps did not fulfil the same function as the old lamp; nor do the new values serve instead of the old. For, when we examine them, we find that they are only measurements of strength—physical standards, therefore—and not criteria of value or moral standards. In spite of the contrasts which we may discover between the ways in which different men and times express these values, their essential nature remains the same. They cannot be understood if we start by denying in toto the validity of the moral consciousness. And a sane criticism will find both unity of spirit and a principle of growth in its varied manifestations.

  • 1.
    When I pass the judgment ‘A is B’ or ‘A is not B,’ two factors are included in my mental process: first, the mere positing of the proposition, and secondly, the belief in the statement as true. But propositions may be posited without being believed, and a term is required to describe this attitude. For this purpose Meinong has introduced the term Annahme, which is commonly translated ‘assumption.’ Assumption occupies a place intermediate between presentation and judgment (Meinong, Ueber Annahmen, 2nd edit., p. 6), but its expression, like the expression of a judgment, is a proposition. The Erlebnis or mental process in assuming will vary according to the purpose in view. The enquirer may formulate a hypothesis of which he is almost convinced and proceed to test it by experiment: this hypothesis is an assumption. Or he may state a hypothesis which he means to dispute, and draw out its consequences till he has completed a reductio ad absurdum: this hypothesis also is an assumption. An intermediate case is where there is little or no conviction or expectation as to where the truth lies, but each logically possible hypothesis is formulated in turn and tested with a view to eliciting its truth or falsehood: all these hypotheses are assumptions. Or the enquirer's interest may lie altogether outside of the question of the truth of the proposition. The mathematician, for instance, may work out a system of transcendental geometry on the assumption that space has more than three dimensions, without caring whether it has or can have, and without even raising the question. Similarly, imaginative statements, such as the record of incidents in a novel, are assumptions—unless for the author who has persuaded himself of their truth or for the reader who believes them. Assumptions may however lead to judgments. Thus the assumption of n-dimensional space leads to new systems of propositions: though these propositions themselves need not necessarily be believed—only their implication by the preliminary assumption. Similarly with the work of imagination: the author believes that, assuming the existence of his characters, he has described their actions—not what they actually did, for there were no such persons, but what they would have done had they existed.

    Both the judgment and the assumption are expressed by the proposition; but it is possible for there to be no explicit proposition, and yet for a propositional relation, or an ‘objective,’ to be taken for granted. Thus Prof. Urban distinguishes from both assumption and judgment the “primary undisturbed presumption of reality” which is, he holds, the essential condition of any appreciation of worth (Valuation, p. 43).

  • 2.

    By its main propositions I mean those in which ‘good’ or some similar notion is predicated. Other ethical propositions may be concerned with the implications of concepts, such as “where there is no property there is no injustice” and “no government allows absolute liberty.” It was reflexion on propositions of the latter kind alone that led Locke to think it possible to “place morality amongst the sciences capable of demonstration” (Essay, book IV, chap. iii, § 18).

  • 3.

    See below.

  • 4.

    Ethics, book VI, chap. viii, p. 1142 a 27.

  • 5.

    Berkeley, The Querist, Q. 134.

  • 6.

    Cp. H. v. Treitschke, Politik (1897), vol. I, p. 100.

  • 7.

    It may be noted that the above paragraphs were written before the outbreak of war in 1914.