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6: Relative and Absolute Value

THE most fundamental of all ethical controversies arises out of the claim to objective validity made in the moral judgment. That judgment asserts that something is good; and, in justifying this assertion, moralists have sought for some final conception upon which all particular goods may be seen to depend—a chief good, or ultimate end, or categorical imperative. On the other hand, moralists of a different school have held that the quest of an absolute must necessarily be fruitless in the domain of morals: that good means good for something or someone—that it is by its very nature a relative conception to which objective validity is assigned only by a mistake or by a convention of strictly limited validity.

The conception of value, which connects ethical with æsthetic ideas, has perhaps had some influence in confirming the tendency to a relativist interpretation of goodness. But it was introduced into ethics by Herbart with a different purpose in view. He, indeed, identified ethics with æsthetics, holding that all “ value-determinations are æsthetic judgments1”; but he also held that these value-determinations are something simple, original, and independent2, and that they are unmixed with any feeling of pleasure or displeasure or with any desire3. This view has been rejected by the most prominent contemporary exponents of the theory of value. “Every value,” said Meinong in his early work4, “ must be value for a subject”; and v. Ehrenfels is even more emphatic: “Each single value exists only for a definite subject—strictly speaking, for a definite subject at a definite times5”; and again, “We do not desire things because we recognise this mystical incomprehensible essence ‘value’ in them, but we ascribe value to things because we desire them6.” In this sentence goodness and, generally, value are made relative to individual desire, just as Meinong had previously made them relative to pleasure and displeasure; and both views—though in conflict with one another—are at one in opposing the doctrine of an absolute or even a genuinely objective value. To examine all the arguments on both sides of the question is not possible in this place. But the previous discussion has prepared the way for a critical summary of the state of the case.

In the theory of morality, as in the theory of knowledge, the term ‘relative’ is used in two different significations. It may mean relative to the subject who pronounces the judgment whether of value or of fact. Or the relation implied may be to other objective elements, recognition of which is required to give validity to the judgment. According to the former signification the doctrine of relativity means, in the theory of knowledge, that the object of knowledge is either simply a state of the knower's mind, or else that it is coloured and modified by his subjective forms of perceiving and understanding. And in ethics it means that, when the moral judgment is strictly interpreted, its predicate signifies a state of the subject who passes the judgment, and not a character or predicate of an object independent of that subject.

This doctrine of ethical relativity or ethical subjectivity has already been examined, and little need be added here. But this much may be repeated. The appreciation of value is on the same level as knowledge of things, their qualities and relations. We have no more reason for saying that value is relative because it is appreciated by us than we have for saying that facts are relative because they are apprehended by us. If we take any particular moral judgment, as that this man, or this character, or this attitude is good—let us call it ‘A is good’—then what I mean when I assert ‘A is good’ is not that I like or desire A or even that I feel approval in contemplating A, but that this predicate ‘good’ does, as a matter of fact, characterise A. The assertion may be wrong or invalid; but that is its meaning. It is certainly possible to argue that this assertion, thus understood, and all assertions like it, must always be without objective foundation, that they are always based merely on subjective preference. But, if this line of argument be adopted, it is important to remember that it is on all-fours with the argument for the subjectivity of knowledge—with Hume's argument that there is no objective connexion in nature, and that, when we say or think there is, we are simply misunderstanding the subjective routine of our perceptions. In both cases the question in debate is fundamental, for it involves the interpretation of primary experience. If we say with Hume that ‘A is good’ means simply that the contemplation of A gives me a pleasing sentiment of approbation, then undoubtedly we cut at the root of an objective theory of morality. And, equally, if we say with Hume that the proposition ‘fire causes heat’ expresses, properly speaking, nothing more than a connexion of ideas in my mind, due to association, then we must with him deny the objective character of natural science. And the denial of an objective morality, equally with the denial of an objective science of nature, follows from the rejection of the plain meaning of the primary judgments of experience.

Subjective knowledge of this sort is no knowledge at all, for it defeats the purpose of knowledge, which is to understand the world—not to understand our understanding. And subjective morality gives no moral knowledge. For, if the meaning of the proposition ‘A is good’ is simply that the person who asserts it has pleasure in contemplating A, it will be possible at the same time for another person, who has displeasure in contemplating A, to say with equal truth ‘A is not good.’ That is to say, the same proposition ‘A is good’ will be true in one man's mouth and false in another's: in other words, there will be no such thing as moral truth.

If this position be adopted I know of no logical grounds for its refutation. It would indeed be hard to find such where the axiom of non-contradiction itself is plainly disregarded. The assertion of relativity, in the sense of subjectivity, has equal effects upon knowledge whether fact or goodness be our object; and it results in both cases from an interpretation of primary experience which is opposed to the plain meaning of the propositions which express that experience.

The main cause which has led to the assertion of moral relativity or subjectivity seems to me to be the variety of moral judgments and the contrariety between the judgments of different persons. A man is indeed inclined to approve what he likes, as well as to like what he approves. Belief or judgment is frequently and markedly deflected by the emotions: though the degree in which it is ‘passional’ or emotional has been exaggerated in the interests of a theory. For few men succeed in believing even a tithe of what they wish to believe: else every man would think himself wise and fortunate, handsome and brave. Objective reality is too much for him, and, much as he wishes, he cannot believe it markedly different from what it is. And it is to the objective that he refers in his judgment even when his imperfect information or the strength of his passions makes him judge amiss. It is true that the diversity of moral opinion has encouraged—perhaps led to—the doctrine that all moral judgments are relative in the sense of subjective. But there is a similar diversity in judgments, even scientific judgments, about the actual course of things. Are we to say that this diversity also makes all such judgments subjective? For instance, in the years following the death of Copernicus, and even after the work of Kepler, there was much diversity of opinion on the question whether the earth was the centre of the physical universe or a planet revolving round the sun. This diversity was enough to make ordinary people doubt which proposition more accurately described the constitution of the solar system, regarded as an isolated object; but it was not enough to justify the assertion that his own belief was true for each man—unless we are willing to admit that, before the time of Copernicus, the sun went round the earth and that, some time after his day, a change came about and the earth began to go round the sun. Similarly, there has been great diversity of moral opinion regarding such topics as the burning of widows, and the killing of useless old men or of superfluous female infants; and, at certain times opinion has differed as to the morality of such customs generally or of particular instances of them. But it does not follow that the two moral judgments ‘this is right’ and ‘this is wrong’ could both of them have been correct—that the very same act can have been both right and wrong.

But circumstances alter cases, it may be said, and what was right under one set of conditions may be wrong under another set of conditions. This however is to change the question in dispute. When we put the matter in this way, we are no longer referring to one individual instance, but to a general class of actions. The killing of Caesar, for instance, and the killing of Commodus may be both cases which can be described by the general term tyrannicide; but the moral quality of the two deeds need not therefore be the same. We must take all relevant circumstances into account for each moral judgment. And this is what we mean when we say that circumstances alter cases. We are no longer asserting that moral value is relative in the sense of subjective; but that it depends, or may depend, upon surrounding conditions. That is to say, we are passing from the first meaning of relative to the second. And, indeed, the two meanings are frequently confused when morality is said to be relative.

This second meaning of relativity does not imply dependence of the object upon the subject observing it; it asserts relation between this particular object and other factors of the objective whole. If we use the term in this sense, relativity will no longer imply any divorce from reality, and we shall have to interpret differently the assertion that morality is relative.

1. In the first place, as we have already discovered, moral value always belongs to an existing reality or to something conceived as existing. ‘Good’ is not something that can stand alone or can be assigned as a predicate to some other quality, unless that quality be conceived as existing and therefore as belonging to a concrete whole. When I say ‘love is good’ or ‘justice is good,’ I mean that love as realised in a personal life is good, that justice as manifested in a man's character or in a social order is good. I do not mean that the mere abstract quality love or justice is also good. Good cannot be predicated of the abstract. It belongs only to the concrete—as I have already argued, to persons.

This position is fundamental as marking the distinction of ethics from the formal and abstract sciences. A mathematical proposition holds true without any postulate or hypothesis about existence. We do not need to assume the existence of triangles in order to make the assertion that the plane triangle encloses two right angles. The plane triangle is an entity independent of actual existence; and equality of enclosed angles to two right angles is a property of this entity. But it is different with the qualities to which we attribute moral value. If I form the abstract concept justice, and treat this concept as an entity with a subsistence of its own apart from its realisation in existence, then it does not hold of this entity that it is good. What is good is the just deed or just man or just social order.

The view maintained here is opposed to the form of idealism which regards such ideas as just, good, beautiful, etc., as alone truly real, and looks upon their manifestation in the concrete—in life and action—as unessential or as only a problem troublesome of solution. It is also opposed to the theories of ethics, cognate to this doctrine, which treat justice or love or freedom or pleasure as self-subsistent entities, now combined with existence now separated from it, but capable of possessing the quality good or bad quite irrespective of any such connexion. It seems to me that this doctrine proceeds upon a misinterpretation of moral experience and of value-experience generally. When it is made clear to us that by justice, love, pleasure, etc., simple qualities are meant regardless of their presence in any consciousness, the moral consciousness refuses to call them good or evil. When good or evil is ascribed to them in this way, I suspect that this is due to an oversight—oversight of the reference to existence always implied in the moral judgment. We deal familiarly with abstractions, forgetful of the reference to concrete reality which they always imply when moral predicates are assigned to them.

In this sense, therefore, we may assert relativity of moral value. Whatever is held to be good is not a mere quality, but a concrete realisation of this quality. But, in this meaning of the term, relativity does not, as it did in the former meaning, imply any severance from reality. On the contrary it affirms connexion with reality. The quality called good is good only when it stands in such relation to a concrete whole as to form part of, or to be a factor in, that whole. Goodness (and value generally) belongs to reality, or at least to things contemplated as real.

2. Further, and in the second place, there is another point of view from which morality may be looked upon as relative, without that relativity interfering with its objective character. The thing of value—the person called good—lives in an environment, physical and social. He is called good in virtue of some qualities or characteristics which he possesses or which constitute his nature. And, seeing that he is a living being, these qualities or characteristics are manifested in the way in which he reacts upon his environment. It is generally owing to his special modes of reaction that he merits and that he receives the title good. If the environment were different, the same attitude to it might not merit the same title. It might lose its moral value through being unfitted to the conditions of his life. Here also, then, is relativity. The good is not out of relation to the environment of the person or attitude called good. And this, indeed, follows from the preceding position. It is the concrete person who can be said to be good; and no person stands alone and unchanging. He is a centre of life and consciousness; and his conscious life requires an objective environment which he must know and modify; to live is to react upon and thus to change external surroundings. To understand the individual agent in such a way that we are justified in calling him good, we must have regard to the circumstances which he has to control or modify.

At the same time this relativity is not complete. It is easy to magnify the importance of circumstances. They determine the particular direction of the good man's attitude rather than its general character, the details rather than the principles of his activity. What it is good or right for him to do may differ in this situation and in that; but the right action is not determined by the circumstances alone. It results from an attitude to the circumstances of life which adapts itself to changing conditions in a regular and determinate manner; and in doing so it preserves a certain general uniformity of character.

Two things therefore have to be distinguished in an enquiry into moral value. In the first place there are the general principles or the general character of goodness; and in the second place there is the application of this to persons and to circumstances in both of which wide differences exist. The powers and disposition of one man may fit him for a very different kind of work from that which is adapted to his neighbour, and he may be right in ignoring what is of supreme importance for the other. The artist, the man of science, and the man of affairs realise moral goodness by pursuing different lines of activity corresponding to the differences in their mental endowment. Of hardly less importance is the environment, natural and social, of man's life. Even apart from the effects of civilisation, a different kind of life is required from the denizen of the polar regions from that which suits the South Sea islander. And each country, civilised or uncivilised, has its own historical tradition which is shared by its citizens and serves to distinguish their interests and even duties from those of foreigners. Further, there are countless differences, economic and social, within the same country, which serve both to limit and to direct the activities of each of its inhabitants in different ways. No man can quite take another's place or live another's life. All these circumstances have to be taken into account when we seek to determine how the highest value can be realised by a given individual or at a given juncture. Conduct in particular cases may raise questions of almost infinite complexity, which seem in strange contradiction with the reputed simplicity of moral law. And these difficulties press upon us if we attempt to elaborate and apply a theory of vocation—a doctrine of the way in which each man may employ his powers for the best.

There is ample evidence, therefore, of moral diversity, of moral relativity. But this diversity is not inconsistent with a unity of principle or of spirit; even the relativity may be found, in the long run, to be an expression of a good which deserves the name of absolute. It is true that in morality, as in other subjects, diversity of precept may often appear to be in conflict with unity of principle. And the principle needs very careful statement if this appearance of conflict is to be avoided. The universal claims made by the moral consciousness are apt to be asserted in favour of that system of ethical precepts which, at some given time, regulates and is valid for a particular social system. Moral values have their most prominent application to the actions of men in society. They take the form of precepts, obedience to which constitutes the duty of a good citizen; and these duties are put forward as the sum of the moral law binding upon all men at all times and everywhere. In formulating the moral law, moralists have, indeed, always attempted to state those fundamental precepts only which have this universal validity. But, especially when knowledge of different races and conditions was still scanty, it was not easy to distinguish accurately the universal elements in morality from those elements in their application which were due to special circumstances. In many ancient codes—the decalogue is an example—we find precepts of limited applicability or even of ceremonial observance combined with other precepts which penetrate to the root of all morality. And even the modern philosophical moralist of the intuitive school is apt to lay down general principles which seem inappropriate when we try them by the test of extreme cases, and which are often difficult to reconcile with one another.

This failure to reach a clear statement of the permanent or universal element in morality has encouraged the adherents of relativism in their view that there are no common principles, and that everything depends on the kind of conditions with which a man has to cope. The inference is unjustified, chiefly for the reason that it mistakes the kind of common principles which we have a right to expect. Even if, with Kant, we reduce the essential element in morality to a merely formal principle of rationality, we save something very important from the domain of relativity—namely, the objective duty of meeting circumstances by principle. The good or purely rational will of Kant, although it is unable to provide a definite system of moral duties, is not a mere tautology. It asserts the fundamental principle of the moral life—the obligation to have regard to and to follow the law of duty. This principle is, and by itself must remain, merely formal; guidance in the concrete details of life cannot be deduced from it alone; and when Kant attempted a derivation of the sort, he gave practical significance to the principle only by ignoring its formality. Yet Kant's words may be read as expressing the principle which lies behind all concrete duties and gives significance to life as moral and not merely natural. It is not in impulse or desire—not in the natural causes of action—that value or true worth lies; the worth of man as a rational being depends upon a point of view which lifts him out of the mere chain of cause and effect, and by its own law makes him the ruler of his impulses and desires—at once subject and sovereign in a realm of ends. In the consciousness of this law of the practical reason, and the moral duty of following it, we have the essence of Kant's ethics. And it can be regarded as unimportant only by those who have already implicitly accepted the same principle, namely this: that, although impulse and desire are powerful determinants of action, morality requires us to turn from them to a principle of a different kind.

The formality of Kant's principle is disclosed when he seeks to apply it to human conduct, and to get out of it a distinction between the classes of actions which are right and the classes of actions which are wrong. Like the intuitional moralist he has his ready-made ethical genera—such as beneficence, justice, veracity, honesty, and the like—and he has to vindicate these by applying his principle to them. Now these general concepts of the classes of actions which are right have themselves been formed in the course of experience, by observation of the ways in which men act in the social and natural environment in which they are placed. The special conditions of the environment determine the ways in which men react to that environment, and influence our classification of such modes of reaction. It is here, accordingly, that there is the most obvious opening for the influence of external circumstances upon our moral ideas; and this indeed is the region in which we find most conspicuous instances of diversity in moral opinion. But we must not thus throw ourselves into the varieties of outer experience if we are looking for a universal and permanent element in morality. We must not expect to find the permanent or universal principle in classes of conduct valid for all circumstances; it should rather be sought in the moral spirit or purpose which may inspire the most diverse conditions without being itself restricted to any. It is in the spirit of good will, of justice, of truth that we must look for the constant element of moral value rather than in the precisely defined classes of action described by the same or similar names.

For this reason, it would appear that in the concept of virtue we get nearer to the essential nature of moral value than we do in the concept of the duties of man. Duty—the concept of a worth which is also an obligation—certainly belongs to the essence of a being who is self-conscious and free, and to whom both the higher way and the lower are open. But duties (in the plural) necessitate the application of this principle to the changing details of life. And duty itself is a law for the will because of the intrinsic worth which makes it appeal to our conscience. It is true that the conception of the virtues also has been elaborated in connexion with the social system; but the virtues are not like the duties, expressed in general rules; and the seat of virtue is in the personal character—the ultimate bearer of value. And it is not in vain that we look for the manifestation of a common spirit in the wealth of detail that characterises the virtuous life. Throughout, it manifests the control of a lower by a higher—of impulse and selfishness by reason and love—and, at the same time, a purpose of realising in life the rule of reason and love and of adapting the actual world to this order.

In the affirmation of principle as contrasted with impulse we are in presence of a factor in the moral life which might be called absolute—in one sense of that much misused term. It retains its validity unchanged, whatever be the system of values in which it is displayed. But it is better to use the term ‘absolute’ for that which is complete in itself and without relation to anything beyond. And in this sense the principle is not absolute. On the contrary its significance for life is dependent upon a content—a direction towards or selection of objects on the ground of their worth. What these worthy objects are, and what the degrees of their worth, the statement of the principle leaves undetermined. It requires that the good be pursued and cherished; it does not settle what things are good. The good which it affirms is simply to hold fast by what is good. Until we know something of what things are good, it remains a mere form; and its content can only be got from the judgments of good and evil which are based on the primary experiences of value. At the same time it is the principle upon which man's will, so far as it is a moral will, is founded. And, if not absolute, it is unconditional, because it cannot be altered by our value-experiences or their resultant judgments; and it does not change although the middle axioms of morality may need revision and modification. Its relation to the moral will and to the practical life may be compared with the relation of the axiom of non-contradiction to knowledge. This axiom by itself gives no knowledge of things; but it rules our thinking so far as our thinking is valid; and it is not changed by the progress of science. It is unconditional. Similarly there is an unconditional good, and it is the will to good. “Nothing can be absolutely valuable,” it has been said, “except the indispensable subjective condition of all values in general, of all values actually present to anyone or possible in the future7.” But this subjective condition is a condition of the whole personality. It is not simply appreciative, it is also and essentially an active attitude—a striving towards the realisation of the best conceived, though the concrete nature of that best may be far from fully defined.

Unity and variety are accordingly complementary characteristics of moral value. The unity is a unity of principle which controls and organises life rationally, by selection of the better, and with a slowly evolving purpose of perfection. The variety is due to causes internal and external—the differences of personal powers and the differences of historical or external conditions. These differences give to morality its manifold applications: to each person a function and therefore a duty which no other person could exactly fulfil; at each juncture of circumstances something to be done in preference to anything else. The moral universe is thus a universe of infinite variety; and this variety is dependent on the varieties of what we call the actual universe—the universe of persons and things. Here, if we like, is relativity. But, while the diversity of application depends upon the existential conditions, there is a unity of spirit whose origin cannot be traced to the same source. The details are organised by it in accordance with a law which is distinct from that which regulates the actual order of things in time and space. The moral universe has a different principle from that which science describes for the actual universe, though it is only in the actual universe that the moral universe seeks and can find its realisation. And the moral organisation of experience exhibits the same principle throughout its details—a valuation in which the interests of the spiritual and social life are preferred to those of sense and self. Herein we can trace its unity through manifold applications—something permanent and persistent, pointing towards a completeness which may deserve the name of absolute.

The objectivity of the moral judgment may be vindicated along three lines of argument, two of which have already been presented, while the third has been hinted at merely. In the first place, the judgment claims objectivity. It asserts a value which is found in the person or situation (actual or supposed). This is the meaning of the judgment. It is not about a feeling or attitude of, or any relation to, the subject who makes the judgment. Even if we trace its first appearance to an emotional or conative experience of the subject, that does not make the moral value subjective, any more than the dependence of empirical knowledge upon sensation makes assertions about existing facts subjective. In the second place, the moral judgment is universal; and this in two senses: first, because all who judge correctly must find the same moral value in any given situation: it is good or bad, whoever speaks, not good for one bad for another; and secondly, there is a universal element in all moral judgments, provided these judgments are correct. This universal element, it is true, is hard to state in the form of a general proposition concerning the good or ill of classes or qualities; but it can nevertheless be identified as a common spirit and purpose which characterise the good will and through it permeate the whole realm of goodness. In the third place, this common or universal element in goodness will be made clearer if we find that moral values are connected in such a way as to form a system—not a mere aggregate, but an organic whole—to which the name of Chief Good may be properly given. We have therefore to enquire whether moral values are so related amongst themselves as to form a whole of this nature.

No ethical science exists until we have reached general propositions about good and evil. It is not enough to be able to say that this particular experience, A, is good, or that particular experience, B, is bad. We must be able to say, in general, that A, that is, any A, is good. But much care is needed in order to arrive at these general propositions. Suppose I judge, and judge correctly, that some particular experience—call it B—is bad. I cannot at once generalise the type of experience and state it in the form of a universal proposition. The particular situation is immersed in the flow of experience and can never be repeated; it cannot be generalised without being modified by abstracting from some of its details, and we are always in danger of abstracting wrongly. Yet clearly there must have been some reason why B was judged bad and not good or indifferent: and we must look for the feature or features in it to which its ethical value was due. Now the situation in question may be one which involved pain; and our first thought may be that this was the ground of our judgment. ‘B is bad’ will, in this event, stand for ‘pain is bad.’ But, before we have settled that this is its meaning and that we are justified in propounding the generalisation that pain is morally evil, we may be confronted with other situations involving pain, which, nevertheless, we hesitate to condemn. We may ourselves experience pain in attempting to follow a difficult argument or to solve a difficult problem, and yet be convinced that this concrete experience is far from a moral evil. In this case, we shall look back at the former experience to see if we can discover its difference, and we may find this difference in the circumstance that, in the former case, the pain was due simply to the ill-will or malevolence of one man to another. And we may, perhaps, now rest satisfied that we have reached the true ground of our original judgment. It is not ‘pain is bad,’ but ‘malevolence is bad’; and malevolence means the will to produce pain from a particular kind of motive. The example is not given for its own sake, but to illustrate the truth that when we try to get ethical propositions with general concepts for their subjects these general concepts may have to be somewhat elaborately determined, and may be far from simple.

There is another source of the complexity in moral judgments. Such judgments are primarily concerned with actually experienced situations; and they always imply a reference to existence, real or supposed. Now these experiences are complex and merge insensibly into still larger wholes. For our convenience we separate these wholes into parts which for our purposes may be treated as individuals, and which may even have an individuality of their own. But this individuality is never complete separateness or complete independence. Thus it happens that we express moral judgments about something which we cannot help recognising as complex both in its own structure and in its relations with surrounding circumstances. It is possible that its parts, as well as the whole, should have moral value assigned to them.

This was very clearly recognised by the utilitarian moralists. They analysed every concrete situation until they reached those ultimate elements which (according to their theory) alone had moral value—namely, the simple feelings of pleasure and pain. Their method of moral valuation consisted, first of all, in an estimate of the hedonic value of each simple experience; and then, by the process of adding together the values of the pleasures and subtracting the values of the pains, the pleasure-value (which for them was the ethical value) of the whole in question was reached. Their calculation was very elaborate. But, elaborate as it was, it proceeded on an assumption which unduly simplified the process, and which experience did not warrant. They assumed that addition and subtraction were the only processes required—that if we divided a thing into its parts and knew the value of each part, then we could thereby calculate the value of the whole. Their procedure was mechanical, as it is called. Now, it is possible to take a machine to bits and then to put the bits together again in their old positions, and the machine does its work as before. It is also possible to take a living body to bits and then to put these bits together again in their old positions; but thereafter the body does not function as before, because the life has disappeared. This illustrates the difference between a mechanical whole and an organic whole. The former may be regarded as the sum of its parts; the latter is something more or something other than the sum of its parts. Now when moral value is realised in some concrete whole, consisting of distinguishable parts, that concrete whole of moral value resembles an organism in this respect, and has been called an organic whole or organic unity8. We cannot get at the value of the whole simply by adding together the values of its constituent parts. We cannot justly estimate the value of a man's life by summing up the separate values of each particular action he performs or of each particular experience he undergoes; for the more his life is organised by reason, the more is it the case that each action is not only a factor in the whole but finds its meaning in the whole. Nor can we judge the action of a society of men, with common traditions and a common purpose, simply by adding together the values of the conduct of each taken severally. It might be the case that the action of one taken alone had little or no positive value and was yet an integral and indispensable factor in a valuable whole.

The argument may be put simply with the help of symbols. We start with an experience which may be called A; and its distinguishable parts may be symbolised as al, a2, a3,…. We are in the habit (let us suppose) of passing moral judgments on each of these parts, and yet we must admit that the judgments are only provisional until we know the whole to which they belong; a1 cannot be fully estimated without reference to the whole, A, to which it belongs, and apart from the value of that whole. But again, this whole itself does not stand alone. It may be an individual life, and its parts may be the conduct and other expressions of this life's purpose; but the individual life is passed in a certain medium, and we must know this medium if we would estimate the individual correctly. Or we may be thinking of the action of a group, such as the present cabinet, at some important juncture: when we try, often vainly, to get at their common purpose by observing the actions and sayings of each member of the group. But to estimate the value of their common action and purpose, we must take into account all the historical and other conditions in which they are placed: and the value of what they do depends upon the value of the larger purpose which they are, more or less consciously, working out.

Theoretically, there is no point at which we can call a halt. The connexions of each experience are limited only by the limits of the existing universe; and its values are, in a final estimate of them, dependent upon the universe of values to which they belong. Short of knowledge of the whole we cannot fully determine the nature of the Chief Good. The absolute after which we strive is always ahead of us and never adequately comprehended. For it is absolute, not in its simplicity and separateness, but in its system and completeness. Our moral knowledge is not derived by deduction from a fixed and certain principle. It grows in amount and in organisation with the growth of our moral experience; and by criticism of this experience we gradually form less imperfect conceptions of the realm of ends, or world of values, as a whole.

The search for an absolute good or ethical absolute is carried out on different lines from the more familiar quest for an absolute when ideas of value do not determine the procedure. But the one enquiry resembles the other at its crucial points and in its outcome. In the purely theoretical enquiry it is the mere fact that first attracts us and dominates our perception; and in it, at the first view, we may think ourselves in presence of an absolute. But, as the moment of apprehension passes or as the centre of attention is shifted, our objective fact is found to be merely a portion of a larger whole, just as our perception of it belongs to a wider field and flow of consciousness. Here, therefore, there is no absolute, but only interrelatedness and dependence of part upon part. Then we desert the particular and seek our absolute in the universal—in laws, or formulæ, or axioms. But when these are examined, we find that they are always statements of the relations between terms, and that their meaning is unintelligible apart from the terms, while the terms have been arrived at by abstraction from concrete experience. These relations may be unconditional, but they are not absolute, if by absolute we mean what is complete. Thus the search for the absolute is unable to stop short of that individual whole which is related to nothing outside itself because it contains all relations within it.

Stages similar to these, as we have seen, are gone through in the quest for an ethical absolute. Our first confident assertion of moral right or wrong has been found to lead beyond the immediate experience in order that its significance may be understood and its validity assured. The value of the particular case is determined by its conditions and its issues; we cannot trust to the mere momentary appreciation as it stands, or may be supposed to stand, alone. When we passed from the particular to the universal, the absolute still eluded us. The axioms and abstract theorems of formal ethics owe their significance to their application to concrete realities. These are parts of the connected structure of reality as a whole; and the values of any portion of this whole may be affected by the relations in which it stands to other portions. Thus, in a system of ethics, our goal would be a whole in which all values are included; and, if this goal is called an absolute, it cannot be related in any external way to the absolute which has been sought along other lines of research. There cannot be two absolutes, one of which, and one of which only, is ethical. We can form a conception of an absolute only as an individual reality which contains harmoniously within itself both the actual order and the moral order.

  • 1.

    J. F. Herbart, Analytische Beleuchtung des Naturrechts und der Moral, pref., Werke (1851), vol. VIII, p. 216.

  • 2.

    Allgemeine praktische Philosophie, introd. § I, Werke, vol. VIII, p. 24.

  • 3.

    Analytische Beleuchtung, pref., Werke, vol. VIII, p. 217.

  • 4.

    Psychologisch-ethische Untersuchungen zur Werttheorie, p. 27.

  • 5.

    System der Werttheorie, vol I, p. 66.

  • 6.

    System der Werttheorie, vol I, p. 2.

  • 7.
    F. Krueger, Begriff des absolut wertvollen (1898), p. 61. Krueger's exposition, like the above, is based on that of Kant. But it differs from that set forth here in two respects. (1) Krueger holds that “the psychical capacity or function of valuing (Werten) is the object of the absolutely valid value-judgment or the unconditionally valuable” (p. 61). It appears to me that this valuing, so far as it is merely valuing or appreciating, is not approved unconditionally by the value-judgment: it must be accompanied by an attitude of will which adopts the valued or appreciated object as its own end. In the unity of the personal life the attitude of appreciation and the attitude of will are not often separated; but they are distinguishable elements, and they do not always harmonise. Value does not consist in merely feeling or thinking that something is of worth, but in accepting and willing the worthy object as worthy. This criticism is to some extent avoided (though it is not satisfied) by Krueger by the account which he gives of the process of valuing (Wertung). (2) This forms the second point of difference between his view and that presented here. In his account of the process of valuing he emphasises the conative aspect which is required in order to make the process itself an object of value; and he does so in a way which largely obviates the previous criticism. But in doing so he does not bring out its essential nature as appreciation (as distinguished from conation). He describes valuings (Wertungen) as simply “dispositions to definite desires” (p. 39), and says that “every striving has the tendency to grow into a valuing”: it leaves a conative disposition behind it so that, on repetition of the former state, the will is again directed to the original goal (p. 47). Now, however the fact of valuing or appreciating may arise, it is not contained in the conative disposition. The growth of a conative disposition is possible without appreciation of it, or of what assists it, as valuable; bad habits may establish themselves without any such approval or valuing. The valuing is a process which, although it may not be expressed in the form of a judgment, is yet reflex in nature. Even where reflexion is absent, strivings tend to perpetuate themselves in the form of impulsive or conative dispositions. Here valuing is absent: it is not a function of the merely conative (any more than of the merely emotional) consciousness.

    It may be noted that Krueger uses the term Wertung for the fundamental process of appreciation. For the same purpose Meinong uses the term Werthaltung(commonly translated ‘valuation’); and he has reserved the term Wertungen for those valuations which are relative to assumptions (or to images) and not to judgments of existence or non-existence (nor to sense-perceptions), while the feelings essential to them are “assumption-quasi-feelings” or “imagination-feelings,” not “judgment-feelings.” In these respects Wertungen, as defined by him, differ from Werthaltungen. They can never be entirely absent in the appreciation of a thing of worth, whereas Werthaltungen may be absent; but, on the other hand, owing to the relation in which imagination-feelings stand to feelings proper, the fundamental experience (Grunderlebnis) of all value is not Wertung but Werthaltung (Annahmen, 2nd ed., pp. 334–7). For my purposes the distinction is not of importance.

  • 8.

    G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 30.