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Chapter IV: The Seinsollen

I expect that some of my bearers, as they listened to the last two lectures, felt some impatience at the stress laid on a fairly obvious distinction. They will agree that action from a sense of duty differs from action inspired by aspiration after good; but they will say that ethical thinkers have always recognized the difference and found in it no fundamental difficulty. For when you come to ask what justifies an obligation, the natural answer is: because it realizes and/or is conducive to good. So the primacy of good remains unchallenged over the whole field of conduct. That in acting from duty you have no thought of the good your action serves is quite a secondary matter. The motives in each case are certainly different; but the real problem is that of justification, and an obligation call always be justified by appeal to good. The ancients were right, after all; action sub ratione boni covers, directly or indirectly, the entire domain of ethics.

To answer this objection, and to show that the distinction in question rests on a dualism of principles which, for ethics at all events, is ultimate, is my purpose in this lecture. The title I have given to it—The Seinsollen—is no parade of academic camouflage, but indicates the really crucial issue. For the case for the dependence of “ought” on “good” rests, as we shall see, on the ascription to what is good of the character that it “ought to be”. Recent German writers of the Phenomenological School, notably Scheler and Hartmann, hold that there flows immediately from the essence of ideal values an obligation to be (seinsollen), which is none the less a genuine obligation for not being an obligation on an anybody to do anything. It is rather the source from which the latter form of obligation (thunsollen) is derived. I question this ascription, being, convinced that all obligation relevant to morality is obligation to do (thunsollen), and that the term “ought to be” (seinsollen), however common in ordinary speech, is either a misnomer or a veiled expression of the thunsollen. More of this presently; I merely wanted at the outset to explain the somewhat unfamiliar title of my lecture.


The view we are criticizing—that the concept of “ought” is dependent on that of good—is still dominant in moral philosophy.1 It draws its strength partly from its ancient and honourable lineage. We have seen how the Greeks, who established this tradition, in their jealousy for the primacy of the theoretic over the practical life, insisted on the conscious exercise of reason in affairs of conduct. How could a man do the right unless he first knew and desired the good? And since all desire the good, how could a man know the good without desiring it? The Greeks, unlike the modern English, who distrust logical reasoning in practical matters—save to justify their actions after the event—, believed in thinking out a reasoned plan of action before doing it, and Greek philosophers reflected this habit of mind in their theories of the moral life.2 Show a man that the path of duty is the Way to ευδαιμονια and he will not fail to follow it. Thus ethics as the reasoned theory of morality started on its course with a bias towards rationalism. Rational action was manifestly purposive, and the concept of purpose led naturally, as in Aristotle, to an interpretation of morality in terms of means and end. Plato in the Republic, had pointed the way, when he vindicated the claims of morality (δικαιοσυνη) by showing it as an expression of the Good (το αγαθον), in other words, by showing that it is advantageous to its Possessor (λυσιτελει). The crux of this position lies, of course, in the patent fact of desire of evil. We can understand a man wanting to do what he knows he ought not to do; but, when “ought” means conduciveness to good, and good is admittedly what all men really want, the presence of wants that are conflicting and incompatible raises an insoluble problem. The only answer that Could be given was that of Plato in the Gorgias, that the bad man errs in choosing what he thinks good (apparent good) in preference to what all the time he is really willing—the true good which is the universal object of desire.3 But there are other grounds, independent of ethical tradition, that go far to explain the persistence of the doctrine of the dependence of duty upon good. First, it seems to secure the objectivity of moral obligation by offering a clear criterion of right and wrong. Men's moral convictions are obviously liable to variation and error. What I believed to be fight ten years ago I may now as firmly believe to be wrong. Other persons, other races, other ages reverse moral judgements that were once acted on with passionate assurance of their truth. Although men's moral judgements show a more general agreement than is discernible in their interpretations of human history or of physical nature, the consensus is far from being, universal, and diminishes as we pass from general principles to specific obligations. Conscience is manifestly educable. Were it otherwise, there could be no moral progress. So we seek a criterion of objective “rightness” by which to measure our subjective and variable opinions. This is specially so in times like the present, when what seemed duties no longer seem so; when, again, rights clash and we are thrown back on the task of harmonizing them as best we can. In the course of our endeavour, a deeper level of values comes Into view, underneath not only conventionally recognized rights but the whole idea of right values.4 It is natural at such a time to seek a solution by appealing from “ought” to “good”. The form of good, as embodied in the life of the community, seems to satisfy this demand. Secondly, unless we are able to discover a common ground of rightness in right actions other than the rightness of willing them, we appear to be faced with a chaotic multitude of particular duties, bound by no principle of unification save that each and all alike ought to be done. Cannot a common basis be found in their goodness? Perhaps the advocates of duty for duty's sake have been too prone to regard particular acts in isolation as the sole data on which moral philosophy has to work, and to neglect the context of the act both in the life of the moral agent and in the community of which he is a member. The appeal to good, viewed as an ideal social order or kingdom of ends, seems to be free from this defect. It has a further advantage, in that it offers an ethical ground for obligation, in lieu of grounds that are mere matters of fact. The third consideration is the weightiest; unless duty be based upon good, it seems that a right action may have no value save in respect of the moral goodness of the man who does it. Why, then, should he judge that he ought to do it? The answer that the “ought” is its own warrant, is not wholly satisfactory. Is not the autonomy of moral obligation compatible with the goodness of the course of action that it prescribes? Compatible, yes; but that goodness is necessarily entailed cannot, as we shall see, be shown by philosophic argument. Moreover, even were the evidence forthcoming, it would not prove the dependence of duty upon good, but rather that of good upon duty. The sequel will make clear that the faith in the optimistic value of right action draws its inspiration, not from philosophy but from religion.


The view that our duties are determined by what is good may be advocated in either of two forms. The good which, it is held, determines what it is right or wrong to do (a) may be regarded simply as a result following upon the act, other than and external to the act itself. What a man ought to do is then determined by conduciveness to good. This is the doctrine of Utilitarianism, whether the good be conceived as pleasure (Hedonistic Utilitarianism) or as consisting in an object or objects of intrinsic worth, among, which pleasure may or may not find a place (Ideal Utilitarianism). But (b) the determining principle of good may be otherwise conceived, as immanent in, as well as consequential on, the action which draws value from it—i.e., as a form, to which the obligatory action supplies part of the content. What a man ought to do is here determined by the fact that it is an expression of the good. This was the view of Plato and Aristotle, of the great medieval thinkers, and, in the seventeenth century, of Spinoza; and it is by far the most philosophical interpretation of the dependence of ought upon good. It conceives the principle of goodness as functioning in relation to concrete moral obligations in a way analogous to the moral law in Kantian ethics. There is here no question of applying the category of means and end to the moral life, as does Utilitarianism. We shall return to this attractive position presently. We have first to show that Utilitarianism is exposed to two very serious objections—viz., (1) that the problem of what really ought to be done remains unsolved, and (2) that the appeal to good as the ground of obligation is contrary to moral experience. Our criticism of the Utilitarian position will be found to be in most points relevant also to the more philosophical form of the doctrine under review.

(1) Utilitarianism fails to furnish a criterion of what really ought to be done. what we judge to be our duty is, we are told, really our duty if it conduces to good. But how do we know what is really good? If we can trust our intuition as to what is good, why should we not trust our intuition as to out duty? Thus the old problem remains; and a fresh one is raised the appeal to conduciveness to good. Granting that we know what is good, how are we to determine what really conduces to it? A knowledge of casual connections is requisite which passes the capacities of finite minds. To know which of two (or more) courses of action will produce most good—and we must know this, if we are seeking an objective criterion—, we must calculate their respective consequences to the end of time. To do so is manifestly impossible, even with the aid of Dr. Moore's very questionable assumption that after a limited period the effects of a given volition are infinitesimal and can be ruled out of account.5 As we are clearly bound to act in accordance with our judgement, which may, for all that we can tell, be wrong, the objective rightness of an action and the moral obligation to perform it fall hopelessly asunder. We are left with what we fallibly believe to be conducive to what we fallibly believe to be good. An obligation, thus insecurely grounded, would scarcely carry with it the authority which in fact it possesses in our moral experience, especially when it is counter to inclination. The question will inevitably be provoked, Why ought I to promote good, when I don't want to? If, again, I am urged to do my duty contrary to my inclination because it is for my good (whether for my own good solely or for a common good makes no matter), one of two things must happen. Either desire to attain my good is aroused, and I do what I judge to be my duty because I want to do it, duty being annulled in inclination; or, if, as is often the case, I remain indifferent to what I know to be for my good, I am left still asking: Why should I do this act if I don't want to? The question is but pushed one degree father back. Nor, finally, does a right action differ from a wrong merely in that the one attains, while the other does not, one and the same end. Were it so, the blunders of good men which have so often proved disastrous in human history would be, not only worse, but morally worse than crimes. Success in securing good cannot be the criterion of morality. The difference must lie, as Kant insisted, in the act of will. I need hardly add that reference to sanctions, human or divine, is irrelevant to the ethical issue; power can never serve as the ground of right.

(2) The appeal to good as the ground of obligation is contrary to moral experience. This sounds a paradox on first hearing, for the traditional doctrine derives its force from its apparent consensus with the facts. “All men desire the good.” We are not denying it; our point is that all men, as moral beings, also desire to do right, that the two desires are different, and that the latter is independent of the former. Consider the facts. I confine myself to acts of deliberate choice, for it is here, if anywhere, that calculation of consequences enters into our thinking. We must carefully distinguish the theoretical preliminaries to volition from the act of will that issues from them. The intelligent moral agent, faced by a situation that calls for action, reviews the relevant data, including past events and the probable consequences of alternative courses of action. Normally the data are of two kinds, factual and moral. He has to acquaint himself with the facts of the situation as facilitating or restricting the alternatives, including his own resources and character as well as those of the persons with whom he is called upon to co-operate in action. In setting himself, for instance, to carry through a measure of social betterment in his locality, the range of fact to be surveyed will be varied and extensive, and the process of deliberation will be proportionately prolonged. Thus far, however, the requisite knowledge differs in no respect from that embodied in history or the sciences; it is in no sense moral knowledge. But he has also to consider the situation in the light of the recognized moral principles on which he has accustomed himself to act. There are general obligations of gratitude, of justice, of benevolence, of keeping promises, of financial integrity; these may conflict with one another, and the agent has to decide which principle is the more urgent in view of the exigencies of the situation. The knowledge here brought to bear is moral knowledge; its objects are the so-called prima facie obligations—i.e., the inductions from his own past moral experiences and those of his society which, in the course of his moral life, he has appropriated as rules for guidance.6 Let no one depreciate the significance of such maxims of conduct as mere reflections of social fashion; they are the deposit of a rich ethical tradition, and there is always moral peril in their infringement. But, as we have seen, they never of themselves suffice to determine a particular duty, and remain to the end data for preliminary deliberation. Now, the governing factor in this theoretical survey may be an event in the past or a probable event in the future, or both, or neither. Suppose I am asked to assist, at considerable personal sacrifice, in the university education of a youth whom I dislike but whose father rendered me a similar service thirty years ago. Here the dominant factor will be an event in the past. But present data and probable consequences will also affect my deliberations—e.g., the actual qualifications of the young man, his existing resources, my ability to help him without detriment to graver obligations, the likelihood of benefit to him in his subsequent career. Out of these and many other considerations, unified more or less into a system in the course of the deliberative process, there emerges, not an apprehension of any factual datum, or of a general moral rule, but an apprehension sui generis, that I “ought” to act in a certain way.7 Here no conflict of duties is possible; if it be my duty thus to act, any alternative act, however consonant with a Prima facie obligation, is morally wrong. The data under review condition the intuition of concrete duty, but never wholly suffice to account for it. If my decision is called in question, I shall appeal to one or more of them—e.g., to the foreseeable good results, or to the general duty of gratitude—but I know all the time that the justification thus furnished is incomplete. Take another instance—Cardinal Newman's vindication in the Apologia of his action in leaving the Church of England and joining the Church of Rome. No one will doubt Newman's rare gifts of introspective analysis and persuasive expression, or the transparent sincerity with which he laid bare his motives before the world. Yet who can resist the impression that far more went to the eventual decision than even Newman was able to disclose, and that when the moral dictate arose within him it came, like Augustine's tolle lege, as a new and imperious revelation? The agent stakes his whole personality on the discharge of an unconditional duty. Ich kann nicht anders. If, in the moment of volition, he “damns the consequences”, it is because they have already been taken into account in the theoretical preliminaries. To consider them now would be to reckon them twice over. At most, he will appeal, not to a reasoned calculus of probable consequences, but to his faith in the “higher expediency”. But this faith in the eventual triumph of right, in its ultimate conduciveness to good, is grounded on the intrinsic rightness of the action, not the rightness on the conduciveness to good. So is it in ordinary life. People are far more readily influenced by the plea to do what is right than by the plea to do what will promote good. Where the moral desire is present, however, weak it may be and however strong the counter-inclination, any appeal to consequential advantage is felt as something like an insult to moral personality.

Utilitarianism, whether Hedonistic or Ideal, simply will not do. Nor will the older and more defensible interpretation of the theory of the dependence of duty upon good, for which the good in question lies, not in the results of the action, but in an ideal form of life immanent alike in the action and in its issues. This was the doctrine advocated by Plato in the Republic, and it has recently been stated in modern guise by Mr. Joseph with full acknowledgement of the inadequacy of the Utilitarian position.8 Mr. Joseph holds that the rightness common to all right actions lies in a form of goodness, the thought of which “moves us when we do an action from the sense of obligation”. This form of goodness is presented as an all-embracing system of social life, which acts as “the animating or generating principle” of obligation in all actions which are obligatory, giving “unity of design” to the acts and lives of the members of the society, in the measure in which they follow its guidance. It is this position that we shall have in mind throughout the rest of the chapter. There is here no question of calculating consequences in order to determine what is right or wrong. But the view is still obnoxious to certain of the criticisms we have brought against the conduciveness theory—e.g., the evidence of man's moral consciousness and the difficulty of conceiving how obligation can be derived from anything other than obligation itself. Why ought I to promote or express the form of social good, when I don't want to? Moreover, the view implies that all duties can be brought under the rubric of social good. We have seen that there are duties, as Bradley pointed out, which resist such formulation; unless, indeed, we are prepared to stretch the form of social good beyond the limits of any actual, or possible, historical society. But the idea of the civitas Dei carries us beyond morality to religion.


I come now to consider the main philosophical issue. Its discussion will I fear, seem somewhat technical. Is there a bond of necessary connexion between the concept of ought and that of good? If there is, the connexion must be either analytic or synthetic. Manifestly—save in the special case of moral goodness, of which I shall speak later—it is not analytic. “Ought” is not part of the notion of “good”, or “good” part of the notion of “ought”. All those who affirm the connexion are agreed that it must be synthetic.

A synthetic connexion could be established, if at all, in either of two ways. It could be argued that the concept of good entails that of obligation. What is good always ought to be. Or it could be argued that the concept of duty entails that the doing of it is a realization of good. The former alternative is the one before us in this lecture. But I want first to refer briefly to the second alternative, which can shelter itself under the high authority of Kant.

The words with which Kant opens the Grundlegung, “nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will,” are by no means easy to understand. Does Kant mean by good merely “morally good”? Or does he mean “good universally”, good as covering the whole range of value? I believe that he meant the latter, and that he was prepared to deny unconditional worth to all experience—e.g., to the possession of knowledge or the consciousness of beauty—save volition motivated by reverence for the moral law. Kant assuredly did not hold that the notion of good was irrelevant to morality, or that “willing the right could be understood without supposing there is anything good, either in the action willed or in its consequences”.9 He held that neither of the two notions is conceivable apart from the other, and that it is in the willing of the moral law that the goodness of the willing is revealed to man, not vice versa. His language, it is true, is not invariably consistent, and fie seems at times to allow a certain independence to the idea of good. A will perfectly conformed to duty, and a fortiori, a holy will such as God's, would presumably will the moral law sub ratione boni. But such is not man's condition in this present life. The decisive passage is to be found in the Critique of Practical Reason, where he directly answers the criticism “that the notion of good was not established before the moral principle”. “It is not,” he says, “the concept of good as an object that determines the moral law and makes it possible, but, on the contrary, it is the moral law that first determines the concept of good and makes it possible.” Of course the moral law has an object, which is good; but that object, moral personality, is itself the practical reason of which the law is the pure expression. The good willed in willing morally is the good will. “If anything is to be good or evil absolutely … it can only be the manner of acting, the maxim of the will, and consequently the acting person himself as a good or evil man.”10 Only the act of duty done for duty's sake has absolute value; and goodness lies in the willing of it.

This position is paradoxical on the face of it, and Kant was certainly not the man to evade the paradox. In the first place, unconditional value is denied to any action that is not done from the pure motive of duty. Action sub ratione boni cannot therefore be unconditionally good.11 It is not enough that the action be willed as duty would enjoin; consciousness of the obligation is requisite to justify its goodness. Secondly, since nothing can possess unqualified value save moral volition, not only things and events, but all other rational activities, are good merely as conditioned by morality. This is a strange limitation. We may allow that goodness is relative to conscious experience, and that nature, for instance, cannot be called good without reference to some consciousness, divine or human; but surely the value thus enjoyed, though not willed by the experient, is intrinsic to the object. The philosopher, the artist, and the religious alike will refuse to acquiesce in the subordination of theoretic goodness to moral praxis. It cannot be goodness generally, but moral goodness only, that is dependent on obligation.

It seems clear, then, that the concept of good is Dot necessarily grounded on that of obligation. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is so grounded; how, indeed, could it be otherwise, since moral goodness means the goodness of willing duty for duty's sake What, then, about the goodness of the action willed Must not a right action contribute, intrinsically or consequentially, to the sum of value in the universe, over and above the moral goodness of the agent? This question brings us to the second and more serious alternative, whether moral obligation can be grounded on the thought of the good to be realized by the obligatory action?


The issue at stake is a simple one. It is generally agreed that an obligation can only be derived from another obligation, and that if what I ought to do is to be grounded upon what is good, this must be because what is good or has value “ought to be”.12 Professor Muirhead, for instance, in his survey of recent discussions of the problem, maintains that “from the value of things derives a normative relation to moral agents” and that the “necessary synthetic relation” between the two “ultimate and irreducible” concepts, value and ought, rests on the fact that “irrespective of moral agents, there is a judgement of an ‘ought-to-be’ implicit in all recognition of value”.13 That is to say, the “ought-to-do” presupposes and depends upon the “ought-to-be”. This position has been strongly defended on metaphysical grounds by the Phenomenological school in Germany, and especially by Nicolai Hartmann, in his Ethik.

Hartmann holds (i) that values subsist with timeless being in a world of essences, above and beyond the world temporal existence; they are distinguishable, in that realm of being, from logical and mathematical essences (e.g., greenness, circularity). Thus far his view is in line with the Platonic tradition, but differs from it, as also from Professor Whitehead's doctrine of eternal objects, in that values (and essences generally) have their being independent of any reference to actuality. They are not limited to such as find embodiment in temporal existence, nor do they themselves exist in the mind of an eternal actual entity (God). Their status in reality is difficult to understand; it can only be characterized negatively as other than that of actual existence. Each actual existent has its existence conditioned by others; essences exist each in its own right. They enjoy ideal self-existence.14 Is then the essence of triangle independent of that of figure? Or the essence of benevolence independent of that of virtue? Nor is it easy to see how values are distinguished from other denizens of the world of essence. It cannot be because of the presence of the “ought-to-be” for this is, as we shall see in a moment, secondary to, and not constitutive of, the being of Ideal values.

(ii) All values ought to be. Hartmann distinguishes two kinds of “ought-to-be” (seinsollen), the Ideal and the Positive, alike one from the other, and from the “ought-to-do” (thunsollen). The “Ideal ought-to-be” attaches itself to values as such, whether moral or non-moral, quite irrespective of their existence or non-existence in the realm of actuality.15 It has its own kind of necessity, inherent in the mode of being proper to ideal values; and this necessity is itself a value.16 Like all other values, despite its indifference to existence, it implies a tendency towards actuality; “it sanctions reality when it exists, and intends it when it does not exist”. It is of the nature of the Ideal seinsollen “to force itself onward into reality”—i.e., from subsistence into existence.17 This is perhaps the chief difficulty in Hartmann's theory of values. What is meant by this mysterious urge towards actuality? It is not referable to existence, like the unilateral attraction of the cosmos towards Aristotle's God, who himself is ενεργεια ακινησιας. The ideal values are either already embodied in existence, in which case there is no “ought to be” in any sense; or there is tension between the ideal and the actual, and the Ideal seinsollen is indistinguishable from what Hartmann calls the Positive, since it is attached no longer to value as such, but to value in relation to actuality.

(iii) When value is unrealized and the actual is not in fact what it ought to be, the Ideal seinsollen becomes the Positive. The resistance of the actual makes positive the tendency noted above in the Ideal seinsollen; and the “ought” thus first acquires the character of an imperative.18 But the imperative character is defective, for though reference to existence is now explicit, the activity of the “ought” cannot be effective in the world of actuality without a conscious subject as its carrier. If this deficiency is remedied, and an existent human person is forthcoming as a vehicle, the Positive seinsollen is transformed into the thunsollen, the “ought to do”.19

Hartmann's analysis fails, in out judgement, in that both the Ideal and the Positive seinsollen are illegitimate abstractions from the thunsollen. Sorley's defence of the seinsollen in his Moral Values is open to a similar objection. “When we predicate goodness or other values,” he writes, “it is always predicated upon the assumption or under the hypothesis of existence.” And, again, “when we predicate value of anything, we pass from the mere concept or essence of the thing, with its qualities, to a bearing which this essence has upon existence: it is worth existing or ought to be”.20 Surely this argument conceals a subreption. It is true that what is of worth is only of worth as existing; but this is not the same as saying that it “ought to be”. It means merely that if it exists, and not otherwise, it is of worth or good. It does not mean that there is any obligation for it to be brought into existence; still less that any person is under obligation to bring it into existence. Neither of these conclusions can be drawn without assuming the very thing that the argument professes to establish— viz., that what is good ought to be. To assert this, whether as an assumption or as an inference, is to ascribe “obligation-value” (I speak in the language of the axiologue) to pure essences, independently of the “hypothesis of existence”, which, on Sorley's own showing, is necessary to justify the ascription. All that Sorley succeeds in proving turns out to be the tautology that something which would be good if it existed would, if the proposition that the good ought to be is acceptable at all, it must be, not as the conclusion of an inference, but as a self-evident intuition.21 I maintain that it is anything but self-evident and that the seinsollen is an unwarranted abstraction from the thunsollen. As soon as we remove the reference to the will of a determinate subject, obligation is bereft of meaning. It cannot be derived from value by reading, into the latter an “ought-to-be” which is properly no “ought” at all.

Doubtless the phrase “ought to be” is common in popular speech. Its usage cannot be cavalierly dismissed as without meaning. We assert significantly that things ought or ought not to be without any consciousness of an obligation to promote or hinder them. We save again, of something beautiful in nature or in art, “that is just as it ought to be”, “just right”, These are value judgements, but they are not ethical; the words express our sense of the thing's perfection, that it couldn't be bettered, even if we tried (here, however, there is a covert reference to “doing”). When again we say that “virtue ought to be rewarded” or that “nations ought to live at peace with one another”, the phrase either expresses mere valuation (that it would be good if virtue were rewarded and nations lived at peace), or there is an implicit reference to what God or some human agent has or has not done.22 In the latter case alone is “ought” employed in its strict meaning. When we say of a man that he ought to be an artist, when in fact he is an auctioneer or a bank-clerk, we mean either that it is unfortunate that certain capacities of his nature have remained undeveloped, or else that he or some other person should do something to further their development. In such phrases as “I know I am not what I ought to be”, “I ought to be less self-centred or more controlled”, the ought is manifestly practical.23 The judgement is passed on character and disposition, which are the outcome of conduct and have their life in acts of will. What is really meant is that I have not done what I ought to have done or that I ought henceforth to act in certain ways.

It has been said that in prayer, ideal aspiration, and prophetic utterance, desire for what “ought to b” is present, even although action may lie entirely beyond our power.24 We may long for international peace or the coming of God's kingdom as objects that “ought to be”, apart from any recognition of a determinate obligation to act. The point here seems to be that the appreciation of what “ought to b” is a prior step to the doing of something to bring it about. But surely the prior appreciation implies that what ought to have been done has been left undone, as well as the recognition that we ought to set ourselves to do what we can towards the realization of the aspiration; otherwise, the use of “ought” is inappropriate. Prayer, again, if it be not a travesty of prayer, is sternly practical, whether it be intercessory or for divine grace. For religion, prayer is in the full sense a doing; not only laborare est orare, but orare est laborare. Certainly a man often prays when he is most conscious of his helplessness. But he manifests thereby his trust in the practical efficacy of divine grace. The practical issue will be determined, not by his own will, but by that of God, and God's answer to prayer is eminently practical. Prophetic utterances are of two kinds. Either (a) they present an ideal vision as an object of contemplation, be the vision one of judgement (“the day of Yahweh”) or of consolation (“the redeemed shall return”). Here there is no “ought to be”; what is foreseen will be—for Yahweh has spoken it—and the prophet has no doubt as to its fulfilment. Certainly the prophetic vision has relation to practice, by exciting desire or fear; but it is not, qua vision, imperative, and it makes no appeal to the sense of obligation. Or (b) the prophet commands his heaters, and the content of his message is drawn from the field of duty.25 Here the “ought”, the imperative that prescribes a deed, is the thunsollen and comes legitimately into play. As for Utopian literature, it is mostly theoretical; which accounts for the fact that, in contrast to prophecy, it has proved relatively uninfluential.26

The “ought-to-be” in its popular use is thus seen to be ambiguous. It may mean simply that we should like something to be the case, that we wish it were so, or that we hope it may be so in the event. Here it expresses a subjective taste or preference. Or it may mean that we judge a certain state of things to be ideally desirable—i.e., to be better on grounds of reason than what actually exists, e.g., a state of international security resting on law and justice to be better than one of mutual aggression. Here the “ought to be” expresses an objective valuation. But in neither of these two cases is there any appeal to obligation. The “ought” is a mere metaphor, save in so far as it conveys a covert reference to what ought to be done. Where such reference is intended, implicitly or explicitly, the “ought” is in place, but as the thunsollen, not as the seinsollen. In concrete moral experience, “ought” implies (a) a command which is authoritative and unconditional, (b) with a content, viz., that a definite change be brought about in the world of existence, that something be done, and (c) that it be willed by a conscious subject, capable of apprehending the obligation and of setting himself to act in accordance therewith.27 Thus the notion of “ought” implies a complex relational system. A is under obligation to will the actualization of X. Further, (d) the nature of X normally involves, as indirect object of the obligation, a person or persons—A himself may be such—towards whom A has the obligation X. Once more, (e) the obligation implies a rightful authority as its source, which, though immanent in my nature as a moral being, must be more than I, whether it be conceived as the moral law or universal reason, or (as by Hartmann) ideal values, or God. “Nothing,” says Mattincau, “can have authority that is not higher than I.” Thus the obligation, as we have repeatedly insisted, attaches to the man doing, not to the act viewed in isolation from the acting subject. What I will, or set myself to do, is always a “doing”, a bringing, about of change outwardly or inwardly; the “setting ourselves” to bring about the change itself involves alteration in the inward life. Volition, as Croce has asserted, is action; indeed it is the only action that is amenable to moral judgement.

Now the notion of good differs in these respects from that of “ought”. “Ought”, as we have seen, is a unitary notion, with one and the same meaning in all instances of obligation; whereas “good”, as Aristotle pointed out, is applied analogically, not univocally, to the various orders of goods.28 Moreover, “good” expresses a character predicable of the object, be it thing or person or act, that is judged good; the implication of a valuing consciousness, compresent with the object, does not affect the goodness.29 “Ought”, on the other hand, is applied, not to a character of obligatoriness in the act, but to a complex system of relations, inclusive both of the doer and of what is to be done.30 It is not the predicate of an indicative statement; it implies, as good does not, an imperative. “Ought”, again, is practical, not only as implying a command, but also as generating a desire to will in accordance with the command, in Kant's phrase, an “interest” in the moral law. The apprehension of good, on the contrary, is theoretical, and does not necessarily provoke desire. The apprehended good may be already in existence—e.g., a past act of Socrates— or, if non-existent it may be beyond my power of will—e.g., a fine day for to-morrow's hay-making or a change of heart in Mussolini; or, again, I may be indifferent or even averse to its actualization. Nor does the thought of moral goodness necessarily stimulate to emulation. Moreover, in the cases when apprehension of a yet unrealized good stirs desire, the desire is not attended by a sense of obligation. It may conflict with an admitted obligation in another quarter, which, again, need not be judged to be a greater good, or even to be good at all. Just as a man devoid of a sense of obligation might recognize the goodness of an action and be moved thereby to do it; so a man who failed to recognize the goodness might do it from a sense of obligation.31 But the main point is that desire stirred by apprehension of good is spontaneous, not commanded. It has authority over against other desires, in so far as we realize that it is for an object of rational preference, as against the desire, say, for immediate pleasure. The presence of counter-desire may, of course—and probably will—give rise to the further sense of obligation. But until this new notion has been aroused, there is no imperative and no “ought”.

I add two further considerations. (1) We have seen that obligation is absolute; the imperative, in Kant's phrase, is categorical. Now, on the supposition that the good “ought to be”, or—in the attenuated form of the doctrine—that, if within our power, it “ought to be done”, how can the “ought” in question give rise to an absolute obligation? The ideal good, say, a form of good social life, is not yet actual; if it were actual, then the duties arising from it would be unconditionally binding on the members; but how are they unconditionally binding here and now? In an existing corrupt society, to speak and act according to my conscience, as did Socrates of old, is surely a duty absolute. But if so, how can it derive its authority and obligation from the requirements of a purely hypothetical ideal? How can I account for the absoluteness of the imperative by reference to what would be obligatory, if I were the member of a non-existent good society. I am speaking, of course, of a this worldly ideal, to be realized in the course of history. The case is otherwise where, as in religion, the appeal is to a good that is actual beyond all temporal vicissitudes, to a kingdom of ends affirmed as categorical and absolute as is the imperative of moral obligation. But confining ourselves to the field of ethics, I cannot but endorse Mr. Carritt's criticism of Mr. Joseph's view that the obligation—e.g., to pay a debt—is justified by its goodness, because if all men in a society always paid their debts, their lives would be better than if they did not pay them. How can a categorical obligation derive its authority from a hypothetical ideal? To quote Mr. Carritt, “I cannot see how what I ought here and now to do can be determined by what would be true if something which is not happening were happening.”32

Secondly, (2) we saw in an earlier lecture that there are no degrees of obligation, though prima facie obligations, being abstract and general, can be graded in a scale of urgency. The forms of goodness, on the other hand, admit, as Professor Collingwood has shown, of being ranged in hierarchical order.33 But, even if we restrict our attention to prima facie obligations, we find that their order of urgency fails to coincide with the order of forms of goodness. There are many forms of goodness which cannot give ground for any obligation at all; either they are already in existence, or they lie outside the range of human agency. But even where goodness does furnish a ground, it is not necessarily the highest good that I am bound on a given occasion to promote, There is no conceivable good that it may not be my duty to sacrifice in a given situation. Let me take an instance. I have to choose, we will suppose, between saving from fire an unknown infant or a masterpiece by Rembrandt. If I acted, as I probably should, without reflection, I should save the baby. The issue, however, is not how I should act on impulse, but of the justification of the act in the light of duty. Again, I have no doubt that my duty would be to save the baby; but, religion apart, I would be hard put to it to justify the obligation on grounds of value. There is, I suppose, a possibility that the infant may prove of untold benefit to humanity; but the probability is rather in favour of his turning out an average specimen, whose influence upon the world will be slight either for good or ill. On the other hand, we know that the Rembrandt is a work of a very high order of value. This is no matter of probability, it is a matter of knowledge. If we are to determine our duty by the standard of goodness, there can, I think, be only one answer: that we ought to save the picture.


Our criticism of the seinsollen has proved fatal to the theory of a necessary relation between the concepts of “ought” and of value. The relation, if it exists, must be synthetic; for no mere analysis of good reveals the “ought” as an essential element. The notion of the “ought-to-be” furnishes the only plausible tertium quid by which a synthetic connexion can be mediated. To seek a necessary synthetic relation between value and “ought-to-do” is to embark on a vain enterprise. Of course, there is a possible relation; to promote good is frequently a ground of obligation. But the connexion cannot be necessary, for reasons that must now be apparent. Thus we are brought back to acknowledge the truth of Professor Prichard's assertion that an “ought”, if it is to be derived at all, can only be derived from another “ought”; with the added assurance of the failure to mediate the derivation by aid of the hybrid notion of the “ought to be”.

In the last resort, the advocates of the dependence of “ought” upon “good” are driven to assert it under a reservation which is equally fatal to their contention. There is a necessary synthetic connexion, they say, whenever the realization of the value lies within our power. Is not this to deny the necessity of the connexion in the very moment of affirming it? Professor Laird, for instance, after telling us that “the character of excellence implies a command”, adds the qualification “in every instance in which the thought of value may be a guide to action”.34 “What we mean,” when we say that what is good ought to be, is “that these excellent things ought to exist if considerations of value were relevant to their existence.” The seinsollen then is not a sollen at all, save when it is the thunsollen. A man's duty, says Professor Laird, is necessarily and always “to do the best he can achieve” Doubtless this is a useful popular generalization; but, as we have seen, it does not hold necessarily or always “Do the best you can” is, frequently. enough, the counsel of despair of a distracted superior to his subordinate in a crisis when disaster seems unavoidable. The moral imperative, on the other hand, is absolute and commands perfection. To acquiesce in anything short of this is to take the first step downwards to Avernus. “The moral law,” wrote Kant, “… must not indulge man and make allowance for his limited capacity, since it contains the standard of moral perfection, and the standard must be exact, invariable, and absolute. A rule of ethics must, like a rule of mathematics, be defined with theoretical accuracy and irrespective of how far man can observe it.… Any system of ethics which accommodates itself to what man can do corrupts the moral perfection of humanity.”35 Further, I fail to see how value as such can impose an imperative. “The best,” says Professor Laird, “does command.” A command implies a person who commands. Kant held (and Professor Laird seems to endorse the view) that the person in question is the moral agent's rational self. Assuredly, I must myself respond by acknowledgement of the authority that commands, and its voice must speak from within me: but is it merely the authority and the voice of my own conscience? It is here that we are led from the terrain of ethics to that of religion. It is impossible to derive the imperative of moral obligation, even in the form of the thunsollen, from the thought of ethical value.

In one case alone—that of moral goodness—can a necessary connexion be established. But the connexion here is not by way of derivation of duty from good, but conversely by derivation of good from duty. Or, rather, the predicate is discoverable by analysis of the subject-concept. For moral goodness means the goodness that comes to the agent by his doing of duty for duty's sake. Dependent also on the idea of duty is the unproved and unprovable conviction in the mind of the man who acts from duty that his deed is bound in the far-off divine event to result in good. The martyr in a lost cause reeks of nothing save the absolute obligation to sacrifice his all, at any cost. If he be challenged as to the apparent futility of the sacrifice, he will answer that, against all seeming, it must at long last be of value to the universe. But he will not justify the action on this ground; he believes, not that it is his duty qua productive of value, but that it will prove of value because it is his duty. The “ought” is its own justification. He knows, too, that he can bring no plausible evidence in support of his assurance. That “all things work together for good to them that love God” is not an inference, but an act of faith in the providential government of the universe. It is difficult to realize the absoluteness of moral obligation without believing that the world is ordered on principles that are in harmony with the moral law. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum; the temporal order of nature and history is but the shadow of the new heaven and the new earth, of whose goodness the righteous act must needs be a manifestation. But the belief cannot appeal to philosophy for proof of its validity; philosophy can at most supply evidence confirmatory of an assurance of religious faith.

  • 1.

    In this country, for example, it has been held by men of such different views as Green, Sidgwick, Bradley, Rashdall and Sorley, not to mention such living philosophers as Dr. Moore, Prof. Laird and Prof. Taylor.

  • 2.

    As the Whig party adopted Locke's doctrine of the social contract to justify the fait accompli of the Revolution of 1688–1689. The locus classicus is the speeches of the Whig lawyers and politicians on the occasion of the trial of Sacheverell.

  • 3.

    See Prof. G. C. Field, Plato and his Contemporaries, ch. VII. The Greeks, of course, never questioned that man had a will; rather they held that it was a man's volitions that showed what he was aiming at. Vice was ignorance of the true good, revealed in action; virtue was knowledge in the sense that the man who willed the true good came thereby to realize what it was. Nor did they mean to deny that a man could do what he knew to be wrong; what they denied was that in such a case he had clear and full knowledge of the good.

  • 4.

    This point was put to me, almost in these words, by Prof. Muirhead in correspondence

  • 5.

    See Principia Ethica, § 93, PP. 152–154. To limit the calculation to Consequences that are foreseeable gives no assistance; our vision of the future is at best uncertain and of very narrow range; moreover, it remains our vision, and as such lacks the required objectivity.

  • 6.

    See Ross, The Right and the Good, ch. II, pp. 19 ff. I think, however, that Sir D. Ross exaggerates the importance of these necessarily abstract claims upon our conduct. I question whether they are, in his rigorous use of the word, “known” to be obligatory. There are also certain quasi-moral claims to be considered, such as the code of personal honour and the requirements of self-respect. “No gentleman would have done that” may—or may not—be an ethical judgement.

  • 7.

    As Bradley makes very clear (Ethical Studies, pp. 193–198), the process of moral decision is one of intuitive subsumption, as distinguished from explicit deduction from general rules. The particular decision is subsumed under the social conscience of the individual, representing the ethical background appropriated by him in the course of his life. The term “subsumption” must not be misunderstood. There need be no explicit reasoning; character, embodying social principles of conduct, may respond immediately to the situation that calls for action. Moreover, the system of habits, views, and preferences which forms what we call a man's character is at any moment fragmentary and incomplete; again, it is at every stage a process of active growth; hence the new situation is not merely subsumed under the preexisting character, but enriches and expands it. In every moral decision conscience (to use the common term) is modified to a greater or less degree. The “background”, whether consciously apprehended or not, never wholly suffices to account for the resulting intuition. This often comes as a bolt from the blue. In such cases it is futile to posit latent psychological antecedents, for which all evidence or possibility of verification is lacking. Cf. Prof. Taylor's remarks on St. Paul's conversion in Contemporary British Philosophy, vol. II, pp. 293–294.

  • 8.
    Some Problems of Ethics, p. 104. See the whole of chapters VII and VIII. In addition to other criticisms of Utilitarianism, Mr. Joseph urges (pp. 100–101)

    (i) That consequential right action of the same sort as the action whose rightness is to be determined by appeal to good cannot enter into the estimate of conduciveness; for it is just their value which is in question. “If rabbits are themselves worthless, they cannot be of value in producing rabbits” (p. 100).

    (ii) That the goods realized by particular right actions form an aggregate of particular goods, which is no one's in particular. “Even one man's good is not an aggregate; a fortiori the good to be realized in a society cannot be” (p. 101). Mill committed this fallacy in a well-known passage of his Utilitarianism.

    Neither of these objections holds against the view that right actions express the principle of good.

  • 9.

    The reference is to Joseph, op. cit., pp. 109–110.

  • 10.

    Analytic, ch. II (E.T., Abbott, p. 155 and p. 151; Cf. p. 205 and Preface, p. 94).

  • 11.

    Kant accepts the maxim nihil appetimus nisi sub ratione boni;, only on the condition that bonum is understood as moral goodness, and desire as desire directed by reason.

  • 12.

    See Prichard, Mind, N.S. 81, p. 24. Mr. Joseph writes to me in reference to the statement in the text as follows: “Surely not. Those whom you are criticizing would say that we ought to realize good in our lives and would admit that this proposition is ultimate and synthetic; they would not say that this good ‘ought to be’.” He differs in this respect from Sorley, Rashdall and Prof. Muirhead, while agreeing with them that obligation is grounded an good. In other words, he throws overboard the seinsollen. But he is not warranted in asserting a concept al connexion, even when we introduce the qualification (which I think Mr. Joseph would accept) that to realize the good in question lies within the agent's power. Of course no one will deny that the realization of good is a prima facie ground of obligation, just as is the keeping of a promise. But it is one of many such grounds, all of which give rise to ultimate and synthetic propositions. What I am concerned to argue is that there is no necessary or universal connexion between duty and good—i.e., that duty cannot be justified solely by in appeal to good.

  • 13.

    Rule and End, pp. 100–101.

  • 14.

    “There is a self-existent ideal sphere in which values are native, and, as the contents of this sphere, values, self-subsistent and dependent upon no experience, are discerned a priori.” I, p. 165; II, PP. 24–26. The references here and elsewhere are to the English translation by Dr. Stanton Coit in the Library of Philosophy.

  • 15.

    Non-moral good is a conditio sine qua non of moral good.

  • 16.

    II, pp. 81–83 “Ought” is a value sui generis, distinct from “good”.

  • 17.

    4. I, pp. 233–238, 248, 272–273; II p. 83. “Values are genuine first movers in the Aristotelian sense” (but Aristotle's first movers hardly forced themselves onward). “Value is the power which stands behind the energy of the Ought-to-be.” Hartmann does not seem clear as to whether the tendency is to be ascribed to motive agency in values or to “loss of equilibrium” in the existent, when “presented” with values. The terminology is highly metaphorical. Values are even credited with capacity for creation ex nihilo!

  • 18.

    They do not, of course differ as “oughts”; there are not three oughts, but one ought; the difference is in reference to mode of being.

  • 19.

    I, pp. 256–62. There seems to be an ambiguity as to the presence or absence of a “carrier” in the case of the Positive seinsollen.

  • 20.

    Pp. 82, 76–77 n.

  • 21.

    Sorley realizes (pp. 77–78), as does Croce, that if to assert value means asserting that the object ought to exist, value cannot be a quality of the object. Else the judgement would be tautologous, to the effect that what ought to be is what it is (or, if negative, self-contradictory). Sorley concludes that value is not a quality. I prefer to conclude that the assertion of value (whether it be a quality or no) does not mean asserting that the object ought to be. If, as Sorley holds, only the actual has value, how can “ought” attach itself to values prior to actualization?

  • 22.

    So Prichard (Mind, loc. cit., p. 24).

  • 23.

    So in the expression, “I ought to be moral” (Muirhead, Rule and End, P. 74). This is certainly a practical judgement.

  • 24.

    Muirhead, op. cit., p. 100. The reference in this note to St. James, v, 16 (“The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working”) expresses exactly my point that prayer is practical.

  • 25.

    Cf. Micah, vi. 8.

  • 26.

    Thus far we have assumed that the “ought”, to have any meaning, must carry with it the thought of obligation. This has been questioned by Mr. Oakeshott in Experience and its Modes, who holds that, when we judge that whatever is valuable ought to be and that whatever ought to be is valuable, the implication of obligation is eliminated. Certainly it is only thus that the identification of the valuable with the seiniollen can be plausibly maintained. “Identification” is Mr. Oakeshott's own word (p. 279); though what is valuable is not valuable because it ought to be, or conversely (p. 278). Obligation enters, he tells us, when what ought to be is seen as the “ought” of this particular “is”, of this particular “here and now” and, further, “as fitting within the competence of my volition” (p. 280 n.). Unquestionably this requirement is essential to constitute an obligation, which must be determinate, and for a determinate subject; but it is not, he holds, essential to the “ought”. Otherwise, what enrichment of meaning is intended by the assertion that what his value ought-to-be? “Valuation alone,” says Mr. Oakeshett “is without force or motion”, and, again, “practice goes beyond the judgement of valuation, of what ought to be, in that the realization of what is here and now and what ought to be is willed as change” (pp. 290–291, 294). But, surely, the statement that whatever has value ought to be either is tautological, and the “ought” bereft of meaning, or it implies that the judgement of value has “force and motion” and thereby constitutes an obligation. But this is contrary, not only to experience, but also to Mr. Oakeshott's own interpretation.

  • 27.

    Mr. Joseph has objected to me that the obligation to obey God's commands is not itself commanded. But surely the contrary is the case see the O.T. passim. On the phrase “set myself to do”, see Prichard, Duty and Ignorance of Fact, pp. 21ff. I cannot understand why Prof. Prichard (p. 22) criticizes the term “will” as “artificial”.

  • 28.

    E.N., I, 6. I differ regretfully from Prof. L. A. Reid, when he says (Creative Morality, p. 237): “A duty done is a duty done, but love must go on expressing itself, and without this love dies. Duty might at a stretch be called pluralistic, love monistic.” Both duty and love of the good must go on expressing themselves, and (as was seen in chapter II) a duty done is never really a duty done. I think that Prof. Reid would agree that it is only in God and in the love of God that goods and the love of good find unification.

  • 29.

    This must not be understood to mean that goodness is a quality or attribute, whether constitutive of the good object, or, as Sir D. Ross holds, consequential on its nature.

  • 30.

    See Joseph, Some Problems, p. 61; Prichard, Duty and Interest, pp. 26–27.

  • 31.

    Joseph, op. Cit., P. 49.

  • 32.

    See Carritt, Hertz Lecture (British Academy), 1937, on An Ambiguity of the Word “Good”, pp. 27–30.

  • 33.

    In his chapter in Philosophical Method on “The Scale of Forms”.

  • 34.

    A Study in Moral Theory, ch. II. The reader will find in this chapter the best statement of the doctrine of a necessary synthetic connexion between duty and value, with special reference to Prof. Prichard's objections to the doctrine.

  • 35.

    Lectures on Ethics, E.T., p. 74. Kant fails to distinguish in this passage between the moral law and a specific moral “rule”. His position holds only of the former.