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Part I: The Transcendence of the Immanent

Lecture VII: Moral Goodness

We have adopted for convenience, though with some reserve as regards its principle, the familiar classification of ultimate values as Truth or Knowledge, Beauty and Goodness. We have considered the first two, and have found among other things that their common characteristic and the source of the satisfaction which they occasion, is the mind’s discovery or recognition in its object of what is akin to itself. When the mind, having apprehended the object in all its parts, so grasps these as to find the principles of its own nature exemplified in the object, it is in possession of truth concerning that object. In order to reach this attainment it must discipline itself so as to be secure against imperfect observation on the one hand, and premature systematisation on the other. And the informing principle of this discipline is subjection of the mind to the object, for there is no general scheme of universal truth, which the mind can first master a priori, and thereafter require that any theories which are to be admitted as true shall conform to this. Yet this does not mean that the mind has no standard of its own by which to guide its judgement. Its standard is that of totality—the embrace of all relevant reality in a comprehensive unity—and by this it must guard itself from prejudice, from inaccuracy, and from acquiescence in partial apprehension. The whole process of Science is the witness that mind is justified in its endeavour to reach totality; and experience is the witness to the satisfaction inherent in such attainment of it as has hitherto been achieved.

Our study of Beauty as an ultimate value led to the same result. For though the method of mind’s activity in its search for and enjoyment of Beauty is the very antithesis of its method in the search for Truth, yet the result is the same. By becoming wholly receptive in its relation to the object, mind apprehends the object as corresponding to its own standard of totality. And here, as the self-surrender is greater, the emotional quality of the satisfaction in attainment is more intense. But also, by claiming an attitude of pure receptivity in the mind that would give itself to aesthetic contemplation, the object points to what alone can make that claim with full right, namely, such a counterpart of mind that in contemplation of it mind’s satisfaction would be complete.

The same principles will emerge as we turn to the third member of the trio. But at once we are faced with the fact that the absolute character of the Value or Good inherent in Moral Goodness is far more widely recognised and more weightily attested than is the absolute character of the Good of Truth or Beauty. The use of language is itself prima facie evidence that the connexion here is specially close. For we do not call a man “good” without further qualification in respect of his scientific or aesthetic qualities; we do so describe him in respect of his character; and the fact that moral excellence is alone called “goodness” shows that in general estimation here is a good or value uniquely “absolute”. It might be replied that this use of language implies no more than a recognition that moral goodness is the goodness proper to a man as such, while artistic skill is the goodness proper to him as an artist, or intellectual grasp the goodness proper to him as a scientist. But that reply seems to betray an insensitiveness to the tone or colour of language, which does not in fact use the word “good” with indiscriminate facility for all kinds of excellence, intrinsic or instrumental. There is a sense in which the word “good” belongs to the good character as it belongs to nothing else at all. This is in full harmony with our doctrine that the essence of value or good is found through Mind’s discovery of itself in its object. Only in other minds can a mind thus find its counterpart completely; here therefore is the true norm of absolute good.

This has, of course, been the basic doctrine of many of the greatest philosophers, and was most fully expressed in Kant’s declaration that nothing is good absolutely except the good will. But at this point a distressing paradox presents itself; for the philosophers who agree in this impressive affirmation are shortly found to be in conflict with one another, if not also with themselves, concerning the nature of the will that alone is good and even concerning the meaning of the word “good” as used of that will. Kant, for example, thinks of the will as pure autonomy; but this for him involves the conclusion that no particular action is directly attributable to the will. For all actual occurrences, being phenomenal, fall under the category of causation imposed upon the data of experience by the understanding. So the good will, which is perfectly free, is noumenal, and therefore, unknowable, and the best that Kant can do is, to admit that this freedom, together with its law which is the moral imperative, is incomprehensible, and to claim that we comprehend its incomprehensibility.1 In the same way the principle of goodness appears as the empty form of universality; but every moral choice is this particular choice in these particular circumstances, and in the judgement of mankind generally, the particularity, though never alone decisive, is often highly relevant to the question whether a given act was right or wrong.

It would be disproportionate to review the various suggestions put forward by different philosophers for dealing with this problem. It is more germane to the course of our argument that we should follow our own enquiry, letting it lead us as it will. We find in our experience of the world that there is upon us in some situations an obligation to act, or not to act, in certain ways. When we try to understand this in relation to other features of experience we discover two things: first, we discover that wherever this sense of obligation is present, it is uncompromising; secondly, that the types of conduct to which it is attached are different in different regions or in the same region during different periods of history. This second fact—the variety in the things which men are conscious of an obligation to do or not to do—has been used to discredit the consciousness of obligation itself. Because this appears to have dictated monogamy in Europe and to have permitted polygamy in Arabia, it has been held that the obligation itself is purely contingent, and that the consciousness of it is nothing more than the reaction of a character trained in certain social institutions towards what conforms to or departs from the principle of those institutions. It must be admitted that the untutored conscience, and in a less degree the trained conscience also, derives much of its actual content from its social environment, which is itself the product of history. But this consideration is by no means able to account for the imperative note characteristic of the sense of obligation. We reach here a point on which debate is futile. If any man after reviewing his own moral experience and that of the men of strongest character, as recorded in their deeds and words, still thinks that the consciousness of obligation can be analysed without remainder into a spontaneous tendency to act in conformity with the customs of his social context, he must be left to think so; but it is hard on that hypothesis to understand why the most imperative demands of conscience are demands that the individual should defy his social context. Luther’s declaration before the Diet of Worms has not the appearance of an overwhelming impulse to conform to social context.

Yet the varieties of moral convention remain; and the difficulty of determining the proper object or sphere of obligation remains. It may be that by considering the latter of these we may throw light on the former also. A convenient starting-point for this consideration is provided by two books lately issued from Oxford. Dr. W. D. Ross, in his essay on The Right and the Good, clarifies the issue by drawing a sharp distinction between action and act. If that at first appears over-subtle, it is seen to be justified as soon as we translate these two words into Latin; no one would dispute the distinction between actio and actum. He proceeds to follow this distinction by attaching the term right to acts, and morally good to actions.2 So far he seems to me to have done much to elucidate the problem. If A owes B a sum of money, it is (apart from some special circumstances to be mentioned later) right that he should pay that money to B. This has nothing to do with his motive in paying it. If he has made up his mind to avoid payment, and then out of fear pays after all, the right act is still done, though there is no moral goodness in the action. Mr. Joseph, in Some Problems in Ethics, does not draw the distinction between act and action, and fails to find anything commendable in the payment of the money unless it is done from a good motive, and defends this by saying that an action done from one motive is different from an apparently identical action done from another.3 Most of us will regard this as an unduly subjective treatment of the question. For whatever A’s motive may be, if A pays, B gets his money, and not otherwise. Now if B’s right to receive the money stands in any vital relation to A’s duty to pay it, the distinction between act and action solves our problem. The act of payment which satisfies B’s claim is right because it satisfies that well-founded claim; but it remains true that A’s action is morally good only if he acts from a good motive.4

But Dr. Ross could not be content with this; for having attached moral good to the action, he refuses to attribute any good or value to the act. It is right, and that is all that can be said about it. He is very explicit about this:

“What are we to say of rightness? We must, I think, say that it is intrinsic, but that in so far as a right act has value, its value is not intrinsic. The rightness of an act … is intrinsic to the act, depending solely on its nature. But if we contemplate a right act alone, it is seen to have no intrinsic value. Suppose for instance that it is right for a man to pay a certain debt, and he pays it. This is in itself no addition to the sum of the values in the universe. If he does it from a good motive, that adds to the sum of values in the universe; if from a morally indifferent motive, that leaves the sum of values unchanged; if from a bad motive, that detracts from the balance of values in the universe. Whatever intrinsic value, positive or negative, the action may have, it owes to the nature of its motive and not to the act’s being right or wrong, and whatever value it has independently of its motive is instrumental value, i.e. not goodness at all, but the property of producing something that is good.”5

In all this the claim of the creditor is not mentioned. In this view the good which consists in the creditor’s just satisfaction is not part of the act, but something which it is instrumental in producing; the act is the restoration of the money. This analysis leaves the act suspended between the action of the debtor and the satisfaction of the creditor; it leaves the rightness of the act unrelated, not only to the motive of the debtor but also to the claim of the creditor. In other words the act is totally detached from its social context. It is clear that in the act thus detached there is no good; but it seems to me equally clear that there is nothing to be meant by calling it right.

Actual obligation arises in actual social relationships. It cannot be said without qualification that rights and duties precisely correspond, so that A’s rights constitute B’s duties and vice versa; but it is a manifest and important fact that they are closely related. To take once more the payment of a debt, the creditor’s right to receive the money is the correlate of the debtor’s duty to pay. This is apparent when we consider the special circumstances in which it is not his duty to pay. If the creditor goes mad between the lending of the money and the repayment, the duty may cease. If what was lent was not a coin but a weapon, and if the lender, having developed homicidal mania, demands the weapon back in order to murder some one, it becomes a positive duty not to return it. In each case the duty lapses because the claim has ceased to exist. Dr. Ross appears to be in some difficulty here, as might indeed be expected; for it is the penalty of abstraction that it leaves us helpless before the complexities of the concrete. He can only say that acts conforming to the general principles of right are prima facie right.6 This carries us very far from consciousness of obligation; and there is no method of determining which prima facie right should prevail, when two or more conflict, except the utilitarian method which Dr. Ross condemns.

Of course the problems with which Dr. Ross is dealing are very real problems. His position, however unsatisfactory, is one to which he is driven by difficulties crying aloud for solution. The suggestion which will here be offered is that there is no solution of the problems of Ethics on the level of ethical science, but that the moral consciousness, from which they arise, itself points towards an apprehension of the world which does full justice to the moral consciousness, but is more than moral as that word is commonly understood. For the problems of Ethics arise out of the relations of finite spirits to each other, but can only be rightly determined by reference to the relation of those finite spirits to the Infinite Spirit.

The greatest of all attempts to state the fundamental principles of Ethics in independence of what lies beyond Ethics is that of Kant. For him the Moral Law is the essence of Practical Reason. Thus morality is the expression of the autonomous reason, and its principle is the universality characteristic of reason; the will that is wholly conformed to this categorical imperative is the one and only absolute good. We have already referred to the defects of his view as a guide in the practical difficulties of life. The reason why a man must not lie is on the one side that the lie is only effective if it is accepted as true and is therefore a contradiction in its own nature, and on the other side that lying would be useless if every one did it; and this reason shows all lying to be wrong. So if a man intent on murder asks which way his victim has gone, I must not lie in order to send him down a wrong road and so save the victim. But here Practical Reason parts company with common sense and the common conscience. If we try to save the situation by saying that it is always right to lie in such circumstances, we do not really save the universality of the principle; for the identical circumstances are never repeated. Moreover, this is a different kind of universality from that which Kant sets up as a criterion. His concern is for the universality of the principle itself; the last suggestion only refers to the characteristics of a type of circumstance. Nor is relief to be found through attaching universality to the agent by a declaration that it is right for me to do that, and only that, which it would be right for any one else in those circumstances to do; for some acts are right when done by persons of a certain character or in virtue of a certain office, which are wrong if done by a person lacking those qualifications. Thus one man may freely forgive an offending brother without waiting for any previous repentance, and also without giving the impression that he condones the wrong, while another will give that impression and therefore can rightly forgive only when repentance precedes. Again, it is right for the King to enter or leave a room before his own guests; it would be wrong, because discourteous, for most of his subjects to do so. It may well have been right for Christ to cleanse the Temple; it would certainly have been wrong, because presumptuous, if some ordinary Galilean pilgrim had done it.

We seem to be getting back into the difficulties which earlier we hoped to solve by the distinction of the action from the act, for it appears either that the rightfulness of an act may depend, if not upon the motive, yet upon the character of the agent, or alternatively that there may be things which ought to be done (such as the cleansing of the Temple) which yet no one alive ought to do. Perhaps the latter is a true account of some moral situations. But let us seek further elucidation in further distinctions. There are two main questions to be considered: (1) What is meant by or involved in the consciousness of obligation itself? (2) To what is obligation properly attached? And of those the second divides itself into subordinate questions. It will be convenient to take it first, though it assumes that some rational answer can be given to the former. For obligation cannot rightly attach to anything, unless it has its own rightful place in the scheme of things. But it will be easier to determine its grounds and implications if we first consider its proper sphere of operation.

The first consciousness of obligation is undoubtedly concerned with possible action. A situation arises in which all considerations of pleasure and self-interest point one way, but the sense of obligation intervenes to forbid such action. In the early stages the sense of obligation is nearly always negative in its import. But positive commands of conscience appear early, such as the recognition of duty to save a child from burning or from drowning, at the cost of great risk and certain inconvenience. Often, of course, the distinction is hardly apparent, so that it is not clear whether the obligation felt is a positive one to tell the truth or a negative one not to tell lies. But whether positive or negative, in all such cases as we are now considering the consciousness of obligation takes the form of a direct moral perception. It may proceed from reason, but it is not a product of argument or reflection. The “moral sense” school of moral philosophy is on sure ground in insisting on this fact. And the moral judgement of those spectators who are aware of the alternatives open and the choice made, is as a rule equally unreflective and spontaneous. It is like the perception of beauty; it exists or not, and there is no more to be said.

This is fully compatible, of course, with the need of training and experience if it is to be reliable; for what has been said is also true of the aesthetic sense. But the method of training is different in the balance of its component elements. The aesthetic sense is trained by attention to admittedly beautiful works. By beginning with those which the immature mind already appreciates, and passing on to others as it is able in some degree to appreciate these also, any man may greatly extend the range and improve the precision of his aesthetic appreciation. Analysis of the works of art studied will also be useful in its place, but it is mainly by the direction of attention to what is excellent that progress is made. In the realm of moral judgement, deliberate attention to noble acts and noble characters may similarly quicken the moral perceptions, and for nine-tenths of actual conduct this is the surest way to right judgement; but there are difficult cases of ethical perplexity such as must be dealt with, not by a finely tempered discrimination, but by reflection upon the principle implicit in perceptions already trusted or judgements confidently given. There is a kinship between moral and aesthetic perception; otherwise the “moral sense” school of ethics could never have arisen. But whereas in aesthetic questions the last appeal is to perception—a rationalised perception no doubt—in ethical questions the last appeal is to reason, even if to a perceptive reason.

For when the conscience of the individual is in conflict with the conscience of his fellows, the only way to resolve the conflict is to find by critical analysis the principles on which both unwittingly rely. Moral progress has largely come through the perception by some members of any society that principles commonly accepted by that society condemn some action, or custom, or institution, to which hitherto the principles had not directly been applied. It was so that Wilberforce and his colleagues carried the abolition of the Slave Trade. They compelled their Christian fellow-countrymen to recognise that the principles of the religion which they professed were incompatible with acquiescence in the Slave Trade or in the Institution of Slavery. It is so with every prophet. His appeal is not to a new principle, but to a new application of an old principle, so that he often presents himself as urging a return to the better ways of past generations. Few radical reformers can hope for great success who are unable to present themselves with perfect honesty as the only true conservatives.

The individual confronted with a moral perplexity has in the same way to think the matter out. That process has two parts. He must bring into clear consciousness the principles involved; and he must become aware so far as possible of the whole nature of his act—that is, of the train of consequences which his action will bring about. It is this latter element in the determination of duty which provides a basis for the various forms of Utilitarianism. The Utilitarians rightly insisted that a man has no right to bring about all manner of evil which it is possible for him to foresee, by thoughtless conformity to some generally accepted rule of conduct. But they confused the issue by speaking so much of consequences as though these were detachable from the act, so that the act was to be justified or condemned by its consequences, and not by its own quality. This gives rise to an impression that results in the way of pleasure or happiness are the sole moral criterion, or (still worse) that such results may overbalance a purely moral quality recognised as residing in the action, so that it may sometimes be right to do evil that good may come. But in many cases it is impossible thus to distinguish between an act and its consequences. That distinction can perhaps be drawn if we confine our attention to very simple ethical relationships and the duties involved in them, such as the relationship of debtor and creditor, and the duty of the debtor to repay what he has borrowed. In those cases there is seldom any doubt where duty lies. But if two duties conflict, it is impossible to confine attention to the act so narrowly conceived. If a man who has promised to meet a friend in London, in order to spend a day with him in conversation of a purely friendly sort, hears that his wife has been taken ill in Scotland and desires his immediate presence lest she should die before he reaches her, most of us will agree without hesitation that the latter claim is the stronger, and that it is right to break the promise and disappoint the friend; and most of us would justify that view on two distinguishable but not wholly separable grounds, namely, first the special claim of a wife upon husband or husband upon wife, and secondly the consideration that a greater and more irreparable evil is likely to result from refusing the latter claim than from failing to meet the first; and this evil we should regard as being not so much a consequence of the act, but rather the act itself. For a man’s act is the difference that he makes; the whole train of consequences flowing from his action is his real act. In most private relationships we do not need to extend so greatly the field of attention. Debts should be paid; promises should be kept; lies should not be told. But even in these relationships some elasticity is recognised as desirable. Courtesy and truthfulness are often hard to combine. And in political life, with its indefinitely complex ramifications, a man’s act, conceived as the difference that he makes, may be so vast in its extent that it is very hard to estimate the value of its component elements and form a just appreciation of it as a whole. A statesman, let us say, sincerely believes that it is for the good of the country that his party should remain in power; but he disagrees with his colleagues about one point in their policy; he is questioned on that point by his constituents; if he states his whole mind, he will damage his party and perhaps, if the balance of parties is close, cause its fall from power; so without stating his own view, and without actually expressing support of his colleagues’ policy, he sets forth the best defence of that policy which he can make. He probably deceives his constituents; but there are circumstances imaginable in which it would be far from clear that his course was morally wrong. Another man might tell the whole truth, and win perhaps a more whole-hearted approbation of his character; but that would be quite compatible with holding that his course of action was mistaken, even morally mistaken. It is a quite consistent moral judgement that expresses itself in such terms as these: “I think it was a mistake, but it was a mistake that only a man of fine character would make”.

If the contention of this argument is sustained, it is at once apparent that about many moral judgements there is an irreducible element of uncertainty. Where the act in question springs from a well-defined relationship and there are no relevant complicating factors, we may pronounce unhesitatingly that one act is right and another wrong. But in many instances this is impossible. The problem may be too tangled for complete analysis by our limited understandings, and sometimes at least the personal quality of the agent is itself a relevant factor. In other words Ethics can never be an exact science, and absolute obligation therefore attaches not to the act, but to the will. It is my absolute duty to will the right; but there is no act which it is my absolute duty, independently of circumstances, to do or not to do. Murder is always wrong, because murder is such killing as is wrong; but it is often open to dispute whether or not a particular instance of killing is murder.

A useful distinction is drawn by Dr. Oman between Conscience and Conscientiousness.7 Conscience is our judgement upon acts contemplated or accomplished. When the suggestion to act in some definite way arises, conscience approves or disapproves. That is always important, and no man who is in earnest about the business of right living will ignore that verdict of his moral nature. But he must not attribute to it infallibility. His moral sense requires training, and that training is never complete; the real nature of the act, conceived as the difference made, needs to be thought out, and often that process can never be complete. Especially is it dangerous to trust the approbation of an untrained conscience, or (still more) its acquiescence. When conscience condemns an act, there is likely to be something wrong with that act; but that conscience acquiesces or even approves is not convincing evidence that all is right with the act. Of course the “scrupulous conscience”, which condemns when there is no occasion, is a familiar fact, but of less frequent occurrence than the conscience which acquiesces too readily. Conscience, which we here understand as the spontaneous verdict of a man’s moral nature, is not by any means a completely reliable guide to life. It may be the best that we have got at any moment, and we must act by it, but always with readiness to revise its judgements. “What is absolute can never apply to any verdict of conscience, but only to conscientiousness in following the upward road, to always choosing what excels.”8

Thus as we search for the proper subject of absolute obligation we are driven back from act to agent, from conduct to character, from the “Do righteousness” of the Law to the “Be righteous” of the Gospel. The absolute obligation lies upon the will to choose the right. In order so to choose, it must call for all thought that is available in the time allowed; but that is part of the activity of truly willing the right. The possibility of doubt concerning what is right presents insuperable difficulties to the attachment of obligation to acts as such; but it presents none to the attachment of obligation to the will to choose what is right according to the best estimate that can be formed. Dr. Ross repudiates the utilitarian’s distinction between an act and its consequences, but limits his attention to that part of the train of circumstance initiated which is specified by the moral rule in question. It is my duty to restore what I borrow; and I am not to be content with taking steps reasonably calculated to this end; I must “ensure” actual restoration. But while my “act” is thus interpreted as more than my physical movement, it stops short apparently when the moral rule in question has been observed. But this is an unwarranted abstraction. Dr. Ross attaches the attributes right and wrong to the act so taken in abstraction, and is led by this process of thought to deny that there is any good or value in right acts. It is a duty to do them, and there is good in the doing of them (which is action); but there is no good in the act. But how can there be good in doing that in which there is no positive value when it is done? The distinction of the act from the action makes for clearness; but the distinction of the act from the totality of result is a false abstraction creating endless confusion.

So we come back to the common-sense view that the right thing to do is the thing that is best on the whole. This is the view most fully formulated in recent times by Professor Moore who interprets “right” as “productive of the best possible consequences” or “optimific.”9 Plato came near to the same position when he laid down the maxim, To; wjfevlimon kalovn, to; de; blabero;n aijscrovn—the useful is noble and the harmful base.10 A man’s act is the whole difference that he makes; his obligation, which is absolute, is to see that this is the best possible. Dr. Ross seeks to annihilate this position, but his attack on it completely fails. He takes the case of a promise, and states the argument thus:

“Suppose, to simplify the case by abstraction, that the fulfilment of a promise to A would produce 1000 units of good for him, but that by doing some other act I could produce 1001 units of good for B, to whom I have made no promise, the other consequences of the two acts being of equal value; should we really think it self-evident that it was our duty to do the second act and not the first? I think not.”11

With that verdict all must agree, if, as I presume, the satisfaction of A’s reasonable expectation is excluded from the 1000 units of good. But Dr. Ross will not admit the reason which those whom he is here criticising would advance, and which he states as follows:

“By keeping my promise I am helping to strengthen the system of mutual confidence; by breaking it I am helping to weaken this; so that really the first act produces 1000 + x units of good, and the second 1001 − y units; and the difference between + x and − y is enough to outweigh the slight superiority in the immediate effects of the second act. In answer to this it may be pointed out that there must be some amount of good that exceeds the difference between + x and − y (i.e. x + y)—say x + y + 3. Let us suppose the immediate good effects of the second act to be assessed not at 1001 but at 1000 + x + y + 3. Then its net good effects are 1000 + x + 3, i.e. greater than those of the fulfilment of the promise; and the utilitarian is bound to say forthwith that the promise should be broken. Now we may ask whether that is really the way we think about promises? Do we really think that the production of the slightest balance of good, no matter who will enjoy it, by the breach of a promise, frees us from the obligation to keep our promise? We need not doubt that a system by which promises are made and kept is one that has great advantages for the general well-being. But that is not the whole truth. To make a promise is not merely to adopt an ingenious device for promoting the general well-being;12 it is to put oneself in a new relation to one person in particular, a relation which creates a specifically new prima facie duty to him, not reducible to the duty of promoting the general well-being of society.”13

All of this is well said; but it misses the point. If it be true that behind the special relationship created by a promise, and lending its sanction to the duty created, there is the very high general interest in maintaining mutual confidence, then what is required to release a man from the obligation of the special duty created by the promise is not an actual balance of good in the course which involves a breach of the promise, but a general recognition of the existence of such a balance, so that public opinion understands and approves the act as a true exception to the rule; in that case general mutual confidence is not impaired by the exceptional act. This may be otherwise expressed by saying that exceptions to moral rules may be made when, but only when, the exceptional character of the occasion is so clear that breach of the rule will in no way suggest neglect of it. And if we may anticipate the result of our further argument, it will be found that the balance of good in favour of breaking a promise, or of evading any other prima facie duty, is never found except when there is some other prima facie duty to be met and it is not possible to perform both. Dr. Ross’s method gives us no means of determining our choice between two incompatible prima facie duties; to do each act is right; to neglect either is wrong; and it seems that we are driven to determine a moral question by reference to non-moral considerations. From such invasion of the sovereign rights of morality we are protected if we say that our duty is always to do the right thing, and that the right thing is the act or difference made which contains the greatest possible good, so that part of our duty is to ascertain what this is.

Thus we are led once more to two conclusions already maintained on other grounds: the first is that in very many instances we have to act on an uncertainty; the second is that we are driven back from act to character as the real focus of obligation. About the former much has already been said; but one difficulty remains to be noticed. For part of the uncertainty in our judgement of acts, whether contemplated or performed, consists in the difficulty of reaching complete assurance with reference to our scale of values. Most will agree that it is in general better to pursue knowledge than to pursue pleasure, to escape from ignorance rather than from pain. But few would admit that it would be right to choose a course of action that would lead to an increase of knowledge rather than one which would deliver a man (still more a multitude of men) from great suffering, if both could not be pursued together.14 It may be right for an artist to sacrifice his own financial interests, even his physical health, from loyalty to his ideal of Beauty; is it right that he should also sacrifice to that ideal the interest and comfort of his wife and children? Or is it right to demand that a man who is called to such sacrifices must remain unmarried, so that he may be free to follow his conscience unembarrassed? What if that means that the race is to be bred only from a stock lacking in the qualities of aspiration and adventure? It would be hard enough to settle what is the best difference that a man can make even if we had a completely secure and clear criterion of value; but we have not got such a criterion; so that in every act of choice there is an element of doubt, and the call of conscientiousness is a call to make the hero’s stake of his life on what seems to him best though he can prove it to be so only by the hazard that he makes. The moral life is an adventure not only in detail but in principle.15

We gain some illumination for this problem as we turn to consider the implications of our contention that the true focus of obligation is not act, nor even action, but character. Here we are in full agreement with Kant: “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will”.16 But what is the Good Will? For Kant it is the will which constantly wills the right as tested by the criterion of universality: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”17 But what is my maxim? Is it the bare form of the act taken in abstraction? Then the principle will not work, as we have already seen: it condemns all lying, but there are circumstances when it is permissible, and even obligatory, to lie. Or if “lying” is a term to be confined to such untruthfulness as is wrong, then lying is always wrong, but we are left without guidance on the question when it is right to say what is known to be untrue. No doubt we should be much better people and the world a better place if we told the truth much more constantly than we do; the occasions which justify untruthfulness are rare; but they exist, as Plato saw,18 and an ethical system which implies the contrary is thereby condemned.

But the “maxim” of an act may be interpreted so as to make allowance for the particularity of the agent and the circumstances. I must so act that I can will that any one else having the same qualifications should in the same circumstances act in the same way. This seems to be true; but it only means that the act must be determined without regard to my own desires or wishes; its designation as right or wrong must be wholly independent of my idiosyncrasy. That is of practical importance, as a warning against any tendency to confuse convenience with obligation; but it does not help us positively to determine what is right, and of course it carries us very far from the principles or method of Kantian ethics.

Let us attempt a more concrete, a more organic,19 method of treating the subject. We find ourselves living in a world that consists of inanimate nature, of animals, and of human beings. We know that experience has value for us as good and bad. At first we tend to interpret good and bad as consisting respectively of pleasure and pain; but from the first it is not only our own pleasure and pain. The child very early reckons as bad any suffering of pain by his mother; it saddens him that she should be sad. Later, but still early, he apprehends this as a principle; not only is his pain bad for him, but in his catalogue of bad things is pain suffered by any one whom he loves. It is not regarded as bad for him in any such sense as implies that his only reason for wishing it otherwise is that it causes him distress; that is a complete falsification of any unsophisticated experience. The child who is sorry to see his mother in pain does not wish that pain away in order to end his own sorrow; what he resents is not his sorrow but her pain. In other words, we are from the beginning, and by the very constitution of our nature, bound up with one another, so that the weal and woe of each is in itself the weal and woe of all others within the circle of intimate relationships.

As experience develops, self-consciousness develops also. The growing child, and still more the adolescent, becomes increasingly conscious of himself as distinct from his fellows. This may show itself in the form of doubt whether there is any need for him to rejoice in the joys of others or sorrow in their griefs; shall he not follow what has value for him, refusing to allow the good and evil of others to present themselves to him as his own? As a matter of experience, very few really feel exactly this perplexity even if they seem to themselves to do so. They are not escaping from the bonds of human solidarity, but feeling the pressure of new bonds, which it is not easy to adjust to the old. The boy feels like a bold and bad self-seeker because he has become united in links of common feeling with a new group of friends, whose joys and sorrows are more vividly present to his consciousness than those of his family. If the claims of the two conflict, he may say that he intends only to please himself; but what he means is that he is more concerned to please his new friends than the old. He has not, as a subject of value-judgements, become an isolated unit.

In the very few instances where for a time some approach is made to such moral self-isolation, the person concerned very soon discovers that, even from the selfish standpoint, sheer self-seeking is unprofitable. The only life worth living is one which accepts the benefits of civilisation, and society takes care that it is not worth while for any one to receive all the benefits of membership in it without paying any regard to its demands. An attempt to organise life on a basis of selfishness would lead to a social order in which each individual would in fact conform to the requirements of the common good, even though only from selfish motives.20 Selfishness thus contradicts itself. I can only serve myself by serving, at least a little, the common good; and this is so because I am in essence a member of society. Membership of family and nation is not an accidental appendage of my individuality, but a constitutive element in it. It is always vain to say “If I had been a son of Napoleon Bonaparte” or any such thing. I am the son of my own father, and if he had had no son, but Napoleon had had an additional one, that means that some one else would have been born instead of me. Membership, such as carries with it a share in a common weal and woe, is an essential element in our nature; and an effort to repudiate it is always found to be a reassertion of it by implication.

This actual membership of our own society, which is part of the constitution of our nature, is the root of the consciousness of obligation. As self-consciousness develops, there appears the contrast between that which seems to be for the interest of the self and that which seems to be for the interest of the community. It is through its contrast with the former that the latter acquires the characteristic of obligation. The fully moralised man, whose only pleasure is in doing good, is no longer conscious of obligation to do it; but if ever he lost his perfect equipoise and integration through the emergence of a strong impulse to do what was contrary to the general good, the claim of the general good would at once assume the form of obligation over against that unusual impulse.

In early stages the community of which membership is recognised is small and sharply limited. Moral progress consists largely in the widening of the area in which the obligations of membership are recognised. But this presents problems of its own. To call men to appreciate the limitations of their present objects of loyalty in the interest of a wider fellowship may have the effect of detaching them from the one without binding them to the other. The patriot often fears the internationalist, because he knows the real and great good that is in national loyalty, and is justly anxious lest this be lost and its place taken by a flaccid cosmopolitanism, calling forth no deep loyalty and no self-devotion. Yet the way of progress is from the smaller to the wider unit, till all human beings are recognised as possessing a claim upon us to treat them as our fellow-members in the human family.

Different codes of conduct are appropriate to the successive stages of this process. Whenever men have employed some degree of moral criticism in reading the Scriptures of the Old Testament, some have been perplexed to read (for example) that God commanded Jehu to entrap and slaughter “all the prophets of Baal, all his worshippers, and all his priests”.21 Our grandfathers dealt with this perplexity by explaining that God indeed is unchanging, but man’s understanding of Him grows from stage to stage; the divine commands in the Old Testament which shock our consciences were all that men could understand of His will for them. To us it seems more adequate to say that God is indeed unchanging, and always wills the truest welfare of all His children; but at a certain stage of their development it is good for them to do and to suffer what at a later stage would no longer be good for them. Therefore, being then as always Holy Love, He may have chosen for the worshippers of Baal that they should be slain and for Jehu that he should slay them, even by treachery, because only by such means would Israel be turned from a religion that for them, at any rate, was worse than none, and only so could Jehu express and fortify such faith in the God of Righteousness as his gross nature was capable of holding. Such reflections are very dangerous, no doubt. We tend to use them in order to blunt our consciences. But the repudiation of them is, in the long run, still worse, for it tends to destroy the sense of obligation by attempting to force it artificially into activity. That sense of obligation is the spontaneous reaction of a person who is a member of society towards acts or suggestions which conform to or contradict the standards of conduct which under the influence of experience have come to be accepted in his community. That those standards are what they are is due to history—partly to biological, partly to social, history; the various moral codes that are to be found in different regions and different epochs are a deposit from the past and reflect present conditions as the outcome of former conditions. But not only is that so; it ought to be so. Our actual obligations depend on our membership of society and on the character of the society of which we are members. As a great philosopher of the last generation would have had us learn, the clue to most of life’s problems is to be found in the phrase “My Station and Its Duties”.22

But that does not affect the nature of obligation itself, or the inherent logic which makes it a principle of progress. For no stage or level of civilisation is satisfactory in itself; certainly no one proposes to leave all things just as they are in this present year of grace! The sense of obligation to serve the common good as apprehended at any time is inevitably a sense of obligation also to apprehend it better. The limitations set to the community in which membership, with its obligation of loyalty, is recognised are more and more evidently accidental or artificial. At one point after another it becomes manifest that the accepted convention is in fact contradictory of the principle of fellow-membership which is the root and moral sanction of all conventions, until the one universal law is known in the form “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, where “neighbour” is interpreted, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan,23 to mean any human being with whom even accidental contact occurs, and even though according to current convention he would be an object of hatred and contempt.

Membership is a fact of our nature, and the sense of obligation is its expression. But we are not creatures who live only by impulse or instinct. We are capable of reason, though we use it so little; and that is another way of saying that we are capable of apprehension of, obedience to, and fellowship with, what is absolute and universal. This gives to man as a subject of value-judgements a status far removed from that of a calculator of transient pleasures and pains. In the claims of Truth and of Beauty man is aware of something to which the sense of obligation responds. As he responds his mind finds what is akin to itself in the object, and he is on the way to learning that it is not only of a human community that he is a member, but also of a society which includes the myriad tribes of nature, animate and inanimate, because through all there lives and moves that Mind, or Other akin to mind, with which in his Science and his Art man enters into fellowship. It is because a man’s relation to Truth and Beauty is thus a social relation—a relation to another Mind or Somewhat akin to Mind—that the claim of Truth and Beauty constitute an obligation, and not only the offer of an august satisfaction. In virtue of all this super-animal life, whereby he aspires and partly attains to fellowship with the universal and absolute, man is known as not only a subject of value-judgements, but a focus of actualised value. That is most plainly seen in the fact of obligation itself; when a man for duty’s sake sacrifices his own interest or his life, he affirms himself in his capacity of membership to be more and better than his isolated self with all its pleasures and pains. To have a sense of absolute obligation is implicitly to claim inherent and ultimate value. Moreover that discovery by mind of what is akin to itself, which we found to be the essential condition of Value and to be characteristic of the attainment of Truth and Beauty, reaches its completest earthly expression in that very sense of membership which is the root principle of moral obligation. Here Person recognises Person, and the common principle of Personality in both.24 But to find oneself in another, so that both are apprehended as one, is love. Therefore “love is the fulfilling of the Law”.

It is this recognition of the ultimate value of Persons which clothes with so austere a sanctity those duties that arise out of special personal relationships. Dr. Ross is right to hold that the good to be gained by breaking a promise must be very great before it is right to break the promise, but he does not probe deep enough for the ground of his conviction. It is not because “a promise is a promise” that a man must keep it at great inconvenience to himself and even to others. It is because a promise creates a personal claim, and to break it for any reason which the man to whom it was made cannot be expected to regard as compelling, is to ignore his claim and so to flout the sanctity of his personality. Here we are close to the second form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only”.25 Kant rightly advances from this to the declaration that “Morality consists in the reference of all action to the legislation which alone can render a kingdom of ends possible”. We hold, as has been seen, that in the complex and varying circumstances of life, this may sometimes be action which the first form of the Categorical Imperative would condemn; but that, we now see, is because Kant interpreted his formula abstractly. The essential principle of his argument is that which in a more concrete form we have now been following.

The principle of morality is that we should behave as Persons who are members of a Society of Persons—a Society into which Personality is itself a valid claim of entrance. We are to treat all Persons as Persons, and all as fellow-members with us in the Society of Persons. Actual duties will depend upon actual personal relationship; there is a special duty of parent to child and child to parent; there is a special relationship between citizens of any one nation; the duty of an Englishman to a Frenchman is not to treat him as if he were an Englishman, or as if no national distinctions existed, but to recognise that devotion to France is as excellent in him as love of England is in an Englishman. In practice, no doubt, the main task of each man’s moral life is to secure that his own self counts for no more with him than any one else’s self. Here lies the danger of all particular loyalties. The Englishman should be loyal to England, not because it is his country, but because he is its citizen—not because in some sense it belongs to him, but because in a far deeper sense he belongs to it. And this stage is the more easily reached as we follow the sound principle of checking each narrower loyalty by what is wider. A man cannot do much to serve humanity as a whole directly; he must give his service to his own unit; but he can check the narrower loyalty by the wider, so that he will serve his family, but not at cost to his country, and will serve his country, but not at cost to mankind.

The perception that duty is concerned with all the varieties of persons, so that we may serve them best being what they are, leads to an apprehension of it as requiring infinitely delicate adjustments such as are not to be reached by deliberate ratiocination. Consequently those are right who insist that the voice of conscience as it is heard in relation to actual conduct does not utter the verdict of reflective reason. Moreover our reflective reason is sometimes quite unable to afford justification for what none the less remains an unassailably assured moral judgement. But for this unreasoned confidence we can assign two rational grounds.

(1) Reflective reason must accept from intuition the ultimate judgements of value, and the diversity of judgements pronounced by different people on different characters and different acts springs from a divergence at this point. We have commended, with reference to the estimate of acts, what is indistinguishable from “ideal utilitarianism”. We have repudiated the intuitionism which holds that right and wrong are inherent qualities of acts, which can be perceived by the mature and sensitive moral consciousness, and have said that a man’s act is the whole difference he makes, and that this is right when it is the best possible. But here we part company with the historic school of Utilitarians. We hold that what chiefly matters is the judgement of what is “good” and of the various grades of good. The great Utilitarians held that the good is pleasure, and their error was not in being utilitarian as regards conduct but in being hedonist as regards the true ends of life. Plato also is utilitarian, as we have seen, as regards conduct; but if we say that “the useful is noble, and the harmful base”, we must at once ask—Useful for what? harmful for what? And then Plato’s answer is unmistakeable; the end is Righteousness. Moral value resides not in acts or actions, but in a certain type of character—the righteous character. This is the character which subordinates all other considerations to the claims of the community of persons. But because it is of persons, the highest interest of the community and of its members is a personal interest, the fulfilment of their being as Persons; and this is Righteousness. Plato speaks with the authentic voice of morality when he complains that those who had great repute as statesmen had “filled the city full of harbours and docks and walls and revenues and such trifles to the exclusion of temperance and righteousness”.26 For whatever is a truly personal good—a good which resides in a person—takes priority over all non-personal goods, because morality is the discovery or recognition by persons of personality in others, to whom by the common attribute of personality they are bound in the ties of community membership. What most concerns this is therefore the highest good. That is why moral considerations must take precedence of aesthetic, if the two conflict. The essential condition of Value is the discovery by mind of itself in its other; this is only perfectly accomplished when the other is itself a living mind or person. Therefore ethical good is itself the fulfilment of intellectual and aesthetic good, and Goodness supplies to Truth and Beauty their proper norm by which, if need arise, they are rightly regulated. The same consideration shows why it is better that thousands should die in tumults rather than that order should be preserved at the cost of injustice voluntarily done to one innocent man. For the suffering and death of the body does not involve deterioration of character; but that injustice should be inflicted on innocence is an outrage on the sanctity of personality, while voluntarily to inflict it is to repudiate that sanctity and the obligations which it imposes. The maxim of Caiaphas27 had a meaning far profounder than he knew, and in that meaning it is true; but in the meaning of his own intention it is the quintessence of cynicism and detestably false.

Now personal relationships can seldom be precisely formulated; and as our actual obligations are such as arise out of our actual moral relationships they can seldom be represented by any formula. For this reason, as well as because in these relationships intuition so far outstrips reflection, it is best in action to rely chiefly on the spontaneous reaction of our moral nature to the situation confronting us. Because we are imperfect that reaction will be imperfect. But the cleansing of our characters is mainly a matter of constant discipline, not of sudden choice at the moment of action. A man is only fully moral who does the right because it is right; but he usually has not time to scrutinise his motives when the occasion for action comes. In his leisure he should criticise his conscience by reflection, and discipline his character by meditation; but at the moment for action he must act, being what he is, and knowing that his spontaneous judgements, however much they still need correction, have the authority of the garnered experience of the race.

(2) Yet that does not appear an adequate account of the majesty of moral law. It is not only that we may see ourselves as others see us or count ourselves for no more than others, that we must discipline our characters.

“For the judgement of oneself in action, which is of the essence of morality, is not a judgement of praise and blame, in which a man sees his own acts with the same eyes as those of his friends, and rejoices or despairs accordingly, making all allowances for defective equipment and restricting circumstance; it is something far more persistent and exacting than that, and much less respectful of existing fact. It is the tormenting consciousness of a stricter logic, a higher level of execution, always within reach if the spirit is willing, which leaves no room for rest or contentment; but yet justifies the act so far as it succeeds in pressing its claim. It is not egoism or altruism; it is no thought of self or others, or of the relation between them. But it may take Spinoza’s name, the conatus in suo esse perseverandi, ‘the effort to persevere in one’s being’; for he who is committed to living is committed to living as well as he can.”28

But how can it be that the inner logic of a man’s nature should prompt him to ignore his own interest for that of his friend or his country? Does this not mean that man is by his nature shown to be created for love? And does not this again imply that in the ground of his being, and therefore in the ground of that natural order of which he is the most elaborately developed product within our knowledge, there must be the spring of that love which thus wells up in him? That question we must defer. But if an affirmative answer is given it will help us to solve the other open problem which our investigation has left on our hands. For the one satisfactory form of the moral law we have found to be—“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. But love is not at our command. We may force ourselves to act as if we loved, but it can only be with partial success; for where real love is absent there is failure also of the insight of sympathy by which the true welfare of the neighbour is discerned. Conscientiousness without love is clumsy. Moreover, we cannot force ourselves very far in this direction; for the direction must come from the will; and, if there is no love, the will cannot force us or our lower nature, for it has no such desire in itself; and if it has that desire, that is love. We are enclosed in a net of helplessness. Only by love can we fulfil the law, and love is not at our command.

But if the ground of all the universe and of our own being is Personal Love, to which we owe our origin and our maintenance in being, then it may be that as we penetrate to that which is ever more than ourselves and yet is also the very life of our life, we may find the ability which we now lack.

If we anticipate the results of future discussion we can offer this summary of moral obligation: Your being is personal; live as a person in fellow-membership with all others who, being personal, are your fellow-members in the community of persons. Strive to grow in fullness of personality, in width and depth of fellowship; and seek to draw the energy for this from that to which you and all things owe their origin, the Personal Love which is Creator and Sustainer of the world.

Appendix B

The Moral Problem Presented by a Conflict of Obligations

There is an excellent illustration of this problem in Mr. Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Martin Arrowsmith. The hero is a medical student trained under the inspiration of a professor wholly dedicated to the pursuit of truth. When the student enters on his medical career, he is confronted by a series of temptations arising from the social life in which he finds himself from time to time as this affects both himself and his wife. In these the ethical problem is fairly simple, and the interest is chiefly the psychological interest of watching the hero’s reaction to it.

The last temptation is different. The hero is sent to a plague-stricken island. A serum has been discovered which is believed to provide a certain cure, but it has not been fully tested. The professor urges his pupil to divide the island into two halves of approximately equal population, and then to treat with the serum all sufferers in one half and none in the other. Thus it would be possible to apply the Joint-Method of Agreement and Difference (the most reliable of inductive methods) and reach genuine knowledge concerning the efficacy of the supposed remedy. The professor points out that by taking this course his pupil will vastly benefit all future generations at the cost of leaving a few hundreds of people to die in agony, or to see their children die in agony, who would have been bound so to die before the remedy was found; service to humanity made, he argued, the same claim as loyalty to truth.

But the hero himself, confronted with the despairing anguish of those whom he attempted to repel, and who had a pathetic faith in the potency of the untried remedy, could not refuse their plea. He treated all inhabitants alike, and the professor died heart-broken that his favourite pupil should have failed in loyalty to truth. Which was right?—the pupil or the professor? We may admire the professor’s devotion to truth, and perhaps to the highest interest of humanity in the long run. But we must say that he was ethically wrong and the pupil ethically right, because the course recommended by the professor involved treating one half of the sufferers as means only and not as ends in themselves. It could only be right to use those sufferers as material for experiment if they volunteered to be so used.

I have not read Mr. Sinclair’s book for several years. If I have misrepresented it, I hereby apologise. It is the impression remaining in my mind and here set forth which supplies the illustration of my argument.

  • 1. Metaphysic of Ethics, ad fin.
  • 2. The Right and the Good, p. 7.
  • 3. Some Problems in Ethics, pp. 37–58.
  • 4. If the debt is repaid by accident (e.g. by the writing of a cheque drawn to the creditor by accident, when another name was intended) the right thing has happened, but this is not in the ethical sense an “act” at all. In order that there may be an “act” there must be the intention to do it. But the intention to do the right act may spring from bad motives as well as from good.
  • 5. The Right and the Good, p. 46.
  • 6. The Right and the Good, pp. 132, 133.
  • 7. The Natural and the Supernatural, pp. 312–329.
  • 8. Oman, op. cit. p. 324.
  • 9. Ethics, p. 181.
  • 10. Said to be a most excellent saying: Republic, 457 B.
  • 11. The Right and the Good, pp. 34, 35.
  • 12. Indeed one does not see why Dr. Ross thinks that it is this at all.
  • 13. Op. cit. p. 38.
  • 14. See Appendix B for an illustration of this problem.
  • 15. Cf. the place given to Adventure by Whitehead in his outline of the essentials of civilisation (Adventures of Ideas, pp. 309–381).
  • 16. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, p. 10 (Abbott’s translation).
  • 17. Op. cit. pp. 21, 46.
  • 18. Plato, Republic, 382 C.
  • 19. ÆEti kai; w\de fusikw¤~ a[n ti~ ejpiblevyeie th;n aijtivan (Aristotle, Eth. Nic. vii. 1147 a 24).
  • 20. Cf. Plato, Republic, 358–362.
  • 21. 2 Kings x, 18–28.
  • 22. F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies.
  • 23. St. Luke x. 30–37.
  • 24. For the transition from Mind to Personality see my Lectures on The Nature of Personality and Christus Veritas, chap. iv. The main point is that Mind may be chiefly, or indeed wholly, concerned with the finding of means to fixed ends, whereas Spirit (the distinctive element in Personality) appears in the choice between ends, which is made possible by the capacity of Mind for “free ideas”.
  • 25. Op. cit. p. 56.
  • 26. Gorgias, 518 E.
  • 27. St. John xi. 50.
  • 28. J. L. Stocks. The Limits of Purpose, pp. 78, 79.
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