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Chapter 2: The Problem as Affected by the Philosophy of Ethics

§ I. The Problems Raised by Man as an Ethical Being

THE argument which has so far been pursued has proceeded on the principle that man is the interpretation as well as the interpreter of Nature. What is most characteristic of him is thought, and thought is exactly the reality which no physical theory of creation can explain. He is not only an object of knowledge, but he is the person who knows; and there is no science which does not implicitly posit him as intelligence and Nature as intelligible. But man is more than a being whom the metaphysics of knowledge may attempt to explain; for he is not summed up in the category of intellect. He is a doer; he can and does act; and his actions have specific qualities which are judged approvingly or disapprovingly alike by himself and the society within which he lives. The judgment, whether by the spectator or by the doer, as to the specific quality of an action is largely affected by its being regarded as the man's own. He believes himself, and is believed by others to be able to act or not to act. If compulsion determines conduct, then judgment does not so much concern itself with him as with the power that compels him. Approval or disapproval of conduct is thus conditioned by the belief in freedom of choice, in the ability to will freely. But this capability to do or refuse to do, with the judgment it conditions, further implies that there is a standard which ought to govern the man's conduct but which may not be allowed to do it. In other words, there is a law which he ought to obey, though he may not do as he ought.

Nor is this all. The man is not simply an isolated unit; he is an integral part of a social unity. He is a member of a family, which is a sort of organism whose varied organs stand in relation to each other as well as to a wider whole; and the family is liable to be judged in the same way as the man, its character and collective conduct falling into similar categories of good and bad, right and wrong, virtuous and vicious. The family in its turn stands within the larger society of a city or a tribe; and the city or tribe stands in the still wider society of the State. And law, written or unwritten, again appears as regulating the relations and actions of these persons and communities,—the conduct of the units in the family, and of the family as a whole, to the city, to the tribe, or to the State, and also the acts and relations of the city, tribe, or State to both individuals and family. The State regards certain actions as noxious, certain others as innocuous. It protects both itself against the noxious and the individual in the performance of the innocuous act; and if it has to judge of certain overt actions done by one citizen or family to another citizen or family, it bases its judgments upon some positive law or principle of equity as between man and man or citizen and citizen. The standard by which the individual judges may be termed “moral”; the standard by which the State judges, may be termed “civil” or “criminal” or “natural” law; but in every case the standard of judgment is rooted in moral ideas which affect or condition the sentence pronounced. We thus find that judgment on the acts of men and communities implies the qualitative character of their actions: they are praised or blamed according as their qualities are judged to be good or bad.

Then men, tribes, cities, societies, and States exist in almost every possible condition of culture, from the most savage to the most highly civilized; but amid all the differences which distinguish these varied conditions there is a single unifying idea—a certain similarity in the essence, if not in the form, of their moral judgments. It is easy indeed to indicate degrees in the laxity or elasticity of moral standards, to notice how at certain stages of progress or among certain peoples lying may be regarded as almost a virtue, stealing as a necessary if not a natural thing. But this has to be noted—that the lying which is held to be better than truth is the lie that is not found out; the theft that is applauded is that which is so cunningly conducted as not to be discovered. In other words, the favourable judgment depends on the thing being taken for its opposite; if found out, it is judged according to its true quality. Public law nowhere endorses the lie or condones the theft; when it speaks, the judgment it expresses is moral. In order to be approved law must be just when it judges, though it cannot always command the evidence that enables it to be what all men feel it ought to be.

We may say, then, that in universal law, universal custom, and universal language we have witnesses to the fact that when man, whether he be an individual or a community, judges actions, whether those of a person or a State, he does so according to a standard which must be characterized as moral.

§ II. Empiricism in Knowledge and in Ethics

This brings us to our primary and fundamental problem. How are we to explain the origin of these moral judgments? What is their basis? Where is the reason for the unity in moral idea which pervades all communities in the several stages of their social being?

1. There is an intimate connection between the metaphysics of knowledge and the metaphysics of ethics; they represent different sides of the same thing. If we need the a priori elements of the understanding in order that knowledge may be conceived as possible, we need no less in human nature transcendental moral elements in order that the genesis of our moral actions and the reason of our moral judgments may be understood. And so if a metaphysic supposes the mind to be a sheet of white paper on which Nature writes her marvellous story, then it must also suppose that all our moral ideas and judgments are creatures of experience, due to what man suffers rather than to what he has the faculty to achieve. There is, indeed, a difference between the process of knowledge and the evolution of morals. The process of knowledge is conceived as due to the action of Nature through sense upon what must still be spoken of as mind. But moral ideas must be represented as acquired not so much directly from Nature as indirectly through society, or from the action of man upon man, i.e. the interaction of the individual who struggles for life and the society that either struggles against him as a noxious force, or struggles to use him as an atom in its organism that may increase the energy needed for its own larger and more eventful movement. If the individual be thought to acquire his moral ideas through the experiences he undergoes in his social medium, they will be conceived as ideas that contribute to his fuller being, to the maintenance and development of his energies, to the use he can get out of life, or, in a word, to his pleasure or his happiness. If, on the other hand, the factor of his moral ideas be construed as the society in which he lives, then its function will be to implant itself within him, to get him to judge as it judges, to become, in a word, an epitome of its mind, a minister to its wealth, an agent of its well-being. According as the one standpoint or the other be adopted, the regulative standard of judgment will differ. In the one case it will be self-interest, in the other case it will be the communal interest—the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

2. Various attempts have been made to combine these points of view with greater or less success. In Hobbes we find the theory in a courageously individualistic form. Pleasure is the standard of right; the action that most conduces to present happiness is best. Men call the actions that please virtues; the actions that displease vices. Action depends on the will; the will depends on the opinion of the good or evil which the act or its omission is to bring: therefore all action has its cause in the appetite for pleasure. The highest form of pleasure is glory, or to have a good opinion of one's self, or, more decently expressed, it is to love and to have power. Charity is but a form of this, for it consists in a man “finding himself able not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist other men in theirs.” Yet so far is Hobbes from thinking that we are bound to contribute to another's happiness that he regards our own conscious pre-eminence as the condition of the highest enjoyment. Hence he describes wit or laughter as enjoying “the sudden imagination of our own odds and eminency,” or, what is its correlative, “another man's infirmity or absurdity.” It “proceedeth from a sudden conception of some ability in himself that weigheth,” or “in the elegant discovering and conveying to our minds some absurdity of another.” The pleasures of memory consist in remembering some happy thing that occurred to oneself, or some miserable fate that befel a neighbour or a rival. This is a sort of colossal egoism, born of the idea that the strongest man is the best, that might is right, and that he who can impose his will on others and make them serve his ends, simply because they are his is the lawgiver and king.

Hume, with more subtle skill, and a greater sense of what was needed to make a doctrine agreeable to the average man, endeavoured to reconcile the two points of view, the individual and the social, by saying that while the act that promotes pleasure is right, it is pleasure seen, as it were, from the standpoint of society. “Whatever produces satisfaction is denominated virtue,” “everything which gives uneasiness in human actions is called vice.” If “the injustice is so distant from us as no way to affect our interest, it still displeases because we consider it as prejudicial to human society.” Hence duty is the action promotive of happiness as it appears not to the narrow self, but to his larger environment; or, in a word, personal conduct viewed as society views it. Interest and sympathy are thus the sole sources of our moral obligations. When an action, seen as society sees it, tends to promote happiness, it gives pleasure, and is right. If, seen as society sees it, it tends to promote unhappiness, it gives pain, and so is wrong. The sense of duty is, therefore, the social feeling implanted in the breast of the individual. Conscience is the judgment of society expressed as self-judgment.

Jeremy Bentham put the matter in a franker way. “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, Pain and Pleasure.” They tell us “what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall do.” To their throne the standard of right and wrong on the one hand, and the chain of causes and effects on the other, are bound. “The community is a fictitious body”; its interest is but “the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.” And interest means the thing or action which in the case of the individual “tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures, or to diminish the sum total of his pains.” Here, then, is the final as well as the efficient cause of man's actions, and the standard by which they are to be judged. Those actions that make for pleasure are right; those actions that make for pain are wrong. To men, therefore, as moral beings there exist only two things—agents and instruments of pleasure. The man himself is the agent, other men are the instruments; and their value to him is their power to contribute toward this end, though the end is taken not as personal simply, but as the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This being his standard of right, Bentham was, quite consistently, anxious to get rid of the too absolute sense of duty which had come into English ethics under the name of Conscience; and so he held that the evil thing in morals, the mark of the pedant, “the talisman of arrogancy, indolence, and ignorance,” was the word “ought,” “an authoritative impostor,” which might be tolerated in the other sciences, but ought to be expelled from the science of ethics. Yet even he was compelled to concede something to this imperious moral sense. We may say of an action “conformable to the principle of utility” that it “ought” to be done: in such a case the word has a meaning; otherwise it has none. Bentham's disciple, James Mill, argued that the agreeable and pleasant were the same thing, and that all actions done for the agreeable, approximately or remotely, were right. But his illustrious son introduced a famous distinction, the full significance of which we shall see by-and-by, between the qualities of pleasures; and he proposed by this qualitative distinction to enable man to determine which actions were the more and which were the less excellent and obligatory.

3. Now these systems suggest two remarks. First, while they proceeded on the principle that man is a natural being governed by natural impulses—especially the impulse to seek happiness, in order to a larger and richer life—yet as systems of ethics they were attempts to moralize nature, i.e. they conceived man as if he were other and more than a mere natural being. For they were not simply theories explanatory of conduct, but they were even more schemes regulative of life, ideals of a better and more happily ordered being than Nature knew. They were not merely hypotheses of a science which tried to co-ordinate phenomena, but they were intended as guides to life, explaining principles and ends of action in order that they might be more easily and completely realized of men. Thus they did not deal with hunger in the man as if it had been the same in quality and character as hunger in the tiger. The instinct to satisfy appetite exists in both, but no code of ethics would have any significance for the tiger, and no body of men would judge concerning his attempts to satisfy his instincts and to escape famine as they would judge concerning the acts of a man. The very attempt, therefore, to interpret man ethically implied that he was more than a natural being, that he transcended nature, that his transcendence ought to be progressive in its quality, and that a completely moral state was one where laws proper to man governed men: creatures merely natural could not be governed by such laws.

But, secondly, these earlier ethical thinkers had to remain individualists even when laying most emphasis on the social sanction. The experience they thought of was personal; each man had to acquire his own. The result was that the only form in which society could operate on him was by its positive forces and institutions, its methods of education, its systems of law and penalty; and the only way in which he could realize the influence of society was by imaginatively occupying its standpoint and judging himself according to its standards. This involved so limited an experience, and so arbitrary a method of acquiring and exercising moral judgments, that the system inevitably broke down in the very hands of its builders; for it could not but fail to establish any real continuity or organic relation between past experience and the living man, or between the organized society and the unit that it had to deal with, and that lived within its bosom.

§ III. Ethics and Evolution

1. But even more in ethics than in metaphysics the new scientific speculation has made itself felt. The theory of evolution in particular has radically affected our question. For it has supplied two important factors of our rational and moral experience—the idea of transmission and inheritance, and the idea of unlimited time. Before two incommensurables had faced each other: (α) the ephemeral individual without any experience behind him, who had to acquire moral ideas, exercise moral judgments, and realize moral character within the limits of a brief existence; and (β) the permanent society, which had in its continued being energies and an experience that left its units helpless in its hands. All that was needed was for the society so to impress itself by means of its sanctions on the transient individual, that he should, even for the brief season of his present existence, become a vehicle of its spirit, or a means to its end. But the doctrine of evolution, at any rate in its older and, possibly, still more orthodox form, made experience a thing more or less transmissible, and turned acquired characters into a species of heritable property. And so the individual, though transient, became through his inheritance in a sense as permanent as the society around him. He had within him tendencies, tempers, passions, traits that descended to him from innumerable ancestors, running back into immemorial time, and made him, as it were, the sum of all their experience, the embodiment of what they had by action and experiment learned to become. And as the time during which the process went on was without limit, the result corresponded to what was beyond and before personal existence, rather than to what was around and within himself. The experience that he thus inherited from his vast ancestry became in him a sort of intuition, the correlative in man to instinct in the brute; and his acts, while those of an ephemeral individual, yet proceeded from one who was the resultant of all his ancestors, and the vehicle for the transmission of their qualities to all his descendants.

There are two forms in which this relation of evolution to ethics has been presented: one where it represents the view of a modest naturalist, the other in which it represents the dream of a more venturesome metaphysician.

(α) Darwin saw that his theory must be applied to man as well as to animals, and assumed a law of continuity that required our whole nature, social, moral, and intellectual, to be derived by a process of variation and development from the rudimentary forms discoverable in the lower animals. Their instincts were compared with the faculties of man, especially as he exists in the savage state; and it was argued that the social instinct which made the approbation of the tribe act as a law to its members, was the mother of the moral faculty or sense. But the social instinct could more easily explain uniformity than difference, while it was upon difference more than uniformity that growth depended. Hence these variations in development had to be conceived as due not simply to the two factors of organism and environment, evolved and guided by natural selection and the struggle for existence, but also, in the last analysis, more or less to what may be termed accidents. There was no point more happily or extensively illustrated by Mr. Darwin than the arbitrary character of the fancy or the taste which in the lower races guided selection, whether sexual or natural; and where the selection is arbitrary it is under the rule of chance or circumstances. Yet he recognized no greater or more potent factor of the social framework, and therefore of the moral sense. We may say, then, that he so applied the principle of accidental or occasional variations to the growth of moral ideas or feelings as to leave them incidents that happened in the course of things rather than products of any reason, personal or collective. The accidents indeed to which they were due were conditioned by the operation of Nature; but still they were things that observation could not explain otherwise than by saying they might or might not have occurred.

(β) But a philosophical theory of evolution cannot allow a place within it to the accidental, and so Mr. Herbert Spencer has attempted to eliminate the notion of accident by enunciating the principle—which, by the way, was cogently stated in almost identical terms by Hobbes—that the “conduct which conduces to life in each and all” is good; that “pleasure somewhere, at some time, to some being or beings, is as much a necessary form of moral intuition as space is a necessary form of intellectual intuition”; that it is so because pleasure makes for the conservation of life, and the tendency of every organized being is to conserve its life; and that the struggle to conserve life during the long periods of evolution has resulted in the discovery of those acts which, by begetting pleasures, most tend to its conservation. In this theory, then, two things have to be noted: (α) the objective end which governs the process; and (β) the subjective faculties and judgments which the process creates. The end is contained in Mr. Spencer's notion of the life for which all beings struggle, and towards whose fuller realization the conduct qualified as good conduces. Life consists in “the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations,” or, in the terms of the more familiar formula, the adaptation of organism to environment. Hence the conduct which promotes this adjustment is good, and the more it promotes it the better the conduct becomes. Moral progress is thus movement towards the “ideal congruity,” which is the life of “the completely adapted man in the completely evolved society.” But the struggle towards this end is a process which creates the moral sense. “Experiences of utility, organized and consolidated during all past generations of the human race, have been producing nervous modifications”; and these, “by continued transmission and accumulation,” have become in us instincts or intuitions which discern the fit action, and create the feeling of obligation. In this process, of course, actions which differentiate pleasures are qualitatively distinguished, the higher being the more conservative of life, the lower the less; and so the total result is an evolution of ethics that are in a sense at once intuitional and empirical, showing the moral experience of the race realized and articulated in the character and conduct of the individual and in the organization of society.

2. On the relation of evolution to ethics as thus stated it may be remarked:

(i.) The question of time is not so vital as it seems. The past into which we are taken is not living but dead; it is largely the past of organisms that were, as imagined by minds that are. The problem concerns mind, but by no process can we out of petrified bones get a mental psychology. The past we recreate is made in our own image; it is turned into a stupendous man, individualized, personified. And when that is done, what is brought out of it is only what we have put into it; it is a past read not as it lived in fact, but as it lives in the mind of the speculative thinker. In other words, the length of time during which the creative process endures does not make the creation less miraculous, especially as the mind which dreams the process is not explained by its dreams.

(ii.) We have to take evolution here with the important modern qualification that the transmission of acquired characters or qualities is a very dubious hypothesis. The younger evolutionists argue that you have no right to call into operation more causes than are necessary to explain the facts. The phenomena which the enormous apparatus of heredity is invoked to explain, can, they say, be explained without it. If heredity were true, then what would be the result? If acquired characters survived and were transmitted, what manner of beings should we be? The most marvellous thing in evolution is not what we do inherit, but what we do not, the fact being that it is only the most infinitesimal part of all that distinguished the parent which descends to the child: in other words, the thing which most needs to be explained is not the possibility of acquired characters being transmitted, but the certainty that the major part of them will perish. It is pathetic and significant that the thing the child most needs and would most profit by, the experience of the parent, is the very thing it does not receive, but has to gain for itself in the bitter way common to all its ancestors.

(iii.) It has to be noted that throughout the whole process we apply a standard of judgment that involves a theory of values. For what permits the theory of evolution to be applied to man and society? It is increased differentiation. Now in this case to what are we to affix the value? To the origin? To the process of differentiation? To the thing differentiated? or to the inheritance? If, for example, a new organ appears differentiating one member of a species from all the others, and if this organ becomes the parent of an entirely new species of organisms, what is the significant thing? It is not the points in which the new and the old species agree, but the points in which they differ. To apply this to the case in hand: if we have to measure man's ethical ideas by any reasonable standard, it should be not by their affinity with the instincts of real or imaginary creatures below him or of imagined ancestors behind him; but rather by the qualities which distinguish his character and conduct from theirs. In other words, it is the point of distinction, not of similarity, which is the great thing. Love of offspring is common to a man and a lion. The feeling that compels, the parent to seek food for his offspring exists in both; but in the man the obligation to maintain his offspring is; qualitatively different from what it is in the lion, involving duties educational, social, ethical, which belong to a world higher than the animal. The lion is not bound to perish rather than not find food; the man may be so bound: the lion's duties are bounded by his den; the man's by humanity. The differentiation in this case is the important point; and as here, so throughout. And this means that the difference in what the man creates from what the man inherits may be more and greater than all his inheritance. It is evident, therefore, that man does more to interpret the process that is behind him than the process has done for the interpretation of man.

(iv.) The end or law which governs the process, the need of adjusting internal to external relations, of adapting organism to environment, inverts the order of thought and nature. The obligation that lies on moral beings is not to adjust themselves to their environment, but to adjust their environment to the higher ideal which they bring to it. Harmony between the social medium and the social unit is not the ultimate measure of conduct; to argue as if it were is to turn circumstances into the master as well as the maker of conscience. And this means that before we can speak of this adjustment as good we have to adjust the society or the medium to an idea of the good which was before it and is distinct from it; i.e. we judge both the environment and the organism, because we apply to both an ideal standard which expresses our notion of what both ought to be. This ideal is native to us, lives inseparably in us, and is developed from the reason we are. It compels us to seek the amelioration of society as well as the improvement of self, and so aims at the adjustment of the two not simply to each other but to a more absolute law. Mr. Spencer's doctrine thus leaves us with an end which neither explains the beginning nor brings us face to face with the forces that have carried men so far towards it. The mystery of the moral ideal and moral obligation lies in man rather than in his environment.

§ IV. What do Moral Judgments Involve?

Let us now, in the face of these discussions and distinctions, go back to our problem, and see precisely what are the points that need to be explained. Man is a doer of deeds which are distinguished by their ethical qualities. They can be tested by moral standards; they are subjects for moral judgment. What do these judgments mean? What is their source and basis? Why among all the creatures that live is a moral standard applied to man alone and everywhere and always by man to men? The questions involved may be reduced to three. First, is man capable of directing his own conduct? is he able to do actions which have moral qualities? Secondly, what standard have we to apply in order to the differentiation or qualification of his actions? Thirdly, why is he bound to do acts of a certain quality, and to leave undone acts of other and different qualities? In other words, our questions concern Freedom, Right, and Duty: whether man is or is not a free agent; whether he has or has not faculties or standards which qualify him to use his freedom; and whether he has or has not any feeling or sense of obligation as to their use.

1. We begin with the question as to his power; this is fundamental. Where there is no ability there can be no obligation; what lies outside a man's power does not lie within a man's duty. Nay, more, without this freedom or ability man becomes a mere natural being, no more a subject of moral judgment than the brute. It is by virtue of his power to determine his own choice or to elect his own lines of conduct that he is to be praised or blamed for the thing he does. Now it is remarkable and characteristic that those who have made ethics the creation of experience, who have attempted to resolve them into the acquired instincts of the organism that has had to struggle for life, have done so on the explicit or implicit ground that man was without moral freedom, a creature of circumstances, a child of motive, governed by his love of the agreeable, which conserved life, or his dislike of the disagreeable, which threatened it. In the endeavour to maintain this position, a distinction has been drawn between freedom of will and freedom of action. Freedom of will has been denied; freedom of action has been affirmed; but freedom of action without freedom of choice is only a form of necessity. It means the capability of a thing to be moved, rather than the ability of a person to move; it belongs rather to the field of physics than of ethics. The motive is a cause which exacts its equivalent effect in the choice. Freedom in this sense does not mean that man has the power of initiation, but only that he has the capacity of responsive movement, can act if he is acted on. Now we must here distinguish what is necessary as an occasion for choice from what is sufficient to cause it. Freedom has been denied to will on the ground that motives are necessary to choice; but while motives may be necessary they need not necessitate. Jonathan Edwards, indeed, argued that the will always is as the strongest motive is; but he did that on the express ground that will is the same as desire, inclination, the most agreeable,—that motive is, in short, emotion. But it is of the very essence of the argument that the will selects motives, motives do not select the will. If the will always is as the strongest motive is, then man has no choice to be other than what the motives which come to him make him. The responsibility for himself is not his, it belongs to the motives that surround and find him. If so, amelioration of character must depend upon amelioration of circumstances. Thus as the man is he must remain, unless he be re-made by the maker of his motives, or, in a word, his environment. For only through a change in his circumstances can any change come to him; and so the way to effect conversion will be to place the bad man where no evil motives can reach him, and the good man where only bad motives can find him. But this way is an impossible way, for the man carries his motives within him; they go where he goes, for they are part of his very self. For, as Coleridge said, it is not the motive that makes the man, but the man the motive. Granted a good man, a bad motive cannot sway him; granted a bad man, a good motive will not find him. Thus it is not true that the will always is as the strongest motive is, but it is true that the motive is as is the man, and what the man is is more a matter of will than of circumstances.

The bondage of the will were indeed fatal to the judgment that holds man responsible for his acts, and approves or disapproves according to their special quality. If motives determine action, the fable of Buridan's Ass ceases to be fabulous. It is possible to conceive alternatives where the motives are so equally balanced that the will would be compelled to remain in a state of complete equilibrium, incapable of inclining either to the right hand or to the left. But while will is not necessitated by motives, motives are necessary to choice; for it is the very essence of rational freedom to demand a reason why it should act. If there were no reason, choice could not be rational; it would be an accident or a chance. But there is nothing so little arbitrary as a rational will; where it is not the arbitrary must be; for the free will acts in view of reasons, and would not be rational if it could choose without them.

Still the reality of freedom lies deeper than argument. Nature witnesses to it; man blames himself when he does wrong because he believes himself to have voluntarily chosen the worse when he could have taken the better. Law judges a man most severely when it holds him to have freely committed the crime with which he is charged. Responsibility is not a vicarious thing, where a necessitated victim bears the blame of ancestral or social sins; but it means that man is to be judged for a thing or act he himself willed to do. He is tried alike by God and man upon the principle which each individual conscience authenticates—that he whose action is in question did it when he could have done otherwise; and he was then bound to do as he could have done.

But while freedom is a sine quâ non of moral action and implied in all moral judgments, it has here a further significance:—it qualifies the argument from the transmitted experiences of the past. For what a man inherits leaves him still a free man; the judgment he has to bear is for his own act, and not for the acts of his ancestry, even though they may have created in him tendencies which are not easily resisted. These tendencies do not cancel freedom, only condition it; they define the limits of responsibility, but while they may qualify they do not annul it, for its ground stands unbroken. But in doing this his freedom does much more; it lifts man above the chain of physical causation, and makes him the symbol of a being higher than the forces that are governed by mechanical necessity. For since he is free he stands in conduct in the same transcendental relation to the forces and laws of Nature as he does in knowledge to her qualities and objects. His freedom is the correlate of his thought; and as the man who knows phenomena is not one of the phenomena he knows, so the will that can initiate action is not a mere event or link in a series of antecedents and sequents, where each follows the other either without perceived connection or in a rigorous order of physical causation. Thought is transcendence as regards the phenomena of space, Will is transcendence as regards the events of time; the double transcendence involves the complete supernatural character of man.

2. But we come next to the idea of the right. What is it and whence is it? We have seen that those who would give a strictly naturalistic account of ethics have attempted to explain the right as the agreeable, or, to use the very precise and definite language of John Stuart Mill, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness pain and the privation of pleasure.”1 A sentence like this is quite without significance until the terms “pleasure” and “happiness” be defined, and until we have determined whether pleasure or happiness be one and uniform, or varied in kind and quality. There are really three questions which such a sentence directly suggests: what is happiness? what sort of happiness? whose happiness?

(α) What is happiness? It is an infinite thing, so infinite that no man can tell its forms, enumerate or measure its varieties. There is happiness which is mere sensual indulgence, and happiness which is intellectual enjoyment. There is the happiness of the savage, who lies and suns himself, gorged, on the bank; of the serious student, who lives in the study and among his books; of the speculator, who gambles in stocks and shares; of the strenuous athlete, who feels as if his soul were in his muscles or his limbs; of the nouveau riche, who feels as if recognition by Society were admission into heaven. Unless we define happiness, how can we speak of it? And if we qualify it, we introduce distinctions not contained within the idea itself, but drawn from another and higher sphere. For Happiness, unqualified, is the most absolutely insignificant term in the whole vocabulary of philosophy or of literature; and it is therefore signally unsuitable when made to play the part of ultimate arbiter as regards the qualities which make actions right or wrong.

(β) What sort of happiness? Is it sensuous? Is it intellectual? Is it ethical or social? Is it “comfort” which seems to so many Englishmen the only real paradise? As we have seen that quality is a needful element in the definition of Happiness, we find it to be also needful in the differentiation and appraisement of its kinds. For the sorts of happiness are innumerable, just as the persons who may be happy or miserable represent not only in number but in grade all degrees of capacity. Is then happiness a tiling we can quantify as well as qualify? If we use it as an ethical measure or standard, must we not in our reasoning add mass to quality? Is the greatest quantity of a lower quality of happiness to be preferred to a smaller quantity of a higher quality, or, on the contrary, is quality to be preferred to quantity? Then what or who is to determine the sort of happiness to which superior and determinative excellence belongs? Is it the man? Is it the fashion of the passing society? or is it some standard apart from both, and more permanent and universal than either? In other words, it is impossible to begin to distinguish between sorts of happiness without introducing a standard by which happiness can be measured. But where a standard is introduced, it is distinguished from what it measures, and is held to be higher than it; and so happiness, as something which is itself determined, cannot be determinative of the quality of the action whose character it was thought to decide.

(γ) But suppose we have found and agreed upon some method of differentiating or testing the quality of pleasures, we are at once met by the question, Whose is the happiness that I am to promote? My own? My family's? My country's? My kind's? If these be inconsistent, who is to decide between them? If I am to promote my family's happiness, it may be at the sacrifice of my own. If I am to promote my country's happiness, it may be at the expense of my family's. If I am to promote the happiness of my kind, it may be by turning against my own country, and playing what would be by many described as a treacherous or an unpatriotic part. How are these things to be determined, or the particular persons whose happiness I am to promote to be found out? But further, if I give up my personal pleasure to promote that of any of those just named, what guarantee have I that theirs will be promoted, or that in doing so I am not reducing by the sacrifice of my own or my family's or my country's the sum total of happiness in the universe? If I so serve this generation as to increase its pleasure, may I not be doing it at the expense, say, of my own health, or the health of generations that are to come after me, especially those that may spring from my own loins? And the matter may become very urgent, for the question, Whose pleasure? blends also with this other, What sort of pleasure? Is it the Queen's in the palace? Is it the peasant's in the hut? Is it the greatest happiness of the capitalist or of the workman? Nay, is it the greatest happiness of the greatest number? But who is to estimate the number? Who is to tell the happiness? Is the greatest number to tell me what it is, or am I to tell the greatest number what its happiness is or ought to be? And how am I to find out the acts that will either fulfil my notions of what the greatest happiness of the greatest number is or ought to be, or what they conceive their own happiness most distinctively to consist in?

It seems then as if pleasure were a completely impracticable standard of the right, and as if we must find one more capable of application to all the varieties of human action and conduct, or abandon in despair the effort to discover what is right or good.

3. But there is not only the power to do the right and the right to be done, there is the obligation to do it. The word Duty, or, put into its concrete form, Conscience—how do we come into the possession of this? Whence the feeling of obligation, the idea represented by that imperious word “ought”? Suppose that the happiness of the greatest number is the standard of right, the question remains, Why am I bound to promote it? We may be told that the sense of obligation is, as it were, the social sanction worked into our consciousness and woven into feeling; the authority of society translated into a personal judgment. Suppose this were so, how or by what process is the social sanction got into the man? The process of incorporation may be represented in some such form as this: the social sanction, it may be said, is implanted in us because society educates us; and having found out what was most for its own good, it instils into us by law and education, by convention and custom, its idea of what acts are suitable or appropriate to its needs or conducive to its well-being. This process of instillation is so subtle and so completely carried out that the man cannot separate the judgment of society within him from himself. It has been made a part and parcel of his own being, and so he judges himself just as if he were collective society personalized.

Well, now, suppose we grant this, and grant also another thing, that society has by an extraordinary exercise of arithmetical genius so worked out the terms of the ethical calculus that it can tell which among all possible acts most makes for its happiness, and which acts most make for its misery, what then? Is the phenomenon of duty, are the phenomena of conscience, explained? On the contrary, wherein consists their permanent and pre-eminent peculiarity? In this, that man feels, when most bound by conscience, most independent of society,—bound to do the thing which duty imperiously commands, even though society may imperiously forbid. If the man be a religious man and the society also in earnest about its own view of religion and against his, his defiance of its judgment and its sanctions may involve his going to the stake. And how does his conscience show its quality? In compelling him to go to the stake rather than submit to society. If he is a statesman, and society prescribes a policy which he disapproves, what is he bound to do? Accept the authority of his own conscience or of society? Would he gain or lose respect by publicly professing to regard the voice of the State, in opposition to his own moral judgment, as the voice of God? Is not the distinctive peculiarity of conscience, this:—that if it commands a policy or mode of conduct or expression of opinion that may make a man a social outcast and bring upon him in their severest form all the penalties which the social sanction may be able to enforce, yet there is expected from him, all the more rather than the less, full and unqualified obedience to its behests?

But though this is a point which we may leave as a problem to the hedonist, let us proceed a little further, and suppose that the man has been got to occupy the standpoint of society, to look at himself through its eyes rather than his own, and that society has succeeded in incorporating its judgment in the feeling which he calls his conscience, how is that judgment to become to him a law? How is that to be translated into a categorical imperative? Fear of the social sanction cannot do it, for we have just seen how easily and how often in the highest and most imperious cases that sanction may be defied. And may not a man of lower quality than the martyr or the sufferer for conscience' sake reasonably argue thus?—“Society is an immense and continuous organism, while I am a humble and ephemeral unit. My happiness is a far greater thing to me than society's can ever be to it, for it is impossible that the whole of society can by a single act be made miserable as I may be, not only for this moment but for all the moments that are to come of my ephemeral being. How then is it possible for me to contribute better to the sum total of happiness than by increasing the amount of my own?” And would not that man's argument, whether regarded from the standpoint of the most enlightened self-interest or from that of social interest, be valid and invincible? And so we are left by this philosophy as completely without an authority to enforce duty as without a good to be realized or any ability to realize it.

§ V. The Ethical Man means an Ethical Universe: Butler and Kant

1. If now Freedom, Right, and Duty cannot be construed as creations of experience, whether individual or collective, it follows that they either represent or are integral elements of human nature, involved in its very idea and evolved in its evolution. But that which is integral to man is no less integral to his universe. What is in him is not independent of what is without him, but repeats and reflects it, lives in him in active intercourse with what is above and around him, just as his organism lives within and through its environment, absorbing into itself the elements without that are needful to growth and health within. The same law holds in the ethical as in the physical region, and, as we have seen, also in the intellectual. As the intellect implies the intelligible medium in which it lives, so we can conceive a personal conscience only where it can express a universal law, and moral freedom only where there is a supreme ethical Will to govern. Without this correspondence of man's nature with the constitution of the universe in which he lives moral life would not be possible to him, nor would obedience bring the harmony between personal will and imperative law which is the very notion of beatitude.

Two great ethical thinkers—Butler and Kant—may be taken as exponents of certain deductions which follow from the ethical position here maintained. They are instructive alike in their agreements and in their differences. They agree, first, that there is a law ultimate and absolute incorporated in the nature of man: ultimate, because it neither asks nor gives a reason for its dictates, but simply commands; absolute, for while it speaks in the individual its tone is that of the universal, of a sovereign endowed with perfect right and manifest authority. They agree, secondly, that this law is immediate; nothing comes between it and the man; it speaks with him face to face, enforces duty and allows no intermediary to qualify or repeal its authority. Thirdly, it is so intrinsic and essential in its character that without it the person is not a man, through it he becomes human; by obedience he achieves humanity.

Both of these eminent thinkers, then, saw that the conception of the intrinsic and essential morality of man involved similar elements in the universe; but each works out the principle with characteristic differences. Kant is the more formal and scholastic in method, Butler the more cautious and suggestive in statement. Kant combines with his critical doubts as to the competence of the pure reason in the region of transcendental dialectic, a rigorous dogmatism in the conclusions of his ethical logic; but Butler so feels the range and reality of our ignorance that he insinuates rather than draws his more certain or assured inferences. Kant's interests are intellectual, and even where he is most the moralist he does not cease to be the philosopher; but Butler's main concern is religion; and when he is most the philosopher, he still remains the divine. Kant's philosophy is critical because he feels at every moment its antithesis to the old dogmatic rationalism; Butler's theology is apologetical, for he never forgets the deism which is the fashionable belief of his day, or the men who have found their way through a relaxed faith into laxity of morals. These differences of method and mental attitude are reflected in their respective arguments.

2. Butler's argument exists in two forms, a positive or didactic, and an apologetical or polemical. We find the former in the Sermons, the latter in the Analogy. In the Sermons his philosophy is a Christian Stoicism. Men ought to live according to Nature, which is not acting as we please, but doing as we ought, obeying our legitimate sovereign, the Conscience, making it the whole business of our lives, as it is absolutely the whole business of a moral agent, to conform ourselves to it. “This is what the ancient precept means, Reverence thyself. It is the essence of a system to be an one or a whole made up of several parts,” but the parts can be a whole only as they form an one. A watch is a whole composed of many parts, yet made a unity for the measuring of time by the all-pervading and controlling mainspring; and men and societies are multitudes which are reduced to system, or units made into unity by the common yet individuated empire of the conscience which regulates life and defines its end. And they have been so constituted by the Creator, for Butler conceives that “following Nature” and “obeying the voice of God” are not two things, but one and the same. In the Analogy these ideas are elaborated into a defence of those religious truths which teach belief in a future life, the providence and government of God here and hereafter, the life that now is as a scene and period of probation, and the need of a revelation to make this life what it ought to be in view of the life to come. We may therefore represent the argument as having unfolded itself before the mind of the English divine in terms somewhat like these: “The law which is everywhere incorporated in man implies a Lawgiver. While it lives and speaks in the individual, it is yet distributed through the whole; and this universality is only the more distinctly expressed in the severe individualism under which it is realized. For it signifies that the law is so essential to human nature that it must be incorporated in the unit in order that it may be the more completely and universally evolved from him into the unity; but it could not be complete and universal were it simply incorporated in the whole in order that it might be impressed from without upon the unit. The order that is made by external pressure may be mechanical, but is not organic; it may be political, but it is not moral. The highest order springs from the harmony of all the units, which means that the outward and inward so correspond that the individual can be worked into a system that completely satisfies every personal and realizes every collective end. The essential unity of a State is not secured by the sovereign, but by those remarkable unities incorporated in each individual that we term blood, descent, language, tradition, belief. It is an ideal thing which custom may express, but legislation cannot create. The alphabet is in every educated man; it lies at the root of his knowledge of his own tongue. His knowledge of that tongue lies at the root of his enjoyment of its literature, his appreciation of its poetry, its history and its science. Without that knowledge its literature would speak to him in vain. Similarly, the moral law of the universe is impersonated in its moral units. It is over all men because it is in all. There has therefore been a common Lawgiver; and this Lawgiver must have also been Creator, for He who made man made also the law in and with the man; and He who made both law and man administers the law by judging the man. He is therefore sovereign; the system we live under He instituted, and the life we live under it is one of probation, lived that we may give in an account to Him who rules His universe by enforcing His laws.”

3. Kant's argument differed considerably from Butler's especially as it made Deity one of several deductions from the moral law—the highest in a trinity of consequences from its supremacy. The stress he laid upon duty in his Practical Philosophy was a sort of compensation for the argumentative impotence of his Speculative. The intensity of Kant's moral convictions, the severity of his doctrine, the force with which he preached duty to an age that did not love it, entitles him to something more than the regard we give to the father of that critical and transcendental philosophy which has done more to educate and uplift Mind than any purely speculative school the world has known since the days of Plato. Kant starts from the position that the only thing good without qualification is the good will; and that will is good which acts from duty and not simply from inclination, duty being respect for law and obedience to it. This law as moral is absolute in its authority. It is a categorical imperative expressed in an unconditioned “thou shalt.” The categorical is distinguished from the hypothetical imperative in not being consequential, or something dependent on a prior principle or condition. It simply speaks the thing that man is bound to do, every individual act being the expression of a universal principle or duty.

From this absolute categorical imperative three things followed:—(α) freedom; where the obligation is absolute the power possessed must be equal to its performance. The being it commands could not, in respect of what is commanded, be under the control of any merely natural or external force. Only where “thou canst” may be said is “thou oughtest” possible. But though the will be free it is not blind; its choices are not arbitrary. Hence every moral act must have an end—the highest good. This good consists of two elements—virtue and felicity or happiness. If either be absent, the good is not realized. But the two are inseparable; virtue is a necessary condition of felicity, felicity the natural crown of virtue.

But now (β) this cannot be realized within the terms and under the limitations of our empirical existence. Hence immortality follows as the second deduction from the ethical postulate. The moral law demands perfect virtue or holiness; but a mortal being cannot realize moral perfection or a holy completeness of nature and conduct within the bounds of his mortal life. If, then, there is to be virtue, there must be immortal existence. The law that demands perfect virtue guarantees immortality as a condition for its realization.

But (γ) to freedom and immortality God must be added. For if there is to be happiness, the felicity that crowns virtue and turns it into the supreme good, there must be conditions favourable to its being. But these conditions can be realized only where nature and will work together in harmony; i.e. while the moral law is independent of nature, nature in all its conditions must serve the moral law if felicity is to be complete. But this service man is unable to compel; the only being able to compel it is Deity; for He alone is Master of Nature. He then is as necessary as freedom and immortality to man's highest good. These, then, are the necessary postulates of the practical reason, the logical implicates of the categorical imperative: Freedom, Immortality, God. They may be no objects of speculative knowledge, but they are objects of the rational faith, whose being is grounded in the categorical imperative and guaranteed by it. And the faith they warrant is that the ethical man lives in an ethical universe; the moral nature which is essential to man moralizes his universe.

§ VI. Deductions and Conclusion

The difference between the two arguments is perhaps more formal than substantial, a matter of formal logic rather than metaphysical principle. Butler does not emphasize freedom as strongly as Kant, but he holds it as firmly, while he conceives immortality and God to be necessary to probation here and beatitude hereafter; and, therefore, to be clear and indubitable implicates of his moral interpretation of Nature. And with Kant the subordination or argumentative dependence of Deity upon the categorical imperative is more logical than real. The system as a whole hangs together. Subjectively, the ultimate, the thing of which we are supremely conscious if we are conscious of ourselves at all, is the sovereignty of conscience; but objectively, the reality which is the correlate of our ultimate consciousness, is a universe in which God is Sovereign. We may then deduce from this ethical dialectic principles that ought to carry us to conclusions of the first importance for our present discussion.

1. Man as moral, and therefore free, stands above nature, even while he seems within it. The will involves another order of transcendence than belongs to the intellect; for it is a much higher and more complex transcendence to stand in act and character above the order or succession of mechanical sequences than in the act of cognition to unify phenomena. Man, in short, is no mere physical or natural effect; he is a moral cause. As a moral cause he possesses the power of initiative. He is not simply made by the past; he is the present, and he helps to make the future. The increase of moral good in the world is as possible as the increase of energy is impossible, and moral good is the direct creation of moral will. Physical forces, so far as they are conceived as causes, pass into their effects; the change produced is the exact equivalent of the energy expended. But there is no such exact equivalence between moral causes and their effects. The will is a permanent force, not exhausted by a single choice or any number of choices, but ever creative, ever re-creative, making conditions which not only allow, but promote and demand the existence of higher things. The correlative of the indestructibility of matter is, if we may so phrase it, its increatability; it can be as little made as destroyed, but remains a stable quantity, though with infinite instability as to mode. But these terms cannot be used of either good will or moral good. There may be an indefinite multiplication of good wills, and in moral good an infinite upward progression. In this region every person of higher excellence than the society into which he is born, every nobler ideal realized, every new virtue or finer type of old virtues achieved, every grace added to humanity,—is an increase of the good stored in the world and the direct outcome of the moral will. This will stands, therefore, as an initiative force, a centre of creative action, able not only to effect or suffer changes, but even to augment in quantity and improve in quality what it found in existence.

2. Man further transcends nature by carrying within himself the law he is bound to obey. The code of ethics which he makes for himself out of himself differentiates him from every merely natural being; and it signifies that it is by transcending nature that he becomes himself. He progresses by self-realization. This self is not empirical, does not grow out of experience, but is transcendental, makes experience; and is never satisfied with the experience gained, but ever strives after the unrealized. Hence there is something universal in the Ego; it is never a mere enclosed or shut-in individual, but a person of one substance not only with the race of man, but with the whole of reason everywhere. Hence man, within the physical conditions that limit him and seem to reduce him to the hue and mode of his environment, creates conditions—intellectual, ethical, social—which contend against those imposed upon him by nature. Over against its pitiless struggle for life he creates a passion for well-doing, the mercy whose quality is not strained, the “truth that worketh by love,” “the hope that maketh not ashamed,” “the love that rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.” And the qualities that do most to perfect his personality contribute most to the creation of the higher ethical conditions; so much so that the degree in which he transcends nature tends to humanize even her most brutal forces.

3. Since man as active will and immanent law transcends nature, he cannot be measured by it. Generalizations based upon the study of nature ought not to be used to determine what is or is not possible to him. The laws under which phenomena may be grouped do not apply to persons who are more than phenomenal, who are the noumena through which all phenomena are. The natural law of the Roman urist was not an actual thing, nor was the perfect man of the Roman Stoic an actual person. They were ideals, but they were not unreal because they were not actual; rather they were all the more real that they were so ideal. Natural Law meant the abstract justice and right, the ideal equity of the human reason, which could be so applied to the concrete and positive Law as to make it less cruel in its enactments, less severe in its judgments, less barbarous in its modes and instruments—in a word, more just and more humane. The Perfect Man was an ideal of goodness, which was so presented to actual men as to tempt them to live more worthily and to aspire more wholly after better things. So man transcendent is man ideal, above nature while within it, able to explain it, incapable of explanation by it And if we find the ideal of the Perfect Man realized, must we not conceive him in whom it is impersonated as essentially supernatural in quality, and in intrinsic worth of being above anything which nature can produce?

4. Since the moral law is immanent in man and realized by his will, it follows that all moral good is personal In its source, originates with persons, is realized in persons, and is by means of persons incorporated in the laws, institutions, and agencies which protect, preserve, and develop it. There is, indeed, no factor of change or cause of progress known to history or human experience equal in efficiency to the great personality—the man who embodies some creative and causal idea. It is not nearly so true that great movements or moments produce great men as that the men create the moments. The wars of the world bear the marks of their leaders; and each has been glorious or ignoble, brilliant or disgraceful, just as its captain has been. What is the history of art but the biographies of great artists? Where would Greek sculpture have been without Pheidias, or modern painting without Raphael, or music without the Masters? Has not science been made by certain supreme minds, discoveries by certain daring explorers, political order and ideas elaborated and embodied in politics by genius in the form of statesmen? It is personality that counts in all things, and most of all in that concentrated form of moral good which we call religion. For religion has at once this distinction and value: it is moral good under its most august and sovereign aspect, as it affects man's inmost being and ultimate relations. It is good sub specie œternitatis, enlarging mortal into immortal being, and reconciling man to himself and to the whole infinite order, which dignifies him by making him needful to its completeness. In this realm there is no great and no small, for all the categories are infinite and all the ends are divine.

5. If, then, man, by his moral being touches the skirts of God, and God in enforcing His law is ever, by means of great persons, shaping the life of man to its diviner issues, what could be more consonant, alike with man's nature and God's method of forming or re-forming it, than that He should send a supreme Personality as the vehicle of highest good to the race? Without such a Personality the moral forces of time would lack unity, and without unity they would be without organization, purpose or efficiency. If a Person has appeared in history who has achieved such a position and fulfilled such functions, how can He be more fitly described than as the Son of God and the Saviour of man?

  • 1.

    Mill, “Utilitarianism,” Ethics, p. 91 (Douglas' ed.).