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Chapter VII: The Interpretation of Moral Concepts

There are certain terms of discourse, such as ‘good,’ ‘right,’ ‘duty,’ ‘responsibility,’ and ‘virtue,’ which are commonly recognized as having to do with morality, and to which a theory of morals must assign definite meanings.

Two meanings have already been assigned to the term ‘good.’ In the most general sense, it means the character which anything derives from being the object of any positive interest: whatever is desired, liked, enjoyed, willed, or hoped for, is thereby good. In a special sense, ‘morally good’ is the character imparted to objects by interests harmoniously organized.

In terms of these definitions the famous triad “the True, the Beautiful, and the Good” requires reëxamination and clarification.1 In the first place, it must be rid of its echo of Platonism. The use of the definite article gives a substantive meaning to these three terms, and thus obliterates the distinction between that which is good, and the goodness which it possesses as an adjective. In the second place, the triad must be rid of the odor of sanctity which it derives from the use of capital letters. The conceptions of superlative truth, beauty, and good are legitimate conceptions, but if these are intended they should be so named; otherwise the distinction between the character and its ranking is lost, or it is implied that there is no truth, beauty, or good except the superlative. In the third place, there is a logical difficulty. If True and Beautiful are instances of Good, then either the three members of the triad are not coordinate, or there must be two meanings of ‘good,’ that which all three members have in common, and that which distinguishes the third from the first and second.

These amendments being accepted, what remains of the triad? Shall it be abandoned altogether, or does it still represent a triadic distinction in the world of value which it is important to preserve? The first and second difficulties are avoided by construing the terms as adjectives rather than substantives, and by substituting lower case for capitals. The logical difficulty is avoided by making the double meaning of ‘good’ explicit. The triad would then read: ‘cognitive good,’ ‘aesthetic good,’ and ‘moral good.’ It may, then, be argued that these three kinds of good have a universality, an inter-connectedness, and a dignity in human life which sets them apart from other values.

The cognitive and aesthetic interests are simple and irreducible. Truth in itself is not a value, since it consists in well-founded expectation, and expectation is a neutral attitude; one may expect with indifference, and the verification or surprise to which it leads may be a fulfillment or defeat of hope, or it may be neither. There is, however, an interest in truth: ranging from primitive curiosity to the acquired and advanced pursuits of science. Similarly, there are certain characteristics which it is agreeable to contemplate. While truth is a qualifying attribute of the object of cognitive interest, beauty is the qualifying attribute of the aesthetic interest.

The cognitive and aesthetic interests have an important character in common; a character which is ordinarily designated as ‘non-practical,’ the term ‘practical’ being used to designate interest whose realization involves an alteration in the common existential environment; or interest in which the consummatory dealing excludes other interests from its occasion. Practical interest is externally preëmptive. The natural appetites of hunger and thirst, the use of tools, the appropriation of territory, and all the countless possessive interests of everyday life, are practical in this sense. The cognitive and aesthetic interests, on the other hand, do not necessarily enter into the external causal field. They take and leave external objects as they are, and do not interfere with other interests in the same objects. Two ambitions which seek the same throne are practical interests and tend to collide: but there is no such collision when two cats look curiously or admiringly at the same king, when two political scientists explain his reign, or when two connoisseurs appreciate the pageantry of his court.

Practical and non-practical interest are interconnected because each tends to generate the other, and they are universal because this transition from practical to non-practical or from non-practical to practical tends to occur in all interests. The transition from practical to non-practical interest arises from the factor of mediation. The sensation, perception, meaning, or judgment which is embraced within practical interest invites attention to itself, and may divert the interest from its original direction. Thus, alarmed by a smell of smoke, I run to the fire-escape or seize a bucket of water. So far the interest is practical. But unless the emergency is too pressing, I may be attracted by the pungency of the odor and fall to savoring it. I have then entered on the path of olfactory connoisseurship. Or I may become interested in the cause of the fire, and in the methods of extinguishing it, and so become, according to my lights, and so far as time permits, an expert in the science of pyrotechnics. Thus temptations to aesthetic and cognitive interest beset the path of every practical interest.

The reverse tendency — from the non-practical to the practical — is also universal. The Cynic philosopher, however he may seek to disengage himself from affairs, gets himself a tub and needs the sunlight which an Alexander may obscure. The devotee of solitude has to guard himself against intrusion; and he has to be lived with by family and neighbors. He gives or withholds his services to others. There is no privacy that may not become a public nuisance. Cognitive interest disposes to communication, written or oral, and fills the world with libraries and laboratories. The aesthetic interest disposes to art, which reshapes existence in order that its contemplation may be better enjoyed, and fills the external world with monuments which assail the senses.

Cognitive and aesthetic interest not only generate practical interest, but also generate one another. Aesthetic contemplation of the landscape arouses curiosity or presents a problem to the geologist. Any field of inquiry may present an aspect of beauty. It is a well-known fact that scientific theories are valued for their orderly form as well as for their truth. Moralists, philosophers, and religious teachers have repeatedly taught men that they can escape the clash of interests by reducing their external commitments. There is, however, no interest that does not give hostages to fortune, and depend in some measure on circumstances which it must control if it is not to be at their mercy. Like the proverbial ostrich a man can blind himself to surrounding and oncoming events, but his actual exposure and vulnerability are not thereby avoided or even diminished. He may run away from fortune but by so doing he only encounters other fortunes impinging upon him from a new direction.

Although the cognitive and aesthetic interests are comparatively free from the possibility of conflict in the common external world they enjoy no such immunity within the personal life. All of a person's interests draw upon the same common fund of time and energy, and what is expended for one is preëmpted from the rest. This holds equally of practical and non-practical interests. In other words, even when the pursuit of truth and beauty serves as an escape from the requirements of social morality, the personal problem remains as acute as ever.


An object is good in the generic sense when it is the object of a positive interest; it is morally good in the special sense when the interest which makes it good satisfies the requirement of harmony, that is, innocence and coöperation. This requirement may be met in one or both of two ways. In the first place, it may qualify any interest when that interest is governed by a concern for other interests. Thus the object of a person's sensuous enjoyment acquires a moral character when it is governed by his concern for his health or practical achievements; and a person's ambition acquires a moral character when it is governed by his concern for the interests of other persons. Or, in the second place, the moral requirement may qualify a special interest — the moral interest — by having harmony as its object.

In other words, one may state of any object of interest that it is morally good when the interest is endorsed by other interests; and one may state that a total life in which all interests endorse one another is morally good when it is the object of the moral will.

The “good life,” morally speaking, may be described as a condition of harmonious happiness — a condition in which, through the increase and coöperation of its members, all interests tend to be positive. This description throws light on the meaning of the familiar but obscure idea of “happiness,” and on the traditional claim of happiness to rank as the supreme moral end.

Happiness is attributed to a person as a whole, as distinguished from his momentary or partial interests. He is happy insofar as every outlook is auspicious; he can face many prospects and face them all cheerfully. His present interest is accompanied by a sense of the applause of all his other interests, brought into consciousness by imagination and reflection. When it is said that no man can be completely happy it is meant that every man's interests are so numerous, and his remoter interests so hauntingly present, that he is never free from some sense of negation. Happiness is “shallow” when it is an effect of blindness or cowardice; of an inability or unwillingness to extend the range of his awareness to embrace all the interests at stake together with the actual circumstances which confront them. When it is said that progress does not make men happier, it is meant that it brings new interests which have to be reconciled with the old. Real happiness cannot be achieved by anaesthetics or intoxicating drugs. Thus a man who loves life, as most men do, cannot be said to be happy when he forgets the inevitability of death, but only when he can bear to face it.

There is a traditional art of personal happiness, which can be similarly understood. When the objects of interest lie in the remote future, the interval is likely to be filled with negative interests. There are obstacles to be overcome, temporary defeats to be endured, delays to be suffered. It is for this reason that it is important to relish the means as well as the end, to find good in the routine and personal contacts of everyday life, and to cultivate cognitive and aesthetic interests, which can be immediately realized and which are comparatively independent of circumstances. In a continuously happy life long-range and short-range interests will be happily commingled.

In common discourse, and in the moral theory known as ‘utilitarianism,’ happiness is identified with pleasure. This identification reflects a careless use of the term ‘pleasure.’ If pleasure is taken to be a bodily sensation, then it is a part of happiness only because pleasure is liked and enjoyed. If, on the other hand, pleasure or ‘pleasantness’ is taken to mean the individual's awareness of his own positive interest, then his happiness differs from his pleasure only in its pervading and qualifying the totality of his life. Similarly unhappiness will consist not in the sensation of pain, but in the feelings which reflect the negative quality of his interests.

This analysis must not be taken to imply the unimportance of sensations of pleasure and pain for happiness. Because pleasure is normally liked and pain disliked, the presence of these sensations is a constant factor in happiness and unhappiness. The sensation of pain will interrupt any form of enjoyment or prosperous achievement and substitute negative for positive interest. Sensation of pleasure, on the other hand, may substitute positive for negative interest, or reinforce a positive interest which already exists. The internal environment of the organism is carried into every external environment; wherever, whenever, with whomsoever and with whatsoever, a man lives, he must live with his own body. Its pleasures and pains, its health or malaise, will affect the tone of every interest and of life as a whole.

As happiness reflects a harmony of interests, so unhappiness is an effect of conflict, as when a man is said to be “at war with himself.” Insofar as this condition prevails, each interest sees the others as its enemies, and is moved to defeat them. Each positive interest — each enjoyment or prosperous achievement — then begets a negative interest on behalf of the other interests which it jeopardizes.

The application of similar principles to inter-personal relations gives meaning to such expressions as ‘the general good.’ The happiness of a society or a family, or nation, or mankind, is morally good insofar as its personal members live together as friends, so that each regards the others’ interests as harmless or helpful to his own. The interests of the several members are so happily attuned that each person in willing his own happiness wills also the happiness of his fellows. The happiness enjoyed is the happiness of each; its sociality lies in the fact that the several happinesses are conditioned by benevolence. The happy society is a society of happy men, who derive happiness from one another's happiness.

It is generally conceded that as the personal good is morally better than the good of one of its constituent interests, so the social good is morally better than the personal, and the good of mankind than that of any narrower human group. Interpreted in terms of harmonious happiness and the standard of inclusion, this means that the greater harmonies must include the lesser harmonies. There must be a harmony of harmonies.

There are two common views which fail to satisfy this condition: the extreme “individualistic” or atomic view, in which the good of the whole is sacrificed to the goods of the members; and the totalitarian or organismic view, in which the goods of the members are sacrificed to the good of the whole. The principle of moral organization requires that the good of the whole shall take precedence of the several goods of the members, when and only when it embraces them and provides for them. There is only one way in which this can be achieved, namely, by a universal social will arrived at by reflective social agreement. Such a will exists distributively in each human person; while at the same time it represents all personal wills because the harmony which each person has achieved for himself then embraces every other person within its benevolence.


According to the theory here proposed, ‘right’ means conduciveness to moral good, and ‘wrong’ means conduciveness to moral evil: the one to harmony, and the other to conflict. So construed, right and wrong are dependent and instrumental values. That which is right or wrong may, however, like all objects of dependent interests, come to be loved or hated for its own sake, and thus acquire intrinsic value.

The view here advocated, sometimes known as the teleological or consequential theory of right and wrong, is in modern times most familiarly identified with the utilitarianism of Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but it is much more widely represented, both in the history of moral theory and in common sense.

Rarely, if ever, has it been held strictly that there is no connection, direct or indirect, near or remote, between right and happiness, and between wrong and unhappiness. Even philosophies or religious dogmas which preach “justice though the heavens fall” do not expect the heavens to fall in a just world. It is deemed reasonable that evil should follow upon wrong-doing, even if it is necessary to invent the evil in the form of divine punishment. Kant, who firmly refused to derive right from happiness, nevertheless was so sure that right-doers earn happiness that he considered this a sufficient argument for believing in a God who sees to it that the happiness is gratuitously provided. It is certainly a doubtful compliment to the right to deny that it does not of itself do good. It is to be noted, furthermore, that this expedient, which leaves the link between right and happiness to divine intervention, has commonly led men to belittle the humanly controllable causes of happiness, with the result that morality fails to reflect advancing enlightenment.

An act2 is right when it conduces to the moral good, that is, to harmonious happiness; and it is wrong when it conduces to disharmony. The right may conduce to the good as antecedent cause to subsequent effect, as when a humane act leads to the happiness of the other party; or as part to whole, as when a man's humane act is embraced within his happiness, or when a man best serves a happy society by being happy himself. In both cases, whether the act “makes for,” or “goes into the making of,” its rightness consists in its contributing to harmonious happiness. This is the root meaning of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ There are several derived meanings: superior rightness; intentional rightness; apparent rightness; formal rightness; and interim rightness.

An act may conduce to a greater or less harmonious happiness. It may yield good in the long run or in the short run, for the person or for society, for the nation or for mankind. When the good is greater the right is superior, and is entitled to moral precedence in case of conflict.

An act may conduce to harmonious happiness or to conflict and unhappiness when these results are unforeseen. When they are foreseen the act's rightness or wrongness is intentional. But it should be noted “the right thing” or “the wrong thing” do not derive their ultimate meaning from intentionality, but from the nature of the consequences intended.

It is a notorious fact that things rarely turn out precisely as expected: the result is more or less other than is reckoned for. An agent may think his act contributes to moral goodness when in fact it does not; that is, it may be erroneously mediated. In that case it is apparently, but not truly, right. There is no contradiction provided the two ‘rights’ are distinguished. It is the true rightness which defines the standard by which even the apparent rightness is deemed right; and by which it is right to correct the error, if any, of the mediating cognition. It is truly right that the man who does right “according to his lights” should cultivate enlightenment.

There are certain generalized rules of conduct which experience proves to be conducive to harmonious happiness. These tend to become stereotyped and familiar, and an act may be judged according as it does or does not conform to them. The word ‘right’ suggests alignment, and is therefore peculiarly applicable to the relation of an act to a rule, judged by which it may be straight or oblique. When it is straight it may be termed “formally” right. But if the act is to be morally right the rule to which it conforms must be a morally right rule, that is, a rule the observance of which conduces to moral goodness. To ignore this requirement is to fall into mere casuistry.

A further distinction is necessary to provide for the fact that conduct on the social level often fails to promote the good life unless it is adopted jointly and reciprocally. Veracity does not work, morally speaking, unless both parties practice it. Or, it takes two, as is said, to make peace; a one-sided peacefulness may invite aggression and so precipitate war. Therefore it may be right to make war in order to bring about a situation in which pacific conduct will be effectual. It is right to create the possibility of acting rightly. The circularity is escaped provided a distinction is made between transitional or “interim” right, which is right because it brings moral organization about; and the ultimate rightness which is right because it is suitable to a moral organization when realized. In case the two rights do not agree it is clear that the former takes precedence in time. Action or inaction which conduces to a situation in which no action is morally futile cannot be justified on moral grounds.

There can be no objection to this variety of meanings provided they are not confused. It would be verbally permissible to confine the word ‘right’ to some of these special meanings, but it would be unprofitable since it would ignore their variety and relatedness of meaning. They belong together as varieties of beneficence; that is, conduciveness to good; that is, conduciveness to harmonious happiness.

The full meaning of substantive “rights” can be understood only in the context of polity and law, in which this idea plays a fundamental role. It is, however, a basic moral concept, and should receive its initial interpretation here.

Rights are sometimes considered axiomatic, but in a consequential theory such as is here proposed they must be explained by their conduciveness to the good life. Harmonious happiness is justified by its provision for the several interests which it harmonizes. The claim which each of these interests has upon the bounty of the whole is its “right.” Harmonious happiness is achieved by organization, and it sets limits to the interests for which it provides. A right is therefore not the unrestricted demand of the component interest but a right demand — a demand the fulfillment of which is consistent with the fulfillment of other demands. Each interest is entitled to an area within which it enjoys liberty to follow its own inclination; but it is a limited area, bounded by the areas of other interests within a system which provides for all interests.

While the right of a person is similar in principle to that of any particular interest there is an important difference. The bounds of the right of a particular interest are set by the reflective will of the person to which it belongs — as regards the relative claims of his own interests the person is the autonomous and final moral authority. It follows that where the interests of another person are concerned that other person, being similarly autonomous and final, must agree. Hence within a social moral good there is a double right: a right of each person to be considered and provided for, and a right of each person to be consulted and to assent to the provisions.


There is a basic idea common to ‘ought,’ ‘duty,’ ‘moral obligation,’ and ‘moral imperative.’ To clarify the subject it is necessary not only to provide such a basic meaning, but also to account for various shades of meaning and meaninglessness.

On the level of everyday discourse what ought to be done is what is called for by some end; it is the converse of the right. The moral ought is what is called for by the end of the moral good, that is, by harmonious happiness. The act which ought to be performed may or may not be a necessary or sufficient condition of the good. The obligatory act may or may not be a unique act; in any given situation there may be many acts which satisfy the condition of conducing to the good, one of which ought to be performed.

That moral obligation is commonly expressed in the form of a command and therefore in the imperative voice is an accident, due to the fact that right action is associated with political, parental, or other authority. Or, the imperativeness of obligation may be an after effect of the logical necessity by which the rightness of the act was inferred from its consequences. Just as the “thou shalt” may remain after the authority has ceased to utter it, so the “therefore” or tone of necessity may remain in after the premises have disappeared.

The term ‘duty’ is applied primarily to the moral agent, and only secondarily to acts which are “in the line of duty.” It is a stronger term than ‘ought’ since it is associated with an implied promise by which the agent has bound himself. When it is said that every right has its associated duty, it is meant that in claiming his benefit as a moral right he has committed himself to allotting some equivalent benefit on the other party. If he does not fulfill his part, not only as beneficiary but as benefactor, he incurs the charge of inconsistency, as well as the justifiable resentment of the other beneficiary. There are as duties as many duties as there are rights, and there are as many rights as there are moral systems with delimited spheres and mutual engagements. There are duties as well as rights associated with every role in organized society — the parent, the neighbor, the soldier, the employer and worker, or the citizen.

When it is said that an act “ought” to be performed, it is meant that the act is called for by some good to which the act is conducive. In this basic sense the ought is sufficiently determined by the good, the act, and the circumstances. This analysis provides for “real obligation” and “real duty,” as distinguished from, and antecedent to, the mere “feeling of obligation” or “sense of duty.”

This distinction is plain and explicit in the case of contractual obligation. Whether a man does or does not really owe another man a sum of money is quite distinct from the question of his subjective attitude. He may blithely ignore his obligation, but he is not released on that account. His obligation is there, in the past undertakings and present relationships, whether he acknowledges it or not. But precisely the same holds of all moral obligation. It is implied in the total situation: a man has it, or does not have it, whether or not he experiences its compulsion. If this were not so it would be meaningless to call a man's attention to his obligations, or adduce proofs in their support, or to instill a consciousness of obligation where it does not already exist. When expecting “every man to do his duty,” England was not creating the duties, but calling attention to them and demanding their performance. The latest example of this is afforded by the extension of morality to the interrelations of all mankind. When the nations of the earth are exhorted to take account of one another's interests this does not mean that they are to acquire new duties, but a new acknowledgment of old duties hitherto ignored.

Since ought, whether recognized or unrecognized, is by nature an implication, there is an ultimate premise which is not similarly implied. That from which all moral oughts are derived is not itself a moral ought. Hence if all moral oughts are deduced from the good of harmonious happiness it is meaningless to ask whether men ought to be harmoniously happy. This does not argue against the present theory except on the dogmatic assumption that the good means what “ought to be.”

According to the view here adopted, ought, obligation, and duty, are not moral ultimates but are proved by the good. The influence of Kant among philosophers, and the influence on popular thought of the “stern” or “rigorous” school of morals, have conspired to create a presumption in favor of the view that the moral ought is “categorical” or “unconditional,” rather than “hypothetical” or “conditional.”

But there are many possible interpretations of this grim and uncompromising aspect of ought. Human opinion abounds in categoricals and unconditionals which signify only the limits of knowledge. Most opinions have this absolute character not because there is no ulterior ground, but because it is forgotten or ignored, or is as yet undiscovered, or lies beyond the capacity of the person who holds the opinion. Thus a man's opinion that he ought not to lie is for most persons a simple mandate, with no “why or wherefore.” This does not imply, however, that there is no why and wherefore. It does not imply that the obligation to speak the truth may not rest on the fact that veracity is a fundamental requirement of communication, and is therefore conditional on the purpose of social organization; but only that most people, most of the time, are unaware of this condition.

Or, duty may present itself as unconditional when the condition is taken for granted. Thus if it is said that a man ought to obey some precept of thrift or hygiene, it is not necessary to specify that such conduct will save him from bankruptcy or death, because the good of solvency or survival is so generally recognized that it does not need to be mentioned.

Ignorance and unconscious assumption are not the only causes of this uncompromising aspect of the moral ought. It often expresses the pressure of the social conscience. The sentiment of the community speaks peremptorily to the individual, and will listen to no excuses. He then speaks the truth because he desires the esteem of his contemporaries. Or the ought may express what the individual person demands of himself. A person cannot “bear to think of himself” as a liar; he has acquired an ideal of himself which forbids it. This does not argue against the social beneficence of truth-speaking, but only that this appeal is reinforced by another appeal, namely, self-approval. A man has to live with himself as well as with others.

In an earlier chapter some attention was given to the theory that the words of the moral vocabulary have an “emotional,” as distinguished from an “objective,” meaning. While this theory was rejected in its sweeping application, it was acknowledged that although these words do have an objective meaning they may be, and frequently are, used with a merely emotive intent; that is, to express an attitude and to induce a like attitude in the person to whom they are addressed. This is peculiarly true of the word ‘ought.’ When a person is told that he “ought to speak the truth” this is often in order that he may feel impelled to speak the truth; and insofar as this is the case the ought is not arguable. The imperative is then categorical in the sense that it is uttered categorically, and demands unconditional obedience.

The uncompromising demands of conscience, whether personal or social, while they may be first in the order of psychological motivation, are not first in the order of justification. When an obligation is imputed to a moral agent, no reasons being given, or when he is exhorted to do as he ought, or appeal is made to his sentiment of self-esteem, or to his regard for the approving or disapproving attitudes of others, it is always appropriate for the agent to ask, “Why ought I?” and it is the answer to this question, the ultimate why of the obligation, which reveals the fundamental meaning of the concept.

Objection to any theory which makes moral obligation conditional or hypothetical is largely due to the supposition that it is then translated into terms of egoism. It is true that the theory may be, and commonly is, presented in this form. It is then taken to mean that the duty of any person is conditional on his existing interests. Thus the full meaning of ‘this is your duty’ would be ‘this is your duty if such and such is your aim.’ You would then escape the duty if such and such were not your aim.

This is not the view here proposed. Duty is derived from the good, and the good is relative to interests, but not merely to the interests of the agent whose duty is in question. The good result which determines the duty may relate to the interest of another, or to all interests concerned; even when they are not sympathetically felt, or even acknowledged, by the performer of the act. My duty is conditional on the purpose of harmonious happiness, not on my purpose. When so construed, duty possesses a certain unconditional character relatively to any given person. It cannot be escaped by his ignorance, inattention, indifference, or selfishness. This interpretation is consequential or teleological, but it is universalistic and not egoistic.

It is because of the fact that the call of the greater good overrules the call of the lesser good, and often has to assert its mastery, that duty acquires its forbidding aspect. Duty is independent of present inclination, and, if needs be, stands against it. This is where duty hurts. But the hurt is not the duty any more than martyrdom is piety; duty can be painless without being any the less dutiful.


The meaning of the moral predicates, ‘good,’ ‘right,’ and ‘ought,’ having been examined, there remains the question of the subject to which, in moral judgments, these predicates are properly assignable. Of what kind of being is it proper to state that it is morally good, right, or obligatory?

The essential qualification of any entity to possess moral characteristics is interest. It is meaningful to ascribe moral characteristics to Mahomet or to the mover of mountains, meaningless to ascribe them to the mountain. But in order that an entity may be a subject of moral judgment, something more is required, namely, the interaction of interests. Mahomet is not only interested, but possesses two or more interests which affect one another and which affect the interests of his associates. The field or realm of moral discourse is limited to the field of beings prompted by interest, and whose interests stand to one another, internally and externally, in relations of harmony or conflict. In a world without mind there would be no morality. There would be no morality in a world, were such a world possible, in which minds held expectations, true or false, but without caring one way or the other. Nor would there be morality in a world in which there was only one interest, or in which interests were so insulated as to make no difference to one another.

But the field of morality is further restricted to beings which are capable of understanding the bearings of one interest on another, and of being governed accordingly. The member of a harmoniously happy society must attune his interests to the interests of others; and to do so he must be aware of the social meaning of what he does. To act rightly or wrongly he must predict (correctly or incorrectly) the consequences of his act. To have duties and obligations he must be capable of inferring what the moral end requires, and requires of him. In other words, moral judgments presuppose the presence of certain distinctively human capacities. Conflict and harmony do exist beyond these limits: peace is peace and carnage is carnage wherever they occur, and the one may be praised and the other dispraised. But morality requires that the agent shall know them for what they are, and incorporate them as the mediating cognition of his interests. It is only on this level of capacity that the agent becomes morally “blameworthy” and “responsible.”

Where conflict exists, morality requires that it be removed; where conflict is possible it requires that it be avoided. Actual conflict is condemned on the assumption that it could, by the agent's taking thought, have been avoided; and the agent is blamed for having failed to avoid it. Harmony, on the other hand, is not merely praised, but is deemed meritorious, as having been attained by foresight and inference. Morality subsumes particular acts under maxims, such as the Golden Rule, and at the same time this act of subsumption is imputed to the agent. The moral agent is judged to love or not to love his neighbor as himself; but at the same time he is judged as though he possessed the capacity to grasp the meaning of the rule and to conform himself to it. Similarly morality not only judges mankind to be in a state of deplorable war or admirable peace, but assumes that the same mankind who suffers or benefits is capable of entertaining these ideas and applying them to themselves. It is on the same assumption that moral agents are “held responsible,” or “assume responsibility,” or are “deemed responsible” or “irresponsible.”

In short, moral judgments are pronounced upon beings which, through the mediation of their interests, are themselves competent to pronounce them. Judge meets judge. The responsible and blameworthy moral agent is in this sense a rational being, that is, capable of entertaining general ideas, fixing them by words and other symbols, making inferences from them, recognizing them in particular instances, and proving them from evidence. And this is the sense in which the moral agent is “free,” that is, capable of acting from deliberate choice, and not merely from the immediate incitements of appetite, or from habit, or from physico-chemical causes lying below the threshold of mind.

It is sometimes held that moral judgments are pronounced upon motives rather than acts, but when a motive is judged morally right it is because the act which it prompts is right — right in the sense of conducive to personal or social harmony. A right motive tends to good so far as it goes, but it does not go as far as the act. To stop with the comparatively easy and painless motive is so common a way of falling short of rightness that “hell is paved with good intentions.” But while right is primarily an attribute of action judged by its consequences, it may be extended to motives, to dispositions, to policies, to characters, to persons, institutions, and to societies — in short, to whatever interests, potentialities, or organizations of interest, are conducive to harmonious happiness.

If morality requires universal benevolence, then it requires a concern for the interests of all beings that have interests. It does not permit of limiting the objects of benevolence to responsible moral agents. This implication raises the troublesome question of the moral status of animal life. Lewis Carroll's parable of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in which the walrus “deeply sympathizes” with the oysters whom he devours with “sobs and tears” and “holding his handkerchief before his streaming eyes,” may be taken as a parody of the false sentimentality which attributes personality to the oyster. But it has a deeper meaning. It symbolizes the contradiction between man's profession of pity and his carnivorous practices; his habit of evading the contradiction between his moral sentiment and his appetites.

The relation of man to animal life, is one of the areas of life as yet most imperfectly moralized, both in theory and in practice. It is in his treatment of the beast that man most clearly resembles the beast. The solution of the problem does not lie in a vague extension of morals to “life.” Morality does not begin with life, but with personality; however difficult the application, this is where the line is to be drawn.

Animals come within the scope of the moral good insofar as they are interested beings. That on this score the pain of animals is evil is not open to doubt. So far as it is possible to judge, they do not possess wills in the full sense of the term, implying reflective agreement. They cannot enjoy happiness when happiness is taken as a condition of persons. But they can suffer pain, and they manifest that suffering unmistakably. They can feel dislike and aversion, hunger and thirst, fear and rage — and the objects of these negative interests are evils to be placed on the debit side of the account of value. They are evil in precisely the same sense ascribable to the objects of similar negative interests in man. This being the case the animal's goods and evils fall within the domain of morality when this is conceived as a reconciliation of interests. The pain of animals is not evil merely because it is painful to the tender-minded human being. Pain is evil primarily because of the negative interest of the being that suffers it; and it would be evil were there no sympathetic bystander whatsoever. There is no escaping this conclusion once it is affirmed that interests are objective facts which a judge of value is compelled to recognize whether or not they be his own interests.

It does not follow, however, that there is no moral difference between men and infra-human animals. Animals are moral objects, but they are not moral subjects. Kindness to animals is morally the same as kindness to humans, and cruelty is as vicious in the one case as in the other. But the problem of reconciling and integrating animal with human interests is a problem on which only man is qualified to pronounce judgment.

The relation of the human person to an animal's interests are like his relation to his own particular interests, rather than to the interests of another person. Of his own interests he is the final arbiter, whereas the final disposition of another person's interests require that other person's agreement. While the moral agent owes kindness and consideration to every interest, including those of animals, he owes deference only to beings capable and willing to reciprocate. The moral agent's relation to infants, to criminals, or to the insane is a mixture of two relationships. It would be like that between men and animals were it not for the fact that human beings, however imperfectly human, possess some potentiality or vestige of personality.


In Act IV, Scene 2, of Henry VIII, Shakespeare lists the “faults” and “evil manners,” and the “virtues,” of the deceased Cardinal Wolsey. Queen Katherine begs leave to speak of him, “and yet with charity”:

He was a man

Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking

Himself with princes; one that by suggestion

Tied all the kingdom: simony was fair play:

His own opinion was his law: i’ the presence

He would say untruths, and be ever double

Both in his words and meaning: he was never,

But where he meant to ruin, pitiful:

His promises were as he then was, mighty;

But his performances, as he is now, nothing.

Griffith, the gentleman-usher, coming to Wolsey's defense, then speaks of the great Cardinal's scholarship, wisdom, eloquence, amiability, princely generosity, and public benefaction. There is no difference between the Queen and her interlocutor as to the kinds of conduct which are praiseworthy and blameworthy, and they seem agreed, furthermore, that it was quite possible for Wolsey to combine them.

It is characteristic of morality that certain varieties of action are generally recognized in any given age or society as right and wrong. The words which designate them constitute the vocabulary of moral praise and blame; and while they are indefinite in number,3 and reflect a great variety of personal and local conditions, they are to be construed as the products of the moral experience of mankind, or some considerable portion of mankind. They epitomize the funded moral wisdom of the ages.

It is convenient to divide these moral stereotypes into three groups: virtues, precepts, and codes. ‘Virtue’ refers to acquired dispositions, habits, and fixed attitudes of society or of the individual. The assemblage and balance of his virtues and vices constitute a person's moral character; when a character, such as Wolsey's is analyzed there are the moral “characteristics” into which it is broken down. The “precepts” assume the form of rules, which prescribe or forbid. In their more primitive and negative form they are known as ‘taboos.’ A “code” is a system or hierarchy of precepts, more or less unified by a dominant ideal.

Virtues, precepts, and codes will have more or less of universality. Some will be relatively universal because they conduce to harmony whatever the interests involved. The moral quality of an act lies in its regard for interests other than those which immediately incite it. Temperance and prudence apply to the interrelations of the interests of the same person. Thus insofar as the appetite of hunger is affected by consideration for physical fitness, and for future practical successes which are conditioned by such fitness, its objects acquire a moral value over and above their hunger value. Temperance is moral by virtue of the element of restraint and moderation so induced. In this case both interests are independent interests of the same person. Prudence does not differ from temperance except in its emphasis on self-regard. It commonly refers to the situation in which the interest of a first party in the interest of a second party is a dependent interest — dependent on some interest of the first party, as when he so acts as to avoid the other's hostility, or secure some benefit in return. When, on the other hand, a regard for the other's interest is an independent interest, it rises to the level of independent benevolence — usually referred to simply as ‘benevolence.’

Benevolence owes its high place among the virtues to the fact that it promotes the interests of others, whatever and whoever they be. It is applicable to all inter-personal situations. As benevolence is said to be a cardinal virtue, so selfishness is said to be the original and most deadly sin. It means, as has been pointed out, not the being governed by one's own interests (by what else could one be governed?) but the absence of independent benevolence. If it is a universal sin it is because independent benevolence is always imperfect in its weakness or in its limited extent. But there is a worse sin than selfishness, namely, malevolence (including hate, envy, and jealousy). It is worse than selfishness because it is hostile, and not merely indifferent, to the interests of others. It strikes most directly at the good of social harmony.

Justice is commonly defined to mean that each person shall receive what is “due” him. When it is assumed that wrong-doing deserves punishment ishment and right-doing deserves reward, “retributive” justice is a form of “distributive” justice — one of the procedures by which a person gets from society what he is entitled to. In proportion as criminology becomes more enlightened it becomes increasingly clear that all justice is distributive.

But then what is the principle of distribution? The traditional formulas for distributive justice usually omit the heart of the matter. Granting that each person is to obtain what is due him, how is this to be determined? The answer is flagrantly circular when it is said that each is to obtain his “just dues” — or when synonyms such as ‘fair’ or ‘equitable’ are introduced. There are various specific formulas — to each according to his needs, or labor, or contribution — all of which turn out to be questionable in their application. The most simple answer to the question is the appeal to the existing body of law — a man is entitled to that to which he is legally entitled. But this is too simple, since it evades the question of the justice of the law itself.

It is evident that the question is not settled until it is referred to some final moral court of appeal; and there is no such court of appeal short of the reflective social agreement in which all persons acting as representatives of their interests, and expanding their interests to embrace the interests of others, arrive at a unanimous decision. This is the principle, never fully applied, which serves as a guide to the creation of a society that shall be as just as possible.

Veracity is less universal than benevolence because it is confined by the need of communication. Similarly, courage is applicable only to situations in which there is a danger to be met. But veracity and courage, while not universal in principle, can be said to be empirically universal, because, as a matter of fact, and humanly speaking, there always is a need of communication and a need of meeting danger. Similarly, thrift can be held to be universal on the ground that there are always future needs to be provided for in advance.

Among precepts the “Golden Rule” holds a unique place. Its wide acceptance in both ancient and modern times, in paganism and in Christianity, and among moralists otherwise as different as Locke and Kant, is not a coincidence. For it is of the essence of morality that each moral agent should accept the interests of others as he accepts his own; that he should put himself in the other's place, and the other in his place, and so recognize an interest as an interest in its own terms no matter to whom it belongs.

Among codes the highest place must be given to the “humanitarian” code, which adopts the fulfillment of the interests of all persons as the ruling purpose, to which all virtues and precepts are subordinated. This may be said to be the moral code.

Although certain virtues, precepts, and codes are comparatively universal they are never wholly freed from particular circumstances. And there are many virtues, precepts, and codes which are clearly of limited application. Some are relative to the condition of the individual, such as age or sex. Some are relative to a social function, such as the virtues of the mother, the precepts of citizenship, the code of the physician. Some in a high degree, and all in some degree, reflect the total culture of the society in which they find expression. The pagan virtues of Aristotle reflect the antique world and the Greek city-state; the Christian virtues of Augustine and Aquinas reflect a world in which a supernatural order has superseded, or is superimposed upon, the civil order. It is the task of the moral historian to trace the thread of moral organization through a succession of concrete situations, and to distinguish what is morally universal from what is local and epochal.

The prominent role played by the virtues, precepts, and codes tends perpetually to obscure the moral ideal. They tend to be divorced from that end of harmonious happiness which gives them their ultimate meaning. Becoming stereotyped and rigid they tend to stand in the way of moral progress.

It is customary to list “conscience” among the moral concepts. But the content of conscience — that which conscience authorizes and imposes — consists of precisely such virtues, precepts, and codes as have here been discussed. Otherwise, taken as a force or “sanction,” conscience is an institution, and as such it will be discussed in the later chapters which deal with institutions.

  • 1.

    For illuminating discussions of this question, cf. W. P. Montague, “The True, the Good and the Beautiful from a Pragmatic Standpoint,” Journal of Philosophy, 6 (1909); G. Murphy, Personality, 1947, pp. 288–4.

  • 2.

    That to which the adjectives ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ can propertly be attributed, whether act, agent, motive, interest, disposition, etc., will be examined below, § 5.

  • 3.

    There is no list of virtues which can be said to be final and all-inclusive. They may be classified in many ways. For one classification of the Author's Moral Economy, 1909, ch. iv.

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