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Part IV. A Rationalist's Outlook

Chapter XIV: Human Nature and Its Values

1 We have been sketching the world-view to which one rationalist seeking an alternative to traditional supernaturalism finds himself committed. It is a cosmic order in which seemingly chaotic facts and events are linked by causality and necessity into one all-embracing system, intelligible throughout, though at present only fragmentarily known. It is a system in which human minds are tiny islands in an apparently infinite universe, each occupying a perceptual world of its own, and making contact with the physical world and with each other by inference only.

We turn now from the dimly discerned vastness of the outer region to the better lighted area of our own consciousness and the human nature that finds expression through it. In a rationalist view of things, particularly one in which man must so largely build his world out of the materials of his own mind, the conception of human nature is important, and in the statement of our own view it is crucially important because, as we shall see, the place of values in the world depends upon it. Let us begin with what is most familiar, the content of our own consciousness. What do we find there?

We find not only the percepts we have been considering, but much else: memories, concepts, and beliefs; pleasure and displeasure, impulses, desires, and volitions; emotions in lush variety. These are all introspectable components in our field of consciousness. But it should be noted that there are dangers in so describing them. First, consciousness is not a static field, but a mass of events. A mind is, in the main, a set of drives or impulses restlessly seeking fulfilment. Secondly, the components of a mind are not parts of it, in the sense in which a brick is part of a wall, or even as a carburettor is part of an engine. These components inform or permeate each other in a unique way; in a desire, for example, you could not remove the element of idea, or of impulse, or of emotion, without changing the character of the others and of the whole. Thirdly, a mind is one. I look up from my desk and see a wall on which there are hundreds of books. These percepts are all mine in the sense that they belong to a single field in which attention can shift without break from one item to another. Again, two desires of mine may conflict, for example the desire for dinner and the desire to finish a letter; but they are felt as desires of a single self, and the decision between them is an action of the mind as a whole.


2 A mind, then, is here conceived not as a static field of consciousness, but as a set of impulses unified in so intimate a way that they may partially overlap, and may enforce or inhibit each other. Now impulses can be adequately distinguished only by their ends. The impulses to fight, to flee, to make love, or to be with others can be marked off from each other only by the sorts of experience that would bring them respectively to rest. Some of them are instincts, that is, impulses whose courses are inborn, like the impulse to suck, to clasp, or to cry. But most of them are at the outset amorphous, experimental, and plastic, depending for the specific ends they come to adopt on the material that experience offers them. ‘In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,’ but whether that fancy elects as its goal some dreaming Mary, some bustling Martha, or some shadowy Beatrice may well turn on the persons whom chance has appointed to cross his path.

Psychologists have in the past been much engaged with listing and classifying the original urges or instincts of human nature. E. L. Thorndike distinguished more than two hundred of them. William James had a more economical list of about fifty. McDougall, starting with a set of seven, expanded it later to twelve and then eighteen. Thouless recognised three, the self-preservative, the reproductive, and the gregarious; Freud distinguished two, sexuality and destruction, or love and death; Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Hocking made one drive supreme, the drive for power, though without agreeing how ‘power’ should be defined. These extreme variations do not necessarily show either arbitrariness or confusion. The drives of human nature may be taken at different levels according to the generality with which one conceives their ends. If one takes them at the bottom level, a large number of responses may naturally be grouped under a single common interest such as romantic or parental love. If one goes higher, and asks for an end toward which all these interests alike are directed, the answer is bound to be both vague and sweeping—Hocking's ‘power’, perhaps, or Dewey's ‘growth’, or Bradley's ‘self-realisation’. It needs no great latitude of interpretation to find all these views consistent with each other and true. Each of them brings out some aspect of the truth about human nature, namely that it is essentially dynamic, consisting of a set of drives toward ends. The classification of these ends, their organisation as a rational whole, and the consideration of the kind of conduct that would achieve them are, in my view, the task of ethics.


3 It is this connection with ethics that makes them important here. Man's fundamental drives are attempts to satisfy his needs, and in the fulfilment of those needs he finds his values. He is equipped by nature, for example, with promptings toward food, drink, sex, bodily activity, and companionship; if he were not, the race could not have survived; and in satisfying his primary hungers he finds the basic goods of life. Ascetic moralists have sometimes deprecated the seeking of these primal goods on the ground that they are animallike and gross. But man, though more than an animal, remains an animal always; he carries his ancestry with him in both body and mind; and no ethics can be healthy that allows itself to forget the long roots of the present in the past.

Nevertheless a merely biological ethics is as absurd as a merely behaviourist psychology. Man's mind does not reduce to his body, however deep its biological roots. It has escaped into a world of objects beyond the range of bodily response; and the long ascent toward freedom is made through the same series of steps by the individual and by the race. Furthermore, the upward path that the mind follows on the intellectual side is strikingly parallel to that which it follows on the practical side. On the intellectual side the ascent is through a series of plateaux—sensation, perception, the free idea, and the linkage of free ideas in a system. On the practical side the ascent is through a similar series—impulse, desire, purpose, and moral choice. I have tried to trace these advances, the theoretical and the practical, in two earlier studies, The Nature of Thought and Reason and Goodness. It will serve to make clearer the conception of human nature and the closely related conception of value here proposed if this parallel advance is dwelt upon a little further.


4 The career of mind on the cognitive side begins in sensation, perhaps with a pain or a sensation of touch. It is impossible to say when, or in what form, sensation first appears, either in the race or in the individual. And though it is the first step toward knowledge, it is not itself knowledge. It is not a state of mind in which anything is asserted, or denied, or taken as true or false. Knowledge begins with judgement, and the best test of the presence of judgement is the possibility of error. Sensation cannot err. There is no meaning in saying that a toothache is mistaken. The possibility of truth or error begins at the next level, the implicit judgement of perception, which is a taking of something to be present on the warrant of sensation. The child, on the strength of having found sugar sweet, takes the salt before him as also sweet, and forthwith gets a shock. He has used no words; he has not judged explicitly; but he must have done so implicitly, for he turns out to have been in error, and only a judgement can err.

Thought thus begins not in sensation but in perception. In the animal world it stays there. The higher animals obviously recognise things and persons; and since the nose of a dog or the eye of an eagle can detect much that to us is insensible, and these sensory differences may be freighted with meaning, the perceptual life of these lowly minds is in some regions richer than our own. Their great disadvantage is that they are immured in perception; their ideas or meanings are chained to what is given in sense; so that if they are confined in a cage, they are chafed and restless, but cannot sit down and think explicitly of their home on the range. A man can do that. He has escaped into the world of free ideas; he can look before and after, and dwell on what is absent and remote.

He goes a step farther when he can not only entertain free ideas but develop them reflectively. The animal in the cage can only claw at the lock; a man can sit down and consider the possible ways of escape: ‘if I do A, the result will be B, and if I do C, the result will be D’. The pragmatists are no doubt right that reflective thought was first resorted to because of the pressure of practical need, but it does not remain dependent on that pressure. Natural science is an attempt by this ‘if-then’ way of thinking to determine the framework of law in the world around us. Philosophy is an extension of the same enterprise. It examines the assumptions that science starts with—the laws of logic, for example, or the law of causality—and tries to put together into a consistent whole the conclusions that science ends with. The theoretical impulse, the endeavour to understand, is continuous from the first employment of thought in perception to the last efforts of the metaphysician to articulate a system. It realises only gradually what business it is about. As we have seen in the study of mythology, the aesthetic, theoretical, and practical interests may work so intimately together in early thought that their diverse claims and ends are not distinguished. It is only as man moves up the reflective scale that he realises what sort of creature he is, and he does so by recognising and defining more explicitly the ends he is groping after. As for the impulse to know, he comes to see that the only end that would satisfy it is an understanding in which the question Why? would receive its final answer. And if that fulfilment is to be achieved, thought cannot halt short of a system in which there are no dark places, a system that would exhibit every fact as having its necessary place in one intelligible order.


5 This self-discovery of human nature proceeds by a similar evolution on its practical side. The ascent starts, not now with sensation, but with impulse. An impulse is a felt urge to behave in a certain way, but without awareness of any end that is subserved by so behaving. The newly hatched chick feels an urge to peck at the grains of wheat scattered around it, and apparently feels satisfied in doing so, but this urge cannot be guided at the beginning by any idea of the satisfaction that will emerge. The bird that builds its nest with apparent adroitness cannot be supposed to do so with a blueprint in its mind, or any explicit thought of the needs of its young. Presumably it merely feels an urge to gather threads and twigs and dispose them in a certain way, and feels satisfaction in doing it.

Impulsive behaviour is not likely, however, to remain purely impulsive. It soon passes over into the sort of behaviour that has acquired force and direction from the retained deposits of past success. When offered a choice of grains, the chick will peck with increased avidity at the kind it has found agreeable and avoid the bits of orange peel that have proved disagreeable. Just as, on the cognitive side, much of ordinary life consists of perception in which sensation is supplemented by meaning, so on the active side it consists largely of habits, in which impulse has been canalised along certain channels through finding these channels pleasant. Impulse is thus guided by desire. Such desire operates at first on a very low level, where the thought of an end is only implicitly present.

Desire that has broken free from this dependence on impulse is called by the same name, but it deserves a distinctive one; perhaps purpose will serve. It then becomes able not only to envision an end explicitly but to order present impulse with regard to it. The musician or athlete in training, the truck driver at his wheel, the captain of a ship, the surgeon in the operating room, the lawyer before the jury, are all acting from a clearly entertained purpose in the light of which some impulses are encouraged as relevant and others inhibited. Here, as in the use of free ideas, of which this indeed is one form, the mind is moving on an exclusively human level. The thought of an end, absent, remote, and desirable, which can be held steadily in view, and to which the veering impulses and desires of the moment can be made subservient, adds a dimension to man's life and gives him an overwhelming advantage over his animal rivals.

His world becomes larger still when he reaches the level of moral choice, which engages all his resources, cognitive and conative. When faced by important alternative courses, he must consider the long-run products of each of them and the by-products along the way; and he must manage to weigh this complex of goods against other like complexes in the light of some end to which all are conceived as contributory. It sounds impossible, and it is impossible except in loose approximation; yet we have to attempt it.

6 This is all rather general. The kind of calculation required will be clearer if we take an example and for simplicity's sake confine it to the agent's own good. Let us say that a young man comes into some money, and the question is how he shall use it. His particular passion at the moment is for boats and the sea, and he thinks with a thrill of what he could do with the new means available. He could buy a boat of his own that would run by either sail or power, and he begins exultantly to unroll the possibilities: he could drive it down inland waterways to Florida, bask there awhile in the sun, and then set sail for the islands of the Caribbean: he could make his way on through the canal to the Pacific, visit the coastal cities of the West, and—who knows?—if he learned his lessons well, he might venture on into the South Seas, visit the peoples down under, and come back in a year or so loaded with impressions of other cultures and memories of a hundred varied adventures. But there are competing possibilities. That same money would put him through a university. This prospect is less exciting to him. But would not the fruits be more enduring? What would these fruits be? New interests, he supposes, in the sciences, arts, and letters (and these exposures are important, for he is feeling about for a vocation); new knowledge, new friendships, new models of how to think, speak, and write, new proficiencies that would probably remain valuable through the years, a greater likelihood of economic success and all that this means in the way of comfort, health, and security. And these complex prospects must be somehow balanced against the plan that first suggested itself. Where the results are so far-ranging, impulse is helpless. All his intelligence and more is needed if he is to foresee even the major consequences and weigh them against each other.


7 In such a calculation, what consequences are to count? Not physical changes, for these have no importance except as they make some difference to experiencing minds. Is it these experiences themselves that make up the relevant items? Yes. But if experiences are to be compared and appraised, it must be in some respect. What this respect must be is clear enough. The value, the intrinsic worthwhileness, the goodness or badness, of the experience is what counts. And it seems self-evident that if one's choice lies between two prospective experiences or sets of experiences, what one should choose to bring into the world is the larger value. There are apparent exceptions, well known to ethical theorists, that involve the keeping of promises, and above all, justice. This is not the place to explore these cases; I can only say that I am not convinced that they are true exceptions. The ultimate rule of conduct remains for me a synthetic a priori insight that one should produce the greatest good possible, or if one prefers this way of putting it, make the world as much better as possible.


8 But in what does the goodness of an experience consist? That issue has been a battleground of ethics during the first half of the century; and Moore and Russell, who saw eye to eye about it at the beginning of that period, were poles apart at the end. Moore thought goodness undefinable. It could not be defined because it was simple and therefore could not be analysed. Though it was a property owned in common by every experience valued for its own sake, whether an intellectual insight or a sip of chianti, it was not a descriptive character like the clearness of the insight, or the bouquet of the wine; it was a unique ‘non-natural’ quality whose presence was apprehended not by the senses but by an intellectual intuition. Russell, agreeing at first about this quality, later professed himself unable to find it, and held that to call something good was not a statement at all, but the expression of a favouring attitude, normally a feeling, on the part of the speaker.

I cannot accept either view, though in certain respects I am near to both. The theory that to pronounce something good or right is merely to express a feeling is inconsistent with what seem to me the obvious facts that we often contradict each other on moral issues, that we argue about them, change our opinions about them, and make mistakes about them.1 I still hold that a value ‘judgement’ is really a judgement. When we call an experience intrinsically good —say the experience of the Fifth Symphony, or of understanding why E equals mc², or of a successful round on the golf links—we suppose ourselves to be saying something meaningful and true. But what exactly is this? Are we ascribing Moore's simple non-natural quality, identical wherever intrinsic goodness is found? Like Russell, I seem unable to find this in my thought. Its non-naturalness, its simplicity, its identity, I cannot verify.

9 We should not leap out of the natural world unless we have to, and I cannot think that in this case we must. Nor do I think goodness is simple and unanalysable; more about this shortly. What here concerns us is Moore's suggestion that the intrinsic value of music, of understanding, and of a game lies in an identical quality. There is something wrong here, and what is wrong is making goodness so unresponsive to human nature. For what we find good, as Aristotle saw, is bound up intimately with human needs. It is no accident that the table of intrinsic goods corresponds to the table of human drives. ‘Of course it does,’ the reply may come, ‘for man would naturally direct his drives toward what he sees to be good’. But I am afraid this misconceives the order of dependence. Do not men find an experience good because it is fulfilling, rather than find it fulfilling because it is seen independently to be good?

I have slowly and somewhat reluctantly come to think that they do. Would food have any value if it did not satisfy hunger? Would understanding Einstein be a good to a mind without curiosity, or the Fifth Symphony to one without musical interest or responsiveness, or success in a game to one who was completely non-competitive and non-athletic? To hold, as Dean Inge and Nicolai Hartmann did, that the goods of these things are somehow eternal values laid up in the heavens and waiting for man's appropriation of them is to ignore the entanglement of these values with human impulses and longings. The beauty of the Fifth Symphony would no more exist in a world without aesthetic interest than the sound would exist in a world where there were no ears. Music is good because it fulfils this interest. Knowledge is good because it fulfils the impulse to know. Craftsmanship, adventure, physical prowess, poetry, love—sexual or parental—are good because they fulfil men's needs and urges; and if the course of evolution had at some remote juncture taken a different turn, so that instead of being super-simians we were super-reptiles or super-birds, how many of the activities in which we now find our good would have any sort of appeal? The fulfilment of the demands of nature is the condition of value.

Is it the only condition? No. For even though an experience fulfils, it may still lack value if fulfilment brings no pleasure with it. For the normal man it always does bring this bonus with it, as Aristotle again pointed out. But in certain abnormal conditions it does not, and then otherwise rich fruits have a way of turning to ashes in the mouth. Because they see this so clearly, hedonists have insisted that pleasure alone is good. They are wrong, as Mill virtually admitted in saying that it would be better to be Socrates than a pig, even though the pleasure in the two lives were equal. His defence was that Socrates’ pleasure was higher in quality, a defence that in principle abandoned hedonism. If the Socratic life was really better, it was surely because intellectual and moral aspirations which in the mind of the pig had hardly begun to stir were in Socrates not only alive but magnificently fulfilled.


10 Thus intrinsic value has a twofold condition; it belongs to those experiences alone that fulfil and satisfy, i.e. realise a demand of our nature and bring pleasure in the realisation. We have described these as ‘conditions’ of goodness. But a defender of Moore's view could say that this way of conceiving them was quite consistent with taking goodness itself as a non-natural quality supervening on these ‘good-making’ conditions; they make anything good that has them, without constituting its goodness. I have admitted that I cannot find this quality of Moore's. I am inclined, therefore, to say that the possession of the two characters named gives the very meaning of intrinsic goodness—not the meaning that lies on the surface, but the meaning ultimately required by analysis and reflection. This is not an emotivist view. I should insist that the judgement of value is not an interjection; it is the statement that a certain experience is, in the senses indicated, fulfilling and satisfying, a statement that is either true or false. Nor is it an egoistic view, for under like conditions the experience of others has values equal to my own. It is clearly a rationalist view in the sense that both the calculation of consequences and the comparison and appraisal of these consequences are the work of reason. It prescribes as the ultimate rule of right conduct: So act as to produce the greatest net good of all affected by your action, the good consisting in experience that is at once fulfilling and satisfying.2

Though my ethical view, as intimated a moment ago, agrees with neither Moore nor the emotivists, it is in some ways close to both. Like Moore's, it is an objectivist view. With the majority of moralists from Plato down, it holds that good rather than right is the primary notion in ethics, and that the rightness of competing courses of action must be determined by their tendencies to bring good into being. Moore believed that the weighing of intrinsic values against each other was performed by intuition, which was itself a form of intelligence. Intelligence might be mistaken either in calculating or in weighing future goods, but Moore had no doubt that to the question whether an action was right or wrong there was a definite answer to be found and that this answer would provide truth as objective as anything in the sciences. I agree with him here, though I think the difficulty of the questions even greater than he did, since I hold that goodness involves two variables rather than one. There is some action, however hard it may be to discover, that would produce the largest amount of fulfilment and satisfaction to mankind of those now open to me; if I discover and do it, I am acting rightly; if I do anything else, I am acting wrongly. Of course with the best of motives I may make a mistake about what action is right, and it is therefore important to distinguish the moral goodness of an agent from the objective rightness of his conduct. An agent is morally good if he acts under the belief that his action is right, whether the consequences would bear him out or not. Fortunately, though there is always an objectively right act to be done, there is no duty to be infallible as to what this is.

11 On the other hand, the theory here offered is in one sense a subjectivist theory. Though the value of an experience or the rightness of an action is not a function of my feeling or judgement about it, it would have no existence at all apart from mind. That is obvious if goodness lies in the fulfilment and satisfaction of impulses and desires, for these things belong to minds alone. And it would hold whether we took these two as defining goodness or as merely conditions of it, for such goodness in either case would be mind-dependent. Is there any intrinsic goodness in the existence of a crater at a certain point on the planet Mars? One can see, I think, that the answer must be No, unless that crater falls within the notice and interest of a mind. Suppose someone suggests that in 1900 there was a rainbow in Spitsbergen which no one happened to see; was it not beautiful nonetheless? No, it was not. For if no one observed it, it not only satisfied no aesthetic interest but, as presumably devoid of colour, was not in the ordinary sense a rainbow at all.

It will be clear from this sketch of human nature and its values that ethics is in my view a secular study. Man does not depend on revelation for his knowledge of right and wrong, but on the sweet and bitter fruits of a long experimentation with diverse patterns of life. What makes these fruits sweet or bitter is not a divine sanction accorded to some and withheld from others, nor the presence on occasion of a unique non-natural quality. It is something more deeply rooted in human nature. The great goods of man correspond to the great needs of man; they are the food that quenches his persistent, fundamental hungers. Some experiences fulfil and satisfy these hungers; these are sought and prized; and the good man will try so to order his life that they will be in widest commonalty spread. Other experiences flout and shrink his nature, and these the good man will seek to prevent or limit. No man's good will be the same precisely as any other's, for no two men are constructed quite alike; nor is it likely that the good of any two periods in the biography of a man or of the race will be quite the same; for men grow, and human nature evolves. What sort of experience would prove most fulfilling we can sometimes conjecture, as we can in the field of cognition, through extrapolation from our own increasing fulfilments.

The religious literature of the world, full of ‘the still sad music of humanity,’ is rich with deposits of past experience as to the ways of life that have proved fruitful and others that have been ashes in the mouth. It would be foolish to disregard this storehouse of practical wisdom. But its counsel must be drawn on with discretion. Though its proverbs often come straight from human experience and would be endorsed to the full by a rational ethic, many of its maxims and mandates are derived from the supposed will of an inscrutable Deity and directed toward supposed consequences in a future existence. These injunctions also come in the end by a circuitous route from human nature, but too often from the fanciful, malicious or fearful parts of it. The religious injunctions to judge not, to resist not evil, to abjure the world and the flesh, to lay up treasures for the hereafter, to flee from the wrath to come, even to seek peace and ensue it and to have life and have it more abundantly, are most safely read by those for whom ethics is a rational discipline with a standard beyond the vagaries of faith or myth.

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