25 The One Good (1945)note

While Mr A. N. Prior admits having misinterpreted my position on certain points, he seems to attach little weight to what I regard as the major points in my “Ethics and Advocacy” and so, in my judgment, he goes off into side-lines. Of course, if he sees no force in my distinction between the “real” and the “spurious” solidarity, he will not be inclined to pursue the hypothesis that in the conflict and confusion between those two lies the explanation of the confused state of ethical theorising. But at least he should give me credit for thinking that the distinction is sound, for thinking that, in however summary a manner and with whatever barriers to “getting it across”, I am presenting what is.

In fact, in taking my position to rest here on a “postulate”, Prior would seem to be resurrecting the charge of “recommendation” of which he had previously absolved me; if I am not now directly making demands of other persons, I am making demands of the facts — holding that they have to be of such and such kinds — and this would, incidentally, involve making demands of persons, viz., that they should see the facts in that way. But even at the beginning, in speaking of the “morality” of which my writings form a part, Prior shows that he has not really given up thinking of me as advocating something. He could do so, indeed, only if he admitted with me that ethics is just as positive a subject, just as definite a field of study, as physics; failing that, it can only be a variable matter, depending on people's choices, usages, postulates, and what I in particular write on what I call ethics will be merely a presentation of “my” ethics, of the usages, and eventually of the ways of behaving, which I prefer.

The main point of my fairly detailed remarks on inquiry was to show that consideration of “my morality” (or my adherences) was irrelevant to consideration of the actual content of my argument, that inquiry is a subject, and that, even if a man in discussing that subject is himself inquiring, it is obstruction of discussion to turn attention to his activity and away from what he says. Even if he regards “devotion to truth” as having characters, and relations to other devotions, not recognised in common opinion, he is not to be understood as laying claim to a specially high degree of such devotion; and neither his devotion nor his backslidings as his have anything to do with the question. But, further, even if the subject under discussion were “adherences”, and if

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a man in what he said about adherences showed in some measure his own adherences, it would still be a side-tracking of discussion to reply to what he said by commenting on what he revealed about himself.

What I have said, then, is that there is a subject good, and that what Prior takes as different ways of using a word are different misapprehensions of this subject. And this could be expressed by saying that there is only one thing that is “meant by” good, however confusedly some people may apprehend it. In the same way I should say that there is only one thing that is meant by mind, and that, even if some people define it relationally as “what knows”, it is it that they are thus wrongly defining. Prior speaks as if it were in some quite accidental or arbitrary way that an “inconsistent usage”, in which quality and relation were run together, had sprung up in common speech and thought, and as if some persons, seeing the inconsistency, then decided equally arbitrarily that in their “usage” it would be simply the quality or simply the relation that was referred to. But if it can be shown, as I think it can, that the common usage distorts a real subject and that the distortion arises quite naturally in the conditions under which the subject exists, the removal of the distortion will also not be a matter of simple “choice” but will follow a definite line — which will not be the relational one.

At any rate, I do not think Prior has had much success in showing what a “consistent relativist” could say. If an “ethical sentence” is not merely to convey information as to the object desired by the speaker, but also to be an appeal to the hearer's emotions or will, it can only be because the element of “incantation” is also informative. Failing that, how could it possibly influence the hearer? No one, presumably, would say that “X is good” influences a person towards X more than is done by “X is bad”, simply because he likes the sound “good” better than he likes the sound “bad”. The influence would depend on his associating the former with certain activities or “ends” and the latter with certain others. Similarly, if a man were influenced in different ways (or influenced at all) by “Revolution! Rah!” and “Revolution! Bah!”, it would be because the monosyllables conveyed to him something of the speakers' attitudes to revolution — this, of course, impinging on his own previous attitudes to revolution and to the speakers. In other words, the supposed incantation is charged with unstated “values”; they are its “meaning”. I have acknowledged, of course, that there is a great deal of ambiguity and confusion in such appeals; but always there must be something positive, and always, I contend, when disentanglement has taken place, good will be found to be part of that positive content.

To show that there is one type of activity which has been the “real” subject of all moral theories whatever, would obviously be an immense undertaking. Nevertheless, that is what I believe to be the case; and I do not decide to call the special forms of that general type “good” because they proceed best without recommendation or because they all hang together or make up a single “morality” — or for any other reason than that I think they are good. At the same time, I think that Socrates

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and others, into whatever moralistic confusions they occasionally fall, have seen truly that goods do not conflict with one another. Prior speaks again, in this connection, of disinterested inquiry “contributing to its own destruction”. The first question to be raised here is that of “contributing”. If an X attacks and destroys a Y only because it is Y (so that, if it had not been Y, it would not have been destroyed), is that any ground for saying that it contributed to its own destruction? To say that goods co-operate and propagate themselves in special ways is not to say that nothing is inimical to them and that they cannot be destroyed; but being destroyed by what is opposed to goodness is not being destroyed by goodness. However, Prior seems to be suggesting cases in which, but for Y, there would not have been an X to attack and destroy it — and that brings us to the second question, what is and what is not “disinterested” inquiry.

I take it that the “atom bomb” is an example of the weapons which are furnished by inquiry to destructiveness — weapons the use of which may destroy civilisation and thus inquiry itself. It seems to me quite possible that we have entered a period of cultural degeneration, that we are approaching one of Vico's “new barbarisms”. But while that in itself does not mean the end of civilisation, I should maintain that far more potent forces than “scientific weapons” are at the back of the decline of culture. And what is particularly to the point is that “scientific advance” has been largely bound up with the decline of inquiry, that modern science does not exemplify disinterested inquiry. Its spirit has been “practical”, it has been concerned with “getting things done”, with facilitating transformations and translations, not just with finding out what is the case and with the “criticism of categories” that that involves. It has served “society”, i.e., that false solidarity of group interests of which I previously spoke; it has not been disinterested or philosophical. And while I should have expected Prior to take a less simple view of science, to see how far it merely imitates inquiry, I also find a certain simplicity in his theory of “disinterested destructiveness”. He gives his case away, I think, in his reference to despair; despair is not a disinterested but an egoistic attitude, an elevation of the particular above the general — which is the weakness of all “spurious” creeds.

Now it cannot be said that theology escapes this charge; in so far as it is a doctrine of a universe or system of things, it is “solidarist” — it tries, like the egoist or the patriot, to set up something whose value resides in its “unity” and not just in its character. But in so far as it criticises lesser unities, in so far as it opposes “the world” and “scientific” optimism, it is a closer imitation of the real thing than other views are. Taking “original sin” as signifying the worthlessness of the individual, we can regard it as making some approach to the recognition of those causes which, as I suggested (following Croce) in “The Meaning of Good”, are the real subject of history — or of culture, or of ethics. And theology (or religion) may be closely connected with those “myths” which, on Vico's view, are the first approach to an understanding of culture.

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But while a positive view of ethics may develop in this way and may continue to find more in common with theology than with melioristic science, it is not theological and it has not even that long-range optimism which goes with any belief in a “system” of things. When I argue that goodness cannot be eliminated by the “spurious solidarity of social unity”, I take this to be a matter of fact; I take it that goodness (but likewise evil, and likewise pretence) is coeval with society. But I certainly do not take society to be eternal — though I see no possibility of fruitful inquiry into the conditions either of its ending or of its beginning. And I cannot see, in this connection, how Prior, in order to believe in a “solid personality”, can accept E. M. Forster's doctrine of necessary fictions. Forster, it appears, considers that although the assumptions that men are immortal and that society is eternal are both false, “both of them must be accepted as true if men are to go on eating and working and loving”. Clearly Forster did go on eating, etc.; equally clearly he did not accept as true what he had just said to be false.

I am not attempting in these discussions to give more than a sketch of a position. I cannot say just at what point, and with reference to what background of study, linkages would emerge and the position would appear other than arbitrary to hitherto dissenting readers. But I hope I have shown, with regard to Prior's discussion, that he has not established either that goods, as I have presented them, can conflict or that there is more than one meaning of “good”. For the rest, the sort of “imitation” I have referred to, the ways in which “interests” masquerade as disinterested (and the consequent confusion affecting the study of disinterestedness), should be obvious to all those who admit that such a thing as disinterestedness exists.