III. Realism versus Relativism

Realism appears finally as a positivist doctrine, a logic of propositions or events; and this brings it into conflict with every theory of degrees of truth and reality. It will have been seen that there are natural affinities between the different rationalistic theories; indeed, as Burnet has shown, the Eleatic was simply a heretical Pythagorean. It is characteristic of the instability of the whole position that the extremes between which rationalism fluctuates are the Eleatic doctrine of the One as the sole reality and the doctrine of the super-Eleatic, Gorgias, who held that “there is nothing” (absolute) but all is “relative”. The inconsistency of this Sophistic position, involving, as it does, a hidden Absolute which

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appears obscurely as Opinion, does not prevent Relativism from being the most prevalent of “philosophic” views.

The realist answer is that there is something absolute, namely, facts; that even the relativist doctrine itself implies that “the relativity of all” is an absolute fact — not absolute in the sense of being above history, but absolutely historical; so that the doctrine cannot be maintained. Socrates understood that the task of philosophy is to save science from degenerating into scepticism, but he was unable to carry out this task because he was not a realist. The scientist, in so far as he recognises facts and a pluralistic order of events, is in a stronger position than the teleologist. But when he falls short in his logic, divides matters of certainty from matters of uncertainty and makes “probability” the guide of life, when, in fact, in the Pythagorean manner, he separates the rational from the irrational and appears as an unconscious teleologist, his errors are far more difficult to root out. In our own day scientific agnosticism has achieved apotheosis in the doctrine of Relativity.

Rationalist fluctuations are due simply to this, that the rationalist cannot state his doctrine at all without introducing a certain amount of empirical fact, “irrational” as he may call it, and steps have to be taken to conceal the conflict of this fact with the “ultimates”, whatever they may be. And until the recognition of a logic of events has prompted us entirely to “remove hypotheses” of degrees of reality and treat things on a common level, we are prone to fall into dualistic errors and, while imagining that we are conducting a straightforward inquiry, to remove appearances, i.e., deny facts, instead of “saving” them. It is only from the division of the rational from the irrational that “theories of knowledge” have grown up, and that illogical considerations of “certainty” and “probability” have replaced the sole basis of scientific progress, the formulation of propositions which we believe to be true.

The position of Mr E. V. Miller is not that of extreme relativism; like most modern scientific theories, it comes fairly close to the doctrines of the semi-Pythagorean Atomists. In particular, it adopts the notion of “data” or of “that whose nature it is to be given to some mind” — a notion which can no more be supported than that of any other constitutive relation. But, as we have seen in connection with Socrates, there is no limit to the multiplication of “ultimates” and “relatives”, once we have made the fatal division, and Mr Miller's “ultimates”, which he calls “enjoyments”, are quite unable to make contact with “the world of truth”.

Mr Miller develops his views from a criticism of Realism, as I expounded it in “The Non-Existence of Consciousness”. Pure realism, he considers, suffers shipwreck “on the rock of the distinction of truth from error”. As a mere theory of propositions, it provides no criterion of truth. Thus, in any dispute, “the contestants can never get away from propositions, and as there is nothing in the system [i.e., the system of propositions] to cause us to regard one proposition as better than another — no ultimates, as Professor Anderson says — they can never get away from doubt, or even mitigate it in the slightest degree”. It may be said,

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however, that this is not true of actual discussion. Though there may be cases in which B goes on denying every premise that A brings forward, it does happen occasionally that A gets back to a proposition which B admits, and which settles the dispute in favour of A.

But, supposing that this does not happen, does this mean that “they can never get away from doubt”? Not at all. As Mr Miller has put it, “A makes a statement which he believes to be true, but B doubts it; what can A do to show that he is right?” A began, it appears, not by doubting but by believing; and, though he has failed to make B believe, this does not give A any reason for ceasing to believe. And, of course, if he had convinced B, that would not be an additional reason for believing. “A supported proposition”, I agree, “is not less doubtful than any other”, since it is supported only by other propositions. But this is merely to say that inference is not the only way of getting to know, that, in fact, it is impossible except on a basis of observation or belief. But what we believe, as Mr Miller has said, we believe to be true — without asking for any “criterion”. And when we doubt, we doubt whether a proposition is true; we do not believe that the proposition is “doubtful”.

The realist position is, then, that there is no criterion of truth, nothing by believing which we believe something else. If the criterion is a proposition, we have not “got away from propositions”, and we still require a criterion to apply to it. If it is not, it cannot settle any dispute. Mr Miller's solution is that certain propositions have “original truth”. They are those “thought-objects” which are the “original counterparts” of an “enjoyment”. Whenever an enjoyment occurs, there is given, in the world of contemplation, a thought-object which, as corresponding to the enjoyment, is true. But these counterparts, which as original are sensed, may later be recollected and manipulated so as to give any number of propositions, which not being original cannot be true, though they may have true consequences, and thus be more or less “probable” or “reliable”. The enjoyments, on the other hand, cannot be contemplated at all; they cannot appear in propositions, since they are not thought-objects, and, as relations are thought-objects, enjoyments cannot even be related to thought-objects.

The main realistic objections to this theory may be briefly stated. If enjoyments cannot be related to thought-objects, they cannot have them as “counterparts”. If, as Mr Miller says, he believes in the existence of enjoyments, he is formulating the proposition, “Enjoyments are existing things”. But, more important still, “original truths” cannot settle disputes in the way required, because people disagree just as vehemently about what is immediately in front of them (what they “sense”) as about anything else. If, in the Sophistic manner, each man's “data” are held to be “true for him”, still that will not give a point of agreement for the settlement of a difference; and it will be impossible to show how such a datum could ever be a verification of a speculative proposition, because the verifying and verified propositions require to have some terms the same. And finally, unless we could find implication as a relation among

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propositions, i.e., unless implication were a sensible fact, we should never know how to infer.

It appears, then, that we are entitled to recognise neither degrees of truth nor anything outside “the world of truth”, and, if we did, it would bring us no nearer “certainty”. The theory of “enjoyment” falls with the monistic theory of “consciousness”. Realists will not deny that there is a relation between what a person believes and the state of his mind; but they maintain (a) that this implies that “states of mind” can themselves be discussed and contemplated; (b) that “the fact that I believe X” is not a criterion of the truth of X, nor is “what caused me to believe it”, unless this happened to be inference, at all relevant to the proof of it; (c) that the only propositions that anyone will accept as deciding an issue are such as he himself believes, or regards as facts. If science advances it is because one or more persons believe truths, and not because any authoritative criterion, any “ultimate”, is discovered. The absence of agreement about facts would in no way suggest a possibility of agreement about “ultimates”. And, indeed, the existence of science implies nothing as to general agreement, but only that somebody knows; and what he knows consists of true propositions.

It is most of all in ethics that these scientific requirements are repudiated, and that disagreement and the absence of a “criterion” are taken to imply that there are no independent facts, or that the facts cannot be discovered. But this is a quite incoherent view, as has been shown most particularly by Socrates, in his criticism of Sophistic theories, and by G. E. Moore. Disagreement implies no “doubtfulness”, but is possible only if each disputant believes something to be definitely the case. If subsequent consideration leads him to believe that it is not the case, he is still in the position of asserting something to be an independent fact. And if he is doubtful about the matter, this does not affect any other person who has a definite belief about it. Only if believing X implied (as it does not) believing that everybody believes X, would disagreement have the required effect. Thus if anyone passes a “moral judgment”, he is asserting the occurrence of a certain moral situation. Yet (as I pointed out in “Determinism and Ethics”; A.J.P.P., Vol. VI, No. 4note) there are theorists who find it possible to say that the moral judgments which we pass are the “data of ethics”; that is to say, that ethics has to begin by studying our judging, our acts of “approval” and “disapproval”, instead of with what we judge to be facts. It is further supposed that we promote, or advocate the promotion of, what we approve. And thus the field of ethics is defined by our attitudes of approving, promoting, advocating, etc., and what we take up these attitudes to comes in only relatively.

Having thus, as strongly as I could, repudiated ethical (or any other) relativism, I am surprised to find Professor T. A. Hunter regarding my more recent criticism of it as an “inconsistency” on my part. I have certainly at the same time attacked any theory of an absolute or ultimate,

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since “ultimates” and “relatives” hang together; but I have always maintained that true, ethical or other, propositions are absolute, or independent, facts — in other words, that they are actual occurrences. Professor Hunter does not escape Absolutism by saying that “all goods are relative”; he merely omits to state what his absolute is, i.e., to what they are relative, while his language implies that the things he is speaking of are actually or absolutely both good and relative. In fact, his ethical absolute turns out to be no other than the old Sophistic “convention” (??µ??) or, as he puts it, “a code to act upon”. It is the more surprising that he praises Socrates (who developed his ethical views in criticism of the Sophists) for bringing morality to earth, and neglects the real exponents of a “practical morality”.

The fact that Socrates upheld the relativity of goods to “The Good”, did not prevent him from presenting some very forcible criticism of “codes”, and this realistic work was his real contribution to ethics. It appears notably, as I pointed out in my comments (A.J.P.P., Vol. VII, No. 4) on Professor Hunter's original article (“Theory and Practice in Morals”; A.J.P.P., Vol. VII, No. 1), in the Euthyphro and in Book I of the Republic. The argument is that, even if we could divide good acts into religious and social, we cannot say that good religious acts are those which please the gods, because that does not tell us which those are, and because “pleasing” is only a confused way of saying “being regarded as good by”; and similarly we cannot say that good social acts are those which benefit people, because this also does not tell us which those are, and because “benefiting” means “doing good to”. In each case a qualitative distinction is required, and in each case there is a covert reference to the quality good. These, as I indicated, are the fundamental objections to the popular notion of “rendering services”.

These considerations also apply to Professor Hunter's theory of the “divergence” between theory and practice in morals. There are, it appears, codes and codes; codes to act on and codes only to advocate. A person's moral practice is the code he acts on, while his moral theory is the code he advocates; and there is divergence if he does not act on what he advocates. Now we should all doubtless agree that people have habits or ways of behaving, and the realist is at liberty to say that some of these ways of behaving are good and others are bad. Not so the relativist; for him they can only be recognised or not recognised, i.e., supported or opposed. Where, then, does morality come in? On this view, it would seem that the activities of molecules are as moral as those of men; they interact, they aid or hinder one another. What is the difference?

The difference, it appears, is that people do not merely do or refrain from doing certain things, but certain things are “done” and others are “not done”. Or, as Professor Hunter, in his absolutist way, puts it, men act on “principles”. This is nothing but a dualistic attempt to introduce a peculiar kind of causality, the teleological, into human affairs. But, even so, it fails to account for the “divergence”. If the code a man formulates

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is a statement of the principles he acts on, and if his actual principles of action are different, he is simply mistaken, or else he is lying — in any case, the code is merely false. But Professor Hunter will not accept this interpretation. For him, therefore, the code is not a statement of the principles on which its formulator acts, but is a declaration of what is the thing to do or what are the principles to act on. We see, then, that there is no divergence whatever, if the man does not “act up to” his code, because his actions are not a code; but secondly, and more important, that the supposed relation “to” conceals a qualitative distinction between “the thing to do” and “the thing not to do”. And this confusedly apprehended quality is goodness; the thing to do is the thing which it is good to do, i.e., that the doing of which is good, i.e., a good activity. This, then, is a moral fact, which the relativist only obscures and distorts with his “codes” and his “principles”.

Now, granted that activities may be good or bad, they still have the ordinary causal relations; they support and oppose one another. In “Determinism and Ethics” I adopted the Socratic view that goods always support one another and oppose bads, while bads may support or oppose other bads. But, as I said, all this cannot be found out merely by observing relations of support and opposition between human activities. On the contrary, unless we take qualities into account, we cannot distinguish an ethical struggle from a merely physical one. The failure to recognise qualities is incidentally the main defect of the utilitarian doctrine of “the greatest good of the greatest number”, or the greatest possible mutual support But even when we do recognise qualities and can thus appreciate the ethical struggle, the carrying on of that struggle is not, I stated, the same as our investigating it. “People in general do not think very much about the goodness of their activities. They are simply to be found trying to make discoveries or to produce works of art, exhibiting love or courage, or, on the other hand, imposing obligations on themselves or others, because they are made that way, i.e., because their character, in relation to their history, has so developed. And these are the conditions, and not any metaphysical ‘freedom’” — and equally, I should add, not any metaphysical “utility” — “on which, if at all, further development is possible.”

That is my answer to Professor Hunter's queries, “how we are to decide whether an activity is good, bad or indifferent, and why we take the trouble to study the moral facts”, and again to the question, “if, as Professor Anderson admits, we must study moral facts, must we not come to some conclusions, and, if we do, may not these conclusions influence or direct conduct?” I have never admitted that “we” must study moral facts; if anyone is of an inquiring turn of mind and is specially interested in ethics, he will do so; and, of course, his interest in the subject may be stimulated by other people's. Regarding the investigatory activity as good, whether it is directed to ethics or any other subject, I conclude that it will assist other goods; but I could not conclude, without circularity, that that is its “purpose”. We learn about goods, as about other

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things, by observing them; and we can be assisted by what other people tell us about them and their distinctions from and relations to other things. For example, I recognise a qualitative distinction between investigation and obscurantism, and I say that the former is good, and the latter is bad. And by this I do not mean either that I am an investigator or that I think that other people, who are not that way inclined, “ought to” investigate. But I certainly do not cease to recognise the distinction because someone else does not recognise it. I could do so only if I became acquainted with other facts which implied that there was no distinction of the sort I had attempted to draw.


For Realism, then, as against all the “ultimates”, facts are good enough. It does away with the philosophy of good intentions, of “service” to the idol of social utility or any other, and establishes philosophy as logic, the logic of events. It rejects as unphilosophic the “saving of hypotheses” of discontinuity, whether the hypothesis is only a little one or is the great One. And, rid of “meanings” and “purposes” and other products of “vicious intellectualism”, it proposes as the formal solution of any problem the interaction of complex things.