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II. The “Moral Judgment”

This general position is not affected by the conception of ethics as the science of moral judgments; on the contrary, it shows that that conception is wrong. The suggestion is that the data of ethics are acts of approval or preferences, and that, while it is possible to deal positively with the conditions under which we come to approve of this or that, there remains the question of the “validity” of our approval, a question which cannot be treated in the same positive fashion. But when we consider what is meant by validity in this case, we find that it simply means the truth of the judgments we pass. Now, admittedly, the truth of a belief is a different matter from how we come to hold it, but the one question is just as positive as the other. In a moral judgment, as in any other, something is judged or asserted, i.e., some situation is said to have occurred; and moral judgments can be distinguished from others only in virtue of some peculiarity of these situations, such that we can describe them as moral situations. It would be absurd to say that, although such situations are asserted, ethics cannot take account of them but must begin with our approval; apart from them it would be impossible to say what “our approval” meant. No one but the most recalcitrant relativist would dream of saying that the data of physics are “physical judgments”, instead of physical facts, yet the one view is as reasonable as the other.

If, then, we all pass moral judgments, this means that we all suppose that there are moral facts, which, naturally, are the data of ethics. And if any such judgment is to be criticised, this must be done by means of other judgments of a similar kind, i.e., by showing that the supposed situation contradicts the true moral facts; otherwise we have a mere


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argumentum ad hominem. It is just through this sort of confusion between our attitudes to things and their own characters, that it has been supposed that ethics has to do with ends. It is possible for us to pursue something which is good,note but this could not be significantly said if goodness meant being pursued, or even being worthy to be pursued, by us. How we are affected by good things, and likewise how we know them, are questions which, though a moralist may be interested in them, cannot constitute ethical inquiry. Statements such as “This is good” are made, and they must be met or supported in just such ways as would be employed in dealing with the statement “This is sulphur”. G. E. Moore's theory of “intuition” simply amounts to saying that we find certain ethical propositions to be true; this does not mean, as is evident from other such findings, that they cannot be logically criticised or proved. Intuition, then, means observation, the direct acquisition of positive knowledge, allowing, of course, that people are as apt to make mistakes about moral facts as about physical facts in general.

The illogicality of the theory of the “moral judgment” becomes still clearer if we consider the detailed accounts that are given of approval of the right things, and consequent or concomitant pursuit of the true end. The passing of moral judgments is supposed to be the work of some peculiar faculty or mental power, which approves or disapproves of the ends chosen by other faculties or powers. The more rationalistic form of this theory is that there is a special moral faculty, conscience or sense of obligation, which issues its edicts, while particular inclinations or reflective faculties (like Butler's “self-love”) engage in the pursuit of ends which may or may not be in accordance with these edicts. Taking the more idealistic view, we have to think of the whole self as pursuing an ultimate end (“self-realisation”) in relation to which alone any special end is to be approved or even understood. In the latter case we have a more definite conception of control on the part of the central power; but even in the former case we can hardly think of approving as going on in the same mind without any effect on actual choice. So that while there is a prima facie distinction between the theory of a difference of kind between the approving faculty and the pursuing faculties, and that of a difference of degree between the whole self pursuing the good and functions of the self pursuing aspects or elements of the good, there is in both cases a conception of an ultimate judge and of subordinate functions which it criticises. Thus if we can rule out the supposition of a peculiarly critical faculty, we shall have disposed of both “conscience” and the “whole self” as candidates for that office.

Now I have no desire to deny that judgments are passed in the course of our activities and pursuits, of which they may even be said to be expressions. But it does not follow that these judgments are about the activities themselves, or that, since we judge in choosing, our judgment must take any such form as “I am choosing what I ought to choose”, or, by


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generalisation, “This ought to be chosen by anyone similarly situated”. There is nothing whatever, in the fact that we find things out in the course of our pursuits, to show that we find out anything about our pursuits, let alone that they have “norms”; and although in our active life we sometimes discover moral truths, we also discover other truths, in which, for the most part, we are much more interested.

The position is that a motivenote (i.e., whatever it is in us that acts; feelings, as I should contend) tends to bring about some state of affairs, or objective, and that, if it is not obstructed in its action, we believe (or, as I should say, the motive believes) that that state of affairs has occurred, i.e., a certain proposition is held to be true. If this terminology of motives and objectives be adopted, the position that I am criticising is that there is a peculiarly critical motive which judges all other motives by comparing their objectives with its, or that there is a total motive which dominates all partial motives by subordinating their objectives to its; the ultimate objective in both cases being “the good”. (Of course, by confusion between what a mental activity is and what it knows, the objective is wrongly called the motive, in many theories.) Whether “the good” is conceived as an abstract or as a concrete universal, the criticism of the theory of an ultimate objective and a fundamental motive is not greatly affected; and, as has been indicated, the two theories do not remain so distinct as they set out to be. They are simply different ways of trying to meet the difficulties involved in setting up a moral authority.

The fundamental objection to any theory which distinguishes a universal motive seeking a universal objective from particular motives seeking particular objectives is that all motives and objectives are particular. What we seek can only be some state of affairs. To call it a norm or an ideal is merely an excuse for leaving it indefinite. And, in the same way, aiming at the norm would have to be as much the work of an inclination as is sport or drunkenness. The ideal, if it is to be capable of being stated and thought about, must be specific, and thus that which pursues it will be only a part or “aspect” of the self. In short, the notion of a total or supreme good is incompatible with the recognition of ethical propositions, i.e., of situations in which good occurs.

The distinction between conscience and inclinations, as worked out, for example, by Butler, comes to something like this. An inclination pursues a certain thing, and it will pursue this thing irrespective of whether it is good or not; it is incapable of exercising criticism or judgment, since it has a “particular” aim. Conscience, on the other hand, works by means of judgment; it directs pursuit of things because they are good; or, judging that a thing is good — a proposition — it approves the inclination that pursues that thing — simply as a thing. But there is no logical distinction between things and propositions. Things are known only by their characters, and so the objective in each case is a complex


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situation, not any “simple" entity. Hence, any motive that can seek, can judge; and the reverse also holds, each motive being interested in situations of a certain sort. Our object-seeking activities (passions or inclinations) govern our judgments; and there is no logical basis for supposing the existence of a non-passionate judge or “rational” faculty, over and above our activities themselves, which is peculiarly critical of them, or to which they should be referred. The fact that judgments are made by passions does not mean, as already indicated, that they are about passions, and it does not mean that they are false. They can be shown to be false only by having other judgments, equally definite, brought against them.

It is, indeed, to be observed that there could be no conflict between conscience and inclinations, if their objectives were of different orders. But if all objectives are of the propositional order, having both particularity and universality in that a certain thing is taken to be of a certain sort, then we can have contradiction and conflict. In fact we can connect the interaction, the mutual opposition or support, of motives with the similar relations between the propositions which are believed. That is, we can explain reasoning without calling in “reason”. This reason, which is supposed to guide our activities or to subsume them in itself, is in a quite untenable position. For the guiding or subsuming is surely an activity of ours. So that either we have activities which reason cannot control, or it will guide its own guiding, subsume its own subsuming — and so on.

Criticism, then, is not a special function, but can be undertaken by any motives that can conflict. It is not only in moral science, as the history of rationalist thought amply shows, that the attempt has been made to set up authoritative principles. But, when we consider the actual procedure of science, we find that there is no such thing as abstract criticism, but only criticism in terms of certain tenets. Thus what we currently mean by “reasonable” is not transcending particularity but conforming to certain specific standards, viz., to the objectives of the motives which speak as “we” at a given time. And as reasonable means assisting, or at least not hindering, these objectives, unreasonable means obstructing or conflicting with them. The dominant motives are as particular as the subordinate ones, and it is easily seen from the facts of everyday life that it is not always the same motive that criticises. The attempt to get round these facts by means of the notion of a developing conscience or self makes the fatal admission that the motive in question is a particular one. Actually, then, we find that our motives change and that different motives are dominant at different times. And the theory of a moral authority is simply an attempt to induce conformity to the motives dominant in certain minds, by elevating them to a transempirical level. This attempt owes some of its success to the tendency to seek safety and certainty, which is also, of course, a particular motive with a definite history.

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