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21 Realism versus Relativism in Ethics (1933)note

It is a condition of progress in any science that relativist confusions should be removed; it is also the case that, prior to the development of theory in any particular field, relativist views prevail. This is exemplified in the fact that popular views on all subjects are deeply imbued with relativism — a fact recognised by Socrates when, in the course of his attack on the relativism of the Sophists, he called the public “the great Sophist”. On the other hand, however primitive the current conceptions of any subject may be, they are always to some extent realistic; they deal with certain real things. These things, then, being treated in a relativist fashion, are actually taken as confirming the relativist notions with which they have been associated. The development of science thus requires a criticism of popular misconceptions, and the work of disentangling reality from fiction is all the harder, the more deeply the confusion has become embedded in popular thought, and (a substantially equivalent condition) the nearer the subject lies to the centre of our interests and the more it is played upon by our hopes and fears. Now this is particularly the case in regard to human affairs themselves, and it is on this account that the sciences of man and society have made so little progress, and have been so entangled in relativism, as compared with the sciences dealing with non-human material.

The beginning of modern science with the Milesians was bound up with the rejection of mythology, the rejection of the explanation of natural events by non-natural “powers”, supposed to lie behind these events and occasion them. What is thus rejected is relativism, i.e., the conception of something whose nature it is to have a certain relation — in this case, that whereby an event happens; its hidden cause or hidden meaning. It is necessary for science to reject such conceptions, because if, e.g., we know something only as that which caused an event, then we do not know what it is itself, and therefore we do not know what causes the event or even that anything causes it. Certainly it is possible for us to know that an event has a cause without knowing what that cause is, but this is only because we have previously had experience of one event causing another, i.e., of causation as a natural or historical relation between natural or historical things. Extension of knowledge is possible, then, if we view things naturalistically and reject all conceptions of mysterious powers, of ultimates and higher realities.




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This applies as much to ethics as to any other science. If there is to be any ethical science, then ethical ultimates or powers, moral agencies above the historical facts, must be rejected. If we are to say significantly that ethics deals with goods, we must be able to exhibit goods as going on, as definitely located activities, just as we exhibit moving bodies or growing plants. This, as has been said, may be a difficult undertaking; disinterested inquiry, the exact determination of issues, the consideration of just what goods are and how they operate, may more easily give way to prejudice than in the case of subjects which touch our interests less nearly. But it is still possible, and recognition of relativism as a foe to science advances the possibility.

The most obstinate confusion obstructing the growth of ethical knowledge lies in the assumption that ethics teaches us how to live or what to live for, that it instructs us in our duty or in the approach to the moral end. It may, indeed, be admitted that, having studied ethics, we shall be able to do things that we did not do before. But this applies as much to the study of mathematics or physics as to the study of ethics; it is a consequence of the fact that studying is a part of our behaviour and influences other parts of our behaviour. It cannot on that account be said that what is studied is our behaviour, and that mathematics, e.g., instructs us in our mathematical duty and shows how to reach the mathematical end (how, for instance, to reach infinity). Knowing mathematical facts, we can do certain things; knowing ethical facts, we can do certain other things. It is thus possible to speak of “applied mathematics” and “applied ethics”. But if we are going to call the latter “application” our moral behaviour, we may equally well call the former our mathematical behaviour.

Now it may here be said that our behaviour, and in particular our studying, has ethical characteristics. Of course that is so — though it has also mathematical characteristics. But this is not to say that in ethics we are studying how to behave; nor is it the case that, if in the course of our ethical inquiry we find out that study, including ethical study, is a good thing, this means that there is any study which studies itself. What we are doing as ethical theorists is to discuss certain activities and state their characteristics, to examine certain propositions and see whether they are true or false. What we shall do, once we make up our minds on the matter, is another question entirely; and, as was indicated, our mathematical beliefs affect our conduct just as our ethical beliefs do.

Ethical realities, then, are concealed, the statement of true ethical propositions is hindered, by the confusion of the assertion of such propositions with the adoption of a policy. The confusion works in both directions. When we say that something is good, we are supposed to be stating a programme of action for ourselves or for others; when we adopt a certain line of action, we are supposed to be assuming or indicating by example that that line of action is good. In line with this confusion are to be found such expressions as the desirable, the serviceable or the justifiable. They are all relativist, in that they imply the existence of that


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whose goodness consists in our pursuing it or saying it is to be pursued. And they all obscure the fact that the possibility of a policy, of the “application” of knowledge, depends on the fact that, when we want something and find that it goes along with or is led up to by something else, we can, by producing the latter, get what we want. Whether what we want is good or not is a question still undetermined. But the relativist confusion leads to its being taken as good, and thus to the obscuring of the objects of particular policies.

Now the leading moral theories, up till quite recently, have all had such relativist confusions embedded in them. They all assume certain higher moral powers whereby historical events can have moral characteristics in a secondary sense, just as the metaphysician assumes an ultimate reality whereby historical appearances can have a subordinate reality and be graciously permitted to appear. The main relativist conceptions to be considered are those of “obligation” and “end”. The obligatory is that which is essentially demanded of us or that whose nature it is to command our obedience. The end is that whose nature it is to be pursued or which is the goal of striving. Upholders of the former, more rationalistic conception admit that we may refrain from doing our duty but its binding force remains. The more idealistic exponents of the end consider that every striving takes us, however slightly, towards the goal, just as every belief has some degree of truth. The main point is that in either case historical behaviour is alleged to be judged by reference to an unhistorical standard.

Socrates, in the Republic, upholds this teleological relativism; yet we find him, in the Euthyphro, refuting Euthypro's moralistic relativism; and the logic of the matter is the same in either case. If the obligatory (whether it is a question of “religious duty” or any other) is what we are to obey and the end is what we are to pursue, then nothing at all has been said as to what these things themselves are; we do not know what to obey or to follow. If, on the other hand, we are not fobbed off with relativist conceptions but are given some specific commands or objectives, then we find them to be just as definite historical events as the things they are related to. In a word, when relativism is removed, we are left with simple historical relations of commanding and seeking — A wants X; B is commanded by C to do Y — and what is moral or good about X or Y does not appear. Nor does it appear that there is any question of what A or B “is to do” or would be “justified” in doing or would have “reason” to do. We are simply presented with the wants of persons and the interaction of these wants.

At the same time, the use of these relativist or transcendental notions, necessarily vague as they are, makes it possible to advance certain unspecified demands, which would be opposed if mental confusion were removed. Socrates and Kant, each with his conception of some unconditioned moral power or moral reality as in some way governing historical existence, argued fallaciously, in the name of logical consistency, to the obligatoriness or virtuous character of certain forms of behaviour. Only


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moral scepticism can follow from the conception of an end not definitely known but “progressively determined” by our action, or of a pure will which wills itself; any action is as “justified” as any other on such a basis. But the mystical sanction which appears to have been given to the conduct taken as orderly or as universalisable, can easily impose on the simple-minded. The line of criticism here is to say — this action is not required by “the good” or by the “moral law”, because there is no such thing; by whom is it demanded, then, and what is his policy? It is not surprising that the Athenians looked for Socrates's political affiliations, when he claimed to take the pure moral stand.

While, then, it is absurd to say that we study ethics as a means of determining what to do, it is equally absurd to say that there is any such question as “What am I to do?” The question of what conduct can be “defended” or what conduct is “reasonable” under certain circumstances is a question in pseudo-ethics. Conduct will be defended by a particular person if it is or leads to what he wants; if there are persons who want good, then the goodness of certain conduct will be accepted by them as a “reason” for it. But it is not the case that policies in general have anything to do with goodness, and it has yet to be established that goodness has anything to do with policy. And any such point can be established only if it shown that what is good is not “the defensible” or “the reasonable” but some definite historical activity, a force, in the sense of something which can act, though also capable of being acted upon.

The task of the ethical theorist, then, will be to find goods and consider their ways of working, and in this connection he may well find how they are promoted and how prevented. His study will thus be a thoroughly deterministic one. The relative notions of good or right as the commanded or advised or wanted are connected with the metaphysical conception of human freedom — a conception which, with its division of reality into higher and lower orders, agents and instruments, is rooted in mythology and has played havoc with all the anthropological sciences. The suggestion is that things go on in their historical way until at some point “we” step in and alter their direction for the better — or the worse. To accept a view of this kind would be to give up all science; for we should never know what agent (“that which can use”) might be operating on what instrument (“that which can be used”) at any time, and we could assert no “law of nature”. But, of course, to assert the operation of any agent is to have found that agent as a historical entity and one just as subject to influence, and having as determinate ways of working, as anything he could act on.

We do not, in fact, step out of the movement of things, ask “What am I to do?” and, having obtained an answer, step in again. All our actions, all our questionings and answerings, are part of the movement of things; and if we can work on things, things can work on us — if they can be our “vehicles”, we also can be vehicles; social and other forces can work through us. It is in respect of our existing activities, and not of any abstract “reasonableness”, that we ask what is to be done; indeed, it is


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our activities themselves that, as they proceed, raise and deal with such problems, for there is no unhistorical “I” apart from our activities. As already noted, then, ethical inquiry or, similarly, social inquiry may be one of our activities; it may exemplify the working of a social force through us or of a good force in us; but what is inquired into is how social forces or good forces do work, and not what is to be done. What is done, whether it is good or not, will be determined by the forces that exist.

Ethical theory, then, is not a policy. It consists of propositions to the effect that such and such things are good and that they work in such and such ways. But, of course, a student of ethics may have a policy. Investigation itself is a force or form of activity, into the working of which persons are drawn and as working in which they make demands and alter their previous demands. The operation of demands can also be studied. We can consider what is accepted and what is rejected by a certain community, by various social organisations or by persons — in studying the life-history of anything, we have to consider what it opposes and what supports or is supported by it. But this is enough to show that there is no question of any “moral rectitude” or any connection with goodness in the matter. It is, of course, possible to take “right”, as Moore suggests, to mean that which supports or leads up to good. But to say of such a thing that it has this effect is sufficiently plain, and avoids the relativism of “the commanded” — as Moore himself does not do when he speaks of certain actions as our duty. Historically considered, obligation can only mean constraint or compulsion, and this, it will be admitted, at least frequently prevents instead of promoting goods. It is better, therefore, to drop the term “right” from ethical theory, and it is necessary emphatically to reject the view that goodness has anything to do with obeying commandments.

At the same time it is of some ethical interest to consider the basis of the conception of rectitude, more especially as it can be urged that it was from a consideration of moral codes, of the recognised and the forbidden, that ethical theory, such as it has been, arose. Certainly we find Socrates, who may be taken as the first considerable ethical theorist, criticising the Sophistic and popular reliance on codes, pointing out their inconsistencies, attacking the relativist view that the code of each city determines what is right there. But he does so only to set up an ideal code, a supposedly consistent hierarchy of virtues, regarded, no doubt, as dependent on “the good” but certainly neither deduced by him nor deducible from the formal possibility of goodness or of an end. A consideration of the development of the conception of rectitude may at least help to show how it came to pass as an ethical conception.

In considering how there came to be mores in a community, we must start from the fact that that community is a historical force or set of activities. Now there are relations of support and opposition between any activity whatever and others surrounding it; and likewise we can say that any historical thing has its characteristic ways of working, ways which are variously affected by its historical situation. To say, then, that


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a society exists is to say that it proceeds along certain lines and that there are conditions favourable and conditions unfavourable to its continuance. Thus mores are, in the first instance, forms of social operation, the engendering of certain states of things and prevention of others. These may be called the demands or requirements of the society. But when the demands come to be formulated by members of the society (and this takes place through conflict among the demands of members), we have mores in the second instance — recognition of what is required and what is forbidden — we have especially the operation of taboo. So there develop from customary tasks and customary constraints the notions of right and wrong. It is to be noted, of course, that, just as certain organisms and certain organisations do not survive, so mores need not have survival value. They are simply ways of working of that particular community in its particular environment; and a community may perish — or again it may change its mores, and such variations may have survival value or they may not. Customs, then, ways of social working, must exist if a society is to exist; but they are not to be understood in the “purposive” fashion, and they raise, of themselves, no question of goodness. Also there is no question of a total social morality; it is seen that there are conflicting demands, conflicting activities, conflicting forms of organisation, within the society; and the upshot of such a conflict may be that what was generally recognised or sanctioned ceases to be so.

If, now, in any society, good and bad activities are going on, they will be supported and opposed by other existing activities; and it may be that what passes as “right” is actually opposed to good activities, and that which passes as “wrong” supports them. It will scarcely be denied that this has been true of some societies. But the point is obscured by the teleological conception of “social welfare” as that which right conduct promotes and by the solidarist conception of a total communal morality, a general virtue which gradually develops and brings welfare nearer and nearer — though again it will hardly be denied that changes in mores take place under the influence of “wrong” activities. It appears, then, that the solidarist view does not hold, and that the description of certain events as “right” and “wrong” gives no “reason” for taking either side. Social forces work themselves out historically; goods act in their characteristic way and make their demands, even when they happen to be forbidden or opposed by the main social forces. If this were not so, we could only say that there are no goods, no objects of ethical study, but merely relations of support and opposition — relations such as can be found in any field whatever.

The question for ethics is thus to exhibit the working of forces of a specific kind, not to call for approval or support for them. It may indeed be contended that they support themselves and fight against opposition; and if it is said that persons do “advocate” them, it may be answered that this advocacy is the work of the good activities themselves in and through these persons. At any rate, to have a soundly realistic science of ethics, we have to discover goods as certain real things, just as real


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as we are, and not “expressions of our attitudes” or any other relativist fiction. The first important attempt to develop such a science was made by Moore in his Principia Ethica. Moore endeavoured to found an objective theory of goodness, and he contended that certain definite things were in themselves good aesthetic enjoyment and personal affection being great goods, and knowledge a good of less importance. It has to be acknowledged, however, that there is a great deal of relativism in Moore's theory; as we have already seen, he recognises duty, and his doctrine that good is an indefinable and non-natural object is connected with the conception of good as an end and as having higher reality than other things. At the same time, in accordance with his theory of the intuition of this entity, good would be a mere label or expression of an attitude, and not an independent force.

The question of what, on the realist understanding, are actual goods may be approached by considering what have been called goods. The use of the term “good” even relativistically for what is wanted shows that some recognition was taken to be given to goodness; and the antithesis between good and bad, as contrasted with that between right and wrong, shows that a qualitative distinction was, however vaguely, recognised, and not a mere distinction between relations of support and opposition — though, indeed, there was bound to be a qualitative distinction between the sort of thing supported and the sort of thing opposed, but not necessarily, as we have seen, the ethical distinction.

Now one of the things that have been most widely recognised as good is investigation, and the fact that confused reasons have been given for this view is no indication of its falsity. Ethical theorists, being themselves investigators, might be regarded as suspect in this matter; but since this suspicion, while leading to ethical scepticism, would itself imply some consideration of ethical matters, it cannot be seriously entertained. Investigation appears also as a means to goodness or, rather, to goodness misconceived as order, in the theories of Socrates and Aristotle, and this, it might be suggested, would lead to their attaching an undue importance to it. But if we pass over Aristotle's unsound distinction between goodness of character and goodness of intellect — unsound because to have a good character is simply to be good and this, for all Aristotle has shown, may involve intellectual activity, and because, even if to have a good intellect means only to be good at thinking, this still leaves it possible that intellectual proficiency is ethically good — we find that he regards the speculative life as the “highest happiness” or greatest good, and even as divine. In so describing it, he is distinguishing it from the human goodness with which he had previously been concerned. But this human goodness is simply that for which it is possible to legislate, and, in considering legislation for goodness before considering what is good, Aristotle is really substituting order for goodness, and even that problem cannot be solved on a merely legislative basis and without reference to the kind of order or system that is in question.

In suggesting, however, that the speculative life cannot be legislated


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for, Aristotle is bringing out the point that it legislates for itself or, as he puts it, that it is of all activities the most self-sufficient, as well as being capable of the most continuous exercise. This is connected with the common recognition of goods as “existing for their own sake” (as in Moore's conception of “intrinsic value”) and of goodness as being exercised “disinterestedly”. Divesting these conceptions of their metaphysical accretions, and not considering goods as existing unconditionally or as “self-subsistent”, we find, as marks of investigation and as possible marks of any good, that it is a human activity which communicates itself (investigation giving rise to investigation), which is possible under all conditions (there being no situation which is not a subject for investigation), and which produces the materials for its own continuance (with the reservation that it can be destroyed by opposing activities).

We thus have a distinction between productive or ethical goods and economic goods or goods of consumption, a distinction connected with that commonly made between disinterestedness and interestedness, and with that drawn by Sorel (in Reflections on Violence) between the ethic of the producer and the ethic of the consumer. The latter is that which attempts to treat all goods as objects of want and all actions as interested; it is the doctrine of utilitarianism. It may be answered briefly by referring to Butler's theory of the disinterestedness of our passions, the fact that they do not act by calculation, and still more to the consideration that we cannot treat investigation and all other human activities as mere objects of want, because it is our activities themselves that want — a position which has its economic counterpart in the fact that, however demands may operate and though there may nominally be a price for everything, actual exchanges depend upon appropriations and other preconditions of demand. It may also be said that it is the conception of good as the wanted that leads to the view that not all goods are human activities, Moore, e.g., referring to the operation of our preferences in order to prove that natural beauty is good, and being anxious, incidentally, to show that goods have no common quality but their goodness, in order to save his theory of the indefinability of good.

The conception of the productiveness of goods leads to the view that production is itself a good; it fulfils the conditions mentioned in the case of investigation, and it also assists and is assisted by investigation. Indeed, we find investigation flourishing where production is developing, and the assistance given by science to production is equally well marked. Similar considerations apply to aesthetic creation and appreciation; in fact the distinction between these forms of activity is hard to draw; the artist and the investigator are producers of a sort, the producer is in some measure an artist and an investigator. But as we broadly distinguish between Science, Art and Industry within a social culture, so we may broadly distinguish scientific, artistic and productive activity. The recognition of them all as productive is in accordance with the Marxist conception of society as organisation for production, of production as socially fundamental. And this would suggest that there had been goodness, as


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we certainly can say there has been disinterestedness, in all society — a fact which would help to explain the lip-service rendered to goodness by ethical relativists, which would show, indeed, that a real subject was being dealt with, even though it was maltreated as a matter of commands and wants.

The finding of interrelated goods within the various cultural fields does not, however, support the hypothesis of social solidarity, of a gradually emerging and progressively defined social welfare. On the contrary, we have to recognise that what is good in social culture has had to fight and still has to fight for its existence; that science is faced not merely by open obscurantism but by obscurantism and scepticism masquerading as science; that waste passes for industry, and that luxury is paraded as art. Goods, as social forces, as forms of organisation, are engaged in struggle, and develop ways of working in that struggle. It is such ways of working that constitute a “morality” or code of rules, but, of course, only as the morality of certain forces and in opposition to other mores. It is such a morality that Sorel calls “the ethic of the producer”; he recognises as the characteristics developed by the working-class in the course of its struggle, and in opposition to bourgeois morality, the qualities of initiative, emulation, care for exactitude and rejection of the notion of “reward”. Such mores form part of Marxists call proletarian ideology — that is to say, a general outlook on social questions, a set of attitudes which hang together, being ways of working of the productive activity. It would be urged that bourgeois ideology, being rooted in consumption, is at once less coherent and less socially necessary — indeed, that it is, at the present stage, anti-social; opposed to the continuance of organisation for production and thus to the continuance of the conditions of the possibility of goods.

It will be seen that this theory explains how it is possible both to confuse and to distinguish between morals and ethics, between the required (for some way of living) and the good (which is itself a way of living). But, apart from detailed considerations of social history, the theory of goods as historical forces enables us to dispense with the conceptions of end and right, and with all the confusions they carry in their train; in particular, with such problems as that of the moral faculty or of the “inducement” to goodness. Goods are found to be forces operating through persons, developing their own methods, fighting with the evils of interestedness or consumptiveness. We find, too, that we can describe them as working freely, not in the metaphysical sense, but as showing initiative as contrasted with compulsion and repression. No more than they are uncaused are they lawless, but they have their own ways of working, securing their continuance, establishing solidarity among those who participate in them. It is, of course, possible for goods to be destroyed, by natural accident or social opposition, but while they exist they go on propagating themselves.

It is not denied, then, on the basis either of the deterministic working of goods or of the struggle between goods and bads, that “moral appeal”


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or persuasion is possible. But there are limits to persuasion and discussion. It can take place only under definite conditions, viz., where there are common ways of living, common demands arising from communicating activities; and under these conditions it does take place. There is no appeal to a metaphysical conscience or to a metaphysical welfare, though people are deluded into thinking that there is. Indeed we see, in connection with the notions of welfare, that economists as well as moralists fall into relativist confusions. The historical and deterministic treatment of goods is, in fact, only one example of the removal of metaphysics from science, the establishment of all scientific objects on a single level of investigation. And in thus upholding a logic of events, realist ethics helps to free philosophy from the confused ethics in which metaphysics is rooted — from the conception of “higher realities”, that is to say, preferred delusions.

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