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23 The Nature of Ethics (1943)note

In my article, “The Meaning of Good”, I maintained (as I have done in other articles) that, if there is to be a science of ethics, it must be a positive science. I hold, in fact, that there is no such thing as a “normative” science, and I endeavoured, in examining the particular views of Moore, to advance considerations that would support that general position. It seems to me that the prevalence of the “normative” view is one main reason why ethics as a science has not progressed. And, while it would be foolish to expect that that view will ever disappear, progress may still be made through the setting of diverse views in clear opposition to one another — a process which involves the specifying of the crucial issues. It may even be argued that the “normative” outlook affects all science, not merely as an external obstacle, but as something inherent in the scientist's own thinking — so that his progress as a scientist will involve his detection of his own “norms”, the conceptions which he imposes on the facts. Atomism, in my view, is a case in point; the belief in ultimate units has been a hindrance to the progress alike of physical and of social science, and the bringing of this way of thinking into the light of day, the treatment of it as a matter of controversy, assists in the growth of a body of positive knowledge. There may be reasons why the human sciences will always lag, but the clarification of issues and the opening up of lines of inquiry, through a “criticism of categories”, takes place in them as well as in other fields. It is still important to observe that there will never be general agreement in any field, that on the subject-matter of every science there is a greater amount of confused than of clear thinking — and that no one is exempt from confusion.

Now the special importance of Moore's work is that he brings these questions into sharp relief in the field of ethics. He has come nearer than any of his predecessors to a positive theory, not simply by his insistence on the objectivity of goodness but by his setting forth of propositions in which it is attributed to various “natural” things, i.e., by his recognition of species of goods. The Socratic doctrine of “the unity of virtue” is dictated by the conception of goodness as mandatory (though Socrates also, as I suggested, has some sense of its qualitative character), and the adoption of a “pluralist” view is a considerable step towards emancipation from moralism and the establishment of a thoroughly naturalistic ethics. And here, too, Moore's criticism of “metaphysical


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ethics” is important, and Socrates is again typical of the adherents of the mandatory in treating the nature of goodness as bound up with the nature of reality. But precisely because Moore is only half-emancipated, because he still treats good as calling for support, as requiring of us that we should act in certain ways, he becomes involved in logical difficulties; and, in attempting to straighten out these entanglements, we are forced to recognise the opposing strains in his thinking and are sharply confronted with fundamental ethical problems. That disentanglement will ensue only on the adoption of a completely naturalistic position is not a conclusion to which everyone so confronted will come, but, if even a few do so, the study of Moore's ethical position will have contributed to such progress as is possible in ethical studies in general.

To make this sort of point I had to insist on the logical difficulties, and in doing so I paid less attention than I should have done under other circumstances to the nature of Moore's contribution to positive ethical theory — and even to the force of his criticism of certain relativisic views. Detailed discussion of these matters would be necessary in any thorough exposition of Moore's theory. But, even within the limits of the subject I was considering, I emphasised his qualitative treatment of good as the naturalistic strain (and a very powerful one) in his thinking. And here I should like to make it clear that I do not think there are two ways in which a naturalistic theory of ethics can be developed. In my view (as I indicated in discussing alternative treatments of good), if judgments of goodness are reduced to judgments of the existence of certain relations, then the theory of these relations is not ethics; it might, as I suggested, be economics or it might be some other branch of social or of psychological science, but the distinctive science of ethics would disappear. I do not consider, however, that it is possible to get rid of ethics. When I said in the passage in question that “Two consistent attitudes can be adopted”, I was speaking loosely; I meant that one could correct the inconsistency involved in a conception which amalgamated quality and relation, by concentrating either on a qualitative meaning or on a relational meaning. Now, as I said there and elsewhere, there can be a positive theory of relations; but such a theory cannot avoid giving some account of the related things — in fact, it will not go far unless it correlates difference of relation with difference of quality, and the recognition of some particular qualities may be specially illuminating for it. The theorist of human relations, then, has to take account of human qualities and may go seriously wrong through ignoring certain of them — and inconsistency always goes with error. He might retain formal consistency by sticking to a few initial assertions, but it is otherwise when he develops a theory; and if, as I believe, there is a quality “goodness” in certain human activities, its presence or absence will make a difference to some human relations, and passing it over will occasion inconsistencies in the theory of these relations.




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This sort of consideration would be relevant to a great part of Mr A. D. Hope's argument. But, before getting to grips with his views, I would point out that a naturalistic theory of a relational kind is the sort of theory that has regularly confronted normative theories, an unreservedly qualitative view having been scarcely represented in the history of the subject. Hence, if we take good to be a quality, we must regard normative theories, whatever their logical confusions, as having played a most important part in these controversies — as having, in their erection of an “absolute standard”, kept alive the sense of an absolute quality. Logical confusion will carry with it empirical error, but a real subject will still be adumbrated. Thus though it is only in Moore that the tension of the opposing strains approaches bursting-point (this being one reason why his doctrines are watered down by such thinkers as Ross), we can find in the generality of moralists, though in varying degrees, traces of a positive and non-mandatory view. Even so extreme a moralist as Kant may be said to convey some notion of qualitative goodness (of that which just is good, without further reference), though he confuses the conception of what, in this sense, is unconditionally good with the illogical conception of a good which does not, like everything else, exist under conditions: for to say that an X exists only when a Y exists is not to say that X is “relative” to Y or that Y has a “part” in X-ness. Criticism of Kant, then, might lead in the same direction as criticism of Moore; having seen the illogicality of the notion of an absolute imperative, we might come to consider, independently of imperatives, the quality from which the “absoluteness” takes its significance. Hegel's criticism has something of this force, but it certainly does not eliminate “metaphysics” or the cult of the absolute. And the fact that Moore's work has as background a very considerable development of positive theory in the intervening period, may help to account for its “explosive” force.

The essential point is that normative theories amalgamate different subjects, but the ruling out of one of them is not a solution. And it seems to me that much of Hope's argument depends on the simple assumption of the truth of a relational view. I do not think it is true, at any rate, that I gave no reason for rejecting such a view of goodness. What sort of reason can be given except by pointing to a quality, which is the quality in question? And how can one prove that it is the quality in question except by showing that it is one of the things that recognised moralists have talked about? Of course, the critic may say that he can detect no such quality, and in that case discussion comes to an end, unless one can show that various things he says imply that he does recognise such a quality. And, since it is impossible to carry out a personal analysis of all critics, we are brought back again to a sifting of “recognised” theories. That is the main way in which discussion can fruitfully proceed, but it requires all the time an acquaintance with specific sorts of things; and my endeavour to draw readers' attention to a kind of thing with which they had been


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long acquainted, and my suggestion that that was the sort of thing with whose characteristics moralists were struggling, were at least relevant to the disproof of a relational theory of goodness, though, as I said, I only gave the outline of an argument. It should be noted, of course, that on a qualitative theory goods will have relations, and the consideration of their relations may be of great importance for ethical theory; but to hold that it is does not in any way involve relativism. Similarly, it may be held that only those who live in a certain way can have a clear conception of goodness; but that would not in the least imply that their ethics was simply propaganda for their way of living.

Now in the outline referred to (the concluding part of my article) I drew specific attention to the fact that, allowing that children become acquainted quite early with something they can positively call good, this positive information comes to them so mixed up with admonitions that they have the greatest difficulty in arriving at a clear view of the matter later on. I do not, indeed, agree with the Freudians in their estimate of the importance of the family-situation; I consider that social forces, working through and beyond it, are mainly concerned in imposing compulsions on the child (cf. “Freudianism and Society”, A.J.P.P., June, 1940).note But at least I have given some indication of how, on my view, goodness comes to be regarded as authoritative, and thus, over and above the formal objections to relativism, of how Moore can uphold a mandatory ethic. It is the confusion of the relation of command with the quality of goodness that leads to Moore's doctrine of the “indefinability” of good (since definition would force him to clear the matter up) and hence to his belief in ethical intuition. The important point here is not the operation of authority in the mind (on which question I should have thought the Freudian view, whatever weight we attach to it, was fairly familiar), but the attribution of authority to goodness. Of course, if there is no such positive thing as goodness, the more complicated question does not arise. But I think I am justified in saying that, in making it simply a question of the establishment of authoritative, unquestionable or “intuitive” judgments, Hope has ignored a great deal of my argument. If he had considered the possibility of regarding Moore as amalgamating authority and goodness, as mixing up two distinct but quite real subjects, and had found reason for rejecting it, he might properly have gone on to a consideration of the psychical determinants of judgments of the “authoritative or good”. As it is, seeing that “intuition” involves authority, he has concluded that an account of the setting up of authority is all that is called for — thus begging the question of the existence of a second subject, and of special reasons why good should be cast for the authoritative part.

Apart from this, Hope is to a large extent knocking at open doors. No one denies that there are relational meanings of “good”, nor, I think, does anyone deny that there are causes of our accepting something as mandatory (or “to be done”), though many might think


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that these causes are to be discovered in a consideration of social movements rather than in an analysis of mind. These points leave Moore's theory unaffected, and it is in other ways much stronger than would appear from Hope's account of it. I cannot see the point of his contention that our knowledge of intuition is not, for Moore, intuitive, and I am unable to find, in Principia Ethica, § 12, any appeal to observation “for confirmation of the difference between our way of knowing ‘good’ and knowing yellow”; what I find, on the contrary, is the contention that, even if there were no difference between the modes of being (and presumably also between the modes of cognition) of these two entities, even if good were natural, it would still be fallacious to identify either of them with the subjects of which it is predicated — in other words, that, apart from all question of ways of knowing, a proposition is not an identity. I do not think Moore gives any account at all of how we are aware of intuition as a cognitive procedure; he has not even much to say about “intuitions” (objects of intuition), and my remarks on the subject were a rather “free” rendering of his position, emphasising the consequences of any distinction between ways of knowing or between ways of being. Perhaps the clearest presentation of his view is to be found in § 36, where he says that in the work of hedonists prior to Sidgwick “we find no clear and consistent recognition of the fact that their fundamental proposition involves the assumption that a certain unique predicate can be directly seen to belong to pleasure alone among existents; they do not emphasise, as they could hardly have failed to have done had they perceived it, how utterly independent of all other truths this truth must be”. And, while I think the criticisms I offered would apply well enough to that, it should in any case be clear that the position is devised to support the attribution of a certain “status” to good and that not even Moore would imagine that he had observed himself discovering this or going through any other process prior to being struck by the “ethical” fact.

But, apart from the question of “status”, is there any real problem here? If Moore “can give no account of how he comes to recognise goodness”, can he, and would he want to, give an account of how he comes to recognise anything else? If he “apparently has an immediate and vivid apprehension of goodness as a quality”, how does this differ from the case of his apprehension of yellow? I hesitate to believe that Hope is maintaining a representational theory of knowledge, making out that there is some internal entity which “mediates” between us and yellow, and enables us to know it; such a theory does not even show how we “come to recognise” the internal entity, let alone how that would help us to know the external one. But, if that is not the position, the most that can be meant by “how we come to know” anything is the conditions which must be present when we do know it. The prime condition, of course, is that it confronts us, and, apart from the difficulties involved in the conception of the “non-natural”, Moore could say that there is no more difficulty in our knowing the goodness of


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something which confronts us and is good than in our knowing the yellowness of something which confronts us and is yellow. There are further conditions in each case (illustrated by my suggestion above that only participants in a certain way of living might be capable of knowing good), there are variations in powers of observation and discrimination; but, no matter how fully we state any such set of conditions, they will never show “how” we know the thing in question, in the sense of showing what enables them to enable us to know it or of “constituting” its cognisability. What we have is just that, when one thing happens, another thing happens.

Thus, if the influence of the “Super-ego” is one condition of the passing of an ethical judgment, this would not affect the discussion of such judgments themselves. Hope does in fact admit, as one possibility, that the Super-ego may simply cause the mind to observe good as a (real) quality of things. But that admission takes all point from the question “how we come to know” goodness and from the whole presentation of the Freudian theory of mental structure, and brings us back to the question of what we do find in the facts. It is not very clear what Hope means by the alternative suggestion that “this quality of good” is “only a rationalisation by the Ego of its attitude to conflicting demands in the Unconscious mind: what Freud calls ‘projection’”. The Ego, let us say, submits to demands of the sort A and resists demands of the sort B; is the position, then, that when it finds another Ego submitting to A or resisting B, it calls that action “good” (and calls resistance to A or submission to B “bad”)? If so, what is the force of the expression “rationalisation”? “Doing what I do is good” — that, whether it is tenable or not, seems a quite straightforward position, but it is in no sense a defence of “what I do” unless “good” has an independent meaning. And, if prior to “projection”, I call my own actions good, no special mechanism seems to be required to lead me to give the same description to similar actions by other people — but, in calling my own actions good, I certainly do not mean simply that they are my own actions. Or if, finally, goodness is ascribed to acts in obedience to some internal monitor (“Super-ego” or “conscience”), to speak of “rationalisation” seems in no way to show what is gained by the avoidance of a directly relational terminology — and, indeed, this cannot be explained unless some non-relational (qualitative) factor is being smuggled in, and in that case there must be such a factor. This is not to deny that the conceptions of goodness and badness have become associated with authority, but at least it casts doubt on the rejection of a qualitative meaning for them, and it indicates that the doctrine of “rationalisation” is no way of reducing what I have taken to be two subjects (commonly confused) to one.

Detailed criticism of the Freudian theory of mind would be out of place here, but something may usefully be said on Hope's considerable misrepresentation of Moore's psychological position and its connection with his ethics. There is not, I should say, the slightest justification for


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attributing to Moore a unitary view of mind. Whatever may be the objections to the “method of isolation”, i.e., to the determination of a thing's “value” by considering whether it would be worth while that it alone existed (and I indicated some of them in my article), the very fact that Moore asks us to imagine a mind wholly occupied by one passion shows that he thinks of it as being ordinarily occupied by many different passions; and even if he treats states of mind as states of consciousness, so that “conflicting motives when they occur conflict in consciousness”, this would scarcely be treating the mind as “a single conscious unit”. It would seem rather to be Hope who believes in the unity of consciousness, so that to save mental plurality he has to bring in the unconscious; at any rate, that Moore can speak of “a defiant hatred of evil dispositions in ourselves” (§ 131) shows that the doctrine of mental unity is not his. Now if knowledge of conscious states is to be called “introspection”, Moore will certainly rely on introspection for knowledge of mind — but so will Freud, up to a point. But what Moore is appealing to, in applying his “method of isolation” in § 125, is “intuition”; and that means in practice (leaving out of account the objections to some features of his view) an appeal to our considered judgment, to what we can see, with special reference to ethical characters, in the situation we are examining, no matter how our knowledge was acquired. And when he refers to the difficulty of determining the nature of the cognition by the presence of which “the pleasures of lust” are to be defined, he is certainly treating lust as a state of consciousness and his problem is to determine what is its object, i.e., what it is that the lustful person enjoys; but the difficulty may well be due precisely to “suspicion that introspection might have interests to promote”, to unwillingness to accept the lustful person's word in the matter.

Hope's most serious distortion of Moore's meaning, however, occurs in his statement that in the final chapter (§ 113) “it is the value of the consciousness of beauty or of good which forms the fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy”. The words “or of good” are a sheer importation; they convey the suggestion (borne out in Hope's further argument), the quite unjustified suggestion, that Moore confuses between consciousness as a feature of goods and consciousness as the judge of goods, that he treats consciousness as of supreme ethical importance because it makes ethical discoveries — a suggestion quite opposed to Moore's “objectivism”. The fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy is for Moore, that aesthetic enjoyment and personal affection are “by far the most valuable things that we know or can imagine”. He refers to them, of course, as “states of consciousness” — on any view, they involve consciousness. In connection with the former he mentions that he differs from Sidgwick in holding that the mere existence of beauty is good but agrees with him in taking its value to be negligible in comparison with that of “consciousness of beauty” (in other words, “aesthetic enjoyment”, or in one word, appreciation). It is a question, then, not of the general thesis that consciousness is the key to goodness, but of the quite specific contention


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that appreciation is good. And if we reject (as I contended that we must) the doctrine of degrees of goodness, we may still think Moore has made a useful contribution to ethics in recognising appreciation and love as specific goods, things having goodness as a character. Again we might disagree with his view that certain non-mental things are good, while holding with him that those mental things which are good are conscious. This would have nothing to do with the fact that inquiry into ethics is a conscious procedure; at the same time it would not be rendered dubious by the mere fact that some mental processes are unconscious, or that they have an influence on our conscious behaviour. We are acquainted with the specific thing, aesthetic appreciation, and that means that we find specific characters in it.

This leads me to a brief consideration of Hope's remarks on “fictions”. Apparently, for him, “aesthetic appreciation” would be an elliptical way of referring to the fact that somebody feels or thinks aesthetically, and it would not be appreciation that proceeded in any way but an appreciator. In putting forward this view Hope seems to have forgotten his earlier pluralism, to have replaced it by a doctrine of the unitary “person” who alone can do things. It would be a very curious account of mental qualities and mental history that could be erected on this basis. In my article I took for granted the plurality of mental entities (sentiments, passions or whatever they may be called) for which I have argued elsewhere — the existence of a society of “motives”, having distinct characters and a certain capacity for independent action. I do not propose to traverse that ground again in this discussion but would observe that my view gains considerable corroboration from the work of Freud. A little may be said, however, on the question of “activities”. When I say that a thing has a certain activity, I mean that it goes on in a certain way, and this is the very same as saying that it has a certain quality. I should, then, no more speak of “activities towards things” than of “qualities towards things”. At the same time, I should recognise no more of a logical distinction between things and qualities than between subjects and predicates — a matter which I touched on in my article. Thus I could refer to good as a quality or as a sort of thing or as a way of going on, considering as I do that any treatment of these as different types of entities leads to insoluble problems. Now good, on this view, will have relations, and it is possible that there are certain relations that all goods have and certain relations that only goods have. (Corresponding facts would, I take it, be admitted in the case of men.) And, while this is no reason for holding a relational view of good, it opens the way to such a view. All we can do, having recognised certain types of distinction, is to try not to overlook them in any given case. Taking the case of “inquiry”, we see at once that this expression has a primarily relational sense, and the same is true of the expression “scientific interest”. Yet, observing that this is one of many competing interests in a mind, we may be able to distinguish what is interested from its being interested in


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something. And, in referring to this interested thing as “the scientific spirit”, I consider that I am distinguishing it qualitatively from other things in the same region. But, once such a quality had been distinguished, there would be no harm in using the term “inquiry” to refer both to the possession of the quality and to the possession of those relations which such things always have.

The same applies to love, appreciation, artistic creation and other goods; where a certain “spirit” exists, there are also certain special ways of interacting with surrounding things. In connection with my treatment of love as the first-recognised good, Hope saddles me with the view that its goodness resides in the fact that it promotes the child's “fundamental biological urges and needs”. There was, of course, no suggestion of a “biological ethic” in what I said. In associating the word “good” with love rather than with hate, the child is adopting the usage with which he is presented. Admittedly the usage is not without its obscurities and confusions, but it is sufficiently definite in most cases to enable the child to make a qualitative distinction, along with his recognition of authority. This, however, provides only a first rough indication of a field and, as I said, by no means ensures that the child will go on to have a developed theory. What can assist him to do so is his later experience of other sorts of goods and, above all, his encountering of the theories of the great moralists, for, although these contain much of a mandatory character, they also exhibit considerable insight into “ways of life”, into the “spirit” which animates various movements. And, in so far as they do so, they can give him an insight into the conditions of his own life, can lead him to a more coherent view of mental and social realities. He is not, then, tied to his early teaching, important though that may be, but has the continual stimulation of new facts and new theories. This description may apply to only a few cases, but, if it applies to any, progress in ethical science is possible. The vital question is whether anything but a qualitative ethics can give us a coherent view of the facts and enable us to see what even confused theories are aiming at. I do not think there can be a coherent view which does not recognise a qualitative distinction, similar in the various cases, between science and obscurantism, between art and philistinism, between the productive and the consumptive spirit, between love and hate, between freedom and servility, and recognise also relations of assistance among the various goods. And the sort of confirmation that can be obtained in the case of those who reject these contentions is the demonstration of incoherence in their own views.

I have, I think, brought out a fundamental inconsistency in Hope's argument, as between his Freudian and his Benthamite material. This might be accidental; he might be able to uphold a relational view in one or the other way, while dropping what did not fit in. It seems to me, indeed, that the Benthamite material could not be dropped, that any relational view of ethics is bound up with a unitary view of the “person”


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— though if, as I have suggested, there are logical objections to any doctrine of the unitary, this would only mean that incoherence would break out on a wider scale. But it is in the attempt to make his relational view specific, in his treatment of “approval”, that Hope most decidedly reaches an impasse. Rejecting the contention that, on a relational view, the good must be equated with the demanded (a contention which he attributes to me, though I explicitly treated this equation as only one example of a relational view), he goes on to say: “Demands, attitudes, feelings, all types of emotional reactions would be involved, and any of them might be what we refer to when we characterise something as good.” Actually there are various types of “emotional reaction” which may be involved in demanding itself, as any economist would recognise. But the contention that any type of emotional reaction might be the determinant of our attribution of “goodness” to things leads us to look more closely at the nature of the determination; and, apart from the fact that the emotion of sorrow, e.g., can scarcely be held to generate judgments of goodness, we find that the notion of that “on the occasion of which” joy is felt (and which is accordingly judged good in that “reference”) is an obscure one, that it can be made precise only as the “object” of joy (what is enjoyed), and that that means as what is demanded by joy — and so in other cases. Thus Hope has provided no alternative to “demandedness”, and he certainly gives no indication of how “a large number of attitudes to things some of which might be in direct conflict with others” can possibly “constitute a relation sui generis”.

It is hard also to follow him in his treatment of ethics as concerned with only a part of our attributions of goodness to things, viz., that in which emotional relations of approval and disapproval are involved. But, whatever he means here by “approval”, he can be forced, I consider, to take up one of two attitudes — either to treat it as equivalent to demanding, or to treat it as recognition of objective goodness. In what way, except as judgment of the occurrence of a quality, can approving be distinguished from demanding? There can be no distinction on the side of the approved; it, like the demanded, is something whose existence or continuance we desire. (If it were suggested that the approved is what we desire in the way of human behaviour, that would make it just a species of the demanded and would indicate no reason for separating consideration of it from that of other objects of demand or for speaking of a special attitude of “approval”.) But, if the distinction is on the mental side, that will only mean that we are considering the demands of some particular sentiment, not that we have got away from “demanding” to something else, “approving”; and, as before, distinction between what demands in one case and what demands in another does not require a separate theory of each demander — their interrelations might be very important. I hold, then, that there is no steady ground on which Hope can rest except the recognition of objective goodness, that in his very use of the term “approval” he is


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implicitly conceding what he has denied. A distinction, however, should be made here. It would appear from what I have argued above that I should take “approval” to mean the recognition of a certain spirit in human activities. But it is obvious that there are other usages of the term; and the point would be that they are various compromises between the ethical meaning and “demanding”, and that only by distinguishing that meaning can we take a coherent view of the whole set of usages.

In conclusion, I should like to express a certain impatience with the recurrent contention that what I, in my inquiries into ethics, find to be good are simply those things which I “favour” or “support” — impatience, i.e., with the ridiculous over-working of the conception of support. The scientific question is how things themselves work; and whatever may be the relations of assistance and of resistance among forms of human behaviour, they do not depend on conscious choice. Such choice is incidental to them; and, in general, choice plays little part in human life.

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