24 Ethics and Advocacy (1944)note

In replying (“The Nature of Ethics”, A.J.P.P., June, 1943),note to Mr A. D. Hope's discussion of my article, “The Meaning of Good”, I suggested, though I did not expressly state, that the “normative” view of ethics would never be got rid of. I do not find it altogether surprising, then, that I myself should be accused of upholding “norms” — though I think it unfortunate that Mr Prior should ignore so much of the argument of my original article (giving a general impression, with no exact quotation) and should make no mention at all of the supplementary discussion, in which, incidentally, I denied the possibility of a consistent ethical theory of a “relational” kind. I hope, however, in this rejoinder, to be able to develop some fresh material without excessive citation of “what I actually said”.

Little need be said about Prior's logic, which appears to be a doctrine of elementary predicates (perhaps even of concepts), the subjects of each of which are its “material exemplifications”. The position, whatever it is, is simply assumed, and no comment is made on my contention, in “The Meaning of Good”, that subjects and predicates are not distinct classes of terms — that, in particular, “goods” and “good” are the same term, and that Moore's denial of this is bound up with his relativism (his preceptualist view of good). There is, at any rate, nothing in my article to justify the assertion that I make good “synonymous” with a group of other predicates belonging to the things I call good. Even where, as in definition, a complex term XY is coextensive with the term A, I should certainly not call A and XY synonymous, since that would suggest, to say the least, that the relation was between words instead of between terms (sorts of things).

Linguistic, of course, is one of the main sources of contemporary confusion, operating, as it does, as a substitute at once for philosophy and for a real theory of language. In this connection, I did not admit in the article, and do not admit now, that my “choice” of a meaning for good “is at least in part a linguistic one”. I certainly said that people of my way of thinking would have to explain their “usage”, but, since I immediately went on to say that they would point out in terms of it the errors of other thinkers, it should have been clear that I was presenting the matter as a question of things and not of conventions. I mentioned, of course, the fact that economists and moralists use the

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same word with different meanings; and I should speak of a relativistic conception of good as a usage, in the sense that it combined incompatible meanings. Thus a person who asserted that he was aware of that distinction and was avoiding that confusion might be said to be “explaining his usage”, but he would not be “choosing” or “recommending” anything except concentration on something that is referred to in an existing usage, with excision of something else that does not really belong to it.

It does, of course, constantly happen that false beliefs and confused thinking affect usage, that a person who believes that X is Y when actually it is not, thinks he has told us that A is Y when he says it is X, or that this unwarranted conclusion is conveyed by that statement among a group of people who share the false belief (who “take for granted”, as groups constantly do, what is not the case). But it does not follow that a person who recognises the incompatibility of X and Y should, when confronted with this “usage”, decide to refrain from talking about X, or should conclude that the persons who have fallen into this confusion know nothing about X. What he can do instead is to try to disentangle the real subject (and the recognised truths about it) from the false accretions — and by so doing he may hope to open the way to fresh discoveries on the subject. This is the attitude I have taken up to the ethical views I have criticised, whereas Prior, it seems to me, has simply assumed that the subject as I see it does not exist (and that I could not have learned about that subject even from confused views). At any rate, his argument is weighted from the start in favour of a “relational” view (without adding anything to what I have said in analysis of that type of position) and the first two of the possibilities which, he considers, remain when arbitrariness is ruled out, amount to nothing more than that. As to his third possibility, it is not clear to me how recognition of “inescapable deficiencies of all human language” could lead in the direction of a theological view of the matter; if theology is any sort of doctrine and not just incantation, it, with all other doctrines, will be undermined by that recognition — which, however, is itself a doctrine. The third possibility, then, does not exist, even though some theologians may be prepared to argue sophistically that contradictions don't matter, that they are merely a sign of the “imperfection” of our apprehension of ultimate reality.

It should be understood, of course, in connection with the question of “disentangling” that no thinker is suddenly confronted with this as a task — as who should say, “Ah, there is confusion here! Let me see how much that is positive will be left when I have removed it.” His thinking has all the time been affected, on the one side, by the assumptions of his fellows and, on the other, by the impact of the facts (from which issues the commonplace that no two persons have exactly the same usages). And the serious student of ethics in particular will be concerned to get a coherent view of a certain objective field; only so can he be said to be studying (wrestling with problems) and not just memorising formulae dictated by his teachers. Now clearly, in doing so, he may

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make discoveries — he may find, e.g., that good has characters and relations other than, and even opposed to, those he had been told it had — but a new discovery does not constitute a new usage, and to pretend that it does (that a person who rejects previous views of good is really talking about a different thing) is simply to erect a barrier to discovery. It may be that most people treat the assertion “X is good” as a recommendation, but they do not treat it only as that, and so the possibility is not excluded of someone's finding out that it is not that at all, that the recommendation and the characterisation spring from different sources and that it is confused thinking to combine them, however widespread the confusion may be. But this discovery (as I take it to be) is conditioned by an interest in the subject and not by an abstract objection to relativism; it is interest in the subject that leads to the recognition of ethical relativism, not the recognition of relativism to the setting up of a new subject.

Prior gives a quite inaccurate account of what I “state” in this connection. I am not certain whether he takes me to be arguing that, having first discovered the amalgamation of quality and relation in notions like “the absolutely desirable” or “intrinsic value”, one is then faced with the choice of coming down on the relational or on the qualitative side. I admit that I have expressed myself in one passage in “The Meaning of Good”, in a way that lends itself to that misunderstanding. Also, as I explained in “The Nature of Ethics”, I carelessly gave the impression, in that passage, that I consider it possible to take a consistently relational view of ethics — though, as I further explained, I think it quite possible to give a scientific account of relations (of demanding or whatever it may be). But I neither stated nor suggested that a qualitative treatment of moral “predicates” is one in which they are defined “in such an unambiguously descriptive way that no one will imagine that we are exhorting, prescribing, or advocating any policy when we are using them”. As I said towards the end of the article, while I recognise the scientific importance of definition, I do not consider that ethical terms (good, in particular) have to be defined before ethical science can proceed. But, whether an assertion is a definition or not, it can always be misunderstood and, so far from attempting to rule out misunderstanding in the “alternative” I adopted, I said explicitly that “people simply will not be persuaded that, when we say ‘X is good’, we are not urging them to promote X or to exhibit activities of the character X”. Presumably Prior was blind to this statement because it did not accord with the interpretation of my position he was otherwise led to give in terms of his own assumptions; that is just another illustration of the possible misunderstanding of any exposition of any subject. But I think I did something in the article to convey my view that the progress of ethics (as of any other science) consists of a growth of understanding in some people, and neither requires, nor can be expected to get, understanding from everyone — that there will always be

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people who attach a mandatory character to goodness, and who will have a poorer knowledge, on that account, of goods themselves.

I recognise, then, that when I say “X is good” some people will think I am urging them to promote X. But if I were to confine myself to saying what could not be misunderstood, I should never say anything at all; and since, at the same time, I have maintained as emphatically as I could that it is a misunderstanding, I do not think that the effect of some of my statements on careless readers can be taken as showing that I am surreptitiously urging a particular policy on them. It is not, Prior says, “in accordance with the professional ethics of the disinterested theorist to give his demands, or the demands of his movement, greater weight than they would otherwise have by suggesting that they are somehow also descriptions”. And he adds that this is precisely the form of “cheating” I objected to in Moore. But that is taking things the wrong way round; what I objected to was the suggestion that any description could of itself convey an obligation (or be imperative). I maintained, on the contrary, that any concrete characterisation would be an inducement only to some people, so that it “is more convenient, if there are objects one wishes above all to promote, dogmatically to call them good and let it be ‘understood’ that a certain obligatoriness attaches to them on that account”. And when, in this way, the giving of a certain description to a thing is taken to be somehow also a direction to us to promote it, the effect, as I suggested, is to make the description itself obscure and confused. The contention that good is the proper object of pursuit reduces either to the identity “good is good”, the question of pursuit being irrelevant, or to the assertion of a universal object of pursuit, the question of its qualities being irrelevant. In maintaining that that assertion is false, that there is no universal object of pursuit and hence no description that is a universal recommendation, I have at least warned readers against any confidence-trick. But this leaves me free to maintain that there are descriptions which the admixture of recommendation confuses, and that they (more exactly, things of those kinds) are the concern of the science of ethics.

I said it would be necessary for the ethical theorist to show how these confusions arise and persist—and I offered at least a partial explanation. But Prior, as I have remarked above, seems simply to assume that recommendation cannot be detached from assertions of goodness, that “good” is always a relative term, and thus that if anyone calls things good without qualification he is using “suggestion” on his hearers—what is suggested being that their objects are the same as his, when in fact specification (complete statement) might show that they are not. And on this basis—the linking of good with pursuit, and the recognition of diversity of pursuits—it must be denied that good is a descriptive term at all. (There is, of course, the view that the diversity is only superficial, that “rational” consideration of our aims will show that there is “ultimately” a single object, the good, which we are all pursuing. I consider that, on this view also, “good” is deprived of any definite content, and

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there are other objections to the philosophy of reconciliation — but for the present I shall take diversity of interests as admitted.) I have denied that it is possible to work out a consistently relational view of goodness; and, in that connection, it would be interesting to know what Prior means by saying that certain things are “considered desirable” by a person or in a movement. It would certainly be a curious way of saying that they are desired; but, if more than that is meant, there would be some difficulty in showing that a quality is not being covertly introduced.

Now Prior's contention is that I have covertly introduced a relation (supporting), since the things I call “good” are the things I support (or the things supported by “my” movement). This view depends on an interpretation of my conclusions, not on an examination of my argument, though, in attempting to show that it is false (that I do not support the things I call “good”), I shall try to bring out fresh points regarding the conception of “support”. But first of all I want to say something about the special question of inquiry. Prior's suggestion that, to determine the various goods, I “enumerate the other activities which support that of disinterested theorising” is another piece of interpretation and is not justified by anything in my article. But certainly inquiry is the good which I find myself most frequently taking as an example, and there may be special reasons for that choice. The question is, then, whether the inquirer who attributes goodness to inquiry does not thereby incur the suspicion of advocacy (of “boosting” his own activities), while he who takes the opposite view (who does not, at least, see any goodness in inquiry as such) escapes that imputation.

Clearly, some of the activities which the ethical theorist is concerned with will be activities in which he himself engages, and it would not be surprising if he had a special interest in the activity of inquiring; he might, then, have a tendency to bring it into a field to which it did not belong or to give it a prominence to which it was not entitled. And this might be regarded as a “moralist's fallacy”, comparable to the “psychologist's fallacy” pointed out by William James—the inclination of the psychologist to believe that his knowledge of the agent's operations is possessed by the agent himself. Indeed, a confusion of the latter type is quite common in moral theory—the belief that, when the agent is “acting well”, he must know that he is acting well, that no activity can be good unless it is undertaken as good or for the sake of its goodness. It may be said, no doubt, that the moralist's predisposition to this sort of view is not a sufficient reason for our rejecting it—there are solider arguments against the notion of a “self-evaluating” activity. But, taking it to be a confused view, we cannot treat as a parallel case the attribution of an ethical character to inquiry in general. For, whatever the theorist's inclinations may be, he has raised an issue which must be discussed in its own terms and not in terms of his inclinations.

Once more, if it is assumed that there is no issue, no objective goodness but only preferences, the assertion that inquiry is good may be

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translated into the assertion that inquiry is “preferable to non-inquiry, and this again may be understood as an attempt to “suggest” that inquiry holds the same place in all systems of preferences or “scale of values”—a suggestion whose effectiveness would depend, as I myself indicated, on people's uncertainty about their “values”. The operation of a person's own preferences in the use of the confused notion of “the preferable” could then be studied as part of the subject-matter of a positive theory of preferences. But, if there is an issue, the fact that the theorist has interests which may distort his view of it has no place in the discussion of the issue itself; it is a condition of inquiry in general, and it is only after the acceptance of certain views of the subject as facts that evidence of any specific distortion can be given. Indeed, if the fact that it is an inquirer who holds the view were a reason for calling in question the attribution of an ethical character to inquiry, it would be a reason for questioning any view about inquiry—however, that is of minor importance compared with the point that, since interests are operative in all inquiry, any view at all could be discounted in this manner. Without setting any view above criticism, we can say that the general consideration that “we may be wrong” forms no part of the discussion of any specific assertion; so, in this special case, the connection which Prior supposes to exist between my inquiring interest and my views about inquiry has no place in a discussion of those views, though it is a question to which attention might be turned if it had been demonstrated independently that my views are false or confused.

The position is, then, that even if it were true that I support inquiry and the other things I regard as good, that would do nothing to show that my views are false or, again, that I cannot legitimately mean more by “good” than “supported by me”. But what could be meant by saying that I support inquiry? If it were only that I engage in inquiry, then since every student of ethics can be described as engaged in study, his view of the ethical character of study would be suspect since he “supports” it, and we should have to turn to non-students to get an unbiassed view! There is, in fact, no field of study whatever within which there are not some features of the inquirer's activity, but this sort of participation in a field is not ordinarily held to prejudice discussion—nor, again, is it commonly called “support”. Yet I do not think it can fairly be inferred from my article that I have any other relation to inquiry (apart from inquiring into it) than that of engaging in it. In particular, I cannot fairly be represented as setting up inquiry as an object of pursuit. Of course, we speak of “pursuing inquiries”, but that merely means engaging in them, not having them as ends. At the conclusion of my discussion, “The Nature of Ethics”, I spoke of “the ridiculous overworking of the conception of support” and depreciated the place of choice in human life; another way of putting the matter would be to say that a great many writers (particularly, moralists) speak as if the specifying and pursuing of ends (things to be brought about) were the outstanding feature of human conduct, instead of being an

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occasional and minor occurrence. (We quite often know what we are going to do, but that is quite different from deciding to do it.)

There is nothing paradoxical, then, in a statement by anyone engaged in inquiry that he does not take inquiry as an end. Having the habit of inquiring he may at certain times have the choice between different lines of inquiry and decide to follow one of them; but he did not form the habit by deciding to acquire it, and he exercises it, for the most part, without thinking about it at all—his thoughts being concentrated on his subject. And, apart from the particular case of inquiry, there is a general question to be raised regarding the treatment of habits or activities as ends—viz., what is it that chooses or pursues them? Surely, it could only be previously existing habits or activities. Prior speaks of things that we (W. H. C. Eddynote and I) support; but what are “we”? Pure individuals, extensionless centres of force to which various pursuits become somehow attached? If it were true that we support inquiry and the rest, it would be some specific activity in us (perhaps, the inquiring activity itself) that did the supporting. But does inquiry, or does any other activity, pursue inquiry as an objective? Inquiry goes on—not as a matter of policy but as a matter of habit. As I have argued in earlier articles in the A.J.P.P. (e.g., “Determinism and Ethics”, December, 1928; “Realism versus Relativism in Ethics”, March, 1933),note goods do not come about by being chosen; and anyone who confusedly takes them as ends will have very poor success in securing them. The main point is that, where choice takes place, it is activities that choose; and while it would be absurd to speak of inquiry choosing to inquire, there is no ground for treating it as the aim of any other activity—or as an object of “my” policy in particular.

I have said, of course, that goods support or assist one another, but this is a question not of policy (choice) but of causality. The activity of inquiry in one mind or group causes the continuance of that activity (or some other good activity) in another; by its natural operation it removes hindrances and provides materials. It might even be said to cause the activity to spring up in another mind or group, provided the capacity was there—though here it might be contended that unless the “capacity” existed as a spontaneous, even if comparatively undeveloped, activity, “communication” would not take place, that education can only be of the nascently inquiring. Now it is undeniable that inquirers can learn to expect the extension of inquiry under certain conditions, also that in the course of these communications certain “rules” (things to be remembered, things to be avoided, etc.) come to be formulated, and further, that the existence and modes of operation of forces hostile to inquiry come to be recognised. But it is still inquiry that is the agent in all this, and, if it forms a policy, it is not itself the object of that policy; and, in particular, it will be weakened unless it sits loosely to its rules and, for the most part, forgets about them. This, I think, will be admitted by many with regard to education, and it should not be hard

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for these people to admit it with regard to cultural communication in general. Policy, as we may put it, has to play second fiddle to spontaneity, and goods continue because of their own character—and emphatically not because they are wanted. (I find it curious that Prior should describe this part of my position as “a re-statement of Kant's criterion of non-contradictoriness”. I have acknowledged, in “Determinism and Ethics”, a certain connection between my view and that put forward by Socrates in Republic Book I. But whereas Kant is concerned with what can be willed, I am talking about how certain things actually go on. And while I say that evils are found opposing other evils, I see nothing “contradictory” in that situation. Prior's substitution of “truthfulness” for inquiry, in the same passage, is further indicative of his inability to avoid giving a preceptual twist to my views. The recognition of the goodness of inquiry is not the laying down of a rule, and inquiry could assist its own continuance even if truthfulness didn't. At the same time, it is conceivable that telling the truth to an enemy of inquiry—or is it an enemy of truthfulness?—would do no harm to the cause of inquiry in the long run, even if it was immediately fatal to the truth-teller. Socrates at his trial is a case in point.)

Prior's statement, then, that the things Eddy and I call “good” are those we consider ourselves to be supporting, and count upon being supported by, when we are disinterestedly theorising, is false because it brings in considerations of policy and pursuit where they do not belong (where I certainly do not “consider” they belong), and thus entirely misinterprets the contention that good activities, in or out of us, support one another. Even where there is a question of a policy of a movement (say, a scientific movement), the things aimed at are always externals, “useful” things (e.g., the provision of apparatus) and not things that could be described in the same terms as scientific activity itself—and, even so, the policy will be both temporary and elastic. Similarly, one might speak of persons engaged in common work as “supporting” one another, but that would not mean that they regarded one another as “good”—at least, in the same sense as that in which the work was good. At any rate, the way in which goods support one another is not the reason for their being called “good” and signifies nothing in the way of policy or recommendation. And this brings me to the final sense in which I might be said to support inquiry (or anything else I regard as good), viz., that I advocate it, that I try to induce people to engage in it. Such advocacy Prior takes to be implicit, though unacknowledged, in my use of the term “good”, and, if I can show that that is not so, I shall consider that I have drawn a definite line between the good and the supported.

How, then, I would ask, can one recommend inquiry; what inducement can be held out to people to engage in it? I could scarcely expect people to be moved by my statement that inquiry is good, if they took this to mean only that I wanted them to inquire. In order to be influenced in this direction they would have to think that inquiry carried with it

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something that they wanted. In other words, my advocacy would consist in bringing out a causal connection, which they had overlooked, between the activity of inquiry and some object of theirs, in showing the “usefulness” of inquiry to them. Now, if I persuaded them in this way that they should engage in inquiry, I should be doubly deceiving them — first, in that there is no object which is uniformly promoted by inquiry, no external thing to which it can be subordinated, and, secondly, in that people cannot become inquirers by simply wanting to, that the spirit of inquiry cannot be so induced. In fact, there is no inducement to inquiry; inquiry develops by the interplay of inquiring minds (including, as I said in connection with education, nascently inquiring minds) and in no other way. Believing this, I can say that I do not advise people to engage in inquiry or tell them that it will serve their purposes, and can trace the taking as recommendation of my assertion that inquiry is good to that obsession with ends (with “results” as contrasted with activities) which, as embodying false theory, I have also criticised. Inquiry spreads (as far as it does so) by its own natural operation, and taking its extension as an aim, trying to extend it, is a sign of weakness and confusion. Policies have force only within a “morality” or way of living, and not as between different ways of living. Of course, there is in society an intermingling of movements and moralities, and no person or movement is “given over” to goodness; but still it is the business of the theorist to distinguish the divergent tendencies, not to run them all together.

It is obvious on the face of it that there can be no inducement to disinterestedness, no interest which it can be shown to serve. The fact remains that moralists do appeal to people to be disinterested, to be good, even (in some cases) to be critical. What I take to be the significance of this is that there is a real disinterestedness to which interest pays lip-service, that there is a real solidarity in goodness and that this is imitated by the spurious solidarity of “social unity”—partly because the real thing is useful (produces things that nothing else could produce) and partly as the best way of keeping the real thing in check. At the same time, because the other is spurious (because there are always cracks in the unity), it can never wholly eliminate goodness. This opposition, I suggest, between interest and disinterestedness, between convention and criticism, is what alone makes intelligible the confusion of moral terms and the persistence of relativism. And in this struggle propaganda (advocacy) is a mark of non-goodness, while it is a mark of goodness simply to insist on the facts, to expound and expose, let the results be what they may. The special importance of positive ethics here lies in its rejection of the conception of absolute right (of the imperative or mandatory), as against which it emphasises the quality, goodness. And it is on absolute right that moralistic ethics, the spurious science consecrated to social unity, takes its stand. Such a linking between conflicts in doctrine and conflicts in the field with which the doctrines are concerned will, of course, be peculiar to ethics, but it is only so, I urge, that the questions can be settled.