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Logic and Ethics (1939)

Though Mr. Rhys A. Miller raises important questions, his argument follows fairly familiar lines, and I feel it more important to deal with these questions than to give a detailed “reply” which would, in any case be bound to recapitulate much that is contained in the articles he so scantily quotes, as well as in other articles I have contributed to the Journal (e.g. “Causality and logic” , December, 1936). Before going on to the larger question of the relation of ethics to logic, however, I shall briefly consider some of the more special issues.

I have, of course, admitted the existence of feelings of “obligation”, “responsibility”, and so forth, while contesting the moralistic account of them. Miller equates his theory of their nature with “the evidence of the moral experience”; but, on his showing, this experience speaks with a very uncertain voice, and what is “moral” about it is not all clearly indicated. Taking what are supposed to be the phenomena of the moral life, we find that they are mental activities (what, in “Determinism and Ethics” , I called “motives”) which can variously assist or oppose one another; but, if such relations constituted the moral life, it would be indistinguishable from the mental life. That is, ethics would just be psychology. The attaching of a distinctively moral character to mental processes is then attempted by means of an external criterion; they are moral as having “ends”, as being “purposive”. There is undoubtedly a field of investigation here; we can consider how a mental activity achieves an end, and how another mental activity helps or hinders it in doing so. This is the economic theory of the operation of demands and preferences, but still the moral character of the subject-matter does not appear. Recourse has then to be had to the moral or ethical character of the ends themselves; they are regarded as “values”. But, if this means more than that they are chosen, if they do have an ethical character, if they are good, then it is they that constitute the subject-matter of ethics; and the fact (if it is a fact) that we pursue goods does not, on the face of it, make our pursuit of them a “moral phenomenon”.

Miller wishes to avoid saying that ends confer goodness on the pursuit of them, while maintaining that moral conduct is purposive; and, in attributing some ethical character to both what aims and to what is aimed at, he involves himself in extraordinary confusions. “The object of investigation in ethics is that conduct of persons which is characterised as either good or bad.” But “good conduct is always purposive, i.e., it is the pursuit of an end or ideal conceived as being itself valuable”. It appears further that “morality is concerned with goods or valuable things whether they be the actions of persons or not. But the values of things other than purposive actions will be of concern to ethics only because, as possible ends of action, they are relevant to the moral value of the action itself”. Nevertheless, “the values of ends are naturally of the same kind as the values of any other things not being treated as ends”. And, finally, “the ends of action are chosen for their values”. If it were said outright that what has such a “value” is good, the fact that it has also the relation of being pursued would be seen to be irrelevant; on the other hand, if goodness were attributed to the actions of persons, it would be irrelevant that they had the relation of pursuing. But, by means of a loose terminology, some sort of ethical character is made to flicker about over what aims, what is aimed at, and the relation between them, the whole being warranted by “moral experience”.

In “Determinism and Ethics” I remarked, a propos of such confusions in the “ethics” of pursuit, that “we are prepared to find that what goods aim at is ethically much more important than what aims at them“. In that article and others I have argued that the operation of goods is favourably to their own and one another's continuance. But, distinguishing that from definite aiming, I would say that what aims at goods is of no ethical importance at all, that it is not by being aimed at that goodness comes about. In any case, ethics is primarily concerned with what goods are, secondarily with how they come about, and not at all with the phenomena of “responsibility”, “freedom”, and the rest of the paraphernalia of the individualistic moraliser. And to point to his confusions as to what is distinctive of ethical facts is not to override the facts by means of logic.

As regards “responsibility”, it may be recognised that this term has a number of rather different uses. The simplest case is that in which there is no dispute or conflict involved; where the question, “Who was responsible for this?” is answered by “I was”, meaning no more that “I” did it. The case I had previously considered was the more complicated one in which the person concerned is reluctant to admit that what did it belongs to the mental system “I”, because he disapproves of such actions and yet was unable to prevent this one; so that his admission of “respoonsibility” would be an admission of weakness. When, on the other hand, he proudly proclaims his responsibility, he indicates the presence of a latent hostility to the action he has performed. And this perhaps comes nearest to the neurotic sense of responsibility (a variety of the Freudian “omnipotence of thought”) in which the agent's “pangs of conscience” are linked with the (false) belief that he “could have acted otherwise”, i.e., that conditions which rendered it impossible for him to act otherwise were not present.

Here, as in the case of the neurotic sense of obligation (or compulsion neurosis), when we have disentangled the facts from the confusions of moral theorists, we are left with something which is not good but bad—and in this sense might not be called a “moral fact”. Compulsion neurosis should not, of course, be confused with external compulsion, and if it is “rather ludicrous” to say that a prisoner remains in a locked cell because he feels an obligation to do so, it is equally ludicrous to say that he does so because he has a compulsion neurosis (though such a condition will often make a man neglect real opportunities of escaping). But, again, attempted compulsion, inner and outer, sometimes fails, so that the “disregarding” of “obligation” is not enough to show that the conflict is a “moral” one or, if it were, on which side goodness lies. We sometimes speak loosely of obligation in the sense in which we feel “called upon” to act in support of some cause to which we are attached but which we are, at the moment, lazily disinclined to support; in such a case we have a rallying of certain allied “motives” against opposing tendencies. But in the better case, where the conflict does not arise or the disinclination does not exist, we have no sense of obligation. Even here, then, “obligation” is a sign of the presence of evil or, at least, of opposition to good—assuming, for the sake of argument, that the devotion in question is good.

A more important point is that the pursuit of ends does not imply any special (“teleological”) kind of causality; as I have argued in “Causality and logic” , no sort of relation could be established between this and the ordinary (“physical”) kind of causality, so that pursuit of ends could in no way impinge on “nature”. That it actually does so is bound up with the fact that it exhibits physical causality, that it is as much a part of “nature” as anything else is. The view that action is determined by an end is in fact reducible to the position that action is determined by “the idea of an end“, i.e., by the anticipation of something, and the action succeeds upon this anticipation in the ordinary way in which an effect succeeds upon a cause. Even here further clarification is required by way of the rejection of the non-realist theory which treats a relation (such as anticipation), instead of the thing that has the relation, as the thing operating. It is not anticipation but what anticipates (the mental process; as I should say, the feeling) that brings about the effect. Of course, what such a process effects is not always what it anticipates, and, in any case, is always more than it anticipates (as, again, I have pointed out in previous articles). The position is, then, that a certain process, having various qualities, and having various relations among which are those we call “thinking” and “anticipating”, gives rise, in the natural course of its operation, to certain results. It may be incidentally remarked that those who hold that volition causes in a specially intimate way show an extraordinary ignorance, or else an extraordinary underestimation, of the work of Hume.

It should be observed, however, that while logic requires a single theory of causality (two kinds of causality implying two logics or two “universes”), it is not in the least required that ethics should be based on logic—if this is taken to mean that an ethical theory is derivable from logic. Logic certainly shows that any theory (ethical or other) which amalgamates a relation and quality cannot be sound, and must be falsifying the facts which it professes to set forth. In this way logic can be said to open the way to observation of the facts by removing metaphysical “blinders”; but it does not itself supply the facts which a positive ethics has to consider. These, as I have said, are matters of observation. But to show them an illogical theory of ethics must be rejected, even when it professes to be setting forth facts of observation, it is necessary to go more thoroughly into the nature of logic. I shall contend that it is impossible “to see the rest of reality through a haze of logic” because there is no “rest of reality”, and that logic has no more to do with “the nature of thought” than with the nature of anything else.

I presume that no one supposes logic to be concerned with the process of thinking (more accurately, the process which has the relation of thinking something). The contention would be, then, that logic has to do with what is thought—more particularly, with the most general forms of what is thought. But if it is a question of “forms of thought”, if thought is considered to apply its forms to whatever it treats of, then it will do so when it treats of ethical matters; and thus the ethical field, like that of any other science, will be governed by logic. The adherents of moralism would presumably not wish to say of themselves (though we might be inclined to say it for them) that their attitude to ethics is an unthinking one. At any rate, they are faced with the dilemma that either the forms of logic apply to ethical matters or ethics is not a subject of theoretical investigation. And while the attempt to “straddle” this issue (suggested, in the first place, by the nebulosity of their ethical views) comes out in the contention that the sphere of logic, instead of covering the whole field of ethics, merely penetrates it in part, so that ethics will have a thought part and an unthought part, it is evident that, even in speaking about a non-logical part of ethics, they are bringing it under the “forms of thought”. Another and perhaps commoner way of avoiding the difficulty is to suppose different “forms of thought”, different logics, to apply in the spheres of reality (say, physical and moral) which it is proposed to distinguish. But the difference itself (a difference between two “universes”) could not be accounted for by either logic or have any reality assigned to it. The point is that differences between fields of investigation or sets of discussable things are not referable to different “ways of thinking” but simply to different characteristics of the things thought about; and whatever character or form of relation of things cannot be exhibited in all fields of investigation is not part of the subject-matter of logic.

What these consideration lead up to is that, strictly speaking, logic is concerned not with how we think things (how we “organise them in thought”) but with how things are. One of the main points made in my “Empiricism” article was that no contrast is possible between things as we think them and things as they are; the very suggestion that things themselves may exist in an unorganised state, or under forms other than those our thinking imposes, is one in which the forms of our thinking are already “imposed” on them—more exactly, we recognise no such imposed forms, because whatever we think of we think of as actual, i.e., we think of the forms not as imposed but as there. Of course, we recognise that we do alter certain things, but the things are equally subject, in their previous and subsequent states, to the forms in question; again, we make mistakes about certain things, but, even in being mistaken, we think the things are in such and such a condition, i.e., we treat them under the same forms as we should do if we were not mistaken. In fact, whatever theory or supposition we may advance, we think situations, and it is impossible to distinguish thought-forms from situational forms or situational forms (actuality) from a postulated “reality”. Logic, then, as the theory of situations in general, will operate in criticism alike of any general supposition of the non-situational and of any attempt to treat the objects of some special science as other than situational (e.g., to treat ethical facts as non-spatial). Detailed criticism will, of course, depend on a certain working out of logical theory. The initial point to be made is just the possibility of rejecting on logical grounds what purports to be an ethical doctrine, though it should be observed that it will be a part of such rejection to show that the upholder of the doctrine implicity accepts the logical position he is overtly opposing—since he, too, thinks situations, and cannot consistently treat ethics as other than the science of ethical situations.

On the view of logic here indicated it appears that the inquiry into human thinking will be subject to logic in the same way as any other special inquiry is; human thinking can be investigated only as certain situations among others, as on the same logical footing as other situations, and not as occupying any superior place in “reality”. But, since, as we have seen, there is no distinction between “forms of thought” (i.e., of the thought about or contemplated) and forms of existence, it is permissible to approach logic from the side of “discourse”. Thus the objection to Kant's procedure in the Critique of Pure Reason is not that he attempts to present things under the forms in which we experience them, but that he supposes that these are not the forms of things as they are in themselves); and, so far as his argument has force (so far as it is not perverted by his distinction between “phenomena” and “things in themselves”), it is a contribution to logic. Removing his confusion, treating his “phenomena” as real things, dependent on mind for their being known but not for their being—and this is substantially the line taken by Alexander—we are left with a logic of things as spatio-temporal and “categorial” (quantitative, causal, etc). But what neither Kant nor Alexander brings out clearly enough is that this is a logic of things as propositional, and that it may be best approached from the side of discourse, from the consideration of the proposition as an issue, something on which people may take opposing views, on which they may agree or disagree, about which they may ask, “Is this so or not”?

What is in dispute (or what might be a matter of dispute, even if the persons in a given group are in agreement about it) is whether or not something (the predicate) is going on, or is situated, at a certain place (the subject); and, if this is a proper discription of the propositional issue, it is clearly a spatio-temporal issue. As I indicated in “Causality and logic” , to argue that something (say, “physical causality”) is involved in a situation qua spatio-temporal, will not carry much conviction to those who maintain that there are other fields than the spatio-temporal (still less, to those who consider the spatio-temporal to be mere “appearances”) But, since any theorist must present his theory in propositions, the contention that the proposition as such is spatio-temporal must appear relevant, even if inadmissible. As I argued in “Empiricism” , those who maintain, in propositions, that the proposition itself is “inadequate to reality” cannot expect to be taken very seriously. But there are many who, without taking this view and while admitting that they are acquanted with propositions of a spatio-temporal character (or, as they might prefer to put it, with a spatio-temporal “reference”), will contend that they also know other types of propositions, propositions, in particular, which make no reference to Space. And to them the description of the subject of the proposition as a place (a point to which dispute, if it arises, can be referred) will appear to be merely metaphorical. What has then to be argued (without any abandonment of, but as supplementary to, the formal development of the spatio-temporal theory of the proposition) is that the subjects they recognise are also spatial, that, when they “come down to brass tacks”, they are found to be dealing with spatio-temporal situations.

Now it is clear that much of what the moralistic theorist recognises as ethical fact (or as essential to the existence of ethical fact) is spatio-temporal. But he is involved in difficulties as soon as he tries to show how this is connected with “facts” of another character. He has, in fact, to adopt one of the two familiar lines of solution of the “mind-body” problem—Interactionism and Parallelism. But to assert the action of mind on body involves either the admission of exceptions to “physical law” and thus the abandonment of physical science or the recognition that mind acts with “physical force” and is, in fact, part of the subject-matter of physical science (is physical). On the other hand, to say that the mental runs paralled to or is correlated with the physical is to say that it has to the physical some relation, we know not what. On any showing, this relation is temporal; but, as soon as we try to make it specific, we are involved in spatial descriptions. When we try, in particular, to give an account of a “moral subject”, to take its history seriously and not treat it as a mere recipient of exhortations, we have to regard it as a structure, a system of interacting processes which occur “together”, “interpenetrate”, etc.; and if the treatment of such relations as spatial is considered metaphorical, we are left without any understanding of their nature. This is not to say that we can have no psychological or ethical theory unless we have a “map of the mind” or of a good activity; but, at least, it is indicative of theoretical progress to be able to locate mental or ethical processes more precisely, and, if we could not locate them in some measure, we could not even start our investigations. Even the moral exhorter has to conduct his exhortations in and towards some region. But he still confuses the ethical issues by not addressing himself to the question—where and how do goods go on? If he did he would see that those ethical “goings on” are just as physical as those with which any natural scientist is concerned.

It is possible, however, that some would admit that the moral subject “places” moral (and other) predicates, while denying that such placing is all that ethics is concerned with. Those who believe in “moral obligation” might concede that the being who is under an obligation is in Space and Time, and that fulfilled obligations are fulfilled in Space and Time, and yet contend that to say that something “ought to be” is quite different from saying that it occurs, or that it does not occur. That is to say, allowing the question “Is this so or not?”, they would present as a separate question, “Ought this to be so or not?” Thus it is suggested that, whether or not the subject of the proposition is invariably spatial, there is at least no invariability in the copula. It is immediately apparent, however, that such a view cannot be logically maintained—that the second question above is not a separate question. For if someone says “A ought to be” or “A ought to be B”, the issue raised, as in other cases, is whether this is so or not. In fact, the distinction between “is” and “is not” is just the distinction between being the case and not being the case (or between truth and falsity), and the conception of a “moral copula” is merely a hindrance to the statement of the ethical issues. What is additional to there being an issue, what enables it to be described as a peculiarly ethical issue, is something in the terms. The question is whether A is or is not “something which ought to be”; the possibility of attaching a meaning to “A is to be B” depends not on the recognition of a special copula “is to be” but on the recognition of a special predicate “to be B”.

But, when the matter is put in this way, it appears that the defect of moralistic theories is their indefiniteness, their incomplete statement of a relation. If we say that A or A's being B is authorised, we are faced with the question by whom or what it is authorised; and, until we have answered that question, we have not raised a discussable issue. Even to say that it is morally authorised is still to leave the authorising agency unstated and so to have a relation without one of its terms. And to say that it is authorised by “the moral law” is only to say, as Kant indicates, that it is authorised by being authorised; it is not to specify any agency whose operation can be recognised. If it could, it would loose its “authority”; it would simply be one thing bringing pressure to bear on another. In fact, when we get rid of moralistic vagueness, we are left with demands or commands exerted by certain beings on certain other beings (such specification of authorities being part of the work undertaken by psychoanalysis), and, since all sorts of demands are made in social life, we are no nearer discovering what is meant by “moral”. I need not take up the view that what ought to be done is what is commanded by God, since most modern moralists agree that “moral rightness” is not determined by divine any more than by human fiat—but, such being the case, they are left with the sheer arbitrariness of an unrelating relation in order to say that anything is moral at all.

There are, then, two ways in which we can avoid this confusion. We can say that there is no such science as ethics, but can still recognise feelings of “obligation”; we can recognise that we do or do not accede to various commands or requests of our neighbours, and that we obey, or feel a pang in disobeying, commands of which we have forgotten the source. We can observe what sorts of activities are helped and what are hindered by our feelings of “obligation”, e.g., that inquiry is so hindered. We can do all this, recognise all the “facts of the moral life”, if we happen to be interested in the workings of mind and society, just as we might be interested in the workings of organisms or of planetary systems; but there will be no question in either case of a “moral standard” or of what “ought to be”. The other way out is that we should recognise goodness as a character of certain activities, or, as I have put it above, observe where and how goods go on. This (provided there are such goods) will be ethical science. On this view it would be urged that moralism is a confused treatment of a real subject, but that its confusions are such as to make it inimical to goods in general and to inquiry in particular; and that this opposition comes out especially in its falsification of logic. It seems to me impossible that moralism could maintain itself as it does if it were not a perversion of a real subject. The demonstration of its confusions certainly does not establish the goodness of theoretical inquiry, artistic creation or productive organisation; but it may at least suggest that these are among the things that moralism has been confusedly treating, and it may leave the way open to the direct observation of their character. At any rate, since the moralistic is immensely more widespread than the positive treatment of ethics, the demonstration of the illogicalities of moralism amy well be the best approach to the subject.

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