III. Right and Wrong.


The ideas of right and wrong conduct are, as we have seen, those with which ethics is generally supposed to be most concerned. This view, which is unduly narrow, is fostered by the use of the one word good, both for the sort of conduct which is right, and for the sort of things which ought to exist on account of their intrinsic value. This double use of the word good is very confusing, and tends greatly to obscure the distinction of ends and means. I shall therefore speak of right actions, not of good actions, confining the word good to the sense explained in Section II. (§ 12 ¶ 1)

The word right is very ambiguous, and it is by no means easy to distinguish the various meanings which it has in common parlance. Owing to the variety of these meanings, adherence to any one necessarily involves us in apparent paradoxes when we use it in a context which suggests one of the other meanings. This is the usual result of precision of language; but so long as the paradoxes are merely verbal, they do not give rise to more than verbal objections. (§ 12 ¶ 2)

In judging of conduct we find at the outset two widely divergent methods, of which one is advocated by some moralists, the other by others, while both are practised by those who have no ethical theory. One of these methods, which is that advocated by the utilitarians, judges the rightness of an act by relation to the goodness or badness of its consequences. The other method, advocated by intuitionists, judges by the approval or disapproval of the moral sense or conscience. I believe that it is necessary to combine both theories in order to get a complete account of right and wrong. There is, I think, one sense in which a man does right when he does what will probably have the best consequences, and another in which he does right when he follows the dictates of his conscience, whatever the probable consequences may be. (There are many other senses which we may give to the word right, but these two seem to be the most important.) Let us begin by considering the second of these senses. (§ 12 ¶ 3)