III. Right and Wrong.


The question we have to ask ourselves is: What do we mean by the dictates of the moral sense? If these are to afford a definition of right conduct, we cannot say that they consist in judging that such andsuch acts are right, for that would make our definition circular. We shall have to say that the moral sense consists in a certain specific emotion of approval towards an act, and that an act is to be called right when the agent, at the moment of action, feels this emotion of approval towards the action which he decides to perform. There is certainly a sense in which a man ought to perform any act which he approves, and to abstain from any act which he disapproves; and it seems also undeniable that there are emotions which may be called approval and disapproval. Thus this theory, whether adequate or not, must be allowed to contain a part of the truth. (§ 13 ¶ 1)

It is, however, fairly evident that there are other meanings of right conduct, and that, though there is an emotion of approval, there is also a judgment of approval, which may or may not be true. For we certainly hold that a man who has done an action which his conscience approved may have been mistaken, and that in some sense his conscience ought not to have approved his action. But this would be impossible if nothing were involved except an emotion. To be mistaken implies a judgment; and thus we must admit that there is such a thing as a judgment of approval. If this were not the case we could not reason with a man as to what is right; what he approves would be necessarily right for him to do, and there could be no argument against his approval. We do in fact hold that when one man approves of a certain act, while another disapproves, one of them is mistaken, which would not be the case with a mere emotion. If one man likes oysters and another dislikes them, we do not say that either of them is mistaken. (§ 13 ¶ 2)

Thus there is a judgment of approval, and this must consist of a judgment that an act is, in a new sense, right. The judgment of approval is not merely the judgment that we feel the emotion of approval, for then another who disapproved would not necessarily hold our judgment of approval to be mistaken. Thus in order to give a meaning to the judgment of approval, it is necessary to admit a sense of right other than approved. In this sense, when we approve an act we judge that it is right, and we may be mistaken in so judging. This new sense is objective, in the sense that it does not depend upon the opinions and feelings of the agent. Thus a man who obeys the dictates of his conscience is not always acting rightly in the objective sense. When a man does what his conscience approves, he does what he believes to be objectively right, but not necessarily what is objectively right. We need, therefore, some other criterion than the moral sense for judging what is objectively right. (§ 13 ¶ 3)

§13, n. 1: The judgment of approval does not always coincide with the emotion of approval. For example, when a man has been led by his reason to reject a moral code which he formerly held, it will commonly happen, at least for a time, that his emotion of approval follows the old code, though his judgment has abandoned it. Thus he may have been brought up, like Mohammed’s first disciples, to believe it is a duty to avenge the murder of relations by murdering the murderer or his relations; and he may continue to feel approval of such vengeance after he has ceased to judge it approvingly. The emotion of approval will not be again in question in what follows.