III. Right and Wrong.


In common language the received code of moral rules is usually presupposed, and an action is only called immoral when it infringes one of these rules. Whatever does not infringe them is regarded as permissible, so that on most of the occasions of life no one course of action is marked out as alone right. If a man adopts a course of action which, though not contrary to the received code, will probably have bad consequences, he is called unwise rather than immoral. Now, according to the distinction we have made between objective and subjective rightness, a man may well act in a way which is objectively wrong without doing what is subjectively wrong, i.e. what his conscience disapproves. An act (roughly speaking, I shall return to this point presently) is immoral when a man’s conscience disapproves it, but is judged only unwise or injudicious when his conscience disapproves it, but is judged only unwise or injudicious when his conscience approves it, although we judge that it will probably have bad consequences. Now the usual moral code is supposed, in common language, to be admitted by every man’s conscience, so that when he infringes it, his action is not merely injudicious, but immoral; on the other hand, where the code is silent, we regard an unfortunate action as objectively but not subjectively wrong, i.e. as injudicious, but not immoral. The acceptance of a moral code has the great advantage that, in so far as its rules are objetively right, it tends to harmonize objective and subjective rightness. Thus it tends to cover all frequent cases, leaving only the rarer ones to the individual judgment of the agent. Hence when new sorts of cases become common, the moral code soon comes to deal with them; thus each profession has its own code concerning cases common in the profession, though not outside it. But the moral code is never itself ultimate; it is based upon an estimate of probable consequences, and is essentially a method of leading men’s judgment to approve what is objectively right and disapprove what is objectively wrong. And when once a fairly correct code is accepted, the exceptions to it become very much fewer than they would otherwise be, because one of the consequences of admitting exceptions is to weaken the code, and this consequence is usually bad enough to outweigh the good resulting from admitting such and such an exception. This argument, however, works in the opposite direction with a grossly incorrect code; and it is to be observed that most conventional codes embody some degree of unwarrantable selfishness, individual, professional, or national, and are thus in certain respects worthy of detestation. (§ 15 ¶ 1)