VI. Methods of Estimating Goods and Evils.

§ 37.

In order to complete our account of ethics, it would be natural to give a list of the principal goods and evils of which we have experience. I shall, however, not attempt to give such a list, since I hold that the reader is probably quite as capable as I am of judging what things are good and what bad. All that I propose to do in this section is to examine the view that we can never know what is good and what bad, and to suggest methods to be employed and fallacies to be avoided in considering intrinsic goodness or badness. (§ 37 ¶ 1)

There is a widespread ethical scepticism, which is based upon observation of men's differences in regard to ethical questions. It is said that A thinks one thing good, and B thinks another, and there is no possible way in which either can persuade the other that he is wrong. Hence, it is concluded, the whole thing is really only a matter of taste, and it is a waste of time to ask which is right when two people differ in a judgment of value. (§ 37 ¶ 2)

It would be absurd to deny that, as compared with physical science, ethics does suffer from a measure of the defect which such sceptics allege. It must be admitted that ultimately the judgment this thing is good or that thing is bad must be an immediate judgment, which results merely from considering the thing appraised, and cannot be proved by any argument that would appeal to a man who had passed an opposite immediate judgment. I think it must also be admitted that, even after every possible precaution against error has been taken, people's immediate judgments of value do still differ more or less. But such immediate differences seem to me to be the exception: most of the actual differences are of a kind which argument might lessen, since usually the opinion held is either one of which the opposite is demonstrable or one which is falsely believed to be itself demonstrable. This second alternative embraces all false beliefs held because they flow from a false theory; and such beliefs, though often the direct contraries of what immediate inspection would lead to, are apt to be a complete bar to inspection. This is a very familiar phenomenon. Sydney Smith, believed to be always witty, sys pass the mustard, and the whole table is convulsed with laughter. Much wrong judgment in ethics is of this nature. (§ 37 ¶ 3)

§ 38.

In regard to the things that are good or bad, in themselves, and not merely on account of their effects, there are two opposite errors of this sort to be avoided—the one the error of the philosopher, the other that of the moralist. The philosopher, bent on the construction of a system, is inclined to simplify the facts unduly, to give them a symmetry which is fictitious, and to twist them into a form in which they can all be deduced from one or two general principles. The moralist, on the other hand, being primarily concerned with conduct, tends to become absorbed in means, to value the actions men ought to perform more than the ends which such actions serve. This latter error—for in theorizing it is an error—is so forced upon us by the exigencies of practice that we may easily come to feel the ultimate ends of life far less important than the proximate and intermediate purposes which we consciously endeavour to realize. And hence most of what they value in this world would have to be omitted by many moralists from any imagined heaven, because there such things as self-denial and effort and courage and pity could find no place. The philosopher’s error is less common than the moralists’s, because the love of system and of the intellectual satisfaction of a deductive edifice is rarer than the love of virtue. But among writers on ethics the philosopher’s error occurs oftener than the other, because such writers are almost always among the few men who have the love of system. Kant has the bad eminence of combining both errors in the highest possible degree, since he holds that there is nothing good except the virtuous will—a view which simplifies the good as much as any philosopher could wish and mistakes means for ends as completely as any moralist could enjoin. (§ 39 ¶ 1)

§ 39.

The moralist’s fallacy illustrates another important point. The immediate judgments which are required in ethics concern intrinsic goods and evils, not right and wrong conduct. I do not wish to deny that people have immediate judgments of right and wrong, nor yet that in action it is usually moral to follow such judgments. What I mean is that such judgments are not among those which ethics must accept without proof, provided that (whether by the suggestions of such judgments or otherwise) we have accepted some such general connection of right action with good consequences as was advocated in Section III. For then, if we know what is good and bad, we can discover what is right and wrong; hence in regard to right and wrong it is unnecessary to rely upon immediate inspection—a method which must be allowed some scope, but should be allowed as little as possible. (§ 39 ¶ 1)

I think when attention is clearly confined to good and bad, as opposed to right and wrong, the amount of disagreement between different people is seen to be much less than might at first be thought. Right and wrong, since they depend upon consequences, will vary as men’s circumstances vary, and will largely be affected, in particular, by men’s beliefs about right and wrong, since many acts will in all likelihood have a worse effect if they are generally believed to be right, while with some acts the opposite is the case. (For example, a man who, in exceptional circumstances, acts contrary to a received and generally true moral rule, is more likely to be right if he will be thought to be wrong, for then his actions will have less tendency to weaken the authority of the rule.) Thus differences as regards rules of right action are not a ground for scepticism, provided the different rules are held in different societies. Yet such differences are in practice a very powerful solvent of ethical beliefs. (§ 39 ¶ 2)

§ 40.

Some differences as to what is good in itself must, however, be acknowledged even when all possible care has been taken to consider the question by itself. For example, retributive punishment, as opposed to deterrant or reformative punishment, was almost universally considered good until a recent time; yet in our own day it is very generally condemned. Hell can only be justified if retributive punishment is good; and the decay of a belief in hell appears to be mainly due to a change of feeling on this point. (§ 40 ¶ 1)

But even where there seems to be a difference as to ends, this difference is often due to some theory on one side or on both, and not to immediate inspection. Thus in the case of hell, people may reason, consciously or unconsciously, that revelation shows that God created hell, and that therefore retributive punishment must be good; and this argument doubtless influences many who would otherwise hold retributive punishment to be bad. Where there is such an influence we do not have a genuine difference in an immediate judgment as to intrinsic good or bad; and in fact such differences are, I believe, very rare indeed. (§ 40 ¶ 2)

§ 41.

A source of apparent differences is that some things which in isolation are bad or indifferent are essential ingredients in what is good as a whole, and some things which are good or indifferent are essential ingredients in what is bad as a whole. In such cases we judge differently according as we are considering a thing in isolation or as an ingredient in some larger whole. To judge whether a thing is in itself good, we have to ask ourselves whether we should value it if it existed otherwise than as an ingredient in some larger whole. To judge whether a thing is in itself good, we have to ask ourselves whether we should value it if it existed otherwise than as an ingredient in some whole which we value. But to judge whether a thing ought to exist, we have to consider whether it is a part of some whole which we value so much that we prefer the existence of the whole with its possibly bad part to the existence of neither. Thus compassion is a good of which someone’s misfortune is an essential part; envy is an evil of which someone’s good is an essential part. Hence the position of some optimists, that all the evil in the world is necessary to constitute the best possible whole, is not logically absurd, though there is, so far as I know, no evidence in its favour. Similarly the view that all the good is an unavoidable ingredient in the worst possible whole is not logically absurd; but this view, not being agreeable, has found no advocates. (§ 41 ¶ 1)

Even where none of the parts of a good whole are bad, or of a bad whole good, it often happens that the value of a complex whole annot be measured by adding together the values of its parts; the whole is often better or worse than the sum of the values of its parts. In all aesthetic pleasures, for example, it is important that the object admired should really be beautiful; in the admiration of what is ugly there is something ridiculous, or even repulsive, although, apart from the object, there may be no difference in the value of the emotion per se. And yet, apart from the admiration it may produce, a beautiful object, if it is inanimate, appears to be neither good nor bad. Thus in themselves an ugly object and the emotion it excites in people of bad taste may be respectively just as good as a beautiful object and the emotion it excites in a person of good taste; yet we consider the enjoyment of what is beautiful to be better, as a whole, than an exactly similar enjoyment of what is ugly. If we did not we should be foolish not to encourage bad taste, since ugly objects are much easier to produce than beautiful ones. In like manner, we consider it better to love a good person than a bad one. Titania’s love for Bottom may be as lyric as Juliet’s for Romeo; yet Titania is laughed at. Thus many goods must be estimated as wholes, not piecemeal; and exactly the same applies to evils. In such cases the wholes may be caled organic unities. (§ 41 ¶ 2)

§ 42.

Many theorists who have some simple account of the sole good have also, probably without having recognized them as such, immediate judgments of value inconsistent with their theory, from which it appears that their theory is not really derived from immediate judgments of value. Thus those who have held that virtue is the sole good have generally also held that in heaven it will be rewarded by happiness. Yet a reward must be a good; thus they plainly feel that happiness also is a good. If virtue were the sole good it would be logically compelled to be its own reward. (§ 42 ¶ 1)

A similar argument can be brought against those who hold that the sole good is pleasure (or happiness, as some prefer to call it). This doctrine is regarded as self-evident by many, both philosophers and plain men. But although the general principle may at first sight seem obvious, many of its applications are highly paradoxical. To live in a fool’s paradise is commonly considered a misfortune; yet in a world which allows no paradise of any other kind a fool’s paradise is surely the happiest habitation. All hedonists are at great pains to prove that what are called the higher pleasures are really the more pleasurable. But plainly their anxiety to prove this arises from an uneasy instinct that such pleasures are higher, even if they are not more pleasurable. The bias which appears in hedonist arguments on this point is otherwise quite inexplicable. Although they hold that, quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry, they are careful to argue that quantity of pleasure is not equal, but is greater in the ase of poetry—a proposition which seems highly disputable, and chiefly commended by its edifying nature. Anyone would admit that the pleasure of poetry is a greater good than the pleasure of bathing on a hot day; but few people could say honestly that it is as intense. And even states of mind which, as a whole, are painful, may be highly good. Love of the dead may easily be the best thing in a life; yet it cannot but be full of pain. And conversely, we condemn pleasure derived from the love of what is bad; even if we admit that the pleasure in itself is a good, we consider the whole state of mind bad. If two bitter enemies lived in different countries, and each falsely believed that the other was undergoing tortures, each might feel pleasure; yet we should not consider such a state of things good. We should even think it much worse than a state in which each derived pain from the belief that the other was in torture. It may, of course, be said that this is due to the fact that hatred in general causes more pain than pleasure, and hence it is condemned broadly on egoistic grounds, without sufficient regard to possible exceptions. But the possibility of exceptions to the principle that hatred is bad can hardly be seriously maintained, except by a theorist in difficulties. (§ 42 ¶ 2)

Thus while we may admit that all pleasure, in itself, is probably more or less good, we must hold that pleasures are not good in proportion to their intensity, and that many states of mind, although pleasure is an element in them, are bad as a whole, and may even be worse than they would be if the pleasure were absent. And this result has been reached by appealing to ethical judgments with which almost everyone would agree. I conclude, therefore, from all that has been adduced in this section, that although some ultimate ethical differences must be admitted between different people, by far the greater part of commonly observed differences are due either to asking the wrong question (as, e.g., by mistaking means for ends), or to the influence of a hasty theory in falsifying immediate judgments. There is reason to hope, therefore, that a very large measure of agreement on ethical questions may be expected to result from clearer thinking; and this is probably the chief benefit to be ultimately derived from the study of ethics. (§ 42 ¶ 3)

§ 43.

We may now sum up our whole discussion of ethics. The most fundamental notion in ethics, we agreed, are the notions of intrinsic good and evil. These are wholly independent of other notions, and the goodness or badness of a thing cannot be inferred from any of its other qualities, such as its existence or non-existence. Hence what actually occurs has no bearing on what ought to occur, and what ought to occur has no bearing on what does occur. The next pair of notions with which we were concerned were those of objective right and wrong. The objectively right act is the act which a man will hold that he ought to perform when he is not mistaken. This, we decided, is that one, of all the acts that are possible, which will probably produce the best results. Thus in judging what actions are right we need to know what results are good. When a man is mistaken as to what is objectively right, he may nevertheless act in a way which is subjectively right; thus we need a new pair of notions, which we called moral and immoral. A moral act is virtuous and deserves praise; an immoral act is sinful and deserves blame. A moral act, we decided, is one which the agent would have judged right would have judged right after an appropriate amount of candid reflection, where the appropriate amount of reflection depends upon the difficulty and importance of his decision. We then considered the bearing of determinism on morals, which we found to consist in a limitation of the acts which are possible under any circumstances. If determinism is true, there is a sense in which no act is possible except the one which in fact occurs; but there is another sense, which is the one relevant to ethics, in which any act is possible which is contemplated during deliberation (provided it is physically possible, i.e. will be performed if we will to perform it). We then discussed various forms of egoism, and decided that all of them are false. Finally, we considered some mistakes which are liable to be made in attempting to form an immediate judgment as to the goodness or badness of a thing, and we decided that, when these mistakes are avoided, people probably differ very little in their judgments of intrinsic value. The making of such judgments we did not undertake; for if the reader agrees, he could make them himself, and if he disagrees without falling into any of the possible confusions, there is no way of altering his opinion. (§ 43 ¶ 1)

The End.

§ 43, n. 1: Or after a small amount in the case of acts which ought to be impulsive.