The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)


It is perhaps unnecessary to multiply objections to that sort of Intuitionism which declares that certain rules of action are to be followed irrespectively of consequences. It is irrational to judge of the morality of an action without tracing its bearing upon human Well-being as a whole. We are compelled to accept the utilitarian formula in so far as it asserts that conduct is good or bad only in proportion as it tends to produce the Well-being of human society on the whole. But we have already seen reasons for rejecting the utilitarian identification of greatest good with greatest pleasure; and we have seen that in the judgements as to the value of different kinds of goods we encounter a priori or immediate deliverances of the moral consciousness of precisely that kind to which the term Intuition is commonly applied. What then is the difference between the intuitions which we have rejected and the intuitions which we have felt ourselves compelled to accept? The intuitions of the Intuitionist are supposed to lay down invariable rules of conduct; the a priori or immediate judgements which we have admitted relate to ends, to the relative value of different elements in human Well-being or εὐδαιμονία. In other words the intuitions of the Intuitionist disregard consequences; ours relate precisely to the value of different kinds of consequence. The Intuitionist pronounces intuitive judgement upon acts; our intuitions relate to ends; his take the form this is right, ours always the form this is good.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 1)

A few illustrations will make the contrast plain. The old intuitive rule of Veracity is supposed to say, Do not lie under any circumstances whatever; our judgement of value gives us only Truth-speaking is good; lying is bad. And the moment the intuitive or a priori truth is put in this new form, the irrationality and unworkableness of the old intuitional system disappears. We are not forbidden to calculate consequences. Certainly we must trace the bearing of an act upon universal Well-being; but in our εὐδαιμονία truth-speaking, or rather the truth-speaking and truth-loving character, finds a place. Supposing the speaking of the truth will in this particular case involve such and such evils, the question is Which is the worse--these evils or the evil involved in the lie; so much suffering and suffering caused by my voluntary act, or so much untruthfulness? It is impossible, of course, to set forth in detail all the circumstances upon which a right decision of such cases may depend. But it would be generally agreed that to tell a lie to save somebody from hearing an unpleasant remark, or to save him from some trifling injury to his pride or self-esteem, would be to choose the greater of two evils instead of the less. On the other hand, to save a friend's life at the cost of concealing bad news by a lie would be a less evil than the voluntary causing of his death by speaking the truth. Of course, if any one disputes such a view of the case, we have nothing to say. As in all questions of ultimate ends, argument is impossible: but so in this particular case the vast majority of conscientious people judge and act. And be it observed that on this principle our moral judgements can never contradict one another. It remains true that truth is good, and speaking an untruth an evil; but like other goods, truth may have to give way to greater goods; lying is always an evil, but it may be the less of two evils. It is evil even when the justification for the lie is palpable and incontestable. Where the circumstances are such that the isolated act does not evidence or encourage an untruthful habit or character, the evil may be very small; but we cannot always secure that the evil shall be a small one. Lying in detectives is necessary and right, but, like some other professional duties, it may not always be good for the character of the person who practices it. It is often necessary to do things which are right for us, but which are liable to be imitated by those for whom it is wrong. If the evil of the anticipated imitation be great enough, this may no doubt be a sufficient reason for abstinence, but no sensible man would forbid a father to smoke because the example may fire his youthful son with the ambition to do likewise.(bl1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 2)

The general result then of our discussion, taken in connexion with preceding chapters, is that the true criterion of Morality is the tendency of an act to promote a Well-being or εὐδαιμονία which includes many other good things besides pleasure, among which Virtue is the greatest. The value of these elements in human life is determined by the Practical Reason intuitively, immediately, or (if we like to say so) a priori[70]. All moral judgements are ultimately judgements as to the intrinsic worth or value of some element in consciousness or life.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 3)

And we may go one step further than this in recognition of the partial truth of Intuitionism. The great objection in many minds to the utilitarian view of Ethics is the element of calculation which it involves. When this objection is made into a plea for acting without regard to consequences, it is (as I have endeavoured to show) completely irrational. But all the same the directness and immediacy which appear to characterize our clearest moral perceptions do seem at first sight an objection to the doctrine that I cannot decide whether a thing is right or wrong until I have worked out all its probable consequences upon so remote and intangible a thing as universal Well-being. And the difficulty is not fully met by insisting on the fact that on most of the ethical difficulties of common life the moral consciousness of the community has already laid down rules which the individual has only to apply to the matter in hand. For there are no moral judgements which probably strike those who make them as more authoritative and self-evident than those by which a certain act is judged to be wrong in spite of an overwhelming weight of custom and tradition. Such a judgement was pronounced, for instance, when a solitary monk declared that the gladiatorial combat was a barbarous brutality, though the tradition of ages and a whole circus-full of professedly Christian spectators pronounced it right, and by a public protest, which cost him his life, sealed the doom of the whole institution. And there is no reason why we should not fully recognize the validity of such judgements without any surrender of the principles which we have adopted. For this indefinable Well-being or εὐδαιμονία, which our moral Reason pronounces to be the ultimate end of all human conduct, is itself made up of elements of consciousness--feelings, volitions, emotions, thoughts, activities--each of which is itself an object of moral valuation. If these elements were not each of them by itself[71] the object of a judgement of value, there could be no judgement of value upon the whole. Every one would recognize this as regards acts which cause immediate pleasure or pain. Nobody supposes that, when I see a man sticking a knife into another, it is necessary for me to calculate the effect of the act upon the lives of all human beings, present and future, before I condemn the proceeding. I say at once, This pain is bad: therefore the inclition of it is wrong; and, if I am not a Hedonist, I may add, the character or disposition which this act shows is worse than the pain which it causes. And it is equally so in many cases where the act has no such immediate and obvious bearing upon the welfare of human society. That a rational being should use his intellect to make things appear to his brother man otherwise than as they are strikes me at once as irrational and evil. I do not want to trace out all the effects of lying upon human society exactly before I say, this is a lie and therefore bad. it is not the existence or even the relative and partial validity of such judgements that is disputed so much as their finality. In many cases it is practically apparent at the first glance that no possible circumstances could make this act--the cutting or the lying--result in an overplus of good to human society. In many more cases there is a great improbability that any circumstance at present unknown to me will disclose a prospect of beneficial consequences which would reverse my prima facie judgement. But, unless I know all the circumstances, it is always possible that further knowledge might reveal such a tendency. The man sticking a knife into his fellow with apparently heartless brutality may turn out to be a surgeon performing a salutary operation. The lie which I put down to mere indifference to truth may turn out to be part of a detective's scheme for the capture of a murderer or the protection of an innocent man. It is not always practically necessary to look to the ultimate end before we judge, and act upon our judgement: but, until we have done so, we are never sure that we have reached one of those ultimate moral judgements which represent an immediate deliverance of Reason, and which no further knowledge of facts and no demonstration of consequences can possibly shake. There would be little objection to the claims which the Intuitionist makes for his intuitions, if only he would admit that they are subject to appeal, though it is only an appeal to the same tribunal which pronounced the original judgements--an appeal (to borrow the legal phrase) a conscientia male informata ad conscientiam melius informandam. So long as the intuitive judgement runs in the form, This is right, it is always liable to be reversed on a wider survey of consequences. If it be turned into the form, This is good, it cannot possibly be reversed (supposing that the man's ethical ideal be a true one), though the resulting duty may appear different when this isolated judgement is brought into comparison with other moral judgements affirming the superior goodness of some other end[72]. In Morality, as in other matters, our judgements require to be correlated and corrected by reference to one another. Only the judgements that are based upon complete knowledge are final. The ideal moral judgement implies a conception of the ideal good for society as a whole, but we could have no ideal of what is good for society as a whole unless we had a power of pronouncing that this or that particular moment of conscious life is good or bad. Our conception of the moral ideal as a whole is built up out of particular judgements of value, though particular judgements of value have to be progressively corrected by our growing conception of the moral ideal as a whole, just as our conception of the laws of nature is built up out of particular perceptions, though when that knowledge is once attained it reacts upon and alters the perceptions themselves.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 4)

And by expressing the moral judgement as a judgement of value we get this further advantage. We emphasize the fact which eudaemonistic systems of Ethics are apt to overlook--that acts are the objects of moral judgements as well as consequences. Because no act can be good or bad without reference to consequences, it does not follow that its morality depends wholly upon those consequences. To the Hedonist, of course, such a distinction would be meaningless. For him nothing about an act is of any value or importance besides its consequences. Whether a poor family economize by infanticide or by curtailing their expenditure is simply a question of profit and loss. If the sum of pleasure would be equal in the two cases, it would be a matter of perfect indifference by which machinery the requisite correspondence between food and eaters shall be effected. The inhumanity of the act, the want of self-control which it implies, the temper or character which it expresses and fosters are matters of no importance except in so far as they may result upon the whole in an actual diminution of pleasures or increase of suffering. But when once it is admitted that the end includes a certain ideal of human character, then the deliberate extinction of children deliberately brought into the world with the intention of so disposing of them will seem a vastly greater evil, to the individuals concerned and to the society which tolerates their conduct, than much poverty with all its physical hardships and privations.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 5)

From this non-hedonistic point of view we can no longer recognize an absolute distinction between means and ends. Some means may no doubt have no value beyond that of conducing to a further end; but many, nay most, of the acts which do conduce to further ends have a value (positive or negative) of their own; and this value must be taken into account in estimating the rightness or wrongness of the acts.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 6)

It is on this principle that we must deal with most of the prima facie collisions between our ordinary moral judgements and the results of eudaemonistic calculation. Nothing but consciousness has value, but volitions and desires, emotions and aspirations and imaginations, are elements in all our consciousness as well as mere pleasures and pains. There are acts so intrinsically repulsive that it strikes us as, on the face of it, impossible that any pleasure which they might yield could be worth the evil which they involve. In this way most people would condemn without further examination proposals for the abolition of marriage or the permission of promiscuous infanticide. But still even in such cases it is not speculatively admissible to say, we will not look at the consequences. Practically, of course, it may often be right to refuse to argue some proposed moral innovation: that must depend upon the circumstances. But, if we do argue, if we do want speculatively to get to the bottom of an ethical question, we are bound to look at all the consequences, and pronounce whether, given such and such probable results, they are worth the evil involved in the means taken to gain them. In many cases--where the consequence on the strength of which it is proposed to do some questionable act is not some remote effect but some immediate pleasure--it is convenient to discuss the question as one of higher versus lower pleasure, though in strictness this means, according to our view, that the getting pleasure from one source is better than getting it from another, that one kind of pleasant consciousness is intrinsically better than another, though not more pleasant. And if we treat one pleasure as intrinsically better than another, there is no logical objection to our regarding some pleasures (i.e. the getting pleasure from some things) as intrinsically bad.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 7)

It is clear to my mind that there do exist pleasures which are intrinsically bad. On strictly hedonistic principles I fail to understand why we should object to the Spanish or Southern-French bull-fight, to the German students' face-slashing duels, to the coursing and pigeon-shooting which the higher public opinion is beginning to condemn among ourselves, to the wild-beast fights of the Roman amphiteatre, or perhaps even to the gladiatorial combats themselves, at least if the gladiators were justly condemned criminals. Hedonism is not bound to object to all infliction of pain, but only to insist that the pain inflicted shall yield a sufficient overplus of pleasure on the whole. There is no more difficult ethical question than the question of the negative value to be attributed to pain as compared with the positive value to be attributed to pleasure. There is no question assuredly upon which people's actual judgements would differ more. Which would you rather have--some particularly longed for treat, the holiday or the travel that you have set your heart upon,+a painful operation without chloroform, or no treat and no operation? Different men would answer such questions very differently[73]. But, to return to our bull-fight, upon any rational or intelligible view of the comparative values of pleasure and pain, the intense pleasure which such spectacles give to thousands of beholders must surely outweigh the pain inflicted on a few dozen animals or even a few dozen criminals. If ten thousand spectators would not be sufficient to readjust the balance, suppose them multiplied tenfold or one-hundredfold. A humane man would condemn the spectacle all the same. He will pronounce such pleasures of inhumanity bad, quite apart from the somewhat dubious calculation that the encouragement of inhumanity in one direction tends to callousness in another. Experience does not seem to show that persons habituated to the infliction of pain in one direction sanctioned by custom are less humane than other men in other directions. It is possible to question the morality of many forms of sport without accusing the average country gentleman of exceptional inhumanity, or doubting the sincerity of the indignation with which he sends a labourer's boy to prison for setting his dog at the domestic cat. Another good instance of intrinsically bad pleasures is supplied by drunkenness. The pleasures of drunkenness strike the healthily constituted mind as intrinsically degrading and disgusting, though it is probable that occasional acts of drunkenness are physically less injurious than a course of ordinary dinner-parties; and we should think the man's conduct in getting drunk worse instead of better if he had carefully taken precautions which would prevent the possibility of his doing mischief or causing annoyance to others while under the influence of his premeditated debauch. Of course in all such cases, where we pronounce a particular kind of pleasure bad, we must remember what was said in dealing with the distinction between higher and lower pleasures. The pleasure taken by itself--in abstraction from the total content of the consciousness enjoying it--cannot possibly have anything bad about it. In the night all cows are black; when we have made abstraction of all that differentiates one pleasure from another, the abstract remainder must obviously be identical from a moral as from every other point of view. It is really the getting pleasure from such and such things that is pronounced bad in such cases. It is good to be pleased, ubt not at everything, or under all circumstances, or at all costs.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 ¶ 8)

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 1. I wish for the present to avoid as far as possible metaphysical discussion, and therefore content myself with saying that by a priori I mean merely that the judgement is immediate--not obtained by inference or deduction from something else in the way in which the Utilitarian supposes his judgements to be deductions from rules got by generalization from experience (though, as I have explained, he always assumes the ultimate major premiss Pleasure is good). That in another sense judgements of value are not independent of experience, I shall hereafter strongly insist, especially in the next chapter.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 2. I speak of course in a rough and relative sense. We could form no judgement upon the worth of an act or a state of mind without some general knowledge of its relation to life as a whole. The illustrations will, I trust, sufficiently explain my meaning.

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 3. This point has been well put by Dr. McTaggart. But is a moral criterion, he asks, wanted at all? It might be maintained that it was not. It would only be wanted, it might be said, if we decided our actions by general rules, which we do not. Our moral action depends on particular judgements that A is better than B, which we recognize with comparative immediacy, in the same way that we recognize that one plate is hotter than another, or one picture more beautiful than another. It is on these particular intuitive judgements of value, and not on general rules, that our moral action is based.

This seems to me a dangerus exaggeration of an important truth. It is quite true that, if we did not begin with such judgements, we should have neither morality nor ethics. But it is equally true that we should have neither morality nor ethics if we stopped, where we must begin, with these judgements, and treated them as decisive and closing discussion. For our moral judgements are hopelessly contradictory of one another. (Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, p. 97.)

Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 2 n. 4. It is an extremely difficult question to say how far in such matters Hedonism would be bound to accept the verdict of the persons themselves. For we often deceive ourselves as to the pleasurableness of pleasures not immediately present, even when we have some experience to go upon, and yet such false estimates are causes of further pleasures and pains--pleasures or pains of expectation, imagination, or retrospect--which must themselves come into the calculus.