The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)


Our examination of the traditional Intuitionism has thus brought us round to the same position which we arrived at by a criticism of the traditional hedonistic Utilitarianism. We found that the Utilitarians were right in saying that actions are right or wrong according as they tend to promote or to diminish universal Well-being, but we found that they were wrong in thinking that the Well-being of a rational creature consists simply in pleasure, and pleasure measured quantitatively. We saw reason to believe that the very choice of the right and rational course for its own sake was itself a good and the greatest of all goods, and that it is impossible logically to establish the duty of preferring the general pleasure to our own without recognizing the intrinsic value of such a preference of universal good both for ourselves and for others. We saw further that besides this preference of the truly good in conduct or character there were many other elements in the ideal state of a human soul besides the Altruism of its volitions and the pleasantness of its sensations; and when we faced the question, how we know these things to be good in various degrees, we were obliged to answer We know it intuitively or immediately; we can give no reason why it should be so except that we see it so to be. So far we were obliged to admit that the Intuitionists were right. We found, however, that the Intuitionists were mistaken in supposing that the moral Reason on which they rightly base our ethical judgements either lays down fixed and exceptionless laws of conduct, or issues isolated, arbitrary, disconnected decrees pro re nata without reference to probable results. We saw that fundamentally these moral judgements were judgements of value: they decide what is good, not immediately and directly what is right. Since prima facie it is always right to follow the good, these judgements may often in practice condemn this or that kind of conduct so emphatically that we feel sure that no calculation of consequences is likely to prevent our turning this judgement this is good into a judgement this is right: but we saw that theoretically no single judgement of value can form the basis of a rule of conduct which admits of no exceptions. For moral Reason bids us not only seek to realize the good but to realize as much good as possible, and (if I may anticipate a point which we have not yet established) to distribute that good justly or impartially between the various persons who may be affected by our actions. We have seen reason, while accepting the intuitional view of the imperativeness of duty and the supreme value of moral goodness, to hold that the law of duty itself requires us to consider the consequences of our actions and to seek to promote for all mankind a εὐδαιμονία or Well-being which shall include in itself all the various elements to which moral Reason ascribes value; and include them in such wise that each is accorded its due value and no more than that value. So far we have decided nothing as to what these elements are except that Virtue is the most important of them, that culture or knowledge is another, and that pleasure has a place among them, although some pleasures are bad and the relative value of others has to be determined by a non-hedonistic standard.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 3 ¶ 1)

We have begun our study of Ethics with the question of the moral criterion. Logically it might seem that we should have discussed the theory of duty in general before attacking the question how we find out what particular acts or classes of acts are duties. I have adopted the former course because it seemed the best way of showing how impossible it is for the most thorough-going Utilitarian to avoid admitting that this simple, unanalysable notion of duty or the reasonable in conduct does exist, and of illustrating the impossibility of constructing a logically coherent system of Ethics without the assumption that the reasonableness of an act is sufficient ground for its being done. Before we go further, however, it may be well to dwell at some greater length upon the nature of this fundamental idea; and the best way of doing so will be by a brief examination of the classical exposition of it contained in the system of Immanuel Kant.(Bk. 1 Ch. 4 § 3 ¶ 2)