The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)

Chapter 6. Reason and Feeling


In the preceding chapters I have assumed that Kant is right in making Morality to be essentially rational, in holding that moral approval is a judgement of the Intellect, not a feeling or an emotion. This position seems now to require some further justification than it has yet received, and this justification may perhaps best take the form of a reply to the objections which are commonly made to it. The reply will be one which may be thought to involve considerable qualifications of the creed known as ethical Rationalism as represented by such men as Clarke in the seventeenth century and by Kant and other modern Idealists.(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 ¶ 1)

The most obvious form which objections are likely to take will be something of this kind: Does not common opinion recognize that Morality is an affair, not of the head, but of the heart? Are not our moral perceptions attended with a glow and warmth of feeling which is entirely absent from our perception (say) of a mathematical truth[115]? Are not good men very often stupid and bad men often intellectual? If we admit that there is an intellectual element in what is commonly called Conscience, must we not at least say with Bishop Butler that Conscience is neither merely a sentiment of the understanding nor a perception of the heart, but partakes of the nature of both[116]?(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 ¶ 2)

The common objections seem to imply several misconceptions--misconceptions, however, for which the exaggerations of Kant and other ethical Rationalists are, it must be admitted, largely responsible. In the first place, when it is held that moral judgements are given by Reason, we do not imply that their rationality is the sole reason for the acts being done. Undoubtedly it is possible to see that an act is right with absolute clearness and not to do it--nay, to feel practically little or no disposition to d oit. Even when an act is done out of pure respect for a recognized duty, there must at least be present a desire for what is right and reasonable as such (to use Professor Sidgwick's phrase) or the duty will not be done. And we have seen reason to hold that Kant was wrong in insisting that this rational desire is or ought to be the sole motive which impels us to the performance of good actions. It has been admitted that normally the ends prescribed by the Practical Reason are the objects of desire for their own sake, that actions directed towards such ends may possess moral value even when the thought of an abstract law does not enter into the agent's consciousness at all; and that even the best actions of the best men are commonly influenced by other desires besides bare respect for duty. Now when Conscience presents itself as partly an emotion of the heart, the term is probably used to include not merely the perception of what is right but also the impulses which cause what is right to be done--to include at least the respect or love for the good and perhaps also the whole of those benevolent or other higher affections and emotions which are approved by the moral Reason as motives to action[117]; while the question at issue between ethical Rationalists and their opponents is simply the question by what faculty or part of our nature do we discover that an act ought to be done?(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 ¶ 3)

It may further be admitted that the judgements of Practical Reason normally create a more or less powerful impulse towards the performance of what they enjoin; and, in those who are powerfully influenced by such judgements, they are undoubtedly accompanied by an emotion of a kind which is wholly absent from mere mathematical judgements. Still, it is possible to distinguish between the judgement that the act is right and the emotions by which that judgement is accompanied. It will perhaps be contended that in some persons who would commonly be described as very good men emotion of one kind or another is so obviously the main inspirer of their conduct that it is difficult to detect any intellectual judgement at all. And it may be admitted that as a matter of psychological fact the process by which many people come to attach the idea of rightness to particular kinds of conduct is almost entirely an emotional one: but still I should contend that, in so far as the idea of goodness or rightness forms the object of that emotion, the intellectual judgement must necessarily be there. This liability to be influenced or even wholly determined by emotional causes is no peculiarity of ethical judgements. All sorts of psychological causes may be at work in inducing a man to accept a particular theory as to the causes of the French Revolution; but the most prejudiced and passionate view of the matter and the most calm and scientific would be alike impossible to a man whose consciousness did not contain the intellectual concept or category of Causality. Nobody would ever dream of describing such a historical judgement as itself a mere emotion. Just in the same way, emotion may inspire particular judgements of right and wrong, but it could not create the idea of right or of good. Even in those cases where the actual motive is most clearly emotional, some perception of the goodness of the act may be said to enter into the exciting cause of the emotion, or the emotion may be said to be accompanied by a judgement of its own value. A man may devote himself enthusiastically to some philanthropic object, from a passion excited by the abstract idea of Justice, or he may be moved by a pure love of humanity which is nevertheless accompanied by the judgement that it is good to feel such a love. In some cases one, in others the other may seem to be the more appropriate mode of statement, but the two kinds of judgement--the judgement which ascribes value to the emotion and the judgement which ascribes value to an object and by so doing excites the emotion which leads to action--run into one another. All that is necessary to contend for at present is that judgement and emotion are logically distinguishable, and that the judgement of value does more than merely record the fact of the emotion being felt.(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 ¶ 4)

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 n. 1. Cf. the passage quoted from Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory, below, p. 165.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 n. 2. Dissertation of Virtue. This change from the more rationalistic position of the Sermons was perhaps due to the influence of Hutcheson. He now uses the term moral sense as a synonym for Conscience.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 1 n. 3. The single act of conscience may be a feeling, an emotion, an impulse, or a judgment (Wundt, Ethics, Eng. Trans., vol. iii, p. 60). Wundt is surely wrong in making Conscience or συνείδησις mean originally a knowing with God, instead of an inner or self-knowledge. The word, it is significant to observe, is first found in the generation immediately after Aristotle--a period of great progress both in ethical feeling and ethical theory.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 2 n. 1. Exception may be taken in some quarters to the use of the word faculty at all in this connexion. The word has fallen into disfavour partly because by a certain school it has been used to suggest the idea of a definite number of mental activities sharply distinguishable from and independent of each other--planted, as Plato would have said, as it were in a wooden horse, to the ignoring of the unity of self-consciousness, and partly because the invention of a specific faculty has often taken the place of logical or psychological analysis of complicated mental processes. I hope I have sufficiently guarded myself against these mistakes. But to prescribe altogether the use of the word faculty is to fall into the very superstition which the denouncers of it have in view. Whatever we do, there must be a faculty or capacity (δύναμις of doing it. In asking what is the moral faculty, I mean only to ask by which of the distinguishable activities of the single self-conscious self our ideas of right and wrong are to be referred.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 2 n. 2. The not taking into consideration this authority, which is implied in the idea of reflex of approbation or disapprobation, seems a material deficiency or omission in Lord Shaftesbury's Inquiry concerning Virtue. He has shewn beyond all contradiction that virtue is naturally the interest or happiness, and vice the misery of such a creature as man, placed in the circumstances which we are in this world. But suppose there are particular exceptions; a case which the author was unwilling to put…. Or suppose a case which he has put and determined, that of a skeptick not convinced of this happy tendency of virtue or being of a contrary opinion. His determination is, that it would be without remedy (Butler, Pref. to Fifteen Sermons).

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 2 n. 3. It may indeed be contended that there is an aesthetic, and therefore an objective, element even in gastronomic matters. If so, we must substitute some pleasure of a still more purely sensuous type.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 n. 1. This qualification of the axiom (not recognized by Utilitarians like Bentham or Sidgwick) I shall explain and defend in Chap. viii of this Book.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 n. 2. It is of course admitted by Kant that even the mathematical axioms in point of time are not prior to experience; his contention is that, when once there has been experience of space or number in general, their truth is seen independently of any particular fact or facts of experience--that the universal truth of the principle is implied or presupposed in each particular judgement about space or number.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 n. 3. Of course there is an objectivity even in the judgement of perception. My toothache as a feeling is purely subjective in the sense that I alone feel it. But my judgement I have a toothache claims objectivity. I mean that the man who denies is in error.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 n. 4. By experience is here meant of course experience in the sense of the Empiricists--mere sensible experience. There is no objection to saying that moral judgements are derived from experience if we include in the term experience the whole of our intellectual as well as our other psychical activities.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 1. What we normally call a desire I take to be a state of feeling and a certain state of will or conation combined.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 2. For, if we once suppose the general physical basis of animal life to be seriously altered, it is impossible to say to what extent the types of sentiment and action which, under present conditions, approve themselves as life-preserving and beneficial to the individual and the species would be still in place (Taylor, The Problem of Conduct, p. 41). Prof. Taylor's insistence that the details of duty would be different in different surroundings is quite justified, but he seems to me to think that this proves more than it does--that it altogether upsets any claim for objective validity or a rational character in our moral judgements. But (1) it is true that I may recognize that the ferocity of the tiger is as life-preserving and beneficial to its species as the charity of the Saint; yet I need not pronounce that it has the same intrinsic value: and (2) though the judgements as to right and wrong for human nature would be different if our physical constitution were altered, that does not show that every rational intelligence, in proportion as it is rational, would not pronounce the same course of conduct to be right for man as he is. And this is what we mean by treating the moral judgement as objective.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 3. Notre vrai guide n'est ni l'instinct, ni une pensée transcendante, c'est la réflexion sur l'instinct (Rauh, L'Expérience morale, p. 96).

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 4. Cf. Aristotle, Ethic. Nicomach. III. i. § 13 (p. 1110b) Ὁ γὰρ μεθύων ἢ ὀργιζόμενος οὐ δοκεῖ δι᾽ ἄγνοιαν πράττειν … ἀγνοεῖ μὲν οὖν πᾶς ὁ μοχθηρὸς ἃ δεῖ πράττειν καὶ ὧν ἀφεκτέον, καὶ διὰ τὴν τοιαύτην ἁμαρτίαν ἄδικοι καὶ ὅλως κακοὶ γίνονται: τὸ δ᾽ ἀκούσιον βούλεται λέγεσθαι οὐκ εἴ τις ἀγνοεῖ τὰ συμφέροντα· οὐ γὰρ ἡ ἐν τῇ προαιρέσει ἄγνοια αἰτία τοῦ ἀκουσίου ἀλλὰ τῆς μοχθηρίας.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 6. The researches of Prof. Westermarack (History of Human Marriage) tend to confirm Aristotle's dictum that man is τῃ̑ φύσει συνδυαστικὸν μα̑λλον ἢ πολιτικόν. This is proved partly by inference from the fact that the higher apes are monogamous, partly by a wide induction from anthropological and historical facts. Polyandry is rare, Polygamy a much more common institution, but both are exceptional arrangements due to special circumstances. The later work of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen (The Native Tribes of Central Australia) may be held to modify Prof. Westermarack's conclusions, but the most that they point to is a system of group-marriages, not the sheer promiscuity of McLellan's speculations; and after all, even in those marriages, one husband occupies an exceptional position. Even here a tendency to Monogamy is discernible. The great difficulty experienced by otherwise successful free-love communities in America is the ineradicable tendency to form exclusive unions. But of course these facts are intended rather as an illustration than as a proof of the position taken up in the text.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 7. This authority is not necessarily or exclusively that of a religious creed, a religious teacher, or a religious community: but this is the most definite and conspicuous form which moral authority actually assumes in modern times. This dependence is, I believe, one explanation of the undoubted fact that this is a department of morality which is peculiarly liable to suffer from the decay of religious belief.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 8. Von Hartmann is one of the few idealistic Moralists who have adequately remembered this. Man, according to him, gets his notions of the End from the application of Reason to the actual course of events, including the subjective moral motives of men (aus der Anwendung der Vernunft auf den gesamten Weltlauf einschliesslich der subjektiven sittlichen Veranlagung der Menschen. Ethische Studien, p. 181). At the same time, when he goes on to call the process of arriving at the ideal end inductive, he seems to ignore the fundamental difference between recognizing a value in the various elements of which the end is made up, and that of merely asserting their actual existence. He seems sometimes (ib., p. 192) to fall into the mistake of trying to form a conception of the ethical end by induction from the actual empirically ascertained tendency of the Universe, the fallacy of which has been sufficiently pointed out by Mr. Herbert Spencer's critics. That moral Reason can deal with data which it cannot itself supply or create, no one (among ethical Rationalists) appreciates better than von Hartmann. Diese Norm ist ein Produkt der Vernunft, ein Ideal, welches zeigt, wie der Mensch eigentlich sein sollte. Aber dieses Ideal ist nicht ein systematisch aus irgend welchem anderen Prinzip abgeleitetes, sondern ein Komplex von unmittelbaren Gefühls- oder Geschmacksurteilen (ib., p. 94). He points out too that in time this reasonable criticism of, and selection, among our desires modifies the feelings themselves (ib., p. 199). The only point in this statement to which I should demur is that he seems disposed to identify the judgement of taste with mere feeling, which would leave to the Reason nothing but the function of collecting and combining the actual feelings of the judger--a mode of thought quite inconsistent with the whole of his powerful plea for an absolute or rational standard of Morality. Reason must not merely collect and systematize, but select and value the different elements of human experience.

It is surprising to find how blind naturalistic Moralists continue to be to the fact that the real problem of Ethics is as to how we determine or ought to determine the ultimate end. This problem is wholly ignored in such works as M. Lévy-Bruhl's La Morale et la Science des mœurs (1904), the main idea of which is that the Science of the means to the end should be based upon Sociology (or a complex of sociological Sciences): how the end is to be discovered and what are the metaphysical implications of the idea of an end are questions which he does not ask. There is no indication in an otherwise clever work that its author is capable of even understanding their meaning.

Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 4 n. 9. Hume was right in insisting that in average human nature (apart from the influence of logical reflection or rational consideration) the qualities of the mind are selfishness and limited generosity (Treatise, Book III, Pt. ii, § 2).