The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)


It has been the practice of ethical Rationalists to compare the moral faculty with the faculty by which we immediately apprehend mathematical axioms or the laws of thought. I have myself contended that it is possible to discover moral axioms, the truth of which appears to us very much in the same way as the truth of the axioms If equals are added to equals, the wholes are equal or Two straight lines cannot enclose a space. Such ethical axioms are the three great laws of Prudence, Rational Benevolence, and Equity, which Professor Sidgwick regards as the ultimate basis of Ethics. And I have fully admitted the validity and importance of these axioms. But this comparison of moral to mathematical axioms may be overdone. It may be insisted on in a way which ignores some of the characteristic features of our ethical judgements, and its palpable failure to represent the facts may lead to a reaction against the whole idea of rational Morality. Rationalistic Moralists have not always observed that in themselves there is nothing ethical about these axioms of Prudence, Benevolence, and Equity except the bare formal notion or category of the good which they involve. The axiom of Equity, one man's good is of as much intrinsic worth as the like good of another[121], may, indeed, be reduced to the form of a merely analytical judgement. That which I recognize as having value in one man I must recognize as having the same value in another, provided it is really the same thing that is implied in the assertion that it has value. And the other two axioms--those of Benevolence and Prudence--simply assert that more good is always more valuable than less good. They are not merely comparable to the axioms of Mathematics; they are simply particular applications of those axioms. The judgement that the value of the good of all is greater than any one man's may be treated as a mere case of the mathematical axiom that the whole is greater than its part. But so far there is nothing really ethical about the judgement except in so far as it involves the ethical proposition that value or good is one of the things which have quantity. Yet, after all, such a way of representing the matter is really superficial; for it is in the conception of value that the whole meaning of the judgement lies. And that conception of value cannot be analysed away into the mere statement of an emotional fact. Considered as a mere statement of psychological fact, no assertion could well be more false than that my feeling towards one man, the emotion which I experience in knowing he is benefited or that he is injured, is the same as that which I should experience in the case of any other. The ethical Rationalists are, it appears to me, quite right in treating these judgements as genuine axioms which are to some extent analogous to the axioms of mathematics; but such axioms are by themselves quite incapable of solving any concrete ethical problem. The really ethical element in them is contained simply in the conception of value or good, and we cannot use them till we have pronounced some concrete thing or experience to be good. They resemble the axioms of Mathematics just because they are purely formal. All that they can do is to direct us as to the way we are to distribute the good when we know what it is. The really ethical judgement lies in the pronouncement that this or that is good. And, when we come to the judgement which pronounces that this or that is good or has value, the judgement assumes a form which seems psychologically much less like the mathematical, and much more like the aesthetic, judgement--a form consequently in which it can with much more plausibility be compared to a mere emotion or even a mere sensation. I can give no reason why I judge this pleasure to be higher than that--the pleasure of Shakespeare to the pleasure of champagne--except that I see it to be so, just as I can give no reason why I know this to be beautiful or that to be square, except that I see that they are so. We naturally express our judgement by saying I feel it to be so, rather than I know it to be so. And that is one reason why they have so often been supposed to be mere feelings. Very often probably this immediacy is all that is meant by those who insist on treating them as feelings of a supposed Moral Sense. But only a Sensationalist can suppose that the expression I feel that A is B represents a mere feeling. I feel is here merely a loose popular synonym for I judge. Propositions cannot be felt.(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 ¶ 1)

Another fact which has favoured the theory is the impossibility of expressing our real and concrete ethical judgements, as distinct from the merely formal and abstract axioms just considered, with the scientific accuracy and definiteness characteristic of other self-evident truths. Although the judgement pleasure is good but not so good as Virtue is an immediate judgement, and so far resembles a mathematical axiom, it is one wihch does not admit of being expressed with the same precision as mathematical judgements. And still more when we come to particular applications of our idea of value, when we ask what is the relative value of this as compared with that pleasure, or what is the comparative importance for an individual or a nation of a definite kind of artistic sensibility and of social feeling, we do not find that consensus among all who barely understand the meaning of the terms employed which can be claimed for the axioms of mathematics. And the essence of the really ethical judgement lies not in general axioms of the type suggested above, but in the concrete judgement this particular pleasure or this kind of knowledge is good or valuable., that kind of pleasure is bad; here the immediacy seems to be much more like the immediacy of the aesthetic appreciation, or even that of a mere judgement of perception, this is green. All these characteristics of the ethical judgement tend to win acceptance for the Moral Sense theory of moral apprehension.(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 ¶ 2)

How far the analogy between aesthetic judgements and ethical can be admitted, must depend upon the view which we take of the aesthetic judgement itself. The Moral Sense writers have usually assumed that aesthetic approval is merely a particular kind of subjective feeling. The judgement this picture is beautiful means to them merely I get from the contemplation of this picture a particular kind of pleasant feeling. And, if that were the case, the relegation of the moral judgement to the same category as aesthetic appreciation would be fatal to that authority or universality which we divine to be of its essence. On the other hand we may be prepared to deny that the judgement of one man on matters of Art or Poetry is as good as another, as would undeniably be the case if the aesthetic judgement were nothing but a matter of feeling. We may maintain that there is a right and wrong in matters of aesthetic appreciation as well as in matters of conduct. We may claim for the aesthetic judgement a certain objectivity, and consequently a partly rational character. But Aesthetics is a much more difficult science than Ethics. The objectivity of aesthetic appreciation is much more difficult to defend, the relation between the rational or intellectual and the merely sensuous or emotional elements in it much more difficult to determine, than is the case with the moral judgement. At all events, the theory of an absolute standard of aesthetic value could not be defended without a more elaborate treatment of the whole subject than would be here in place. Consequently, I dispense myself from any further attempt to define the relations between aesthetic and moral value, and will only point out that the analogy between aesthetic perception and moral may be admitted without giving up the position that there is an element in the moral judgement which cannot be reduced to mere subjective feeling or emotion and which must be regarded as belonging to the rational or intellectual part of our nature.(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 ¶ 3)

And when once the rational and objective character of the aesthetic judgement is admitted, we may with great advantage insist upon this rather than upon the mathematical analogy, because the comparison avoids a suggestion which is apt to cleave to the mathematical analogy--the suggestion that these judgements of value can be made prior to and independent of experience[122]. The judgement this view is beautiful no doubt (in so far as it claims that the man who does not think so makes a mistake) asserts something which is not given in experience, but no one contends that it can be made without looking at the view, or even without the experience of other views and pictures by which the man's aesthetic sensibility has been cultivated. Even the ordinary judgement of perception (this is a square object) involves, for those who have learnt the lesson of Kant's Critique, much besides mere sensation--the forms of space and time, the categories of substance and accident, quantity, &c. And so the judgement this act of charity is good involves no doubt experience, for we cannot pronounce that it is good without knowing what it is, an admission which was, as we have seen, never explicitly made by Kant himself. But it remains true (1) that the judgement of value is an immediate judgement of the Practical Reason, not a mere feeling; (2) that the essence of the judgement--the idea of value--is a distinct intellectual concept or category; and (3) that the moral judgement possesses a universality or objectivity which cannot be ascribed to mere sensations or to the judgements of perception founded upon them[123]. So much is involved in the very idea of Morality or duty or moral obligation. The very heart of our moral conviction is that there is something which every rational being, in so far as he is rational, must recognize as intrinsically right, that that something must be the same for all persons under the same conditions, and cannot be dependent upon the subjective caprice of particular persons. The Moral Sense theory, duly realized and thought out, necessarily involves the admission that that conviction on our part is a delusion. There is, therefore, no real analogy between an ethical perception (if the word is to be allowed) and the sensations, perceptions, or emotions with which they are compared by the Moral Sense school. So far then ethical Rationalism is right, when once we have got rid of Kant's attempt to make out that the ethical judgement is not merely not derived from experience but does not require as its condition knowledge derived from experience[124].(Bk. 1 Ch. 6 § 3 ¶ 4)

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.