Book III: The Moral Ideal and Moral Progress.

Chapter I: Good and Moral Good.


It is true that, just so far as this consciousness is operative in the direction supposed, it carries an improvement of the will with it. Men come to seek their satisfaction, their good, in objects conceived as desirable because contributing to the best state or perfection of man; and this change we describe by saying that their will becomes conformable to their reason. For the self-realisation of the divine principle in man this change of will is just as necessary as the development of practical reason, and to an intelligence which could view the process as a whole would appear inseparable from it. But to us who view the process piecemeal, ourselves representing certain stages in it, it is natural to treat the development of practical reason, i.e. the gradual filling up and definition of the idea of human perfection, as a separate process, upon which the corresponding conformation of will may or may not ensue. We see that in the individual the idea of what is good for him in his actual state of passion and desire—the idea which in fact he seeks to realise in action—is apt not to correspond to his conviction of what is truly good. That conviction is the echo in him of the expression which practical reason has so far given to itself in those institutions, usages, and judgments of society, which contribute to the perfection of life, but his desires and habits are not yet so far conformed to it that he can seek his good in obeying it, that he can will as it directs. He knows the better—knows it, in a sense, even as better for himself, for he can think of himself as desiring what he does not, but feels that he should, desire—but he prefers the worse. His will, we say, does not answer to his reason. (§179 ¶1)

It is thus natural for us to treat will and reason as separate and even conflicting faculties, though when we reflect on moral action in its real integrity we see that it involves each alike, and that it is only some better reason with which in vicious action a man’s will conflicts, while there is an exercise of reason by him which is the very condition of his viciousness. The better reason is his capacity for conceiving a good of his own, so far as that capacity is informed by those true judgments in regard to human good which the action of the eternal spirit in man has hitherto yielded; while the reason which shows itself in his actual vice is the same capacity, as taking its object and content from desires of which the satisfaction is inconsistent with the real bettering of man. But just because it is this capacity in a man which, while it alone renders selfishness in all its forms possible, is the medium through which alone ideas of a better life than he is living are brought home to him—ideas themselves arising from the development of this capacity as it has so far gone in men—we are right, when once we have allowed ourselves to treat reason and will as separate faculties, in regarding reason as the one which has the initiative in the bettering of life. In the same way of thinking we may properly ascribe to reason—not as gradually unfolding itself in us, but as in the perfection to which that process tends, and which we must suppose to be actually attained in the eternal mind—a fully articulated idea of the best life for man, and accordingly speak of life according to reason as the goal of our moral effort. Meanwhile the error which lies in the treatment of reason and will as separate faculties we may correct by bearing in mind that it is one and the same self of which reason and will are alike capacities; that in every moral action, good or bad, each capacity is exerted as much as the other; and that every step forward in the self-realisation of the divine principle in man involves a determination of will no less than of reason, not merely a conception of a possible good for man, but the adoption by some man or men of that good as his or theirs. (§179 ¶2)