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The Howison Lecture for 1954.  University of California Publications in Philosophy, Vol. XXVIII, June 7, 1955, 93-112.

Posted May 9, 2008


The Impasse in Ethics and a Way Out


Brand Blanshard



Philosophy is sometimes thought the least progressive of intellectual disciplines.  Some departments in the field still use an introductory textbook twenty-three centuries old.  But however slowly philosophy moved in earlier times, its pace has been greatly accelerated in the years since the turn of the century.  At that time there were at least two disciplines in the field that seemed to have reached some stability—logic and ethics.  In a comparatively few years both subjects have been torn down and reconstructed from the foundations.  In the first quarter of the century came Principia Mathematica, which did more, I suppose, to transform the theory and practice of logic than any other work since Aristotle.  In the second quarter the same root-and-branch reconstruction was attempted in ethics.

Thirty years ago it looked as if ethics had entered on a period of Augustan calm. Something like general agreement seemed to be in sight.  Paulsen in Germany, Janet in France, Moore, Rashdall, and McTaggart in Britain, Palmer, Fullerton, and Everett in America, all had been converging toward the same position-described by Paulsen as “teleological ethics” and by Hashdall as “ideal utilitarianism.”  This position was attractively simple and clear cut.  Of the two chief questions of ethics, What is good? and What is right? it held the first to be primary: if you knew what kinds of experience were most worth having, you could deduce what you ought to do; you ought to do whatever was needful to produce the largest amount of good.

How were you to tell what was good? Certainly not by argument; if you did not directly see that it was better to be happy than unhappy, no further evidence would help. This did not mean that there was anything irrational or arbitrary about your insights, any more than about saying that in a parallelogram the opposite sides must be equal.  You saw by an intuition which was itself an act of intelligence that happiness must have this further character.

Was happiness the only kind of experience that was thus intrinsically good?  No; by almost universal agreement, hedonism was rejected.  Wisdom and beauty and love, for example, had a goodness that was clearly not exhausted by the happiness they brought with them.  And what was this goodness that such experiences had in common?  It was nothing sensible like yellow or sweet; it was not a natural quality at all if that meant something that could be observed and measured scientifically.  Furthermore, it was so simple as to be beyond all logical analysis.  It was one of those fundamental notions like time and existence about which we can say extraordinarily little, in spite of being perfectly familiar with them.  The position could be summed up in its rule of practice: always so act as to produce the largest amount of intrinsic goodness, goodness being a simple nonnatural quality that belonged self-evidently to experiences of various kinds.

Now I do not think that the doctrine, put in this form, will stand.  Nevertheless, if there is any ethical theory toward which we can claim a convergence of abler minds from Plato and Aristotle down, I think it is this; and what I want to consider is how much of it is left after the attacks of recent years.  It has been subjected to three great waves of criticism which many think have swept it finally away. First came the attack of the deontologists, who held that the theory was mistaken in basing the right on the good.  Then came the emotivists, with their contention that goodness was not a quality at all and therefore inhered in nothing.  Lastly came the naturalists, who insisted that even if goodness were a quality it was a merely natural one, and therefore ethics must give up its pretensions to being anything more than a natural science.  I lay no stress on the historical order of these criticisms.  The three waves came so close together that, whatever their sequence, I feel free to deal with them in the order of convenience.



First, then, the deontologists.  As early as 1912 H. A. Prichard of Oxford began a revolt against the ruling ethics in an article that later became famous, entitled “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”  His answer to this question was Yes.  The mistake lay in connecting duty with interest or advantage, your own or anyone else’s.  The ideal utilitarians had argued that to ask what was your duty was to ask what would produce the greatest good.  Prichard admitted that in some situations the answer to the second question would supply the answer to the first.  If the problem, for example, was what sort of scholarship to endow, or what charity to support, it was only by knowing which would carry with it the greatest good that you could know which you ought to do.  But suppose you had borrowed a book and promised to return it on a certain day; would the question what you ought to do be settled by knowing whether it would do more good to return it?  Prichard said No.  It might be greatly to your advantage to keep it; would that justify disregarding your promise?  Obviously not; you should return it nevertheless.  If your duty was not thus based on your own advantage, was it then based on the other man’s?  No again; for he might have forgotten the matter and felt no need of the book, so that your advantage in keeping it would not be counterbalanced by any disadvantage to him.  Still, if you had promised to return it, return it you normally should.  The man of conscience who has made a promise does not stop to calculate whether he or his friend or society is going to reap some profit from his living up to it.  He thinks it his business to live up to it.  If he is asked why, he does not turn to some balance sheet of consequences; he says he ought to keep the promise because he made it; period.  In this, said Prichard, he is right.  To justify keeping promises by hunting for profit in so doing is not only futile; it is wrong in principle, for it supposes that duty rests on prospective good, whereas we can often see plainly that something is our duty when we have no idea whether it will bring future good or not.

Prichard’s essay was strangely disregarded, and, preoccupied with other problems, he let many years go by without pressing his case.  But the case was taken up by two able colleagues, first by E. F. Carritt and a little later by Sir David Ross, whose two books The Right and the Good and Foundations of Ethics are among the finest examples of lucid argument in ethical literature.  Ross maintained that however plausible the rule might seem of pursuing the greatest good, it was open to the two most fatal objections that can be offered to an ethical rule: at times adherence to it was plainly wrong, and at times violation of it was plainly right.  He held that of two prospective courses it was sometimes our duty to choose the one that, so far as we could see, would do less good and leave the world worse off.  To utilitarians of every stripe this was a shocking thesis.  Yet Ross held that, far from being bizarre or irresponsible, it was the requirement of ethical common sense.  The strength of this surprising view will be clearer if we work it out in an example, and we may as well choose our example from a major virtue, justice.

In a certain town an outbreak of lawlessness takes the form of repeated brutal assaults.  The epidemic has been growing rapidly, and the offenders have clearly been encouraged by the failure of the law to catch up with them.  At last a certain X is apprehended.  His record suggests that he is the ringleader; his connection with the latest crime seems clear; and he is brought for trial before a local judge.  The case against him is overwhelming.  There is only one circumstance that stands in the judge’s way. He happens to know with certainty that the accused man, notorious offender and general pest that he is, in this particular case is not guilty.  The judge happens, and he alone, to have caught a glimpse of him elsewhere at the time of the crime.  What is the judge’s duty?  If duty were merely a matter of producing the greatest good, would he not have to reason as follows: “By convicting this man and dealing with him severely, I shall probably halt an epidemic of violence, and thus not only promote the common security but also, perhaps, save a number of lives.  These are extremely important ends.  What is to be set against them?  The suffering or at least loss of freedom of a man who is innocent of the crime alleged.  But, after all, he richly deserves on other counts whatever he may get.  Is not the suffering of such a man a small price to pay for the checking of lawlessness . . . Ah, but then,” the judge reflects, “am I not leaving out a most important consequence?  What about respect for my court and for courts generally? If it became known that a judge might deliberately convict a man he knew to be innocent, people would lose confidence that courts would give them justice, that acquitted men were not really criminals, and convicts not really martyrs.  Such a loss of confidence would be sheer disaster.”  But then he considers further.  “What would produce the disaster is not my convicting this man but only a public knowledge of the facts, and it lies within my power whether this knowledge will ever get out.  Only the culprit and I know the truth.  As for him, nobody will believe him, no matter what he says.  As for me, I need only keep silence.  By giving my verdict against the culprit while locking one detail in my own mind, I can at once avert any discredit that might accrue to the court and promote the public security.  And is not that the aim of courts anyhow?”

This is the sort of reasoning into which we are led, Ross believes, by the ethics of the greatest good of the greatest number.  Can we accept it?  He insists that we cannot, and surely we must agree with him.  Here is a case in which we are far more certain of the wrongness of convicting an innocent man than of any theory on the other side; we should say that such an act was monstrous, let the theoretical chips fall where they may.  “Very well,” Ross would say, “let us see where exactly they do fall.  You agree that convicting the man would be wrong.”  “Of course.”  “You agree that a mere calculation of consequences would make it out to be right?”  “Apparently so.”  “You agree that if the judge did justice in this case, the lawlessness would probably increase?”  “Yes.”  “And that this would be a worse state of things than the alternative?”  “Yes, I suppose so.”  “But the judge ought to do justice anyhow?”  “Yes, clearly.”  “Well, then,” Ross would conclude, “you have admitted my whole case.  You have agreed that, in essence, duty has nothing whatever to do with producing the greater good, and that it may be a man’s duty to choose a course that will make the world worse.”

Now I must confess that, in spite of the argument, I find this conclusion incredible.  I agree that the judge should acquit the innocent man; I cannot agree that in so doing he would be making the world worse.  Where, then, is the error in Ross’s reasoning?  Some have tried to find it by throwing into the scale the judge’s motive.  They suggest that, even if convicting the innocent man did produce the better results, the deliberate intention of the judge was in itself an evil which must outweigh any later good.  But this is futile.  For what counts in a motive morally is the desire to do right, and it is conceivable that the judge, even in convicting an innocent man, did so out of a sincere regard for duty.  He may have been muddled, but muddle is not sin.  We should consider his action wrong nevertheless.  Hence we cannot charge the wrongness of the action upon the badness of its motive.  If we are to show, as against Ross, that its wrongness lies in any badness connected with it, that badness must lie neither in consequences merely, nor in the motive merely, nor in both together.  Then where?

The person who gives a true answer to this question works, I think, under a disadvantage.  He cannot point to any particular person, time, or place as the residence of the good he has in mind; and yet he is convinced that it is because of this good that justice should be done.  Can he give any indication where it lies? Yes.  Subject to an important word of later comment, it lies in the set of relations that justice would maintain between the judge, the prisoner, and the members of the community. The judge is installed by those members to serve as their intelligence and conscience in critical cases; his special business, to which he pledged himself in accepting office, is to give judgment in accordance with the evidence. Even if, in a given case, an unjust judgment should lead to consequences as good as those of a just one, the community in which justice is done is so far a better community.  The giving of a verdict against the evidence, from whatever motives, would be a breach of faith not only with the prisoner but with the community as a whole.  It would involve at once the breaking of multiple engagements, the telling to the public of an untruth, and the doing of grave injustice.  Now the keeping of engagements, the telling of truth, and the doing of justice are essential parts of the community’s plan of life.  To violate them officially is to do far more than to injure a particular person; it is to challenge and disrupt this plan of life as a whole.

One may object that it will not disrupt this if the normal consequences are cut off.  But most men will not be convinced.  They will say that disruption may be a matter of logic as well as of consequences.  To forsake engagements, truth, and justice whenever a prospect of particular advantage comes in view would be to weaken the claims of these things throughout the range of our conduct; it would tear a huge hole in the network of relations that makes society possible.  This, I think, is what really halts the plain man when he is invited to abandon principle.  It need not be any bad consequences on which he can put his finger, nor yet the importance of anyone principle standing alone, for he is ready to admit that in extreme cases an untruth must be told or a promise broken.  But even in these cases he violates principle with a reluctance that is inexplicable if principles are simply means to particular goods, and not wholly explicable even if they are taken, in Ross’s way, as prima facie rules of right.  What really moves us is the sense—a vague sense, admitted—of remoter repercussions, of what the breach of principle would mean for the fabric of our life as a whole, a sense that if what is proposed were admitted, it would bring down the house in which we are living about our ears.  It is important, we should all agree, that a crime wave should be discouraged.  But it is far more important to maintain those relations of honor, truthfulness, and justice which touch our lives at a thousand points and make a society like ours possible.  If these things may be repudiated in their own peculiar shrine, then, to put it crudely, anything goes.  The foundations of our communal life have caved in.

Ross denies this because he believes that, apart from its motives and its consequences, there is nothing good in right action.  He says frankly that he “can see no intrinsic goodness attaching to the life of a community merely because promises are kept in it.”1  But I doubt whether he can keep to this, even in his own thinking.  When he is criticizing the utilitarians, he offers a case that he regards as decisive. Take two communities in which the amount of happiness is the same, but which differ in one respect: in the first, the material goods of life are distributed justly; in the second, they are not.  Ross argues that if the utilitarians are right it should make no difference which community we choose, whereas it is obvious that we ought to choose the former.  I agree. But why ought we to choose it?  If it is not because justice would produce more happiness, is it because justice is itself good? Ross could only say No; for in the mere doing of justice, as in the mere keeping of promises, he would find no good whatever.  Is it then in the motives that would be at work in the first community but not in the second?  No again; for we may suppose without inconsistency that in respect not only of happiness but also of loyalty to duty the two communities are on the same level.  Should we still choose the first?  I am sure that Hoss would say we should.  But once more, why?  The natural answer is surely, “Because the first community is better.”  But this he cannot say. We ought to choose the first, but for no reason at all.  Though the first is not preferable, it is still our duty to prefer it.

Now, with great admiration for Ross’s discernment, I cannot believe that if he were asked why he would prefer the one to the other, he would really be at his wit’s end, and able to say only, “You ought because you ought.”  I think he would naturally say, “You ought because a just community is better than an unjust one.”  And if so, he would be admitting that even here the right derives from the good.



But the ideal utilitarian who thought that with this he had made out his case was to receive a jolting surprise.  It was hard to be told by Prichard and Ross that his moral philosophy was based on a mistake.  It was far more dismaying to be told that his subject did not exist at all, that there were no such things as judgments of good or evil, right or wrong. This was the startling intelligence that was given him, with an air of calm finality, by the new school of emotivists.  To be sure, the emotivists were subjectivists; and he had met subjectivists before.  He had read his Hume and his Westermarck, and was confident that the weapons which had removed such Apollyons as these from his path could deal with the pettier poltergeists that might appear in their train.  Hume had argued that the rightness of an action meant only that society, viewing the action in the light of its consequences, felt an emotion of approval toward it.  But if this were offered as an account of what people mean by “right,” it obviously would not do.  The social reformer insists that his cause is right, and goes on doing so while knowing only too well that it is jeered at by almost everyone.  He could not possibly mean by its rightness that it now has general approval.  Nor was Hume’s case much strengthened by Westermarck, in spite of the prodigious array of anthropological scholar-ship brought to bear on it.  According to Westermarck, the judgment of right or good was not a statement that society approved of something; it was the statement that one had approving feelings of one’s own.

It was against this position that G. E. Moore, in his little book on ethics, offered arguments that came to be regarded as the definitive refutation of subjectivism.  Moore pointed out that if a moral judgment states only how we feel about an act, we are landed in a nest of absurdities.  It would follow that on moral matters we were virtually infallible, since we surely know how we feel about things.  It would follow that no two persons could ever agree in moral judgment, since if Jones said an action was right all he meant was that he, Jones, had a certain feeling about it; if Smith made the same remark, all he meant was that he, Smith, had a certain feeling about it; and these were not the same assertions.  Further, Jones and Smith could not contradict each other on these matters even if they tried.  Smith’s statement that an act was wrong would not contradict Jones’s statement that it was right; it would merely record a different kind of feeling about it.  And if there is anything clear about our discussions of moral problems, said Moore, it is that our beliefs do sometimes clash.  A subjectivism which tells us that such beliefs never do or can clash has ruled itself out by its plain discordance with fact.

But now arose a kind of subjectivism undreamed of in Moore’s philosophy.  By agreement and difference he had meant agreement and difference in opinion; and, to anyone who did mean that, the view that when two men called an action right and wrong, respectively, they were not contradicting each other must certainly seem absurd.  But what if their difference was not one of opinion at all but a diferrence merely in attitude?  Then these paradoxes about infallibility, agreement, and difference would never arise.  This was the new line taken by the emotivists; “. . . sentences which simply express moral judgements,” wrote Professor Ayer, “do not say anything.  They are pure expressions of feeling and as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain or a word of command is unverifiable—because they do not express genuine propositions.”2  The emotivists held, like Prichard, that moral philosophy had been based on a mistake, but the mistake was the more radical one of supposing our judgments on moral matters to be judgments at all. When Ross called an action right, they said, he was not stating a truth or even a falsehood; he was asserting nothing whatever; he was merely expressing a feeling of moral warmth toward the action.  When G. E. Moore called the experience of beauty intrinsically good, he was not saying something about the experience, as he had always supposed he was, nor even about his own feeling, as Westermarck suggested.  He was only exclaiming about it; he was saying “Hurrah for beauty!”  The whole mass of our value judgments, every assertion of right or wrong, good or evil, beauty or ugliness, is thus removed at a stroke from the field of cognition into that of emotion.

This theory, which has been called the “boo-hurrah” theory of ethics, has been the most widely discussed ethical theory of the past two decades; and its acceptance in one form or another by Russell and Ayer in Britain, and by Carnap and Reichenbach in this country, has attracted respectful attention to it.  Though it is not an American product, the fullest exposition of it must be placed to the credit of an American, Charles L. Stevenson, of the University of Michigan.3  No one will deny that if true, it is extremely important.

The ideal utilitarians held that we could weigh the goods and evils entailed by conduct against each other; indeed, that we could commonly see the superiority of certain goods to others to be self-evidently true, and this of course meant objectively true, in the sense that if persons differed about it they could not both be right.  This implied, again, that at every moment of our waking lives there was some objectively right act that we should try to find and do.  It implied that if two persons or two nations differed, there was always an objectively right course waiting, so to speak, to be discovered, and that tribunals had a ground on which to render impartial decisions. If the emotivists were correct, all this was an illusion.  The Japanese felt enthusiasm about the attack at Pearl Harbor; we felt anger; but there was no ethical character in the act, and no good or evil in the consequence, that would justify either attitude, nor did it make sense to say that there was any truth to be discovered as to the rightness or wrongness of either side.  As for the grounds on which an international court might base judgments of guilt, we could only say that they did not exist in fact, and could not even in theory.  Such a court, if it tried to pronounce judgment, would only be expressing another and third feeling.

Can practical consequences of this kind be validly urged against the new ethical theory? I do not think so.  I do think that acceptance of the theory would in fact discredit the notion of justice, interpersonal or international, and that this would have unfortunate practical consequences.  But since I think that pragmatism too has been discredited, I do not believe that any theory can be overthrown by pragmatic considerations.  The proposal must be dealt with, like other theories, on the ground of its accordance or discordance with fact.  Where does it stand in this respect?

It offers itself as a statement of what is meant by judgments of value.  Does this signify what plain people actually mean, or what people mean after they have critically examined their ideas?  The two meanings may of course be quite different.  When the plain man says that grass is green, he does not mean that its being green depends on the accident of his seeing it; I think he assumes the green to be there whether anyone sees it or not.  When the college student whose innocence has been corrupted by Berkeley says that grass is green, his meaning may be quite different, namely, that there is something out there, not itself green, which, when it works on his senses, makes him see green.  Now emotivism has been careless about telling us which meaning it has in mind. If it is reporting the first kind of meaning, it has obviously missed the mark.  When the plain man calls murder “wrong” or suffering “bad” he clearly does not imply that they would not be so apart from the accident of his being aware of them; he would be puzzled, if not shocked, by any such suggestion.  He means to say something about murder and suffering themselves.  But of course the plain man may mean something which, if considered in its implications, he would have no business to mean.  The question then is whether the plain man’s view, when considered in its implications, is the more consistent with what the rest of our thought and experience forces us to accept.

Now I think that it is the emotivist view which must yield.  It would require us to abandon ways of thinking which are far better grounded than it is itself.  Let me mention two of these which I have already put in words and in print, apparently with no effect, on Matthew Arnold’s desperate principle that “what I say three times is true.”

First, emotivism is irreconcilable with our way of thinking of past or future values.  There is some plausibility in saying, as Christian Scientists do, that when we judge our present suffering to be bad, we are expressing our own attitude merely, and that if this attitude were changed, there would be no badness to express.  There is somewhat less plausibility in saying that when we judge a current famine in India to be bad, we are saying nothing about the famine but only expressing our own feeling about it.  But I submit that there is no plausibility at all in saying that when we judge the suffering in Buchenwald to have been bad, all we mean to express is our present feeling. On this interpretation, the suffering did in fact occur, but nothing that we now express when we call it bad could have belonged to the suffering when it occurred; for all the statement expresses is present feeling, and that did not come into being till after the suffering was over.  According to this ingenious theory, nothing bad has ever occurred, or at least it is meaningless to say it has.  To be sure, the record of the race has been full of things that we have always supposed to be major ills—disease, war, want, fear, frustration, to say nothing of the infinite silent suffering of the animal world.  On the emotivist theory, it would literally be without meaning to say that any of this was bad when it occurred, since all that the term “bad” expresses is the present feeling of the speaker.  I can only say that this seems to me absurd.

It may be replied that the absurdity lies in a misreading of the emotivist’s theory.  When he calls this past suffering “bad,” a simple and sensible meaning is open to him, namely, that a hostile feeling was felt toward these things by the people of the time.  But this, innocent enough on the surface, surrenders the whole emotivist case.  For it admits that what was supposed to be a mere expression of feeling is in truth a judgment, a judgment about how people in fact felt in the past; that, like other judgments, it may be true or false; and hence that the emotivist view, which denies this of value statements, is itself false.  Thus the theory is in a dilemma.  If it adheres to the view that value statements express present feeling only, then it cannot consistently say that anything evil has ever happened, which is absurd.  If it takes the natural way of avoiding this absurdity, it contradicts itself.

Unfortunately its case is no better when it deals with the future; it cannot hold that anything good or evil ever will happen.  Of course, in their role as sensible men, emotivists, like other people, talk occasionally of the good time that is coming.  But as emotivists they must at once remind themselves that when they call it a “good” time, they are saying nothing that will characterize it when it comes; they are giving vent to their present feeling, that and nothing more.  Since that present feeling is over with the moment, nothing expressed by the word “good” can belong to the future event.  Now it may be that whenever we say that anything good or bad ever has happened or will happen, we are really talking nonsense.  But for my own part, I find this less plausible than that this ingenious theory has somewhere gone off the track.

My second difficulty with emotivism is this: it renders all our attitudes arbitrary and groundless.  Attitudes are divided by emotivists into pro- and anti-attitudes; when we call something good, we express a pro-attitude; when we call it bad, an anti-attitude. Now if we are asked why we take a pro-attitude toward something, we should no doubt answer that it is because of something good in the object which makes such an attitude appropriate.  Why should we view with favor our children’s happiness and cultivation, and with disfavor their ignorance and misery?  The natural answer, surely, is that happiness and cultivation are good, and ignorance and misery bad.  It would be arbitrary and groundless to favor something if there was nothing good about it, or to disfavor it if there was nothing bad.  But from this natural answer the emotivist is cut off.  For him the object is not favored because it is good; it is good, in the only legitimate sense, because it is favored.  In itself, and apart from such favoring, it is perfectly neutral.  There is nothing good in enlightenment or happiness or dutifulness which can make it appropriate to favor them, nothing bad in pain or disease or death that could justify aversion to them.  The only good or evil is that with which we invest an object through the attitude itself.  But this implies that we can never justify our approval or disapproval of anything, that no pro- or anti-attitude is more appropriate than any other, since all attitudes are equally without foundation in what is there.

For one who holds this view, I should suppose that the natural policy would be never to approve or disapprove of anything. But since that is hardly practicable, the most prudent line would surely be to call everything good, since this is all that is needed to make it good in the only sense in which anything is so. We are told that Walt Whitman was so well disposed toward the world that he could greet the Brooklyn telephone directory or a list of the Maine lakes with “whoops of blessing.”  I commend this attitude to the emotivists.  If it seems somewhat undiscriminating, let us remember that in the nature of things there are no values to discriminate, and that it is a very short-sighted economy that settles for geese when it may as easily have swans.

The view of the emotivists that there is no such thing as an objective good seems, therefore, less convincing to me than the ancient and honorable prejudice that it does exist.  So far, then, the great tradition in ethics, which holds that right action lies in producing the greatest good, remains still open to us.



But now comes the third wave of criticism. It is directed at a side of the older theory that we have not considered, its distinction between the “is” and the “ought.”  When the ideal utilitarians concluded that duty lay in seeking not the greatest pleasure but the greatest good, they had on their hands the curiously baffling question what they meant by “good.”  This was a character owned in common by all good things, but what sort of character was it?  Pleasure was a feeling that could be observed, but what was this rarefied something called “goodness,” which was neither pleasure, nor knowledge, nor beauty, nor love, but an essence distilled from all of them?

Moore struggled for long with this question, and concluded that goodness is not a character in the “natural” world at all.  When you perceive a rose, you can smell its sweetness, feel its softness, and see its shape and color, but when you say the experience is good, are you reporting another quality of the same kind?  Clearly not, says Moore.  All these other qualities are sensible, but no one has ever seen or otherwise sensed goodness, any more than he has seen the light that never was on sea or land.  Very well, if we cannot sense it or point to it, perhaps we can specify it by defining it.  But no, it turns out to be so simple that it cannot be dissected into parts, and is therefore beyond defining.  Its meaning is perfectly clear; its presence is easy to recognize; it is almost as familiar to us as our hands and feet, but we cannot say what it is.

Here doubts began to arise.  To be sure, there are other familiar concepts that prove to be highly elusive when we try to pin them down—time, for example, and existence, and being awake.  But these are all complex, while goodness is supposed to be simple.  And if a term is at once simple and constantly on our lips, one would expect that what it refers to would be clear.  Yet when moralists began to think about Moore’s analysis, many of them had to report doubt whether they had ever known such a quality and indeed whether there was any such quality to know.  It was a philosophic will-o’-the wisp that dissolved when one tried to lay hold of it.  These doubts were strengthened when, after a time, Moore himself began to doubt; at one point he confessed that he was as strongly drawn by the emotivist view as by his old view of goodness as a quality.  Now if, when an analysis of a common meaning is offered, many or most qualified persons can find nothing in their thought that answers to the analysis, the criticism is inevitable that the analysis has failed to catch what is really meant.

With this criticism I agree.  It is the first of the three criticisms of the older position with which I have been able to agree.  Like many others, I find it hard to verify this nonnatural quality of goodness.  But my difficulty goes beyond this; I think that goods and bads are more firmly rooted in human nature than the ideal utilitarians would admit.  They refused to admit that in the meaning of good any part was played by the gratifying of human impulses, the satisfying of human needs, or the fulfilling of human desires.  They conceded that these sometimes served as conditions of our finding something good, but the goodness never consisted of them even in part: it was a quite distinct nonnatural quality that supervened on these satisfactions.  I cannot resist the conviction that the connection between goodness and fulfillment is more intimate than this.  If that is a prejudice, it is at least one that is shared by a large and highly respectable company, which includes Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hegel, Green, and Mill.  They all held that the goodness of anything was so bound up with the fulfilling of needs or desires that such fullfillment entered into, and supplied in whole or part the very meaning of, goodness.  In the present sense of the term they were all of them naturalists.  In that sense I am a naturalist too.

Since the question involves analysis, may I venture a remark about this treacherous process?  When Socrates set the fashion for Western thinkers in defining ethical terms, his method was a straightforward one; perceiving that even when we were uncertain what a term meant, we could often point with confidence to varying examples of it, he proposed that we discover our meaning by asking what it was in virtue of which we recognized these as examples, and that we do this by bringing to light what they had in common.  This is regarded by some present-day analysts as too crude a method; for it is possible, they say, to find a set of characters that is always present when goodness is present, and yet is not strictly what goodness means.  The proof of this is that we may use the word “goodness” significantly without any explicit thought of the characters named; and, further, that the question whether a thing could be good without these characters is not instantly seen to be meaningless.

I suggest that when analysis reaches this stage it has become so refined as to be self-defeating.  Not only does the term “good” have no one meaning (Dr. Ewing has recently distinguished ten meanings), but even when used in the restricted sense of intrinsically good, I see no reason to think that its meaning is either clear or simple.  Words are used very much as checks are used, to transfer accumulated stores, and the fact that no inventory is made of these at the time of transfer does not imply that the checks are irredeemable.  Behind this term “good,” which we bandy about so readily as a counter, there lies a massive wealth of meaning which for most purposes may be taken for granted, but which the analyst ignores at his peril.  If he assumes that the word means only what is explicitly present whenever it is used, the result will be a triumph of precise and lucid superficiality, which must be repudiated at the first glimpse of what lies in its hinterland.

Very well, if goodness is not a quality but rather a complex of characters of which the word is merely the opening gate, what is included in this complex?  Let me make such answer as I have to give with the help of a famous case in ethical history.  John Stuart Mill, you will recall, concluded that goodness meant pleasure.  Hence any state of mind that was intrinsically good, whether an experience of beauty or of wisdom or of champagne, was good in the precise degree of its pleasantness. This led to an attractively simple solution of nearly all the problems of ethics, and Mill regarded it with some complacency.  But when his friend Carlyle began to berate it as a “pig” philosophy, he had second thoughts.  He asked himself the classic question: if he had to choose between the life of a pig, supported in the style to which Mr. Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings was accustomed, or an equal period in the life of a harassed and henpecked Socrates, would he elect the porcine bliss or the philosophic struggle?  Could he put his hand on his heart and say that the pleasure of the Socratic life was certainly greater?  No. Did he have the slightest doubt, however, that it would be better to be Socrates in any case? No again, Mill confessed, with that honesty and candor that made him so persuasive.  But then what became of his theory that the good lay in pleasure alone?  His answer, of course, was that though the Socratic life might not contain more pleasure than the other life, the pleasure it did contain was so much better, so much higher in quality, as to outweigh any deficit in quantity.  By pretty general agreement, this did more credit to his heart than to his head. You cannot consistently say that, with their pleasantness equal, one experience is better than another, and also that their goodness lies in their pleasantness alone.  It was all too clear that Mill was making two major mistakes at once: first, in identifying goodness with pleasure; second, in trying to combine this view with the admission that goodness was other than pleasure.

Several generations of teachers and students have triumphantly pointed out Mill’s blunders.  But many, even in doing so, have felt that his sane and honest mind had carried him very near to the truth.  I own to being one of these.  I am inclined to think that goodness consists in two components, both of which Mill more or less clearly recognized, and that if he had seen the parts they really play, his theory on this point would have been beyond cavil.

In the first place, he recognized that pleasure, or, as I prefer to call it, satisfaction, is present in every state of mind that is intrinsically good, and is inseparable from the goodness.  This, I submit, remains true even if goodness is not exhausted by pleasure.  Take one example.  We who are in academic life call knowledge or understanding good.  Suppose that at one stroke we could achieve what we are seeking, and have at our command all the knowledge and understanding of what James calls the “quarto and folio editions of mankind,” but with this one proviso added, that we should find no pleasure, take no satisfaction, in it.  Would it have any value for us?  I am not asking whether we might still choose it for its consequences to ourselves or others; that is a wholly different question.  I am asking whether it would have intrinsic value for us, and suggesting that it would not. Indeed, this answer has over and over again been forced upon those who tried to evade it. It was forced upon the Stoics, who, in seeking to rid themselves of feeling, found that as they lived more exclusively in the gray light of reason, everything else turned gray.  It was forced upon Mill himself by the nervous collapse of his earlier years, when, having lost the power to enjoy as the result of intellectual overforcing, he found that the goods for which he was living had suddenly turned to dust and ashes.  Enjoyment is not all there is to goodness; at this date there is no need to stop over that.  But it is so essential to any experience we call good that if it vanishes, the value vanishes with it.

Secondly, Mill recognized that of two states which are equally pleasant one may be better than the other, and through the example he took he set our feet on the right road, though he somehow missed it himself.  What is it that makes the life of Socrates more worth living than that of the pig, whether pleasanter or not?  Surely not the quality of his pleasure, whatever that may mean, but something more obvious, something indeed that stares us in the face.  It is simply that in the mind of a great thinker we have a richer fulfillment of the faculties that make us men.  In respect to his intelligence, Socrates is more of a man than we are, more of what we want to be.  The power, the need, the desire, to know is fundamental in all of us.  Its presence at a certain level is a defining mark of human nature; the fulfillment in exceptional measure is what marks off the large mind from the little one.

The same fact marks off even a lowly human mind from the animal mind.  Mill’s essay appears to have been written before The Origin of Species, though it was published a year or two later.  We see now, as he could not, that running through the whole development of mind, and determining its course, there is a continuous drive, or, rather, set of drives, of which human nature itself is only the most recent expression.  One of these is the impulse to know, which is central in human nature because its roots run deep into animal nature.  Even in the dim-witted four-footed cousin that Mill referred to, and in the midst of notorious appetites in other directions, it flickers up into a vagrant curiosity.  In the higher apes it is far more active.  In man, with his power to look before and after, it is more restless and inquiring still. And, despite Housman’s gibe that the love of truth is the faintest of human passions, in a few men it burns up into a devouring, illuminating flame that seems to light up for miles ahead the road which intelligence must travel.  Contact with such a mind is self-revelation; we seem to see for the first time that this is what we are really about, this is what we have been trying to do all along; we catch a glimpse, as Arnold would say, of “the hills where our life rose, and the sea where it goes.”  A great mind is a great mind because it does what we are all trying to do, only better. In sum, when we say that it is better to be Socrates than ourselves, and ourselves than a fool, and a fool than a pig, we are saying that in Socrates we have a completer fulfillment of a set of drives or impulses that are continuous from one extreme to the other.

To say of an experience that it is intrinsically good means, then, two things: first, that it satisfies; and second, that it fulfills.  Pleasure without fulfillment, as Aristotle saw, is hardly possible.  Fulfillment without pleasure, as Mill saw, is valueless.  Of two experiences that equally fulfill, the one we enjoy more is the better.  Of two experiences that we equally enjoy, the one that fulfills more is the better.  Of course fulfillment does not mean meeting our demands for enlightenment only; it means meeting all the other demands of our nature so far as they can be met without mutual suppression.  The quiver of human nature is full of arrows of desire, big and little, desires that are fashioned from what we are, desires for food and drink and play and friends and things of beauty.  If anything fulfills and satisfies such demands, it is ipso facto good; if it is utterly out of relation to such demands, no one would think of calling it good.

It may be said that there are impulses in human nature whose indulgence is evil, such as those of aggression and fear.  But Professor Pepper has shown fine insight, I think, in pointing out that these are not drives with ends of their own; they are summoned up when other drives are frustrated, and are nature’s means of intensifying these or safeguarding them.  When they do get out of hand and must be suppressed, it is not because they are evil in themselves but because their fulfillment would block other fulfillments.  The doctrine that men are naturally evil, so current in some theological circles, is thus the precise reverse of the truth. To fulfill and satisfy what nature prompts is not only good; it is what goodness means.

I have been speaking about goodness; but in thus conceiving goodness we are also defining the nature of duty.  Moralists have taken a strange delight at times not only in making duty a “stern daughter of the voice of God” but also in placing it “at enmity with joy,” in setting it up as a hard-faced, alien censor of the natural man and his interests. There are followers among us of that morbid prophet Kierkegaard who glory in the thought that duty may demand of us what common sense and reflection alike would brand as outrageous: “ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”  Against this reactionary irrationalism I would plead for the naturalness of duty.  Duty is no unintelligible command laid on us from without.  It is the voice of our own nature, the imperative of our own reason, telling us that if our central strivings and those of others, the ends that nature itself has set before us, are to be fulfilled, we must act thus and not otherwise.  This is not to deprive duty of its force but to bring it home to us as authentic and reasonable.  To the man who declines to recognize duty we offer not some dubious authority or a threat about the future, but a simple question or two.  “Do you want health, understanding, friendship?”  “Yes, of course; they are what make life worth while.”  “If it is good that you should have them, is there any ground for denying that it is good for others to have them?”  “No.”  “Do you agree that course X is a necessary means if these things that make life worth living are to be achieved?”  “Yes, so it appears.”  “Then you cannot reject course X without repudiating your own reason and the central demands of your own nature.”



It is time to bring our threads together.  We saw that the great tradition in ethics appeared to have ended in an impasse after two thousand years.  The rule of that ethics was so to live as to produce the most good.  This rule has been met in our day by three attacks: the first against its goal, the second against its objectivity, the third against its notion of goodness.  The first attack, delivered from Oxford, sought to show by such examples as that of the judge and the innocent man that it is sometimes our duty to produce less than the greatest good.  To this I replied that the goods achieved by convicting innocence would be far outweighed by the evil of destroying the pattern of society in which justice was done. You may have felt when I made that reply that there was something dubious about it, that a pattern of society could hardly itself be intrinsically good.  We have now seen that, strictly speaking, that is true, that nothing is good but consciousness, and consciousness in the joint form of the satisfaction and fulfillment of impulse.  It is because the general satisfaction and fulfillment of our nature is bound up inextricably with a pattern of society in which justice is done that this pattern must be held inviolable.  The right to freedom from arbitrary hurt to our persons, our possessions, our actions, or our name is one of the plainest conditions of that fullness of life in which its goodness is now seen to consist.  To encourage those in power to violate that pattern at will for local expediencies is to seek a special good by an act which would in principle put all goods in jeopardy; it would be like the dog’s dropping of its bone for the shadow in the river.  There is, of course, nothing new in this contention.  If I am not mistaken, it is a return to the vision of Plato, who held that in the end the justification of every act lay in its place in the form of the good life.

Is this life objectively good?  Running alongside the great tradition which from Plato down has held that it was, there has been a secondary tradition, stretching from Callicles to Russell, which held that it was not, and that goodness is as variable as man’s fluctuating feeling.  We have seen that in the latest and probably most formidable shape which that theory has taken it conflicts with universal ways of thinking about right and wrong.  But we saw when we turned to the third and final criticism that this theory is by no means groundless.  Goodness is dependent on the feeling and impulse of conscious minds.  It consists in the satisfaction and fulfillment of human nature.  Does this destroy the objectivity of our judgments of good and evil? On the contrary, it provides a clear meaning for their objective truth and frees that truth from any dependence on individual thought or feeling.  It bridges the chasm between fact and value.  It enlists science, especially psychology, in the service of morals.  It answers sensitively to our reflective judgments of better and worse.  It naturalizes duty, and rationalizes its authority.  It offers a standard responsive alike to men’s deeper identities and to the surface differences of nature and desire.  In a time when skepticism about personal morality and pessimism about international morality seem to be the order of the day, it holds that to be moral is in the end to be natural and reasonable and sane.



1 W. David Ross, Foundations of Ethics (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1939), p. 142.

2 Alfred J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (2d ed.; London, Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1948), pp. 108-109.

3 Ethics and Language (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1944).


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