1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ethics
ETHICS, the name generally given to the science of moral philosophy. The word “ethics” is derived from the Gr. ἠθικός, that which pertains to ἦθος, character.
For convenience in reference, the arrangement followed in this article may be explained at the outset:—
Section I. contains a general survey of the subject; it shows in what sense ethics is to be regarded as a special field of philosophical investigation—its relations to other departments of thought, especially to psychology, religion and modern physical science. The article makes no attempt to give a detailed, casuistical examination of the matter of ethical theory. For this, reference must be made to special articles on philosophic schools, writers and terms.
Section II. is a historical sketch in four parts tracing the main lines of development in ethical speculation from its birth to the present day. Here again it has been possible to notice only the salient points or landmarks, leaving all detail to special articles as above. All important writers whose names occur in this sketch are treated in special biographical articles, and references are given as often as possible to supplementary articles which illustrate and explain points which cannot be fully treated here. This is especially the case in connexion with technical terms (whose history and meaning are inevitably taken for granted) and biographical information about minor ethical writers.
I. Definition and Subject-Matter of EthicsEdit
In its widest sense, the term “ethics” would imply an examination into the general character or habits of mankind, and would even involve a description or history of the habits of men in particular societies living at different periods of time. Such a field of study would obviously be too wide for any particular science or philosophy to investigate, and moreover portions of the field are already occupied by history, by anthropology and by the particular sciences (e.g. physiology, anatomy, biology), in so far as the habits and character of men depend upon the material processes which these sciences examine. Even philosophies such as logic and aesthetic would be necessary for such an investigation, if thought and artistic production are normal human habits and elements in character. Ethics then is usually confined to the particular field of human character and conduct so far as they depend upon or exhibit certain general principles commonly known as moral principles. Men in general characterize their own conduct and character and that of other men by such general adjectives as good, bad, right and wrong, and it is the meaning and scope of these adjectives, primarily in relation to human conduct, and ultimately in their final and absolute sense, that ethics investigates.
A not uncommon definition of ethics as the “science of conduct” is inexact for various reasons. (1) The sciences are descriptive or experimental. But a description of what acts or what ends of action men in the present or the past call, or have called, “good” or “bad” is clearly beyond human powers. And experiments in morality (apart from the inconvenient practical consequences likely to ensue) are useless for purposes of ethics, because the moral consciousness would itself at one and the same time be required to make the experiment and to provide the subject upon which the experiment is performed. (2) Ethics is a philosophy and not a science. Philosophy is a process of reflection upon the presuppositions involved in unreflective thought. In logic and metaphysics it investigates either the process of apprehension itself, or conceptions such as cause, substance, space, time, which the ordinary scientific consciousness never criticizes. In moral philosophy the place of the body of sciences, which philosophy as the theory of knowledge investigates, is taken by the developed moral consciousness, which already pronounces moral judgment without hesitation, and claims authority to subject to continual criticism the institutions and forms of social life which it has itself helped to create.
When ethical speculation first begins, conceptions such as those of duty, responsibility, the will as the ultimate subject of moral approbation and disapprobation, are already in existence and already operative. Moral philosophy in a certain sense adds nothing to these conceptions, though it sets them in a clearer light. The problems of the moral consciousness at the time at which it first becomes reflective are not strictly speaking philosophical problems at all. It is occupied with just such questions as each individual man who wishes to act rightly is constantly called upon to answer, e.g. questions such as “What particular action will meet the claims of justice under such and such circumstances?” or “What degree of ignorance will excuse this particular person in this particular case from his responsibility?” It tries to attain a knowledge as complete as possible of the circumstances under which the act contemplated must be performed, the personalities of the persons whom it may affect, and the consequences (so far as they can be foreseen) which it will produce, and then by virtue of its own power of moral discrimination pronounces judgment. And the ever-recurring problem of the moral consciousness, “What ought to be done?” is one which receives a clearer and more definite answer as men become more able in the course of moral experience to apply those principles of the moral consciousness which are yet employed in that experience from the outset. Nevertheless there is a sense in which moral philosophy may be said to originate out of difficulties inherent in the nature of morality itself, although it remains true that the questions which ethics attempts to answer are never questions with which the moral consciousness as such is confronted. The fact that men give different answers to moral problems which seem similar in character, or even the mere fact that men disregard, when they act immorally, the dictates and implicit principles of the moral consciousness is certain sooner or later to produce the desire either, on the one hand, to justify immoral action by casting doubt upon the authority of the moral consciousness and the validity of its principles, or, on the other hand, to justify particular moral judgments either by (the only valid method) an analysis of the moral principle involved in the judgment and a demonstration of its universal acceptation, or by some attempted proof that the particular moral judgment is arrived at by a process of inference from some universal conception of the Supreme Good or the Final End from which all particular duties or virtues may be deduced. It may be that criticism of morality first originates with a criticism of existing moral institutions or codes of ethics; such a criticism may be due to the spontaneous activity of the moral consciousness itself. But when such criticism passes into the attempt to find a universal criterion of morality—such an attempt being in effect an effort to make morality scientific—and especially when the attempt is seen, as it must in the end be seen, to fail (the moral consciousness being superior to all standards of morality and realizing itself wholly in particular judgments), then ethics as a process of reflection upon the nature of the moral consciousness may be said to begin. If this be true it follows that one of the chief function of ethics must be criticism of mistaken attempts to find a criterion of morality superior to the pronouncements of the moral consciousness itself. The ultimate superiority of the moral consciousness over all other standards is recognized, even by those who impugn its authority, whenever they claim that all men ought to recognize the superior value of the standards which they themselves wish to substitute. Similarly, their opponents refute their arguments by showing that they are based ultimately upon a recognition of certain distinctions which are moral distinctions (i.e. imply a moral consciousness capable of discriminating between right and wrong in particular cases), and that these moral distinctions conflict with the conclusions which they reach.
This may briefly be illustrated by reference to some of the great fundamental controversies of ethics. None of these originates out of conflicting statements of the moral consciousness, i.e. there is no fundamental contradiction in morality itself. No one (if unsophisticated) ever confused the conception of pleasure with the conception of the Good, or thought that the claims of selfish interest were identical with those of duty. But the controversy between hedonists and anti-hedonists originates as soon as men reflect that a good which is not in some sense “my” good is not good at all, or that no act can be said to be moral which does not satisfy “me.” Or, again, the reflection that the mark or sign of the perfect performance of a particular virtuous act or function is the presence of a characteristic pleasure which always accompanies it, is opposed to the reflection that it is a mark of the highest morality never to rest satisfied, and out of these seemingly contradictory statements of the reflective consciousness might arise a multitude of controversies either concerning pleasure and duty, or the even more difficult and complex conceptions of merit, progress, and the nature of the Supreme Good or Final End.
When and how fresh controversies in ethics will begin it would be impossible for any one to foretell. Sometimes the dominance of a particular science or branch of study is the occasion of an attempt to apply to ethics ideas borrowed from or analogous to the conceptions of that science. False The Sciences. analogies drawn between ethics and mathematics or between morality and the perception of beauty have wrought much mischief in modern and to some degree even in ancient ethics. The influence of ideas borrowed from biology is everywhere manifest in the ethical speculations of modern times. Sometimes, again, whole theories of ethics have been formulated which can be seen in the end to be efforts to subordinate moral conceptions to conceptions belonging properly to institutions or departments of human thought and activity which the moral consciousness has itself originated. Law, for instance, depends, or at least ought to depend, upon men’s need for and consciousness of justice. And such institutions as the family and the state are created by the social consciousness, which is the moral consciousness from another aspect. Yet morality has been subordinated to legal and social sanctions, and moral advance has been held to be conditioned by political and social necessities which are not moral needs. Similarly no one since civilization emerged from barbarism has ever really been willing to yield allegiance to a deity who is not moral in the fullest and highest sense of the word. God is not superior to moral law. Yet there have been Theology. whole systems of theological ethics which have attempted to base human morality upon the arbitrary will of God or upon the supreme authority of a divinely inspired book or code of laws. One of the greatest of all ethical controversies, that concerning the freedom of the will, arose directly out of what was in reality a theological problem—the necessity, namely, of reconciling God’s foreknowledge with human freedom. The unreflective moral consciousness never finds it difficult to distinguish between a man’s power of willing and all the forces of circumstance, heredity and the like, which combine to form the temptations to which he may yield or bid defiance; and such facts as “remorse” and “penitence” are a continual testimony to man’s sense of freedom. But so soon as men perceive upon reflection an apparent discrepancy between the utterances of their moral consciousness and certain conclusions to which theological speculation (or at a later period metaphysical and scientific inquiries) seems inevitably to lead them, they will not rest satisfied until the belief in the will’s freedom (hitherto unquestioned) is upon further reflection justified or condemned. It is clear then that the complexity of the subject-matter of ethics is such that no sharply defined boundary lines can be drawn between it and other branches of inquiry. Just in so far as it presupposes the apprehension of moral facts, it must presuppose a knowledge of the system of social relationships upon which some at least of those facts depend. No one, for instance, could inquire into the nature of justice without being further compelled to undertake an examination of the nature of the state.
It would be difficult to decide how much of the dispute between the advocates of pleasure theories and their opponents turns upon vexed questions of psychology, and how much is strictly relevant to ethics. If, as has already been said, one of the chief tasks of ethics is to prevent the Psychology. intrusion into its own sphere of inquiry of ideas borrowed from other and alien sources, then obviously these sources must be investigated. One example of this necessity may be given. It is sometimes maintained that the proper method of ethics is the psychological method; ethics, we are told, should examine as its subject-matter moral sentiments wherever found, without raising ultimate questions as to the nature of obligation or moral authority in general. Now if in opposition to such arguments the ultimate character of moral obligation be defended, it will be necessary to point out that no one feels moral sentiments except in connexion with particular objects of moral approbation or disapprobation (e.g. gratitude is inexplicable apart from a particular relationship existing between two or more persons), and that these objects are objects of the moral consciousness alone. But such a line of argument is certain to make necessary an inquiry into the nature of the objects of psychological study which may produce quite unforeseen results for psychology.
Nothing therefore is to be gained by confining ethics within limits which must from the nature of the case be arbitrary. The defender at all events of the supremacy of moral intuitions must be prepared to follow whither the argument leads, into whatever strange quarters it may direct him. But this much may be said by way of delimitation of the scope of ethics: however complicated and involved its arguments and processes of inference may become, the facts from which they start and the conclusions to which they point are such as the moral consciousness alone can understand or warrant. (H. H. W.)
II. Historical SketchEdit
A. Greek and Graeco-Roman EthicsEdit
The ethical speculation of Greece, and therefore of Europe, had no abrupt and absolute beginning. The naive and fragmentary precepts of conduct, which are everywhere the earliest manifestation of nascent moral reflection, are a noteworthy element in the gnomic poetry of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. Their importance is shown by the traditional enumeration of the Seven Sages of the 6th century, and their influence on ethical thought is attested by the references of Plato and Aristotle. But from these unscientific utterances to a philosophy of morals was a long process. In the practical wisdom of Thales (q.v.), one of the seven, we cannot discern any systematic theory of morality. In the case of Pythagoras, conspicuous among pre-Socratic philosophers as the founder not merely of a school, but of a sect or order bound by a common rule of life, there is a closer connexion between moral and metaphysical speculation. The doctrine of the Pythagoreans that the essence of justice (conceived as equal retribution) was a square number, indicates a serious attempt to extend to the region of conduct their mathematical view of the universe; and the same may be said of their classification of good with unity, straightness and the like, and of evil with the opposite qualities. Still, the enunciation of the moral precepts of Pythagoras appears to have been dogmatic, or even prophetic, rather than philosophic, and to have been accepted by his disciples with an unphilosophic reverence as the ipse dixit of the master. Hence, whatever influence the Pythagorean blending of ethical and mathematical notions may have had on Plato, and, through him, on later thought, we cannot regard the school as having really forestalled the Socratic inquiry after a completely reasoned theory of conduct. The ethical element in the “dark” philosophizing of Heraclitus (c. 530–470 B.C.), though it anticipates Stoicism in its conceptions of a law of the universe, to which the wise man will carefully conform, and a divine harmony, in the recognition of which he will find his truest satisfaction, is more profound, but even less systematic. It is only when we come to Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates, the last of the original thinkers whom we distinguish as pre-Socratic, that we find anything which we can call an ethical system. The fragments that remain of the moral treatises of Democritus are sufficient, perhaps, to convince us that the turn of Greek philosophy in the direction of conduct, which was actually due to Socrates, would have taken place without him, though in a less decided manner; but when we compare the Democritean ethics with the post-Socratic system to which it has most affinity, Epicureanism, we find that it exhibits a very rudimentary apprehension of the formal conditions which moral teaching must fulfil before it can lay claim to be treated as scientific.
The truth is that no system of ethics could be constructed until attention had been directed to the vagueness and inconsistency of the common moral opinions of mankind. For this purpose was needed the concentration of a philosophic intellect of the first order on the problems of practice. In Socrates first we find the required combination of a paramount interest in conduct and an ardent desire for knowledge. The pre-Socratic thinkers were all primarily devoted to ontological research; but by the middle of the 5th century B.C. the conflict of their dogmatic systems had led some of the keenest minds to doubt the possibility of penetrating the secret of the physical universe. This doubt found expression in the reasoned scepticism of Gorgias, and produced the famous proposition of Protagoras, that human apprehension is the only standard of existence. The same feeling led Socrates to abandon the old physico-metaphysical inquiries. In his case, moreover, it was strengthened by a naive piety that forbade him to search into things of which the gods seemed to have reserved the knowledge to themselves. The regulation of human action, on the other hand (except on occasions of special difficulty, for which omens and oracles might be vouchsafed), they had left to human reason. On this accordingly Socrates concentrated his efforts.
The Age of the SophistsEdit
Though, however, Socrates was the first to arrive at a proper conception of the problems of conduct, the general idea did not originate with him. The natural reaction against the metaphysical and ethical dogmatism of the early thinkers had reached its climax in the Sophists (q.v.). The Sophists. Gorgias and Protagoras are only representatives of what was really a universal tendency to abandon dogmatic theory and take refuge in practical matters, and especially, as was natural in the Greek city-state, in the civic relations of the citizen. The education given by the Sophists aimed at no general theory of life, but professed to expound the art of getting on in the world and of managing public affairs. In their eulogy of the virtues of the citizen, they pointed out the prudential character of justice and the like as a means of obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. The Greek conception of society was such that the life of the free-born citizen consisted mainly of his public function, and, therefore, the pseudo-ethical disquisitions of the Sophists satisfied the requirements of the age. None thought of ἀρετή (virtue or excellence) as a unique quality possessed of an intrinsic value, but as the virtue of the citizen, just as good flute-playing was the virtue of the flute-player. We see here, as in other activities of the age, a determination to acquire technical knowledge, and to apply it directly to the practical issue; just as music was being enriched by new technical knowledge, architecture by modern theories of plans and T-squares (sc. Hippodamus), the handling of soldiers by the new technique of “tactics” and “hoplitics,” so citizenship must be analysed afresh, systematized and adapted in relation to modern requirements. The Sophists had studied these matters superficially indeed but with thoroughness as far as they went, and it is not remarkable that they should have taken the methods which were successful in rhetoric, and applied them to the “science and art” of civic virtues. Plato’s Protagoras claims, not unjustly, that in teaching virtue they simply did systematically what every one else was doing at haphazard. But in the true sense of the word, they had no ethical system at all, nor did they contribute save by contrast to ethical speculation. They merely analysed conventional formulae, much in the manner of certain modern so-called “scientific” moralists.
Socrates and his DisciplesEdit
Into this arena of hazy popular common sense Socrates brought a new critical spirit, showing that these popular lecturers, in spite of their fertile eloquence, could not defend their fundamental assumptions, nor even give rational definitions of what they professed to explain. Socrates. Not only were they thus “ignorant,” but they were also perpetually inconsistent with themselves in dealing with particular instances. Thus, by the aid of his famous “dialectic,” Socrates arrived first at the negative result that the professed teachers of the people were as ignorant as he himself claimed to be, and in a measure justified the eulogy of Aristotle that he rendered to philosophy the service of “introducing induction and definitions.” This description of his work is, however, both too technical and too positive, if we may judge from those earlier dialogues of Plato in which the real Socrates is found least modified. The pre-eminent wisdom which the Delphic oracle attributed to him was held by himself to consist in a unique consciousness of ignorance. Yet it is equally clear from Plato that there was a most important positive element in the teaching of Socrates in virtue of which it is just to say with Alexander Bain, “the first important name in ancient ethical philosophy is Socrates.” The union of the negative and the positive elements in his work has caused historians no little perplexity, and we cannot quite save the philosopher’s consistency unless we regard some of the doctrines attributed to him by Xenophon as merely tentative and provisional. Still the positions of Socrates that are most important in the history of ethical thought not only are easy to harmonize with his conviction of ignorance, but even render it easier to understand his unwearied cross-examination of common opinion. While he showed clearly the difficulty of acquiring knowledge, he was convinced that knowledge alone could be the source of a coherent system of virtue, as error of evil. Socrates, therefore, first in the history of thought, propounds a positive scientific law of conduct. Virtue is knowledge. This principle involved the paradox that no man, knowing good, would do evil. But it was a paradox derived from his unanswerable truisms, “Every one wishes for his own good, and would get it if he could,” and “No one would deny that justice and virtue generally are goods, and of all goods the best.” All virtues are, therefore, summed up in knowledge of the good. But this good is not, for Socrates, duty as distinct from interest. The force of the paradox depends upon a blending of duty and interest in the single notion of good, a blending which was dominant in the common thought of the age. This it is which forms the kernel of the positive thought of Socrates according to Xenophon. He could give no satisfactory account of Good in the abstract, and evaded all questions on this point by saying that he knew “no good that was not good for something in particular,” but that good is consistent with itself. For himself he prized above all things the wisdom that is virtue, and in the task of producing it he endured the hardest penury, maintaining that such life was richer in enjoyment than a life of luxury. This many-sidedness of view is illustrated by the curious blending of noble and merely utilitarian sentiment in his account of friendship: a friend who can be of no service is valueless; yet the highest service that a friend can render is moral improvement.
The historically important characteristics of his moral philosophy, if we take (as we must) his teaching and character together, may be summarized as follows:—(1) an ardent inquiry for knowledge nowhere to be found, but which, if found, would perfect human conduct; (2) a demand meanwhile that men should act as far as possible on some consistent theory; (3) a provisional adhesion to the commonly received view of good, in all its incoherent complexity, and a perpetual readiness to maintain the harmony of its different elements, and demonstrate the superiority of virtue by an appeal to the standard of self-interest; (4) personal firmness, as apparently easy as it was actually invincible, in carrying out consistently such practical convictions as he had attained. It is only when we keep all these points in view that we can understand how from the spring of Socratic conversation flowed the divergent streams of Greek ethical thought.
Four distinct philosophical schools trace their immediate origin to the circle that gathered round Socrates—the Megarian, the Platonic, the Cynic and the Cyrenaic. The impress of the master is manifest on all, in spite of the wide differences that divide them; they all agree in The Socratic Schools. holding the most important possession of man to be wisdom or knowledge, and the most important knowledge to be knowledge of Good. Here, however, the agreement ends. The more philosophic part of the circle, forming a group in which Euclid of Megara (see Megarian School) seems at first to have taken the lead, regarded this Good as the object of a still unfulfilled quest, and were led to identify it with the hidden secret of the universe, and thus to pass from ethics to metaphysics. Others again, whose demand for knowledge was more easily satisfied, and who were more impressed with the positive and practical side of the master’s teaching, made the quest a much simpler affair. They took the Good as already known, and held philosophy to consist in the steady application of this knowledge to conduct. Among these were Antisthenes the Cynic and Aristippus of Cyrene. It is by their recognition of the duty of living consistently by theory instead of mere impulse or custom, their sense of the new value given to life through this rationalization, and their effort to maintain the easy, calm, unwavering firmness of the Socratic temper, that we recognize both Antisthenes and Aristippus as “Socratic men,” in spite of the completeness with which they divided their master’s positive doctrine into systems diametrically opposed. Of their contrasted principles we may perhaps say that, while Aristippus took the most obvious logical step for reducing the teaching of Socrates to clear dogmatic unity, Antisthenes certainly drew the most natural inference from the Socratic life.
Aristippus (see Cyrenaics) argued that, if all that is beautiful or admirable in conduct has this quality as being useful, i.e. productive of some further good; if virtuous action is essentially action done with insight, or rational apprehension of the act as a means to this good, this Aristippus. good must be pleasure. Bodily pleasures and pains Aristippus held to be the keenest, though he does not seem to have maintained this on any materialistic theory, as he admitted the existence of purely mental pleasures, such as joy in the prosperity of one’s native land. He fully recognized that his good was capable of being realized only in successive parts, and gave even exaggerated emphasis to the rule of seeking the pleasure of the moment, and not troubling oneself about a dubious future. It was in the calm, resolute, skilful culling of such pleasures as circumstances afforded from moment to moment, undisturbed by passion, prejudices or superstition, that he conceived the quality of wisdom to be exhibited; and tradition represents him as realizing this ideal to an impressive degree. Among the prejudices from which the wise man was free he included all regard to customary morality beyond what was due to the actual penalties attached to its violation; though he held, with Socrates, that these penalties actually render conformity reasonable. Thus early in the history of ethical theory appeared the most thoroughgoing exposition of hedonism.
Far otherwise was the Socratic spirit understood by Antisthenes and the Cynics (q.v.). They equally held that no speculative research was needed for the discovery of good and virtue, and maintained that the Socratic wisdom was exhibited, not in the skilful pursuit, but in the rational The Cynics. disregard of pleasure,—in the clear apprehension of the intrinsic worthlessness of this and most other objects of men’s ordinary desires and aims. Pleasure, indeed, Antisthenes declared roundly to be an evil; “Better madness than a surrender to pleasure.” He did not overlook the need of supplementing merely intellectual insight by “Socratic force of soul”; but it seemed to him that, by insight and self-mastery combined, an absolute spiritual independence might be attained which left nothing wanting for perfect well-being (see also Diogenes). For as for poverty, painful toil, disrepute, and such evils as men dread most, these, he argued, were positively useful as means of progress in spiritual freedom and virtue. There is, however, in the Cynic notion of wisdom, no positive criterion beyond the mere negation of irrational desires and prejudices. We saw that Socrates, while not claiming to have found the abstract theory of good or wise conduct, practically understood by it the faithful performance of customary duties, maintaining always that his own happiness was therewith bound up. The Cynics more boldly discarded both pleasure and mere custom as alike irrational; but in so doing they left the freed reason with no definite aim but its own freedom. It is absurd, as Plato urged, to say that knowledge is the good, and then when asked “knowledge of what?” to have no positive reply but “of the good”; but the Cynics do not seem to have made any serious effort to escape from this absurdity.
The ultimate views of these two Socratic schools we shall have to notice presently when we come to the post-Aristotelian schools. We must now proceed to trace the fuller development of the Socratic theory in the hands of Plato and Aristotle.
The ethics of Plato cannot properly be treated as a finished result, but rather as a continual movement from the position of Socrates towards the more complete, articulate system of Aristotle; except that there are ascetic and mystical suggestions in some parts of Plato’s teaching which Plato. find no counterpart in Aristotle, and in fact disappear from Greek philosophy soon after Plato’s death until they are revived and fantastically developed in Neopythagoreanism and Neoplatonism. The first stage at which we can distinguish Plato’s ethical view from that of Socrates is presented in the Protagoras, where he makes a serious, though clearly tentative effort to define the object of that knowledge which he with his master regards as the essence of all virtue. Such knowledge, he here maintains, is really mensuration of pleasures and pains, whereby the wise man avoids those mistaken under-estimates of future feelings in comparison with present which we commonly call “yielding to fear or desire.” This hedonism has perplexed Plato’s readers needlessly (as we have said in speaking of the Cyrenaics), inasmuch as hedonism is the most obvious corollary of the Socratic doctrine that the different common notions of good—the beautiful, the pleasant and the useful—were to be somehow interpreted by each other. By Plato, however, this conclusion could have been held only before he had accomplished the movement of thought by which he carried the Socratic method beyond the range of human conduct and developed it into a metaphysical system.
This movement may be expressed thus. “If we know,” said Socrates, “what justice is, we can give an account or definition of it”; true knowledge must be knowledge of the general fact, common to all the individual cases to which we apply our general notion. But this must be no less true of other objects of thought and discourse; the same relation of general notions to particular examples extends through the whole physical universe; we can think and talk of it only by means of such notions. True or scientific knowledge then must be general knowledge, relating, not to individuals primarily, but to the general facts or qualities which individuals exemplify; in fact, our notion of an individual, when examined, is found to be an aggregate of such general qualities. But, again, the object of true knowledge must be what really exists; hence the reality of the universe must lie in general facts or relations, and not in the individuals that exemplify them.
So far the steps are plain enough; but we do not yet see how this logical Realism (as it was afterwards called) comes to have the essentially ethical character that especially interests us in Platonism. Plato’s philosophy is now concerned with the whole universe of being; yet the ultimate object of his philosophic contemplation is still “the good,” now conceived as the ultimate ground of all being and knowledge. That is, the essence of the universe is identified with its end,—the “formal” with the “final” cause of things, to use the later Aristotelian phraseology. How comes this about?
Perhaps we may best explain this by recurring to the original application of the Socratic method to human affairs. Since all rational activity is for some end, the different arts or functions of human industry are naturally defined by a statement of their ends or uses; and similarly, in giving an account of the different artists and functionaries, we necessarily state their end, “what they are good for.” In a society well ordered on Socratic principles, every human being would be put to some use; the essence of his life would consist in doing what he was good for (his proper ἔργον). But again, it is easy to extend this view throughout the whole region of organized life; an eye that does not attain its end by seeing is without the essence of an eye. In short, we may say of all organs and instruments that they are what we think them in proportion as they fulfil their function and attain their end. If, then, we conceive the whole universe organically, as a complex arrangement of means to ends, we shall understand how Plato might hold that all things really were, or (as we say) “realized their idea,” in proportion as they accomplished the special end or good for which they were adapted. Even Socrates, in spite of his aversion to physics, was led by pious reflection to expound a teleological view of the physical world, as ordered in all its parts by divine wisdom for the realization of some divine end; and, in the metaphysical turn which Plato gave to this view, he was probably anticipated by Euclid of Megara, who held that the one real being is “that which we call by many names, Good, Wisdom, Reason or God,” to which Plato, raising to a loftier significance the Socratic identification of the beautiful with the useful, added the further name of Absolute Beauty, explaining how man’s love of the beautiful finally reveals itself as the yearning for the end and essence of being.
Plato, therefore, took this vast stride of thought, and identified the ultimate notions of ethics and ontology. We have now to see what attitude he will adopt towards the practical inquiries from which he started. What will now be his view of wisdom, virtue, pleasure and their relation to human well-being?
The answer to this question is inevitably somewhat complicated. In the first place we have to observe that philosophy has now passed definitely from the market-place into the lecture-room. The quest of Socrates was for the true art of conduct for a man living a practical life among his fellows. But if the objects of abstract thought constitute the real world, of which this world of individual things is but a shadow, it is plain that the highest, most real life must lie in the former region and not in the latter. It is in contemplating the abstract reality which concrete things obscurely exhibit, the type or ideal which they imperfectly imitate, that the true life of the mind in man must consist; and as man is most truly man in proportion as he is mind, the desire of one’s own good, which Plato, following Socrates, held to be permanent and essential in every living thing, becomes in its highest form the philosophic yearning for knowledge. This yearning, he held, springs—like more sensual impulses—from a sense of want of something formerly possessed, of which there remains a latent memory in the soul, strong in proportion to its philosophic capacity; hence it is that in learning any abstract truth by scientific demonstration we merely make explicit what we already implicitly know; we bring into clear consciousness hidden memories of a state in which the soul looked upon Reality and Good face to face, before the lapse that imprisoned her in an alien body and mingled her true nature with fleshly feelings and impulses. We thus reach the paradox that the true art of living is really an “art of dying” as far as possible to mere sense, in order more fully to exist in intimate union with absolute goodness and beauty. On the other hand, since the philosopher must still live and act in the concrete sensible world, the Socratic identification of wisdom and virtue is fully maintained by Plato. Only he who apprehends good in the abstract can imitate it in such transient and imperfect good as may be realized in human life, and it is impossible that, having this knowledge, he should not act on it, whether in private or public affairs. Thus, in the true philosopher, we shall necessarily find the practically good man, who being “likest of men to the gods is best loved by them”; and also the perfect statesman, if only the conditions of his society allow him a sphere for exercising his statesmanship.
The characteristics of this practical goodness in Plato’s matured thought correspond to the fundamental conceptions in his view of the universe. The soul of man, in its good or normal condition, must be ordered and harmonized under the guidance of reason. The question then arises, Virtue a harmony. “Wherein does this order or harmony precisely consist?” In explaining how Plato was led to answer this question, it will be well to notice that, while faithfully maintaining the Socratic doctrine that the highest virtue was inseparable from knowledge of the good, he had come to recognize an inferior kind of virtue, possessed by men who were not philosophers. It is plain that if the good that is to be known is the ultimate ground of the whole of things, it is attainable only by a select and carefully trained few. Yet we can hardly restrict all virtue to these alone. What account, then, was to be given of ordinary “civic” bravery, temperance and justice? It seemed clear that men who did their duty, resisting the seductions of fear and desire, must have right opinions, if not knowledge, as to the good and evil in human life; but whence comes this right “opinion”? Partly, Plato said, it comes by nature and “divine allotment,” but for its adequate development “custom and practice” are required. Hence the paramount importance of education and discipline for civic virtue; and even for future philosophers such moral culture, in which physical and aesthetic training must co-operate, is indispensable; no merely intellectual preparation will suffice. His point is that perfect knowledge cannot be implanted in a soul that has not gone through a course of preparation including much more than physical training. What, then, is this preparation? A distinct step in psychological analysis was taken when Plato recognized that its effect was to produce the “harmony” above mentioned among different parts of the soul, by subordinating the impulsive elements to reason. These non-rational elements he further distinguished as appetitive (τὸ ἐπιθυμητικόν) and spirited (τὸ θυμοειδές or θυμός)—the practical separateness of which from each other and from reason he held to be established by our inner experience.
On this triple division of the soul he founded a systematic view of the four kinds of goodness recognized by the common moral consciousness of Greece, and in later times known as the Cardinal Virtues (q.v.). Of these the two most fundamental were (as has been already indicated) wisdom—in its highest form philosophy—and that harmonious and regulated activity of all the elements of the soul which Plato regards as the essence of uprightness in social relations (δικαιοσύνη). The import of this term is essentially social; and we can explain Plato’s use of it only by reference to the analogy which he drew between the individual man and the community. In a rightly ordered polity social and individual well-being alike would depend on that harmonious action of diverse elements, each performing its proper function, which in its social application is more naturally termed δικαιοσύνη. We see, moreover, how in Plato’s view the fundamental virtues, Wisdom and Justice in their highest forms, are mutually involved. Wisdom will necessarily maintain orderly activity, and this latter consists in regulation by wisdom, while the two more special virtues of Courage (ἀνδρεία) and Temperance (σωφροσύνη) are only different sides or aspects of this wisely regulated action of the complex soul.
Such, then, are the forms in which essential good seemed to manifest itself in human life. It remains to ask whether the statement of these gives a complete account of human well-being, or whether pleasure also is to be included. On this point Plato’s view seems to have gone through several oscillations. After apparently maintaining (Protagoras) that pleasure is the good, he passes first to the opposite extreme, and denies it (Phaedo, Gorgias) to be a good at all. For (1), as concrete and transient, it is obviously not the real essential good that the philosopher seeks; (2) the feelings most prominently recognized as pleasures are bound up with pain, as good can never be with evil; in so far, then, as common sense rightly recognizes some pleasures as good, it can only be from their tendency to produce some further good. This view, however, was too violent a divergence from Socratism for Plato to remain in it. That pleasure is not the real absolute good, was no ground for not including it in the good of concrete human life; and after all only coarse and vulgar pleasures were indissolubly linked to the pains of want. Accordingly, in the Republic he has no objection to trying the question of the intrinsic superiority of philosophic or virtuous life by the standard of pleasure, and argues that the philosophic (or good) man alone enjoys real pleasure, while the sensualist spends his life in oscillating between painful want and the merely neutral state of painlessness, which he mistakes for positive pleasure. Still more emphatically is it declared in the Laws that when we are “discoursing to men, not to gods,” we must show that the life which we praise as best and noblest is also that in which there is the greatest excess of pleasure over pain. But though Plato holds this inseparable connexion of best and pleasantest to be true and important, it is only for the sake of the vulgar that he lays this stress on pleasure. For in the most philosophical comparison in the Philebus between the claims of pleasure and wisdom the former is altogether worsted; and though a place is allowed to the pure pleasures of colour, form and sound, and of intellectual exercise, and even to the “necessary” satisfaction of appetite, it is only a subordinate one. At the same time, in his later view, Plato avoids the exaggeration of denying all positive quality of pleasure even to the coarser sensual gratifications; they are undoubtedly cases of that “replenishment” or “restoration” to its “natural state” of a bodily organ, in which he defines pleasure to consist (see Timaeus, pp. 64, 65); he merely maintains that the common estimate of them is to a large extent illusory, or a false appearance of pleasure is produced by contrast with the antecedent or concomitant painful condition of the organ. It is not surprising that this somewhat complicated and delicately balanced view of the relations of “good” and “pleasure” was not long maintained within the Platonic school, and that under Speusippus, Plato’s successor, the main body of Platonists took up a simply anti-hedonistic position, as we learn from the polemic of Aristotle. In the Philebus, however, though a more careful psychological analysis leads him to soften down the exaggerations of this attack on sensual pleasure, the antithesis of knowledge and pleasure is again sharpened, and a desire to depreciate even good pleasures is more strongly shown; still even here pleasure is recognized as a constituent of that philosophic life which is the highest human good, while in the Laws, where the subject is more popularly treated, it is admitted that we cannot convince man that the just life is the best unless we can also prove it to be the pleasantest.
Plato and AristotleEdit
When a student passes from Plato to Aristotle, he is so forcibly impressed by the contrast between the habits of mind of the two authors, and the literary manners of the two philosophers, that it is easy to understand how their systems have come to be popularly Plato and Aristotle. conceived as diametrically opposed to each other; and the uncompromising polemic which Aristotle, both in his ethical and in his metaphysical treatises, directs against Plato and the platonists, has tended strongly to confirm this view. Yet a closer inspection shows us that when a later president of the Academy (Antiochus of Ascalon) repudiated the scepticism which for two hundred years had been accepted as the traditional Platonic doctrine, he had good grounds for claiming Plato and Aristotle as consentient authorities for the ethical position which he took up. For though Aristotle’s divergence from Plato is very conspicuous when we consider either his general conception of the subject of ethics, or the details of his system of virtues, still his agreement with his master is almost complete as regards the main outline of his theory of human good; the difference between the two practically vanishes when we view them in relation to the later controversy between Stoics and Epicureans. Even on the cardinal point on which Aristotle entered into direct controversy with Plato, the definite disagreement between the two is less than at first appears; the objections of the disciple hit that part of the master’s system that was rather imagined than thought; the main positive result of Platonic speculation only gains in distinctness by the application of Aristotelian analysis.
Plato, we saw, held that there is one supreme science or wisdom, of which the ultimate object is absolute good; in the knowledge of this, the knowledge of all particular goods—that is, of all that we rationally desire to know—is implicitly contained; and also all practical virtue, as no one who truly knows what is good can fail to realize it. But in spite of the intense conviction with which he thus identified metaphysical speculation and practical wisdom, we find in his writings no serious attempt to deduce the particulars of human well-being from his knowledge of absolute good, still less to unfold from it the particular cognitions of the special arts and sciences. Indeed, we may say that the distinction which Aristotle explicitly draws between speculative science or wisdom and practical wisdom (on its political side statesmanship) is really indicated in Plato’s actual treatment of the subjects, although the express recognition of it is contrary to his principles. The discussion of good (e.g.) in his Philebus relates entirely to human good, and the respective claims of Thought and Pleasure to constitute this; he only refers in passing to the Divine Thought that is the good of the ordered world, as something clearly beyond the limits of the present discussion. So again, in his last great ethico-political treatise (the Laws) there is hardly a trace of his peculiar metaphysics. On the other hand, the relation between human and divine good, as presented by Aristotle, is so close that we can hardly conceive Plato as having definitely thought it closer. The substantial good of the universe, in Aristotle’s view, is the pure activity of universal abstract thought, at once subject and object, which, itself changeless and eternal, is the final cause and first source of the whole process of change in the concrete world. And both he and Plato hold that a similar activity of pure speculative intellect is that in which the philosopher will seek to exist, though he must, being a man, concern himself with the affairs of ordinary human life, a region in which his highest good will be attained by realizing perfect moral excellence. No doubt Aristotle’s demonstration of the inappropriateness of attributing moral excellence to the Deity seems to contradict Plato’s doctrine that the just man as such is “likest the gods,” but here again the discrepancy is reduced when we remember that the essence of Plato’s justice (δικαιοσύνη) is harmonious activity. No doubt, too, Aristotle’s attribution of pleasure to the Divine Existence shows a profound metaphysical divergence from Plato; but it is a divergence which has no practical importance. Nor, again, is Aristotle’s divergence from the Socratic principle that all “virtue is knowledge” substantially greater than Plato’s, though it is more plainly expressed. Both accept the paradox in the qualified sense that no one can deliberately act contrary to what appears to him good, and that perfect virtue is inseparably bound up with perfect wisdom or moral insight. Both, however, recognize that this actuality of moral insight is not a function of the intellect only, but depends rather on careful training in good habits applied to minds of good natural dispositions, though the doctrine has no doubt a more definite and prominent place in Aristotle’s system. The disciple certainly takes a step in advance by stating definitely, as an essential characteristic of virtuous action, that it is chosen for its own sake, for the beauty of virtue alone; but herein he merely formulates the conviction that his master inspires. Nor, finally, does Aristotle’s account of the relation of pleasure to human well-being (although he has to combat the extreme anti-hedonism to which the Platonic school under Speusippus had been led) differ materially from the outcome of Plato’s thought on this point, as the later dialogues present it to us. Pleasure, in Aristotle’s view, is not the primary constituent of well-being, but rather an inseparable accident of it; human well-being is essentially well-doing, excellent activity of some kind, whether its aim and end be abstract truth or noble conduct; knowledge and virtue are objects of rational choice apart from the pleasure attending them; still all activities are attended and in a manner perfected by pleasure, which is better and more desirable in proportion to the excellence of the activity. He no doubt criticizes Plato’s account of the nature of pleasure, arguing that we cannot properly conceive pleasure either as a “process” or as “replenishment”—the last term, he truly says, denotes a material rather than a psychical fact. But this does not interfere with the general ethical agreement between the two thinkers; and the doctrine that vicious pleasures are not true or real pleasures is so characteristically Platonic that we are almost surprised to find it in Aristotle.
In so far as there is any important difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian views of human good, we may observe that the latter has substantially a closer correspondence to the positive element in the ethical teaching of Socrates, though it is presented in a far more technical and scholastic form, and involves a more distinct rejection of the fundamental Aristotle’s ethics. Socratic paradox. The same result appears when we compare the methods of the three philosophers. Although the Socratic induction forms a striking feature of Plato’s dialogues, his ideal method of ethics is purely deductive; he admits common sense only as supplying provisional steps and starting-points from which the mind is to ascend to knowledge of absolute good, through which knowledge alone, as he conceives, the lower notions of particular goods are to be truly conceived. Aristotle, discarding the transcendentalism of Plato, naturally retained from Plato’s teaching the original Socratic method of induction from and verification by common opinion. Indeed, the windings of his exposition are best understood if we consider his literary manner as a kind of Socratic dialogue formalized and reduced to a monologue. He first leads us by an induction to the fundamental notion of ultimate end or good for man. All men, in acting, aim at some result, either for its own sake or as a means to some further end; but obviously not everything can be sought merely as a means; there must be some ultimate end. In fact men commonly recognize such an end, and agree to call it well-being (εὐδαιμονία). But they take very different views of its nature; how shall we find the true view? We observe that men are classified according to their functions; all kinds of man, and indeed all organs of man, have their special functions, and are judged as functionaries and organs according as they perform their functions well or ill. May we not then infer that man, as man, has his proper function, and that the well-being or “doing well” that all seek really lies in fulfilling well the proper function of man,—that is, in living well that life of the rational soul which we recognize as man’s distinctive attribute?
Again, this Socratic deference to common opinion is not shown merely in the way by which Aristotle reaches his fundamental conception; it equally appears in his treatment of the conception itself. In the first place, though in Aristotle’s view the most perfect well-being consists in the exercise of man’s “divinest part,” pure speculative reason, he keeps far from the paradox of putting forward this and nothing else as human good; so far, indeed, that the greater part of his treatise is occupied with an exposition of the inferior good which is realized in practical life when the appetitive or impulsive (semi-rational) element of the soul operates under the due regulation of reason. Even when the notion of “good performance of function” was thus widened, and when it had further taken in the pleasure that is inseparably connected with such functioning, it did not yet correspond to the whole of what a Greek commonly understood as “human well-being.” We may grant, indeed, that a moderate provision of material wealth is indirectly included, as an indispensable pre-requisite of a due performance of many functions as Aristotle conceives it—his system admits of no beatitudes for the poor; still there remain other goods, such as beauty, good birth, welfare of progeny, the presence or absence of which influenced the common view of a man’s well-being, though they could hardly be shown to be even indirectly important to his “well-acting.” These Aristotle attempts neither to exclude from the philosophic conception of well-being nor to include in his formal definition of it. The deliberate looseness which is thus given to his fundamental doctrine characterizes more or less his whole discussion of ethics. He plainly says that the subject does not admit of completely scientific treatment; his aim is to give not a definite theory of human good, but a practically adequate account of its most important constituents.
The most important element, then, of well-being or good life for ordinary men Aristotle holds to consist in well-doing as determined by the notions of the different moral excellences. In expounding these, he gives throughout the pure result of analytical observation of the common moral consciousness of his age. Ethical truth, in his view, is to be attained by careful comparison of particular moral opinions, just as physical truth is to be obtained by induction from particular physical observations. On account of the conflict of opinion in ethics we cannot hope to obtain certainty upon all questions; still reflection will lead us to discard some of the conflicting views and find a reconciliation for others, and will furnish, on the whole, a practically sufficient residuum of moral truth. This adhesion to common sense, though it involves a sacrifice of both depth and completeness in Aristotle’s system, gives at the same time an historical interest which renders it deserving of special attention as an analysis of the current Greek ideal of “fair and good life” (καλοκἀγαθία). His virtues are not arranged on any clear philosophic plan; the list shows no serious attempt to consider human life exhaustively, and exhibit the standard of excellence appropriate to its different departments or aspects. He seems to have taken as a starting-point Plato’s four cardinal virtues. The two comprehensive notions of Wisdom and Justice (δικαιοσύνη) he treats separately. As regards both his analysis leads him to diverge considerably from Plato. As we saw, his distinction between practical and speculative Wisdom belongs to the deepest of his disagreements with his master; and in the case of δικαιοσύνη again he distinguishes the wider use of the term to express Law-observance, which (he says) coincides with the social side of virtue generally, and its narrower use for the virtue that “aims at a kind of equality,” whether (1) in the distribution of wealth, honour, &c., or (2) in commercial exchange, or (3) in the reparation of wrong done. Then, in arranging the other special virtues, he begins with courage and temperance, which (after Plato) he considers as the excellences of the “irrational element” of the soul. Next follow two pairs of excellences, concerned respectively with wealth and honour: (1) liberality and magnificence, of which the latter is exhibited in greater matters of expenditure, and (2) laudable ambition and highmindedness similarly related to honour. Then comes gentleness—the virtue regulative of anger; and the list is concluded by the excellences of social intercourse, friendliness (as a mean between obsequiousness and surliness), truthfulness and decorous wit.
The abundant store of just and close analytical observation contained in Aristotle’s account of these notions give it a permanent interest, even beyond its historical value as a delineation of the Greek ideal of “fair and good” life. But its looseness of arrangement and almost grotesque co-ordination of qualities widely differing in importance are obvious. Thus his famous general formula for virtue, that it is a mean or middle state, always to be found somewhere between the vices which stand to it in the relation of excess and defect, scarcely avails to render his treatment more systematic. It was important, no doubt, to express the need of observing due measure and proportion, in order to attain good results in human life no less than in artistic products; but the observation of this need was no new thing in Greek literature; indeed, it had already led the Pythagoreans and Plato to find the ultimate essence of the ordered universe in number. But Aristotle’s purely quantitative statement of the relation of virtue and vice is misleading, even where it is not obviously inappropriate; and sometimes leads him to such eccentricities as that of making simple veracity a mean between boastfulness and mock-modesty.
It ought to be said that Aristotle does not present the formula just discussed as supplying a criterion of good conduct in any particular case; he expressly leaves this to be determined by “correct reasoning, and the judgment of the practically-wise man (ὁ φρόνιμος).” We cannot, however, find that he has furnished any substantial principles for its determination; indeed, he hardly seems to have formed a distinct general idea of the practical syllogism by which he conceives it to be effected. The kind of reasoning which his view of virtuous conduct requires is one in which the ultimate major premise states a distinctive characteristic of some virtue, and one or more minor premises show that such characteristic belongs to a certain mode of conduct under given circumstances; since it is essential to good conduct that it should contain its end in itself, and be chosen for its own sake. But he has not failed to observe that practical reasonings are not commonly of this kind, but are rather concerned with actions as means to ulterior ends; indeed, he lays stress on this as a characteristic of the “political” life, when he wishes to prove its inferiority to the life of pure speculation. Though common sense will admit that virtues are the best of goods, it still undoubtedly conceives practical wisdom as chiefly exercised in providing those inferior goods which Aristotle, after recognizing the need or use of them for the realization of human well-being, has dropped out of sight; and the result is that, in trying to make clear his conception of practical wisdom, we find ourselves fluctuating continually between the common notion, which he does not distinctly reject, and the notion required as the keystone of his ethical system.
On the whole, there is probably no treatise so masterly as Aristotle’s Ethics, and containing so much close and valid thought, that yet leaves on the reader’s mind so strong an impression of dispersive and incomplete work. It is only by dwelling on these defects that we can Transition to Stoicism. understand the small amount of influence that his system exercised during the five centuries after his death, as compared with the effect which it has had, directly or indirectly, in shaping the thought of modern Europe. Partly, no doubt, the limited influence of his disciples, the Peripatetics (q.v.), is to be attributed to that exaltation of the purely speculative life which distinguished the Aristotelian ethics from other later systems, and which was too alien from the common moral consciousness to find much acceptance in an age in which the ethical aims of philosophy had again become paramount. Partly, again, the analytical distinctness of Aristotle’s manner brings into special prominence the difficulties that attend the Socratic effort to reconcile the ideal aspirations of men with the principles on which their practical reasonings are commonly conducted. The conflict between these two elements of Common Sense was too profound to be compromised; and the moral consciousness of mankind demanded a more trenchant partisanship than Aristotle’s. Its demands were met by the Stoic school which separated the moral from the worldly view of life, with an absoluteness and definiteness that caught the imagination; which regarded practical goodness as the highest manifestation of its ideal of wisdom; and which bound the common notions of duty into an apparently coherent system, by a formula that comprehended the whole of human life, and exhibited its relation to the ordered process of the universe. The intellectual descent of its ethical doctrines is principally to be traced to Socrates through the Cynics, though an important element in them seems attributable to the school that inherited the “Academy” of Plato. Both Stoic and Cynic maintained, in its sharpest form, the fundamental tenet that the practical knowledge which is virtue, with the condition of soul that is inseparable from it, is alone to be accounted good. He who exercises this wisdom or knowledge has complete well-being; all else is indifferent to him. It is true that the Cynics were more concerned to emphasize the negative side of the sage’s well-being, while the Stoics brought into more prominence its positive side. This difference, however, did not amount to disagreement. The Stoics, in fact, seem generally to have regarded the eccentricities of Cynicism as an emphatic manner of expressing the essential antithesis between philosophy and the world; a manner which, though not necessary or even normal, might yet be advantageously adopted by the sage under certain circumstances.
Wherein, then, consists this knowledge or wisdom that makes free and perfect? Both Cynics and Stoics (q.v.) agreed that the most important part of it was the knowledge that the sole good of man lay in this knowledge or wisdom itself. It must be understood that by wisdom they meant Stoicism. wisdom realized in act; indeed, they did not conceive the existence of wisdom as separable from such realization. We may observe, too, that the Stoics rejected the divergence which we have seen gradually taking place in Platonic-Aristotelian thought from the position of Socrates, “that no one aims at what he knows to be bad.” The stress that their psychology laid on the essential unity of the rational self that is the source of voluntary action prevented them from accepting Plato’s analysis of the soul into a regulative element and elements needing regulation. They held that what we call passion is a morbid condition of the rational soul, involving erroneous judgment as to what is to be sought or shunned. From such passionate errors the truly wise man will of course be free. He will be conscious indeed of physical appetite; but he will not be misled into supposing that its object is really a good; he cannot, therefore, hope for the attainment of this object or fear to miss it, as these states involve the conception of it as a good. Similarly, though like other men he will be subject to bodily pain, this will not cause him mental grief or disquiet, as his worst agonies will not disturb his clear conviction that it is really indifferent to his true reasonable self.
That this impassive sage was a being not to be found among living men the later Stoics at least were fully aware. They faintly suggested that one or two moral heroes of old time might have realized the ideal, but they admitted that all other philosophers (even) were merely in a state of progress towards it. This admission did not in the least diminish the rigour of their demand for absolute loyalty to the exclusive claims of wisdom. The assurance of its own unique value that such wisdom involved they held to be an abiding possession for those who had attained it; and without this assurance no act could be truly wise or virtuous. Whatever was not of knowledge was of sin; and the distinction between right and wrong being absolute and not admitting of degrees all sins were equally sinful; whoever broke the least commandment was guilty of the whole law. Similarly, all wisdom was somehow involved in any one of the manifestations of wisdom, commonly distinguished as particular virtues; though whether these virtues were specifically distinct, or only the same knowledge in different relations, was a subtle question on which the Stoics do not seem to have been agreed.
Aristotle had already been led to attempt a refutation of the Socratic identification of virtue with knowledge; but his attempt had only shown the profound difficulty of attacking the paradox, so long as it was admitted that no one could of deliberate purpose act contrary to what seemed to him best. Now, Aristotle’s divergence from Socrates had not led him so far as to deny this; while for the Stoics who had receded to the original Socratic position, the difficulty was still more patent. This theory of virtue led them into two dilemmas. Firstly, if virtue is knowledge, does it follow that vice is involuntary? If not, it must be that ignorance is voluntary. This alternative is the less dangerous to morality, and as such the Stoics chose it. But they were not yet at the end of their perplexities; for while they were thus driven to an extreme extension of the range of human volition, their view of the physical universe involved an equally thorough-going determinism. How could the vicious man be responsible if his vice were strictly pre-determined? The Stoics answered that the error which was the essence of vice was so far voluntary that it could be avoided if men chose to exercise their reason. No doubt it depended on the innate force and firmness of a man’s soul whether his reason was effectually exercised; but moral responsibility was saved if the vicious act proceeded from the man himself and not from any external cause.
With all this we have not ascertained the positive practical content of this wisdom. How are we to emerge from the barren circle of affirming (1) that wisdom is the sole good and unwisdom the sole evil, and (2) that wisdom is the knowledge of good and evil; and attain some method for determining the particulars of good conduct? The Cynics made no attempt to solve this difficulty; they were content to mean by virtue what any plain man meant by it, except in so far as their sense of independence led them to reject certain received precepts and prejudices. The Stoics, on the other hand, not only worked out a detailed system of duties—or, as they termed them, “things meet and fit” (καθήκοντα) for all occasions of life; they were further especially concerned to comprehend them under a general formula. They found this by bringing out the positive significance of the notion of Nature, which the Cynic had used chiefly in a negative way, as an antithesis to the “consentions” (νόμος), from which his knowledge had made him free. Even in this negative use of the notion it is necessarily implied that whatever active tendencies in man are found to be “natural”—that is, independent of and uncorrupted by social customs and conventions—will properly take effect in outward acts, but the adoption of “conformity to nature” as a general positive rule for outward conduct seems to have been due to the influence on Zeno of Academic teaching. Whence, however, can this authority belong to the natural, unless nature be itself an expression or embodiment of divine law and wisdom? The conception of the world, as organized and filled by divine thought, was common, in some form, to all the philosophies that looked back to Socrates as their founder,—some even maintaining that this thought was the sole reality. This pantheistic doctrine harmonized thoroughly with the Stoic view of human good; but being unable to conceive substance idealistically, they (with considerable aid from the system of Heraclitus) supplied a materialistic side to their pantheism,—conceiving divine thought as an attribute of the purest and most primary of material substances, a subtle fiery aether. This theological view of the physical universe had a double effect on the ethics of the Stoic. In the first place it gave to his cardinal conviction of the all-sufficiency of wisdom for human well-being a root of cosmical fact, and an atmosphere of religious and social emotion. The exercise of wisdom was now viewed as the pure life of that particle of divine substance which was in very truth the “god within him”; the reason whose supremacy he maintained was the reason of Zeus, and of all gods and reasonable men, no less than his own; its realization in any one individual was thus the common good of all rational beings as such; “the sage could not stretch out a finger rightly without thereby benefiting all other sages,”—nay, it might even be said that he was “as useful to Zeus as Zeus to him.” But again, the same conception served to harmonize the higher and the lower elements of human life. For even in the physical or non-rational man, as originally constituted, we may see clear indications of the divine design, which it belongs to his rational will to carry into conscious execution; indeed, in the first stage of human life, before reason is fully developed, uncorrupted natural impulse effects what is afterwards the work of reason. Thus the formula of “living according to nature,” in its application to man as the “rational animal,” may be understood both as directing that reason is to govern, and as indicating how that government is to be practically exercised. In man, as in every other animal, from the moment of birth natural impulse prompts to the maintenance of his physical frame; then, when reason has been developed and has recognized itself as its own sole good, these “primary ends of nature” and whatever promotes these still constitute the outward objects at which reason is to aim; there is a certain value (ἀξία) in them, in proportion to which they are “preferred” (προηγμένα) and their opposites “rejected” (ἀποπροηγμένα); indeed it is only in the due and consistent exercise of such choice that wisdom can find its practical manifestation. In this way all or most of the things commonly judged to be “goods”—health, strength, wealth, fame, &c.,—are brought within the sphere of the sage’s choice, though his real good is solely in the wisdom of the choice, and not in the thing chosen.
The doctrine of conformity to Nature as the rule of conduct was not peculiar to Stoicism. It is found in the theories of Speusippus, Xenocrates, and also to some extent in those of the Peripatetics. The peculiarity of the Stoics lay in their refusing to use the terms “good and evil” in connexion with “things indifferent,” and in pointing out that philosophers, though independent of these things, must yet deal with them in practical life.
So far we have considered the “nature” of the individual man as apart from his social relations; but the sphere of virtue, as commonly conceived, lies chiefly in these, and this was fully recognized in the Stoic account of duties (καθήκοντα); indeed, in their exposition of the “natural” basis of justice, the evidence that man was born not for himself but for mankind is the most important part of their work in the region of practical morality. Here, however, we especially notice the double significance of “natural,” as applied to (1) what actually exists everywhere or for the most part, and (2) what would exist if the original plan of man’s life were fully carried out; and we find that the Stoics have not clearly harmonized the two elements of the notion. That man was “naturally” a social animal Aristotle had already taught; that all rational beings, in the unity of the reason that is common to all, form naturally one community with a common law was (as we saw) an immediate inference from the Stoic conception of the universe as a whole. That the members of this “city of Zeus” should observe their contracts, abstain from mutual harm, combine to protect each other from injury, were obvious points of natural law; while again, it was clearly necessary to the preservation of human society that its members should form sexual unions, produce children, and bestow care on their rearing and training. But beyond this nature did not seem to go in determining the relations of the sexes; accordingly, we find that community of wives was a feature of Zeno’s ideal commonwealth, just as it was of Plato’s; while, again, the strict theory of the school recognized no government or laws as true or binding except those of the sage; he alone is the true ruler, the true king. So far, the Stoic “nature” seems in danger of being as revolutionary as Rousseau’s. Practically, however, this revolutionary aspect of the notion was kept for the most part in the background; the rational law of an ideal community was not distinguished from the positive ordinances and customs of actual society; and the “natural” ties that actually bound each man to family, kinsmen, fatherland, and to unwise humanity generally, supplied the outline on which the external manifestation of justice was delineated. It was a fundamental maxim that the sage was to take part in public life; and it does not appear that his political action was to be regulated by any other principles than those commonly accepted in his community. Similarly, in the view taken by the Stoics of the duties of social decorum, and in their attitude to the popular religion, we find a fluctuating compromise between the disposition to repudiate what is conventional, and the disposition to revere what is established, each tendency expressing in its own way the principle of “conforming to nature.”
Among the primary ends of nature, in which wisdom recognized a certain preferability, the Stoics included freedom from bodily pain; but they refused, even in this outer court of wisdom, to find a place for pleasure. They held that the latter was not an object of uncorrupted Stoics and hedonists. natural impulse, but an “aftergrowth” (ἐπιγέννημα). They thus endeavoured to resist Epicureanism even on the ground where the latter seems prima facie strongest; in its appeal, namely, to the natural pleasure-seeking of all living things. Nor did they merely mean by pleasure (ἡδονή) the gratification of bodily appetite; we find (e.g.) Chrysippus urging, as a decisive argument against Aristotle, that pure speculation was “a kind of amusement; that is, pleasure.” Even the “joy and gladness” (χαρά, εὐφροσύνη) that accompany the exercise of virtue seem to have been regarded by them as merely an inseparable accident, not the essential constituent of well-being. It is only by a later modification of Stoicism that cheerfulness or peace of mind is taken as the real ultimate end, to which the exercise of virtue is merely a means. At the same time it is probable that the serene joys of virtue and the grieflessness which the sage was conceived to maintain amid the worst tortures, formed the main attractions of Stoicism for ordinary minds. In this sense it may be fairly said that Stoics and Epicureans made rival offers to mankind of the same kind of happiness; and the philosophical peculiarities of either system may be traced to the desire of being undisturbed by the changes and chances of life. The Stoic claims on this head were the loftiest; as the well-being of their sage was independent, not only of external things and bodily conditions, but of time itself; it was fully realized in a single exercise of wisdom and could not be increased by duration. This paradox is violent, but it is quite in harmony with the spirit of Stoicism; and we are more startled to find that the Epicurean sage, no less than the Stoic, is to be happy even on the rack; that his happiness, too, is unimpaired by being restricted in duration, when his mind has apprehended the natural limits of life; that, in short, Epicurus makes no less strenuous efforts than Zeno to eliminate imperfection from the conditions of human existence. This characteristic, however, is the key to the chief differences between Epicureanism and the more naïve hedonism of Aristippus. The latter system gave the simplest and most obvious answer to the inquiry after ultimate good for man; but besides being liable, when developed consistently, to offend the common moral consciousness, it conspicuously failed to provide the “completeness” and “security” which, as Aristotle says, “one divines to belong to man’s true Good.” Philosophy, in the Greek view, should be the art as well as the science of good life; and hedonistic philosophy would seem a bungling and uncertain art of pleasure, as pleasure is ordinarily conceived. Nay, it would even be found that the habit of philosophical reflection often operated adversely to the attainment of this end, by developing the thinker’s self-consciousness, so as to disturb that normal relation to external objects on which the zest of ordinary enjoyment depends. Hence we find that later thinkers of the Cyrenaic school felt themselves compelled to change their fundamental notion; thus Theodorus defined the good as “gladness” (χαρά) depending on wisdom, as distinct from mere pleasure, while Hegesias proclaimed that happiness was unattainable, and that the chief function of wisdom was to render life painless by producing indifference to all things that give pleasure. But by such changes their system lost the support that it had had in the pleasure-seeking tendencies of ordinary men. It was clear that if philosophic hedonism was to be established on a broad and firm basis, it must in its notion of good combine what the plain man naturally sought with what philosophy could plausibly offer. Such a combination was effected, with some little violence, by Epicurus; whose system with all its defects showed a remarkable power of standing the test of time, as it attracted the unqualified adhesion of generation after generation of disciples for a period of some six centuries.
In the fundamental principle of his philosophy Epicurus is not original. Aristippus (cf. also Plato in the Protagoras and Eudoxus) had already maintained that pleasure is the sole ultimate good, and pain the sole evil; that no pleasure is to be rejected except for its painful consequences, Epicurus. and no pain to be chosen except as a means to greater pleasure; that the stringency of all laws and customs depends solely on the legal and social penalties attached to their violation; that, in short, all virtuous conduct and all speculative activity are empty and useless, except as contributing to the pleasantness of the agent’s life. And Epicurus assures us that he means by pleasure what plain men mean by it; and that if the gratifications of appetite and sense are discarded, the notion is emptied of its significance. So far the system would seem to suit the inclinations of the most thorough-going voluptuary. The originality of Epicurus lay in his theory that the highest point of pleasure, whether in body or mind, is to be attained by the mere removal of pain or disturbance, after which pleasure admits of variation only and not of augmentation; that therefore the utmost gratification of which the body is capable may be provided by the simplest means, and that “natural wealth” is no more than any man can earn. When further he teaches that the attainment of happiness depends almost entirely upon insight and right calculation, fortune having very little to do with it; that the pleasures and pains of the mind are far more important than those of the body, owing to the accumulation of feeling caused by memory and anticipation; and that an indispensable condition of mental happiness lies in relieving the mind of all superstitions, which can be effected only by a thorough knowledge of the physical universe—he introduces an ample area for the exercise of the philosophic intellect. So again, in the stress that he lays on the misery which the most secret wrong-doing must necessarily cause from the perpetual fear of discovery, and in his exuberant exaltation of the value of disinterested friendship, he shows a sincere, though not completely successful, effort to avoid the offence that consistent egoistic hedonism is apt to give to ordinary human feeling. As regards friendship, Epicurus was a man of peculiarly unexclusive sympathies. The genial fellowship of the philosophic community that he collected in his garden remained a striking feature in the traditions of his school; and certainly the ideal which Stoics and Epicureans equally cherished of a brotherhood of sages was most easily realized on the Epicurean plan of withdrawing from political and dialectical conflict to simple living and serene leisure, in imitation of the gods apart from the fortuitous concourse of atoms that we call a world. No doubt it was rather the practical than the theoretical side of Epicureanism which gave it so strong a hold on succeeding generations.
Later Greek and Roman EthicsEdit
The two systems that have just been described were those that most prominently attracted the attention of the ancient world, so far as it was directed to ethics, from their almost simultaneous origin to the end of the 2nd century A.D., when Stoicism almost vanishes from our Later Greek philosophy. Stoicism in Rome. view. But side by side with them the schools of Plato and Aristotle still maintained a continuity of tradition, and a more or less vigorous life; and philosophy, as a recognized element of Graeco-Roman culture, was understood to be divided among these four branches. The internal history, however, of the four schools was very different. We find no development worthy of notice in Aristotelian ethics (see Peripatetics). The Epicureans, again, from their unquestioning acceptance of the “dogmas” of their founder, almost deserve to be called a sect rather than a school. On the other hand, the changes in Stoicism are very noteworthy; and it is the more easy to trace them, as the only original writings of this school which we possess are those of the later Roman Stoics. These changes may be attributed partly to the natural inner development of the system, partly to the reaction of the Roman mind on the essentially Greek doctrine which it received,—a reaction all the more inevitable from the very affinity between the Stoic sage and the ancient Roman ideal of manliness. It was natural that the earlier Stoics should be chiefly occupied with delineating the inner and outer characteristics of ideal wisdom and virtue, and that the gap between the ideal sage and the actual philosopher, though never ignored, should yet be somewhat overlooked. But when the question “What is man’s good?” had been answered by an exposition of perfect wisdom, the practical question “How may a man emerge from the folly of the world, and get on the way towards wisdom?” naturally attracted attention; and the preponderance of moral over scientific interest, which was characteristic of the Roman mind, gave this question especial prominence. The sense of the gap between theory and fact gives to the religious element of Stoicism a new force; the soul, conscious of its weakness, leans on the thought of God, and in the philosopher’s attitude towards external events, pious resignation preponderates over self-poised indifference; the old self-reliance of the reason, looking down on man’s natural life as a mere field for its exercise, makes room for a positive aversion to the flesh as an alien element imprisoning the spirit; the body has come to be a “corpse which the soul sustains,” and life a “sojourn in a strange land”; in short, the ethical idealism of Zeno has begun to borrow from the metaphysical idealism of Plato.
In no one of these schools was the outward coherence of tradition so much strained by inner changes as it was in Plato’s. The alterations, however, in the metaphysical position of the Academics had little effect on their ethical teaching, as, even during the period of Scepticism, they History of Plato’s school. appear to have presented as probable the same general view of human good which Antiochus afterwards dogmatically announced as a revival of the common doctrine of Plato and Aristotle. And during the period of a century and a half between Antiochus and Plutarch, we may suppose the school to have maintained the old controversy with Stoicism on much the same ground, accepting the formula of “life according to nature,” but demanding that the “good” of man should refer to his nature as a whole, the good of his rational part being the chief element, and always preferable in case of conflict, but yet not absolutely his sole good. In Plutarch, however, we see the same tendencies of change that we have noticed in later Stoicism. The conception of a normal harmony between the higher and lower elements of human life has begun to be disturbed, and the side of Plato’s teaching that deals with the inevitable imperfections of the world of concrete experience becomes again prominent. For example, we find Plutarch amplifying the suggestion in Plato’s latest treatise (the Laws) that this imperfection is due to a bad world-soul that strives against the good,—a suggestion which is alien to the general tenor of Plato’s doctrine, and had consequently been unnoticed during the intervening centuries. We observe, again, the value that Plutarch attaches, not merely to the sustainment and consolation of rational religion, but to the supernatural communications vouchsafed by the divinity to certain human beings in dreams, through oracles, or by special warnings, like those of the genius of Socrates. For these flashes of intuition, he holds, the soul should be prepared by tranquil repose and the subjugation of sensuality through abstinence. The same ascetic effort to attain by aloofness from the body a pure receptivity for supernatural influences, is exhibited in Neo-Pythagoreanism. But the general tendency that we are noting did not find its full expression in a reasoned system until we come to the Egyptian Plotinus.
The system of Plotinus (205–270 A.D.) is a striking development of that element of Platonism which has had most fascination for the medieval and even for the modern mind, but which had almost vanished out of sight in the controversies of the post-Aristotelian schools. At the Neoplatonism. same time the differences are the more noteworthy from the reverent adhesion which the Neoplatonists always maintain to Plato. Plato identified good with the real essence of things; with that in them which is definitely conceivable and knowable. It belongs to this view to regard the imperfection of things as devoid of real being, and so incapable of being definitely thought or known; accordingly, we find that Plato has no technical term for that in the concrete sensible world which hinders it from perfectly expressing the abstract ideal world, and which in Aristotle’s system is distinguished as absolutely formless matter (ὕλη). And so, when we pass from the ontology to the ethics of Platonism, we find that, though the highest life is only to be realized by turning away from concrete human affairs and their material environment, still the sensible world is not yet an object of positive moral aversion; it is rather something which the philosopher is seriously concerned to make as harmonious, good and beautiful as possible. But in Neoplatonism the inferiority of the condition in which the embodied human soul finds itself is more intensely and painfully felt; hence an express recognition of formless matter (ὕλη) as the “first evil,” from which is derived the “second evil,” body (σῶμα), to whose influence all the evil in the soul’s existence is due. Accordingly the ethics of Plotinus represent, we may say, the moral idealism of the Stoics cut loose from nature. The only good of man is the pure existence of the soul, which in itself, apart from the contagion of the body, is perfectly free from error or defect; if only it can be restored to the untrammelled activity of its original being, nothing external, nothing bodily, can positively impair its perfect welfare. It is only the lowest form of virtue—the “civic” virtue of Plato’s Republic—that is employed in regulating those animal impulses whose presence in the soul is due to its mixture with the body; higher or philosophic wisdom, temperance, courage and justice are essentially purifications from this contagion; until finally the highest mode of goodness is reached, in which the soul has no community with the body, and is entirely turned towards reason. It should be observed that Plotinus himself is still too Platonic to hold that the absolute mortification of natural bodily appetites is required for purifying the soul; but this ascetic inference was drawn to the fullest extent by his disciple Porphyry.
There is, however, a yet higher point to be reached in the upward ascent of the Neoplatonist from matter; and here the divergence of Plotinus from Platonic idealism is none the less striking, because it is a bona fide result of reverent reflection on Plato’s teaching. The cardinal assumption of Plato’s metaphysic is, that the real is definitely thinkable and knowable in proportion as it is real; so that the further the mind advances in abstraction from sensible particulars and apprehension of real being, the more definite and clear its thought becomes. Plotinus, however, urges that, as all thought involves difference or duality of some kind, it cannot be the primary fact in the universe, what we call God. He must be an essential unity prior to this duality, a Being wholly without difference or determination; and, accordingly, the highest mode of human existence, in which the soul apprehends this absolute, must be one in which all definite thought is transcended, and all consciousness of self lost in the absorbing ecstasy. Porphyry tells us that his master Plotinus attained the highest state four times during the six years which he spent with him.
Neoplatonism, originally Alexandrine, is often regarded as Hellenistic rather than Hellenic, a product of the mingling of Greek with Oriental civilization. But however Oriental may have been the cast of mind that welcomed this theosophic asceticism, the forms of thought by which these views were philosophically reached are essentially Greek; and it is by a thoroughly intelligible process of natural development, in which the intensification of the moral consciousness represented by Stoicism plays an important part, that the Hellenic pursuit of knowledge culminates in a preparation for ecstasy, and the Hellenic idealization of man’s natural life ends in a settled antipathy to the body and its works. At the same time we ought not to overlook the affinities between the doctrine of Plotinus and that remarkable combination of Greek and Hebrew thought which Philo Judaeus had expounded two centuries before; nor the fact that Neoplatonism was developed in conscious antagonism to the new religion which had spread from Judea, and was already threatening the conquest of the Graeco-Roman world, and also to the Gnostic systems (see Gnosticism); nor, finally, that it furnished the chief theoretical support in the last desperate struggle that was made under Julian to retain the old polytheistic worship.
B. Christianity and Medieval Ethics.Edit
In the present article we are not concerned with the origin of the Christian religion, nor with its outward history. Nor have we to consider the special doctrines that have formed the bond of union of the Christian communities except in their ethical aspect, their bearing on the systematization of human aims and activities. This aspect, however, must necessarily be prominent in discussing Christianity, which cannot be adequately treated merely as a system of theological beliefs divinely revealed, and special observances divinely sanctioned; for it claims to regulate the whole man, in all departments of his existence. It was not till the 4th century A.D. that the first attempt was made to offer a systematic exposition of Christian morality; and nine centuries more had passed away before a genuinely philosophic intellect, trained by a full study of Aristotle, undertook to give complete scientific form to the ethical doctrine of the Catholic church. Before, however, we take a brief survey of the progress of systematic ethics from Ambrose to Thomas Aquinas, it may be well to examine the chief features of the new moral consciousness that had spread through Graeco-Roman civilization, and was awaiting philosophic synthesis. It will be convenient to consider first the new form or universal characteristics of Christian morality, and afterwards to note the chief points in the matter or particulars of duty and virtue which received development or emphasis from the new religion.
Christian and Jewish “law of God.”Edit
The first point to be noticed is the new conception of morality as the positive law of a theocratic community possessing a written code imposed by divine revelation, and sanctioned by divine promises and threatenings. It is true that we find in ancient thought, from Socrates Christian and Jewish “law of God.” downwards, the notion of a law of God, eternal and immutable, partly expressed and partly obscured by the shifting codes and customs of actual human societies. But the sanctions of this law were vaguely and, for the most part, feebly imagined; its principles were essentially unwritten, and thus referred not to the external will of an Almighty Being who claimed unquestioning submission, but rather to the reason that gods and men shared, by the exercise of which alone they could be adequately known and defined. Hence, even if the notion of law had been more prominent than it was in ancient ethical thought, it could never have led to a juridical, as distinct from a philosophical, treatment of morality. In Christianity, on the other hand, we early find that the method of moralists determining right conduct is to a great extent analogous to that of jurisconsults interpreting a code. It is assumed that divine commands have been implicitly given for all occasions of life, and that they are to be ascertained in particular cases by interpretation of the general rules obtained from texts of scripture, and by inference from scriptural examples. This juridical method descended naturally from the Jewish theocracy, of which Christendom was a universalization. Moral insight, in the view of the most thoughtful Jews of the age immediately preceding Christianity, was conceived as knowledge of a divine code, emanating from an authority external to human reason which had only the function of interpreting and applying its rules. This law was derived partly from Moses, partly from the utterances of the later prophets, partly from oral tradition and from the commentaries and supplementary maxims of generations of students. Christianity inherited the notion of a written divine code acknowledged as such by the “true Israel”—now potentially including the whole of mankind, or at least the chosen of all nations,—on the sincere acceptance of which the Christian’s share of the divine promises to Israel depended. And though the ceremonial part of the old Hebrew code was altogether rejected, and with it all the supplementary jurisprudence resting on tradition and erudite commentary, still God’s law was believed to be contained in the sacred books of the Jews, supplemented by the teaching of Christ and his apostles. By the recognition of this law the church was constituted as an ordered community, essentially distinct from the State; the distinction between the two was emphasized by the withdrawal of the early Christians from civic life, to avoid the performance of idolatrous ceremonies imposed as official expressions of loyalty, and by the persecutions which they had to endure, when the spread of an association apparently so hostile to the framework of ancient society had at length alarmed the imperial government. Nor was the distinction obliterated by the recognition of Christianity as the state religion under Constantine.
Thus the jural form in which morality was conceived only emphasized the fundamental difference between it and the laws of the state. The ultimate sanctions of the moral code were the infinite rewards and punishments awaiting the immortal soul hereafter; but the church early felt the necessity of withdrawing the privileges of membership from apostates and allowing them to be gradually regained only by a solemn ceremonial expressive of repentance, protracted through several years. This formal and regulated “penitence” was extended from apostasy to other grave—or, as they were subsequently called, “deadly”—sins; while for minor offences all Christians were called upon to express contrition by fasting and abstinence from ordinarily permitted pleasures, as well as verbally in public and private devotions. “Excommunication” and “penance” thus came to be temporal ecclesiastical sanctions of the moral law. As the graduation of these sanctions naturally became more minute, a correspondingly detailed classification of offences was rendered necessary, and thus a system of ecclesiastical jurisprudence was gradually produced, somewhat analogous to that of Judaism. At the same time this tendency to make prominent a scheme of external duties has always been counteracted in Christianity by the remembrance of its original antithesis to Jewish legalism. We find that this antithesis, as exaggerated by some of the Gnostic sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., led, not merely to theoretical antinomianism, but even (if the charges of their orthodox opponents are not entirely to be discredited) to gross immorality of conduct. A similar tendency has shown itself at other periods of church history. And though such antinomianism has always been sternly repudiated by the moral consciousness of Christendom, it has never been forgotten that “inwardness,” rightness of heart or spirit, is the pre-eminent characteristic of Christian goodness. It must not, of course, be supposed that the need of something more than mere fulfilment of external duty was ignored even by the later Judaism. Rabbinic erudition could not forget the repression of vicious desires in the tenth commandment, the stress laid in Deuteronomy on the necessity of service to God, or the inculcation by later prophets of humility and faith. “The real and only Pharisee,” says the Talmud, “is he who does the will of his Father because he loves Him.” But it remains true that the contrast with the “righteousness of the scribes and pharisees” has always served to mark the requirement of “inwardness” as a distinctive feature of the Christian code—an inwardness not merely negative, tending to the repression of vicious desires as well as vicious acts, but also involving a positive rectitude of the inner state of the soul.
Christian and Pagan Inwardness (Knowledge, Faith, Love, Purity)Edit
In this aspect Christianity invites comparison with Stoicism, and indeed with pagan ethical philosophy generally, if we except the hedonistic schools. Rightness of purpose, preference of virtue for its own sake, suppression of vicious desires, were made essential points by the Christian and Pagan inwardness. Aristotelians, who attached the most importance to outward circumstances in their view of virtue, no less than by the Stoics, to whom all outward things were indifferent. The fundamental differences between pagan and Christian ethics depend not on any difference in the value set on rightness of heart, but on different views of the essential form or conditions of this inward rightness. In neither case is it presented purely and simply as moral rectitude. By the pagan philosophers it was always conceived under the form of Knowledge or Wisdom, it being inconceivable to all the schools sprung from Socrates that a man could truly know his own good and yet deliberately choose anything else. This knowledge, as Aristotle held, might be permanently precluded by vicious habits, or temporarily obliterated by passion, but if present in the mind it must produce rightness of purpose. Or even if it were held with some of the Stoics that true wisdom was out of the reach of the best men actually living, it none the less remained the ideal condition of perfect human life. By Christian teachers, on the other hand, the inner springs of good conduct were generally conceived as Faith. Faith and Love. Of these notions the former has a somewhat complex ethical import; it seems to blend several elements differently prominent in different minds. Its simplest and commonest meaning is that emphasized in the contrast of “faith” with “sight”; where it signifies belief in the invisible divine order represented by the church, in the actuality of the law, the threats, the promises of God, in spite of all the influences in man’s natural life that tend to obscure this belief. Out of this contrast there ultimately grew an essentially different opposition between faith and knowledge or reason, according to which the theological basis of ethics was contrasted with the philosophical; the theologians maintaining sometimes that the divine law is essentially arbitrary, the expression of will, not reason; more frequently that its reasonableness is inscrutable, and that actual human reason should confine itself to examining the credentials of God’s messengers, and not the message itself. But in early Christianity this latter antithesis was as yet undeveloped; faith means simply force in clinging to moral and religious conviction, whatever their rational grounds may be; this force, in the Christian consciousness, being inseparably bound up with personal loyalty and trust towards Christ, the leader in the battle with evil, the ruler of the kingdom to be realized. So far, however, there is no ethical difference between Christian faith and that of Judaism, or its later imitation, Mahommedanism; except that the personal affection of loyal trust is peculiarly stirred by the blending of human and divine natures in Christ, and the rule of duty impressively taught by the manifestation of his perfect life. A more distinctively Christian, and a more deeply moral, significance is given to the notion in the antithesis of “faith” and “works.” Here faith means more than loyal acceptance of the divine law and reverent trust in the lawgiver; it implies a consciousness, at once continually present and continually transcended, of the radical imperfection of all human obedience to the law, and at the same time of the irremissible condemnation which this imperfection entails. The Stoic doctrine of the worthlessness of ordinary human virtue, and the stern paradox that all offenders are equally, in so far as all are absolutely, guilty, find their counterparts in Christianity; but the latter (maintaining this ideal severity in the moral standard, with an emotional consciousness of what is involved in it quite unlike that of the Stoic) overcomes its practical exclusiveness through faith. This faith, again, may be conceived in two modes, essentially distinct though usually combined. In one view it gives the believer strength to attain, by God’s supernatural aid or “grace,” a goodness of which he is naturally incapable; in the other view it gives him an assurance that, though he knows himself a sinner deserving of utter condemnation, a perfectly just God still regards him with favour on account of the perfect services and suffering of Christ. Of these views the former is the more catholic, more universally present in the Christian consciousness; the latter more deeply penetrates the mystery of the Atonement, as expounded in the Pauline epistles.
But faith, however understood, is rather an indispensable pre-requisite than the essential motive principle of Christian good conduct. This motive is supplied by the other central notion, love. On love depends the “fulfilling of the law,” and the sole moral value of Christian duty—that Love. is, on love to God, in the first place, which in its fullest development must spring from Christian faith; and, secondly, love to all mankind, as the objects of divine love and sharers in the humanity ennobled by the incarnation. This derivative philanthropy characterizes the spirit in which all Christian performance of social duty is to be done; loving devotion to God being the fundamental attitude of mind that is to be maintained throughout the whole of the Christian’s life. But further, as Purity. regards abstinence from unlawful acts and desires prompting to them, we have to notice another form in which the inwardness of Christian morality manifests itself, which, though less distinctive, should yet receive attention in any comparison of Christian ethics with the view of Graeco-Roman philosophy. The profound horror with which the Christian’s conception of a suffering as well as an avenging divinity tended to make him regard all condemnable acts was tinged with a sentiment which we may perhaps describe as a ceremonial aversion moralized—the aversion, that is, to foulness or impurity. In Judaism, as in other, especially Oriental, religions, the natural dislike of material defilement has been elevated into a religious sentiment, and made to support a complicated system of quasi-sanitary abstinences and ceremonial purifications; then, as the ethical element predominated in the Jewish religion, a moral symbolism was felt to reside in the ceremonial code, and thus aversion to impurity came to be a common form of the ethico-religious sentiment. Then, when Christianity threw off the Mosaic ritual, this religious sense of purity was left with no other sphere besides morality; while, from its highly idealized character, it was peculiarly well adapted for that repression of vicious desires which Christianity claimed as its special function.
Distinctive particulars of Christian moralityEdit
The distinctive features of Christian ethics are obedience, unworldliness, benevolence, purity and humility. They are naturally connected with the more general characteristics just stated; though many of them Distinctive particulars of Christian morality. may also be referred directly to the example and precepts of Christ, and in several cases they are clearly due to both causes, inseparably combined.
1. We may notice, in the first place, that the conception of morality as a code which, if not in itself arbitrary, is yet to be accepted by men with unquestioning submission, tends naturally to bring into prominence the virtue of obedience to authority; just as the philosophic view of goodness as the realization of reason gives a special value to self-determination and independence (as we see more clearly in the post-Aristotelian schools where ethics is distinctly separated from politics).
2. Again, the opposition between the natural world and the spiritual order into which the Christian has been born anew led not merely to a contempt equal to that of the Stoic for wealth, fame, power, and other objects of worldly pursuit, but also, for some time at least, to a comparative depreciation of the domestic and civic relations of the natural man. This tendency was exhibited most simply and generally in the earliest period of the church’s history. In the view of primitive Christians, ordinary human society was a world temporarily surrendered to Satanic rule, over which a swift and sudden destruction was impending; in such a world the little band who were gathered in the ark of the church could have no part or lot,—the only attitude they could maintain was that of passive alienation. On the other hand, it was difficult practically to realize this alienation, and a keen sense of this difficulty induced the same hostility to the body as a clog and hindrance, that we find to some extent in Plato, but more fully developed in Neoplatonism, Neopythagoreanism, and other products of the mingling of Greek with Oriental thought. This feeling is exhibited in the value set on fasting in the Christian church from the earliest times, and in an extreme form in the self-torments of later monasticism; while both tendencies, anti-worldliness and anti-sensualism, seem to have combined in causing the preference of celibacy over marriage which is common to most early Christian writers. Patriotism, again, and the sense of civic duty, the most elevated of all social sentiments in the Graeco-Roman civilization, tended, under the influence of Christianity, either to expand itself into universal philanthropy, or to concentrate itself on the ecclesiastical community. “We recognize one commonwealth, the world,” says Tertullian; “we know,” says Origen, “that we have a fatherland founded by the word of God.” We might further derive from the general spirit of Christian unworldliness that repudiation of the secular modes of conflict, even in a righteous cause, which substituted a passive patience and endurance for the old pagan virtue of courage, in which the active element was prominent. Here, however, we clearly trace the influence of Christ’s express prohibition of violent resistance to violence, and his inculcation, by example and precept, of a love that was to conquer even natural resentment. An extreme result of this influence is shown in Tertullian’s view, that no Christian could properly hold the office of a secular magistrate in which he would have to doom to death, chains, imprisonment; but even more sober writers, such as Ambrose, extend Christian passivity so far as to preclude self-defence even against a murderous assault. The common sense of Christendom gradually shook off these extravagances; but the reluctance to shed blood lingered long, and was hardly extinguished even by the growing horror of heresy. We have a curious relic of this in the later times of ecclesiastical persecution, when the heretic was doomed to the stake that he might be punished in some manner “short of bloodshed.”
3. It is, however, in the impulse given to practical beneficence in all its forms, by the exaltation of love as the root of all virtues, that the most important influence of Christianity on the particulars of civilized morality is to be found; although the exact amount of this influence is here Benevolence. somewhat difficult to ascertain, since it merely carries further a development traceable in the history of pagan morality. This development appears when we compare the different post-Socratic systems of ethics. In Plato’s exposition of the different virtues there is no mention whatever of benevolence, although his writings show a keen sense of the importance of friendship as an element of philosophic life, especially of the intense personal affection naturally arising between master and disciple. Aristotle goes somewhat further in recognizing the moral value of friendship (φιλία); and though he considers that in its highest form it can be realized only by the fellowship of the wise and good, he yet extends the notion so as to include the domestic affections, and takes notice of the importance of mutual kindness in binding together all human societies. Still in his formal statement of the different virtues, positive beneficence is discernible only under the notion of “liberality,” in which form its excellence is hardly distinguished from that of graceful profusion in self-regarding expenditure (Nic. Eth. iv. 1). Cicero, on the other hand, in his paraphrase of a Stoic treatise on external duties (De officiis), ranks the rendering of positive services to other men as a chief department of social duty; and the Stoics generally recognized the universal fellowship and natural mutual claims of human beings as such. Indeed, this recognition in later Stoicism is sometimes expressed with so much warmth of feeling as to be hardly distinguishable from Christian philanthropy. Nor was this regard for humanity merely a doctrine of the school. Partly through the influence of Stoic and other Greek philosophy, partly from the natural expansion of human sympathies, the legislation of the Empire, during the first three centuries, shows a steady development in the direction of natural justice and humanity; and some similar progress may be traced in the general tone of moral opinion. Still the utmost point that this development reached fell considerably short of the standard of Christian charity. Without dwelling on the immense impetus given to the practice of social duty generally by the religion that made beneficence a form of divine service, and identified “piety” with “pity,” we have to put down as definite changes introduced by Christianity—(1) the severe condemnation and final suppression of the practice of exposing infants; (2) effective abhorrence of the barbarism of gladiatorial combats; (3) immediate moral mitigation of slavery, and a strong encouragement of emancipation; (4) great extension of the eleemosynary provision made for the sick and the poor. As regards almsgiving, however—the importance of which has caused it to usurp, in modern languages, the general name of “charity”—it ought to be observed that Christianity merely universalized a duty which has always been inculcated by Judaism, within the limits of the chosen people.
4. The same may be said of the stricter regulation which Christianity enforced on the relations of the sexes; except so far as the prohibition of divorce is concerned, and the stress laid on “purity of heart” as contrasted with merely outward chastity.
5. Even the peculiarly Christian virtue of humility, which presents so striking a contrast to the Greek “highmindedness,” was to some extent anticipated in the Rabbinic teaching. Its far greater prominence under the new dispensation may be partly referred to the express teaching and example of Christ; partly, in so far as the virtue is manifested in the renunciation of external rank and dignity, or the glory of merely secular gifts and acquirements, it is one aspect of the unwordliness which we have already noticed; while the deeper humility that represses the claim of personal merit even in the saint belongs to the strict self-examination, the continual sense of imperfection, the utter reliance on strength not his own, which characterize the inner moral life of the Christian. Humility in this latter sense, “before God,” is an essential condition of all truly Christian goodness.
We have, however, yet to notice the enlargement of the sphere of ethics due to its close connexion with theology; for while this added religious force and sanction to ordinary moral obligations, it equally tended to impart a moral aspect to religious belief and worship. “Duty to God”—as distinct from duty to man—had not been altogether unrecognized by pagan moralists; but the rather dubious relations of even the more orthodox philosophy to the established polytheism had generally prevented them from laying much stress upon it. Again,—just as the Stoics held wisdom to be indispensable to real rectitude of conduct, while at the same time they included under the notion of wisdom a grasp of physical as well as ethical truth,—so the similar emphasis laid on inwardness in Christian ethics caused orthodoxy or correctness of religious belief to be regarded as essential to goodness, and heresy as the most fatal of vices, corrupting as it did the very springs of Christian life. To the philosophers (with the single exception of Plato), however, convinced as they were that the multitude must necessarily miss true well-being through their folly and ignorance, it could never occur to guard against these evils by any other method than that of providing philosophic instruction for the few; whereas the Christian clergy, whose function it was to offer truth and eternal life to all mankind, naturally regarded theological misbelief as insidious preventible contagion. Indeed, their sense of its deadliness was so keen that, when they were at length able to control the secular administration, they rapidly overcame their aversion to bloodshed, and initiated that long series of religious persecutions to which we find no parallel in the pre-Christian civilization of Europe. It was not that Christian writers did not feel the difficulty of attributing criminality to sincere ignorance or error. But the difficulty is not really peculiar to theology; and the theologians usually got over it (as some philosophers had surmounted a similar perplexity in the region of ethics proper) by supposing some latent or antecedent voluntary sin, of which the apparently involuntary heresy was the fearful fruit.
Lastly, we must observe that, in proportion as the legal conception of morality as a code of which the violation deserves supernatural punishment predominated over the philosophic view of ethics as the method for attaining natural felicity, the question of man’s freedom of will to obey the law necessarily became prominent. At the same time it cannot be broadly said that Christianity took a decisive side in the metaphysical controversy on free-will and necessity; since, just as in Greek philosophy the need of maintaining freedom as the ground of responsibility clashes with the conviction that no one deliberately chooses his own harm, so in Christian ethics it clashes with the attribution of all true human virtue to supernatural grace, as well as with the belief in divine foreknowledge. All we can say is that in the development of Christian thought the conflict of conceptions was far more profoundly felt, and far more serious efforts were made to evade or transcend it.
Development of opinion in early Christianity, Augustine, AmbroseEdit
In the preceding account of Christian morality, it has been already indicated that the characteristics delineated did not all exhibit themselves simultaneously to the same extent, or with perfect uniformity throughout the church. Changes in the external condition of Christianity, Development of opinion in early Christianity. the different degrees of civilization in the societies of which it was the dominant religion, and the natural process of internal development, continually brought different features into prominence; while again, the important antagonisms of opinion within Christendom frequently involved ethical issues—even in the Eastern Church—until in the 4th century it began to be absorbed in the labour of a dogmatic construction. Thus, for example, the anti-secular tendencies of the new creed, to which Tertullian (160–220) gave violent and rigid expression, were exaggerated in the Montanist heresy which he ultimately joined; on the other hand, Clement of Alexandria, in opposition to the general tone of his age, maintained the value of pagan philosophy for the development of Christian faith into true knowledge (Gnosis), and the value of the natural development of man through marriage for the normal perfecting of the Christian life. So again, there is a marked difference between the writers before Augustine and those that succeeded him in all that concerns the internal conditions of Christian morality. By Justin and other apologists the need of redemption, faith, grace is indeed recognized, but the theological system depending on these notions is not sufficiently developed to come into even apparent antagonism with the freedom of the will. Christianity is for the most part conceived as essentially a proclamation through the Divine Word, to immortal beings gifted with free choice, of the true code of conduct sanctioned by eternal rewards and punishments. This legalism contrasts strikingly with the efforts of pagan philosophy to exhibit virtue as its own reward; and the contrast is triumphantly pointed out by more than one early Christian writer. Lactantius (circa 300 A.D.), for example, roundly declares that Plato and Aristotle, referring everything to this earthly life, “made virtue mere folly”; though himself maintaining, with pardonable inconsistency, that man’s highest good did not consist in mere pleasure, but in the consciousness of the filial relation of the soul to God. It is plain, however, that on this external legalistic view of duty it was impossible to maintain a difference in kind between Christian and pagan morality; the philosopher’s conformity to the rules of chastity and beneficence, so far as it went, was indistinguishable from the saint’s. But when this inference was developed in the teaching of Pelagius, it was repudiated as heretical by the church, under the powerful leadership of Augustine (354–430); and the doctrine of man’s Augustine. incapacity to obey God’s law by his unaided moral energy was pressed to a point at which it was difficult to reconcile it with the freedom of the will. Augustine is fully aware of the theoretical indispensability of maintaining Free Will, from its logical connexion with human responsibility and divine justice; but he considers that these latter points are sufficiently secured if actual freedom of choice between good and evil is allowed in the single case of our progenitor Adam. For since the natura seminalis from which all men were to arise already existed in Adam, in his voluntary preference of self to God, humanity chose evil once for all; for which ante-natal guilt all men are justly condemned to perpetual absolute sinfulness and consequent punishment, unless they are elected by God’s unmerited grace to share the benefits of Christ’s redemption. Without this grace it is impossible for man to obey the “first greatest commandment” of love to God; and, this unfulfilled, he is guilty of the whole law, and is only free to choose between degrees of sin; his apparent external virtues have no moral value, since inner rightness of intention is wanting. “All that is not of faith is of sin”; and faith and love are mutually involved and inseparable; faith springs from the divinely imparted germ of love, which in its turn is developed by faith to its full strength, while from both united springs hope, joyful yearning towards ultimate perfect fruition of the object of love. These three Augustine (after St Paul) regards as the three essential elements of Christian virtue; along with these he recognizes the fourfold division of virtue into prudence, temperance, courage and justice according to their traditional interpretation; but he explains these virtues to be in their true natures only the same love to God in different aspects or exercises. The uncompromising mysticism of this view may be at once compared and contrasted with the philosophical severity of Stoicism. Love of God in the former holds the same absolute and unique position as the sole element of moral worth in human action, which, as we have seen, was occupied by knowledge of Good in the latter; and we may carry the parallel further by observing that in neither case is this severity in the abstract estimate of goodness necessarily connected with extreme rigidity in practical precepts. Indeed, an important part of Augustine’s work as a moralist lies in the reconciliation which he laboured to effect between the anti-worldly spirit of Christianity and the necessities of secular civilization. For example, we find him arguing for the legitimacy of judicial punishments and military service against an over-literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount; and he took an important part in giving currency to the distinction between evangelical “counsels” and “commands,” and so defending the life of marriage and temperate enjoyment of natural good against the attacks of the more extravagant advocate of celibacy and self-abnegation; although he fully admitted the superiority of the latter method of avoiding the contamination of sin.
The attempt to Christianize the old Platonic list of virtues, which we have noticed in Augustine’s system, was probably due to the influence of his master Ambrose, in whose treatise De officiis ministrorum we find for the first time an exposition of Christian duty systematized on a plan Ambrose. borrowed from a pre-Christian moralist. It is interesting to compare Ambrose’s account of what subsequently came to be known as the “four cardinal virtues” with the corresponding delineations in Cicero’sDe officiis which served the bishop as a model. Christian Wisdom, so far as it is speculative, is of course primarily theological; it has God, as the highest truth, for its chief object, and is therefore necessarily grounded on faith. Christian Fortitude is essentially firmness in withstanding the seductions of good and evil fortune, resoluteness in the conflict perpetually waged against wickedness without carnal weapons—though Ambrose, with the Old Testament in his hand, will not quite relinquish the ordinary martial application of the term. “Temperantia” retains the meaning of “observance of due measure” in all conduct, which it had in Cicero’s treatise; though its notion is partly modified by being blended with the newer virtue of humility. Finally in the exposition of Christian Justice the Stoic doctrine of the natural union of all human interests is elevated to the full height and intensity of evangelical philanthropy; the brethren are reminded that the earth was made by God a common possession of all, and are bidden to administer their means for the common benefit; Ambrose, we should observe, is thoroughly aware of the fundamental union of these different virtues in Christianity, though he does not, like Augustine, resolve them all into the one central affection of love of God.
Medieval Morality and Moral PhilosophyEdit
Under the influence of Ambrose and Augustine, the four cardinal virtues furnished a basis on which the systematic ethical theories of subsequent theologians were built. With them the triad of Christian graces, Faith, Hope and Love, and the seven gifts of the Spirit (Isaiah xi. 2) Ecclesiastical morality in the “Dark Ages.” were often combined. In antithesis to this list, an enumeration of the “deadly sins” obtained currency. These were at first commonly reckoned as eight; but a preference for mystical numbers characteristic of medieval theologians finally reduced them to seven. The statement of them is variously given,—Pride, Avarice, Anger, Gluttony, Unchastity, are found in all the lists; the remaining two (or three) are variously selected from among Envy, Vainglory, and the rather singular sins Gloominess (tristitia) and Languid Indifference (acidia or acedia, from Gr. ἀκηδία). These latter notions show plainly, what indeed might be inferred from a study of the list as a whole, that it represents the moral experience of the monastic life, which for some centuries was more and more unquestioningly regarded as in a peculiar sense “religious.” It should be observed that the (also Augustinian) distinction between “deadly” and “venial” sins had a technical reference to the quasi-jural administration of ecclesiastical discipline, which grew gradually more organized as the spiritual power of the church established itself amid the ruins of the Western empire, and slowly developed into the theocracy that almost dominated Europe during the latter part of the middle ages. “Deadly” sins were those for which formal ecclesiastical penance was held to be necessary, in order to save the sinner from eternal damnation; for “venial” sins he might obtain forgiveness, through prayer, almsgiving, and the observance of the regular fasts. We find that “penitential books” for the use of the confessional, founded partly on traditional practice and partly on the express decrees of synods, come into general use in the 7th century. At first they are little more than mere inventories of sins, with their appropriate ecclesiastical punishments; gradually cases of conscience come to be discussed and decided, and the basis is laid for that system of casuistry which reached its full development in the 14th and 15th centuries. This ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and indeed the general relation of the church to the ruder races with which it had to deal during this period, necessarily tended to encourage a somewhat external view of morality. But a powerful counterpoise to this tendency was continually maintained by the fervid inwardness of Augustine, transmitted through Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Alcuin, Hrabanus Maurus, and other writers of the philosophically barren period between the destruction of the Western empire and the rise of Scholasticism.
Scholastic ethics, like scholastic philosophy, attained its completest result in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. But before giving a brief account of the ethical part of his system, it will be well to notice the salient points in the long and active discussion that led up to it. In Medieval moral philosophy. the pantheistic system of Erigena (q.v.) (circa 810–877) the chief philosophic element is supplied by the influence of Plato and Plotinus, transmitted through an unknown author of the 5th century, who assumed the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Accordingly the ethical side of this doctrine has the same negative and ascetic character that we have observed in Neoplatonism. God is the only real Being; evil is essentially unreal and incognizable; the true aim of man’s life is to return to perfect union with God out of the degraded material existence into which he has fallen. This doctrine found little acceptance among Erigena’s contemporaries, and was certainly unorthodox enough to justify the condemnation which it subsequently received from Honorius III.; but its influence, together with that of the Pseudo-Dionysius, had a considerable share in developing the more emotional orthodox mysticism of the 12th and 13th centuries; and Neoplatonism (or Platonism received through a Neoplatonic tradition) remained a distinct element in medieval thought, though obscured in the period of mature scholasticism by the predominant influence of Aristotle. Passing on to Anselm (1033–1109), we observe that the Augustinian doctrine of original sin and man’s absolute need of unmerited grace is retained in his theory of salvation; he also follows Augustine in defining freedom as the “power not to sin”; though in saying that Adam fell “spontaneously” and “by his free choice,” though not “through its freedom,” he has implicitly made the distinction that Peter the Lombard afterwards expressly draws between the freedom that is opposed to necessity and freedom from the slavery to sin. Anselm further softens the statement of Augustinian predestinationism by explaining that the freedom to will is not strictly lost even by fallen man; it is inherent in a rational nature, though since Adam’s sin it only exists potentially in humanity, except where it is made actual by grace.
In a more real sense Abelard (1079–1142) tries to establish the connexion between man’s ill desert and his free consent. He asserts that the inherited propensity to evil is not strictly a sin, which is only committed when the conscious self yields to vicious inclination. With a similar stress on the self-conscious side of moral action, he argues that rightness of conduct depends solely on the intention, at one time pushing this doctrine to the paradoxical assertion that all outward acts as such are indifferent. In the same spirit, under the reviving influence of ancient philosophy (with which, however, he was imperfectly acquainted and the relation of which to Christianity he extravagantly misunderstood), he argues that the old Greek moralists, as inculcating a disinterested love of good—and so implicitly love of God as the highest good—were really nearer to Christianity than Judaic legalism was. Nay, further, he required that the Christian “love to God” should be regarded as pure only if purged from the self-regarding desire of the happiness which God gives. The general tendency of Abelard’s thought was suspiciously regarded by contemporary orthodoxy; and the over-subtlety of the last-mentioned distinction provoked vehement replies from orthodox mystics of the age. Thus, Hugo of St Victor (1077–1141) argues that all love is necessarily so far “interested” that it involves a desire for union with the beloved; and since eternal happiness consists in this union, it cannot truly be desired apart from God; while Bernard of Clairvaux (1091–1153) more elaborately distinguishes four stages by which the soul is gradually led from (1) merely self-regarding desire for God’s aid in distress, to (2) love him for his loving-kindness to it, then also (3) for his absolute goodness, until (4) in rare moments this love for himself alone becomes the sole all-absorbing affection. This controversy Peter the Lombard endeavoured to compose by the scholastic art of taking distinctions, of which he was a master. In his treatise, Libri sententiarum, mainly based on Augustinian doctrine, we find a distinct softening of the antithesis between nature and grace and an anticipation of the union of Aristotelian and Christian thought, which was initiated by Albert the Great and completed by Thomas Aquinas.
The moral philosophy of Aquinas is Aristotelianism with a Neoplatonic tinge, interpreted and supplemented by a view of Christian dogma derived chiefly from Augustine. All action or movement of all things irrational as well as rational is directed towards some end or good,—that Thomas Aquinas. is, really and ultimately towards God himself, the ground and first cause of all being, and unmoved principle of all movement. This universal though unconscious striving after God, since he is essentially intelligible, exhibits itself in its highest form in rational beings as a desire for knowledge of him; such knowledge, however, is beyond all ordinary exercise of reason, and may be only partially revealed to man here below. Thus the summum bonum for man is objectively God, subjectively the happiness to be derived from loving vision of his perfections; although there is a lower kind of happiness to be realized here below in a normal human existence of virtue and friendship, with mind and body sound and whole and properly trained for the needs of life. The higher happiness is given to man by free grace of God; but it is given to those only whose heart is right, and as a reward of virtuous actions. Passing to consider what actions are virtuous, we first observe generally that the morality of an act is in part, but only in part, determined by its particular motive; it partly depends on its external object and circumstances, which render it either objectively in harmony with the “order of reason” or the reverse. In the classification of particular virtues and vices we can distinguish very clearly the elements supplied by the different teachings which Aquinas has imbibed. He follows Aristotle closely in dividing the “natural” virtues into intellectual and moral, giving his preference to the former class, and the intellectual again into speculative and practical; in distinguishing within the speculative class the “intellect” that is conversant with principles, the “science” that deduces conclusions, and the “wisdom” to which belongs the whole process of knowing the sublimest objects of knowledge; and in treating practical wisdom as inseparably connected with moral virtues, and therefore in a sense moral. His distinction among moral virtues of the justice that renders others their due from the virtues that control the appetites and passions of the agent himself, represents his interpretation of the Nicomachean Ethics; while his account of these latter virtues is a simple transcript of Aristotle’s, just as his division of the non-rational element of the soul into “concupiscible” and “irascible” is the old Platonic one. In arranging his list, however, he defers to the established doctrine of the four cardinal virtues (derived from Plato and the Stoics through Cicero); accordingly, the Aristotelian ten have to stand under the higher genera of (1) the prudence which gives reasoned rules of conduct, (2) the temperance which restrains misleading desire, and (3) the fortitude that resists misleading fear of dangers or toils. But before these virtues are ranked the three “theologic” virtues, faith, love and hope, supernaturally “instilled” by God, and directly relating to him as their object. By faith we obtain that part of our knowledge of God which is beyond the range of mere natural wisdom or philosophy; naturally (e.g.), we can know God’s existence, but not his trinity in unity, though philosophy is useful to defend this and other revealed verities; and it is essential for the soul’s welfare that all articles of the Christian creed, however little they can be known by natural reason, should be apprehended through faith; the Christian who rejects a single article loses hold altogether of faith and of God. Faith is the substantial basis of all Christian morality, but without love—the essential form of all the Christian virtues—it is “formless” (informis). Christian love is conceived (after Augustine) as primarily love to God (beyond the natural yearning of the creature after its ultimate good), which expands into love towards all God’s creatures as created by him, and so ultimately includes even self-love. But creatures are only to be loved in their purity as created by God; all that is bad in them must be an object of hatred till it is destroyed. In the classification of sins the Christian element predominates; still we find the Aristotelian vices of excess and defect, along with the modern divisions into “sins against God, neighbour and self,” “mortal and venial sins,” and so forth.
From the notion of sin—treated in its jural aspect—Aquinas passes naturally to the discussion of Law. The exposition of this conception presents to a great extent the same matter that was dealt with by the exposition of moral virtues, but in a different form; the prominence of which may perhaps be attributed to the growing influence of Roman jurisprudence, which attained in the 12th century so rapid and brilliant a revival in Italy. This side of Thomas’s system is specially important, since it is just this blending of theological conceptions with the abstract theory of the later Roman law that gave the starting-point for independent ethical thought in the modern world. Under the general idea of law, defined as an “ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has charge of the community,” Thomas distinguishes (1) the eternal law or regulative reason of God which embraces all his creatures, rational and irrational; (2) “natural law,” being that part of the eternal law that relates to rational creatures as such; (3) human law, which properly consists of more particular deductions from natural law particularized and adapted to the varying circumstances of actual communities; (4) divine law specially revealed to man. As regards natural law, he teaches that God has implanted in the human mind a knowledge of its immutable general principles; and not only knowledge, but a disposition, to which he applies the peculiar scholastic name synderesis, that unerringly prompts to the realization of these principles in conduct, and protests against their violation. All acts of natural virtue are implicitly included within the scope of this law of nature; but in the application of its principles to particular cases—to which the term “conscience” should be restricted—man’s judgment is liable to err, the light of nature being obscured and perverted by bad education and custom. Human law is required, not merely to determine the details for which natural law gives no intuitive guidance, but also to supply the force necessary for practically securing, among imperfect men, the observance of the most necessary rules of mutual behaviour. The rules of this law must be either deductions from principles of natural law, or determinations of particulars which it leaves indeterminate; a rule contrary to nature could not be valid as law at all. Human law, however, can deal with outward conduct alone, and natural law, as we have seen, is liable to be vague and obscure in particular applications. Neither natural nor human law, moreover, takes into account that supernatural happiness which is man’s highest end. Hence they need to be supplemented by a special revelation of divine law. This revelation is distinguished into the law of the old covenant and the law of the gospel; the latter of these is productive as well as imperative since it carries with it the divine grace that makes its fulfilment possible. We have, however, to distinguish in the case of the gospel between (1) absolute commands and (2) “counsels,” which latter recommend, without positively ordering the monastic life of poverty, celibacy and obedience as the best method of effectively turning the will from earthly to heavenly things.
But how far is man able to attain either natural or Christian perfection? This is the part of Thomas’s system in which the cohesion of the different elements seems weakest. He is scarcely aware that his Aristotelianized Christianity inevitably combines two different difficulties in dealing with this question: first, the old pagan difficulty of reconciling the proposition that will is a rational desire always directed towards apparent good, with the freedom of choice between good and evil that the jural view of morality seems to require; and, secondly, the Christian difficulty of harmonizing this latter notion with the absolute dependence on divine grace which the religious consciousness affirms. The latter difficulty Thomas, like many of his predecessors, avoids by supposing a “co-operation” of free-will and grace, but the former he does not fully meet. It is against this part of his doctrines that the most important criticism, in ethics, of his Duns Scotus. rival Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308) was directed. He urged that will could not be really free if it were bound to reason, as Thomas (after Aristotle) conceives it; a really free choice must be perfectly indeterminate between reason and unreason. Scotus consistently maintained that the divine will is similarly independent of reason, and that the divine ordering of the world is to be conceived as absolutely arbitrary. On this point he was followed by the acute intellect William of Occam. of William of Occam (d. c. 1347). This doctrine is obviously hostile to all reasoned morality; and in fact, notwithstanding the dialectical ability of Scotus and Occam, the work of Thomas remained indubitably the crowning result of the great constructive effort of medieval philosophy. The effort was, indeed, foredoomed to failure, since it attempted the impossible task of framing a coherent system out of the heterogeneous data furnished by Scripture, the fathers, the church and Aristotle—equally unquestioned, if not equally venerated, authorities. Whatever philosophic quality is to be found in the work of Thomas belongs to it in spite of, not in consequence of, its method. Still, its influence has been great and long-enduring,—in the Catholic Church primarily, but indirectly among Protestants, especially in England, since the famous first book of Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity is to a great extent taken from the Summa theologiae.
Partly in conscious antagonism to the schoolmen, yet with close affinity to the central ethico-theological doctrine which they read out of or into Aristotle, the mystical manner of thought continued to maintain itself in the church. Philosophically it rested upon Neoplatonism, but Medieval mysticism. its development in strict connexion with Christian orthodoxy begins in the 12th century with Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugo of St Victor. It blended the Christian element of love with the ecstatic vision of Plotinus, sometimes giving the former a decided predominance. In its more moderate form, keeping wholly within the limits of ecclesiastical orthodoxy, this mysticism is represented by Bonaventura and Gerson; while it appears more independent and daringly constructive in the German Eckhart, advancing in some of his followers to open breach with the church, and even to practical immorality.
Casuistry and JesuitryEdit
In the brief account above given of the general ethical view of Thomas Aquinas no mention has been made of the detailed discussion of particular duties included in the Summa theologiae; in which, for the most part, an excellent combination of moral elevation with sobriety of judgment is Casuistry. shown, though on certain points the scholastic pedantry of definition and distinction is unfavourable to due delicacy of treatment. As the properly philosophic interest of scholasticism faded in the 14th and 15th centuries, the quasi-legal treatment of morality came again into prominence, borrowing a good deal of matter from Thomas and other schoolmen. One result of this was a marked development and systematization of casuistry. The best known Summae casuum conscientiae, compiled for the conduct of auricular confession, belong to the 14th and 15th centuries. The oldest, the Astesana, from Asti in Piedmont, is arranged as a kind of text-book of morality on a scholastic basis; later manuals are merely lists of questions and answers. It was inevitable that, in proportion as this casuistry assumed the character of a systematic penal jurisprudence, its precise determination of the limits between the prohibited and the allowable, with all doubtful points closely scrutinized and illustrated by fictitious cases, would have a tendency to weaken the moral sensibilities of ordinary minds; the greater the industry spent in deducing conclusions from the diverse authorities, the greater necessarily became the number of points on which doctors disagreed; and the central authority that might have repressed serious divergences was wanting in the period of moral weakness that the church went through after the death of Boniface VIII. A plain man perplexed by such disagreements might naturally hold that any opinion maintained by a pious and orthodox writer must be a safe one to follow; and thus weak consciences were subtly tempted to seek the support of authority for some desired relaxation of a moral rule. It does not, however, appear that this danger assumed formidable proportions until after the Reformation; when, in the struggle made by the Catholic church to recover its hold on the world, the principle of authority was, as it were, forced into keen, balanced and prolonged conflict with that of reliance on private judgment. To the Jesuits, the The Jesuits. foremost champions in this struggle, it seemed indispensable that the confessional should be made attractive; for this purpose ecclesiastico-moral law must be somehow “accommodated” to worldly needs; and the theory of “Probabilism” supplied a plausible method for effecting this accommodation. The theory proceeded thus: A layman could not be expected to examine minutely into a point on which the learned differed; therefore he could not fairly be blamed for following any opinion that rested on the authority of even a single doctor; therefore his confessor must be authorized to hold him guiltless if any such “probable” opinion could be produced in his favour; nay, it was his duty to suggest such an opinion, even though opposed to his own, if it would relieve the conscience under his charge from a depressing burden. The results to which this Probabilism, applied with an earnest desire to avoid dangerous rigour, led in the 17th century were revealed to the world in the immortal Lettres provinciales of Pascal.
The Reformation; and birth of Modern ThoughtEdit
In tracing the development of casuistry we have been carried beyond the great crisis through which Western Christianity passed in the 16th century. The Reformation which Luther initiated may be viewed on several sides, even if we consider only its ethical principles and The Reformation. Transition to modern ethical philosophy. effects. It maintained the simplicity of Apostolic Christianity against the elaborate system of a corrupt hierarchy, the teaching of Scripture alone against the commentaries of the fathers and the traditions of the church, the right of private judgment against the dictation of ecclesiastical authority, the individual responsibility of every human soul before God in opposition to the papal control over purgatorial punishments, which had led to the revolting degradation of venal indulgences. Reviving the original antithesis between Christianity and Jewish legalism, it maintained the inwardness of faith to be the sole way to eternal life, in contrast to the outwardness of works; returning to Augustine, and expressing his spirit in a new formula, to resist the Neo-Pelagianism that had gradually developed itself within the apparent Augustinianism of the church, it maintained the total corruption of human nature, as contrasted with that “congruity” by which, according to the schoolmen, divine grace was to be earned; renewing the fervent humility of St Paul, it enforced the universal and absolute imperativeness of all Christian duties, and the inevitable unworthiness of all Christian obedience, in opposition to the theory that “condign” merit might be gained by “supererogatory” conformity to evangelical “counsels.” It will be seen that these changes, however profoundly important, were, ethically considered, either negative or quite general, to the tone and attitude of mind in which all duty should be done. As regards all positive matter of duty and virtue, and most of the prohibitive code for ordinary men, the tradition of Christian teaching was carried on substantially unchanged by the Reformed churches. Even the old method of casuistry was maintained during the 16th and 17th centuries; though Scriptural texts, interpreted and supplemented by the light of natural reason, now furnished the sole principles on which cases of conscience were decided.
In the 17th century, however, the interest of this quasi-legal treatment of morality gradually faded; and the ethical studies of educated minds were occupied with the attempt, renewed after so many centuries, to find an independent philosophical basis for the moral code. The renewal of Humanism. this attempt was only indirectly due to the Reformation; it is rather to be connected with the more extreme reaction from the medieval religion which was partly caused by, partly expressed in, that enthusiastic study of the remains of old pagan culture that spread from Italy over Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. To this “humanism” the Reformation seemed at first more hostile than the Roman hierarchy; indeed, the extent to which this latter had allowed itself to become paganized by the Renaissance was one of the points that especially roused the Reformers’ indignation. Not the less important is the indirect stimulus given by the Reformation towards the development of a moral philosophy independent alike of Catholic and Protestant assumptions. Scholasticism, while reviving philosophy as a handmaid to theology, had metamorphosed its method into one resembling that of its mistress; thus shackling the renascent intellectual activity which it stimulated by the double bondage to Aristotle and to the church. When the Reformation shook the traditional authority in one department, the blow was necessarily felt in the other. Not twenty years after Luther’s defiance of the pope, the startling thesis “that all that Aristotle taught was false” was prosperously maintained by the youthful Ramus before the university of Paris; and almost contemporaneously the group of remarkable thinkers in Italy who heralded the dawn of modern physical science—Cardanus, Telesio, Patrizzi, Campanella, Bruno—began to propound their Aristotelian theories of the constitution of the physical universe. It was to be foreseen that a similar assertion of independence would make itself heard in ethics also; and, indeed, amid the clash of dogmatic convictions, and the variations of private judgment, it was natural to seek for an ethical method that might claim universal acceptance from all sects.
C. Modern Ethics.Edit
The need of such independent principles was most strongly felt in the region of man’s civil and political relations, especially the mutual relations of communities. Accordingly we find that modern ethical controversy began in a discussion of the law of nature. Albericus Grotius. Gentilis (1557–1611) and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) were the first to give a systematic account. Natural law, according to Grotius and other writers of the age, is that part of divine law which follows from the essential nature of man, who is distinguished from animals by his “appetite” for tranquil association with his fellows, and his tendency to act on general principles. It is therefore as unalterable, even by God himself, as the truths of mathematics, although its effect may be overruled in any particular case by an express command of God; hence it is cognizable a priori, from the abstract consideration of human nature, though its existence may be known a posteriori also from its universal acceptance in human societies. The conception, as we have seen, was taken from the later Roman jurists; by them, however, the law of nature was conceived as something that underlay existing law, and was to be looked for through it, though it might ultimately supersede it, and in the meanwhile represented an ideal standard, by which improvements in legislation were to be guided. Still the language of the jurists in some passages (cf. Inst. of Justinian, ii. 1, 2) clearly implied a period of human history in which men were governed by natural law alone, prior to the institution of civil society. Posidonius had identified this period with the mythical “golden age”; and such ideas easily coalesced with the narrative in Genesis. Thus there had become current the conception of a “state of nature” in which individuals or single families lived side by side—under none other than those “natural” laws which prohibited mutual injury and interference in the free use of the goods of the earth common to all, and upheld parental authority, fidelity of wives, and the observance of compacts freely made. This conception Grotius took, and gave it additional force and solidity by using the principles of this natural law for the determination of international rights and duties, it being obvious that independent nations, in their corporate capacities, were still in that “state of nature” in their mutual relations. It was not, of course, assumed that these laws were universally obeyed; indeed, one point with which Grotius is especially concerned is the natural right of private war, arising out of the violation of more primary rights. Still a general observance was involved in the idea of a natural law as a “dictate of right reason indicating the agreement or disagreement of an act with man’s rational and social nature”; and we may observe that it was especially necessary to assume such a general observance in the case of contracts, since it was by an “express or tacit pact” that the right of property (as distinct from the mere right to non-interference during use) was held by him to have been instituted. A similar “fundamental pact” had long been generally regarded as the normal origin of legitimate sovereignty.
The ideas above expressed were not peculiar to Grotius; in particular the doctrine of the “fundamental pact” as the jural basis of government had long been maintained, especially in England, where the constitution historically established readily suggested such a compact. At the same time the rapid and remarkable success of Grotius’s treatise (De jure belli et pacis) brought his view of Natural Right into prominence, and suggested such questions as—“What is man’s ultimate reason for obeying these laws? Wherein exactly does this their agreement with his rational and social nature consist? How far, and in what sense, is his nature really social?”
It was the answer which Hobbes (1588–1679) gave to these fundamental questions that supplied the starting-point for independent ethical philosophy in England. The nature of this answer was determined by the psychological views to which Hobbes had been led, possibly to some Hobbes. extent under the influence of Bacon, partly perhaps through association with his younger contemporary Gassendi, who, in two treatises, published between the appearance of Hobbes’s De cive (1642) and that of the Leviathan (1651), endeavoured to revive interest in Epicurus. Hobbes’s psychology is in the first place materialistic; he holds, that is, that in any of the psycho-physical phenomena of human nature the reality is a material process of which the mental feeling is a mere “appearance.” Accordingly he regards pleasure as essentially motion “helping vital action,” and pain as motion “hindering” it. There is no logical connexion between this theory and the doctrine that appetite of desire has always pleasure (or the absence of pain) for its object; but a materialist, framing a system of psychology, will naturally direct his attention to the impulses arising out of bodily wants, whose obvious end is the preservation of the agent’s organism; and this, together with a philosophic wish to simplify, may lead him to the conclusion that all human impulses are similarly self-regarding. This, at any rate, is Hobbes’s cardinal doctrine in moral psychology, that each man’s appetites or desires are naturally directed either to the preservation of his life, or to that heightening of it which he feels as pleasure. Hobbes does not distinguish instinctive from deliberate pleasure-seeking; and he confidently resolves the most apparently unselfish emotions into phases of self-regard. Pity he finds to be grief for the calamity of others, arising from imagination of the like calamity befalling oneself; what we admire with seeming disinterestedness as beautiful (pulchrum) is really “pleasure in promise”; when men are not immediately seeking present pleasure, they desire power as a means to future pleasure, and thus have a derivative delight in the exercise of power that prompts to what we call benevolent action. Since, then, all the voluntary actions of men tend to their own preservation or pleasure, it cannot be reasonable to aim at anything else; in fact, nature rather than reason fixes this as the end of human action; it is reason’s function to show the means. Hence if we ask why it is reasonable for any individual to observe the rules of social behaviour that are commonly called moral, the answer is obvious that this is only indirectly reasonable, as a means to his own preservation or pleasure. It is not, however, in this, which is only the old Cyrenaic or Epicurean answer, that the distinctive point of Hobbism lies. It is rather in the doctrine that even this indirect reasonableness of the most fundamental moral rules is entirely conditional on their general observance, which cannot be secured apart from government. For example, it is not reasonable for me to perform my share of a contract, unless I have reason for believing that the other party will perform his; and this I cannot have, except in a society in which he will be punished for non-performance. Thus the ordinary rules of social behaviour are only hypothetically obligatory; they are actualized by the establishment of a “common power” that may “use the strength and means of all” to enforce on all the observance of rules tending to the common benefit. On the other hand Hobbes yields to no one in maintaining the paramount importance of moral regulations. The precepts of good faith, equity, requital of benefits, forgiveness of wrong so far as security allows, the prohibition of contumely, pride, arrogance,—which may all be summed up in the formula, “Do not that to another which thou wouldest not have done to thyself” (i.e. the negative of the “golden rule”)—he still calls “immutable and eternal laws of nature”—meaning that, though a man is not unconditionally bound to realize them, he is, as a reasonable being, bound to desire that they should be realized. The pre-social state of man, in his view, is also pre-moral; but it is therefore utterly miserable. It is a state in which every one has a right to everything that may conduce to his preservation; but it is therefore also a state of war—a state so wretched that it is the first dictate of rational self-love to emerge from it into social peace and order. Hence Hobbes’s ideal constitution naturally comes to be an unquestioned and unlimited—though not necessarily monarchical—despotism. Whatever the government declares to be just or unjust must be accepted as such, since to dispute its dictates would be the first step towards anarchy, the one paramount peril outweighing all particular defects in legislation and administration. It is perhaps easy to understand how, in the crisis of 1640, when the ethico-political system of Hobbes first took written shape, a peace-loving philosopher should regard the claims of individual conscience as essentially anarchical, and dangerous to social well-being; but however strong might be men’s yearning for order, a view of social duty, in which the only fixed positions were selfishness everywhere and unlimited power somewhere, could not but appear offensively paradoxical.
The Cambridge Moralists (Cudworth, More)Edit
There was, however, in his theory an originality, a force, an apparent coherence which rendered it undeniably impressive; in fact, we find that for two generations the efforts to construct morality on a philosophical basis take more or less the form of answers to Hobbes. From an ethical point of view Hobbism divides itself naturally into two parts, which by Hobbes’s peculiar political doctrines are combined into a coherent whole, but are not otherwise necessarily connected. Its theoretical basis is the principle of egoism; while, for practically determining the particulars of duty it makes morality entirely dependent on positive law and institution. It thus affirmed the relativity of good and evil in a double sense; good and evil, for any individual citizen, may from one point of view be defined as the objects respectively of his desire and his aversion; from another, they may be said to be determined for him by his sovereign. It is this latter aspect of the system which is primarily attacked by the first generation of writers that replied to Hobbes. This attack, or rather the counter-exposition of orthodox doctrine, is conducted on different methods by the Cambridge moralists and by Cumberland respectively. Cumberland is content with the legal view of morality, but endeavours to establish the validity of the laws of nature by taxing them on the single supreme principle of rational regard for the “common good of all,” and showing them, as so based, to be adequately supported by the divine sanction. The Cambridge school, regarding morality primarily as a body of truth rather than a code of rules, insist on its absolute character and intuitive certainty.
Cudworth was the most distinguished of the little group of thinkers at Cambridge in the 17th century, commonly known as the Cambridge Platonists (q.v.). In his treatise on Eternal and Immutable Morality his main aim is to maintain the “essential and eternal distinctions of good and evil” as independent of mere will, whether human or divine. These The Cambridge moralists, Cudworth. distinctions, he insists, have an objective reality, cognizable by reason no less than the relations of space or number; and he endeavours to refute Hobbism—which he treats as a “novantique philosophy,” a mere revival of the relativism of Protagoras—chiefly by the following argumentum ad hominem. He argues that Hobbes’s atomic materialism involves the conception of an objective physical world, the object not of passive sense that varies from man to man, but of the active intellect that is the same in all; there is therefore, he urges, an inconsistency in refusing to admit a similar exercise of intellect in morals, and an objective world of right and wrong, which the mind by its normal activity clearly apprehends as such.
Cudworth, in the work above mentioned, gives no systematic exposition of the ethical principles which he holds to be thus intuitively apprehended. But we may supply this deficiency from the Enchiridion Ethicum of Henry More, another thinker of the same school. More gives a list More. of 23 Noemata Moralia, the truth of which will, he says, be immediately manifest. Some of these admit of a purely egoistic application, and appear to be so understood by the author—as (e.g.) that goods differ in quality as well as in duration, and that the superior good or the lesser evil is always to be preferred; that absence of a given amount of good is preferable to the presence of equivalent evil; that future good or evil is to be regarded as much as present, if equally certain, and nearly as much if very probable. Objections, both general and special, might be urged by a Hobbist against these modes of formulating man’s natural pursuit of self-interest; but the serious controversy between Hobbism and modern Platonism related not to such principles as these, but to others which demand from the individual a (real or apparent) sacrifice for his fellows. Such are the evangelical principle of “doing as you would be done by”; the principle of justice, or “giving every man his own, and letting him enjoy it without interference”; and especially what More states as the abstract formula of benevolence, that “if it be good that one man should be supplied with the means of living well and happily, it is mathematically certain that it is doubly good that two should be so supplied, and so on.” The question, however, still remains, what motive any individual has to conform to these social principles when they conflict with his natural desires. To this Cudworth gives no explicit reply, and the answer of More is hardly clear. On the one hand he maintains that these principles express an absolute good, which is to be called intellectual because its essence and truth are apprehended by the intellect. We might infer from this that the intellect, so judging, is itself the proper and complete determinant of the will, and that man, as a rational being, ought to aim at the realization of absolute good for its own sake. In spite, however, of possible inferences from his definition of virtue, this does not seem to be really More’s view. He explains that though absolute good is discerned by the intellect, the “sweetness and flavour” of it is apprehended, not by the intellect proper, but by what he calls a “boniform faculty”; and it is in this sweetness and flavour that the motive to virtuous conduct lies; ethics is the “art of living well and happily,” and true happiness lies in “the pleasure which the soul derives from the sense of virtue.” In short, More’s Platonism appears to be really as hedonistic as Hobbism; only the feeling to which it appeals as ultimate motive is of a kind that only a mind of exceptional moral refinement can habitually feel with the decisive intensity required.
It is to be observed that though More lays down the abstract principle of regarding one’s neighbour’s good as much as one’s own with the full breadth with which Christianity inculcates it, yet when he afterwards comes to classify virtues he is too much under the influence of Platonic-Aristotelian thought to give a distinct place to benevolence, except under the old form of liberality. In this respect his system presents a striking contrast to Cumberland’s, whose treatise De Legibus Naturae (1672), though written like More’s in Latin, is yet in its ethical matter thoroughly modern. Cumberland is a thinker both original Cumberland. and comprehensive, and, in spite of defects in style and clearness, he is noteworthy as having been the first to lay down that “regard for the common good of all” is the supreme rule of morality or law of nature. So far he may be fairly called the precursor of later utilitarianism. His fundamental principle and supreme “Law of Nature” is thus stated: “The greatest possible benevolence of every rational agent towards all the rest constitutes the happiest state of each and all, so far as depends on their own power, and is necessarily required for their happiness; accordingly Common Good will be the Supreme Good.” It is, however, important to notice that in his “good” is included not merely happiness but “perfection”; and he does not even define perfection so as to exclude from it the notion of absolute moral perfection and save his theory from an obvious logical circle. A notion so vague could not possibly be used with any precision for determining the subordinate rules of morality; but in fact Cumberland does not attempt this; his supreme principle is designed not to rectify, but merely to support and systematize, common morality. This principle, as was said, is conceived as strictly a law, and therefore referred to a lawgiver, God, and provided with a sanction in its effects on the agent’s happiness. That the divine will is expressed by it, Cumberland, “not being so fortunate as to possess innate ideas,” tries to prove by a long inductive examination of the evidences of man’s essential sociality exhibited in his physical and mental constitution. His account of the sanction, again, is sufficiently comprehensive, including both the internal and the external rewards of virtue and punishments of vice; and he, like later utilitarians, explains moral obligation to lie in the force exercised on the will by these sanctions; but as to the precise manner in which individual is implicated with universal good, and the operation of either or both in determining volition, his view is indistinct if not actually inconsistent.
The clearness which we seek in vain from Cumberland is found to the fullest extent in Locke, whose Essay on the Human Understanding (1690) was already planned when Cumberland’s treatise appeared. Yet Locke’s ethical opinions have been widely misunderstood; since from a confusion Locke. between “innate ideas” and “intuitions,” which has been common in recent ethical discussion, it has been supposed that the founder of English empiricism must necessarily have been hostile to “intuitional” ethics. The truth is that, while Locke agrees entirely with Hobbes as to the egoistic basis of rational conduct, and the interpretation of “good” and “evil” as “pleasure” and “pain,” or that which is productive of pleasure and pain, he yet agrees entirely with Hobbes’s opponents in holding ethical rules to be actually obligatory independently of political society, and capable of being scientifically constructed on principles intuitively known,—though he does not regard these principles as implanted in the mind at birth. The aggregate of such rules he conceives as the law of God, carefully distinguishing it, not only from civil law, but from the law of opinion or reputation, the varying moral standard by which men actually distribute praise and blame; as being divine it is necessarily sanctioned by adequate rewards and punishments. He does not, indeed, speak of the scientific construction of this code as having been actually effected, but he affirms its possibility in language remarkably strong and decisive. “The idea,” he says, “of a Supreme Being, infinite in power, goodness, and wisdom, whose workmanship we are, and upon whom we depend, and the idea of ourselves, as understanding rational beings, being such as are clear in us, would, I suppose, if duly considered and pursued, afford such foundations of our duty and rules of action, as might place morality among the sciences capable of demonstration; wherein, I doubt not, but from self-evident propositions, by necessary consequences as incontestable as those in mathematics, the measure of right and wrong might be made out.” As Locke cannot consistently mean by God’s “goodness” anything but the disposition to give pleasure, it might be inferred that the ultimate standard of right rules of action ought to be the common happiness of the beings affected by the action; but Locke does not explicitly adopt this standard. The only instances which he gives of intuitive moral truths are the purely formal propositions, “No government allows absolute liberty,” and “Where there is no property there is no injustice,”—neither of which has any evident connexion with the general happiness. As regards his conception of the Law of Nature, he takes it in the main immediately from Grotius and Pufendorf, more remotely from the Stoics and the Roman jurists.
We might give, as a fair illustration of Locke’s general conception of ethics, a system which is frequently represented as diametrically opposed to Lockism; namely, that expounded in Clarke’s Boyle lectures on the Being and Attributes of God (1704). It is true that Locke is not particularly Clarke. concerned with the ethico-theological proposition which Clarke is most anxious to maintain,—that the fundamental rules of morality are independent of arbitrary will, whether divine or human. But in his general view of ethical principles as being, like mathematical principles, essentially truths of relation, Clarke is quite in accordance with Locke; while of the four fundamental rules that he expounds, Piety towards God, Equity, Benevolence and Sobriety (which includes self-preservation), the first is obtained, just as Locke suggests, by “comparing the idea” of man with the idea of an infinitely good and wise being on whom he depends; and the second and third are axioms self-evident on the consideration of the equality or similarity of human individuals as such. The principle of equity—that “whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable for another to do for me, that by the same I declare reasonable or unreasonable that I in the like case should do for him,” is merely a formal statement of the golden rule of the gospel. We may observe that, in stating the principle of benevolence, “since the greater good is always most fit and reasonable to be done, every rational creature ought to do all the good it can to its fellow-creatures,” Clarke avowedly follows Cumberland, from whom he quotes the further sentence that “universal love and benevolence is as plainly the most direct, certain and effectual means to this good as the flowing of a point is to produce a line.” The quotation may remind us that the analogy between ethics and mathematics ought to be traced further back than Locke; in fact, it results from the influence exercised by Cartesianism over English thought generally, in the latter half of the 17th century. It must be allowed that Clarke is misled by the analogy to use general ethical terms (“fitness,” “agreement” of things, &c.), which overlook the essential distinction between what is and what ought to be; and even in one or two expressions to overleap this distinction extravagantly, as (e.g.) in saying that the man who “wilfully acts contrary to justice wills things to be what they are not and cannot be.” What he really means is less paradoxically stated in the general proposition that “originally and in reality it is natural and (morally speaking) necessary that the will should be determined in every action by the reason of the thing and the right of the case, as it is natural and (absolutely speaking) necessary that the understanding should submit to a demonstrated truth.” But though it is an essential point in Clarke’s view that what is right is to be done as such, apart from any consideration of pleasure or pain, it is to be inferred that he is not prepared to apply this doctrine in its unqualified form to such a creature as man, who is partly under the influence of irrational impulses. At least when he comes to argue the need of future rewards and punishments we find that his claim on behalf of morality is startlingly reduced. He now only contends that “virtue deserves to be chosen for its own sake, and vice to be avoided, though a man was sure for his own particular neither to gain nor lose anything by the practice of either.” He fully admits that the question is altered when vice is attended by pleasure and profit to the vicious man, virtue by loss and calamity; and even that it is “not truly reasonable that men by adhering to virtue should part with their lives, if thereby they deprived themselves of all possibility of receiving any advantage from their adherence.”
Thus, on the whole, the impressive earnestness with which Clarke enforces the doctrine of rational morality only rendered more manifest the difficulty of establishing ethics on an independent philosophical basis; so long at least as the psychological egoism of Hobbes is not definitely assailed and overthrown. Until this is done, the utmost demonstration of the abstract reasonableness of social duty only leaves us with an irreconcilable antagonism between the view of abstract reason and the self-love which is allowed to be the root of man’s appetitive nature. Let us grant that there is as much intellectual absurdity in acting unjustly as in denying that two and two make four; still, if a man has to choose between absurdity and unhappiness, he will naturally prefer the former; and Clarke, as we have already seen, is not really prepared to maintain that such preference is irrational.
It remains to try another psychological basis for ethical construction; instead of presenting the principle of social duty as abstract reason, liable to conflict to any extent with natural self-love, we may try to exhibit the naturalness of man’s social affections, and demonstrate Shaftesbury. a normal harmony between these and his self-regarding impulses. This is the line of thought which Shaftesbury (1671–1713) may be said to have initiated. This theory had already been advanced by Cumberland and others, but Shaftesbury was the first to make it the cardinal point in his system; no one had yet definitely transferred the centre of ethical interest from the Reason, conceived as apprehending either abstract moral distinctions or laws of divine legislation, for the emotional impulses that prompt to social duty; no one had undertaken to distinguish clearly, by analysis of experience, the disinterested and self-regarding elements of our appetitive nature, or to prove inductively their perfect harmony. In his Inquiry concerning Virtue and Merit he begins by attacking the egoism of Hobbes, which, as we have seen, was not necessarily excluded by the doctrine of rational intuitions of duty. This interpretation, he says, would be true only if we considered man as a wholly unrelated individual. Such a being we might doubtless call “good,” if his impulses were adapted to the attainment of his own felicity. But man we must and do consider in relation to a larger system of which he forms a part, and so we call him “good” only when his impulses and dispositions are so balanced as to tend towards the good of this whole. And again we do not attribute goodness to him merely because his outward acts have beneficial results. When we speak of a man as good, we mean that his dispositions or affections are such as tend of themselves to promote the good or happiness of human society. Hobbes’s moral man, who, if let loose from governmental constraint, would straightway spread ruin among his fellows, is not what we commonly agree to call good. Moral goodness, then, in a “sensible creature” implies primarily disinterested affections, whose direct object is the good of others; but Shaftesbury does not mean (as he has been misunderstood to mean) that only such benevolent social impulses are good, and that these are always good. On the contrary, he is careful to point out, first, that immoderate social affections defeat themselves, miss their proper end, and are therefore bad; secondly, that as an individual’s good is part of the good of the whole “self-affections” existing in a duly limited degree are morally good. Goodness, in short, consists in due combination, in just proportion, of both sorts of “affections,” tendency to promote general good being taken as the criterion of the right degrees and proportions. This being established, the main aim of Shaftesbury’s argument is to prove that the same balance of private and social affections, which tends naturally to public good, is also conducive to the happiness of the individual in whom it exists. Taking the different impulses in detail, he first shows how the individual’s happiness is promoted by developing his social affections, mental pleasures being superior to bodily, and the pleasures of benevolence the richest of all. In discussing this he distinguishes, with well-applied subtlety, between the pleasurableness of the benevolent emotions themselves, the sympathetic enjoyment of the happiness of others, and the pleasure arising from a consciousness of their love and esteem. He then exhibits the unhappiness that results from any excess of the self-regarding impulses, bodily appetite, desire of wealth, emulation, resentment, even love of life itself; and ends by dwelling on the intrinsic painfulness of all malevolence.
One more special impulse remains to be noticed. We have seen that goodness of character consists in a certain harmony of self-regarding and social affections. But virtue, in Shaftesbury’s view, is something more; it implies a recognition of moral goodness and immediate preference of it for its own sake. This immediate pleasure that we take in goodness (and displeasure in its opposite) is due to a susceptibility which he calls the “reflex” or “moral” sense, and compares with our susceptibility to beauty and deformity in external things; it furnishes both an additional direct impulse to good conduct, and an additional gratification to be taken into account in the reckoning which proves the coincidence of virtue and happiness. This doctrine of the moral sense is sometimes represented as Shaftesbury’s cardinal tenet; but though characteristic and important, it is not really necessary to his main argument; it is the crown rather than the keystone of his ethical structure.
The appearance of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1713) marks a turning-point in the history of English ethical thought. With the generation of moralists that followed, the consideration of abstract rational principles falls into the background, and its place is taken by introspective study of the human mind, observation of the actual play of its various impulses and sentiments. This empirical psychology had not indeed been neglected by previous writers. More, among others, had imitated Descartes in a discussion of the passions, and Locke’s essay had given a still stronger impulse in the same direction; still, Shaftesbury is the first moralist who distinctly takes psychological experience as the basis of ethics. His suggestions were developed by Hutcheson into one of the most elaborate systems of moral philosophy which we possess; through Hutcheson, if not directly, they influenced Hume’s speculations, and are thus connected with later utilitarianism. Moreover, the substance of Shaftesbury’s main argument was adopted by Butler, though it could not pass the scrutiny of that powerful and cautious intellect without receiving important modifications and additions. On the other hand, the ethical optimism of Shaftesbury, rather broadly impressive than exactly reasoned, and connected as it was with a natural theology that implied the Christian scheme to be superfluous, challenged attack equally from orthodox Mandeville. divines and from cynical freethinkers. Of these latter Mandeville, the author of The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices Public Benefits (1723), was a conspicuous if not a typical specimen. He can hardly be called a “moralist”; and though it is impossible to deny him a considerable share of philosophic penetration, his anti-moral paradoxes have not even apparent coherence. He is convinced that virtue (where it is more than a mere pretence) is purely artificial; but not quite certain whether it is a useless trammel of appetites and passions that are advantageous to society, or a device creditable to the politicians who introduced it by playing upon the “pride and vanity” of the “silly creature man.” The view, however, to which he gave audacious expression, that moral regulation is something alien to the natural man, and imposed on him from without, seems to have been very current in the polite society of his time, as we learn both from Berkeley’s Alciphron and from Butler’s more famous sermons.
The view of “human nature” against which Butler preached was not exactly Mandeville’s, nor was it properly to be called Hobbist, although Butler fairly treats it as having a philosophical basis in Hobbes’s psychology. It was, so to say, Hobbism turned inside out,—rendered licentious and Butler. anarchical instead of constructive. Hobbes had said “the natural state of man is non-moral, unregulated; moral rules are means to the end of peace, which is a means to the end of self-preservation.” On this view morality, though dependent for its actuality on the social compact which establishes government, is actually binding on man as a reasonable being. But the quasi-theistic assumption that what is natural must be reasonable remained in the minds of Hobbes’s most docile readers, and in combination with his thesis that egoism is natural, tended to produce results which were dangerous to social well-being. To meet this view Butler does not content himself, as is sometimes carelessly supposed, with insisting on the natural claim to authority of the conscience which his opponent repudiated as artificial; he adds a subtle and effective argument ad hominem. He first follows Shaftesbury in exhibiting the social affections as no less natural than the appetites and desires which tend directly to self-preservation; then reviving the Stoic view of the prima naturae, the first objects of natural appetites, he argues that pleasure is not the primary aim even of the impulses which Shaftesbury allowed to be “self-affections”; but rather a result which follows upon their attaining their natural ends. We have, in fact, to distinguish self-love, the “general desire that every man hath of his own happiness” or pleasure, from the particular affections, passions, and appetites directed towards objects other than pleasure, in the satisfaction of which pleasure consists. The latter are “necessarily presupposed” as distinct impulses in “the very idea of an interested pursuit”; since, if there were no such pre-existing desires, there would be no pleasure for self-love to aim at. Thus the object of hunger is not the pleasure of eating but food; hunger is therefore, strictly speaking, no more “interested” than benevolence; granting that the pleasures of the table are an important element in the happiness at which self-love aims, the same at least may be said for the pleasures of love and sympathy. Further, so far from bodily appetites (or other particular desires) being forms of self-love, there is no one of them which under certain circumstances may not come into conflict with it. Indeed, it is common for men to sacrifice to passion what they know to be their true interests; at the same time we do not consider such conduct “natural” in man as a rational being; we rather regard it as natural for him to govern his transient impulses. Thus the notion of natural unregulated egoism turns out to be a psychological chimera. Indeed, we may say that an egoist must be doubly self-regulative, since rational self-love ought to restrain not only other impulses, but itself also; for as happiness is made up of feelings that result from the satisfaction of impulses other than self-love, any over-development of the latter, enfeebling these other impulses, must proportionally diminish the happiness at which self-love aims. If, then, it be admitted that human impulses are naturally under government, the natural claim of conscience or the moral faculty to be the supreme governor will hardly be denied.
But has not self-love also, by Butler’s own account, a similar authority, which may come into conflict with that of conscience? Butler fully admits this, and, in fact, grounds on it an important criticism of Shaftesbury. We have seen that in the latter’s system the “moral sense” is not absolutely required, or at least is necessary only as a substitute for enlightened self-regard; since if the harmony between prudence and virtue, self-regarding and social impulses, is complete, mere self-interest will prompt a duly enlightened mind to maintain precisely that “balance” of affections in which goodness consists. But to Butler’s more cautious mind the completeness of this harmony did not seem sufficiently demonstrable to be taken as a basis of moral teaching; he has at least to contemplate the possibility of a man being convinced of the opposite; and he argues that unless we regard conscience as essentially authoritative—which is not implied in the term “moral sense”—such a man is really bound to be vicious; “since interest, one’s own happiness, is a manifest obligation.” Still on this view, even if the authority of conscience be asserted, we seem reduced to an ultimate dualism of our rational nature. Butler’s ordered polity of impulses turns out to be a polity with two independent governments. Butler does not deny this, so far as mere claim to authority is concerned; but he maintains that, the dictates of conscience being clear and certain, while the calculations of self-interest lead to merely probable conclusions, it can never be practically reasonable to disobey the former, even apart from any proof which religion may furnish of the absolute coincidence of the two in a future life.
This dualism of governing principles, conscience and self-love, in Butler’s system, and perhaps, too, his revival of the Platonic conception of human nature as an ordered and governed community of impulses, is perhaps most nearly anticipated in Wollaston’s Religion of Nature Delineated (1722). Here, Wollaston. for the first time, we find “moral good” and “natural good” or “happiness” treated separately as two essentially distinct objects of rational pursuit and investigation; the harmony between them being regarded as matter of religious faith, not moral knowledge. Wollaston’s theory of moral evil as consisting in the practical contradiction of a true proposition, closely resembles the most paradoxical part of Clarke’s doctrine, and was not likely to approve itself to the strong common sense of Butler; but his statement of happiness or pleasure as a “justly desirable” end at which every rational being “ought” to aim corresponds exactly to Butler’s conception of self-love as a naturally governing impulse; while the “moral arithmetic” with which he compares pleasures and pains, and endeavours to make the notion of happiness quantitatively precise, is an anticipation of Benthamism.
There is another side of Shaftesbury’s harmony which Butler was ultimately led to oppose in a more decided manner,—the opposition, namely, between conscience or the moral sense and the social affections. In the Sermons, indeed (1729), Butler seems to treat conscience and calm benevolence as permanently allied though distinct principles, but in the Dissertation on Virtue, appended to the Analogy (1739), he maintains that the conduct dictated by conscience will often differ widely from that to which mere regard for the production of happiness would prompt. We may take this latter treatise as representing the first in the development of English ethics, at which what were afterwards called “utilitarian” and “intuitional” morality were first formally opposed; in earlier systems the antithesis is quite latent, as we have incidentally noticed in the case of Cumberland and Clarke. The argument in Butler’s dissertation was probably Hutcheson. directed chiefly against Hutcheson, who in his Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue had definitely identified virtue with benevolence. The identification is slightly qualified in Hutcheson’s posthumously published System of Moral Philosophy (1755), in which the general view of Shaftesbury is more fully developed, with several new psychological distinctions, including Butler’s separation of “calm” benevolence—as well as, after Butler, “calm self-love”—from the “turbulent” passions, selfish or social. Hutcheson follows Butler again in laying stress on the regulating and controlling function of the moral sense; but he still regards “kind affections” as the principal objects of moral approbation—the “calm” and “extensive” affections being preferred to the turbulent and narrow—together with the desire and love of moral excellence which is ranked with universal benevolence, the two being equally worthy and necessarily harmonious. Only in a secondary sense is approval due to certain “abilities and dispositions immediately connected with virtuous affections,” as candour, veracity, fortitude, sense of honour; while in a lower grade still are placed sciences and arts, along with even bodily skills and gifts; indeed, the approbation we give to these is not strictly moral, but is referred to the “sense of decency or dignity,” which (as well as the sense of honour) is to be distinguished from the moral sense. Calm self-love Hutcheson regards as morally indifferent; though he enters into a careful analysis of the elements of happiness, in order to show that a true regard for private interest always coincides with the moral sense and with benevolence. While thus maintaining Shaftesbury’s “harmony” between public and private good, Hutcheson is still more careful to establish the strict disinterestedness of benevolent affections. Shaftesbury had conclusively shown that these were not in the vulgar sense selfish; but the very stress which he lays on the pleasure inseparable from their exercise suggests a subtle egoistic theory which he does not expressly exclude, since it may be said that this “intrinsic reward” constitutes the real motive of the benevolent man. To this Hutcheson replies that no doubt the exquisite delight of the emotion of love is a motive to sustain and develop it; but this pleasure cannot be directly obtained, any more than other pleasures, by merely desiring it; it can be sought only by the indirect method of cultivating and indulging the disinterested desire for others' good, which is thus obviously distinct from the desire for the pleasure of benevolence. He points to the fact that the imminence of death often intensifies instead of diminishing a man’s desire for the welfare of those he loves, as a crucial experiment proving the disinterestedness of love; adding, as confirmatory evidence, that the sympathy and admiration commonly felt for self-sacrifice depends on the belief that it is something different from refined self-seeking.
It remains to consider how, from the doctrine that affection is the proper object of approbation, we are to deduce moral rules or “natural laws” prescribing or prohibiting outward acts. It is obvious that all actions conducive to the general good will deserve our highest approbation if done from disinterested benevolence; but how if they are not so done? In answering this question, Hutcheson avails himself of the scholastic distinction between “material” and “formal” goodness. “An action,” he says, “is materially good when in fact it tends to the interest of the system, so far as we can judge of its tendency, or to the good of some part consistent with that of the system, whatever were the affections of the agent. An action is formally good when it flowed from good affection in a just proportion.” On the pivot of this distinction Hutcheson turns round from the point of view of Shaftesbury to that of later utilitarianism. As regards “material” goodness of actions, he adopts explicitly and unreservedly the formula afterwards taken as fundamental by Bentham; holding that “that action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers, and the worst which in a like manner occasions misery.” Accordingly his treatment of external rights and duties, though decidedly inferior in methodical clearness and precision, does not differ in principle from that of Paley or Bentham, except that he lays greater stress on the immediate conduciveness of actions to the happiness of individuals, and more often refers in a merely supplementary or restrictive way to their tendencies in respect of general happiness. It may be noticed, too, that he still accepts the “social compact” as the natural mode of constituting government, and regards the obligations of subjects to civil obedience as normally dependent on a tacit contract; though he is careful to state that consent is not absolutely necessary to the just establishment of beneficent government, nor the source of irrevocable obligation to a pernicious one.
An important step further in political utilitarianism was taken by Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739). Hume concedes that a compact is the natural means of peacefully instituting a new government, and may therefore be properly regarded as the ground of allegiance to it at the Hume. outset; but he urges that, when once it is firmly established the duty of obeying it rests on precisely the same combination of private and general interests as the duty of keeping promises; it is therefore absurd to base the former on the latter. Justice, veracity, fidelity to compacts and to governments, are all co-ordinate; they are all “artificial” virtues, due to civilization, and not belonging to man in his “ruder and more natural” condition; our approbation of all alike is founded on our perception of their useful consequences. It is this last position that constitutes the fundamental difference between Hutcheson’s ethical doctrine and Hume’s. The former, while accepting utility as the criterion of “material goodness,” had adhered to Shaftesbury’s view that dispositions, not results of action, were the proper object of moral approval; at the same time, while giving to benevolence the first place in his account of personal merit, he had shrunk from the paradox of treating it as the sole virtue, and had added a rather undefined and unexplained train of qualities,—veracity, fortitude, activity, industry, sagacity,—immediately approved in various degrees by the “moral sense” or the “sense of dignity.” This naturally suggested to a mind like Hume’s, anxious to apply the experimental method to psychology, the problem of reducing these different elements of personal merit—or rather our approval of them—to some common principle. The old theory that referred this approval entirely to self-love, is, he holds, easy to disprove by “crucial experiments” on the play of our moral sentiments; rejecting this, he finds the required explanation in the sympathetic pleasure that attends our perception of the conduciveness of virtue to the interests of human beings other than ourselves. He endeavours to establish this inductively by a survey of the qualities, commonly praised as virtues, which he finds to be always either useful or immediately agreeable, either (1) to the virtuous agent himself or (2) to others. In class (2) he includes, besides the Benevolence of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, the useful virtues, Justice, Veracity and Fidelity to compacts; as well as such immediately agreeable qualities as politeness, wit, modesty and even cleanliness. The most original part of his discussion, however, is concerned with qualities immediately useful to their possessor. The most cynical man of the world, he says, with whatever “sullen incredulity” he may repudiate virtue as a hollow pretence, cannot really refuse his approbation to “discretion, caution, enterprise, industry, frugality, economy, good sense, prudence, discernment”; nor again, to “temperance, sobriety, patience, perseverance, considerateness, secrecy, order, insinuation, address, presence of mind, quickness of conception, facility of expression.” It is evident that the merit of these qualities in our eyes is chiefly due to our perception of their tendency to serve the person possessed of them; so that the cynic in praising them is really exhibiting the unselfish sympathy of which he doubts the existence. Hume admits the difficulty that arises, especially in the case of the “artificial” virtues, such as justice, &c., from the undeniable fact that we praise them and blame their opposites without consciously reflecting on useful or pernicious consequences; but considers that this may be explained as an effect of “education and acquired habits.”
So far the moral faculty has been considered as contemplative rather than active; and this, indeed, is the point of view from which Hume mainly regards it. If we ask what actual motive we have for virtuous conduct, Hume’s answer is not quite clear. On the one hand, he speaks of moral approbation as derived from “humanity and benevolence,” while expressly recognizing, after Butler, that there is a strictly disinterested element in our benevolent impulses (as also in hunger, thirst, love of fame and other passions). On the other hand, he does not seem to think that moral sentiment or “taste” can “become a motive to action,” except as it “gives pleasure or pain, and thereby constitutes happiness or misery.” It is difficult to make these views quite consistent; but at any rate Hume emphatically maintains that “reason is no motive to action,” except so far as it “directs the impulse received from appetite or inclination”; and recognizes—in his later treatise at least—no “obligation” to virtue, except that of the agent’s interest or happiness. He attempts, however, to show, in a summary way, that all the duties which his moral theory recommends are also “the true interest of the individual,”—taking into account the importance to his happiness of “peaceful reflection on one’s own conduct.”
But even if we consider the moral consciousness merely as a particular kind of pleasurable emotion, there is an obvious question suggested by Hume’s theory, to which he gives no adequate answer. If the essence of “moral taste” is sympathy with the pleasure of others, why is not this specific feeling excited by other things beside virtue that tend to cause such pleasure? On this point Hume contents himself with the vague remark that “there are a numerous set of passions and sentiments, of which thinking rational beings are by the original constitution of nature the only proper objects.” The truth is, that Hume’s notion of moral approbation was very loose, as is sufficiently shown by the list of “useful and agreeable” qualities which he considers worthy of approbation. It is therefore hardly surprising that his theory should leave the specific quality of the moral sentiments a fact still needing to be explained. An original and ingenious solution of this problem was offered by his contemporary Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Adam Smith. Without denying the actuality or importance of that sympathetic pleasure in the perceived or inferred effects of virtues and vices he yet holds that the essential part of common moral sentiment is constituted rather by a more direct sympathy with the impulses that prompt to action or expression. The spontaneous play of this sympathy he treats as an original and inexplicable fact of human nature, but he considers that its action is powerfully sustained by the pleasure that each man finds in the accord of his feelings with another’s. By means of this primary element, compounded in various ways, Adam Smith explains all the phenomena of the moral consciousness. He takes first the semi-moral notion of “propriety” or “decorum,” and endeavours to show inductively that our application of this notion to the social behaviour of another is determined by our degree of sympathy with the feeling expressed in such behaviour. Thus the prescriptions of good taste in the expression of feeling may be summed up in the principle, “reduce or raise the expression to that with which spectators will sympathize.” When the effort to restrain feeling is exhibited in a degree which surprises as well as pleases, it excites admiration as a virtue or excellence; such excellences Adam Smith quaintly calls the “awful and respectable,” contrasting them with the “amiable virtues” which consist in the opposite effort to sympathize, when exhibited in a remarkable degree. From the sentiments of propriety and admiration we proceed to the sense of merit and demerit. Here a more complex phenomenon presents itself for analysis; we have to distinguish in the sense of merit—(1) a direct sympathy with the sentiments of the agent, and (2) an indirect sympathy with the gratitude of those who receive the benefit of his actions. In the case of demerit there is a direct antipathy to the feelings of the misdoer, but the chief sentiment excited is sympathy with those injured by the misdeed. The object of this sympathetic resentment, impelling us to punish, is what we call injustice; and thus the remarkable stringency of the obligation to act justly is explained, since the recognition of any action as unjust involves the admission that it may be forcibly obstructed or punished. Moral judgments, then, are expressions of the complex normal sympathy of an impartial spectator with the active impulses that prompt to and result from actions. In the case of our own conduct what we call conscience is really sympathy with the feelings of an imaginary impartial spectator.
Adam Smith gives authority to his moral system by saying that “moral principles are justly to be regarded as the laws of the Deity”; but this he never proves. So Hume insists emphatically on the “reality of moral obligation”; but is found to mean no more by this than the real existence of the likes and dislikes that human beings feel for each other’s qualities. The fact is that amid the analysis of feelings aroused by the sentimentalism of Shaftesbury’s school, the fundamental questions “What is right?” and “Why?” had been allowed to drop into the background, and the consequent danger to morality was manifest. The binding force of moral rules becomes evanescent if we admit, with Hutcheson, that the “sense” of them may properly vary from man to man as the palate does; and it seems only another way of putting Hume’s doctrine, that reason is not concerned with the ends of action, to say that the mere existence of a moral sentiment is in itself no reason for obeying it. A reaction, in one form or another, against the tendency to dissolve ethics into psychology was inevitable; since mankind generally could not be so far absorbed by the interest of psychological hypothesis as to forget their need of establishing practical principles. It was obvious, too, that this reaction might take place in either of the two lines of thought, which, having been peacefully allied in Clarke and Cumberland, had become distinctly opposed to each other in Butler and Hutcheson. It might either fall back on the moral principles commonly accepted, and, affirming their objective validity, endeavour to exhibit them as a coherent and complete set of ultimate ethical truths; or it might take the utility or conduciveness to pleasure, to which Hume had referred for the origin of most sentiments, as an ultimate end and standard by which these sentiments might be judged and corrected. The former is the line adopted with substantial agreement by Price, Reid, Stewart and other members of the still existing Intuitional school; the latter method, with considerably more divergence of view and treatment, was employed independently and almost simultaneously by Paley and Bentham in both ethics and politics, and is at the present time widely maintained under the name of Utilitarianism.
The Intuitional School (Price, Reid, Stewart, Whewell)Edit
Price’s Review of the Chief Questions and Difficulties of Morals was published in 1757, two years before Adam Smith’s treatise. In regarding moral ideas as derived from the “intuition of truth or immediate discernment of the nature of things by the understanding,” Price revives the general view of Price. Cudworth and Clarke; but with several specific differences. Firstly, his conception of “right” and “wrong” as “single ideas” incapable of definition or analysis—the notions “right,” “fit,” “ought,” “duty,” “obligation,” being coincident or identical—at least avoids the confusions into which Clarke and Wollaston had been led by pressing the analogy between ethical and physical truth. Secondly, the emotional element of the moral consciousness, on which attention had been concentrated by Shaftesbury and his followers, though distinctly recognized as accompanying the intellectual intuition, is carefully subordinated to it. While right and wrong, in Price’s view, are “real objective qualities” of actions, moral “beauty and deformity” are subjective ideas; representing feelings which are partly the necessary effects of the perceptions of right and wrong in rational beings as such, partly due to an “implanted sense” or varying emotional susceptibility. Thus, both reason and sense of instinct co-operate in the impulse to virtuous conduct, though the rational element is primary and paramount. Price further follows Butler in distinguishing the perception of merit and demerit in agents as another accompaniment of the perception of right and wrong in actions; the former being, however, only a peculiar species of the latter, since, to perceive merit in any one is to perceive that it is right to reward him. It is to be observed that both Price and Reid are careful to state that the merit of the agent depends entirely on the intention or “formal rightness” of his act; a man is not blameworthy for unintended evil, though he may of course be blamed for any wilful neglect (cf. Arist., Eth. Nic., iii. 1), which has caused him to be ignorant of his real duty. When we turn to the subject matter of virtue, we find that Price, in comparison with More or Clarke, is decidedly laxer in accepting and stating his ethical first principles; chiefly owing to the new antithesis to the view of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson by which his controversial position is complicated. What Price is specially concerned to show is the existence of ultimate principles beside the principle of universal benevolence. Not that he repudiates the obligation either of rational benevolence or self-love; on the contrary, he takes more pains than Butler to demonstrate the reasonableness of either principle. “There is not anything,” he says, “of which we have more undeniably an intuitive perception, than that it is ‘right to pursue and promote happiness,’ whether for ourselves or for others.” Finally, Price, writing after the demonstration by Shaftesbury and Butler of the actuality of disinterested impulses in human nature, is bolder and clearer than Cudworth or Clarke in insisting that right actions are to be chosen because they are right by virtuous agents as such, even going so far as to lay down that an act loses its moral worth in proportion as it is done from natural inclination.
On this latter point Reid, in his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788), states a conclusion more in harmony with common sense, only maintaining that “no act can be morally good in which regard for what is right has not some influence.” This is partly due to the fact that Reid. Reid builds more distinctly than Price on the foundation laid by Butler; especially in his acceptance of that duality of governing principles which we have noticed as a cardinal point in the latter’s doctrine. Reid considers “regard for one’s good on the whole” (Butler’s self-love) and “sense of duty” (Butler’s conscience) as two essentially distinct and co-ordinate rational principles, though naturally often comprehended under the one term, Reason. The rationality of the former principle he takes pains to explain and establish; in opposition to Hume’s doctrine that it is no part of the function of reason to determine the ends which we ought to pursue, or the preference due to one end over another. He urges that the notion of “good on the whole” is one which only a reasoning being can form, involving as it does abstraction from the objects of all particular desires, and comparison of past and future with present feelings; and maintains that it is a contradiction to suppose a rational being to have the notion of its Good on the Whole without a desire for it, and that such a desire must naturally regulate all particular appetites and passions. It cannot reasonably be subordinated even to the moral faculty; in fact, a man who doubts the coincidence of the two—which on religious grounds we must believe to be complete in a morally governed world—is reduced to the “miserable dilemma whether it is better to be a fool or a knave.” As regards the moral faculty itself, Reid’s statement coincides in the main with Price’s; it is both intellectual and active, not merely perceiving the “rightness” or “moral obligation” of actions (which Reid conceives as a simple unanalysable relation between act and agent), but also impelling the will to the performance of what is seen to be right. Both thinkers hold that this perception of right and wrong in actions is accompanied by a perception of merit and demerit in agents, and also by a specific emotion; but whereas Price conceives this emotion chiefly as pleasure or pain, analogous to that produced in the mind by physical beauty or deformity, Reid regards it chiefly as benevolent affection, esteem and sympathy (or their opposites), for the virtuous (or vicious) agent. This “pleasurable good-will,” when the moral judgment relates to a man’s own actions, becomes “the testimony of a good conscience—the purest and most valuable of all human enjoyments.” Reid is careful to observe that this moral faculty is not “innate” except in germ; it stands in need of “education, training, exercise (for which society is indispensable), and habit,” in order to the attainment of moral truth. He does not with Price object to its being called the “moral sense,” provided we understand by this a source not merely of feelings or notions, but of “ultimate truths.” Here he omits to notice the important question whether the premises of moral reasoning are universal or individual judgments; as to which the use of the term “sense” seems rather to suggest the second alternative. Indeed, he seems himself quite undecided on this question; since, though he generally represents ethical method as deductive, he also speaks of the “original judgment that this action is right and that wrong.”
The truth is that the construction of a scientific method of ethics is a matter of little practical moment to Reid. Thus, though he offers a list of first principles, by deduction from which these common opinions may be confirmed, he does not present it with any claim to completeness. Besides maxims relating to virtue in general,—such as (1) that there is a right and wrong in conduct, but (2) only in voluntary conduct, and that we ought (3) to take pains to learn our duty, and (4) fortify ourselves against temptations to deviate from it—Reid states five fundamental axioms. The first of these is merely the principle of rational self-love, “that we ought to prefer a greater to a lesser good, though more distinct, and a less evil to a greater,”—the mention of which seems rather inconsistent with Reid’s distinct separation of the “moral faculty” from “self-love.” The third is merely the general rule of benevolence stated in the somewhat vague Stoical formula, that “no one is born for himself only.” The fourth, again, is the merely formal principle that “right and wrong must be the same to all in all circumstances,” which belongs equally to all systems of objective morality; while the fifth prescribes the religious duty of “veneration or submission to God.” Thus, the only principle which ever appears to offer definite guidance as to social duty is the second, “that so far as the intention of nature appears in the constitution of man, we ought to act according to that intention,” the vagueness of which is obvious. (For Reid’s views on moral freedom see A. Bain, Mental Science, pp. 422, seq.)
A similar incompleteness in the statement of moral principles is found if we turn to Reid’s disciple, Dugald Stewart, whose Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (1828) contains the general view of Butler and Reid, and to some extent that of Price,—expounded with Dugald Stewart. more fulness and precision, but without important original additions or modifications. Stewart lays stress on the obligation of justice as distinct from benevolence; but his definition of justice represents it as essentially impartiality,—a virtue which (as was just now said of Reid’s fourth principle) must equally find a place in the utilitarian or any other system that lays down universally applicable rules of morality. Afterwards, however, Stewart distinguishes “integrity or honesty” as a branch of justice concerned with the rights of other men, which form the subject of “natural jurisprudence.” In this department he lays down the moral axiom “that the labourer is entitled to the fruit of his own labour” as the principle on which complete rights of property are founded; maintaining that occupancy alone would only confer a transient right of possession during use. The only other principles which he discusses are veracity and fidelity to promises, gratitude being treated as a natural instinct prompting to a particular kind of just actions.
It will be seen that neither Reid nor Stewart offers more than a very meagre and tentative contribution to that ethical science by which, as they maintain, the received rules of morality may be rationally deduced from self-evident first principles. A more ambitious attempt in the same direction Whewell. was made by Whewell in his Elements of Morality (1846). Whewell’s general moral view differs from that of his Scottish predecessors chiefly in a point where we may trace the influence of Kant—viz. in his rejection of self-love as an independent rational and governing principle, and his consequent refusal to admit happiness, apart from duty, as a reasonable end for the individual. The moral reason, thus left in sole supremacy, is represented as enunciating five ultimate principles,—those of benevolence, justice, truth, purity and order. With a little straining these are made to correspond to five chief divisions of Jus,—personal security (benevolence being opposed to the ill-will that commonly causes personal injuries), property, contract, marriage and government; while the first, second and fourth, again, regulate respectively the three chief classes of human motives,—affections, mental desires and appetites. Thus the list, with the addition of two general principles, “earnestness” and “moral purpose,” has a certain air of systematic completeness. When, however, we look closer, we find that the principle of order, or obedience to government, is not seriously intended to imply the political absolutism which it seems to express, and which English common sense emphatically repudiates; while the formula of justice is given in the tautological or perfectly indefinite proposition “that every man ought to have his own.” Whewell, indeed, explains that this latter formula must be practically interpreted by positive law, though he inconsistently speaks as if it supplied a standard for judging laws to be right or wrong. The principle of purity, again, “that the lower parts of our nature ought to be subject to the higher,” merely particularizes that supremacy of reason over non-rational impulses which is involved in the very notion of reasoned morality. Thus, in short, if we ask for a clear and definite fundamental intuition, distinct from regard for happiness, we find really nothing in Whewell’s doctrine except the single rule of veracity (including fidelity to promises); and even of this the axiomatic character becomes evanescent on closer inspection, since it is not maintained that the rule is practically unqualified, but only that it is practically undesirable to formulate its qualifications.
On the whole, it must be admitted that the doctrine of the intuitional school of the 18th and 19th centuries has been developed with less care and consistency than might have been expected, in its statement of the fundamental axioms or intuitively known premises of moral reasoning. Intuitional and utilitarian schools. And if the controversy which this school has conducted with utilitarianism had turned principally on the determination of the matter of duty, there can be little doubt that it would have been forced into more serious and systematic effort to define precisely and completely the principles and method on which we are to reason deductively to particular rules of conduct. But in fact the difference between intuitionists and utilitarians as to the method of determining the particulars of the moral code was complicated with a more fundamental disagreement as to the very meaning of “moral obligation.” This Paley and Bentham (after Locke) interpreted as merely the effect on the will of the pleasures or pains attached to the observance or violation of moral rules, combining with this the doctrine of Hutcheson that “general good” or “happiness” is the final end and standard of these rules; while they eliminated all vagueness from the notion of general happiness by defining it to consist in “excess of pleasure over pain”—pleasures and pains being regarded as “differing in nothing but continuance or intensity.” The utilitarian system gained an attractive air of simplicity by thus using a single perfectly clear notion—pleasure and its negative quantity pain—to answer both the fundamental questions of mortals, “What is right?” and “Why should I do it?” But since there is no logical connexion between the answers that have thus come to be considered as one doctrine, this apparent unity and simplicity has really hidden fundamental disagreements, and caused no little confusion in ethical debate.
The Utilitarian School (Paley, Bentham, Mill)Edit
In Paley’s Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), the link between general pleasure (the standard) and private pleasure or pain (the motive) is supplied by the conception of divine legislation. To be “obliged” is to be “urged by a violent motive resulting from the command Paley. of another”; in the case of moral obligation, the command proceeds from God, and the motive lies in the expectation of being rewarded and punished after this life. The commands of God are to be ascertained “from scripture and the light of nature combined.” Paley, however, holds that scripture is given less to teach morality than to illustrate it by example and enforce it by new sanctions and greater certainty, and that the light of nature makes it clear that God wills the happiness of his creatures. Hence, his method in deciding moral questions is chiefly that of estimating the tendency of actions to promote or diminish the general happiness. To meet the obvious objections to this method, based on the immediate happiness caused by admitted crimes (such as “knocking a rich villain on the head”), he lays stress on the necessity of general rules in any kind of legislation; while, by urging the importance of forming and maintaining good habits, he partly evades the difficulty of calculating the consequences of particular actions. In this way the utilitarian method is freed from the subversive tendencies which Butler and others had discerned in it; as used by Paley, it merely explains the current moral and jural distinctions, exhibits the obvious basis of expediency which supports most of the received rules of law and morality and furnishes a simple solution, in harmony with common sense, of some perplexing casuistical questions. Thus (e.g.) “natural rights” become rights of which the general observance would be useful apart from the institution of civil government; as distinguished from the no less binding “adventitious rights,” the utility of which depends upon this institution. Private property is in this sense “natural” from its obvious advantages in encouraging labour, skill, preservative care; though actual rights of property depend on the general utility of conforming to the law of the land by which they are determined. We observe, however, that Paley’s method is often mixed with reasonings that belong to an alien and older manner of thought; as when he supports the claim of the poor to charity by referring to the intention of mankind “when they agreed to a separation of the common fund,” or when he infers that monogamy is a part of the divine design from the equal numbers of males and females born. In other cases his statement of utilitarian considerations is fragmentary and unmethodical, and tends to degenerate into loose exhortation on rather trite topics.
In unity, consistency and thoroughness of method, Bentham’s utilitarianism has a decided superiority over Paley’s. He considers actions solely in respect of their pleasurable and painful consequences, expected or actual; and he recognizes the need of making a systematic register Bentham and his school. of these consequences, free from the influences of common moral opinion, as expressed in the “eulogistic” and “dyslogistic” terms in ordinary use. Further, the effects that he estimates are all of a definite, palpable, empirically ascertainable quality; they are such pleasures and pains as most men feel and all can observe, so that all his political or moral inferences lie open at every point to the test of practical experience. Every one, it would seem, can tell what value he sets on the pleasures of alimentation, sex, the senses generally, wealth, power, curiosity, sympathy, antipathy (malevolence), the goodwill of individuals or of society at large, and on the corresponding pains, as well as the pains of labour and organic disorders; and can guess the rate at which they are valued by others; therefore if it be once granted that all actions are determined by pleasures and pains, and are to be tried by the same standard, the art of legislation and private conduct is apparently placed on an empirical basis. Bentham, no doubt, seems to go beyond the limits of experience proper in recognizing “religious” pains and pleasures in his fourfold division of sanctions, side by side with the “physical,” “political,” and “moral” or “social”; but the truth is that he does not seriously take account of them, except in so far as religious hopes and fears are motives actually operating, which therefore admit of being observed and measured as much as any other motives. He does not himself use the will of an omnipotent and benevolent being as a means of logically connecting individual and general happiness. He thus undoubtedly simplifies his system, and avoids the doubtful inferences from nature and Scripture in which Paley’s position is involved; but this gain is dearly purchased. For in answer to the question that immediately arises, How then are the sanctions of the moral rules which it will most conduce to the general happiness for men to observe, shown to be always adequate in the case of all the individuals whose observance is required? he is obliged to admit that “the only interests which a man is at all times sure to find adequate motives for consulting are his own.” Indeed, in many parts of his work, in the department of legislative and constitutional theory, it is rather assumed that the interests of some men will continually conflict with those of their fellows, unless we alter the balance of prudential calculation by a readjustment of penalties. But on this assumption a system of private conduct on utilitarian principles cannot be constructed until legislative and constitutional reform has been perfected. And, in fact, “private ethics,” as conceived by Bentham, does not exactly expound such a system; but rather exhibits the coincidence, so far as it extends, between private and general happiness, in that part of each man’s conduct that lies beyond the range of useful legislation. It was not his place, as a practical philanthropist, to dwell on the defects in this coincidence; and since what men generally expect from a moralist is a completely reasoned account of what they ought to do, it is not surprising that some of Bentham’s disciples should have either ignored or endeavoured to supply the gap in his system. One section of the school even maintained it to be a cardinal doctrine of utilitarianism that a man always gains his own greatest happiness by promoting that of others; another section, represented by John Austin, apparently returned to Paley’s position, and treated utilitarian morality as a code of divine legislation; others, with Grote, are content to abate the severity of the claims made by “general happiness” on the individual, and to consider utilitarian duty as practically limited by reciprocity; while on the opposite side an unqualified subordination of private to general happiness was advocated by J. S. Mill, who did more than any other member of the school to spread and popularize utilitarianism in ethics and politics.
The fact is that there are several different ways in which a utilitarian system of morality may be used, without deciding whether the sanctions attached to it are always adequate, (1) It may be presented as practical guidance to all who choose “general good” as their Varieties of utilitarian doctrine. ultimate end, whether they do so on religious grounds, or through the predominance in their minds of impartial sympathy, or because their conscience acts in harmony with utilitarian principles, or for any combination of these or any other reasons; or (2) it may be offered as a code to be obeyed not absolutely, but only so far as the coincidence of private and general interest may in any case be judged to extend; or again (3) it may be proposed as a standard by which men may reasonably agree to praise and blame the conduct of others, even though they may not always think fit to act on it. We may regard morality as a kind of supplementary legislation, supported by public opinion, which we may expect the public, when duly enlightened, to frame in accordance with the public interest. Still, even from this point of view, which is that of the legislator or social reformer rather than the moral philosopher, our code of duty must be greatly influenced by our estimate of the degrees in which men are normally influenced by self-regard (in its ordinary sense of regard for interests not sympathetic) and by sympathy or benevolence, and of the range within which sympathy may be expected to be generally effective. Thus, for example, the moral standard for which a utilitarian will reasonably endeavour to gain the support of public opinion must be essentially different in quality, according as he holds with Bentham that nothing but self-regard will “serve for diet,” though “for a dessert benevolence is a very J. S. Mill. valuable addition”; or with J. S. Mill that disinterested public spirit should be the prominent motive in the performance of all socially useful work, and that even hygienic precepts should be inculcated, not chiefly on grounds of prudence, but because “by squandering our health we disable ourselves from rendering services to our fellow-creatures.”
Not less important is the interval that separates Bentham’s polemical attitude towards the moral sense from Mill’s conciliatory position, that “the mind is not in a state conformable to utility unless it loves virtue as a thing desirable in itself.” Such love of virtue Mill holds to be in a sense natural, though not an ultimate and inexplicable fact of human nature; it is to be explained by the “Law of Association” of feelings and ideas, through which objects originally desired as a means to some further end come to be directly pleasant or desirable. Thus, the miser first sought money as a means to comfort, but ends by sacrificing comfort to money; and similarly though the first promptings to justice (or any other virtue) spring from the non-moral pleasures gained or pains avoided by it, through the link formed by repeated virtuous acts the performance of them ultimately comes to have that immediate satisfaction attached to it which we distinguished as moral. Indeed, the acquired tendency to virtuous conduct may become so strong that the habit of willing it may continue, “even when the reward which the virtuous man receives from the consciousness of well-doing is anything but an equivalent for the sufferings he undergoes or the wishes he may have to renounce.” It is thus that the before-mentioned self-sacrifice of the moral hero is conceived by Mill to be possible and actual. The moral sentiments, on this view, are not phases of self-love as Hobbes held; nor can they be directly identified with sympathy, either in Hume’s way or in Adam Smith’s; in fact, though apparently simple they are really derived in a complex manner from self-love and sympathy combined with more primitive impulses. Justice (e.g.) is regarded by Mill as essentially resentment moralized by enlarged sympathy and intelligent self-interest; what we mean by injustice is harm done to an assignable individual by a breach of some rule for which we desire the violator to be punished, for the sake both of the person injured and of society at large, including ourselves. As regards moral sentiments generally, the view suggested by Mill is more definitely given by the chief living representative of the associationist school, Alexander Bain; by whom the distinctive characteristics of conscience are traced to “education under government or authority,” though prudence, disinterested sympathy and other emotions combine to swell the mass of feeling vaguely denoted by the term moral. The combination of antecedents is somewhat differently given by different writers; but all agree in representing the conscience of any individual as naturally correlated to the interests of the community of which he is a member, and thus a natural ally in enforcing utilitarian rules, or even a valuable guide when utilitarian calculations are difficult and uncertain.
Association and EvolutionEdit
This substitution of hypothetical history for direct analysis of the moral sense is really older than the utilitarianism of Paley and Bentham, which it has so profoundly modified. The effects of association in modifying mental phenomena were noticed by Locke, and made a cardinal Association and evolution. point in the metaphysic of Hume; who also referred to the principle slightly in his account of justice and other “artificial” virtues. Some years earlier, Gay, admitting Hutcheson’s proof of the actual disinterestedness of moral and benevolent impulses, had maintained that these (like the desires of knowledge or fame, the delight of reading, hunting and planting, &c.) were derived from self-love by “the power of association.” But a thorough and systematic application of the principle to ethical psychology is first found in Hartley’s Observations on Man (1748). Hartley, too, was the first to conceive association as producing, instead of mere cohesion of mental phenomena, a quasi-chemical combination of these into a compound apparently different from its elements. He shows elaborately how the pleasures and pains of “imagination, ambition, self-interest, sympathy, theopathy, and the moral sense” are developed out of the elementary pleasures and pains of sensation; by the coalescence into really complex but apparently single ideas of the “miniatures” or faint feelings which the repetition of sensations contemporaneously or in immediate succession tends to produce in cohering groups. His theory assumes the correspondence of mind and body, and is applied pari passu to the formation of ideas from sensations, and of “compound vibratiuncules in the medullary substance” from the original vibrations that arise in the organ of sense. The same general view was afterwards developed with much vigour and clearness on the psychical side alone by James Mill in his Analysis of the Human Mind. The whole theory has been persistently controverted by writers of the intuitional school, who (unlike Hartley) have usually thought that this derivation of moral sentiments from more primitive feelings would be detrimental to the authority of the former. The chief argument against this theory has been based on the early period at which these sentiments are manifested by children, which hardly allows time for association to produce the effects ascribed to it. This argument has been met in recent times by the application to mind of the physiological theory of heredity, according to which changes produced in the mind (brain) of a parent, by association of ideas or otherwise, tend to be inherited by his offspring; so that the development of the moral sense or any other faculty or susceptibility of existing man may be hypothetically carried back into the prehistoric life of the human race, without any change in the manner of derivation supposed. At present, however, the theory of heredity is usually held in conjunction with Darwin’s theory of natural selection; according to which different kinds of living things in the course of a series of generations come gradually to be endowed with organs, faculties and habits tending to the preservation of the individual or species under the conditions of life in which it is placed. Thus we have a new zoological factor in the history of the moral sentiments; which, though in no way opposed to the older psychological theory of their formation through coalescence of more primitive feelings, must yet be conceived as controlling and modifying the effects of the law of association by preventing the formation of sentiments other than those tending to the preservation of human life. The influence of the Darwinian theory, moreover, has extended from historical psychology to ethics, tending to substitute “preservation of the race under its conditions of existence” for “happiness” as the ultimate end and standard of virtue.
Before concluding this sketch of the development of English ethical thought from Hobbes to the thinkers of the 19th century, it will be well to notice briefly the views held by different moralists on the question of free-will,—so far, that is, as they have been put forward as ethically important. We must Free-will. first distinguish three meanings in which “freedom” is attributed to the will or “inner self” of a human being, viz. (1) the general power of choosing among different alternatives of action without a motive, or against the resultant force of conflicting motives; (2) the power of choice between the promptings of reason and those of appetites (or other non-rational impulses) when the latter conflict with reason; (3) merely the quality of acting rationally in spite of conflicting impulses, however strong, the non posse peccare of the medieval theologians. It is obvious that “freedom” in this third sense is in no way incompatible with complete determination; and, indeed, is rather an ideal state after which the moral agent ought to aspire than a property which the human will can be said to possess. In the first sense, again, as distinct from the second, the assertion of “freedom” has no ethical significance, except in so far as it introduces a general uncertainty into all our inferences respecting human conduct. Even in the second sense it hardly seems that the freedom of a man’s will can be an element to be considered in examining what it is right or best for him to do (though of course the clearest convictions of duty will be fruitless if a man has not sufficient self-control to enable him to act on them); it is rather when we ask whether it is just to punish him for wrong-doing that it seems important to know whether he could have done otherwise. But in spite of the strong interest taken in the theological aspect of this question by the Protestant divines of the 17th century, it does not appear that English moralists from Hobbes to Hume laid any stress on the relation of free-will either to duty generally or to justice in particular. Neither the doctrine of Hobbes, that deliberation is a mere alternation of competing desires, voluntary action immediately following the “last appetite,” nor the hardly less decided Determinism of Locke, who held that the will is always moved by the greatest present uneasiness, appeared to either author to require any reconciliation with the belief in human responsibility. Even in Clarke’s system, where Indeterminism is no doubt a cardinal notion, its importance is metaphysical rather than ethical; Clarke’s view being that the apparently arbitrary particularity in the constitution of the cosmos is really only explicable by reference to creative free-will. In the ethical discussion of Shaftesbury and sentimental moralists generally this question drops naturally out of sight; and the cautious Butler tries to exclude its perplexities as far as possible from the philosophy of practice. But since the reaction, led by Price and Reid, against the manner of philosophizing that had culminated in Hume, free-will has been generally maintained by the intuitional school to be an essential point of ethics; and, in fact, it is naturally connected with the judgment of good and ill desert which these writers give as an essential element in their analysis of the moral consciousness. An irresistible motive, it is forcibly said, palliates or takes away guilt; no one can blame himself for yielding to necessity, and no one can properly be punished for what he could not have prevented. In answer to this argument some necessarians have admitted that punishment can be legitimate only if it be beneficial to the person punished; others, again, have held that the lawful use of force is to restrain lawless force; but most of those who reject free-will defend punishment on the ground of its utility in deterring others from crime, as well as in correcting or restraining the criminal on whom it falls.
French Influence on English Ethics (Helvetius, Comte)Edit
In the preceding sketch we have traced the course of English ethical speculation without bringing it into relation with contemporary European thought on the same subject. And in fact almost all the systems described, from Hobbes downward, have been of essentially native French influence on English ethics. growth, showing hardly any traces of foreign influence. We may observe that ethics is the only department in which this result appears. The physics and psychology of Descartes were much studied in England, and his metaphysical system was certainly the most important antecedent of Locke’s; but Descartes hardly touched ethics proper. So again the controversy that Clarke conducted with Spinoza, and afterwards with Leibnitz, was entirely confined to the metaphysical region. Catholic France was a school for Englishmen in many subjects, but not in morality; the great struggle between Jansenists and Jesuits had a very remote interest for them. It was not till near the close of the 18th century that the impress of the French revolutionary philosophy began to manifest itself in England; and even then its influence was mostly political rather than ethical. It is striking to observe how even in the case of writers such as Godwin, who were most powerfully affected by the French political movement, the moral basis, on which the new social order of rational and equal freedom is constructed, is almost entirely of native origin; even when the tone and spirit are French, the forms of thought and manner of reasoning are still purely English. In the derivation of Benthamism alone—which, it may be observed, first becomes widely known in the French paraphrase of Dumont—an important element is supplied Helvetius. by the works of a French writer, Helvetius; as Bentham himself was fully conscious. It was from Helvetius that he learnt that, men being universally and solely governed by self-love, the so-called moral judgments are really the common judgments of any society as to its common interests; that it is therefore futile on the one hand to propose any standard of virtue, except that of conduciveness to general happiness, and on the other hand useless merely to lecture men on duty and scold them for vice; that the moralist’s proper function is rather to exhibit the coincidence of virtue with private happiness; that, accordingly, though nature has bound men’s interests together in many ways, and education by developing sympathy and the habit of mutual help may much extend the connexion, still the most effective moralist is the legislator, who by acting on self-love through legal sanctions may mould human conduct as he chooses. These few simple doctrines give the ground plan of Bentham’s indefatigable and lifelong labours.
So again, in the modified Benthamism which the persuasive exposition of J. S. Mill afterwards made popular in England, the influence of Auguste Comte (Philosophie positive, 1829–1842, and Système de politique positive, 1851–1854) appears as the chief modifying element. This influence, so far as it has affected moral as distinct from political speculation, has been exercised Comte. primarily through the general conception of human progress; which, in Comte’s view, consists in the ever-growing preponderance of the distinctively human attributes over the purely animal, social feelings being ranked highest among human attributes, and highest of all the most universalized phase of human affection, the devotion to humanity as a whole. Accordingly, it is the development of benevolence in man, and of the habit of “living for others,” which Comte takes as the ultimate aim and standard of practice, rather than the mere increase of happiness. He holds, indeed, that the two are inseparable, and that the more altruistic any man’s sentiments and habits of action can be made, the greater will be the happiness enjoyed by himself as well as by others. But he does not seriously trouble himself to argue with egoism, or to weigh carefully the amount of happiness that might be generally attained by the satisfaction of egoistic propensities duly regulated; a supreme unquestioning self-devotion, in which all personal calculations are suppressed, is an essential feature of his moral ideal. Such a view is almost diametrically opposed to Bentham’s conception of normal human existence; the newer utilitarianism of Mill represents an endeavour to find the right middle path between the two extremes.
It is to be observed that, in Comte’s view, devotion to humanity is the principle not merely of morality, but of religion; i.e. it should not merely be practically predominant, but should be manifested and sustained by regular and partly symbolical forms of expression, private and public. This side of Comte’s system, however, and the details of his ideal reconstruction of society, in which this religion plays an important part, have had but little influence either in England or elsewhere. It is more important to notice the general effect of his philosophy on the method of determining the particulars of morality as well as of law (as it ought to be). In the utilitarianism of Paley and Bentham the proper rules of conduct, moral and legal, are determined by comparing the imaginary consequences of different modes of regulation on men and women, conceived as specimens of a substantially uniform and unchanging type. It is true that Bentham expressly recognizes the varying influences of climate, race, religion, government, as considerations which it is important for the legislator to take into account; but his own work of social construction was almost entirely independent of such considerations, and his school generally appear to have been convinced of their competence to solve all important ethical and political questions for human beings of all ages and countries, without regard to their specific differences. But in the Comtian conception of social science, of which ethics and politics are the practical application, the knowledge of the laws of the evolution of society is of fundamental and continually increasing importance; humanity is regarded as having passed through a series of stages, in each of which a somewhat different set of laws and institutions, customs and habits, is normal and appropriate. Thus present man is a being that can only be understood through a knowledge of his past history; and any effort to construct for him a moral and political ideal, by a purely abstract and unhistorical method, must necessarily be futile; whatever modifications may at any time be desirable in positive law and morality can only be determined by the aid of “social dynamics.” This view extends far beyond the limits of Comte’s special school or sect, and has been widely accepted.
German Influence on English Ethics (Kant, Hegel)Edit
When we turn from French philosophy to German, we find the influence of the latter on English ethical thought almost insignificant until a very recent period. In the 17th century, indeed, the treatise of Pufendorf on the Law of Nature, in which the general view of Grotius was restated German influence on English ethics. with modifications, partly designed to effect a compromise with the doctrine of Hobbes, seems to have been a good deal read at Oxford and elsewhere. Locke includes it among the books necessary to the complete education of a gentleman. But the subsequent development of the theory of conduct in Germany dropped almost entirely out of the cognizance of Englishmen; even the long dominant system of Wolff (d. 1754) was hardly known. Nor had Kant any serious influence in England until the second quarter of the 19th century. We find, however, distinct traces of Kantian influence in Whewell and other writers of the intuitional school, and at a later date it became so strong that its importance on subsequent ethical thought can scarcely be over-estimated.
The English moralist with whom Kant has most affinity is Price; in fact, Kantism, in the ethical thought of modern Europe, holds a place somewhat analogous to that formerly occupied by the teaching of Price and Reid among English moralists. Kant, like Price and Reid, holds that Kant. man as a rational being is unconditionally bound to conform to a certain rule of right, or “categorical imperative” of reason. Like Price he holds that an action is not good unless done from a good motive, and that this motive must be essentially different from natural inclination of any kind; duty, to be duty, must be done for duty’s sake; and he argues, with more subtlety than Price or Reid, that though a virtuous act is no doubt pleasant to the virtuous agent, and any violation of duty painful, this moral pleasure (or pain) cannot strictly be the motive to the act, because it follows instead of preceding the recognition of our obligation to do it. With Price, again, he holds that rightness of intention and motive is not only an indispensable condition or element of the rightness of an action, but actually the sole determinant of its moral worth; but with more philosophical consistency he draws the inference—of which the English moralist does not seem to have dreamt—that there can be no separate rational principles for determining the “material” rightness of conduct, as distinct from its “formal” rightness; and therefore that all rules of duty, so far as universally binding, must admit of being exhibited as applications of the one general principle that duty ought to be done for duty’s sake. This Categorical imperative. deduction is the most original part of Kant’s doctrine. The dictates of reason, he points out, must necessarily be addressed to all rational beings as such; hence, my intention cannot be right unless I am prepared to will the principle on which I act to be a universal law. He considers that this fundamental rule or imperative “act on a maxim which thou canst will to be law universal” supplies a sufficient criterion for determining particular duties in all cases. The rule excludes wrong conduct with two degrees of stringency. Some offences, such as making promises with the intention of breaking them, we cannot even conceive universalized; as soon as every one broke promises no one would care to have promises made to him. Other maxims, such as that of leaving persons in distress to shift for themselves, we can easily conceive to be universal laws, but we cannot without contradiction will them to be such; for when we are ourselves in distress we cannot help desiring that others should help us.
Another important peculiarity of Kant’s doctrine is his development of the connexion between duty and free-will. He holds that it is through our moral consciousness that we know that we are free; in the cognition that I ought to do what is right because it is right and not because I like it, it is implied that this purely rational volition is possible; that my action can be determined, not “mechanically,” through the necessary operation of the natural stimuli of pleasurable and painful feelings, but in accordance with the laws of my true, reasonable self. The realization of reason, or of human wills so far as rational, thus presents itself as the absolute end of duty; and we get, as a new form of the fundamental practical rule, “act so as to treat humanity, in thyself or any other, as an end always, and never as a means only.” We may observe, too, that the notion of freedom connects ethics with jurisprudence in a simple and striking manner. The fundamental aim of jurisprudence is to realize external freedom by removing the hindrances imposed on each one’s free action through the interferences of other wills. Ethics shows how to realize internal freedom by resolutely pursuing rational ends in opposition to those of natural inclination. If we ask what precisely are the ends of reason, Kant’s proposition that “all rational beings as such are ends in themselves for every rational being” hardly gives a clear answer. It might be interpreted to mean that the result to be practically sought is simply the development of the rationality of all rational beings—such as men—whom we find to be as yet imperfectly rational. But this is not Kant’s view. He holds, indeed, that each man should aim at making himself the most perfect possible instrument of reason; but he expressly denies that the perfection of others can be similarly prescribed as an end to each. It is, he says, “a contradiction to regard myself as in duty bound to promote the perfection of another, . . . a contradiction to make it a duty for me to do something for another which no other but himself can do.” In what practical sense, then, am I to make other rational beings my ends? Kant’s answer is that what each is to aim at in the case of others is not Perfection, but Happiness, i.e. to help them to attain those purely subjective ends that are determined for each not by reason, but by natural inclination. He explains also that to seek one’s own happiness cannot be prescribed as a duty, because it is an end to which every man is inevitably impelled by natural inclination: but that just because each inevitably desires his own happiness, and therefore desires that others should assist him in time of need, he is bound to make the happiness of others his ethical end, since he cannot morally demand aid from others, without accepting the obligation of aiding them in like case. The exclusion of private happiness from the ends at which it is a duty to aim contrasts strikingly with the view of Butler and Reid, that man, as a rational being, is under a “manifest obligation” to seek his own interest. The difference, however, is not really so great as it seems; since in another part of his system Kant fully recognizes the reasonableness of the individual’s regard for his own happiness. Though duty, in his view, excludes regard for private happiness, the summum bonum is not duty alone, but happiness combined with moral worth; the demand for happiness as the reward of duty is so essentially reasonable that we must postulate a universal connexion between the two as the order of the universe; indeed, the practical necessity of this postulate is the only adequate rational ground that we have for believing in the existence of God.
Before the ethics of Kant had begun to be seriously studied in England, the rapid and remarkable development of metaphysical view and method of which the three chief stages are represented by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel respectively had already taken place; and the system of the Hegel. latter was occupying the most prominent position in the philosophical thought of Germany. Hegel’s ethical doctrine (expounded chiefly in his Philosophie des Rechts, 1821) shows a close affinity, and also a striking contrast, to Kant’s. He holds, with Kant, that duty or good conduct consists in the conscious realization of the free reasonable will, which is essentially the same in all rational beings. But in Kant’s view the universal content of this will is only given in the formal condition of “only acting as one can desire all to act,” to be subjectively applied by each rational agent to his own volition; whereas Hegel conceives the universal will as objectively presented to each man in the laws, institutions and customary morality of the community of which he is a member. Thus, in his view, not merely natural inclinations towards pleasures, or the desires for selfish happiness, require to be morally resisted; but even the prompting of the individual’s conscience, the impulse to do what seems to him right, if it comes into conflict with the common sense of his community. It is true that Hegel regards the conscious effort to realize one’s own conception of good as a higher stage of moral development than the mere conformity to the jural rules establishing property, maintaining contract and allotting punishment to crime, in which the universal will is first expressed; since in such conformity this will is only accomplished accidentally by the outward concurrence of individual wills, and is not essentially realized in any of them. He holds, however, that this conscientious effort is self-deceived and futile, is even the very root of moral evil, except it attains its realization in harmony with the objective social relations in which the individual finds himself placed. Of these relations' the first grade is constituted by the family, the second by civil society, and the third by the state, the organization of which is the highest manifestation of universal reason in the sphere of practice.
Hegelianism appears as a distinct element in modern English ethical thought; but the direct influence of Hegel’s system is perhaps less important than that indirectly exercised through the powerful stimulus which it has given to the study of the historical development of human thought and human society. According to Hegel, the essence of the universe is a process of thought from the abstract to the concrete; and a right understanding of this process gives the key for interpreting the evolution in time of European philosophy. So again, in his view, the history of mankind is a history of the necessary development of the free spirit through the different forms of political organization: the first being that of the Oriental monarchy, in which freedom belongs to the monarch only; the second, that of the Graeco-Roman republics, in which a select body of free citizens is sustained on a basis of slavery; while finally in the modern societies, sprung from the Teutonic invasion of the decaying Roman empire, freedom is recognized as the natural right of all members of the community. The effect of the lectures (posthumously edited) in which Hegel’s “Philosophy of History” and “History of Philosophy” were expounded, has extended far beyond the limits of his special school; indeed, the predominance of the historical method in all departments of the theory of practice is not a little due to their influence. (H. S.; X.)
D. Ethics since 1879.Edit
Ethical controversies, like most other speculative disputes, have, during the latter part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, centred round Darwinian theories. The chief characteristic of English moral philosophy in its previous history has been its comparative isolation from great movements, sometimes contemporary movements, of philosophical or scientific thought. Ethics in England no less than on the continent of Europe suffered until the time of Bacon from the excessive domination of theological dogma and the traditional scholastic and Aristotelian philosophy. But the moral philosophy of the 18th century, freed from scholastic trammels, was a genuine native product, arising out of the real problem of conduct and reaching its conclusions, at least ostensibly, by an analysis of, and an appeal to, the facts of conduct and the nature of morality. Even at the beginning of the 19th century, when the main interest of writers who belonged to the Utilitarian school was mainly political, the influence of political theories upon contemporary moral philosophy was upon the whole an influence of which the moral philosophers themselves were unconscious; and from the nature of things moral and political philosophy have a tendency to become one and the same inquiry. Mill, it is true, and Comte both encouraged the idea that society and conduct alike were susceptible of strictly scientific investigation. But the attempt not only to treat ethics scientifically, but actually to subordinate the principles of conduct to the principles of existing biological science or group of sciences biological in character, was reserved for post-Darwinian moral philosophers. That attempt has not, in the opinion of the majority of critics, been successful, and perhaps what is most permanent in the contribution of modern times to ethical theory will ultimately be attributed to philosophers antagonistic to evolutionary ethics. Nevertheless the application of the historical method to inquiries concerning the facts of morality and the moral life—itself part of the great movement of thought to which Darwin gave the chief impetus—has caused moral problems to be presented in a novel aspect; while the influence of Darwinism upon studies which have considerable bearing upon ethics, e.g. anthropology or the study of comparative religion, has been incalculable.
The other great movement in modern moral philosophy due to the influence of German, and especially Hegelian, idealism followed naturally for the most part from the revival of interest in metaphysics noticeable in the latter half of the 19th century.
But metaphysical systems of ethics are no novelty even in England, and, while the increased interest in ultimate issues of philosophy has enormously deepened and widened men’s appreciation of moral problems and the issues involved in conduct, the actual advance in ethical theory produced by such speculations has been comparatively slight. What is of lasting importance is the re-affirmation upon metaphysical grounds of the right of the moral consciousness to state and solve its own difficulties, and the successful repulsion of the claims of particular sciences such as biology to include the sphere of conduct within their scope and methods. And both evolutionary and idealistic ethics agree in repudiating the standpoint of narrow individualism, alike insist upon the necessity of regarding the self as social in character, and regard the end of moral progress as only realizable in a perfect society.
It is perhaps too much to hope that the long-continued controversy between hedonists and anti-hedonists has been finally settled. But certainly few modern moral philosophers would be found in the present day ready to defend the crudities of hedonistic psychology as they appear in Bentham and Mill. A certain common agreement has been reached concerning the impossibility of regarding pleasure as the sole motive criterion and end of moral action, though different opinions still prevail as to the place occupied by pleasure in the summum bonum, and the possibility of a hedonistic calculus.
The failure of “laissez-faire” individualism in politics to produce that common prosperity and happiness which its advocates hoped for caused men to question the egoistic basis upon which its ethical counterpart was constructed. Similarly the comparative failure of science to satisfy men’s aspirations alike in knowledge and, so far as the happiness of the masses is concerned, in practice has been largely instrumental in producing that revolt against material prosperity as the end of conduct which is characteristic of idealist moral philosophy. To this revolt, and to the general tendency to find the principle of morality in an ideal good present to the consciousness of all persons capable of acting morally, the widespread recognition of reason as the ultimate court of appeal alike in religion or politics, and latterly in economics also, has no doubt contributed largely. In the main the appeal to reason has followed the traditional course of such movements in ethics, and has reaffirmed in the light of fuller reflection the moral principles implicit in the ordinary moral consciousness. It is only in the present day that there are noticeable signs of dissatisfaction with current morality itself, and a tendency to substitute or advocate a new morality based ostensibly upon conclusions derived from the facts of scientific observation.
Darwin himself seems never to have questioned, in the sceptical direction in which his followers have applied his principles, the absolute character of moral obligation. What interested him chiefly, in so far as he made a study of morality, was the development of moral conduct in its preliminary stages. Darwin. He was principally concerned to show that in morality, as in other departments of human life, it was not necessary to postulate a complete and abrupt gap between human and merely animal existence, but that the instincts and habits which contribute to survival in the struggle for existence among animals develop into moral qualities which have a similar value for the preservation of human and social life. Regarding the social tendency as originally itself an instinct developed out of parental or filial affection, he seems to suggest that natural selection, which was the chief cause of its development in the earlier stages, may very probably influence the transition from purely tribal and social morality into morality in its later and more complex forms. But he admits that natural selection is not necessarily the only cause, and he refrains from identifying the fully developed morality of civilized nations with the “social instinct.” Moreover, he recognizes that qualities, e.g. loyalty and sympathy, which may have been of great service to the tribe in its primitive struggle for existence, may become a positive hindrance to physical efficiency (leading as they do to the preservation of the unfit) at a later stage. Nevertheless to check our sympathy would lead to the “deterioration of the noblest part of our nature,” and the question, which is obviously of vital importance, whether we should obey the dictates of reason, which would urge us only to such conduct as is conducive to natural selection, or remain faithful to the noblest part of our nature at the expense of reason, he leaves unsolved.
It was in Herbert Spencer, the triumphant “buccinator novi temporis,” that the advocates of evolutionary ethics found their protagonist. Spencer looked to ideas derived from the biological sciences to provide a solution of all the enigmas of morality, as of most other departments of life; Spencer. and he conceived it “to be the business of moral science to deduce from the laws of life and the conditions of existence what kinds of action necessarily tend to produce happiness and what kinds to produce unhappiness.” It is clear, therefore, that any moral science which is to be of value must wait until the “laws of life” and “conditions of existence” have been satisfactorily determined, presumably by biology and the allied sciences; and there are few more melancholy instances of failure in philosophy than the paucity of the actual results attained by Spencer in his lifetime in his application of the so-called laws of evolution to human conduct—a failure recognized by Spencer himself. His own contribution to ethics was vitiated at the outset by the fact that he never shook himself free from the trammels of the philosophy which his own system was intended to supersede. He began by disclaiming any affinity to Utilitarianism on the part of his own philosophy. He pointed out that the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is a principle without any definite meaning, since men are nowhere unanimous in their standard of happiness, but regard the conception of happiness rather as a problem to be solved than a test to be applied. Universal happiness would require omniscience to legislate for it and the “normal” or, as some would say, “perfect” man to desire it; neither of these conditions of its realization is at present in existence. Further, the principle that “everybody is to count for one, nobody for more than one,” is equally unsatisfactory. It may be taken to imply that the useless and the criminal should be entitled to as much happiness as the useful and the virtuous. While it gives no rule for private as distinct from public conduct, it provides no real guidance for the legislator. For neither happiness, nor the concrete means to happiness, nor finally the conditions of its realization can be distributed; and in the end “not general happiness becomes the ethical standard by which legislative action is to be guided, but universal justice.” Yet the implications of this latter conclusion Spencer never fully thought out. He accepted bodily without farther questioning the hedonistic psychology by which the Utilitarians sought to justify their theory while he rejected the theory itself. Good, e.g. defined by him “as conduct conducive to life,” is also further defined as that which is “conducive to a surplus of pleasures over pains.” Happiness, again, is always regarded as consisting in feeling, ultimately in pleasant feeling, and there is no attempt to apply the same principles of criticism which he had successfully applied to the Utilitarians’ “happiness” to the conception of “pleasure.” And, though he maintains as against the Utilitarians the existence of certain fundamental moral intuitions which have come to be quite independent of any present conscious experience of their utility, he yet holds that they are the results of accumulated racial experiences gradually organized and inherited. Finally, side by side with a theory of the nature of moral obligation thus fundamentally empirical and a posteriori in its outlook, he maintains in his account of justice the existence of the idea of justice as distinct from a mere sentiment, carrying with it an a priori belief in its existence and identical in its a priori and intuitive character with the ultimate criterion of Utilitarianism itself. The fact is that any close philosophical analysis of Spencer’s system of ethics can only result in the discovery of a multitude of mutually conflicting and for the most part logically untenable theories. It is frequently impossible to discover whether he wishes by an appeal to evolutionary principles to reinforce the sanctions and emphasize the absolute character of the traditional morality which in the main he accepts without question from the current opinions about conduct of his age, or whether he wishes to discredit and disprove the validity of that morality in order to substitute by the aid of the biological sciences a new ethical code. The argument, for instance, that intuitive and a priori beliefs gain their absolute character from the fact that they are the result of continued transmission and accumulation of past nervous modifications in the history of the race would, if taken seriously, lead us to the belief that ultimate ethical sanctions are to be sought, not by an appeal to the moral consciousness, but by the investigation of brain tissue and the relation of man’s bodily organism to its environment. Yet such a view would be totally at variance with much that Spencer says (especially in his treatment of justice) concerning the trustworthiness and inevitable character of men’s constant appeal to the intuitions of their moral consciousness. Moreover, the very fact itself of the possibility of inheriting acquired moral characteristics is still hotly debated by those biologists with whom should rest the ultimate verdict. Again, the argument that “conduct is good or bad according as its total effects are pleasurable or painful,” and that ultimately “pleasure-giving acts are life-sustaining acts,” seems to involve Spencer in a multitude of unverified assumptions and contradictory theories. In the first place it is never clear whether Spencer regards the fact that a particular course of conduct is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure as a test of its life-preserving and life-sustaining character, or whether he wishes us to use as our criterion of what is pleasant in conduct the fact that the conduct in question seems conducive to the continued existence of man’s organic life. He apparently passes from one criterion to the other as best suits the purpose of the moment. He does not prove the coincidence of life-sustaining and pleasant activities. He assumes throughout that the pleasant is the opposite of what is painful, and seems unaware of the difficulty of determining by means of terms so highly abstract the specific character of moral action. We find in his theory no satisfactory attempt to discriminate between the pleasure aimed at by the altruist and the immediate pleasure of egoistic action. Similarly he disregards the distinction between pleasant feeling as an immediate motive of conduct and the idea of the attainment of future pleasure whether by the race or by the individual. Spencer is involved in effect in most of the confusions and contradictions of hedonistic psychology.
Nor is his attempt to construct a scientific criterion out of data derived from the biological sciences productive of satisfactory results. He is hampered by a distinction between “absolute” and “relative” ethics definitely formulated in the last two chapters of The Data of Ethics. Absolute ethics would deal with such laws as would regulate the conduct of ideal man in an ideal society, i.e. a society where conduct has reached the stage of complete adjustment to the needs of social life. Relative ethics, on the other hand, is concerned only with such conduct as is advantageous for that society which has not yet reached the end of complete adaptation to its environment, i.e. which is at present imperfect. It is hardly necessary to say that Spencer does not tell us how to bring the two ethical systems into correlation. And the actual criteria of conduct derived from biological considerations are almost ludicrously inadequate. Conduct, e.g., is said to be more moral in proportion as it exhibits a tendency on the part of the individual or society to become more “definite,” “coherent” and “heterogeneous.” Or, again, we should recognize as a test of the “authoritative” character of moral ideas or feelings the fact that they are complex and representative, referring to a remote rather than to a proximate good, remembering the while that “the sense of duty is transitory, and will diminish as fast as moralization increases.” In fact, no acceptable scientific criterion emerges, and the outcome of Spencer’s attempt to ascertain the laws of life and the conditions of existence is either a restatement of the dictates of the moral consciousness in vague and cumbrous quasi-scientific phraseology, or the substitution of the meaningless test of “survivability” as a standard of perfection for the usual and intelligible standards of “good” and “right.”
A similar criticism might fairly be passed upon the majority of philosophers who approach ethics from the standpoint of evolution. Sir Leslie Stephen, for instance, wishes to substitute the conception of “social health” for that of universal happiness, and considers that the conditions Leslie Stephen. of social health are to be discovered by an examination of the “social organism” or of “social tissue,” the laws of which can be studied apart from those laws by which the individuals composing society regulate their conduct. “The social evolution means the evolution of a strong social tissue; the best type is the type implied by the strongest tissue.” But on the important question as to what constitutes the strongest social tissue, or to what extent the analogy between society as at present constituted and organic life is really applicable, we are left without certain guidance. The fact is that with few exceptions evolutionary moral philosophers evade the choice between alternatives which is always presented to them. They begin, for the most part, with a belief that in ethics as in other departments of human knowledge “the more developed must be interpreted by the less developed”—though frequently in the sequel complexity or posteriority of development is erected as a standard by means of which to judge the process of development itself. They are not content to write a history of moral development, applying to it the principles by which Darwinians seek to explain the development of animal life. But the search of origins frequently leads them into theories of the nature of that moral conduct whose origin they are anxious to find quite at variance with current and accepted beliefs concerning its nature. The discovery of the so-called evolution of morality out of non-moral conditions is very frequently an unconscious subterfuge by which the evolutionist hides the fact that he is making a priori judgments upon the value of the moral concepts held to be evolved. To accept such theories of the origin of morality would carry with it the conviction that what we took for “moral” conduct was in reality something very different, and has been so throughout its history. The legitimate inference which should follow would be the denial of the validity of those moral laws which have hitherto been regarded as absolute in character, and the substitution for all customary moral terms of an entirely new set based upon biological considerations. But it is precisely this, the only logical inference, which most evolutionary philosophers are unwilling to draw. They cannot give up their belief in customary morality. Professor Huxley maintained, for example, in a famous lecture that “the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it” (Romanes Lecture, ad fin.). And very frequently arguments are adduced by evolutionists to prove that men’s belief in the absolute character of moral precepts is one of the necessary means adopted by nature to carry out her designs for the social welfare of mankind. Yet the other alternative, to which such reasoning points, they are reluctant to accept. For the belief that moral obligation is absolute in character, that it is alike impossible to explain its origin and transcend its laws, would make the search for a scientific criterion of conduct to be deduced from the laws of life and conditions of existence meaningless, if not absurd.
Perhaps the one European thinker who has carried evolutionary principles in ethics to their logical conclusion is Friedrich Nietzsche. Almost any system of morality or immorality might find some justification in Nietzsche’s writings, which are extraordinarily chaotic and full of the Nietzsche. wildest exaggerations. Yet it has been a true instinct which has led popular opinion as testified to by current literature to find in Nietzsche the most orthodox exponent of Darwinian ideas in their application to ethics. For he saw clearly that to be successful evolutionary ethics must involve the “transvaluation of all values,” the “demoralization” of all ordinary current morality. He accepted frankly the glorification of brute strength, superior cunning and all the qualities necessary for success in the struggle for existence, to which the ethics of evolution necessarily tend. He proclaimed himself, before everything else, a physiologist, and looked to physiology to provide the ultimate standard for everything that has value; and though his own ethical code necessarily involves the disappearance of sympathy, love, toleration and all existing altruistic emotions, he yet in a sense finds room for them in such altruistic self-sacrifice as prepares the way for the higher man of the future. Thus, after a fashion, he is able to reconcile the conflicting claims of egoism and altruism and succeed where most apostles of evolution fail. The Christian virtues, sympathy for the weak, the suffering, &c., represent a necessary stage to be passed through in the evolution of the Übermensch, i.e. the stage when the weak and suffering combine in revolt against the strong. They are to be superseded, not so much because all social virtues are to be scorned and rejected, as because in their effects, i.e. in their tendency to perpetuate and prolong the existence of the weak and those who are least well equipped and endowed by nature, they are anti-social in character and inimical to the survival of the strongest and most vigorous type of humanity. Consequently Nietzsche in effect maintains the following paradoxical position: he explains the existence of altruism upon egoistical principles; he advocates the total abolition of all altruism by carrying these same egoistical principles to their logical conclusion; he nevertheless appeals to that moral instinct which makes men ready to sacrifice their own narrow personal interests to the higher good of society—an instinct profoundly altruistic in character—as the ultimate justification of the ethics he enunciates. Such a position is a reductio ad absurdum of the attempt to transcend the ultimate character of those intuitions and feelings which prompt men to benevolence. Thus, though incidentally there is much to be learned from Nietzsche, especially from his criticism of the ethics of pessimism, or from the strictures he passes upon the negative morality of extreme asceticism or quietism, his system inevitably provides its own refutation. For no philosophy which travesties the real course of history and distorts the moral facts is likely to commend itself to the sober judgment of mankind however brilliant be its exposition or ingenious its arguments. Finally, the conceptions of strength, power and masterfulness by which Nietzsche attempts to determine his own moral ideal, become, when examined, as relative and unsatisfactory as other criteria of moral action said to be deduced from evolutionary principles. Men desire strength or power not as ends but as means to ends beyond them; Nietzsche is most convincing when the Übermensch is left undefined. Imagined as ideal man, i.e. as morality depicts him, he becomes intelligible; imagined as Nietzsche describes him he reels back into the beast, and that distinction which chiefly separates man from the animal world out of which he has emerged, viz. his unique power of self-consciousness and self-criticism, is obliterated.
It was upon this crucial difficulty, i.e. the transition in the evolution of morality from the stage of purely animal and unconscious action to specifically human action,—i.e. action directed by self-conscious and purposive intelligence to an end conceived as good,—that the polemic of T. H. Green. T. H. Green and his idealistic followers fastened. And it is perhaps unfortunate that metaphysical doctrines enunciated chiefly for the purposes of criticism not in themselves vitally necessary to the theory of morality propounded should have been regarded as the main contribution to ethical theory of idealist writers, and as such treated severely by hostile critics. Green’s principal objection to evolutionary moral philosophy is contained in the argument that no merely “natural” explanation of the facts of morality is conceivable. The knowing consciousness,—i.e. so far as conduct is concerned the moral consciousness,—can never become an object of knowledge in the sense in which natural phenomena are objects of scientific knowledge. For such knowledge implies the existence of a knowing consciousness as a relating and uniting intelligence capable of distinguishing itself from the objects to which it relates. And more particularly the existence of the moral consciousness implies “the transition from mere want to consciousness of wanted object, from impulse to satisfy the want to effort for the realization of the wanted objects, implies the presence of the want to a subject which distinguishes itself from it.” Consequently the facts of moral development imply with the emergence of human consciousness the appearance of something qualitatively different from the facts with which physiology for instance deals, imply a stratum as it were in development which no examination of animal tissues, no calculation of consequences with regard to the preservation of the species can ever satisfactorily explain. However far back we go in the history of humanity, if the presence of consciousness be admitted at all, it will be necessary to admit also the presence to consciousness of an ideal which can be accepted or rejected, of a power of looking before and after, and aiming at a future which is not yet fully realized. But unfortunately the temporary exigencies of criticism made it necessary for Green to emphasize the metaphysic of the self, i.e. to insist upon the necessity of a critical examination of the pre-requisites of any form of self-consciousness and especially of the knowing consciousness, to such an extent that critics have lost sight of the real dependence of his metaphysic upon the direct evidence of the moral consciousness. The philosophic value, the sincerity, the breadth and depth of his treatment of moral facts and institutions have been fully recognized. What has not been adequately realized is that the metaphysical basis of his system of ethics—the argument, for example, contained in the introduction to the Prolegomena—is unfairly treated if divorced from his treatment of morals as a whole, and that it can be justly estimated only if interpreted as much as the conclusion as the starting-point of moral theory. The doctrine of the eternity of the self, for instance, against which much criticism (e.g. Taylor, The Problem of Conduct, chap. ii.) has been directed, though it is chiefly expressed in the language of epistemology, has its roots nevertheless in the direct testimony of moral experience. For morality implies a power in the individual of rising above the interests of his own narrower self and identifying himself in the pursuit of a universal good with the true interests of all other selves. Similarly the conception of the self as a moral unity arises naturally out of the impossibility of finding the summum bonum in a succession of transient states of consciousness such as hedonism for example postulates. Good as a true universal can only be realized by a true self, and both imply a principle of unity not wholly expressible in terms of the particulars which it unifies. But whether the idealistic interpretation of the nature of universal good be the true one, i.e. whether we are justified in identifying that self-consciousness which is capable of grasping the principle of unity with the principle of unity which it grasps is a metaphysical and theistic problem comparatively irrelevant to Green’s moral theory. It would be quite possible to accept his criticisms of naturalism and hedonism while rejecting many of the metaphysical inferences which he draws. A somewhat similar answer might be returned to those critics who find Green’s use of the term “self-realization” or “self-development” as characteristic of the moral ideal unsatisfactory. It is quite easy to exhibit the futility of such a conception if understood formally for the practical purposes of moral philosophy. If the phrase be understood to mean the realization of some capacities of the self it does not appear to discriminate sufficiently between the good and bad capacities; while the realization under present conditions of all the capacities of a self is impossible. And to aim so far as is possible at all-round development would again ignore the distinction between vice and virtue. But used in the sense in which Green habitually uses it self-realization implies, as he puts it, the fulfilment by the good man of his rational capacity or the idea of a best that is in time, i.e. the distinction between the good and the bad self is never ignored, but is the fundamental assumption of his theory. And if it be urged that the expression is in any case tautological, i.e. that the good is defined in terms of self-realization and self-realization in terms of the good, it may be doubted whether any rational system of ethics can avoid a similar imputation. Green would admit that in a certain sense the conception of “good” is indefinable, i.e. that it can only be recognized in the particulars of conduct of which it is the universal form. Only, therefore, to those philosophers who believe in the existence of a criterion of morality, i.e. a universal test such as that of pleasure, happiness and the like, by which we can judge of the worth of actions, will Green’s position seem absurd; since, on the contrary, such conceptions as those of “self-development” or “self-realization” seem to have a definite and positive value if they call attention to the metaphysical implications of morality and accurately characterize the moral facts. What ambiguity they possess arises from the ambiguity of morality itself. For moral progress consists in the actualization of what is already potentially in existence. The striking merit of Green’s moral philosophy is that the idealism which he advocates is rooted and grounded in moral habits and institutions: and the metaphysic in which it culminates is based upon principles already implicitly recognized by the moral consciousness of the ordinary man. Nothing could be farther from Green’s teaching than the belief that constructive metaphysics could, unaided by the intuitions of the moral consciousness, discover laws for the regulation of conduct.
But although Green’s loyalty to the primary facts of the moral consciousness prevented him from constructing a rationalistic system of morals based solely upon the conclusions of metaphysics, it was perhaps inevitable that the revival of interest in metaphysics so prominent in his own speculations should lead to a more daring criticism of ethical first principles in other writers. Bradley’s Ethical Studies had presented with great brilliancy an idealist theory of morality not very far removed from that of Green’s Prolegomena. But the publication of Appearance and Reality by the same author marked a great advance in philosophical criticism of ethical postulates, and a growing dissatisfaction with current reconciliations between moral first principles and the conclusions of metaphysics. Appearance and Reality was not primarily concerned with morals, yet it inevitably led to certain conclusions affecting conduct, and it was no very long time before these conclusions were elaborated Taylor. in detail. Professor A. E. Taylor’s Problem of Conduct (1901) is one of the most noteworthy and independent contributions to Moral Philosophy published in recent years. But it nevertheless follows in the main Bradley’s line of criticism and may therefore be regarded as representative of his school. There are two principal positions in Professor Taylor’s work:—(1) a refusal to base ethics upon metaphysics, and (2) the discovery of an irreconcilable dualism in the nature of morality which takes many shapes, but may be summarized roughly as consisting in an ultimate opposition between egoism and altruism. With regard to the first of these Taylor says (op. cit. p. 4) that his object is to show that “ethics is as independent of metaphysical speculation for its principles and methods as any of the so-called ‘natural sciences’; that its real basis must be sought not in philosophical theories about the nature of the Absolute or the ultimate constitution of the Universe, but in the empirical facts of human life as they are revealed to us in our concrete everyday experience of the world and mankind, and sifted and systematized by the sciences of psychology and sociology. . . . Ethics should be regarded as a purely ‘positive’ or ‘experimental’ and not as a ‘speculative’ science.” With regard to the second position one quotation will suffice (op. cit. p. 183). “Altruism and egoism are divergent developments from the common psychological root of primitive ethical sentiment. Both developments are alike unavoidable, and each is ultimately irreconcilable with the other. Neither egoism nor altruism can be made the sole basis of moral theory without mutilation of the facts, nor can any higher category be discovered by the aid of which their rival claims may be finally adjusted.”
Professor Taylor expounds these two theories with great brilliance of argument and much ingenuity, yet neither of them will perhaps carry complete conviction to the minds of the majority of his critics. It is curious, in the first place, to find the independence of moral philosophy upon metaphysics supported by metaphysical arguments. For whatever may be the real character of the interrelation of moral and metaphysical first principles it is obvious that Taylor’s own dissatisfaction with current moral principles arises from an inability to believe in their ultimate rationality, i.e. a belief that they are untenable from the standpoint of ultimate metaphysics; and perhaps the most interesting portion of his book is the chapter entitled “Beyond Good and Bad,” in which the highest and final form of the ethical consciousness of mankind is subjected to searching criticism. But further, it is becoming increasingly apparent that psychology (upon which Taylor would base morality) itself involves metaphysical assumptions; its position in fact cannot be stated except as a metaphysical position, whether that of subjective idealism or any other. And the need which most philosophers have felt for some philosophical foundation for morality arises, not from any desire to subordinate moral insight to speculative theory, but because the moral facts themselves are inexplicable except in the light of first principles which metaphysics alone can criticize.
Taylor himself attempts to find the roots of ethics in the moral sentiments of mankind, the moral sentiments being primarily feelings or emotions, though they imply and result in judgments of approval and disapproval upon conduct. But it may be doubted whether he succeeds in clearly distinguishing ethical feelings from ethical judgments, and if they are to be treated as synonymous it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the implications of moral “judgment” must involve a reference to metaphysics.
Moreover, it is obvious that a great part of Taylor’s quarrel with current moral ideals arises from the fact that they do not commend themselves to the moral judgment, i.e. from the standpoint of real goodness they are unsatisfactory, being tainted with evil. Hence it appears difficult to reconcile what is in effect a belief in the validity of the judgments of the moral consciousness with a belief that the real source and justification of that consciousness are to be found in the very sentiments and vague mass of floating feelings upon which it pronounces. Scepticism seems to be the only possible result of such a position. Taylor’s polemic against metaphysical systems of ethics is based throughout upon an alleged discrepancy and separation between the facts of moral “experience,” the judgments of the moral consciousness, and theories as to the nature of these which the philosophers whom he attacks would by no means accept. There is no doubt a distinction between morality as a form of consciousness and reflection upon that morality. But such a distinction neither corresponds to, nor testifies to, the existence of a distinction between morality as “experience” and morality as “theory” or “idea.”
Taylor is more persuasive when he is developing his second main thesis—that of the alleged existence of an ultimate dualism in the nature of morality. His accounts of the genesis of the conceptions of obligation and responsibility as of most of the ultimate conceptions with which moral philosophy deals will be accepted or rejected to the extent to which the main contention concerning the psychological basis of ethics commends itself to the reader. But in his exposition of the fundamental contradiction involved in morality elaborated with much care and illustrative argument he appeals for the most part to facts familiar to the unphilosophical moral consciousness. He begins by finding an ultimate opposition between the instincts of self-assertion and instincts which secure the production and protection of the coming generation even in the infra-ethical world with which biology deals. He traces this opposition into the forms in which it appears in the social life of mankind (as, e.g., in the difficulty of reconciling the conflicting claims of individual self-development and self-culture and social service), and finds “a hidden root of insincerity and hypocrisy beneath all morality” (p. 243), inasmuch as it is not possible to pursue any one type of ideal without some departure from singleness of purpose. And he finds all the conceptions by which men have hoped to reconcile admitted antagonisms and divergencies between moral ideals claiming to be ultimate and authoritative alike unsatisfactory (p. 285). Progress is illusory; there is no satisfactory goal to which moral development inevitably tends; religion in which some take refuge when distressed by the inexplicable contradictions of moral conduct itself “contains and rests upon an element of make believe” (p. 489).
With Taylor’s presentation of the difficulties with which morality is expected to grapple probably few would be found seriously to disagree, though they might consider it unduly pessimistic. But when he turns what is in effect a statement of certain forms of moral difficulty into an attack upon the logical and coherent character of morality itself, he is not so likely to command assent. For the difficulty all men meet with in realizing goodness, or in being moral, is not in itself evidence of an inherent contradiction in the nature of goodness as such. And what perhaps would first strike an unprejudiced critic in Taylor’s examples of conflicting ideals or antagonistic yet ultimate moral judgments would be the perception that they are not necessarily moral ideas or judgments at all, and hence necessarily not ultimate.
The claims of self-culture and of social service may when considered in the abstract or in some hypothetical case appear antagonistic and irreconcilable. But when they present themselves to the individual moral consciousness it may be safely asserted (1) that there can be only one moral choice possible, i.e. that their opposition (where they are opposed) involves no conflict of duties; and (2) that whichever ideal is in the end preferred, opportunities will nevertheless be provided within its realization for the concurrent realization of activities and capacities ordinarily associated with the ideal alleged to be contradictory. For just as there is no self-realization which does not involve self-sacrifice, so there is no room for that species of egoism within the confines of morality which is incompatible with social service.
It will be clear from the foregoing account of Taylor’s work that the tendency of his thought, as of that of Bradley, is by no means directed to the confirmation or re-establishment of those principles of conduct recognized by the ordinary moral consciousness. Psychology or metaphysics tend in their systems to usurp the place of authority formerly assigned to ethics proper.
It would be true on the whole to assert that evolutionary systems of ethics such as those of Herbert Spencer, Sir Leslie Stephen or Professor S. Alexander (Moral Order and Progress, 1899), together with the metaphysical theories of morals of which T. H. Green and Bradley and Taylor Martineau. are the chief representatives, have dominated the field of ethical speculation since 1870. Nevertheless it is only necessary to mention such a work as Martineau’s Types of Ethical Theory to dispel the notion that the type of moral philosophy most characteristically English, i.e. consisting in the patient analysis of the form and nature of the moral consciousness itself, has given way or is likely to give way to more ambitious and constructive efforts. Martineau’s chief endeavour was, as he himself says, to interpret, to vindicate, and to systematize the moral sentiments, and if the actual exhibition of what is involved, e.g., in moral choice is the vindication of morality Martineau may be said to have been successful. It is with his interpretation and systematization of the moral sentiments that most of Martineau’s critics have found fault. It is impossible, e.g., to accept his ordered hierarchy of “springs of action” without perceiving that the real principle upon which they can be arranged in order at all must depend upon considerations of circumstances and consequences, of stations and duties, with which a strict intuitionalism such as that of Martineau would have no dealing. Similarly the notion of Conscience as a special faculty giving its pronouncements immediately and without reflection cannot be maintained in the face of modern psychological analysis and is untrue to the nature of moral judgment itself. And Martineau is curiously unsympathetic to the universal and social aspect of morality with which evolutionary and idealist moral philosophers are so largely occupied. Nevertheless there have been few moral philosophers who have, apart from the idiosyncrasies of their special prepossessions, set forth with clearer insight or with greater nobility of language the essential nature of the moral consciousness.
Equal in importance to Martineau’s work is Professor Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics, which appeared in 1874. The two works are alike in loftiness of outlook and in the fact that they are devoted to the re-examination of the nature of the moral consciousness to the exclusion of alien branches of Sidgwick. inquiry. In most other respects they differ. Martineau is much more in sympathy with idealism than Sidgwick, whose work consists in a restatement from a novel and independent standpoint of the Utilitarian position. And Sidgwick has been far more successful than any other moral philosopher with the exception of T. H. Green and Bradley in founding a school of thought. Many of his most acute critics would be the first to admit how much they owe to his teaching. Chief among the more recent of these is G. E. Moore, whose book Principia Ethica is an important original contribution to ethical thought. And although Dr Hastings Rashdall (The Theory of Good and Evil, Oxford, 1907) is not in agreement with Sidgwick’s own particular type of hedonistic theory in his own philosophical position, he occupies a point of view somewhat similar to that of Sidgwick’s main attitude of Rational Utilitarianism. Rashdall’s two volumes exhibit also a welcome return on the part of English thought to the proper business of the moral philosopher—the examination of the nature of moral conduct. Other works, such as Professor L. T. Hobhouse’s Morals in Evolution or Professor E. A. Westermarck’s Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, testify to a continued interest in the history of morality and in the anthropological inquiries with which moral philosophy is closely connected.
Much that is of importance for moral philosophy has recently been written upon problems that more properly belong to the philosophy of religion and the theory of knowledge. J. F. M‘Taggart’s Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, and his later work, Some Dogmas of Religion, contain interesting contributions to the theory of pleasure and of the problem of free will and determinism. A notable instance of this tendency is seen in the developments of the theory of pragmatism (q.v.), for which F. C. S. Schiller has proposed the general term “humanism.” Such aspects as concern ethics include, for example, the limited indeterminism involved in the theory, the attitude of the religious consciousness expressed by William James (Will to Believe and Pragmatism), and the pragmatic conception of the good. And the widespread interest in social problems has produced a revival of speculation concerning questions partly political and party ethical in character, e.g. the nature of justice. Finally it has become apparent that many problems hitherto left for political economy to solve belong more properly to the moralist, if not to the moral philosopher, and it may be confidently expected that with the increased complexity of social life and the disappearance of many sanctions of morality hitherto regarded as inviolable, the future will bring a renewed and practical interest in the theory of conduct likely to lead to fresh developments in ethical speculation.
Bibliography.—The literature of the subject is so large in all languages that only a small selection can be given here. For further works reference may be made to subsidiary articles. See also Baldwin’s Dict. of Philos. and Psychol. vol. iii. (1905), pp. 812 foll. (bibliography).
I. Historical.—Sir L. Stephen, History of English Thought in the 18th Century (1876, 3rd ed. 1892); W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869, many editions); works of Ed. Zeller (q.v.); G. H. Lewes, History of Philosophy (1880); W. Gass, Geschichte der christlichen Ethik (1881); A. W. Benn, The Greek Philosophers (1882); F. Jödl, Geschichte der Ethik in der neueren Philos. (2 vols., 1882–1889); L. Schmidt, Ethik der alten Griechen (1882); E. Howley, The Old Morality traced Historically (1885); J. Martineau, Types of Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1885, 3rd ed. 1891); Th. Ziegler, Gesch. d. christl. Ethik (1886); Ch. Letourneaux, L’Évolution de la morale (1887); K. Köstlin, Gesch. der Ethik (1887); C. E. Luthardt, Die antike Ethik in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (1887), and Hist. of Christian Ethics (1888); C. M. Williams, A Review of the Systems of Ethics founded on the Theory of Evolution (1893); J. Watson, Hedonistic Theories from Aristippus to Spencer (1895); L. A. Selby-Bigge, British Moralists (1897); R. Mackintosh, From Comte to Benjamin Kidd (1899); S. Patten, The Development of English Thought (1899); A. B. Bruce, The Moral Order of the World in Ancient and Modern Thought (1899); Sir L. Stephen, The English Utilitarians (1901); Henry Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (5th ed., 1902); Paul Janet, History of the Problems of Philosophy (1902–1903), Eng. trans. Ada Monahan, vol. ii. “Ethics”; W. R. Sorley, Recent Tendencies in Ethics (1904).
II. Constructive and Critical.—Besides the works mentioned above the following may be mentioned:—J. M. Guyau, La Morale anglaise (1879), Éducation et hérédité (1889; Eng. trans. Greenstreet, with introd. by G. F. Stout, 1891), Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction (Eng. trans., 1898); G. H. Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind (1879); Sir L. Stephen, Science of Ethics (1882); P. Janet, The Theory of Morals (Eng. trans., 1884); W. R. Sorley, On the Ethics of Naturalism (1885); W. L. Courtney, Constructive Ethics (1886); Wilson and Fowler, Principles of Morals (1886); H. Höffding, Ethik (1888), Psychologie (1882, 1892; trans. Lowndes, 1892); W. Wundt, Ethik (1886; trans. Titchener and others, 1897); F. Paulsen, Ethik (1889, 1893; trans. Thilly, 1899); H. Sidgwick, Method of Ethics (1890); J. T. Bixby, The Crisis in Morals: An Examination of Rational Ethics (1891); J. Seth, Freedom an Ethical Postulate (1891); J. H. Muirhead, Elements of Ethics (1892); G. Simnel, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft (1892, 1893); T. Ziegler, Social Ethics (1892); T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics (1893); W. Knight, The Christian Ethic (1893); J. S. Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics (1893); F. Ryland, Ethics (1893); J. Seth, A Study of Ethical Principles (1894, 6th ed. 1902); C. F. D’Arcy, Short Study of Ethics (1895); J. H. Hyslop, The Elements of Ethics (1895); J. Kidd, Morality and Religion (1895); Sir L. Stephen, Social Rights and Duties (1896); J. M. Baldwin, Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development (1897); Th. Ribot, Psychology of Emotions (1897); A. Seth Pringle-Pattison, Man’s Place in the Cosmos (1897); H. R. Marshall, Instinct and Reason (1898); W. Wallace, Natural Theology and Ethics (1898); F. Paulsen, Partei-politik und Moral (1900); A. E. Taylor, Problem of Conduct (1901); G. T. Ladd, Philosophy of Conduct (1902); H. Sidgwick, Ethics of Green, Spencer, Martineau (1902); D. Irons, Study in Psychology of Ethics (1903); G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903); R. Eucken, Geistige Strömungen der Gegenwart (1904), and other works (see Eucken, Rudolf); works of A. Fouillée (q.v.); G. Santayana, Life of Reason (1905); E. A. Westermarck, Origin and Development of Moral Ideas (1906); George Gore, Scientific Basis of Morality (1899), and New Scientific Basis of Morality (1906), containing an interesting if unconvincing attempt to explain ethics on purely physical principles. (H. H. W.)
- This well-known phrase was originally attributed to the Pythagoreans.
- It is highly characteristic of Platonism that the issue in this dialogue, as originally stated, is between virtue and vice, whereas, without any avowed change of ground, the issue ultimately discussed is between the philosophic life and the life of vulgar ambition or sensual enjoyment.
- This cardinal term is commonly translated “happiness”; and it must be allowed that it is the most natural term for what we (in English) agree to call “our being’s end and aim.” But happiness so definitely signifies a state of feeling that it will not admit the interpretation that Aristotle (as well as Plato and the Stoics) expressly gives to εὐδαιμονία; the confusion is best avoided by rendering the word by the less familiar “well-being.”
- Aristotle follows Plato and Socrates in identifying the notions of καλός (“fair,” “beautiful”) and ἀγαθός (“good”) in their application to conduct. We may observe, however, that while the latter term is used to denote the virtuous man, and (in the neuter) equivalent to End generally, the former is rather chosen to express the quality of virtuous acts which in any particular case is the end of the virtuous agent. Aristotle no doubt faithfully represents the common sense of Greece in considering that, in so far as virtue is in itself good to the virtuous agent, it belongs to that species of good which we distinguish as beautiful. In later Greek philosophy the term καλόν (“honestum”) became still more technical in the signification of “morally good.”
- The above account is considerably expanded in H. Sidgwick’s Hist. of Ethics (5th ed., 1902), pp. 59-70.
- There is a certain difficulty in discussing Aristotle’s views on the subject of practical wisdom, and the relation of the intellect to moral action, since it is most probable that the only accounts that we have of these views are not part of the genuine writings of Aristotle. Still books vi. and vii. of the Nicomachean Ethics contain no doubt as pure Aristotelian doctrine as a disciple could give, and appear to supply a sufficient foundation for the general criticism expressed in the text.
- It has been suggestively said that Cynicism was to Stoicism what monasticism was to early Christianity. The analogy, however, must not be pressed too far, since orthodox Stoics do not ever seem to have regarded Cynicism as the more perfect way.
- The Stoics were not quite agreed as to the immutability of virtue, but they were agreed that, when once possessed, it could only be lost through the loss of reason itself.
- Hence some members of the school, without rejecting the definition of virtue = knowledge, also defined it as “strength and force.”
- It is apparently in view of this union in reason of rational beings that friends are allowed to be “external goods” to the sage, and that the possession of good children is also counted a good.
- The Stoics seem to have varied in their view of “good repute,” εὐδοξία; at first, when the school was more under the influence of Cynicism, they professed an outward as well as an inward indifference to it; ultimately they conceded the point to common sense, and included it among προηγμένα.
- It is noted of him that he did not disdain the co-operation either of women or of slaves in his philosophical labours.
- The last charge of Epicurus to his disciples is said to have been, τῶν δογμάτων μεμνῆσθαι.
- Marcus Aurelius.
- E.g. Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian.
- Citra sanguinis effusionem.
- To show the crudity of the notion of redemption in early Christianity, it is sufficient to mention that many fathers represent Christ’s ransom as having been paid to the devil; sometimes adding that by the concealment of Christ’s divinity under the veil of humanity a certain deceit was (fairly) practised on the great deceiver.
- It is to be observed that Augustine prefers to use “freedom” not for the power of willing either good or evil, but the power of willing good. The highest freedom, in his view, excludes the possibility of willing evil.
- Cicero’s works are unimportant in the history of ancient ethics, as their philosophical matter was entirely borrowed from Greek treatises now lost; but the influence exercised by them (especially by the De officiis) over medieval and even modern readers was very considerable.
- Abelard afterwards retracted this view, at least in its extreme form; and in fact does not seem to have been fully conscious of the difference between (1) unfulfilled intention to do an act objectively right, and (2) intention to do what is merely believed by the agent to be right.
- He was condemned by two synods, in 1121 and 1140.
- Synderesis (Gr. συντήρησις, from συντηρεῖν, to watch closely, observe) is used in this sense in Jerome (Com. in Ezek. i. 4-10).
- The refusal of the council of Constance to condemn Jean Petit’s advocacy of assassination is a striking example of this weakness. Cf. Milman, Lat. Christ. book xiii. c. 9.
- As the chief English casuists we may mention Perkins, Hall, Sanderson, as well as the more eminent Jeremy Taylor, whose Ductor dubitantium appeared in 1660.
- This influence was not exercised in the region of ethics. Bacon’s brief outline of moral philosophy (in the Advancement of Learning, ii. 20-22) is highly pregnant and suggestive. But Bacon’s great task of reforming scientific method was one which, as he conceived it, left morals on one side; he never made any serious effort to reduce his ethical views to a coherent system, methodically reasoned on an independent basis. The outline given in the Advancement was never filled in, and does not seem to have had any effect on the subsequent course of ethical speculation.
- He even identifies the desire with the pleasure, apparently regarding the stir of appetite and that of fruition as two parts of the same “motion.”
- In spite of Hobbes’s uncompromising egoism, there is a noticeable discrepancy between his theory of the ends that men naturally seek and his standard for determining their natural rights. This latter is never Pleasure simply, but always Preservation—though on occasion he enlarges the notion of “preservation” into “preservation of life so as not to be weary of it.” His view seems to be that in a state of nature most men will fight, rob, &c., “for delectation merely” or “for glory,” and that hence all men must be allowed an indefinite right to fight, rob, &c., “for preservation.”
- It should be noticed, however, that it is only in his treatment of Equity and Benevolence that he really follows out the mathematical analogy (cf. Sidgwick’s History of Ethics, 5th ed., pp. 180-181).
- It should be observed that, while Clarke is sincerely anxious to prove that most principles are binding independently of Divine appointment, he is no less concerned to show that morality requires the practical support of revealed religion.
- Three classes of impulses are thus distinguished by Shaftesbury—(1) “Natural Affections,” (2) “Self-affections,” and (3) “Unnatural Affections.” Their characteristics are further considered in the History of Ethics, p. 186 seq.
- In a remarkable passage near the close of his eleventh sermon Butler seems even to allow that conscience would have to give way to self-love, if it were possible (which it is not) that the two should come into ultimate and irreconcilable conflict.
- It is worth noticing that Hutcheson’s express definition of the object of self-love includes “perfection” as well as “happiness”; but in the working out of his system he considers private good exclusively as happiness or pleasure.
- Hume’s ethical view was finally stated in his Inquiry into the Principles of Morals (1751), which is at once more popular and more purely utilitarian than his earlier work.
- Hume remarks that in some cases, by “association of ideas,” the rule by which we praise and blame is extended beyond the principle of utility from which it arises; but he allows much less scope to this explanation in his second treatise than in his first.
- In earlier editions of the Inquiry Hume expressly included all approved qualities under the general notion of “virtue.” In later editions he avoided this strain on usage by substituting or adding “merit” in several passages—allowing that some of the laudable qualities which he mentions would be more commonly called “talents,” but still maintaining that “there is little distinction made in our internal estimation” of “virtues” and “talents.”
- It is to be observed that whereas Price and Stewart (after Butler) identify the object of self-love with happiness or pleasure, Reid conceives this “good” more vaguely as including perfection and happiness; though he sometimes uses “good” and happiness as convertible terms, and seems practically to have the latter in view in all that he says of self-love.
- E.g. Reid proposes to apply this principle in favour of monogamy, arguing from the proportion of males and females born; without explaining why, if the intention of nature hence inferred excludes occasional polygamy, it does not also exclude occasional celibacy.
- We may observe that some recent writers, who would generally be included in this school, avoid in various ways the difficulty of constructing a code of external conduct. Sometimes they consider moral intuition as determining the comparative excellence of conflicting motives (James Martineau), or the comparative quality of pleasures chosen (Laurie), which seems to be the same view in a hedonistic garb; others hold that what is intuitively perceived is the rightness or wrongness of individual acts—a view which obviously renders ethical reasoning practically superfluous.
- The originality—such as it is—of Paley’s system (as of Bentham’s) lies in its method of working out details rather than in its principles of construction. Paley expressly acknowledges his obligations to the original and suggestive, though diffuse and whimsical, work of Abraham Tucker (Light of Nature Pursued, 1768–1774). In this treatise, as in Paley’s, we find “every man’s own satisfaction, the spring that actuates all his motives,” connected with “general good, the root whereout all our rules of conduct and sentiments of honour are to branch,” by means of natural theology demonstrating the “unniggardly goodness of the author of nature.” Tucker is also careful to explain that satisfaction or pleasure is “one and the same in kind, however much it may vary in degree, . . . whether a man is pleased with hearing music, seeing prospects, tasting dainties, performing laudable actions, or making agreeable reflections,” and again that by “general good” he means “quantity of happiness,” to which “every pleasure that we do to our neighbour is an addition.” There is, however, in Tucker’s theological link between private and general happiness a peculiar ingenuity which Paley’s common sense has avoided. He argues that men having no free will have really no desert; therefore the divine equity must ultimately distribute happiness in equal shares to all; therefore I must ultimately increase my own happiness most by conduct that adds most to the general fund which Providence administers.
- It must be allowed that Paley’s application of this argument is somewhat loosely reasoned, and does not sufficiently distinguish the consequence of a single act of beneficent manslaughter from the consequences of a general permission to commit such acts.
- This list gives twelve out of the fourteen classes in which Bentham arranges the springs of action, omitting the religious sanction (mentioned afterwards), and the pleasures and pains of self-interest, which include all the other classes except sympathy and antipathy.
- In the Deontology published by Bowring from MSS. left after Bentham’s death, the coincidence is asserted to be complete.
- It should be observed that Austin, after Bentham, more frequently uses the term “moral” to connote what he more distinctly calls “positive morality,” the code of rules supported by common opinion in any society.
- In the before-mentioned dissertation. Cf. note 2 to p. 835. Hartley refers to this treatise as having supplied the starting-point for his own system.
- It should be noticed that Hartley’s sensationalism is far from leading him to exalt the corporeal pleasures. On the contrary, he tries to prove elaborately that they (as well as the pleasures of imagination, ambition, self-interest) cannot be made an object of primary pursuit without a loss of happiness on the whole—one of his arguments being that these pleasures occur earlier in time, and “that which is prior in the order of nature is always less perfect than that which is posterior.”
- It may be observed that in the view of Kant and others (2) and (3) are somewhat confusingly blended.
- Singularly enough, the English writer who approaches most nearly to Kant on this point is the utilitarian Godwin, in his Political Justice. In Godwin’s view, reason is the proper motive to acts conducive to general happiness: reason shows me that the happiness of a number of other men is of more value than my own; and the perception of this truth affords me at least some inducement to prefer the former to the latter. And supposing it to be replied that the motive is really the moral uneasiness involved in choosing the selfish alternative, Godwin answers that this uneasiness, though a “constant step” in the process of volition, is a merely “accidental” step—“I feel pain in the neglect of an act of benevolence, because benevolence is judged by me to be conduct which it becomes me to adopt.”
- In Kantism, as we have partly seen, the most important ontological beliefs—in God, freedom and immortality of the soul—are based on necessities of ethical thought. In Fichte’s system the connexion of ethics and metaphysics is still more intimate; indeed, we may compare it in this respect to Platonism; as Plato blends the most fundamental notions of each of these studies in the one idea of good, so Fichte blends them in the one idea free-will. “Freedom,” in his view, is at once the foundation of all being and the end of all moral action. In the systems of Schelling and Hegel ethics falls again into a subordinate place; indeed, the ethical view of the former is rather suggested than completely developed. Neither Fichte nor Schelling has exercised more than the faintest and most indirect influence on ethical philosophy in England; it therefore seems best to leave the ethical doctrines of each to be explained in connexion with the rest of his system.
- Cf. A. Seth Pringle-Pattison, The Philosophical Radicals. Martineau’s Philosophy, p. 92.