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Ethics(1912) Chapter 3. The Objectivity of Moral

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Chapter 3. The Objectivity of Moral Judgments

Against the theory, which has been stated in the last two chapters, an enormous variety of different objections may be urged; and I cannot hope to deal with nearly all of them. What I want to do is to choose out those, which seem to me to be the most important, because they are the most apt to be strongly felt, and because they concern extremely general questions of principle. It seems to me that some of these objections are well founded, and that others are not, according as they are directed against different parts of what our theory asserts. And I propose, therefore, to split up the theory into parts, and to consider separately the chief objections which might be urged against these different parts.(Ch. 3 ?1)

And we may begin with an extremely fundamental point. Our theory plainly implied two things. It implied (1) that, if it is true at any one time that a particular voluntary action is right, it mustalwaysbe true of that particular action that itwasright: or, in other words, that an action cannot change from right to wrong, or from wrong to right; that it cannot possibly be true of the very same action that it is right at one time and wrong at another. And it implied also (2) that the same action cannot possiblyat the same timebe both right and wrong. It plainly implied both these two things because it asserted that a voluntary action can only be right, if it produces a maximum of pleasure, and can only be wrong, if it produces less than a maximum. And obviously, if it isoncetrue of any action that it did produce a maximum of pleasure, it mustalwaysbe true of it that it did; and obviously also it cannot be true at one and the same time of one and the same action both that it did produce a maximum of pleasure and also that it produced less than a maximum. Our theory implied, therefore, that any particular action cannot possibly bebothright and wrong either at the same time or at different times. At any particular time it must be either right or wrong, and, whichever it is at any one time, it will be the same at all times.(Ch. 3 ?2)

It must be carefully noticed, however, that our theory only implies that this is true of anyparticularvoluntary action, which we may choose to consider: it does not imply that the same is ever true of aclassof actions. That is to say, it implies thatif, at the time when Brutus murdered C鎠ar, this action of his was right, then, it must be equally true now, and will always be true, that this particular action of Brutus was right, and it never can have been and never will be true that it waswrong. Brutus?action on this particular occasion cannot, it says, have been both right and wrong; and if it was once true that it was right, then it must always be true that it was right; or if it was once true that it was wrong, it must always be true that it was wrong. And similarly with every other absolutely particular action, which actually was done or might have been done by a particular man on a particular occasion. Of every such action, our theory says, it is true that it cannot at any time have been both right and wrong; and also that, whichever of these two predicates it possessed at any one time, it must possess the same at all times. But it doesnotimply that the same is true of any particularclassof actions梠f murder, for instance. It doesn ot assert that if one murder, committed at one time, was wrong, then any other murder, committed at the same time, must also have been wrong; nor that if one murder, committed at one time, is wrong, any other murder committed at any other time must be wrong. On the contrary, though it does not directly imply that this is false, yet it does imply that it is unlikely that any particularclassof actions will absolutely always be right or absolutely always wrong. For, it holds, as we have seen, that the question whether an action is right or wrong depends upon its effects; and the question what effects an action will produce depends, of course, not only upon theclassto which it belongs, but also on the particular circumstances in which it is done. While, in one set of circumstances, a particular kind of action may produce good effects, in other circumstances a precisely similar action may produce bad ones. And, since the circumstances are always changing, it is extremely unlikely (though not impossible), that actions of any particular class, such as murder or adultery, should absolutelyalwaysbe right or absolutelyalwayswrong. Our theory, therefore, does not imply that, if an actionof a particular classis right once, every other actionof the same classmust always be right: on the contrary, it follows from its view that this is unlikely to be true. What it does imply, is that if we consider any particularinstanceof any class, that particularinstancecannot ever be both right and wrong, and if once right, must always be right. And it is extremely important to distinguish clearly between these two different questions, because they are liable to be confused. When we ask whetherthe sameaction can be both right and wrong we may mean two entirely different things by this question. We may merely mean to ask: Can the samekindof action be right at one time and wrong at another, or right and wrong simultaneously? And to this question our theory would be inclined to answer: It can. Or else bethe sameaction, we may mean not merely the samekindof action, but some single absolutely particular action, which was or might have been performed by a definite person on a definite occasion. And it is tothisquestion that our theory replies: It is absolutely impossible that any one single, absolutely particular solution can ever be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times.(Ch. 3 ?3)

Now the question as to whether one and the same action can ever be both right and wrong at the same time, or can ever be right at one time and wrong at another, is, I think, obviously an extremely fundamental one. If we decide it in the affirmative, then a great many of the questions which have been most discussed by ethical writers are at once put out of court. It must, for instance, be idle to discuss what characteristic there is, which universally distinguishes right actions from wrong ones, if this view be true. If one and the same action can be both right and wrong, then obviously there can benosuch characteristic梩here can be no characteristic whichalwaysbelongs to right actions, andneverto wrong ones: since, if so much as one single action isbothright and wrong, this action must possess any characteristic (if there is one) whichalwaysbelongs to right actions, and, at the same time, since the action is also wrong, this characteristic cannot be one whichneverbelongs to wrong actions. Before, therefore, we enter on any discussions as to what characteristic there is whichalwaysbelongs to right actions andneverto wrong ones, it is extremely important that we should satisfy ourselves, if we can, that one and the same action cannot be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times. For, if this is not the case, then all such discussions must be absolutely futile. I propose, therefore, first of all, to raise the simple issue: Can one and the same action be both right and wrong, either at the same time or at different times? Is the theory stated in the last two chapters in the right, so far as it merely asserts that this cannot be the case?(Ch. 3 ?4)

Now I think that most of those who hold, as this theory does, that one and the same action cannot be both right and wrong, simply assume that this is the case, without trying to prove it. It is, indeed, quite common to find the mere fact that a theory implies the contrary, used as a conclusive argument against that theory. It is argued: Since this thoery implies that one and the same action can be both right and wrong, and since it is evident that this cannot be so, therefore the theory in question must be false. And, for my part, it seems to me that such a method of argument is perfectly justified. It does seem to me to be evident that no voluntary action can be both right and wrong; and I do not see how this can be proved by reference to any principle which is more certain than it is itself. If, therefore, anybody asserts that the contrary is evident to him梩hat it is evident to him that one and the same actioncanbe both right and wrong, I do not see how it can beprovedthat he is wrong. If the question is reduced to these ultimate terms, it must, I think, simply be left to the reader抯 inspection. Like all ultimate questions, it is incapable of strict proof either way. But most of those who hold that an action can be both right and wrong are, I think, in fact influenced by certain considerations, which do admit of argument. They hold certain views, from which this conclusion follows; and it is only because they hold these views, that they adopt the conclusion. There are, I think, two views, in particular, which are very commonly held and which are specially influential in leading people to adopt it. And it is very important that we should consider these two views carefully, both because they lead to this conclusion and for other reasons.(Ch. 3 ?5)

The first of them is as follows. It may be held, namely, that, whenever we assert that an action or class of actions is right or wrong, we must be merely making an assertion about somebody抯feelingstowards the action or class of actions in question. This is a view which seems to be very commonly held in some form or other; and one chief reason why it is held is, I think, that many people seem to find an extreme difficulty in seeing what else we possiblycanmean by the wordsrightandwrong,except that some mind or set of minds has some feeling, or some other mental attitude, towards the actions to which we apply these predicates. In some of its forms this view does not lead to the consequence that one and the same action may be both right and wrong; and with these forms we are not concerned just at present. But some of the forms in which it may be held do directly lead to this consequence; and where people do hold that one and the same action may be both right and wrong, it is, I think, very generally because they hold this view in one of these forms. There are several different forms of it which do lead to this consequence, and they are apt, I think, not to be clearly distinguished from one another. People are apt to assume that in our judgments of right and wrong we must be making an assertion about the feelings ofsomeman orsomegroup of men, without trying definitely to make up their minds as to who the man or group of men can be about whose feelings we are making it. So soon as this question is fairly faced, it becomes plain, I think, that there are serious objections to any possible alternative.(Ch. 3 ?6)

To begin with, it may be held that whenever any man asserts an action to be right or wrong, what he is asserting is merely that hehimselfhas some particular feeling towards the action in question. Each of us, according to this view, is merely making an assertion abouthis ownfeelings: whenIassert that an action is right, thewholeof what I mean is merely thatIhave some particular feeling towards the action; and whenyoumake the same assertion, thewholeof what you mean is merely thatyouhave the feeling in question towards the action. Different views may, of course, be taken as to what the feeling is which we are supposed to assert that we have. Some people might say that, when we call an action right, we are merely asserting that welikeit or arepleasedwith it; and that when we call one wrong, we are merely asserting that wedislikeit or aredispleasedwith it. Others might say, more plausibly, that it is notmereliking and dislike that we express by these judgments, but a peculiar sort of liking and dislike, which might perhaps be called a feeling ofmoral approvaland ofmoral disapproval. Others, again, might, perhaps, say that it is not a pair of opposite feelings which are involved, but merely the presence or absence of one particular feeling: that, for instance, when we call an action wrong, we merely mean to say that we have towards it a feeling of disapproval, and that by calling it right, we mean to say, not that we have towards it apositivefeeling of approval, but merely that we havenotgot towards it the feeling of disapproval. But whatever view be taken as to the precise nature of the feelings about which we are supposed to be making a judgment,anyview which holds that, when we call an action right or wrong, each of us is always merely asserting that hehimselfhas or has not some particular feeling towards it, does, I think, inevitably lead to the same conclusion梟amely, that quite often one and the same action isbothright and wrong; andanysuch view is also exposed to one and the same fatal objection.(Ch. 3 ?7)

The argument which shows that such views inevitably lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is quite often both right and wrong, consists of two steps, each of which deserves to be separately emphasised.(Ch. 3 ?8)

The first is this. If, whenever I judge an action to be right, I am merely judging that I myself have a particular feeling towards it, then it plainly follows that, provided I really have the feeling in question, my judgment is true, and therefore the action in question really is right. And what is true of me, in this respect, will also be true of any other man. No matter what we suppose the feeling to be, it must be true that, whenever and so long asanyman really has towards any action the feeling in question, then, and for just so long, the action in question really is right. For what our theory supposes is that, when a man judges an action to be right, he is merely judgingthathe has this feeling towards it; and hence, whenever he really has it, his judgment must be true, and the action really must be right. It strictly follows, therefore, from this theory that wheneverany man whateverreally has a particular feeling towards an action, the action really is right; and wheneverany man whateverreally has another particular feeling towards an action, the action really is wrong. Or, if we take the view that it is not a pair of feelings which are in question, but merely the presence or absence of a single feeling梖or instance the feeling of moral disapproval; then, what follows is, that whenever any man whatever fails to have this feeling towards an action, the action really is right, and whenever any man whatever has got the feeling, the action really is wrong. Whatever view we take as to what the feelings are, and whether we suppose that it is a pair of feelings or merely the presence and absence of a single one, the consequence follows that the presence (or absence) of the feeling in question inany man whateveris sufficient to ensure that an action is right or wrong, as the case may be. And it is important to insist that this consequence does follow, because it is not, I think, always clearly seen. It seems sometimes to be vaguely held that when a man judges an action to be right, he is merely judging that he has a particular feeling towards it, but that yet, though he really has this feeling, the action is not necessarily really right. But obviously this is impossible. If thewholeof what we mean to assert, when we say that an action is right, is merely that we have a particular feeling towards it, then plainly, provided only we really have this feeling, the actionmustbe really right.(Ch. 3 ?9)

It follows, therefore, from any view of this type, that, wheneveranyman has (or has not) some particular feeling towards an action, the action is right; and also that, wheneveranyman has (or has not) some particular feeling towards an action, the action is wrong. And now, if we take into account a second fact, it seems plainly to follow that, if this be so, one and the same action must quite often be both right and wrong.(Ch. 3 ?10)

This second fact is merely the observed fact, which it seems difficult to deny, that, whatever pair of feelings or single feeling we take, cases do occur in which two different men have opposite feelings towards the same action, and in which, while one has a given feeling towards an action, the other has not got it. It might, perhaps, be thought that it is possible to findsomepair of feelings orsomesingle feeling, in the case of which this rule does not hold: that, for instance, no man everreallyfeels moral approval towards an action, towards which another feels moral disapproval. This is a view which people are apt to take, because, where we have a strong feeling of moral disapproval towards an action, we may find it very difficult to believe that any other manreallyhas a feeling of moral approval towards the same action, or even that he regards it without some degree of moral disapproval. And there is some excuse for this view in the fact, that when a man says that an action is right, and even though he sincerely believes it to be so, it may nevertheless be the case that he reallyfeelstowards it some degree of moral disapproval. That is to say, though it is certain that men抯opinionsas to what is right and wrong often differ, it is not certain that theirfeelingsalways differ when their opinions do. But still, if we look at the extraordinary differences that there have been and are between different races of mankind, and in different stages of society, in respect of the classes of actions which have been regarded as right and wrong, it is, I think, scarcely possible to doubt that, in some societies, actions have been regarded with actualfeelingsof positive moral approval, towards which many of us would feel the strongest disapproval. And if this is so with regard toclassesof actions, it can hardly fail to be sometimes the case with regard toparticularactions. We may, for instance, read of a particular action, which excites in us a strong feeling of moral disapproval; and yet it can hardly be doubted that sometimes this very action will have been regarded by some of the men among whom it was done, without any feeling of disapproval whatever, and even with a feeling of positive approval. But, if this be so, then, on the view we are considering, it will absolutely follow that whereas it was truethen, when it was done, that that action was right, it is truenowthat the very same action was wrong.(Ch. 3 ?11)

And, once we admit that there have been such real differences of feeling between men in different stages of society, we must also, I think, admit that such differences do quite often exist even among contemporaries, when they are members of very different societies; so that one and the same action may quite often beat the same timeboth right and wrong. And, having admitted this, we ought, I think, to go still further. Once we are convinced that real differences offeelingtowards certain classes of actions, and not merely differences of opinion, do exist between men in different states of society, the probability is that when two men in the same state of society differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong, this difference of opinion, though it by no means always indicates a corresponding difference of feeling, yet sometimes really is accompanied by such a difference: so that two members of thesamesociety may really sometimes have opposite feelings towards one and the same action,whatever feeling we take. And finally, we must admit, I think, that even one and the same individual may experience such a change of feeling towards one and the same action. A man certainly does often come to change hisopinionas to whether a particular action was right or wrong; and we must, I think, admit that, sometimes at least, his feelings towards it completely change as well; so that, for instance, an action, which he formerly regarded with moral disapproval, he may now regard with positive moral approval, andvice versa. So that, for this reason alone, and quite apart from differences of feeling between different men, we shall have to admit, according to our theory, that it is oftennowtrue of an action that itwasright, although it was formerly true of the same action that itwaswrong.(Ch. 3 ?12)

This fact, on which I have been insisting, that different men do feel differently towards the same action, and that even the same man may feel differently towards it at different times, is, of course, a mere commonplace; and my only excuse for insisting on it is that it might possibly be thought that some one feeling or pair of feelings, and those the very ones which it is most plausible to regard astheones about which we are making an assertion in our judgments of right and wrong, are exceptions to the rule. I think, however, we must recognise that no feeling or pair of feelings, which could possibly be maintained to betheones with which our judgments of right and wrong are concerned, does, in fact, form an exception. Whatever feeling you take, it seems hardly possible to doubt that instances have actually occurred, in which, while one man really had the feeling in question towards a given action, other men havenothad it, and some of them have even had an opposite one, towards the same action. There may, perhaps, besomeclasses of actions in the case of which this has never occurred: and, if there are anyat all, that is sufficient to establish our conclusion. For if this is so, and if, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, he is always merely asserting that he himself has some particular feeling towards it, then it absolutely follows that one and the same action has sometimes beenbothright and wrong梤ight at one time and wrong at another, or both simultaneously.(Ch. 3 ?13)

And I think that some argument of this sort is the chief reason why many people are apt to hold that one and the same action may be both right and wrong. They are much impressed by the fact that different men do feel quite differently towards the same classes of action, and, holding also that, when we judge an action to be right or wrong, wemustbe merely making a judgment about somebody抯 feelings, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that one and the same action oftenisboth right and wrong. This conclusion does not, indeed, necessarily follow from these two doctrines taken together. Whether it follows or not, depends on the precise form in which we hold the latter doctrine梪ponwhothe somebody is about whose feelings we are making the assertion. But itdoesfollow from the precise form of this doctrine which we are now considering梩he form which asserts that each man is merely making an assertion abouthis ownfeelings. And, since this is one of the most plausible forms in which the doctrine can be held, it is extremely important to consider, whether it can be true in this form. Can it possibly be the case, then, that, when we judge an action to be right or wrong, each of us is only asserting thathe himselfhas some particular feeling towards it?(Ch. 3 ?14)

It seems to me that there is an absolutely fatal objection to the view that this is the case. It must be remembered that the question is merely a question of fact; a question as to the actual analysis of our moral judgments梐s to what it is that actually happens, when wethinkan action to be right or wrong. And if we remember that it is thus merely a question as to what weactuallythink, when we think an action to be right or wrong,梟either more nor less than this,梚t can, I think, be clearly seen that the view which we are considering is inconsistent with plain facts. This is so, because it involves a curious consequence, which those who hold it do not always seem to realise that it involves; and this consequence is, I think, plainly not in accordance with the facts. The consequence is this. If, when one man says,This action is right,and another answers,No, it is not right,each of them is always merely making an assertion abouthis ownfeelings, it plainly follows that there is never really any difference of opinion between them: the one of them is never really contradicting what the other is asserting. They are no more contradicting one anohter than if, when one had said,I like sugar,the other had answered,I don抰like sugar.In such a case, there is, of course, no conflict of opinion, no contradiction of one by the other: for it may perfectly well be the case that what each asserts is equally true; it may quite well be the case that the one man really does like sugar, and the other really doesnotlike it. The one, therefore, isneverdenying what the other is asserting. And what the view we are considering involves is that when one man holds an action to be right, and another holds it to be wrong or not right, here also the one isneverdenying what the other is asserting. It involves, therefore, the very curious consequence that no two men can ever differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong. And surely the fact that it involves this consequence is sufficient to condemn it. It is surely plain matter of fact that when I assert an action to be wrong, and another man asserts it to be right, there sometimes is a real difference of opinion between us: he sometimes is denying the very thing which I am asserting. But, if this is so, then it cannot possibly be the case that each of us is merely making a judgment about his own feelings; since two such judgments never can contradict one another. We can, therefore, reduce the question whether this theory is true or not, to a very simple question of fact. Is it ever the case that when one man thinks that an action is right and another thinks it isnotright, that the second really is thinking that the action hasnotgot some predicate which the first thinks that it has got? I think, if we look at this question fairly, we must admit that it sometimes is the case; that both men may use the wordrightto denoteexactly the samepredicate, and that the one may really be thinking that the action in question really has this predicate, while the other is thinking that it hasnotgot it. But if this is so, then the theory we are considering certainly is not true. It cannot be true that every man always denotes by the wordrightmerely a relation tohis ownfeelings, since, if that were so, no two men would ever denote by this wordthe samepredicate; and hence a man who said that an action wasnotright could never be denying that it had the very predicate which another, who said that itwasright, was asserting that it had.(Ch. 3 ?15)

It seems to me this argument proves conclusively that, whatever we do mean, when we say that an action is right, we certainly do not mean merely that weourselveshave a certain feeling towards it. But it is important to distinguish carefully between exactly what itdoesprove, and what it doesnotprove. It doesnotprove, at all, that it may not be the case, that, whenever any man judges an action to be right, he always, in fact,hasa certain feeling towards it. But it is important to distinguish carefully between exactly what itdoesprove, and what it doesnotprove. It doesnotprove, at all, that it may not be the case, that, whenever any man judges an action to be right, he always, in fact,hasa certain feeling towards it, and even that he makes the judgment onlybecausehe has that feeling. It only proves that, even if this be so,whathe is judging is not merelythathe has the feeling. And these two points are, I think, very liable to be confused. It may be alleged that to be a fact that whenever a man judges an action to be right, he only does so,becausehe has a certain feeling towards it; and this alleged fact may actually be used as an argument to prove thatwhathe is judging is merelythathe has the feeling. But obviously, even if the alleged fact be a fact, it does not in the last support this conclusion. The two points are entirely different, and there is a most important difference between their consequences. The difference is that, even if it be true that a man never judges an action to be right, unless he has a certain feeling towards it, yet, if this be all, the mere fact that he has this feeling, will not prove his judgment to be true; we may quite well hold that, even though he has the feeling and judges the action to be right, yet sometimes his judgment is false and the action is not really right. But if, on the other hand, we hold thatwhathe is judging is merelythathe has the feeling, then the mere fact that he has itwillprove his judgment to be true: if he is only judgingthathe has it, then the mere factthathe has it is, of course, sufficient to make his judgment true. We must, therefore, distinguish carefully between the assertion that, whenever a man judges an action to be right, he only does sobecausehe has a certain feeling, and the entirely different assertion, that, whenever he judges an action to be right, he is merely judgingthathe has this feeling. The former assertion, even if it be true, does not prove that the latter is true also. And we may, therefore, dispute the latter without disputing the former. It isonlythe latter which our argument proves to be untrue; and not a word has been said tending to show that the former may not be perfectly true.(Ch. 3 ?16)

Our argument, therefore, does not disprove the assertion, if it should be made, that we only judge actions to be right and wrong,whenandbecausewe have certain feelings towards them. And it is also important to insist that it does not disprove another assertion also. It does not disprove the assertion that, whenever any man has a certain feeling towards an action, the action is,as a matter of fact, always right. Anybody is still perfectly free to hold that this is true,as a matter of fact, and that, therefore,as a matter of fact, one and the same action often is both right and wrong, even if he admits what our argument does prove; namely, that, when a manthinksan action to be right or wrong, he is not merelythinkingthat he has some feeling towards it. The only importance of our argument, in this connection, is merely that it destroys one of the main reasons for holding that thisistrue, as a matter of fact. If we once clearly see that to say that an action is right is not the same thing as to say that we have any feeling towards it, what reason is there left for holding that the presence of a certain feeling is, in fact, always a sign that it is right? No one, I think, would be very much tempted to assert that the mere presence (or absence) of a certain feeling is invariably a sign of rightness, but for the supposition that, in some way or other, the only possible meaning of the wordright,as applied to actions, is that somebody has a certain feeling towards them. And it is this supposition, in one of its forms, that our argument does disprove.(Ch. 3 ?17)

But even if it be admitted that, in this precise form, the view is quite untenable, it may still be urged that nevertheless it is true in some other form, from which the same consequence will follow梟amely, the consequence that one and the same action is quite often both right and wrong. Many people have such a strong disposition to believe that when we judge an action to be right or wrong wemustbe merely making an assertion about the feelings ofsomeman or set of men, that, even if they are convinced that we are not always merely making an assertion, each abouthis ownfeelings, they will still be disposed to think that we must be making one aboutsomebody else抯. The difficulty is to find any man or set of men about whose feelings it can be plausibly held that we are making an assertion, if we are not merely making one about our own; but still there are two alternatives, which may seem, at first sight, to be just possible, namely (1) that each man, when he asserts an action to be right or wrong, is merely asserting that a certain feeling isgenerallyfelt towards actions of that class by most of the members of the society to which he belongs, or (2) merely thatsome man or otherhas a certain feeling towards them.(Ch. 3 ?18)

From either of these two views, it will, of course, follow that one and the same action is often both right and wrong, for the same reasons as were given in the last case. Thus, if, whenIassert an action to be right, I am merely asserting that it is generally approved in the society to whichIbelong, it follows, of course, that if itisgenerally approved by my society, my assertion is true, and the action reallyisright. But as we saw, it seems undeniable, that some actions which are generally approved inmysociety, will have been disapproved or will still be disapproved in other societies. And, since any member of one of those societies will, on this view, when he judges an action to be wrong, be merely judging that it is disapproved inhissociety, it follows that when he judges one of these actions, which really is disapproved in his society, though approved in mine, to bewrong, this judgment of his will be just as true asmyjudgment that the same action was right: and hence the same action really will be both right and wrong. And similarly, if we adopt the other alternative, and say that when a man judges an action to be right he is merely judging thatsome man or otherhas a particular feeling towards it, it will, of course, follow that whenever any man at all really has this feeling towards it, the action really is right, while, whenever any man at all hasnotgot it or has an opposite feeling, the action really is wrong: and, since cases will certainly occur in which one man has the required feeling, while another has an opposite one towards the same action, in all such cases the same action will be both right and wrong.(Ch. 3 ?19)

From either of these two views, then, the same consequence will follow. And, though I do not know whether any one would definitely hold either of them to be true, it is, I think, worth while briefly to consider the objections to them, because they seem to be the only alternatives left, from which this consequence will follow, when once we have rejected the view that, in our judgments of right and wrong, each of us is merely talking abouthis ownfeelings; and because, while the objection which did apply to that view, does not apply equally to these, there is an objection which does apply to these, but which does not apply nearly so obviously to that one.(Ch. 3 ?20)

The objection which was urged against that view does, indeed, apply, in a limited extent, to the first of these two: since if when a man judges an action to be right or wrong, he is always merely making an assertion about the feelings ofhis ownsociety, it will follow that two men, who belong todifferentsocieties, can never possibly differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong. But this objection does not apply as between two men who both belong belong to thesamesociety. The view that when any man asserts an action to be right he is merely making an assertion about the feelings ofhis ownsociety, does allow that two men belonging to thesamesociety may really differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong. Neither this view, therefore, nor the view that we are merely asserting thatsome man or otherhas a particular feeling towards the action in question involves the absurdity thatnotwo men can ever differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong. We cannot, therefore, urge the fact that they involve this absurdity thatnotwo men can ever differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong. We cannot, therefore, urge the fact that they involve this absurdity as an objection against them, as we could against the view that each man is merely talking ofhis ownfeelings.(Ch. 3 ?21)

But both of them are nevertheless exposed to another objection, equally fatal, to which that view was not so obviously exposed. The objection is again merely one of psychological fact, resting upon observation of what actually happens when a man thinks an action to be right or wrong. For, whatever feeling or feelings we take as the ones about which he is supposed to be judging, it is quite certain that a man may think an action to be right, even when he doesnotthink that the members of his society have in general the required feeling (or absence of feeling) towards it; and that similarly he may doubt whether an action is right, even when he doesnotdoubt thatsome man or otherhas the required feeling towards it. Cases of this kind certainly constantly occur, and what they prove is that, whatever a man is thinking when he thinks an action to be right, he is certainlynotmerely thinking that his society has in general a particular feeling towards it; and similarly that, when he is in doubt as to whether an action is right, the question about which he is in doubt is not merely as to whether any man at all has the required feeling towards it. Facts of this kind are, therefore, absolutely fatal to both of these two theories; whereas in the case of the theory that he is merely making a judgment abouthis ownfeelings, it is not so obvious that there are any facts of the same kind inconsistent with it. For here it might be urged with some plausibility (though, I think, untruly) that when a man judges an action to be right he always does think that he himself has some particular feeling towards it; and similarly that when he is in doubt as to whether an action is right he always is in doubt as to his own feelings. But it cannot possibly be urged, with any plausibility at all, that when a man judges an action to be right he always thinks, for instance, that it is generally approved in his society; or that when he is in doubt, he is always in doubt as to whetheranyman approves it. He may know quite well thatsomebodydoes approve it, and yet be in doubt whether it is right; and he may be quite certain that his society doesnotapprove it, and yet still think that itisright. And the same will hold,whateverfeeling we take instead of moral approval.(Ch. 3 ?22)

These facts, then, seem to me to prove conclusively that, when a man judges an action to be right or wrong, he isnotalways merely judging that his society has some particular feeling towards actions of that class, nor yet thatsomeman has. But here again it is important to insist on the limitations of the argument; and to distinguish clearly between what itdoesprove and what it doesnot. It does not, of course, prove that any class action towards which any society has a particular feeling, may not,as a matter of fact, always be right; nor even that any action, towards which any manwhateverhas the feeling, may not,as a matter of fact, always be so. Anybody, while fully admitting the force of our argument, is still perfectly free to hold that these things are true,as a matter of fact; and hence that one and the same action often is both right and wrong. All that our arguments, taken together, do strictly prove, is that, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, he isnotmerely making an as, sertion either about his own feelings no, r yet about those of the society in which he lives, nor yet merely that some man or other has some feeling towards it. This, and nothing more, is what theyprove. But if we once admit that this muchisproved, what reason have we left for asserting that itistrue,as a matter of fact, that whatever any society or any man has a particular feeling towards, always is right? Itmay, of course, be true, as a matter of fact; but is there any reason for supposing that it is? If the predicate which we mean by the wordright,and which, therefore, must belong to every action which really is right, is something quite different from a mere relation to anybody抯 feelings, why should we suppose that such a relation does, in fact, always go along with it; and that this predicate always belongs,in addition, to every action which has the required relation to somebody抯 feelings? If rightness is not the same thing as the having a relation to the feelings of any man or set of men, it would be a curious coincidence, if any such relation were invariably a sign of rightness. What we have proved is that rightness isnotthe same thing as any such relation; and if that be so, then, the probability is that even where an action has the required relation to somebody抯 feelings, it willnotalways be right.(Ch. 3 ?23)

There are, then, conclusive reasons against the view that, when we assert an action to be right or wrong, we are merely asserting that somebody has a particular feeling towards it, in any of the forms in which it will follow from this view that one and the same action can be both right and wrong. And we can, I think, also see that one of the reasons, which seems to have had most influence in leading people to suppose that this viewmustbe true, in some form or other, is quite without weight. The reason I mean is one drawn from certain considerations as to theoriginof our moral judgments. It has been widely held that, in the history of the human race, judgments of right and wrongoriginatedin the fact that primitive men or their non-human ancestors had certain feelings towards certain classes of actions. That is to say, it is supposed that there was a time, if we go far enough back, when our ancestorsdidhave different feelings towards different actions, being, for instance, pleased with some and displeased with others, but when they didnot, as yet, judge any actions to be right or wrong; and that it was only because they transmitted these feelings, more or less modified, to their descendents, that those descendents at some later stage, began to make judgments of right and wrong; so that, in a sense, our moral judgments weredeveloped out ofmere feelings. And I can see no objection to the supposition that this was so. But, then, it seems also to be often supposed that, if our moral judgments were developed out of feelings梚f this was their origin梩hey muststillat this moment be somehow concerned with feelings: that the developed product must resemble the germ out of which it was developed in this particular respect. And this is an assumption for which there is, surely, no shadow of ground. It is admitted, on all hands, that the developed product does always differ, in some respects, from its origin; and the precise respects in which it differs is a matter which can only be settled by observation: we cannot lay down a universal rule that itmustalways resemble it in certain definite respects. Thus, even those who hold that our moral judgments are merely judgments about feelings must admit that, at some point in the history of the human race, men, or their ancestors, began not merely tohavefeelings but tojudgethat they had them: and this alone means an enormous change. If such a change as this must have occurred at some time or other, without our being able to say precisely when or why, what reason is there, why another change, which is scarcely greater, should not also have occurred, either before or after it? a change consisting in the fact that men for the first time become conscious of another predicate, which might attach to actions, beside the mere fact that certain feelings were felt towards them, and began to judge of this other predicate that it did or did not belong to certain actions? It is certain that, if men have been developed from non-human ancestors at all, there must have been many occasions on which they became possessed for the first time of some new idea. And why should not the ideas, which we convey by the wordsrightandwrong,be among the number, even if these ideas donotmerely consist in the thought that some man has a particular feeling towards some action? There is no more reason why such an idea should not have been developed out of the mere existence of a feeling than why the judgment that wehavefeelings should not have been developed from the same origin. And hence the theory that moral judgments originated in feelings does not, in fact, lend any support at all to the theory that now, as developed, they can only be judgmentsaboutfeelings. No argument from the origin of a thing can be a safe guide as to exactly what the nature of the thing is now. That is a question which must be settled by actual analysis of the thing in its present state. And such analysis seems plainly to show that moral judgments arenotmerely judgments about feelings.(Ch. 3 ?24)

I conclude, then, that the theory that our judgments of right and wrong are merely judgments about somebody抯 feelings is quite untenable in any of the forms in which it will lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is often both right and wrong. But I said that this was only one out of two theories, which seem to be those which have the most influence in leading people to adopt this conclusion. And we must now briefly consider the second of these two theories.(Ch. 3 ?25)

This second theory is one which is often confused with the one just considered. It consists in asserting that when we judge an action to be right or wrong what we are asserting is merely that somebody or otherthinksit to be right or wrong. That is to say, just as the last theory asserted that our moral judgments are merely judgments about somebody抯feelings, this one asserts that they are merely judgments about somebody抯thoughtsor opinions. And they are apt to be confused with one another because a man抯feelingswith regard to an action are not always clearly distinguished from hisopinionas to whether it is right or wrong. Thus one and the same word is often used, sometimes to express the fact that a man has afeelingtowards an action, and sometimes to express the fact that he has anopinionabout it. When, for instance, we say that a manapprovesan action, we may meaneitherthat he has a feeling towards it,orthat hethinksit to be right; and so too, when we say that hedisapprovesit, we may meaneitherthat he has a certain feeling towards it,orthat he thinks it to be wrong. But yet it is quite plain that to have a feeling towards an action, no matter what feeling we take, is a different thing from judging it to be right or wrong. Even if we were to adopt one of the views just rejected and to say that to judge an action to be right or wrong is the same thing as to judge that we have a feeling towards it, it would still follow that to make the judgment is something different from merelyhavingthe feeling; for a man may certainlyhavea feeling, without thinking that he has it; or think that he has it, without having it. We must, therefore, distinguish between the theory that to say that an action is right or wrong is the same thing as to say that somebody has some kind offeelingtowards it, and the theory that it is the same thing as to say that somebodythinksit to be right or wrong.(Ch. 3 ?26)

This latter theory, however, may be held in the same three different forms, as the former; and in whichever form it is held, it will lead to the same conclusion梟amely, that one and the same action is very often both right and wrong梐nd for the same reasons. If, for instance, when I say that an action is right, all that I mean is that Ithinkit to be right, it will follow, that, if I do really think it to be right, my judgmentthatI think so will be true; and since this judgment is supposed to be identical with the judgment that itisright, it will follow that the judgment that it is right is true and hence that the action really is right. And since it is even more obvious that different men抯 opinions as to whether a given action is right or wrong differ both at the same time and at different times, than that their feelings towards the same action differ, it will follow that one and the same action very oftenisboth right and wrong. And just as the conclusion which follows from this theory is the same as that which followed from the last, so also, in each of the three different forms in which it may be held, it is open to exactly the same objections. Thus, in its first form, it will involve the absurdity that no two men ever differ in opinion as to whether an action is right or wrong, and will thus contradict a plain fact. While in the other two forms, it will involve the conclusions that no man ever thinks an action to be right, unless he thinks that his society thinks it to be right, and that no man ever doubts whether an action is right, unless he doubts whether any man at all thinks it right梩wo conclusions which are both of them certainly untrue.(Ch. 3 ?27)

These objections are, I think, sufficient by themselves to dispose of this theory as of the last; but it is worth while to dwell on it a little longer, because it is also exposed to another objection, of quite a different order, to which the last was not exposed, and because it owes its plausibility partly, I think, to the fact that it is liable to be confused with another theory, which may be expressed in exactly the same words, and which may quite possibly be true.(Ch. 3 ?28)

The special objection to which this theory is exposed consists in the fact that it is in all cases totally impossible that, when we believe a given thing,whatwe believe should merely be that we (or anybody else) have the belief in question. This is impossible, because, if it were the case, we should not be believing anything at all. For let us suppose it to be the case: let us suppose that, when I believe thatAisB, what I am believing is merelythatsomebody believes thatAisB. What I am believing, on this supposition, is merely that somebody (either myself or somebody else) entertains the belief thatAisB. But whatisthis belief which I am believing that somebody entertains? According to theory it is itself, in its turn, merely the beliefthat somebody believesthatAisB. So that what I am believing turns out to be that somebody believesthat somebody believes梩hatAisB. But here again, we may substitute for the phrasethatAisB,what is supposed to be identical with it梟amely,that somebody believes, thatAisB. And here again we may make the same substitution; and so on absolutelyad infinitum. So that what I am believing will turn out to be that somebody believes, that somebody believes, that somebody believes, that somebody believes ?ad infinitum. Always, when I try to state,whatit is that the somebody believes, I shall find it to be again merelythatsomebody believes ? and I shall never get to anything whatever which iswhatis believed. But thus to believe that somebody believes, that somebody believes, that somebody believes ?quite indefinitely, withoutevercoming to anything which is what is believed, is to believe nothing at all. So that, if this were the case, there could be no such belief as the belief thatAisB. We must, therefore, admit that, in no case whatever, when we believe a given thing, can the given thing in question be merelythatwe ourselves (or somebody else) believe the very same given thing. And since this is true in all cases, it must be true in our special case. It is totally impossible, therefore, that to believe an action to be right can be the same thing as believing that we ourselves or somebody else believe it to be right.(Ch. 3 ?29)

But the fact that this view is untenable is, I think, liable to be obscured by the fact that we often express, in the same words, another view, quite different from this, which may quite well be true. When a man asserts that an action is right or wrong, it may quite well be true, in a sense, that all that he isexpressingby this assertion is the fact that hethinksit to be right or wrong. The truth is that there is an important distinction, which is not always observed, between what a manmeansby a given assertion and what heexpressesby it. Whenever we make any assertion whatever (unless we do not mean what we say) we are alwaysexpressingone or other of two things梟amely, either that wethinkthe thing in question to be so or that weknowit to be so. If, for instance, I sayAisB,and mean what I say, what Imeanis always merely thatAisB; but those words of mine will always alsoexpresseither the fact thatI thinkthatAisB, or the fact thatI knowit to be so; and even where I do not mean what I say, my words may be said toimplyeither that I think thatAisBor that I know it, since they will commonly lead people to suppose that one or other of these two things is the case. Whenever, therefore, a man asserts that an action is right or wrong, what heexpressesorimpliesby these words will be either that he thinks it to be so or that he knows it to be so, although neither of these two things can possibly constitute the whole of what hemeansto assert. And it is quite possible to hold that, as between these two alternatives which he expresses or implies, it is always the first only, and never the second, which is expressed or implied. That is to say, it may be held, that we always only believe or think that an action is right or wrong, and never reallyknowwhich it is; that, when, therefore, we assert one to be so, we are always merely expressing an opinion or belief, never expressingknowledge.(Ch. 3 ?30)

This is a view which is quite tenable, and for which there is a great deal to be said; and it is, I think, certainly liable to be confused with that other, quite untenable, view, that, when a man asserts an action to be right or wrong, all that hemeans to assertis that he thinks it to be so. The two are, in fact, apt to be expressed in exactly the same language. If a man assertsSuch and such an action was wrong,he is liable to be met by the rejoinder,What you reallymeanis thatyou thinkit was wrong; and the person who makes this rejoinder will generally only mean by it, that the man does notknowthe action to be wrong, but only believes that it is so; and he is merely expressing his opinion, and has no absolute knowledge on the point. In other words, a man is often loosely said tomeanby an assertion what, in fact, he is onlyexpressingby it; and for this and other reasons the two views we are considering are liable to be confused with one another.(Ch. 3 ?31)

But obviously there is an immense difference between the two. If we only hold the tenable view that no man everknowsan action to be right or wrong, but can onlythinkit to be so, then, so far from implying the untenable view that to assert an action to be right or wrong isthe same thingas to assert that we think it to be so, we imply the direct opposite of this. For nobody would maintain that I cannot knowthat I thinkan action to be right or wrong; and if, therefore, I cannot know that itisright or wrong, it follows that there is an immense difference between the assertion that itisright or wrong, and the assertion thatI thinkit to be so: the former is an assertion, which, according to this view, I canneverknow to be true, whereas the latter is an assertion which I obviouslycanknow to be true. The tenable view, therefore, that we can neverknowwhether an action is right or wrong, does not in the least support the untenable view that for an action toberight or wrong is the same thing as for it to be thought to be so: on the contrary, it is quite inconsistent with it, since it is obvious that wecanknow that certain actionsare thought to beright and that othersare thought to bewrong. But yet, I think, it is not uncommon to find the two views combined, and to find one and the same person holding, at the same time, both that we never know whether an actionisright or wrong, and also that to say that an actionisright or wrong is the same thing as to say thatit is thought to beso. The two views ought obviously to be clearly distinguished; and, if they are so distinguished, it becomes, I think, quite plain that the latter must be rejected, if only because, if it were true, the former could not possibly be so.(Ch. 3 ?32)

We have, then, considered in this chapter two different views, namely (1) the view that to say that an action is right or wrong is the same thing as to say that somebody has somefeeling(or absence of feeling) towards it, and (2) the view that to say that an action is right or wrong is the same thing as to say that somebodythinksit to be so. Both these views, when held in certain forms, imply that one and the same action very often is both right and wrong, owing to the fact that different men, and different societies, often do have different and opposite feelings towards, and different and opposite opinions about, the same action. The fact that they imply this is, in itself, an argument against these views; since it seems evident that one and the same action cannot be both right and wrong. But some people may not think that this is evident; and therefore independent objections have been urged against them, which do, I think, show them to be untenable. In the case of the first view, such arguments were only brought against those forms of the view, which do imply that one and the same action is often both right and wrong. The same view may be held in other forms, which do not imply this consequence, and which will therefore be dealt with in the next chapter. But in the case of the second view a general argument was also used, which applies to absolutely all forms in which it may be held.(Ch. 3 ?33)

Even apart from the fact that they lead to the conclusion that one and the same action is often both right and wrong, it is, I think, very important that we should realise, to begin with, that these views are false; because, if they were true, it would follow that we must take an entirely different view as to the whole nature of Ethics, so far as it is concerned with right and wrong, from what has commonly been taken by a majority of writers. If these views were true, the whole business of Ethics, in this department, would merely consist in discovering what feelings and opinions men have actually had about different actions, and why they have had them. A good many writers seem actually to have treated the subject as if this were all that it had to investigate. And of course questions of this sort are not without interest, and are subjects of legitimate curiosity. But such questions only form one special branch of Psychology or Anthropology; and most writers have certainly proceeded on the assumption that the special business of Ethics, and the questions which it has to try to answer, are something quite different from this. They have assumed that the question whether an actionisright cannot be completely settled by showing that any man or set of men have certain feelings or opinions about it. They would admit that the feelings and opinions of men may, in various ways, have a bearing on the question; but the mere fact that a given man or set of men has a given feeling or opinion can, they would say, never be sufficient,by itself, to show that an action is right or wrong.(Ch. 3 ?34)

But the views, which have been considered in this chapter, imply the direct contrary of this: they imply that, when once we have discovered, what men抯 feelings or opinions actually are, the whole question is finally settled; that there is, in fact, no further question to discuss. I have tried to show that these views are untenable, and I shall, in future, proceed upon the assumption that they are so; as also I shall proceed on the assumption that one and the same action cannot be both right and wrong. And the very fact thatwe canproceed upon these assumptions is an indirect argument in favour of their correctness. For if, whenever we assert an action to be right or wrong, we were merely making an assertion about some man抯 feelings or opinions it would be incredible we should be so mistaken as to our own meaning, as to think that a question of right or wrongcannotbe absolutely settled by showing what men feel and think, and to think that an actioncannotbe both right and wrong. It will be seen that, on these assumptions, we can raise many questions about right and wrong, which seem obviously not to be absurd; and which yet would be quite absurd梬ould be questions about which we could not hesitate for a moment梚f assertions about right and wrongweremerely assertions about men抯 feelings and opinions, or if the same actioncouldbe both right and wrong.(Ch. 3 ?35)




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